Nika Danilova, 21, who goes by the stage name of Zola Jesus, is trained in… (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles…)
On an unseasonably searing day in West Hollywood last fall, Nika Danilova is hiding from the sun. To meet for an interview, the 21-year-old who records as Zola Jesus rounds a corner in comically enormous geriatric sunglasses that obscure her tiny, falconish face. With her tangle of dyed-platinum hair and weather-rebutting tight goth getup, she looks like she's en route back to the local Rest Home for Retired Metalheads.
To passing strangers, she could be a UV-damaged celebrity on reconnaissance. But to those who know her deep, operatic voice and primitive electronic compositions in Zola Jesus, she's one of a small class of artists in L.A. making startling noise music in outré venues by going obscurist and hidden.
"I think that's important, the lack of using pop music as a standard," said John Wiese, the veteran flinty L.A. noise artist behind dozens of hissing, sputtering releases, most recently the album "Circle Snare." "Due to its size, geography and transportation issues, L.A. tends to create very specific groups of people. As a result, it can generate some fairly esoteric ideas and results."
As bands such as Health, No Age and Best Coast became international acts and brought L.A.'s busy scene for scrimmy, often atonal guitar music to prominence, a new class of noise artist — with peers in New York and Berlin — is using ambience, drone and repetition inspired by more avant-garde classical composers like La Monte Young and Steve Reich to wring meaning and beauty from some often very obtuse sonic sources. And they're earning a surprising amount of attention for it, playing in the city's more adventurous rock clubs, sweat-sopping gallery spaces and blighted warehouses. Artists including Zola Jesus, Sun Araw and Infinite Body all had stellar 2010s and are shaping up to redefine what it means to make difficult music in L.A., and what kind of fan is up for the challenge.
Danilova's music as Zola Jesus is beguilingly straightforward, yet is maybe one of the most divisive sounds to come out of Los Angeles last year. A mix of late 1970s New York duo Suicide's growling analog synthesizers and '80s ambient guitar band Cocteau Twins' esoteric atmosphere, Danilova's voice is a love-it-or-loathe-it instrument that hits like the flip side of Joanna Newsom's precious warble.
It's a tremulous, resonant tenor cultivated in Danilova's opera classes in her Wisconsin hometown that reaches back to Exene Cervenka and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and has a peer in Romy Madley-Croft of her recent tour mates in the xx. She shares those stars' ears for melody, but also a deep confrontational streak that soaks her music in rivulets of static, ghostly samples and pattering drum machines. She sees antagonistic music as a kind of feminist revolt against the caricature of pop and the failure of rock to provide much of an alternative.
"I think there's nothing more honest than one woman giving herself onstage," Danilova said. "But at the same time, pop music is dance music today, and dance music is all about encouraging people to have sex, and I don't need to be in a bodysuit to make people like me. For me, experimental music is kind of the opposite of sex."
On her two breakthrough EPs (a favorite format for noise-inclined artists) last year, Danilova appeared on the cover of "Stridulum" drenched in corn syrup and in the notes of "Valusia" as a kind of mock forest nymph. The two images convey a lot about her music — songs such as "I Can't Stand" and "Night" bend and creak with synthetic menace, but her lyrics are oddly sylvan and reassuring — "Don't be afraid, don't be alarmed / In the end of the night you'll be in my arms," she sings on the latter. The song's a love letter to her husband, a surprising and uncomplicated sentiment from an artist bent on making music harder.
Cameron Stallones' project Sun Araw, however, has a beach bum's sense of humor and brashness that disguise a very ambitious approach to deconstructing drones and psychedelia. Across scads of singles, EPs and albums for experimental labels such as Woodsist and Not Not Fun, L.A.'s preeminent imprint for such sounds, Stallones transforms his minimalist guitar and electronics into a starting point for Glenn Branca-worthy noise shredding, as on "Last Chants" from the recent release "Off Duty." The song "Deep Cover" could even be played alongside the more weed-friendly beat scenes at Low End Theory, but filleted even into even more damaged ribbons of artfully cheap samples.
"I think people's brains are drawn to stimuli that reflect the patterns they're lacking," Stallones said. "I get a lot of inspiration from that breakdown of the illusion of fixed perspective."