In recent years, with bands ransacking the '60s, '70s and '80s for musical ideas and sounds, it's becoming increasingly easy to dismiss many musicians as being little more than throwbacks mimicking their artistic ancestors. But some of those songwriters aren't just inspired by older music; they explore the possibilities inherent in those sounds, whether by infusing the music with modern sensibilities or warping it beyond easy recognition.
Best Coast does more of the former than the latter, and in its best material, you can hear the spirit of what went into the sound: the dark side of California filtered through Phil Spector and the Beach Boys, songs that wax into the melancholy side of yearning.
Singer and guitarist Bethany Cosentino started out in the L.A. DIY scene with the experimental act Pocahaunted. In 2008, she went out on her own and formed Best Coast with Bobb Bruno, and while this project has often been lumped in with the current surge of bands employing a lo-fi aesthetic, the music and Cosentino's vocals depart from the sunny, upbeat feel on the group's latest effort, Crazy for You, as evidenced by songs like "Goodbye," "When the Sun Don't Shine" and "Honey."
In advance of Best Coast's show tonight at the Bluebird, we spoke with the charming and refreshingly frank Cosentino about Pocahaunted, her approach to songwriting, and Best Coast's various drummers.
Westword: When did you first start playing rock music, and what got you into actually pursuing it?
Bethany Cosentino: My dad's a musician, so I grew up around music, and I started performing really early on as a kid. I did talent shows and musicals when I was in high school, and I was always involved in one way or another in performing. My dad bought me my first guitar when I was, I think, thirteen. It was like a Christmas gift from him.
I took guitar lessons, but I've never been one that was good at school or lessons of any sort. I'd show up to my lessons without having practiced my stuff. I don't know -- just because I grew up around it and it's something I did at such a young age, it felt natural to me.
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I started writing music when I was fifteen. I started writing songs and experimenting with songwriting, and that's really when I got the idea that this was something I could do without performing Christina Aguilera songs at talent shows for the rest of my life. So yeah, really, when I was a teenager, I was a big music fan, and as someone who had been performing her whole life, I thought, why not do my own thing?
Did your dad get you an electric guitar in the beginning, or an acoustic?
He bought me an electric at first and then an acoustic for maybe the next Christmas or for my birthday. He gave me a Danelectro, which is the guitar I used in the beginning of Best Coast. I buy my own guitars now, thankfully, but my dad was the one who handed it off to me and got me started.
When you were growing up in Los Angeles, did you get to see a lot of shows from underground bands, and was that at all an inspiration to you?
Yeah, I went to tons of shows. When I was in junior high and high school, all I did on the weekend was go to shows. I always had so much fun going to shows with my friends. We went to a lot of local places where you could pay five bucks to see some bands no one had heard about. It was something we did because we could smoke cigarettes and secretly drink beer.
It was just a fun kind of thing for us to do. I don't know that going to shows -- or starting going to shows early -- is really something that inspired me to become a musician or play music, but it was the one thing I did. Other kids would go to the mall on the weekend, and I would go to shows with my friends or go to house parties where there were bands playing.
How did you get into the kinds of sounds we hear in the music of Best Coast?
Really, my parents played a lot of music. When I was growing up, they played a lot of the music I listen to today. Both of my parents are big Steely Dan fans, Fleetwood Mac fans and Beach Boys fans. So I was exposed to the oldies, stuff I'm into now, through them. I discovered Phil Spector, because every Christmas we'd play the Home Alone soundtrack. The Crystals and Darlene Love have songs on there, and there were all kinds of Phil Spector-esque things going on on the soundtrack randomly.
There was a music store where I'm from called Tempo Music. Unfortunately, it went out of business. My friends and I would go there, and we would buy records and CDs, and we got into those Punk-O-Rama compilations -- that's what got me more into punk and pop punk, which is most of what I listened to in most of my teenage years.
I'm just someone who discovered music in my own kind of way, or a friend would tell me to go check out a band and I would. I used to go to Allmusic.com all the time in high school and find bands that I liked and bands that they were compared to, and I would get that band's record. I think it was my parents introducing me to all kinds of music and being a teenager and exploring what was out there.
How did you become involved with Pocahaunted?
I started that band with Amanda Brown four or five years ago. I've always been the kind of person in L.A. who was always friends with people in bands. I went to the Smell all the time, and I always wanted to be in a band, but I never really had a band. I'd fuck around with friends, but it was never anything serious. Amanda found out I was a songwriter and singer, and she asked if I would be interested in playing music with her.
I went over to her house, and we never had any specific intentions for Pocahaunted sounding the way that it sounded -- we just started playing music together. It was a completely different music than I was ever familiar with making. I had never listened to experimental music. I had never really listened to drone or noise or anything like that.
So it was definitely a different route for me. But it was interesting to explore a different side of myself, musically. It's something I did for a couple of years. People change and they move on, and that's pretty much what happened to me.
Crazy for You has kind of a sunny sound that fits the name of the band, and it has kind of a romantic feel to it -- in the sense of the artistic movement. Do you feel that plays any role in your songwriting?
Because I'm very inspired by girl groups and '50s pop music and '60s pop music, you listen to that stuff and it's all about love and romance and heartbreak. The word "baby" is used in almost every single song that came out of that. A lot of it had to do with being inspired by that and trying to mimic that sound in my own way.
I don't know. I'm inspired by the idea of writing about romance and writing about love. I think it's relatable thing. I think that when you write a record of songs that are all really about really loving somebody, or really caring about somebody, or somebody is driving you crazy because you can't figure out what the situation is... I think anybody can listen to a Best Coast song and can think, "Oh yeah, I've been there at one point in my life."
Some people say it's annoying and that it's trite and whatever, but it's kind of the intention. I really did intend to make a simple, straightforward record. I didn't want to write a crazy concept album, because that's not what I'm all about. I'm more about being straightforward and honest, so that's what I chose to do with the record.
You've had an interesting group of drummers play in your band during the course of its existence so far. How did you meet all of them, and how did you meet Ali Koehler?
I've known Jennifer Clavin forever because she was in Mika Miko. I grew up -- like I said -- going to the Smell, so I've known all those girls for years. When Best Coast started, we didn't have live drums in any of our recordings. Bobb Bruno was using a programmer, and he was using drum samples and playing everything on his drum pad, so everything was electronic. When we would play live shows, we would play to a backing track, which was sort of awkward and uncomfortable. For the kind of music we were making, we thought we should really have a live drummer.
When we went into the studio for the first time and recorded, Bobb played drums, and we loved how everything sounded with real drums. Then we thought, "Fuck! Now what do we do? We have to find someone to play drums!" We were playing a show at the Echoplex, which was our biggest show, and we knew we had to have a live drummer.
I knew that Jennifer knew how to play the drums, and our songs are easy enough that I thought that she could learn them quickly. She played drums with us for a couple of shows, and then she was sort of like, "I've got a bunch of other projects going on." And she was going to school and couldn't commit to it full-time, which was completely understandable. But we just wanted to have her involved in it a little bit.
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Adam Garcia was the drummer of a band that Bobb had played in for years, Imaad Wasif, and Adam was the drummer of that band. We took Adam on some tours, and he did South by Southwest with us. We couldn't seem to find someone who could commit to the touring schedule that Best Coast was getting. We tour almost nine months of the year.
We met Ali because we did a tour with the Vivian Girls, and Ali offered to play drums with for us on that tour. We were like, "Okay, yeah, sure, if you want to play drums twice in one night, why the fuck not?" We really loved her and got along with her really well. We went to Europe, and Adam couldn't do that tour, so we asked Ali because the Vivian Girls were taking a break from touring. Then she decided she really loved playing with us.
The Vivian Girls were taking some time off, and Ali didn't want to take time off -- I don't know why, because taking time off is great. But she really wanted to keep playing, and we were honored to have her join our band and start playing with us. There's no sort of weird tension between us and the Vivian Girls because of it. It's just a decision that Ali made on her own, and we were more than welcoming of her.