How StageIt.com Allows the Talented Musician to Work

For much of the past decade, we’ve been witness to the music industry eroding in a truly historic fashion. This tends to happen in industries when a new invention comes along to make it obsolete. Horse and buggy manufacturers experienced this with the rise of the automobile. Candle makers spiraled into poverty due to the light bulb. Even the recording industry itself replaced the “booming” sheet music industry in the mid-20th Century thanks to technology that allowed music to be recorded and sold. This allowed for a small empire to be built on records, eight-tracks, cassettes and ultimately CDs, creating unfathomably wealthy artists and executives who traipsed the globe and lived in palaces. Then MP3 technology was born, the tsunami of illegal downloads hit without warning, and worldwide recording industry revenues were cut in half in less than a decade—a loss of over 20 billion dollars.

Of course, the biggest losers in the industry’s collapse—in financial terms at least—were the musicians themselves. If record labels couldn’t make money and artists couldn’t sell their songs, how were they supposed to get paid? The real irony in all of this is that before the technology to actually record music ever existed—way back to the late 19th Century before the phonograph was invented—musicians made money through their craft in one way and one way only: they played for people anywhere they could. They played in massive concert halls and on street corners, in bars and in hotel lobbies. Music was an artist’s time and effort that gave the public an escape from their day-to-day din. The public paid for that escape, and musicians were able to make a living. 

So it’s only fitting, and fantastically ironic, that technology has brought the music business full circle, back to musicians playing to their fans for their daily bread. This return has spawned a revolutionary new website called StageIt.com, which has taken the age-old model of musicians playing anywhere and brought it into the 21st Century. Thanks to streaming video and easy-to-use webcams, the concept is relatively simple: musicians who are part of the site play thirty-minute to hour-long sets at a specific time, on a specific day. Fans pay varying prices for entry into these forums, allowing them to not only have access to an “exclusive” show via webcam, but also have the ability to interact with the musicians who are playing.

“This is not a concert,” StageIt founder Evan Lowenstein says, “but rather a fan experience.”

Lowenstein knows the trials and tribulations of trying to be a successful musician, as he was himself a successful musician right before technology drove the old music industry model off a cliff. You may or may not remember the identical twin brother singer/songwriters Evan and Jaron, who found moderate success through three studio albums released between 1998 and 2004, with their single “Crazy for this Girl” rising to number 9 on the pop charts. You’ve heard it and probably won’t openly admit you like it. It was through this first career that the seeds for StageIt.com were planted—the technology just wasn’t there to support it … yet.

“There weren’t web cams everywhere and streaming video wasn’t very good yet, or was way too expensive,” Lowenstein says. “So I had to sit on the idea and hope nobody else did it first.”

By the middle of last decade, when the music industry really began to crumble, Lowenstein began to explore the tech world. He began the mobile texting company HookUpFeed, which is now one of the bigger marketing platforms that allows merchants to connect directly with consumers. With the success of that company and connections in Palo Alto, Lowenstein began to learn about this brave new world and finally saw a way StageIt could exist. “I look at the internet business as an ocean,” he explains. “It’s wide open and it’s very beautiful and there are a ton of possibilities, but all of a sudden something can come up from nowhere and kill you.”

Rather than getting killed, though, StageIt is looking like a better and better idea each day as more and more people rely on streaming content for their daily entertainment, with some millennials giving up regular TV altogether. But what makes it truly revolutionary is how it could become a reliable revenue stream for musicians. One of the most frustrating things about being a musician is figuring out how to effectively connect with fans, especially between shows, tours, and albums. This platform not only makes that possible, it makes it profitable.

“The majority of a tour, you’re on the tour bus, you’re backstage, you’re stuck in your hotel room, not connecting with fans and not making money for your music. We’re about convincing artists they are going to make more money doing what they do best and have more time to have a personal experience with their most loyal fans,” Lowenstein says. “Most fans are people who have to show up to work every day—so the artists become that in a way, showing up to work for their fans.”

I check out a couple shows on the site, and while the quality varies through web cams and sound, the experience is about as unique as it gets. Fans make requests and interact with the artists, and the artists respond, making it more of a high-end Skype session with great music than a concert experience. In fact, it’s not a concert experience at all really—there’s no jostling in the crowd, no immersion in the scene with a live performance. Everything is relatively clean and controlled, as most web-based interactions usually are. Lowenstein agrees with this, saying he finds it “boring as hell” to watch a concert film on TV or on his laptop.

“We don’t sell music, we sell time and access,” he says. “This isn’t on CBS, but we’re taking you to that place CBS can’t get to—the back of a musician’s tour bus as it’s cruising down the highway, inside a hotel room while they’re on the road, or in the studio when they’re taking a break. It’s all live and never archived, which makes it truly one-of-a-kind.”

[More by Eli Kooris; Follow Eli onTwitter]

Fitz & The Tantrums Come Back Stronger With New ’80s Sound & Sophomore Album

The first time I chatted with Fitz & The Tantrums was during the epicenter of SXSW 2011, and the lead-singer duo – Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs – were lying in different positions on a carpeted stage in an underground conference room at Mellow Johnny’s Bikeshop in the Warehouse District of Austin, Texas. An earlier showcase was thumping away upstairs before they were set to go on, and both musicians looked utterly gassed after nearly eleven shows in four days and a week-long European tour starting the following week. However, less than an hour later, they’re on stage giving the performance that landed them their first record deal with Dangerbird for their album Pickin’ Up The Pieces and proved their Motown pop sound belonged on a much bigger stage.

What was originally a week-long European tour became a year, taking the indie-pop band across the continent, talk-show circuit, and the late-night closing minutes at rock clubs. As their fall tour ended in 2012, Fitz and Scaggs locked themselves into a house in Silverlake and cranked out “35 to 40 songs in a month, month and a half.” The goal was to write a song a day, ravaging their creative mines for everything that could possibly be hidden within them. Ultimately, they turned to the outdoors, writing about the L.A. life they saw from their living-room window. The result: the song “The Walker”  about a hipster walking down the street in their hilly neighbor – which stands as one of the gutsier and finer songs from the fruit of their labor, their new album More Than Just A Dream.

The album, which is out on Elektra Records this week, is the band’s sophomore feat, and, with its ‘80s sound, proves that Fitz & The Tantrums have evolved beyond the Motown pop that blazed their earlier success, and into anthem-esque tracks and synthesizer sounds. Their opening single “She’s Out of My League” epitomizes this, leading the new album like a general, and is followed by the crooning “Spark,” and smooth-as-a-breeze-from-your-window “6am.”

Two years since our last meeting, I sat down with Fitz and Scaggs on the bustling Four Seasons patio in the maelstrom of yet another SXSW to discuss their new album, new ’80s sound, and the drive to make a sophomore hit.

Did this new sound we hear on your latest album come about unexpectedly, or was it part of the sophomore plan?
Michael Fitzpatrick: Oh, for sure.
Noelle Scaggs: We definitely didn’t want to be stuck in a box of being a vintage soul band. We can do so much more and we really wanted to bring forth a record that represented how we play live, where anything goes, yet still keep that Motown vibe and niche we began with. We really wanted to explore the ‘80s.
MF: We’ve become a bit of a weird hybrid. For us, there were a few sleepless nights trying to decide what to do next.

You’ve toured with some huge groups like Maroon 5, Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings, and Flogging Molly. How did this help?
MF: It lined us up to do the record. Both of our records really. Without touring with those bigger acts, none of what followed would have been possible. It also planted some seeds in places we never would have been able to plant them. The more you play, the more people you reach. The size of the audience doesn’t matter.
NS:We were also playing shows at the beginning where we didn’t even have enough songs to fill out a set, so it taught us to be creative onstage with our performances.
MF: And also come up with some really unique covers of popular songs, like the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” and Racontuers “Steady as She Goes.”

Why the ‘80s influence on this album?
MF:That was always kind of in the background on the first album. It was more ‘60s on Picking Up the Pieces with the 80’s in the background, and now we’ve pivoted and switched it up. But we don’t think about that stuff when we’re trying to write a record. That’s what leads to those sleepless nights we mentioned earlier. Instead, you just try to make the best song, make them as good as possible. We didn’t want to just be a retro or throwback band in people’s description of us anymore.
NS:  We wanted to make a record that turned us on and if it turned us on, hopefully it would excite other people. We’re not doing this for a few hits—we want 20-year careers.

How do you get along so well, considering you’ve toured for two to three years straight, churned out a new record in a few months, and are set to do it all over again?
[Noelle Scaggs laughs]
MF:You’re family. You love each other. You drive each other crazy.
NS:There are times where you have to take a break. There were a few weeks off where you get home and don’t talk to anybody in the band for the whole time you’re back unless it’s an emergency or go on vacation. You just turn off your phone.
MF:A lot of times everything else around us is changing and the only things that are consistent are her, me, and the other guys in our crew. Every few days it’s a different city, a different hotel room, a different crowd. That can be really disruptive to your mind and creativity.

Was there a fear of a sophomore slump with this album?
MF: There’s a pressure to deliver, sure.
NS:That’s why we kept writing and writing and writing, hoping to strike gold.
MF:And hopefully we have.

Junip Blooms on its Eponymous New Album

The Swedish band Junip has had an odd evolution. When their first LP, “Fields,” was released in 2010, American audiences gravitated to the band because of the popularity of front man Jose Gonzalez, who had been gliding around the world as a solo artist on the heels of sweetly melodic acoustic hits like “Crosses,” “Down the Line,” and a cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats,” which—along with a Sony Bravia commercial—revolutionized the song. “Fields” made Junip sound very much like Jose Gonzalez’s band, his voice and acoustic guitar delicately guiding each song, followed quietly by Elias Araya’s drums and a smattering of organ and synthesizer played by Tobias Winterkorn. The first LP was a pleasant listening experience, but it stayed safe—a breezy, sunny day with a coming storm somewhere on the horizon. However, the band’s eponymous second album—released this week—shows a true transformation.

From the cheery opening strum of the guitar on the lead track and first single “Line of Fire,” the album takes a turn to the darker, harder place you always thought Junip could go. Gonzalez is no longer leading the charge on every track. Rather, the entire trio is in lock-step, drifting from genre to genre throughout the album with each song standing firmly on its own. There’s “Suddenly,” which verges on a hard rock sound, and then there’s the plodding yet singsong “Your Call.” The under two-minute, boot-stomping Southern rock track “Villain” nods gently to The Black Keys, while “Beginnings” drifts through a psychedelic blizzard.

Junip appears to have truly come together on this magnificent sophomore effort—which makes it only fitting that they are talking over each other and are interchangeable in their responses during our interview from opposite sides of the world, where they huddle around a phone during the tail end of the dark Swedish winter. I’ve referred to them collectively as a group here, which they have truly become, when talking about how they came up with this new album, their influences for it, and the evolution of the band.
 
You’re in Sweden right now. I have to ask: what’s the weather like?
It’s dark and cold outside, but nice inside. Getting lighter now. It gets a little depressing for two months or so. At least we’re not living in the north of Sweden, where it’s even worse.
 
Considering there was a five year break between your first EP and “Fields” this album seemed to come together relatively quickly. 
We were out touring a lot and had experience from the first album to get this one going faster. It was easier to make complete songs and get the sounds that we wanted to get in the studio. We’ve also become more confident as a trio. We’ve become more confident in our instruments. 
 
More confident in your instruments?
Well, most of us are self-taught, so I think we just needed more experience playing together. Everything naturally fell into place with this new album. We also started by just jamming and seeing what would come out of that. Some parts we had recorded ideas of songs. Like “Beginnings,” we really tried to make it as dark as possible, reflecting on how we felt in the moment we came up with it. It felt natural in a way—we tried to make each song stand alone without thinking about the other songs, so each song pretty much dictated itself. A couple of the songs are quite old, written before Fields ever came out.
 
What inspired this album?
All three of us have had some personal dips over the time we were writing and recording this second album, which has definitely been reflected in the vibe of the lyrics and the music. But being up and down has definitely created great music. Some songs are very hopeful while some are very gloomy. We have a tough time separating our musical lives and actual lives sometimes. The down times definitely fueled our inspiration. Depression is sometimes the best inspiration.
 
What caused the down times, or the depression?
Break-ups and Swedish winters.
 
You’ve already mentioned it, but there is a lot of variation on this second album. I read somewhere that you guys used to really be into hardcore music, which is pretty popular in Sweden. Are there elements of that in some of these songs?
We were both into playing hardcore music and going to shows when we were younger. There are a lot of subtle elements of it in our music. However, all of the music that we play has elements of music we have played in the past. For example, if you took out Jose’s voice in “So Clear” and had someone screaming in it, it would be a very melodic hardcore song. Sometimes we write with that in mind. Honestly, we’re more inspired by other music than hardcore, everything from electronic and instrumental music to African tribal music. We have been listening to a lot of the psychedelic. In some ways our influence on this album is a blend of the ’60s and ’70s music, though you could say there’s elements of music that goes back to the ’40s and ’50s.
 
You wrote this in Sweden. What time of year was it? I imagine that probably had an influence on the sound.
We have a rehearsal space two minutes from the train station where we live. We went from winter of 2011 to the summer of 2012, so we were coming out of the cold and dark into the warmth and beauty of spring and summer. We would take tea and coffee breaks in the winter and not go outside. Then as we were farther along in the album, we’d walk to a botanical garden nearby and think about it, playing it back while we were outside in nature. Beyond that, we can’t really give you any more details about making the album—not because we don’t want to but because we honestly can’t remember. We think a lot about the future and try to be in the present—we very seldom think about the past. We can’t remember recording most of the tracks on “Fields” and maybe 60 percent on this album. There must be something wrong with us when it comes to recording music. We remember feeling it, but we don’t remember the actual process—it just comes out of us.

Spacehog’s Royston Langdon on the Band’s Reunion and New Record, ‘As It Is On Earth’

While it may take a beat—if not longer—for those of us over the age of 21 to remember the band Spacehog, the recognition for their first hit song “In The Meantime” based on the opening notes alone is almost instantaneous. The track rose to number one on the Billboard mainstream rock charts and is now universally recognized as a coming-of-age classic to those who were in their teens and early twenties during the last half of the ’90s. The debut album from Spacehog in 1996 was a glimmer of hope for recovering rock fans—a neo-glam rock evolution defined by the Bowie-esque tenor of lead singer Royston Langdon’s voice, which had just enough pop in it to get radio play without totally selling out. Two more albums grew out of the band over the next three years, neither of them selling as well as Resident Alien, though there were minor hits like “Mungo City” and a true belief in their talents from music fans and their musical peers alike.

Now, over a decade later after their initial breakup in 2002, Spacehog has reformed with As It Is On Earth, a self-released album that came out this week. A lot has changed in that time—from the state of the music industry to Royston Langdon himself, through the fallout of his marriage to actress Liv Tyler leading to some serious self-reflection and, as he describes it, maturity. The album is a fascinating journey, a tricky amalgam of a wide variety of different genres. It ranges greatly, from the classic boot-stomping Brit Pop on tracks like “Love Is a Curious Thing” to the smokey lounge, mourning sounds of “Now I’m Only Dreaming” or the lovely, ethereal “Cool Water,” proving that, if anything, Langdon’s voice has only become richer over the past decade. While there are hints of the older, glam rock Spacehog sound on tracks like “Sunset Boulevard,” both they (and we) seem to know that they need to move on to new frontiers.      

Langdon took some time to chat with me, about the new album, why the band got back together, and what has been happening, from his perspective, since Spacehog originally broke up.

Why, after being broken up for over a decade, is now the right time for you to get back together and put out a new album?
It took a long time to get this record out for numerous reasons. In 2006 we got together for Johnny’s 40th birthday party in New York and that was really the kind of spark of realization that we have yet to achieve all that we wanted to. There was a feeling of goodwill around that, a realization that we were literally blown apart in late 2001, right around the time the World Trade Center was hit. It split us all asunder, really. That and other things. We had some personality problems within the group at that time as well.

Anyway, when we played together for his birthday in 2006, we got along splendidly and realized there was a lot of love in the room. So since then we’ve spent the last 6 years slowly plotting out our return. It took two years for anything to actually happen, because we were all working on other projects in our own lives and it wasn’t until 2008 that we all were able to get together again in L.A. and really start working. It wasn’t until late 2010 actually that we all got back into the studio again with producer Bryce Goggin. And then after that it took us two years to finish the album, as we were funding it ourselves and wanted to do it right. We’re not 21 and wandering around the East Village with nothing but time. So if you look at it that way, we haven’t really been broken up for that long. The most important thing for us was getting the best record possible, and it took some time to get it right. We work in the way that we work—we don’t really settle.

Were these songs that you had already written or were these songs that you all wrote when you got back together?
A little bit of both, really. I’ve always been consistent with writing and playing, working on my own solo stuff to a certain extent. We all had, I think. Some of these were songs that never made it onto past albums, like Resident Alien and The Chinese Album. Some were songs that came from the experience of my life and being back with these guys again, which is like being back home, in a way.

Is there a different approach to writing and making music now? I guess what I’m asking is if you changed over the past 10 years or so…
I think I’ve been collaborating more over that time. There’s a bit of this on this new record. Songwriting-wise, I feel the first three albums always really held up, so I wanted that to continue on this record, which forced me to not get lazy with it. So I guess maybe that part took more time and diligence…

Let’s go all the way back, back to the beginning… I know other bands who hate their hit songs, because they have had to play them ad naseum. How do you feel about "In the Meantime" now?
To me it’s just another song. A song I wrote when I was quite young and a song that came together because of Spacehog. I still love to perform it and I try to get into the headspace that I’m performing it for the first time every time I do it, probably more successful at some times than others. It’s an interesting thing for me personally, and us I suppose, as it’s taken more attention than other things we have done, that we are equally as proud of. I’m eternally grateful, though, for what that song has allowed us and given us though. It can be seen as both a blessing and a curse, but that’s not for me to decide. My feelings surrounding it are totally positive. I know it’s still loved by many people and it’s become a part of their heritage in a way, which really means something special, as that’s what the song was about—getting a message out to people.

When you guys initially broke up, the music industry was on the brink of falling apart due to Napster and digital downloads and just the way people were able to listen to music in general. What’s your opinion on how that effected Spacehog and the state of the music industry as a whole?
It’s interesting how the story of Spacehog mirrors the upheaval in the record industry itself. We were as confused as the record executives who were working with us as to where everything was going. Now the format has changed. There’s a commercial side that can’t be ignored and the Internet has freed music in some respect, which has changed the outcome before you really start. I’m quite happy about it personally, because anybody can make or get music. It’s more difficult to filter out the wheat from the chaff, but you can do it if you’re passionate about music. 

Do you think the early success affected the band and the mindset of the band moving forward? Was the bar set too high off the bat?
In some ways, sure. That was a record we made then and there were a number of reasons the bar became high, so to speak. Having lived through that—barely—I an only comment on that with a bit of 20/20 hindsight from a 40 year-old guy. I probably would have reacted differently if I had more insight into myself, if we all had as a group. You get thrown into that thing you always dream of and it’s very difficult to know how to handle it.

Success is a deceptive and dangerous position to be in. There’s usually only one way to go and that’s down. I don’t feel like our follow-up records are any less of accomplished albums as a whole, but it wasn’t as well received. Then you have to think about all of the other things going on around you—managers, the road, just life in general—and see how that effects you. You also have a larger disposable income and you haven’t really emotionally grown—in fact, there’s the possibility of regression when you become even somewhat successful and famous. Especially when you get in the bottle of touring a lot and people wanting that to be perpetuated in terms of making money and capitalizing on that.

For myself it became very, very difficult to keep my head on straight and doing what I do best, to write and perform music. I am totally responsible of that, of course and nobody gives you a handbook when you start off in that position. You’re just suddenly known for something you’ve been doing since you were a kid in your bedroom, playing along to your stereo. And then all of a sudden it becomes a reality and you don’t know what to do with it.

I feel like this record is very much a reflection on that, which is why it sounds somewhat more mature, because I am and all these things have become clearer to me.

Get Your Sweat On: L.A.’s Shape House Brings a New Health Fad to the West Coast

Los Angeles is no stranger to new health fads. In fact, the well-to-do areas of SoCal sprawl are like the Nevada Proving Grounds for fringe vitality treatments, bizarre diets, cosmetic surgeries, and creative workout regimens. Colonics (that’s where they put a hose up your butt and flush your colon and lower intestine with a blast of warm water) and Botox parties are almost as commonplace as haircuts and manicures, in some vainer circles. So Shape House, which calls itself an urban sweat lodge and is built into an unassuming craftsman home on the edge of the desirable neighborhood known as Larchmont just south of Hollywood, should fit right in.

The notion of sweating for health reasons is nothing new—sweating out all the toxins you ingested during the prior all-nighter is a known and harsh remedy for a hangover; steam rooms and saunas are standard in most modern gyms, spas, and country clubs. But the term “sweat lodge,” a place where you go just to sweat and do nothing else, makes people visibly uncomfortable when you describe it to them. Maybe the horrific incident of 2009 still lingers in the back of some people’s minds, in which a self-described new age health guru named James Arthur Ray locked participants into a triple-digit Sedona, Arizona desert sweat lodge for an extended period of time, ultimately killing three of them.

However, this is the isolated tragedy the media made a major story and the polar opposite of Shape House, which is more like spa meets science fiction novel. Inside, the décor is intriguingly European, like the best of an Ikea catalogue with a color palette of rich bluish grays, a sharp orange, and touches of white. Large block letters of on-brand words like “sweat” and “quench” read vertically from bottom to top on the doors, while black and white Hasselblad prints of perfect nude bodies grace the walls. It would be incredibly soothing except for the fact that you are hyperaware you are about to do something you’ve never done before.

“I heard of the technology from hospitals in Europe who used them on people who had broken bones,” lifebyme founder Sophie Chiche explains. She is a native Parisian, though she has been stateside for long enough to sand her accent into a pleasantly unique tenor. Her skin has a certain olive radiance and she speaks with a pleasant frankness that is too honest to be a sales pitch. “However, the doctors and nurses realized these patients were getting other benefits beyond just fused bones—skin problems were cured, people were sleeping through the night and were generally less agitated.”

While the heating bed technology had made begun to make the transition to the fringes of the health industry, it was still tough to find, even in the megalopolis of the culty, health-nut area like Southern California. Chiche finally tracked one of the machines down way out in the valley, nearly in Calabasas, and tried it out for herself. The infrared energy bed was tucked in a storage room of the house; the place was a little creepy and there was no shower or place to wash off after she used it. But when Chiche left, she felt incredible. She decided she wanted something like it herself and figured others would too—as long as it was a comfortable, safe environment and there was a place to shower and change, of course.

Considering there is no other establishment like it in America and L.A. is loaded with absurdly heath-conscious people with large amounts of disposable income, Chiche was onto something. At forty-five bucks per hour of sweating, or a ten-sweat package for $350, the experience is at least a reasonable experiment. But is it healthy?

“Sweating is healthy,” Chiche tells me. “It’s basically healthier than saunas and steam rooms. The latter is the worst, as the steam from the water and from your sweat is released into the air and you breath it in. Here, your head is kept completely away from the heat.”

I decided to experience this for myself. Outfitted in socks and Rocky-esque gray sweats, I was brought to my own private curtained booth. In it was a silver colored sleeping bag lined in a light, disposable plastic atop a piece of furniture that was somewhere between a massage and operating table in width and height off the carpet. The table itself was hooked up to blinking machines with numbers and diodes seemingly pulled from the set of 2001: Space Odyssey. I climbed into the bag and my…uh, sweating supervisor? zipped me up to my shoulders and inclined the table to my desired position, so I could sit up. Headphones are placed on my ears and I am given a small remote that allows me to watch just about any streaming film or video service—Netflix, Hulu, Roku—on the small flat screen TV on the wall above me. A mortar shell-sized glass bottle of alkaline water was placed beside me. I put on Arrested Development and suddenly felt very much like a human burrito, stupidly laughing at the screen flickering in the darkness in front of me while I slow-cooked to sweaty perfection.

The machine I was on produces infrared energy, which is a uniform deep-heat penetration that forgoes the usual sensation of feeling hot. As the far-infrared definition stated, “this is achieved by using a specific infrared band of energy peaking at around 9.4 micons, a level designed to penetrate beyond the skin (where heat is most acutely felt) to a depth what fat resides. As this subcutaneous fat begins to heat, your body begins to thermo-regulate itself by producing sweat.” Chiche tells me the bed heats to a temperature far hotter than the hottest day on planet Earth—168 degrees—though it felt like little more than a muggy tropical day.

Sweat began trickling out of my body while I guffawed to the Bluth family, but I didn’t feel particularly hot. My body knew it was hot, but while I sat motionless and my head remained cool, the rest of it didn’t know what to do. Because of this, I assume, it took a good ten minutes or so before I really started sweating, and it wasn’t like the disgusting rain shower that has been shockingly wrung out of me in a dry sauna. My tall bottle of alkaline water has depleted after 30 minutes, and I am most of the way through a second one by the time the session ends. I’ve lost the sense of time and reality as I climbed out of my cocoon, and while I was sweaty, it’s not as much as I had thought. It’s odd—I had patches of sweat in areas that seem unrealistic to a hard gym workout: the tops of my thighs, my sides beneath my armpits, my stomach. In a nearby room, I sat down in a chair and ate orange slices and almonds while slugging another full alkaline water, feeling stoned. That night, I slept like a baby.

While I’d have to go regularly to really give any insight into the overall health benefits, Shape House was certainly worth the experience. I certainly felt different for a day or two afterwards: noticeably chiller, more relaxed. Considering most other cultures celebrate the health benefits of sweating, there’s no reason establishments like Shape House shouldn’t enter into their own niche health and beauty category, an additional option to an already crowded field. Unless medical evidence claims otherwise, I know where I’ll head after a future all-nighter in Hollywood.

The Deer Tracks Bring Their Northern Light Electronica Stateside

I’m among thirty-odd Angelenos at The One-Eyed Gypsy—a lone bit of culture on the Eastern edge of a downtown Los Angeles section primarily populated by empty warehouses, cold city administration buildings and the odd pink neon tinged strip club—who are lucky enough to catch The Deer Tracks. Crammed onto the small stage, the self-described Northern Light Electronica duo has spent the past eight weeks on a crisscrossing van tour of the United, a welcome but exhausting reprieve from their snowy home of Sweden. While it’s a four-piece most nights, the only two constants in the group are lead singer Elin Lindfors—who looks like the dollish Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner and sounds like Bjork—and David Lehnberg, who’s got the effeminate goth of Trent Reznor and an awesome weirdness as he rarely wears shoes onstage and says little prayers while sitting cross-legged and tapping his fingertips against his thumb between songs. 

The forty-five minute set is a big show with cavernous sound and the transfixed crowd doesn’t seem to believe what they are seeing, here in this weird little venue where you can get a shot with a can of beer for seven bucks and then go play skeeball. It’s not even entirely clear that The Deer Tracks realize they already belong in front of a crowd of thousands—they are too entwined in their own transformative performance on stage, their music quite literally dictating their motor skills. Over the past two years the band has released what they call The Archer Trilogy, an album in three different parts that Lindfors and Lehnberg wrote one over a summer in a cabin in the Scandinavian wilderness with no phone and one (barely) working computer. The result three-part debut is one of the more captivating listening experiences I have had in a while, which almost compares to seeing them actually perform with their keyboards, tamborines, and glowing mic stands.

I caught up with Lindfors and Lehnberg after their set and chatted with them in their tour van, which smelled as if it had been shuttling a hopeful and shockingly talented band around for the past month and a half.

Where have you been over the past month and a half?
David Lehnberg: Everywhere. From Portland to New York to Fargo to Des Moines. We’ve really seen the country.

When did you guys first start playing together?
DL: I saw Elin at a show in our hometown. I was just going to a random show and I saw her singing with her other band and I was like, “Fuckin’ A. I need that girl to sing with me and hear some of my music!” I just asked her and she was interested. I had my own studio, and we got together and wrote a song, just for fun. We didn’t even think anyone was going to like it, or that anyone was even going to hear it, really. We were both in other bands at the time. We played the song for a few friends and then we put it on MySpace and it went insane. We were getting calls from the biggest festivals in Sweden the next day, asking us if we could play. And we said sure—except we only had one song! Then we had to make a band out of it.
Elin Lindfors: They wanted us to play at this big festival in two weeks. So we stayed in the studio and worked for a few days straight and somehow pulled it off.

How many songs would you say you have now?
DL: We record all the time—pretty much constantly—but then we’ll go back and pick and choose the really good tracks. We never write a song and then record it; we write them and then record. We have bits and parts everywhere, so we’re always mixing and matching pieces together. I can’t even say how many songs we have because we don’t even know—if we were to die in a crash or something, you’d have an awesome fucking series of bootlegs!

Don’t say that. You’re driving to San Francisco tomorrow.
EL: We’ve already been pretty close to being in a car accident or two on this tour. It’s a miracle we’re still alive, I think.
DL: Yeah, our driver keeps falling asleep.

Be careful. When I listen to your music, there’s an unstructured aspect to your songs, yet I still feel inclined to sing along. Is that your intention?
DL: We don’t really think about it that much, to be honest. It’s kind of like a patchwork. Some sounds here and there, this fits with that, this goes here; it’s like a big puzzle. I dunno—I think it’s just the way we write music.
EL: Honestly, we’re never really done with a song. We just kind of go on forever and keep working and working, usually until our record label calls or emails and demands we finish. But we still work on it live, because our songs change over time.
DL: Songs are organic and evolve and grow. It’s never the same performance over and over again.

Is there an influence from the long Swedish winters in your music?
EL: There is. There’s nothing to do, really. In our town there is a lot of snow. There are times where most of the roads were blocked—one winter people couldn’t even really get out of their houses. You had to stay there for a week in your house and just wait and you’d have to find a way to spend your time.

What do you do now that you have released a trilogy? Isn’t that supposed to be something you do mid-way through incredibly successful careers?
DL: I don’t think we knew what we were getting into when we said we were going to do a trilogy of albums. We’ve been thinking about this and working on it every day for the past two years. I think we’re excited to put it behind us.
EL: We’ve been pushing the boundaries a lot. But we’ve become better because of it.
DL: Yeah, I feel like we’ve really tested a lot with these records. I feel like we’re comfortable doing just about anything in the future.

The Best of the South By Southwest Bit Torrents, 2013

It seems like everybody crashed the music conference at South by Southwest this year. Iggy Pop played The Mohawk. Prince played La Zona Rosa. 50 Cent and George Clinton partied at The North Door. Justin Timberlake premiered his new album at The Coppertank. A whole host of other top-notch acts that will be headlining festivals over the next few years—from Fitz & The Tantrums to Kendrick Lamar to Alt-J—promoted their newest work on every stage possible.

And then there were all the other bands that we know little to nothing about. More than 1,500 of them, to be exact. Sure, a few may rise to the top a few months or years from now, but the point of South by Southwest—or perhaps what used to be the point—was to hear, promote and support these burgeoning new artists first, before they blew up or extinguished their dreams of becoming professional musicians.

One of the last remaining ways to really dig into the pulse of all the newest artists playing at SxSW is through the annual release of the bit torrents, which has a single track from most of the showcasing artists playing at least one set at the conference. Last year, I made a list for the best of each of the torrents as they were released: part one, which had fifty tracks, and part two, which had thirty-five, totaling a mere 85 out of the nearly 1,600 that were released in total. If you glance at the list from 2012, you will not only find songs you now recognize from your own iTunes library or the radio, but also an eclectic mix of sound from most musical genres present at SXSW.

I tried to replicate that again this year. To be even more thorough, I had some help from friend and music aficionado Aaron Albrecht, aka Active Listener, who has managed a respectable underground podcast covering South by Southwest and a wide variety of musical genres for the past few years now. We attacked the exhaustive task of listening to all this year’s 1,200+ bit torrents in this fashion: listen to each song once, for at least a minute. Pull your favorites, none of which could have made my list last year or are well-established artists (sorry Zion I, we still love you though). Then do the same thing with your favorites until you have narrowed the list down to around 60 or 70 tracks. Then we compare our lists, include the tracks that match and campaign for our other favorites through repeat plays, extended BBQ meals, shots of bourbon, and bouts of yelling.

The 20 best that we ultimately agreed upon have made the Active Listener / BlackBook podcast that can be streamed or downloaded here, so you can hear them for yourself, immediately—along with some commentary from us as we climbed out of the SXSW bit torrent trenches. These top 20 tracks from the podcast are also listed on the subsequent pages in no particular order, along with another 43 tracks listed alphabetically by artist who didn’t make the podcast, but that were my personal favorites from the bit torrents for 2013. Enjoy the music!

Podcast Listing:

  1. “Try My Love” – Roxy Roca
  2. “Firecracker” – Michael Bernard Fitzgerald
  3. “Runnin’” – Sinkane
  4. “Sunsick” – Fort Lean
  5. “La Marcha” – Campo
  6. “What UP?” – Hector Guerra
  7. “Rhyme O’Clock” – Wordburglar
  8. “No Rest” – DJ Buddha
  9. “Turn Up” – Gent & Jawns
  10.  “My Activator” – 100’s
  11.  “Shake, Shake, Shake” – Bronze Radio Return
  12.  “Did We Ever Really Try?” – Delorentos
  13.  “State Hospital” – Frightened Rabbit
  14.  “Full Circle” – Half Moon Run
  15.  “Wet Summer” – Bondax
  16.  “Sleepless” featuring Jezzabell Doran – Flume
  17.  “Vehl” – Kidnap Kid
  18.  “Holy Moly” – Dame
  19.  “Change” – Churchill
  20.  “Love & War” – Wolfgang Gartner

 

The Other 43 Blackbook Bit Torrent Tracks, Alphabetically Listed

  1. “Steam Dream” – Andy Clockwise
  2. “Oh Honey” – The Audreys
  3. “Slipping Away” – Barcelona
  4. “Touch” – Battleme
  5. “Guttersnipe” – Bhi Bhiman
  6. “Up!” – The Black and White Years
  7. “Unbroken, Unshaven” – Budos Band
  8. “Doses and Mimosas” – Cherub
  9. “Pillars and Pyre” – Christopher Smith
  10.  “Coal” – Curly Castro
  11.  “Lake Charles” – Dana Falconberry
  12.  “By Surprise” – Gemini Sound
  13.  “Dark Again” – Gold Fields
  14.  “Sunrise” – Grandchildren
  15.  “I Can Rejoice” – Greater Voices of Calvary with Warrior Gospel Band
  16.  “Bright Stars” – Hey Marseilles
  17.  “Won’t F Us Over” – The Hood Internet
  18.  “Peaches” – In the Valley Below
  19.  “Don’t Matter to Me” – Kail Baxley
  20.  “L’Amour” – Karim Ouellet
  21.  “Two Times” – Kid Karate
  22.  “Switzerland” – The Last Bison
  23.  “Sarah” – Le Matos
  24.  “Yes He IS G-Mix” – League of Extraordinary G’s
  25.  “Aujourd’hui, ma vie c’est d’la marde” – Lisa LeBlanc
  26.  “When I’m Alone” – Lissie
  27.  “Overdose” – Little Daylight
  28.  “Buried In the Murder” – The Lonely Wild
  29.  “Ghosts” – On and On
  30.  “Inside My Head” – Parkington Sisters
  31.  “Till We Ghosts” – Petite Noir
  32.  “Bassline” – Reverend and the Makers
  33.  “Blue” – Royal Thunder
  34.  “Trouble With Boxes” – Sarah Hickman
  35.  “Beauty” – The Shivers
  36.  “Dick & Jane” – Sidney York
  37.  “Terracur” – Social Studies
  38.  “Ya Never Know” – Terraplane Sun
  39.  “Remembrance Day” – Tory Lanez
  40.  “The Golden Age & The Silver Girl” – Tyler Lyle
  41.  “Gold” – Wake Owl
  42.  “Television” – You Won’t
  43.  “Knot In My Heart” – The Zolas

The Most Exciting Films From This Year’s South By Southwest

This year the film portion of the South by Southwest Conference had thirteen entrees that premiered at Sundance and a number of studio-funded projects destined for wide release, meant primarily to bolster the star power attending the daily and nightly Paramount theater premieres. This is not a bad thing—rather, it’s a testament to how vital the SXSW Film Conference has become to the film scene in general, a diverse conflagration of anything and everything within the strata of a theatrical experience. However, it doesn’t make breaking new, below-the-radar films any easier, especially with a bigger schedule—the much-anticipated premiere of the The East comes on the final night of the conference, after this will be published—and more theaters scattered around town.

That’s where I focused most of my efforts on the film front, catching more than 20 films—in honor of the film conference’s 20th anniversary—most of them produced on very low budgets or premiering for the first time in the United States. I skipped Burt Wonderstone and the Evil Dead reboot, as they’re flicks I’ll see in my local megaplex depending on the Rotten Tomatoes reception. I skipped Before Midnight in favor of a local Austinite’s film, quite regretfully—I’d rather pay to see the final installment of Linklater’s walk-and-talk romance trilogy, anyway. The six films listed here are the ones I found to be the most impressive and important glimpses into the cultural zeitgeist at the 2013 film conference—though there are a number I didn’t get a chance to see due to scheduling conflicts and the fact that the press screening library crammed into the convention center stairwell was so atrociously barren. But with so much paranoia surrounding pirating these days, who’s going to risk turning in a DVD to the media?

Spring Breakers

Unlike anything you’ve ever seen, the charged 1,300 plus audience at the Paramount was—as a Deadline reporter put it—both “joyful and bewildered” when the lights went up after the North American premiere. While some critics may find the surface layers of the film to be a mile wide and an inch deep, or an extended Skrillex music video, this is merely the backdrop Korine wanted to create. The slow-motion montage of barely clothed coeds binge drinking on a Florida Beach in the opening minutes of the film is the ultimate thesis statement—the youthful, primal obsession with self-destruction, beautiful imagery, carefree sexuality and complete sensory overload is all about to come into sharp focus.

With a dreamlike storyline, seedy neon-soaked cinematography, and non-linear editing reminiscent of a Terrence Malick film, Spring Breakers preys on the audience’s senses. You kind of can’t look away, whether you’re enjoying yourself or not. And—without giving up the ending—one could even argue that Korine’s work is a bizarrely magnificent statement about feminism, where the pretty, aggressive blondes in this vapid fantasy world of a St. Petersburg Spring Break are the ones who are the true gangsters.  Regardless of if you agree with any of this analysis, you should see Spring Breakers for James Franco alone, as the corn-rowed, grill-sporting thug who goes by the moniker of Alien—it’s truly a performance for the ages.

Yellow

Heather Wahlquist has appeared in relatively minor supporting roles in her husband Nick Cassavetes’s films over the past decade, which makes her leading performance in Yellow all the more impressive. In it, she plays one of those artificially gorgeous yet vividly delusional California women named Mary Holmes, who is barely holding it together. She teaches elementary school children and chases pills with vodka nips throughout the day, regularly drifting into her own alternate realities, which are equally colorful, musical, hilarious, and horrifying. As her antics get worse, she is forced to return home to her family, where Wahlquist takes us inside the core of her character, revealing the origins of her mania. The entire film, which Wahlquist also co-wrote, is a quiet yet remarkable achievement.

Good Ol’ Freda

The Beatles have been covered from just about every angle possible by now—except the one director Ryan White found for Good Ol’ Freda, when he interviewed Freda Kelly, the head of the band’s fan club for much of the ’60s and perhaps the only Beatles employee who had never broken her silence about the band. It’s a sweet film and a fascinating look at an incredibly respectful and moral person who was tasked with protecting and representing some of the most famous people in the world. White’s storytelling does reveal a few new insights into who the Beatles were behind the scenes, but the film focuses primarily on Freda, examining how someone so close to those who were literally changing the world could remain so true to who they really are as a person.

Scenic Route

Bleak tales about the insignificance of man and the brutality of the world are tough to pull off without fine acting and crackling dialogue, which is why Scenic Route works so well. Two friends, played by the diametrical opposed Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler, are stranded off the incredibly photogenic highway through Death Valley and forced to reexamine their friendship after drifting apart. The situation quickly goes from bad to worse, however, due in part to both men’s egos and stupidity, as well as a bit of bad luck—which, when you get all philosophical about it, is something that life often serves most of us in the end.

Drinking Buddies

There’s a incredibly unique tone to Drinking Buddies, thanks in part to director Joe Swanberg’s technique of having his actors tightly improv every scene in the film. It’s also probably because his core cast consists of seasoned professionals like Anna Kendrick, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston, and—most impressively—Olivia Wilde, who really shows off her dynamic acting chops while also looking crazy hot. The result is a romantic dramedy—if that’s even a thing—that qualifies as one of the more realistic unrequited love stories that has worked in a while.

Cheap Thrills

The first film purchased at South by Southwest this year—by none other then Drafthouse Films, who held the world premiere in one of their theaters—this fine dark comedy is ultimately a real-world fable about what desperate men will do for money. Made on a shoestring budget with a quality cast (Pat Healey, Sara Paxton, David Koechner, and, by far the most impressive transformation, Ethan Embry as a tough guy) Cheap Thrills is a testament to true independents of the past that deserve to break through to a wider audience. It manages to break new ground and entertain, while keeping its message hidden until the very last frame.   

Six Texans Walk Into Bar Amá…

Unless you’re from Texas, few people in Los Angeles can accurately describe the regional cuisine known as “Tex-Mex.” For those who have never eaten it, the name sounds like some imaginative fusion of leftovers. A smoky BBQ burrito, perhaps. Maybe a fried butter quesadilla? Tex-Mex is jokingly misconstrued as an Americanized bastardization of Mexican food by the loud and proud Lone Star state. This is probably due to the prevalence of yellow cheese in many of its most popular dishes, from enchiladas to the notoriously gooey and addictive chili con queso—not cheese with Hormel, folks, but jalapenos and serranos. In reality, Tex-Mex is a culinary category unto itself, a subset of Mexican Food, like Cajun cuisine is to Southern Food. You’d probably never find decent crawfish étouffée in the soup section of a deep Southern home cooking diner off the interstate in Alabama, much like you’d never find signature Tex-Mex dishes on the menu of a Mexican restaurant in California. Tex-Mex is specific and difficult to replicate, and as any of the thousands of Texan transplants in Los Angeles will lament: There is no real Tex-Mex in Los Angeles.

Which is why five fellow Texans and I were so excited to try Bar Amá, chef Josef Centeno’s newest downtown venture with a menu broadly “inspired” and “interpreted” by the Tex-Mex his great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother made for him during his youth. Not only is Centeno a rising star on the L.A. culinary stage—his first restaurant Båco Mercat was recently named one of Bon Apetit’s best new restaurants of 2012—he’s a San Antonio native, which is generally considered to be the Mecca of Tex-Mex cuisine. We all had high hopes when we trekked downtown—a much shorter trip than flights home for the holidays—to quell our cravings. We figured that a diverse gang of native Texas transplants (like Centeno himself) would be best at establishing the accuracy of Bar Amá’s Tex-Mex, and how much of the menu had been left up to interpretation. Finally, a Texan in L.A. making Tex-Mex for Texans.

Below is a collective review I compiled after our meal. This will solely be about the food—despite being slammed that Friday night, Bar Amá’s service was top notch, its décor sublimely elegant, and its margaritas (as well as my Serrano-laden Zapatitas) need little more review than a thumbs up and maybe a few pistol blasts into the air. But you can get those other things anywhere in L.A.—you can’t get authentic Tex-Mex.

FIRST, A NOTE ABOUT BREAKFAST
While we were there for dinner—and couldn’t have the breakfast—the fact that a variety of breakfast tacos are even served is a great sign in terms of authenticity. While a few breakfast and brunch joints around L.A. have dipped their toes into the breakfast taco scene, Bar Amá is the first place any of us have seen that treat breakfast tacos like true Texans do, most synonymous with the way New Yorkers sell bagels or Bostonians sell donuts. There are many varieties; most people eat them in the mornings, and they are quick, cheap, and filling. Everything but the last part is here, but for now we’ll forgive the import tax. Migas are also included in the breakfast options, which is glorious, despite the mystifying addition of potato.

THE FIRST TROUBLING SIGN
No chips and salsa on the table while we wait for our food. We know, we know—this is not traditional when it comes to serving Mexican food. But this is Tex-Mex, and that salty, spicy bit of foreplay before the meal really begins is quintessential to the whole experience. The salsa is especially important before a true Tex-Mex meal, as each is entirely unique to the establishment and tends to set the tone for what’s to come. It’s a shame we can’t try Bar Amá’s “interpretation” of this.

THE QUESO
We order guacamole, just to have something else to dip our chips into, but California does guacamole better than Texas. Queso, on the other hand, will usually get you a cup of semi-hard cheese that’ll shatter your chips if you order it in L.A. We all know this is one of the most important moments of the entire meal, because if Bar Amá can’t handle queso, then the culinary conquistador has no clothes, and we are suddenly paying way-to-much for well-adorned Mexican fusion food. Two beautiful bowls arrive and, upon first blush, it looks the right color of creamsicle orange. It’s liquid to the touch of the chip and remains liquid through much of the bowl. And it tastes—dare we say—better than the homemade queso from our game days, even from the one-time Texans-Only Queso competition held at the fratty meathead Hollywood bar Big Wangs, the results of which are still shrouded in controversy. We polish off both before the waiter can return, and if we weren’t so curious about the rest of the menu—and conscious of our health thanks to all that Left Wing California brainwashing—we might order ten more bowls of it and drink through last call.

CONFUSION ON THE MENU
While everything on the Southwestern quadrant of the menu looks interesting—from a massive bowl of menudo to salads with a potpourri of fun ingredients to appetizers that feel more like Mexican tapas—it’s nothing we’d ever expect on a Tex-Mex menu. But that’s fine, because we understand that any restaurant trying to stay in business in L.A. has to appeal to the Angeleno diner’s appetite for variety. It’s all about the other side of the menu where we find enchiladas and fajitas and… wait, what the fuck is chicken-fried steak doing here? That’s a Deep South food, and while it’s certainly served and is popular in Texas, there’s no Tex-Mex restaurant that serves it, unless it also doubles as a truck stop. Yet ironically, no one has a problem with the Dad’s Burger, the hamburger on the menu. Every authentic Tex-Mex joint we’ve ever eaten at actually had that All-American option, although no one at the table will admit to having ordered it.

THE SECOND TROUBLING SIGN
No mixed fajitas. Sizzling beef, chicken, pork, or shrimp fajitas can be ordered in the range of thirty bucks a pound. But you can’t mix the meats, which leaves the table in silent dystopia and the waiter just awkwardly muttering, “Yeah… sorry… sorry.” This seems counterintuitive—the essence of Tex-Mex, beginning with the name itself, is all about mixing.

THE CLASSICS TEST
We hit Amá’s favorites hard. These are the classics: the figurative meat and potatoes of Bar Amá’s Tex-Mex canon. Mom’s Green Enchiladas are spicy as hell and near perfect in their construction. The tangy tomatillo sauce is biting yet flavorful, the enchilada tortillas soft enough to cut with a fork yet rigid enough to hold together to be gobbled down before the rest of the forks can steal too much. The mole enchiladas are almost overpowering in flavor at first, but halfway through you’ve eased into exploring all they have to offer. The Chile Relleno is a savant from the start, the flavorful cashew cream and cotija melding perfectly around the zucchini and mushrooms stuffed inside. High marks on all fronts.

PUFFY TACO TIME
There are six puffy tacos on the menu and outside of Henry’s Puffy Tacos in San Antonio—which is obviously why Centeno has devoted a section to it on the menu—we’ve never seen puffy tacos in a Tex-Mex joint. And even though tacos have gone through a renaissance in recent years, there’s no fair reason to charge eleven bucks for two tacos, puffy, stuffed with tongue or otherwise.

FLAILING FAJITAS
Chicken and beef fajitas are tested, on separate trays, with the intention of mixing them ourselves, as we are a resourceful folk. We have a dream that one day Bar Amá will embrace the mixing of fajitas. Until then, we shall carry on, eating fajitas in our own way. The fresh tortillas that come with them are melt-in-your-mouth incredible. The lack of a tray of pico, lettuce, cheese, guac, sour cream, or the variety of other fixings that always comes with an order of fajitas anywhere is a tad presumptuous. The chicken would benefit greatly from that plate of extras, as it’s relatively dry and unremarkable. The beef needs nothing but your fingers, as it is delectable, but almost too tasty for fajita meat. With these fajitas, there is no middle ground.

TO CLOSE…
After excellent Sopapillas and mixed reviews on the Trés Leches, we all huddle up on the meal as a whole. There’s no disputing the meal was well executed and we enjoyed ourselves, yet there’s an air of disappointment hanging. While we’re up for embracing new twists on what we know and love—hell, that’s why most of us came out to California in the first place—our collective culinary nostalgia went unsatisfied. While Cendeno’s Bar Amá delivers magnificently on a number of fronts, the overall menu felt tailored to the SoCal clientele: flashy, overthought, and a little all over the place. From a business perspective, this makes absolute sense, and because of it Bar Amá will probably be a hit. However, it’s no solution to the regional cuisine we Texans grew up eating, and while we debate our favorite Tex-Mex joints back home and divide up the four-hundred-dollar-plus check, I can’t help but feeling that the joke is on us.