New York Singer Creates A Surprisingly Cool Album About Los Angeles Geography
For someone who doesn’t live here, Gabriel Kahane seems to be an expert on Los Angeles. While crafting his latest release, The Ambassador, the singer/songwriter decamped from New York to L.A., where he was born (he's the son of Jeff Kahane, music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra), to study the city’s history, take in its architecture and spit it all back out in three-minute songs. From the Bradbury Building to Griffith Park, from fires and the L.A. Riots to Bruce Willis and Blade Runner, Kahane covers L.A. through its stories, both real and imagined, taking place across the city and in its great buildings. Each song is named after a building or place in L.A., complete with its street address, which can be looked up in the album’s accompanying Google Maps feature, the Ambassador Atlas.We sat down to chat with Kahane about The Ambassador and its myriad inspirations from Los Angeles.
You live in New York now. What made you want to use iconic L.A. landmarks as a backdrop or inspiration for your songs?
Well, I started returning to L.A. for work in my mid-20s. Growing up not in Los Angeles, I had the anti-L.A. dogma—I grew up mostly on the east coast and then in Northern California, which are both places that tend toward antipathy for L.A. I just found myself getting back in touch with everything in Los Angeles that’s not mediated through film and television, the richness and the spirit and sadness of the city. … The interest in architecture was a gradual thing that then coalesced around this idea that you have these two L.A.’s: you have the mythological L.A. that is fetishized, the L.A. of film and television—and then on the other hand, you have this incredibly vulnerable, physical city, the city that burns, the city that is subject to earthquakes or the Santa Ana winds. I started to formulate this idea that architecture is the intersection of those two elements because architecture is an aesthetic projection and also buildings burn down and they crumble in earthquakes.
Also at first, I think I was interested in erasure, and I think the last 10 or 15 years in L.A. have been transformative as far as L.A.’s relationship to its history. I think the struggle to preserve the Ambassador Hotel was maybe the first widely publicized preservation battle where it seemed like a huge swath of Angelenos really had a sense of their own history for the first time.
I think that the architectural tradition in Los Angeles is so extraordinary, and it was something that I wanted to pay attention to. On a more practical level, the nice thing about organizing a record around buildings is that it also gives you license to write about popular culture and history because they serve as movie locations, they serve as settings for scenes in novels, they serve as settings for historical acts, so there was something convenient about it as well.
Would consider doing the same kind of thing with New York?
I don’t think so. I’m somewhat ADD, and I really like to dig into a subject and be done with it. One thing that’s interesting to me is that the public architecture of Los Angeles has been somewhat unremarkable until recently, and of course there are exceptions—there’s Union Station, there’s City Hall, there’s the Department of Water and Power building. But New York, by contrast, has a great tradition of public architecture and not so much of residential architecture—and of course, L.A. has incredible residential architecture. And there are obvious reasons that that is the case—I think New York is a city of public spaces, and L.A. still is largely a city of private spaces, although one of the things that’s so exciting to me is Los Angeles, and particularly under Mayor Garcetti, the extent to which that is changing. I feel like he has such an incredible vision with the Great Streets Initiative.
Wow, you’re up on your L.A. politics even though you don’t live here, that’s great!
I love New York, but there’s a way in which I think local politics in Los Angeles are much more exciting than it is in New York. There’s a kind of cynicism to local politics in New York that I don’t feel to be the case in Los Angeles right now. Part of what was attractive to me about writing about Los Angeles was that it is a city undergoing a major transition in very wonderful and rewarding ways.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about the individual songs and how they relate to the buildings. I can guess on a song like “Bradbury” how the structure of the building might inspire the song—the way the pianos are layered feels pretty byzantine, like the inside structures of the building. Can you take us through how a couple of the other buildings’ architecture directly or indirectly inspired the songwriting?
Truthfully, the relationships between the songs and the buildings has frequently more to do with particular events that transpired in those buildings. The lyric sheet has dedications before each song. In the case of the Bradbury song, it was dedicated to Rutger Hauer, who plays the replicant Batty in Blade Runner. So in that sense, I’m really responding more to the film than I am to the building, though I did visit the building several times and walked around taking pictures like every good tourist. It’s really interesting what you say about the kind of byzantine layering of piano, I like that. You make the song sound smarter than it actually is!
… For example, “Union Station,” that’s maybe the one song on the record where I walked into a building and had a particular feeling and didn’t have a particular story to tell but wanted to find a story to tell that could encompass that sense of, if manifest destiny ends at the West Coast, what does it mean to get on a train in L.A.? Is there a defeat in that? What could either be characterized as power ballad chords or just the tolling of these very empty, sad triadic structures, that kind of almost slow insistent pulse in the piano was for me a way of maybe replicating the sad heartbeat I felt walking around Union Station.
A song like “Musso and Frank” feels very much like the old L.A. of Chinatown and other noir films, were you trying to capture that difficult to define, old sexy, sinister L.A. vibes?
Yeah, I think that song is as close to the record gets to pastiche. And it was actually one of the last songs that I wrote—there are 20 altogether, and I chose 10. We just had such a sort of magical experience recording those horns, we were recording at like 10 a.m. on a Tuesday in New York, and we took a couple takes felt stilted. My co-producer Casey [Foubert, who has worked with Sufjan Stevens] was like, “guys, what if you imagine that its 5 a.m., you’re all totally shitfaced and this is the last set, and now play it,” and that was the take we ended up taking, which is just totally drunken, fucked-up horn playing.
By contrast, “Villains” feels very current with its minimalist funk rhythm, and it’s named after the Lovell House. Besides really specific lines about Pulp Fiction and Bruce Willis, the song has this great line: “Why does Hollywood insist on destroying the city by numbers?” What did you mean by that?
That song—even though nominally its about the Lovell House—it’s really a response to the Thom Andersen film Los Angeles Plays Itself. It’s this three-hour film by this film professor from Cal Arts, all about how Los Angeles is depicted in film, from the advent of film to, he stops around L.A. Confidential, but it’s basically there’s this whole chapter in the film dealing with this question of why villains always live in houses designed by modernist masters. Another thing that he explores, and I think that anyone who writes about L.A. and L.A. popular culture explores, is that penchant for the destruction of the city.
The first time I thought about this is just after 9/11, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote this series of essays called “Welcome to the Real,” which is a quote from The Matrix. … He says this thing where, people in the third world fantasize about coming to America for better life. So what do people, privileged, in first world fantasize about? And he concludes, well they fantasize about a disaster of such an order that they would be kind of ripped from their privilege and forced to confront life in a more tactile way. He then goes on to say the preponderance of disaster films is really about Hollywood as the subconscious of America expressing this weird fantasy for destruction. … There’s also the argument that there’s a kind of like guilty moralizing going on that for a long time, Hollywood was almost atoning for whatever was decadent and debaucherous about Los Angeles over and over again in film This is something that watching over 80 films on L.A. while researching this album, it becomes kind of a hilarious motif about how many ways there are to destroy the city.
Was there a certain pressure that came along with naming your songs after such iconic places, like these songs better live up to it?
I mean I think I sort of knew I was walking into a minefield making the record at all, living in New York. I feel really grateful that so far, a lot of people—certainly there are gonna be haters—but for the most part it seems that Los Angeles’ response is that what I’m doing is not only respectful but loving. And I do, I was born in L.A. Obviously I wasn’t trying to be encyclopedic. A legitimate complaint about this record is that it’s kind of whitewashed, with the exception of the Latasha Harlins story. [Latasha Harlins was a 15-year-old black girl who was shot and killed by Korean grocer Soon Ja Du in South L.A. in 1991, just 13 days after the Rodney King beating. Some attribute the murder to increased tensions between blacks and Korean Americans in South L.A. during the L.A. Riots. Kahane has a song "Empire Liquor Mart (9172 S. Figueroa St.)" written from Harlins' perspective on the album.] There was a song about Dodger Stadium and about Chavez Ravine and the uprooting of that community, which ultimately sounded like a National song, so as much as I love the dudes in The National, I felt like the songs should sound like me, not like them. I tried to write a song about Little Tokyo and the internment in World War II, and that didn’t pan out.
Do you plan to release any of those extra songs?
Yeah, absolutely. There’s a staged version, which is happening at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) in December and at UCLA in February. It’s gonna be sort of a heavily-designed concert with a little bit of text, all found text from various films and books that inspired the songs. It’s being directed by this guy John Tiffany, who directed the musical Once on Broadway. We’re using about half of those extra songs. I expect that the label [Sony Masterworks] will release some sort of deluxe version of the album in conjunction with that staged version, although I can’t make any promises, it’s up to them, not me.
A couple of the places are pretty obscure, too, except to aficionados of old buildings. Did you want to get some of those places in there too, rather than just writing a song about the Hollywood sign or something?
Yeah, I think the guiding principal to me was just things I had an emotional reaction to. Like the St. George Hotel, the “Slumlord Crocodile” song, that was written in response to chap in Mike Davis’ book Ecology of Fear. The chapter is called “The Case for Letting Malibu burn.” He juxtaposes the fires in Malibu with the hotel fires in these kind of rundown, single-occupancy hotels and the way that catastrophic fire does not discriminate across socioeconomic lines. A lot of people don’t know about the St. George Hotel, but that was something I was interested in writing about. Obviously Empire Liquor Mart is an obscure building, but that story is really important. While that story is certainly part of the collective memory of African-Americans around the county, outside of L.A., very few people who are not people of color don’t know about that. I think the echoes of the Trayvon Martin shooting were really evident to me in that story.
“Black Garden (2673 Dundee Pl.)” was named after the place that I wrote a lot of these songs. … And I wrote this incredibly stupid song about In-N-Out that will never see the light of day.
Tell me about The Ambassador Atlas, how did that come together?
This is my first time working with a major record label … and they had some marketing money available, and they were interested in doing something with a map, which made sense. I pointed them to this site called Infinite Atlas, which is sort of a compendium of information about David Foster Wallace’s book Infinite Jest. I was basically like, let’s copy this and make it for The Ambassador. … I basically thought there is an aspect to this album that is a treasure hunt, and we’re living in this era where more and more people are streaming music, and that’s totally fine, but I wanted to create something that is more than just a series of sound files. … It’s all really in service of looking beneath the surface of L.A. and going a little bit deeper.
What are some of your favorite spots in L.A.?
I love Sushi Gen Downtown. I do love Dodger Stadium. I love going up to the San Gabriel Valley for some soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung. I spent a fair amount of time walking around Watts Towers, which I find super inspiring. The restaurant Son of a Gun is an old favorite of mine, in Beverly Hills, it’s the other restaurant owned by the Animal guys, it’s their more seafood place. The Schindler House on King’s Road, 835 N King’s Road in West Hollywood—that to me is one of the most staggeringly beautiful pieces of architecture. I think there’s just this incredible warmth when you walk in that space, which is open to public as museum. … And I have a routine of getting off the plane in LAX when I’m here and stopping at Gjelina before heading to the Eastside.