You wouldn’t know it from talking to No Age that they haven’t released an album in half a decade. The L.A. DIY art-punk duo of singer-drummer Dean Spunt and guitarist Randy Randalll, both 36, seem bewildered by the notion that they’d disbanded, gone into hibernation, or otherwise vanished: “We were still pretty active, just not in the cycle of touring and full-lengths or anything,” says Spunt. And it’s true, after 2013’s excellent but coolly received An Object, they toured for another year or so, reimagined the album for a 2014 cassette, released a seven-inch in 2016, and played in colorfully named side projects like Randall’s Rat Fist. Spunt had a kid. So while they didn’t take a conscious break from six to seven years of a life that Spunt describes as “record, tour, record, tour,” they did ask themselves rhetorical questions like, “Wouldn’t it be nice to just stay home for another month instead of tour?”
Two undeniable changes occurred in the band’s world between An Object and Snares Like a Haircut, its fourth official full-length, which arrived January 26 via Drag City. One: No Age are no longer with Sub Pop, the label that released the group’s two most successful records, 2008’s loop-crazed riff jolt Nouns and 2010’s more songful, less suffocating Everything in Between. And, two: The blunt, riff-based guitar rock they traffic in has almost entirely disappeared from the indie-rock conversation bubble, not that they give a shit.
“I feel pretty disconnected in that regard, I guess. I don’t know what the hot new bands are,” says Randall. “Music I look at as an artistic expression rather than a competitive team sport.”
In Los Angeles, Spunt and Randall rose up from a scene centered around the DIY art space the Smell. First, they played in the more straightforward trio Wives, putting out Erect the Youth Problem in 2004. Then drummer Jeremy Villalobos left, Spunt switched from bass to drums, and the now-duo began to make more interesting sorta-punk as No Age. They debuted their new band by releasing five vinyl EPs and singles, each on a different DIY label, on the same day in 2007, which they then cannibalized for the debut collection Weirdo Rippers. That got Sub Pop’s attention.
But even though No Age are one of the more accessible bands to come from a DIY scene — their riffs always catchy, noises always dreamy, melodies always legible, and avant sections always brief — they were never much for the “big festival bands” (like Fleet Foxes, perhaps) that Spunt equates with Sub Pop’s focus. “Our intention was always to make three records, gain a following, take them with us, and then get back to our life as the DIY band,” says Spunt, though he admits, “I didn’t realize how the music industry worked and how fickle it all is.” After their good friend and A&R rep Susan Busch left Sub Pop, No Age put out An Object and then didn’t hear much more from the label after that. “No one was knocking down our door to make a record,” Spunt says.
With An Object, they had taken things into their own hands. Literally. The duo made history (and a mess) when it pulled the stunt of physically manufacturing and packaging 10,000 copies of An Object in 2013. “It just seemed like an absurd thing to do on a label like Sub Pop,” Spunt explains. “People are making albums and tapes in editions of 50 or 300 or 1,000, but to do 10,000 on a label like Sub Pop, it was funny to put that out there in the world of Amazon consumerism and see how people reacted and how it made them feel. And what is our role at that point, are we the artist or the manufacturer? It seemed interesting, I don’t know if it changed anything.” (It didn’t.)
How does a band synonymous with its records’ physical design evolve for the streaming age? Well, Snares Like a Haircut is less of an art project, in both its packaging (it was No Age’s first time using someone else’s artwork, an image by their friend Daphne Fitzpatrick) and its sound. “I never really considered us like…a rock band. What does that mean? I don’t know,” Spunt says. (Though, to be fair, artistic intent with Spunt can really just boil down to “I felt like playing drums on this album. The last album I didn’t play drums at all.”)
“I definitely learned a couple more chords over those five years,” jokes Randall.
“I stepped back a little from arranging,” Spunt says. “I’m forever subtracting more than adding.”
For all intents and purposes, a No Age lyric like “I try to make myself seem vague/’Cause the words get so engraved,” from 2010’s “Common Heat,” seems to hold. Snares Like a Haircut sounds more live than past No Age records because the duo road-tested the songs rather than constructing them in the studio. The opening “Cruise Control,” perhaps inevitable from this approach, sounds kind of like the Replacements. “This is probably the first time I feel OK with No Age as a rock ’n’ roll band, just to play drums to Randy’s guitar,” says Spunt proudly.
I press the infamously vague lyricist on what emotions he associates with Snares Like a Haircut. “This album’s happy,” Spunt says after a pause. “I feel like we were smiling a lot of the time.” That’s a relief for fans who thought they may have broken up. “I think there was a point there towards the end of the Sub Pop run that maybe we were thinking it wouldn’t go any more. Maybe if we had a good reason, but I feel like we’re musical soulmates.” They’re both pretty adamant about not wanting to wait another five years to do the next album, even if the record-tour-record-tour life became staid for a moment.
“Making music, you’re commenting on the world around you, and when the world around you is Randy’s face in a hotel room, it’s hard to really pull from that,” Spunt says. “I love Randy’s face, though.”
“I love your face!” Randall says back.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 2, 2018