You Can’t Ever Sing “Don’t Stop Believing” at Karaoke Because of This Guy
We interviewed Howard Paar, the guy responsible for the soundtrack to Gregg Araki's 'Nowhere,' as well as choosing songs for 'The L Word' and 'Monster.'
Howard Paar and I met at a charity function in Venice. We had a mutual friend who’s a master at networking who’d invited us both, even though we didn’t know anyone there and aren’t good at networking. Howard wore a long black coat and smiled politely at everyone, but I knew he was good people when we both found ourselves hovering inelegantly over the free food table, along with some writers, who’d stuffed their pockets with chocolate desserts and sausages for later. During the food scavenge, Howard walked up to the recognizable character actress Kathleen Wilhoite and gave her a hug—I’d recognized her from ER of all places. He told me later something like he’d produced her first album when she was a child star, and I was thinking, Who the hell is this guy? Then he told me about the new noir thriller novel he was writing based on his experiences in Hollywood in the 80s that opened with Richie Sambora and Elmore Leonard in a convertible, and from there, I just really liked Howard. But it wasn’t until later on that I found he had been one of the most instrumental characters in the music clubs of Los Angeles in the 70s and 80s, basically building Silverlake into the hip mecca it is now, and, beyond that, a prolific music supervisor who continues to thrive in the music industry today. The most recent film he’s worked on is the Aubrey Plaza comedy, The To Do List, due out early 2013.
VICE: Why did you come to LA from London, and how did the ON Klub begin? Most articles state that you met Bob Selvin at the Viper Room and offered him a great business opportunity in a club that could take advantage of the burgeoning interest in ska, two-tone, and mod culture. Was it just the right place at the right time, or did you already have a plan when you arrived from London?
Howard Paar: Came on a three-month holiday and never left. Had no plan. I’d grown up loving ska, blue beat, and soul. For whatever reason at the time I was wearing clothes that reflected that and saw a picture of The Specials wearing the same clothes just before “Gangsters” was released. I found the single and it was the catalyst for doing a club. Bob and I did first meet at that spot, but it was still called Filthy McNasty’s back then. A lot of clubs back then like The Whisky were booking great bands, but there would be some old hippy sound guy playing the Doobie Brothers or whatever. I wanted a place where the records and bands matched up
What was the crowd like at ON? Many cite the seamless integration of blacks, hispanics, and caucasians at the club. Can you pinpoint a particular moment when you knew that the ON was something special?
I believe the 2 Tone label and The Specials record in particular was catalyst for the immediacy of that. The mix of people happened instantly and naturally. I didn’t really think about it at the time. A big chunk of the crowd was really young, which brought the energy I’d hoped for. Music was non-stop. Obviously Silverlake was a different, somewhat rawer neighborhood then. It was pre-hipster or whatever. No boutiques, trendy restaurants, etc. It was a mostly hispanic neighborhood, which was great because some of those kids came and liked it. I know it sounds surreal now, but most of the crowd who came had never been in Silverlake before. It helped that we were on Sunset Blvd., I think.
How long did the ON last for, and why did it shut down?
It lasted four years. Success brought its share of issues. The Rampart cops and fire department didn’t like the idea of having that many kids—a lot of who “may” have been underage and wired—packed into well overcapacity space and spilling out onto the streets. There was one infamous night in 1982, where they came down and used tear gas. Bill Bentley [the guy responsible for releasing some seminal Roky Erickson and O.V. Wright comps], who was music editor at LA Weekly then, nicknamed it the House of Sweat, which sums it up pretty accurately. I literally had a rat jump onto one of my turntables one night and go for a spin. The door guy would go in first at night and toss a stool into the gloom to disperse the critters. It was only years later when I got to Jamaica that I realized it was just like the dancehalls there. Ultimately all the best clubs have their moment and shouldn’t outstay their time.
Where did you go after the end of ON Klub? Did you have dreams to start another club? Was your interest in ska fading?
While doing the ON Klub, Bob Selva convinced me to do another club at the spot where Filthy McNasty’s was (now the Viper Room). I’d had reservations, because I didn’t want to dilute what the ON Klub had, so I called it The Central. To be honest, that was a piss take on Madame Wong’s West [see Esther Wong’s impact on SoCal punk]. I hated all those poseur type places—her joints in particular, and (laughing) not because I was banned [but he was, over a discussion/altercation over an artist’s authenticity that resulted in a table ending up at the bottom of the stairs and through their plate glass door.]. At the time, I wanted to do a larger concert venue. My love for ska and Stax soul has never faded. I always look forward, though, so once I stopped doing clubs in the mid 80s, I was never tempted to do one again despite opportunities.
A few years ago, though, me and Tim Armstrong from Rancid are walking down the street from his Hell Cat label offices, and I see the club for first time in twenty years, and there’s a for lease sign outside. Filmmaker Allison Anders who used to go to the ON had thought we should do a one-off anniversary show as part of her Don’t Knock the Rock film festival, so I call the number. I obviously don’t say who I am but ask what rent is, etc. The guy, who is in Texas, is really pleasant and gives me details, but then asks what I intend to use it for. Says he doesn’t really care as long as it’s got nothing to do with music. Said that could never happen again. Ultimate compliment really that thirty years later, they still remembered what that had been like, huh?
[The ON Klub is now a wellness salon surrounded on either side by vacant lots. The property is across the street from iconic Los Globos club. I probably pass it at least twice a week on my bicycle. Trendy shit abounds nearby.]
What do you think of the music clubs in the area nowadays? Any good ones or particularly bad ones?
I love the Dub Club of course. Those guys have done an incredible job of bringing great artists in consistently. [Dub Club, part of Echoplex’s calendar in the Echo Park neighborhood, is less than a mile south of ON Klub’s old Sunset location]
How did you get into music supervision and what was your first gig?
I was working at Mercury/Polygram, looking for opportunities to connect the bands I worked with independent filmmakers. The English bands weren’t getting much radio play, and this seemed like a natural way to expose them to American audiences. Tim Booth from James and I met with Gregg Araki [Mysterious Skin, Smiley Face]. I was lucky enough to convince Mercury president Ed Eckstine to let me do the soundtrack for Gregg’s next film Nowhere. I fell completely in love with the process. Everything I’d ever done from djing on came into play.
Did the people at Mercury/Polygram picture you as the go-to Brit for UK music? Also, looking at your imdb profile is a little dizzying. You've worked on everything from The L Word and Greg the Bunny to Bordello of Blood and Monster. Monster? Tell me you were the guy who said, We've gotta have Journey in here, single-handedly reigniting a perverse fascination with “Don’t Stop Believing.”
Well, I loved working with the English bands. I think I was like their translator in a way. Once I started working on soundtracks, I realized I needed to be independent because my loyalty was to the filmmakers. Considering what happened to the record business just after that, it was a fortunate decision.
I’ve always tried to avoid being stereotyped, and I love all film genres for various reasons, so I try and work on a really diverse range of things. Patty Jenkins and Charlize Theron had been listening to Journey while filming Monster, and it was my job to go and get a deal done and get the highly complex permissions granted. There’s a brilliant, funny story attached to how we actually got this done, but suffice to say Steve Perry became a big supporter of the film.
Any way you can tell us the story about Steve Perry???
Is the majority of your job the creative side of finding the perfect music? What portion of your job is the grunt work of tracking down permissions and acquiring the licensing?
The creative part is the fun and joy. Seeing the perfect match of music to film is highly addictive. Getting the deal done and permissions, particularly on independent film, is a huge part of the job, though. I hate to say it, but it’s probably an 80/20 split. Having the long label background and relationships with artists and managers has been invaluable, though.
The last interviewee for this column was an independent record label owner, who mentioned that several years ago, a new upcropping of hip, in-the-know music supervisors helped stabilize the indie label scene, by selecting music and working out fair deals for use. But he said that in the past few years, a host of hack music supervisors have sprouted, making it almost impossible for an indie artist to get a good licensing deal. Can you comment on how the music supervision industry has changed since the time you started? What's different now?
Wow, April, I understand and don’t disagree with his point of view. I have heard really depressing stories on that subject. I don’t want to come off too sanctimonious, but my attitude is that independent filmmakers and artists can and should help each other, while valuing each other’s art and right to make a living from it. Other than what he says, the other contributing factor in this is that while the good news is that more independent films are getting made again, overall the budgets are lower, so this affects all aspects—perhaps music especially, though. When I was working on The L Word, it felt very different. Some people got together and made a website devoted to the music played on the show with direct links to buy from the labels and artists. The show and the people who worked on it cared enough to set up this website that had no attachment to Showtime.
Do you see a viable way that this dynamic could change and benefit artists at every level, including the musicians and labels?
A big question obviously. I try as much as possible to do indie films where all the artists are paid the same. Artists should push for equality with artists of similar stature to protect themselves a bit. I don’t think any artist should agree to license their music for free or casually give away their publishing. Don’t work with licensing companies that charge an upfront fee to place their music. We are living in a period where music has been devalued, so it’s an uphill battle. On the positive side I’m constantly hearing brilliant exciting new artists and some great new labels, which make the future prospects hopeful to me.
You said to me recently that you dislike nostalgia, yet you're currently writing a series of thriller novels set in the lost LA time of rock 'n roll high life. Why do this, and what things that you'd forgotten about that time have come bubbling to the surface during the writing of those books?
You’re busting me during an interview, April. That’s harsh. The only time I allow myself musical nostalgia is when I’m working on a period film, so I’m somewhat applying that rule to books. Whether to give in to nostalgia is one of the themes of the first one, Once Upon a Time in Los Angeles, which is set mostly in ’98, an interesting time to me, as it’s that last moment before downloads changed everything. I have to admit, though, I had the most fun writing the late 70s parts. The Hollywood street life and characters from that time started popping up vividly as I wrote, and a few have resurfaced in real life. I’m fascinated how the Los Angeles landscape has changed, and how the gentrification of Hollywood has taken over. What’s now the restored Sunset Tower was pretty much a crash pad then, for instance. Obviously, the artists from those periods are remembered, but it’s fun to write about the meld of wild record execs, semi-mob guys, punks, and hustlers that I came across when I got here. I’m also blaming and thanking the brilliant author Denise Hamilton who used to go to the ON Klub for encouraging me to write about that time, so the second one, Vortex, is about the early 80s and the Jamaican music biz.
Do you think the music industry is too nostalgic? For instance, does relying on how things worked in the past prevent us from finding better ways for the future? Why do you dislike nostalgia?
I do think record companies hung onto the old way of doing things for way too long. That being said, changing huge unwieldy companies’ culture quickly is like trying to spin a quick u-turn on an ocean liner. It ain’t happening. The great labels from the past—Island, Atlantic, A&M—didn’t start from a corporate place, which is why I’ve believed for a long time that the next great music company will come from a couple of kids working out of their basement. I actually think I may have finally met them, too, last week. Have you heard the stuff Burger Records is putting out? Brilliant. So I never wanted to let nostalgia with music blind me to great new music. The new was always more exciting to me than the old. To be honest, though, I do have nostalgia for Los Angeles, particularly for noir literature and film, so guess I should come clean about that.
Mostly notably, I think Burger has Shannon & the Clams, Nobunny, Ty Segall, and Thee Oh Sees, who've all been ruling the Bay Area. It's nice to hear that a music supervisor like yourself has taken some interest in those folks. In actuality, it seems like you've carved out a music lover's dream here in LA. Whether you're djing a club, or putting music to pictures, you're still championing the things you love. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to do what you do in the industry as it is now?
Have you heard Natural Child on Burger? So good, really like Summer Twins. Denny and the Jets, too. I think the advice is always the same whatever period. Are you absolutely compelled to do this? If you aren’t, at some point you’ll realise there’s lots of easier ways to make a living. If you are, these days the most realistic bet would be to try and intern with someone whose work you respect. I’m happy and proud to say that’s worked out for the first two who helped me.
Haven't heard Natural Child, but I'll look them up. You realize you're giving them a bunch of free publicity right now, right? Better go ask for a royalty check. I hear your book will have some cameos from some rock legends like Richie Sambora and Mick Jagger. Are you at all worried about getting into some truths about these guys?
Yes, some artists do show up in the book in what I hope they will perceive as fun ways. The thin line between reality and fiction is very blurred in LA, which makes me happy living in and writing about the city and its people.
Oh, Randy Newman. We do love LA [Here’s where you look up the lyrics to that song and realize that shit’s crazy, and then you kind of start liking that song, and LA]
Most photos by © Kevin Long of the Untouchables