James Supercave: On getting better, and (finally) ‘Better Strange’

Joaquin Pastor and Patrick Logohetti of James Supercave in late 2014 (Photo by David Benjamin)
Joaquin Pastor and Patrick Logohetti of James Supercave in late 2014 (Photo by David Benjamin)

“There’s not a lot out there right now that has been written about us, but what has been touches on our obsessiveness,” says Patrick Logohetti, keyboardist for the Los Angeles quintet James Supercave. “And I think that’s fair and true.”

Indeed, the band — Logohetti, singer-guitarist Joaquin Pastor and guitarist Andrés Villalobos along with touring members Patrick Phillips (bass) and Rhys Hastings (drums) — have perhaps the longest tenure of next-big-thing status in local lore. Echo Park phenoms, then faves, since 2012, James Supercave have spent four straight years on this website’s “Bands to Watch” list and never officially released music until last year’s “The Afternoon” EP, although some digital hoarders might have five songs from a “Television” EP in early 2013 that was never released.

The James Supercave Album Watch ends Friday with the release of “Better Strange” via Fairfax Recordings. Largely self-produced, it’s a psych-pop album of spectacularly odd angles, shifting time signatures, prickly guitars, dream-sequence lyrics and no small amount of post-modern malaise. It’s all held together by Pastor’s acrobatic, often-helium vocals, which dart in and out the songs’ maze-like arrangements like a hummingbird around a flowering shrub.

“Better Strange” was worth the wait, even if, as Pastor says, “There are still songs on the record that I don’t think got their fair shake.”

A good eye in to the band and their perfectionist tendencies can be found in this recent profile on Noisey. When we convened with Pastor and Logohetti last week at an Echo Park restaurant, our conversation touched on the band’s beginnings, the virtues of noodling, the fear of losing touch with reality and how, despite its dark thematic matter, “Better Strange” is actually the most optimistic thing James Supercave could possibly do.

So you guys have been collaborating since your days at UCLA?

Joaquin Pastor: Patrick and Andrés and I have been together since Masxs, the band name that we will not name. It was just an iteration we buried. Before that we had a project called Pigeon that we mounted and then dismounted. Real quick. I remember at the beginning think “We’re not gonna put anything on MySpace until 2011 …”

We did meet at UCLA, and music was a time-wasting technique. [As part of film and theater studies], we were required to do these classes that were basically manual labor. Build a set. Learn how to make a costume. They were for productions that were going on. We would sign up for assignments that would require us to go get something, actually leave the room … Then we wouldn’t return, and we’d end up in these rehearsal rooms where there were pianos. It wasn’t songwriting …

Patrick Logohetti: We had no idea what we were doing. But it the beginning of realizing that we could noodle on a musical instrument for hours and have fun doing it.

[Chuckling] Something you were still doing as recently as when …?

Pastor: [Laughing] I certainly haven’t lost the art of not finishing things.

Logohetti: It’s rare for me to be able to sit down with someone and do it for long stretches. If it doesn’t work right away, I gotta get out. It’s like being with a bad kisser or something.

||| Stream: “Burn”

So what did those early explorations lead to?

Pastor: My college girlfriend was [So Many Wizards’] Nima Kazerouni’s cousin. He had a band called China Room and was living in Redondo Beach at the time. We had no idea what the L.A. music scene was like, and I joined up with that band, playing guitar for a little while. The China Room recordings are really good — a lost classic.

The album’s long incubation period has been documented. A lot of thinking was involved, I suspect. Was any of that so-called fussiness fueled by simple dread that there’s nothing left that somebody hasn’t already though of?

Pastor: No, I think that original work is a real thing. But I also think we’re living in a world where we’re dealing with so much information and so many objects that re-appropriations are actual works, or I can consider them that. I do think that you can listen to that voice in your head, things will just come and you don’t know where they’re from. They don’t seem connected to anything else. Or not consciously so.

How much of the album came from stream of consciousness?

Pastor: A high percentage. I can think of three songs that came from a place that wasn’t stream of consciousness, a space that started with a given structure, or some sort of framework. Like “I want to do something with a four-chord progression that revolves around a repeating bass line.” A constriction like that. That was the constriction for “Burn.”

Logohetti: There’s not a lot out there right now that has been written about us, but what has been touches on our obsessiveness. And I think that’s fair and true. In terms of the life of the song, that part of our personality kicked in after there was already a strong skeleton of a song. The obsessiveness came in the details.

Pastor: Often our melodies are first-pass things, or they come before any of the other music.

Logohetti: Voice memos. … There was one song in particular that I went back and forth on for a long time. I finally called Joaquin and said, “I’ve got something here. Do you want to come and just vocal-noodle in the room.” The first attempt at improvisation was this tight, simple, revolving little melody, and that ended up being note for note the verse of “How to Start.”

Pastor: The chorus for that song was the only thing that came together from outside the session.

Pastor: Another stream of consciousness story, about a song you’ve heard a lot, “Chairman Gou.” I knew that I wanted to write about Terry Gou and Foxconn suicides for a while. I had tried to fit a story and a lot of language on that subject into another song, and I couldn’t get it to work. And weeks and weeks later, “Chairman Gou” came out it like two hours — probably the fastest songwriting experience I’ve ever had. But the whole stream was informed by having tried to write another song on that subject already.

That song was originally going to be on the “Television” EP in 2013. I shudder to think how many recorded versions of some of these songs there might be.

Logohetti: Staggering.

Pastor: Some of our songs have had full overhauls three or four times.

Logohetti: But all of those had to do with us just getting better.

And the song “Television,” whch has been a favorite at your shows for a long time, didn’t make the album.

Pastor: We just didn’t feel like it fit with the grouping of songs … I was never totally psyched on the verses. … But at some point you really do get lost. You can’t see the forest for the trees. Right now, I can’t make a plausible argument for why “Television” is not on the record.

So are you sick of this record by now? Is it like a teenager who’s turning 18 and you’re ready kick out of the house?

Pastor: [Laughing] Every system you listen to it on, you have new regrets.

||| Stream: “Better Strange”

What was worse, the internal pressure to get the album done or the external pressure?

Pastor: I would say external. … Because there are still songs on the record that I don’t think got their fair shake. But I think it was high time to jump into the exercise of finishing something and moving on.

Logohetti: Mine was definitely internal. Because there are some logistics behind a band being in studio phase and out of studio phase. It’s very hard to put in the hours you need to rehearse, travel, play shows, get a setlist that’s right, try things out. If you’re tied to the studio, you don’t get to do that and I was missing it. The prospect of months more in the studio was like, “That’s not an option, I will go batshit crazy.” And I feel good about where it’s at. .. We agreed that we’d reached the point of overcooking it. It’s not perfect, but …

Considering some of the topical matter on the record, it could have gotten dated had you waited any longer.

Logohetti: That’s right.. … One of so many reasons we needed to move on.

Pastor: The only songs that are really timely are “Chairman Gou” and “Virtually a Girl.” It would have been better if “Chairman Gou” had come out when people were still fired up about Apple’s working conditions, but it’s not over. … “Virtually a Girl” is topical too, but it’s still relevant — it describes the downward spiral that we’re in, where we’re slowly becoming virtual beings, living purely in a digital experience. I expect that to continue a long time. … You get addicted to a version of yourself that isn’t physically there. Which is a scary thought.

Logohetti: I just tried out VR for the first time recently. And Joaq and another one of our friends were there, but the second that thing went on and I clicked into one of the pre-programmed little worlds, and I had audio going too, the reality of my friends being two feet away from me was so secondary to the one that was being blasted at me visually. And that was Generation 1. We’re gonna lose a lot of kids.

Pastor: There are already people who spend hours watching other people play video games. We are very close to a time where virtual reality is going to be so much more compelling than actual reality there’s not going to be any reason to step out of it. … Especially if there is a way to do commerce in virtual reality, and there will be loads of ways.

Product placement! It fills me with rage.

Pastor: Hopelessness is more like it. … But in meantime, music is pretty sweet.

Sure, if you can find an album that people aren’t describing as desolate or bleak or cynical …

Logohetti: I don’t think our record is cynical …

Pastor: Although it does have a loneliness to it …

Logohetti: But I think our album is emotionally available.

So do I swipe left or swipe right?

Pastor: [Laughing] You choose, but that’s our Tinder profile: “Cynical but emotionally available.”

Like, “Our close friends call us Jimmy”?

Pastor: “Jimmy Super,” sure.

Logohetti: Basically, it’s the difference between being open to new information and not being open to new information. You can have your mind made up in a fundamentalist sort of way, you know, “This is the way I think about the world.” Or you can be open to updating your thinking.

Pastor: I think the most optimistic thing about the record is the fact that we gave it everything we had. I think all of us have a perspective in general about art that attempts to make sense of reality by reflecting it. This is my best attempt at at interpretation of what I’m seeing and feeling. And I think taking that leap in a time that music does not offer a lot of rewards other than the actual making of it, that’s optimistic. Just the notion that there’s something intrinsically valuable about music is optimistic.

You’re talking about the simple act of doing it.

Logohetti: Yes, just doing it is an optimistic act. This is Los Angeles. We could just be chasing money. But no matter the subject matter, at the end of the day music succeeds or fails based on feel.

Pastor: Feeling connected is where the optimism comes out. Feeling less isolated. That’s why I listen to my favorite artists.

||| Live: James Supercave celebrate their album release with a show tonight at Resident.