Interview with Randy Randall of No Age: Getting A Whiff Of Punk

No Age are the leaders of a pack of young musicians making sprawling, noisy, artful punk rock that harkens to indie rock’s formative years, when hardcore bands realized that they could maintain their attitudes while coloring outside the lines. Guitarist Randy Randall and drummer Dean Spunt have become figureheads for L.A.’s growing art-punk scene, making enough racket for a dozen people and drawing the world’s attention to their now-legendary hometown club The Smell. Their 2008 release, Nouns, earned them critical adoration and an ever-growing fanbase, and the band has readied a follow-up called Everything In Between. The Aquarian recently caught up with Randall to discuss the new album, touring with Pavement and sniffing out other punks.

Let’s talk about the new album, Everything In Between. It sounds like you guys have grown a lot as musicians since Nouns. There are more layers in the songs on the new album. I’m not sure if you would appreciate me calling it ‘more mature,’ but it sounds a lot more expansive. Is that the goal you had when approaching the writing and recording process?

I think that was exactly it. We wanted to progress, but without really changing. As far as the sound, we weren’t really holding ourselves back by worrying about how we would translate the songs live. We kind of let ourselves go, saying, “Let’s just write songs that sound good on record, and we’ll figure out how to do it live afterwards.”

There seems to be a movement on the new album, and even last year’s Losing Feeling EP, towards incorporating more textures or parts that could be considered genuinely pretty.

We’ve always been attracted to the sweet and the sour, the pretty and the ugly mixed together, and in the past we’ve sort of gone back and forth between songs, saying “This song is going to be really punk and really fast, and this one is going be the slow atmospheric song.” With the new album, we were trying to layer those ideas on top of each other, instead of switching gears every song. We wanted to organically meld those ideas together by having atmospheres or textures being played at the same time, or by being conscious of the fact that a song can be really fast, but it can contain elements that are slow or glacial.

What were you listening to while you were writing and recording the new album?

There’s a band from England that was active in the ‘90s called Disco Inferno. They were hugely influential to this new record. They were utilizing samples and loops in their songs in a way that blows away past ideas of structure or what song parts should be, rather than just relying on guitar, bass and drums. I think when we were making Everything In Between we really wanted to do something similar to that—not necessarily the same style of music, but the style of arranging and writing songs. We wanted to kind of throw out conventional ideas of songwriting: “Okay, I’ve got this guitar part, I need a drum part, I need a vocal part, etc.” We wanted to start from a different plane on the map. We wrote a lot more using samplers, and we tried to let our expectations or preconceptions about songwriting go out the window by focusing on what instinctually sounds good rather than “what should be there.”

What really struck me about the sampling in the new songs—“Glitter,” for example, was that it’s all very organic sounding. At some points, it’s hard to tell which sounds were samples and which sounds were being played on the guitar.

That’s the perfect example of a song where we wanted to blur all the lines together. We like a little bit of mystery. I think it’s something we got from Disco Inferno. Listening to their songs, we were never quite sure what all the sounds were. “Obviously that’s a sample of a baby crying, and that’s someone running through the woods, but is that the sound of footsteps on snow, or is it a snare drum?” You could never really quite tell, but at the end of the day when you listen to the record, it just sounds awesome. It was something that just kicked off a bunch of ideas for us.

Now that the album is finished and you’re taking these songs on tour, you finally have to deal with translating this material to the live setting. You’ve added a third touring member, William Kai Strangeland-Menchaca, to handle the sampling. Has that been enough to recreate all of the layering on the new songs?

Well, we could add fourth, fifth, or sixth members if we really wanted to do it all justice. But for now, we feel that it’s really helpful to just have a third person helping us out with the samples. I think overall it’s actually working really well. There’s obviously some difference between the live shows and what’s on record, but I think that’s okay. I’ve never been one of those people where I wanted to hear a band sound exactly like their record when they play live. I enjoy there being some difference between a band’s album and their live show. Maybe not a 20 minute guitar solo in the middle of a song—that’s not exactly what I was hoping for—but just something where you can tell they’re playing it live. We’re not playing the backing tracks from the record, it’s all live, but we’re trying to get as close as we can to the expansiveness of the sound while still keeping it fun and energetic live.

You have some shows coming up with Pavement. Are you looking forward to those?

Sorry, who? I’ve never heard of them. [Laughs] Of course! We never would have imagined it. It’s sort of odd as it happens. It’s like when you’re about to graduate high school, and you’re like, “This is fucking insane! The day I graduate I’m going to be able to do XYZ: drive a car, live in an apartment, tell my parents to go fuck off. My whole life is going to be different the next day.” And then you wake up the day after and you’re like, “Whoa… kind of not all that different.” That’s sort of how I think this is going to be. I’m really pumped, but I’m also trying to keep things in perspective. I’m really psyched that they asked us to play. It means a lot that they even know who we are, let alone would want us to play any shows. It’s an honor.

As a fan and as a writer, I perceive a sort of tension among people who self-identify as “indie.” There seems to be a growing rift between people who are really into bands like Death Cab For Cutie or Vampire Weekend, and others who are into noisier, more abrasive stuff like No Age or Lightning Bolt, and it seems like each side kind of wants to elbow the other side out from under the umbrella. As an artist, do you perceive that split?

I don’t know; it’s interesting. I think what you’re sort of hitting on is, if you’re anywhere around my age, I’m 29, there was this idea growing up that there were the major labels and the indie labels. The word “indie” in indie rock originally referred to independent labels like Matador, Merge and Sub Pop. But in this day and age, with the Internet and downloading, it’s all blended together. Arcade Fire is considered an indie rock band, but they’re #1 on the charts. I think it speaks to everybody’s love of underdogs; in a way, we all want to see the next Nirvana. Nirvana knocked hair metal and Michael Jackson off the charts. I think everyone tries to hold onto the underdog position, but it’s hard to tell who’s really the underdog anymore. Is Kanye West an underdog? The narrative of most bands involves wanting to hold onto one place while moving to the next.

I don’t know if I perceive a difference, but there is one thing I will say, and this is something I think during the more cynical moments, when we’re in the van driving: there are bands who are punks, who came from some kind of punk mindset or played in bands where you slept on floors and you were just some guys in a van. There’s that DIY mindset that you can sort of see in a band no matter how big they get. One punk can smell another one—it’s the stench of doing it yourself and hard work and suffering for years because you love it, and not being a careerist, but just enjoying music in general. I think you can sort of smell that on another musician. I think that’s how we sniff them out. We’re almost like dogs; we sniff each other’s butts, and you can sort of smell when someone’s been a punk or has come from a place with that DIY attitude.