As world music centers go, Los Angeles is a weird city. Capitol Records has its headquarters there, and Warner Music maintains a presence in the city. Big-name artists record there and live there. A number of L.A. clubs, like the Whisky a Go Go and the Roxy Theatre, have been instrumental in the development of American pop music. But most of the definitive Southern California bands—Buffalo Springfield, the Doors, the Eagles, Guns N' Roses—were made up of transplants from hick towns who'd headed west to make it big. Bands don't come from Los Angeles; they go to Los Angeles. Except for a brief period in the late 1970s and early '80s, when a bunch of suburban misfits and local skateboarders gave rise to Black Flag, the Germs, X, the Go-Gos, and the Minutemen, Los Angeles has never been known for its homegrown rock.
But a vibrant local underground arts-and-music community has been churning along in downtown Los Angeles for almost 10 years, and its biggest ambassadors, guitarist Randy Randall and drummer/vocalist Dean Allen Spunt of the noisy pop duo No Age, are set to make the city a rock capital for the '00s in the way that Athens, Ga., and Seattle were in the 1980s and '90s.
Randall and Spunt first got together around 2002 in the punk band Wives. After the departure of drummer Jeremy Villalobos at the end of 2005, Randall and Spunt, who had played bass in Wives, stayed together as a duo, taking the No Age name from a 1987 compilation on Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn's SST label. "We were very excited just to see what kind of music we could make," Randall says, explaining the decision to use only guitars and drums in the line-up. "Less is more, you know? If you only have so many colors in the palette, you have to be inventive. Bass was never really an option for either one of us."
No Age played a bunch of all-ages shows at a downtown venue called The Smell, which also serves as an art space, library, and vegan restaurant, as well as shows at non-traditional spaces like galleries and one along the banks of the Los Angeles River. Within just a few months of forming, Randall and Spunt started recording a series of five singles and EPs of fuzzy noise-rock that caught the attention of the British label Fat Cat Records.
"Fat Cat approached us and asked if we were writing for a new record," Randall says. "The EPs were just out, so we didn't really have anything. They asked if we were interested in putting the singles together. We'd though maybe 10 years down the road that we'd collect them. A lot of our favorite bands have released compilations 10 or 15 years later."
The resulting collection, Weirdo Rippers, introduced No Age's mashup of punk, shoegaze, and indie-pop to the world outside Los Angeles. The initial run on the disc was limited, but the praise it earned from Pitchfork and New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones led to a deal with super-indie label Sub Pop and, this spring, the breakthrough record Nouns. "For Weirdo Rippers, the songs were sketches and us working things out for us as a band," Randall says. "They were experiments. On Nouns, we wanted to write a cohesive record."
The months since have been a whirlwind of celebrity, promotion, and touring that seems, at first glance, to be at odds with No Age's original DIY, all-ages approach. "I had no idea what it would be like," Randall says. "I thought I did when it started [after Weirdo Rippers]. I think in a sense it's about do it yourself, make your own band, do your own thing. It's not anti-celebrity, but it's about being personable. Now it's an opportunity to talk to people on a larger stage, and that's a valid tactic. Dean and I haven't changed, as far as I can tell—our friends haven't told us to fuck off, and I like to think that they would."
Even during their biggest mainstream exposure—like their appearance on CBS's The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson in October—Randall and Spunt have maintained a surprisingly low-key profile. (The appearance proved controversial when Randall was asked by CBS executives to remove his Barack Obama T-shirt in order to comply with the FCC's equal-time rule for political candidates. Randall and Spunt considered cancelling the performance, but Randall instead covered Obama's face and name on his shirt with the words "Free Health Care.")
"My mom loves that show," Randall says. "So getting to do it was kind of cool. We're never going to win Grammies or be at that kind of huge level, so being on TV is a chance to show your parents that you haven't just been fucking off for the last five years."
photos by Ed Templeton