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Music

How did a Bosnian-Canadian filmmaker become L.A.'s most electrifying new rock singer?

Kills Birds
Nina Ljeti of the L.A. rock band Kills Birds performs at the Desert Daze festival on Oct. 13, 2019 in Perris, Calif.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

At 3 p.m. on Sunday, the crowd at Desert Daze looked a little dusty and bedraggled. The psych-rock festival — a genre favorite that’s grown into a regional powerhouse — was on its last legs of the weekend. More fans were drying out their hangovers on the beach at Lake Perris State Recreation Area than winding up for a rock set.

That is, until the L.A. quartet Kills Birds walked out onstage, rippling with all the energy the crowd had burned off dancing the night before. Nina Ljeti, 28, one of the most compelling new singers in L.A. indie rock, prowled the stage pointing and shaking and howling like a preacher with some bad news to share. The band — guitarist Jacob Loeb, 28; bassist Fielder Thomas, 25; and drummer Bosh Rothman, 34 — drew from melancholy ’80s post-punk and the molten distortion of ’90s grunge, brutally heavy but dreamy at the margins.

As they played, the crowd thickened out and pulled closer. A few dozen became a few hundred, and however gnarly your sunburn was that afternoon, it seemed like anyone who passed by had to stop in and see them. You could see echoes of iconic frontpeople like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O or even Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in the way she writhed and stabbed the air onstage, moving like a wick on a smoking firecracker.

“This is actually our first festival,” Ljeti (pronounced “Luh-JET-ee”) said backstage, sweaty but composed a few minutes after their set. Even in the pulverizing heat, she wore tiny jewels around the rims of her ice blue eyes, giving her an uncanny shamanic quality.

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It almost certainly will not be their last big festival set.

Kills Birds
Kills Birds, clockwise from bottom center: Nina Ljeti, Jacob Loeb, Bosh Rothman and Fielder Thomas.
(Michelle Laine)

The band’s already vaulted up the local rock scene — they packed the Bootleg Theater for their album release show last month. With an influential producer (Justin Raisen, with Angel Olsen, Yves Tumor and Charli XCX credits) and a doyenne of the avant-garde (Kim Gordon on Sonic Youth) vouching for them as well, they stand to capitalize on both Gen Z’s ’90s nostalgia and a resurgent, diverse DIY rock scene in L.A.

Kills Birds has already pulled off the rare feat of making a confrontational rock record with the kind of buzz reserved for emerging pop acts.

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Much of that comes from the live-wire stage presence of Ljeti. A Bosnian immigrant to Canada, some of Ljeti’s earliest memories were of her parents watching news footage of the war that tore their country apart. Her father was a Bosnian Muslim and knew the persecution that would come if they’d stayed. Ljeti said he got them paperwork to get out of the country at gunpoint. “My parents risked everything to save me,” Ljeti said. “It made me want to be a harder worker. ”

Right from the start, she was shaped by that outsiderdom, an experience she brought with her first to film and then to the L.A. rock scene that would eventually turn into Kills Birds. Talking to her, you can feel a low hum of wariness about how the L.A. entertainment biz works. One first pass at making their record turned into a battle of wills with an overbearing producer, and they had to start over. They felt lost and confused by how to move forward in a scene where the right friendships or nepotism mean as much or more than the music.

Their song “Jesus Did” is about that creeping sense that certain people know the score about getting ahead in L.A.: “Pretty daughter, famous father / rock star husband … cocaine money, hi there, honey.”

“L.A. was really isolating,” Ljeti said. “You see a lot of people have things given to them. I wish I could have had those things.”

She figured it out enough to earn early renown as a filmmaker — she directed James Franco in her debut feature, “Memoria,” and played Patti Smith in Franco’s “Zeroville,” alongside Seth Rogen and Will Ferrell.

But Kills Birds, she said, is her riposte to that side of L.A. — a place to work out her confusion and isolation and make something vital from it. “This music comes from deep-rooted anxiety,” Ljeti said. “The experience of being on edge and scared and lonely.”

The band’s self-titled debut, out last month, was recorded with Raisen essentially in a single afternoon. It’s less than a half-hour long and bristles the energy of a young band discovering its powers. Singles “Ow” and “Worthy Girl” don’t move with pop-song logic — they writhe and seethe through acidic guitars and hard pivoting drums. Ljeti’s lyrics are candid and cryptic all at once — “I wish I was a volcano / but I think I’m just a rock” captures her generation’s self-aware self-loathing but rises out of it in a hail of distortion.

“People are really tired and they want something new,” Ljeti said. Loeb agreed. “Escapism really turns me off,” he said. “This band is for people to exorcise that. We want our shows to be 30 minutes a day for people to not feel OK.”

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A lot of that feeling comes from Loeb’s guitar savagery, a hard turn from what fans may have previously heard in the Echo Park-er’s gentler L.A. indie combo Golden Daze. But something about this project, which started with no goals other than capture Ljeti’s lightning in a bottle, seems to have brought out something invigorating that older peers pick up on.

Kills Birds
Kills Birds perform at the Desert Daze music festival on Oct. 13, 2019 in Perris, Calif.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Raisen’s long career in shaping weirdo pop helped hone the record into a cohesive, combating vision (one he released on his own imprint KRO, founded with the singer Lawrence Rothman).

It’s a long shot for any new rock band to compete for big streaming numbers today. But that sense of marginality helps fuel their intensity onstage.

“It’s just impossible to be successful as a rock band today. No one is listening. So how do you make them care?” Loeb said. His answer was counterintuitive but maybe prescient: “Live, we want to make people as uncomfortable as possible.”

Watching Kills Birds onstage, it’s hard not to be taken in and shaken up. As they walked back through the crowd at Desert Daze — likely full of many of the same pretty, connected people who bewildered her in the lyrics of “Jesus Did” — they’d gotten a little taste of the life they’d defined themselves against. Maybe its not so impossible to make people care after all.


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