Los Angeles Is Like a Dream World For Indie Rock Artist Bartees Strange
“It's like a big playground, and every time I go there it feels that way.”
By Sadie Bell and Bartees Strange
Published on 12/22/2022 at 12:00 PM
Bartees Strange | Photo by Luke Piotrowski
Bartees Strange is an indie-rock artist who rose to acclaim in 2020 with the release of his first solo album, Live Forever, which explored his adolescence growing up in Mustang, Oklahoma, and effortlessly fused indie rock, jazz, and hip-hop sounds. Most recently, the recording artist released his sophomore album, Farm to Table, which he toured on throughout the US this fall. Growing up in a military family, the 33 year old has moved around often, but has most recently made a home for himself in the Washington, DC area. Despite living there and coming up in the east coast scene, Strange has also worked in and grown an affinity for Los Angeles, which is where he chose to take Thrillist through his typical (and dream) day off.
Los Angeles is like a fairy-tale place. Every time I'm there I'm like, "Whoa, this is real." I recorded there once two years ago during a summer, and that was pretty cool. I wrote a song about it, “Mulholland Dr.” I come through on tour now more frequently than I do recording, but I think I'll be there a little bit next year to do some tracking. I don't get to go as often as I'd like, but every time I'm there I notice how there's all these random things to do—from really cool things everyone's heard about to extremely obscure, ridiculous things that maybe a friend has suggested. It's like a big playground.
Everyone would say the east coast is fast paced and people are rude, and I don't think that's true, but there is definitely a directness to being on the east coast. I feel like in LA, everyone's always down to meet with you and you think that you're definitely going to work on stuff together, and you never hear from them again. That's LA! That being said, I've also met some of the sweetest and most generous people in the country in LA. The people who have grown up there have a very special vibe, and it's very specific to them—extremely chill, laid back, very down to help you figure out anything you need to figure out in LA. In DC, where I'm based, it's a bit more of an insular community where the locals take care of each other, and you need to be there a while before people start looking out for you.
Ace Theatre | Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist
“It's an old theater and there are really deep reds and golds throughout the entire place. It's super grand. So for me to stand on that stage and play songs I wrote was something I will never forget.”
When I get out there, my friend has an apartment in Echo Park that I crash at. Echo Park is a really cool place that I've hung out in a lot. On a typical LA day, I'd begin there in Echo Park. I'll get up, go get coffee somewhere and very leisurely pull out my computer and send some emails for some meetings that I may or may not need to go to. There is a specific McDonald's that I'm obsessed with in LA, though, on Huntington Drive in El Sereno by my manager's house. I am a McDonald's breakfast kind of guy, but the thing about that McDonald's is that at some point in the last few years they switched ownership. It's like the most beautiful sandwiches. They taste amazing. I feel like it's a McDonald's from the '80s. I don't know how they're doing it, but the shit is different.
During the day, hopefully I end up in a studio somewhere, recording all day and ordering food. LA is cool because the studios I've worked in are in very beautiful places where there's windows and trees. Once I was working at this guy named Lawrence Rothman's place, and he's got a studio in the hills, Rothman Recorders. It's the most beautiful studio you could ever imagine. Last time I was there, we would get there around noon, work, have a drink outside on his beautiful porch, look at the mountains, and watch the sunset. In LA, whether you're on the Sunset Strip, in Beverly Hills, or you're just chilling in Echo Park, you always get this moment of extreme beauty when the sun rises or sets.
I've also had a great time visiting New Monkey Studios, which the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith built. My friend Jake Bowman, who's a producer in LA, works there sometimes. He took me there the last time I was in LA, and it was gorgeous and he gave me some history of the place. It's a fun time capsule, and if you like Elliott Smith, it's also a big nerd-out vibe because there's cool stuff in there, cool photos, cool gear. It's a treat.
Medieval Torture Museum | Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist
“One reason why I like LA is because you can find anything there. If you have a weird interest, you're not alone. I love the freak culture of LA.”
My favorite shop in LA that I like to visit is Old Style Guitars. The owner makes the sickest guitars, and it's a wild story how I came across them. I was watching a special for folklore, the Taylor Swift album that Aaron Dessner from The National produced. In the special, they're at his studio in Long Pond and I'm watching it and I hear this guitar that sounds super different. I started asking questions online like, "What the hell was that guitar?" and someone goes, "Oh, it's a rubber bridge guitar. This guy in LA makes them." It's impossible to find on eBay, or Reverb, or Craigslist. I'm like, "I want to play this thing." So then I was in LA in Lawrence Rothman's studio, he had one and I'm like, "Where'd you get this?" He told me about the shop and how the owner custom rebuilds these old acoustic guitars. I was like, "Oh my God, I've got to go." I got there when it opened, found the one I was looking for, and there was one left. That shop has a lot of beautiful guitars with crazy craftsmanship.
One reason why I like LA is because you can find anything there. If you have a weird interest, you're not alone. I love the freak culture of LA. Like, I love passing through the Sunset Strip at any time of day where LA takes the weirdness up many, many notches. There are all these people dressed up like Spider-Man, very wild superheroes, and Disney characters that are just like, "Yo, no one is going to take a picture with you. You look so scary." So if you're looking for the tip of the iceberg of the weird, start there.
There's a lot of wild things I still want to see in LA, and one is the Medieval Torture Museum. I love cults, cryptids, aliens, and shit. History is also something I love to fuck around with and learn more about. I can only imagine all of the things that were built to do that stuff, and I'm sure the museum has a lot of it.
Café Jack is another dream place of mine to visit. It's a Titanic-themed restaurant in Koreatown that looks like a giant boat. It's like, "What the hell is this? Who did this? Why did they do this? How is it still in business? How did it survive COVID?" I have all these questions for that place. You don't see this anywhere, so my next day off in LA, that's what I want to see.
Old Style Guitars | Photo by Stan Lee for Thrillist
“The artistic community is so robust. Everyone wants to be an actor, or a singer, or a guitar player, or a drummer. It's an embarrassment of riches in that sense.”
I often end a day with a show, and I had one of my best-ever shows at The Theatre at the Ace Hotel in late 2021. It's an old theater and there are really deep reds and golds throughout the entire place. It's super grand. So for me—a person who grew up playing in bars my whole life—to stand on that stage and play songs I wrote was something I will never forget. Every time I take an Uber past that place, I'll be like, "I played there. Believe it or not, I played there twice."
I played there two nights with Courtney Barnett. The first night I felt like I really didn't play well and I was down on myself. The next night, I was eating across the street at a burger place and a friend that I hadn't seen since I was 17 years old was working there. He was like, "What are you doing here?" and I was like, "I'm playing across the street." We had this moment of holy shit, life is crazy. I remember when we were 18, him being like, "I really want to move to LA and work in the music industry," and at that time, I was like, "I'm going to go to college and get a job and figure it out." So it was really cool to let all that time pass, and then have that little moment across from the Ace Hotel. Then we went and played the best show of our tour that night. I could tell the crowd was really into—I feed off of that more than anything when I play. So seeing that they were pumped, it made it feel big. I'll never forget it.
LA really does feel like a dream world. It can make you see yourself differently. You go there and you start meeting people who are doing really cool stuff and making art and music and building things that you really can't in other places. The artistic community is so robust. Everyone wants to be an actor, or a singer, or a guitar player, or a drummer. It's an embarrassment of riches in that sense. So you can see yourself doing those things in a way that in DC, where it's a little more 9-to-5 and buttoned up, that might not be the case. LA, it's like you can have a day job, and then 6pm comes around and you can be whoever the hell you want to be. It's liberating.
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