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War Tapes finds a bright spot amid the gloom

by Kevin Bronson on May 27, 2009

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On one hand, everything you need to know about War Tapes is right here in “Dreaming of You,” the first song to put the quartet on the Los Angeles landscape. Over urgent beats and ringing guitars, singer Neil Popkin gives it his best Depeche Mode-meets-She Wants Revenge, making his girl reverie sound as foreboding as a car ride to the oral surgeon’s. Oh, the dread. Oh, the melodrama. “I’ll just sleep my life away,” he concludes, a note of resignation creeping into his stentorian tones.

War Tapes calls it “doom pop,” but the foursome’s aesthetic is really just a strain of the dark mopery that has long been a fashion accessory in L.A., a city that has consumed brooders such as Morrissey and the Mode far beyond their expiration dates. And it is somewhere between the art-school angst of the Airborne Toxic Event and the druggy desperation of She Wants Revenge that you’ll find “The Continental Divide,” War Tapes’ debut album, out this week on Sarathan Records.

That said, you have to give credit where it’s due. War Tapes not only has channeled its hyper-romanticism into an album that shouldn’t be afraid to show its face to its forebears, Popkin and his bandmates — sister Becca on bass, Matt Bennett on guitar and William Mohler on drums — have channeled their ambitions to become a potent live force. The turning point, the frontman says, was opening for the Smashing Pumpkins in San Francisco in 2007.

“We’d been playing a lot of shows and rehearsing maybe three hours a night three or four times a week,” Popkin says. “But that show was revelation, to see how hard they worked and how much they rehearsed. We decided we needed to step it up, and that’s when our sound got heavier and darker.”

War Tapes already was one of the scrappier bands on the L.A. scene — and one of the few who could segue easily between the microcosms of the Sunset Strip, the Eastside venues and even the Smell. “We don’t fell like we belong to any scene in L.A.,” Popkin says. ” We’re not as avant garde as the Smell bands, not as indie as the Silver Lake bands and not as Hollywood as the Sunset Strip bands. We feel like we’re the oddballs.

“We get compared to bands from Bauhaus to Joy Division to the Cure to bands we’ve never even heard of. But we actually feed off bands that don’t sound anything like us at all.”

The album’s crisp production is the work of Mohler (the former bass player in the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex) and L.A.’s Heroes and Villains studio team, which remixed the four songs on War Tapes’ September 2008 EP for the full-length. Sarathan is a Seattle-based indie label whose founder, Jonathan Kochmer, became interested in the quartet after seeing them open for the Bravery at the Wiltern. The band is poised to go on a nationwide tour (starting June 27 at Club Nokia) with industrial rockers VNV Nation. Popkin says the band already has a second album finished, too.

So, even busy as he is, is the frontman as melancholy as the music suggests?

“I used to be more gloomy, but it’s not really [productive],” he says. “I used to overthink everything; now I just go for it. I’d like to think our music has a little bit of both [emotions] — there are moments of gloom and moments of hope.”

||| Download: “The Night Unfolds”

||| Live: War Tapes celebrates the release of “The Continental Divide” with a show tonight at Club Moscow at Boardner’s.


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