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Finding their arena

An act needs something special to stand out among L.A.'s talent. Here are five with notable potential.

September 21, 2006|Kevin Bronson | Times Staff Writer

THE sprawling music scene in Los Angeles serves as the backdrop for some pretty impressive music, whether it is played in arenas, concert halls or neighborhood clubs. It's also the setting for some pretty good stories.

In our second annual Local Music Report, Calendar Weekend takes a look at a handful of artists emerging from the Southland's nooks and crannies with an eye on bigger stages:

Cold War Kids

Music from somewhere deep

Considering what has happened to them in the past year, it's hard to picture that not long ago the Cold War Kids had to steal into campus buildings at their alma mater, Biola University, to practice. Imagine what the odd art student must have thought, to run across four scruffy but intense young men banging away on secondhand instruments and making (considering how they sound now) what had to be a palette-shaking racket.

"We couldn't afford a practice space, so we always drove around with our equipment in our cars -- we kinda felt like we were on tour before we played our first gig," bassist Matt Maust says. "I remember we were in the middle of a painting room practicing and somebody was there working on their senior project."

Hope that undergraduate passed, because Maust and bandmates Nathan Willett, Jonnie Bo Russell and Matt Aveiro sure have -- from local curiosity to L.A. favorites to darlings of the blogosphere to the latest signing of Downtown Records (home to Gnarls Barkley), all in about a year and a half.

They did so with relentless work, a special bond that extends even to their manager and tour support and, mostly, with a sound so original and timeless you wonder how it sprang from the Los Angeles suburbs and not the dark, rich loam of the bayou. Equal parts Velvet Underground, spare-as-Spoon indie rock and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, their parables are as ragged as the characters they immortalize -- a man who's on death row, an alcoholic father, a poor family -- and as unvarnished as the rawest of emotions.

Willett caterwauls as if from a soapbox at a tent revival; Maust and Russell wield their guitars like poking sticks; Aveiro's frenetic drumming is supplemented by bandmates banging on anything that's handy. It's almost as if the songs are playing them.

They are at a loss to explain it, except that "everything we do is so idiosyncratic, the band wouldn't sound like this if we didn't operate the way we do," Russell says. "The relationships of everybody in this band, personally and artistically, are entwined."

"Sometimes you see, sometimes you read, sometimes you imagine," Willett says of his storytelling. "We always write the music first; the lyrics will come when you think about the people or emotions the songs are describing."

Taking their name from Maust's website (he is a graphic designer with an impressive portfolio), the Cold War Kids last year produced their "Mulberry Street" EP (named for the restaurant beneath Russell's Fullerton apartment, where the patrons didn't take kindly to their practicing) and cemented their status as an L.A. "it" band with a September 2005 residency at the Silverlake Lounge.

Their "Up in Rags" and "With Our Wallets Full" EPs followed, along with a tour itinerary that has seen them crisscross the country four times this year, and their DIY approach made friends everywhere.

Finally this summer, the quartet decided to sign with Downtown (which will release the full-length debut "Robbers & Cowards" on Oct. 10), because, it seemed to them, the New York-based imprint was a situation where "the label serves the bands rather than the bands serving the label," Aveiro says.

Live: Sept. 30 at the Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa.

The Little Ones

Rhymin' Simon on steroids

They should prescribe the Little Ones for depression. After all, that's nearly the state founding members Edward Reyes and Ian Moreno were in almost four years ago after their band Sunday's Best broke up -- no outlet for their songwriting nor relief from toiling, Moreno says, "at a 9-to-5 that just eats away at your soul."

Now look at them: They're signed to Astralwerks, playing with three friends and eating fried chicken in their producer's backyard. And their self-released "Sing Song" EP might have been the single biggest cause of upward mood swings in L.A. this summer, at least until the heat wave broke.

"Playing it is just as fun for us," keyboardist Greg Meyer says. "That's our meds. That's the way it makes us feel."

How did the quintet find its happy place? First, the members worked with friends. Meyer and Moreno were high school classmates. Drummer Lee LaDouceur dates Moreno's sister. And bassist Brian Reyes is Edward's kid brother, nine years his junior.

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