Twenty Years On, “Drinking In LA” is Still the Ultimate Existential Slacker Anthem
Bran Van 3000's most famous song is so drunk that someone literally shouts “BEER!” in the second chorus.
There are only a handful of things I remember about the seven years I spent going to swimming lessons as a kid, and absolutely none of them involve being in the water. I remember frantically punching in the buttons to secure a 10p bag of Chipsticks from the vending machine after every class. I remember eating them in the back of my dad's car, the salt mixing with the smell of chlorine clinging to my damp hair, wiping greasy crumbs on my Adidas poppers. And I remember one song blaring out through the leisure centre speakers more frequently than any other: "Drinking in LA" by Bran Van 3000.
Historically known as Bran Van 3000's first international hit, and more colloquially known as one of the greatest comedown songs of all time, "Drinking in LA" is a trippy slacker anthem that has refused to die in the 20 full years since its release in 1997. Why a euphoric ode to mid-20s ennui by a group who take their name from a low-grade Swedish vodka resonated with me, an eight-year-old, front crawling indifferently through the ASA curriculum, is either bleakly prophetic or a simple testament to the universal resonance of its three opening notes. Because it's mostly that loop – those three descending notes, plus the refrain of "What the hell am I doing drinking in LA at 26?" – that anchor what otherwise should have been a wildly inaccessible tune.
From the "Hi, my name is stereo Mike" and other abstract nonsense that comprises the intro to the wandering, observational lyrics littered with in-jokes, "Drinking in LA" is a really fucking weird song. Sonically bridging the gap between trip-hop and lo-fi indie like the Sneaker Pimps' sloppy cousin, it arrived at a time when "alternative rock" – as Greg Bouchard wrote in a retrospective on Bran Van's debut album Glee – "could mean anything from electronica to Metallica, and along with artists like Len, Beck, Soul Coughing, and Primitive Radio Gods, Bran Van 3000 embodied the identity crisis."
On paper, "Drinking in LA" is a potential Underworld hook over a guitar riff that sounds like me learning to play Nirvana on a practise amp with the distortion cranked to 11, and loads of half-rapping about literally nothing recorded to sound like someone talking down the phone. Without Stéphane Moraille's vocals imbuing it witha sense of urgency and professionalism, it sounds a bit like something Linkin Park would have made in GCSE music. But it's exactly that unrefined quality that makes "Drinking in LA" so perfect. This is not a meticulously crafted banger designed to fill floors or shift records – it's a moment of brilliance that manages to capture a really abstract feeling in a really specific way, and it's almost impossible to craft that intentionally.
"Drinking in LA" is you during the third trimester of a night out. It's the sound of empty bottles clanging into a bin as you tumble out of a club to be greeted by the sun coming up. It's the collection of hard, listless bastards still at the house party at 10AM, chatting shit before they start racking up more lines. It's every misty-eyed retrospection on raving in the 90s, every "do nothing" university student stereotype throughout the ages, and the cotton-padded clarity of every comedown rolled into one song. During the second chorus someone literally shouts "BEER!" – that's how drunk it is. As if to hammer home its commitment to getting fucked up, the video is a playfully obvious acid trip-looking collage of people sinking beers, shifting equipment around and having a generally pleasant time in boiler suits and assorted fancy dress. It's like that film Hackers had it been about regular people who aren't particularly good at anything.
That's not to say it's vapid or nihilistic, though. For all its rose-tinted views on the sesh, "Drinking in LA" is less about the party itself and more about the moment of the night where you start to sober up and reflect on where you are, what you've done, and all the life choices you have made that have led you to this moment. As told within the lyrics, co-founder James Di Salvio was originally a film director living in LA and trying to write a film script ("yeah right!"), but spent most of his time clubbing and DJing and ended up making what would become their first album Glee instead. "It's kind of like falling out of love with one medium into the next," he is quoted as saying on VH1, "When you impose things in your life you have to do things because of your ego, you have to accomplish so much at a certain age and you want to do something else and you have to take the plunge and do it."
The result is a song in which our narrator floats through this vividly painted "Hell-A" landscape of mean girls, angry men and money-makers – all of whom are either laughing at him, trying to beat him up or being obnoxious. By all accounts the mood should be aggressive or depressing, but instead it's relaxed and comfortable, sitting on the bus "blaring out the g-funk sipping on juice and gin" while the world happens around it. "Drinking in LA" is a diary entry from someone who knows exactly where they want to be, they're just not in a rush to get there. Aware of, but not affected by, the external and internal pressures of a judgemental city and an industry full of rejection, our narrator takes one considered sweep around his surroundings and says, without guilt, "I'll do it tomorrow".
The reality, of course, is that "Drinking in LA" was not on constant rotation throughout my swimming lessons. I probably only heard it a handful of times across several years among a thousand other songs, but for whatever reason it happened to be the one I filed to memory. The nuanced balance of ambition and ambivalence was not something I managed to unpack at the age of eight as I repeatedly dived for a rubber brick in my pyjamas, dreaming of crisps. But whether it's an association that's been carried forward or formed in retrospect, the song does consistently remind me of water – the feeling of submerging yourself in a large body of nothing and floating around, thinking about things but with the awareness that you can't do anything about it immediately, because you're in a pool. It's similar to the feeling you get when you very suddenly catch yourself sobering up, loosely holding a half-empty beer sitting on someone's disgusting sofa. You know, at some point, you have to go home and sort your life out – get out the pool, as it were. But when it's 7AM and the feeling hasn't even returned to your gums yet, there's really not much left to do but say "fuck it" and finish it.
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(All images via YouTube)