Los Angeles-based dico-junk-noise outift Babyland have endured the collapse of their record label, the demise of their local music scene and the closure of their favorite live venues. They remain unstoppable.
Babyland, consisting of vocalist / noise-shaper Dan Gatto and percussionist / purveyor of wit SMITH, have been rocking mics and burning down club stages in L.A. and the Bay Area for a long, long while now. After four full-length album releases (three on the now defunct Flipside label, one released independently on Mattress) and too many extraordinary, explosive live shows to count, Babyland’s creativity and intensity remarkably show no signs of flagging.
They still approach every songs and performance with the same zeal, concern and intelligence that have become their trademark. Their music, which idiosyncratically blends the best elements of industrial, punk, techno, stand-up comedy and what they call “disco junk noise,” possesses a character that defies categorization and remains capable of perpetual renewal and reinterpretation.
Choler’s Sean Flinn caught up with SMITH via e-mail in late November and early December, following the release of their latest full-length album Outlive Your Enemies.
Sean Flinn: How long has this album [Outlive Your Enemies] been in the works?
SMITH: We started recording the album in February of ’98, at Michael Rozon’s Speed Semen Clove Factory, which is where we actually did everything right up to and including mastering, which we did at the end of August. We did a couple of full weeks, but most of the work was done on weekends and in the evenings. Most of the songs were written since the summer of ’96, but a couple are even older than that.
Do you have any interesting stories to relate from your adventures in the recording studio?
Recording with Michael Rozon was great. For the first time ever we had access to professional digital editing system and a guy who really knows how to use it. Also, we spent a lot of time crafting the specific sounds for each song with a lot more control than we’ve had in the past. The percussion tracks are the best we’ve ever been able to capture, and for once I actually hear the same thing off the recording that I hear in my head while I’m playing.
What is the typical Babyland recording session like (give us a “Day in the Life” scenario)?
The basic recording breakdown is between electronics, percussion and vocals – normally recorded in that order. We usually do two, three or four songs at a time, working them through all three stages and then moving on to another batch. Mixing is kind of a nightmare because we usually have so much going on in every song that it’s tough to find space enough for everything we want to keep. On the other hand, we also have a pretty good idea of what most of the songs are supposed to sound like, so when we achieve that in a mix we know it and when the song still needs more work we know that too. What made these sessions really excellent for us was working with Rozon, who was totally into going the extra mile to encourage us to find new ways to try things out when a track was giving us trouble. Creativity goes a hell of a lot farther when you’ve actually got access to the tools and skills needed to turn those ideas into actual recordings!
I’ve noticed that a lot of the songs that appear on Outlive Your Enemies have been staples of your live show for a year or two now. Do you usually road-test your material before putting it down on an album?
Taking new songs onto the stage and springing them on people who haven’t heard them is one of our favorite things. Also, you learn a lot about the song! By carrying the songs with us for a while they benefit from having a life of their own and a period of open experimentation before we nail them down for good. Songs that we’ve played live a lot are usually easy to record because we know exactly what we want out of them. Conversely, we’ve also included on each album a few songs that have never been played outside the studio, and since these songs are free from all the expectations of live performance they allow us to do a little more experimentation in the studio than we might allow on a seasoned stage veteran.
Does audience reaction to the songs influence any decisions you might make while recording or structuring the album?
Having some idea as to how people are reacting to a song live is helpful, but in the end what is more important to me is finding out what my reactions to the songs are when we perform them in front of people. Sometimes a song that seems to be working great in the practice space just doesn’t stand up the first time out – and other times songs that seem kind of flaky only reveal their true strengths when we’re actually throwing them at someone. The results are really internal, and very hard to deny.
What influences worked on you during the composition and recording of this album, i.e., did any albums, songs, records, artists, films, dreams or incidents from your life compel you to write any of these songs, or influence you as you wrote and recorded them?
A lot of these songs relate to what we have seen going on around us here in Los Angeles since we returned from a National Tour in the summer of ’96. A partial list is as follows: The demise of Flipside records as an operational entity. The realization that our favorite LA bands, clubs and labels more often than not end up getting fucked – often by their own bad habits. The continued stinking nightmare of unmitigated bullshit that is the “legitimate” entertainment industry. The endless parade of totally fake celebrities, causes and “scenes” that allegedly swarm around us, and which couldn’t be more irritating even if they were real. The creeping Fascism in California state politics, and last but not least, DAY JOBS … At least we can say were still here, and of course there were some really good things too: Flipside magazine will survive! People start new bands, clubs and labels daily – and some of them are actually pretty good! A few good films and records sneak out every now and then – even through the sickest institutions! Society and politics seem to be doing a good job of canceling each other out, and therefore leaving me alone! And if it weren’t for those day jobs, we’d still be dreaming …
Why the title Outlive Your Enemies? Who are your enemies, and what cosmically just things do you envision occurring to them beyond the truncation of their life span? Have you ever witnessed one of your foes getting what coming to him/her? What happened?
The last couple years have really left us feeling isolated as artists. One way or another, too many people are giving up on their dreams and giving in to their enemies. For some it’s their bad habits. For others its the lure of comfort and stability offered by just giving up. A few just get taken down by the brute force of violence, illness or some other unavoidable power. We see it all the time and it’s a drag. Artists in Los Angeles are subjected to a constant bombardment of negative energy on the one hand and the relentless allure of tinsel town temptation on the other. It’s all crap, and we want to express the positive message that you don’t have to listen to any of this bullshit, and that just by sticking to your own program and not letting go you are the winner.
Where do you think Outlive … fits in with the rest of the Babyland oeuvre? Do you attempt to design your songs and albums to fit within a set continuum, or do you think that each new project redefines your image and direction?
This album is another step in our journey – wherever it is that we are going – and we are fortunate to be satisfied with every step we have taken. The only continuum that we work under is that of our own ethical integrity coupled with the fact that we want Babyland to be Babyland, not anybody else. Over the years there are definite changes, and yet the limitations we leave ourselves sort of form the skeleton off of which these changes can maneuver. We do the best we can.
Why the split with Flipside, who released your first 3 albums?
Flipside was great to us! Unfortunately, 1996 was a really bad year for independent punk rock labels and Flipside lost their distribution. Realizing that there was little the label could do for us and nothing we could do for the label we struck out on our own. It was literally “every band for themselves,” while Flipside concentrated on saving the magazine. Currently, we’re working together with Flipside to repress the first three CD’s, and there is no grievance to speak of.
Will you handle future Babyland endeavors independently, or are you shopping for a label to call home?
It would be really cool to have some great label treat us really well and pay for everything and market us correctly and distribute the records thoroughly and support us on tour and back up our artistic ideals all the time – but not if it meant that they only liked us while we were trendy or that they owned all the rights to everything or that we had to spend all our time fucking off for MTV or that our records cost $16 on special at Target or that we had to tour 200 days a year opening for some band we hate or if they think for one stinking second that they had any control whatsoever over who we are, what we say, and how we’re going to go about being Babyland. Until such an entity comes forward, we will continue to pursue our current independent course.
What drew you guys to the style of music/performance that you embrace, e.g., pyrotechnics, junk noise, low-tech electronics, and emotional, hardcore vox?
In the beginning, the stuff we started with was just the stuff that we had on hand and that we figured would be more interesting to use than the normal gear. As things evolved, some tools gave way to others and new methods were discovered. The evolutionary process has definitely been in the direction of greater musical utility. Los Angeles in the late 80’s was fortunate to have tons of great bands that were all really into doing different stuff with unusual gear and “multimedia” presentations, so we had lots of inspiration to go from. Savage Republic, Distorted Poney, and others were using metal percussion and groups like Presurehed, Geko, and Ethyl Meatplow (pre-Carla) were combining crude electronics with live elements in really interesting ways. Slide projectors, film loops, kooky costumes and bizarre dancers weren’t uncommon and there was a pretty strong crossover between the punk, gothic, industrial, and electronic scenes. It was a fertile time. What really drove us to pick up the junk heap and join in was the fact that we felt that this framework was actually something we could contribute to artistically, and by sticking to what we saw in ourselves everyone would benefit. Our first shows were confusing, chaotic, and experimental – but something about them really worked for us and we knew that it was something we had to pursue.
What are the main concerns that you are trying to address in relation to and through the band?
Most of all we want to keep reminding people that their dreams are worth holding on to no matter how hard those other bastards kick you in the ribcage. The greatest self deception of all is to just give up hope because of the perception of security offered by some advertised lifestyle. It seems that every minute of every day we’re all bombarded by the same two-fisted assault of Madison Avenue and the political-dogma fucks (both right and left) who’d have you cash it all in (to them of course) for a sunny weekend in some maximum-security-social-re-education-facility in which your personality will be chained forever to their bank account. Everything that matters – art, democracy, the free market, spirituality, punk rock, family, whatever! – depends on the existence of individuals. There is no alternative to being you, so get on with it!
Where do you envision or hope the band will end up, say, a year or two down the line?
12 to 24 months is such a tiny amount of time that it’s hard to expect anything other than the continued incremental progress you’ve seen over any other 12 to 24 month period of time. We’ll play some shows, record some songs, and go to our day jobs just like now. All that is certain is this: We will not go away!
You use the phrase “We will not go away” as a sort of maxim or slogan? did you intend for this phrase to be both the promise and threat it represents (at least to me)? For clarification: Your fans, I imagine, find the phrase comforting. Did you mean for it to function also as a facet of the same sentiment that produced the title Outlive Your Enemies?
You’ve hit it right on the head! Over the years, one cool thing has been watching all those fuckers who thought they could cheat us just writhe and die. Sometimes it’s the news that some awful band finally broke up or that some terrible club got shut down by the city or even something worse. Whatever, people chose their own fates and history is the judge. More important then that, though, is the positive side. The fact that we’re still around reaffirms our belief that we’re doing something right – and trust me, if either one of us thought we’d bit the cheese we’d have stopped a long time ago. Likewise, it’s also always been a real boost to run into someone who says, “Damn, I never thought I’d see you guys play again! Thanks for still being around!” We’ve still got so much to accomplish, how could we quit now!
I’ve noticed that your shows tend to draw fans from a broad spectrum of musical genres; punks, industrialites and just plain ol’ folks all pop up at your performances, whereas they might not normally choose to co-mingle. What aura do you think Babyland exudes that draws these otherwise disparate groups together? Is this convergence something you hoped would happen? Is it the product of design or chance?
The diversity of individuals is the whole fucking point! If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a room full of people all wearing the same mask – whether it be punk rock or pink tuxedos. We’re not trying to attract any specific groups, we’re trying to communicate with individuals, and it is in the hands of individuals that the future lies.
(A long question). While many of your songs seem to reflect a confrontational stance that embodies some of the major concerns of post-modernism (man vs. machine, anti-consumerism and the encroachments of various elements of modern society on the individual’s ability to think and feel freely), your live shows often seem to engender a sort of paradoxical confrontation / embracing of your audience. For example, you empty aerosol cans of air freshener into the air, spray the audience with sparks, fill clubs with the fumes of road flares, and, in one now infamous incident, threw cow manure on the crowd. Some people, upon hearing about this, would expect the crowd to object to some of this. Yet the fans seem to love all of it, in fact seem disappointed when you leave some element of the show out. They even happily swept up the cow manure after the 924 Gilman St. incident. Why is this? Do you intend for the confrontation to exist, or am I misinterpreting things? Should a fan enjoy being showered with sparks, covered in Glade and then immersed in cow shit? And why the fascination with props that produce such strong odors? How have club owners dealt with your sometimes precarious stage show, and do they have a right to demonstrate concern or forbid certain types of on-stage behavior?
Confrontation is an experiment in itself, and the results can be really interesting. For instance, it was only when I actually opened up the big bag of cowshit and dumped it on the heads of the kids at Gilman (into unbelieving eyes and screaming mouths, cool haircuts and new shirts!) that I realized the fact that when we act out violently, we only hurt the people closest to ourselves. Don’t laugh, I’d never really let this one sink in before! The kids who got shit on the most weren’t our enemies, they were the ones who paid money to get in and fought their way to the front of the crowd to see us. Did Mr. Boring in the back corner get any shit on him? How about Miss Complacent out in the lobby? In the end, the outburst really got to me, and I know Dan was moved by his manure dumping experience as well. In addition, in the sadism of the moment I was confronted with the ethical predicament of translating a conceptual “good idea” into a specific violation of an individual’s right to remain clean, comfortable, and not covered in cow shit! Having defined this concept as a part of our performance, there was no way I could turn back and yet there it was – the Banality of Evil manifest! Having done this there was suddenly a real sensation that I really owed these people something, and I know that what I owe them is to keep going, even if it means they get shit on sometimes. Would I do it again tomorrow? Of course, so watch your back!
From whence did the name “Babyland” come?
We saw the name in lights and it just looked good.
Gimme one (or several) good reason(s) why I should make the switch from Del Taco to Taco Bell.