Better, Stranger, Superer: LA Band James Supercave's Slow Burn Heats Up
James Supercave’s music rests on the precipice between genres, embracing a brand of psych pop that revels in the abstract. Check out the premiere of "Burn" from their forthcoming debut 'Better Strange.'
All photos by Cara Robbins
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It’s a crisp fall afternoon in Echo Park, and Joaquin Pastor is walking home when a song from a nearby apartment catches his ear. Intrigued but unfamiliar, he tries Shazaming it. No luck. A few feet closer, still no dice. He takes a few more steps. Nothing. This continues until Pastor is standing on the front porch, phone held up to the door, eyes on the phone, determined to find the song if it kills him.
The song, it turns out, is not on Shazam, because it’s being mixed inside by producer Gus Seyffert, who is none too happy to find some strange kid standing in his open doorway.
“Hey, man,” Seyffert says. “Hey, what are you—what the hell are you doing?”
Pastor looks up, startled, and apologizes, explaining the situation. Fair enough, Seyffert figures, and invites him into his studio to listen to the tune—"This Will Be Your Drink” by Seyffert’s band Willoughby—as Pastor gawks at his recording set-up, mentioning a new music project he’s working on. They exchange info, and Pastor continues on his way.
“I kinda remember thinking, 'That was stupid,’” Seyffert says. “Why would I let some person off the street into my house?'”
Lucky for Pastor, he did.
Five years later, Pastor found himself on Seyffert’s porch again, though now that porch is attached to a two-story converted craftsman home a few miles away in Historic Filipinotown, and, this time, Seyffert was expecting him: Pastor was there to record a live session with his band, James Supercave, to promote their long-awaited debut LP, Better Strange, which bows February 12 on Fairfax Recordings.
When I arrive a few hours after Pastor, I’m greeted first by Seyffert’s large German shepherd, Hans, and then the 28-year-old Pastor, who’s talking to director James Kid and DP Charlie Sarroff about filming the day’s four-song session. Kid, Pastor's former roommate, has been with the band since day one, and shot the video for single “The Right Thing,” an ode to El Guincho’s “Bombay” and other works that might take the title for the best video you didn’t see last year.
“Generally, we gravitate toward surreal, bold, and simple,” Pastor says, citing the animations of Norman McLaren and Stanley Kubrick as inspirations. ”'The Right Thing’ was all James Kid. We jumped off the cliff with him and we'll probably do it again.”
In a converted living room lined with basses and guitars, keyboardist Patrick Logothetti is attempting to corral a ten-person order of Thai food for the day’s core crew, which also includes guitarist Andrés Villalobos, touring bassist Patrick Phillips, and touring drummer Rhys Hastings (also of Gothic Tropic). Seyffert, whose soft-spoken demeanor is belied by his towering frame, is busy directing his assistant at the mixing board. Though he made his name as an LA touring and session mainstay, playing bass for everyone from Norah Jones to The Black Keys to Beck, Seyffert has recently shifted to devoting most of his time to running the sleek, comfy, retro-futuristic studio we’re in today.
The gang has already been here for two hours, and were here the night before to set up tones; it’ll be another four before we leave. Pastor works with an obsessive intensity; if it's not the perfect note, he says, it won't make the demo, and won't make it out of the bedroom. But that dichotomy of passion and anxiety is also what defines much of James Supercave's psych-pop sound, and what makes Better Strange so compelling. When we break for coffee later, he describes himself as someone “not meant for the scheduled world.”
“It used to drive me fucking insane sometimes,” Seyffert tells me later, referring to Pastor’s attention to detail and the marathon sessions it can inspire. “‘Cause I'd just like want to have musicians come in and do their thing. But he knows exactly what he wants everybody to play. And he's really, really particular about each part.”
Pastor refers, euphemistically, to the band’s “healthy culture of criticism,” which “teeters on unhealthy every once in awhile. It manifests by a chronic dissatisfaction with everything, but in particular music.” He adds, “I'm honestly not sure if anything would come out if it were completely up to me, if I was completely up to my own devices. It's hard to imagine anything coming out. Except in the emails to my friends being like, ‘I think you would actually like this.’” And sure enough, this album has been a long time coming.
In the five years since the Echo Park trio hit the scene, they’ve garnered band-to-watch accolades, local residencies, radio play, and touring and support slots with bands like Warpaint and Future Islands. Fans have been known to do things like knit James Supercave scarves. In 2014, a demo of their song "Burn" made it into rotation at LA's tastemaker radio station KCRW, who stamped it with a coveted “Track of the Day” designation, even though it had literal gibberish in place of its still-unwritten lyrics. At a recent hometown headlining gig, I watched a packed crowd sing along to the dozen or so songs of their set even though they've officially released only five. But after personnel changes and a more-than-healthy dose of perfectionism, it’s time to double down—you can only be anticipated for so long.
“Making this record took so long that I think each of us, in our own way, has an urgency to create things as quickly as possible,” says Logothetti, 29. “Now that the record is coming out, there’s a sense that when you have an idea, do it as soon as possible so you don’t not do it.”
The goal is to wrap before the food gets here, and though they miss the mark by several hours, at the time it’s a worthy incentive for everyone to take their spots. In the main studio, housed in the home’s former kitchen, Logothetti sidles up behind his set-up; he’s joined by Villalobos, 33, whose reputation as a man of few words both precedes him and proves to be true. Pastor takes his spot in a smaller booth adjacent to the sound board to lay down vocals and guitar.
As the guys run through the set, they work in a kind of exacting shorthand, calling out missed notes or lags, fixing them, and moving on. It’s those details that strengthen and distinguish their labyrinthine arrangements. Villalobos’ guitar leads on the day's first track, “Body Monsters,” for example, might make for generic indie fodder in less mindful hands, but he drives them instead into vibrant glam rock turns. Logothetti’s keys and electronic work gird each of the albums 12 songs with a surreal vitality. And though it might be tempting to compare Pastor’s standout voice to Alec Ounsworth or Joe Newman, his is more complex, oscillating between moans and staccato falsetto on “The Right Thing,” or squeezing itself into a sax-like wail on the ballad “With You.”
Their respective voices create the collaborative pushback on which they thrive.
“There are so many reasons to not be a band today,” Villalobos says, reffering to both the popularity and logistical ease of laptop producers and DJs. “It’s expensive. But I like the idea of heads coming together and making something larger than themselves.”
Better Strange rests on the precipice between genres, embracing a brand of psych pop that revels in the abstract. It’s hard not to hear LA—at its most weird and radiant—in James Supercave’s music.
"When you can go back and forth [as a band], you can push an idea you have on an electronic tip, and then try it out in a jam setting, or in an acoustic setting, you really get to find out where you idea is supposed to go," Logothetti says of their process. "I think that’s why the record sounds so diverse. Everyone in this group can and does write parts for each other and try out ideas in a bunch of different scenarios until it feels right."
Pastor and Logothetti first met around ten years ago as acting students at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television; Villalobos came into the picture a few years later as a neighbor of Pastor’s at a Silver Lake apartment complex dubbed “The Cancer House,” for its state-mandated carcinogen warning placards.
The three bonded over their voracious musical interests and shared politics. Pastor’s father is a leading expert on social justice in Latin America, and an undercurrent of social consciousness runs through both their music and conversations.
“A lot of our songs are pretty dark, which is a reaction to the fact that the world is really dark,” Pastor says. “But it’s also about trying to find that feeling, that soul. Whether we’re talking about love or the world, there’s this connectedness, this wholeness to it. Not all these songs are personal, but they’re truthful.”
A quivering synth line fills the room, and for a moment it sounds like it could be coming from the whirring tape and blinking lights of the Scully. The trio’s sound is rooted in pop, with sleek, infectious bass and guitar lines shepherding Pastor’s wail across the emotional sprawl. But theirs is a little more sinister.
If pop is cool again because it offers us a point of connection in an era of self-curation and disconnectedness, Better Strange turns that on its head: It’s music that can get a room of strangers dancing to songs about losing a lover to Internet addiction and worker suicides at Apple’s Foxconn plant.
“Where I see in myself an ambition to make pop music, I see a common language that if you can speak in the right way, but just stretch it out just enough so that it becomes something totally new, it'll both connect and be something all its own,” Pastor says. “And that's a fun game to engage in.”
Accordingly, the record’s feelings of isolation and disconnectedness reinforce a sense of connection to the music: It’s knowing that someone else feels it too. When James Supercave’s songs seem to veer towards polished and predictable, the band confronts each turn by subverting expectations. It's what drives songs like album centerpiece "The Right Thing," an elliptical, existential number that features lyrics like, "Fall asleep in heaven but you wake up in a noose / You yell 'please help' but no one's there to cut your vision loose," and album closer "Overloaded":
“Meet me in the narrow neck of an hourglass / Where I can’t find the time to see where you end and I begin,” Pastor beckons over a wall of synths and feedback, building as if to drown out the anxious voices in his head. It’s at once hopeful and dissonant; the whole thing sounds perpetually on the verge of blowing out, but never does.
It’s that tension that makes their music get under your skin—as well as such a painstakingly assembled product.
"Self-consciousness is a pretty real thing to me. I think it's pretty prevalent on the album too. 'Cause there's a need, I guess I feel a need to be understood," Pastor says. "And so articulating something that's true to me, there's a meaning behind something, and I'll want to get it right. I'll want to get the poetry right, so that you can feel what the song is about. And feel where I'm coming from."
As they prepare to hit the road for the year, that perfectionism is an impulse they know they’ll have to relinquish if they want to move forward. But it still crops up. While the band wraps “Esther Reed,” an older favorite that didn’t make it on the album, Pastor runs through half a dozen takes to nail a particularly acrobatic line, insisting "again" even after they call the last one.
“There's a sense of, this needs to be birthed, or else I don't know if I can live with it any longer,” Pastor tells me later. “Because, I guess the exercise that we're least versed in is finishing things.
At some point, perfection collapses in on itself, or it’s crushed by the weight of expectation. The world feels really complex; sometimes the best you can do is let go and hope you’ve made someone else understand how you feel.
They could keep going with this forever, but, tonight, Logothetti, who holds down a degree of decisiveness for the band, weighs in with a kind of easygoing impatience. He pushes back: “I think we got it.”
Andrea Domanick is so much better strange. Follow her on Twitter.