West Indian Girl Biography
Last updated: 10/26/2004 09:02:06 PM
In 1963, renowned chemists Bear Owsley and Nick Sands developed a strain of designer LSD which had a reputation for inducing tribal hallucinations. This strain of acid was called “west indian girl.” Flash forward forty-some years and however many psychedelic revolutions later to find the Los Angeles duo of Robert James and Francis Ten deciding to call their musical collaboration “West Indian Girl.”
Close your eyes, put on West Indian Girl’s self-titled 2004 Astralwerks debut, and feel how apt James’ and Ten’s choice of moniker is: the ensuing auditory hallucination will bring you back indeed, back to a time when Blur were considered shoegazers, when My Bloody Valentine wrote anthems posing as crystalline soundscapes, when U2 was more concerned about the great beyond than politics and Stone Roses vied with Primal Scream as the sexiest, spaciest, stonededest band around.
It’s not that West Indian Girl is derivative of those bands, or even sounds like them per se, as much as it is born out of a similar ethos. Like those bands, all deeply transformed by England’s post-Acid House movement, West Indian Girl is born out of a similar ethos: a devotion to the expansion of all things mental, musical and mood elevating, a desire to find that transcendent missing link between rock’s human pulse and electronica’s man-machine meltdown. At the same time, West Indian Girl are no mere Anglophile nostalgists but true products of their time and environment. West Indian Girl remain next-level, next-generation journey-to-the-center-of-your-mind rock, the v.2.0 version: songs like “Northern Sky” and the first single “Hollywood” suggest the abandon of a dreamy, slightly unreal Southern California landscape just as “Madchester” dance-rock evoked vagabond “free parties” in the middle of some remote pastoral field.
Indeed, West Indian Girl’s swirling, empyreal big-canvas sound draws from an evolution out of America’s own version of the Acid House “Summer of Love.” Growing up, Ten moved continuously from the East Coast through the Midwest (“My dad is Sicilian—he owned various… businesses), and there are Sicilians everywhere” is all Ten will say by explanation). James’ led a similarly nomadic upbringing, bouncing from Australia to Tucson, Arizona and then, when his mom passed away, headed to the Detroit area. After graduating high school, James sidestepped college in lieu of an extended road trip that landed him in Dallas, Texas circa the early ‘90s; by coincidence, Ten had landed there himself. Both found themselves living out a key chapter in American rave culture. Ecstasy just became illegal and still readily available in Texas back in those days, and Dallas soon became the epicenter for U.S. MDMA culture; there, these two like minds quickly found each other. “When Rob and I met, we combined resources and started throwing parties ‘the pioneer ranch raves’ we called them,” Ten explains.
As that phase of Stateside rave culture died down in the mid-‘90s, both pursued different musical trajectories. Ten gravitated to Los Angeles, where he tried to keep the “peace, love, unity, respect” vibe alive by throwing self-styled raves, only to find himself quickly in handcuffs. “We set up a bar in North Hollywood Warehouse, and the authorities thought we were running a meth lab,” Ten groans. James, meanwhile, had shacked up in the Catskills “with a band that was more of an idea than a band. We spent most of our time stoned and never doing anything.”
By 2002, however, James had eventually joined Ten in Los Angeles, and West Indian Girl was born. Instead of playing live to audiences who didn’t know who they were (or care), James and Ten decided to build a home studio in an idyllic environment: placed high in the Hollywood Hills, its windows’ overlook deep into a lush canyon. The studio became “like Frankenstein with computers”—in other words, the ideal crucible to forge a unique sound out of disparate yet complementary influences. Initially, the two members of West Indian Girl make an unlikely pair, Ten with intense eyes and multiple tattoos, contrasted with James’ pensive, shaggy mystic quality; accordingly, James’ tastes from folk-rock to Underworld, Can and Kraftwerk, and the modal drone of Indian and African music, while Ten finds inspiration in everything from early Killing Joke and Japan to Jane’s Addiction and My Bloody Valentine. After a number of vocalist false starts, James took over vocals, with both collaborating the music; soon a raw, straight-from-the hard-drive demo of “Dream”—an alluring Pink Floyd-circa-Syd Barrett-esque ballad rewired with hypnotic electronica—started circulating. “Dream” quickly found play on L.A. DJ Nic Harcourt’s radio show “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” a buzz-creating haven for new music on influential local station KCRW.
For their full-length, West Indian Girl strove to capture the lysergic immediacy of the “Dream” demo, so they set about producing their debut full-length in their bucolic home-studio getaway. In the tradition of classic debauched albums from the likes of Happy Mondays and the Rolling Stones through New Order and Primal Scream, West Indian Girl evolved out of some truly altered states, and gorgeously sounds it. “I’m not a big pot smoker, but Rob gave me a pipe as a present to start the record, and it benefited me,” Ten says. “The songs opened up—that’s how the album was realized.” “Drugs have their place,” James adds. “And I wouldn’t say this album was done under just the influence of pot, either. I see the benefits of every drug: use your imagination.”
The fruits of West Indian Girl certainly prove imagination-enhancing, from opener “Trip”’s harmonic-honking refrain and chorus exhorting “Slow down you'll be alright. It's summertime, let's trip tonight” to “Hollywood”’s surprising hybrid of Giorgio Moroder disco synths and echoey guitars that makes for a beguiling love-letter to the band’s adopted hometown. “Hollywood isn’t just about the clichés—it’s also a magical, mystical place where dreams are made,” James explains. West Indian Girl proves to be a real journey, progressing from rockers like “Hollywood” through “Still Lost”’s chiming psychedelia, gradually landing in the haunting embryonic ambience of “Leave Tonight,” which suggests a trippy downtempo meditation on Simon and Garfunkel. “Everybody compares it to ‘Scarborough Fair,’” James laughs. “Most songs are haunted by love lost.” Songs like “Dream” feature many such prismatic interpretations. “’Dream’ could be about love or it could be about death,” James says. “My father was passing when I wrote that song, so there’s a little bit of that, too.” Meanwhile, songs like “Miles From Monterey” and “Northern Sky” perfectly capture the surreal quality of living in a state of constant sunshine. Ten claims West Indian Girl’s sunny ride into the mystic is intentional, with the literal places standing in for mental states. “We write travel songs, on many levels,” he says. “The lyrics are open-ended. I could see calling it daytime music because it does have a uplifting quality: we’d have to try hard to be negative.”
As such, Ten notes that West Indian Girl’s debut intentionally reverberates with “a positive feel that almost sticks out these days.” It’s the human quality to the album that proves most seductive, from the washes of analog Moog keyboards to the spooky harmonies alchemizing “Leave Tonight.” “In an age where so much is programmed, everything on this record is actually played, which gives it that warm feel” Ten says. “People crave that realness.” “The music West Indian Girl makes is very touchy-feely,” James concludes. “If it feels right, it’s right.”