The L.A. Q&A: Norman Ollestad Jr., Survivor Type

Norman Ollestad Jr. would be living a singular life even without the early tragedy. Growing up on Topanga Beach before the government stripped the shack houses from the surfers and the locals, Ollestad was the son of a former child actor turned FBI agent turned whistleblower, who was also a fan of extreme sports. Ollestad Sr. would push little Norman to the limits, teaching him to surf the roughest waters and ski the hardiest terrain. The latter experience led to Jr. becoming a skiing champion; on their way to a race, he, his father, his father’s girlfriend, and pilot all crashed in the San Gabriel mountains. The crash killed his father and the pilot instantly, and the girlfriend perished soon after, leaving 11-year-old Norman to fend for himself in the wilderness. He writes about his experience in his just-released memoir Crazy for the Storm. Now a father himself, Ollestad has resurfaced in Venice Beach, where he lives in the Canals, surfs and skis, and takes in the local scene.

You are a lifelong Angeleno. What was it like growing up here into your teens and turning 21? I grew up on Topanga Beach … I was 21 when I was 15 ’cause you had to have your fake ID. By the time I was 21, I was over it. I was kind like, “I did that.” Partying in the early-mid 80s in L.A. was pretty much the pinnacle of partying. It was all downhill from there.

In your book you talk about learning to surf and ski with your father — did you ever get into the surf music scene? Or were the Beach Boys a national fantasy of California livin’? In Topanga, there were a lot of bands always playing on the porches. One called Blue Juice had some of the best surfers around. They’d play every weekend — big parties with three or four hundred people, in the summer or winter, nothing stopped. There was a lot of bluesy sixties vibe to it. You could surf and hear the band while you were surfing. In those times it didn’t cost ten million to live on the beach, it cost fifty bucks to live in a giant house. Then the government declared eminent domain. We fought them for seven years; we had seven “last summers.” It was in ’79 that we finally lost. It was the summer before the plane crash.

You survived a harrowing experience; do you ever go back to those mountains for recreation, or is it too hard? The mountains are so beautiful, but people forget how dangerous they can be. Sure, there’s great hiking there. I met up with the rescue guys’ son … it was interesting. Leonard Cohen — he used to live there at the Zen Center. He went through this whole monk phase … it was up in Mount Baldwin. The mountains are really steep and rugged, and that’s where he did his whole zen trip. It has a lot of history in terms of lore, because they are such rugged mountains, there are always people being rescued there. People are always fallin’ or dyin.’ But it’s great recreation. In an hour and ten minutes you could be walking down a creek amongst big boulders, and you’d think you were in Colorado.

Your are not necessarily a nightlife guy, but when you do go out, what do you like to check out? What do you think of the Venice scene? How has it changed over the last few years? I like the Venice scene. I live on the Canals, and I can hop on my bike, go to Gjelina and sit at the community table, and meet new people. I’ll get a call from William Attaway, a local artist, and he’ll be having a party. This happened recently — there were people in from India. He just had a spontaneous party with all his sculptures out, and the Indians were playing music. I’d never heard that sound before. This happens all the time. And you ride your bike the whole time. It’s all five minutes away … it’s all contained. It feels like a communal experience, and it is.

What about the gentrification of Venice? Sure, money changes everything, and not all for the worst. There’s a lot of great places like Gjelina to go eat to get great food. I used to surf for Chris Cahill and just to go check out your board and get it shaved was terrifying. You never knew if a drive by would roll up on you. It’s nice not to have that anymore.

Sometimes gentrification can tip over too far and kill the original charm of a place. I don’t think it’s tipped over yet. You can go to Brooks or Indiana and score some crack. They are all out on Brooks and Indiana — the crackheads are out wild-eyed and tripping. I had five bikes stolen in last year and a half — crappy bikes — so it’s still there.

Describe your perfect L.A. day — and night. I wake up — there’s be a big pumping swell — and surf one of the secret spots in Malibu which I can’t mention. You’d go to lunch at John’s Garden — it’s in the Malibu Country Mart, but it’s been there for 30 years plus. Get a tuna sandwich. Maybe give Malibu a second go. I live on the Canals — maybe have people come by play a little music. Go to Gjelina or Shima. Shima is great sushi … it just blows everything away … everything is organic, even the beer. And then if there’s not an artist party, go up to the Brig. If it’s Sunday or Monday night, go to Hal’s and listen to some blues. If I do venture to Hollywood, I go to Cheebo — it’s a restaurant, run by some guys, an American who lived in France. It’s a combo of French and Italian, but it’s clean Californian fare. Or I’d got toHotel Cafe if I wanted listen to music. They’ve got nichey great music … it’s rock and roll, kind of folksy.

What work of art — film, book, or short story — best represents Los Angeles? Less Than Zero. That was in my era, and I think it captured it really well. I think Bret Easton Ellis a great writer.

Which Los Angeleno do you most admire and why? That’s a zinger. I don’t think about people that way. Well, OK, it’s a weird one but: Vince Scully, the baseball announcer for the Dodgers. He’s been there … he’s the longest-lasting announcer in America. He’s considered one of the greatest sports announcers that ever lived. Luckily he’s alive and does the Dodger games. He’s been here forever. He’s a legend, really.

Why him? His commentary, his way of talking about baseball is like great writing. It’s like poetry, his metaphors, everything.

What’s the most annoying cliché about Los Angeles? Ah, well, this doesn’t really answer the question, but … well, people say, “That’s so L.A., those people are so L.A.” I’m a native and not one native that I know is acting in that “so L.A.” way. If you are at a party and someone is acting “so L.A.,” it’s always someone who moved here that is acting so L.A..

My guess is that you’ve always been a West Side guy; do you spend much time on the East Side — is there a spot you like? When I go to the East Side, I love Cheebo or Little Door … they are all in Hollywood.

I love that Hollywood is as far East as you go. I go to Dodger games in Atwater, do the Silverlake thing. But it’s an extra grind for me. I’ve been there. I think it’s really groovy. It doesn’t really fit my thing. I need the water. There’s not much good surf in Silverlake. If I was gonna do that urban thing, I’d just move to New York, but I guess you wouldn’t have the weather. However, if you are into fashion, cold weather comes into play. You can wear all your cool outfits. All the designer stuff you can’t wear that here, it’s too hot.

Andy Warhol said, “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.” What do you think of that? I think that’s an example of what I said before. There’s nobody from L.A. that’s plastic … it’s only the people that come from somewhere else. That take on this plastic image, and everyone says how L.A. they are, just like Andy Warhol.

Norman Ollestad is reading from Crazy for the Storm three times in the next few weeks: Vroman’s Bookstore (695 E. Colorado Blvd., June 25, 7pm), Diesel Books (3890 Cross Creek Rd., June 28, 3pm), and Village Books (1049 Swarthmore Ave., July 9, 7:30pm).

Photo: Jules Revelle

Email tips to {encode=”tromano@bbook.com” title=”tromano@bbook.com”}.

Singer Anya Marina’s Seduction Phase

You may have already been exposed to the charms of Anya Marina and not been aware of it. The Michigan-born, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter has not only had her songs featured on television shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl, but has also had an acting stint in the film 100 Girls, a role which the pixie chanteuse had to appear in sans eyebrows. Her sophomore album, Slow & Steady Seduction, Phase II, was produced by Spoon’s Britt Daniel and Louis XIV’s Brian Karscig and, with Marina’s breathy vocals and sharp lyrics, is best enjoyed with a snuggle companion and a glass of something tasty in hand. Marina is currently on tour with The Virgins and Lissy Trullie, but she took some time out to talk with us about getting topless while recording, her Roman Polanski-inspired video for the single “Move Me”, and gender play when covering T.I.’s “Whatever You Like.”

When did you first decide that you wanted to pick up an instrument? Truth be told, I didn’t ever want to pick up an instrument. My father insisted that I take piano lessons. And that went abysmally. And then he insisted that I take flute and/or clarinet, both of which I failed miserably at. I just had no interest in playing instruments at all. I always really liked singing. I love melodies, I love sitting by my record player and listening to music. And I was always coming up with little melodies and singing to myself.

Do you have memories of your early attempts at songwriting? I never even thought about that until recently, but I used to walk every day on this little route, and it was only about five blocks, but I remember looking forward to that time every day when my mom would drop me off at this particular place every day and I would walk the rest of the way to school. I would always make up a song that would go with the beat of my feet, and I I must have been like, eleven. And every day I would write a new song to a new beat, however fast.

What was the first song you learned all the lyrics to? Do you mean a popular song? The first song I learned on guitar was Freedy Johnston, “Bad Reputation.” I just love singing it from my point of view. I’ve loved doing that ever since — singing songs written by men and not singing the gender when I’m singing it. I’m doing it right now with this T.I. cover I’ve been doing every night, and the crowds seem to love it.

What song? It’s called “Whatever You Like.” I’m sure you know it.

I read somewhere that when you were recording a few songs on this album, you decided to take your shirt off while recording. Why did you feel that you needed to do that? I think it was hot. It was in the middle of summer, and I had the entire studio all to myself, and the engineer was in the other room.

Can you discuss your relationship to Jungian psychology and how it relates to the song “Move You”? Well, my dad is a Jungian psychologist. I read a lot of Joseph Campbell growing up. I don’t know a whole lot about Jung, but I do love that one quote that I read of his, “Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” I just really like that notion, and I just ruminated on it for a long time, and it got me thinking that sometimes the simplest physical task can help you out of a jam that your mind is struggling with. And then I started thinking about how physically, sometimes getting it on can help you get through it. Everybody knows make-up sex is the best, right?

True. So how did the video come about? It wasn’t my concept but I was thoroughly won over by the concept. Scott Coffey directed it and he sent me this treatment for it which was based on this Roman Polanski film Repulsion. And it had all these beautiful textures in it. I knew his work because I’d seen his film with Naomi Watts called Ellie Parker, which was so good.

The video is beautiful, and you seem really comfortable in front of a camera. Is that because you have an acting career as well? Is there anything coming up that we can look for? I started acting when I was about 17 or so, just trying to go out for things. It never really took off. I have a one-line role in this Kevin Spacey film called Shrink that’s coming out. It was at Sundance, and it was directed by Jonas Pate, who is an upcoming and fantastic director, and it’s written by this guy Thomas Moffett, who worked with Wes Anderson for years. He’s an incredibly gifted writer.

Your song was on the soundtrack to Grey’s Anatomy. Any other TV shows you would love to be associated with? Mad Men would be amazing but that’s highly unlikely. I would love Anthony Bourdain to have me on his show. I know he had Queens of the Stone Age for a Christmas special. But I think he only likes dude rock.

You were a radio-station DJ for a while, so I’m going to appeal to your musical expertise. You’re living in L.A. now. What are the best places to check out live music out there? I love the Hotel Café, and when I can get out to the Troubador that’s always a great room. Sometimes you can catch some great stuff at Tangier and I just played the Echoplex when I was filming this TV show Rockville, CA, which I am going to be in with my band. But you know what, I go out a lot to see more comedy shows. I love going to Largo.

Finally, say I’m looking to have a slow and seductive kind of night. What’s the best drink to pair with your record? If you’re going to listen to my record and get your drink on, I think a nice Beaujolais, and if you’re in the mood for spirits, a vodka martini. Dirty.

Los Angeles: Top 5 Places to Hear Music Without an iPod

imageHop to it before your tech-separation anxiety sets in.

1. Safari Sam’s (Hollywood) – Punk cabaret of sword swallowers, burlesque, spoken word, political seminars, brain-shattering live music. May or may not survive upcoming relocation. 2. The Echo (Echo Park) – Where Cold War Kids and their Silver Lake cousins grunge it up and wait to not be discovered. 3. Spaceland (Silver Lake) – The Monday residencies are the stuff of legend; the bands they launch are too.

4. Hotel Café (Hollywood) – Usually local acts, but huge stars will stop by to showcase their upcoming albums, too. 5. Temple Bar (Santa Monica) – A rare, true place to dance by the beach, with something new every night.