Baywitch lives in the eerie, psychedelic, and saltwater reflected ribbons of surf music. The cavalier reveries of sand flecked palms and warm, kaleidoscopic imagery presents an odd sense of distorted harmony: Seattle-based artist Lila Burns gives us music that hums, sails, and rattles. Her album, “Moonstoners”, is a volcanic collection of fun, sinister, and narrative-driven songs that crisscross between serpentine instrumentals and frothy-mawed sharks. Because we’re obsessed with the album, Cinema Spartan reached out to Lila and talked lyricism, beach vibes, and puppet supplies.
Rob Patrick: Your music videos are hypnotic, otherworldly, and yet familiar: There’s a sense of uncanny valley in “Cosmic Zone”. When arranging the visuals, what were some of the aesthetic components that were important to you?
Lila Burns: In a lot of graphic design gigs, you will pitch a lot of weird stuff that rarely gets through, which at a certain point becomes a really powerful fuel for personal projects. I think making the puppet was a response to this like ‘ok whats the weirdest thing I could make quickly?’. The running themes in the visuals have been 1. what is my day job not letting me do? and 2. what can I make quickly because I’m exhausted from my day job? Stylistically, I’m a big fan of Fleischer Studios (Betty Boop, Popeye, etc), Hattie Stewart, Kate Prior, McBess and the like, which plays into my work across the board. I think with imagery like that, everything is really cute and approachable, but pretty sinister as well, and that’s the kinda zone I want Baywitch to land in. Also it’s a strange exercise to make a puppet of yourself and then figure out how to operate it. There’s a weird metaphor in there somewhere.
We both love Mommy Long Legs. Seattle is such a vital and integral part of music and popular culture right now, from Chastity Belt and wimps to Lindy West and Hardly Art. What is it about the geography of that specific metro that unites such great thinkers, artists, and writers?
There’s definitely some credit due to living around active volcanoes and rainforests and the chillest climate. It’s gorgeous here, and that’s a pretty encouraging setting for making stuff.
The city also has a long history of fostering local makers. I think that’s an old-Seattle idea that people are trying to preserve. Seattle is changing pretty rapidly right now though; it’s getting really expensive here and most neighborhoods have undergone some kind of transformation. However, The Stranger, Hardly Art, and a lot of venues here seem to be operating business as usual despite the economic pressure of the city, and that’s so important to keep the creative people around. I think people are also really excited about what each other are making here too, and want to share it!
I love how your lyrics have spectral story arcs. There’s specificity to the narratives, but there’s still a large amount of eerie open interpretation. Thematically, what’s important to you in a good song?
I’m still working on what makes a Baywitch song, but this is the first time I’ve set out to have such a specific theme. I’ve run into a few rules in the process that I’m trying to keep to.
I don’t want the songs to get to serious or too personal. For a long time I wrote songs that were pretty heavy and personal. At a certain point, I had kinda said most of what I had to say in that way. So I’m keeping this project a lot more playful. There are some apocalypse themes (like the impending giant earthquake) that are certainly serious, but I’m trying to treat them the same way horror movies treat really nasty stuff I guess? There’s still some personal stories in there too. Some of my newer songs are about like why I quit weed, or being ghosted by dudes, but I’m starting to figure out how to use my own experiences as a jumping off point.
I try and keep the stories about women, though some of the pronouns aren’t as important to the story. I think part of it is using myself as a foundation, but not making it about me literally.
Instrumental songs are named after food. I only have two and they both have food names (“Lobster Sinner” and “Seitan’s Cheesesteak”), so I’m gonna keep it up.
And also I want witches to be a force of good, which I’m currently struggling with because I want to write a song called “Witch-cop” about a cop who I’m pretty sure hexed my car when he pulled me over…
I always felt like surf music was sort of sinister, and so I love the grim vibes that you employed in your album. What made you gravitate to the genre, initially, when first forming Baywitch?
I played folk music for a long time, and most recently ukulele. At a certain point, I realized I wasn’t really playing the music I was excited to listen to anymore. I wanted to play a lot louder, and I think I landed on surf because its loud, and can be sinister or goofy (like Satan’s Pilgrims covering the Godfather theme).
I grew up going to Lark Camp (world music camp in northern California). For the past decade or so, I’ve stayed in the part of the camp that has all the Greek, Turkish, and Arabic workshops/performances. I’ve never known how to play it traditionally, though I hope to start soon, but I’ve listened to so much of it as a result. Those bodies of music share a lot of similarities in the structures/scales with surf, so I think maybe there was some stuff happening subconsciously with that when I started Baywitch.
We generally never bring up band names with musicians – it’s a boring question, we’re told by artists – but I have to bring up Baywitch because it’s so good. Obviously it’s a play on names, but how, specifically, did you think of the moniker?
I came up with it on the bus a few years ago, and just kinda texted it to a friend as a joke. I have a running list of band names that I probably won’t ever use, and this one just kinda fit later on when I was trying to pick one out. Not sure if the other band names will ever turn into anything, but who knows!
What are three songs that changed the way you look at music?
- Screaming Females “Burning Car” — There are definitely lady shredders out there, but it can be kinda discouraging trying to find them? Some friends showed me Screaming Females when I was living in Philly, and it blew my mind. Marissa Paternoster is prolific. It really solidified that I wanted to learn how to shred. I want to be able to play like her someday. I’m seeing them live for the first time next month, it’s gonna rule!!
Gogol Bordello “Start Wearing Purple” — I was like nearly asleep watching mtv at my grandma’s in like junior high or high school. The video for ‘Start Wearing Purple’ came on and I was obsessed immediately. I loved the idea of gypsy punk. I think it was the first time I ever saw a connection between like popular music and the traditional music I grew up hearing at Lark.
Miserlou (the Greek version!) — Kinda a similar experience with this song too. My friend Marina told me a little while back that Miserlou was actually a traditional Greek song. So the first time I heard it with the words, the connections between what I’d been hearing at Lark and making surf music totally clicked for me in constructing songs.
For some that don’t know, you’re a pretty great graphic designer. How has that particular skill set altered your compass, as an artist, when creating music?
Thanks for the kind words! My design/music making is actually a kind of symbiotic relationship. I’ve done visual art my whole life, and then making it a career totally burnt me out visually for a while (like trying to draw for fun after a day of doing like tee designs or something). But the design funds the music (gear, packaging, puppet supplies, etc), and the music affords doing visual art purely for fun again.
If you were to score a film, what would the movie be about and who would you cast?
How about a kind of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ / ‘The Faculty’ kinda story, but I’d cast those inflatable sky dancers you see at car lots as the aliens.
Finally, how long until “Moonstoners” is available on Spotify, so that we can add it to our best of the year playlist?
I gotta look into it, that’d be awesome! I’ll aim for that end of year deadline 😉