It’s the day after Christmas and I am sitting in a Hollywood coffee house a block away from the Capitol Records tower, talking with one half of Meow Meow—Christopher O’Brien and Kirk Hellie. While no stranger to coffeehouses myself, Hellie appears a bit disoriented. Apparently, leaving the confines of his home studio is a rare event. The guitarist and songwriter of the group, despite having lived in Los Angeles for the better part of his life, was so at a loss for a quiet place to conduct our interview that he had to consult his brother-in-law. “I don’t go out much,” Hellie confesses. “Why go anywhere when you have a home studio and a refrigerator full of coke?”
It’s hard to argue with a man who has been such an important fixture on the Los Angeles rock circuit for the past several years, even if his contributions have largely gone unnoticed due to his reclusive nature. Hellie first emerged as a member of Pink Noise Test, a band that released its debut on Interscope in 1998 and was promptly forgotten amidst major label reshuffling. In addition to the more obvious nods to Jesus and Mary Chain, who Hellie clearly reveres, PNT specialized in a sunny, Californifornified brand of shoegaze, minimizing the reverb in their pursuit of dulcet pop. Although he is grateful for the advance from the label, which allowed him to construct his home studio, Hellie was clearly dissatisfied with the experience of being on the roster of a major. “We were originally signed by Ted Field, the guy who used to own Interscope with Jimmy Iovine,” says Hellie. “But then he went off and did other things—race cars or whatever he does and we got pawned off. I remember one A&R guy there who was sort of handling us at the time said we sounded like Love & Rockets. Then he added that he hated Love & Rockets. That’s when I figured we were in trouble.”
Following that band’s untimely demise, Hellie dabbled in a number of projects, more often as a hired gun. He spent several months in London recording guitar, bass, and keyboard parts for the sophomore album from Nothing recording artist, 12 Rounds, which may or may not ever see the light of day. More recently, Hellie attempted an aggressive, harsher aesthetic with Tape, a band that despite its local renown dissolved before receiving label backing.
However, with Meow Meow, Hellie may have finally found his ticket out of side projects and session player purgatory. After having heard O’Brien’s former band, Brian Jones Was Murdered, on an L.A. radio station while still a member of Pink Noise Test, Hellie arranged to have the band play on the same bill as them in Los Angeles. “We drove down from Bakersfield,” recalls O’Brien, “and I had no idea that Kirk had been the one to request and book us. We sort of struck up a friendship from there.” Since ‘98, throughout Pink Noise Test’s turbulent relationship with Interscope, O’Brien and Hellie collaborated informally in Hellie’s studio. Drummer Norman Block, who Hellie met at the age of 15 and experienced a few major label tribulations of his own as a member of Plexi, and his friend, bassist Michael Orendy, were added recently—just prior to recording the album. “We cut Snow, Gas, Bones together in two weeks,” explains O’Brien. “That included mixing. Actually, a lot of the stuff that wound up making it onto the album, especially vocals, were the original takes we recorded at Kirk’s house. So what you’re hearing is a mix of our demos and the stuff we recorded with Eddie Ashworth (Pink Noise Test, Sublime).”
The resulting Meow Meow debut is a progressive but logical extension of Pink Noise Test’s spiky dream-pop. Hellie has largely abandoned the industrial edges his former band and shelved the Reid brothers’ comatose vocals. In their place is a greater emphasis on ambient loops, warped Beach Boys’ harmonies, and Hellie’s assortment of effects-laden solos. It would not be a stretch to call Snow, Gas, Bones an experimental record, informed as much by shoegaze heroes like Ride and My Bloody Valentine as it is by more obscure Japanese noise purveyors like Merzbow and Aube. The sonic range is sure to surprise those who associate Hellie with dense industrial overlays. “I think a lot of people may have had the wrong impression of me,” says Hellie. “I tend to get lumped in with heavier artists, maybe because of my time in Pink Noise Test and some of my work with other bands, but that’s never been how I write or what my favorite music is.”
Yet despite its obvious experimental ambitions, the album also features some of Hellie’s warmest and most inviting material yet, perhaps because this is Hellie’s first truly collaborative songwriting effort. O’Brien’s more pop-oriented instincts frequently counterbalance Hellie’s penchant for avant-garde solos and the random bursts of abstract noise. The formula reaches its zenith on “Sick Fixation,” which marries the Beach Boys’ sun-drenched harmonies to Hellie’s heavily processed guitar static.
The album, which will be released in April by Devil in the Woods, was only shopped to four labels. Strangely, the band still has no formal contract with the Modesto-based indie, nor have they even had any contact with the label outside of a few emails and a couple of telephone conversations. “Yeah, [our record deal is] a little unorthodox. Not even a handshake between us,” admits O’Brien. “But honestly, we’re just so pleased that someone wants to put our record out.” “We’d rather have a career than be tied up in some contract while our records just sit a shelf somewhere,” adds Hellie.
Following the album’s release, Meow Meow would like to do some limited touring, but as of right now their only confirmed date is at the annual South by Southwest conference. In the meantime, the band will retreat to Hellie’s home studio, where the band claims they have material for over two more albums in various stages of completion. “We’re always writing,” says Hellie. “We’re at a place that it doesn’t even feel like work anymore.” Hope the fridge is stocked.
// Notes from the Road
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