After the 2016 presidential election, Sean Solomon, the singer-guitarist of the melancholic L.A. post-punk band Moaning, said he felt paralyzed. Like a lot of people, he and his bandmates were suddenly mired in a mix of confusion, despair and bleak humor about the unexpected outcome.
“My roommate joked that, ‘Well, people are going to really like Moaning now because everyone’s going to be so depressed,” Solomon said, drinking a coffee on the back patio at the downtown bar Resident.
“It was really hard for [artists] to readjust. We know lots of people that just stopped making work,” added bassist Pascal Stevenson.
So the band — all in their mid-to-late 20s — tried something different.
Solomon broke out paintbrushes and took to the Main Street-facing wall of the Smell, the longtime do-it-youself (DIY) home base for noisy L.A. rockers located between 2nd and 3rd streets. With the venue’s enthusiastic permission, he painted a sidewalk-to-rooftop mural of his own design: black-outlined protesters joined under a banner reading “NOT OUR PRESIDENT.”
“Everyone just posts on the internet now and it’s become an echo chamber without actually doing anything,” Solomon said. “I wanted to make something huge and physical.”
It wasn’t much, but it was something. And now Moaning is not just howling into a void anymore.
The trio — all veterans of L.A.’s scrappy underground punk scene — just released its debut self-titled album on the respected indie Sub Pop. It’s a remarkably poised first effort: gauzy and twitchy; wary yet emotionally bare.
It’s one of the strongest local rock releases of the young year. And as the local DIY archipelago figures out how to stay alive, Moaning could be the Smell scene’s next — or maybe one of its last — exports into the mainstream.
Moaning is well aware of the precarious prospects for difficult rock music in the pop-culture consciousness right now. For Solomon, leaving behind some reliable television work to hit the road with a new band wasn’t necessarily an obvious choice. But the band is also wary of a DIY scene where obscurity is a kind of fetish.
“I didn’t know if we’d ever get to this point,” Solomon said. With a Sub Pop record deal, “this new platform is making us reassess our values. I’m curious about what we can do that can actually affect lives. Hopefully by the next album, we’ll have even more to say.”
Their self-titled record, released last week, recalls some of the North Stars of post-punk, goth and the dreamier sides of ’90s rock: the Cure and New Order, for sure, but with a very-L.A. glaze of anhedonia.
Singles like “Don’t Go,” “Artificial” and “Tired” seethe with distorted-beyond-recognition guitars, but moments of sunlight and tenderness slip through the cracks as well. Drummer Andrew MacKelvie nimbly carries the sonic weight of it all, and Solomon can’t help but write emotional, plainspoken hooks that make the songs linger long after they’re over.
“In our music, that friction comes from anxiety, and people our age all around the world have a lot to be worried about,” Solomon said.
That nervousness carries over to the music scene they came from. With stalwarts like Pehrspace and Non Plus Ultra now kaput or on life support, and the Smell’s long-term future at its decades-long downtown site uncertain, it’s hard to know where a band like this will emerge from next. Rappers can get big on Soundcloud demos and YouTube, but it’s a lot harder for an unknown punk band. The rites of passage that created L.A.’s unique mix of a nurturing indie scene and proximity to the mainstream record business look harder and harder to maintain.
“I could list 20 DIY spaces we’ve played that have closed, and the ones that survive I’m seeing start to operate less publicly,” Solomon said.
But, like the mural at their old stomping grounds, the only thing to do with those nervous moods is to try to wring some meaning out of them.
“People make tense music now because it feels sincere,” Stevenson said. Solomon turned to him and, per usual, turned a little mordant.
“Anxiety is advertised now,” he said. “I get ads for therapists on websites, and my phone can tell when I’m not sleeping well. Maybe once I start taking medicine we’ll start sounding like Mac DeMarco.”
Solomon, slightly built and charmingly acerbic in person, will be a familiar face to L.A. punk-scene vets. All three played in the shambolic teenage noise-folk crew Moses Campbell, one of the better bands to emerge from the peak Smell era of the late-aughts.
Afterwards, Solomon studied experimental animation at CalArts. He went on to art-direct the comedic Fox animated series “Lucas Bros. Moving Co.,” a music video for Issa Rae for her HBO series “Insecure” and helped design the Sonora Tent stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival last year (he also co-owns the Echo Park gallery Bad People).
Other artists recognized that work ethic and imagination.
“We love Sean. He's one of the most creative artists of his generation. On top of that, he's a genuinely nice guy, which seems to be in short supply in Hollywood these days,” said comedians Kenny and Keith Lucas, who perform together as the Lucas Brothers, in a joint statement.
Solomon’s visual style — simple, hand-stylized line work and inviting pastels — is a world apart from Moaning’s hard edges and gray-scale moods. But he learned a lot from that work that applies to his music.
“I’ve had jobs in animation where a big part of it was to check for mistakes and make sure it’s cohesive,” he said.
You can hear that attention to detail in Moaning’s meticulous arrangements.
“As a kid, I was obsessed with Sonic Youth and bands that collaborated with artists,” he continued. “Moaning has those aspects to it too, and I’m just glad I get to collaborate with my best friends instead of, like, a company asking me to make GIFs.”
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When: March 9, 8:30 p.m.
Where: The Echo,1822 Sunset Blvd.