Interview: No Age

No Age is a noise rock duo comprised of Randy Randall and Dean Spunt. The Los Angeles band’s excellent 2010 album, Everything in Between, was highly praised and listed on many year end lists. No Age will play the Ché Café Collective on January 7, and in anticipation of the show, we sat down with Randy Randall for a wide-ranging interview.

Owl and Bear: How did you first get into writing music?

I was 13 years old when I first got a guitar. I just wanted to play an instrument, try to learn it — or unlearn it — and keep it a fun thing to do to express myself.

Owl and Bear: What was the first album you ever got?

When I was around 10 years old, I was into stuff like Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer. I had the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles soundtrack. Once I got into playing music and got an understanding of what real bands were, I got Nirvana’s Nevermind and Sonic Youth’s Goo, and things like that. That’s where my record appreciation really first started.

Owl and Bear: On your upcoming tour, you’ll be playing largely all-ages shows, and you’ve been described as a strong supporter of the All Ages Music Project. Can you tell me a little about that?

There’s an organization up in Seattle called the All Ages Music Project, or AMP, for short. It spreads the word about all-ages shows and how to book all-ages shows, and they’re strong supporters of all-ages shows.

For us growing up, before we could get into bars, most of our exposure to live music was at all-ages shows. So as I became a man older than 21, I decided there was no real sense in discriminating. Why play shows that I couldn’t have gotten into when I was 14?

Owl and Bear: There is a stigma against all-ages shows, but I’ve found that sometimes the crowds are more enthusiastic and more respectful of the music.

Definitely. It’s always an exciting audience when there’s no age restriction. Maybe it’s one of their earliest concerts and they’re new to it, and they’re trying to learn how things happen, but I think it’s just the enthusiasm. At the root of it, though, is the drinking. Clubs make a large amount of money off of the bar, compared to just the cover charge, and so just the element of having a bar in a venue creates a crowd around the bar. And there will be some people up at the stage, and there’s mingling, and people going between the two.

At most all-ages shows, there’s no bar and people are really there to see music. They’re not there to have drinks with their friends after work; they’re there to see the band. There’s a level of interest and excitement about the music, being the primary reason people are gathered at the venue. So all-ages shows are just centered around the music.

Owl and Bear: How did growing up in L.A. affect your musical upbringing?

Growing up in L.A. was awesome. L.A.’s a big, sprawling, sort of suburban wasteland with plenty of small places to see bands. So for me — I grew up near the Pomona area — there were a lot of venues and coffee shops and different little places where bands would play, and I was close to the Claremont colleges where some bands come through because of the college crowd. I got to see a lot of great bands early on. Plus, a lot of national touring acts would come into L.A. proper and I’d catch a ride with my brother or a friend to see some of the bigger bands that came through the city.

Owl and Bear: You mentioned in a Pitchfork interview that one of your personal philsophies is “just being a nice guy.” Is that conducive to touring from city to city, constantly meeting strange new people?

I think if you’re an asshole and have to tour all the time, it definitely makes life harder on you and the people around you. But being easygoing generally helps in all aspects in life, especially when you’re living in a van for months at a time.

Owl and Bear: Pitchfork has long been a champion of No Age. Nouns was their #3 album of the year in ’08, and Everything in Between was ranked #17 out their 50 favorites this year. Has the recognition affected how you write and/or perform?

We really make music for ourselves first and foremost. We have to enjoy what we’re making and be interested in what we’re writing. The recognition is nice, but when you start to rely too heavily on that stuff, the dog starts chasing its own tail. You’re never going to please everybody all the time, and just as much as people will say something nice about the band, there will be people who’ll say something mean, too. You have to take it with a grain of salt and appreciate the nice things, and try to listen to the criticism if there’s anything valid about it.

Owl and Bear: There seems to be a critical consensus that since Nouns, your sound has become more accessible. Does the idea of accessibility affect your artistic decisions?

I don’t think the idea of accessibility — meaning songs that people would like — really plays into it. It’s more of personal taste, the way the music is written. No, there’s never been any conscious intention to be accessible, or continue to be accessible. It’s just grown out of a sense of intuition in ourselves, what we want to write.

Owl and Bear: When people ask you what kind of music you write, what do you say?

I always just say punk. Punk, to me, is a broad description that reflects an attitude about the world, more than a genre of music. It’s doing things we find challenging or interesting.

Owl and Bear: The do-it-yourself ethic and doing what feels right, rather than a specific sound?

I think that’s something we subscribe to. Punk for us is defined by [record] labels, like SST, which is an undeniable punk label run by Greg Ginn of Black Flag, an undeniable punk band. But they put out records by bands like The Meat Puppets, The Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, and Sonic Youth. So there’s a very wide spectrum in genres of music, but there was a similar attitude that ran through all those bands. There was this punk attitude that describes a do-it-yourself distillation in attitude and outlook more than the genre or style of music.

Owl and Bear: A lot of critics have commented favorably on how your records begin and end. Since your songs are often very different from each other, is this a conscious effort to tie the chaos together and create a coherent whole?

When we make a record, we try to sequence it in a way that seems natural, has progression and flow to it. Same with the live shows; we try to present the songs in a way that is interesting, tied together and unified in some way. But we embrace the sense of chaos — that’s where things usually get interesting.

Owl and Bear: It’s refreshing when bands don’t just write for individual tracks.

I think the songs can stand on their own, but when you listen to them as a body of work, as an album, hopefully it creates a listening experience and takes the listener some place.

Owl and Bear: You have a third member who goes on the road with you.

Cundo Bermudez is joining us for the live shows. That grew out of the songs being written in a way that one of us would often be on a sampler throughout a whole song, playing samples in time with the rhythm of the song. So in order to perform those songs live, we needed an extra set of hands to play those samples like we did on the record. Recording allows you the ability to layer things up so the same two people can play four or five different instruments, but once you get up there live, there are only so many hands.

Owl and Bear: Do you think you’ll be doing more with sampling and electronics, et cetera?

I think so. For us, it’s a way of challenging ourselves in writing, to compose and arrange songs based on samples that we had. So yeah, it’s definitely a conscious challenge. Specifically a song like “Glitter” was written and arranged based on samples, and guitar riffs were added later as a texture effect.

Owl and Bear: The album art for Nouns was nominated for a Grammy Award, and the cover of Everything In Between was also designed by the same guy, potentially setting you up for another Grammy nod.

Yeah, Brian Roettinger. I think album art is a big part of presenting an album, to find some way to present it visually. Creating artwork to go around the songs and in some ways represent them visually and thematically is inherently part of the process of creating an album. So yeah, it’s a big part and we’re involved heavily in it. We don’t just pass it off to Brian; it’s the three of us really in a room, battling it out for a few weeks.

Owl and Bear: Metallica ended up winning, and their album cover was a coffin. Do you think people are capable of appreciating album art these days?

I think so. The fact that [Nouns] got nominated shows that there’s some sense of appreciation at least from whoever votes on that kind of stuff — the industry people. I feel it’s appreciated, I think people are psyched on the visual elements to it.

We didn’t get nominated this year for [Everything In Between], which is fine too. It’s almost a strange fluke that Nouns was nominated at all. I didn’t even know that “Best Recording Package” was a category. I’ve never heard of a Grammy being given out for the way an album looks; I always thought it was the songs.

Owl and Bear: They have to reward themselves somehow.

Yeah (laughs). It’s a very self-appointed process. “Hey, everybody, let’s pat ourselves on the backs and give ourselves awards for what we do.”

Owl and Bear: Did you get a chance to check out the competition?

I did go to a store and I found the Metallica record in a bargain bin and picked it up. I just wanted to see what it was. The album wasn’t great, but the artwork, I was like, “Oh okay, I kind of see what they’re doing.” I dig it.

Owl and Bear: Can you tell me a little about your work with Altamont Apparel?

We’ve been collaborating with them now for a few years. That they have a catalog that comes out four times a year, and two of those catalogs come with ten-inch records that feature music. So we help curate the bands who are selected for that, and we also have opportunities to present clothing ideas to them. Dean designed a denim jacket.

Owl and Bear: Collaboration with others seems like a big part of your philosophy.

The collaboration process is another way to work with people who have their own interesting ideas and their own artwork that they make. It’s a great opportunity to stir things up.

Owl and Bear: Is there anything you’d like to do as a band that you haven’t done?

I think we want to continue doing what we’re doing. One idea that always comes up as an interesting project to take on would be to open our own space that’s a music venue and an art gallery, and maybe a retail space. That would be an interesting challenge in the future.

Owl and Bear: Is No Age working on anything new right now?

Right now, no. We’re taking a little bit of a break for the holidays, just in-between tours. We head out again on January 7 to do another round of touring, so right now, we’re just taking it easy and looking forward to being on the road for a little while longer. Once the touring’s done, we’ll probably hunker down and start working on some new stuff.

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