Tuesday, April 26, 2011

THE VOICE: Merrill Garbus

"Hey NBC, we're borrowin' your logo!"

Welcome to the first installment of our new ongoing series The Voice which will focus on the unique vocal stylings of some little-known and esoteric singers regardless of age, genre or hipness. For some reason is the exact same title of NBC's new American Idol knockoff/ratings bounty hunter/Christina Aguilera career resuscitator that premieres tonight. I mean, what are the frickin' odds?

First up are the remarkable pipes of a woman named Merrill Garbus, whom we saw last Fall delivering a stunning Afrobeat version of Yoko Ono's "We're All Water" at L.A.'s Orpheum Theatre. Garbus, born in Connecticut and now based in Oakland, is the sole-member (save for touring bassist Nate Brenner) of the whimsically named tUnE-yArDs, and like other lineup-challenged bands like The Ting Tings, The White Stripes and (The) Yeah Yeah Yeahs, her live performances are made possible by the latest in effects pedals and backing-track tech. Unlike those bands however, Garbus builds her songs -- and then deconstructs them -- live onstage. The New York Times' John Caramanica wrote of a 2009 tUnE-yArDs show just after the release of their "no-fi" debut Bird-Brains (recorded with a digital voice recorder): "[Garbus] had a floor tom at her right, a snare at her left, and for each song she would create her own rhythmic backing by using effects pedals to loop a drum beat (or vocal pattern) that she’d pound (or scat) out herself."

Battle Hymn of the Tigrrrl: Merrill Garbus
[photo courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan]

Besides percussion and loops (which she plays in her stocking feet), Garbus' musical totem of choice is the recently resurgent ukelele. Oh wait, but that's not as important as her pipes. How to describe them? Throaty, coy, rage-filled, plaintive, twee, self-referential, primeval, unhinged, ethereal -- often all at once. They take from hip hop, indie folk, African tribal singing, gospel and jazz. (Debbie Gibson, Cyndi Lauper, Ani DiFranco, Miriam Makeba, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson are just a few influences she has mentioned in interviews.) This month, Garbus released her second tUnE-yArDs effort w h o k i l l, which we surmise will go "yards" in upping her profile from the experimental-pop fringes to full-blown indie darling. Check out a couple of tracks from the new album below, because frankly we haven't come up with words to describe them yet. Is Garbus truly the first star of the Obama Era?

Friday, April 22, 2011

LIVE REVIEW: The Louvin Brothers Tribute Show @ HM157 (Los Angeles, 4/21/2011)

Sometimes, The Beast picks at random from the multitude of live show emails we receive; as you can expect it can be a mixed bag. We had no idea there was a “New L.A. Folk Festival” going on this week – much less that L.A. had an old one – and when we got a notice that the NLAFF was staging a special tribute to the mercurial country duo Ira and Charles Louvin in Angelino Heights featuring the likes of Tony Gilkyson, I See Hawks in L.A., and the duo of nü-folk singer/songwriter Tom Brosseau and actor John C. Reilly (Boogie Nights, Chicago)....

“Duh, going!”

The four-hour show was staged in a music and art space that had overtaken the shabby decayed grandeur of a Gilded Age Victorian manor, the kind with bordello-style chandeliers and a winding staircase that looks to be right out of The Addams Family. (Our fave room: giant hookah sitting on a coffee table and glistening sitar leaning in the corner.) The stage was set up in an open-air backyard appended with an old rusted schoolbus and a bashed-out camper. Tea lights were strung around the stage and the audience lounged in puffy-comfy couches or (apropos for a folkie show) cross-legged on large carpets. There was free coconut juice and tequila, not to mention a beer bar with an amazing collection of brews all for $3 and hot fresh oatmeal-chocolate-butterscotch cookies. The paper programs even had liner notes. Whomever organized all this (which was also a benefit for the Japanese Red Cross) really had their shit together.

The backyard of HM157...who knew?

The two-part set started nearly a half an hour late, due to multiple sound problems both onstage and in the sky involving an endlessly circling LAPD helicopter that drowned out most of the attempts to begin the show. Singer Emily Lacy took the stage and decided “I’m just gonna go ahead and sing because I’ve got to.” Despite the nonstop noise-rape from the chopper blades above, Lacy delivered a stunning minimalist read of “In the Pines” complete with Louvin-style vocal cracks and yodels. There were other little standouts, including a teen/tween brother/sister quartet with matching red tunics and stiff new blue jeans called The Wimberly Bluegrass Band, whose vaguely nervous 12-year-old frontman spoke in a warm, folksy announcer’s cadence that reminded one of an old WLS show. He also fiddled his ass off in all-too-brief brief bursts before joining his brethren in four-part harmonies on “Make Him A Soldier" that underscored how amazing and complex the Louvin’s famed duet singing actually was. I mean, there were just two of them.

And that was part of the problem. Between set changes the sound system would play brief blasts of classic Louvinalia like “The Christian Life” (covered by the Gram Parsons-era Byrds) and “Great Atomic Power” (covered by Uncle Tupelo) and it was hard not to be frozen in wonder at their baroque vocal interplay. Thing is, despite the convivial and non-judgmental folk-revival setting, anyone who stepped onstage had to contend with the ghosts of those angelic voices (high tenor/mandolinist Ira died in 1965; tenor/guitarist Charlie passed this last January). This didn’t work so well when it was just one singer onstage, and sometimes even more than one singer had difficulty recapturing the Louvins’ vocal mojo: the “superduo” of Tony Gilkyson and I See Hawks in L.A. co-founder Rob Waller seemed almost apologetic as they struggled through raggedy versions of “Christian Life” and “Atomic Power”; The Chapin Sisters started off a bit wobbly on “Blue” but came into full power on an a cappella coda to “While You’re Cheatin’ On Me” that sparked the biggest ovation of the night.

The most bizarre attempt at some sort of old-timey veracity was runs at “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight” and “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea” from a trio called RT N’ the 44’s, who certainly dressed the part in R. Crumb country-style suits and tipped-back fedoras. Their instruments were Vintage Junkyard: cigar-box slide guitar, jerry-rigged slap bass that resembled an enormous banjo, and the proverbial washboard. The lead singer had clamped a tiny mike to the harmonica brace around his neck so when he sang he sounded like a fuzzy CB radio; its eerie effect, we surmise, was intended to sound like an old field recording or barn-dance broadcast from the 1930s. Unfortunately, the two other vocalists were miked normally and the effect was lost. It looked more trouble than it was worth. Nice idea, though.

Charlie and Ira: Them Boots!

When John C. Reilly took the stage for a five-song closing set with Tom Brosseau and surprise guest Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, he related an anecdote about taking his young son to meet Charles Louvin at Amoeba Music: “Charlie shook his hand and asked, ‘What’s your name, son?’ ‘Leo.’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘Eight.’ ‘Are you married?’ ‘No.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, just remember: marriage is like a bath, it ain’t so hot once you get used to it.’” Reilly nodded to the laughter (“Charlie was a salty dog!”) before singing lead on Louvin stalwarts like “Weapon of Prayer,” “The Family Who Prays” and “Lay Down My Old Guitar” with an amiable low-register warble familiar to fans of his country music-biopic spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Brosseau sang mostly by-ear harmonies (literally, by cupping his ears) and his delicate Venice-Beach-by-way-of-the-prairie trill came the closest of the evening to matching the unreal high-lonesome pipes of the tormented Ira Louvin, who as it turns out was born on this night in 1924.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

L.A.'s Worst Gourmet Food Trucks

Korean Fried Pinworms. The actual name of this truck is 한국 튀겨진 벌레, the logo of which is spread in beautiful swoops of blue and red on the side of this bustling little boit-on-wheels. Unfortunately, those symbols stand for chef Li Ving's little-understood California fusion of fresh farmers' market produce with Enterobius vermicularis (human intestinal parasites). We had seven bowls of their signature dish and couldn't stop eating it -- so much so that the ER nurse had to wrestle our spork away and put us in wrist restraints. Mystifying "A" Health Code rating written in crayon.

Hot Chicks In Skimpy Outfits Serve Bowls of Whatever. One of the most popular trucks to emerge on the L.A. scene over the last five hours, you can always identify the HCSOSBW truck by its eye-blindingly pink exterior and long lines of middle-aged men, young men, old men, unemployed men, men with skin problems -- well, let's just say a lot of men. Reviews across the board are uniformily positive, despite the title being slightly misleading: The "bowls" can range from a wax-treated envelope to an old WWI Army helmet and the "whatever" can encompass old oatmeal from the L.A. County Jail, food hastily bought from other food trucks or a crumpled Groupon for Blimpie's.

The Weiner's Circle West. Popular and not-at-all controversial Left Coast offshoot of the infamous Chicago, IL hot dog stand where patrons and employees hurl vile racial invective at each other while placing/processing orders for delicious foot longs, piping hot french fries or Italian beef sandwiches Chi-Town style. This concept hasn't exactly translated well to the streets of Los Angeles, where the plucky lil' truck has been accompanied by an armed-to-the-teeth National Guard/Blackwater Security escort and large unexplained fires.

You Cook This, OK? This charming "interactive" truck owned by a cabal of hipster house-flippers with David Cross glasses and fuzzy-squirrel soul patches (including the women, for some reason) turned hipster gourmet food truck bandwagoneers. In a charming ode to its owners/"chefs", the truck always opens 45 minutes late and is staffed by only one vaguely stoned "clerk" who seems offended that you are interrupting his "Black Uhuru groove" with your inane and bougeouis-fascist questions. Food is laid out raw at least 48 hours before they open, and you are advised to "flame your shit" extra long on one of their one mini-grills (actually just poorly designed hot plate) until its burnt black to avoid any "poop bummers" later in the evening. Will frequently Tweet the wrong location to keep out "ordinaries."

Ferredibles. Started by an ex-hippie coffeehouse barista and a 40something record shop clerk who looks like he woke up passed out on the street, this animal-only food truck serves the culinary cravings of everyone's favorite adorable "alt-pet" -- the ferret! (Not to mention their strange and annoying owners -- there's a special play area for them right behind the truck.) Finicky ferret ferreters can step up and order micro-delicacies like "meat, organs, bones, skin, feathers and fur."* As an added (and completely au gratis) feature, the minute you place your order, a specially placed sprinkler system sprays a violent blast of urine on your arm.
*thanks, Wiki!

2 Chefs, 1 Truck. In a perfect world, this superb truck would not even be on this list. Two master chefs -- Encarnaccion "Skippy" Valdes from Miami's Cuban-fusion oasis La Barba, and Italian wunderkind Charlemagne "Kid" Polizzi from Seaside Heights, New Jersey's [random drunken obscenities] Bar and [more obscenities] Grill -- joined their star power for a saucy Latin take on traditional Italian street food. Yet for some reason people have been staying away in groves. There have even been picket protests by angry feminists and repeated raids by the Vice Division of the LAPD. Hey, no one said the food truck business wasn't risky!

The Paul Reiser Show. No one really knows why this truck has even made an appearance or what it serves -- and frankly, no one really wants to know.

Shmelvis Parsley's TCB Greasepit. After a lengthy copyright infringement lawsuit with Graceland Enterprises, this rockin' 'n' rollin' wagon has reopened with a new name yet has kept its vanguard take on white-trash cuisine intact: burnt-bacon sandwiches, runny eggs, fried banana dumplings with a side of deep-fried Twinkies, shitloads of amphetamine pills. Projecting videos of Elvis (female impersonators) and piping in the evergreen sounds of The King (of Memphis Wrestling Jerry Lawler's 1985 solo album) over its intercom, this truck is sure to satisfy your stomach as well as your jones for all things sort-of Elvis.

Jack White's Third Man Rolling Record Store. This most confounding truck from multi-tasking former White Stripes frontman Jack White seems like a perfect idea on paper. What self-respecting music nerd wouldn't love a traditional take on American tavern food with a most delicious innovation: it's all shaped like record albums! In practice, however, this venture is a grisly failure. We ordered the "I Cut Like a Bufffalo" special and received a parcel of food that looked so much like a classic vinyl 7-inch (in its own edible sleeve, no less) that we almost wanted to play it before we ate it, ha ha. Unfortunately, we wound up picking bits of particle board out of our teeth and swallowing painfully sharp daggers of black shiny "vinyl." Ugh, and the taste! All waxy and petrochemically. Also: no condiments, or napkins, or utensils, or a menu, or beverages, or grill, or smells of things cooking. Mr. White, we suggest you stick with the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather and producing Wanda Jackson and leave the yummy food to the pros!

Armenian Yellwagon. Turks won't eat here if they know what's good for them. Not even sure if they serve food.

James' Francophile. OK, let's get this out of the way: YES, shapeshifting actor/writer/artist James Franco IS behind this new food truck concept with a tinge of Tinseltown fairy dust -- or some sort of powdery substance -- sprinkled throughout its grease traps. And YES, he mans the grill and till and also plays a brief ukelele set between orders and gives women breast exams and teaches stoner-skateboard-snowboard lingo to passing children and does a live painting to Vijay Iyer's new CD while directing a remake of The Making of Michael Jackson's Thriller...is this joke played out yet? The food is not french but Franco-American: the Oscar-nominated thespian is too exhausted and disoriented to do anything but open cans of Beefaroni and Spaghetti-Os and thrust them at you and squint hopefully as you eat it with your fingers.

SoCalFusion. Expecting the street-food equivalent of Michael's in Santa Monica or Spago in Beverly Hills, we were suprised to find a standard "roach coach" with the kind of bargain-basement fare (burritos, wrapped sandwiches, sludgy coffee) you'd find parked outside of a warehouse in Vernon at 1pm on a Tuesday. The only difference we could see was the persistent sounds of 1970's jazz fusion playing REALLY LOUD over the loudspeaker -- and not even the good Weather Report/Bitches Brew kind but some sort of sub-Santana piffle that goes on for like 45 minutes and makes you feel like you're in a proctologist's waiting room in Century City at 2pm on a Thursday. Turns out, its the music of the truck's owner Esai "Starchild Dreamcatcher Funkburgher" Ramirez and his sub-Santana jam band he led through 39 lineup changes and one album during the Carter Administration. FYI: He will try to sell you his new self-released CD before he will even discuss your order.

Carl Sagan's Wonderful World of gAstronomy. Seriously, hasn't this whole "molecular gastonomy" thing gone a little too far? In the tradition of famed MG chefs like elBulli's Ferran Adrià, several illegitimate descendants of the late astronomer/TV host Carl Sagan have thrown their hat into the latest and hottest and most creatively unregulated culinary trend in recent memory. Bad idea jeans, phood pholks. First off, no one remembers who Carl Sagan is; he's like those late-70s celebrities like Ewell Gibbons or Michael Sarrazin (Remember them? No? See?). Second, their Carrot-Toppy take on the MG fad is ill-suited for street food: like speading the entire street in front of the truck with foie gras and then pointing down to it and saying, "Get it? Street Food? Right?" or having to digest an entire Thanksgiving meal through an I.V. or download a spaghetti dinner through your iPOd. I mean, really? Let's get back to basics, people!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Yippee Ki Yay, Git Along Lil' Bloggies...

"Taxes? We don't need no stinking taxes."

Band of Gypsys Live Again (on video and CD, that is) (Jazz Chronicles)

...Except in Los Angeles (L.A. Times Culture Monster)

The Instruments Issue (The Revivalist)

The Return of the Ukelele (New York Times)

The Art of Album Cover Art (ongoing series) (Aquarium Drunkard)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Nels Celebrates Record Store Day

I worked at Rhino Records in West L.A. from around 1976 to 1985. This was the time when little record stores such as (in the Los Angeles area) Rhino, Aron's, Poo Bah, Rene's, et al thrived by selling used records, cutouts, and BOOTLEGS. Other record stores like Jem Records specialized in imports, and we would make pilgrimages to The Valley to buy the latest ECM records, weird prog rock records, and cutting edge/obscuro improv on Incus and FMP, etc.

Like free-form radio programming, my heart always "zings" a bit when I experience a barely socialized underground record store somewhere. I recognize the atmosphere of wariness, the alienation mixed with inspiration, the passion for sound and culture, the desire to permeate one's life wholly with the certain singular stench of whatever one is obsessed with that week. Whether it's Rhino (long gone), Poo Bah (still sort of there in a different location), Atomic, or late lamented stores elsewhere like Hoboken's Rather Ripped, or newer (monster) stores like Amoeba, Waterloo (in Austin), Twist & Shout (Denver), or the numerous little hole-in-the-wall stores I stroll into across the globe whose names I have forgotten, I salute you all.

from Nels Cline.com

Can You Name This Record Store?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

HAIKU STORYTELLING: A Conversation with Deborah Vankin

My friend and colleague Deborah Vankin has had quite a week with numerous appearances and interviews surrounding the publication yesterday of her first graphic novel Poseurs. Set in the illusion-heavy netherworld of the L.A. nightlife circuit – something she knows quite well after covering it for over a decade for the L.A. Weekly and the L.A. Times (read her controversial feature on Koreatown here) – the surreal and quick-witted book follows the intertwining stories and urban adventures of three young Angelenos: Jenna, a mixed-race proto-bohemian from Echo Park with ambitions toward photography and a horny cougar mom; Pouri, a vivacious but damaged Thai latchkey kid (here called a “parachute kid”) from Arcadia with plenty of time and money and no parental oversight; and Mac, a backwards-baseball-hatted Valley white boy who hides behind incomprehensible hipster slang (“Mirthquake,” “Rexy Crawler,” “Youniverse”) as a protective shell.

Hilarious hijinks and self-discovery ensue, with brief noirish stops in the darker corners of Tinseltown. We won’t give away any spoilers but the plot is more complex and multi-layered than any book for Young Adult market has a right to be. L.A. artist Rick Mays combines Manga influences with the crisp black-and-white definitions of 1980s commercial artists like Nagel; this along with Vankin’s cheeky sense of humor, vanguard take on modern language and frequent breaks in the hallowed Fourth Wall (characters comment on the action directly to the reader) creates a beautiful deception that she says “could only happen in Los Angeles.”

Vankin, who is orignally from Philadelphia, is already working on a sequel that she says was halfway plotted out when she was writing the last page of Poseurs. “It’s a year later, the three main characters are seniors, there’s some new characters” is all she will divulge before adding: “Instead of poking fun of the nightlife world, this is more of a play on the tabloid-journalism world.”

We sat down recently with Miss V at a conspicuously quiet Chinese restaurant to discuss how, in the age of the podcast and 24-hour news cycle, she managed to find any time at all to write anything.

THE BEAST: So Deb, you’ve already done a bunch of comic-book panels in L.A. and San Francisco. What’s the reaction to Poseurs and who is reacting to it?
DEBORAH VANKIN: I went to WonderCon last weekend and some middle-aged guy walked up to the signing and was like, ‘I would like to buy your book’ very straightforward like that, and I went, ‘Really?’ That’s the joke of this book: It’s written for teen girls but so far the people who are buying it are like nerdish thirtysomething-type guys. [laughter] So you can’t choose your audience, but so far it’s resonated with dudes in their mid 30s who are channeling their inner teenage girls.

I mean, the plot and the interlocking stories make the book more complex than I thought it would be. How did you start on this long road to crafting it?
It was originally supposed to be a Minx book, which was a series from D.C. Comics that was aimed at teen girls. I picked the backdrop of the L.A. nightlife scene because I thought that would appeal to them, but just because it was for teen girls didn’t mean that I had to talk down to them. I felt like there was an opportunity to be deep and complex and layered. I mean, kids are so much smarter and sophisticated people give them credit for, and there was no reason the characters could be multi-faceted and sophisticated. Even though the story is about L.A. nightlife on the surface, is really a story universal to all teenage girls: self acceptance, the search for identity, finding your place in the world—your "tribe" so to speak. All the characters have a tribe they are a part of. Jenna, for example, is half Jewish and half Cherokee, Pouri finds her tribe in the nightlife world and Mac defines his world by language because he doesn’t want the world to define him. So that was a very conscious effort, and that would be the infrastructure for the characters personal journeys. I sort of developed them from the inside-out rather than the outside-in.

What do you mean?
In the sense that the characters themselves generated the story. First, you come up with a backdrop and sort of high concept. You decide what world you want to penetrate – Food trucks? Underground art events? Nightlife? – and you find a stage that’s textured and colorful and provides an opportunity for drama to ensue. Then you choose your sort of high-concept jumping-off point and that’s the skeletal structure that you hang the story on. Those things felt very artificial to me, almost like building a theatrical set. Once I had my characters, it became more organic. But it was a very long process germinating in the back of my mind…

There was no “eureka!” moment there?
Ohmigod no! The characters went through several names, ethnicities and identity crises. Rick drew six or seven different versions of each character and then, partially influenced by his designs, I would change the internal structure of the characters. All of this was done even before we had written a word of the script. That’s particular to D.C. Comics to develop the characters so heavily before you start writing the story. My editor Shelly Bond, who is truly a genius, had me fill out one of those old 50’s-style black and white spiral notebooks. I literally went though magazines and cut out images that I saw that rounded out each of the characters and pasted them in the notebook. I came up with iPod playlists that they would listen to, what kind of house they lived in, what kind of clothes they were into, what was in their bedroom top drawer…

“What’s in your refrigerator?”
That was one of them, yes. And I thought it was the stupidest exercise in the beginning and I really resisted doing it. Here I am a journalist of ten years writing art and culture stories and I’m spending my weekends making character collages! I found that through that process the characters really emerged for me, and I built and built until I had very rich backstories for all of them. Rick and I spent two months developing our characters back and forth that way and when we finally met we had the visual representation and the internal landscape of these characters and we were ready to start writing. And it just flowed from there. If anything I felt hemmed in a little bit by having to tell the story in a limited number of panels per page and a limited number of dialogue bubbles per panel, so it’s very much like a mathematic equation. It's like writing a novel in haiku form. You need to be very lean and direct in what you include and when you’re trying to do that on multiple levels it's really hard.

Most of the reviews thus far for Poseurs focus on that tag line “Party Noir.” How would you describe that term to the uninitiated?
A joke. [laughter] Image originally wanted to put that on over the bar code on the back where it names the book’s genre but we didn’t want to be too cutesy. I came up with the phrase because the whole idea of “poseurs” is that things aren’t what they seem. The L.A. party scene is bubbly and glittery on the surface but there’s this darker underbelly that’s sort of intriguing and pulls people into situations where it’s easy to cross the line and get in over their heads and maybe come out stronger as a result of it. That’s why I thought the noir element would be fun to use. It’s not exactly original or anything; L.A. is the land of noir, but to tell an L.A. story with a bit of mystery to it, how could you not tell it with a bit of that seedy noir threat? I wanted to bring that into the comic landscape, but because it’s a world of teenagers and parties and all those Gossip Girl elements, “party noir” started to sound very interesting to me.

It is. Especially the way you turn noir on its head. Usually the story starts in normalcy and gradually become more sinister, but you do it in reverse. Take that scene with the vaguely threatening gang member Omar sitting alone in his car reciting William Butler Yeats’ “A Prayer for My Daughter.” It’s creepy and mysterious at first -- very David Lynch -- but later has a totally plausible explanation that deepens this character considerably. You take an typically noirish scene…
…And flip it on its head. That was totally intentional. You totally got it! In the next book I’m doing, Omar takes much bigger role and takes the characters into this whole new set of adventures and double entendres.

There’s lots of “doubles” in this story…
Yeah, it gets pretty dense. The idea of things not being as they seem and double identities and double meanings – I’m obsessed with that stuff anyway. But I also felt that comics was one of the most misunderstood genres to be working in and I wanted to make the story sort of an ode to that.

How so?
Comics are misunderstood as something you could bang out on your lunch break. They tell the story panel-by-panel and try to contain dense layers of meaning and use the poetry of words. It has more heft to it than you would think.

Grant Morrison once compared graphic novel writing to screenwriting and Patton Oswalt commented that if you read comics as a kid you were basically reading film storyboards. How similar are comic books to filmmaking process?
They are so similar. The graphic novel you write in script form. It doesn’t look exactly like a final draft of a screenplay but it’s very close. You have your action description at the top where you tell your artist what to draw instead of telling a cameraman what to shoot. You literally have to shot direct it like you’re filming a movie: “close-up,” “overhead shot,” “wide shot.” Then underneath you have your dialogue that runs down the middle of the page.

The Author signs her work
Skylight Books, 4/12

So you’re basically the writer, director, art director, editor, director of photography wrapped into one...
I did panel last week at Meltdown Comics curated by Gary Phillips where we were all talking about how similar comic-book writing is to screenwriting and how it’s really one of the last art forms where one can be a true auteur, especially if you draw your own comics, which a lot of writers do. It’s like a film that you’ve written, shot, directed, edited, did the wardrobe, looped all yourself. When you work for Image Comics, which is more of an indie publishing house, you have a lot more freedom. When this project was a D.C. book we had a production department working with me. When the Minx line folded I brought the project over to Image and had to art direct the whole thing myself.

Was that the hardest part of writing this book?
Without a doubt! Because I didn’t know film language at all. My editor sent my first draft back to me with notes saying, ‘You can’t go from a close-up to a wide shot; you have to go from a close-up to an over-the-shoulder shot to a medium shot to a wide shot.’ I had never heard those things before. She sent me a film script so I could see how scenes flow and what the directing guidelines were.I has to do breakdowns of these scenes and that was how I learned the language of comic books.

In the transition from D.C./Minx to Image are you hoping to reach wider audiences?
Yesterday I got an email from a 22 year-old girl in Athens, Greece, who found the book on Facebook and sent me a message saying, “I loved it! All of our friends are going to use all this L.A. slanguage that’s in the book.’ From a 22 year old girl in the Mediterranean to a 45 year old dude in California? I don’t know, you tell me.

There’s a very sweet scene between Mac and Jenna that sort of tapdances on the edge of sensuality before pulling back with a sort of sarcastic aside…
Yeah, I had to pull back a lot more than I would’ve liked.

Yeah, I mean you can’t mention the L.A. club world without getting into music, sex and drugs. How did you know where to draw the line in depicting those things to young adults?
Again Shelley Bond had a clear vision for the Minx line and they were all PG-rated for the most part. The idea was they were meant to empower girls—basically non-superhero stories where they are the superheroes, so they didn’t want it to get too seedy. An example of that in my book was where Shelley suggested at we alter a party scene that established that Jenna doesn’t drink, which wasn’t a bad thing at all. Now that’s its reaching a wider audience, I wish I had time to go back in and rewrite stuff and loosen it up a bit. Naturally I want it to be a little edgier.

As for music, it’s an unavoidable staple of L.A. nightlife. Did you listen to any particular music while you were creating the world of Poseurs?
My musical tastes are so all over the spectrum that I could have been listening to Tegan and Sara one night, Daft Punk another and Crosby, Stills & Nash another—my tastes are like a pinball! It doesn’t influence my writing like some people. But someone recently asked me what song I would choose to represent the book and show the vibe and the song I picked was “Get It Get It” by Girl Talk. It’s a mash-up of nineteen different racks from Lady Gaga and New Order to Aphex Twin and Jane’s Addiction -- and it’s only five minutes long! I picked it because there’s so many "parties" in there, from classic Hollywood premieres to underground speakeasies to private dinner parties to wacky and weird warehouse parties downtown. So for one song to sum all that up would be impossible! This one track that had a party spirit and was danceable and was a mix of different styles seemed to fit. And it had the word “girl talk” in there.

You have a lot of references to real L.A. musicians, artists and landmarks – DJ Diplo, Joel-Peter Witkin, Tiki Ti – but with slight funny little changes: “DJ Dipaolo,” “Joel-Peter Whitkin,” “Tiki Time.” What was behind that?
D.C. was really careful about using real logos. But I love how Rick came up with a way to get around that: In the background, you’ll see “AMG” instead of AMC Theatres or “UrbanThesuarus.com” for UrbanDictionary.com. It looms just real enough that your brain identifies it without even realizing it.

It also adds to the story’s sense fabulism and sense of illusion – like you’re in a sort of parallel universe.
But then there’s also scenes rooted in real places, like Arcadia or the L.A. River.

Yes! A very important scene at the L.A. river, where Jenna looks upon it and “feels the strength of two tribes.”
Yes, that’s one of my favorite scenes, her third-act moment in front of an empty river. I just thought it’d be funny. In the back of my mind I was thinking more about spiritual cleansing. In the beginning, she talks about her dual identity, of Rosh Hashanah from her Jewish heritage and the Full Moon Ceremony from her Cherokee heritage, I wanted to go back to that because there’s a religious theme that’s runs through some of the panels. Rosh Hashanah in particular is about “washing away your sins” in the river, and it seemed to absurd and ironic to me that it was the bone dry L.A. river.

Did you consult other graphic novel writers for inspiration?
Cecil Castelucci, who wrote debut Minx book The Plain Janes. She manages to tell Young Adult stories – again, another misunderstood genre – where her characters are just as rich and layered and complex as graphic novels for adults. I actually met with her and I told her I had about three weeks off before my job at the L.A. Times and asked if she thought I could do it in that time and she almost spit out her food, “Uhhh, no. You’d better set aside six months – and that’s just for a first draft.” And she was right: It took twice that time. [laughter]

Poseurs often breaks down the fourth wall between reader and character and comments on its own comic-ness. What was your inspiration for that?
Actually, Annie Hall. It’s also done a lot in noir and detective fiction. Also, Robert Altman’s The Player and how it’s a commentary on film as a whole. I’ve always been a fan of using a genre to comment on that genre. Like when I only have 16 panels left in which to finish a scene in, I’ll have a character turn to another and say, “Dude, will you slow down? We only have 16 panels left!”

I also noticed the characters’ constant flirtation with technology. They are definitely part of the Generation Wired.
Yeah, I wanted to show this technology-saturated world that younger people are now living with: texting, turnitin.com, skyping, switching cellphones, urban slang sites, digital cameras. If I had written the book today instead of three years ago there would have been a lot more references to things like Twitter and Tumblr and Flicker.

What’s interesting about this book is that it’s a bit dated!
Yeah, it’s an interesting side effect of the publishing scene we live in: the book was held for 2 ½-3 years after Minx folded and I didn’t have time to rewrite it because of all the journalism I was doing at the L.A Times.

Party at Ground Zero
photo courtesty of Cobrasnake

Speaking of which, how have you see technology change the L.A. nightlife scene over the past 10 years?
The last five years is when it really changed a lot. Promoters started putting their nightlife parties on Twitter. You started to see a lot of passwords to get into secret speakeasies. They’re promoted them on Twitter at the last minute or they send out mass texts to your phone or you can download a picture map at the last minute, which adds to the thrill of the experience. Party promoters use social media to niche-ify things and target specific audiences. Another thing is taking pictures at parties like Cobrasnake or even actual photo booths, which have become a staple lately, and posting them online afterwards where they go viral. From that whole scene you get a whole new layer of Internet celebrity: "The Party Celebrity."

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Salon's Matt Zoller Seitz wrote this last month:

The bank robbery drama "Dog Day Afternoon" is based on a real incident that happened in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1972; director Sidney Lumet was so committed to making the story feel as real as possible that he decided the film would have no score. But he cheated, gloriously, by opening with a montage showing everyday life unfolding in New York City on one of the hottest days of the year. As I wrote in an appreciation of editor Dede Allen, who cut "Dog Day," "From John's first line ('Lately I've been thinking how much I miss my lady') the sequence conjures an aching nostalgia, not just for the hardscrabble Big Apple of 1975 that Allen's montage preserves in a kind of miniature stealth documentary, but for the hero Sonny's life as a free man -- a world that existed before his crime landed him in jail and deprived him of every experience, emotion and relationship that meant anything to him. The delayed introduction of Sonny and his partners waiting outside the bank is preceded by two shots of the Calvary cemetery in Queens (the Manhattan skyline looming behind a field of tombstones), then a shot of a Kent cigarettes billboard noting the current time of day -- the exact minute when Sonny's freedom ended.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Slam

When Mumford & Sons had their breakthrough moment at last month’s Grammy Awards with a ferocious version of their second single “The Cave,” the Beast couldn’t help wondering what had brought old-timey British folk back to the American charts. (Does anyone remember the FIRST time?) Then, when the religion-tinged Arcade Fire took the stage (twice!) at the end of the show after stunning everyone with their Best Album win, we think we somewhat figured it out. It has something to do with The Slam.

"The Slam" is when one literally throws oneself into one’s music – while one is playing it live, mind you – in some sort of spastic head-banging neck-cartilage-ruining warrior dance. The Slam is a relatively recent development, but it has roots in American showmanship going all the way back to before the Civil War and  New Orleans’ Congo Square. What it entails is bringing a physicality to one’s music that acts as almost like a shamanistic hyponosis. Favorites? I got favorites: Howlin’ Wolf breaking the rules of the blues by crawling around on the stage floor like a panther while he growled and fumed; T-Bone Walker’s pre-Hendrix split-legged behind-the-back-guitar heroics; Muddy Waters going somewhat batshit during “Mojo Workin’ an the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival; Joe Tex and James Brown's muscular dance routines and ruthless microphone tricks; Uncle Dave Macon using his banjo as a miming device, either as a shotgun or pool cue; even a guy like 70-year-old Joe Hunter of Motown’s Funk Brothers, who executed an amazing (and unexpected) live split in the midst of his piano duties in the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown -- even though he looked like he kinda hurt himself.

The Modern Slam of course takes its cue from an amalgam of punk rock slamming and heavy metal headbanging. (Study Question: "What's the difference?") Iggy Pop pioneered the former with a limber-legged shimmy he claimed was influenced by Native American dances; Black Sabbath and AC/DC's Angus Young came in from the metal side with a neck-punishing head-snap that Motorhead and Metallica would later take to the bank. (In the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly, writer James Parker notes the influence of Sabbath on modern slamming before quoting Ian Christe's Sound of the Beast on the spectacle of early Sabbath "bobbing like hyperanimated marionettes in the hands of God.")

You want more fave slammers? No? Too bad: Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers; G.G. Allin; the nice young men of Korn and Slipknot; Henry Rollins; Trent Reznor's NIN Touring Band of 1994; The Beastie Boys; Living Color's Corey Glover; Tom Morello: Faith No More/Mr. Bungle frontman Mike Patton; Beck's Odelay touring band of 1996-97; Jack White; Angelo Moore from Fishbone; Billie Joe Armstrong.

All expected names to be sure. (You are welcome to add your favorite slammers in our ‘Comments’ section.) But what to make of this post-post-modern take on The Slam: Where avant-gardists like Kneebody or Nels Cline turn jazz into cathartic and kinetic experiences more akin to punk shows?; where Jeff Magnum's Neutral Milk Hotel freaks out their own audiences by toppling over their instruments like some guerilla Salvation Army band?; where Mumford & Sons can claim inheritance of a folk tradition of Bert Jansch and The Pogues while keyboardist Ben Lovett and banjoist "Country" Winston Marshall employ the Slam like it's a D.C. hardcore club circa 1985?

The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones captured the epic experience of The Arcade Fire slamming like their lives depend on it: "The first night, Will Butler, Win’s brother and the band’s keyboard player, rolled up a sleeve and began to whack his left arm with his right. Then he picked up a large snare drum and began to whale away at it, his back to the crowd. Without warning, he threw the drum high in the air, catching it so that it narrowly missed his brother’s head. After repeating the stunt three times, Will fell to his knees and settled for hitting the drum." And this apparently on one of their more mellow nights.

Less showmanship than shamanship, The Slam is a trope of absolute commitment. It is punk-rock energy now being harnessed (harvested?) for a variey of sounds, almost a cliché in how bands communicate their street cred: "Wow, this Irish fife and drum music is really annoying and—wait, are they slamming?! This is awesome!!!” Old candy in strange new packages.