Los Angeles Rock 'N' Roll
By: Liane Chan
With a list of influences that includes such greats as the Stone Roses, the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Spiritualized, and the Verve, West LA band Sunstorm combines rhythm and melody to create a unique sound set apart by geography, emphasis on song over style, attention from a diverse audiences, and already being signed to respected record label Rough Trade, who released the bands official debut EP "The Comeongohigher E.P." in Spring 2002. Sunstorm was founded in late 1999 by frontman/ songwriter Jerrold Balcom, and includes bassist Thien Tan Doan, electric pianist Blake Jordan, drummer Shane Kraus, and recently added guitarist Bowerbird. Together, Sunstormcreates a melodic groove that defies description. They have been actively playing shows on the U.S West Coast in 2002, including stints with Cornershop, The Strokes and BRMC, and have plans for an East Coast tour. Head Sunstormer Jerrold Balcom gives us his views on human nature, music scenes, the internet, artist appreciation, and the music industry in general.
IMWT: How was your show on Friday night at Fais Do Do?
Jerrold Balcolm: It was okay, interesting, a lot of people there, a different kind of venue.
IMWT: There were a lot of different bands playing there.
JB: Yeah, there was a lot of energy in the building. There's so many bands in LA that it's just inevitable that you get placed with an odd match occasionally. When you're aspiring you have to take what you can get, and we've certainly gone through a lot of that. But the reality is that most of the people putting the shows together don't really care. There are exceptions people like the guy who books the Fold, Scott Sterling, he cares and he'll give you a chance even if you're not hot shit. Most of the clubs aren't like that, some are just going through the motions. We're trying now to hook up with other national acts and play out of town.
IMWT: Who did you have in mind to tour with?
JB: We're going to go back east and play with various people in each city like Asteroid #4 in Philadelphia, band called Lockgroove in Boston, and a band from Virginia called Skywave. We're just trying to set something up to where people can have a good night of music.
IMWT: What are your live shows like?
JB: We try to play an energetic set mixed with some spacier stuff, they're different, we're not your average band in terms of that because we really try to mix it up. Some of our stuff is more garage-y and some is more psychedelic, really an up and down experience all the way through our set. We have somewhat of a new guitarist, Bowerbird who's one of a kind. We're getting a lot more comfortable with each other now, I get to focus a lot more on vocals.
IMWT: Did your new guitarist play on your record?
JB: No, he's been more recent, we recorded that at the end of last year. He's played some percussion with us in the past, tambourine and just been a friend. He's very like-minded, him and I really connect musically, we have some of the same approaches. It's a natural fit, he's a very talented musician. I'm pretty happy with the lineup we have right now, I think we're set. Consistency is important because it takes a band awhile to come together and find themself. If you have a different line-up from year to year, it can deter that process.
IMWT: Do all your bandmembers like the same music or listen to the same thing?
JB: No, naturally there's some common ground, but our sound and where we're headed, it seems like no really knows how to describe it. You could say it's kind of indie, groove-based, spacey, our diversity comes from the fact that it's too hard to commit to one style of music. There's a lot of different influences, I hope it's what kind of sets us apart.
IMWT: Can you describe your music or is just to hard to pinpoint?
JB: Well, I can try. It's definitely melodic. I'd say I'm personally very influenced by bands that are like into the whole drone thing, but we take that and add some melody to it, so that kind of defeats the purpose of just being droney - there's a little bit of that behind our music. I love rhythmic music, whether it's the Velvet Underground with really rhythmic guitars or it's just a good rhythm section. I've always searched for guys that were definitely above the board in terms of being able to play the rhythm instruments, that's why I have one piano in the band because it can really add another rhythmic element to the music. Ultimately, it comes down to music is rhythm and melody. That's how I would describe our music, it's full of both rhythm and melody. All my favorite bands understand that.
IMWT: Yeah, I heard your a big Stone Roses fan.
JB: Talk about one of your all-time rhythm sections. The other guys were excellent, they're just one of those bands. Their chemistry was good musically and came together, that's all you can ask for really. It took them awhile, I was talking before about having a consistent line-up. It takes a band that aspires to that level time to come together like that.
IMWT: True, it was four years between when they formed and released their first album.
JB: Yeah, maybe even longer. I think it took them a couple years to come together. Their sound changed even before the first one, they were kind of goth-y like the mid-'80s.
IMWT: There's a lot of different styles around LA, is their a niche that you guys fit into?
JB: It seemed like a year or two ago, there was something percolating in the city with a few bands coming out of Silverlake, but I don't know. Our music's kind of across the board and hard to describe, we've played with a number of different types of stuff. Indie, people into British indie stuff really relate to our music. On the other hand we've had 40 year old married couples that love us too. That's the goal, just being a good band and having all the elements. Ultimately, when people are in the room when you're playing they can just relate to you.
IMWT: That's more important than being part of a scene.
JB: With the scene, there's certain trappings involved, so we kind of aren't really into that because you can kind of get pigeonholed unless it's a scene full of love, it's not very fulfilling ultimately. It's all about status when you're trying to do singing. I'm just more interested in making good songs, hopefully. It can get kind of political when you're being competitive and what does that have to do with making records, but that's just human nature. To some extent you have to participate, and you should participate you can't just sit in your room. We have friends in bands, and now we're trying to expand our horizons a little.
IMWT: How do you find out about the bands you'd want to tour with?
JB: I'm just a big fan too, I follow, I read, and seek out new music. I'm waiting for the next big band, that band that everyone can't believe is as good as they really are. So, I'm looking just like everyone else and I hear about bands. With the internet now, it's great. You can go to their site and download music. In terms of the bands we're hopefully going to play back east with, it was just about reaching out via e-mail or if we have a mutual friend because it's really kind of a small world actually. People know each other, mainly from playing together, and it seems like back east a lot of these bands already know each other because the cities are closer together. Bands tend to be more regional based once they get rolling. The internet's made it really easy to network. Even with bands from England.
IMWT: Speaking of England, you're on a British label, how did that happen?
JB: It was just a word of mouth thing, the head of the label Jeff Travis heard about our band and he's good at finding bands. Somebody told him about us, and it was a good match. And it doesn't hurt that American bands are doing well over there. It's a great label, the same person's been signing bands there for a long time.
IMWT: Will Rough Trade be supporting you if you were to tour England or Europe?
JB: Yeah, if we do an album with them, which is still not decided on anyone's part, whether it's them or whoever ends up putting out an album in England. That might be our next move, we need to go over and support it and we look forward to doing that. I expect a pretty cool reaction from England, I hope, judging from the response that we've gotten. Our music is definitely understood over there, seems like a little bit more than over here. We obviously have a lot of British influence to our music, people can hear that and relate to that and feel comfortable listening to our songs.
IMWT: I'm sure they like the fact that you're Americans who appreciate their influence.
JB: That might make them excited. I don't like all British bands, but a lot of the bands I've really respected are and some of our influences are. At the same time, there are great bands like the Velvet Underground who aren't British. It just happens that most of them are.
IMWT: There seems to be a lot of exchange between great American and British bands.
JB: It's cool, the fact that London and New York aren't that far apart by airplane, they kind of bounce back and forth like that. Obviously, the great bands of the late '60's: Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, the Kinks, the Who, all those bands were influenced heavily by black American music. Guess we're a part of that, I hope. I think our album, we're preparing it though we don't have concrete plans as to when we're going to do it, but I'm pretty confident that our album will be something that will surprise people. To a certain extent if the press gets behind you, you can't control that. I'm just hoping we have an organic build off of the music, with the album we're preparing I really think that that might happen.
IMWT: So you do have plans for the album already?
JB: There's definitely enough songs, we're getting close to when we're going to record it. We have a couple things to take care of on the business side, we've parted ways with our manager right before the Rough Trade release. Now we're zeroing in on who we're going to be working with. Naturally, that'll progress into who we'll be doing an album with. We would've loved to have followed up the EP sooner with an album, but there are just some things that are out of your hands. All we can control is the music, and I think people are going to be happy I hope.
IMWT: It seems like people who have heard your music are pretty excited about it.
JB: Yeah, we have people all over the world who we get e-mails from. A producer in Denmark wants us to come record in his studio, but I don't know if that's going to happen. Definitely people who do hear it are into it. It's a timing thing, there's a lot of cool bands coming out now. Actually, Rough Trade has released a lot of stuff, so I think more people would have heard about it if that wasn't the case, but whatever, we'll just move on and see what happens with the album. It's going to be great to get over there. A few of us have been over there already to visit and see shows. Going over as a band is going to be great, we've got friends who have done that. It's just another world.
IMWT: It'll probably inspire more music being there.
JB: They definitely appreciate good music in Europe. I was in Amsterdam a couple years ago and at a jazz club, sitting there with some friends and a group of college students walked in to watch a jazz trio perform. They weren't speaking really, they were just sitting there observing the musicians, and that was the case as people came into the club as the night went on. To be at a jazz show, where you really have to appreciate what the musicians are doing and one really should, to have everyone focused on what the artists are doing was just different and foreign for me being from here . It's one thing to go see your favorite band and do that, but this was just a pretty average jazz trio. They have an appreciation for what an artist really is there, that was just something I was never really exposed to on a grand level.
IMWT: Do audiences over here still talk through your shows?
JB: Some of the shows that's been the case. We were talking about the whole scene thing earlier, that's definitely the case when it's like a social scene. A lot of people in LA are just into themselves a lot, not everybody's the same. But that kind of translates into having a short attention span when it comes to appreciating what an artist might be doing on stage.
IMWT: A fellow musician would probably appreciate it more.
JB: Yeah, there's more of an acceptance in other areas. We went out to play in Pomona and it was a whole different experience. [They were more] attentive, just ready to be entertained.
IMWT: I guess they don't have as much to do over there.
JB: Yeah, it may be that simple (laughs) out there. It seems like inland there's a lot of support for what we do. Anyways, all big cities are difficult at first for bands I'm sure. I like LA, cool town, lot of great shows, but I look forward to the rest of the world.
IMWT: I read in another interview that mentioned you were from Arizona.
JB: I spent some time in Arizon. Actually, I was born there and then I moved back there. That was interesting, it's very hot and very different from LA.
IMWT: So music's not a social scene over there?
JB: Well, they had a little shoegaze scene awhile back, but it was just a handful of bands. I don't think anything's happening in Arizona right now, musically I mean. There were a lot of pretty scary bands around like they're caught in a time warp. I think they're brains are fried.
IMWT: Probably too much sun...
JB: (laughs) Maybe they're sucking down too much freon.
IMWT: That can stunt some creativity, I bet...
JB: (laughs) Yeah, so I'm glad to be closer to the ocean again. West LA's different, it's very crowded... because the weather's beautiful, near the coast, amazing, downtown it'll be warmer, but it's a lot more comfortable here.
IMWT: Yeah, nice near Santa Monica and the beaches.
JB: Yeah, we're isolated. We're one of very few bands that somebody into good music would go see from this area, everyone's in Silverlake or Echo Park. Sometimes, I think it would be cool to live over there and easier for shows. I think being isolated has helped us.
IMWT: You develop your own sound.
JB: We haven't been as influenced as much by social situations and politics and that's helped, growing up on our own.
IMWT: Do you notice college bands around there because it's kind of near UCLA.
JB: Don't get me wrong there's a million bands, but whether you or I were going to see I doubt it. If you like Dave Matthews band...
IMWT: What is your opinion on mp3's and file sharing?
JB: On one hand, it's exciting to think there's kind of a revolution happening and that it's easy for me to sit here and listen to music by a band from upstate New York immediately. But on the other hand it kind of scares me as an artist that that band won't get paid. The industry's complaining about sales being down and they're blaming a lot of it on file sharing and nobody really knows if it's true or not.
IMWT: The whole economy's down, right?
JB: I really wonder if concert attendance and live music attendance is down, I tend to doubt it. And ultimately that's where a lot of bands make their money anyways. Looking at it from a business standpoint, unless you're Mariah Carey or somebody of that nature, it seems like ultimately more people knowing about your music can really benefit you if you're touring and whatnot. I think it's cool, as a fan it's obviously amazing. There's a whole generation growing up now who've been getting their favorite albums basically for free. It's not really that cool to get all your stuff for free. The Grateful Dead had an open-door policy for bootlegging, it didn't hurt them, but they made their living mainly by touring. They sold a lot of records too, so I don't know, I'm kind of mixed about it, but overall I think it's a good thing. People are starting to stream their albums before they come out.
IMWT: That helps because people can sing along to the album even before it's released.
JB: Yeah, but I just wonder how many people are following up by actually purchasing it once they've heard it. It's the whole idea behind listening stations, if people look at it like that it's perfect, but fans just have to recognize that they still need to support the artist. Otherwise, the artists will all go away. My rule of thumb is if I download a lot of music from an artist, I need to go see them live. It works in theory, the real evil players in all this are the big record companies with all the power. Most people would agree that if they were put out of business and all things were equal, things would be a lot more natural and normal. At this point, they manipulate and it's becoming less so because of the internet, but when a band signs to a major label, that band is shoved down your throat. So, that's one thing that the internet if it evolves in such a way that that sort of tactic is less effective, then I'm definitely all for it.
IMWT: Anything to avoid brainwashing from the record labels.
JB: How many great garage bands have their been in the past 30 years who've been ignored because it's not en vogue to have them in Gap ads, but now it is so now they're popular. Is that a coincidence, I don't think so. As it pertains to downloading, if we were to wipe out that influence on teenagers, I'm all for it like I said the internet is amazing. And it's helped us really, we've got people all over who are into our music now even before we signed with Rough Trade, totally word of mouth, it's easier to network that way.
IMWT: You can reach more than just the people who happen to see your shows.
JB: The problem with the internet is and the reason why labels are necessary is that any Tom, Dick or Harry can put a song up on mp3.com, so there still has to be some sort of filtering process. Like, "this band's on Matador, they're cool." It validates to an extent with a lot of people and it's just human nature. That's why a free for all doesn't necessarily work either where nobody's signed. Slowly but surely it'll be evolving and 10 years from now hopefully it'll be more artist-friendly.
IMWT: I was looking on mp3.com and saw a couple Swedish bands with Sunstorm in their name. Where did the name Sunstorm come from?
JB: For me, one of my favorite records is "A Storm in Heaven" by the Verve, and I always loved songs about the sun, so I personally knew I wanted to have sun in the title, songs like "Who Loves the Sun" or "The Sun" it's just cool, I always gravitate towards songs about the sun "Man Called Sun" and one of the guys suggested Sunstorm, and I was like "That's a cool mix." To an extent it kind of helps describe our music a little because some of it's phonetic.
IMWT: There's definitely a Verve-sound, maybe a little of the Doors "Riders on the Storm."
JB: I've personally never listened to the Doors, but the fact that we have electric piano and I have curly hair, we get a lot of people who maybe don't know where we're coming from. People tell me I have a Morrison thing happening, like I said I'm not heavily influenced by them. They're actually from West LA, just like us, that's the West LA lineage.
IMWT: Maybe that's something that effects the sound.
JB: Yeah, something in the drinking water or the smog. We've got the breeze so smog blows out to East LA. Maybe we hear music clearer.