When you start to record a new album, people always ask you what you think it will sound like. It’s almost impossible to talk about music that doesn’t exist but when we started work on our sixth album late last year, I thought that for once, I had a pretty good idea. Put simply, Observator was supposed to be our Los Angeles album. At least, that’s what I imagined it to be in my head. As much as I love New York and feel almost constantly inspired by the noise and confusion here, the allure of the west coast has always loomed large for The Raveonettes Most of our first album Whip It On was written during my first ever visit to the City of Angels, there was a song on Pretty In Black called Ode To LA and as most people know, Sharin now lives there full time. But when it came time to start work on this album, the warm Pacific pull had become irresistible. The fact that I was listening to The Doors constantly only added to the seductive draw of the drowning sun. As proud as I am of our last album Raven In The Grave, it felt more like a dark score or soundtrack to an as-yet-unmade film and while both Sharin and I really pushed ourselves to make that album, I wanted to get back to that classic verse-chorus-verse style of song writing that The Doors managed so well on their best singles. I also love how you can hear LA in whatever they did; listening to their music always conjures up images of Jim Morrison living on a Venice rooftop and the band rehearsing in Ray Manzarek’s beach front house. It’s a very specific and evocative feel that I wanted to achieve, and going out west seemed the best way to capture it.
If I’m being honest, I also needed to get away because strange days had found me in New York. I threw out my back last summer and the recovery was extremely difficult. When you’re a young man and you can’t put your socks on in the morning without being overwhelmed by pain, it can be very demoralising. It’s almost like you’re about to expire. When something that you take for granted is made to be so difficult, there’s no way you can stop it from affecting you mentally. Eventually, I was diagnosed with a clinical depression and ordered to stop drinking, start exercising and to be more social, which I managed to do for a short period of time. But with Christmas came the inevitable relapse and eventual escalation. By New Year, the party needed to stop and going out to Venice Beach seemed like the perfect solution. I could use the California air to get clean, concentrate on writing, no one would distract me, and maybe I’d come across a beautiful redheaded muse named Pamela too.
What I found however was quite the opposite. I found dread and despair, a wicked loneliness that only furthered my intake of substances. I couldn't focus and inspiration was fleeting or mostly absent. A restlessness had overcome me and wouldn't let go. Sharin came by the hotel a few times to talk new album and listen to a few small ideas I had brought with me but aside from the song Til The End (which is the only idea that from this time that made it to the album), we weren't able to get a true sense of what the album was gonna be like at all. I had planned to spend eight days in Venice Beach, but left after just four.
It’s ironic that I traveled so far to seek out ghosts from rock ‘n’ roll’s past when in actual fact, it was the vibrant living souls of today that I needed most. After the boredom of Venice Beach, I hailed a cab bound for the excitement of Hollywood. I ended up spending the next four days in a Benzo trance, drinking, eating, talking and soaking up the real lives of the people I encountered. It’s always been this way- I get a lot of my ideas when I’m out. I get drunk and have moments of lucidity where I scribble down notes and thoughts. The next day, I’ll start channelling the thoughts I had the previous night. I once read that Lars Von Trier writes his films in a similar kind of way. He goes home, gets super drunk and then he starts writing and all his inhibitions disappear. That’s sort of always worked for me too but this time, I had to go the long way round to remember that.
After I got back to New York City, a swathe of bleak and sad songs about lost romances and unrequited love came freely. It makes Observator sumptuous and beautiful in its sound, but bleak and sad at its heart. It’s like a heavenly dream that you slowly realize is actually taking place in hell. The real people I’d met and experiences I had all bled into the songs too. She Owns The Streets for example is about a New York City street dancer. I've noticed her before dancing wildly on Bowery, running crazily in the street among the cabs and horrified passers-by. A friend of mine introduced me to her and we struck up a friendship. In 20 minutes I had written a song about the pleasures and pitfalls of being perceived as either a drug-crazed girl or an insane individual, simply because she dares to defy the laws of civility and conformity. Isolation can be a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t afford you this kind of inspiration. Sometimes, I dread to think what other sights and spectacles I may have missed if I’d stayed inside my head on Venice Beach a minute longer.
As it turned out, LA did find its way on the album. To record Observator, Sharin and I went into the legendary Sunset Sound Studios for a week- where The Doors recorded a lot of their classic albums. It was there that a new dimension to the Raveonettes began to develop. The song Observations is very important in that respect; it’s the first time we’ve ever used the piano and what a glorious, gloomy sound it makes. We knew immediately that it was something we needed to expand on and so, we used that sound on You Hit Me (I’m Down) and Young And Cold too. But make no mistake, Observator is still a gorgeous guitar album. Raven In The Grave used a lot more in the way of synths and strings so this time, I found myself using multi-layered guitars to make up for that. We also had the benefit of working with Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, Go-Gos, Richard Hell) again, which we haven’t done since Pretty In Black. He’s been like a mentor to us and having him in the studio gave us an added confidence that really seeped into the songs.
Overall, we took just seven days to record Observator so in that context, it’s one of the quickest and easiest albums we’ve ever done. It was getting in the right frame of mind to actually write the songs that took several agonizing months. For so long, I tried to capture a new muse and carve out a path forward for us. I travelled thousands of miles to find it and experienced all kinds of insanity along the way. Yet all the while, the future of The Raveonettes was in the people, the occurrences, and the relationships that were immediately around me. It’s not an LA album. It’s not even a New York album. It’s a collection of observations that occur in life and as I’ve learned, life happens everywhere.