Over the past month and a half, Best Coast have been teasing out new material from their upcoming California Nights, the group’s third proper full-length and first since signing with Harvest. So far we’ve had tastes of the record via the title track, “Heaven Sent,” and “Feeling OK” — songs that contrast blissed-out stoner majesty with impossibly catchy power-riffing. Having heard the rest of the record, I can say that California Nights is not so much a reinvention as an expansion, with Bethany Cosentino’s trademark blend of hook-filled insouciant pop married to production that takes the songs into bigger, punchier sonic territories (i.e., it sounds like a very good and slightly more grown-up Best Coast record). While it remains to be seen if the record will manage to shake off some of the old criticisms that have followed the band — too much California, too many same-sounding bittersweet jingly-jangly songs about boys — Cosentino and her Best Coast partner Bobb Bruno don’t appear to be sweating it too much. Sitting down to chat with them recently, it seems obvious that the always vibe-conscious duo are happier than ever having created exactly the kind of record they always wanted to make.
STEREOGUM: Your last EP, Fade Away, came out in 2013. How did that record lead into the making of this new one?
COSENTINO: I really wanted to make something new, and we had recorded two songs for Record Store Day with Wally Gagel, who produced both Fade Away and California Nights. So we went in to do these two songs — “Who Have I Become?” and “Fear of My Identity” — and it just felt so amazing to be recording new music. I really felt this change happening in me as a writer, so I wanted to keep it going. We put those two songs on the EP and it ended up feeling kind of like a buildup to this new record. We wanted to take some risks on the EP but we didn’t go as far as we wanted to, which is something we tried to do with this full-length. Also, making any kind of record with Wally is inevitably just the chillest, most laid-back experience ever, and that’s very much our vibe. So it just made sense for us to make this record with him and it ended up being one of the best experiences ever.
STEREOGUM: I listened to an advance stream of the record without any context whatsoever — no liner notes or anything — and it immediately brought to mind pop/rock records that I love from the ’80s. I was thinking of a record like the Go-Go’s Talk Show — that same kind of sound.
COSENTINO: We definitely had things that were inspiring us at the time, but we didn’t go into the studio this time thinking that we were going to make this kind of record that would be inspired by these three or four specific bands. We spent a week ahead of recording just doing pre-production stuff, which we’ve never done in the history of this band. It was really just a matter of going into the studio and playing through the songs and making edits and changes, cutting songs that didn’t need to be on the record. That being said, we were listening to a lot of stuff like the Primitives, Gwen Stefani, the Go-Go’s, and the Bangles. We also really love ’90s stuff, obviously, but I didn’t want to put us into a really specific mindset. I wanted us to go in and just see what might come out.
STEREOGUM: The two of you have been making music together for a long time now. Do you find that your way of working and writing has changed much over the years? Have you developed a kind of shorthand for how you communicate with each other?
COSENTINO: Our way of working is pretty much exactly the same as it was the first time we ever recorded anything together. The reason why I think we work so well together as a duo has to do with the fact that we actually don’t write together, which I know people often think is weird. I can sit at home, write a bunch of songs and demo them, send them to Bobb with a little paragraph about what inspired it or which song by the Sundays I wanted it to sound like or whatever, and then he takes it and puts his own spin on it. And when he sends it back to me, it’s almost always totally spot-on. He understands my bizarre language that no one else really understands, so in that respect nothing much has changed. The only thing that has changed is that we’ve opened up our circle a little bit — we’ve invited in Brady [Miller], who records with us and plays drums live, and allowed Wally to have input as a producer. In the past we worked with producers who were really more like engineers and just let us do our own thing, but Wally was really involved. I think we’re a little less stubborn now.
STEREOGUM: It takes a while to learn when it’s OK to let people in and consider their input, and when it’s important to just dig in your heels and say no.
COSENTINO: Yeah, it took us a really long time.
BRUNO: About five years. [Laughs]
COSENTINO: I was telling someone recently that no matter what happens with Best Coast — if we became this hugely popular band or just sort of stayed at the level we’re at now — this dynamic between the two of us would never change. No one’s ego would ever get inflated. I could never kick him out and hire some new dude; he wouldn’t ever storm out and leave. We just really enjoy doing what we do, and we try to be really humble about that. We just love working together.
BRUNO: There’s just total mutual respect between the two of us, and we really allow each other to be ourselves. If there’s ever a criticism that comes up between us, it’s never personal; it’s always about trying to improve the songs.
STEREOGUM: It’s great to work in an environment where you don’t ever have to be self-conscious. You are free to make a fool of yourself sometimes, and it’s OK to say to someone, “That just sounds dumb.”
COSENTINO: [Laughs] Yeah, like his solo on “California Nights” — the first time he played it for me, it was a little too Dave Navarro for me…
BRUNO: That’s what I was going for! I love Jane’s Addiction.
COSENTINO: I mean, Jane’s Addiction is rad, but I was like, “This is a little too Navarro for me, maybe tone it down just a little bit?” And he was like, “OK.” That’s just kind of how we talk to each other. And again, I think we are often saved by the fact that we don’t spend hours and hours in a practice space writing songs together and constantly stopping each other to say, “That sucks,” or, “Do it this way instead.” That way of working is why bands fight and break up.
STEREOGUM: “California Nights” is sort of like the perfect Best Coast song in that it seems to encapsulate all of your obsessions in one tune.
COSENTINO: I remember sending it to the guys and worrying they might not like it and would think it was too weird. It didn’t really sound like any of our other songs. Once it was released, people started saying that maybe we’d made a shoegaze record. But none of the other songs on the record really sound like it. We just wanted to do something a little different that drew from some of our influences that we don’t usually get to explore. At the time we were making this record, we weren’t actually signed to a label, so that was really nice. We didn’t have anyone coming in asking to hear demos or give their input, so we could truly just do whatever we wanted. Luckily Harvest really loved the record and didn’t want to change anything about it, which made it seem like the right move for us. We were terrified that labels were gonna ask us to go in and rewrite things, or tell me I had to go and work with Dr. Luke or something.
STEREOGUM: I’ve had so many conversations over the past few months with female artists regarding how much agency they have or don’t have regarding their music or their image. Its kind of shocking — even in the indie-rock world — how much bullshit female artists continue to deal with. There is always someone behind the scenes trying to tell you how to sound and how you should look or whatever.
COSENTINO: Oh yeah, I feel that. But Bobb will tell you that I am pretty much the last person on Earth to ever listen to anyone who is trying to tell me what to do. Any time I’ve been put in one of those situations, I’m always like “I’m not doing that. It’s not happening.” I’ve definitely grown up a lot over the past five or six years. You can see, even in our press photos, I’m kind of giving you a somewhat elevated or exaggerated version of myself, but it’s still the same person that I’ve always been. I’ve never felt like I needed to try and impress people or present myself as this new person. If anything has changed, it’s just because I’m 28 years old now and I was 23 when Best Coast first started. I had weird bleached hair and didn’t have any idea what I was doing. Also, the two of us — me and Bob — don’t look like we belong together in the same band, which is something I’ve always loved. I’ll look at photos of us together sometimes and just be struck by what a strange-looking team we are. But that’s what makes us special. We also work with people who really understand and respect that about us. We work with people who understand that Bobb’s thing is that he usually looks kind of upset in photos and that Bethany’s thing is that she’s down to be a little more upfront in the photos and is willing to try and “smize” for photos. I think people like that about us. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: People get on your case about the kinds of songs you write. Do you ever think to yourself: “OK, no more breakup songs. No more ‘boy’ songs. No more songs about California…”
COSENTINO: Definitely. Especially with this record. I wanted there to be at least a handful of songs on this record that explored things I wouldn’t typically write about. But at the same time, I feel like my songwriting has always been super therapeutic, so if I’m going through something and dealing with crazy emotions, then the easiest thing for me to do is put them in a song. Even with a song like “California Nights” — the song is about California, but it’s also NOT specifically about California — when that song came out people were like ‘Another song about California? Really?’ I definitely think about it, but I don’t let it bother me. If I think about those things too much — what other people think you should or shouldn’t be doing — then it stops you from being able to write anything, or it keeps you from writing about what you honestly feel, even if you’ve written about it before. I’m just trying to be honest and put myself out there as much as I can. I definitely tried to mix it up more subject matter-wise on this record. I wrote about insomnia and jealousy, other things that were happening to me.
STEREOGUM: I was just thinking about “Jealousy,” which is a song that addresses a lot of the stuff that you’ve gone through as a woman working in the music business. You take a lot of heat on the internet, not just for the music you make, but also because of the way you look and your personal life, etc. People really come for you sometimes.
COSENTINO: It was really a living hell for me at first. Bobb will tell you. He witnessed a lot of terrible “Bethany freaking out” moments. When we first started, things just happened so quickly. We started putting out singles and then Crazy For You came out and no one expected it to be so huge. Suddenly everyone was talking about me and I didn’t know how to deal with it. It gradually got easier, but still … it was hard. I feel like I’m at a point now where I really don’t care. I don’t care what anyone says. I try really hard not to read stuff written about me or the band, but it’s hard not to sometimes. It’s hard not to be curious about how people feel about the work you do, even if sometimes it pisses you off and you just have to make yourself put down the magazine and walk away. We both have learned to deal with it a little better than we used to. Bobb is really protective of me, so if someone says something bad about me, then he’ll get really mad. People forget that he’s old enough to almost be my dad.
BRUNO: Yeah, almost. [Laughs]
COSENTINO: You’re like my weird dad. [Laughs] We both just realized that no matter what industry you work in, everyone is going to have an opinion. Because of the era we live in now, it’s just so easy to critique people or say dumb bullshit about people, and it’s also very easy to see it. I just laugh about it now, and I feel kind of bad for the person who felt the need to take time out of their day to take a moment and say to me, “You are fat and I hate your music.” It’s like, OK, then don’t follow me on the internet or listen to my music, and go follow some skinny girl’s music who you actually like. Live your life, you know? I used to sometimes reply to people, which is bad. You know, sometimes you’d see something so idiotic or blatantly false that you feel like you just have to say something, but I’ve decided that 2015 would be the year where I stop doing that. We both decided that, actually. You have to just learn to laugh about it or else it can eat you up after a while.
STEREOGUM: Well, living well is the best revenge. Most people never get to experience what it’s like to make a living playing music or doing something they love that makes them happy, so it’s always better to focus on that aspect of your life as opposed to letting your spirit be crushed because some dude in the comments section.
COSENTINO: That’s what the song “Jealousy” is really about. Disliking people for absolutely no reason. This tendency people have to automatically hate anyone who might have more than they do. I am guilty of it as well. When I get really bummed out about things people say about me, I’ll just remind myself that maybe they are just really unhappy and living someplace that is freezing cold, and I should just be grateful that I’m having the time of my life writing songs with my friend and hanging out someplace warm.
STEREOGUM: In California!
COSENTINO: Yes! In sunny California. And the reason the reason I sing about it so much is because it really is the fucking best place ever. Also, I don’t really sing about it that much … but whatever.
California Nights is out 5/5 on Harvest.
[Photo by Ryan Muir.]