The members of West Indian Girl are fast becoming familiar faces around Los Angeles-and not only because they can be seen adorning the back of the Big Blue Bus as part of a current ad campaign for KCRW. The group started off as friends more than a decade ago, bonding musically when Francis Ten decided to take a listen to some demos that buddy Robert James had sent him. From there, Ten convinced the Detroit-based James to head west, the duo started collaborating, and West Indian Girl was born. After signing to Astralwerks and releasing their self-titled debut, the pair sought out a backing band. What resulted was a lavish six-piece and the creation of a fitting follow-up, titled 4th & Wall. The album not only projects the group’s grandiose brand of techno-infused rock, it also serves as an apt summary of West Indian Girl’s musical progression. All the while, the ensemble’s constant touring schedule-which finds them playing Goleta’s Mercury Lounge this New Year’s Eve-and the Los Angeles public transit system ensure that West Indian Girl don’t go unnoticed. Below, founding member Robert James checks in to discuss the band’s next S.B. gig.
One of your last Santa Barbara visits found you playing the Lightning in a Bottle festival. How was that for you? Being there was a fantastic experience. When we played, it was raining, which kind of put a dampener on our set. So some people headed for the hills, but the ones who stayed were the true diehards who battled the elements.
And now you’re performing at The Mercury Lounge for New Year’s. How did that come about? I’m not a big New Year’s Eve person. For the last few years, I have gone out camping in Joshua Tree. I’ve gone in the opposite direction, I guess, trying to find a little solitude. But I’m excited about doing this. It will be fun to be playing on the night [of the New Year].
Between your two albums, West Indian Girl has evolved from a collaboration between Francis Ten and yourself to a full-fledged band. How has the group’s creative focus changed? The first record was conceived in the studio. We didn’t have a band and we were signed to Virgin-Astralwerks purely based on the recordings, ¡ la Steely Dan, so the process has totally changed. After we got signed, we put together this band and started playing and creating songs together. Now it’s more a band vision than a shared vision between me and Fran.
And how has that changed the music? The first record was more of a personal statement about love and loss-the things I was going through at the time. But in the stuff we’re working on now, we are adopting a more universal outlook. I think a grander theme has evolved.
What is it like for you as a writer to now be surrounded by all these other opinions? It’s like a kitchen at a really fancy restaurant. There are all these chefs who all have a strong idea of what the best tasting dish is, and you just kind of hash it out. It’s not a dictatorship by any means. We all work together, and if someone doesn’t like what someone else is doing, we are all very vocal. We are totally creating something with five other people, which helps because it’s like having your own in-house marketing research. There are five other perspectives there and if everyone likes it, you know you’re really on to something.
You’ve remixed both of your albums. What prompted those projects? Through being on Astralwerks-who, before us, were very much about [sampling] and deejay music-we were kind of connected to the dance/deejay culture. The Chemical Brothers wanted me to sing on a few tracks, and then they were going to remix a couple of our songs and we thought that was a cool idea [and] it went from there. It works well for everybody. We are creating a bunch of original analogue synthesizer sounds that the deejays can use for their library, and then we get a new version of the song.
Do the remixes ever open your ears to new musical ideas? Absolutely. I will listen to a deejay’s take on a certain song, and they might pick out something I didn’t really focus on in the original mix, but they’ll take it to the extreme and make that the essence of it. It gets me thinking about all the different ways you can go about it. After getting the Nynex mix of “To Die in L.A.” we started playing the song like that live because that’s the way it should be. So it has definitely influenced our way of thinking in how to create.
So what’s it like to have your faces plastered to the back of a bus? It’s pretty great. When you want to talk to a girl or take her on a date and there’s your mug on the back of bus, it makes you seem a lot cooler.
West Indian Girl will perform a special New Year’s Eve show at The Mercury Lounge (5871 Hollister Ave., Goleta) this Wednesday, December 31, at 9 p.m. Admission is $25.75. Call 967-0907 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets.