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Black moods, black magic

December 25, 2003|Steve Appleford | Special to The Times

The room is usually dark when they play. And the music is darker, a great wall of guitars aswirl in psychedelic gloom and bohemian anxiety. It is where the Warlocks thrive, translating bleak messages from the fringes into sounds of rock euphoria and contemplation.

It's almost enough to make brooding leader Bobby Hecksher a happy man. He is the singer and main songwriter, drawing on a rich lineage of underground culture, rooted in the torn and frayed albums of the Velvet Underground, Spacemen 3 and the Jesus and Mary Chain, among others. And international rock fans are beginning to notice.

"When it sounds really great -- and I know that it's great, and I feel good about it -- those are the rare moments," Hecksher says happily. "That's what I do it for. I hate all the other [stuff]. I hate the traveling, I hate all the hubbub, I hate the food, everything. The only thing that is still the best thing to me is playing and moving people."

Hecksher looks perfectly content as he says this, sitting with an exotic drink in the bar of an Indian restaurant in Silver Lake. He's dressed entirely in black, his dark hair thick and bushy and combed forward. And he admits to his dark moods, and tries to explain with a stack of photos from the road: of the band onstage in Europe, backstage, on the bus, comparing dull backstage life on tour with the bright colors and energy of a show.

"Tremendous pressure these days on me," he says with a nervous smile. "I'm trying my best to deal with it. Feel fine today."

Recognition can do that to you. Since the release late last of year of the band's "Phoenix Album," the Warlocks have signed a record deal with the prestigious Mute label and toured with the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Raveonettes and Interpol, earning a growing following both overseas and at home in Los Angeles. In January, the Warlocks begin recording a new album with producer Tom Rothrock (Beck, Foo Fighters, Elliott Smith).

Not that Hecksher is about to celebrate any of it. "I'm not a happy person. I'm trying to be," he says with a shrug, and then says of the band, "We do see a lot things alike about some of the bleakness of living."

His collaborators (which usually total six or seven players) have at least learned to appreciate the mood swings and sounds that they inspire.

"He's actually really unstable," says guitarist J.C. Rees with a smile. Rees is an original member of the band, dressed in frayed denim, a black bandana over his forehead, dark eyeliner, a kind of Keith Richards for the local club scene. "He can be very intimidating, very overwhelming, very timid, very shy, mean and nasty and so friendly and loving. He's really such a mess.

"In some ways, I think this is a way for him to express all those things that he does suppress or he has a hard time getting out. The way that he moves and the way that he plays.... He doesn't like to talk about his lyrics. He likes to keep it all pretty close."

That hasn't prevented the Warlocks from being embraced by local tastemakers, but the band has noticed far more fans crowding local gigs than just six months before. And Rolling Stone and Mojo magazines have taken an interest.

The Warlocks sound is entirely timeless and rooted in the rock past, the crisp, churning guitar chords on "Shake the Dope Out" sounding like Velvets guitarists Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison at full boil. Other songs have a dreamy, if equally dark, atmosphere, with words often too obscure to describe, but with frequent enough drug references to count as a central fascination.

The band's early shows were vastly different in sound and direction, depending on which musicians Hecksher could gather on any given night. He had been a part of several bands before finally breaking away four years ago, fueled by an unexpected flood of songwriting ideas. And Hecksher had never even written a song before.

"It just all hit at once," he says now. "All these songs started coming."

Rees, one of three guitarists in the band, remembers those early days as raw but strangely fulfilling. "In the beginning it was completely different," Rees says. "It was a lot of fun back then. It was a little bit more reckless. It was not as serious. We were just having fun. Then we got to that point where, 'Hey, we're pretty good. We should do something with this.' So we did."

What emerged was a flair for bending the parameters of a song, with turbo-charged jamming that sounded nothing like any generation's Deadheads, but sharper, grittier. The Warlocks could go on like that for hours.

"It's just so natural," Hecksher says. "I know when J.C.'s going to come in, he knows when I'm going to come in. It may change every other night. But it's this feeling that you get -- it's magnetic. As hokey as it sounds, [the band's] personalities come through their instruments, and you know when not to step on them."

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