Sleepless In San Fernando: Best Coast on their new approach and unexpected influences

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Best Coast
photo: Janell Shirtcliff
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A version of this story originally ran in Substream #45.

It’s no surprise Best Coast titled their new album California Nights, as the Los Angeles-based duo have been openly loving towards their sunny and warm home base since forming in 2009. But it actually has far more to do with the insomnia vocalist/guitarist Bethany Cosentino suffers through at night than the fun times possible during the Golden State’s daytime hours.

It’s only 7:30 p.m. when Substream connects with Cosentino at home, still hours away from another potentially sleepless night for her. She sounds alert. “Yeah, that one’s really about insomnia,” she confirms of “Sleep Won’t Ever Come,” off California Nights. “I’ve dealt with it since I was a teenager. When I wrote [that] I was literally up for two days straight and couldn’t sleep at all. I was like a zombie person and just sat down and wrote that song. A lot of my creativity comes out [then]. So I felt like California Nights was a really [fitting] name for the record.”

While Cosentino says she’d love to be able to sleep normally, it fuels much of Best Coast’s songwriting successes. “That’s actually how I wrote pretty much all of Fade Away,” she says of their dynamite 2013 EP. “Maybe it’s a curse, but also a blessing.” Fellow guitarist Bobb Bruno experiences some insomnia himself, too. “It seems more so in the summer it’s an issue for me,” he says when reached separately two days later, waiting for a steak salad and coffee to be delivered to his hotel room in New York City, before the band would play Converse and Guitar Center’s Get Out Of The Garage finals that night. “I’m pretty good at dealing with it. I’ll drink or listen to director’s commentary tracks on DVDs. That’s a good sleep aid.”

That sleep-deprived EP helped maintain momentum the band had ably built since breaking out with their debut, 2010’s Crazy For You. “Best Coast was super-quickly catapulted to a level I was not prepared for,” Cosentino says when asked how she feels she’s grown as a performer and early live anxieties. “We went from playing with just me and Bobb with a MiniDisc player as our drummer to having live drummers play with us; then we added a bass player, and now it’s a total, full-fledged band. But in the beginning I was always so uncomfortable and awkward because a couple months prior I was working in a store selling soap. Then all of a sudden I was touring and selling out all of these venues and was like, ‘Whoa, I’m actually a professional musician.’ It was definitely strange for me.”

The band have since rode a commendable level of success, with a quieter 2014 that mostly found them relaxing at home writing California Nights in between a tour with Pixies and scattered festival appearances. After being on the road almost constantly for five years, Cosentino had downtime she used to reconnect with friends and get heavily into cardio barre workouts. Bruno did his thing buying records and music gear, watching movies and hanging out with his own friends.

The free time also afforded them to tinker with their sound, which over the course of those aforementioned albums had been a quietly but increasingly clean-sounding mix of ’50s and ’60s girl-group melodies, indie-rock grit and surf-pop aesthetics. But for the first time, they threw out the idea of approaching a full-length with a deliberate template of inspiration. “That’s what was cool about it,” Bruno elaborates about California Nights’ process. “The other records we had a basic influence. The Only Place was really influenced by Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles, that ’70s kind of dry production aesthetic. Crazy For You, our plan was to have it be like the Beach Boys and Ramones. This one we didn’t really have one. Each song we approached individually; Bethany from the onset said she wanted the record to be kind of all over the place and have each song be its own thing.”

Granted, California Nights still pulls from the pair’s pool of unexpected influences in its own unique way, especially with Bruno’s sprawling tastes. He personally cites Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking, while Cosentino aimed for the title track to be a “Spacemen 3/Led Zeppelin kind of thing,” he says. “I play this guitar figure at the beginning of ‘Feeling Ok’ that was totally inspired by a Gwen Stefani song that had this keyboard part I liked.”

Another first was the week of pre-production they spent with California Nights producer Wally Gagel, who also helmed Fade Away. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much that helped things,” Cosentino gushes. “Once we entered the studio to start tracking, we knew exactly what we were doing.” The duo also partook in a far more collaborative producer-band relationship than on past records. “As far as the dynamic between Bobb and myself goes, that will never change. It’ll always be me recording really terrible-sounding GarageBand demos on my computer and emailing them to him with some ideas, asking what effects pedals will sound best. But this time we were like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna let other people be involved in this.'”

The result is unquestionably among Best Coast’s finest material, projecting otherwise potentially petty personal issues like loneliness (“Fine Without You”) or envy (“Jealousy”) into huge, widescreen ventures with bold-yet-silky melodies and choruses. “Feeling Ok” busts out with early swagger, sounding bigger than most anything the band have done, while the subtly psychedelic, yawning landscape of the title track might be the most left-field thing they’ve done to date.

Cosentino created a mission statement for California Nights in which she said writing the album was a “step-by-step journey of learning so much about myself and the world around me.” When pressed, she explains it’s largely about “growing up and becoming more confident not only as a woman, but also as a songwriter and performer. It’s not like I was like, ‘Okay, I have to go on some weird soul-searching adventure’ or something. It was more just spending time at home, waking up in my own bed every single day for months at a time after not experiencing that, sitting with myself and realizing there was some stuff about myself I wanted to work on. Not everything is perfect, but I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m aware things won’t ever be perfect.” If she’s forced to be awake more than she’d like, at least she seems to be using that time wisely. She laughs as she concludes, “I’m trying to be more of an optimistic pessimist, I suppose.”

A version of this story originally ran in Substream #45.