Amoeba Records Clerks Evolve Into Something Wonderful
In 2012, bleary-eyed in the wee hours, trying to get to the finish line on yet another Stomp and Stammer, I was laying out a glowing record review for the Allah-Las’ debut album. The name intrigued me and the review made it sound like California garage rock along the lines of Burger Records. I intended to follow up and check them out, but it slipped from my mind. Fast forward to 2016: I was planning a family vacation to the Hudson Valley with three days in New York City at the end. I scanned the Internet for bands to check out in the city and what did I find: the Allah-Las were having a record release party for their latest elpee, Calico Review. I called our fearless leader and implored him to get me on the list.
While in upstate New York we were checking out a used record store when a propulsive, Velvets-styled number came over the speakers. “Who is this?” I asked the clerk. “It’s the new Allah-Las single,” he replied.
Two days later, I have Atlanta expat and Stomp co-founder Steve Pilon in tow and we are headed to Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg for the Allah-Las release party. “Sold out,” says the first bouncer. “I’m on the list,” I reply. “Sure you are, Chief!” he says with a smile. The joint is packed, full of beautiful young women and, of course, hipster dudes plugging their beards with Brooklyn’s finest craft beers. Let’s face it, rock ’n’ roll usually attracts, shall we say, a “mature” audience these days, so it’s great to see so many twenty-somethings, although I’m feeling like a geezer.
The club is hot and sweaty and we hang out in the bar for the opening band, then move up to the front and await the Allahs. The band comes out in low light and starts off with a snakey, sinuous instrumental that acts as an invocation to the set to come. Three songs later, they launch into the propulsive single, “Could Be You” and Pilon’s head begins to bob. The band reminds me of the best of the Paisley Underground bands from the ’80s yet totally their own thing. No phony Beatlemania, just good songs well played and sung by young Angeleno surfer dudes.
An hour-and-a-half later we are walking in the cool autumn air across the Williamsburg Bridge into the Lower East Side with the music still reverberating in my skull like all the best gigs.
The Allah-Las were formed in October 2008 by three record store clerks working at L.A.’s legendary Amoeba Records: guitarist Pedrum Siadatian, drummer Matt Correia, bassist Spencer Dunham and their friend, guitarist Miles Michaud. “Matt and I went to high school together,” says Spencer Dunham, on the phone from the West Coast. “We started rehearsing in my Mom and Pop’s basement.” Their first gig was a Halloween house party.
Regular gigs soon followed as the band honed its signature sound: garage rockers accentuated with maracas and tambourines and reverb-soaked instrumentals. Asked if the band had consciously set out to create a retro vibe, Dunham offers that the sound evolved more organically. “The sound wasn’t something we discussed.”
The bandmates did share of love of the late ’90s L.A. band Beachwood Sparks. “Those guys were kind of inspirations to us – playing cool psychedelic rock music,” Dunham said. When I mention the Paisley Underground connection, he says the band are “happy to continue the lineage from Rain Parade and Beachwood Sparks.”
The band released its first single “Catamaran” in 2011, produced by Nick Waterhouse and followed it up the next year with its self-titled debut for Waterhouse’s Innovative Leisure label.
Our reviewer, Jhoni Jackson, praised its evocation of the original L.A. psych scene as well as the “beach in the beat” that brought to mind the Tropicalia sounds of Os Mutantes.
The band was also promoting itself through a radio show called Reverberation on L.A.’s KXLU where they would play music that was inspiring and influencing their sound.
“Miles started it,” Spencer said. “Originally, it went from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., then from 9 to 12 in the morning.” After the show was canceled (for not playing “enough new music”), the band’s manager encouraged them to continue making weekly playlists that are posted at reverberationradio.com. They are currently up to playlist #256.
Worship The Sun, the band’s sophomore album, was released in 2014, again produced by Nick Waterhouse. The band toured extensively around the States (including a date in Atlanta at the Drunken Unicorn), South America and Europe.
A particularly memorable show for Dunham was the band’s second time in London. A photographer friend had introduced the band’s music to one of their heroes, Primal Scream founder Bobby Gillespie. Unable to find a copy of the band’s first record in England, Gillespie made a special stop at Amoeba Music to pick up a copy.
The next time the band played in London, Gillespie, producer Andrew Weatherall and members of The Jesus and Mary Chain showed up to see the band.
“To have those guys coming to your show is the greatest experience for a bunch of record store geeks,” he said.
The band also had the opportunity recently to collaborate with two other of its heroes in the studio. Beachwood Sparks founder Brent Rademaker and Rain Parade leader Matt Piucci teamed up in 2016 to release a single on the Bad Paintings label under the band name Fir and asked the Allah-Las to contribute backing vocals.
“The Allah-Las are a crucial link to keeping the West Coast rock sound alive for future generations,” says Rademaker about the group. “They make real records for real people for real crazy times… it’s so inspiring that both young and old dig them, it kinda makes you feel hope that the future doesn’t just belong to Spotify, Twitter, The Voice and the dark powers that be…maybe the sunshine still has a shot.”
I tell Matt Piucci of my theory that the Allah-Las are 21st-century exemplars of the Paisley Underground ethos and he concurs.
“I love those guys and I wanted to get them on the Fir single for that very reason,” he said. “They are super sweet dudes who remind me of, well… me. They are a band of record store junkies with an appreciation for vintage instrument and sounds.
“Of course that means nothing without songs, which they have as well,” he continued. “And they all sing. It just occurred to me that they are the male Bangles. And THAT is high praise.”
Calico Review, the band’s latest album released by Brooklyn label Mexican Summer in September 2016, is one of those “quantum leap forward” records. The band extensively demoed the songs with producer Kyle Mullarky in his Topanga Canyon home studio before committing them to analog tape at Valentine Recording Studio, a studio that had been closed for 30 years until its recent re-opening by the family of the original owner, replete with all of its vintage mikes and consoles intact.
The band experimented with harpsichord, violin and Mellotron and all of the members contributed songs and vocals. The album’s Technicolor sonic palette is put to good use on the band’s best batch of songs to date.
Two of the strongest songs on the record are Dunham compositions: “Famous Phone Figure,” which he sings and “200 South La Brea,” which is sung by drummer Matt Correia.
The churning rhythm guitar of the lead-off single “Could Be You,” written and sung by Miles Michaud leads me to ask about the possible influence of East Coast bands like the Velvet Underground and the Feelies.
“Two of our favorite bands!” Dunham says. Everyone hears the Beatles and Stones in high school, but encountering the Velvet Underground is “a whole new level.”
The Allah-Las are about to take it to a whole new level as well. Mexican Summer has just issued a new single, “Hereafter” backed with an alternate take of the album’s “Autumn Dawn” from the Mullarky demo sessions. The band will be touring this spring with Australian band The Babe Rainbow and then making appearances at Coachella and the Huichica Music Festival in Napa Valley.In May, the band will play its first-ever dates in Australia.
From record store geeks to rock stars? The Sunset Strip record store’s loss is the music world’s gain.
Photo by Laura Lynn Petrick.