Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Owl's Jason Achilles Mezilis, Chris Wyse and Dan Dinsmore at Canyon Country Store

At Canyon Country Store
2108 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Los Angeles (Laurel Canyon)

“There’s this store where the creatures meet. I wonder what they do in there.” —The Doors, “Love Street”

If you have never heard of the Canyon Country Store and its role in the development of Laurel Canyon as both a residential community and musical scene, you’re probably wondering why the L.A./N.Y. band Owl chose the market as their favorite place in the city, let alone why Jim Morrison would immortalize it in a Doors song.

Owl frontman Chris Wyse had little knowledge of the area’s rich musical history when he first arrived in Los Angeles but continually found himself drawn to Laurel Canyon.

“I grew up in New York, met Dan [Dinsmore, Owl’s drummer] during our high school years and moved to L.A. about 19 years ago. It was culture shock, but there was just something about the vibe here in Laurel Canyon that was always calling me,” shares the band’s lead vocalist and bassist. “Then I found out the Doors, one of my earliest influences, lived here in addition to Frank Zappa, and Jimi Hendrix spent time here. It was like, ‘Ohh,’ and now this is home base.” 

Located just a few minutes from the glamour, neon signs and seedy underbelly of the Sunset Strip lies the neighborhood that separates Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley and is peppered with gorgeous oak trees, huge mansions, equally as expensive rustic cottages and a single market, the Canyon Country Store. First opened as as inn in the early 1900s known as the Bungalow Lodge, which burned down in 1929 and became a grocery store that eventually added a deli, coffee counter and evolved into the Canyon Country Store. 

The market has remained at the center of a community that came to be known as not only a hub of the hippie/flower child movement in the mid-1960s but the place where folk and psychedelic rock merged and formed a completely new sound. Laurel Canyon residents like Zappa, Three Dog Night and Joni Mitchell – who named her Ladies of the Canyon album for the neighborhood and whose home on Lookout Mountain Avenue was the inspiration for Graham Nash’s “Our House” – have all performed within Canyon Country Store’s walls. Cass Elliot lived in its basement for a time, and her bandmate John Phillips wrote the Mamas & the Papas’ “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” about the area. Jackson Browne, Carole King, James Taylor, Nash, Stephen Stills and David Crosby have all stepped through its doors.

Perhaps the store’s most frequent customer, however, was Morrison, and for a simple reason. Owl guitarist Jason Achilles Mezilis says that the Doors frontman lived just a few steps away at 8021 Rothdell Trail (aka “Love Street”) with Pamela Courson.

“A lot of people say there’s no culture in L.A. because it’s so young, but so much has happened here in such a short time. [Canyon Country Store] is one of those tiny epicenters where so much has happened around one spot. When our band had to pick a place for this interview, we said, ‘No-brainer, we’re coming here,” says Jason, who lives in nearby Studio City. “I’ve been friends with Chris for a long time, and before I became a part of Owl we would go for hikes in the hills here. He would tell me all about this drummer, Dan. The band came together in this area.”

“This is definitely home,” says Chris, who is warmly greeted by and becomes immersed in conversation with several of the Canyon Country Store’s staff. “If I want to go out for a nice meal, I often grab a bite at the restaurant downstairs [Pace Restaurant].” 

“Eight years ago when I started coming out to L.A. more and staying with Chris, every morning I would come to the Country Store,” adds Dan, who still lives in New York. “It just has a really unique, special vibe here.”

That’s the second time Owl has mentioned the area’s vibe. Being open to and aware of all of the things that aren’t tangible elements to a place or circumstance ties directly into the title of the trio’s third album, Things You Can’t See, which released this week. The band chose to record the album at a location full of such things, Dan’s Overit Studios, formerly an old Catholic church in Albany, N.Y.

“The place certainly has a lot of tradition, history – both good and bad. All the different types of feelings and vibes within its walls create an atmosphere,” Dan describes. “That’s really what we set out to do with our music: create a culture that’s interesting and creative.”

Unlike their previous releases, 2010’s Owl and 2013’s The Right Thing, Things You Can’t See was created entirely by jamming in the studio, a process that was challenging yet had its thrilling moments of creative excitement.

“There were several of those moments when we were recording the basic tracks,” Dan tells. “I remember listening back to ‘Things You Can’t See,’ and it just hit in such a way, it felt so right. It was: “Holy shit, man. This is sick.”

“Since it wasn’t written, it just developed in front of our eyes, it was exciting,” adds Chris. 

“A lot of times when you hear the vocal getting put on the chorus, you’re like, ‘OK, there it is. That’s a song.’ There were moments like that. It was cool because we didn’t know what the melody was going to be on the chorus, but when it finally gets figured out and you hear it, it’s almost like you’re hearing it for the first time even though you’ve been working on it for a long time,” reflects Jason.

“The band is so musical and we have such focus on musicality, but with this album I am very proud of the lyrical content that Chris is moving into,” Dan confesses. “There are certain lines that really have heavy impact and can speak to anyone. Chris is writing killer lyrics.”

Chris is continually growing in his role as frontman, and while many would think that the first creative love for the former Cult bassist and current bassist of the Ace Frehley Band was the bass, it was actually something else completely.

“I always drew when I was younger; I thought I was going to be an artist. Comic books were the norm when I was kid as opposed to an iPad,” he grins. “The natural progression from comic books was to KISS and things in the fantasy realm; KISS were superhero rock stars! I did write little stories; I’ve always had that creativity in me. I sang in Catholic school choirs long before I touched a bass, so I had a sense of pitch and melody long before I started. The bass for me, though, was the spark that made me want to play an instrument, especially Steve Harris from Iron Maiden.”

For Dan, learning the drums was therapy.

“My father had passed away when I was 12, and that’s when I started playing. There was a record by the Jackson 5, Goin’ Back to Indiana, with some live tracks. I started playing that, and then all sorts of stuff – the Cars, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin,” he remembers. “It was very diverse: a lot of Motown then a lot of hard rock, rock ’n’ roll. It was all powerful and groove oriented.”

After meeting Chris at around age 16, they began playing music together, forming bands such as East Wall.

“When we were in our first band, Chris would actually teach the singer how to sing. Looking back it’s kind of funny because he was a better singer at that time than our actual singers,” he laughs. “I went back and watched a video clip of when we were 17 the other day, and it was ridiculous how crazy insane we were. We rehearsed every day, it’s all we did.”

“We were competitive, too. We had to win all of the battle of the bands,” Chris chimes in. “We went to see every concert we could, and we used to flyer, hand stuff out to people as they were coming out of concerts or run into the parking lot and put them on car windshields. We did it organically. Now we do it like this [mimics typing on a computer keyboard].”

While Chris eventually pursued music in Los Angeles, Dan continued to play in Upstate New York with the Clay People, but the two would eventually reunite through a mutual acquaintance, reconnect musically and begin Owl in 2009.

“It was a kind of perceived thing with us, we’ve always connected musically. People talk about that musical connection, it’s a real thing,” offers Dan.

On the opposite side of the country, Jason was soaking in all kinds of music as an usher at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif.

“I worked there for seven-and-a-half years and saw every tour that came through. I’ve seen almost every band in existence. It was awesome,” he says. “But I remember my first concert ever was the Bangles at Great America when I was 15. I had a cast on my leg, so I was on crutches standing on a bench in the last row – technically the worst way you could possibly experience a first concert, but to me, it was magical. I got into rock ’n’ roll late, so by the time I found it, it was this whole magical world.”

Even though Jason had been friends with Chris for quite a few years after both had relocated to Los Angeles, it was still a bit daunting to come into a band where the only other members had been buddies since childhood.

“They have this unspoken East Coast thing to them, even though Chris has been here for a long time, he’s still an East Coast guy,” Jason says. “It took a couple of years before I would say—“

“You were always ducking from equipment being thrown at your head,” interrupts Dan with a chuckle.

“Oh yeah, it was a pain in the ass,” Jason laughs. “In the beginning I had to find a way to assert myself and figure out what my place was in this whole thing, but now it’s a three-legged table.” 

“Everyone really counts in a trio because if one guy isn’t really psyched, it’s going to suck,” Chris says. “I may spearhead it all, I say I produced the new album, but in a certain sense really all of us did. This is a long-standing, real band, as opposed to a project, and happens to be more of a genuine article than most bands out there.”

“From the beginning this band was always about serving Chris’ vision. He had a sound that he wanted to find, and then as we developed over time our influences became more heard in it,” adds Jason. “But it’s always been and will continue to be about that because he’s had this in his head forever. It grows, trust grows, it opens up and the sound develops with that.”

From Things You Can’t See’s powerful first single, “Who’s Gonna Save You Now,” and thundering title track to the darker “Lake Ego” and melodic closer, “Alive (Acoustic),” Owl’s three members certainly have something to be proud of in this album.

“You can tell there are some very complex things going on in the songs, but it doesn’t get to the point where it’s something that you can’t still feel, dance or relate to,” sums up Dan. “We try to keep it digestible for a listener, that’s something we’ve come to do fairly well. It’s prog-y without being too prog-y.”

“That ties in with the Doors. Ray Manzarek is my favorite piano player in rock ’n’ roll. There’s a complexity to their stuff, but you’re never thinking about that when you’re listening to it. You’re taken in by the atmosphere, the power or the energy,” says Jason. “That’s something we definitely try and do in this band, capture you with the energy but without sacrificing any of the musicality in the process.”

“I always take that kind of stuff as a compliment because if I throw a riff out like that I’m not trying to be all smart about it,” concludes Chris. “It’s really just meant to be a tribal, cool, rock riff from a listener’s point of view, easy to listen to. When you go underneath, you figure out there’s more to it, another layer. It comes across pretty straightforward, but you can underestimate it.”

The three dedicated musicians of Owl should never be underestimated, just like their favorite place in Los Angeles. Sometimes a trio can create a song as layered and complex as an entire orchestra could, and sometimes a tiny corner store can come to represent an entire musical era.

Things You Can’t See is currently available. For more information, visit

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Go Betty Go

Michelle Rangel, Betty Cisneros, Aixa Vilar and Nicolette Vilar of Go Betty Go at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Glendale


At Forest Lawn Memorial Park
1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale (800) 204-3131

While most people typically don’t choose to spend their free time hanging out in a cemetery, Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale isn’t your average burial ground. With its picturesque stone chapels, rolling green hills and sweeping views of the city, Forest Lawn is a peaceful haven for those visiting a loved one’s grave, as well as any Angeleno looking for a moment away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The four founding members of Los Angeles-based punk band Go Betty Go couldn’t have picked a more fitting location to talk about the group’s renaissance and their new EP, Reboot, which is set for release on Jan. 27.

“We literally grew up down the street from here,” drummer Aixa Villar tells me before recounting some of Forest Lawn’s history. “Its main founder [Dr. Hubert Eaton] wanted it to be more of a park than cemetery, that’s why the grave markers are all embedded in the ground and not sticking up like most tombstones. He wanted people to focus on the trees and landscape instead.”

I’ve lived just a few miles away from the cemetery for years but never visited. I had no idea that the huge white building atop its highest hill had such an interesting history, one that Aixa is eager to share. Polish painter Jan Styka created a panorama (measuring 45 feet tall and 195 feet long) detailing the moments before Jesus’ crucifixion and brought the piece to America for the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. However, The Crucifixion was seized by airport officials since Styka lacked the proper customs documents, and the artist was forced to return home. He never saw the painting again, and it languished in the basement of the Chicago Civic Opera Company until Eaton found and acquired it in 1944. He began the construction of Forest Lawn’s Hall of the Crucifixion to house the enormous work, and it remains there today where the public can view it every hour, along with a light show and film documenting its history.

“Whenever people from out of town visit, I like to bring them here as a tourist spot because of the art [in the Hall of the Crucifixion], as well as the museum next door where the exhibits are always changing,” Aixa says. “I can also show them the building where Michael Jackson rests and Walt Disney’s secret tomb. We grew up hearing that Walt Disney was frozen with cryogenics, but it’s not true. His family keeps his plot area quite secret. There are trees and a little garden in front of a plaque on the wall with his name on it. A lot of other classic Hollywood actors are here, too.” 

Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow are just a few of the famous names many would recognize. Yet, the most special resident of Forest Lawn for the Go Betty Go foursome isn’t a celebrity at all.

“This place is symbolic for me in particular because when I left the band years had gone by, and the only time after that when I saw everybody again was when Betty’s dad died,” shares the band’s lead vocalist, Nicolette Vilar, who is also Aixa’s younger sister. “His funeral, which happened right over there, brought us all back together.”

“It was like a reunion,” adds guitarist Betty Cisneros. “I come here a lot to visit him. It’s so pretty and chill. I bring a guitar and just sit.”

“It’s not a scary cemetery at all,” agrees bassist Michelle Rangel.

“It’s so peaceful, and since it’s on top of the hill, the views are beautiful,” says Aixa.

The museum that Aixa mentions has showcased art from Matisse, Rembrandt and Goya, in addition to a contemporary exhibit of pieces made entirely of Legos and one highlighting the art of motorcycles. There are also several gorgeous stained-glass masterpieces and full-size reproductions of Michelangelo’s David and Moses sculptures. 

The cemetery really does inspire you to savor all life has to offer in nature, art and culture, and these are also the things that Go Betty Go loves most about the city they call home.

“The weather is the best,” says Nicolette. “It’s like your mother’s womb – so warm, cozy and familiar. I also love to see the way that people dress, the different fashions all together”

“I like the nature aspect of it, the beautiful parks, mountains and the ocean. You can be outdoors and enjoy it all,” offers Aixa. “I love how the city is so eclectic, its many cultures. We’ve been to places where it’s like the town from Children of the Corn, where there’s no cultural diversity, but Los Angeles is a melting pot of everything you could want.”

Michelle continues, “If you feel like having Thai food, Indian food, Ethiopian food—”

“I want a coconut water right now, and ta da,” exclaims Nicolette.

“You can have a fresh coconut,” Michelle finishes.

When hunger does strike the group, they head to places like Golden Road or any place that has good Thai food or tacos. They also enjoy checking out new music and bands at local venues.

“I go to the Echo a lot because it’s in the middle of where there’s a lot of musical things happening. It seems like I’m always surprised by groups that I’ve never seen before there,” admits Nicolette. ”It’s very welcoming because it’s easy to park, I know the neighborhood, half the time it’s free and you know you’re supporting a band that’s working really hard.”

“I judge places by their parking, so if I can’t find parking I just take off,” laughs Betty. ”One place that I do like to go is the Troubadour; I always find good parking there. Their sound is really good so I’m able to enjoy the bands, and when we play there it’s great.”

Although Nicolette and Aixa grew up just two blocks away from Betty in Glendale, they never knew her until after graduating high school.

“We went to the same elementary, junior high and high school. We knew of her, but didn’t know her,” explains Nicolette.

“I still remember how they dressed; their styles were totally different from mine,” Betty giggles. “Nicolette was very ’50s, and Aixa was more grungy.”

While the Vilar sisters’ dad had filled their home with music, the girls began discovering their own musical tastes and capabilities together around that time. 

“Our age gap is only a year and a half. We were both super into music, and picking it up came naturally,” says Aixa.

“Aixa started getting into the drums really early. The first show that I ever went to was her playing in a punk band in a basement underneath a church,” Nicolette remembers.

Meanwhile, Betty’s first encounter with a guitar was actually not of her choosing.

“It was eighth grade, and I had to pick an elective. I wanted home economics because I thought I wanted to be a chef, but I had to take music instead. I wanted to play drums, but there was a boy already on it. They had acoustic guitar open, so I bought a guitar and then was kicked out two weeks into the class because I was tardy,” she recalls, and everyone busts out laughing. “But, I still had the guitar, so I learned a couple of chords and would play along to commercials.”

Like the Vilars, Michelle was immersed in music from a young age, growing up in South Los Angeles. 

“I went to a performing arts magnet so I was always around music,” she says. “I played the flute from elementary to high school. In ninth grade I learned to play some guitar, then I picked up the upright bass and played it in orchestra. I eventually ended up playing electric and met the girls.”

“And history was made,” chimes in Nicolette.

They formed Go Betty Go in 2001, taking the name from the chant they would use to get Betty to begin a song. Their fiery energy caught the attention of SideOneDummy, and the label released their debut EP, Worst Enemy, in 2004 and album, Nothing Is More, the following year – both produced by Flogging Molly’s original guitarist Ted Hutt (the Gaslight Anthem, Mighty Mighty Bosstones). The quartet toured across the nation on Vans Warped Tour, just like their musical heroes, No Doubt.

“I watched the VHS tape of No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom Tour from 1997 until it broke,” confesses Betty. “It was so good, and they were so cool. I wanted to be up there!”

“When Tragic Kingdom came out it was a big influence on me. Then when I saw them live I thought, ‘Wow, what a great show. I would love to do that,” Aixa remembers. “As a female artist it was very influential seeing a punk rock chick like Gwen be so cool.”

In the subsequent couple of years after the debut of their two releases, Nicolette and then Michelle parted ways with the band, and Emily Wynne-Hughes and Phil Beckman filled in the gaps. Even though several years had passed, when the original members of Go Betty Go reunited on stage in 2012 that fire was still as combustible as ever.

“The show was already booked. It was just a matter of Aixa talking to Nicolette, and Nicolette talking to Michelle,” begins Betty.

“You must have been surprised when I called you,” Nicolette says to Michelle. “I had visited you just to say hi a little before that, though.”

“I think it was a year before that, when the whole ‘American Idol’ thing [Wynne-Hughes was briefly a contestant on the show.] was going on because I remember talking about it, as well as about things that had bugged us when we were in the band,” replies Michelle.

“Well, I told Aixa things, too” jokes Betty, and everyone laughs.

“Then Nicolette called one day and asked me to play a song with them. I had been so out of touch with the band, but I decided I should just do it for fun,” Michelle continues. “I was playing with another band at the time—”

“But we were slowly sneaking her back in with us,” laughs Aixa.

“They went on to do their own thing, composing for a film and I was able to do more things with Go Betty Go, so it all worked out.”

“It’s not like they got butt hurt or anything,” laughs Nicolette.

“It was the same thing with us and Phil. It’s funny because bands are so much like relationships. We said, ‘Hey, Phil, you know we’re talking to Michelle again’ – in a very nice way we told him we would rather have Michelle back, and he was so great about it.”

“He said that if we hadn’t told him that he would have told us that we needed to get Michelle back anyway,” adds Betty.

So Go Betty Go’s original lineup was back together again, working on new material, and when it came time to record they turned to their fans to help make Reboot a reality.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this on our own. Nothing is free. It’s awesome that people would listen and want to help,” Aixa says. “If it weren’t for people having that attitude there’s no way we could make this work again.”

“We have really great fans,” adds Nicolette. “They know that it’s up to them, and they really step it up to make it happen.”

And when it came time for them to head into the studio, they naturally reteamed with Hutt.

“When I was in college I had gone through a breakup, and Ted had gone through a divorce. We caught up one day and became good friends because we were both going through similar things. We hung out a lot and rekindled that relationship, so that all these years later when we were ready to record, it was easy for me to call him up and say, ‘Let’s do this,’” offers Nicolette. “He was super excited and said he would have been offended if we didn’t ask him. That’s the kind of reaction you want.”

“[Betty], me and Ted had a conversation after we played the Roxy with Big D and the Kids Table and Voodoo Glow Skulls on our last tour a long time ago. We said to him, ‘If we do another album, you have to promise to help us.’ We even made him shake our hands!” Michelle remembers. “And now it has happened, and we’re playing the Roxy for [Rebirth’s] release show on Jan. 25.”

“And now he’s a Grammy-nominated producer! He had said, ‘The only thing I would love is to get a Grammy,’ and he’s one step closer,” Aixa gushes about the Best Folk Album nomination Hutt’s work has garnered on Old Crow Medicine Show’s latest, Remedy.

“He’s a real pro, and he worked his ass off for us. We’re so proud of him,” Nicolette continues.

While the original band members and producer have all returned, they have a new focus in mind when it comes to the present and future of Go Betty Go.

“When we first started the band and put out our first two records, it was very much just about the band. Our lives revolved around the band. Now, the band revolves around our lives,” says Aixa. “We knew that if we were going to do this again we would have to do it that way because if not, it wouldn’t work again. Now we take everything with maturity and with the lessons we’ve learned from our past.”

Reboot will be available Jan. 27. Go Betty Go perform Jan. 25 at the Roxy. For more information, visit

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Natalie Denise Sperl

Natalie Denise Sperl gives some love to a dog up for adoption at Santa Monica Animal Shelter


At Santa Monica Animal Shelter
1640 Ninth Street, Santa Monica (310) 459-8594

Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo and Bette Davis are the actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age whose performances immediately come to mind when I see the word ‘coquette.’ While Natalie Denise Sperl – the model, actress and singer-songwriter at the helm of Los Angeles’ Kill My Coquette – certainly has the striking looks and acting chops to portray a classic coquette with the best of them, she also possesses the spirit that embodies a true punk-rock frontwoman. With influences like Jack White, Lou Reed and Joan Jett, it’s no wonder Natalie  brings edgy, in-your-face attitude to all of her musical endeavors.

“I like performing music live because it’s similar to theater. You get an instant reaction that you can feel; It’s not like when you do a take and go home without knowing what people think,” she says. “You always have to be on your game because you don’t want a bottle to come flying at your head. Rock ’n’ roll is a lot dirtier than theater.”

Natalie fills me in on the impact music has had on her from childhood, throughout her career as a model/actress and now as a musician when we meet up at one of her favorite places in the city, the Santa Monica Animal Shelter. She has volunteered at the shelter at least once a week for almost two years, spending time petting, walking or playing with the animals that are up for adoption. 

“I would have auditions around here, and whenever I had time to kill before or after the auditions I would find myself here petting the cats. I couldn’t adopt any more since I already have two (a charcoal grey hairless Sphynx and a rescue named Andy Warhol), so I decided to see if they needed any help and volunteer,” she recalls. “It’s just a good place to be at. Animals are the best thing ever: instant love! We get all kinds of animals – rabbits, ferrets, even a lizard.”

Her affection for the shelter’s animals is evident as she shows me around the various areas and tells me about the massive remodel that’s taking place.

“We got a grant for the remodel, and hopefully it will bring in more traffic so we can adopt more animals out. It’s going to be amazing,” she gushes while we tour the dog pens, community area, veterinary exam area and hospital room, where she relays a story about some recent new feline additions. “There was a lady living in a hotel with 30 cats and four dogs, and they were confiscated because that’s obviously animal cruelty. When they brought them in they were pretty bad off, but now they’re all turned around and we’ve been able to incorporate some of them out with the rest of the population.”

Natalie can usually be found in the newly refurbished cat room where she knows many of the residents by name. Her affinity for cats is something that stems from childhood.

“My dad would never let me get a cat, so I always said I would get a cat someday. He’s a hunter, so he didn’t like any animals that would kill birds,” she informs. “So now I mostly hang out with the cats. Sometimes I walk the dogs, but I’m really the cat lady.”

Although a pet cat was never allowed in the house, music was always a fixture of Natalie’s early life growing up in a small town in Minnesota. Her grandpa played the concertina, and her older brother, a drummer and keyboard player, toured with several bands.

“My dad was a huge music fan; he would crank it up in the morning as we were getting ready for school. There were a lot of country roads where I’m from and driving to get to places to do stuff, so a lot of time was spent in the car listening to music with the windows rolled down. A lot of Bob Dylan and rock ’n’ roll,” she remembers. “He dragged me to my first Dylan concert when I was 7, and it was like, “How does it feeeel, ugh.” I just didn’t get it, but then I started to read up on Dylan, his whole Warhol connection he had with Edie Sedgwick and realized he was actually kind of cool. I’m fascinated by the whole 1960s New York scene, and he supposedly wrote ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ about Edie Sedgwick. Now I listen to him all the time; it came full circle.” 

Natalie’s mom was a fan of 1960’s-era “hippie music,” Janis Joplin, while her brother blasted Metallica, Suicidal Tendencies, Loud, Anthrax, Skinny Puppy and the Vandals. 

“Everybody in the house would be turning up their stereos, trying to be louder than the others,” she laughs. “It was a very loud environment.”

While young Natalie’s ears were being filled with all sorts of music, she was also bit by the acting bug. She did a lot of local theater and would even put on her own plays based on experiences, like losing a tooth. This passion led to her enrollment at a high school for the performing arts as a theater major. 

It was around this time that Natalie caught the eye of a photographer as he was coming out of an agency, one that eventually signed the 15-year-old to a modeling contract. After doing work for some local campaigns, Natalie moved to London and entered the world of high-fashion modeling.

“I did a lot of runway modeling in London. It was a really cool time to be there. It was very avant-garde at the time, Kate Moss was huge and the art was amazing,” she says. “I also spent time in Paris, Rome and Milan.”

Eventually Natalie felt the pull of Los Angeles, where one of her former classmates had moved from Minnesota and was enjoying doing work as an extra. She moved in with her old high-school roommate in Venice and started breaking into the L.A. modeling and acting world. 

She has since landed the cover of Esquire magazine and roles in shows like “Two and a Half Men,” “How I met Your Mother” and “CSI: Miami,” as well as starring in films such as Succubus Hell Bent.

“With acting you have to be here, New York or London. You have to really be here to get into the game,” she says, before adding, “and, the weather is great!”

Natalie enjoys Los Angeles’ climate by hiking the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, Fryman Canyon, Will Rogers State Historic Park, the Fern Dell trail in Griffith Park, up to the Bronson Caves or Runyon Canyon, which is “a whole scene. You have to have your hair and makeup done because you might get cast in something!” She also loves to do yoga, visit LACMA or MOCA, shoot guns at the firing range and playing Texas hold ‘em.

“I don’t play online, only in person. I’ll go to Commerce Casino with a hat, glasses and my good luck charm (a ring) on,” she tells. “I did a movie called Rock Monster in Bulgaria, and in my off time I wanted to go to the casinos. It was literally a room full of big Bulgarian men and one little American actress. I made $1,700! I cleaned up because they were like, ‘What is she going to do?’ It was great. It took me a while to get that good, though. My grandpa has been teaching me since I was little.”

Aside from her gambling shenanigans, Natalie, of course, loves live music. In fact, it was seeing two specific performers that made her realize that she wanted to become a musician.

“When I saw Courtney Love perform, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool. How does she do that?’ I’ve seen Social Distortion so many times, and once I just thought, ‘I want to really try that,’” she relays. “Guitars are so cool. I’m no guitar virtuoso. Maybe I will be one day, but for now it’s all about the energy and the feel you get when you plug in and turn it up. It lets out some frustration.”

Natalie was so struck by that particular Social D show a couple of years ago that the very next day she went to Guitar Center and bought her first guitar. Since then, she’s been crafting songs with her Kill My Coquette bandmates: lead guitarist Dave Stucken, bassist Mike Evans and drummer Kelly Hagerman.

“I come to them with chord structures, lyrics, and then they bring it to life,” she says. “I got really lucky with the band that I have.”

The foursome is preparing to release a self-titled debut EP produced by Danny McGough (Tom Waits, Social Distortion) on Jan. 20, with plans for a local release celebration show sometime in February. In the meantime, Kill My Coquette performs Dec. 20 at the Three Clubs, and Natalie continues to write new material.

“I’m constantly writing down words, interesting points or cool lines. Anytime I think of something I put it in the Notes section of my phone so I can go back to it. William Burroughs had this technique called the Cut-Up Method where he wrote his thoughts and everything down then went back and literally cut it up, threw it on the floor, took lines and repositioned them. That was how he did the book Naked Lunch, so if you read it you go, ‘What?!’ but somehow the fragmented thoughts all make sense in the end. Sometimes I use that if I can’t think linearly. If verse chorus verse chorus verse bridge chorus is too structured for me,” she confesses. “With acting, I know what I’m doing each time. With writing songs, it’s definitely different. It’s more random. I’m like an antenna waiting to get struck by lightning, always ready with hope that it strikes.”

The Kill My Coquette EP will be available Jan. 20, 2015. Kill My Coquette performs Dec. 20 at Three Clubs. For more information, visit

Thursday, November 13, 2014

P.F. Sloan

P.F. Sloan at Fromin's Delicatessen & Restaurant

P.F. Sloan 

At Fromin's Delicatessen & Restaurant
1832 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica (310) 829-5443

P.F. Sloan’s musical path can be traced to one specific point of origin: the day his father took him to Wallichs Music City, the famous record store formerly located at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood, to buy a guitar.

“When I was 12, I met Elvis Presley there, and he gave me a guitar lesson,” the L.A. singer-songwriter remembers. “He took an interest in me right away, gave me a guitar lesson and within six months I was on an R&B label making records at 12 and a half.”

P.F., who has penned such hit singles as “Secret Agent Man” and “Eve of Destruction,” has a life story that is indeed far from ordinary, and he takes some time to share some of his experiences and talk about his first new album in nearly a decade, My Beethoven, with me at one of his neighborhood haunts, Fromin’s Delicatessen & Restaurant. Fromin’s has been serving deli favorites like Corned Beef and Cabbage and Reuben, Pastrami and Brisket sandwiches to Angelenos since the 1970s. P.F., however, has called Los Angeles home since the late 1950s when his family migrated from New York.

“My father was a pharmacist but couldn’t get his license here right away, so he opened up a sundries store in Downtown on Flower and Wilshire. It took a toll on him because he was a professional man, but he had to support his family, so it put a little distance between us,” he admits. 

Although no one in his family was musically inclined, P.F. would pluck out songs at home on a small ukulele that only had one string on it and sing along to music he heard on the radio. That is, until the day he got a guitar and made the acquaintance of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. The R&B label he refers to was Aladdin Records, and by age 16 P.F. joined the songwriting staff and became head of A&R for Screen Gems music publishing.

“[At Aladdin,] they asked if I could write songs. I said, ‘yes,’ came up with four songs that week and went in and recorded them. That was the beginning. Music is divine when it’s done right. It changes people’s lives, as well as your own. First and foremost, it changes you inside. It’s a great life to have except it’s like this [motions up and down], and most people want a life like that [even, flat]. That’s why they find musicians interesting. I found musicians interesting because they all had a great sense of humor, and I really wanted to have that. You’re hanging around musicians who are so open, honest and so funny – it just seems like a great life. I was working with a professional bunch of musicians as a kid, and I got to learn a lot of things, which was great.”

Some of the personalities P.F. met at the time were Steve Barri, who became his songwriting partner, and Screen Gems executive Lou Adler, who hired the duo as backup singers/musicians for a band he managed, Jan and Dean. P.F. and Barri wrote on Jan and Dean’s next albums, composed the theme song for the T.A.M.I. Show and other tracks such as Round Robin’s “Kick That Little Foot Sally Ann.”

“It was all fun. The only pressure I felt was to keep myself from having to become a pharmacist,” confesses P.F. “As soon as they started paying me $10, $15 a week I knew that that was enough money to keep me from going to school.”

P.F. continued working with Adler at Dunhill Records where he wrote hits like “Eve of Destruction,” “Secret Agent Man,” the Turtles’ “You Baby” and “Let Me Be” and Herman’s Hermits’ “Hold On!” and “A Must to Avoid.” He also created and played the guitar intro for the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.”

“You can’t imagine what it was like in those days, we had 60 new records coming out every week – a new Supremes, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan. This was week after week, with each getting better and better for two or three years. A catchy two-and-a-half minute song hit all these buttons of emotion within us, and their message was new. There were feel-good songs, but then there were message songs about the state of the world, how a wise person should be dealing with life,” recalls P.F. “First we had Elvis Presley to teach us how to kiss, be kissed and what a man expects from love and life. Then along come these teachers/philosophers like Lennon, Jagger, Dylan. This was a way different idea of what music is supposed to be versus Benny Goodman. It was actually teaching, waking up the consciousness of people that were fast asleep.”

This awakening definitely captured P.F.’s interest and influenced the songs he was writing. But it soon became the reason he would part ways with the music industry for several decades.

“That awakening was something the music business, my label, nobody wanted. They refused to publish anything that I wrote along those lines, and that’s fine. I don’t think any one thing is better than another. A pop song is equal to any folk song per se, but there are outstanding songs such as ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ that are going to live forever,” he explains. “When you’re growing up in music, you don’t think that it’s something you can shoot for, but there is an awakening that became the beginning of all my problems.”

At this point in our conversation at Fromin’s the waitress comes by for our order, and P.F. says he normally gets a bowl of soup and half of a sandwich. I mention that whenever I visit a deli I have to order matzo ball soup, so we both order a bowl. Fromin’s version stands out from others because of its big chunks of chicken, a dough ball the size of a baseball and noodles. 

P.F. informs me that his mom was an extraordinary cook, and he also enjoys cooking. His specialty is his mom’s recipe for tomato sauce that “even Frank Sinatra wanted to buy.”

He currently lives on the West Side, but has lived all over Los Angeles. His family had originally moved to West Hollywood and settled in Mid-City West, and he admits that he has never felt comfortably at home anywhere other than his parents’ house. Yet, he has found one refuge in this world, although it’s literally across the globe.

“India is the place for me. I was blessed to first go in 1986 [to meet his guru], and it transformed my life completely. India is an enchanted place, like no place else on Earth. One can find enlightenment there; the energy is so full of love and charged with positive things,” he describes. “I go there often, and I can get snippets of being there in meditation to keep myself moving and going.”  

It was at the urging of his guru that P.F. returned to music in the early 1990s, and this reemergence also had a lot to do with seeing Beethoven’s music performed for the first time at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

“It was like I was hearing music for the first time; it was that beautiful, a religious conversion. Beethoven, to me, is like trying to describe chocolate ice cream to someone who has never tasted it. It’s that good. I was never open to Beethoven before. I was given the talk that Beethoven and Shakespeare were for the nerds, and I was into rock ’n’ roll,” he offers. “But after I had done it all seen it all, I was completely burned out on music. There was no new revelation in pop music, it was just the same hormones, loneliness, angst. Whatever kind of enlightenment they were giving was for a whole new generation of teenagers who hadn’t experienced life yet to know what’s real and what’s not real. So the worst thing in my life happened, I didn’t have music anymore.”

Experiencing the live performance of Beethoven’s pieces renewed P.F.’s passion for music and piqued his curiosity about the composer’s own life.

“All I knew about Beethoven was that he was deaf and grouchy, so I read everything that I could get my hands on about him for the next six years,” he says. “This was before the internet, so I went to every library to find out why he wanted to commit suicide (because I was feeling suicidal) and why didn’t he commit suicide. I just needed to know the answer.”

As he delved further into Beethoven’s history, P.F. discovered that they had much more in common than their shared deep depression. 

“He’s so misunderstood, and I feel misunderstood as well. Who doesn’t? But when you have the world’s greatest talent and he’s still not understood … As a matter of fact, most things that people know of him are lies written by a guy [Anton Schindler] who was basically using him. I found the real Beethoven in a book, Canto [Memories of Beethoven: From the House of the Black-Robed Spaniards], written by the son of Beethoven’s childhood friend,” he begins. “I also found books of his letters and his journals, and there was a lot I had in common with him so I thought we could be friends. He was considered a Mozart wannabe until the day he died, and I was always considered a Bob Dylan wannabe. I was abused as a child, and he was beaten as a child. He played guitar and wrote 400 folk songs. He carried a guitar with him everywhere, taking poems from Robert Burns and writing music to them.”

Their commonalities began to inspire P.F. to create compositions of his own, but there was one hurdle he had yet to overcome.

“I didn’t know how to play piano, so I began listening to Beethoven’s work played by Glenn Gould, who said that it was his life goal to play every note exactly as Beethoven played it, so when I was listening to Gould, I was listening to Beethoven, hearing a song exactly as he would have played it,” he tells. “I slowly began to learn how to play piano. I worked on one song, ‘Beethoven’s Delight,’ in 1994, but it was horrible, so I spent the next 20 years trying to reach the place where beauty exists in all of us.” 

After years spent researching Beethoven’s life, studying piano, composition and orchestral arrangement, P.F. enlisted musicians from the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra, and My Beethoven began to come together.

“Learning to play the piano took me seven years, and I started getting money to get Pro Tools together to work on one song for eight years. Another thing I found attractive about Beethoven was that he erased everything, he struggled over every note for weeks. The fact that I love to rewrite made me feel like I had a partner, that it was OK to rewrite because that’s where the polish comes from,” he says. “B.B. King once told me, ‘Ninety percent of everything that you write is going to be crap, but most people fall in love with their own crap and can’t tell the difference anymore.’ It’s rare that you can throw away what you think is your best, start from scratch and find another level that’s never been touched by filters. It’s a fantastic process.” 

My Beethoven was finally released in May, and also resulted in a pop opera P.F. created with playwright Steve Feinberg.

“By the time I finished nine songs, Steve Feinberg found me. I took him to my studio, played him the music and he said, ‘This is a play as well!’ We spent the next two years writing a play. I called it ‘Louie Louie.’ The French called him ‘Louis’ [pronounced ‘Louie’], and he loved it, so his close friends would call him Louie,” he says. “Beethoven really has become a dear friend. He transformed my life, filled it with beauty, love and music. I can’t imagine a day without him.”

My Beethoven is currently available. For more information, visit

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Megan Darwin

Ayurvedic practitioner and massage therapist Megan Darwin (Scout Hebinck,


At Kreation Kafe/Juicery 1202 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice (310) 314-7778

For the past few years, juice diets like the Master Cleanse have been all the rage, but they often make you feel so lightheaded, dizzy and famished that you want to give up after the first day. With that in mind, Ayurvedic practitioner and massage therapist, Megan Darwin, has developed her own program called the Juicy Yogi Detox that incorporates traditional principles with modern juicing to give Angelenos the ultimate cleansing experience.

I met up with the L.A. native to talk about growing up in Arcadia, her discovery and training in Ayurveda and the Juicy Yogi Detox at Kreation Kafe/Juicery in Venice Beach. This is where she regularly stops for a bottle of juice on her way to treating clients at Spa Sophia, which is also located on Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

Megan Darwin at Kreation Kafe/Juicery
As we take a seat in Kreation’s busy yet comfortable patio, surrounded by wood paneling and live succulents covering sections of the wall, the long list of juice options can be a bit intimidating. They offer several cold pressed juices, like the Green (apple, cucumber, romaine, kale and pear), Trinity Twist (lemon, apple, carrot and beet) and Rosy Aura (rose water and cantaloupe). Megan shares that her favorite of their Premium Detox blends is the Synchronize with dandelion, kale, cilantro, pear, pineapple, jalapeño, fennel, basil, turmeric, mint, cucumber, parsley, celery, spinach, romaine, lemon and Himalayan salt. She is also a fan of the refreshing Limonana (alkaline water, lemon, mint and raw cane sugar) lemonade.

This Abbott Kinney Kreation location also serves a full menu that includes kabobs and wraps, as well as cold and hot tapas. After ordering a Quinoa Chopped Salad and some Synchronize juice, Megan explains that the imbalance people experienced while doing a strictly juice cleanse is one of the factors that inspired her to design the Juicy Yogi Detox, which is also based on techniques she acquired in her five years of studying Ayurveda’s traditional cleansing process of Pancha Karma.

“Ayurveda is an elemental healing paradigm. Everything in the universe is made up of ether, air, fire, water or earth. Your body contains a different ratio of those qualities depending on what you take in, so if you’re only drinking juice it’s easy to get lightheaded or dizzy because you don’t have anything grounding you. In traditional Pancha Karma, you only eat kitchari, which is very nourishing but lacks the fresh, live enzymes you get from juice,” she begins. “Every day in my five-day program, the Juicy Yogi Detox, you get a detoxifying massage with warm herbal therapeutic oils, Shirodhara therapy to clear the mind, Chi Machine therapy, an herbal steam and I provide you with herbs to take every night eating, juices and a mono diet of kitchari – an ayurvedic superfood made with yellow mung beans, basmati rice, vegetables (usually carrots and celery), spices and ghee (clarified butter).”

In Megan’s cleansing detox that supplants traditional practices with modern juicing, your body receives all the nutrients, energy and elemental balance it needs so you’re able to go to work and take your dog for a leisurely walk without feeling completely spent. She encourages minimal physical exercise and the lowest stress-filled environment as possible, because “any energy you’re expending is energy that can’t be used to healed whatever needs to be healed within your body.”

While her life currently revolves around total health and wellness, Megan didn’t always maintain the healthiest of eating habits as a child in the suburb of Arcadia, Calif.

“When I was growing up, I would eat at least one pack of Hostess chocolate donuts every day. Cereal bowls weren’t big enough for me, so I would eat my Lucky Charms out of a big tupperware. When I was sick, it was Rite Aid and Walgreens for Tylenol, Advil and NyQuil,” she remembers. “I went to UCLA and studied political science. After graduating, I took a year off and had a roommate whose mom was very into yoga and natural healing. When we would get sick she would say, ‘Drink this tea with this herb.’ The world of natural healing opened up to me, and I was amazed by it. ‘A tea is going to help me? That’s so cool.’”

Megan began researching different paradigms of natural healing but was a bit overwhelmed by all of the different philosophies: Chinese healing, homeopathy, naturopathy, etc. That is, until she was introduced to Ayurveda.

“I happened upon a book that I got from a friend written by Christy Turlington called Living Yoga with a whole chapter on the basic, fundamental principles of what Ayurveda is, and it totally clicked. It made so much sense to me that I had an emotional response to it; I started to cry,” she recalls. “When that happens you pay attention, so I researched colleges and found the California College of Ayurveda.”

While taking a Pancha Karma training workshop, Megan’s abilities caught the attention of the college’s founder, and she was offered an apprenticeship at a private Ayurvedic retreat center.

(Scout Hebinck,
“I was supposed to intern at the Blue Sage Sanctuary for a year but ended up staying five years,” she exclaims. “From L.A. to studying Ayurveda in San Francisco, there I was on 20 acres of land in Nevada City, it was so grounding. I really needed that time to settle in, learn and get really good with my skills. It was so cool to watch people go through the detox process there away from distractions, because with it comes an emotional detox very often.”

Megan thoroughly enjoyed her time at the center and even returns there each fall to lead people through detoxification, but she always knew she would return to Los Angeles to open her own practice. 

“I love Santa Monica, there’s nowhere else in L.A. that I would like to live. I like the vibe, the culture, and that the beach is so close. San Francisco is a beautiful city, but the weather killed me – having grown up being so blessed with great weather, then having gray cold summers and wearing a sweater in June,” she says. “I love that it’s so health conscious in L.A., it’s fairly clean. I love driving up to Malibu and looking at the blue of the sky. I need sunshine!”

Aside from Kreation, you can often find her grabbing a bite at Golden Mean or taking in a concert at the Santa Monica Pier during the summer since she is an avid music lover. 

In addition to the Juicy Yogi Detox Program, Megan also offers any of her Ayurvedic therapies (herbal massage or steam, Nasya sinus therapy and Shirodhara) as separate or coupled services.

“It’s so cool to see the reactions from people who have never Shirodhara before. Hot oil is poured over your third eye/chakra and flows down your head and over your scalp, inducing a meditative state or you can just fall asleep if you need it,” she explains. “It’s the perfect therapy for stress, anxiety or insomnia.”

Just hearing her describe the relaxing therapy has me ready to make an appointment ASAP. Megan is also planning to host discussions to educate Angelenos about the different ailments that Ayurveda can treat, from cancer and insomnia to sinus and allergy problems, so make sure to check in at her website for updates.

For more information, call (310) 780-5006 or visit

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rob Decoup

Rob Decoup on the Venice Beach Pier


At the Venice Beach Boardwalk 

Whether you’re an Angeleno or visiting tourist, the sights of the Venice Beach Boardwalk – the different street artists and performers, bodybuilders of Muscle Beach, colorful street art, bikini-clad women – are instantly recognizable and representative of Los Angeles. It’s where I regularly take out-of-town visitors and a place that has become special to New York-based music artist Rob Decoup.

“When you come to [Venice Beach], you can spend the whole day looking around at the art, going in the water, taking a walk. It just looks great with the palm trees and the unique buildings,” he describes. “It’s one of those places that, if you’re blindfolded, once the blindfold drops you immediately know where you are. Not everywhere is like that.”

Venice truly is a unique neighborhood, as Rob’s own story is quite special. While in town to rehearse with an L.A.-based band of musicians for a Midwest tour with Saving Abel in support of the January release of his full-length debut, Rays of Sun, he shares these experiences with me as we enjoy the cool ocean air.

“It’s good to be in L.A. when I think that we’re walking right where Jim Morrison once walked. He was so inspired by this place. One of the greatest frontmen of all time, Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, would surf here. That’s the charm of L.A. for me,” he confesses. “I was very influenced by that kind of music, alternative rock, as well as the classic rock of the Doors.”

Music wasn’t the only sound to fill Rob’s childhood, though. Having been born in Iran and spending his early childhood there while the country was at war with Iraq, explosions and sirens filled his 5-year-old ears. It’s a time when his dreams of coming to America were born. Rob remembers his first taste of American music occurring around this time.

“I saw an Elvis Presley movie, and that was my first exposure to rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “I was really into his songs for a long time. That was the beginning.”

After his family relocated to Vienna in the early 1980s, Rob attended an American school where he learned to speak English and German. From the Beatles, Pink Floyd and the aforementioned Doors to Alice Cooper and Megadeth, his love for rock music continued to grow. His path to becoming a musician himself began on his 12th birthday.

“I wouldn’t shut up about getting a guitar so my mom finally got one for my birthday. But she didn’t know much about it and got me an electric guitar without an amp,” he recalls with a laugh. “I thought it was too much to ask for an amp then, so waited a year for my next birthday. I could still play on it, though, quietly. It was good for practicing.”

We begin our Venice Boardwalk afternoon in front of one of my favorite L.A. bookshops, Small World Books, which is located on Ocean Front Walk. A bookstore is fitting since 30 percent of all proceeds from the sale of Rob’s latest single, “War Hero,” is going to the Books for Soldiers Fund Drive that brings books and care packages to deployed American troops. 

Poetry and literature have always played a huge part in Rob’s life. 

“I started writing poetry at a young age, and it was always in English because somehow that was most appealing to me. I was reading a lot of Shakespeare, William Blake, a lot of French poets like Arthur Rimbaud and modern ones like Allen Ginsberg,” he tells. “I loved rhyming and playing with words since I was 9 when I wrote my first poem, so when I learned guitar I started to write melodies and combine the two passions. I loved the idea of writing a song and one day performing it. That seemed like the most gratifying thing to do ever, but it got shelved a little bit since it’s obviously not something that you’re secure in making a living out of. I always knew that I was going to go that way at some point, it just got postponed a little bit.”

The delay actually lasted several years, as Rob began his PhD studies in Political Science at the University of Vienna.

“I thought it was going to be a quick endeavor, but it took me five years. That’s what held me back from diving into music full time. I kept saying to myself, ‘As soon as I finish my PhD, I’m going to do it,’ but it just dragged on.” 

After receiving his PhD, Rob decided to move to New York and begin this new chapter of his life.

“I was writing these songs, wanted to get my music to the world and realized that since I write in English that I should move to America because it’s not just a myth. This country really is the land of dreams, where dreams can come true, just because the mentality is different than Europe. Europe is a bit more old fashioned and the people are not really supportive, whereas people that I’ve come to know in America, I’ve known them for less time than my European friends, but they are much more excited and supportive. They really want to hear my songs,” he admits. “Also, rock music isn’t that big in Europe. You have lots of metal heads in Germany, but in America it’s much more of a culture. You go out to see hard rock band perform, and it doesn’t have to be a huge band it can be an emerging artist. In Europe people only go to see huge bands like Alter Bridge or Metallica and kind of ignore the emerging artists. Here they understand that emerging artists are more real because they’re not tied to a contract with a major label that dictates so much of the songwriting process.”

Rob released his first EP, Pain, last year, and since his music career is something he worked so hard to be able to pursue, self-expression is very important to Rob. He pointedly brings up the subject as we encounter a bright wall mural, a man with a (fake?) boa constrictor wrapped around his neck and a performer about to walk on shards of broken glass.

“I like graffiti artists because of what graffiti represents in general, the idea of street art: expression coming naturally,” he remarks. “That’s why I like Venice, you never know what to expect. Danger is looming everywhere.”

Rob first became acquainted with Venice when he spent a month recording Rays of Sun in Los Angeles last year. He would come to the beach to surf, and as we stand on the Venice Beach Pier watching the waves roll by, he says that he might consider moving to Los Angeles one day.

“For the kind of music I do, hard rock, this is more the scene for it. There are way more musicians here in that field than in New York.” 

In fact, all of the musicians who played on Rays of Sun are based in Los Angeles. Joined by Dan Welby on drums and Phil X on guitar, Creed’s Eric Friedman was on guitar while Marty O’Brien, who also plays with Lita Ford, assumed bass duties. The album was helmed by Mike Plotnikoff (Aerosmith, Drowning Pool), whose work Rob had admired for a while. 

“There was an album that I really liked by Buckcherry. I really liked the production quality of that album, so I was curious and found out that it was Mike behind it. Through my connections I was able to reach him and send him my demos. He liked them and said he would be happy to do it,” he relays. “I’m so happy to have become connected with him because he’s such a great guy, so down to earth and easy to work with.”

Since Rob is so busy preparing for Rays of Sun’s debut, he doesn’t have much time to keep up with recent literary releases. However, this doesn’t mean that he’s out of touch with world events in the least.

“I read a lot of online journals with political analysis, foreign affairs, economics – boring stuff,” he laughs. “When I read those things and try to get a glimpse into a scholar’s or professor’s take on current affairs, I feel my brain start to wake up.” 

Rob is all about waking up others’ brains as well, particularly with the release of Rays of Sun.

Rays of Sun is about the idea of hope. Even though things might seem to be going wrong, and the standard of life is diminishing. Corporations are getting richer, profits are soaring, but the majority of the wealth has been concentrated in a minority, one percent. That exploitation of people is a reality, but there is still hope,” he says. “The idea behind the title of Rays of Sun is that if we get together we can make real change happen.” 

Rays of Sun will be available Jan. 27, 2015. For more information, visit

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Black Belt Karate

Ryan Hanifl, Ryan Brown, Jason Achilles Mezilis and Harry Anthony Ostrem of Black Belt Karate at the Iliad Bookshop


At The Iliad Bookshop
5400 Cahuenga Blvd., North Hollywood (818) 509-2665

There’s something magical about used bookstores. Every time you visit, there are new treasures to be found on its shelves. The same could be said for a good song. You can take away different meanings from a single lyric or discover a section of the melody that excites you with each listen.

The four musicians of Los Angeles-based Black Belt Karate share my love of used bookstores and take me on an adventure at their favorite in North Hollywood, the Iliad Bookshop.

“New bookstores have no soul. Old, used bookstores are awesome,” says guitarist Jason Achilles Mezilis. “I love this place because you can find all kinds of rare and out-of-print books here.”

Originally located next to Odyssey Video, the Iliad took its name as a literary joke and sustains the Greek mythology tradition with its two kitten mascots, Apollo and Zeus, who are often found playing near the register.

While Jason, vocalist Ryan Hanifl and drummer Ryan Brown all reside nearby in the Valley, bassist Harry Anthony Ostrem lives in Westchester, so Jason shares that when the band members do get together it’s to work in the studio or hang out on his front porch.

“What are you talking about, we always hang out here,” jokes Ryan B. “We’re a very well-read band.”

His statement isn’t that far off, though. Ryan B. is an avid fan of Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom series, and Ryan H. reads everything that Richard Russo puts out. Jason loves Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and science fiction.

“If I’m going to read fiction, it’s going to be sci-fi. The two best sci-fi books are Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Dune. They’re ridiculous. I like the MythAdventures fantasy series by Robert Lynn Asprin and James Blish’s adaptation of the original ’Star Trek’ series,” he reveals. “They were based off the scripts, but some things would be a little different from what happened on the show. People give the original ‘Star Trek’ a hard time because it was campy, but if you read the stories they’re really great. I have a book that I found here about the making-of the TV series with all the memos that the different departments would send each other and stories of Roddenberry freaking out about somebody putting the wrong color rock in a scene.”

Harry actually studied English and history in college; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is one of his favorites.

“I’m reading a book right now called Shantaram, which is amazing. It’s [reportedly] a true-life story about a guy who escaped prison in New Zealand and ended up in Mumbai. It’s about his experiences there, falling in love with the country and being forced back into a life of crime,” he shares. “Whenever I see a store like the Iliad, it gives me hope that at least there are still books out there. I’m not against e-books, but the environment, the vibe, the whole experience of going through a used bookstore is like exploring mom’s attic. When I was a kid I would go to places like this to find vinyl or old Creem and Rolling Stone magazines.”

Music is indeed the first love of the Black Belt Karate quartet, especially Jason, who is from the Midwest but was primarily raised in Northern California.

“Relatives and family friends that knew me before I had cognitive memories say that they would put on music and I would sit in front of the speakers and not move for hours, and it’s not very often that I don’t move. The first thing I remember was always watching ‘The Muppet Show’ on this little black-and-white TV we had,” he recalls, as Ryan H. chimes in with, “Ha! He always reminds me of a Muppet.”

“There was a classical pianist I saw when I was 5, Vladimir Horowitz. His hands were hitting the piano so hard; the sound was huge. I had never ever seen a piano in person, but when I heard what was happening I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do,’” Jason continues. “When we moved to California my parents told me I had to learn an instrument, so I picked the piano and started lessons when I was 8. My father is a musician. He played classical guitar so well that it just looked impossible and that actually steered me away from guitar for years. I didn’t pick up guitar until my nuts dropped and I hit puberty.”

“We’re sitting in the children’s section and Jason just used the ‘F’ word three times and just said ‘nuts dropped’ while little kids are walking by with their parents,” notes Harry.

Ryan B. also started playing instruments at an early age in Denver, Colo.

“I got a drum for my first Christmas when I was 6 months old because my mom’s brother got it just to piss her off as a joke. Then, I got a little Sears drum kit when I was 3. My mom plays ragtime piano, so I would play along on the drums to her. I started playing piano when I was 6, trumpet when I was 9 and then I got braces and couldn’t play anymore. The bandleader brought in a snare drum and I said, ‘Oh, I have to play that.’” he remembers. “A big moment for me was in January 1989 when I saw Gregg Bissonette give a drum clinic. I sat there watching the whole thing thinking, ‘I want to be that guy.’”

Ryan B. has played with the likes of Zappa Plays Zappa and Sex Tapes, and is also a teacher at Musicians Institute where he has the opportunity to touch the lives of many other aspiring drummers, just as Bissonette did his. Harry is also a teacher, but he came a bit late to the music game.

“I didn’t start playing bass until eighth grade, then I quit and eventually started playing again. All three of the other guys are schooled in music, know music theory and went to school for music. I went to school for history and english, but I always used music as an outlet. I played in some cover bands and realized I don’t want to live in small town,” says the Montana native, who spent time in Spokane, Wash. before moving to Los Angeles to play music in 2005. “I substitute teach and tutor now, and it’s fun working with kids. You really don’t know how you shape their future, as cheesy as that sounds, you can’t measure it by a paycheck.”

Harry goes on to mention a former student who is now a professional bass player and huge Rush fan, triggering Ryan B. to leap from his seat and grab a copy of Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night – also the title of Rush’s 1975 album, their first with the legendary Neil Peart – from a shelf behind me. 

“I’ve been staring at it the whole time,” he admits.

While many songwriters become interested in words through books or poems, Ryan H.’s creativity was sparked by a musical genre.

“Fascination with wordplay came with rap for me. When I was in high school I listened strictly to gangsta rap. I didn’t really take an interest in it until – as cliche as it may sound – I heard Bob Dylan. Country music, too, because where I’m from [Minnesota], everyone either listened to country or rap. Garth Brooks was huge, and I’ve always been a fan of Dwight Yoakam,” he confesses. “I didn’t get into being a musician until I was 19; before that I really didn’t pay attention to music. My dad always had the oldies channel on so there was a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’ I was a into grunge and late-‘80s Seattle bands like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. Some of my favorite bands of the last 10 years are Sigur Rós and Radiohead.”

“There’s basically a period of time between 1989 and 1991 where my music appreciation stops and his begins,” interrupts Jason.

“The reason why I respect Harry is he knows The Bends by Radiohead, which is the be-all, end-all of modern rock guitar songs from a songwriting point of view. He thinks it’s one of the best albums of that decade, and I agree. The other two [Jason and Ryan B.], I’m very suspect of,” laughs Ryan H. “I was also big into the Doors in high school because that movie came out and I started fooling around with alcohol and weed. Pink Floyd, too. My favorite music to listen to is classical music. I have it on all of the time, call me pretentious.”

“Well, those are two separate issues,” grins Jason.

Everyone in Black Belt Karate likes to make playful gibes at one another, particularly Ryan H. and Jason since they’ve known each other for over a decade. They were both part of Your Horrible Smile until that band parted ways in 2006.

“We didn’t talk for a few years. We had some unfinished music, and I had been pulling his ear saying we should finish some of the old demos just purely for licensing. We did some stuff at my house and then went to see his friend play with Sabrosa Purr around that time. It was exciting, we had fun and I sort of missed doing the rock thing because I had primarily been the Rufus Wainwright thing for a few years,” says Ryan H., who also composes music for television shows and commercials. “Then we ran into Ryan Brown that fall.”

“The night was Oct. 17, 2011,” begins Ryan B., and everyone starts laughing thinking he’s joking about the exact date. “The reason I know the date is because my daughter was born three days later. I went to see Jason play with a band I was in called Owl at the Viper Room, and Ryan and I hung out.”

“At one point I saw those two talking to each other and was thought, ‘yeah, that looks right,” recalls Jason.

“I actually was working at the Viper Room as a custodian that night,” Harry jokingly interjects to everyone’s amusement. “They didn’t know me then, but our worlds would merge later.”

“So we moved forward making music, but it didn’t cement since Ryan B. obviously had his hands full for a little while. We started working on the initial material for the band and shot a video. If you see our first video, Ryan B. and Harry aren’t in it, there’s actually not a bass player in it. Then we met Harry in then middle of the next year.”

“When I first got the call ,I knew Jason had a house that was in the Hills-esque, above the low level where all the common people live. I heard the first couple of songs, which sounded really good. They weren’t amateur, crappy demos like with most bands you audition for, so I thought he was loaded with a lot of money, which hasn’t been the case, but it’s been loaded with many other things as equally as valuable as money. The music, in my humble estimation, is what it’s all about anyway. That’s what drew me in because I’ve auditioned for bands with a big budget, but the music was awful,” admits Harry. “This band is a blessing. My old band was together for a long time, so I was devastated when it broke up. Then this band came along, and it’s been really healthy and good.”

“I love that we describe this band as ‘healthy.’ That makes me happy,” chuckles Jason.

“It’s just like a romantic relationship. We can disagree and have arguments, but we respect each other as people. That’s the key,” says Harry.

Black Belt Karate released their first EP, Volume 1, last year, and plan to put out another EP next year. They began 2014 by unveiling a new single each month and just released a video for the latest one, “Transformer.” Although, they hail from distinctly different cities across the nation, it seems they were always fated to come together as BBK in Los Angeles.

“I moved here with $30, and while nothing has transpired the way I wanted it to, a lot of really cool stuff has transpired. I’ve played with some really famous people, I get to make music with these guys that I’m really proud of and I’m a way better player than I used to be. That wouldn’t have happened playing covers in Spokane, Wash.,” Harry says.

“There are so many opportunities in Los Angeles. Things can and will happen here that would no way happen in Denver, Montana, Minnesota, Chicago, Michigan or Northern California,” adds Ryan B. “There are a million things that will happen, but you have to be here for them to happen.

“The other day, I was telling one of the artists I produce how happy I was to be home after a trip I went on, and he said, ’Ninety-five percent of the people that come to Los Angeles get really upset and leave. You’re one of the five percent, one of the people who comes here with their dreams, who has made it work,’” Jason tells. “L.A. is amazing, I absolutely love it here. Anything we need for what we do for a living is here, whether it’s on the business side (managers, labels, lawyers), resources (recording studios) or musicians. Los Angeles is like a big toolbox. Nobody moves here because it’s an aesthetically beautiful city, but the fact that everything’s available here for me to be able to realize my dreams makes it a beautiful place.”

Black Belt Karate performs Oct. 21 at the Satellite, Oct. 26 at Lucky Strike Hollywood and Dec. 11 at the Satellite. For more information, visit