Interview: Darren Weiss of PAPA, on his punk-rock roots, finding inspiration in NYC and barefoot feats


Darren Weiss is no longer one of the Girls – the Encino-reared drummer-songwriter recently departed the celebrated San Francisco indie-rock band to concentrate on his own PAPA, music he has been incubating since his college days in New York City.

PAPA’s debut EP “A Good Woman Is Hard to Find” (released in October) was recorded at Black Iris in L.A. (except for “Let’s Make You Pregnant,” recorded in San Francisco with Chet “JR” White of Girls), and it’s a miniature feast of prickly guitars, strong beats and indie soul, all supporting Weiss’ big vocals. The EP is a mile marker in a journey that began in the rebellious youth of Weiss and his brother Evan (Slang Chickens, and now a guitarist in Girls), spanned Weiss’s punk-rock days in L.A.’s Wires on Fire, was informed by his life in NYC and eventually came to include his boyhood pal Daniel Presant.

PAPA opens for Ra Ra Riot on Wednesday at the El Rey Theatre and on Friday at the Observatory in Santa Ana. The quartet (which now includes Alex Fishel and Travis Schneider) will also play the Buzz Bands LA showcase concurrent with SXSW in Austin on Wednesday, March 14.

A few days after we witnessed the sister-fronted band Haim perform (a show that included a cameo from their parents), Weiss and I talked over lunch about growing up in a non-musical household, how his time in New York City invigorated him and the various and sundry feats of a singing, barefoot drummer:

Daniel wasn’t there at the beginning of PAPA, but he was there in the very beginning, right?

I met Danny when I was 7 years old. We’d hang out in his backyard, doing things like running around and pissing on trees, hopping fences, sneaking into people’s backyards and going swimming.

When did you get started musically?

I always wanted to play drums since I was a little kid. Whenever I’d go see any kind of performance, I couldn’t take my eyes off the drummer. It was very meditative for me. It was like nothing outside that tunnel existed. I didn’t have any heroes or idols, and my parents didn’t want me to play, of course, so before the drums I played the accordion and the piano.

When we saw Haim, it was really neat to see the whole family aspect of it, and how their parents came up onstage. It was that way for a lot of my musician friends who’d have their parents come to shows and support. But that always seemed strange to me, because although my parents were generous and paid for music lessons for my brother and myself, it really was sort of a rebellion for us. They did not at any point encourage or even really accept the fact that we wanted to be musicians beyond a childhood hobby. They kept hoping, pretty vocally, that it was something we’d grow out of. My dad is a doctor, his father was a doctor, his stepfather was a doctor. My brother and I were very much the black sheep. Everyone loved and accepted us, but …

Maybe it’s because what I was playing was more punk rock and hardcore, but our parents were not into it. They would ask us to stop rehearsal. They did not want to hear what we were doing. Thank God my brother and I had each other as allies in the house. Now that things have become a little more established, it’s more exciting for them and they tell their friends. But growing up it was definitely a struggle.

Your brother and you hand kind of parallel experiences then?

Not exactly. The craft of playing the instrument has always been more important to me than being in a band or being onstage. My brother was the punk role model – he introduced me to Black Flag and Fugazi and a lot of things that became important in my life and I would not have come across in the same way had he not been there. He told me at a very vulnerable age: ‘This is what’s right, and the way these guys ran their shit was right.’

My brother was always interested in the effects of music, and that had an impact on me too. He is a fantastic guitar player, and we’ve always been each other’s bridge from one thing to another. Through my playing with Girls and their needing a guitar player, he ended up with them. He’s in Australia with them right now.

You can credit the family for your band name, though …

PAPA is what we called my grandfather, who was a great authority figure for us, and even more than an authority figure. He had a life that could be the script for the Great American Dream. His life has shaped mine, and it seemed right to name the band for him.

You ended up on the East Coast, and the spark was kind of ignited there …

I went to college there to study literature, and it was really important in how PAPA came together. I had been recording and touring with my brother in a punk band called Wires on Fire. We’d been active a couple of years and had a couple of records out. Everything was DIY, and that influenced how I handled PAPA and its business. Even though I had a lot of love for hardcore music, it was not expressing the scope of what I knew I wanted to do as an artist. And the band kind of fell apart – I decided to move to New York and our bass player (Michael Shuman) was recruited to play with Queens of the Stone Age. So we all went in different directions.

I ended up in New York because I wanted a completely different experience, different points of reference. I moved there after playing the last tour with Simon Dawes before they became Dawes; the tour kinda dropped me off in New York. I got settled, came back to L.A. to make the last Wires on Fire album – we recorded 20 songs in four days – and then flew back to New York.

New York enormously shifted my perspective, and my creative process. I don’t think PAPA would have happened had I stayed in L.A.

What was it about New York?

Well, I could talk about some of the most important artists to me – whether it’s Basquiat, Willem De Koonig, Jackson Pollock, or musicians like Patti Smith and the Talking Heads – and the effect that New York had on their work. I think it’s a city that allows you to release the weirdo inside you, though not in any sort of conscious way. You are a part of the city and the city is a part of your life. I love Los Angeles, I’m from Los Angeles, but I feel like very much of a hermit here. I have my house here, where I live and work alone, and days go by where I don’t talk to another human being. When I have to go somewhere, I get in my car by myself, and I get to where I’m going and then I go back again. In New York, you’re wandering around bumping into a million different people and being exposed to a thousand different things at once, 900 of which you’d never want to be exposed to, but you’re forced to address them anyway. Those kinds of interactions open up different parts of you. It’s harder to live in your own world. Here, it’s easy here to live inside yourself. In New York, your “space” becomes what you put out rather than what you hide in.

Was there a turning point, an ah-ha moment, that made PAPA happen?

It’s been more just a continual stream. I learned piano and guitar when I was a kid, and I’ve always been writing, poetry and music, and have always been painting and drawing. I know a lot of people who, like, went to acting school and then graduated and said, ‘Hey, it’d be fun to have a band.’ This is not that. This has been constant, even between all the other things I’ve done. But being in New York helped me feel the freedom to say all the things I’d been meaning to say all along, with no lid on it, and no reason to think there should be a lid on it.

How did you reconnect with Danny with the idea of making music?

Danny and I have an interesting relationship. Of all the people I know and have played music with, I don’t think there are two people more ill-suited for each other than me and Danny. We live completely different lifestyles, but there is a natural chemistry that exists through our differences. What happened was I went to New York and he went to school in Boston. PAPA had been together about a year and a half before he joined the picture. It was a much different thing – I just had my drum kit and an illegal rehearsal space in the boiler room of a building that was sandwiched between an 18th-century cemetery and Hell’s Angels’ headquarters. It was more of an acoustic, folky thing – at first just me and a guitar stomping, then me with an acoustic guitar and an upright jazz bass player. Then I started to play drums and sing … There’s been a million different variations of PAPA. Eventually, Danny moved to New York City and I asked him to play. As soon as he got in the room, it became obvious that the band was not going to be what it was before.

While I had been writing songs on acoustic guitar, Danny had a different approach to things – he’s take hip-hop songs and add synths to them. We were coming from completely different sides of the songwriting spectrum, but there was something melodically in what we both were doing that seemed to come from the same place.

So why move back to Los Angeles?

Besides PAPA, the thing I do for work is playing drums for other people. I wasn’t getting those gigs in New York, I was working as a busboy. But I was getting calls when I was in school with offers to play drums for people, and all those opportunities were out here. So after I graduated college I moved back here, in June of 2010.

It’s funny, Los Angeles has always given PAPA a warmer reception than we got in New York.

There is a something of a Motown thread running though the songs. Is that a phase you’re doing through?

You know, that’s something that didn’t even occur to me until other people mentioned it. There are people like Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, William Bell, Tina Turner who have had enormous influence on me, so I guess it found its way into the music. We have covered a lot of soul music, but it’s not a conscious thing.

It’s one of those things: Whether you’re a writer, musician or painter, you draw from your field of vision.

Do you pay attention to what’s on the indie landscape right now? You have a punk background, you’ve played with a hugely popular indie band, you’ve done a lot of tours – are you conscious of, say, where your songs might fit in the universe?

Definitely not. I don’t look to too many other bands of this time. I don’t necessarily see us fitting in, and this was made evident to me in New York where the only thing I really took to was the Bushwick “cute punk” scene. There aren’t that many bands who, because of my music ethics background, I feel that we have that much in common with.

Which is fine, because as I saw from working with Girls for a year, Christopher (Owens) is pretty completely oblivious to what else is going on. He doesn’t care – all that matters is writing good, honest songs. That’s what I care about as well. I’ve never aspired to sound like something that’s popular, or fit in with something else. I’ve never even been able to write a song when I try.

Now that the EP’s out there, what’s next?

We are two-thirds done writing the full-length, and the hope is that in the latter part of April we can get down to recording it.

As singing drummers go, you’re kind of ridiculous.

Is that a compliment?

Yes. The handstand at the Echo show was memorable. And I notice you play barefoot – have you always?

Yes, and recently a lot of people have asked about it. It just seems natural. I describe it as, “Well, you wouldn’t eat a grilled-cheese sandwich with leather gloves on.”

None of the things I do onstage I think about beforehand. If you wanna say I get lost in the moment, I guess that fits. Being a technically proficient drummer is most important to me. But having grown up in punk bands and been tackled by singers and thrown into brick walls, there’s an element of live punk music that always felt important to me. The energy.

My brother says that if you didn’t grow up playing punk music, your band is gonna suck. I don’t know if that’s true, but some of the great bands of the past 30 years have punk at their roots. I hope that PAPA has punk very much at its roots – if it doesn’t necessarily some across musically, I hope it comes across in the way that we play, and the way we function ethically.

||| Also: “I Am the Lion King” video.