Whilst considering the eponymous inspiration for the band name—an impoverished little cowtown halfway between frontman Aaron Espinoza’s birthplace of Fresno and his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, the musical mecca where he was destined to meet band-mate Ariana Murray—LA Weekly once noted that Earlimart isn’t really a place at all, but a journey:
A geographical journey that began with a teenage Espinoza escaping a deadbeat life in Fresno and a hellish factory job.
An emotional journey from youth and innocence to adulthood burdened by the complications of love and betrayal, dependence, life, death and the great beyond.
A sonic journey from post-punk-inspired, start-stop garage-rock to a spacey, slow-burning, sweet-and-sour brand of postmodern pop that is at once authorial and universal.
In many ways, of course, Earlimart has long since arrived…
As skipper of “The Ship”—both a recording studio and a musical collective that includes emerging stars such as Silversun Pickups, Let’s Go Sailing, Irving, and Sea Wolf, band founder Espinoza has been one of the cornerstones of the Silver Lake music scene since the late ’90s. A studio svengali and in-demand session man, he’s produced records by The Folk Implosion and The Breeders, helmed sessions for Silversun Pickups, and recorded with Grandaddy and the late Elliott Smith.
As Earlimart, Espinoza and longtime bassist, keyboardist and musical collaborator, Ariana Murray, have been local celebrities for years, hailed for a critically praised body of work: 2003’s Everyone Down Here and the accompanying EP The Avenues, breakthrough releases endowed with sophisticated washes of brooding rock and experimental pop; and 2004’s elegiac Treble & Tremble, a gorgeous album which mixed the group’s continuing interstellar pop with splashes of subtle folk and alt-country.
Now, in 2007, Earlimart begins its journey anew with Mentor Tormentor, and what a grand trip it is…
“I wanted to step up as a songwriter,” Espinoza says of the forthcoming release. “I wanted to write really strong songs. That’s all I thought about. I wanted to write… classics.”
Putting himself under such enormous stress, however, wasn’t initially so good for the creative process. “We’d been on the road for a while and hadn’t had the chance to write for some time,” says Murray. “There was a first batch that Aaron had started but then hit a road block. We were also dealing with the business end of things, on and off, after our previous label had pretty much closed up shop on most of their artists.”
For renewed inspiration, Espinoza turned to Murray, “I had three or four little bits but didn’t know where to go. Ariana kind of took charge, and got the ball rolling, which was really great.”
Picking up where Treble & Tremble left off, Earlimart began working at The Ship and New Monkey Studios, surrounded by friendly ghosts, and sweet memories.
Then, with drummers Scott McPherson and Russell Pollard, plus engineer Mike Terry, Earlimart set out to make Mentor Tormentor a classic. “We’d always dabbled with little noises—smokescreens and fireworks—on our records, but this one has more of a classic sound. Incidentally, we had been listening to a lot of early Lennon stuff at the time—his Phil Spector-produced stuff—Plastic Ono Band in particular.
The influence shows immediately on Mentor Tormentor’s first track, “Fakey Fake,” one of Earlimart’s most disturbing recordings yet. An amalgam of slowly building acoustic instrumentation and canned drums—the real and the “fake” perhaps?—grappling in a constantly descending riff, a kind of underworld “Dear Prudence.” “We’ll never be clean,” Espinoza coos, “you know what I mean.”
“When you have someone in your life,” Espinoza says of the song, and indeed Mentor Tormentor itself, “And they give you everything, and you give them everything — the best sort of human interaction and relationship —those people also have the ability to destroy you like no one else can.” It’s a heavy dose of reality to throw at a listener on track one, but before you realize the fix is in, Earlimart throws a major curveball—“Answers & Questions,” an uptempo ballad about embracing love with all its imperfections.
Third track “Never Mind The Phone Calls” recalls the lock-tight drums and guitars of Everyone Down Here’s “We Drink On The Job,” but still manages to bring the hook to the chorus. “No one likes to be alone,” Espinoza sings. Then—ever mindful of the overarching album concept that has become Earlimarts’s subtle signature the theme is flipped on its head with the next track, “Happy Alone,” a piano track on which Murray takes lead vocal.
“It’s the first song Ariana wrote from top to bottom on an Earlimart album,” says Espinoza. “It’s a little scary that she got it that right the first time. It’s fucking stunning, an amazing song.”
Jagged and driving, “Everybody Knows Everybody,” keeps the momentum of Mentor racing forward. Whether looking in his rearview or just over his shoulder, Espinoza is nervous: “I watch myself ‘cause everybody knows everybody!” And with the ghosts of Split Enz-era Neil Finn nipping at the heels of the angular synth solo, Earlimart concludes its next big single: A song about revenge that eschews a nasty right hook for a meaty musical one.
Then in another 180 degree turn, Earlimart turns wistful with a breakup song, “Don’t Think About Me.” It was actually the first time that I wrote a song that wasn’t in the first-person,” says Espinoza. “People close to the band were going through some romantic difficulties, so it was a commentary on what they were going through. I was relieved that I didn’t have to be the one suffering to write the song!”
“Don’t Think” also showcases Earlimart’s use of live string players on the album. “We met Jason Borger, also known as ‘the Professor’ (American Music Club),” says Murray. He took all the string arrangements that I’d originally written on keys, transcribed them, then brought in Daphne Chen (The Section Quartet) and Matt Fish (Alejandro Escovedo) to play. With just those two people, he built a virtual orchestra.”
Earlimart wipes the slate clean to prepare for Mentor Tormentor’s grand finale, “Cold Cold Heaven.” “It’s really not as heavy as it seems,” says Espinoza. “It’s just another take on the religion theme that I’ve been playing with. I made an almost happy, gospel-kind of song, even though the lyrics are anything but.”
Happy is indeed the word as the song builds and recedes then returns in a climactic reprise that would make The Polyphonic Spree proud—a giant chorus featuring The Ship singing in unison.
“There’s been a lot of confusion about what The Ship is,” Espinoza says of the big moment. “So for the first time ever we had an organized recording event. I built a three-tiered riser, and we set up a true choir with 23 people all singing. That was a proud moment. The Ship Collective finally got together and sang.”
And with that, Mentor Tormentor ends not just the album but life itself on the highest possible note, with friends and family—mentors and tormentors alike—singing together in a choir that’s at once earthy and heavenly.
Be it cold and underground, Earlimart seems to suggest, there is life after death. Indeed there is even life after afterlife—and it’s got three-part harmony.