Gemma Dunleavy on her “everyday chat dressed as sonics” and the community injustice that spurs her on
No Age are back on the road. They're on the second stop of a tour that started off in Antwerp and will continue through the UK and Europe before moving to the States and back here again, all in support of their fourth and latest album 'An Object'. The rough No Age timeline starts when LA band Wives broke up and two of its members, Randy Randall and Dean Allen Spunt, decided to form a duo. Their history is also closely tied to The Smell, a local performance space and community hub that was regularly used by the band in their early years and was featured on the cover of their first album 'Weirdo Rippers'. That release was actually a stitching together of five separate EPs distributed through five independent labels on the same day in March 2007 and, as well as introducing the world to No Age's distinctive noise punk sound, showed something of their wider approach too. The story goes that they went on cement their style on the next full album 'Nouns' and master it on 2010's 'Everything in Between'. Now, after the longest gap between releases yet, you wonder where they'll go next.
I sit down with Spunt, the band's singer, drummer and sometimes bassist, in a Colombian cafe next door to Corsica Studios before their show and, whilst happy to joke a little about a deactivating coffee machine sounding like the start of a No Age song, he's firm in his thoughts and quickly puts down a simplistic notion of the band continuing the legacy of Californian punks that've gone before them, offering gangsta rap and G-funk as equally valid regional influences when I reference the Minutemen and Descendants. He seems to have distanced himself from the whole "LA DIY punk scene" thing that was mentioned a lot when they first broke through, though it seems more due to natural developments than a purposeful realignment. "We were definitely part of a feeling in our other band when we were starting No Age. The feeling now is very, I'm not exactly sure", he starts, pauses, then continues: "Music is so expansive I'm not entirely sure of it. The thing we were a part of was very organic and very real so seeing other people do similar things is very cool but, to me, I'm not at that age where I feel I need to get involved in it. So it's hard for me to see if we are relevant to LA."
"If you're physically making the record are you still an artist? Or could the label be the artist and you the manufacturer? Because you're taking out what their job is. Then all we're doing is promotion and, you think, who is really doing what?" – Dean Spunt (No Age)
Expansive is definitely the word, and in the time between now and their last album No Age have been busy working on a range of other projects, including soundtracking a performance art/multi-media installation by Doug Aitken and a MOCA exhibition by fashion designer and photographer Hedi Slimane. Spunt isn't sure if the link between these extra-curricular activities and their work as recording artists is conscious, but he thinks it definitely helps and it's clear that the band enjoy the challenges that working with new settings, people and processes offers them. Of course, there's also the freedom: "In a different setting – an art context or whatever – usually, we do what we want. Not exactly what we want but it would be in collaboration with the artist or our friend or whatever. A record is a fairly uniform setting with a similar amount of tracks." he explained.
'An Object' is precisely about dealing with the whole record-producing system, an album that was born from a desire to literally make a record themselves. As well as performing, recording and producing the album, the band designed (alongside frequent collaborator Brian Roettinger) and assembled the packaging for it too. The title, Spunt explains, is a play on the idea of both making a thing and offering a counterpoint, and the concept blurs the distinctions between producers and consumers in the music industry: "If you're physically making the record are you still an artist? Or could the label be the artist and you the manufacturer? Because you're taking out what their job is. Then all we're doing is promotion and, you think, who is really doing what?" So, where does he see No Age in the artist/manufacturer split? "Erm, somewhere everywhere," he replies. "We're artists manufacturing the art object then we're also creating the sound for it and we're making it for a specific purpose to be sold. So, we're making something that will be shipped around the world to record stores, but how many other products in there were actually made by hand by the artists?" Okay, what about someone who'll just buy the album as mp3 files on iTunes or whatever? "Well, that's just what it is. I mean, it's not something I'm forcing on anyone. It's more a process for me to work through to get to the point of writing a record, and also getting someone to think about the physicality of a record, and the system which the record exists: the function you and I have in this cycle: I make something and you buy it or listen to it. Maybe the artist can be the manufacturer and it's not just the same thing? Or the manufacturer the artist? Or the label? I don't know."
The concept behind the album is serious but left open, and the band seem happier to ask more questions than they can answer with it. It's the fullest expression of their holistic ethical approach yet, No Age being a band that tend to make statements through art and action rather than shouty sloganeering. You'd be hard pressed to identify a "political song" in their catalogue, but their wider practices – their strict veganism, operating without a manager, playing unorthodox venues – speaks to a passion for living as freely and fairly as they can. In an interview with Noisey last year about playing a concert protesting against the proposed (now confirmed) opening of a Walmart chain in LA's Chinatown, an area mostly populated by individual-owned mom and pop stores, the other half of No Age, guitarist Randy Randall, put it clearest: "The mass media has this idea that you're only supposed to be one thing, because multifaceted human beings aren't a good talking point. For us, we never wanted to make the art about the politics. Politics are an action, they're things you do. We live politics – it's a vegan diet and not driving a car, and who we vote for. All this just comes out of caring, but we also like to party. I don't think they're mutually exclusive."
"You can't really plan for the final outcome so you create and whatever the outcome – it's gonna be there no matter what" – Dean Spunt
It's also a good reason to get back in the studio. Spunt casually says that he wrote 'An Object' because he needed the music to go with along with the idea, but he is clearly confident about its content – calling it "better than anything we've done" – and the fresh thinking helped the band to find their voice again after three long years. Their last album 'Everything in Between' was a record with a lot of weight, a very personal collection of songs about fighting through tough times and making it out to the other side battered but hopeful – a feeling encapsulated in the penultimate track Shed and Transcend. It's unclear what they were saying goodbye to but they were definitely moving away from something, and Spunt says he needed a break after and it did take a while for him to get back into the process of writing.
That being said, making 'An Object' itself wasn't difficult and the band spent a productive three months in their LA warehouse space – one half reserved for practicing, the other for recording – crafting it. The first single C'mon Stimmung may have been surprisingly unsurprising but the I'm told that the track, which is built around a distorted and jagged sample that they stumbled upon accidentally, is actually meant to be a reversion to type. "Stimmung" is a German word that's difficult to translate but refers to an individual essence, a term that Spunt found reading Wassily Kadinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art rather than from the 1968 Karl Stockhausen piece – though he does note that the band are fans of the German composer. "I spent all this time thinking about deviating from things and that song came so naturally – it almost sounds like what a No Age song should sound like at this point. So to me it's like 'c'mon, stimmung!'” he says with an affected sigh: "You can't get away from this thing inside of you, even though you try." The rest of the album is quite different from C'mon Stimmung, with the band with stewing their stop/start slow/fast rough/smooth dynamic to its most delicate point and the lyrical content confidently moving between smart formalism and sharp, highly emotive narratives. The guitar work adapts throughout, contact microphones are frequently used for percussion (if there's any at all) and, symbolically, for only the second time in their history a third musician, cellist Isaac Tekeuchi, played on their record.
At its highest peaks – most notably the ballad An Impression – 'An Object' is No Age at their best, prizing raw intuition over perfection and experimental but applied. "You can't really plan for the final outcome so you create and whatever the outcome – it's gonna be there no matter what," Spunt says of both making and making the album. "If something's off or it's kind of messy that's all the better."
'An Object' was released by Sub Pop on August 20th 2013.