Q&A: Gardens & Villa On Their Black Mirror-Inspired Music For Dogs And Frogtown Warehouse Cult
Gardens & Villa’s new album, Music For Dogs, rarely sounds like it could’ve been made in California. It’s the kind of album that, though it has its lighter moments, mostly maintains the kind of glassy, claustrophobic atmosphere that evokes imagery of some kind of decrepit, not-too-distant-future cityscape. Turns out, that’s not too far off from where the group — now pared down to the core duo of Chris Lynch and Adam Rasmussen — was coming from. After releasing their sophomore album, Dunes, in February 2014, Lynch and Rasmussen experienced a pretty tumultuous year: breakups, lineup changes, dissatisfaction with their new album. All of it culminated in leaving Santa Barbara for a Los Angeles warehouse, where Lynch and Rasmussen were inspired by urban decay and the heavily mediated, technological culture around them. The result is Music For Dogs, a restart for Gardens & Villa and their best work so far. I spoke with Lynch about the circumstances that brought them to this new chapter, the L.A. artist circle he and Rasmussen have fallen in with, and larger concerns about technology’s ongoing effect on the way we interact with each other. Stereogum is premiering the new single “Everybody” below; check that out while you read the interview…
STEREOGUM: For Dunes, you were in Michigan with Tim Goldsworthy. What were the circumstances behind Music For Dogs like?
LYNCH: We were going to do it ourselves. We recorded a bunch of it in this warehouse in East L.A. We’ve always been friends with the band Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and specifically Jake [Portrait, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s bassist], and we’ve admired his recording techniques. Somehow we started talking with him and he said, “Send me your demos,” and so we were sharing stuff we were working on. He was like, “You know, we should do this together, I have a studio.” We had blown a lot of our budget writing the record, and so we were going to do it ourselves. But Jake was like, “We can work with whatever you guys got.” Jake flew out and we recorded most of the record in like seven days in L.A. It was pretty rock ‘n’ roll. Most of the record is the first one or two takes. A lot of it was recorded live. It was more like our first record, which we did all live.
STEREOGUM: You just recently moved to L.A., right?
LYNCH: Yeah, a little over a year ago. Dunes came out and we toured for five or six months straight, and when we came back to Santa Barbara, our girlfriends all broke up with us [laughs]. Because we’d been gone so long. There’s a joke, “What do you call a musician whose girlfriend breaks up with him? Homeless!” That was the truth. Me and Adam were like, “Shit, we’re homeless.” We were living in this practice space, which was a rat-infested beach shack. That was a really dark time. We were wandering in and out like, “What should we do with our lives?” We had mixed feelings about how Dunes had all ended up. We were just like, “Fuck it, let’s move to L.A.” It was pretty scary. I always hated L.A. I grew up in Orange County, and I always hated it down here. Everything is freeways, you know? But heartbreak and change hits you pretty hard. We were kind of at the end of our line. The label was kind of upset with how Dunes was turning out, and we were having trouble getting money. It was this big shebang. We looked on Craiglist and found this warehouse in East L.A. and moved in.
STEREOGUM: Why were you disappointed with Dunes?
LYNCH: Well, I’m proud of it still. There are elements I’m proud of. It’s just…it’s kind of a weird transition record. It wasn’t exactly what we wanted it to be in the beginning. A lot of the songs, if you listen to the demos we made versus how they ended up, they’re just totally different. To be honest, a lot of it was the producer we worked with. He was going through some crazy shit with his personal life. We had never done a record where it’s all computerized and synced to a perfect metronome beat, and so that was all new to us, a totally different style of recording. A lot of the songs that we had written, which initially were more like post-punk songs, became these halfway-dance songs. It just didn’t come out the way we would’ve done it ourselves. We were getting a lot of pressure from our label to be in this, like, pop band. We don’t necessarily want to be in a pop band. It was a very strange record. With Music For Dogs, we had nothing to lose. Last summer was a dark summer for us. We kind of lost everything. Everything was up in the air. Living in this crazy warehouse with all these trippers, bass thumping every night until 5 AM. It was just this gathering place for all these eclectic people. We were just like, “Fuck it, let’s make that album we always wanted to make.” That was kind of the question. “What was the record that you saw yourself making when you were 14?” That was our big question. “What was the record you always wanted to make?” We wrote like 50 songs with that idea in mind. And the record Music For Dogs was born out of those songs.
STEREOGUM: How close is the end result to that record you wanted to make when you were 14?
LYNCH: I think we pretty much made it. We made the record we wanted to make, and we love it. It was such a fun record to make. A lot was poured into it — it’s really real. It’s probably the most honest record we’ve ever made. Some of the songs that were the 14-year-old dream songs didn’t make it on the record [laughs]. But they kind of gave way to other songs that did. I don’t know, I guess we fell back in love with our own music and our own writing process, just feeling the vibrations that instruments and what not give off.
STEREOGUM: Recording in Michigan seemed to really influence you when you were working on Dunes. Did moving to L.A. have an influence on the process of finding that 14-year-old’s record?
LYNCH: Totally, in so many ways. We lived in Glassell Park, in northeast L.A. It was kind of a sketchy area, there was always weird stuff going on. The place we were living was the most inspiring place. You walk out into the foyer and someone’s tripping on LSD and there’s another guy who works for a famous TV show that you have watched before, and they’re all kind of hanging out together. People on the roof shooting off fireworks…it was just an amazing, bizarre place to live. We spent last year riding our bikes around L.A., and we found these amazing little spots, where it feels like you’re in Detroit or something. Totally abandoned, graffitied, Art Deco-looking buildings that look like they should be in Batman. There are a lot of places like that in L.A., especially near the river. Now we live directly on the river. For us, it’s really inspiring. That urban decay. Los Angeles has this…I don’t know. There’s something weirdly beautiful about it.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting you say that. The sound of Music For Dogs, particularly songs like “Maximize Results” or “General Research,” sound like they’re born out of that sort of urban decay landscape.
LYNCH: That’s exactly what we were going for actually [laughs]. That really makes me happy that you noticed that.
STEREOGUM: So, was the “Fixations” video influenced by this crazy druggy place you were living in?
LYNCH: A little bit, yeah. We sat down and were like, “How can we look at our generation?” We wanted to make a video that represented everything that we thought was ridiculous about our generation/everything that we actively participate in. We’re kind of making fun of ourselves. That song, probably over any other song on the record, is really light-hearted. It makes fun of us, and we wanted the video to make fun of us. It’s slightly over the top. All of Music For Dogs has an undertone of…you know if you turn up the heat slowly the frog doesn’t know that it’s boiling? You can cook the frog without it jumping out of the pan. That’s kind of how we view the onset of all this technology that’s changing our social dynamics and we’re not even really aware of what it’s doing. No one’s really talking about it that much, except for a few comedians. We’re just scratching the surface of how it’s affecting our relationships.
STEREOGUM: What are you guys freaked out about from a technological standpoint? Are you talking about the way it changes how people interact?
LYNCH: For instance, the song “Everybody,” is kind of about visual culture and voyeurism. Especially something like Instagram. Aziz Ansari had a very funny sketch about this, and it influenced me to write that song, because I was going through the exact thing at the same time I heard Aziz Ansari’s sketch. He talks about how back in the day, when you went through a breakup, you’d be like “OK, we broke up, see you later.” If you don’t see someone, the heart has a chance to heal and you can go your separate ways and take time apart. Now, basically, in 1998 the equivalent would’ve been: She mailed you a box full of all the pictures of everything she’s doing and her with all these guys, and which one does she screw? You’re tempted, it’s right there and you can open up the box and look at all her pictures. Think about how ridiculous that would be in the ’90s, to be confronted with that idea. That’s what I mean — relationships right now are so different, and it can be so painful because you’re forced to look at each other. How weird is that? Everyone knows it’s fake. It’s a way of getting people to think you’re doing really cool stuff. It’s not just Instagram. It’s Facebook, and it’s everything else. Then there’s this weird, like, “OK, well I’m going to post this picture of me with this girl and she’s going to get really jealous!” It’s this stupid game that didn’t really exist as much before. It can be really intense to go through. Before social media, no one wanted to go through that shit. They didn’t have to. And now it’s this normal thing we all go through, and I think that’s part of what’s giving rise to the whole culture of no one wanting to commit to anything. Everyone wants to be open to everything and stay open to everything. It has its ups and downs, too. Before, someone would be like, “Let’s go to the movies at 7 tonight, I’ll meet you at the fountain.” And you would be there. Now it’s like, “OK, wait, let’s totally go to the movies tonight,” and you’re checking Instagram and you see, “Oh, no, there’s a party and look at all these people and it looks so fun, let’s go there!” and as you’re about to go that party you’re like, “Oh, shit, this band is playing here and I see the pictures and they look like they’re even more fun!” We’re constantly going from one thing to the next searching for the next thing that’s more fun or relevant or something.
STEREOGUM: Do you think a culture can come back from being like that?
LYNCH: No, I think what’s done is done. We’re already there. I’m not pointing the finger at anyone and we’re not saying like, “You stupid humans!” In a way we’re being like, it’s weird. It’s really unique and it’s weird. We just jumped into it really fast, and it’s changed everything, and we’re actively participating in it. As artists, I feel like it’s our job to expose weird things about ourselves that other people maybe can identify with.
STEREOGUM: So was Music For Dogs a self-examination, now in L.A. and in this general cultural moment?
LYNCH: I think so. A lot of the record is kind of a self-examination. It has a weird little sci-fi vibe to it. Have you seen Black Mirror? It’s so good. A lot of the themes of the record that we’re exploring are similar to Black Mirror. It’s weird contemporary/really near-future scenarios that deal with the internet and technology and human interactions. But most of the record comes from real-life experiences that me and Adam, the primary songwriters in the band, went through and talked about.
STEREOGUM: Your official lineup is different for this album, with you and Adam now officially functioning as a duo. Was that another one of the new beginnings of last year, or was that a return to a pure, older version of Gardens & Villa?
LYNCH: It was a return to a purer essence. We toured so much and kind of were just living on the road for, I don’t know, four years or something. It really starts to make you…you lose your reasoning for like, do I even like this? Do I even like playing every night and overextending myself in all these different avenues? Losing touch with my family and myself and everything? We were like, “I don’t know if I like this.” The dream that I was chasing after, I don’t know if it was worth it. Obviously, you can’t make a living nowadays, to a really intense point. That return to original, just me and Adam in the garage loving the music we were playing…it took a lot of dark depression and separations with things to get there. To let the music heal us and fall back in love with it. That’s kind of what happened.
STEREOGUM: So did recording the album wind up being a cathartic experience?
LYNCH: Oh, yeah. We love it. We listen to it all the time, and we’re like, “Yeah, it’s a good record! Damn!” So, everyone in that original warehouse got evicted in February, so there’s a lawsuit going on, yada-yada, and we moved just across the river to a new warehouse. We moved in here with twelve other artists and we’re building the whole thing from the inside out. We built our own bathroom, our own kitchen. We’re building our own recording studio. The whole place was completely empty. It’s the most DIY thing you could ever imagine.
STEREOGUM: That’s like the old romantic, bohemian artist collective kind of thing.
LYNCH: We’re kind of in a cult, you know? We live in this weird warehouse river cult. But it’s also professional. Everyone that lives here makes a living off of their art. We all collaborate, we’ve kinda become a family. We’re loosely called Space Command. It’s a really awesome group of people.
STEREOGUM: How did you two come up with the title Music For Dogs?
LYNCH: It’s a lyric from the song “General Research.” “Music for the dogs/ falling down the rabbit hole.” There was this moment where we were with our friend’s dog, and it’s one of those dogs where when you start howling it’ll start to howl. So one night we were all, you know, inebriated, and we kept howling and the dog was howling and we were all just laughing so hard. In a way, we decided that’s how we feel we are. We’re like that dog. Just howling because all this shit is howling around us, and we’re howling along with it. In another way, that lyric in that song, about the rabbithole and stuff, that’s like: we’re dogs, sniffing down the internet trail, chasing all these weird ideas. The internet is like this Library Of Alexandria, all of the bullshit and relevant information you could ever fathom, that exists on Earth. We’re all following these rabbitholes, searching out a trail, chasing them into the netherworld. Sniffing down the trails into the nebulous ether. [laughs] I’m going to sound so weird in this interview.
STEREOGUM: So what’s the way forward? Is it just about figuring out the balance of what this means in daily life these days, or do you think there’s no hope?
LYNCH: William Gibson, the sci-fi author, I read this quote where he was saying the early 21st century is going to be remembered as this period of regurgitation. Where we’re taking all these ideas from the previous century and re-hashing them and reliving them. No one has really stepped up and really invented a new culture and new myth to live in this new world. This new world, what we’ve been talking about with all the technology … I think it’s the responsibility of the artists to creatively begin that dialogue. Like William Gibson says, if you want to be a part of the space culture of the future and you want to invent the next culture, you have to literally do it on the streets. Make a space and preach that shit like Gandhi, and live by it and die by it. That’s what, more and more, we feel like. Our generation has to figure out a new culture that is healthy and balanced and psychologically liberating in this new world we’ve created.
Music For Dogs is out 8/21 via Secretly Canadian.