At a DIY crossroads
Dean SPUNT and Randy Randall of the L.A. experimental punk duo No Age have played plenty of warehouse shows but none like the one late last month in Hollywood. For a taping of “FNMTV,” the music channel’s new Friday night video show, the network retrofitted a cavernous concrete-block space on Cahuenga Boulevard with an armory of strobe lights, a live performance catwalk and a semicircle of bleachers, making the stage look like a gladiator pit for caffeinated teenagers.
No Age typically packs filthy clandestine venues with hundreds of kids, but a video appearing on MTV was a first for the duo. Minutes after a Rihanna performance and rapper T.I.'s introduction of a single with host Pete Wentz, Spunt and Randall jogged onstage with bewildered grins, high-fiving the young audience. They cracked wise with Wentz about Phil Collins’ influence on fellow singer-drummer Spunt, then debuted the video for their single “Eraser,” a goofy series of tracking shots in which Randall gets smacked with a bag of flour and fans in No Age shirts destroy an enormous skull pinata.
At the “FNMTV” website, reactions to “Eraser” varied from “I don’t understand it, but it’s cool” to “I feel stupid because of this video. It is really messed up. Please stop showing it on MTV.”
But the fevered split response is typical for the band. No Age subverts many current paradigms of modern rock’s hyper-commercialism, but it also might represent the final prize for a battered corporate music industry -- the DIY community itself.
“It feels like everybody wants a piece,” Randall, 27, said over lunch at Flore, a vegan cafe in Silver Lake. “Even the kids sometimes, man.”
Spunt, 26, and Randall met as two-thirds of the band Wives and formed No Age in 2005, cutting their teeth at the stalwart downtown all-ages venue the Smell. They’re often cited alongside peers like Health, Mika Miko and Abe Vigoda as the vanguards of a vital new wave in L.A. punk. That’s true to an extent, but the Smell is 11 years old and most bands that play there are still defiantly amateur. Jim Smith, the club’s owner, said he isn’t entirely sure why this particular crop of “Smell scene” bands seems to have caught a national zeitgeist.
“Maybe it took 10 years,” said Smith, who by day is a union organizer. “These are bands that grew up coming to shows during the early days of the Smell. In 10 years there’ll be bands that came of age listening to No Age and Mika Miko.”
No Age filled a yearning in L.A.'s punk community for something rawer than “indie” rock but still accessible. The band’s 2007 compilation of early singles, “Weirdo Rippers,” heralded such a sound -- long intros of ambient flourishes ruptured by overdriven percussion and Spunt’s hollered, snappy lyrics. “Nouns,” the group’s debut for Sub Pop records this year, elaborated on that formula. “We wanted to make experimental pop, but we identify as a punk band,” Spunt said.
The duo keeps close ties to the Smell -- the exterior of the building still sports a No Age-themed paint job, and Spunt once formed a one-off band with a homeless man who runs unsanctioned “security” at the venue -- but the band has long outdrawn its capacity. As its tours grow in scale and popularity, No Age has been faced with the old dilemma of reaching new fans while keeping its all-ages and jamming-econo values intact.
“We don’t live on Elitist Mountain, we’re part of the popular structure,” Randall said, while vigorously texting a friend about the prospect of a homecoming show at a closed-down theater in Hollywood. “The ideal thing would be to rent warehouses in every city, like a rave. It’s not like, ‘Oh, 1,000 people showed up, now you’ve got to play Coors Field.’ ”
So far, No Age has successfully split the difference between popular ambitions and punk ethics. But its rare ability to draw large crowds of pop-skeptical fans, coupled with off-kilter sexiness (the azure-eyed, arrestingly thin Spunt has worked as an actor and wardrobe stylist) and passionate intelligence (Randall studied neurolinguistics at USC and taught special education courses at a South Gate High School) is blood in the water for those who want access to the vibrant scene.
The band’s deal with Sub Pop represents another case of No Age having it both ways. The label has decades of underground credibility and recent pop hits with the Shins and the Postal Service but also financial backing from Warner Music Group, which owns a 49% stake of Sub Pop, and distribution through the Alternative Distribution Alliance, of which Warner owns a majority interest.
“No Age represents artists who go around the gatekeepers of authority straight to the people so the institutions have to be remodeled,” said Sub Pop owner Jonathan Poneman. “What they inspire in people is the ultimate DIY experience.”
Marketing that DIY thing
It’s THAT sense of “the DIY experience” as a potentially commodifiable idea that might be the biggest threat to Spunt and Randall’s quest to remake punk and pop. Any Friday night in L.A. yields dozens of “off-the-grid” corporate events with bands of No Age’s caliber happy to have the paycheck and exposure. So far, though, they have resisted the easier temptations, turning down licensing and partnership offers from Mountain Dew and Hot Topic because they don’t agree with the companies’ values. (Spunt and Randall are both devout vegans.)
But what if No Age’s tight-knit community and rebellions against the music and media establishment can be turned, like T.I.'s post-arrest reformation and Pete Wentz’s tabloid romances, into lifestyle symbolism with untapped potential to move product?
“As we get bigger, the vultures come in,” Spunt said. “We’re not so DIY that I’ll be like ‘kiss off’ to every one of those people. We’ll talk to anybody, but we’ll most likely say no.”
Spunt and Randall still have time for silly scene in-jokes, like the night Randall played guest guitar with a thrash-punk tribute band called New No Age at the Echo Park underground venue Pehrspace. “We’re worthy of being lampooned,” he said. Spunt still runs his limited-run record label Post Present Medium.
Even if No Age can pull off the commercial and ethical pirouette it’s attempting, colleagues who share that aesthetic might not be able to. During lunch at Flore, Spunt fielded a call about a Columbia Records A&R; intern he said had been trying to reach his friends in the no-wave quartet Abe Vigoda. And the striking, all-female fuzz-punk quintet Mika Miko, whose frontwoman, Jennifer Clavin, is Spunt’s girlfriend of five years, is also poised to be breakout success.
What path Spunt and Randall will follow in the immediate future is a question as old as punk itself -- can you do more damage fighting the system or working within it?
“We played a show for Fuel TV, and they didn’t tell us that the show was sponsored by Snickers,” Randall said. “So 10 seconds before we played, I found a marker and wrote ‘Go Vegan’ on the back of my guitar. If they’re going to try to force Snickers down your throat, here’s something different.”