Marlon Rabenreither has always created music signposted by his own memories, experiences and emotions. Austrian-born and LA-based, the musician first came to our attention as the frontman of frantic trio CG Roxanne and The Nightmares, but has since gone his own way, writing and performing under the solo moniker Gold Star.
Conjuring tales of love, lust and lost hours on winding roads – both psychically, through dusty deserts and towering cityscapes, and metaphorically, through life’s twists and turns – Rabenreither has always straddled that line between expansive sound and introspective soul. Never is this description truer than with his newly released third record, Uppers and Downers, which, as the name suggests, takes the listener through highs and lows via a hazy yet experienced emotional compass.
A soulful continuation of the great songwriter, troubadour canon, this latest recording process took Rabenreither to LA’s historic Valentine Studios. Having previously played host to many of the greats – including The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa and Jackson Browne – the studio had closed for over three decades before it was reopened just two years ago, by Rabenreither’s producer friend, Nicolas Jodoin. A unique time-capsule that echoes with stories of the past, the venue proved an ideal setting for this songwriter to sharpen his scope before zooming in on the different corners of his own narrative.
From translating memories to sound to setting them to film, here Rabenreither traces fifteen photographs taken by photographer and friend Cameron McCool. From meeting his girlfriend for the first time to honing his record in the studio, the pair talk us through the memories behind each moment.
Cameron McCool: Do you remember the first time we met?
Marlon Rabenreither: The first time we met… no. [laughs] I feel like you can remember a lot more than I do so you’re going to have to start this one.
CM: Well I don’t know if we actually met, but I took your photo. It was after Echo Park Rising at a house party.
MR: Oh yeah, I do remember that.
CM: It’s this photo [shows photo].
MR: You think that was at a house party?
CM: Yeah. I was on the front porch of the house.
MR: So yeah we were in Echo Park somewhere.
CM: That’s all you have to say about that photo [laughs]?
MR: And that’s Zoe Bleu and my hair’s long.
CM: [laughs] That’s all you have to say.
MR: I remember playing that night, it was a short set.
CM: Was that the night you said, “Fuck the Dodgers?”
MR: Maybe, was that the night?
CM: I don’t know, I remember you told me this story about you being at a dive bar in Echo Park and saying something about the Dodgers.
MR: Yeah, well we played in Echo Park that weekend probably like three times. I think that was like four years ago.
CM: And that was when we first met. Then there was a big gap where I didn’t actually know who you were, you were just a guy in a photo. I remember titling that photo, ‘Strangers Kissing’ on Instagram when I posted it.
MR: So we didn’t know each other at all when you took it.
CM: No, not at all. I knew James…
MR: That’s probably who introduced us, right?
CM: Yeah, I think I just asked if I could take a photo of you guys. Do you remember anything about that day?
MR: I remember this might have been the first time that Dani [Marlon’s girlfriend] ever saw me actually.
CM: I remember the first time I ever met Dani, she handed me a pipe and asked if I smoked weed. It was at Dirty Laundry, I think.
CM: I want to talk to you about this photo now. It’s a shot of you sitting in front of a Van Gogh and electric saw.
MR: I remember this vividly, you told me to look as sketchy as possible [laughs]. I think that’s your method of operating as a photographer [laughs], your M.O. is always getting people to look as sketchy as possible. So it was a circular saw that I think I borrowed from my father, and I was trying to clear it from the table but you were like, “What do you think you’re doing?” [laughs]
CM: [laughs] Like, “What do you think you’re doing?! Nobody touches the saw!” You also had a Danny Lyon print, I believe it was from the series, The Bikeriders.
MR: Oh yeah, where they’re all in a row? Yeah, I think that’s directly across the room.
CM: That’s still one of my favourite books. He was twenty-five when he made that, I think. That makes me feel like shit.
MR: I remember you made me not wear a shirt underneath this peacoat…
CM: I don’t remember that.
MR: You also thought that would be really sketchy [laughs], which I think it is.
CM: It was our first shoot. Was I supposed to be doing album art or were we just shooting?
MR: I think we were mostly just hanging out but photos from that day did end up becoming the album artwork for Big Blue. But I don’t think we went into it with any specific ends.
CM: I feel like the way I’ve photographed you over the years has been very candid and I feel like this may be the only portrait I’ve taken of you. Like classic portrait. It’s one of my favourite photos, the colours are beautiful. Do you remember what happened that day when we showed up at your place?
MR: Yeah. So this was when my friend Marika came, right? And she was having a full on, I guess you could say panic attack.
CM: She didn’t even know how to communicate what was happening. It seemed like something really bad had happened but I couldn’t tell.
MR: I think she was just like on the run, and I remember getting her Thai food [laughs].
CM: I was just sat in the room with her, quiet the whole time.
MR: [laughs] That was an interesting day.
CM: That was also the last time… I remember my dad called me that day too. It was the last time I talked to him for like two years.
MR: I love this photo, the colours really are fascinating.
CM: I remember being really attracted to your ‘Born To Lose’ tattoo. When did you get that?
MR: I probably got that when I was eighteen, I’ve had it for over ten years now. A homage to Johnny Thunders, but now it feels so far away.
CM: Do you remember what was happening in this photo?
MR: So this was the Chamber Girls recording session. This is Tony bird teaching us a song and I’m like about to piss my pants and I’m sweating buckets because I have no idea what I’m doing and this man is super intimidating [laughs], and the sessions are like a thousand dollars a day minimum.
CM: With him?
MR: No, the studio alone. So we’re burning money second by second and we’re trying to nail it in one or two takes.
CM: You guys did though.
MR: Yeah we did and it worked beautifully. But it’s testament to him creating the vibe that made it possible. That studio, with the colours…
CM: And this…
MR: This one is the same moment, just a bit after. So he’d given us the rundown…
CM: You look scared.
MR: [laughs] I’m literally sweating buckets.
CM: So the recording process, it’s spontaneous and you go with what feels right?
MR: Yeah, to some degree, absolutely.
CM: Did you have your whole new record planned out?
MR: I walked in with a batch of songs, in the same way that I think a lot of artists do. After that point it was open to the producer and the musicians involved to kind of see what clicks and what gathers momentum. It’s probably similar to you. You go to a studio to shoot something, but you don’t know what it’s going to look like or what’s going to happen.
CM: I have no idea.
MR: You have no idea. You just adapt to what the room is giving you, and in that sense I think it’s the same thing.
CM: Usually a big white room gives me a cramp.
CM: And a headache.
MR: This is at Jazz Cats, Jonny Bell’s studio on Long Beach. He records all kinds of cool shit, but this is me writing a song that made it on to the record, Crooked Teeth. So this is me literally working it out. I’d written it out on the piano but didn’t quite know how to play it.
CM: Was this late 2016 or early 2017?
CM: I feel like it was early 2017.
MR: That makes sense to me, yeah. Jonny’s got these white cowboy hats in the studio for whatever fucking reason.
CM: For you.
MR: [laughs] Yeah. That photo looks really different to almost all of the ones preceding it.
CM: Maybe, huh? I guess you’re right. I think this was me transitioning from carrying around my big clunky SLR to my point and shoot. I use a Canon Sure Shot from the 80s. I’ve used a couple of point and shoots and I really hate it when they take time to focus. If it doesn’t just take the photo right away, then I’m not interested. I think the most important thing about taking photos is getting the moment, and I missed a lot of moments with my SLR because I had to focus and make sure my aperture and shutter speed was right.
MR: Yeah, so that one to me looks like that, but the ones before are different.
C: Yeah, I didn’t even notice that. They’re all on the SLR, probably shooting 800 film portraits most of the time, which is why the colours are so vivid.
CM: What can you tell me about this photo?
MR: [laughs] We were at the Ports O’ Call.
CM: What do you know about Ports O’ Call?
MR: I know that you grew up there and hadn’t been back in ages, right?
CM: In over ten years, maybe twenty.
MR: Yeah. We made a point to go because…
CM: I think I was just scouting, or were we…
MR: Also we learned that it was marked for demolition.
CM: No, we learned that there. How do you feel about them demolishing that family, monumental place?
MR: I think it’s terrible. I think they’re building residential, sort of marina-type living. It’s really misguided. I’m wearing your sunglasses in these photos too.
CM: So this is octopus and cucumber ceviche, and is that an oyster? It’s at Ports O’ Call too, right?
CM: This is right before the mariachi band came to serenade us, I think. The colours in this are wild. I love the…
MR: It’s like the same colour palette as the one of me on the porch.
CM: Yeah, totally. But it’s these dots at the bottom left corner, they’re just really, really nice.
MR: Did you stand up to take that photo?
CM: I did, yeah. I was standing right above you. I love Tapatío, it looks really nice on the table.
CM: This one has to be next.
MR: Are we still rolling chronologically?
CM: Yeah, I’m trying. I think I’m doing a good job.
MR: Oh yeah, so this is at the recording session back at Valentine Recording Studios but for Uppers and Downers.
CM: You didn’t just start recording, I think you were like a month into it.
MR: No, you can tell by the microphones that this was me doing scratch vocals. So there’s a drummer, Nick Murray is playing drums, and I’m playing guitar and doing vocals, and we’re getting the performances down on tape live. So this actually would’ve been the beginning, within the first couple of days into the recording process.
CM: Do you remember what the first couple of songs you recorded were?
MR: In this photo I think we’re doing If this is the Year. Or let me see, no we’re doing Dani’s in Love.
CM: What can you tell me about that Martin?
MR: I can tell you it’s probably from 1971, and it’s a Martin D-18, similar to the one Neil Young used. It was my father’s and he’s had it for a really long time. In that photograph it’s tuned down a half step… or rather it’s tuned up a half step to make those barre chords easier to play on an acoustic guitar.
CM: It’s a beautiful guitar.
MR: I like how you can see there’s like a dollar bill and a pair of sunglasses on the side.
CM: It looks like you had like ten bucks.
MR: That was a big day for me [both laugh], I’d just got my advance, gone in the studio to make a record, ten bucks in my pocket.
CM: Did you get an advance that day?
MR: No [both laugh].
CM: How long did it take you to record Uppers and Downers?
MR: About a month and a half. About a month of tracking and then with mixing and matching about another month.
CM: So do you play any other instruments besides the acoustic guitar?
MR: Yeah, all kinds of shit, harmonium, upright, grand piano, mellotron, all kinds of keys, samples, fucking everything…glockenspiel.
CM: The Uppers and Downers record, I think it’s a completely different pace and mindset to what you were in when you made Big Blue. What kind of inspired that to happen?
MR: Big Blue was made like before I had a label, just by myself with the same four musicians in the same room. Then Uppers and Downers was with a budget put up by a label, and a lot of shit had happened. My life had changed rapidly.
CM: Do you care to talk about those changes?
MR: Well you know, it’s all the kind of cliche shit. Leaving relationships, moving, all kinds of pivotal things. Just new beginnings really. And just growing as a person and as an artist.
CM: I love that lamp in the background of that photo, it’s such a nice strange colour.
MR: And you can see Nicolas Jodoin, the producer, running the tape machine.
CM: Yeah, he’s French-Canadian.
MR: The French-Canadian motherfucker [laughs], he’s like Frankenstein.
Photos 13, 14 & 15
CM: Moving on, do you remember this night, because I don’t.
MR: I know you don’t [laughs].
CM: The composition is strangely similar to the Danny Lyon photo on the bikes.
MR: I don’t remember this one either [laughs], no I do.
CM: We went to the Monty.
MR: Oh we were going to the Monty?
CM: No actually I think it was when we got back.
MR: I think it was when we were leaving. We went to that dance party in the back room.
CM: Was there one? I can’t remember. You remember that I took a photo of Taylor smoking inside the bar and I remember sending it to him and he was like, “Yeah, that’s right before you started throwing shit.”
MR: [laughs] Yeah, so Taylor Welsh, my old manager. So yeah, that’s Taylor, Sam, a good friend of mine, and Dani. Dani Dollinger.
MR: Baby girl. Yeah we’re going to the Monty Bar, shout out to the Monty.
CM: How do you know? I don’t remember that.
MR: Because every time you come over to my apartment you get shitfaced and leave.
CM: I do sneak out. What is your relationship with Sammy boy?
MR: Yeah, I went to high school with him. He’s my absolute main man. Real special guy.
CM: I’m wondering where these water bottles came from? This must have been after a show or something, right?
MR: I feel like it was that same night. I can’t remember if we were playing games, or if we went to the Monty. I feel like that night we came to the Monty.
CM: Yeah I have a few photos of Sam that might make it into my book.
MR: He’s a very photogenic man, he’s a sweetheart bless him.