The Liberation of Best Coast: An Interview with Bethany Cosentino
The singer, guitarist, and songwriter of Best Coast discusses the influences behind their new album California Nights, the double-edged sword of success, and the band's constantly evolving legacy.
For such a relatively young band, Best Coast have been through a lot.
In the early days, singer and guitarist Bethany Cosentino and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno were unsuspecting indie darlings, championed for their blend of fuzzy lo-fi aesthetics and pure pop songwriting. This methodology culminated in a series of well-received singles and a surprisingly successful debut album, 2010’s Crazy For You, both widely recognized as a pinnacle of the independent “beach rock” revival and widely criticized for its seemingly simplistic songwriting and outmoded sonic palette. In 2012, the duo abandoned that once signature sound for clean guitars and dry vocals on the starkly produced The Only Place, completely subverting the style they were both lauded and loathed for previously. Predictably, reactions were mixed once again.
Three years later, Cosentino and Bruno seem remarkably free from all expectation. A lot has changed in the interim: the band toured with the Pixies in 2014 while Cosentino co-wrote and appeared on a cut from Weezer’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End, founded a new label, Jewel City, and gave it its first release, Best Coast’s 2013 EP Fade Away. As they prepare for the 4 May release of their third album California Nights, Cosentino makes it clear that it’s her proudest achievement yet, a record made without the influence of critical or commercial reaction and based solely on personal instinct. Early singles “California Nights” and “Heaven Sent” suggest yet another deviation from the band’s charted path, not as a result of widespread criticism but of personal growth. California Nights once again finds Best Coast throwing out their old templates and starting fresh, this time with expansive arrangements, layers of effects and more dynamic compositions. Cosentino calls it “the record we always wanted to make.”
Awaiting the debut of California Nights, Cosentino discussed her evolution as a songwriter, why the experience of recording the new album was so satisfying, and the inspiration behind the latest reinvention of Best Coast. Above all else, she makes one thing clear: for perhaps the first time in the band’s career, Best Coast are the ones in complete control of the narrative surrounding the album.
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One of the defining characteristics of Best Coast’s first two albums was the really refined, straightforward songwriting, but California Nights seems a little more sprawling and open. Were you making a conscious effort to open up the sound?
Over the span of the last couple of years since we put out The Only Place, I’ve done a lot of not only personal growing, but as a band we’ve grown a bit. So when we went to mix this record, it wasn’t even an intentional decision to make a more sprawling or noisier record. There’s a lot more texture and there’s a lot more stuff going on, and the songwriting is a bit more expansive as well, but I don’t know if it was necessarily something we walked into the studio saying, like, “We’re gonna do this!” It was more of a reaction and an organic process of growth for me as a 28-year-old woman and as a songwriter, developing a lot more confidence as a musician. It just flowed very organically and naturally.
The new album definitely sounds a little more noisy and effects-heavy than The Only Place in particular. Was that something you worked through in the studio or is it something you planned as you were writing the songs?
That kind of stuff is usually more Bobb’s territory. When I write a song, I’ll write the demo and I’ll send it to Bobb and I’ll give him a little bit of an explanation of what influenced the song, and then he takes that and goes. As far as sonically, he kind of draws from my inspirations and then brings his own inspiration into the picture. On a song like “California Nights”, I remember referencing Led Zeppelin and Spiritualized, and he took those two things and sat with the song, and then he had his own influences that he brought to the table. We just riff off of each other. Once we’re in a studio, we try out different pedals and different amps and different guitars, so it’s a little bit of both, I think. It’s a little bit planned out prior to going into the studio and then once we get in the studio we kind of start experimenting with what we have around us.
There are also some arena rock elements on the new album. While you were writing, was there any consideration of how the music would translate to a live setting?
I knew that I wanted to have a record that was a little bit more “rock”, and a little bit bigger and fuller sounding. When we play live, even the stuff that we play off of all of our previous releases, it doesn’t sound anything like the [studio recordings]. We sort of add a grunginess, or almost, in our own definition, a kind of punk vibe to everything, because it’s a lot more fun when you can just rage a little bit on stage and play louder and have your guitars be a little bit more distorted. So for this record we kind of took into consideration the fact that we change the songs when we perform them live. Instead of making them quiet, we were like, “Okay, we’re just going to do them how we would [live].” And now when we perform some of these new songs, I would say they’re even a little heavier than they are on the record. Our main goal this go-round was just to make the record we always wanted to make but were never at a place where we knew exactly how to make it. It all felt very natural. Nothing felt forced.
California Nights seems like an evolution of Fade Away’s style, which itself was kind of a happy medium between the really dirty production on Crazy for You and the really clean production on The Only Place. Do you feel that California Nights represents your ideal sound for Best Coast?
I would say it definitely represents my ideal sound for Best Coast, in the current state of Best Coast. When we made Fade Away, I wanted to do something new. I wanted to put something out and I wasn’t really ready to commit to making a full-length yet, so we just did that EP. And we did the EP with Wally [Gagel], who produced the record as well, so I felt like Fade Away, for me, was a little bit of a teaser, or a taste of what the next record would be. But I think that the record is even bigger and more expansive than Fade Away was.
Whatever we are currently into at a time when we’re making a record, we pull from those influences; I think this time around, we just had a lot more influences. Crazy For You was the ‘60s surf-pop, lo-fi record, and The Only Place was a more refined, cleaner version of Best Coast, heavily influenced by a lot of ‘70s stuff like Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt, and I was influenced by a lot of female country singers. And then on [California Nights], we didn’t say, “Okay, we have to go in one direction.” Any influence that we were deriving any kind of energy from, we were just like, “Let’s go with this.” And that’s why I think this record is the one that I’m most content with, because it’s not a linear record. Every song has its own vibe, and that’s because we weren’t afraid to explore a bunch of different influences.
Speaking of influences, there’s always been some ‘90s alt-rock influence going into Best Coast, but it’s much more pronounced now. Do you find yourself more personally connected with the styles of music you grew up with as you get further into your career?
I guess so. It was more like that was the stuff I was listening to a lot when I was writing the record. I’ve always listened to Nirvana, Oasis… stuff that I’ve listened to pretty much my whole life, stuff that I’ve been into since I was a teenager. Around the time that I was writing this record and even when I was writing stuff from Fade Away, it was a little more heavy on what I had been listening to [at the time]. I was writing based on a reaction to that. The music that I’m the most influenced by is either nostalgic or it’s just music that I can relate to a certain point in my life. I’ve always been drawn to music that’s relatable, so a lot of the stuff I tapped into to write these songs on this record was definitely stuff that I grew up listening to. But all of the influences for every Best Coast record have always been stuff that I grew up listening to. I think I was just having a bit of a flashback to that point in my life.
You’ve said that The Only Place was a more intimate and mature record than Crazy For You. Do you see California Nights as a continuation of that evolution?
With each record a band makes, they grow and they change, and it’s really awesome to see artists kind of come into themselves and figure out exactly what it is that they want to do. Sometimes that happens on their first record, sometimes that happens on their second record. For every artist it’s different.
When we made Crazy For You, we had two weeks to do it and we were making it sort of based off of a reaction that we were getting from the internet for having a couple of singles out. Then when we made The Only Place, we had just gotten off of touring Crazy For You for nearly two years and almost immediately went back into the studio. There were obvious pressures making a second record to follow up a first record that was very successful.
This go-round, we were just calm about it. We weren’t on a label, we didn’t really talk about making the record a ton, there wasn’t a lot of attention to the fact that we were even making a record, so we just grew and evolved naturally as opposed to sort of feeling like, “Okay, we have to do something that sounds different.” We went in and did whatever we wanted, whatever came to us. I think that, now, five years into our career, we’re realizing that that’s the way we want to approach everything that we do from here on out, you know? Just don’t overthink it, because that’s when you can sort of make it hard for yourself -- trying to make a very specific record. With California Nights, it was more of a reaction to just going with the flow, just going in there and not having anybody come in and tell us what we were doing or when they needed the first single. We really went in and did it exactly the way we wanted to do it, and I think that’s the secret behind feeling very comfortable and happy with the record, the fact that we did what we wanted to do.
You said that California Nights is the only album you’ve made that you’re completely happy with. What is it about your earlier albums that make them not quite as satisfying for you?
Obviously I love the music that we’ve made in the past, I just think that this is really the first record that we’ve made that, when I listen to it all the way through, I feel really happy with it. When I listen back to it, I’m like, “This is something I’m really, really proud of,” and that has a lot to do with the way the recording process went and the way that we approached it in a very calm, relaxed manner. Like I said, Crazy For You was done in two weeks and we didn’t know what to expect, we were just like, “Okay, I guess we’re making a record now because people like all the singles we put out, we might as well make a record.” And then the second record was obviously a bit stressful because your second record is always stressful. I think the atmosphere of the way that things went down in the studio is what allows me to have a really positive experience with California Nights, just the fact that there was not a single day in the studio where I was stressed or upset or like, “What’s going on? Does this song work, does this song not work?” In the past, I’ve definitely taken my self-doubt into the studio with me and this go-round I was like, “I’m not going to do that.” It worked, and I think that’s why I feel completely content with this record, because I can remember very vividly the experience of making it and how amazing it was.
You’ve kind of had to rebrand Best Coast since the days of Crazy for You. Were you ever anxious about moving the band in new directions and how that would be received? For instance, moving from the band’s lo-fi origins to the more produced sound of The Only Place?
That’s for sure something I thought about then, but like I said, that’s what made this record a totally different experience. That’s why I can listen back to this record and feel really content with it, because of the fact that I did not go into the studio thinking, “What are critics going to say?” or “What are fans going to say?” about us making an almost six-minute long, more psychedelic sounding song [“California Nights”]. We didn’t think about that stuff, it was more, “Let’s make the record we want to make.”
The core of Best Coast is still very much alive in this record. As long as I’m writing songs for Best Coast, it’s always going to have a familiar vibe to it, because I have a very specific way of writing and, obviously, lyrically, I tend to write about life and stuff that’s relatable to pretty much anybody out there. That’s what really saved us on this record, just not thinking about that kind of stuff. Not so much Bobb, because Bobb is always the calm one with his head on totally straight and I’m the more frantic, nervous one because, at the end of the day, they’re my songs that I’m writing, and so I’m usually the one that gets the, you know, “Oh, Bethany always writes the same song over and over.” I definitely felt that sort of anxiety years ago, but I didn’t even think about that this time around. I was just like, “I’m not going to bring that energy into the studio, I’m just gonna go and do exactly what we [want].” I think that is really the only reason this record feels so great to us, the fact that we didn’t overthink it and just tried to leave the negativity out of the room.
All of Best Coast’s releases have commonalities, but they’re all completely different sonically. Do you have any notion of what you want Best Coast to sound like in the future?
No, I think that is something that will come to me when it’s time to do whatever we do next. Right now, I’m really focused on this record and I’m really focused on trying to enjoy the fact that we have something new coming out and we’re just about to start touring pretty much for the rest of the year. When inspiration strikes for me to start writing new stuff, it’ll just happen. I can’t really say what I want the band to be like because after this experience of making a record where we just went with the flow and didn’t really overthink things, I’m now learning that this is the way that I have to start doing stuff. I don’t doubt that it’ll change a bit, because, like I said, as people in bands grow and get older and change, their music follows along with them. I look forward to getting to that point, but right now I’m really just focused on California Nights.