|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 owltheband.net.