Dean Spunt of No Age on the importance of DIY
No Age (due tonight at The Bluebird Theater) isn't a band that has hit the mainstream yet, but it has enjoyed an unexpected rise to prominence as a noisy pop band, making art grounded in notion of doing things your own way -- regardless of whether or not it's met with the stamp of approval of mainstream society.
It's rebellion without violence. Punk attitude and spirit without strict aesthetics and narrow political stances to go along with it. Coming out of the Los Angeles underground scene of the late '90s and early '00s, Randy Randall and Dean Spunt were in the highly regarded, experimental hardcore band Wives. But when that band parted ways mid-decade, Randall and Spunt formed the more accessible but just as wonderfully offbeat No Age.
From the beginning, No Age tapped the national DIY circuit to play in basements, warehouses, art galleries and other off-the-beaten path spaces, where most of the groundbreaking music of the last few decades got off the ground and, oftentimes, stayed.
In May 2008, No Age was featured prominently in a series of interviews on MTV2, including a part in a documentary called Lo-Fi Rockers Revel in Poverty - For Punk's Sake, which featured similar-minded, but sonically disparate artists like Tyvek, Times New Viking, Psychedelic Horseshit and Jay Reatard -- undoubtedly introducing any young people paying attention to music far outside vapid radio hits.
By that time, No Age had already signed to Sub Pop, which released the duo's latest album, Everything In Between. We recently spoke with the sharp, thoughtful and refreshingly idealistic Spunt at length about the pervasive importance of DIY in his life, as well as the lives of anyone who has been touched by that decentralized, yet significant phenomenon in the world of music since the first wave of the punk era.
Westword: How did you get involved in the DIY music scene in Los Angeles and come to play a place like The Smell, and what are the most important things you learned being a part of that?
Dean Spunt: I started going to shows, like what I'd call punk shows, independent shows at spaces like The PCH Club, and this place called The Pickle Patch and The Smell around 1996. I was fifteen or sixteen, and I started becoming aware that there were punk bands that toured. Up to that point, punk was older stuff that I'd found out about -- stuff from the '80s that people would make tapes of and mail order things. I'd find out about these clubs and see these hardcore bands, punk bands, weird bands. It kind of opened my eyes to a new scene and another world.
I got pretty into it, but it wasn't until I started going to The Smell more that it caught my interests more than other places. PCH Club was for hardcore kids, The Pickle Patch was for emo/hardcore kids -- a specific subgenre. The Smell was just fucking weirdos. I'd see a free jazz band and then I'd see a punk band and then I'd see a solo noise guy. For me, it was really eye-opening.
There was no connecting musical tie but what synched up in my mind is that it was about DIY. That's what punk is. It's not a scene, it's not hairstyle, it's not a certain chord. It's people who do stuff themselves and make art. It seemed more fulfilling to me to have a bigger artistic palette. I started booking my own shows and The Smell became the basis for my music and business practices -- that was the way it was done. It was a big influence.
Obviously, you know Josh Taylor from Denver, then?
Oh, man, Josh Taylor works. He helps me run my record label now. He's incredible and so is Amy [Fantastic].
I've seen Wives described as a hardcore band, but most people who are into hardcore probably wouldn't think of it that way. What inspired the music you did in Wives and when you started No Age, and how did you change your approach to making music?
Hardcore kids didn't like it. Arty kids thought it was too dumb. Our band is now described as lo-fi. In Wives, it was a lot of reaction to what we were angry about. We were trying to make the noise in our heads. When the Wives started, The Smell wasn't what it became. It wasn't young kids' bands playing. It was a scene for older, avant-garde musicians.
I took a big liking to it. I had to convince one of our old bandmates to play there because it was too arty and weird. We just tried to make noise and really aggressive music, not thinking about song structure so much as sort of just blasting you. The energy of hardcore but not the music so much.
With No Age we wanted to write songs, but we wanted to employ a stripped down sensibility. In Wives, I played guitar sometimes, and I played bass, but in this band, it's sort of anti- the other band. The drummer in Wives was aggressive and heavy. I was like, "I want to play drums because I don't know how to fuckin' play." I wanted it to be really stripped down. I like the struggle and learning things.
We wanted to write songs and work within our limitations and really use the stripped down approach to confine ourselves almost so we had to work hard to get out of it. Like not having enough low end, or not really knowing how to play drums or sing. But we had fun figuring that out.
When you were first came to Colorado on tour either with Wives and/or with No Age, how did you find out that a place like Monkey Mania or Rhinoceropolis existed in a place like Denver?
That was just through the DIY network. I used to book all the shows in Wives, and I used to talk to Josh Taylor over the phone. I think it might have been someone from Black Dice or someone from a band called Daughters that were from Providence, Rhode Island, a long time ago. It might have been Ben from Load Records.
I'd have a lot of people that would be like, "Yo, there are DIY people who book shows," that knew about that kind of circuit. How it's all house shows, warehouses, basement shows -- all the stuff that's like, "Hey man, we're cool. You know me from another guy. Let's book a show. Let's just charge five bucks. Let's just do it."
When Wives was going in the early 2000s, Denver was the spot because of Josh and Amy and all those kids. It was amazing. Before we went on tour, I had a place in L.A. that was like that except ours was a squat, and it lasted maybe a year. It was called Decore because it was on top of this furniture store.
When The Smell closed down briefly, because it wasn't up to fire code, we moved all the shows to my house. That was in about 2002. I was still a kid. "Sure, Wolf Eyes can play here. Sure Joan of Arc can play here!" That's how we met these people and how we stayed friends with these people. People who really care about that. Josh still cares about that, and we still care about that.
I saw Friends Forever at The Smell the first time, and they drove their car into The Smell and played, and it was, "What the fuck! You guys are so crazy." But that was The Smell. You could go there, and you'd see something that could totally blow your mind, and it wasn't always something you had previously thought was music or art or whatever. The thing that connected it was DIY.
The Wives played so many places, so many places that aren't around anymore, little warehouses that would pop up all around, a bunch of kids living there. That's the lifeline. That's what popular culture steals and tries to re-sell us. That's why I think keeping such a special thing... you cannot make it a formula and sell it to someone. It's just so real.
It's something that can't exist unless people's hearts are in it. I like the idea of showing people that. That's why we don't fret at being a little mainstream in that world. We can flirt with that end of the fence, because at the end of the day, our heart lives in the DIY community. I really, truly, want to show people that there's a different way to do things and a different way to live, and you don't have to, you know, fucking listen to Three Doors Down.
A couple of years ago MTV2 put together an odd short documentary called Lo-Fi Rockers Revel in Poverty - For Punk's Sake that featured you and some other bands as "lo-fi punk," and you did that interview with John Norris. Do you care about being dubbed with a specific genre of music and lumped in with those other bands?
Was it Deerhunter and stuff? I love Deerhunter, they're old friends of ours. I don't know, we're not a lo-fi band. We just listen to the songs, and they tell us what they should sound like. You have a certain idea what a song should sound like. If a certain song sounds like a boom box, another sounds like a hi-fi '70s thing. I don't like the labeling thing. I think that's just journalist stuff for people to communicate.
MTV doesn't know what's going on. But it helps a kid. If the kids really care, if they saw that thing, they're going to know it's bullshit, and eventually, they're going to pick through it and go, "Oh, that's Deerhunter. Oh, that's No Age. That's how I got into that."
Me and Randy had big discussions about that before. When we signed to Sub Pop, all of that stuff was really new to us, and we were like, "How far down this rabbit hole do we want to go?" You know, how much do we want to flirt? Do we want to start dating this world?
When you started putting out records on Sub Pop, did you get a lot of grief from the DIY community? Clearly you still have strong ties to the underground and that should speak for itself, but it doesn't always do so.
No, no. Generally, friends are really excited. I think we had a big discussion of the impact MTV had on both of us when we were younger. I remember the first time hearing about Hüsker Dü on MTV. They were doing a news thing on Sugar for about a minute. I was in eighth grade or something. They played about four seconds of a Hüsker Dü song and to me, it sounded like the best thing I'd ever heard. Immediately, I went and bought the Sugar record and liked it a lot. Then I figured out Hüsker Dü and lost my mind.
For Everything In Between, you have some interesting artwork. Did you give Brian Roettinger any direction on the design or did he tell you what he had in mind when he gave you the artwork?
We've always worked together as a trio, me, Randy and Brian. We came up with a bunch of different covers we had talked about. We did a bunch of times and scanned it in about thirty times, and the first one was the best. For the layout, we figured out the concept and the cover image together. I remember thinking it was really funny that we should have an AIM conversation on the LP.
"Positive Amputation" is an instrumental track. What inspired the title to that song?
That's a Randy title. We were talking about how a big concept for our band early on was, "get hurt." The idea's that to recover, you have to get hurt. That pain and looking at hurt and loss is a positive thing -- not necessarily asking for it or being grateful but sort of that idea. "Please, destroy my life, so I can come out of it and learn a lesson." I think it falls in line with that. That's a big theme for us -- it comes up for us often.
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