Best Coast: Return to Sender | Q&A

courtesy photo

by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

If Best Coast were a high school science project, Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno would probably lose points for teamwork.

Across two albums and a forthcoming EP, in-person, give-and-take brainstorming has never been the California indie pop duo’s idea of collaboration.

Instead, it’s a more private practice, executed by the sending of demos and rough tracks back and forth, as individual writers with reverence to a larger pass-a-long story. It’s a story they scrutinize closely while separate, starting with lyrics and rhythm guitar from Cosentino. Lead guitarist Bruno says in the four years of Best Coast’s existence, only once or twice has one half of the band ever leveled a critique to the face of the other.

And it’s infrequent to the point that when it does happen, the problem is resolved quickly and easily. So easily that during the making of Best Coast’s second full-length record The Only Place in 2012, the mindmeld of the partnership took producer Jon Brion aback.

“(Brion) said we kind of have our own language in the way that we work together that’s pretty unique,” Bruno says.

The dictionary for the Best Coast language has long included words like “The Beach Boys,” (with regard to the heavy surf influence on the band’s 2010 debut Crazy For You), but has expanded in recent years to encapsulate more experimental influences like Les Baxter and exotica music.

In support of their forthcoming EP Fade Away, set to be released on Oct. 22, Best Coast will perform at The Waiting Room on Thursday. Tickets are available here.

But first Bruno spoke to Hear Nebraska on how Jon Brion adapted to the Best Coast philosophy of independent work and why Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk was a helpful reference point for the making of Best Coast’s second record.

Listen to the full interview with Best Coast’s Bobb Bruno here:

Hear Nebraska: I was looking ahead on your calendar a little bit. Later in the fall, you guys are headed to Hong Kong and Singapore. When you go international like that, you guys are connected — probably because of the surf influences on the first record — as bringing a California aesthetic or a vibe that people think is pretty cool everywhere. Are you guys cognizant of that when you’re halfway around the world or is it just music that people are happy to hear at that point?

Bobb Bruno: I don’t know. I think that vibe is pretty much just from me and Beth being ourselves, so we can’t help but have whatever this California beach thing (is). Because we're both born and raised out there. And a lot of people in our band and crew are also native Californians. So it’s just something that we don’t really think about it, but we can’t help but be that way. I’m sure to an outsider, it’s probably a little more obvious than to us.

HN: But your roots are in it. Is that what you’re saying?

BB: Yeah, and I used to go to the beach a lot, listening to surf music and The Beach Boys and things like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, all stuff from out here. Especially in our age group, it’s unavoidable because pretty much every parent out here, that was the soundtrack to their lives, so you just grew up into it.

HN: One of the things I thought was most interesting and I wanted to dig into with you a little bit: When you talk about you and Bethany’s creative process, you spend significant time working separately and then come together. I’m sure there's a sharing that happens in between, but what’s that moment like for you when you two step into a room and are ready to move forward with a song really with your two heads together for the first time?

BB: It’s exciting. Before we go into the studio, we have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen in the song. Because Beth will send a demo and I’ll put my basic ideas on top of that and send it back to her. We can go back and forth if there’s things we want to tweak or whatever. So we have a pretty good idea of what stuff’s going to sound like. Once we get into the studio, it’s just making sure we can totally execute the vision that we have from demoing.

HN: OK, why is the sending back and forth a more appealing way to start songs for you guys than stewing together in a room? I think I remember you saying one time that maybe you’d done that and this was a better alternative. Why did you find that starting separate was better for you guys creatively?

BB: That’s just how we started doing things right from the get-go. We did try kind of doing stuff together and it didn’t work as well and it didn't feel like a natural process for us. We’d both been in other bands and the process of being in a rehearsal room or wherever to flesh out things can be really taxing.

I think for some bands, they can thrive in that situation. But you’re around each other so much when you’re on tour that to come back and have to be in a room and working together and stuff, it takes its toll on the band in the long run. It’s good that we can work separately at our own pace.

Also, when everybody is in a room, there’s a little bit of pressure to come forward with an idea pretty quickly. When we’re separate, we can mull over and experiment with different ideas on our own. That way when we present stuff to each other, it’s a little more thought out. There’s good things that come out of spontaneity and we definitely leave room for that in the studio. But I think the way we work is just good all round for mental health reasons and creatively also.

HN: I’m wondering if you start separately, do you also have the opportunity to work out your own bad ideas? Do you spend less time saying to the other person “that’s not going to work” because you get to say it to yourself first?

BB: Oh yeah, most definitely. Pretty much in the entire history of the band there’s only been one or two times where I presented something and Bethany was like, “That’s not really right,” or, “You should change this.” Pretty much I think because we're both pretty critical of ourselves, so it’s good especially for me to really sit down and work on my part and critique them on my own before I ever send them to her.

HN: And so what’s it like to receive a demo from Bethany? After playing so closely together for four years, what’s the level of unpredictability like there when you’re opening up the package on a new song for the first time?

BB: Oh, it’s always exciting. As soon as I see something my email or she’ll text me and say, “I’m sending you a new song.” I get really excited and pretty much start working on it as soon as possible. Because it’s really fun for me to work out stuff. We’ve been doing this for three or four years now and it’s still the same as when we started.  

HN: Is there a level of surprise? I’m sure that now and again you must be surprised with the way a demo comes to you.

BB: Oh yeah. There’s lots of different things that Beth draws upon and different eras of music that influence her when she’s writing a song. There’s always a surprise every record and it’s cool to see her grow as a writer and see her pulling influences from different things.

It’s a challenge for me to try and flesh out those songs. Once in awhile, I’ll surprise her, too, with whatever my idea is for something. She’ll say, “Oh, that’s really cool. Make sure you do that when we record the song.”

HN: Well, let me try and ground this conversation a little bit in thinking about where you guys were in 2012 with The Only Place. Were you both prepared to go less surf-inspired or were you having conversations between you about changing up the sound coming out of the first record? Or was that something that happened out of the way your worked back and forth?

BB: It wasn’t anything we really discussed. It was just totally organic. Beth wrote those songs and sent them to me and that's how they came out. I think more, we thought about just how things would sound from a production and engineering standpoint and not so much composition-wise.

HN: I guess it’s well-documented, people talking about how there’s less surf on the second record. As I was listening, too, I was thinking there’s less pop, too. I was listening to “Dreaming My Life Away,” and I thought that one was interesting because the chord progression is like one chord off from being a really sweet pop song. But the one chord it’s off makes it kind of haunting, kind of freaky song.

BB: Yeah, Jon Brion noticed that too when we went to record, like, “Oh, that’s really cool the way that changes.” But that’s actually a pretty old Best Coast song. I think it came out on one of the early seven inches. That was a song she just wanted to revisit and do a proper studio version because the original version was, you know, done in my bedroom with a drum machine. On the full version, I played real drums and Jon did a bunch of cool stuff on it. We just wanted to do a bigger version on that song.

HN: Well, that one was interesting to me in particular because it could lead us into a conversation about you two starting from such a simple two-person unit and doing more with less. Do you like the idea of in a song like that where you tweak one thing and it kind of pushes a boundary?

BB: Yeah, well, even when we did the original version, even back then there were still things that I wanted to do but we weren’t able to do technically. Jon Brion can pretty much play any instrument, so when we tracked the song, I told him my idea of I wanted vibraphone on there.

And referenced this Beach Boys song “'Til I Die” and he totally understood what I was saying because we’ve talked about that song a lot before in the past. And also just percussion kinds of things. In my mind, when Beth first presented it to me, I really wanted to achieve kind of a Les Baxter, exotica (sound) on that song. Once we got to work with Jon, it could have those elements in there, that we couldn’t do the first time around.

HN: Let me ask you about Jon. You’ve talked about how influential he was in the making of that second album. As you move further away from it and you’ve taken those songs on tour all over the world, how do you reflect on his influence? Do new things come to mind as you’re tinkering with the songs for a live performance, like, “Oh, I see what Jon did there.” How much after-the-fact reflection is there about what Jon was able to do on that record?

BB: Applied to live performance, I don’t really notice that. Jon, when he did the record, he pretty much did not want to change anything about Bethany’s and my process. He kind of let us do our thing. He didn’t really change any structures or anything. There were maybe one or two guitar parts where he said, “Oh, I think you should maybe try something different, like write a new part.”

Even as far as his contribution, he told me just make a list of whatever overdubbed ideas you have for these songs. We had to go way from an Australian tour for like two weeks. So while we were gone he kind of put all those ideas down and when we came back they were all 99 percent amazing and exactly what we wanted. He was kind of there to help us achieve what we wanted and not really steer us in any direction.  

HN: Well, that’s interesting, Bobb, because when you talk about leaving him with a list of things to do production-wise, it’s almost like he fell into briefly being a third member of Best Coast. He worked indepently and brought it all back together.

BB: Yeah, I mean … I’m not the best drummer and I cannot play to a click track. Jon was kind of our human metronome where he would pick up a drum or would play shaker or something. And so I’d say 70 percent of the songs were probably done with three of us all playing together.

HN: Maybe just thinking about you and Beth and from where you were musically with the second record and moving forward, do you think simplicity opens doors for you musically? You have one voice and two guitars when you start. Does that open more doors for you guys than having four guitar plays and a keyboardist?

BB: I think so and the big thing is no matter what the song is, Bethany’s vocals and whatever vocal harmony she’s going to do, that’s the main focus. I feel like that’s the best thing about our songs. I don’t want to distract from that by piling on a bunch of stuff. And Bethany doesn’t want that either.

I think simplicity is kind of what we're into. When you listen to a Fleetwood Mac record, there’s not a whole lot going on. Everybody is kind of in the background for the vocals on those records. Even if Lindsey Buckingham is doing some crazy guitar part or a solo, it’s not up in the mids. It’s kind of back there, just like a haze around the song. That’s just something that’s a part of what we do.

HN: Well, that song “Storms” that you guys covered is an incredibly simple song from Tusk.

BB: Yeah, yeah. That whole record is pretty minimal. That was a record when we recording that probably got referenced the most when we were doing The Only Place. Because Jon is really into Lindsey Buckingham songs on that record and Beth and I love the record as a whole. That was a really good common ground reference point kind of thing when we working on the songs.

HN: It’s also a famous example of somebody having a really successful record and then a total changeup. Was that a parallel for that, too?

BB: Oh yeah. We definitely talked about that. Because we knew it wasn’t immediately a catchy upbeat record like Crazy For You was.

HN: Yeah, maybe it asks a little bit more of the listener?

BB: I would hope so. I hope we made a record that’s interesting. We weren’t trying to top Crazy For You. We just didn’t want to make the same kind of record, especially when you’re working with Jon Brion at Capitol Studios. We just really wanted to maximize what we could do there.

HN: When you guys tour, you have bassist and drummers and some people that you've brought in on a consistent basis. Beth has talked about how Best Coast is two people and it will always be two people. If you guys were to officially add more people, would that then not be Best Coast? Would that have to be a different project?

BB: I don’t know. On the release we have coming out, it’ll be the first release on which I didn’t play any drums. We had Beth add drums on two of the songs and had Brady Miller, who’s our touring drummer, do the drums on the rest. And that worked out really well. Brady and I kind of got together and played each other our ideas for what the drum parts should be. I think we’re going to continue doing that. He’s a much tighter drummer than me and he works really well with me and Beth.

He’s not an official member, but he’s gonna be on the record. Our bass player that plays with us live, too, he’s a really good pedal steel guitar player and really good guitar player all-around. We had him play some songs, too. The core is always going to be me and Beth, but we’re not closed off to having other people playing with us.

HN: OK, and I didn’t think so, but when you say “the core” you’re referring to the initial creative force? You think that will always be the two of you.

BB: Yeah, there was an interview when somebody asked Jon Brion about the way that Beth and I worked. And he said we kind of have our own language in the way that we work together that’s pretty unique. There was a discussion that came up about some part and Beth was just like “Well, I don’t think you should do that.”

And I was like, “OK.” And Jon was really surprised how easy going it was. There was no me trying to be like, “Why don’t we…” Just like, “Ok, you don’t like that. Let’s try something else.”

HN: So maybe it isn’t that idea of the duo. It’s just the two of you.

BB: It’s the two of us. We just really kind of think very similarly about things. It gets kind of weird sometimes about how we’ll have the same idea about things not just in music but in life, in general. Without even discussing it with each other, we’ll both come to the same conclusions.

There’s a lot of: “I was just going to say that” or “I was thinking that same thing.”

Even the name of the band, Best Coast, was something we both thought of. I was driving around once and thought, “Oh, that would be a good name for a band.” But I didn’t know if it was right. Like I didn’t want people to think that we were saying, “Oh we are the best coast, like the west coast is the best coast” or being kind of snobby about it.

But then once Beth was like “What about the name Best Coast?” I was like, “Oh, that’s weird that you said that.” It’s a lot of weird stuff like that.

HN: Sounds to me like you guys are just lucky to have each other.

BB: Yeah, yeah. Totally.  

Chance Solem-Pfeifer is Hear Nebraska’s staff writer. He swears he didn’t make Bobb talk about Fleetwood Mac. Reach Chance at