John Maus

Expectations Versus Reality Versus Reality

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Written by Andrew Stark | Photographed by Lilly Ball

John Maus lives in a cabin on a farm in rural Minnesota. There are cows, llamas, screaming goats and a lot of cats. Some of those cats were born in Maus’ house.

He is tall and imposing, his handsomeness offset by unkempt hair, a bleach-stained T-shirt, mismatched socks. He answers the door, hunched, having just woken up and looking it. He shifts an American Spirit from one hand to the other.

“I’m John,” he says. He’s drinking black coffee from a broken teacup.

We shake hands and duck inside. The living room is crowded with furniture. Maus apologizes for the mess, but it’s halfhearted, proprietary, a pantomime of small talk, something he might feel expected to say.

“I saw the cover of Malibu,” he says. “I didn’t know. I’m, like, fuckin’ Malibu? I was thinking it was literally something to do with Malibu. And it’s all these A-listers on the cover and everything like that. It looked like Vanity Fair, and I was thinking why the hell would they come out to this dump? Is this a good idea? And then Shelley [Wright], who works for the promotion for the record, explained that: ‘Well, it is just as you say, but every once in a while they’re entitled to have their one weirdo profile.’ So I’m like, oh, well then it’s an honor.” [Editor’s note: We have plenty of weirdos in each issue.]

Band members melt in and out of the periphery (“Hey, Jon [Thompson], could you do me a huge favor and fill one of those red cups up with water? There’s a tape recorder going. I’m sorry. I guess I could’ve done it myself. I don’t mean to put you on the spot there, Jon. Thanks a lot, man. Thanks a lot.”). The band—Thompson on drums/drum machines, Luke Darger on synths, and John’s brother Joe at the bass—is a new development for Maus, who’s used to performing solo.

“I did learn the lesson, now, playing with the band,” he says. “The second you’re playing live, and the sound waves become intense or powerful enough to where your body feels it, the low frequencies and all that, then the source of where those waves are coming from does really make a difference. It becomes a physical experience.”

When I ask about origins, Maus’ answer is appropriately downplayed: “I fell into toxic waste and was given super abilities.” We laugh. “No, 

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I never had any natural ability in relation to music. I moved here from Hawaii, where I’d been for two years,” he says. “But before that, I was in Minneapolis for a year. Before that, I was in L.A. for, like, seven years, and then before that, I grew up here [in Minnesota] and never really left.”

It’s no coincidence that the first single off Maus’ outstanding new album, Screen Memories (Oct. 27, Ribbon Music), is a symphonic dirge called “The Combine”—Maus lives in farm country, land with no discernible border, just heartland coordinates like the longitudes and latitudes of open water. There are fields of bio-manufactured crops incensed with glyphosate-based herbicide labeled with the neon logos of agribusiness superpowers. But there’s also the odd hobby farm, organic co-ops, an oscillating horizon of wind turbines jutting otherworldly from corn and soybean. There are the Amish, cantering highway-side in their buggies. And there’s John Maus, the polarizing and hermetic rocker, eschewing both coasts for his hometown.

“I love picking up friends from L.A. or whatever,” he says, “and driving [out] here. They’re like, ‘Where the fuck am I?’ You know, it’s a long drive with no freeways. Really the only shortcoming or compromise you have to make—in order to hear the wind blowing in the grass and see all these little flowers and feral farm cats and all that stuff—is you’re never going to be mixing it up with people, you know, doing what you’re doing, professionally, or being able to challenge yourself on that level.”

I look out the window, trees nodding in the refracted light. A goat bleats on cue. I ask how he deals with the isolation.

“Well, I enjoy it,” he says. “It’s the whole romance of solitude. But, really, the first three years after I was done touring and retired back here, there was never any shortage of things to occupy my mind. You know what I mean?”

On the table between us, there’s a DVD for Bruno Mattei’s 1988 science fiction-action-horror flick Robowar (Tomatometer unavailable), a PlayStation controller and a large stack of sheet music. To my left: a wall of philosophy books behind a piano. This is a guy who, over the next three months, will tour five states and 13 countries. An “endearingly bookish” guy who was tapped by Pitchfork to compile a listicle of his favorite things, and, under the prompt “Last Great Book I Read,” answered, “These questions are difficult because they’re part and parcel with a situation that would define us as a list of cultural commodities we’ve consumed. This is a very banal idea.” John Maus is a 37-year-old academic who studied philosophy at the European Graduate School in Switzerland and earned his doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Hawaii, and is now living in a cabin on a farm in rural Minnesota creating some of the most innovative and surprising music out there.

When he says, “You know what I mean?” it isn’t rhetorical filler—he actually wants to know if you know what he means.

After a few years collaborating with close friend and former CalArts schoolmate Ariel Pink, Maus released Songs in 2006 (tracks like “And Heaven Turned to Her Weeping” and “Forever and Ever and Ever,” with their warbling synths and doomsday bass lines, sound like Vangelis scoring Liquid Sky); in 2007, he released Heaven Is Real (a little funkier, a little tinnier, but “The Silent Chorus” knocks the wind out of you; it’s devastating); 2011’s We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves (title culled from French philosopher Alain Badiou’s “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art”) saw Maus’ first real commercial success (“Cop Killer” is far more menacing than Body Count’s notorious 1992 call to arms, but it’s also somehow funny; “Hey Moon” is a study in pop perfection; and “Quantum Leap” is an anxiety-inducing synth freakout); and, finally, Maus released A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material the following year (masterful songs spanning from 1999 to 2010, many of which Maus himself had to track down on the Internet). This year, we get “a career-spanning six-album box set,” including the aforementioned plus two new albums, Screen Memories and Addendum. His music is methodical, vaguely mathematical (Maus, from the German mûs, meaning “mouse,” which is funny considering the cats), at times spastic and unhinged, consistently sweeping, cinematic and beautiful.

I should mention that I sit and listen to John Maus speak for two hours and 44 minutes. “I’m rambling, sorry,” he tells me, twice. “You gotta rein me in, man.”

He continues: “...As a teenager—it was the coolest thing—you’d go to the record stores. ... And of course another thing about my age: you had the $20 bill in your pocket, and you had to pick [a record]. Then you had to live with it, even if it was a bummer. At least give it four or five listens to give it a chance that it might be a grower. Is the grower even a possibility today? And some of my favorite albums of all time were precisely these sorts of things. ...”

“...I’m the first to fuckin’ stand by Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, but ... it’s the same thing with visual art, in a way. I lose the thread at about ’68—if not immediately after the war, then certainly by ’68, the residues of the high art tradition, to my mind, completely give way to more interesting things happening with the, what do they say, the hoi polloi or something, with the riffraff, with the kids, you know?”

“...People say, ‘Well, if aliens exist then why don’t they land on the White House lawn?’ And it’s like, you don’t see a fuckin’ blue whale coming up and saying, ‘Take me to your president. ...’”

He speaks excitedly, in anfractuous tidbits, starting and restarting, trying to keep up with his own mind, casually referencing philosophers and composers whose names sound to me like nothing more than mouthfuls of nonsensical phonemes. “They’re still holding on to the modernist narrative of development in music. This thing that, I believe, today in universities, is totally rejected—the idea that there’s some sort of glorious tradition that is constantly perfecting and evolving. You know what I mean? From the plainchant to the organum to the Renaissance to Haydn and Mozart ... to the tonality kind of reaching its breaking point ... to Wagner, to Schoenberg, to Stockhausen...” I nod along. Maus’ hands tremble, his knee joggles. It’s like the guy vibrates with expansive thought, his eyes darkened by wisdom, completely unconcerned with mismatching socks.

“I spent about two, three years just finishing a dissertation and going back and defending it, and then I spent the next two years preparing the hardware necessary for what I had hoped was really going to push [Screen Memories] into a very unique sonic territory, a previously unheard- of sonic territory. That’s how I’m, like, justifying spending all this time blowing up circuit boards and stuff, trying to get it right.

“So then after the two years of getting the gear together, I started working on recording the album, which took me another two years. And in those last years, I wasn’t out here alone.”

He pauses, eyes searching.

“I don’t like to use the word girlfriend,” he says, finally. “But, yeah, a girlfriend [Hungarian visual artist Kika Karadi] moved in. Now we’re engaged. She’s down in Marfa, Texas, right now. So the last two years there was somebody out here with me, but it was just us. And that was another kind of ... weird thing. You know what I mean?”

Maus holds an unlit cigarette in his right hand that he’d plucked from a yellow pack an hour ago, gesturing with it, rolling it around, forgotten, until it’s become warped and unsmokable. He pulls out another and lights it.

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“And then this last summer, three other guys [moved in]. That was a huge adjustment. You know, coming from three years of monastic life, and then two years of essentially monastic life with another person. Never talking to anybody else at all for weeks and weeks on end. And then suddenly having three guys out here—it was all positive, in the sense that change is always positive. But it was a major adjustment. I was joking with the [band] last night, I’m like, ‘Damn, you guys should all go and take all the shit and put it somewhere else, because I want to, in a pretentious way, show the monkish solitude that I lived in.’” He laughs. “It’s much more sexy, isn’t it? Me looking out the window, like, I live here alooone. But it really was the truth for a long time.”

John Maus, for all his discursive locution, is reserved; he speaks to the floor mostly, looking up suddenly to express a point. This only makes his live shows all the more interesting: It’s a cathartic release for Maus, who stalks around the stage, headbanging, screaming, reanimated.

“The best artists are dealt their hand,” he says.

I ask if he sees his own work as transcendent.

“No,” he says, without hesitation. “I’m rapidly approaching old. But what sets the new record apart, in a sense—in the sense that it would willfully reckon with the power or the state or whatever you want to call it—I try to make my music [in response] to that. Obviously, what serves that the best is top 40. That’s the most ubiquitous stuff. It comes into your life uninvited. So, it’s that stuff I have in mind. I’m not gonna name names, but it’s clear what works for the status quo.”

There are touches of Adorno here, a philosopher who believed very strongly against this uninvited party, as it were: “Capitalist production so confines them, body and soul, that they fall helpless victims to what is offered them.”

“The wager I took on the new record,” Maus continues, “aside from the [band] thing and trying to be in complete command of the most advanced means of artistic production at my disposal, was leaning even harder into methods of music-making practices ... getting even more rigorous about the contrapuntal devices borrowed from earlier music as far back as the Renaissance. You know what I mean?”

When we’re finished (“I could go on for hours,” he says), Maus takes me back into a small bedroom. There’s a couch, a computer and a wall of modular synthesizers. He’s excited.

“I’m just showing you shit,” he says. “You’re here. You came to my house. The two [synths] on the bottom are the ones I made.” He starts rummaging around in a closet. “Oh, my disastrous closet. If I’m making a little mess here, I’m sorry.” He pulls a smaller synth from the clutter. “But these ones that I made, I’m kinda proud, you know? Making a whole modular. I mean, I thought that was cool. It’s like a little hobby thing. See how crazy the wiring is? If I knew what I was doing, it would not look like that.” He gestures with his arm. “But this is the room. You’re in the room.”

On the walls: a poster for Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind: The Movie (“Have you ever seen this joke movie? Everybody disappears.”), a life- sized cardboard cutout of the Hellraiser cenobite Chatterer (“Chatterer I gotta tack back up. He was funny for a while. But that’s the joke, right? Like, Hellraiser’s fuckin’ guy is in your room. But then I tell you, honestly, literally, after about the third year, Chatterer was a real thing, reminding me. You know what I mean? Like, ‘I’m fuckin’ Chatterer and I’m behind you all the time.’”), a Body Count poster.

Outside, we hug and say our goodbyes. I take off, passing through towns marked by grain silos and barn quilts, and I think about John Maus, the hermetic rocker hidden in farm country, bent over his toil, twisting knobs, manipulating voltage and blowing up circuit boards, prodding, transforming, testing the limits of sound and thought. MM

Mackenzie Davis

Malibu Magazine sits down with Mackenzie Davis during our September/October 2017 cover shoot.

Hope in the World-Reversing Night

A BROAD UNDERSTANDING OF THE WAR ON DRUGS' ADAM GRANDUCIEL

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Written by Andrew Stark | Photographed by Andrew White

Picture a movie scene. We open on valleys of Technicolor green, distant traceries of a saw-toothed mountain, and a sunrise of such dramatic bombast, it feels like the sky is flexing. A lone road curves into the horizon. On that road, our protagonist travels in an appropriately rusted-out Silverado of two-tone blue (colors symbolizing depth, loyalty and truth), a truck with some years on it, with history. This is a picture of Rockwellian familiarity, our nation schematized. We tighten on the protagonist's face—handsome, furrowed, eyes lost in the gauzy void of colorless thought—as a few haunting octaves break over the scene. The song is cinematic and sweeping, at once new and nostalgic: “Thinking of a Place” off the sublime fourth studio album, A Deeper Understanding, by The War on Drugs. Fits the scene perfectly. This is a man leaving something behind, the audience thinks. They brace for a tearjerker. 

“Just see it through my eyes,” he implores on the song, “And love me like no other.”

Like that epic first single (clocking in at 11 minutes and 12 seconds), A Deeper Understanding (out August 25) plays like strong drama. Frontman and lead songwriter Adam Granduciel's conflicts and revelations and messy debris are laid bare, wearing his dénouement on his sleeve. Each song is masterfully written, hat-in-hand soliloquies illustrating 38 years of the songwriter's life, the soundtrack of a field-stripped soul. 

A Deeper Understanding is the highly anticipated follow-up to 2014's universally acclaimed Lost in the Dream, and marks the band's first major-label release, under Atlantic. But Granduciel doesn't feel like a rock star. 

“Definitely not, definitely not,” he says. “But sometimes it's cool when you go do a show somewhere and somebody comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, I love your album.’ Then you start talking about stuff, start talking about music. But I don't really search for any sort of grander fame, obviously. And in fact, whenever there is a rare situation where you're like, ‘Oh, maybe I'm a little bit more recognizable than I thought,’ if you go to a show, then it's actually a little ... very uncomfortable.

“But I just think of myself as the same guy, [who], just like anybody else has identity issues and self-conscious issues or thinks they haven't gone far enough or that everybody's laughing at them.”

Granduciel, typically photographed in cowboy flannel and beat-up denim, looks vaguely Sioux and speaks with measured inflection. It's like he's trying to put you at ease. (The worst job he's ever had, for instance, was working at a place in Boston called Joe's American Bar and Grill. Menu items include Fully-Loaded Nachos and Joe's Mac & Five Cheese. “I spilled hot grease on a baby's head,” Granduciel says. “Not my fault.”)

“You get on the [tour] bus and there's always fresh beer,” he says, “I mean, I don't drink much anymore, so there's Pellegrino on there for me. But then there's usually a game of dice going on in the front lounge. There's this after-show pizza that [tour manager] Craig [McQuiston] gets. Maybe the day before I'm eatin' some Tofurky, and so then I'm rolling it up into little sandwich slices, you know?”

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He adds: “After the show, life on the bus is the real party.”

On maintaining sanity during interminable air travel: “I download some podcasts and stare out the window.”

But the ultimate vulnerability of air travel, he agrees, has a funhouse-effect on the human psyche.

“I don't know if it's the realization that, at any moment, you could just fuckin' explode or what, but I get very emotional. Like, before we even took off the other day, I was already fuckin' bawling. Because the in-flight entertainment had started, and I was sort of watching The Devil Wears Prada when I sat down.”

It's interesting to trace the stylistic trajectory of The War on Drugs, a band formed in 2005 by Granduciel and Kurt Vile (who amicably departed in 2008 to focus on his solo career), whittling down over the years what would become its ultimate sound, finding, turns out, their own deeper understanding. 

“[Kurt Vile and I] met because he worked at Yards Brewery, and my roommate at the time also worked at the brewery, this guy named Joe Beddia.” Then, in true avuncular fashion, Granduciel digresses into a biographical sidebar: “Joe's gone on to pizza fame. He has this pizzeria in Philly called Pizzeria Beddia, and he wrote this book called Pizza Camp, and he's like a pizza celebrity. 

“But he introduced me to Kurt, Kurt came over to the house. I think I was listening to the Stones or something, I don't remember. We kind of just became friends, and we started playing acoustic guitar together. I went over to his apartment, which wasn't far away, and jammed up in his little jam room. At my house, I had a drum set and a digital eight-track recorder and an amp and guitar and pedals. At his house, he had a small room without a drum set, but he had synthesizers. It was like a different thing. We'd go to my house and kind of play loud, and we'd go to his house and play on synthesizers and electric guitar and acoustic.”

From the jangly heartland beginnings of Wagonwheel Blues (2008), the band's sound has always been big. But as the albums progressed—Slave Ambient's (2011) subaquatic anthems, Lost in the Dream's heartbreaking punch and lull—the contours of that bigness came into focus. A Deeper Understanding, then, is an incredibly moving work, music that swims. You get lost in its landscape.

“I just wanted to make something that I was proud of,” he says. “I wanted to make a record that was a pretty good representation of what we'd become as a live band.”

A Deeper Understanding has been called an L.A. record (Q: “So you've said this is an L.A. record—” A: “Well, I didn't actually say it was an L.A. record, but somebody said I said it, so let's just say I said it.”), but it lacks the flash and rapacious appetite associated with Tinseltown, the neon frenzy. What it does share are the existential questions damn near every Angeleno and import have undoubtedly asked their reflection: Who am I? Why? How? 

“At the end of the day,” he says, “all I have to do is feel like I made the record I wanted to make. You have to remember why you're making music in the first place. [A Deeper Understanding came from] questions about identity. Reconciling with the past, with decisions you've made. A little bit of loneliness and isolation, a little bit of confusion … All the good stuff.”

So, let's say this is a movie, and it's coming to a close, the emotional conclusion. We have a better understanding of our protagonist, a deeper one. Maybe he's standing at a window in Nashville, far-off locomotives howling. Or tipping a Pellegrino on some vacant beach, the forlorn reverb of surf, foghorns knelling like cattle in the dying light. Our protagonist in cowboy flannel and beat-up denim, boots that have walked in many countries, handsome, long-haired, Native-cheekboned. Maybe he's singing, sotto voce, a song crushingly lonely and beautiful. “Love is a bird I can barely see,” he practically whispers, “even in the darkness right in front of me.” The music swells and expands, opens up, harmonica blasting. Not a dry eye in the house. 

Credits roll. MM

Fiction: The Catching

Written by Blake Kimzey

On the appointed date in late June we—to a man, woman, and child in a small township in northern Michigan—stand in a field and wait and telescope our necks at the oncoming nighttide. We dress for a wedding or a baptism but this is neither. No one knows who will be selected and not a word about the flares is spoken. One doesn’t dare put word to myth even if it is certainty. Superstition is something real here. Our parents and grandparents have never known a year without the flares, have never known a year without a catching.

For days we can see the flares glowing in the dark hours, a phenomena that only those within the township can discern. As one day turns to the next the flares settle against the rmament closer to us and fall like stars in no hurry to fall at all. At daylight they burn as watermarks against the bright sky.

People stop on the sidewalk and visor their palms, look skyward, lost in thought. Entire families stand on front lawns drawn to the sky. At night the flares look like a chain of paper lanterns strung across the bending blackness all the way to the horizon, bringing depth and wonder to the middle distance, making the caps of Lake Michigan glow as if infected from below with bioluminescence.

After a month in transit the flares hover over the common, each of them floating no higher than a telephone pole, effulgent and filled with what we don’t know, casting incandescent light across the public green and treetops ringing the grounds. Our faces glow with them.

There is no ceremony to what happens on the common, just the choreography of an unknown master at work. We—the town—are arranged on the green according to family tree, groupings of ten or more, babies to grandparents. The ink of midnight is something we can’t see above the flares, now a brilliant clot fuzzed in pulsing light. The trees at attention, the wind at bay, the hum of life white noise against all else.

After midnight the flares break apart and descend steadily on a predestined line. Our arms go up and we wait until the flares are within reach, radiant and warm. The chosen catch them against their chests and we wait, for how long we can’t say. Time is reduced to a darkly pricked scroll above us pushing east to west and east and west again until light overtakes the chosen and they are no more and we remain. The catching has occurred.

At dawn we walk through the common and back to our homes and remember those that were chosen, those that have gone before, giving thanks that the flares come to us. Seasons change and we wait for the night sky to brighten again, for all of us that remain to find ourselves standing with our families again, arms outstretched. MM

A Sea of Sunshine

The Play of Light On the California Imagination

Carleton Watkins. “Solar Eclipse,” (1889). Albumen silver print. 16.5 x 21.6 centimeters. Courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Carleton Watkins. “Solar Eclipse,” (1889). Albumen silver print. 16.5 x 21.6 centimeters. Courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Written by Hadley Meares

A land of Sunshine basking in a sun
That looks his last upon her—day is done;
But sun-flushed moons arise, and countless stars,
Thrilling and throbbing-sun fed every one.
—“California” by Charles Warren Stoddard, originally printed in Land of Sunshine: Volume Ten

Modern California was built on the back of sunshine. In the infancy of statehood, the uncanny light of the West, seeming to forever shine in the open sky, served as a lure and inspiration to artists, promoters and settlers alike. But where there is light, there must also be dark, and as the years went by, many Californians grew tired of the incessant sun beating down on their state. For these jaded Californians, the eternal light began to increasingly spotlight the shadier aspects of the western side of paradise.

During the 19th century, the perpetual sunshine of California was used as a powerful promotional tool, encouraging Americans and foreigners tired of rainy summers and dark winters to move to her sunny shores. Sunshine was ascribed with almost magical powers, promising prosperity, growth, restored health and fertile abundance. One of the biggest boosters of California as a modern-day Eden was the influential journal Land of Sunshine (published 1894–1923). Under the stewardship of longtime editor Charles Lummis, the journal—part literary magazine, part pro-California travel brochure—touted California as a place where a new settler could “cheer himself with her almost everlasting sunlight.”

For many early pioneers, their first glimpses of California lived up to the hype. In his 1931 autobiography, journalist Lincoln Steffens, a Northern California native, remembered how his pioneer father described his first view of San Francisco’s Golden Gate. He “always paused when he recalled how they turned over the summit and waded down, joyously, into the amazing golden sea of sunshine—he would pause, see it again as he saw it then, and say, ‘I saw that this was the place to live.’”

It was this “golden sea of sunshine” that increasingly drew artists of all disciplines out west. Visual artists, like the German landscape painter Albert Bierstadt, were fascinated with the beauty of the West’s sunrises and sunsets, and the colors and shades that were illuminated in the expansive western sky. The turn of the century saw the birth of the California Plein-Air Movement, also known as California Impressionism, which featured sun-soaked landscapes and seascapes by artists including Guy Rose, Mary Agnes Yerkes, William Wendt and Marion Wachtel.

Writers and poets of the era were also captivated by the sunlight of California, equating the ever-shifting light with the glory of God and the majesty of nature and enlightenment. According to biographer Susan Goodman, members of the Carmel artists colony—which included writers Mary Austin and Jack London—“associated the light with ancient Greece and what they saw as Carmel’s magical ethos.”

In Austin’s writings, this “divine light” was part of the West’s all- consuming natural majesty. “If the fine vibrations which are the golden- violet glow of spring twilights were to tremble into sound,” she writes in The Land of Little Rain (1903), “it would be just that mellow double-note breaking along the blossom tops.” In the short story The Mother of Felipe, she describes the otherworldly beauty of the Antelope Valley thusly:

“A country sublime with its immensity of light, and soft, unvarying tints— fawn and olive, and pearly, with its glistening stretches of white sand, and brown hollows between hills, out of which the gray and purple shadows creep at night.”

Austin was joined in this overwhelming awe of the West’s majestic light by naturalist and writer John Muir. For Muir, light was active and ever moving. “The morning sunbeams are pouring through the crystals on the bushes and grass,” he writes in an 1899 article for The Atlantic Monthly. In The Mountains of California, he is almost biblical when he describes the light of his beloved Sierra Nevada Mountains, which he refers to grandly as the “Range of Light”:

“And after ten years spent in the heart of it, rejoicing and wondering, bathing in its glorious floods of light, seeing the sunbursts of morning among the icy peaks, the noonday radiance on the trees and rocks and snow, the flush of alpenglow, and a thousand dashing waterfalls with their marvelous abundance of irised spray, it still seems to be above all others the Range of Light.”

But even Austin, bewitched as she was with the West, describes in California: The Land of the Sun “the note of human distrust amid all this charm of light and line and elusive color.” By the 1930s, this human distrust crystallized into cynicism and hatred of the sun and its false promise of a life of plenty. For authors like John Fante and Nathanael West “the sun was a joke,” a villain, a con. In Ask the Dust (1939), Fante’s protagonist describes the people lured from their homes by propaganda like Lummis’ Land of Sunshine:

“The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun.”

Nathanael West describes what happened next to these transplants in his legendary Hollywood takedown, Day of the Locust (1939):

“Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine & oranges? Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado, pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there?”

Nothing is the answer, according to West and Fante. Fante’s protagonist in Ask the Dust, a fellow California transplant, feels little sympathy for these rootless people. “Sometimes I am glad they are here, dying in the sun, uprooted, tricked by their heartlessness, the same faces, the same set, hard mouths, faces from my hometown, fulfilling the emptiness of their lives under a blazing sun.”

Land of Sunshine, The Southern California Magazine, (1890). Courtesy the Library of Congress.

Land of Sunshine, The Southern California Magazine, (1890). Courtesy the Library of Congress.

But there was still hope. For Fante, if daylight mocked, nighttime in California still held the promise of a better life, with “gold bars of light cutting the sky like searchlights.” Nighttime in California is a time to dream, to imagine that the fantastic can still come true. “Beyond my window spread the great city,” he writes in Ask the Dust, “the street lamps, the red and blue and green neon tubes bursting to life like bright night flowers.”

Nighttime was also the safe space of California noir writers and filmmakers of the 1930s and ’40s. Light—both real and artificial— signified danger, illuminating the worst in humans and the dirty underbelly of sunny California.

In Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), the villainess, played by Barbara Stanwyck, shrouds herself from the sun in her dark Los Feliz home. “The windows were closed and the sunshine coming in through the venetian blinds showed up the dust in the air,” the narrator played by Fred MacMurray recounts, signaling the dirtiness to come. In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), light glitters off glass eyes, creates halos on undeserving heads, catches a woman’s teeth so that they glitter like knives. Headlights signal danger, surly eyes become “points of steely light,” and a service station glares with “wasted light.”

“A single flash of hard white light shot out of Geiger’s house like a wave of summer lightning,” Chandler writes to describe a gunshot. Philip Marlow lies on his bed at the Hobart Arms, trying to get his latest case out of his mind—but the sun won’t allow it:

“I lay down on the bed with my coat off and stared at the ceiling and listened to the traffic sounds on the street outside and watched the sun move slowly across the corner of the ceiling. I tried to sleep, but sleep didn’t come.”

The light of mid-century California was a device that exposed the world and people in it for what they were: flawed and often dangerous. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, the sun took center stage and became a kind of character, a flawed protagonist in its own right, increasingly disfigured by the ever-present smog.

Born and bred in Southern California, the Light and Space Movement included artists James Turrell, Helen Pashgian, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Peter Alexander and Doug Wheeler. “The allure of waxed surfboards and gleaming automobiles in the California sun were aesthetic touchstones for the light, reflective and visually beatific quality of Light and Space artists' works,” explains artist and writer Ian Wallace. Using the best lighting Hollywood had to offer, reflective surfaces, screens and smoke, Light and Space artists turned man-made atmospheres into works of art.

But not all counterculture Californians were so enamored with the sun and the effects it produced. In the works of California native Joan Didion, the sun is often an ever-present annoyance, which highlights the emptiness and listlessness of her cold and glamorous characters. In Play It As It Lays (1970), protagonist Maria hides behind sunglasses, surrounded by people tanned “as evidence of a lifetime spent in season.” She is forever portrayed standing in the sun, sunbathing or letting the sun dry her wet back. But no matter how bright, the sun cannot cure what ails her. “Even lying in the noon sun on this blazing dry October day,” Didion writes, “Maria felt a physical chill.”

For Didion’s effervescent contemporary Eve Babitz, the lights of California are an integral part of her sexy, sensual Sunset Strip world. In many ways, the light is almost another of her long list of lovers. The sun sets like “the beginning of the world” as she stands on a balcony with a boyfriend. “It seemed to me as we drove down Santa Monica with the liquor-store lights all halos of color,” she writes in her roman á clef Slow Days, Fast Company (1977), “that Shawn was enhanced in such a blurry, silver fox of a night.” At a society party, women’s “wedding rings reflected the pink twilight, their golden bracelets caught the light of the mustard hills.” The seaside town of Venice “looks like a Hopper painting— Americana vistas of shadow and light on the sides of slatted buildings through a whitish mist.”

But too much of a good thing can tire even the most cheerful California girl. At times, Babitz greets the sun with contempt and malaise evident in Didion’s works. In Slow Days, Fast Company she remembers one particularly lethal sunny day. “No sunglasses could cut the glare and even your pores shrank back against the light.” Later that day, a friend from New York telephoned:

“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“The weather,” I said.
“The weather? Are you kidding? It’s been raining now for two weeks and you talk about weather. I can read the papers—it’s wonderful out in California. What weather?”

“The light!” I explained.
“God, you kids out there are really the end,” she says. “The light!”

The nihilistic emptiness of this harsh version of the California light has become a popular trope in California art. As film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum once wrote: “There’s a certain kind of white, piercing, empty light to the Los Angeles sky at certain times of day—and gold piercing emptiness at others—that can make a person want to commit suicide, or snort cocaine.”

But for some, the dreamy lights of the West continue to inspire hope and awe. It comes as no surprise that Thomas Kinkade, the oft ridiculed “Painter of Light” of the ’90s and early 2000s, came from the sun-shaded California town of Placerville. “This ‘Kinkade Glow,’” Didion writes in Where I Was From (2003), “could be seen as derived in spirit from the ‘lustrous, pearly mist’ that Mark Twain had derided in the Bierstadt paintings” a century before. More recently, the relentlessly optimistic film La La Land (in many ways as big an advertisement for California as The Land of Sunshine) opens with a rousing number called “Another Day of Sun.”

And so, the lights of California continue to inspire both cynics and dreamers. In a spot so eternally bright, your personal truth is unavoidably illuminated—whatever it may be. MM

Creator Destroyer Preserver

ANTHONY PEARSON IS SCULPTING THE NATURAL WORLD

"Untitled (Four Part Etched Plaster)," (2017). Pigmented hydrocal, walnut frames. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery.

"Untitled (Four Part Etched Plaster)," (2017). Pigmented hydrocal, walnut frames. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery.

Written by E. Ryan Ellis

One of the earliest relief sculptures created by a human is that of a rather surprised looking horse. “The Magdalenian Horse” was created around 17,000 years ago in France, and it’s not a stretch to think the creator saw the horse in the rock before they started chiseling. That, perhaps, the horse was there all along and made itself known to the artist. Now, Los Angeles artist Anthony Pearson is not carving horses out of rock, but he sees nature world through his works of art—wooden-framed reliefs he calls “Embedments” that are made from hydrocal, a gypsum cement. He does this through a process which starts with “stretching a length of cotton fabric in a wooden frame. [Pearson] then pours in layers of liquid hydrocal, each of which has been treated with a different pigment, creating an array of hues that flow over and around one another. After the material has set, the work is turned over and the fabric removed, leaving behind the texture of its weave and tiny, embedded cotton filaments.” Pearson’s new Embedments will be showing at David Kordansky Gallery from mid-July through August 26. We spoke with the artist about creating the pieces to fill spaces, and how the natural world works into his art.

MM Do you consider that you’re filling a certain space when you’re creating a piece?

AP Certainly: I consider a given artwork in its place amongst other pieces in the studio. This is the first critique I make. I then may consider how it could fill a space in a given exhibition. I think of the cultural contribution that comes with making each work. I think of how these things take on their own life once I am done with them. I think of their place in the world when I am no longer in control of them. I must ask myself how a given artwork may function in the world independent of my intent and my language. I also consider how the object will age and what it will come to represent as the years pass [by].

MM When you are imagining an Embedment do you place your creations against a white backdrop? Grey? Blankness?

AP In conceiving the work I am thinking of it in its original environment, which is on the naturally lit, twelve-foot-high white walls of my studio. Often, when these works enter the world at large, it can be a bit shocking to see them in incandescent light or in domestic environments, but much to my surprise and relief they seem to function positively outside of the studio as well. The gypsum works are peculiar things, beautiful but peculiar. I think it is important to frame them, when possible, with a heightened awareness of architectural space. This may be because they are so minimal and simple in their form. The work has an architectural quality itself and is actually made of an building material. I think the spaces around the work, the relationship between an object and its surroundings, and especially between two or more pieces, are locations where things become clearer in regards to the exact function of the work as a whole entity. A certain amount of ambient space and light is needed to create an ideal setting for the artwork to fully activate.

MM Do you appreciate the fact that the pieces you’re creating are solid, amorphous, non-moving objects?

AP I very much appreciate this both as an aspect of the work I make and the material I am working with. Gypsum is an of-the-earth material and there is something quite enchanting about creating forms that have such weight and solidity. I refer to the poured panels of the new Embedment works as slabs. The weight and mass of these slabs is very important to me in both the way I form and present the work. This is not only a solid, earthy material, but it is also a traditional and ancient one. It has been used for centuries in both sculpture and in architecture. I very much try to honor and support this history, making sure these qualities are explicit in its usage.

MM Your works seem to be informed by the natural world. Does Los Angeles—as a counterpoint of mountains, beaches, ocean, and desert— inform your work?

AP Most certainly. With this new exhibition, I think ideas of the cosmos and the earth are clearly evoked, with the etched works suggesting sky and the Embedments recalling landscape to a degree. Not in a literal or representational sense, but in a more referential one. Growing up here on the Westside and residing here nearly my whole life certainly has informed my work in regards to thinking about the natural environment. I grew up a few blocks from the beach near the mouth of Santa Monica Canyon. Sea and sky have been a critical part of my visual understanding of the world around me. The shimmering, ever-sifting ambient quality of much of my work clearly references real-life experiences, such as the observation of light on the surface of the ocean and the feeling of moisture in the air. I don't think these references have ever been more explicit in my work than in this new exhibition. MM

Jonathan Rado

NATIVE SON

Written by Jason Buhrmester | Photographed by Jonathan Chu

“A really pathetic L.A. is much more interesting to me than actual California sunshine,” says Jonathan Rado, sitting in Dream Star Studios, the garage studio of his Woodland Hills home. The 27-year-old Rado, one half of Los Angeles band Foxygen, is a devotee of the city’s ’70s music scene, and the influence of that era is the sheen that covers Hang, the band’s fifth and most grandiose album. From the old Hollywood horns and piano tinkering of “Avalon” to the throbbing balladry of “America” on which Foxygen singer Sam France croons “And the movie girl said, ‘You’re wanted on set’/But you only play yourself when you’re in Hollywood,” this is the album on which Foxygen spit-shined the wild noise of its previous work to reveal the Warren Zevon-worship that has always lurked beneath Rado’s writing.

“Los Angeles is such a positive place. I love that. I love driving into Hollywood and seeing palm trees. I still get off on that L.A. shit,” Rado says. “But the things that are really interesting to me are not upbeat in any way. Like Charlie Manson—just the dark underbelly of L.A. is really interesting to me. And I love the Valley. I love Valley imagery.”

A native of Westlake Village, Rado, along with France, formed Foxygen in high school, recording songs with a single microphone and a mixer plugged into Rado’s PC. The band’s early days also marked the beginning of Rado’s production career. (“In high school, I was always the guy who would tell bands, ‘Hey! Come record at my house,’” he says. “I always had a drum set, and not everybody had a drum set.”) The duo slipped a demo to Richard Swift, producer of The Shins, Damien Jurado and others, at the Mercury Lounge in New York and found themselves with a record deal soon after. The band’s album, Take The Kids Off Broadway, appeared on Jagjaguwar in 2012, and its 2013 follow-up, We Are The Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, produced by Swift, earned rave reviews from Pitchfork to Entertainment Weekly. Thrust into indie-scene stardom, the duo, barely into their 20s, found themselves on the road with a growing reputation for being out of control after a string of canceled performances and a couple of public meltdowns. Rado and France pulled themselves together for ...And Star Power, a 24-track concept album about a band named Star Power, which the duo recorded across L.A. in locations such as the Chateau Marmont and the Beverly Hilton, before delivering their L.A. opus Hang in January of this year.

These days, Rado runs Foxygen and Dream Star Studios from his Woodland Hills home. A beat-up van in the driveway stands as the only telltale sign that the nondescript home is the headquarters of an exciting reimagining of the Los Angeles sound as Rado leads through the house and into a small but efficient garage studio.

“Foxygen’s Star Power was the first record that I did in this space,” Rado says, glancing around the studio overflowing with microphones, keyboards, cables, various instruments and a weathered paperback copy of The Big Beat: Conversations With Rock’s Greatest Drummers by Bruce Springsteen’s drummer Max Weinberg. “That album was a huge learning experience. I didn’t have any recording gear before that. With that record, we bought some proper recording gear, but I didn’t know how to use anything.”

Recording the hundreds of songs that Foxygen wrote during Star Power gave Rado a crash course in producing and helped him hone his own signature sound. “There was a lot of trial and error with things until it got to a point where I felt like I had developed a sound,” Rado says. “I always had a style of playing instruments, but I wanted to have a style of how to record, and I didn’t want to copy anybody. I think over the last three or four years I kind of honed in on something.”

That honed-in sound is the reason why Rado’s growing reputation as a producer has attracted work with rising artists ranging from the Lemon Twigs and Whitney to the Tim & Eric Awesome Show’s Tim Heidecker. The sound Rado has developed working on Foxygen and his own 2013 solo album Law & Order is bright, multilayered and sweeping, a glossy L.A. sound from classic AM radio updated for the BandCamp age. The fingerprints of this sound are evident in Rado’s production work on the Laurel Canyon-country-tinged Chicago act Whitney, whose album Light
Upon The Lake opens with the lines, “I gave up drinking on the city train/To spend some time on the road/Then one morning I woke up in L.A./Caught my breath on the coast,” and the synth-pop of the Lemon Twigs, a Long Island duo, whose Rado- produced debut album is aptly titled Do Hollywood. It’s obvious that a new California sound is emerging—or at least a growing fascination with creating one.

“I like the idea that bands can go to a place and get a little bit of that place,” Rado says while discussing the growth of Dream Star Studios and his producing career. He is currently at work on his first major- label production, co-producing the new Houndstooth album for Warner Bros. with Grammy Award-winning producer Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes, Perfume Genius).

“We both just attack it in a very free way but from two totally different angles,” says Rado of the collaboration. “He’s handling a lot more of the engineering and shaping of the sound, where I’m involved more in the actual playing of the instruments and getting the right tones out of the instruments.”

Many of the artists who Rado wants to work with arrive via email. As an artist who got his start after handing off a demo, he feels compelled to listen to the demos that clog his inbox. “I owe my whole career to listening to other people’s music,” he says, mentioning Jungle Green and Cut Worms as artists he found via an incoming message and whom he plans to collaborate with. While Rado figures out how to navigate the world of bigger artists, budgets—and presumably egos—he is also still formulating his personal definition of success.

“There are things that are monetarily successful,” he says, before stopping himself. “That’s a weird, shitty thing to say, but there are things that are monetarily successful—like, that record did really well or I actually got paid for that. But I feel like I’m mainly in it for the creative satisfaction of things. I’ve worked on projects where I didn’t feel 100 percent in the game, and it didn’t feel as good as when I’m totally creatively invested. So, I’m trying to really only work on the things that I want to work on.”

Later this year, he plans to work on a new Foxygen album, which he claims is already “80 percent” written. “Foxygen is such a conceptual group in my mind that there really isn’t anything that we’re bound to,” says Rado. “There’s no sound that we are bound to. We could easily go and make a really high- fi, like a Daft Punk-sounding record, or we could make an instrumental noise record. In my mind, both things could happen. I really don’t have the interest in being in another band outside of Foxygen. For me, it’s the perfect vessel for making records that don’t have to sound like what came before it.”

So, if a major label arrives with a sack full of money, a super producer and a plan to turn Foxygen into the next arena rock band?

“I feel like artistic integrity is not actually that real anymore,” Rado says, laughing. “It was really easy for Neil Young in the ’70s to say ‘I’m not selling no more songs to movies or commercials’ because he had millions of dollars. If I was a millionaire, maybe I’d be ... I don’t know. I’m always going back and forth on myself with these things. It’s so situational. If [Katy Perry/Taylor Swift producer] Max Martin writes me an email and says he wants to write and produce a song for Foxygen, I’d at least consider that. That’s at least interesting—as long as it’s interesting in some way. Where I never want to go is boring. Middle of the road does not interest me in any way. I don’t ever want to work on anything that doesn’t challenge me in some way. I don’t ever want to make an album that is for the sake of making more music. It needs to be inspiring in some way.”

Somewhere behind us a set of chimes topples over, ringing through the studio, and Rado stands up to retrieve them.

“The chimes fell over. That’ll sound good on the tape though.” MM

Marissa A. Ross

LIQUID SUNSHINE

Written by Augustus Britton | Photographed by Olivia McManus

I arrived at the house very professional, very sober, very wide-eyed. I left elated, wildly drunk, wildly inspired, bright-eyed—also wondering what the word professional actually meant. Wine does these things; it makes you wonder.

And what does Marissa A. Ross, wine editor at Bon Appétit and author of Wine. All the Time.: The Casual Guide to Confident Drinking (Plume), do so well? She makes wine comfortable. She makes it accessible. She makes you laugh. She kicks off the dust. Read her writing about the subject, it’s damn good. She exes out the crabs, the old-guys (not necessarily old, but cranky, uninviting, pretentious—)she exes all that shit out, she exes out the bullies. Who has time when the wine tastes this good and the smiles are this big and stained purple, and the jokes go on and on—all the while feeling our anxieties drip away, quite literally?

Ross generously pours me three exceptional glasses of wine upon being seated: a white, a sparkling and dancing one, and a red one that smelled like a really precise, dense, wet wood chip—or, if you’re a novice like me and haphazardly open your mouth, “It’s like a really subtle, brilliant dog food.” Yes, that’s what hit my nose in a very peculiar, singular way. But, truly, all of them tasted incredible, fresh, enlivening.

Ross even let me drink from her $60 Zaltos, these superb wine glasses that break seemingly on cue and crack on cushioned chairs, but, once you try drinking from one, I’m not sure you’ll wanna go back, that is, to the IKEA  glasses. But, in true Ross fashion, we did also drink from her IKEA glasses. We were quickly high-fiving, quickly good friends. I let her call me Gus. She let me pour and pour, let my tongue get heavy, my eyes get wet, my speech relax.

Ross clues me in on the subjectivity of all of it, the fun to be had, the curiosity to be cultivated. She says a lot you might want to listen to if you enjoy the good life, or if you’re in the happy pursuit.

Wine. All the Time.: The Casual Guide to Confident Drinking by Marissa A. Ross is out now from Plume.

MM What’s your take on collecting wine?

MR I believe that wine is to drink and be enjoyed. But there are some bottles that are special, and the cool thing about collecting wine these days, especially in the natural wine world, is that you can buy bottles that are under a hundred dollars that you can age and open them in five to 10 years, and they’ll be a very, very special bottle of wine. You can actually start collecting now at a much lower price point than previously. But it’s hard to collect wine. I have to write notes on some, like: Don’t fucking open this! This is for something special. Because sometimes you start drinking, and you’re just like, screw it! I wanna open this bottle that I’ve been saving for years!

MM Where do you get your wine?

MR I shop primarily at Domaine LA and Lou Wine Shop and Silver Lake Wine (all in Los Angeles)—locally. I also now try to get stuff straight from importers. There is some stuff in New York that I can’t get out here, and hopefully if I start drinking it out here shops will start picking it up.

MM When you write about wine, you often compare it to music—From Françoise Hardy to ABBA. What’s the deal with wine and music?

MR Before I wrote about wine, I wrote about music for a long time. That was my hobby. To me, they’re kind of the same. When you’re listening to an album that you really love or a song, it’s that same energy thing, it’s that same story. And for me, I’m kind of self-centered, so I’m like: Every song is about me, obviously. But, when I was a kid, I remember my favorite thing was listening to music and telling myself these stories about what this song means to me, and I feel that I treat wine the same way. I find them both to be very personal experiences.


"I know that people try to be objective when they’re reviewing music or wine, but I don’t believe that’s possible. I think they’re both extremely subjective and sentimental."


And when I write about wines, they do remind me of music. There is something about them. There are notes.

MM Have you worked in a vineyard? Does that interest you?

MR [Laughs.] I have soft, dainty writer’s hands. I’m very, very, very interested in what goes on in a vineyard. I’m not particularly interested in working a vineyard.

MM What do you think is the most underrated kind of wine?

MR I think the most underrated wines are light red wines. They have a different kind of drunk than whites that I prefer. Most people think about red wines, and they immediately go to these big, bold dinner wines. But there are so many delicious, beautiful, really light red wines that drink like red wines. Those are my favorite.

MM What’s your last supper?

MR Oh, man. My last supper? It would be the best salami and really well-dressed farmer’s market greens. You know how they dress them so well, where it feels like every leaf is perfectly basted on its own? With probably all the wine. I’d say, bring me my fridge. Actually, I forgo the meal. Just bring me all the wine, and I will drink it all! But if I only had to pick one wine, I would probably pick a Jean Foillard Côte du Py, and that’s a Morgon, so it’s a Beaujolais, and I love it. That’s like my favorite wine ever.

MM Is wine as vast a subject as I think it is?

MR Yes. I think it’s impossible to know everything about wine. The wine world is extremely vast. Also, it’s constantly changing. To say that you know everything is also to say that there is no progress, which I think is absolute insanity, considering we’re drinking a Grüner Veltliner from the fucking Czech Republic. Like, that’s not something that’s really happened in the past.

MM Who is your book written for?

MR I wrote my book for [someone like] me five years ago when I needed a starting point. It’s not everything, and I didn’t want it to be everything. I wanted it to be something where you could read it and know about wine. ... It’s for someone who wants to drink well right now: You don’t have to know everything; this is all you need to know, and you have all the tools. It is for people who are beginners. Although, my friend Adam [Vourvoulis, who has stopped by during the interview] ... who’s a sommelier—he loved the book, and he’s been a full-time somm guy.

MM Who makes the best wine? California? Italy? Spain? France?

MR I think that that’s a loaded question. We can’t answer that. (Vourvoulis jumps in on this question, he has arrived carrying a case of new wines for Ross to try out. Everyone is mildly or not so mildly inebriated at this point; everyone is sagacious and a little red-cheeked). That’s not fair, that question. Adam Vourvoulis That’s an easy answer: France.

MR (laughs) I know!

AV I guess it’s loaded, but it’s true.

MM Why is it loaded?

MR Because there are great wines coming out of everywhere. I’m drinking amazing wines from Italy right now that I love so much.

AV And you don’t want to take away from everyone else. But, bar none, if you talk to any wine professional, and you said he had to pick one country, it would almost always be France, sometimes Italy.

MR Well, I think if you’re into natural wine, the French just crush it in terms of high-acid, light, really beautiful wines that are so elegant. I think that France runs the gamut. Also, I love California wines, but if I had to pick one reason, ya know, I’m sorry, but California has not been doing it nearly as long.

MM Is it the farming practices? Is it the grapes?

MR I think it’s the wine-making in general.


"The wine-making in France is so ancient. Let’s be real, it’s France’s shit."


Wine is France’s game that everyone else is trying to play, and that’s a bummer to admit, and I love wines from across the world—like today we have things from Czech Republic, Spain ...

MM I guess it’s like [American] football, right? You wouldn’t say something like Sweden plays the best football. America does.

AV Or I was going to say rock ’n’ roll. It’s inherently American.

MR And wine is inherently French.

MM That escalated quickly.

AV There are arguments to why it’s maybe not France, but...

MR Yeah. I’m glad Adam was here to help keep it real. I was trying to be diplomatic. But I don’t really know anyone that wouldn’t pick France.

MM Lastly, if you have to give up one thing, Marissa: wine or your husband. Which is it?

MR [Laughs.] That’s the most fucked-up question I’ve ever been asked in my life! MM

 

Hair & Makeup Danni Katz for Exclusive Artists Management using Amike Haircare, Beachwaver and Anastasia Beverly Hills Location Casa Perfec

Noomi Rapace

SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE

Preen by Thornton Bregazzi Shirt, pants and belt

Preen by Thornton Bregazzi Shirt, pants and belt

Written by Felicity Martin | Photographed by Jessie Craig | Styled by Lorna McGee

Noomi Rapace is scrolling through her iPhone to show me a gift she’s buying her friend, the French musician Woodkid. “Do you know this artist, Nancy Fouts? She lives in a church. I’m going around there tomorrow. You gotta look her up.” The gift in question—one of Fouts’ surrealist pieces called “Key Ring”—is a key and lock linked with a piece of string (like a key ring) so that they’re together but the lock can never be opened. It’s a thoughtful present, given that Woodkid’s artistic symbol is the crossed keys of Saint Peter.

Tibi Shirt

Tibi Shirt

The Swedish actress shows me another piece—an antique clock with about 10 hands pointing to different numbers. “This is how I live,” she laughs, “I have Noomi time. It doesn’t match anyone else’s.” Yesterday she was in Paris, at the end of a punishing press regimen that had her holed up in hotel rooms, “talking, talking, talking.” But somehow Rapace is full of life today. She arrives wearing a baby pink suit, Coco Chanel brooch and earrings to match, topped by a shock of peach-pink hair. She didn’t have to travel far; our Notting Hill shoot location (the impossibly beautiful flat of a ballet dancer) is 10 minutes from her house. We sit outside in the huge, leafy gardens of the apartment as she sighs, wishing all her interviews were conducted here rather than French hotel suites.

Best known for her lead in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) (she played Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy), Rapace has played Dr. Elizabeth Shaw in the Ridley Scott science fiction film Prometheus (2012) and Nadia in 2014’s The Drop—to name just a few. She seems to favor tough, dangerous and moody characters who can wield a weapon without breaking a sweat. “I like real characters,” she says, explaining what appeals to her in a role, “you know, when they feel complex, have layers. Because in real life there’s no one who’s just sweet and sexy. In films sometimes, a lot of female characters are just functions. They’re there to spice up the movie or add some sexiness, a little bit of smile and sunshine. That doesn’t really interest me.”

She might favor tough, resilient characters on screen, but in person Rapace is all smiles and laughter. Yet as our conversation turns to the recent tragedy of her neighborhood—the fire in Kensington’s Grenfell Tower, which she can see from her house. She dabs at her eyes, which are turning red and watering. “I was driving past the other day. It looked like a tall black skeleton. I just broke down and started crying.”

Rapace has had a fairly nomadic existence, flitting between Sweden, Iceland and L.A. before settling in London. Born in Stockholm to an actress and a Spanish flamenco singer, her approach to Hollywood acting is somewhat unconventional. She’s been involved in the world of theater since the age of 19 (though she made her debut as an extra in a film at age 7) and has always taken a wide-angle approach to the business. “I’ve always been really involved in all areas,” she nods. “You know, like I went to the prop guy and was like, ‘What if we had this on stage? Could you find something?’ It’s not an ego thing, it’s not about me—I want every performance to be amazing. The more I can do to get it there, you know?”

Jil Sander Jacket and pants

Jil Sander Jacket and pants

The film she’s just been promoting across the Channel is What Happened To Monday?, a sci-fi thriller set in a dystopian world with an extreme one- child policy. Where normally you’d just play the one character, Rapace plays seven—a set of identical septuplets.

“It was insanely hard,” she gasps, explaining how it took three days to shoot a dinner scene at the start, something that would normally take four hours. “It’s never been done before. ...” Using six girls as her doubles, plus markers to guide her movements, the film proved hugely demanding. “For six months I couldn’t go for dinners, I didn’t see any friends. I was up at 4 in the morning, went to the gym, prepped lines—just to learn the lines for several voices in a scene is completely different. I had to respond to myself ... It’s a bit cuckoo,” she laughs.

“It was so weird, and I got really quite upset sometimes,” she continues, on the difficulty of being her own co-star. “There was one scene where one sister dies, and we did the death scene. Then, during the day, I was reacting to my own death.”

Developing a ritual, Rapace switched between the siblings by wearing different perfumes and tailoring music playlists to suit each individual personality. “Between characters, I had to be alone and lock myself in my dressing room to wash my makeup off, wash the smell off and reset myself,” she says. “I normally have a lot of energy, but that was extreme. At the end of each day, I was so empty I couldn’t even speak to anyone.” It even caused her a recurring nightmare: “I was having this dream where I see rows and rows of shoes, and I’m like, ‘Fuck, who am I today?’ I start calling people, and no one picks up, and I’m panicking more and more, and end up walking outside barefoot.”

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 2.07.08 PM.png

The film, she explains, was actually written for seven brothers rather than a female lead. “Tommy [Wirkola] called me, like, ‘Noomi, I have this project—but I can only imagine you doing it. Read it, and if you like it, we can change it to seven sisters.’ And I loved it, but I was also terrified. I couldn’t even imagine how to approach it, like how do we even shoot it?” She worked directly with Wirkola to change the script and wrote in a twist at the end that added an entirely new layer to the plot.

“I adjusted it and made it more complex, more interesting.”

When Rapace returned to London after shooting What Happened To Monday? she declined roles in nine other films. “I was very ... not lost but empty. I felt like I gave everything I had. It was very emotional.” However drained she felt, her work ethic didn’t stop. She stars in the upcoming fantasy genre movie Bright alongside Will Smith, in which she plays a “villain—really evil. I’m playing an elf, so I have big elf ears and elf teeth.

"It was amazing. I have some incredible fight sequences too.”

Filming Bright allowed her to explore the dark side of human nature. “It’s weird how when I’m stepping into that side of myself I start to see the world in a different way. My character wants to create a better world, she wants to clean up the dirtiness and ugliness, and she had very brutal methods. When you look at villains, it’s easy to think that they are just cold-hearted revenge machines; they just kill people for fun. But I realized that she’s so passionate, and she’s fighting a fight. She’s on a mission.”

Paul Smith Suit

Paul Smith Suit

It’s not just the world of acting that Rapace is conquering. She’s just designed a clothing collection for a brand (“It’s very street, very hip-hop.”) She’s also launching a perfume later this year (“I’m doing a lot of stuff for fun,” she says). What I really want to know, however, is about the rumors she’s playing Amy Winehouse in an upcoming biopic. “Maybe ... We’ll see. I’m involved in it, and I’m working on it, but all the components need to be right.” She smiles, explaining how, when they asked her to play Winehouse, she initially refused to read the script.

“I have a strong connection to Amy. She was really present, her music, in the most critical moments of my life.” Rapace’s quest for perfection is particularly crucial on this project. “I can’t compromise on that one,” she urges. “The script needs to be amazing. It needs to be 100 percent. She is too important to me; my respect and love for her is just too important. It needs to be really brave and really honest and raw—and from my heart.” Rapace pours herself into all aspects of her career and life, from roles as villains or identical septuplets to perfume and key ring gifts for friends. There is no halfway. All considered, if Rapace eventually does tackle the role of Amy Winehouse, you can bet she’ll do it justice. MM