The Bixby Knolls' Frontman Curt Barlage Talks 'Juvenile Heart Crime' Video, New Album, Mexico Tour, Blue Collar Rock & More
Los Angeles-based rockers The Bixby Knolls recently dropped the video for their track "Juvenile Heart Crime" off their latest EP Tomorrow Never Comes. After touring the West Coast and Mexico, they are now they are hard at work prepping a full-length follow-up. If you're unfamiliar with the band, you might have heard them on shows such as ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars and Showtime's Shameless.
Now that they are is back in the states, we chatted with frontman Curt Barlage about origins of The Bixby Knolls, Mexico's influence on them, the concept behind their latest video, what they have planned for their full-length, the current state of the music industry, and much more.
Music Times: How did you guys form? And what were you doing before then?
Curt Barlage: We were basically all playing music in other bands. The core of the band is Christian and I — we're pretty much the songwriters — but I had poached him from another band. I had him fill in for shows here and there, and I just kept asking him until finally I was just like, 'Why don't you just join up.' Monica, our keyboard player, she still plays in a bunch of different projects and has her own, but we've all just been playing music in other groups and kind of came together that way.
MT: I was curious, are you guys named after the Bixby Knolls neighborhood in Long Beach since you're in L.A.? Or where did that name come from?
CB: Yeah, it's from the city. There was a point where I didn't have a car here for a while, and I was just looking at it on the map in the subway and it looked like a band name. We wanted something that was regional; it portrayed where we were from, or at least the area that we're from, which is Los Angeles. We were born and raised here.
MT: Without calling yourself The Beach Boys.
CB: Yeah, exactly right. Which they grew up in the town that I was raised in. I was raised in the South Bay, so they're kind of my hometown heroes.
There's a funny story with the name of the band actually. Our kick off show for the Mexican tour was over at Good Times at Davey Wayne's, and Alex Turner was there from the Arctic Monkeys and he was asking Christian about the name. And we told him, and he was like, 'No, no, this is it: The two of you met in a massage parlor in Bixby Knolls.' So that was his version, and we've been rolling with that one all tour long.
MT: The newest thing you have out is the video for "Juvenile Heart Crime." What was the concept behind that video?
CB: The hands basically represent the forces pulling against you, maybe outside influences, maybe societal influences or societal morals, so that's what the hands represent.
That video in particular, the identity crisis going on is male-female. The idea is that the two people in the video — we're basically one person trying to figure out if we're male or female or who we are. It can be interpreted in many ways, but in particular, that was the idea behind it, was just a struggle with self-identity, and the hands were the forces that pull you apart from being yourself, whether it be acceptance from society, or whether it be your family or people that you have to deal with every day. The hands just represent the struggle and the things that are trying to pull you apart from being yourself.
MT: With that video in particular, have you gotten any response from the transgender community?
CB: Yeah, what influenced it actually was something that I read about a family. It was a really big story right when we were filming the video, maybe about 6 months ago or so, but the story was there was this family who had a little girl, and I think she was 5, but she was really pulling towards tendencies of being a male, a boy, and the family just let her do it. They accepted who she was, and it was a big thing. That story kind of inspired the video. It's an issue, and it made me think about other realms of self-identity, and we just thought it would be a good thing to do.
I mean, I haven't been hit up by anyone saying thank you for exposing this, but I hope that it reaches out to anyone who feels that way, whether they be transgender or just unaccepted from their peers and family or whatever's around them.
MT: You guys spent a decent amount of time in Mexico. How did that connection happen?
CB: This is our fourth time there. It's our third tour of being deeper into Mexico, but our fourth time, including when we played the All My Friends Festival in Tijuana. But, basically, Mexico City is where we spend most of our time. We do the cities around there and we stretch out as far as we possibly can, but to be honest, the first time I went there about eight times ago and four and a half years ago, we just feel in love with it. It has such a rich art and music culture. The city is taking off in that aspect, and it's really gaining its own identity.
So we more or less pounded on the doors of DJ booths and promoters' offices and clubs and just handed them discs until we finally got a response, and we kept coming back. This last tour was amazing. We got tons of coverage and just really good shows. Good things happened here. But it was all grassroots. We did it all on our own, and we just felt like it would be a good place to be.
MT: Has being over there so much influenced your sound at all?
CB: Yeah, definitely. I think for our band, we draw influence from everything, but I'm sure that it definitely has something to do with what we sound like. I'm sure we picked up influence from spending so much time out there, but we have such a wide range of influences, so we're going to see on the next album how much Mexico has really influenced us.
MT: Have you ever thought about collaborating with local artists down there?
CB: We actually did this last time. We just worked on a single with AJ Davila, who's actually from Puerto Rico, but he moved out there. He is really good, and Christian and I are really big fans of him and his band AJ Davila y Terror Amor. He was in a garage band called Davila 666, and they were pretty big in the states, in that scene. But we did cut a single with him actually, which we were hoping to do the whole time.
MT: How does the scene down in Mexico City differ from the L.A. scene? And where do you fit in between both of those scenes?
CB: To be honest, it's kind of the same but in a different language. It's the same, and I'm not going to say in a positive way. There's a lot of politics behind it, too. You got to be in the circle, you got to be in the cliques. The industry is run by the upper class, so if you're a local band there and you're not in that circle of the industry, you're not getting in. It's the same in LA to me. That's the unfortunate part. If you're not in that circle, you're not going to play that festival, you're not going to play these shows, you're not going to be associated with these bands. It's that weird hierarchy that, to be honest, we completely detest here and over in Mexico.
We don't want to be involved in that stuff. It's not a competition to us. We want all of our friends to be successful, and we want to be successful ourselves and try to survive off of doing this, which is hard enough as it is. So there's no reason to be competing with each other. But unfortunately, that's just how it is out here and over there, and I think in any metropolitan city in the world that I've experienced.
MT: Do you guys have jobs outside the band?
CB: Oh yeah, absolutely.
MT: That probably helps you being able to just focus on the music rather than making compromises for the money.
CB: Right. Yeah, we have to. I've been working in restaurants for years, which is great. It allows you to take that time off. I think jobs in restaurants are very understanding. Everyone I work with is a musician or an actor, so it goes hand in hand. We all work odd end jobs. Some of the guys do random work.
MT: What are some recurring themes that you guys try to bring to light in your songs?
CB: It's all about struggle. We all come from families, hard-working families and everything, so it's what we're familiar with and that's what the songs are about.
MT: Blue collar rock 'n' roll?
CB: Yeah, pretty much. That's what we support, and it's something that we can stand for and stand next to. I think the new EP has kind of taken on a theme of it's own. It's a little bit darker than anything we've done, and a lot of it has to do with self-identity, including the single "Juvenile Heart Crime," the one with the video.
Like I said, that video kind of explores the depth of self-identity or trying to figure out who you are from the inside instead of putting the blame on society, on the outside. It's more of looking within and realizing who are we, what are we doing here, and what's our purpose is in this life, in this society. We try to encompass that, actually, on the whole EP.
MT: You mentioned you were working on a full-length. What stages are you in with that?
CB: Right. It's in the very, very beginning stages.
MT: So is the EP supposed to be a taste of what's to come on the full-length? Or is it a different sort of concept with the album being its own thing?
CB: I'm not sure. I'd like to say that we never repeat ourselves, so the EP wasn't really a taste, it was just kind of was what it was on it's own. I don't think it's going to have too much influence on whatever we do next. It's going to be different. We're trying to capture a moment. We want to capture something the current moment of us and how we're feeling on a creative level.
MT: Having such a big fan base in Mexico, have you thought of writing Spanish-language songs?
CB: We did that one I mentioned earlier with AJ Davila. It was my first stab at singing in Spanish, so we'll see how that goes.
MT: Do you speak Spanish?
CB: I do a little bit. I'm not super fluent, but I can sit through a conversation and pick up a lot of things. But the other guys are. Our keyboard player, Monica, she's from Tijuana. Christian, he grew up here, but with a Salvadorian family, so he speaks pretty fluent Spanish. So we're pretty much the ones that do.
MT: Writing in another language is difficult because you're not only trying to fit a rhyme scheme but you also need to know the word's significance within the context it's used and you can't translate word for word.
CB: Yeah, it's like a whole different form. Writing in a different language is really challenging because you can't say the same things because there's a flow that might not work in an English phrase, but will work in a Spanish phrase, in a completely different meaning that would make no sense in English. So it's very challenging, but it's something we love to do. Mexican culture, coming from LA, is already a big part of our lives, and I think just being out there and how great the scene is out there, how things are moving. That's one of the places we want to be, so we have to embrace it.
MT: Beyond comparing the L.A. and Mexico City, where do you guys see yourself within the L.A. scene on its own? You guys are pretty straightforward, high-energy rock, which isn't necessarily the trend there now.
CB: Right. It's funny. That's what we've become now, but maybe if we were around 15 years ago we'd probably just be rock. I don't know. I like a lot of new things that are out, but guitars have taken a backseat in recent times. So we're sticking to our guns because I feel like it's refreshing now to hear a guitar band. When they come out and the guitars are rough, I love that.
I do a lot of production stuff personally where it's all electronics. I love it all, but the thing is there's nothing better than a great band with live instrumentation, just doing their thing and really bringing it to the table. That's what we're trying to do. It's about time. I feel like this electronic thing and the duos and the very minimalistic lineups are getting old. I feel like people are getting tired of it finally, so the whole live aspect, I feel like it's about to come back into the limelight really soon.
MT: You said that you guys are more of a working class band, and being an electronic act in itself has a barrier to entry because you have to be able to afford that kind of set up and technology. Whereas, with rock 'n' roll, you can pick up real instruments for cheap at a thrift store and get working without having to be rich. So your sound sort of fits your mission in a way, which is interesting.
CB: Right absolutely. It's like soccer. You're going to find the best players in the world anywhere because anyone can afford to kick a ball around, but if you play another sport where you have to buy $500 in pads and skates and everything else, which don't get me wrong, I love hockey, but it's tough.
I feel like the electronic concept, you have to have money. It's funny, of course not naming any names, but I've been around hanging out at some people's houses here in L.A., and it's like, 'How old are you again? Why do you have this?' And they're getting great opportunities, and it's because they have money.
The thing is now that advances are almost non-existent, like for smaller bands, you can't afford to stay in the game because there's no money being paid out to musicians these days, unless you're already in the industry. So what's happening is, we all have to work now, you can't just sit there and collect unemployment and go on tour and get an advance from a label.
So I think a lot of these bands that can't afford it, or these kids that can't afford to do this thing, they don't get that opportunity. Whereas in the past, I feel like bands could have done that. You can have the working class kids. Your Oasis, your Replacements, whatever, that could do it in their garage and survive off of nothing. They would get the record label advance and go for it.
MT: I think that's maybe why traditional rock has died down a bit. Producing your own music is now more feasible than it was 10 years ago, so that's probably why that trend has gone more to the electronic side because if you can afford it, you can do it yourself and put music out there.
CB: I couldn't agree with you more, absolutely, you're spot on with that.
MT: I'm ready for the comeback, though.
CB: Hell yeah! I mean it's about time. It'll happen, there's such a transition. I'm part of ASCAP, so I kind of see what they're doing and what they're fighting for. It's kind of a new frontier — the Wild West right now for music in the industry. It's a good thing. A lot of people dread it, but I think it's good because it really leaves room for things to happen, for new ideas to happen. Everyone's going to get sick of it one of these days and start to have to pay for music. We're going to stand up.
For example, I read that when radio came out back in the '40s people were freaking out. The record industry were like, 'No one is going to buy records anymore because it's just being played on the radio, and we can't monetize this. How are we going to make money?' And look what happened, it was never really a problem.
MT: Radio just became a platform for people to find out about the music and then go buy it.
CB: Exactly. I feel like it's the same thing with the digital age. I feel like yeah, right now we don't have a way to police it, but there are templates being put in place. We're going to be able to survive.
MT: I think bands are also getting more creative in how they make money. Maybe their music is free or cheap, but they're selling a lot of merch and making money in non-traditional ways.
CB: Exactly, it's not all about record sales exactly. There are other ways.
MT: Which also helps to make a physical community. Because when it's all online, you don't know who's listening, but those other ways of making money are more personal.
CB: Exactly, that's all we can do at this point, that and just hope for the best. It would be nice if musicians made a little bit more money, but in time there will be other methods, there always are. It's good to be in a time of transition. I think it's great for The Bixby Knolls because we're about transitioning and changing and trying to do something different.
MT: Do you have any tour plans?
CB: No tours. We did a West Coast one to support the EP, and then we did the Mexican tour. We're trying to get on some festivals right now and some music conferences, so hopefully we'll be on the East Coast by the summer, maybe just for a few shows. We have no solid tour plans, but we're the kind of band that when the opportunity arises, everyone will call in sick for work and jump out for a week.
MT: So what's next for you guys?
CB: We're just excited to get back in the studio, I think we're going to do a lot of pre-production; we might go back to Mexico and actually do pre-production there.
MT: Is it cheaper to record down there?
CB: It can be, yeah. It definitely can be. We're not going because of that, we're basically going back just for the inspiration and because we love it down there. I'm not sure how we're going to do this album — if we're going to have a producer or just do it ourselves.
MT: If you record in Mexico, do you think that you'll try out some other instrumentation? Or will you stick to what you have and not add a bunch of folk instruments?
CB: Well we probably wouldn't add that much. We want it to sound dirty and distorted at the end of the day, no matter what we do, that's just our sound. But I think we can experiment.
In each recording we've ever done, we experiment with instrumentation. The first album was all, we brought in this organ from the '60s and hooked it up through five different guitar pedals and plugged it in, and just turned it all the way up and that's a very prominent sound on the first record.
In the EP, I used an old, a really old, early '80s Korg. Also, my mother played the koto, which is the Japanese instrument, and on 'Preacher Teacher' that's actually a koto being played throughout the song — it kind of rides over the guitar.
So I think that's one of our favorite things to do, if we're going to record, is to pick up some instruments and make it a theme, a reoccurring theme within an album or an EP, so there will definitely be something. I'm not sure what it is yet, but there will be something going on.
MT: Do you have any other videos coming out?
CB: There might be another one from the EP, I'm not sure yet. But we might just do a low budget one because we have a lot of video footage from our tour in Mexico, so we might just put together a little montage of things. Maybe make it like a promo video, but I'm not sure. We might just start going straight into recording the new album, too.
MT: Can you tell me a bit about what your live show is like?
CB: The live show, I'll put it this way, if we don't walk off stage and feel like we want to throw up, then we did something wrong. We go there. It's high energy. There are battle wounds. In this last tour, I split Christian's nose open. He had to get three stitches on his nose because I was going up, he was going down, and he just smacked his face into my guitar. It's high energy. For us, it's all about the people, if there's some super positive energy from the people —or just the opposite, negative — we completely feed off of that, and that affects our show. But we try to keep it high energy.
MT: Is it straightforward, production wise?
CB: For us, it's a little bit more of a looser feeling live; we take the songs to a new realm. We don't want to just sit there and play the songs like they are on the record exactly. We put a twist on it. Some of the songs get extended; some of them the parts are just a little more accented. We just make it really high energy. We'll go around and just like bang our heads all over the place. When I'm up there, personally, I'm really try to reach out to the people, so anything I can do to get their attention, I'm going to do it.