Creeping Toward Bethlehem
Dan Carr needs earplugs. Not because he plays bass in a rock band. And not because that band, San Francisco indie darling Creeper Lagoon, is currently ensconced in a Hollywood studio recording its debut album for DreamWorks Records. Dan Carr needs earplugs because, as he laments with a sigh, “Tomorrow is a gardening day.” The dawn will bring a small army of landscapers, wielding noisy leaf blowers designed to remove debris with maximum efficiency from the putting green just below Carr's third-story window.
Creeper Lagoon is marooned — stranded in the L.A. suburb of Sherman Oaks, inside the Premiere, an immaculate condominium complex with all mod cons and full of screaming children with a sick propensity for waking up well before musicians with hangovers. For Carr and his bandmates — singer/guitarist Ian Sefchick, singer/guitarist Sharky Laguana, and drummer Dave Kostiner — the situation has begun to resemble a sadistic experiment in sleep deprivation. “I called up the management,” explains Kostiner, a natural crack-up with an easygoing demeanor. “I was like, 'We're a rock band, OK? We don't get up until 11:30. Can you please ask [the gardeners] not to start until 10 o'clock?'” To paraphrase a song from the Talking Heads (whose ex-guitarist Jerry Harrison has produced half of the band's upcoming record), the Premiere is not Creeper Lagoon's beautiful house. And instead of beautiful wives, there are only lonely girlfriends back in San Francisco.
There is, however, David Byrne's immortal question: “Well, how did I get here?” How did Creeper Lagoon arrive at a two-bedroom condo in suburban L.A.? How did they come to record their sophomore album for one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the world, with four different producers, including Flaming Lips confidant Dave Fridmann, Harrison, and one extremely talented upstart who's written songs for Celine Dion and Aerosmith? The answers lie at the intersection of Hard Work, Talent, and Unswerving Dedication. Right now, Creeper Lagoon is stopped, waiting for the light to turn green.
Wednesday, March 1, 12:47 p.m.
The gray, nondescript building at 751 N. Fairfax Blvd. is like many gray, nondescript buildings in Hollywood. But this one, Cherokee Studios, is where Creeper Lagoon hopes to prove itself worthy of the Great Indie Hope yoke that a legion of supporters has saddled it with. Despite words to the contrary from naysayers and, notably, the band members themselves, Creeper Lagoon means a lot to a lot of people. I Become Small and Go, the band's 1998 debut album, was filled with the kind of sublime, heartbreaking tunes that inspire true fandom. The two years since that record's release have been punctuated by near-incessant touring, as well as a less-than-productive songwriting stint on a farm near Ione in the Central Valley. Now the pressure is on to produce.
But at the moment Creeper Lagoon is getting stoned. Actually, Laguana and Kostiner are getting stoned while Carr lights a cigarette and reclines on a couch built into the spacious, wood-paneled control room of Cherokee's Studio B. Last week Carr's father had a heart attack, induced by years of smoking and stress. He's all right, but between drags Carr is vowing to quit and get some exercise. Sefchick arrives, looking burnt and disheveled, dressed in blue satin workout pants and a wrinkled T-shirt; his sandy blond mop of hair matches the three-day stubble on his face. Sefchick and Laguana spent last night at the Universal Studios amusement park, conveniently located up the road from the Premiere. The duo managed to get behind the scenes — literally — before being booted by a janitor. “The prices were outrageous!” Laguana, 29, tells Kostiner and Carr. “It was, like, rampant consumerism at its worst.”
The door opens again to reveal a youthful-looking, thin man with bushy blond hair, dressed in a white tae kwon do uniform: Greg Wells, the producer for these sessions. Coming to Los Angeles from his native Ontario, Canada, in 1990, Wells is a prodigious musician, composer, and producer who's worked in one capacity or another with k.d. lang, Ozzy Osbourne, and the Crash Test Dummies. His songwriting credits include tracks recorded by Celine Dion, Aerosmith, Diana Ross, and Jon Bon Jovi. He is 31.
Wells asks the engineer, who's been busy all morning bouncing tracks from the previous day's work, to play back a song tentatively titled “Here We Are.” As the opening strains emerge from the large, expensive studio monitors, it's clear that despite things up at the farm going wrong, Creeper Lagoon has managed to do something very, very right. “So long to the life you always knew,” sings Sefchick, over simple acoustic guitar strumming and clean cello lines played by Laguana. All talking has ceased. Sefchick hangs over the large mixing board, his fingers fiddling mindlessly with a plastic tie. Kostiner leans forward with his chin on his hand, staring at the floor. Wells stands behind Tom, the engineer, who methodically adjusts faders. Both are nodding to the song's lazy beat. When it's over, there's a brief silence, followed by a critique. Kostiner and Sefchick are concerned that some of the programmed beats don't mesh with the drums. Laguana agrees, and sits down at the computer to start editing.
Creeper Lagoon began with Sharky Laguana hunched over a machine — albeit a four-track cassette recorder — in his San Francisco apartment in the early '90s. Named for Laguana's nickname for the residence hotel at which he once worked, the band eventually grew to include Sefchick, Laguana's childhood best friend and fellow native Ohioan, and a revolving cast of bassists and drummers that finally appears to have congealed once and for all with Carr and Kostiner. Following a much-celebrated EP on local Dogday Records, the band signed a one-album deal with the L.A.-based Nickelbag Records, owned by the popular Dust Brothers production team, with the guarantee of at least two subsequent albums being released by Nickelbag affiliate — and entertainment behemoth — DreamWorks.
It was an undeniably sweet deal for a young band, and it still stands as one of the most impressive achievements of any local unit in recent years. I Become Small and Go became an immediate favorite in indie circles worldwide, and the band was voted Best New Artist of 1998 by the readers of Spin. Creeper Lagoon spent a year on the road in support of the album, touring with heroes like Rocket From the Crypt and Archers of Loaf. The experience served its music well; by the time the band returned to San Francisco its sound was leaner, heavier, and impressively tight.
Faced with the task of writing a follow-up to I Become, the band exiled itself to a remote farmhouse near Ione, setting up a makeshift studio in the living room and recruiting a local engineer to help out. Rumors drifted back to the city. The word was that Creeper's grand experiment had degenerated into a giant party with little creative headway being made. What the band emerged with several months later was, by its members' own admission, less than impressive. “We wrote about 20 songs, and most of 'em sucked,” says Kostiner, 26.
Sefchick, 27, agrees. “In some weird, bizarre way, it was unsatisfying to be there,” he says. But today, the band members seem elated to be working with Wells, whom they consider a huge ally in their efforts. It's easy to understand why: Sage, nurturing, and a phenomenal musician, Wells is the kind of studio presence most bands dream of, but rarely find. “He walks the line perfectly between letting you do your own thing and prodding you in the right direction,” says Carr, 28. “He operates in a very intuitive way.”
Wells is sitting at a white grand piano in the studio's immense tracking room, playing Beethoven's Sonata Pathétique. It's a warm-up for his next performance, Toccata, by 20th-century Russian composer Aram Khachaturian. The piece is the musical equivalent of a steeplechase — angular, difficult, and requiring near-impossible dexterity. Wells plays it flawlessly, shuts the piano's lid, and walks back into the studio, where Kostiner is smoking a cigarette and day-trading on his laptop.
“I manage my savings constantly, to keep my checks from bouncing,” he says. “My whole scheme is to learn now, when I don't have money.”
Anyone who thinks the members of Creeper Lagoon are on the receiving end of piles of major label cash is sorely mistaken. Truth is, the band is living hand-to-mouth, and is completely at the mercy of its label. Money is dispersed in three-month stipends from DreamWorks, most of which goes to pay rent on San Francisco apartments they don't even live in. Laguana claims that the band got a “better than small” advance from DreamWorks, but that it's earmarked for other things, like making records. “We're heavily invested in research and development,” he jokes, but he remains philosophical about the band's current financial situation. “The priceless stuff is getting to live with, say, Archers of Loaf, for a month on tour,” he says, taking a break from editing on the computer. “Stuff like getting to work with various producers and musicians. As far as indie rock goes, we pretty much hit the lottery. I don't have a lot of money, but I'm the luckiest jerk in the world.”
Carr's not faring too badly either, given that his gainfully employed girlfriend has just announced she's taking him on a vacation to Mexico when the record is finished. Kostiner, Carr, and Wells proceed to debate the merits of various resort destinations, clothing-optional beaches (good), and last night's made-for-TV Beach Boys movie (very bad) before Wells looks up at Laguana, who's still editing “Here We Are,” and says, “Not to be an asshole, but what time is it?”
Satisfied with his work, Laguana hands the reins to Wells and adjourns to the tracking room to rehearse a song with Carr and Sefchick. Creeper Lagoon is a rarity among bands — its members can engineer and record circles around most so-called professionals. It's something they've been doing for years, to the extent that every producer taking part in their current project has remarked that the band's self-produced demos sound better than most group's finished albums. Because of this, Wells has no problem with letting the band run the show at times. “I've felt comfortable letting them get very involved because it's obvious that they know what they're doing,” he says later from his home in Los Angeles. “Recording is not a foreign process to them.”
Nor is it a foreign process to Dave Fridmann, the New York-based producer best known for his close working relationship with the Flaming Lips — he helped produced that band's most recent album, The Soft Bulletin, brilliant not only for its songs but for Fridmann's idiosyncratic production. The allure of working with Fridmann was so strong that Creeper traveled to his Fredonia, N.Y., studio in February to spend 13 days recording four songs. On the phone from his home, Fridmann comes off as both sardonic and surprisingly humble, given his status as indie rock's producer du jour. “My biggest challenge was just staying the hell out of their way and not screwing up what they already had going,” he says. “Their demos were extremely good. I said, 'OK, let's do basically everything you've done and then just change it ever so slightly to up the ante.'”
The four songs Fridmann produced, like “Chance of a Lifetime,” “Naked Days,” and “Lovers Leap,” exhibit a richness and warmth that belies the freezing climate in which they were recorded. All four band members remember their time with Fridmann fondly, praising the producer's willingness to let them experiment. “You'd be like, 'I'd like to take the Wurlitzer into the street, run it through the bathroom, and then take a crap,'” laughs Kostiner. “And Dave would be like, 'Sure.'”
But experimentation doesn't seem to have been the operative word for the band's time with producer Jerry Harrison. Best known as the guitarist for art-pop pioneers the Talking Heads, Harrison has lately been producing high-profile bands (Live, No Doubt, Foo Fighters, locals Stroke 9), and exploring the possibilities of music on the Internet with his much-hyped site Garageband.com. Creeper recorded eight songs with Harrison at Sausalito's Plant Studios and Studio D. On first listen, “Under the Tracks,” “Big Money Struggle,” and the epic, Oliver Twist-inspired “Keep From Moving” are much cleaner than the material recorded with Fridmann and Wells.
While Harrison obviously admires Creeper's studio savvy, he kept tight control over their time together. “Because they've acquainted themselves with a lot of the technology of recording, they were sometimes wanting to go on longer than I thought we needed to,” he says from his home in San Francisco. “There were a couple times when I said, 'It sounds great the way it is.'” Harrison spent a week with the band in its Potrero Hill rehearsal space. “We did a fair amount of work arranging songs,” he says. “There were a number of songs that I felt needed middle eights or bridges.”
As for Creeper's potential, Harrison likens the band to British critical faves Radiohead, a group that manages to straddle the line between commercial success and artistic depth. “[Creeper Lagoon is] not artificial or glitzy or slick,” says Harrison. “They're about quality. I'm looking forward to seeing them show off how good this record is.” More than one member of Creeper used the word “brilliant” to describe Harrison. Still, Sefchick found working with the producer a bit daunting. “I'm not sure we're a good enough band, technically, to work with him,” he confesses. “He'd tell me how the guy in Live would get his vocal down in two takes. It seems like bands like that have some aspect that we don't have, or that we can't supply.”
Wells and his engineer have been hammering out the final rough mix of “Here We Are.” When it's ready for general consumption, the band gleefully gathers in the control room. As the playback ends, there are smiles all around. Carr announces, “This song went from a B to an A-plus.” Wells lets the tape roll into the next song. Conceived immediately following the farm debacle, “Wrecking Ball” is a big rock song that owes more than a little to Sefchick's beloved Smashing Pumpkins. “I'm comin' down like a wrecking ball, breaking your heart,” he sings on the huge chorus. It is clearly a band favorite and, to hear them tell it, the album's sole chance for anything resembling widespread commercial success.
For the next two hours the band rehearses an older, still-untitled song. Sefchick calls out chord changes to Laguana, while Carr sits atop his amp smoking and nodding his head to the beat, which in this case is considerably quicker than that of “Here We Are.” Wells, coffee in hand, moves about the room, observing each player, before sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of Kostiner's drum kit. This is what Creeper came to Los Angeles to do, and the four are dead serious about the task at hand — it's a deliberate and methodical process, but a relaxed one. They discuss the arrangement and chord structure, even helping Sefchick compose a solo by humming aloud. “Is it too college rock-y?” Kostiner asks Wells. When the song is arranged to their satisfaction they break for dinner.
Over Middle Eastern takeout from down the street, Laguana explains his vision for the new record. “I wanted it to have more songs where everybody was working together and it was more a collective thing,” he says. “I think we definitely accomplished that. Whereas with [I Become Small and Go] was almost like …" “You became small and I joined you later,” jokes Kostiner, to everyone's amusement. Every member of Creeper claims to be unsatisfied with everything they do in some way; they can't help it. But for Sefchick, the new record represents the best work they've done. “I've been so much happier with this record and everything we've done on it,” he confides. “It just feels better.” The new record will be mixed in April, and is due to the label shortly thereafter. It will be released this summer, with a title that's just as bizarre as that of its predecessor. “It'll be called Take Back the Universe and Give Me Yesterday,” says Laguana, with a satisfied smile.
Dinner is over, and Wells is ready for the band to start tracking the song at hand. Kostiner takes position behind his drum kit, headphones fastened, with his back to the control room's wall of glass. Sefchick and Carr sit in the control room with their instruments. Their role is to act as a melodic guide for Kostiner; once the drums are recorded, everything else will be overdubbed, track by track. The engineer dims the tracking room lights, while Carr, Sefchick, and Kostiner break into an impromptu version of Zeppelin's “Ramble On.”
“Rolling,” says the engineer, and Sefchick lays into the song's opening riff. After several aborted takes, Kostiner puts down his headphones and walks into the control room. “I think we should track this live, with everybody,” he tells Wells, and the band seems to agree. It'll be the first time that's happened during the making of this record, and that's precisely why they want to do it. Because the engineer will need considerable time to set everything up, everyone agrees that it's best to break for the day and start fresh tomorrow. Wells leaves to tend to his newborn child, while Creeper's members set about planning their evening. Suddenly, Kostiner realizes that if they leave immediately, they'll get back to the Premiere in time to sit in the complex's Jacuzzi. Everyone bolts.
The Premiere of Sherman Oaks is a monument to shiny, new, prefab suburban comfort. Comprised of five separate residence units, a golf course, and several pools, it takes up a quarter-mile of real estate along Sherman Oaks' Woodman Avenue. Creeper Lagoon is staying in Room 306, although because each residence unit uses the same numbering system, the band members are often confused as to which 306 is theirs. Currently, Creeper Lagoon's Room 306 is housecleaning's worst nightmare. Empty cigarette packs litter the plush new carpet, while piles of dirty dishes obscure most of the kitchen's counter space. Clothes hang from the shower, the mattress covers are off all the beds, and full ashtrays abound. A small stereo sits to the left of a large TV, surrounded by Flaming Lips records and rough mixes of Creeper's work in progress. On the dining room table, untouched since the band's arrival, are two immaculate place settings.
“It's like we're in the ship from Aliens, and the Company's got us down,” jokes Kostiner, sitting in the Premiere's Jacuzzi, smoking a cigarette, and drinking a beer, while horrified residents walk by on their way to the complex's fitness center. “I think of myself as Ripley.”
Funny, but not entirely untrue. Creeper Lagoon is owned, for all intents and purposes, by DreamWorks, and despite its genuine appreciation of the label's mostly hands-off stance, the band knows it. “This is what we've learned,” says Sefchick. “We've had so much freedom to work with as many people as we want, but you can only do that for so long before [the label] puts down their foot and says, 'Listen, motherfuckers: We've given you a lot of fuckin' money.'”
Has the label ever tried to exert pressure on the band to create something that would recoup its investment? According to Luke Wood, the band's A&R rep at DreamWorks, and a longtime friend of Creeper's, that's not his foremost concern, or that of his bosses at the label, record industry veterans Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker. “I think Creeper's [at DreamWorks] because they know that Mo and Lenny will give them the space they need to do what they need to do,” says Wood. “The beauty of DreamWorks is defined by our musical perspective, which is: The answer's always in the music; believe in great stuff and ultimately it'll be successful in the marketplace.”
Band members acknowledge that the DreamWorks brass take an interest in their creative process, but not in any heavy-handed way. Once, when Wood made what Sefchick considered to be several undue suggestions regarding a particular song, Sefchick had no reservations about standing up for his vision. “I said, 'Luke, let's talk about creative control here,'” says Sefchick. “[Luke] busted out laughing and said, 'You know how it works, man. I'm just suggesting stuff.'” Laguana puts it this way: “We're fortunate to be on a very musical label that has some great musical minds that make some great musical suggestions, which sometimes we take. A good idea is a good idea. Never is there any mandate.”
The Jacuzzi excursion is over, and Laguana, Sefchick, Kostiner, and Carr are scattered about the sparsely furnished living room of their unit, drinking beer, smoking pot, and playing the rough mixes of what will become their sophomore album. As the songs roll by, it's clear that they've made a few significant leaps. For one thing, they sound like a band: There's an energy and an urgency in these recordings that's not there on Creeper Lagoon's debut. The songs themselves — many punctuated by Sefchick's poignant lyrics and plaintive vocals — are simply stellar. It's apparent that there is no sophomore slumping.
But the band is realistic about commercial success. “I don't think there's much,” says Laguana matter-of-factly about the possibility of multiplatinum sales. “I think we'll get it on the radio, I think some people will play it. But frankly, I don't see it blowing up.”
“There is one thing I'd like to do,” he adds. “I'd like to have a really positive impact in some way, like really connect through our music. I like it when a song makes someone re-evaluate how they are on a daily basis. I think it's a good thing.”