By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
Long Beach's Elvin Estela has racked up an impressive discography under the nom de musique Nobody, issuing four albums (and a remix collection) of cosmic soul-jazz-infused hip-hop and sweet, ethereal psych pop. Following his winning productions for speedy-cadenced LA MC Busdriver's Roadkill Overcoat and a remix of the Shins' "Sea Legs," Estela is now focusing on Blank Blue, which won this paper's Best Local Rock Band honor—with only two songs available to the public thus far. But those cuts plus a few live performances were enough to convince us that Blank Blue are extraordinary and loaded with potential.
A collaboration between Estela and fellow Fingerprints Records employee and vocalist Niki Randa (along with a rotating cast of amigos that includes drummer Andres Renteria), Blank Blue continue Nobody's fascination with the underground psychedelia of '60s bands such as the United States of America, White Noise and 50 Foot Hose, in which electronic exploration complements baroque melody. And like the U.K. band Broadcast, they avoid being kitsch about it.
Blank Blue are still a very young group (excellent tropical bliss-hop cut "All the Shallow Deep" on the From LA With Love compilation is their first official release), but the songs they've completed so far possess a beatific, rococo lushness—as well as an understated funkiness.
"I had the idea to do a concept record about a California earthquake for a while, since the Tree Colored See record," Estela explains, referring to his 2006 album with the Mystic Chords of Memory. "The idea was to follow up [2003's] Pacific Drift with the concept record as the official next Nobody release. I had made a bunch of tracks that accumulated for about two years with this in mind. Once I finished the Busdriver record, I decided that these tracks would be what I focused on. I knew that Niki could sing, and I told her my idea about the record. She sang on one of the beats I had made, and it was awesome. We just started from there and kept creating more songs around the concept. I decided that we should use an alias to present this record, and Blank Blue was born.
"I wanted to use a new alias because I felt like Niki was my equal partner, and I wanted it to be something fresh. Giving it a name gave us energy to create this concept, and it's like our art project we can bring life to. But it's still a Nobody record because the music is produced and made by me, and it continues a sound that I started on Pacific Drift."
No matter the handle, it's difficult to discern how Blank Blue create their songs. Democracy or dictatorship? Analog or digital? All of it combined? Estela confirms that it's all of the above. "I form 90 percent of the music myself, so that seems pretty dictator-like," he says. "Some songs start from a loop from a record the way my hip-hop songs start. Some songs I start with guitar, which I've been trying to figure out since 2001. They always end up as a combination of the two at some point. I record all on ProTools, so it's pretty digital, but with all the record crackle and instrument hiss, it's pretty murky.
"When it comes to the vocals, though," Estela continues, "it's more like a democracy, although the way we approach them always differs. Two songs, I had an idea for the vocal and lyrics, and Niki just ran with it. The other vocals are collaborations where we do a combination of improvising and writing to figure it out. Niki will let me know if there is something she isn't into singing, or if something may sound better if we changed it. I always roll with it because I want her to be stoked on singing it. She has a natural sense around the music that I love. And her lyrics are perfect for what I want to do. It just seems to be a fit that we don't question. We've been making our songs fit into the concept record rather than be limited by it."
What is it about this kind of music that coaxes Estela to infuse that quintessence into his own music?
"Psychedelic music is any form of music that seeks . . . to take the listener on a journey," he says. "It's often compared to drugs because drugs take the mind on an instant journey. Psychedelia doesn't need to be fueled by drugs, but some drugs do enhance the journey. At least that's what people tell me. . . . I believe in the spirit of psychedelia because it adds another dimension to the listening experience. Instead of just hearing the music, your subconscious is hearing the music. The illusion of motion that the best psychedelia creates moves the soul and things that you didn't know you had—at least for me. When I listen to music, I want it to do that to me each time, or else it isn't worth listening to. I am just becoming aware that I want the same things from my music as well, so I'm going to try my hardest to give it that dimension."