DWNTWN / DWNTWN EP April 29th, 2014 // Jullian Records
The world of pop music is littered with stories of awkward beginnings, but in the case of Los Angeles synth pop outfit DWNTWN, the meeting of founding members Jamie Leffler and Robert Cepeda takes uncomfortable beginnings to a whole new level. “I was dating Robert’s brother,” explains Leffler. “And then when he and I broke up I pretty much immediately started a band with Robert.” The band, which initially started as a heartbroken lark back in 2010, eventually became a full-time pursuit. Over the course of four years Leffler and Cepeda went from recording twee folk experiments into their iPhones to making resplendent indie-pop that sounds as warm and intoxicating as the city they both call home. They first made waves after appearing on two different Kitsune compilations—“See My Eyes” appeared on Kistune America and “Move Me” (a collab with Giraffage and Jhameel) on Kitsune America 2. Both tracks subsequently charted at #2 on Hype Machine. Eventually expanding from a duo to playing live as a four-piece—releasing a handful of singles and two excellent EPs (Cowboys and The Red Room) in the process—the band have grown from shy bedroom recordists and reluctant performers into a formidable pop outfit (logging time on the road with the likes of Capital Cities and Gold Fields). On the band’s new EP, the self-titled DWNTWN, their music comes into even sharper focus—heartfelt daydreams distilled into pitch-perfect 3-minute confections. The kind of music made for late-night makeouts, winsome self-reflection, or better yet—endless sun-filled drives with the top down.
“The way we write music has developed a lot over the years,” say Leffler. “We always begin with a melody and an acoustic guitar, so the songs—at their core—are very inspired by folk music that we love, stuff like The Carter Family and Johnny Cash. What changes them into something else is the way Robert builds on them, layering instruments and electronics. Our process is trial and error, but mostly it’s try everything. This new EP is kind of evidence of that. On earlier releases essentially everything was electronic, but this time we’ve brought in all these live instruments—more guitars and drums and piano.”
“We never wanted to be a boy/girl duo, we always wanted to be a band which over time has changed the way we sound,” says Cepeda. “Thinking about the way we can play this music live actually affected the way we write.”
The four songs on the DWNTWN EP—the follow up to 2012’s self-released The Red Room—represent a quantum leap forward for the band and present a lovely soft-focus statement of intent. The EP’s first single, “Til Tomorrow” (whose recently-premiered video features the band playing songs, taking shots, and building literal houses of cards in what a appears to be an empty LA bar) is the sort of jangly, pop gem that wouldn’t sound out of place on an old Phoenix or St. Etienne record. Breezy but far from slight, the tracks on DWNTWN manage to weave music a much broader sonic palette. “Missing You,”—a song that addresses the passing of Leffler’s grandfather--is one of the only songs in recent memory to make the marriage of synths, handclaps, and a banjo sound like the most natural thing in the world. Elsewhere, tracks like “Skins” and “Blankets” employ the kind of seamless production and breathless vocals (not to mention heavenly synth-scapes that could have drifted off of a long-long Tangerine Dream single) that make DWNTWN a truly sanguine listening experience—feather light electro-pop melodies with just the right amount of emotional kick.
While the tracks on DWNTWN represent a musical leap forward for the band, they also boast a sizable emotional leap as well. No longer content to focus primarily on romantic dramas and “boy and girl problems” in her songs, Leffler’s lyrics on the new EP risk a kind of personal and emotional intimacy never before heard in the band’s music. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Heroine”—a song about the passing of Leffler’s father Howie Epstein, the legendary former bass player of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The track is a kind of emotional reimagining of Leffler’s relationship with her father in which she asks/sings: My father was a man of the road / He drove a lot of nights / And he died alone. The song, which seeks to reconcile what actually happened to her father with what possibly could have been, is among the most wrenching things the band has ever recorded. “My father passed away from a heroin overdose when I was a child,” says Leffler. “I was only a kid when it happened, but at the time I think maybe I was the only person who might have been able to change things, the only person who might have been able to convince him to change. I was just a kid though and I didn’t have the words at that time. This song is kind of my way of addressing that. I want to be able to talk about this part of my life in an honest way, which is something I’ve never really done before.”
Given the expanded scope of DWNTWN—and given the fact that the band recently signed with Jullian Records, a new independent label distributed by Sony RED—it’s easy to imagine that the remainder of 2014 will be a very busy one for DWNTWN. Though Leffler and Cepeda are excited to take their show on the road, Leffler admits that the band is still happiest at home in LA simply working on music. “The more we can be on the road, the better,” says Leffler, “But we are homebodies by nature. Friends are like; You guys should go out more! and I’m always like, We probably should, but we’re inevitably just gonna stay home and work on music. A typical Saturday night out in LA might sound exciting, but more than likely we’re just in our house working on songs and drinking some whiskey.”
1 - Til Tomorrow
2 - Missing You
3 – Skins
4 – Heroine
5 - Blankets
Jamie Leffler (vocals)
Robert Cepeda (guitar, vocals)
Chris Sanchez (keyboards, bass)
Dan Vanchieri (drums)