Puro Instinct
California Dreamin’
by Kevin J. Elliott

It would be best to imagine Puro Instinct as an unpolished prism, wispily refracting the current miasma of nostalgia-tinged psychedelia that has infiltrated the sun-stroked climes of Southern California. The debut from sisters Piper and Skylar Kaplan, Headbangers in Ecstasy, is an integral cog in the network of Los Angeles weirdos—Ariel Pink, James Ferraro, and Ramona Gonzales (of Nite Jewel), among others—who have carved out their own wonderland of curio-recordings and incestuously gnarly live shows. On Headbangers, the duo dabbles in high-style ’70s studio extravagance; stony, surfer dude aloofness; Laurel Canyon bohemian mystique; lo-fi folk ballads; and loads of new-agisms. Like Ariel Pink’s Before Today, the record makes unruly nods to glam and soft-rock while, similar to Ferraro’s creations, intoxicating the subconscious. And like Gonzales, the duo is also interested in obscure beats and synthetic pulsations from the past. In that swirl, Puro Instinct throws in gauzy, surrealist fairytales and woozy echoes of California daydreams. It’s shoegaze made by lackadaisical sprites, with a healthy case of attention deficit disorder, but still grounded and without the pretensions idiosyncrasy often brings. From the faux-sitar lines and sultry saxophones blurring up the foreground to the leisurely melancholic drift that inhabits each song, Puro Instinct comes from a place that is both informed by glistening pop radio and the enchanting collective of strange beings who have adopted the sisters.

As I could tell in my conversation with her, Piper has a superior sense of what her band is now and exactly what it can become under the influence of Skylar and their peers. When she describes LA as a “magical place”—where one can be “dirt poor” but still revel in the riches that exist in that make-believe environment—one is almost convinced that we all should be moving to California, if only to take a few sips from the same fountain that’s been hydrating Puro Instinct.

We need to get this out of the way first—why the name change from Pearl Harbor to Puro Instinct? Were you worried about confusing those who were already on board with the first record?

Piper Kaplan: There are many reasons, but I think that Puro Instinct implies a fluidity of motion that our sound represents. I also think it’s just more romantic. I felt like Pearl Harbor was someone else’s responsibility. Also, there was Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, so there was the threat of legal action even though we secured the name with a copyright. I still decided, “Fuck it, I don’t want it anymore.” Pearl Harbor was more or less a satirical coup to poke fun at the whole “beach bonanza” that was going on.

How did everything start for you musically? Did you play in other bands before this? What influenced you to make your own music?

PK: No, I was never in a band before this. It was R. Stevie Moore that influenced me, that and my own desire to express myself in different ways than drinking and passing out.

It seems like R. Stevie Moore gets a lot of respect in Southern California as a big influence on the music there.

PK: I actually met him in New York a couple years ago. I recorded with him and that revealed to me just how easy it was to record on your own. At that point, no one helped me facilitate making my own music. I’ve always been a huge music fan, but didn’t know I could actually do it. He really opened my eyes to that. He’s such a great dude. Hanging out with him and watching the movies he’s made over the years kind of gave me the perspective that he is the spirit of the entire DIY movement in a way. Or at least he grandfathered it, at least in our microcosm he did. It’s really cool to have that guy tell me that it’s cool to do what I’m doing.

And working with your sister, what’s the process like when you write songs? Are these collaborations more than one person writing everything?

PK: It’s all pretty arbitrary. For instance, on “Slivers of You,” I came up with the bass and the beat, the keyboard part, and the vocal melody. I played everything I had recorded for Skylar and told her to come up with a fucking shredding hook and see how it goes. She probably toyed with it for 10 or 15 minutes. I left the room and all of the sudden I hear (mouths guitar lead). I ran back in and said “that’s the one.” She fucking nailed it. That’s usually how we work.

Is there ever any sibling conflict in the band? Does it ever get in the way of your creative process or does it help?

PK: We get along with each other really well. She’s super mature, very chill, and easy to collaborate with. I don’t know what it is. Granted, when we’re not doing music, she might want to throw a shoe at my face. But as far as the band’s concerned, she and I want the same things and pretty much share the same proclivity for how we want things to sound. It’s pretty easy to get down with Sky.

Speaking of a proclivity towards a certain sound, you often get comparisons to Fleetwood Mac and other soft-rock stuff from the ’70s. Do you have a theory as to what inspired you to tap into that style? And are you embracing it more as you evolve or trying to shy away from it?

PK: We just fucking love Fleetwood Mac, but we don’t consciously try to do anything in particular, except make a song that we would want to listen to. It’s really hard to suppress what just naturally comes. I think that just growing up in a household where Fleetwood Mac, the Stranglers, and Sade are on heavy rotation, things like that are bound to surface depending on how you’re feeling that day musically. The thing that we’re trying to do more than anything as we evolve is to shorten our songs a bit and write better songs with each release.

I know you’re good friends with Ariel Pink and James Ferraro and have known those guys for a long time. I recently asked Ariel if he could think of anything in particular about Los Angeles and Hollywood that feeds into the music. I do feel there is a similarity in the overall mood of your work. What are your feelings on this?

PK: All of our sounds, you can hear the marriage and confluence of emotions. You can hear the loving embrace we share with someone in this circle or you can hear the fucking sounds of all of our shit getting thrown out the window and hitting the alley below because we’ve just been evicted. Even just recently, I had a revelation about my hometown as I was driving to pick up clothes for a video shoot. Basically, I was laughing to myself because I could only have $4 in my bank account, but at the same time I’m getting access to these amazing costume houses. It’s amazing to think that someone respects what we’re doing enough to share their resources for our video. Meanwhile, I can’t even afford lentils. LA just has that magic. You can be completely dirt poor in one way and super rich in other. It’s really a magical place that way. You can make something amazing out of nothing. You might leave with nothing, but still have a lot of something else.

Considering how close you are with those guys, does it bother you to be lumped in with the other female-fronted notables from LA like the Dum Dum Girls and Best Coast, especially considering you sound nothing like that scene?

PK: It doesn’t bother me because, if anything, it reflects poorly on the writer for taking that position in the first place. Maybe you should become an accountant or something, and I’ll do what I do. We have been lumped in with them a few times, and I think it’s more or less, if you have tits and guitars, it’s all the same thing. If that’s what you think, that’s your bad. Maybe you should pick up our records and some other records while you’re at it. These people need a broader range of reference.

I like how Headbangers in Ecstasy is bonded with the radio segments. Where did you get the KDOD idea? When you approached the idea of a full-length, how did you want to represent Puro Instinct, as opposed to what you were doing in the past?

PK: The radio station thing comes from listening to a lot of AOR compilations that the radio stations here used to put out. It’s fascinating because usually the recordings are somewhat shittier than you’re used to, but there are some really amazing songs on those. That’s kind how people describe us, so we thought of our record as an homage to those AOR comps. I thought it would be funny to copy that model, but have every band be Puro Instinct. It’s egomania. Not just LA, but the world is engulfed in egomania. Social networking has taken it to an extreme. It’s the “me show” on a grand scale. Every single person has an opportunity to turn their life into the “me show,” instead of life being about other people and interesting things. It’s very self-centered. So our whole record is AOR meets megalomania and decadence, and I guess maybe the joke is that we’re still exactly who we are and what we’ve done. It’s a satire, I guess. We’re weird people in that sense. We are that asshole, but we aren’t the asshole. Does that make sense?