In the music biz, all roads lead to L.A.
A comfortable three-bedroom house on a narrow street in Silverlake — pool in the back, thick cables running through the living room — is shaping up as one of the hottest studios in town, if not the country. Home to the Dust Bros. producing team of John King and Mike Simpson, the studio was the recording site of Hanson’s recent No. 1 single “Mmmbop,” Beck’s roundly acclaimed Grammy winner “Odelay” and a few tracks for the Rolling Stones’ upcoming album.
At the time the Dust Bros. set up shop in Silverlake, they established a home for musicians off the beaten track — away from the Hollywood machine and the record industry in general. But the development of the area as a musical hotbed, not to mention the mainstream acceptance of acts that filled home studios and neighborhood clubs less than five years ago, has paralleled the Dust Bros.’ organic growth as an ace production team. They’re as well-grounded a flavor of the month as anyone could hope to find — and one that isn’t about to find fault with the mounting attention.
Says Simpson: “One reason Beck chose to work with us is we’re the studio close to his house. A lot of times now, bands want to work with us because they live around the corner.”
And so it goes in Southern California, where every musical activity has the potential to explode on a national level. The Dust Bros., two 32-year-old East Coast natives who met as hip-hop DJs at the Claremont Colleges, built their reputation on the spare singles of L.A. rapper Tone Loc and the dense collage of the Beastie Boys (“Paul’s Boutique”), bringing beats and samples into the “alternative rock” world.
As they have critically captured the media, Southern California’s musical hegemony has been established through ska, punk, folk-rock and hip-hop, all souped up with heavy doses of pop tricks and hooks. Labels such as Epitaph and Interscope have led the way through their connections to the street and the majors; others such as Restless, the Dust Bros.’ imprint Nickel Bag, Priority, Quango and Moonshine have found niches and attracted considerable major-league attention.
“The great thing about Los Angeles is that it isn’t about a scene,” says Joe Regis, president of Hollywood-based indie Restless Records. “When you look at Seattle or San Francisco or Boston or other cities, the scene has driven the labels and the bands and the clubs. There’s an infrastructure here that’s always working and it doesn’t matter what level you enter it at — there’s something for everyone.”
Regis, whose L.A.-heavy roster includes the Radar Bros., Lori Carson, Tommy Stinson’s Perfect and Suncatcher, believes in finding acts early and then developing the label and act simultaneously. “If we wait until somebody has a fully developed act,” he notes, “we’ll wind up in a bidding war, and we can’t win those.”
Yet each independent label stresses working with artists that the label heads have faith in on an artistic level; for Nickel Bag the added bonus is Dust Bros. partner Mitchell Frank, owner of the white-hot venue Spaceland.
Silverlake’s live scene has found its cornerstone in Spaceland, a small venue that has given the area its eclectic stamp and attracted A&R reps from labels major and small. It remains removed from the well-trod Sunset Strip, an area that will never lose its cachet as L.A.’s musical showcase row.
Consider a recent Monday in West Hollywood. A revered superstar of yore is jumpstarting his career with a soldout Roxy show; a triple bill of upstart rockers with deals at a major label hope to cross-fertilize their fans at the Whisky; English folk music that never seems to go away is centerstage at the House of Blues; and on the tiny stage of Union, across from the formerly trendy Roxbury, is Da’ Toledo Show, one of L.A.’s hottest acts pounding the club circuit, complete with a devoted — and nicely tailored — following and a disc on indie Moonshine Music.
Like the funk band Ozomatli, another of L.A.’s hottest club attractions, Toledo Show is working a different angle. It’s fashionable and dirty simultaneously — for every zoot suit, there’s a torn fishnet stocking; with each retro-swing jazz riff comes a gruff blues vocal echoing ’90s street-life concerns. The music is gritty yet buoyant, part blues, part swing, part Captain Beefheart; and as much as the show hangs within the shadows of the post-war Sunset Strip, the emotional core resonates with a sense of now.
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, yet certainly it’s a fully formed concept — at least as much as the finances will allow. Toledo has been growing — a burlesque portion was added for some recent gigs at the Hollywood Athletic Club — and there’s a sense that leader Toledo Diamond has limitless ambition for the broadness of his stage act, though where a major label jumps into the proceedings and allows it to flesh out is anybody’s guess. It certainly will get him more gigs.
“I’m more impressed by the more theatrical acts, the ones that have a more three-dimensional presentation,” says J.P. Baccara, owner of LunaPark, the West Hollywood nightclub that has developed an eclectic musical menu in its two showrooms over the past four years. “Places like Spaceland present bands that are new and very young and very fresh — cutting-edge — and (labels) seem more interested in raw talent. They seem a little afraid of something that’s too overdone. We try to get the best cutting-edge of more mature performers, people who have worked on their trade.”
Hence, LunaPark has done what it takes to survive in L.A.’s crowded club environment: crafted a niche with an “anything goes” credo that complements the city itself. Besides, it is usually those performers on the periphery, whether it be Frank Zappa, the Runaways, Van Dyke Parks or Beck, that provide demarcations of L.A.’s uniqueness. Los Angeles, through an assortment of clubs with eclectic booking policies, has been ground zero for recent trends, whether it be the Cocktail Nation and the revival of acts such as Esquivel or the confessional music of Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple or the ska-pop of No Doubt and Sublime.
L.A. native Joey Altruda, 33, has been making music here for 15 years, first in an underground punk band and most of the past decade in a variety of aggregations — Cocktails for Joey, Wonderful World of Joey and Jump for Joey. His music is a mixture of ska, Latin jazz, lounge music and exotica, a meeting ground of practically everything that has been hot in the mid-’90s.
“Many people have been interested in this music for a long time,” Altruda says. Some of the current crowd “is there for the trend but people react to the quality of the music. As kids we were hearing the last generation of pop music with melody and harmony, and people have come to embrace that again. Everything of quality will make a comeback.”
Indeed, Altruda’s boat may be coming to dock this year. His three Japanese Jump for Joey albums are being released by the Massachusetts label Rykodisc, which already has issued the soundtrack to “The Winner” featuring some of Altruda’s music. He has a new Jump for Joey disc and a big-band album in the can along with other soundtrack works that are on several negotiating tables. He calculates that by December, he could be part of 10 domestic releases this year.
The key factor has been the connection to the film world. Altruda started nine years ago with small indie films and has placed score material in Showtime’s B movie series as well as the upcoming “Clockwatchers.”
For Regis and Restless, the purchase of the label last year by Arnon Milchan’s Regency films opened the door for the placement of more songs in films and the release of their first soundtrack — Cannes Film Fest fave “L.A. Confidential.”
Featuring pop and jazz from the 1950s, Regis says, “It’s the perfect vehicle to bring attention to the label because it crosses all sorts of boundaries. There’s an older group that will enjoy this (as well as) the Cocktail Nation listeners and the filmgoers who enjoyed the music and how it worked in the film.” The soun
dtrack will be released in late August; the film comes out in September.
The Dust Bros.’ Mike Simpson has added some A&R duties at DreamWorks to his busy plate (he signed the Eels) and the duo got their first taste of placing source material with Beck and the MTV pic “Dead Man on Campus.” Other projects in the works include “Orgasmo,” described as half kung-fu and half the “Spinal Tap” of porno, and “Bury Me in Kern County,” for which the soundtrack will be contemporary artists performing original songs composed in an ’80s metal style.
“Filling a director’s vision is very similar to fulfilling an artist,” says Dust Bros.’ John King. “I n general, it comes back with suggestions for changes, and while we were uncomfortable with that at first — you have to remember we have only had to please the artist and ourselves — it has come out just as good or better.”