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Q&A: Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino talks old-school country, confessional songwriting, and bench pressing

April 1, 2013
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In 2010 Best Coast surprised everyone, including themselves, with the runaway success of their debut Crazy for You. Its blast of catchy, lo-fi guitar pop caught many an ear, including power pop legend and Kanye West co-producer Jon Brion, who produced the band’s second album The Only Place. With a new polished sound, Best Coast hope to continue their upward trajectory at the Ottobar on April 2nd. Best Coast’s songwriter Bethany Cosentino took time to answer some of the City Paper’s questions via email over the weekend.

CP: You’re playing Baltimore’s Ottobar on Tuesday April 2nd. Have you ever noticed our “Greatest City In America” benches? Will you admit the benches’ essential truth?

BC: I have no idea what you are talking about. I’m into bench pressing though.

CP: Do you think everyone should have the sort of local pride that Best Coast exhibit or is it a matter of California being just that much more awesome than everywhere else?

BC: I mean I feel like you should definitely be proud of where you’re from, no matter where it is. A city can become such a huge part of you and shape who you become, so I feel like it’s really special for me that I have this deep passion for California, Los Angeles specifically. I have no idea what I would be like if I grew up somewhere else, and I just feel like a lot of my personality is directly influenced by the place that I’m from.

CP: Your lyrics tend be very direct and often place you as a subject desiring an unspecific “you.” I find this very interesting because it recasts the role of women in pop songs from desirable objects to a person with desires. How do you think gender plays a role in peoples’ reactions to the band or their interpretations of what you’re doing?

BC: I mean, I think that for women– especially younger girls who like Best Coast –they can relate very closely to what I’m saying. I think that the songs aren’t really gender specific. I mean obviously I’m a girl singing about boys, but you could easily change that role from your own perspective. I just think my lyrics are true, and people respect that.

CP: On your second record you worked with Jon Brion and its broad sound really distanced itself from the lo-fi aesthetic of your first release. Could you talk a bit about how you view the advantages and disadvantages of lo-fi compared to the production choices you made with The Only Place?

BC: I feel like we really wanted to ditch the lo-fi thing while working with Jon [Brion] because we were making such a “real” record, like in Capitol Studios, doing this, like, way serious thing. Bobb and I are pretty goofy, in the studio we like to drink and make jokes and eat a lot, so doing this record was a big deal to us. I mean we still goofed off and drank and ate, but we took things a little more seriously, I think. When we were making Crazy For You we had no idea that the album would blow up, we just felt like “Oh ok, we are making this cool record who knows what will happen?” When we recorded The Only Place we knew what we were doing, we had already had a successful album. We wanted to do something different and we did. The music we’ve been recording lately is pretty much right down the middle of those two records. It’s not a lo-fi record, but it’s not a super hi-fi record either. I think we tried something new, got it out of our systems, and now we will do something else new!

CP: You’ve said that your songs are very personal. In your own listening habits do you tend to gravitate toward more personal, confessional artists, and do you worry about your friends figuring out what song is about what?

BC: I totally listen to music that is super personal and relatable. I think the reason why Stevie Nicks is one of my favorite songwriters is because she was so honest and just didn’t seem to care how people would interpret what she was saying. People obviously make assumptions about what my songs are about, or “who” they are about, but I don’t really care, it doesn’t bother me. It’s important to me to keep writing songs that people can identify with and relate to.

CP: On The Only Place a lot of the guitar fills have a very country or folk feel to me. Is this an intentional thing or am I hearing things?

BC: I was listening to a lot of old-school country while writing the record. I wanted to take a shot at doing some kind of weird spin on ’60s country stuff like Loretta Lynn, Dusty Springfield, [and] Patsy Cline. I didn’t want to go in and make a country record, but I wanted people to hear the influence. We have a song on our new EP that has pedal steel on it. I’m super inspired by country music, and I think it’s cool to blend that influence with my other influences like pop-punk and just straight-up pop.

CP: Do you see a marked difference in West Coast and East Coast bands? If so, what is it about the coasts that bring out such different modes of expression?

BC: Not really. I mean, I think it’s just like every band is different, no matter where you are.

CP: You’ve mentioned in the past that you’re influenced by “oldies” like the Beach Boys, Lesley Gore, and Frankie Valli. Why do you think young people 50 years removed from this pop music find it so appealing? What are your thoughts on popular surf rock duo Jan and Dean?

BC: I’m not really sure why so many young people are into “older” music. For me, it’s kind of like it gives me this relaxing feeling and reminds me of ‘easier’ times. It’s just kind of carefree sounding, and it’s really positive and makes me feel good. Sometimes I like to listen to music that bums me out, but when I wanna feel good about stuff I listen to oldies.

I love Jan and Dean. I actually bought my first Jan and Dean record at a thrift store when I was like 17, and I was super obsessed with it all through high school and college.

CP: Are there any musical influences that you try to work into Best Coast’s sound that would possibly surprise your fanbase?

BC: I’m really influenced by My Bloody Valentine. I really love them so much. I don’t think that’s really noticeable in our sound, but I feel like on the new EP it might be a little more evident. I think that their melody and the way they just pair noise with such beautiful melodies is really amazing. I like to kind of make things a little raw, but keep the sweetness, and I feel like My Bloody Valentine is really amazing at doing that.

CP: If you were to be a victim of gotcha journalism in this interview what answer would you like me to change before this reaches my editor [full disclosure: I don't do that kinda thing]?

BC: Well, definitely not the one about bench pressing…

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