An interview with L.A. Girlfriend

In talking with Sydney Banta, who goes by the incredible moniker L.A. Girlfriend, you can tell a mix of curiosity, creativity, and complexity goes into her work. She’s the type of artist who takes her craft seriously, but she wants it to remain open and fluid to interpretation. Banta knows her strengths, and she looks for ways to uniquely tap into them while thinking about how stories can continue to flow across what she releases.

Following the release of Neon Grey, she was right back at it. Where many artists would have been content with allowing a new release to stew for a while, Sydney Banta was thinking about what’s next – looking to address her inquisitiveness and story building.

REX and REGINA are the two EPs that were spawned from this desire to keep creating. While REGINAwon’t be released until later in the year, REX is out today. It’s an EP that, as we discussed with Banta, exists in a permanent state of twilight but possesses a lot of flare. At its core, REX is possessed with questions that can’t be answered, risks where safety isn’t guaranteed. And it’s painted on the lush canvas of sunsets that bleed into midnight.

Rather than trying to put into words how giddy and reflective REX left us, we figured it was best to learn more about it from the artist. She was nice enough to oblige us, and we powered through a lot, from the characteristics and emotions behind her music to current and future creative visions to the challenging question of all: most essential Iron Maiden tracks.

Okay, to start off, I have to know – what do you consider to be the most essential Iron Maiden works? I have to ask because, as an Iron Maiden fan, I feel like there’s a special kinship among their fans.

This may be the most hard-hitting interview open ever! So many approaches, but I’m going to go with the essentials that make me feel like a panther running full speed toward a flaming wall (like a good feeling of “fuck yeah.”) I’d begin with “The Trooper” because it’s The Trooper, then follow up with “Run to the Hills” if we’re talking classic Maiden tracks. However, my all-time favorite is “Wasted Years” and “Can I Play with Madness” coming in close behind. But then there’s “Aces High,” “Flight of Icarus,” and “Number of the Beast”… Dang, let’s go with all of those for now.

With influences that truly run the spectrum, what was it like harnessing those sounds to create something unique and personal to you? Were you ever like, “Wait a second… this sounds exactly like ‘Ceremony’”?

Harnessing my own sound started from recognizing what elements I liked in the work of those before me, and then translating it into my own interpretation. I love the electronics of New Order and the weight of Joy Division. At the same time, I’m drawn to the feeling of invincibility heavy metal gives me, so trying to include all of those things at first did feel a bit strange and impossible. Although the elements aren’t blatantly obvious, the LAGF sound is definitely a Frankenstein of all the things I love. I never want to sound exactly like my influences, but to have a song as timeless as “Ceremony” would be a dream come true.

When you were first starting out making music, did you experiment a lot, or did you immediately know that electronic was the route you wanted to take?

When I started playing as a kid, I did venture down the singer/songwriter route. I tried being the acoustic guitar wielding, sweet indie singer, but I had a rougher voice and too much lightning in my blood. My parents raised me on 80s fire jams, and once my brother got into music, he showed me interesting noises and soundscapes. It feels like it was always in my path to veer electronic, but that was confirmed true love when I first laid hands on a drum machine and a synth.

One thing we love about your music is how visual it is – whether it being the actual videos or hearing the picture being painted within the context of a song. Is there an intention to how this unfolds, or does it seem to happen organically as your write and produce?

It happens organically, but since most of my songs are derived from personal experience, I think there is an intent to tell a story, be it lyrically, melodically, or visually. I like when a combination of sounds create a skeleton of a picture. However, it doesn’t always mean a happy sounding song is going to result in a happy story.

There’s fun in singing about something really sad to a synthy dance beat, and then pairing it with a visual element that tries to straddle both vibes. Imagination is a funny thing though – I’ve heard some great stories from others who visualize certain things when listening to L.A. Girlfriend.

One of my favorites is a writer who saw himself windmilling in a mosh pit upon hearing the track “XIV” from Neon Grey. Making music visual is always an interesting experiment, regardless of if I supply the visual markers or if a picture is painted by someone else.

Getting closer to the newer work, a two part question: You released Neon Grey last year – what led to you deciding to create not one, but two EPs? And why not release these as another LP?

Originally, REX and REGINA were created as one LP, but in its creation, there were many instances where I felt like two different people writing about the same thing. I battled the notion of creating a continuation to Neon Grey while also wanting to make heartbreaking dance tracks like I used to when I started L.A. Girlfriend. Instead of releasing it as one body of work, I liked the idea of presenting two versions of a similar story and taking time to celebrate each “character” individually.

You mentioned REX and REGINA handle the fluidity between masculine and feminine. Is there a story behind the concept of this album, or does it address the changing social landscapes and expectations of “norm” and leave it at that?

The notion of changing characteristics and emotions, and how at any given time, we can go from one end of the spectrum to another is what drives the REX and REGINA concept. It also begs the question of “What is masculine and feminine?”

No matter the individual, we are always going in between contrasts within our self, like how in a moment you can go from feeling strong to feeling vulnerable, or even something as simple as happy to sad. REX and REGINA have opposing characteristics, but they are also a balance of each other.

In terms of how many of your tracks are produced, I don’t want to say there’s a restraint, but there’s such a balance to reaching just the right octave before reigning it back in.

I was a ballet dancer for ten years, so there might be a subconscious discipline in how I create. I think it also comes down to the song structures I’ve tapped into. When I started producing, I had to pull back from creating a mish-mash of electronic sounds, so in a way, I’m always trying to keep in mind a healthy amount of restraint, but then again, trying to branch out and beyond. It’s a continuous process on the road to musical freedom.

REX has these hues and auras to it like it’s stuck permanently at dusk. Is there a backstory or symbolism to this, or are we just reading too much into it

REX certainly does have a moody color to it. I knew in presenting two EPs, I wanted the first to be rough-around-the-edges, but also have moments of light shining through. Given its heavy and sometimes dangerous and ominous moments, the hues you’ve picked up on help make REX what it is.

So you’re producing, writing, and now directing your work. What’s it like to add this personal touch to what you’re making? Was directing something you’ve wanted to do for a while?

It’s a lot of creative juice to squeeze, but I wouldn’t change it for a thing. I have a stubborn vision for what I want L.A. Girlfriend to be, which makes taking on those roles feel like the right thing to do.

As a kid, I remember being in awe of how million dollar music videos were made and the decisions directors and cinematographers had to make in their approach to storytelling. Having the opportunity to create a world and see it exist in reality is such a cool thing.

I may have a ways to go to being a better director, but I embrace the chance to play in that arena.

It seems like there’s still a lot of creativity bubbling up that maybe hasn’t been actualized yet. Do you want to maybe direct shorts or full-lengths or branch out into other creative avenues as well – there’s some quite photographic to your music and videos as well?

I do have a lot of creative ideas I’d like to explore, but I’m happily incorporating them into my music world however I can. I picked up photography within the past few years and whenever I’m in the studio or filming, I try to take a few pics for the future LAGF coffee table book I’m not sure I’d direct anything beyond music videos, but I have thought about a musical once or twice. That sounds fun.

How would you say REGINA serves as the counterpoint to REX? What should we expect on there, and will there be any surprises or sounds we might not be expecting?

If REX is aggressive, yet vulnerable, REGINA would be refined with a wild streak. REGINA will pick up where REX leaves off lyrically, but will also have a tone of “forging ahead” instead of “letting go” which is woven within the first EP. The next EP leans toward Neon Grey in regards to including more analog elements. I’m looking forward to shredding a little bit on guitar, plus one of my favorite songs to perform live made it on EP 2 which is very exciting.

Finally – what’s in store for the near future? Tours, releases, etc.?

On the immediate front, I’ll be celebrating the release of REX, as well as the video for the second single “SFO” on March 24. Then I’m off to the East Coast on April 1st for my NYC debut at Alphaville in Brooklyn! Soon after that, REGINA will get going for a late Summer/early Fall 2017 release. There are other fun things on the horizon, but for now, it’s full speed ahead for this lady. Thundercats go!

24.03.2017 / By Joey Smith