Story / Monica Wolfe
Photos / Kristy Benjamin
We’re sitting at a red vinyl booth in the back corner of The Prince, a dim and moody Koreatown bar. Alaska Reid and Ben Spear of hard-hitting dream-pop band Alyeska sit across from me, Reid in the Los Angeles uniform black leather jacket, and Spear wearing a flannel shirt and an earring in one ear. They surprise me, though: they aren’t your typical LA band. This clicks for me later when Spear gestures to Reid and says, “This girl eats raw elk in Montana,” and she holds up a large lump of white enamel, an elk tooth strung around her neck, then goes on to tell me about growing up in a town so small that when a classmate brought a cow and a rifle to show-and-tell, it was “no big thing.” Reid orders bitters and soda. Spear orders a whiskey ginger. He fishes a fly out of her drink and wipes it on the red tablecloth as we start talking about their new music.
They’re getting ready to put out an EP, Crush, at the end of March, that they recorded about a year ago with John Agnello at The Magic Shop in New York. Yes, that’s the studio in which Bowie recorded Blackstar, and countless other greats including The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Suzanne Vega, and Sonic Youth made music history. Alyeska were the last to record there before the studio shut down, probably to be replaced by “a SoulCycle and a Bloomingdale’s,” Spear jokes, referring to Soho’s extreme gentrification since The Magic Shop’s more humble beginnings in the ‘80s. According to an article last year in The New York Times, individual parking spots across the street from The Magic Shop sell to condo residents for a sweet $1 million. So, the magic may have faded from Soho’s Crosby Street, but not before Alyeska recorded this heart-melting album, the sound of which pays tribute to many of the musical greats who shared those studio walls before them.
Both Reid and Spear’s favorite song on their forthcoming EP is “Motel State of Mind.” Reid writes the lyrics and shapes the skeleton of each song before filling it out with Spear on drums. They have yet to pin down a permanent bass player. Reid says that “Motel State of Mind” drew its breath from her love for an Alex Chilton cover of Loudon Wainwright’s “Motel Blues.” On Alyeska’s motel song, Reid’s vocals float in a wispy falsetto countered with the occasional biting Kathleen Hanna drawl. Spear’s drums follow Reid’s shifting tones with light ‘90s alt-rock percussion turning to quick, blasting beats through the chorus. Reid’s dirty electric guitar drags the genre away from pop and toward the rock and roll that she listened to growing up (and that her father still quizzes her on to make sure she can hold her own in a music conversation—and my God, she can.)
Pink Heart Dress by Natalie & Alanna
Sequin Halter Top by This Is A Love Song
Their song “Coyote” is lined with subtly dark musings offset by the catchy, driving melody of a pop song. “Oh, coyote,” she sings, “you’re alone ‘til you succeed.” I ask her what’s behind it, and she explains, “I’ve been doing this for so long that I feel like I’ve sacrificed a lot of things. I’ve never been to a high school party. I’ve only ever been doing music since I was fourteen. And it is kind of a lonely thing in many ways…it is really fucking lonely.” She isn’t one to wallow, though. She laughs at herself as she admits “I spend a lot of time alone, just practicing guitar in my pajamas…trying not to be crazy and meditating.”
Spear echoes her sentiment and adds, referring to her use of “crazy,” “I think sometimes that word is used for someone who’s a little bit more in touch than they should be—more than their own good. A little bit too aware.”
At first, I can’t decide if Reid is too young to have become cynical yet or if she’s just existing in a space beyond cynicism. She’s talking about her experiences as a woman in the music industry, from sound guys assuming she doesn’t know anything about gear to downright predatory encounters, but her affect isn’t sad; it’s forceful, strong, not wholly optimistic, but aware of the problems that exist and not giving them the time of day. Her biggest fear is her work not being taken seriously: “I really want to try to hone my skills to be the best musician that I can be, because people say, ‘Oh, you’re a great guitar player,’ like ‘for a girl’ is implied. I never want to get congratulated for being good ‘for my gender.’”
Spear adds, “What I’ve noticed is a lot of times people think you don’t know what you’re doing with equipment and guitars, and it’s very bizarre. It happens all the time. I’ve walked into guitar stores with her, and people just start talking to me, and I’m like, ‘Fuck you, dude. I don’t play guitar. Talk to her.’”
We order more drinks. Our conversation lightens. It follows this amusing cycle of me asking a question, then Reid and Spear beginning to answer it before they quickly fall into a laughing back-and-forth banter, recalling old stories like inside jokes between very old friends. At one point, seemingly out of nowhere, Reid begins singing a song, trying to remember the lyrics, and Spear chimes in, filling in the words he remembers. “Grits ain’t groceries,” they sing together, then “Mona Lisa was a man,” and then it devolves into something mumbled and hidden under the loud techno music coming from The Prince’s speakers. The bar’s shitty dance music doesn’t fit the ambiance—the place is mostly empty. It’s oddly charming. Every ten minutes or so, Reid will stop, hit the table, and say, “That’s off the record!” That’s oddly charming, too. When we’re talking about their musical influences, Spear lets slip that he used to listen to ska as a kid. Clearly embarrassed by his confession, Reid shouts, “No! Off the record!” They’re a loopy and endlessly amusing pair, and I’d dare anyone to try not to have a good time around them. Their chemistry bleeds through to their music, and I’d argue that that’s why their music is just so goddamn good.
MORE ALYESKA HERE.