We Are the West create ambient context for their music with monthly underground parking garage concerts in Santa Monica

By Bliss Bowen

We are the West have performed in a storm drain

We are the West have performed in a storm drain

When discussing We Are the West, it’s hard to avoid mentioning space — the calming, floating space that sculpts many of guitarist Brett Hool and bassist John Kibler’s compositions, and the unorthodox three-dimensional spaces they’ve shown a flair for discovering and that complement their music’s hushed ambiance.

Over the past handful of years, in three states (California, New Mexico and New York) and two countries (Holland and the United States), they’ve performed or recorded in an antique shop, an abandoned convent, a mining shaft, a cold shipping container on a Dutch sheep farm, a storm drain and an impound tow lot.

The physical space that has nurtured their musical evolution more than any other is a functioning underground parking garage in Santa Monica, where they give intimate concerts each Saturday that occurs before a full moon. They’ve been playing the garage monthly for three years, usually with drummer Elizabeth Goodfellow — “a real lifeblood of the band,” Hool says— and a coterie of reed and string players.

“I don’t think we intentionally set it up that way,” Kibler says, discussing how they came to be That Band That Plays Odd Venues. “Playing in clubs is fun, but you also feel like you’re missing people because there’s so much going on. We didn’t even really talk about it, but we had the feeling that when we’d set up our own shows and decide what the vibe was going to be, that would color how people were accepting the music. When they walk into a place, not sure what to expect, everyone’s awareness is heightened. And when the music begins to happen, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m ready to receive.’ They’re not at the bar, trying to find parking, or any of the normal stuff that happens.

“Music in general should be not just content; it should be a special experience when you go to see music performed. They used to build these amazing concert halls for that reason, like a church or something. You’d walk in and go, ‘Whoa, I’ve never been someplace like this before, I can’t wait.’”

“There’s also been something really magical about sort of re-appropriating these spaces,” Hool adds. “It sounds lofty, but they were sacred spaces, really. I’m thinking right now about the tow lot and one super-hot New York summer when the owner set up a ring of flatbed tow trucks outside. Something magical can happen when the focus of everybody there is for one reason, and then the music itself can almost physically change the environment and make it into a sacred space. That’s been a really special thing, to realize it’s possible and to go after it.”

More prosaically, their monthly residency has allowed them to push and explore their quiet dynamics and build an audience while bypassing the usual art vs. commerce politics endemic to nightclubs. In the process, Hool’s literary avidity and folk-pop tastes have organically meshed with Kibler’s classical training as they’ve made four EPs, including last November’s “Regards” and a cassette-only Touch Tapes release with a B side of outtakes, natural sounds and song ideas. (Per Hool, “It’s like all of our process documented.”)

They’ve also experienced had-to-be-there moments that played like scenes from a film. At one show, audience members were asked to phone the person next to them and leave their cellphones on so the speakers could transmit the ambient sound. At another show celebrating an EP release, they were forced to wing it without power.

“The night before when we were checking out the garage, making sure everything was OK, the power transformer blew on the block,” Hool recalls. “They had this huge explosion — I thought it was a bomb, I didn’t know what was going on. Firemen were there, and then there was a secondary explosion and a fireball shot up out of a manhole on Santa Monica Boulevard. The next day the DWP guys were working their butts off trying to get the power on, and they said it would be on by 6 p.m. Long story short, the power never came on so we set up candles and played acoustic. It was one of the best shows we’ve ever done. At the very end, right as people were applauding [laughs], the power came on.”

“Everybody thought that that was the plan,” Kibler says.

The amiable Westsiders (Hool resides in Pacific Palisades, Kibler in Malibu) have taken musical advantage of the garage’s acoustics to experiment. What started with just four voices — upright bass, guitar and vocals — has expanded to include cello, clarinet, drums, flute, pump organ, saxophone and violin, while their repertoire has grown from contemplative washes of sound to incorporate rock intensity and Americana-textured melodies that adapt well to the clubs they play.

“I think we’re in transformation right now,” Kibler says, “the music and songs we’re playing.”

“The underground garage is our home once a month,” Hool says, “and that’s where we’re in charge of the whole night and we get to put on an immersive experience. We play clubs to spread the gospel a little bit, and try to reach some people who wouldn’t hear about us another way. Hopefully they’ll get a little slice of what we do and then come check out the whole enchilada.”

We Are the West continue their underground parking garage residency in Santa Monica at 8 p.m. Saturday with special guest Anna Ash. For details about the show and its location, visit wearethewest.com.