L.A. noise-punk band No Age explains how layers of hiss and shards of melody combine to create ‘a pretty good magic trick’
For five years starting in 2007, the Los Angeles noise-punk band No Age was a compact, two-man touring machine, logging van-jammed mileage to and from a few hundred shows annually. They gigged all five continents, jumping from gritty downtown L.A. punk club the Smell to Walt Disney Concert Hall and everywhere in between.
“We were gone more than we were home,” says drummer-singer Dean Spunt, sitting next to guitarist-sound sculptor Randy Randall on a couch in the same ramshackle Westlake multiuse art space, which used to be an electronics wholesaler, where they’ve recorded much of their work.
The two, who have played together 15 years, had converged to talk about their new album, “Snares Like a Haircut,” which came out in late January on the Chicago imprint Drag City Records. Their first in a decade not to be issued through the high-profile Seattle imprint Sub Pop, the wildly distorted work marks a turn away from certain expectations.
“I’ve got a 4-year-old child – a reason to stay home,” Randall says, explaining an eagerness to steer away from a definition of success that Spunt described as “the full-on Sub-Pop-ness of progressing in a linear fashion.”
Specifically, the cycle of recording, promoting and touring that is expected of a mid-level indie band.
The music industry, the business side of it, left me with a pretty foul taste.
— Dean Spunt
“The music industry, the business side of it, left me with a pretty foul taste,” Spunt says.
A defiantly independent duo, the band rose as part of the downtown punk rock hub the Smell, where they were basically the house band as the all-ages venue blossomed into its own scene.
Alongside bands including Mika Miko, Best Coast and Health, No Age helped build a community in the shadow of City Hall.
“Within our two-person circle it really felt like a big experiment,” Spunt said of committing to a three-record deal with Sub Pop. He recalled thinking, “Three records? Boom, bust them out, let’s go. And then we’ll put out our own records or move on.”
Over the past decade, the band veered further away from indie-friendly outlets and into messier, more aggressive noise.
“Snares Like a Haircut” teams that distorted harshness with specks of shimmering glitter. Recorded at Infrasonic Sound on Sunset Boulevard, the album suggests producer Phil Spector’s so-called Wall of Sound — but if it were dense with grit and lined with razor wire.
“This record in particular felt really straightforward for me. Write songs. Play ‘em,” Spunt says. “We’re making a rock record. Great.”
They did so in a studio above their paygrade, but through a cut-rate deal among friends. Getting the songs to tape took about a day and a half (their engineer had a dart tournament to attend, which shortened day two). Then, said Randall, “we came back here and dirtied up the mixes a little bit.” The mix problem? “It was a little too nice.”
As usual, Spunt prefers his hard, intense drumming to be buried deep, as if being pushed out of the room (and building, and neighborhood) by Randall’s manipulated washes of guitar. “The drum is something that’s keeping time,” Spunt said. “I’ve never been into full-on, heavy macho drumming. It’s too aggressive if it’s too loud.”
Unlike so-called dad-rockers whose sonic aggression diminishes with each child, Randall furiously pushes against any reflex to yield to easier melodies or simpler resolution. The result is a hardcore punk record, a noise record and a shoegaze record all rolled into one.
Rather than self-releasing, No Age hooked up with Drag City, best known for issuing essential records by Pavement, Joanna Newsom, Ty Segall and Will Oldham. Notably skewed toward the experimental, much of Drag City’s output to Spunt “seems conceptually or intellectually beyond me as a younger person. I like that.”
He adds, “I can’t say I felt that way about Sub Pop, but they definitely had this machine mechanism, [and] we felt like trying to figure out if that made sense with our band, or figuring out a way to exploit it in a way that would be interesting.”
I just wanted to smile through it and make music — I don’t have to think about any anything else but just hitting some drums and hearing Randy play.
— Dean Spunt
The lack of a defined outcome during the making of “Snares” affected Spunt’s mood going into the studio, describing a vibe that “felt very free, and I just wanted to smile through it and make music — ‘I don’t have to think about any anything else but just hitting some drums and hearing Randy play.”
Such an approach is a luxury in a saturated market where new music arrives by the millisecond and musicians get paid by the milli-penny. Touring generates income. Experimenting with hiss and layering tones, as Randall does with all of No Age’s music, doesn’t pay as well as a night on the road.
After the band laid down the basic tracks, Randall relied on what he describes as “my own geekiness” to further the songs. He says he revels in layering guitar sounds using a process he’s mastered over the years. The end result won’t necessarily sound like a symphony of guitars, he adds, but his process works to “get to that place and then reduce down. Then you can sculpt.”
“A lot of the subtle melodies, or the color, or the textures come from him really … around for hours,” Spunt adds.
“It’s a journey, if you like,” Randall says. “You have to start here where you know, and then go all the way out there. Then you almost erase your footprints in the sand. ‘How did you get way out there? You went from here and you jumped over there?’ Pretty good magic trick, right? It took me six hours and 48 tracks.”
“That’s why the drums are so quiet,” adds Spunt wryly.
In practice, the process was similar to the making of their three Sub Pop records, “Nouns,” “Everything in Between” and “An Object.”
They did do some juggling, though. In the past, the band viewed touring as the final step in the process of refining a song. This time, Spunt and Randall built sketches of songs that they then worked out over a 10-day California tour that commenced on Inauguration Day.
When the tour was over, the songs had achieved a tightness they used to earn after they’d already recorded them.
“It shook some dust and dirt off of them and allowed us to figure out where the strong parts of those songs were, and where the weak parts were,” Randall said.
Both describe the pall of the moment at the first gig in Visalia, Calif. In addition to Donald Trump’s swearing in, the deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland had recently occurred and the new administration’s immigration rhetoric was heating up.
As they were performing, Randall recalls the hall being filled with pumped-up teenagers and wondering about their future. When No Age got to “Send Me,” a slower work they had never before played live, Randall confessed that he “didn’t know if it was a depressing song or a sad song or what,” describing a feeling of doom mixed with a sparkling optimism washing over him.
“What that song means to me revealed itself in that moment,” Randall says, “and now whenever we play it, that sense memory of the emotion” still resonates. The message? “Good ideas and good people and love will survive.”
Adds Spunt: “We played that song and the physicality of it revealed itself to people. They slowed down, but they really felt it. And, again, we didn’t know. It could be a song where they go, ‘What are you doing? You’re No Age. I saw you on YouTube. You’re supposed to jump around.’”
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