In purely capitalistic terms, we are usually taught that our careers should be a chart where the line moves up on the graph. If we’re of any worth to our fields of work, we should never be making less money than we were in the past. Of course, for those of us who work in artistic mediums — especially if art is the most important part of that phrase — it’s crucial for us to follow our proverbial muse into the rabbit hole regardless of how it might affect our bank accounts or standing with media outlets.
No Age might be a little less famous and a little less critically acclaimed than they were 15 years ago, but they’ve deepened their artistic voice and have been making some of the best work of their two decades of making music together. After finishing up their contract with Sub Pop upon delivering (and perhaps more notably, self-manufacturing) their 2013 album An Object, they took an extended break, started families, signed to Drag City, and released the excellent Snares Like a Haircut five years ago.
“We were very aware, post-Sub Pop, of the pressure to sell records and the expectation of meeting your numbers,” guitarist Randy Randall said. “We want to get old and weird.” This past November, the older, weirder No Age were in Seattle as one of the headliners for the first night of Freakout Festival while on tour supporting their latest opus, People Helping People (the band’s third album since linking up with the Chicago-based indie institution and sixth studio full-length overall). A daylong drive after a show in San Francisco led Randall and drummer/singer Dean Spunt to KEXP, where the artists showed up early to our interview. A wild plot twist for anyone who works with people who play music.
Speaking of plot twists: Like the aforementioned An Object, People Helping People adjusts itself a little off-center from the propulsive heft of the restlessly creative L.A. punks. In addition to bookending the LP with ambient experiments “You’re Cooked” and “Andy Helping Andy,” Randall and Spunt color their works with 808s (“Compact Flashes”), blinding drones (“Blueberry Barefoot” and “Fruit Bat Blunder”), wah-wah pedals that sound almost like sitars (“Interdependence”), and gargling loops over drum beats in 3/4 time.
If the album’s more traditional, Get in the Van-flavored punk tunes sound like they came straight out of the garage — and there are some reliably great ones here, like “Violence,” “Rush to the Pond,” and “Slow Motion Shadow” — that’s because they did, quite literally. After an unfortunate incident where their longtime practice space/band headquarters in Downtown L.A. got broken into, the owners of the building revealed their plans to sell.
“So, I went home and asked my wife how much she liked having her car in the garage,” Randall said, inspiring a round of laughter. “‘How important is this to you, to have your car in the garage? What if we put all these amps and microphones in there?’ And I was very fortunate that she was sympathetic to the cause and didn’t care about her car being dirty 90% of the time.” In the summer of 2020, Randall and Spunt went through the process of turning the Randall family garage into “a fairly functioning recording studio.”
Randall said, “A lot of studios have to have this array of equipment to make any artist of any genre come in and sound good, or [to] capture what they do. I just have to make one band sound good.”
After recording their fifth full-length Goons Be Gone — an album the band now refers to lovingly and a little cheekily as their “lost album” — the original plan was to put out People Helping People as a companion piece six months later. But, no need for a spoiler warning, we all know the events surrounding the June 2020 release of Goons. An album full of songs explicitly created for a live setting landed in a world where everyone was stuck in their own households.
“We made the call,” Spunt said about putting out Goons Be Gone. “I remember Drag City was like, ‘Maybe we can push it back to October, because it seems like this thing will be over by then.'” More laughter. Randall said, “I do feel grateful to be around long enough to have a forgotten record. It’s the Marty McFly, ‘Oh, maybe your kids will get this one later. It’s too early for you guys.’”
“To continue to be in a band and have an avenue to express ourselves is a huge honor and privilege. I’m not going to get mad about a record [not getting enough attention],” Randall said.
Nearly 15 years on from the release of their critically exalted debut full-length Nouns, No Age occupies a unique and inspiring place in today’s nebulously defined world of indie music, where image enhancement through streaming numbers and social media engagement dictates the notoriety of a band. Randall and Spunt aren’t sweating it, though; they’re too busy creating art. In fact, the deafening buzz surrounding Nouns and flying the flag for DIY punk on indie giant Sub Pop was far afield from where they imagined they would be as a band. They never imagined being on MTV or getting spreads in The Fader. “That brings a certain element of someone checking out something that’s cool,” Spunt said. “We’re not cool.”
“And still, our music’s weird,” Spunt continued. “So, I don’t expect you to like it, but it was definitely in the world where, ‘You guys are gonna love this!’ No, they’re not. Not everyone’s gonna love this. 15% of the people are gonna love this, some people are gonna be indifferent, most people are gonna be like, ‘This is fucking crazy.’”
But as Randall pointed out, every band doing some sort of aesthetically or intellectually challenging work — Pavement, Pixies, take your pick — are going to respond to a lot of indifference and antipathy. And No Age’s career as a band fits squarely among the legions of bands who continued to make challenging work instead of focusing on getting “bigger” or collecting more critical praise. Spunt said, “From my perspective, [being where we are now] was intentional. When we got up in that world, it didn’t feel right, it didn’t feel comfortable. It kinda felt like we were impostors or something. We could have fought for our place to stay in that world and play with those bands at all those festivals we didn’t like. It didn’t seem worth it, it didn’t seem like that was a sustainable world.”
Toward the end of our interview, the members of No Age talked about the line on the graph being a capitalist concept and not a creative concept. Spunt said, “I really enjoy the trajectory when you go up and then you make a little left, a right, then you make a left, then you go up, and then maybe you go backwards a little bit. I think if we cared about [the line on an upward incline], we would have been toast a long time ago.”
“I like to think of us as the Rudy of the indie rock world,” Spunt said to close the interview. “We’re not the best, but we’ve got a lot of heart!”
Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year and our writers commemorate it with one song from that year that resonates with them. This week, Martin Douglas looks back at No Age's 2007 quasi-anthem "Everybody's Down" and the emergence of a localized DIY experimental punk scene right at t…
To culminate KEXP's Punk Month, Martin Douglas explores his life through the cracked prism of punk rock music.