"We live in a big loft in one of the strangest neighborhoods in L.A.," says Evan Slamka, the heartbeat of Marjorie Fair. "I'm trying to find the right word; it's.. interesting. It was a godsend to find, because the rent's cheap and it's a huge space and we can maximize the amount of time spent playing music. But, you know, it's called Skid Row. Not in a pejorative sense, but.. officially. The city calls it Skid Row. I suppose they gave up even trying to give the neighborhood a proper name. It's where the majority of L.A. homeless population spend their time. It's very fast-paced, with lots of drug related issues, and I've seen and experienced a variety of things I'd rather not revisit anytime soon. It can be very desperate and sad. That said, I've met lots of people with wonderful spirits who I've befriended. Most of these people have had the deck stacked against them, and they are just trying to survive as best they can."
Does it feed your creative juices?
"I'm sure it must on some level. I often wonder what toll it has taken on my psyche, as well as my ability to keep an optimistic outlook on things. On a subconscious level it must have informed some of the many songs I've written since I've been there, without a doubt. But through the people I've gotten to know, I've learned quite a bit more about the human condition than I had known before. Sad as it can be, sometimes it's a real education. That's kinda the way life is."
Marjorie Fair is Evan Slamka (vocals, guitar), Dain Luscombe (keys), Scott Lord (bass), Mike Delisa (drums) and kindred spirits. Self Help Serenade, the debut album, recorded as long ago as 2002 and produced by Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith, Foo Fighters) and featuring revered players ranging from Jon Brion and Joey Waronker to Billy Preston, has emerged to rapturous acclaim in the UK. "A potential modern classic.. destined to break hearts and win minds," said The Independent. "Disarming stuff for the disenchanted," considered NME. For Uncut, it was "a rich harvest, melodic and explosive;" for Mojo, "a candidate for debut of the year." It can only be a matter of time before word spreads and its bruised beauty blooms. Evan sings from within a world of pain, but somehow the album's gently persistent refrains, yearning urges and sudden glorious guitar surges are like silvery sun breaking through clouds. It takes elements of classic (Neil Young, Brian Wilson, John Lennon) and particles of indie (Flaming Lips, Low, My Bloody Valentine) to lure you in and wrap you up in slow-burning, chilly, therapeutic thrills.
"People so far seem to understand what we're doing on a gut level," muses Evan. He pauses a moment, then adds with less than half a chuckle, "And also, maybe, on a slightly more intellectual level.."
Evan grew up in New Jersey, and in the early Nineties did "the usual sorta group member thing." When collaboration ceased to fulfill him - "I don't think I was collaborating well on any level of my life at the time, actually" - he started writing his own songs. He began playing small cafes and bars around New York, then with two friends formed Parlour, who with "more of an old-school folk approach than a rock'n'roll one," had "a lot of good times, and stripped everything down to the basic essentials of what we love about music." But after heading West a couple of times for shows with a friend, Evan found his experiences in L.A. to be so positive that he moved out there full-time. "I'm glad I thought what the hell and did it. If I'd thought about it too much, I might not have gone."
The big loft - where they live, sleep, make music, record and generally hang out - beckoned. The songs in process became wider and louder to fill this material space. The line-up mutated, Capitol Records grew keen, the name of the project changed.
"I guess we'd forgotten L.A. was the entertainment capital of the world, but unbeknownst to us some record company people came down to the loft. Which was a funny trip, because I'm sure they were all afraid to get out of their cars. I think they thought it might be a big hoax, as they came up in the elevator, like they were entering some weird cult.. but we played songs, chatted, and it all seemed natural." You still have to call a few times (and get Cheap Trick's "Surrender" on the answering machine) before he hears the phone though.
As for the name: "I didn't realise it was a rose at first! A friend suggested it, and I liked it, but liked it less when they told me it was the name of a rose. Not that I have anything against flowers or anything.. just, it seemed more mysterious before it was explained. Like many things. Trying to put a name on your music is not enjoyable."
Self Help Serenade isn't easy for Evan to describe in a nutshell either, but he gamely gives it a go. "If I'm bored or doing some psycho-therapy on myself, I'll maybe look through the lens of the record and try to figure out what it's about, what it means. It's sort of a past and present intersection of influences. Growing up I listened to The Beatles and Beach Boys and the stuff that goes along with that. Buffalo Springfield, David Crosby. Bing too! Then when I got to L.A. we were playing louder, the guitars were getting washed-out and a lot of effects were involved. So suddenly I had people mentioning slo-core and shoegazing and My Bloody Valentine to me, which I then checked out. All very cool and modern, given that I was probably listening to Chuck Berry at the time! We do stretch the chords out, I guess, and test barriers, and it's good to have a comradeship with other bands, since being a musician can get isolating and lonely. Even though I think I'm a neo-hippie who wished he lived in the Sixties.."
Evan studied philosophy at school, and reckons he does lean towards the analytical in life, though he tries to keep that part of himself away from the songs. An off-the-cuff, wilfully obscure list of influences and interests includes Johnny Ray, Segovia, "Tired Eyes," "The Ghost Notes of Salt," "The Saint and the Palookas," "The Bonfire of the Blade" and "Witches and Wolves Without Limits." The ocean features strongly.
"It was probably a musical reference that caused me to fall in love with the sea first. I'm fascinated by the ocean, there's no doubt about it. I hadn't necessarily realised I brought it into the music a lot, but the great thing about songwriting is that things you're not even sure you're feeling deep inside can find a way into the sound, as an expression of what you do."
He tries to feel rather than construct a song, to convey raw emotion directly rather than engineer it through artifice. "I've never taken things at face value, for some reason. I always wonder about things, imagine things. To go into those areas of thinking is an escape for me, a place to go. But at other times it can be limiting - like anything cognitive or intellectual, philosophy can be a box you can't get out of, a closed system. So, tricky though it might be, you try to leave the world of symbols, signs, words and meaning when you write. Of course you can't completely, or you might go so far out that you never come back, like a Syd Barrett. I want to keep writing and be an active musician, so that requires a certain sense of balance."
Evan can be pretty hard on himself, he says. He always wants a song to be candid, but not pedestrian. "Poetry is ultimately a striving for something that has the weight of a brick falling on your head, but doesn't leave any scars.." By and large, he feels this album is being understood for what it's supposed to be. "That's a big thing for an artist - to feel that your expression is actually translating." It's not entirely autobiographical, it's more an attempt to "depict the universal while having it grounded in something you can relate to. You can write a song about an old tire sitting on the sidewalk - you're not the tire, you're not the sidewalk, but it can be a great song if you do it right."
As well as the languid, probing, dreamy drift of the undulating body of the record, there are more instant, magnetic moments of art-pop like "Stare" and "Waves." "There are lots of different things and ideas happening, I guess. I love cathartic pop music myself, as well as the more ethereal bands. If these songs end up somewhere on the spectrum between The Beatles and Low and Red House Painters, that's great. Making this record has been a magical experience, full of highs and lows. Whenever I'm getting down on myself or frustrated, I remind myself it's overwhelming that people are digging on it. And then I don't think too hard about it, I just do it, I just follow the muse."
So East goes West, and a rose grows on Skid Row. Marjorie Fair's music walks on air. Just help yourself.