Live to Ride
Costa Mesa’s Japanese Motors head east before camping out at Detroit Bar
It’s the night before Japanese Motors make their East Coast debut, but there’ll be no sleep till Brooklyn, where they play the following evening. Singer Al Knost left for New York this morning, leaving guitarist Nolan Hall to pack the newly arrived band T-shirts and stickers at Knost’s Costa Mesa practice/living space near Placentia and 19th, just around the corner from both Detroit Bar and Avalon.
Out front is Knost’s ancient Econoline van, festooned with a for-sale sign now that he’s about to become a rock star. Like most things in the Japanese Motors vintage charm, it is older than he is.
The only sign of Knost inside the windowless industrial space is the teepee of longboards stacked in the corner. That, and the fact that every surface capable of keeping an empty beer can or bottle off the ground does—amps, stacks of books, a coffee table, even the couch. The only thing not covered is the Teac hi-fi set, turntable and all, and its modest but telling collection of vinyl: Jad Fair, Jonathan Richman, the new Beck that Hall puts on, and Amy Winehouse, amid a bunch of 45s, including their own, an early version of “Single Fins and Safety Pins” on the Black Lips’ Die Slaughterhouse label.
This is the day everybody in the band quit their day jobs, but Hall isn’t partying—he’s too busy packing the merch before his 5:30 a.m. airport shuttle. In Knost’s case, day jobs aren’t so bad—he’s a pro surfer. He and his dad were in the film Step Into Liquid; now, he rides for RVCA. The über-youth-art brand has supported the Motors all along; its Artist Network Program helped Knost and pal Tyler Manson make Beach Blanket Burnout, a slow, stylized, black-and-white surf movie that looks like Breathless and moves like Electroma, and it is sponsoring the Motors’ first East Coast tour, right before their eponymous debut album drops in October on Vice Records.
Hall worked in RVCA’s art department, while drummer Andrew Atkinson—who, having partied a little harder than Hall, shows up later with a CD-R of the album’s final mixes that still sound like fun demos—just quit his job as a designer for Hurley.
Hall and Knost met when their dads were longboarding. Knost took to old-school surfing and morphed into a sandy rockabilly dude.
“Watching Happy Days was like my Gidget movies when I was little,” he explains in a bleary voice the next morning, hung-over, from New York. “I really liked Fonzie.”
The Motors started four years ago playing anything easy enough to figure out (Iggy’s “The Passenger,” etc.), stoking blow-outs at RVCA’s HQ, itself legendary with its indoor skatepark and band-practice room—built, Hall says, just because RVCA founder P.M. Tenore wanted to give the band a place to jam.
The early Motors were never known for their virtuosity. One of their first gigs, with the Aquabats at the Glass House, was a disaster. During their first song, Hall’s guitar cut out, and “people just started laughing,” he remembers.
But if there’s a lot to hate about how hooked-up the Motors are now, there’s also plenty to love about a band surfing and jamming at the intersection of lifestyle branding and beach culture. The new album sounds like guys who ride beach cruisers to their cool jobs—music made by people who dress like Richard Hell (but will skip practice to catch a swell). And they can get White Stripes video directors Emmett and Brendan Malloy to shoot their video, even if it is a predictably Gidget-like band-on-the-sand performance of their album’s title track. (Sample lyric: “To the beach where the summer shines, take off your shoes and just unwind.”)
They’ll still be able to bike to work as Detroit Bar’s Monday-resident band throughout September. Then it’s back to being a baby band opening for acts such as Electric Six.
Hall puts stumbling onto the national scene into perspective. “There are really good musicians in Costa Mesa, but they’re making music that’s already been heard,” he says. “We’re trying to make something that sounds a little different.”
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Irony being that this band of surf bros sound at home in the record collection of hipsters—and critics—who are twice their age and 3,000 miles away, even if their biggest fan is a fixie-riding Newport High kid in black stovepipe jeans.
“We get the Strokes comparison a lot,” Hall says with a sigh. “Which to me is really more like saying we might have listened to some of the same things. If I’m into a band, I’ll find out what they’re into. Kids’ll listen to a lot of music, but they want a sound they can dig deeper into. They want to identify with a lifestyle.”
And, love or hate the Motors, they’re as much a lifestyle as a band—maybe even more so. As Knost sings in “Better Trends,” “It’s hard to be a hippie when you’re dressed to kill.” And even harder not to like.
Japanese Motors perform at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Every Mon. in September, 9 p.m. Call for cover.