The Silver Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles area has recently been dubbed a gold mine for the number of bands popping out of it. The most successful of which has been Silversun Pickups, but there’s also Sea Wolf, Irving, and Let’s Go Sailing, not to mention Earlimart. Silver Lake’s musical roots go further back than just the past two years’ emergent era, back to when Elliott Smith lived in the area, back to when Beck was still just the awkward kid who worked at the Pizza Hut on Hyperion Avenue. Earlimart’s Aaron Espinoza has been here for most of it, and he has had a huge hand in the scene’s rise to prominence.
Espinoza operates a studio known as the Ship in nearby Eagle Rock, where many a Silver Lake star band has recorded. Espinoza’s own music writing began with him just needing to have laid down some songs in his studio, to show what it could do. Out of that arose Earlimart, named after a small Central California town, a band that has become one of L.A.’s most beloved and most accomplished. We met at a hip Silver Lake eatery on a sunny August day, less than a week before the release of his band’s fifth full-length, Mentor Tormentor, a polished, pretty, warm, and sunny work about the duality of life and love. We talked about what went into making the new record with Ariana Murray, the only other constant member of Earlimart; what it means to be a truly indie rocker; and what his role is in the Silver Lake scene.
You have a serious independent streak going on. Not only do you run your own studio, but now you have your own label imprint, Majordomo, which is distributed under Shout! Factory. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so much of the band’s business by yourself?
The band has always been a vehicle for other things. I’ve always been involved in recording stuff. When I was first coming up, I needed some songs to record, so I was making songs just to show my recording chops. That led to the Ship and being involved with other artists and their careers. Then over time we just got a little better, and that led to other opportunities. We were shopping around for a record label for a long time before this album. It’s so fucking gross out there, and we wanted to make a smart decision. We wanted to find someone interested in doing a business venture with us, starting a label, creating something more than just album after album after album, really building this nucleus.
So how involved are you with Majordomo at this point? I know it just started up.
We have a mother company that staffs it, so it’s not like I’m answering the phones. We get to sign some bands and put out other people’s records, which is ultimately kind of like being a curator, just like working with other bands in the studio and getting to showcase their work was like being a curator. It’s another opportunity for me to get my hands dirty with other stuff. I just want to keep working, because the rock ‘n’ roll thing is only going to last so long. Not that we’ll fall totally out of favor, but we won’t always remain in favor, either.
Are any other bands signed to Majordomo yet?
Technically we haven’t signed anyone, but we’re looking at some artists. I’m sure very soon after this we’ll have some news.
Any bands you’ll be recording at the Ship soon?
I just got finished producing this band called Castledoor; they’re like the next big thing around town, and their record is going to be so good. They’re really young but really talented. The kinds of songs they’re writing are so advanced. When I was twenty-three, there was no fucking way I was writing songs like that. I’ve been really fortunate to get to work with people like that. But starting tomorrow I’m no longer available for a while because of touring.
How did you hook up with drummers Russ Pollard and Scott McPherson on Mentor Tormentor?
Scott McPherson has played with Elliott Smith and Neil Finn, so that’s where we knew him. Pollard used to play with Sebadoh and Folk Implosion, and he’s married to one of the Watson Twins, so he plays with them.
Will either of those two be drumming with you on tour?
No, we now play with our drummer we call the Reverend, who we share with the Eels.
You’ve played some album-preview shows around town with orchestral backing from the String Dream Team. Are they who provided the string parts on the album?
Some of the same people in the String Dream Team did the strings on the album, yeah.
Will they be backing you on all of your upcoming tour dates?
The week the album comes out we’re doing a string of dates in various cities with them. We’ll be playing smaller venues — smaller than we’d usually be playing — trying to make it special.
One of many ways you’ve supported other local bands is by taking them out on tour with you. Will any local bands be opening for you on these upcoming dates?
This first round of touring we’re touring with a band called Office, but after that we’re open to taking some local people out with us. That’s always fun. We took Silversun Pickups out on their first tour; we’ve taken Richard Swift, Irving.
Let’s talk about Mentor Tormentor. Is there anything behind the title besides it just rhyming and being fun to say?
Well, what do you think?
I don’t know. I just figured it was a very Morrissey-like, witty title.
The title is supposed to be about how a person can be both a mentor and a tormentor. How someone can be both a positive and negative force in your life. The songs’ subject matter is like that, too: how someone who you deeply love and put all your trust and friendship into and give up everything to — you can receive all of these great things from them, but they can also crush you instantly. It’s that kind of fragile relationship that can be good and bad.
What would you say the overall mood of the album is? I know your last album, Treble and Tremble, got pegged as being pretty dark. Is this one dark? Hopeful?
Do you find this one dark?
I find it to be both dark and light. I think it shifts nicely between opposite moods.
Treble and Tremble felt like it was just one sort of thing, but this one is a bit all over the place. It has more range, and sonically, “Everybody Knows Everybody” is the fastest, loudest song we’ve done in a long while. It doesn’t really fit on the album, but we really liked it, and when we sat down to make this album we didn’t really want to think about keeping to one mood or having a flow. It’s about not giving a shit at a point, not staying in the box all the time.
What’s the writing process like for you and Ariana? She only sings on one song, “Happy Alone,” which I know she also wrote. Is the rule usually that you sing things you write and she things she writes?
That was the first time she wrote a full song for the band. She’d written some songs before but just kept them to herself. I didn’t touch that song at all, she wrote it top to bottom, and it’s really great. I was like, “Shit, where have you been?”
This album as a whole is the most collaborative we’ve ever been. She basically smacked me around and helped me get out of a lot of writer’s block. We’d done a song way back in the early days called “Drunken Love” that we sang as a duet. We’d only done that once, and I haven’t specifically written anything since that I thought she should sing lead on. But now the door is blown wide open. I know you should always say that art shouldn’t have any barriers or whatever, but sometimes that’s harder to do than to say.
Who all is that singing with you on “Cold, Cold Heaven?”
Well, we wanted to get everybody who is part of the whole Ship collective together for once. So we had Irving, Let’s Go Sailing, Sea Wolf, Tigers Will Bite You, the Watson Twins, Silversun Pickups. I know I’m forgetting some people.
Is that you whistling on “Nothing Is True?”
We actually brought in a professional whistler named Mike Shea. He’s pretty world-renowned and he’s touring all the time in Europe, doing like full-on symphony stuff with whistling.
So how will you handle that part live? Will it be a big whistlegate controversy like Peter Bjorn and John had with a recorded whistling track backing them?
I don’t know what we’ll do live. Maybe we’ll have the whole audience whistle it.
As the Silver Lake music scene has risen in prominence over the last couple of years, have you felt you deserve a certain amount of credit for making that happen?
I’m definitely proud of everybody, proud of this neighborhood coming up. I don’t know if there is definitely a “scene” with a certain sound. It’s more just the neighborhood and who lives here and who’s making music, and fans in the neighborhood who come out to see our band year after year and buy album after album. I feel fortunate to have had my hands in so many pots and to have worked with a lot of really neat people. But I don’t walk around with, like, a “King of Silver Lake” crown on my head.