Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Josh Haden of Spain

Spain frontman Josh Haden at the Gaylord Apartments in Koreatown


At Gaylord Apartments
3355 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles (Koreatown)

When interviewing an artist about his latest album, it’s such a treat to get to visit the studio where the music was actually recorded. Such an experience is even greater when the location is as rich in history as the Gaylord Apartments.

“I think everyone who lives in Los Angeles knows about the Gaylord, even if they don’t know its specific history,” says Josh Haden, the founder, bassist and songwriter of pioneering slowcore band Spain. “It’s pretty old, and anyone who drives through here to Downtown has to pass this building – it’s pretty noticeable.” 

Spain’s sixth release, Carolina, was recorded in musician Kenny Lyon’s (the Lemonheads, Divinyls, NoFX) studio that is located in the building (Drummer Danny Frankel (John Cale, k.d. lang, Lou Reed) laid down his tracks at his home in Joshua Tree.). Kenny played acoustic and electric guitars, piano, keyboards, banjo and lap and pedal steel on Carolina, and he also served as the album’s producer, engineer and mixer. 

Kenny graciously opens his doors at the Gaylord to Josh and I the day after Spain’s first show of a three-week residency at the Love Song Bar. The trio premiered songs from the new album, which is set for release June 3, and they also play tonight, May 10, and May 17.

After Josh and Kenny show me the studio space, we sit down to discuss some of Josh’s musical history, Carolina being a bit of a departure from past Spain albums, the rekindling of his passion for storytelling and how he began to deal with the death of his father, groundbreaking jazz bassist Charlie Haden, while writing the new songs.

“My mom says that after my triplet sisters were born when I was 3 and a half, the house descended into chaos, and I would just go into my room. That’s when I taught myself to read as an escape. I’ve always been a reader, and I went to school for writing as an undergrad. So I’m kind of like a failed writer/novelist. It’s too difficult an art that I can’t even master, especially short stories. For this record, I decided I was going to write short stories but make them songs,” Josh explains. “It’s hard to write a song that’s a story. It takes a lot of concentration and time, and I was being a little lazy on my earlier records, writing not so story-like songs. With the new record, almost every song can be a story with a beginning, middle and end.” 

From “Battle of Saratoga,” which tells the tale of a heroin-addicted musician trapped in his New York hotel room by a snowstorm in the 1960s, and recounting the Farmington Mine Disaster of 1968 in “One Last Look” to the world of a 1875 homesteader in “Tennessee” and images from Josh's own childhood in Malibu in “Station 2,” Carolina is full of vivid portraits of a wide range of characters.

“My dad is from the Midwest, so I’m exploring that general territory. A lot of it was my dad passing away [in July 2014], dealing with those emotions. In the first song, ‘Tennessee,’ I’m leaving Tennessee to go to the Missouri line. Missouri is where my dad grew up, so that is more of it than picking the South as a symbol," Josh responds when I ask if he specifically concentrated on the region while writing Carolina. "At the same time, there is a lot of symbolism with the South, and I’m working with that as well. The worst of American history happened in the South, and that is a very powerful topic for songwriting; many songwriters have used that for themes. I’m just starting to, and I think the next record is going to go even deeper than that.”

With all this talk of stories from the past, both real and fictional, it’s hard not to take in the immense history of the building that we’re sitting in. The Gaylord – named for land developer, publisher and eponym of Wilshire Boulevard, Henry Gaylord Wilshire – was built in 1924 as one of Los Angeles’ first co-ops, but when the lavish apartments didn’t all sell, the co-op dissolved. From 1930 on, the units became long and short-term rentals for the likes of John Barrymore, Richard Nixon, Yo Gabba Gabba’s DJ Lance and Kevin Dillon of “Entourage.”

The bottom floor used to house a grand ballroom, which became a nightclub called the Gay Room in 1948. This space eventually became the nautically themed HMS Bounty bar in 1962.

In days past, the original Brown Derby restaurant sat just to the west, while the Ambassador Hotel – where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 and currently the site of a group of schools named in his honor – and its famed Coconut Grove nightclub was located across the street from the Gaylord. Although Koreatown is rapidly gentrifying, and change is happening all around the HMS Bounty and Gaylord, there is still an air of old-school elegance to the building’s lobby, patio and pool area. Josh informs me that jazz musicians would stay at the Gaylord when touring, and Kenny points to a pile of rubble across the street that used to be a jazz club. 

Charlie Haden first saw saxophonist Ornette Coleman – who eventually became his longtime associate – play at a club that was formerly around the corner from the Gaylord, so the area definitely has significance to Josh. He has vivid memories of being 12 and hopping on a bus from Malibu with a friend to attend the Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention at the Ambassador Hotel.

“My friend and I used to bother Bruce [Schwartz], the guy who puts on the shows, by following him around, trying to distract him from his duties at the convention. He would try to introduce special guests on stage, and my friend and I would catcall him from the audience. He would get so annoyed and frustrated with us. He would run away as soon as he saw us, but in a joking way. He was always so nice,” he recalls. “I stopped going for years, and then on a lark, I saw they were having another convention. Thirty-plus years later, he still puts out the same fliers in the same font. I went to it and found him at the convention. I introduced myself as one of the two kids who used to torture him 30 years earlier. He joked, ‘You’re the kid who was bothering me years ago. How dare you show your face here!’ Now we’re kind of friends, so when I go, he stops and talks to me. When I go to his conventions, I go into the 25-cent boxes, buy 30 or 40 comic books and bring them home. It takes me a few months to get through them, but it’s fun.”

Josh also has strong memories attached to a certain album he would stare at in his parents’ record collection as a child.

“I would put headphones on and stare at the album artwork on the Beatles’ Revolver,” he shares. “I would just stare at the great black-and-white psychedelic drawing on the front and listen to ‘Taxman’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ when I was between 5 and 7 years old.”

As he grew up, Josh and his buddies would listen to AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen, but that all changed one day when another friend introduced them all to something else entirely.

“My friend brought his boombox to school, slammed it on the lunch table, said, ‘Josh, listen to this,’ and pressed play. It was ‘Jealous Again’ by Black Flag, and all those other bands went out the window. From then on it was Adolescents, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Social Distortion, Shattered Faith and Bad Religion. We loved The Decline of Western Civilization soundtrack,” he tells. “The first punk show I went to was Fear and the Minutemen at the Whisky when I had just turned 13 or 14.” 

It was around this time when Josh began playing his own music.

“My parents split up when I was pretty young, and my mom did not want me to be a musician, so she kept me isolated from musical instruments,” he says. “In her mind, maybe if she could keep me from being a musician I wouldn’t end up like my dad. My sisters got the piano, violin and cello lessons, but I didn’t really start playing an instrument until I was into punk rock. I tried playing guitar, but it didn’t click with me, and then I switched to bass. My dad bought me a bass when I was 14, I took some lessons for about a year and then I was in a punk rock band. I said, ‘I don’t really need lessons. I can do this; this is easy.”

Although he harbored dreams of being a writer, all Josh wanted to do at this time in his life was play music.

“When I was 16, we started a band called Treacherous Jaywalkers and literally rehearsed five days a week. We would get out of school, go to James’ [Fenton] house and play music until we had to go home,” he remembers. “We didn’t think of it as dedication, it was just fun. We didn’t have any other responsibilities, so that’s what we did.”

Josh shared all of the bands that were inspiring him with his dad and his three sisters – Tanya, Petra and Rachel. 

“Then when we got a little older, my sisters [Rachel on bass, Petra on violin/vocals] started a band called That Dog with their friend Anna [Waronker], and that actually influenced Spain a lot because their songs were mellow and quiet. I heard those songs, and they reinforced the direction I was going in. I thought, ‘If they can play songs like that and people are going to their shows and they’re getting attention, I could probably do it, too.”

He formed Spain in 1993, and their debut album, The Blue Moods of Spain, released two years later. The album featured the haunting song “Spiritual,” which has been covered by artists that run the gamut, from Johnny Cash to Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny. Spain went on to release two more albums, She Haunts My Dreams and I Believe, before taking a break then reforming in 2007.

The Soul of Spain debuted in 2012, featuring Petra, Rachel and Tanya – the Haden Triplets – to critical acclaim, and the band toured all over Europe. The following year, Sargent Place (named for the Echo Park studio it was recorded in), was released, featuring the final recorded performance of Charlie Haden on the track “You And I.” 

With Carolina, Josh makes a conscious effort to move away from Spain’s past material, and the album artwork is indicative of this. 

“[Nate Pottker] sent me this portrait that he drew out of the blue. The drawing itself is great, but what really struck me was the color that he used, that blue. It was this very unique and creative wash that he used, like a pen drawing, for a really interesting, spontaneous background. I thought, ‘If this was an album cover, people would notice it,’ so I contacted him,” he says. “It was happy circumstance because I really wanted to get away from what I was doing with Spain album covers in the past. I wanted to make a clean break from that, musically advance to another level and do the same with the art – break out of a rut I had found myself in after many years.”

When I ask if one of the new songs, “Starry Night,” was so named because he is an art lover, Josh replies with “Probably.”

“I got a love of visual art from my grandparents, my mom’s parents, who were always members of LACMA. My grandma would always say, ‘There are two things you always need to have: a membership to an art museum and a subscription to a newspaper,’ so I’ve tried to be a member of LACMA as much as I can,” he says. “I also like the Norton Simon. It’s smaller, nicer to hang out at, and they have really great art, too.”

While he admits to loving too many restaurants in his neighborhood of Silver Lake, Josh does have a few favorites.

“We go to a Brazilian chicken place on Hillhurst [Tropicalia Brazilian Grill?] a lot. They do one thing really well. Tomato Pie has the best pizza in our neighborhood,” he reveals. “On the west side there’s a French restaurant, Mélisse, which is so expensive I wouldn’t be able to eat there, but my dad loved that place and we would go there on special occasions. It is amazing. We do like Cafe Stella, it’s expensive but not as bad, so we go there a couple times a year.” 

As Spain gears up for a month-long European tour, Josh admits to really only missing two things when he’s away from home: his family and good Mexican food. He thinks Los Angeles is great, but if he had his way, he would live in New York City and make every Angeleno spend time someplace else.

“I think that every young person should at least live in New York City for a couple of years to experience it because it’s so different and inspiring in a way that L.A. isn’t, and L.A. is inspiring in ways that New York isn’t. If I was the president of L.A. Unified School District, I would put millions of dollars into a program to get every student to be a roadie for a band on tour in Europe just to experience the cosmopolitan nature of life and to meet people from all walks of life,” he concludes. “Most people don’t have the money to travel. If I wasn’t a musician, I probably wouldn’t be traveling either, but I think it’s important to force kids to have those experiences because that’s what opens their minds, lets them be peaceful, aware and thoughtful people.”

Carolina will be available June 3. Spain performs May 10 and 17 at the Love Song Bar. For more information, visit spaintheband.com.