La Luz Reaches a Deeper Place

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La Luz interview

La Luz began, informally, as a kind of ideal. To hear guitarist and vocalist Shana Cleveland describe the music that she, bassist Lena Simon, keyboardist Alice Sandahl and drummer Marian Li Pino made when they formed in Seattle almost 10 years ago, it adhered to a sort of “punk rock approach.” Four people playing as a tight, well-oiled unit, evading flashy production and smoke and mirrors—a garage rock band at its purest.

But over time, she and her bandmates have given up on pursuing that narrower path.

“I remember, when we started, thinking that I didn’t want to do anything on a record that we couldn’t reproduce live,” Cleveland says over a Zoom call from her home in Northern California. “I even was like, ‘I don’t want to use too many guitar pedals, too many effects.’ What I thought of at the time as being a pure expression, four instruments, four people. But as the years go on and I get more open minded and think about records that I love the most, there’s so much more going on. I love Abbey Road more than I love Please Please Me. I love them both, but I don’t know, I’m just not afraid of that anymore. Sometimes when you’re younger you’re like ‘I don’t want to sell out and have a synthesizer in my rock band.’ But no, I just want to make the best record that I can.”

A lot has changed about La Luz in their near-decade together. They’ve embraced a broader spectrum of sound, embracing a greater degree of psychedelia in their music, first with 2018’s Floating Features and to an even greater degree on their Adrian Younge-produced fourth album La Luz, out this month via Hardly Art. It’s a lush record, one that allows a lot of open space through which the band can move, but with gorgeously otherworldly textures, and moments of cinematic, Morricone-esque haze.

The band’s musical transformation is just one aspect of the transitions they’ve experienced in recent years, from each of the members spreading out across the country to Li Pino’s recent departure from the band. For now, they’re continuing on as a trio, the more close-knit nature of the band actually coming out in the music they make, as Cleveland hears it.

“‘Intimacy’ is a word I used a lot to describe this record, and it really was more intimate,” she says. “There’s one less person so we were able to more tune into each other and agree on things more easily. I don’t know, it felt really natural. It didn’t feel quite right to get another drummer and throw them into the mix right away and record an album with someone we didn’t know that well. So we just decided to keep it the three of us and keep it close. I think we’re a little more precious about the band at this point, we’ve been together almost a decade at this point. So let’s take it slow and make sure that level of trust, that ESP is there.”

Treble: When the process of making La Luz began, were there any conversations about what kind of album you wanted this to be?

Shana Cleveland: I don’t think that we did have those discussions. I don’t think we’ve ever done a record that way. I mean, now that you mention it…that’d be a cool way to do it, to have a plan in advance. [Laughs] But I think sometimes I’ll have an idea of what I’m looking for but I kind of give up that control when the band is involved and just find out what organically comes out.

Treble: La Luz seems to continue to go deeper into a more psychedelic direction. What’s been the draw toward this aesthetic?

Shana Cleveland: I think a lot of that has to do with Adrian’s production. A lot of the instruments we used, a lot of the synthesizers and electric sitar, when you hear those sounds you think psychedelia. If those instruments weren’t involved, I don’t know if you’d still have that impression. But a lot of it was Adrian’s guidance while we were making the album—like on the slow songs, he really encouraged us to lean into the slowness and not be too nervous about it being too much or more than the audience would have the attention span for. Especially on “Yuba Rot” and “Lazy Eyes and Dune,” those come across as particularly psychedelic, particularly in the way the piece is dreamier and makes you just kind of relax and let your mind wander. 

Treble: What are some of the ideas or sounds on the album that Adrian helped to bring about on the album?

Shana Cleveland: The main thing with him is that he’s a great listener. He listened in sort of a different way than a lot of producers have listened while we’re in the studio. He really listened to the feeling and what was behind the performance. Not listening for mistakes but for artistic expression. It felt more like we could trust him as a collaborator because he was right there with us. Not just listening to technical aspects of the sound, but to the body of work as a whole.

You asked about specifics and that was pretty vague. [Laughs] So, for instance, when I’d go for my guitar solo in “Oh, Blue,” which is kind a slower song, I did one take of it. And he said, “OK, let’s do another take and just go all the way, make it as crazy as you can.” So that’s what I did, and when I listened back tp the record, that guitar solo doesn’t sound crazy, but it does sound perfect. And somehow he knew that’s what I needed to hear to get into the feeling of the song.

Treble: After nearly a decade together, what’s been the biggest change or adjustment that you’ve experienced?

Shana Cleveland: The biggest change for us is that we don’t live in the same place anymore. Lena lives in Florida, Alice lives in LA, and I’m in Northern California. A lot of phone calls, a lot less time together. The thing that I like about it is that it’s really forced us to be very deliberate and very intense about the time that we are all together, so instead of practicing every Tuesday for two hours, we’ll get together for a week and live in the same house and do everything together.

Treble: Has the changes that the band has gone through, and the change in mechanics as a band—living in separate cities and having more concentrated periods of creativity—made you stronger together?

Shana Cleveland: Yeah. I think I always had a dream of living in the same house as my bandmates, having a band like The Monkees. I grew up watching The Monkees and they all lived in the same house and woke up in their single beds and go have adventures together. That always seemed like the perfect life to be in. In reality I don’t want to live with my bandmates, but it’s really nice in those moments that we do spend together. It doesn’t feel like a job or something like when you’re all in the same city—like “alright, Tuesday night practice, here we go, OK, bye everybody.” You don’t really get somewhere deep and get to know each other. But yeah, I think it has been—it allowed us to get to a deeper place.

Treble: Is there a certain feeling that you want to come through on La Luz?

Shana Cleveland: I guess I just always want people to feel—I don’t know if there’s any other word for it than love. I want them to feel love. 

Treble: Is that how you’d describe what you feel when creating it?

Shana Cleveland: Yeah, definitely. That’s typically why I scrap a song—if I’m playing it and it’s a cool song or a fun song, there’s nothing wrong with it, but I can’t feel it more emotionally, it doesn’t feel true or something. It’s hard to describe. What is that thing? I guess it’s just love in the end, if it hits me deeper. It must be love. 

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