The Mystery Lights
Where Are They From, and What Do They Want?
The Mystery Lights Appear on the Radar
Based in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens (just northeast of Bushwick/Brooklyn), where 3/5 of them live in the same dwelling, the basement of which also provides the band their practice space, the Mystery Lights are a combo you should know about. They are relatively young (the three longest-running members are in their late 20s to early 30s, the others even younger), highly dedicated (they clearly care about their craft, and tour incessantly) and are eager music enthusiasts, keen to tell you about a swirl of various supercool/super-obscure sonic artifacts they’ve recently unearthed in dusty record bins or on the web.
Their first, self-titled album, the inaugural release for Daptone’s “rock” subsidiary Wick Records in 2016, is as impeccable an exhibition of mid/late 1960s psychedelic garage rock veneration as you’re likely to hear outside of the Get Hip back catalog. Groovy basslines; sharp primal drums; spooky keyboards; powerful, reverberating, counter-punching guitar tones that jitter and jump into dizzy, face-melting solos and psychotic jabs; and the piercing yowls of lead singer Mike Brandon, testifying in the midst of the inferno. For fans of the genre, it’s a must-have.
The band’s new sophomore release, Too Much Tension! (out now on Wick), is no less frantic or thrilling. With 10 songs averaging three minutes each, it retains the overall psych-garage combustion of their debut but expands subtlely upon the basic foundations. There’s more breathing room in the songs, and yet they seem even trippier. Brandon’s voice is clearer. The interplay between the guitars (Brandon on rhythm, Luis Alfonzo “L.A.” Solano on lead) is more intricate and impressive. A fluster of unstable piano punches through the middle of “I’m So Tired (of Living in the City).” Spazzy outer-space effects render “Too Much Tension” especially disorienting. And not every song’s a screamer; “Watching the News Gives Me the Blues” slows to a tempo befitting its title, and “Wish That She’d Come Back,” in particular, reveals a softer side of the band’s sound, with a skipping effect at the end to play mind games with vinyl audiophiles. Another winner, boys.
Mike and L.A. moved to New York in their early twenties. Before that they’d helmed an earlier edition of the Mystery Lights in tiny Salinas, California, where they’re from, since they were teenagers in high school.
Sitting down with the band for a chat prior to their show at the Nowhere Bar in Athens on March 8, Mike expands on their formative years: “We were just experimenting, like, figuring it out… We just found all this garage rock and punk rock that we loved, and then we… we didn’t know what we were doing at all. We didn’t have anything to really reference, except the CDs that we purchased, like comps and stuff.
“Joe [Della-Mora], the original bass player of the Mystery Lights, a good buddy of ours, he would be going diggin’ for records and show us all this stuff,” Brandon continues. “And Vinyl Bob, too – Bob Gamber from Vinyl Revolution in California, the Monterrey/Pacific Grove area. He turned us on to a lot of real nasty ’60s garage and stuff. When I was really young. I remember asking him for acid when I was like 16! He said, ‘Hell no!’ Hahaha! And I would go into his shop, and he sat me down one day and said, ‘You’re gonna watch this. You’re gonna watch this video.’ And it was Riot on Sunset Strip.”
“He, like, put on Blue Cheer and had all this ‘60s, bluesy stuff we kinda didn’t really know about. We knew about the Ramones and Richard Hell. But we didn’t know about old stuff like the MC5,” L.A. says. “I think we were into Please Kill Me, that book. And the Nuggets [influence] came from Joe, our bass player. And that was the combination…”
Encouraged by his family (his father bought him his first drumkit and guitar when he was a kid, his grandmother bought him an electric keyboard once as a Christmas gift), it was inevitable that Mike would get into a rock ‘n’ roll band at an early age. Perhaps it was providence that his and L.A.’s paths intersected, but it’s proven to be a charmed combination, as the latter’s dexterity on guitar is extraordinary, giving the band an unpredictable wildness, rawness and scope. With Della-Mora and original drummer Stephen Miller, the Mystery Lights played around central California for a few years before stagnating.
“There was just nothing going on,” says Brandon. “We weren’t trying. We weren’t even playing. When you have stagnant time, that’s when you start getting into drugs and stuff. So, I had nothing to do.”
Ready to escape the rut and take on a new challenge, Mike took off for New York City. Reinvigorated, after six months or so he invited L.A. out for a visit, and Solano ended up staying.
“We had a mutual friend [in New York] that had a place that he built out a little studio in, and he let me crash for a few weeks, and I just didn’t ever leave, really. He let me live there for like a year,” L.A. says. With Mike appropriating the sofa for his bed, in no time the two were jamming together again, and soon had another drummer on board.
“People would just come and drink for free, and just watch us play,” Mike pipes in. “So it was good! We were the house band!”
“That’s kind of how it grew, out of there,” L.A. continues. “It was kind of a free-for-all. It was a loft that our friend had made a deal with this guy to renovate. He had a side business renovating old places. He had construction experience. So me and Mike and him literally tore down the walls and the guy who owned the building was this old TV station dude – really weird, cool old dude. He was a trip. And he just gave this guy a deal to live there and we could just make noise and do whatever. I had no idea how rare that is. It was fucked up, kind of, but it was fun!”
Once they locked in Alex Amini as their bass player – (“We had a mutual friend that told me to go check them out at some really weird, tacky hotel rooftop party,” Amini says. “It was a blast! I rolled up, and Mike was wearing an all-white outfit and at the time he had like a Brian Jones hairdo. It was really funny! He looked extremely cool, and then he just started jumping around and going crazy on his guitar. And I was instantly like, ‘These guys are alright!’”) – the Mystery Lights began playing more clubs, touring and taking things a bit more seriously. It wasn’t long before they came to the attention of the discerning souls at Daptone, who were toying with the idea of launching a rock offshoot. Both the band’s debut and Too Much Tension! were tracked at Daptone’s Brooklyn facilities with producer/engineer Wayne Gordon behind the board, a man with years of experience working on platters from numerous Daptone acts as well as Black Lips, Reigning Sound, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Kali Uchis.
“It was all meant to be,” Mike attests. “We were looking for the perfect label, and nothing really made sense. It’s exciting to be a part of something like [Daptone] that’s very, very selective, and we all have the same tastes as them.”
The newest, and certainly prettiest, member of the Mystery Lights, 25-year-old keyboardist Lily Rogers, had yet to join the band when Too Much Tension! was recorded (Gordon played some of the keys on the album), but Brandon is swift to underscore her portion of the band’s formula. “The keys are such an essential part of our show, and I can’t believe we toured without it. We did a whole Europe tour, like 34 dates, with no keys player, and I’m like, I feel bad for the crowd,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll get Lily on the next one,” adds L.A. “Lily’s got another band called Worthless that just put out a record that’s really good, too. It’s like psych soundtrack [music], very ethereal. It’s fuckin’ sick.”
The youngest member of the Mystery Lights, 22-year-old drummer Zach Butler, did make the sessions for Too Much Tension! after joining the lineup for a tour right when The Mystery Lights came out, without having even heard of the band, when he was freshly twenty.
“I’m from Nashville,” he tells me. “I just got a call one day from these guys. They were like, ‘Do you wanna get in a band?’ I had nothing else to do.”
“We had this massive tour with the Night Beats [starting in] a week and a half or something. And we had no drummer,” Brandon recalls. “So we’re at a festival in New York City, and this friend of ours… recommended this kid from Nashville. ‘He’s great, he’s perfect, check him out.’ And I was like, okay… The thing that was intriguing to me was the fact that he was willing to do this. I thought that was ballsy.”
“I quit my whole life in a week,” Zach reiterates, “for a band that I’d never met before.”
Don’t ever underestimate the magnetic energy of the Mystery Lights.
Photo by Jordon Corso.