We sat down with the LA garage outfit to talk the art of covers, a terrorist threat on their show, and making music in times of chaos.
2017 was a weird year for the otherwise-exceedingly chill Allah-Las. Close to a decade into their career, the LA outfit, whose sound falls somewhere between surf, psych rock and vintage pop, finally broke through to make international headlines—though not from the rising star of 2016’s hit Calico Review.
Last August, a (later found hollow) terrorist threat forced the cancellation of their Rotterdam, Netherlands show, just six days after a terrorist cell van attack in Barcelona left 16 people dead. The subsequent onslaught of attention jolted the band to a strange and unwanted brand of notoriety, effectively harshing their quintessentially Californian mellow. “After that whole terrorism thing happened, we kind of stayed away from giving statements because we felt like the news and media becomes divisive by pointing fingers at different people,” says vocalist Miles Michaud. “We try to not talk about it too much.”
Barring the-bad-trip-felt-’round-the-world that was 2017, the Allah-Las have had it pretty good. Three of the four members grew up on the beach, attending high school just south of Los Angeles and then embarking on a stint at Amoeba Records, where the friends met guitarist Pedrum Siadatian and began making music together. From recording early material with LA producer Nick Waterhouse, to eventually playing SoCal fests like Coachella and Desert Daze, they’ve spent the better part of the last decade floating in the scene, surfing, recording three albums and a number of singles that would cement them as mainstays of a rich garage sound embraced well beyond the beach.
Covers #1, a four-song EP out now on Mexican Summer, sees the band similarly injecting life back into another tired genre: the world of homage. Recorded at the Pump House in Topanga Canyon amidst working on new music for their upcoming fourth full-length, the eclectic vault of unexpected tracks culls from the soundtrack that accompanied those recording sessions. Selections range from George Harrison’s 80s jam “Fish On The Sand,” to Kathy Heideman’s “The Earth Won’t Hold Me,” to LA cult band Further’s “JO Eleven,” to Television’s unreleased “Hard On Love.” The album’s arguable standout, “Fish On The Sand,” undergoes the most dramatic transformation, spinning the 80s production of a post-Beatles Harrison into the Allah-Las signature sound: jangly, pop-y, and a little raw.
Through the rose-colored lens of their psychedelic forefathers, the EP’s sunny, scuzzy riffs and punchy garage vocals are haunted by an air of longing. Despite their sound’s inherent lightheartedness, the weight of a certain melancholy is palpable. It’s a dichotomy that, on both Covers #1 and the band’s previous releases, elevates Allah Las’s work beyond the confines of the two-dimensional 60s pop they’re often compared to. It’s a contrast emblematic of their city, too—a place where the nightmare of rush hour coincides with the ethereal beauty of golden hour, and the fantasy of excess is belied by loneliness.
Noisey sat down with the Allah-Las’s vocalist Miles Michaud, guitarist Pedrum Siadatian, and bassist Spencer Dunham to talk the art of covers, the terrorist attack that never was, and making music in times of chaos.
Noisey: How did you choose which songs to cover on the album?
Pedram Siadatian: These were the songs we listening to at the time, and we thought we could cover them well with our production style and not butcher them. With the George Harrison song, it was kind of caught up in the eighties production trends, but we kind of heard a jangly pop song in it, so we produced it like that.
Can you talk about the process of stylistic transformation in taking these songs from their original state to your West Coast sound?
Miles Michaud: Some of the songs we transformed more than the others, with George Harrison being the biggest change. With “JO Eleven,” we pretty much covered it true to form, but without the annoying buzzing sound in the original recording. Who else did we cover?
Spencer Dunham: Television. The Television song was just an early demo, it was never properly released. We cleaned it up a little bit I guess. Then with the Kathy Heideman, that was just a song we were listening to we thought was cool, and we thought we’d take a stab at it.
So there wasn’t really a cohesive plan to pick a group of artists that meant something, it was more just whatever you guys were currently into?
Michaud: Just what we were into. We were at our friend’s studio in Topanga Canyon, and we had recorded a session of covers there once before for Aquarium Drunkard. So we saw it as just another opportunity to use our time to cover songs we liked and add personal touches to them.
Siadatian: This album was spontaneous, we just wanted to get it out there and didn’t think that much about the songs. The one we were most excited about was the George Harrison one, because we knew it would be such a big change from what it was.
Michaud: It comes off the album Cloud Nine, and the most popular track on that album is “Got My Mind Set on You,” which is very different from his earlier Beatles-sounding material. Some of the songs are more classically composed, or arranged, which is why we wanted to try to cover it and sort of add our own production aesthetics.
As this EP is titled Covers #1, are you planning on doing a series of these?
Siadatian: I think we’re supposed to, but I don’t know when we’re going to do that. I think we’re going to start focusing on the next record before we start doing more covers.
Michaud: Next thing you know we’ll be playing high school dances and local weddings.
You guys have been around for awhile, but seem to be experiencing an upswing as of late. How have you continued to evolve as a band while maintaining an orbit around eclectic garage vibes?
Michaud: By taking it slow, very slow. [ Laughs] I mean, if you think we’re experiencing an upswing right now, that’s great.
Siadatian: It’s been a very gradual nine-year upswing.
Michaud: We’re on one of those little seats that goes up the stairs sideways, and we’re shooting all the way to the top.
Can you talk a little about having your show canceled due to a terrorist threat?
Michaud: Basically some 20-year-old Dutch kid phoned in a threat to see what would happen or something…He posted in some weird forum about some sort of threatening thing, encouraging people to respond and get with him, but it turned out there was no actual threat.
Dunham: I’m not even sure he phoned it in, I think he was just online posting threats just to mess with people.
Siadatian: He was fishing for like-minded terrorists, but he himself was not actually a terrorist, according to himself and his lawyer. He was just an ameturer security sleuth.
So it was just totally bullshit?
Siadatian: Yes, I think so. That’s what’s been established.
Michaud: I’m actually curious to what happened with that. We haven’t heard much about it since we left Europe.
Dunham: I think he had to pay for some of the emergency response stuff, police, security, the cancellation of the show, refunding of tickets, things like that.
In regards to this trend of terrorists targeting shows, how do you think it’s going to transform the landscape in coming years?
Michaud: Maybe just more security, I’m not sure anything else can be done. Bands are going to keep playing, and people want to see music.
Dunham: Even at some of our recent shows, you can tell there was heightened security. People getting more complete pat downs, things like that.
Do you think it could eventually have an impact on the amount of shows bands play?
Dunham: I hope not, that would be terrible.
Your music is fun, thoughtful, and seems to embody a certain freedom you feel when you’re on the West Coast. Can you talk about the restorative power of music to transcend the darkness of our current world, and how psychedelic music has always held that place in chaotic times?
Michaud: I don’t know if it’s just psychedelic music, I think it’s just music in general that brings people together. After that whole terrorism thing happened, we kind of stayed away from giving statements because we felt like the news and media becomes divisive by pointing fingers at different people. We try to not talk about it too much. People want to be divisive, I think.
Lindsay MaHarry writes about weed, music and literature from her bedroom in Los Angeles. Follow her on Instagram.