The ceiling fan chops at the yolky light, barely illuminating the singer’s face. He closes his eyes and opens his mouth wide to belt a rough and soulful series of “la la la la’s” into the microphone. He faces the back of a burnt-orange, vintage organ, its top cluttered with empty cigarette packs, beer bottles, and a pair of aviator sunglasses, as the guitarist swings his own instrument to the side and steps in front of the keyboard, massaging a swell of sixties surf sounds from the organ’s groaning belly.
From two corners of the room comes a double assault from the rhythm section; a thick bassline pours over the rolling drums, pushing the tempo and pulling these rock songs tightly together. Here, in this anonymous rehearsal space on the fourth floor of a carpet factory, rock music is being manufactured: it is the raucous sound of Los Angeles-based Voxhaul Broadcast.
When the song concludes, the room is quiet, except for the humming of the amps. The
band shuffles around in the familiar moments of a come-down felt after a particularly searing jam. The room even feels a bit warmer, still filled with the remnants of the band’s energy. Voxhaul’s amalgam of Motown-infused, British Invasion floor-stompers comes from pure synergy, and for moment, the guys are caught in a shared silence. Finally, bassist Phil Munsey pushes his long, untamed hair from his eyes, tucks it behind his ears, and speaks up: “It’s really nice outside today.” Kurt Allen lowers his sticks and peers out from behind his drum kit. “Oh really? I haven’t really been outside today.”
It’s 2 p.m. But in this windowless room, lost in Voxhaul’s funky web, you’d never know
it. The practice space, adjacent the graffiti-scrawled, concrete monstrosity of the L.A. River, is the perfect environment to kick out the gritty soul that Voxhaul does so well. It’s an exquisite mess: the walls are padded with makeshift soundproofing, the bench seat from a van squats near the organ, and the floor is strewn with half-crushed beer cans and serpentine cables connecting guitars to pedals and pedals to amps. These accoutrements of rockitude are probably no different than what littered the spaces in which The Animals hung around, Led Zeppelin studied blues licks, or The Doors instigated their controlled chaos. And Voxhaul embodies the best sonic elements of these seminal bands: sharp musicianship, catchy hooks, and that down-home-get-down feel boiling up in juke joints from Sheffield to Savannah.
But Voxhaul is from Orange County. “When we were growing up, all we had were bands,” says lead singer and guitar-player David Dennis, about his youth spent behind the Orange Curtain in San Clemente, a Southern California beach community located near the massive Marine Corps base, Camp Pendleton. The band has been together for almost three years, but the guys have known each other for most of their lives. They went to junior high school together and watched each other’s high-school bands evolve and change. Now in their twenties, Voxhaul is living like a band on the brink. With the local buzz growing in response to their 2007 album, Rotten Apples, the guys are ready to quit their day jobs working construction, hawking laser pointers at The Sharper Image, and slinging brew at a coffee shop, where guitarist Tony Aguiar is actually Allen’s boss. “We like to listen to [Van Halen’s] “Panama” and give each other high-fives over lattes,” Aguiar jokes.
Voxhaul tours the country in its busted-up van (“The doors don’t close all the way, so
it can get really cold in the back.”) and crashes in living rooms belonging to friends, acquaintances, and even crazy female fans. “Some of the people we meet are really, really strange,” says Allen, “so I don’t think that our success is a selling point for groupies. We met this one girl in Sacramento who was fucking crazy…there was this Taser. It was just nuts.”
As unpretentious as they are, the band is truly at the epicenter of a rock-’n’-roll romanticism fostered by a life on the road, sans the petty battles and cliche in-fighting that so often pulls bands apart or destroys life-long friendships. “When you’ve known someone and have been friends as long as we have, none of that really matters,” says Dennis. After years of paying their dues, the bandmates know that they are at an important crossroads. March is a crucial moment, as they are slated for the coveted Monday-night residency at Spaceland, where many local bands get their break, and a series of showcases at the rock-’n’-roll industry smorgasbord, South by Southwest.
Now is certainly not the time to break momentum. So Dennis straps on his guitar, flips on his amp, and walks back to the mic under the incandescent spotlight, as the band smashes through “Backrooms,” a fast-paced cavalcade of funky strumming, juicy guitar screeches, and overdriven bass thumps.
Then the bass and drums drop out, the keys chime, and Dennis closes his eyes again, crooning the falsetto chorus, and repeatedly asking the question: “Who’s that knocking at my door?”
By Drew Tewksbury
Published Flaunt 2008