No Age turns up the noise in anxious times
Randy Randall and Dean Spunt go on the attack with ‘Everything In Between,’ their most ambitious, and personal, album yet.
On an unseasonably chilly Saturday night in August, the members of No Age are standing in the parking lot of a bleak warehouse near Vernon, a few blocks from the ironicpastoral mural decorating the Farmer John’s slaughterhouse. Randy Randall and Dean Spunt are eating cold pizza, shivering in their sweatshirts and surveying the thing that will soon kill them.
“It looks like something you’d build to defend yourself from the zombie apocalypse,” Randall, 29, said, pointing at a machine in the back of a nearby trailer. The gruesome device is made of 10-foot-high spools studded with soldered chains and blades on a rotating platform. Each can spin fast enough to grind up a whole house, to say nothing of the soft vegan bodies of L.A.’s preeminent arty noise duo.
Within a day’s time, this contraption will gnaw the furniture in No Age’s living room, sever their hands as they try to read books, unceremoniously decapitate them and finally render their torsos into buckets of sopping gore. “When L.A. turns into ‘Mad Max,’ ” Randall joked, “This thing will be useful.”
“This thing” is an off-screen prop for director Patrick Daughters’ video for “Fever
Dreaming,” a single off the group’s third album of ephemeral, electronica-refracted punk, “Everything In Between,” out this Tuesday. CGI will place Randall and Spunt in the chewed-up living room later, and the sopping gore is actually pigs’ blood secured from a butcher.
The scene is a droll visual conceit that’s equal parts arthouse and grindhouse — perfect for No Age’s mix of brainy ambience and flailing hardcore. But it’s also a looming reminder of the last two years that made “Everything In Between” the most physically taxing album yet.
After the duo’s debut for Sub Pop, 2008’s “Nouns,” No Age faced the expectations of leading what’s possibly America’s most fertile scene for inventive rock music, alongside bands including Health, Abe Vigoda and Best Coast. Once based at the downtown venue the Smell, it’s now dispersed across larger record labels and venues — even including the Hollywood Bowl, where No Age will play Thursday with longtime inspirations in feedback Pavement and Sonic Youth. The job left Randall and Spunt feeling fraught with anxiety, loneliness and a lurking depressive darkness. To beat it, they had to see their band anew.
“I’ve always liked being vague in this band, and there’s a lot personally I could have hidden from on this record,” Spunt, 28, said. “But it’s heavy and it’s honest and I know it’s not an easy listen. And I’m OK with that.”
No Age’s early singles — collected on the 2007 compilation “Weirdo Rippers,” whose title still adorns the Main Street facade of the
“Everything’s” first single, “Glitter,” starts with a doo-wop drum clap, a distant crackle of distortion and, finally, a keening threenote guitar riff and the band’s most forthright pop melody yet. Throughout the song, however, they use violent shrieks of noise for punctuation and transition. In “Fever Dreaming,” in lieu of a proper chorus, they craft a similar pitch-less howl from the depths of their distortion pedals. The latealbum tracks “Dusted” and “Positive Amputation” are implacably sad, lyric-less tone poems that feel like a chamber quartet playing Steve Reich pieces as distress calls on a sinking ship.
“When we were writing ‘Fever Dreaming,’ I remember thinking, ‘God that’s a noisy part, but that’s a hook,’ ” Spunt said. “I kind of felt bad when we were making the video and playing the song back, like we were subjecting the crew to this gnarly thing. But then I saw a guy walking around going ‘Whaaaw-whaaaw’ and singing the feedback part and I realized that’s what you’re going to remember from it.”
The band has a strong foundation in such experiments, writing and performing live scores to the avantgarde nature film “The Bear” at the Silent Movie Theatre in 2009 and scoring ashort for the much-coveted fashion line Rodarte. For director Daughters, perhaps best known for directing the spangled dance-off in Feist’s clip for “1,2,3,4,” No Age’s approach to contained chaos makes for a rich template of visual and emotional possibilities.
“We talked about how the process of being broken down makes you stronger,” Daughters said. “The screech is a recurring theme and feels destructive but we wanted to pace the video slowly and deliberately for a contrapuntal and less literal effect, to make the violence creative.”
During the making of “Everything,” however, the band mates wondered if they might get mired in that violence and never realize the creative end of the process. The album came after years of its most intensive touring to date, runs that kept members from loved ones (Spunt separated from his longtime girlfriend, Jennifer Clavin of Mika Miko and now a member of the electronica band Cold Cave, between albums) and wore on their psyches as they dwelled on the end of their 20s and the expectations of moving their strange, improbably popular band forward. An unexpected fistfight with a club bouncer in Portugal this year, well-documented on music blogs complete with bloody photos of the incident, felt ominously apropos.
“Twenty-eight is a heavy year,” Randall said. “You finally have to deal with yourself, and any of your … has caught up with you. You had an idea of yourself as a teenager — but now what are you?”
Spunt agreed, alluding to a slinking personal distress and paranoia that shows up in song titles such as “Life Prowler,” “Skinned” and “Depletion.” Medical traumas and hopes for sanctuary are big lyrical conceits — the chorus of “Glitter” is both a warning and a plea for comfort. “Everybody’s out to get you again, but I want you back underneath my skin,” Spunt begs, and the line feels both evilly manipulative and genuinely pained. On album opener “Life Prowler,” maybe No Age’s loveliest production to date, there’s a mantra that could be bleakly ironic or desperately hopeful — “I like my life, I like my life, I like my life.”
A sore spot
“Playing these songs is uncomfortable,” Randall said. “There’s a real sense memory to them that puts me back into the time we were writing, and they weren’t sunny places. It’s a strange effect, and that wasn’t always the case in the past.”
Afew days after the video shoot in No Age’s Westlake rehearsal space, just before beginning the tour with Pavement, the band arranged its set while helicopters circled above, holding off protesters over a recent police shooting in the neighborhood. The band had the songs down, but still had to work out the most difficult pieces of the live set — the transitions.
As one brutal, propulsive single ended, Randall triggered effects on his pedal board and played high, lonely figures on guitar while Spunt rushed his cymbals and the band’s touring third member, William Menchaca, manipulated spirals of static and electronic samples. Then, methodically, Randall introduced the theme to No Age’s biggest single so far, “Eraser,” from “Nouns.”
Nailing the passage took a dozen takes but the band eventually found a languid, swelling pace it was happy with. No Age had finished thetransition, and locked up the space to the whir of LAPD propeller blades overhead. Smell — split between the disciplined chug of ’80s punk and ethereal, wordless drone suites. Yet the band unexpectedly became the popular face of a movement in experimental L.A. rock music.
“They were the first band among our friends who really went for it and gave us confidence to do bigger things,” said Juan Velazquez of Abe Vigoda, which just released its new album “Crush” on Spunt’s label Post Present Medium. “They got a lot of attention and they really brought it back to the scene of punk bands around the Smell. But I like that Dean still lives down the street and he’s so loyal to his friends.”
Randy Randall, left, and Dean Spunt found a different voice in a fraught couple of years.
“I know it’s not an easy listen,” says Dean Spunt, left, of the new No Age album he made with cohort Randy Randall.