At every SXSW there are always a few bands, a few parties, a few things that would equate to being in the buzz category. Bloc Party, LCD Soundsystem, Tegan and Sarah, Kaiser Chiefs, the Spin party, the Vice Party, the filming of Real World in Austin, and the release of DIG!, the documentary of the two bands Brian Jonestown Massacre and Dandy Warhols, were all buzzin’ in 2005.
We arrived at the DIG! premier party late (as usual), arriving to remnants of what seemed to be a lush layout of Mexican food, and the movie was also over. Back at home a few weeks later I got to watch the film’s span of seven years that it took to follow the two bands around, chronicling their paths to stardom that were at times running side by side, then crossing, then going in separate directions. It brought me back to some ten years ago when I first started listening to the psychedelic sounds of BJM and what I thought to be an extrapolated version of Britpop by the Dandys.
I’m still a big fan of the Warhols and have not only seen them numerous times but got to interview them last year. But I have yet to ever see BJM. Every time they played in S.F. or in San Jose, something always seemed to get in the way. And after seeing that movie it felt like a huge itch that couldn’t get scratched. All their personality conflicts and personal issues aside, I just wanted to breath in and experience this band that I expect will be a phenomenon in musical history.
DIG! didn’t really mention anything at the end of the movie that would inform viewers on the whereabouts of BMJ, so one would or could assume that the band had dissolved again, maybe this time for good. While going through our mail a month or so ago, I came upon the CD for The Quarter After, and to my surprise, it said they were opening for BJM. The game was back on.
I was not familiar with this L.A. band, but I was familiar with Rob Campanella, who I thought was their producer. I knew of his studio and previous projects with Meow Meow (a great album with members of Pink Noise Test) and Mia Doi Todd. It wasn’t until I read a little further that I found out that Campanella was actually the guitarist. To add more sugar on top of this sundae surprise, his brother Dom was responsible for the magic carpet vocal ride that took me back to when I was seven years old, rocking out to the radio playing the Lemon Pipers, The Monkees and the Byrds, and then the carpet sped forward to the early ‘90s when Ride, The High, and the La’s dominated 120 Minutes.
Their story started a few decades after the Byrds were first making their music known in Los Angeles. In the ‘80s Campanella and his brother were following the paisley rock path paved by such local bands in the scene, from The Dream Syndicate, The Long Ryders, The Three O’Clock, and even The Bangles, who eventually lost their psychedelic flowers after the new wave push from their major label deal led them into Egypt.
“My brother and I had a special affinity for the Steppes,” explains Rob. “They were on Greg Shaw’s Voxx label and also contained two singing/songwriting brothers, John and David Fallon. They made at least FOUR amazing records, unlike those above, who all pretty much lost it after their first EP and LP. We used to do a Steppes cover – maybe we’ll someday bring it back into our set.”
Dom went off to college for a semester, and when he returned home for Christmas he had a present for his family – a song he had made with a karaoke machine.
“My other brothers and I were like ‘Who’s that singing?’ and he says ‘It’s me!’ Then I’m wondering what ‘60s band he’s covering, so I ask him ‘Who originally did this song?’ And he tells me ‘I wrote it!’ and I was like ‘Holy shit, that’s fucking brilliant!’”
From there the two went on to work together at writing music and evolving their musicianship (Dom didn’t know how to play any instrument and had gotten one of his friends to lay down the guitar tracks for that first song), but L.A.’s music scene was moving away from their psychedelic and jangly music and the bands that they had admired for the past decade.
It was 1994 when Rob would come to know a band that was on their same page and would eventually be part of his musical career. One of Rob’s friends and fellow mix tape trader, Steve Fordiani, invited him to check out Sonic Boom, the former lead singer/keyboardist/guitarist of one of Rob’s favorite bands, Spacemen 3. The U.K. band had formed in 1982 and set themselves apart with their spacetime continuums that gave them a different shimmer to the new wave of the time, but eventually split when Jason Pierce, one of the band’s founders, went on to form Spiritualized in the early ‘90s.
Rob reflects on that night when Sonic played at what he called a crappy little place called the Foothill Club in Signal Hill. “I remember driving there, playing [Steve] some songs my brother Dom and I had done on a four track, and talking about what a shitty music scene L.A. was at the time, how everyone wanted to be a grunge band like Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots and no on seemed to understand what our jangly music with vocal harmonies was all about. We get to the club and we find out that the opening band for Sonic is called the Brian Jonestown Massacre.”
At first, it was that name that most appealed to Rob. BJM had yet to release any records, so their appearance that night was the first he had heard them. “They came on and it was a revelation for me. It let me know that there were actually others out there that understood the same kind of music that my brother and I were making. The BJM kind of gave us the green light to say that it’s okay to play psychedelic music.”
Rob would eventually come to know Anton Newcombe, the man behind BJM, after playing in bands in the same scene and meeting him through mutual friends. “In early 2001 he really didn’t have much of a band together,” states Rob, “and we were just hanging out one night and he was telling me that he was invited to play SXSW. He kind of asked me to help him put a band together. I was good friends with Jeffrey Davies and I told him I could probably get Jeff to come back into the band. For some reason Anton asked me to play organ.”
Rob has played with the BJM on and off ever since, working with Anton in his studio to record further BMJ albums. “I’ve quit/been fired a couple times. But it seems kind of like the mob, just when you think you’re out…”
Rob is also a partner in the Committee To Keep Music Evil, a move that is very much in line with Anton’s long time fight against the music industry. Along with Greg Shaw and Bomp Records, Anton launched this channel with a clear purpose – “to release BJM music not available through other channels, and to record new bands which we will be producing from time to time, while pursuing the goal of making the world unsafe for rock and roll. The Committee stands for everything the music industry doesn’t: the artists, the music, the revolution.”
Going back to The Quarter After camp, the band didn’t do much after what Rob calls “the greatest gig of our lives,” opening for Arthur Lee and Love on his first show out of prison in May of 2002. “Go figure. Makes a lot of sense right?”
After some time apart they got going again in August of 2003 when their friends in Dead Meadow asked them to open up for them at the Silverlake club, Spaceland. Even though they had little time to prepare, that gig sparked a fire under their butts and got things rolling again, leading to the writing and recording of their self-titled release in July of this year.
Although they still remain friends, their bass player Dave Koenig left soon after that time and was replaced by Victor Penalosa, who according to Rob, has made QA an even better band, adding to the harmonies and the songwriting efforts with Dom.
The album contains both older and newer material, since this is the first release they’ve completed since the band’s inception, including some songs that date back to the first four track recordings Rob did with his brother Dom years back. The band currently has another pack of songs already recorded, enough for second release, along with a number of others that they’ve written. “It would be great to release another record in less than a year after our first,” says Rob. “It’s gonna blow people away. The new songs are amazing. We already play a lot of them in our live show.”
One song that I am personally looking forward to when they play two dates at Larimer Lounge with BJM, Tuesday, July 19 and Wednesday, July 20, is “Too Much To Think About.” It’s the longest song on the album, clocking in at almost 12 minutes. The melodies, orchestrations, and wa-wa guitars could have easily fit into the soundtrack to Easy Rider or Apocalypse Now. As it progresses things shift slightly through the haze when alien, gurgling samples, heavy leather bass and delicate piano dance behind the transgression of the guitar journey.
With the help of Anton, it was the band’s goal to create the affect of World War III. And it’s just the kind of song that will fully hypnotize the Larimer concert goers as they gaze through the smoke at The Quarter After.
“Anton was around quite a bit during the recording of our record, helping out. About half the songs, he was the engineer in the control room while I was with the band playing guitar, because most of the record was recorded live. One of the over dubs we did do was on [that song] and Anton got out his echoplex. We just plugged guitars into it and manipulated the tape delay so it made all kinds of feedback and noise. I wanted it to sound really ominous, crazy, and huge – so when it finally drops away and the band comes down it’s like breathing a sigh of relief. Anton’s great at that kind of shit.”
Because of some scheduling mix ups, Penalosa will not be on the first leg of the tour and will in fact be replaced by their original bassist, Koenig. They also had to get another drummer, Joel Williams, to fill in for Nelson Bragg who is currently on tour with Brian Wilson.
During the end of our conversation we exchanged our admiration for other bands, along with Ride, and Rob let me know that through his studio he has actually come to work with Mark Gardner from Ride on some new acoustic material. We also chatted about how the whole concept of ‘if you build it, they will come,’ had led him full circle from the early days when he was merely a spectator at a little club in Signal Hill.
“I thought I was just a hack guitar player with a four track, and next thing I know I’ve got this great studio space with a bunch of cool gear and Sonic Boom is sitting next to me helping me produce my friends band! I just jammed with Dave Davies one time when he was looking for a new bass player. I knew I really wouldn’t be able to take the gig if offered, but I wanted the chance to jam Kinks songs with him. One of the coolest days of my life.”
I personally can’t wait for next week. All 10 songs on the debut have their own gem-like quality, from the ridin’ down the dirt road appeal of “Mirror to You,” the Haight Ashbury trek of “So Far to Fall” to “Taken” that has that hangin’-in-studio feel where you can almost picture the magic being born. I can only imagine what new recipes they’ve cooked up for the hungry music boys and girls to devour. I’m sure, as with the opening gig for Dead Meadow, this tour will give them another green light, but this time it will be to keep going and moving forward to their next album.