West Indian Girl, an up-and-coming rock band from LA, owes their ambiguous moniker to a strand of designer acid that is no longer on the market. And if you think about it, since music is almost a drug in itself—creating addiction and bouts of euphoria, along with inevitable withdrawal—it makes sense for a band to draw their name from one. But Robert James, singer and guitarist for the group, insists that the label is purely incidental.
“I don’t really know too much about it,” James says of West Indian Girl (the drug). “I’ve never tried it. We just liked the words. We like the word girl. We always like that word. We could have been West Indian Boy, but it wouldn’t have been the same.”
The group, whose self-titled debut album was released on Astralwerks last August, has been unfortunately branded as a drug band due to their name. But, as synth player Chris Carter explains, the band isn’t interested in promoting or dissuading drug use with their music; they are just interested in playing it.
“I think a lot of people have really gravitated toward that,” Carter says. “All drugs aren’t good and all drugs aren’t bad and we don’t make any apologies for that. We’re responsible adults. Do what you do. But as far as, are we out there promoting drugs? No.”
Carter isn’t, however, necessarily angry about this labeling because he feels that, over time, West Indian Girl will be able to shed the preconceived notions that trail their name.
“I kinda have to laugh at it,” Carter continues. “When your mom’s friends call up and ask if you’re wasted on drugs, you’re like, ‘This whole thing sucks.’ I just say, no it’s about the music and trying to translate the visceral experience of the music. I think as a band, musically, we stand on our own and the album stands on its own and the people that come to our shows are intelligent enough and cool enough to know that. And if it evokes a drug-induced state to them, then that’s great. I think that’ll fade as people see us as a band.”
And as that fades, what exactly will the public discover about West Indian Girl? Perhaps that the band has been around for a number of years, despite the fact that you (particularly if you live anywhere but the West Coast) may never have heard of them. Or maybe that the group’s practice space is located in the heart of downtown LA, where they have befriended and made fans of an entire community of homeless people.
That last fact, in particular, reveals how much their hometown of Los Angeles has influenced West Indian Girl, both ideologically and musically. Carter, who actually joined West Indian Girl after their album had been recorded, feels that the group’s music represents the various facets of LA life.
“When I first met them, I thought that the West Indian Girl album was kind of a juxtaposition of the two streams of living in LA,” Carter explains, “where you have like Malibu on one hand—the West Coast, beautiful, surf culture, beaches, million dollar houses—and you drive to where we practice downtown—rugged, urban, cardboard-box houses.”
“Downtown’s a place where, on many nights, we’ll have to step over someone who’s sleeping to walk in the door of the building,” drummer Mark Lewis adds.
“All those people are our neighbors,” Carter continues. “We’ve played so many nights into the middle of the night and we’ll have audiences. We figured at first—there’s a row of people outside and we’re on the fifth floor—that maybe they’d move, but quite the opposite, nobody’s moved. People have actually moved closer. I’ve stood on the street and listened to us play and you can hear us for a couple city blocks. It’s really crazy. They’ve actually marked our improvement.”
But even though the group is enjoying the beginning of what could be a highly successful career, they don’t feel above their homeless neighbors.
“It feels to me like we’re right down there in the fucking dirt with the rest of them,” Carter says adamantly. “We’ve really worked our asses off, we’ve really really put in a lot of time, our hearts and souls, and we’ve sacrificed our nights. It’s like going to war, it’s like we’re in battle.”
“They watch our cars at night and we give them money,” Lewis adds. “We may not have money every night, but we have clothes.”
James agrees: “It’s all relative, we give them a little something and somebody else gives us a little something.”
The biggest “little something” the band has been offered was their record deal with Astralwerks. James and bassist Francis Ten had begun the band as a studio project several years prior to their signing, eventually inviting Lewis to play drums on a few tracks. The recording process, as Lewis and James are quick to tell you, was several years in the making.
“It was recorded over a long period of time,” Lewis says of the album. “I tracked on that record over three years ago.”
“We started the recording process five years ago,” James says. “It took a long time to get rolling because we were all busy. I was working other jobs. It was like when I had time I’d go to the studio and work on it. Once we got the record contract with Astralwerks then it took about three and a half months to finish it.”
After the album was finally in the can, West Indian Girl met Carter, originally a guitarist, and brought him in as their synth player.
“We met Chris after the record was completed,” James says simply. “We were looking for a synthesizer player and he just came up to the house we were at and it was love at first sight.”
“I was playing guitar at the time and they had all these old moog synthesizers lying around,” explains Carter, who was introduced to the band by Ten’s ex-girlfriend. “I started fiddling around, playing with the knobs and found that we all kind of share the same synthetic sound. Playing an old moog is not like playing piano or keyboards, you have to have a weird sense of sound. I’ve been playing music my whole life so I knew my way around the piano, I knew the idea behind the piano, but I really started playing with these guys. I went home and I practiced a hell of a lot and I didn’t tell them because I wanted them to think I was good at it!”
“We tried a lot of people, but no one really fell in love with the idea of twiddling knobs,” James adds.
With a foursome in place, West Indian Girl still needed a female vocalist. After much searching and going through a few, the group finally added Mariqueen Maandig, who James insists is just as important as the other members.
“We looked for singers everywhere in LA,” Carter says. “All the musicians we knew, we had auditions, it got to the point where we were just walking up to anyone and asking if they could sing. It was a long process.”
Now that West Indian Girl is enjoying a flawless lineup, the band has gelled into a cohesive unit, allowing their music to evolve beyond what is on the album.
“More minds are involved,” James says of the songs West Indian Girl is playing now. “It’s more dynamic, it has a little more color. It started out as a studio project, with the song written in layers, but now that we’re a full-on band we have a more live feel. A more interactive feel. It’s an evolution of what it was, but it’s definitely growing.”
“A lot of it was just us experimenting and using the record as a jumping off point,” Carter explains. “That was our frame of reference for starting. Fran and Rob didn’t come in and say, ‘You’re going to play this line and this line, this is what’s it gonna be.’ It wasn’t like that at all. We all kinda added our input and at the end of the day we all made the decision of what works best for each song.”
James, who estimates that West Indian Girl will be ready to begin recording their second album in “about half a year”, feels that one of the best things his band has going for them is the range of styles they are free to explore on their songs.
“We’re not into any particular category,” James explains. “Our record captures all these different styles so we can go in any direction we want. It’s not like we have to be this type of thing or we have to be this. We just jam and experiment; we can go anywhere. The new stuff, we have a little bit of dub, a little bit of groove, it’s all over the place.”
“At this point we’ve played so many hours together that no matter what we write, it sound distinctively like us,” Carter continues. “What’s interesting about our live show is you might not even recognize the songs from the album. We’ve played a lot of shows where we’ve played live songs, new songs, and you might never hear them in that incarnation again. In a lot of ways that’s good for us to test out the songs that way and see how it works because you really need to play it live to figure out where the kinks are and what doesn’t work. You can play it 50 times in your practice space for the five of you, but until you get the audience reaction, you don’t know what parts work and what parts don’t.”
“The record was a jumping off point and we still have that kind of root and aesthetic, but I don’t think any of the new songs would even fit on that record,” Lewis adds.
Now that West Indian Girl has begun to conquer the West Coast and, recently, SXSW, what will they do next?
“We’re gonna do the solar system before we start recording again,” Carter says.
// Notes from the Road
"BBC Music hosted a mini-touring showcase of up-and-coming British artists.READ the article