Gardens & Villa singer Chris Lynch, 27, keyboardist Adam Rasmussen, 29, and drummer Levi Hayden, 28, met at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. After four years together in a post-punk "noise collage" band, the the three went their separate ways. Lynch hitchhiked to Vancouver in 2007, and after a stay in Portland -- where he met a group of urban gardeners -- he returned to Santa Barbara to reunite with his former bandmates and start a new project and a new lifestyle.
The three tore up the backyard in their house on Villa Avenue, planted a garden, encouraged their neighbors to do the same, and started a local urban garden exchange. Thus was born Gardens & Villa, a psychedelic synth-pop quintet that includes bassist Shane McKillop, 25, and percussionist Dusty Ineman, 25.
Recorded, engineered, and produced by singer-songwriter Richard Swift (now a member of the Shins) at his home in Oregon, the Gardens & Villa's self-titled debut, released by Secretly Canadian, is a testament to the band's live performance and a chronicle of their backyard-camping recording experience.
Gardens & Villa play the Bay Bridged's Phono Del Sol Festival this Saturday. We caught up with McKillop and Lynch to hear about how Swift, the Chumash Indians of Santa Barbara, a now-partially abandoned "hippie idealism," and the influx of tourists in their hometown have shaped the sound of the band.
How did the new project come into existence?
Throughout that summer, we started being much more conscious of what we were eating. We had some hippie idealism at the time and named the band after the gardening thing because our neighbors across the street and next to us all planted gardens and we started an urban garden exchange. And the street we lived on was named Villa Avenue.
Shane McKillop: We'd been playing shows together in our various bands since 2006. I ended up breaking up with a girlfriend and needing a place to stay. Chris let me stay in his closet, which he calls "the sitar lounge," a weird kind of a hazy bedroom. I'd hear them practicing and offer my two cents here and there. Then Chris invited me to record the album with them and that ended up being the record we did with Swift, which started the whole journey.
What was it like working with Richard Swift?
CL: Richard was a friend of a friend and it just so happened that he was at a point in his career where he wanted to give back and help a young band out.
SM: Swift taught us a lot and gave us a stamp of our band's character. We were unaware we had a cool thing going, and he embellished it with his production style, showed us how to get a good vibe in a studio, play live, bring the character out. It was a really an eye-opening thing that we're really fortunate for.
And that was in Oregon?
SM: Yeah, it's this small town called Cottage Grove, two hours south of Portland. It's where they filmed Stand By Me and it has this really cool sleepy, 1950s vibe to it. The album came out last July and was recorded the July before that so it's two years old now.
You guys were camping in his backyard at this point?
CL: Yeah. We didn't have a kitchen or a shower for the whole two weeks. We were posted next to the chicken coop in his backyard with three tents set up and every morning his daughters would come out to feed the chickens and wake us up.
What was that signature sound that Swift illuminated for you guys?
CL: Half of the time we spent recording with Swift we were just listening to records together and talking about sounds. We listened to a lot of Tom Tom Club, Paul McCartney stuff from the '80s, and Human League. Swift was really influential on us because we were used to recording on digital interfaces and he convinced us that it was way cooler and vibey-er to use tape and make a record like bands used to make them where you have one or two takes of a song rather than 45.
SM: Swift showed us earlier '80s stuff when synth sounds were new territory that people were tinkering away at. He had this really old eight-track tape machine that he did Damien Jurado's record on. He has a way with old string reverbs, old tape sounds, and this really cool 1960s Rogers drum kit. With the gear he has, which is super minimal, the hazy vibe of the room, and the town, there was just a lot of cool character that came out.
When someone hasn't heard your music, how do you describe it?
SM: For super genre-based descriptions we usually go with early 1980s synth-pop mixed with 1960s psychedelic rock, with some hazy Britpop every now and then.
CL: I say "grave wave," like graveyard wave. There's a melancholy nature in a lot of the music, which I think comes from our being from Santa Barbara [where] there's a lot of tourism. In a way it's made us stronger as the Santa Barbara art scene, but it's strange. I grew up in Orange County and everything there is synthetic, all concrete and straight lines, a grid. I've always been drawn to nature because it's so chaotic and I've always just wanted to get off the grid. A lot of the lyrics area a yearning for that state of mind.
What's with the use of the Indian bansuri flute?
SM: Some acquaintance showed Chris a bansuri flute and he started buying some, and then his girlfriend would buy him some, and then his friends would buy him some, and then on the recording he had an idea for a flute part. He thought it was kind of silly, but we put it down and it became this cool signature sound without even trying. We thought it was a joke at first, but it sounded good so we put it all over the place and it turned out to be a crowd-pleaser.
What has the road been like since the release of the debut?
SM: After we recorded we added our friend Dusty, who plays percussion and all the bells and whistles. We've been touring pretty much non-stop since last April. We had no idea we'd be playing so many shows. We've played over 150 shows, did four US tours, a European tour, Coachella, and all these festivals, so we've really come together as a band over the last year.
CL: On our first tour we brought vegetables from our garden in an ice chest and put them up with our CDs and said, "Buy a CD and get a free vegetable." We were super idealistic at first, and seven tours later we laugh because now we're in Missouri trying to find someplace to eat and it's really hard. We said we'd only eat organic local produce on the road and we did for the first two tours, but then it all crumbled because after 150 shows on the road you start to lose your mind. You become a weird shell of a human that doesn't sleep and consumes whatever it can find.
And now you're all back in Santa Barbara?
SM: We have the summer off from touring to write and take a breath because we haven't really stopped. Even though we've had a taste of all the different cities in America, we have a lot of roots here and for the time being, it's a good spot to hunker down.
CL: We just moved into a place in Santa Barbara again and I planted two gardens, so I'm really happy that we're writing another record and we've got some vegetables in the making. Not that that's everything, but it's one of my passions.
Are you looking forward to Phono Del Sol in San Francisco?
SM: San Francisco is home to some of our craziest shows. We started from the ground up. We played co-ops in Berkeley, Kimo's, Grant and Green, then started making our way to Café Du Nord, Bottom of the Hill, Rickshaw Stop. We love it there. It's our dream city to live in and fans there are apeshit when we play. We're excited for this festival.
CL: I've always thought San Francisco was the most beautiful city in America. I went there as a little boy to Alcatraz. The history of San Francisco and all the bands and all the different scenes over the last couple decades back to the '60s, it's just a really magical place to play.
Mentions of California seem to make it into the lyrics pretty often. Why does this landscape factor so heavily in your consciousness?
SM: When we're in Santa Barbara, we love going on hikes and going to the beach. The constant release of getting into nature, which is 10 minutes away from us, has made its way into Chris' words.
CL: I was born and raised in California and spent a lot of time near the ocean and my parents instilled a love of nature into me at an early age. We had a lot of weird experiences during the making of the record with different people around town who connected us to the land and the Chumash Indians, the indigenous peoples of Santa Barbara. It wasn't intentional to have a lot of California in the record. It has to come from inside to capture the California sound. I don't know what it is, but I'm still looking for it.