Friday, March 06, 2009

El Capitan: Earlimart's Aaron Espinoza on Stearing The Ship (Pt. I of II)

by Whitney Hawke

Aaron Espinoza is a multi-tasker. Right now, the scruffy Californian is demolishing a bowl of tortilla chips and unpretentiously describing the musical republic he has created in Silver Lake over the past 12 years. He’s dog-tired, and starving. Espinoza has been working in his recording studio all day and hasn’t eaten. It’s almost eight at night.

He talks with a Central Valley drawl, littered with “like” and “whatever,” and his other favorite phrase – “you know?” And it’s this last one that catches you. It's engaging. Drags you face to face. Makes you think, “Do I know? Do I agree?” As a music producer, Espinoza’s sincere talent for collaboration places him in the upper crust of Los Angeles’ burgeoning indie scene. But the bands Espinoza produces (Grandaddy, Silversun Pickups, and Irving to name a few) are not colleagues, or even mere collaborators. They are more like kin, making the records they craft together sound honest, meticulous, heartfelt, and fun. All the ingredients of great music, you know?

Since the early oughts, Espinoza has been producing albums with everyone from the late Elliott Smith, to emerging groups like Rademacher, Castledoor, Sea Wolf and a lengthy list of bands on the cusp of indie stardom. Working together in a small studio named The Ship that Espinoza and friends built by hand in 2000 and 2001, Espinoza has relied on his collaborative prowess to make The Ship one of Los Angeles' preeminent boutique studios. The walls are clad in nautical décor, “Lots of thrift store paintings of ships, and it kind of has a log cabin crossover thing going on. With some taxidermy” Espinoza describes.

Located in the rolling hills of Eagle Rock above San Fernando Road, The Ship is a creative hideaway for artists Espinoza has been befriending since transplanting from Fresno to Los Angeles in 1997. “We built The Ship and a lot of those bands’ first recordings were recorded there. And it’s not like this organized club per se, it’s more like a support group” he says. This tight-knit clan – dubbed The Ship Collective – has come to be revered by indie aficionados as an A-list Rat Pack of East LA bands by adding local artists like Radar Bros., Let’s Go Sailing, and The Watson Twins to their roster.

But The Ship's story really starts with a house. After moving to Los Angeles on a whim at the age of 22, Espinoza began recording bands inside the home he and three friends were renting in Silver Lake. “I didn’t know shit about LA, and I moved into this neighborhood called Silver Lake. And there was a four bedroom house – a big house up on a hill” he says. Inside that house lived the first incarnation of Espinoza's band Earlimart, who have matured into quintessential Silver Lake indie rockers since being birthed in the hillside bungalow.

“All of Earlimart lived there at one point, not to mention other people in some other bands associated with The Ship right now” says Ariana Murray – the only other original member of Earlimart who still active in the band. “It was great because at that time we were all just trying to figure out how to play and record music by ourselves, cheaply, and having as much fun as possible” she says. Murray, Espinoza and their housemates were great at keeping music a top priority, and employment on the peripheries. It was standard for Espinoza to alternate between temporary jobs as personal assistants on film shoots, and unemployment.

In 2000, Earlimart had released two albums on an itty-bitty, now-defunct label called Devil in the Woods, when Espinoza suddenly got itchy feet. The Ship studio was in the middle of being constructed, but Espinoza decided to put down the hammers and take Earlimart on a two-month tour around the United States. “Maybe not the smartest, but probably one of the smartest things we’ve ever done,” says Espinoza. “We booked everything ourselves, we didn’t make any money. We were sleeping on people’s floors and all that. It was terrible. It was awesome.”

Upon returning, everything was going fine for Espinoza. The tour made Earlimart’s name vaguely familiar in music markets all over the country. Espinoza finished building The Ship when they returned to Silver Lake, and he was cultivating strong friendships with like-minded musicians. And luckily, with venues like Spaceland, The Echo and The Silver Lake Lounge opening up shop – Silver Lake quickly became one of the country's most promising indie enclaves. The horizon was looking good for Espinoza and his makeshift family of friends. But in 2001, shortly after construction on The Ship studio was completed, a streak of horrifying happenings dismantled Espinoza, and his most prized asset – Earlimart.

“Basically it went August, Ariana and I break up. Two days later, our buddy dies in a plane crash. September 11th right after that. And that Halloween, October 31st, was the last Earlimart show. And it all just fell apart, everything we knew, you know?” After pouring his heart, soul, sweat and labor into Earlimart over the past four years, Espinoza's pet project dissolved in the bat of an eye. The only thing left standing was The Ship...

Part II of this series will run next Friday. Be sure to check back for the complete history of The Ship Collective's early stages.

(Photo courtesy of Majordomo Records)


Blogger Malcolm Sosa said...

I like this one! My two cents :

6:24 PM  

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