“I didn’t have a lot of time to make sense of my ideas.”
Back in 2012, change was very much afoot for Best Coast. They’d been on the road with little in the way of extended breaks more or less since their inception in 2009, with a slew of reverb-drenched early singles followed by a gloriously scuzzy debut record, Crazy for You, that fell somewhere in between surf-pop and pop-punk. Bethany Cosentino, who as the singer and songwriter is very much the public face of the band, also piqued the media’s interest; she seemed like a real character, delivering classically lovelorn, lyrically snappy pop songs through a prism of sunshine, weed and her pet cat, Snacks, who became almost as famous in his own right; eventually, you could buy his stuffed toy counterpart at the merch stand.
By the time they turned around a quick-fire follow-up to Crazy for You, though, Cosentino and her guitar-playing foil Bobb Bruno seemed to have left much of their old identity behind. The Only Place was absolutely pristine in its production - the fuzz of old had been consigned to history - and their appetite for peppy pop songs seemed to have fallen by the wayside in favour of slow-burning, treacly confessionals. On top of that, Cosentino had largely dispelled many of the previous assumptions about her as a person; rather than reflecting the pot-addled slacker that the press had so keenly bought into, her social media presence suggested she was altogether more confident and headstrong, honest about her struggles with an anxiety disorder and unrepentant about her love for Drake, Stevie Nicks and - in particular - Seinfeld.
The critics seemed to widely decide that the uncomplicated nature of Cosentino’s lyricism - hardly a crime for a pop singer - was considerably less endearing now that she was designing her own Urban Outfitters line and having Hollywood A-listers direct her music videos, but on balance - and placing all of that unfair, extraneous flak to one side - The Only Place was clearly a misstep; too slow, too samey and too suggestive of burnout on the band’s part. California Nights, their first new full-length in three years, isn’t a wholesale return to their roots - it’s still sounds more or less every bit as polished as the last album - but it does channel everything that we’d come to love about Best Coast on Crazy for You and the earlier singles; fizzing energy, soaring melodies and a genuine pop sensibility. It’s by far their most ambitious effort to date, thematically touching upon everything from internet hate to the tranquility of Cosentino’s new Eagle Rock home, from which she spoke to DiS shortly before the album’s release.
JG, DiS: The new record seems faster and livelier than the last one, which had a lot of slow songs on it. How did that come about?
Bethany Cosentino: There was just a lot of growth between finishing the last record and starting on this one - both musically and personally, I think. I know, for one, that I’m a lot more confident than I was back then, as a writer and as a person, and I think Bobb’s the same. We’d never really been in a position to make a record like this one before, but I feel like a lot is always going to change over the course of two years.
How do you feel about The Only Place, in retrospect? It feels like the outlier in the catalogue now, and I read in the interview you did with NME that you weren’t entirely happy with the level of creative control you had or the producer that you worked with.
I was totally misquoted in that interview. What they said was entirely not true. Jon Brion was not in any way, shape or form forced upon us, and I’ve had complete creative control on every record I’ve ever made - those are the facts. I just felt that on the last record, we were coming off of this real whirlwind of touring, for what felt like four years straight. Once Crazy for You was out, that was it; we were barely off the road, just touring constantly, and then as soon as we were finally done, we were straight back into the studio to make The Only Place. I didn’t have a lot of time to really focus and write new songs for it, and that’s why I kind of came out of it feeling like I wasn’t totally satisfied with it. It had nothing to do with Jon or creative control. I just wasn’t ready to make another album. There was nothing forced about the actual process of recording it, but there was that pressure once we were home; “oh, so you’ve gotta put another record out now,” and I felt like I had to rush it. It definitely wasn’t ideal. If I had to go back and do it again, I wouldn’t choose to do it differently, but it taught me a lesson, and I knew I’d need to approach whatever came next in a way that gave me time to think about it.
When you put out the Fade Away EP in 2013, you released it on your own label, Jewel City. Why do that if you already had full creative control previously?
By that point, we’d split from all of our labels, for one reason or another. I wanted to come out with something new, but I knew I wasn’t really ready to sign another deal; I still didn’t know what I wanted to do next in terms of a third album. Once I started exploring the possibility of self-releasing it, I kind of figured out that doing it that way would mean I could release it exactly when I wanted to, and I could tailor the press campaign and that kind of thing to work exactly the way I wanted it to. It was the right call, I think. It took the pressure off. We didn’t sign with Harvest until after we’d finished California Nights, and working that way - being like, “OK, we’ll put all of that stuff to one side until we’re done with the music” - it made things a lot easier.
How much of an impact has moving to Eagle Rock had on your writing? I think I’m right in saying that these songs were written and demoed at home...
I just feel very comfortable here. My house and my neighbourhood are really, really chilled; it’s a very calm, very relaxing place to live. It’s nice to be able to wake up in the morning and open the curtains and immediately be hit by sunshine, mountains, palm trees - all of that stereotypical landscape-y stuff that you picture when you think of Southern California. It really motivates you to be creative, and it has a massive impact on your mood. If I’m honest, when it’s cloudy or rainy in LA - and it doesn’t happen often - but if the weather sucks, all I’m ever inclined to do is stay in bed and watch a movie, so the fact that at any given moment of the year you can go outside and it’s pretty much perfect out, it’s a very positive thing for me creatively.
It’s funny that the title track is as close to classic Best Coast as the lyrics get on California Nights, and yet it’s probably the most experimental thing you’ve ever written - really druggy and heavy.
Yeah! It’s weird. I’d been talking to my best friend, who was living in New York at the time; she’d just been accepted onto a PhD programme at USC Santa Cruz, and she was trying to decide whether to take it and move back here. I told her to listen to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Going to California’, because a few years ago, when I was in the exact same position as her, having that song playing constantly kind of inspired me to come back down here from New York. When we got off the phone, I decided to put some Zeppelin records on, and when I woke up the next morning I thought I’d try writing something really long, dreamy and psychedelic. I demoed it, sent it to Bobb, and tried explaining the vibe I was getting from it to him. I was really insecure about it; I remember saying I hated it, and I didn’t know if it’d even make sense for the record - it was the last song I wrote for it, but once everybody heard it, they all thought it made a ton of sense. The fact that it stood out so much suddenly seemed like a good thing, and it was cool to realise that exploring influences I wouldn’t normally think to draw inspiration from could be a really positive thing for me.
I actually got a really big Oasis vibe from the guitars on that track, and ‘Fine Without You’ made me think of The Cure. There’s a couple of songs that sound as if they’re channeling Sugar, and none of these are bands I’d ever have associated with you guys.
Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff in there, but we were never deliberately trying to branch out, you know? We went with our instincts. I’m a true believer in trusting your intuition and going with what feels right, even if you might think that, on paper, it’s going to come off a little weird. We were in the studio, and Bobb played me a guitar part that I really liked, and out of nowhere he was like, “yeah, I think it was inspired by that Gwen Stefani song, ‘Cool’.” And that’s totally not where I’d be expecting him to be taking his cues from. So we weren’t looking for another route, we weren’t looking to go where people wouldn’t expect us to; we were just concerned with making something we could walk out of the studio and be really, truly happy with. The other side of that is that I didn’t worry about what existing fans might think, either; I didn’t want to shy away from trying something just because I thought people would be bummed that it wasn’t what they wanted from a Best Coast record.
Do you find it’s best just to ignore what the internet has to say about the band full stop? I get the impression there’s certain people that wouldn’t stop making jokes about cats and weed even if you made a black metal record.
That’s probably true. The thing is, whether or not I pay attention to that stuff, people are still going to have their opinions. It’s the way the world works. I mean, in any field, in any kind of industry - whether you’re a musician, a painter or working nine to five in an office job - you’re always going to be critiqued, and if you do make art, people are always going to interpret it differently to how you’ve intended. I had to make peace with that and I’m OK with it now; part of listening to music is trying to make it personally applicable to yourself. As far as the rest of it goes, you just need to know where not to look; I don’t read reviews, and I don’t read interviews I’ve done. Occasionally, maybe a friend will mention something in passing, but it’s always news to me; I’m not one of those people who has a fucking Google alert set up for themselves, you know? Twitter’s cool because it lets you interact with the fans, and I never want them to feel like they can’t connect with me, but beyond that, I’m past worrying about what other people think. I know better than to go looking for that stuff.
You’ve talked a lot about having made healthier lifestyle choices to help you deal with your anxiety. How much easier has that made life as a musician?
It’s been a big deal, for sure. We didn’t do a ton of touring last year - or even the year before, for that matter - and the beauty of that was that it allowed me to live something like a normal life. I finally had some time to be at home, and actually live in the house that I’d bought three years ago, but barely been back to because I was always on the road. It was trippy to get back to it and be like, “whoa, this place is mine? Weird, I’m never here.” Once I settled back down, I could reconnect with the things that were important to me, and in doing that, I realised that something like exercise could make a real difference - mentally, as well as physically. I’m going to try as hard as I can to keep it up, but it’s obviously really hard to live a perfectly healthy lifestyle when you’re on tour - not that it’s perfect now. It’s just about applying the little things to the larger issues you’re struggling with; in the past, I’d get so stressed out and exhausted pretty much straight away, and now I know that if I’m getting anxious, I should go for a walk or read a book rather than try to party my way out of it, or whatever.
Do you find the actual shows themselves easier now, as well as the lifestyle that touring brings with it?
Definitely. I mean, I’ve been doing this for nearly six years now, and I’m definitely in a place where I’m a lot more comfortable and confident on stage. I remember, back when we first started playing, I’d always be looking down at my guitar, eyes fixed on it the whole time; I was terrified that if I looked up, I’d end up moving to the wrong chord. I play much more freely now, and I think I’ve grown into my voice, too. I used to have these hangups about what it was to be a frontwoman of my own band; I was basically OK with the idea of being on stage, because I’ve been performing since I was a little kid, but I struggled with being the centre of attention because it was like, “is there something I should be doing to entertain the crowd here?” These days, I know that if I drop my guitar or fall over or something, I can be self-deprecating about it, and laugh it off. It’s not the end of the world any more, and that stems from slowly adapting to this weird way of life. I’ll probably always be getting used to it.
California Nights is available now via Harvest. Best Coast play four UK shows later this month