After a tough year, Gardens and Villa are rediscovering why they're still playing music.
A video on YouTube begins with a motormouthed “92.9, KJEE, SANTA BARBARA’S MODERN ROCK GIANT, FAT JAY IN STUDIO RIGHT NOW WITH GARDENS AND VILLA. AND HERE THEY ARE TO PLAY A NEW SONG FROM THEIR ALBUM DUNES, THIS IS “MINNESOTA.” LIIIIIVVVE! HERE ON KJEE. GARDENS AND VILLA. “MINNESOTAAAAAAAAHH.”
Such an intro would seem to lead naturally to a cowbell intro, a “Crazy Train”-like guitar riff, or a screeching “HOW THE FUCK ARE YOU, SANTA BARBARA?” from a lead singer. Instead, simple, melancholy electric piano chords are gently, insistently prodded out, almost immediately draining all of the urgency Fat Jay worked up. The camera finds singer Chris Lynch with the makings of a beard, hair pulled back into the smallest of ponytails swaying at a microphone. He delicately, precisely sings, “Warm yellow rays / from the nightstand laying on tapestries.” Fat Jay’s introduction conjured up a Sunset Strip metal bar in the ’80s, but within the first 10 seconds of Gardens and Villa’s in-studio performance, they took us to a rural, autumnal place where night and snow are rolling in.
Gardens and Villa plays Gasa Gasa Sunday night, and what is impressive about the KJEE video is the band’s ability to create its own atmosphere, regardless of its surroundings. Their sound isn’t typically that spare. 2014’s Dunes sounded like an electropop album, and the recent Music for Dogs has more of post-punk, dance rock vibe. The albums that inspired the album came from a little earlier than the late-‘70s and early-‘80s when that sound held court.
“The most influential stuff was Brian Eno’s solo records, Television—a lot of stuff from the early to mid-‘70s,” Lynch says. Whereas some bands have no idea—or won’t cop to knowing—where their sound comes from, Lynch can point with great clarity. Their debut album drew on Britpop, Dunes the ’80s and Tom Tom Club, and Eno and David Bowie this time around.
Music for Dogs came after a year of changes. Dunes got a lot of positive attention, but the democratic process in action took it to a poppier place that didn’t make anyone in the band happy. Officially, the band became Lynch and Adam Rasmussen, and the other two members moved to side man status. “They wanted to be outside the creative process and outside the limelight,” Lynch says. “The drummer left because there wasn’t any money in it,” he says. The change sped up the recording process for the album, took much of the drama out of it, and left everybody happier with the results.
Between albums, Lynch and Rasmussen left their native Santa Barbara and moved to Los Angeles and lived in a warehouse, which had a major impact on the album. Detached from much of their support system and surrounded by urban decay, their sound darkened.
Their concerns did too. An anxiety about the impact of technology on us and the way we live runs through Music for Dogs. Lynch saw it as part of the problem on Dunes, where “everything on it was mapped out and quantized on a computer. Me and Adam were disillusioned with it. We wanted something that sounded more like a band, that sounds like us.” His concerns are broader and more social, though. He and Rasmussen had read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and their L.A. surroundings made them think of Blade Runner. That dystopian frame of mind fueled their anxieties. In “Everybody,” he sings, “Everybody wants the new you / No one cares who you are,” picking up on social media’s focus on constant updates. Don’t just refresh your screen; refresh yourself. If you’re outside cell signal, do you exist? These sorts of questions concerned Lynch enough that he did some reading about them, and when he talks about our relationship to technology, he does so citing sources.
“I’ve read multiple studies where they’re discovering that the human brain is being manipulated by technology,” Lynch says. “They’re changing our brains. Our brains are resembling drug addicts’ brains. If people can’t check their phones every five minutes, they have panic attacks.” He’s felt some pushback in the press from people who he thinks feel defensive about their relationships with their cell phones. “We’re not advocating Reject All Technology. I’m on my cell phone right now,” he says. “I check my phone every 10 minutes. I’m totally guilty of all of it, but I think it’s important to talk about it. As we move into this new culture, it’s important that we forge our own culture and create our own myths so that we can navigate through all of this properly.”
Still, that large scale dystopian mood was rooted in more personal sources. At some point between Dunes and Music for Dogs, the grind caught up with Gardens and Villa. “We felt like we’d achieved our childhood dream, and it wasn’t as glamorous as we thought it was,” Lynch says. “This is all there is, really? This is how impossible this lifestyle is?” The sad financial realities of making music caught up to them like they did almost everybody else, and touring can often involve some horribly inappropriate dates and demeaning gigs that are theoretically good business. Recently, Gardens and Villa played an yard party for MTV. “We were in their backyard, and they were sitting in chairs, waiting to leave,” Lynch says, laughing. “It was like, Okay monkey, do your dance.”
At the time when the industry seemed to be asking, Do you really want to do this? Lynch’s girlfriend of five years was too. When faced with the choice of move in or tour, he said goodbye, but he wasn’t quite sure why. “Another relationship dead because of my music career,” he says. “Why am I chasing this dream? It’s been destroying everything in my life.”
By the time Lynch had finished Music for Dogs, he knew his answer. “We rediscovered our love of making music; now we’re trying to rediscover our love of touring.”