Unlike so many L.A. musicians, Gold Star's Marlon Rabenreither actually grew up in L.A., inoculated from infancy against everything they tell the tourists about Hollywood: "You see through it all," he smiles. Instead, he writes like the star of his own high-concept noir, a man pursuing the truth toward places in the city -- and in himself -- where few care or dare to go. On Big Blue, he matches an unsparing sense of punk-verite -- think X's Los Angeles or More Fun In The New World -- to Neil Young's dark-was-the-night guitar desolation and Leonard Cohen's deep and resonant detail for an album that feels like a much-loved cult movie and reveals itself as a fearlessly heartbroke-but-honest autobiography. Like he says on the first track: "Whoever you are / come with me."
He's been building Big Blue for years -- well, actually, he's been dismantling everything standing in the way of Big Blue for years, teaching himself to fight distraction and self-doubt. At first he was scared, hiding his voice and guitar behind waves of reverb and echo -- "That's how you deal with putting yourself on the line," he explains -- but he was steeling himself to really be himself. On his previous album as Gold Star, 2015's Dark Days, he cut through the camouflage, and on Big Blue, he peels it all away. Now it's a meticulous and unsparing L.A. album about leaving and loving and living in a place that never quite gets its say, with songs and stories from the backalleys and surface streets where the weight of decades -- Depression L.A., wartime L.A., rock 'n' roll L.A., pop art L.A., punk L.A. and more -- presses against you as soon as you step out of your car.
Big Blue is named after Rabenreither's grand old shipwreck of a Hollywood Craftsman built in 1909 that somehow still survives -- a California cousin of the Band's Big Pink. The freeway cuts through what was once the backyard, stray chickens strut across the street and loose cats curl up on cars in the driveway to get warm after it rains. He'd found in the house a center of gravity -- maybe a sympathetic character -- that could gather his experiences into stories, and make his stories into songs. He'd watch and write constantly, he says: "It's like setting a dinner table," he explains. "You want to be ready when the guests show up -- when you have an idea! If you're not writing ritually and habitually, you'll be unprepared."
Last October, he was ready. He'd tacked up blankets at strategic sonic points in his cavernous wood-beamed living room, recruited old friends to back his songs and rented the best musical equipment he could get -- but it had to go back in three days. That meant no going back on the sessions, not when the homebuilt recording set up meant vocals and the drums and the sound of the room itself were all dissolving into each other on the takes: "You either have it or you don't," he says. "But when the music is simple, that works."
So no autotune, no orchestral overdubs, no easy clichés or repeated tweaks that squeeze the life out, of course. He produced it himself, so he cut every song as close to its core as he could. Like Fante and Bukowski -- L.A. writers he admires, and whose neighborhoods he knows well -- he stripped out everything but what he meant. If he was scared of the truth in the true story he was telling, he knew he was telling it right: "Anything you see truly is universal in way," he says. "And anything honest is, in a way, real for everyone."
That's Leonard Cohen, of course -- Dylan, too, of course -- but also writers like Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler, whose L.A. dramas were so detailed you can still visit the intersections and office buildings he wrote about. And that's Big Blue, as Rabenreither goes to a house in the canyons and meets someone with a knife strapped to their knee, or takes a trip to London and spends the night with his not-quite-lover in a cemetery, or watches a woman watching him as his train leaves her behind forever. On "Sonny's Blues," a nod to James Baldwin's immortal short story, Rabenreither fights to find the right kind of light in a sweet-but-sad piece of country soul, and on "It Ain't Easy," he introduces the Band to Lou Reed for a song about waiting for a man with something you truly can't live without.
Across Big Blue are flashes of Elliott Smith, or of Wilco's most intimate moments (with maybe a wink at their Sky Blue Sky on Gold Star's "Blue Sky To Blue Sky") or pedal steel from the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo or the dreamstate guitar of Mazzy Star's David Roback, too; if this album is one long night drive, which it sometimes feels like, then those are the stars that light up Big Blue's Hollywood. And on final song "The Strangler," a wounded Dylan-style dirge about how it's hard to leave and maybe harder to be left, that ride and that story both end like every good noir must, with a quick fade to black and a final line that echoes on even when the music stops: "It wasn't til last night / It finally it happened to me," sings Rabenreither. "It finally caught up to me."
How far would you go to be with the one you love? And what would be enough to tear you apart?
These are the questions that led Nico Yaryan down the long, arduous, but beautiful road that would ultimately lead to his debut album, What a Tease. Rife with both celebrations of and elegies for his star-crossed romance, Tease introduces Yaryan as a new voice, one that has arrived only to deliver an uncomplicated tale of complicated transcontinental love.
Before all of this, Yaryan began as the son of Northern California hippies, a creative kid who cut his musical teeth on drums and midi samplers, digging through dollar-record bins and dreaming of producing hip-hop beats worthy of his idols, like J Dilla and DJ Premier. He would pass a few cavalier years of adolescence and early adulthood (as he tells it) “sort of sidetracked, working retail jobs, and skateboarding, and riding bikes, and drinking, and being a kid.” But that changed the day Hanni El Khatib, a close friend from high school, came looking for a tour drummer.
“I didn’t have a drum set, and I wasn’t playing actively at all,” the 32-year-old remembers on a sunny afternoon, at a park not far from his now-home in Los Angeles. “But I was really stoked on what he was doing, and I was looking for the next thing. I always wanted to do music, I just didn't know what anymore. The lane I had been in...I didn't feel connected to it.”
So he put his things in storage and set off, traveling the world with El Khatib and his bandmates for close to two years, not knowing that the experience would bring into his world two of his greatest loves. The first was the guitar, an instrument he’d been too intimidated to learn as a teenager but now could practice, eventually beginning to record his own music until, at last, he outgrew the touring gig.
“After a while, it wasn't really doing much for me,” he says. “I wasn't creating, I wasn't contributing. It was always Hanni’s thing, which is great — it was a good job! — but it wasn’t mine.”
The second, of course, was an unlikely romance that would change everything. A student from Amsterdam, she and Yaryan met through mutual friends as Yaryan toured through the Dutch city; they stayed in touch in the months that followed, and when he finally parted ways with the band, he decided to take a chance from which most would shy away: he returned to Amsterdam, and stayed for a month — at first.
“We fell in love,” he says. “We were like, this seems really good, and I didn’t want to leave, but I had to leave. So I went home.”
But not for long — back in Los Angeles, Yaryan immediately looked for work to fund a return to Amsterdam, but his experience had only been in retail, an industry that doesn’t take kindly to inconsistent schedules. He needed money that would bring him back.
“So I got a job at a pot farm.”
With a handful of coworkers, Yaryan spent the better part of the next year, on and off, camping alone and trimming at a grow operation in Humboldt County, where marijuana farms are as plentiful as Sonoma’s wineries.
“I would do it for one month, and then I’d go back to Amsterdam for another month,” he explains. “Then I’d come back and I’d do it again; then I went back to her again."
The work was simple enough, but during those month-long stretches out in the woods, each solely funding the next plane ticket, and then the next, Yaryan was isolated, without any communication with the outside world and longing for a woman thousands of miles away. It was ideal work for someone whose heart already lies just out of reach.
Meanwhile, as their relationship unfolded in the face of geographical (and financial) adversity, so did – in between weed-clipping shifts, in a new home in Los Angeles, on overseas flights – the songs that would become What a Tease. Opening with the tattered allegory of “Old Gloria” and the lonely masochism of “You Belong to Me,” the record lets more than a little darkness surface: the agony of watching yourself fuck up a good thing became “Just Tell Me”; the shifting nature of success informed “Dreamers”; mistrusting the nature of his love led Nico to “Witch Love.” But throughout, there’s an undercurrent of perseverance and determined tenderness, songs like the cavernous “Infinity” and, perhaps especially, album-closers “Your Love Never Lets Me Down” and “I’ll Stay With You When You Die.”
Though the hills and valleys of their often-long-distance romance might have brought endless complications, however, Yaryan is quick to reassure: Tease’s songs themselves are anything but byzantine.
“What’s that saying? ‘Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do’?” he says, recalling Mark Twain’s classic salute to literary economy. “It's more interesting to me to work with heavy ideas or concepts that can mean a lot of different things, but try to make them as simple and memorable as possible.”
So what happened next? you ask. Did they make it work? The more important question, perhaps, is whether you, too, would have the guts to try.