This month sees the return to Liverpool of BEST COAST and the first visit of CRYSTAL STILTS, a continent-spanning musical treat served up by Liverpool Music Week.
From the West and East coasts respectively, and at the forefront of a new breed of American bands to be making the trip over into the UK’s consciousness, both possess classic elements of the areas from which they come. But, what degree of debt does a song owe to where it is made?
The East and West coast divide has become synonymous with hip hop and the rivalry of the 1990s. However, east and west have not always been at odds. The 1967 Summer of Love on the West coast and 1969 Woodstock Festival on the East coast represented the youth of a unified nation; however the hippies soon ran out of steam with a slow wheezing gasp.
I ask JB, guitar player with Crystal Stilts, about the level of unity which exists between the coasts today. “I don’t really feel that there is a huge amount of competition between the East and West coast based just on where a band is from. There is greater competition within specific cities such as New York, LA and San Francisco rather than nationally. The scenes within cities, New York and LA in particular, are so multi-cultural: many of the bands are made up of people from all over and not specifically these areas.”
So each city may be a microcosm of the nation at large? Radio stations such as WFMU (New York) and KCRW (LA) champion music regardless of style or sound, but all from their respective localities. Purists. To some degree, the opinions of credible voices such as these are a representation of the people and the times in these cities.
The movement of musicians around the country, multiculturalism, and the growth of modern media have all contributed to the spread of ideas. The streets of New York produced the two most vital cultural music movements in modern times, punk and hip-hop, and many of their greatest exponents are from these areas. But how does this translate into current times? Do Crystal Stilts identify with traditional stereotypes of music from their city? JB again: “There is a certain historic identity in New York which I would love to be a part of. However, I think to an extent it has been cut off in our case.”
The same cannot be said of many of the other new artists from the city such as The Beats, Cults, Guards, Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Vivian Girls, who seem to be emerging from the art schools and universities at a break-neck pace. Although not all these bands (excluding The Beats) are natives, it is hard to envisage their music being made anywhere else.
And in a similar way Best Coast, Wavves, Kisses and Ariel Pink are sharing a hearty embrace with LA’s musical heritage. Best Coast specialise in music that doesn’t make a dark day brighter, but rather makes a bright day blinding: warm, fuzzy lo-fi blended seamlessly with classic sixties elements. The Best Coast/ Wavves split 7” Summer is Forever wears its heritage very brazenly on its sleeve. Sun soaked? Check. Band name with beach reference in the title? Check.
Taking into consideration that many of the legendary bands from the West (The Doors, Love, Grateful Dead) are not, on the whole, proponents of sun-drenched-surf-pop, their influence is still ruthlessly apparent in modern West coast music. However, unsurprisingly, it is The Beach Boys who permeate to the greatest degree, in the case of Best Coast in particular. Kisses have an outlook rooted in New Order-era electronics, but the overall feel is truly Californian.
Is a parallel between the North-South musical divide in Britain, and the West-East split in the US viable? It could be argued that the dreamy sunshine Americana of the West is the aesthetic most easily pigeonholed as the ‘American’ sound. When considering style, do Americans see northern British guitar bands as having the ‘British’ sound? The fact that the relationship and exchange of ideas between these two great nations originates from our own fair city cannot be understated (obvious examples aside, the first American consulate was in Liverpool and Robert Morris, a main signatory of the declaration of independence, was from Liverpool). I ask JB his experience, from an American viewpoint, of the British musical divide. “Music from the south seems to be more wimpy and driven by synths, rather than guitars. My experience of many of the new southern bands we have been playing with is that they are trying a little too hard to be original.”
Originality is one trait which this wave of American bands possesses in abundance. It is the test of modern bands to lean on their heritage, whilst still being inventive, to create a sound which is new and unique. This is no more clearly illustrated than in the cases of Best Coast and Crystal Stilts who, while creating very disparate sounds, are both united in their universal American identity.