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The Sound of Fast Cars Laughing at Each Other:

A Short Road Trip with Los Angeles’ Born in Death Valley

By Susan Eustebee-Anthony

“It’s muddy rock fed from glamcore adrenal glands with a good ol’ fashioned soulspike injection from American gutters” is how William Tutton from Born in Death Valley describes the contents of their mojo pouch. He goes on; “But there’s all these non-musical influences as well; black-and-white photographs of peacock feathers; wrestling matches in rose gardens, auto mechanics with olive oil-soaked tourniquets choking the neck of the god of sound, and dancing in traffic.”

Born in Death Valley began between Brian Grillo and William Tutton in 2006. Many years ago the two had cut mucho cred in the post-punk/pre-whatever Silverlake bands Extra Fancy, Glue, and the Geraldine Fibbers. Time went by and the two looked at each other and said “uh, hey, I got these songs I need some help with, y’innarested in hangin’ out sometime?”

Some basic parameters had to be in place from the get-go. “Bri and I had loads of discussions on what we always enjoyed about music, from when we were kids right up thru the current batch of crap. These outcome of these discussions was a big neon green post-it tattooed on the inside of our eyelids, keeping us focused on blending what is good about all sounds, not just what happens to be trendy at the time. Trendy music always sounds dull once it’s no longer fun.”

Instead of following what’s hot in teentown, the two crashed together busfulls of faded youtube memories with shoegazin’ spotlight seekers, doo-wop groups and Ginger Baker’s choptop steamroller peelin’ out on the ferry ‘cross the Mersey. Hitch a ride thru the bayous and deserts of Texas, and sleep at interstate rest stops en route to the freight yards in central Los Angeles, and then you can take ownership of these sonic pulses of the journey. This is the sound of fast cars laughing at each other, but it’s also the sound of milk and honey putting band-aids on each other’s wounds.

For the lion’s share of the recordings, Brian wrote the words and William composed the music, but both have the key to each other’s gardens. “There’re no absolutes on who can or cannot write words or music. We all have strong ideas and all ideas are given a fair shot, but we tried not to over-examine it. Once we found the bone, we guarded it and gnawed.” By pushing and listening to each other’s ideas, the two worked up a set of detailed, gothic-soul streetpunk songs. Grillo’s words strip us down as he projects his emotions onto us, telling tales that reveal self reliance, yet conceal the pains of a tear-stained boxer. From his words, we trust him just enough so that we’re able to swap spit in the communal 40-ouncer with the characters that crowd onto his fire escape, like the hungry, dagger-swagger of “Swampboy” to the Hollywood hopeless hayseed in ‘That’s Not Johnny” to the dancefloor vulture of “Kiss Somebody” to the emotionally spent soldiers in “No Air.” Tutton’s textural music offers a brick-thick canvas for the musical ghosts on his own crowded fire escape, but they’re more like paper dolls on fire. Just to blow the icing off the cake, he aims the spotlight on a mirrored-ball over a wrestling mat for the bass and the guitar to stab punches and return stolen thunder to a bruised god.

In late 2007 Brian and Bill gave it up to the vine that they were in need of a film noir-luvin’ skin-whacker as well as a badass motorhead longblock axeman daddy-o. Fortunately both were right under their noses. And willing. And available.

David Kendrick came to El Lay in a VW bus following the magick flute of none other than poplord/pimp Kim Fowley himself. Things went south and the band headed back east, but David rolled up his gloves and grew deep roots. He has since beat the fear out of his drums for the likes of Devo, Sparks and gay Christian cowboy icon, Glen Meadmore as well as his own project, Empire of Fun. This guy hits the drums like you imagined you did in your teenage dreams where you pretended you were Keith Moon. Dave is a profound curator of all sorts of mad ephemera from all over the world. “Not only is he a completely brilliant conversationalist, as you would expect from a drummer of his ferocity, but he’s got this huge…condom collection! They are from all over the place, going back to like, 1910. He’s got the vending machines, everything.”

Guitarist Michael Hateley has amassed a junkyard full of broken hearts, rusty dog collars and V8 stompboxes from his time playing with Extra Fancy as well as with members of Social D, DI, Ethyl Meatplow & Nitzer Ebb. He provides the detached, straight-ahead cool to the wild-mouse fury of Brian’s vocals and the authorative groove of Tutton’s bass. He’s the perfect secret weapon: A guitarist who knows the right time to lay back and riff along, and the right time to take a thousand-watt cruncher and shine it right on himself.

From an early age, singer Brian Grillo was interested in the three-headed dog of art, commerce and attitude. Collecting obscure girl groups and garage punk from the sexy sixties he quickly concluded that it was an unfortunate but necessary beast and began channeling it with bands in the Southbay and Hollywood back when the number 1 bus still connected the two. He was egged on towards freak culture by his workin’ n’ swearin’ mom who proudly broadcast all things odd, delicious and beautiful to her children. A dream would have been to meet Diane Arbus in K-Mart. Brian’s vocal influences range from the ladypower movement of the mid-always to the Twiggy Pops of the rest of the millennium. “Just make it move me and I’ll move it right back” says Brian with a wink.

William Tutton is the bass player and the producer of the whole mess. He recorded the LP in his own Steppenlab studio and played most of the backing tracks. “It was good fun to make this record and I’m looking forward to beginning the next one with equipment that doesn’t SUCK and break down every 10 minutes.” William claims that during the recordings he heard voices in the music that pointed the direction of the song, much like a constantly unfolding treasure map that kept re-writing itself like the card game, Fizbin. Brian’s lips grow thin at this: “Bill was probably just working too late those evenings.”

Well, voices or not, Born in Death Valley’s approach is seamless, authorative and natural with not a scrap of detached irony. You’ve been privately dying to hear music blended together this way all your life. Before this, I’d never have been able - or want - to picture my 60-year old mechanic making dancefloor confessions to the stekky-groove four-on-the-floor numbers that bleed from this band. Now that I’ve heard the BiDV disc, all I can think about is the clumsy and the smarty set dancing together and having fun again.

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