I tried to do as much research for this interview as possible, but I must admit, I just came up short on facts. It seems like Old Californio just pretty much came out of the blue – especially around these European parts - last year with this absolutely great, new album. Please tell me about the band’s background!
Rich Dembowski (singer/songwriter/guitarist) - Old Californio was actually at first just a name that was used to group together songs that I had written and was recording on my own out in 303, the shack where we recorded Westering Again. I never intended for it to actually be a band, but as I started recording more songs and needed more instrumentation I decided to invite my friends in who’d I’d been making music with over the years in one form or another to help put the songs together. So, eventually we just decided that we wanted to start playing shows here and there and it ended up snowballing into what it is now – a working band.
Justin Smith (drummer): We’d been playing around the L.A. area for probably about 2 years when Westering Again was finally finished and it seemed to make sense to throw it out there and see what people thought of it. If people liked it then maybe we’d have something we could build on and if people ignored it, well then I guess we’d just go on making music purely for our own pleasure. So, we really didn’t have much to lose, we just decided to go for it – and why not?
I found a website saying something about how your first album, Along The Cosmic Grass, pretty much went unnoticed when it came out, despite you actually working up a rather big fanbase around LA. Does that make Westering Again feel like sort of a fresh start for you as a band, a chance for you to take the best parts of your first album and throw them in with something that would in the end sell more tickets and cd’s?
Justin Smith: Well, Along the Cosmic Grass was never really actually released in the conventional sense. There were a handful of copies made and when we started playing out more frequently people’d ask if we had an album and want to know where they could get it. So, we’d just hand out Cosmic Grass if somebody asked. We never really had a live thing together before Cosmic Grass, so building the fan base sorta happened as a result of playing the Cosmic Grass live as opposed to in spite of it. In the 2 years of playing we did before Westering was finished we’d really had a chance to build a great audience. In a certain sense once Westering was done we finally had something tangible and available that people could get their hands on, so in that sense it was a bit like a fresh start.
We still play a lot of tunes off of Cosmic Grass at our shows - Chilao Flats and Lean Into It being a couple in particular. People still ask for copies so we’re threatening to go in, get it remixed and mastered properly so we can release it proper some day.
Jason Chesney (bassist): Yeah, "Along The Cosmic Grass" went unnoticed mainly because it wasn’t created for public consumption. Rather, it was a means to an end... Rich really got this together as a recorded musical document for his son and shared it with a few friends. The people that have heard it, really dig it. We do play a lot of that material live.
"Westering Again" was really a transitional record. We were not solid on our line-up at that time, and we ended up having a few good friends fill in the holes. The concept originally was to record live in the shack, with the band as it was. One member left to pursue a teaching career so, it then became whoever was around at the time, though a few tracks survived from the initial concept.
Recording seems to be more of a clearing house of ideas so we can move on to the new... As far as the commerce aspect, there was no thought given to that. It was just and has always been, can we make something that we and our friends can enjoy? The scope was originally never meant to be that wide. The fact that the music has found fans is really wonderful!
There seems to be quite a lot of DIY-attitude to the band. You run your own label, you made your own handprinted copies of Westering Again, you look like a bunch of guys doing this for the music and the fun instead of the money and you probably haul your own gear when touring. Is there a band philosophy?
Justin Smith: None of us has ever really made much money off of playing music. We just found a place where we could make music collectively, as a bunch of friends who love the hell out of it. So yeah, it’s always been about the enjoyment of making music and the creative process before anything else, money’s never been much of a consideration, other than how we gonna pay for another pressing or something or other.
Levi, our keyboardist, has been a real driver in terms of the DIY approach. He wanted to have something that was individual and that reflected the way of life out here – which is to say slower paced, more colloquial, more organic.
Jason Chesney: We are DIY for a few reasons but, primarily it's out of necessity. The upside to this is we have complete freedom. The downside is lack of funding. It would be nice to have a happy medium. I think we all would rather have the artistic freedom than to be controlled by outsiders who are more interested in commerce. We're in it mainly for the joy of doing it.
What happens when the band gets together to play? Does it create a spark that lights the magic or is it just hard work?
Jason Chesney: Well, we plug in, play and hope for the best. We are fairly improvisational within the framework of the material. Though there is definitely a consistency, It's nice to have that element of surprise. Of course, on occasion, it's difficult to find a completely cohesive group mind and it can certainly be work to locate common ground. Usually, it's only an uphill battle when we're trying too hard. The best is when there are no preconceived notions of what it's supposed to be and we go with the flow. It just happens and there is no thinking involved. Regardless, we more often than not end up having a good time, anyway.
Have you been touring ever since the album came out last year or do you all have day jobs to take care of between gigs?
Justin Smith: I’d say it’s a combination of all that – we play consistently, mainly around the state of California. There are plans in the works to hit the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and eventually into Chicago and the Midwest. It’s a step by step approach. Since we organize this all ourselves we have to make sure that all the components work in a way that is feasible and economic in order to sustain us.
Rich Dembowski: Woody (Aplanalp) and I both teach music, Jason and Justin both work odd part time jobs and Levi’s (Nuñez) voice can be spotted on laugh tracks and voice overs for Mexican soap operas.
The album covers a lot of ground, from countryrock to psychedelica and good old fashioned rock music, and when stirred together, it all adds up to Old Californio. What’s your secret behind making all these different parts sound exactly like you?
Rich Dembowski: Well, there’s no preconceived notion to how the songs should sound other than to let the songs develop into what naturally want to be. It’s the song for the sake of the song. I listen and read and observe and just try to consume the influences around me, whether musical or otherwise. It all ends up filtering through to these songs. I suppose songs are like people in a way, there’s a DNA of influences that makes them what they are. Also, everyone in the band has a distinctive way of playing, so the songs come to life once everyone else has had a chance absorb them and add their color.
You’re from the San Gabriel Mountains and with my geographical knowledge of California being somewhat faulty (I know how to find Amoeba on Sunset – that’s about it), I would put those somewhere between Los Angeles and the Mojave desert, between a never sleeping metropolis and vast amounts of nothingness. How has being from that part of California influenced your music?
Rich Dembowski: I’m extremely influenced by nature and I’ll spend hours hiking in the San Gabriel mountains, I guess you could say it’s a form of church for me. Westering Again is a very geographic album – it wasn’t necessarily intended to be that way, but it’s how it ended up coming out. Some of the songs were written in a much more geographic type cycle than others – for example California Goodness and Are You Coming Home were part of a three song cycle that was very geographic in origin. The third song in that group, Farallon, actually ended up on Along the Cosmic Grass. Other songs, like Just Like Joseph Campbell and From the Mouths of Babes come from a completely different angle and song cycle called Sundrunk Angels, which the new album we’re recording right now is based off of.
The title of the album is inspired by a line by John Steinbeck. What does it actually mean – westering? And how does it translate to your music?
Rich Dembowski: Westering to me means to go further, to go beyond, to always keep pushing, to make some sort of sense of existing. Steinbeck represents something of the earth, some fundamental core of hard work and determination. And that’s something that I really find myself gravitating to.
California has quite a musical history, from Bakersfield to LaurelCanyon and further on to Haight-Ashbury. But – and correct me if I’m wrong – the state hasn’t really been able to spawn a new musical movement of equal importance ever since. Where do you think California sits on the musical map today? Does much of the grandeur lie in the past?
Justin Smith: There are a lot of really great bands and songwriters out here – I don’t know if it’s entirely fair to compare them to the past. It seems to me that there are some really great artists tucked away here and there in Southern California. I See Hawks in L.A., Dan Janisch, Dave Gleason, Mike Stinson, Leslie & The Badgers, The Paperplanes - they are all great friends of ours and tremendous songwriters who I think are doing some very different things than bands in other parts of country. Some may be more visible than others, and each offers their own take on California and what it means to them. I think California music reflected through their light has a very bright future. Whether it reaches the heights of past, well, who’s to know?
Final question - any chance of a European tour anytime soon?
Justin Smith: With a little luck, yeah, it could happen. We’re working on it…
Old Californio’s Westering Again is out now. Go to MySpace.com/Oldcalifornio for more on this great band