Gardens & Villa

Reality Check:
Gardens & Villa Search for Personal Sustainability

Weariness is hardly inspirational, especially for a band. After performing about 350 shows in a two-year span, Gardens & Villa were a dog-tired bunch. Only one album in, their exhaustion could have been their downfall – a reason to quit, or the right condition for bad direction on the next album.

“It can be really draining, chasing your dream,” sighs frontman Chris Lynch. “And feeling like it’s not really going anywhere, and it’s not sustaining itself or you financially, or your relationships with your friends or loved ones.”

Gardens & Villa pulled it together, thankfully, and funneled that outlook shift into their sophomore effort, Dunes. Naturally, what they crafted this time around is quite different. Folk-leaning, mostly sunny indie-pop is still Gardens & Villa’s foundation – they are, after all, a band forever fascinated by their Santa Barbara home. Cuts like the lovely, languorous “Purple Mesas” and the pretty, piano-driven “Minnesota” could pass as having been written earlier in their career. But several of the album’s standouts are glaringly despondent in content, and not only because they’ve lost some of that new-band innocence. They also partnered with someone else to record it – DFA Records’ co-owner Tim Goldsworthy. His work with bands like Cut Copy and LCD Soundsystem is an aesthetic clash against the pastel-painted indie pop of Gardens &Villa’s last producer, recent Shins inductee Richard Swift.

So why team up with the British producer now? Dance doesn’t lend itself as easily to expressing dejection as well a traditionally emotional genre like folk, or even indie rock. Lynch says they’d never considered working with Goldsworthy until their label, Secretly Canadian, brought up the idea.

“We Skyped with him, and in that first Skype conversation, we just kind of fell in love,” he gushes.

They gained Goldsworthy as a fan when he saw Gardens & Villa’s 2011 live session for the indie blog Wild Honey Pie. In fact, he told Lynch he’d watched it more than a hundred times.

“I don’t know how he came across us in the first place, but somehow he found that video and he was like – with an exaggerated British accent – ‘I just haven’t seen any bands, you know, play that well together in a live setting and have that much soul,’” Lynch recalls. “I don’t know, he praised us pretty heavily. We were kind of taken off guard like, Whoa, he really actually thinks we’re good!

With an arsenal of about 30 songs, the troupe headed to Benton Harbor, Michigan, where they bunkered down with Goldsworthy at the Key Club Recording studio. The way Lynch tells it frames Goldsworthy as heavy-handed – he sorted out the good from the bad as the band presented potential tracks live. Especially in contrast to their pastoral folk-leaning debut, Dunes almost qualifies as a dance album. Despite the consistent use of the bansuri flute Lynch has regularly incorporated into Gardens & Villa tunes, “Domino” sets a shimmering, shimmying tone that fits easily into Goldsworthy’s go-to aesthetic. “Colony Glen,” with its thick and ominous synth, finds the group deep in New Wave territory.

“We like dance. We like to dance,” Lynch assures. “But we didn’t set out to make a dance record. We’re not really big club people, we almost never go to clubs actually. But…a lot of the music that we’ve been listening to, especially around this record is a lot of ESG and early ’80s dancey stuff and some Factory Records stuff. The record has a couple songs that are super dancey, but it also has a couple songs that are not really dance at all, and a couple songs that are post-punky. It has a bunch of different feels to it.”

The Goldsworthy effect permeated their pool of influences, too.

“We exchanged a lot of playlists back and forth, and he kind of turned us on to Left Handed Dream, the record by Ryuichi Sakamoto, and some other records that we’d never really heard of and were quite blown away by. And lot of those records have a dancey-ness to them but they’re also not dancey – they’re almost more groove-based. And I guess what I’m going for. We don’t want to be a dance band, but we are definitely a groove-based band,” he explains.

Lynch notes that the digital touches are still, in a way, analog – they’re actually playing the drum machines, and some of the “bleeps” and “bloops” are actually sound effects pulled from the studio’s array of ’80s martial arts VHS movies.

That Dunes is rich with lustrous synth and is often more beat-minded than their first record doesn’t mean they’ve altogether lost touch with the ideals that shaped them. The band got its name from the street on which they cultivated an urban garden, an effort spearheaded by Lynch.

“I’m the main gardener of the band,” he says proudly. “And I’m just as strong as ever. I actually was just out in my garden – I’m looking at it through the window. I have a pretty fat garden right now. I have broccoli and kale and spinach and some peppers still…parsley, celery, I could go on. Snap peas. For me, that’s the core of my existence. Part of my whole goal of my life is to have a place where I can grow my own food. I think it’s really important.”

It wasn’t just returning home with empty pockets that led them to feeling jaded about touring. The struggle to maintain their lifestyle while on the road was disheartening.

“We set up our merch booth and we’d have vegetables for sale,” Lynch says of their first jaunt. “We were totally like, Never eat anything chain! Never eat anything from a normal supermarket! And blah, blah. But then on our seventh tour, probably, it all just broke down. We were starving in the middle of Missouri, like, Fuck, let’s get some hot food. It was the winter, and we just broke down. It was one of the saddest moments of my music career, when we broke down and started eating terribly on the road. It’s just so hard.”

For Lynch, that mindset somewhat opened the door to downcast songwriting. The vibe is deceptively easy-going on the suave, mildly paced “Bullet Train.” Lyrically, he’s actually revisiting the death of a friend. Alongside a punchy beat, he sings, “The young die young/ If they work too hard.”

“He was checking the waves in San Diego. He was driving back up to Santa Barba [to visit] his family in San Diego, and his sandal fell through the tracks and he got hit by the train,” Lynch says. “That’s where that line originally came from, but it also comes from a feeling I have about, I don’t know, this generation and my friends and going across the country for three years during this recession era – or whatever you want to call it – and seeing this almost weird wasteland, Hemingway-esque, Sun Also Rises…It also has to do with this lost generation vibe. But I don’t want to be negative or bleak, because I also see a really promising thing with a lot of amazing small businesses and I think our generation is rising to the occasion. But there’s also this weird burning out mentality that I see in a lot of the places that we go.”

The setting in Benton Harbor, a town not unlike nearby Detroit in terms of economic suffering, didn’t offer much positivity for Lynch.

“We were there in February, and it literally snowed the whole time we were there except for one day. And we were, like, five dudes from California with this British guy crammed in this studio in this warehouse in the middle of a completely decimated town where 80 percent of the buildings are boarded up and covered in snow. And there’s no one on the streets ever, except, like, thugs sometimes. So, I don’t know, it was just otherworldly and I think that’s the theme of the record: Otherworldly,” he points out.

How bleakness can be translated into ethereal is something maybe only a group as idealistic as Lynch and company could do. Dunes juxtaposes raw and natural elements like Lynch’s flute with the artificiality of drum machine beats in the same way their utopian hopes battle the real world – which, particularly in that Benton Harbor recording setting, seems like a depressingly dystopian state.

“The first record was more organic and we were kind of starry-eyed youngsters, like, We’re camping in our backyard eating almonds and avocados and we’re going to make this beautiful record on a tape! And [on] the second record, we’re over-toured, three years later, more mature, less, you know, optimistic, I guess, and more realistic,” he admits. “We wanted to make a beautiful record that spoke to our own truths, you know, that came out of our own subconscious.”

Gardens & Villa’s ethics were shot down by reality, but only temporarily. They were left with a different perception, a new understanding of their own beliefs – but they were not destroyed altogether. They’re even looking forward to heading back out on the road. Lynch says he plans to stock up on organic, GMO-free soups, and is hopeful about an increase in health food stores in the Midwest, the area that once crumbled their principles.

“I mean, we want to tour less, but at the same time, the biggest thing that keeps us going is our fans,” Lynch proclaims. “We want to give everything to the fans, no matter what it takes. We’re kind of willing to sacrifice ourselves, to be honest.”

Photo by Neil Favila.