October 15th, 2012 | Interviews

aaron giesel

The Allah-Las are almost all Amoeba alums and almost all L.A. natives, and you’d never be able to tell which one is the one that actually had to move here. They’re experts on California’s 20th century golden age—not just the music but the whole moment—and they make records that don’t sound like they’re from the past so much as they sound like they’re going to last. Their debut full-length is out now on Innovative Leisure and they speak now over a big pile of messy burritos. This interview by Kristina Benson and Chris Ziegler.

What do you argue about the most?
Pedrum Siadatian (guitar): Everything!
Spencer Dunham (bass): Sandwiches.
Matt Correia (drums): Where—what—IF we’re eating or not. ‘Are you eating? Come on, man—you think you’re healthier than me?’
PS: We had a lot of arguments. ‘What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you eating?’
MC: Like dinner with your parents. ‘You’re not eating. What’s wrong?’ There aren’t a lot of executive decisions.
So what did you argue about most on the new record? It sounds pretty peaceful.
Miles Michaud (vocals/guitar): Probably the mixing stage. We’d mix things and one person would have an issue with it, and they would have to go on the stand to try to testify as to why everyone else should change their minds.
You only have four guys. You need a tiebreaker.
PS: That’s why it’s taken four years to make this album.
You’ve said that ‘Catamaran’ was a landmark song for you—it showed you where you were, and where to go. What are the other Allah-Las landmarks?
MM: When we first recorded on analog. That was when we were finally happy with the sound we were getting. Just today I had my iTunes on shuffle, and a version came up of ‘Catamaran’ that we’d done with this guy I knew from work in the production world. He had a garage he’d soundproofed into a little studio. And it … was so bad. The entire sound and feeling of it. Like no wonder we didn’t want to release it.
MC: We knew what we wanted as a sound, but not how to get it. I don’t think we were like, ‘Oh, “Catamaran”—that’s the one!’ But it’s a song that stayed with us, even though it’s one of the first ones we wrote.
You also have the song ‘Every Girl’ that’s kind of the one conspicuously absent song on the new LP. Why isn’t it on there? Why doesn’t it fit?
MM: We wrote that song a long time ago, and we changed a lot as a band over the first two years—back when we were just kind playing little tiny shows once in awhile. We thought that song reflected a time period for us that wasn’t really on the album. We didn’t think it fit with the rest of those tracks—it’s more like a frat rock punky number. But we are going to release it on a 7”.
How is this record different from whatever you thought you’d make when you guys very first got together? How close did you actually get?
MM: The one we ended up making is better than what I ever anticipated we would make, but that’s a good thing. I think when we fist started, we listened to a lot of Gories and Cramps and old garage comps and stuff like that—we had a much more abrasive sound. A lot of floor tom drumming, and it was cool—it was easier for us because we weren’t really good at playing, we weren’t really good at singing, and we could play it really loud and people would get sucked up in the energy. But eventually once we did do something better—better singing, better harmonizing—we found ourselves more attracted to a more laid back … I hate to use the word ‘groovy,’ but a groovier kind of sound.
How did you become aware that there’s more to music than just writing a good song?
MM: We’ve all been really big music fans our entire lives. You enjoy the stuff you listen to and you get your own idea of what sounds good and what doesn’t. You realize what turns you on or off. When we started recording, things started to click. ‘I like that guitar tone—this is what they did.’
PS: And a lot of it was paying attention to production. Why do I have a propensity for liking music from the ‘60s? Well, it had this feeling of production. A little lo-fi, a little distant, reverb, percussion—you learn those elements. And you try and work that into what you’re doing.
MM: You watch old YouTube videos and see what kind of equipment they have.
But you’re cautious about saying exactly what that equipment is.
MM: We don’t actively try and keep it secret, but people ask on our Facebook. ‘What kind of 12-string is that? What blah-blah-blah-blah?’ We just don’t answer. They can do the research like we did. That’s fair. It’s in our video! Or come to a show.
Why do you make sure you always keep things so simple?
MM: It’s always a big thing for me when I go see shows and the band live is nothing like the album. When it pales in comparison. We wanna keep a good live show—if it’s not actually even better than the albums.
You did the split 8” with Nick Waterhouse, where he covered a song that you guys wrote. How’d it feel to see your little baby song go off with someone else?
MM: Well, his version is very different. We had a demo recorded on tape that Pedrum and I had made one night at Pedrum’s house. And we just kind of were fooling around and Pedrum came up with these lyrics—the ones that are on Nick’s version now. Nick got ahold of the tape and he liked the lyrics—they were apropos to what going through in his life at the time, so he lifted the lyrics and sang them over another song that he was working on at the time. So musically it’s not even similar, really—we actually have a bridge in ours that’s not in his.
Nick’s talked to us about playing the 45s in his collection over and over … but then one night he REALLY heard them. Have you ever had that experience? Do you know what he means?
MM: We wouldn’t be musicians if we didn’t have that experience. When you hear something in that way, you hear every instrument at the same time. One point in time where that happened to me was Beachwood Sparks’ Once We Were Trees. I remember being in my car parked outside Little Joy, and I was like drinking beer before going in and that track ‘Midnight Whistle’ came on. I’d heard it before but never really heard it. I didn’t stop listening to that album after that for weeks.
SD: For me it was the Nerves. When I first started listening, it was to all the fast songs. But if you go through a break-up, you realize they’re all heartbreak songs. ‘When You Find Out’ or ‘Hanging On The Telephone.’
Do you put this experience as listeners into the Allah-Las songs?
MC: It’s gotta be. Putting in exactly what we’re going through. I can’t see how it wouldn’t be. At least someone would relate to that?
MM: Those elements come in kind of subconciously.
PS: It’s hard to look at your own music objectively—and being able to impact people that way is part of the path to self-realization.
I’m sure you took as much care with this as you did with the songs themselves—what kind of history is behind your new album cover?
MM: That’s some artwork that we’ve all been fans of that Matt actually introduced us to a while back—this photographer David Hamilton. He has a kind of a checkered past. Apparently there were scandals involving his work, like shot like nude photography of underage girls at some point. So there was a lot of back and forth about what to do with the cover, but once we saw that image—and Matt photoshopped our logo up into the upper right hand corner—we figured that’s something we could all be happy with. And something that we felt expressed our sound and our overall vibe very well. We were all able to agree on that pretty easily.
A lot of people ask you about the California sound. But what’s important to you about the California look? The visual aspect of what life is like here?
MC: A lot of Los Angeles-based artists—Wallace Berman, for his gallery, he had a compound in Topanga where he invited various filmmakers and all kinds of creative folks to be part of his collection. Obviously the surf scene—there’s a book called The Holy Barbarians that’s kind of of a tale of Venice Beach beatniks, starting to depict how that area was at least comparable to Greenwich Village or North Beach in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. A lot of things that make Los Angeles very cool are very hidden. But it’s a history we like to dive into. There aren’t a lot of books or movies or anything that really expose all of it. L.A. has one of the coolest histories out of any American city, mostly cuz it’s hidden beneath the surface.
You have to assemble the history yourself?
MM: That’s what turns me on more than anything else. It’s an endless source of discovery and learning. There’s still so much to learn about Los Angeles.
Not to dissect the beating heart of nerdhood itself, but … why do you love learning so much?
MC: We all had a lot of things we wanna do with our lives, and we try and do everything we can with the band. Art, photo, design—we take a lot from the things that maybe we didn’t get to do. Everything is a learning experience.
MM: Our whole thing with the art of L.A. and everything … what we end up doing because we have so many interests is we try to just present ourselves and the shit we like, and people get really connected to it. They can see what we do.
In your music? Or with your perspective?
MM: To me that’s what art is. You change someone’s perspective, and they see things differently than before. Hopefully we can do that.
MC: It’s good to be a bio-regionalist. Someone who knows what their city is made on. Some people who live here … they don’t even know what the tar pits are.
Pedrum, what was it like to step into this band full of L.A. natives?
PS: It’s one of the best things to happen to me. I was thinking the other day how I watched my life change since I started working at Amoeba.
SD: We’d get him store credit.
MM: Mention how a single tear just fell from my eye.
What makes you guys brave enough to play slow? And quiet? That goes against the usual impulse of faster-louder-faster-louder.
PS: Cuz we spent so much time trying to dial each other in. We want everything to be heard, and sometimes the easiest way is to not out do each other.
MM: We know where to set our amplifiers. We want to build a different energy other than an aggressive mosh pit.
What do you do instead of turn up?
PS: We tinker with other things.
MM: At one time we did, but from playing live so much—everything we do like that is gonna fuck up the sound guy!
PS: You’re at the mercy of the sound guy!
MC: Don’t mess with the guy that cooks your meals.
MM: Last night at the Del Monte in Venice, the sound guy Swan—he sings in Led Zepagain—said, ‘Why can’t every band be as considerate as you guys?’
PS: Don’t make us seem sweet in the interview!
Miles, when was the last time you were in an actual mosh pit?
MM: The Mark Sultan show in Costa Mesa! I crowd-surfed twice. The second time h called me out. He said if he hadn’t liked our set, he would have kicked us out!
What’s in your graveyard of cover songs? Songs you could play, but don’t anymore?
PS: ‘Bad Seeds’ by Beat Happening.
SD: ‘Nitroglycerin.’
PS: ‘Slow Death.’
MM: We’d probably do that pretty well now.
SD: ‘Love Is All Around’ by the Troggs.
MM: We played that at our buddy’s wedding a couple months back.
How do you fit in with the world of L.A. bands? Is Beachwood Sparks your big brother band?
MM: Absolutely—they are the big brother bands of ours in Los Angeles. This song by the Flying Burrito Brothers always reminds me of them­—‘Older Guys’ by the Flying Burrito Brothers. It kind of perfectly explains our relationship with them, I think. ‘The older guys get the ladies with their style / The older guys squeeze ‘em till it makes them smile /Since we got the older guys to show us how / I don’t see why we can’t stop right now.’ They’re definitely a band that we’ve looked up to for a long time, and that we’ve been listening to for a long time—somebody who is very significant to Los Angeles, which we try to be as well.
When was the last time Dave Scher called you ‘brother’ or ‘man’?
MM: The last time I saw him!
What’s the most desperate thing you’ve done to survive?
SD: I wasn’t desperate. I’d do it anytime. It sounds really cartoonish. I was spearfishing in Panama on this remote island and the boat left me.
With a Speedo and a spear?
SD: And goggles and fins. They dropped me off, and the water was really cloudy so they couldn’t see me, and the high tide had water pressing up against this cave going through this island. I had to swim to shore and hike around and eat coconuts. Breaking them is a huge undertaking. It takes like forty minutes. They have a really hard husk, and you have to smash it against a rock until you can peel back enough of it. I finally got one open. I just wanted to try it. I figured I’d be alright.
MM: You were probably like five miles from some Disney resort.
How have your immune systems been permanently altered by surfing?
MM: I was blind in my left eye for two weeks. I surfed after a rainstorm and I wear contacts, and one cut my cornea. So one day I’m driving to school and I realize I’m super-sensitive to light. I went to two doctors and it turned out to be a parasite. Acanthamoeba.
Did you have an amoeba in your eye while you were actually working at Amoeba?
MM: I was thinking of that! I closed the Amoeba loop. When I didn’t work there, I had one in my eye. I don’t know how much detail I should go into—
Think of the lives you could save.
MM: The doctors thought it was a herpes infection.
Eye herpes.
MM: It happens! They gave me a steroid, which does the opposite. It invigorated the amoeba. That’s when I started to go blind, and I went to UCLA and they used razors to scrape open my cornea.
While you were conscious?
MM: Yeah, I’m just sitting there! There were only like 120 documented cases. This student figured it out.
You were patient 121?
MM: They took photos. One in a million.
Do you still surf?
MM: Yeah, and I still wear contacts. I’m not very responsible!
PS: I have the strongest most amazing immune system.
SD: Cuz he doesn’t surf.
MC: I get depressed if there’s not enough sun.
You should put a sun lamp in the van.
MM: Grow our weed, get a tan …