Mollusk Surf Shop’s third location opened a couple weeks ago on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, miles away from any decent surf spot or the ocean in general. But that doesn’t really matter in Southern California. Surf culture is an ever-present reality, and these shops are usually just as much for fashion as they are for the practical needs of surfers (though Mollusk is well-equipped to handle many needs on both fronts).
On a Saturday evening, a crowd starts to gather at the storefront, all in the know of what is happening. Mollusk is having a friends-and-family grand opening party featuring music from The Holy Barbarians, and actually it is open to the public, but no one but friends and family is likely to show up to a surf shop’s opening party to see a band that no one has ever heard of. They couldn’t just say The Holy Barbarians are actually the Allah-Las, as that could attract a thousand people, far too many for the moderately sized retail store to accommodate.
Dog walkers and families en route to the nearby Baskin Robbins pass by around sunset, and those in the know recognize Farmer Dave Scher, one of the handful of musicians setting up inside the shop. Farmer Dave—notably of Beachwood Sparks and past touring member of Interpol, Jenny Lewis’ band and countless others—is one of the more instantly recognizable figures in the L.A. music scene. And now he is playing with the Allah-Las.
But, equally recognizable is the band’s singer Miles Michaud, with his chocolate curly hair, permanent five-o’clock shadow, tall stature and chiseled face. He’s undoubtably handsome, and his confident, in-control way of speaking does not coalesce with the typical stoney atmosphere of the Allah-Las’ live shows. Nor would he seem at home in the stereotypical mellow surf-shop vibe that would be expected from anyone who failed to consider where we we were: Silver Lake, where casual confidence grows on trees and Michaud could book a gig by just walking down a street, popping his head to see an old friend’s new store and realizing the band has a few days off surrounding this opening party.
“We all have experience listening to surf music,” Michaud tells me in an alley behind the shop where occasional party-goers drip through the back door and come over to greet him, oblivious to the interview in progress. Despite being at a party, surrounded by friends, Michaud is focussed on discussing the Allah-Las’ second album, Worship the Sun, and polite enough to find me a chair from a pile of construction leftovers and packing supplies.
“It is something that is pretty ingrained in us,” he continues. “That preceded garage music, and growing up in Southern California, that sound—the amps with a ton of reverb—was still in garage music. So, we kind of draw from that well of musical inspiration, as well as many others. But there is definitely an inkling of surf culture in our music. I wouldn’t say it’s the most predominate thing, but three of us grew up on the beach, and it’s hard to shake it. Not that you would want to…”
“Whether you like it or not, there is a certain mentality that comes with being near the water,” Michaud says. “It can be a very gratifying thing, but it can also be a very ungratifying thing, depending on how you interpret it.”
Allah-Las’ music seems to embrace their roots positively, often getting called quintessential California retro rock, but Michaud shies away from any labels or tags when talking about the band’s music.
“Every kind of sound or every kind of genre that comes up,” he says, “there is always going to be journalists that feed off each other with whatever labels are placed on whatever band. That’s happened to us. Are we upset about it? No. That’s just the nature of things. If we’re labeled as a ‘California sound,’ that’s fine. We’re from California. We aren’t actively trying to sound like we’re from California; we’re just making the music that we think sounds good.”
The band has been fortunate in hooking up with like-minds to help them create the music that “sounds good.” In addition to Farmer Dave, Dan Horne—who helped produce the new record in his Echo Park garage, which he built into a 24-track studio—is now playing with the band. The process of making Worship the Sun ultimately took four and a half months to complete, not working every day, but being patient until everyone was happy with the final product.
“It’s a record,” Michaud says, shedding any illusion of laid-back breeziness when it comes to creating music. “Once it is done, it’s out there in the world, and that’s it.”
Allah-Las are not made up of journeymen that bounced around from band to band in the local scene. This has been the defining musical project of the core band members’ lives. Three of them went to high school together. Three of them grew close working at Amoeba Records together (all but Michaud). Six or seven years ago, Spencer Dunham and Pedrum Siadatian wound up sharing bedroom recordings with each other while working at the beloved record shop, and each dug what the other was making. When the two got together to try collaborating, Spencer brought Matthew Correia along to play drums, despite the fact he had never played drums before. Michaud had a slightly unexpected path to joining the band.
“None of them could sing or wanted to sing, but Spencer and Matt knew me from way back and I was taking these goofy operatic vocal lessons at the time,” Michaud says, “from this ooooold lady in the Mid-Wilshire district. Gloria Bennett was her name. I would go to her apartment and do vocal scales. It was very bizarre. I really loved folk music, like Nick Drake and Dylan, and I wanted to learn how to sing like them. And I worked at this restaurant, and my co-worker told me, ‘I know this amazing vocal teacher.’ I ended up taking lessons from her for four or five months. It was great. She taught me some techniques that I still use today, but most of it was just goofy singing in an opera voice. But because they knew I was doing that, they invited me along to sing. If you could hear those demos, those early tapes, it’s really changed a lot. It’s just us growing up and making better and better music.”
By the time Michaud finishes our interview, attendees are spilling into the street, clearly word having gotten out that the Allah-Las were performing for free at a surf shop. The crowd is not what tends to represent the band locally at its concerts, though, skewing less to the Burger Records shaggy-haired garage punks and more towards the handsome Silver Lake indie rock fans. Allah-Las somehow is able to please both types of people, a mystery that seems less enigmatic when Michaud breaks it down.
“I think a lot of our fans see us as a band that has an older sound,” he says, “and whether or not they get every reference, I don’t know. I think one of the most important things that we are able to do, and we do it not just with our band, but with our podcast Reverberation, is reintroduce lost music of the past and lost sounds of the past to a new generation, who can immediately appreciate it. We strive to make music that is timeless, not a part of any movement or decade or anything. If that’s what we are doing as a band, then that is a positive thing. Maybe people will be inspired by the band to dig deeper into music. I think everyone should have a desire to find out about the past, about where the things that are around them come from. I think that is very natural.”