Making noise in L.A.
On an unseasonably searing day in West Hollywood last fall, Nika Danilova is hiding from the sun. To meet for an interview, the 21-year-old who records as Zola Jesus rounds a corner in comically enormous geriatric sunglasses that obscure her tiny, falconish face. With her tangle of dyed-platinum hair and weather-rebutting tight goth getup, she looks like she’s en route back to the local Rest Home for Retired Metalheads.
To passing strangers, she could be a UV-damaged celebrity on reconnaissance. But to those who know her deep, operatic voice and primitive electronic compositions in Zola Jesus, she’s one of a small class of artists in L.A. making startling noise music in outré venues by going obscurist and hidden.
“I think that’s important, the lack of using pop music as a standard,” said John Wiese, the veteran flinty L.A. noise artist behind dozens of hissing, sputtering releases, most recently the album “Circle Snare.” “Due to its size, geography and transportation issues, L.A. tends to create very specific groups of people. As a result, it can generate some fairly esoteric ideas and results.”
As bands such as Health, No Age and Best Coast became international acts and brought L.A.'s busy scene for scrimmy, often atonal guitar music to prominence, a new class of noise artist — with peers in New York and Berlin — is using ambience, drone and repetition inspired by more avant-garde classical composers like La Monte Young and Steve Reich to wring meaning and beauty from some often very obtuse sonic sources. And they’re earning a surprising amount of attention for it, playing in the city’s more adventurous rock clubs, sweat-sopping gallery spaces and blighted warehouses. Artists including Zola Jesus, Sun Araw and Infinite Body all had stellar 2010s and are shaping up to redefine what it means to make difficult music in L.A., and what kind of fan is up for the challenge.
Danilova’s music as Zola Jesus is beguilingly straightforward, yet is maybe one of the most divisive sounds to come out of Los Angeles last year. A mix of late 1970s New York duo Suicide’s growling analog synthesizers and ‘80s ambient guitar band Cocteau Twins’ esoteric atmosphere, Danilova’s voice is a love-it-or-loathe-it instrument that hits like the flip side of Joanna Newsom’s precious warble.
It’s a tremulous, resonant tenor cultivated in Danilova’s opera classes in her Wisconsin hometown that reaches back to Exene Cervenka and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and has a peer in Romy Madley-Croft of her recent tour mates in the xx. She shares those stars’ ears for melody, but also a deep confrontational streak that soaks her music in rivulets of static, ghostly samples and pattering drum machines. She sees antagonistic music as a kind of feminist revolt against the caricature of pop and the failure of rock to provide much of an alternative.
“I think there’s nothing more honest than one woman giving herself onstage,” Danilova said. “But at the same time, pop music is dance music today, and dance music is all about encouraging people to have sex, and I don’t need to be in a bodysuit to make people like me. For me, experimental music is kind of the opposite of sex.”
On her two breakthrough EPs (a favorite format for noise-inclined artists) last year, Danilova appeared on the cover of “Stridulum” drenched in corn syrup and in the notes of “Valusia” as a kind of mock forest nymph. The two images convey a lot about her music — songs such as “I Can’t Stand” and “Night” bend and creak with synthetic menace, but her lyrics are oddly sylvan and reassuring — “Don’t be afraid, don’t be alarmed / In the end of the night you’ll be in my arms,” she sings on the latter. The song’s a love letter to her husband, a surprising and uncomplicated sentiment from an artist bent on making music harder.
Cameron Stallones’ project Sun Araw, however, has a beach bum’s sense of humor and brashness that disguise a very ambitious approach to deconstructing drones and psychedelia. Across scads of singles, EPs and albums for experimental labels such as Woodsist and Not Not Fun, L.A.'s preeminent imprint for such sounds, Stallones transforms his minimalist guitar and electronics into a starting point for Glenn Branca-worthy noise shredding, as on “Last Chants” from the recent release “Off Duty.” The song “Deep Cover” could even be played alongside the more weed-friendly beat scenes at Low End Theory, but filleted even into even more damaged ribbons of artfully cheap samples.
“I think people’s brains are drawn to stimuli that reflect the patterns they’re lacking,” Stallones said. “I get a lot of inspiration from that breakdown of the illusion of fixed perspective.”
It’s intense, sometimes brutal music, but Stallones’ fearlessness toward drones and freewheeling jamming puts him among mind-bending pioneers like Terry Riley. The sound has taken him on tour to Europe and Australia, but in ways Stallones — who’s worked as a film archivist at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — already seems much further away internally. His mixing of high art and lowbrow bro-isms (such as, say, his fondness for free jazz and his trucker hat collection) seems to embody the 26-year-old’s omnivorous generation, one where music composition is less about making a statement than providing a singular world of escape.
“In the end, I don’t see it as being about emotive versus unemotive,” Stallones said. “Harsh noise, like free jazz, can be the most emotive show in town.”
Infinite Body’s bliss-riddled tone poems are simultaneously more traditionally “pretty” of the lot yet maybe the most difficult to parse. The young composer Kyle Parker, who began his career making much more violent music, builds simmering crescendos from snippets of distortion-slammed keyboards and samples vocals from a contact microphone. But he approaches chord changes and melody in ways that Erik Satie would find peer with, and one that leaves his work feeling emotionally ravaged and heartbroken despite being wholly instrumental and nearly impossible to unpack structurally.
“Really my only intention is toward intensity, and I’ve realized that any work is a disappointment if it only goes for one kind of response,” Parker said. “Beauty doesn’t have to make you happy, it can make you interested in a wider range of possibilities of the ineffable.”
His 2010 full-length album for No Age’s Post Present Medium imprint, “Carve Out the Face of My God,” earned accolades for its update on My Bloody Valentine’s use of noise toward sad and wistful ends (Infinite Body had a split single with No Age come out in December). But Parker’s music is wholly divorced from those bands’ pop songwriting. A track like “Dive” bends and flows to its own internal logic, while still clearly fraught with desperation and yearning.
That sense might not be just an artistic one — Parker recently decamped from L.A. to Portland, Ore., to decompress and reassess his creative goals. “I’m at a really weird point where I don’t know what I want, but I’ve been on a tipping point of a real sense of freedom,” he said. But he suspects he’ll be back in L.A. soon to keep exploring. “I like those qualities in music that make it more than a regular human experience. With Infinite Body I’m really only reaching for beauty, and there’s been such a wide range of possibilities to get there.”
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