Drugs, Failure and Inspiration in the City of Angels
The Raveonettes’ latest, Observator, was supposed to be an L.A. record. Gearing up to write for it, frontman Sune Rose Wagner blasted The Doors on a near-constant loop, visions of Jim Morrison on a Venice Beach rooftop dancing in his head. In the wake of The Raveonettes’ last album—the dark, cinematic, morosely titled Raven in the Grave—Wagner suddenly felt the pull of the glistening Pacific’s powerful riptide. Back home in frigid New York, he’d been coping with crippling back pain and had also been diagnosed with clinical depression. A journey to the City of Angels to make a new record seemed like the perfect escape.
His bandmate, Raveonettes co-founder Sharin Foo, was already living in L.A., plus The Raveonettes had roots in the storied SoCal city, having written songs for their 2002 debut EP, Whip It On, there. “When I came up with the idea for the band in 1999, it was in Los Angeles,” Wagner says. “So there’s a really strong connection to that place, for sure.”
Wagner’s plan was to hole up in laidback, “mystical and mythological” L.A. (Venice in particular), get clean of pills and strong drink and write songs free from the distractions of New York, a city he describes as “in your face … with a lot of intense energy and movement,” though he makes sure to point out that New York and L.A., however incongruent, “are both wonderful sources of inspiration.”
Unfortunately, the pilgrimage didn’t go down as Wagner had hoped. On the Left Coast, he found not inspiration but “dread and despair, a wicked loneliness that only furthered [his] intake of substances.” Soon after he arrived, Foo swung by his hotel room in hopes of cranking out some new tunes. But aside from “Till the End,” which would become the final rollicking track on Observator, the music was flowing like a glacier out there under the Pacific sun.
“Sometimes you’re not inspired in the right moment,” explains Wagner. “A certain restlessness and boredom come into place. It just takes a different turn. The roads change.”
So Wagner bolted from his Venice hotel room after less than a week, long before the end of his scheduled stay. He couldn’t take the isolation and made a break for Hollywood, where he wound up on a four-day Benzo bender, wandering the streets, slipping into the sedate fog of conversation with whatever strange people he stumbled across in the filthy gutters and dark alleys of the Sunset Strip. Their lives, their stories, their heartbreak, became fuel for Wagner’s songwriting; observations for Observator.
Upon returning to New York, the creative glacier began to melt and giant icebergs of songs were cut loose from Wagner’s subconscious—young, cold, bleak songs of doomed romance and love unrequited, wrapped in a thin candy-shell veneer of angelic hopefulness. There was a new urgency to how the songs were spilling out, and Wagner soon began recording them at home. Once the foundations were in place, he joined Foo and producer/manager Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, The Go-Go’s, Richard Hell) in L.A., and they began overdubs at the legendary Sunset Sound, the very same studio where The Doors recorded Strange Days and their eponymous debut. It was the first time they’d recorded under the supervision of Gottehrer since 2005‘s Pretty in Black, and his presence was a shot in the arm.
“It was really fast,” Wagner says of the sessions. “We were there for a week, and did it all there. Sometimes you just want to be very spontaneous and in the moment about it, and this was just one of those albums—a lot of energy; a burst of energy in a very short amount of time.”
Observator is brimming with the band’s signature blend of gorgeous late ‘50s and early ‘60s-inspired melodies and chord structures, the songs swathed in thick, gauzy blankets of Jesus and Mary Chain fuzz and Sonic Youth squall. But there are subtle new textures at every turn, most notably the desolate piano of “Young and Cold,” “You Hit Me (I’m Down)” and “Observations.” It’s a first, instrumentation-wise, for The Raveonettes, and the latter track floats from the speakers as if the static ghost of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” In the end, Observator is neither a New York nor an L.A. record, but rather a gloomy-gorgeous pastiche, the distorted, insistent drum beat of “Curse the Night” drawing on trip-hop’s hypnotic dream-trance aesthetic, “The Enemy” ringing with the forlorn kudzu jangle of early R.E.M., and “She Owns the Streets” calling down the post-punk thunder of The Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.”
Looking back on the near disaster of Wagner’s Venice Beach hotel-room sabbatical and the twisted redemption of his Bukowski-esque foray into Hollywood, it’s a miracle that an album as rich and collagist inventive as Observator ever materialized at all. Months after the alternately harrowing and heartening experience, Wagner reflects on his attempts at sobriety and how they colored the record.
“It’s an ongoing thing; I don’t know if that will ever resolve itself,” he says, sounding more-or-less at peace with the angel/demon influence of chemical inspiration. “It takes a lot of willpower, and a lot of staying power … and I don’t really know if I’m even interested in that to be honest with you. I just want to make sure that everything functions well, that we can still make great music. I had my doubts when we made this album if we would even get it done. ... And then when I heard the [finished] songs, I was just so happy. I was like, ‘Wow, if we can put out as great an album as that—even under these circumstances—that’s pretty amazing.’”