Discovery and Focus
Venice expat Chris Laterzo returns to making California-infused rock
By Bliss Bowen
We’re all juggling competing deands and commitments: work, family, friends, pet projects.
For artists, the need to carve out creative time and space is acute, because the kinds of free associations that birth songs and paintings and story ideas demand open blocks of time. That tension between personal and family life, freewheeling discovery and grounded focus informs former Venice resident Chris Laterzo’s newest release, which he celebrates Friday at the Cinema Bar in Culver City.
“West Coast Sound” is Laterzo’s first album since 2009’s “Juniper and Pinon” and his fifth since 1997’s “American River.”
“It’s taking me longer between albums,” he says ruefully. “With do-it-yourself folks, you’re usually holding down some kind of job, and you’re not able to devote 24/7 to your craft, y’know? And the last couple years have been a little more busy for me on the personal side.”
That “personal side” — marriage and fatherhood — informs one of the sweetest tracks, “Echo Park”:
“It’s a long crosstown ride\
To my old Venice vibe
Where I had an ocean
in my backyard…
I miss the Abbot
My morning habit
The Pacific Chateau
Sure was hard to let go”
“‘Echo Park’ is definitely related to becoming a father,” he acknowledges. “I remember very specifically writing it and how the whole thing came about; it just holds a good spot for me. I had just moved from Venice after 10 years to Echo Park, and it was a big change. It exposed me to a whole new side of L.A. and I appreciated the city more.”
The album’s dominant theme, the urge to wander and explore, emerges in tracks like the psychedelic “The Ray Bradbury” and “Someday Blue,” a simple, pretty melody played on acoustic guitar, bass and drums: “I feel like sliding behind a wheel/ And driving down an open road/ …I have to find a better way/ To become a steadier burning sun/ Keep those devils on the run.”
Chasing after his 4-year-old son provides an interesting new perspective on life and deep source material, though Laterzo admits it’s also a time-consuming distraction from writing. Now living with his family in the Valley, the Colorado native views L.A. from the various geographical poles that have defined his experience here — a perspective reflected in Jessamine Sison’s eye-grabbing cover art for “West Coast Sound,” which depicts a desert-rooted Laterzo gazing at blue skies and a traffic light as ocean waves roll gently past Joshua trees toward his feet.
Sison’s surreal rendering — her response, Laterzo says, to his music — is a potent statement about the songs’ content as well as their sound. Not by accident does Laterzo and longtime bassist Jeff LeGore’s production evoke sun-sozzled ’70s L.A. rock and country icons like Gram Parsons and Neil Young.
“I try to keep it somewhat organic, so in that respect, it reflects the ’70s West Coast sound, and it’s a lot of acoustic guitars and electric guitar and piano,” Laterzo says. “I also listened to Ryan Adams’ ‘Easy Tiger’ and Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers,’ just to get ideas of how they’re getting certain sounds.
“Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours,’ there are so many overdubs you tend not to hear the gritty details of each instrument. It’s perfect. I don’t like perfect, so I don’t overlay a lot of instruments. I want to hear each instrument doing its particular thing. ‘Echo Park’ is two acoustics, pedal steel, bass and drum, basically. Each instrument has its own real place.”
Much credit for the recording’s relaxed warmth goes to his longtime bandmates, particularly LeGore and guitarist/pedal steel player Dan Wistrom.
“It’s been a blessing for me to be able to play with Jeff,” Laterzo enthuses. “He can sing, he’s got great harmonies, he’s really reliable, he loves to play, he doesn’t really judge. And Dan’s just a virtuoso; a jedi, as a musician. He’s just phenomenal. But he doesn’t have an attitude about it. It’s about the song for him.”
All three are veterans of L.A.’s Americana community, where Laterzo’s harmony-draped melodies and unabashed fondness for Parsons, Young and ’70s country-rock have found particular favor. “I think it’s a much more happening city for live music than it was 10 years ago,” Laterzo says, “especially for roots music.”
That’s by night. By day, he teaches geometry, algebra and a U.S. government class at Palisades High School — an entirely “separate world” from his music. His students “talk about music all the time,” but, like every generation, relate to music differently.
“They listen to it all the time, but it’s not really listening music,” he observes. “I hardly hear anybody listening to the wide genre of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s more about the energy or the beat to the music, hip-hop and rap.
“There’s rap and hip-hop that’s poetic. But it doesn’t seem like they’re really delving into the lyrics and the melody. And they’re listening with one earbud out and one earbud in. I don’t see people writing lyrics on the back of notebooks either — did you do that? I don’t see people doing that anymore.”
Chris Laterzo & Buffalo Robe play at 10 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, at the Cinema Bar, 3967 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; Nocona opens at 9 p.m.. No cover, and tip jar donations go directly to the artists. Call (310) 390-1328 or visit chrislaterzo.com.