There is not much left to say about Los Angeles that hasn’t been said before. The noir well of “sun-bleached beach vs. gritty city” dualities has been overdrawn for decades, but still the west coast city beckons the imaginations of artists. Paul Thomas Anderson-via-Thomas Pynchon imagined a hazy, futile, pointless beauty with Inherent Vice, while Tom Waits picked at the city’s nicotine-stained cuticles for decades, searching for some semblance of narrative meaning. Reaching their logical conclusion, blink-182 memorialized it with some of the cringiest lyrics to ever exist. But most of these impose, with their perspectives, a moral assessment on the city. For all the musings on Los Angeles’ presumed mysteriousness, these writings are typically conclusive, leaving no mystery at all.
Perhaps that’s why listening to La Luz’s take on Los Angeles with their new record Floating Features feels so interesting: it isn’t really about Los Angeles. Unless it were overrun with 60-foot cicadas and bulldozers that have feelings. Floating Features is the result of the psychedelic surf rock band’s move south from Seattle, where the band started. After growing up in the Midwest, guitarist and singer Shana Cleveland lived in Seattle for 10 years before she, drummer Marian Li Pino, keyboardist Alice Sandahl, and bassist Lena Simon decided to leave.
“Seattle’s changing a lot,” says Cleveland over the phone from Los Angeles. The coastal Pacific Northwest hub is indeed changing. Last year, for the first time ever, Seattle ranked in the top five most expensive rental markets in the United States. By mid-2017, the city had more tech-related job openings than Silicon Valley. “It felt like, in some ways, it wasn’t going in a direction that I wanted it to,” Cleveland says. “The unaffordability just felt like getting pushed out.”
While Seattle pushed on one end, Los Angeles pulled on the other. “I think everybody was just ready for a change,” she adds. “I feel like art thrives on big life shake ups. “[L.A.] felt like a place of limitless possibility.” Indeed, so does Floating Features, with its mythical idiosyncracies and absurdist imagery backdropped by grindhouse organs, spaghetti-western guitars and theatrics, and echo-chamber harmonies. It’s a step into clarity and precision from the understated, garage-ish inclinations of 2015’s Weirdo Shrine. Layers of vocals, instruments, and overdubs elevate Floating Features to be an immersive tidal wave of texture and sound.
There’s a lot of people who want to live out their own idea of a dream life.
“We wanted to make an album that wasn’t necessarily easy to play live,” says Cleveland. She and La Luz have crafted a sound that is both epic and mournful; it is never quite at peace, nor ever fully revealed. It’s a brilliantly executed vision of surf music: bright, but with shadows creeping in on the fringe. It suggests a familiar binary, but it does it in different terms.
Cleveland even ponders the efficacy of the word “surf” in describing their music. “I feel like that’s just sort of a shorthand way of describing it,” she says. She’s unsure that “surf purists” consider La Luz part of the club. (“They have message boards,” she hints, chuckling.) But surf’s tonal extremities are what brought Cleveland to it: the teenage whimsies of The Beach Boys, or the dark riffing of Dick Dale. “I always felt like what drew me to surf music was that there was a lot of duality in it.” Cleveland thinks La Luz inhabits a middle ground between the two.
Their sonic unease pairs well with their new home state, a place that Cleveland feels she is still discovering. Between the tall redwoods of Northern California and the grimy DIY rooms of L.A., there’s a teeming world of vastly different multitudes. “There’s a lot of people who want to live our their own idea of a dream life,” says Cleveland. The dream differs based on who you speak with: “It’s this place of celebrities, and then it’s also got a place on the map that’s [called] Skid Row. It’s insane. There’s scientology and the Mojave Desert.”
“There’s something really inspiring about being new to a place like that, because everything seems so strange and surreal. I feel like the album is ripped from my subconscious since I’ve been there, but it’s definitely inspired by the actuality of how strange southern California is.”
Somehow, it feels easier to make a connection when you’re talking about some sort of big mystery.
Their third record is a story of their new home, but it’s told with the language and imagery of Cleveland’s dreams. “I’ve been having really vivid dreams since I moved here,” she explains. “A lot of the songs on the album are pretty much totally true to what’s happened in dreams that I’ve had.” Cleveland explains that “The Creature” is a play-by-play of a particularly poor night of sleep. She thinks the dreams lend a “psychedelic” quality to the songs. (“There’s something about L.A. that seems really psychedelic,” she adds.)
But for Cleveland, who studied poetry in college, part of the magic of dreams isn’t meaning, but meaninglessness. They could mean everything; they could mean nothing. “I’ve always been really interested in dreams, but I haven’t ever really been interested in looking for meaning,” she says. “What I love about [dreams] is how mysterious they are. To me, it sort of takes away from them to try to interpret them. What I love about art and music is the same thing I love about dreams, which is being able to escape into the unknown a little bit.”
Cleveland likes ambiguity in art that provides “space to make something my own.” “I feel like it’s easier to see yourself in art that’s ambiguous,” she says. “I love that about old rock and roll, and soul music too. Somebody is singing about their own experience, but it’s just a love song. It could be anybody’s experience.” “Somehow, it feels easier to make a connection when you’re talking about some sort of big mystery.”
Perhaps the magic is in the mystery. It’s like the tragedy of the near-religious first experience of looking through a kaleidoscope: pressing your eye against a plastic tube to see shards of dazzling colour tumble and splash across a primatic backdrop. It’s enrapturing, and for a moment you’re suspended in that cosmic maze of blue and red and green. But eventually you pull your eye away, and you hear the coloured beads rattle against their cheap plastic housing, and you see that it is an illusion, and the moment is gone. It is not the visual that amazes us, but the not knowing how it is produced.
Peering into the world La Luz have created on Floating Features can feel like that, if you let it.