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Underneath the Surfboards: The Cult of Little Wings

The beloved 42-year-old Kyle Field just put out his 11th album, 'Explains.' We spent a rainy day at the beach with him.

Kyle Field, the only constant member of the folk outfit Little Wings, looks out from the breezeway behind his Los Angeles home at a rare torrential downpour that’s drenching Southern California. We’ve been chatting for a couple hours over beers, underneath his surfboards, which are suspended above our heads. “Have you seen Big Wednesday?” he asks. I haven’t. “Let’s watch it till the rain lets up,” he says.

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Field kicks off his clogs and I follow him inside. His pet cockatiel Rosy—spelled with a “y,” he clarifies, because her cheeks are rosy—flies across the room and perches on his shoulder.

“It’s one of the few movies that’s better on the first viewing with the director’s commentary on,” he says as he pops in the DVD of the 1978 surfer drama, directed by John Milius. As the movie plays, Field displays that he’s memorized both the movie’s dialogue and Milius’ commentary track. Halfway through, Field hits pause, picks up a bottle of wine, runs to the kitchen, wraps it in a paper bag, and returns. He’s mimicked a bottle in a bag held by one of the movie’s surfers.

“We have to make the toast along with them,” he says. He hits play, and one of the surfers asks, “What are we drinking to?” An old grizzled surfer raises his bottle, and Field recites the line along with him: “To your friends, come hell or high water!”

Field takes a swig of wine and passes the bottle to me. “I’ve been watching this movie since I was 13,” he says. “It’s influenced me in so many ways.”

It’s this reverence for friends and the DIY community that’s made Field, 42, a cult hero to a generation of fans, even if his music has never reached a mass audience. Explains, his 11th album (and first on the Woodsist label), just hit shelves last week. He released a string of beloved, laid-back California beach-folk albums on K Records in the early aughts that attracted a devout following. His fan base has grown more loyal over the years, and they’ll feel rewarded by Explains, which is the purest realization of his melodic, storytelling folk to date. It’s a lush, largely acoustic, headphone-friendly record featuring some of his best lyrical work. As we chat in his breezeway, Field characterizes his music as “informed by 70s FM-radio songs, minor chords with pretty melodies. There’s a high-swooping Stevie Nicks-ness to it.” At moments, Explains sounds like it could have arrived in 2015 via a saltwater-rusted, time-traveling 1979 VW Vanagon.

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Throughout the Little Wings discography, several characters have ballads of their own, like the Shredder, an aging skateboarder, who gets a shout out on Explains. For longtime Little Wings listeners, it’s clear that Field’s characters—the Shredder, Scuby, Hanta Yo and Uncle Kyle, among others—are stand-ins for himself.

“A psychologist would say that all of your songs are about yourself,” he says. “For me, using a character is easier than saying ‘I.’ Like, ‘Daryl walked downtown again,’ would be easier for me to sing than ‘I walked downtown again.’ It’s an old-fashioned bard perspective, where the bard can talk about the whole town. I like to change the names to protect the innocent in my songs, in a Neil Young/Greendale way. I think our personalities come out when we tell stories. Lil Wayne said that his songs are the way he shows people how intelligent he is, not through conversation. I can relate to that.”

I ask how closely he follows Lil Wayne’s career. “I mostly celebrate his three mixtapes,” Field says. “I’m not familiar with the albums. Not out of disrespect. I’ve already started a relationship with his mixtapes, and my plate is full. There are so many words in his songs, and I’m still digesting.”

As we sit protected from the rain in his breezeway, I ask Field about a story that I heard, that he’d once played a Black Sabbath-influenced band called Heavy Times with his longtime collaborator, guitarist Lee Baggett. Baggett, who (like Field) appears to have logged a lot of beach time, is the Costello to Field’s Abbott. At the mention of his metal band, he scurries over to the siding in his house, removes a shingle, and pulls out a tube of paintings. Field, also an accomplished visual artist with several gallery shows to his credit, reveals a Heavy Times painting.

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“This is probably ten years old,” he says of the artwork. “It was a joke band. We maybe had a handful of practices. Nothing serious.” I ask if he stores all his art in the walls of his house. “In all the nooks and crannies,” he says.

In conversation, Field is slyly funny, much like his lyrics. I ask what he’s been reading lately and he responds, “I almost finished Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis.” Why couldn’t he reach the end? Field sighs and says, “It was due back and someone placed an aggressive hold.”

A decade ago, I attended college in Southern California, and Little Wings was a constant presence. But Field’s shows were like a Bigfoot sighting. They weren’t advertised, and they took place at unlikely venues: a backyard, a restaurant, a beach bonfire, a sidewalk. Several people in the fan base he cultivated have now started bands of their own, including Real Estate, who once served as Field’s backing band at a New York City Little Wings gig, and at the Woodsist Festival in Big Sur.

“I've been a fan of Little Wings since I was 16 and ordered Light Green Leaves on CD from K Records based on the cover art,” writes Real Estate singer/guitarist Martin Courtney via email. “The main thing that I fell in love with about the music was how natural it sounded, the ease with which it seemed to have been written and recorded. The lyrics can be funny, pretty, heartfelt, conversational, and the melodies and chord progressions are always super nice and unexpected. The types of chords that Kyle uses have greatly influenced my own songwriting and the sound of Real Estate.”

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Real Estate’s bass player, Alex Bleeker, also chimes in over email: “The morning before last I woke up on a hillside in Big Sur,” he writes. “Kyle and his band were there. Everyone was milling about, making coffee and tea and looking out at the ocean. Kyle was strumming a nylon-stringed guitar and singing deep cuts from Kenny Rogers' The Gambler. Needless to say, we all had smiles on our faces … Kyle Field is a true lifer. He is the living embodiment of the artistic spirit. He makes delicate, soulful, aware music and he'll never slow down or stop. He makes art for art's sake.”

Bleeker’s use of the term “lifer” is telling. Punks often reserve the label with affection for musicians like Mike Watt or Ian McKaye, people who toil in the underground and never kowtow to trends. So it’s not a coincidence that seeing Watt play live was what inspired Field to become a musician.

“The first time I saw Watt, I was 18 years old,” Field says. “I was definitely more of a surfer then. I remember seeing him with fIREHOSE at the Whisky, and he just went off on the bass, not just thumping on one note. It made me want to start playing.”

Small indie-rock communities and groups of friends, like Real Estate, latched on to Little Wings early on. But apart from a 2010 YouTube clip (with half a million views) of Field duetting with Feist on his flagship song, “Look at What the Light Did Now,” his music has stayed underground. “I haven’t done a great job of getting the word out,” Field confesses. “I’ve played to 12 people for a really long time.”

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Field leans back in his chair and says he’s come to terms with his status as a fringe folk artist. “I always romanticized underappreciated musicians,” he says, “because of how enjoyable it is to appreciate them, and to have friends who share that appreciation. For me, it was going to see fIREHOSE with five friends, and no one else in our town went. There’s a camaraderie that goes with the feeling that you’re in on something that no one else is. That inspired me to not worry about how many people know about Little Wings, and just to focus on making sure it’s good enough.”

In 2015, just as he was when he started Little Wings at the turn of the millennium, Field remains an anomaly. Even in the social-media age, he’s a bit of a mystery. For a long time, the easiest way to get his records was to go to his shows, and the only way to know about his shows was hearing from a friend. In the past five years, I’ve only been to two Little Wings shows. Not because Field wasn’t playing often, but because I’d only hear about the gigs after they happened. With the release of Explains, Field is finally embracing social media.

“I held out for so long,” he says, “but then I found out that my dad had an iPhone. And then I found out Merle Haggard had a Twitter account. I really felt like a Luddite, but for what reason? So I caved and I got an iPhone. But I still question it. Like, how much time are we spending promoting ourselves on these sites vs. how much time are we spending writing songs that are meaningful? It’s more of a workload, but it pays off.”

Field seems content to remain an underground artist, but his public profile might soon be on the rise due to a surprising reason—he’s become an actor. Director Patrick Brice, a Little Wings fan, has cast Field in two of his projects: as the lead in a short film called Hang Loose (written and co-directed by Sammy Harkham), and in the upcoming Mark Duplass-produced dark comedy, The Overnight, starring Jason Schwartzman and Adam Scott.

“I thought the filmmaking process was exhilarating,” Field says. “The summer-camp-style camaraderie appealed to me. I’d like to do more acting, but not as the lead. I’d like to be a character actor, play a landscaper or a cowboy, something like that.”

Before we watch Big Wednesday, Field’s girlfriend, Aya Muto, a writer and photographer, makes potstickers and rice and joins us for dinner. Rosy the cockatiel lands on my shoulder and walks down my arm as I eat. “Careful,” Muto says with a laugh. “She’ll try to eat your rice.” Field reaches across the table, takes Rosy and puts her on his shoulder. “I’m more excited about life than I have been in a while,” he says. “I know it’s not gonna be like this forever, but the plant is open for business, and the wheels are turning.” I ask why he feels so contented, and he answers, “Relationship, home life, years of age.”

Alex Scordelis was supposed to learn how to surf with Kyle during this interview but that didn't happen because of the rain so instead they watched a surfing movie. Follow him on Twitter.