off on a tangent with Babyland

The full interview!  With parts not included in the February Issue version.

by Darren M. Orlowski

Babyland - photo by Giuliana Maresca
Babyland - photo by Giuliana Maresca

Babyland’s album The Finger has been in heavy rotation on my iPod for a few years now so I was overly excited when I received the opportunity to interview them.  The opportunity was sprung on me the very night I returned home from vacation.  Of course, my five-hour flight came with a complimentary screaming kid who also enjoyed kicking my seat.  When I finally arrived home, I saw I had a message from Dan Gatto, Babyland’s lead singer/programmer saying he was excited about the interview and we should get together before their show that night.  I was suddenly reminded of how excited I was.  I couldn’t refuse so I forced myself to muster up some energy.  After a brief game of phone tag, a typical LA traffic jam, and a mad dash back to my car to stop it from getting ticketed, I was in front of the venue being greeted by Dan and Michael Smith, Babyland’s junk-chuckers extraordinaire.

Babyland is a performance-based band with an electronic “junk punk” sound from Los Angeles, California.  In February, Metropolis Records’ new signed Babyland will release their sixth full-length album; Cavecraft.   Imagine an energetic band with Dan’s vocals sounding like something straight out of the movie The Decline of Western Civilization and Smith banging on anything he can find, including the kitchen sink.

After brief introductions we walked to a nearby Thai restaurant. Meanwhile, the duo educated me on LA climate and rainfall and how this chilly season was not typical.  Over some hot tea and Thai food I had the chance to learn more on the inner workings of Babyland.

You guys have been working together about twenty years now, did you ever imagine being together this long when you first started?

Smith: Yeah we did, I did, I was thinking… why the hell not?

Dan: I don’t know if I thought about anything twenty years in the future.  I don’t think I had any kind of idea if we would only last for a short time. It was sort of like… It was an idea of progress.

Smith: When I was young, everything was forever.  I actually have this problem of letting go of things.  It was like in some bizarre way, every alliance, every project, everything was supposed to be this, you know, continuing permanent struggle. So this was just a part of that.

In the time that you’ve been together the music industry has completely changed it’s formula.  How have you have been affected by these changes?

Smith: We’ve been around long enough to see a couple different cycles. You know there are sort of business cycles to everything. There are ups and downs for every industry.  The tragic comedy of that cycle is something that we’ve actually learned to sit back and just kind of enjoy as it goes by.  We’ve learned to insulate ourselves from it to the point where really it’s something that happens, kind of over there.  Sometimes we get to catch a wave and go with it for a little while and sometimes it completely has nothing to do with us at all.

Dan: And we were lucky… It could of really gone anyway when we started. I mean, we really didn’t know very much.  But we got involved with an independent punk label called Flipside in Los Angeles, who also ran a magazine, and really what they sort of instilled in us is a very… you know… I don’t know if it’s DIY, the way that people consider DIY.

Smith: It was less idealistic and more skeptical.  That there is no one out there trying to help you, and we can kind of pull together on our own.  But it wasn’t a big idealist sort of revolution… like maybe the MaximumRocknRoll scene was a little more idealistic.  The Flipside scene was just kind of these outcasts, we put on these cool events, we do these interesting things, and we do it for as long as we want cause it’s pure chaos.

Dan: It also was filled with a lot of bands who just had enthusiasm and really didn’t know any better and just thought well, why can’t we put out a record, why can’t we do this?  The bands were lucky because there was the magazine that was distributed nationwide.  People were aware of the magazine and it helped to carry the bands.  So we sort of learned from that and emulated that, even when we left… when Flipside sort of stopped putting out records. We figured, well, let’s just put out our own record.

Smith: We’ll carry on with the same philosophy but just on our own now.

Okay, so that’s why there was the transition from Flipside to your own label Mattress.

Smith: Yeah.  That cycle of the music industry got really, really, crazy weak and screwed up obviously in the late 70s, maybe early 80s.  As the main music industry got really weak you saw all kinds of really great interesting things happen on the peripheral because they couldn’t hammer it flat.  Punk rock and hip hop and all kinds of amazing shit started happening because the major music industry was just ass over tit, just totally weak.  All the great independent punk labels from the 80s started up in that weakness, basically that was the launch bed.  That was the stuff that we were listening to, that we were into when we were teenagers.  And with Flipside we were lucky enough to catch on to the tail end of that.  Over the course of the 90s, the story there was, the music industry got back up on its feet and basically took over everything again.  All those independent labels, that entire model of doing business just didn’t survive.  Very few of them are still around.

Dan:  In many ways it was pure luck that we fell in with the good people that we fell in with, with Flipside, and with the bands.

Smith: …bands that weren’t on Flipside but still extraordinarily helpful to us in terms of our first few shows and giving us pointers when we totally needed it, we weren’t like a band [yet].

Dan:  At the time there was a parallel music industry in LA, where there were people taking headshots and getting signed and this whole sort of “thing”.  If we didn’t fall in with the people we fell in with we might of tried to go that route.  They just basically showed us the way to kind of… do our own thing.

Going back to how the industry has changed, it has also changed in the way of distribution.  I saw that when you first started out you had some trouble getting your records out there.

Smith:  [For] our first record we were lucky that Flipside had distribution through Mordam.  Mordam was the distributor that was basically making all that kind of west coast punk rock labels get into stores.

Dan:  And we’re talking worldwide, you know.

Smith:  They had deals over seas and stuff.  So our first album was pretty well distributed actually.  I’m very happy with how many we were able to get out there and sell.  It went down hill from there.

Dan:  And that could be the basis for how people even still know about us, [the fact that] our record in 1992-93 got out there.

And after that you had trouble?

Smith:  It got harder and harder.

Dan:  Yeah definitely.

Smith:  We did two more records on Flipside after that, and each one was more difficult because basically the independent distribution channels just got more and more restricted.   Mom and pop stores were closing down, college radio was diversifying, kind of out on supporting punk rock or college rock type stuff and getting more into dance music or hip hop.  The major labels were learning, the best example being grunge, not to throw stones at the grunge bands particularly.  [In] that era, the major labels learned how to completely co-opt that entire genre of college rock.  After that, that just shut down that whole sort of channel for people to be able get out there.

That has been opening again, I think, with a lot of the emo stuff and a lot of the electro-clash stuff.  I think that’s been pried open again and it’s awesome.  But for a while there it got harder and harder and it made it really impossible to distribute those kinds of records.  And so Mordam eventually fired Flipside.  Flipside wasn’t really selling enough, or it wasn’t able to hit the mark quiet right, and they had to make decisions in terms of what they could support as a business.  In the long run it wasn’t sustainable to carry those records anymore.  So that was kind of the end.

Your new album Cavecraft is being released by Metropolis, how did this come about?

Dan:  I think starting in about 2006, the industrial, what people call the “industrial scene”, okay, vaguely the industrial scene, we sort of tried to stay away from it for quiet some time. It wasn’t something that we were totally into.  I think for me, what it came down to, was a lot of the bands didn’t play live.  What ended up happening was these bands started playing live more and more and we were asked to play shows.  So we got to know people and we got to know people who put out records through Metropolis.  We got to find out and know that these people are doing the exact same thing that we’re doing, in terms of it’s all do-it-yourself.  Except they spend a lot of time making it look like it’s not all do-it-yourself.  Their aesthetic is, “we live in some castle somewhere”, as opposed to the DIY aesthetic of, “oh yeah we live in this crappy garage and record everything on a 4-track.”  It’s just a different sort of thing.  But they were putting all their time and effort into it, and we met a lot of people, and I think over time for me personally, I felt more and more comfortable with the people who were involved with Metropolis. These bands,  they’re really great people.  We spent time, we recorded this record, and before rushing to say hey let’s just put it out ourselves on our own label, we said, maybe we should send this to Metropolis and see what they think.

What do you consider your main inspiration for Cavecraft?

Smith:  Survival.  Survival in the face of just an overwhelming volume of things that are just utterly depressing.  And yet, somehow, there’s always that kernel of good times to be had somewhere deep beneath it, if you sort of peel away the bloody bandages.  That’s actually, to me at least, the heart of it.

Dan: And it is a focus on looking towards ourselves.  We did a lot of the work ourselves, in terms of mixing and recording certain things.  I think we took on a lot more of the recording.

Smith: More than ever before.

Dan: There was a sense of homemade craft, something that comes from the two of us working together.  The idea that…

Smith: …it’s overwhelmingly primitive.

Dan: Right.

Did you have any difficulty coming up with the songs for this album?

Dan: The longer we do creative things the more we start to realize that it is a continuum.  The idea you had when you were fifteen years old, you might use now.  Nothing really belongs in any particular [order], it’s all a giant toolbox, you can pull from all these different things.  But I think the thing that was different about this one was, the idea that we really didn’t have a deadline on it.  We sort of started pulling things together, then, when it got half way there we realized we had an album.  Then we put a deadline on it and came up with some more stuff.  So it’s this perfect combination between not being pressured and being pressured.  What’s interesting now is that I felt very free to try many different styles.  In a way it’s the most experimental thing we’ve done, only because it’s very different from the very first thing that we’ve done.

Smith: It’s certainly a part of the continuum though.  Like all our records, there are songs that have stewed for a long time, songs that we have been playing live for years and years, that are very well seasoned songs, that almost feel like old songs to us.  Every record has some newer stuff, too. Things that have been finished just in time for the record.  And that combination of seasoned stuff and new stuff, fast stuff, slow stuff, kind of noisy stuff, or poppy stuff; we try to blend a bunch of different things together to have a little bit of variety.  That process is one of the things that is actually fun when you stand and look, “Hmm ok here’s seven songs, ok we want a few more, gee we got this, this, and this, oh well we need some of this.”

Dan: It’s a recipe.

Will you be doing any tour support for the new album?

Smith: We did a little west coast thing in fall of ’08.  In summer of 2009 we should definitely be doing shows somewhere.  It’ll kind of be a question of where does the record go and where do we here back from.  And what does Metropolis have to say about that.

Dan: We do need to get to the east coast, we know that.  The last time we were there was ’96.  It would be great to do a couple weeks and get out there and play some shows back east.  That would be very satisfying.

Have you heard any weird stories of fans making long treks to see a show, or doing weird things to get in to a show?

Smith:  Of course, of course.  We have a very good friend who’s actually now in Europe, but literally he emailed me one evening, and this is quiet a while ago, and he was in Savannah, Georgia.  He was like, “hey, you’re playing tomorrow night in Berkley, California, I’m in Savannah, Georgia, how do I get there?”  We had a little bit of conversation about that and he made it.  And it was like, ok, that was crazy.  The long story is he had an airline voucher he had to use, so basically [he thought], “I might as well go all the way to California, what is something cool in California?”  And then he tracked us down.  That was kind of unique.

We played in Europe once, we played in Europe’s first city, Gelsenkirchen.  It was one show and it was beautiful.

Dan:  The thing that’s actually interesting right now, is that it was the first show for the band Seabound and we’re going to be playing with [them again] in two weeks.

Smith:  At the Roxy, [in LA].

What are you guys listening to these days?

Smith:  For the last few years I’ve pretty much been exclusively listening to extreme metal.  Lots of black metal, lots of death metal.  Bands I’m really into right now run a gamut, from Blind Guardian, or Enslaved, or Sear Bliss, you know we can go on and on.  The beautiful thing about metal today, and particularly on kind of the underground side, [is] that there is so much going on, it’s like literally every week I’m discovering new stuff and completely freaking out on it.  The most fun I’ve had listening to music since I was a teenager.

Dan:  I listen to a lot of, kind of pop music, I think, sort of.  Currently, it’s all about Glasvegas for me, I like a lot of Scottish bands for some reason.  I’m a huge Twilight Sad fan, they’re an incredible band to me.  I like things like Sigur Ros, and things like that.  And old Cocteau Twins, Jesus and Mary Chain, New Order, Joy Division, Human League…. Depeche Mode.  I love Depeche Mode.  But currently it’s tons of Scottish bands, this band Arab Strap, they’re sort of Scottish pop rock… I guess pop rock.  There’s a lot of this bizarre early 60s American pop influence, or late 50s sort of pop influence in a lot of Scottish music for some reason.  And it’s very interesting how it’s sort of been processed and turned back.  So that’s kind of what I listen to.  But I listen to everything, if someone tells me, oh you know here’s this thing, or if something is very popular, I want to hear it because I want to know why it’s popular.  And [when] we go on trips we listen to… you know, it’s Smith [that] is the DJ.

Smith:  **laughs** And so we listen to metal constantly…

You guys are pretty deep in the LA scene.  These days, who are some LA musicians that we should be looking out for?

Dan:  First you should go to The Smell.

Smith:  Yes!

Dan:  No matter what.

Smith:  The Smell is downtown Los Angeles, between 2nd and 3rd street, a half a block west of Main.  It’s a little back alley kind of operation.  If you want to figure out what’s going in underground Los Angeles the places to start would be The Smell, and sort of the Spaceland/Echo crowd.  But really if it’s not happening at The Smell there’s probably something wrong with it.

Dan:  There is a kind of minimal electronic scene that’s happening.  It’s really not something I’m really involved with… Yeah, it’s interesting but it’s definitely a lot younger generation who are now discovering all this stuff.  I went to a show, Absolute Body Control, and they played like… this was their first time playing in LA… and it was very interesting to see all these kids out there listening to this really minimal 808 drum machine with very primitive basslines.  The stuff that when I was a kid, even I thought it was a little old school.  So it was kind of neat, it’s definitely a huge revival of that kind of stuff out here.  But it’s like the really dark minimal stuff.  There’s a group called Minimal LA that puts shows on.  There’s a club called Pherspace that puts on a lot of those kinds of shows.  It’s interesting because all the stuff is combining now, it’s like people who were indie bands who used to be in these punk bands are now doing electronics.  It’s all coming together.

Smith:  The walls between genres definitely seem to be dissolving a little bit.

It’s not a bad thing.

Dan:  No.

Smith:  I’m a little uncomfortable with it.  **laughs**  Which is why I’m sticking to metal, the last true genre.

That about wraps up my questions, is there anything you feel you need to get off your chest?

Dan: I think it’s a good time for us because it’s the first time we actually completed a record and have some kind of confidence that it’s going to get out there.  This is the first interview we’ve done in…

Smith: …years, no, no, there were some people talking to us at the DNA Lounge.

Dan: Yeah and that’s what I mean, finally, there are people who are involved with the scene who have realized that it is about doing things.  So the bands are playing, people are putting their own records out, people are doing magazines, people are doing things again, and that’s a really good thing.  For me I would just say that I am happy to be apart of it.

Smith: Exactly.  All we can do is what we do.

After the interview the three of us headed back to the venue while Dan filled me in on what was what in the LA underground scene.  The venue at which Babyland was performing was called Spaceland, a corner stone in the LA indie scene known for bringing new acts to the forefront.  After thirteen years of service, Spaceland has a bit of a worn look to it but that adds to the general vibe of the place.

Babyland came out swinging with their aggressively dark song “Nativity” off of the album The Finger, and the energy of the place took off.  I went from completely exhausted from a long day of traveling, to one-hundred-percent energized in a matter of seconds.  After that they played “The End of All Summers” and “Rimer Drive Tiger” both off their new album, Cavecraft.  Even though their music has a darker more serious nature to it, the on-stage antics of this band are in comparison to that of most punk bands; complete with raunchy banter, both with each other and the crowd.  With Smith slamming away on his home made drum set and Dan bouncing around the stage with more energy than the whole crowd put together,  the energy of the two is incredible.  Babyland ended their set with “Search and Rescue” but the crowd would not let up.   After a minute or so of chanting, they came back and played “Youth Choker” from Outlive Your Enemies.  That was my first Babyland show and it was a great one.  I said my good-nights to the duo and went home to pass out.

shortened version from the February Issue of Auxiliary Magazine

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