Best Coast, from L.A. to Aspen
May 24, 2012
ASPEN – Among the things that Bobb Bruno, guitarist for the band Best Coast, loves about his hometown of Los Angeles is its vastness. The size of L.A. affords the chance to hide out.
“It’s so big, you can carve out your own environment,” Bruno said. “If you want to be a shut-in and do music and not be bothered by anybody, you can do that.”
Bruno, who grew up in Tujunga, a hilly town that is the northeastern-most outpost of the Los Angeles area, and who now lives in Eagle Rock, closer to the heart of city, hasn’t quite been a shut-in. But for years he assumed that he would have a shut-in music career, playing instruments and twisting knobs at home, and never even seeking an audience.
“I did everything in my bedroom, teaching myself about recording things, messing around with whatever instruments I had, recording my own music,” the 39-year-old Bruno said. “It was never something I ever thought I’d do for a living. I figured I’d keep it in my bedroom.”
Bruno’s personality fit the profile of a musical loner. When I asked if he was shy or troubled or antisocial in his formative years, he answered, “Yeah, probably all of those things.” He also saw himself as an inferior musician. He got a drum kit at 13, but switched to bass when he realized he wasn’t very good at drums, then moved on to guitar. “All the people I grew up with and played music with, they were all so much better than me, picked things up so much quicker.”
The musical taste that Bruno developed could be considered a match for his persona. He gravitated toward “improv, experimental sounds – things that were more fringe artists.” He would listen to anything released by Too Pure, a small London label that focused on alternative artists, and whose most notable albums were the early work of PJ Harvey and Stereolab. He also liked Thrill Jockey, a Chicago label with a distinct outsider sensibility. He was a regular at the Alligator Lounge concert series hosted by Nels Cline, an avant-garde guitarist who later, improbably, became a member of the rock band Wilco. When Bruno finally formed his first band, the Uphill Gardeners, when he was 23, it was an all-instrumental band whose sound he describes as “weird, abstract music, pretty noisy noise-rock.”
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Being in a band pulled Bruno out of his bedroom. He attended a lot of concerts and made a lot of useful contacts with other musicians; after Uphill Gardeners, he was usually in three or four bands at a time. He did work as a computer programmer, but the job that really suited him was at Largo, an L.A. club noted for its scrupulous devotion to performances.
“It was the best place to see music,” Bruno, who worked in the office and was occasionally pressed into duty as sound man, said. “No talking, no cell phones – the only venue that treated the music with a lot of respect. To me, that was my music school.”
What Bruno learned was an appreciation of a different kind of music. Every Friday night he would see Jon Brion, who was known equally as a producer (Fiona Apple, Punch Brothers, Rufus Wainwright, Of Montreal), a composer of film scores (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Step Brothers,” “Magnolia”), and his long-running weekly gig at Largo. Bruno also got turned onto more mainstream artists: keyboardist Benmont Tench, singer-songwriter Gillian Welch. “I found out about so much music I hadn’t heard about. That’s where my appreciation for all this other music came from,” he said.
Bruno, the music geek with outre tastes who tended to hole up in his room alone, had become a lover of pop music. And the music he loved most was the sunniest, pop of all – the Beach Boys. “After listening to so many other kinds of music, that became the new kind of music for me. I got into the Beach Boys hardcore, and Fleetwood Mac.”
Which made it an ideal fit when Bethany Cosentino came along. Bruno and Cosentino were introduced in 2004 by the mutual friends they had in the L.A. punk group Mika Miko. Bruno did some production and instrumental work for Pocahontas, the experimental band that Cosentino played in. But Bruno learned that Cosentino was more into bright pop than the droning sound she made in Pocahontas; she’d been listening to a lot of Phil Spector-produced girl groups. When Cosentino, who is 25, returned from New York to her native Los Angeles, in 2009, the two immediately fell in together to write songs and form a band.
After a meeting, which included watching some bootlegged Beach Boys videos, the duo gave their band the name Best Coast. Bruno says there is nothing ironic in the name, which is evident in the sounds on their first album, 2010’s “Crazy For You,” which earned overwhelmingly positive reviews. Despite being fuzzy and lo-fi in tone, there was a sunniness to it, from the cartoonish album cover, with a kitty cat and palm trees, to quick, two-minute songs like “Summer Mood” and the hit “Boyfriend.” It was the sound of beaches, endless summers. It was the sound of Southern California.
“We’re not saying anywhere else is inferior,” said Bruno, who comes to Aspen for Best Coast’s local debut Friday at Belly Up. “But we love California, and that’s what Best Coast means to us. This is home for us; this is where we’re comfortable. That’s why Bethany chose me to do this band with her.”
Bruno says the biggest touchstone has been the Beach Boys. Best Coast doesn’t, on the surface, sound much like the Beach Boys. Best Coast has a garage ethic; the Beach Boys were polished to a shine. Best Coast has a girl lead singer; the Beach Boys were boys who sang about girls. But Bruno sees similarities.
“Their lyrics are simple and straightforward. Then the music behind it and the harmonies are so intricate. Them and the Beatles were the most forward-thinking bands of the time. I think that’s why that music still sounds so good.”
Another influence was Fleetwood Mac – “When they moved to L.A. and got Stevie and Lindsey in the band,” Bruno said, referring to the two Americans, singer Stevie Nicks and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, both California products, who joined Fleetwood Mac and turned the British blues band into an American pop machine. (Bruno was speaking to me from L.A.’s Wiltern Theatre, where Best Coast was opening a three-week tour. He had recently seen Buckingham, one of his favorite guitarists, perform in that very venue, and was getting a kick out of the coincidence.)
I brought up the L.A. band Dawes, and their popular song “Time Spent in Los Angeles.” The song is about a guy who, after spending time away from home, falls for a girl, and concludes that the reason he likes her is because she reminds him so much of L.A., his hometown. The idea that people are truly affectionate about Los Angeles struck me as odd, but Bruno and Cosentino know the sentiment.
“We’re proud of being from here, and we’re not shy about it,” he said.
Indeed not. Best Coast’s second album, released last week, is titled “The Only Place”; the cover features a bear cradling a cut-out map of California. The album kicks off with the title track; the first lyrics, to a peppy drum beat, are “We were born with sun in our teeth and in our hair.” Later in the song, Cosentino sings, “Why would you live anywhere else/ We’ve got the ocean, got the babes, got the sun, we’ve got the waves/ This is the only place for me.”
While “The Only Place” carries on the theme of giving sloppy wet kisses to SoCal that was prevalent on “Crazy For You,” the new album was made in a very different way. Jon Brion was a fan of “The Only Place” and expressed interest in producing Best Coast’s follow-up. It was an odd match – the meticulous producer and the garage band. But Bruno sees it from a unique perspective.
“I know a lot of people think of ‘Crazy For You’ as lo-fi – but for me, that’s hi-fi,” he said. “I’d come from recording in my bedroom, sometimes with no amp. ‘Crazy For You’ – that was made in a studio, with proper equipment.”
To Brion, though, “Crazy For You” was on the raw side – which he had no problem with. “He didn’t want to change us, not at all,” Bruno said. “He said he could help with fidelity issues, the low end, make things sound more clear. He asked a lot of questions about how we made the first record. He was conscious about preserving that part of us.”
So why does Los Angeles get such a bad reputation -traffic on the 405, the smog, the idea that everyone there is a shallow, Hollywood wannabe just passing through on their way to somewhere better.
“It’s weird how people feel about L.A.,” Bruno said. “People from New York complain about it – but they can’t keep themselves from moving here at some point. People in L.A., they don’t care about all that stuff. It’s a laid-back place.”
Bruno isn’t a cynical type, and there are two things he is especially earnest in his affection for: L.A. and pop music.
“If I talk about how much I love Taylor Swift or Shania Twain, there’s nothing about it that’s not genuine,” he said.