Q&A: Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino, on Sexism in the Music Industry and the Real L.A.
This post originally appeared on Vanyaland.
Los Angeles indie rock duo Best Coast have an uncanny way of putting songs together. Everything is glossed over with a pop aesthetic while the rhythms and tones are raw, a result of Bethany Cosentino’s guitar and Bobb Bruno’s beats possessing some straight-up organic qualities. It makes their sound accessible to both the punks and the Top 40 crowd—a rarity in a time where musicians find themselves pigeonholed to one specific genre, no matter how hard they try escape. Together, Cosentino and Bruno have found a niche that others wish they could artistically achieve.
As part of the stacked Summer Is Forever II tour with fellow Angelinos Wavves and Cherry Glazerr, Best Coast will be playing back-to-back nights at the Royale in Boston’s theater district starting this Friday night (February 19). Before this weekend’s festivities, Vanyaland got to chat with Cosentino about growing up in the shadows of Hollywood, her time with the experimental rock act Pocahaunted, the drama with former publicist Heathcliff Berru, the theme behind last year’s glowing album California Nights, and what’s next after this current tour.
When you were a kid you were a child actress. What was that environment like for you to grow up in and were you doing commercials, films or both?
I did commercials mostly. My mom was an actress, she did a lot of commercial acting. The way I remember it from the way it’s told to me was that I would go with my mom to her agency and one day I said “I wanna do this.” One of the cool things about my parents then, and still now, is that they’re very, very supportive so at any time when I said I wanted to do something whether it was acting, singing, or taking piano lessons and guitar lessons they always found a way to make it happen. So my mom took me into her agency and eventually I was the only kid they were representing. I did like five commercials, maybe two of them were national.
I did it and then I got really, really sick one time on set. I was doing a commercial for Pepsi, it was 2 a.m., I was running a fever and I had to go home. After that I was like, “I don’t really want to do this anymore.” It was very, very, very long hours, and when you’re a little kid working until 2 a.m., it’s pretty nuts. It was probably illegal, I think about it and I’m like, “Are kids really supposed to be up at 2 a.m. working?”
It’s definitely an interesting way for a kid to grow up, staying up late, hanging around in a studio waiting to be filmed for a 30-second commercial. It must have been weird.
Before you started Best Coast, you had this experimental rock act called Pocahaunted, back in 2006 with Amanda Brown. The band’s sound ranges from drone, to funk rock, to even noise. What made you want to do such a unique project and what made you want to make the transition to what you do now with Best Coast?
When I started Pocahaunted I was in college, I was working retail, I was kind of confused about what I was doing with my life, and a boyfriend of mine at the time was really into drone and noise music. He was working with Amanda’s label at Not Not Fun, and he was doing a lot of stuff with them. He introduced me to her, then her and I hung out one night, and we were both like, “Let’s play music.” We didn’t really discuss what it would be like, and the sound of Pocahaunted was just created. I was never really passionate about it, I never really liked the kind of music we were playing and it wasn’t like I was going home and listening to a lot of drone music.
At that time I was super into Cocteau Twins, which was kind of the only cool thing for me about that band—I got to sing a little bit like Elizabeth Fraser and do this high and crazy singing. I was very into Cocteau Twins, super into shoegaze, and I would listen to Bruce Springsteen and stuff. When I moved to New York to go to school after I quit Pocahaunted, I decided that I wanted to start playing music again.
I dropped out of college, moved back to L.A., and decided that the band I was going to start was going to be a reflection of music that I listened to—music that I really liked, music that inspired me and influenced me. That was music of the ’60s, pop music and the stuff that my parents listened to when I was growing up. I definitely think the music I make now is a lot more of a reflection of my own musical taste than Pocahaunted ever was.
Recently in the news you, Amber Coffman from Dirty Projectors, and many other females involved in the music industry called out Life or Death PR founder Heathcliff Berru for sexual assault, ultimately resulting in him resigning from his company. Are there a lot more guys like Heathcliff in the music industry than people on the outside are led on to believe?
I feel like there’s just a lot of guys like that in the world. I do think that in the music industry, at least from my experience, you do experience a lot of sexual harassment and a lot of misogyny just because you’re a woman. There have been times where I’ve tried to get backstage at my own show and a security guard will stop me because he thinks I’m a groupie.
It’s like, “Dude, I’m in this band”—and stuff like that doesn’t happen to guys. When a guy with a backstage pass doesn’t show it and a security guard doesn’t stop them with “Who are you? You must be with the band” when in fact they are the band frustrates me, because it’s not happening to men. Nobody is questioning a man’s all-access pass, but if you’re a woman people automatically assume that you’re just a weird groupie. There is a lot of stuff that happens—house sound guys are rude to me because they think I don’t know what I’m talking about, and then they’re super nice to the guys in my band.
I do think that you experience a lot of it on a level of little things like that, and then there are definitely the kind of people in the industry that make you feel uncomfortable. I’m just happy that Heathcliff’s behavior was brought to people’s attention and women are now speaking up more about the kind of stuff that’s going on behind the scenes. I know it’s happening not only in music but also to women who work office jobs that are being sexually harassed by their bosses and their co-workers. It’s a huge problem in the world, so I just think that a group of women banding together to speak out about it felt very historical. Amber said something, I said something, a bunch of other people said something, and by the next morning this guy was dipped out and nobody has really heard from him since. You really see how much of your voice can be of importance. I was not happy at the situation, but I’m happy that my voice was able to bring attention to the situation and start a conversation.
When stuff like that is going on, you have to speak up, you can’t just let it go ignored. You don’t really see people writing about publicists, label owners, venue owners and people involved in the music industry in general committing these types of skeezy things. As a person who’s been a journalist for nearly 10 years, I find it to be incredibly disappointing that in 2016 female musicians still have to go through the same types of hurdles and bullshit that they were going through in the ’70s when you first had female bands coming out and playing rock & roll.
It’s such a disappointing thing to see that some guys in the music industry still have that macho mentality. As a fan I want to respect everybody and if I like your music, I don’t care what you look like, what color your skin is or what gender you are. If you’re good, you’re good. It’s really disappointing that people have to be like that. If they’re doing that type of shit, call them out. That’s what I say.
It’s awesome to hear a male journalist say something like that. You’re totally right, it’s very important. It really shouldn’t matter. I get asked the question all the time: “What’s it like to be a girl in a band?” Would you ask me what it’s like to be a girl drinking a coffee from Starbucks? It’s exactly the same thing as being a man in a band, other than the fact that I have to put up with a lot of bullshit that men don’t have to put up with. You’re right, it’s totally frustrating that it’s still happening in 2016, but I also think that a lot of women at my level of success—and even someone like Beyoncé—are starting to use their voices a lot more to draw attention to shit like that. For me, it’s a special thing to see because I really feel that it’s making an impact, and I hope that by continuing to educate people with what’s going on that hopefully things will change.
Like you said, it’s a very powerful thing to see with more women speaking up and more women putting their voice out there. Shifting back to music, Best Coast put out their third studio album California Nights last May. You described the album as an examination of things not always being what they seem in L.A., along with hinting toward L.A.’s darkness that seems to go unnoticed with people from other parts of the world. What made you want to go with this theme while making the album?
The way that people perceive L.A. is that they see it as sunny, beautiful, palm trees, and the ocean. It’s very much like that, but there’s also a lot of darkness and a lot of grit to the city. I’ve always kind of viewed Best Coast in the same way, I write these upbeat, happy, and sunny-sounding melodies, and a lot of times, the lyrics are a bit darker, and they’re a bit pessimistic. Even the songs that are really positive are me just trying to convince myself to be positive. To me that’s always been a very interesting component of Best Coast ,and when I realized that sort of goes hand in hand with the way that L.A. is, as a person that has lived there my entire life, I wanted to go with that theme a bit. I wanted to have songs on the record that are totally about being miserable and also songs on the record that are about accepting all of that—it is what it is and trying to make the best of it.
From the album art to really wanting to showcase pictures that show darker images. Having the shadows in the pool on the record cover and having colors of the sunset. The reason why L.A.’s sunsets are so beautiful is because of the pollution, and that’s something not a lot of people realize. They’re that color because there’s so much pollution. Going with that color scheme was sort of another nod to, yeah, we have a lot of pretty sunsets, but we also have a lot of smog that comes from cars and the fact that we’re not taking care of the environment. I thought the way I write music and the way people perceive Best Coast is similar to the way people perceive L.A., so I thought the two sort of went hand in hand and it made sense to me to explore that a bit.
It gives more of a real representation of L.A. ,rather than the palm trees and movie stars. For the Summer is Forever II tour Best Coast is on with Wavves and Cherry Glazerr, what I want to know is, who made the flyer? Who came up with the wrestling theme? You’re drawn up as The Undertaker with your cat, Nathan Williams from Wavves is drawn up as The Ultimate Warrior. I really got a kick out of it.
Our friend Nick Gazin—who does a lot of art for Wavves and he does a lot of stuff for Nathan—he drew it. Nathan and I were in the hot tub at my old house, and we were talking about the tour, and I thought it would be cool if the tour had a pro wrestling flyer. Nathan is obsessed with wrestling, as is Bobb. I watched wrestling as a kid because my family was really into it, and I watch wrestling now with Nathan because it’s just on and it’s my house. I do think wrestling is cool, I like a lot of the characters, and it’s an interesting concept to me. I was thinking about that, and that since everybody shares this interest in wrestling, or at least the aesthetic and that whole vibe.
I was thinking what if we did something that had this wrestling thing—not just for the poster, but maybe for the tour itself, and do this thing where it’s Wavves versus Best Coast and try to make it look like it’s a Summerslam or Wrestlemania poster. Nathan went with that idea to Nick, and then Nick decided to draw us as these different wrestlers. He took an actual ’90s wrestling poster and replicated it in his own way. When it came out, people thought that it was one of the best tour posters they’ve ever seen, so we were happy that people really liked it and it’ll be available for sale at the shows. At the beginning it seemed like a cool, fun idea, and Nick did a really great job with it.
I think it’s an amazing concept for a poster and it’s cool that it shows everyone’s love for wrestling on it. After this tour, what’s on the horizon for Best Coast?
As of right now we have a couple shows in the summer and a couple of things that we’re planning. I think after this tour I’m going to start writing, I was writing a little at home in between last year and this tour. I want to focus a bit on writing, I don’t know when exactly we’ll go in and do another record, but I would like to take advantage of some of the off time after this tour and start writing stuff. I do know that I have a lot of cool ideas and projects that I’m working on that I can’t necessarily talk about yet because they’re not fully fresh out, but there are a lot of things that I’m really excited about happening later in the year.
You’ll be seeing a lot of Best Coast for years to come, I would say.