Listening to an Allah-Las' record is like watching a vintage movie — the palette is muted and neutral, yet warmed by the hearth of nostalgia. Crisp images fade to romanticized memories, ones that get better and better each time you press rewind and play. An odd yearning creeps up inside you for days that were never yours, though you feel as if you were there. Foreign familiarity—that's what Calico Review captures.
As pioneers of this decade's surf rock revival, the Allah-Las are pros at tapping into the sun-bleached tone of Southern California in the 60s and 70s. Their previous two releases, 2011's self-titled debut and 2014's Worship the Sun, are soaked in warm rays, copper-tinted, and framed by faded film stock, an aura the group has channeled since 2008 and transposed onto their latest work, Calico Review, with a little help from some antique equipment. We spoke to Pedrum Siadatian, Spencer Dunham, and Matthew Correia about recording at Los Angeles' Valentine studios, the myth of Hollywood, driving around Mexico, and learning to play the Mellotron. Read on for a glimpse into their latest, and listen to an exclusive stream of Calico Review, out September 9th via Mexican Summer, below.
Noisey: Valentine Recordings has been closed since 1979, where did the opportunity to record there come about?
Pedrum: We're friends with the Night Beats, and they were recording there, and checked out the studio when they were there, and that was the first time we saw it. And then, yeah, it just seemed like the right place to go because it had really unique equipment, and the environment was really cool, and we thought we'd feel comfortable recording there so we ended up going with it.
Speaking of equipment, Valentine is where The Beach Boys worked on some records, did you guys get to use the same equipment to record Calico Review?
Pedrum: It's really old equipment they have in there. I think the equipment definitely affecting how it [Calico Review] sounds, but I don't think it affected the songwriting, since that was done before we went into the studio. The songs were written before we started recording, because we've been demo-ing stuff for about a year before we went into the studio. I think we were in there late January, early February.
What was the vibe in there compared to other places you've recorded before?
Pedrum: I think it has this nickname of being the "time capsule studio" because everything in there is so well-preserved. All the decor and equipment of course is all really well-preserved. Even the chairs in the studio, I mean, we don't really care about that kind of stuff, but it was cool to be in there and see it like that. Because it was just used for storage for car parts for a while, and no one was using it as a studio for decades. It just needed to be cleaned and dusted and the electronics needed to be cleaned out. I think it was just really dusty and dirty in there. It was really nice underneath.
So, if the studio itself didn't influence any of the writing on the record, what are some things that did?
Pedrum: I think some of the songs on this record are more abstract than some of our other stuff. And it's kind of all over the place because everyone was writing for it. "Roadside Memorial" is about, you know when you drive by and you see a cross on the side of the road? It's pretty much about that experience—just driving and seeing these ominous roadside memorials, and how it's kind of a warning to people as well—something to commemorate someone who's died. We were in Mexico, in Baja, and I was seeing a lot of those down there. I guess that was the impetus for writing that song, since there were so many of them. You don't see them as much in LA, I feel like you see them more in rural areas.
Spencer: There's one song on the record that's called "200 South La Brea" and it's about an address on La Brea, and it's just kind of written with a Jonathan Richmond approach where everything is kind of matter-of-fact and it's about a casting agency and the kind of environment that goes on there. Kind of like the Hollywood dream and the Hollywood reality that exists.
As in, the difference between the dream and the reality?
Spencer: Yeah. That song was inspired by a friend saying she was going to a casting at 200 South La Brea, so there wasn't a strange inspiration for it, it just kind of had a nice ring to it.
Did she get the part?
Spencer: I don't know. [Laughs.]
So, there are a bunch of instruments you guys haven't used before thrown into the mix of this record. What made you guys want to do that?
Pedrum: We did want to mix up the sound a little bit and also the songs lent themselves better to that, more so than before.
In what sense?
Pedrum: I think it was a vibe thing, we have some harpsichord on a couple songs, and Mellotron, and other organ stuff and it just seemed to suit the songs really well and we just went with it. We put a theremin on a song that didn't end up making the final cut.
Most people don't casually know how to play a Mellotron, did you guys learn to play these new instruments specifically for the record?
Pedrum: I was learning how to play piano a bit before we started preparation for this record, it was one of my New Year's resolutions, the only one I kind of stuck to, so I learned chords and scales and stuff. So I was able to do most of the things I wanted to do in the studio. And also, Miles [Michaud] did a little bit and I think Spencer you did some too, didn't you?
Spencer: Keyboards? I did, but we had Tomas [Dolas] of Mr. Elevator [& the Brain Hotel] play over it. Tomas was one of the engineers for the record and he played on a few songs, too. Laena Geronimo from Feels and Raw Geronimo played violin on a couple songs. And John Anderson who used to be in GIRLS played guitar during a session.
Tell me about the name Calico Review.
Pedrum: I think it came about from things different friends had said, and meshing them together.
Matt: Working on the album art with a close friend Robbie Simon we kind of came to an agreement on what we wanted and I was kinda toying with the ideas of these colors, and it was sort of like, the colors, to me, looked kind of calico, and we just kind of went from there and ended up with these two words that sound nice together. Calico Review describes the tone of the record, color, and what the palette for that is. I think it's a word that has some California history, and also it ended up describing the way the album came together in that we were all writing separately or in small groups. It kind of makes sense because calico is a bunch of different colors that create something that is one, which is sort of what this album is.
Is that a different approach to writing than you've used before?
Matt: I think on the last record it was starting to become more individual writing and, yeah, this record is pretty much all individual writing. Since were touring so much, and when were home were usually not hanging out all the time, so it makes sense that things are written more individually. You kind of write a song exactly the way you want it to be better when it's written individually.