What if Kraftwerk had grown up sneaking around Del Mar’s choicest skate spots instead of fantasizing about the autobahn in 1970s Germany?
Aaron M. Olson didn’t set out with such lofty aims, but the likeness is clear as the Del Mar native plays composer and frontman to L.A. Takedown, his seven-piece band building a name on the indie rock circuit on the strength of a well-received second album.
Olson, a 2003 graduate of San Dieguito High School Academy, studied classical music history and theory at San Francisco State University before settling into the Los Angeles music scene. In 2015 he put out L.A. Takedown’s debut album, a single, sprawling 42-minute track that the L.A. Times contemplated as a new soundtrack for the city of angels. Olson then gathered together friends, including his older brother, and turned L.A. Takedown into a fully fleshed band churning out cinematic post-rock that never strays too far from Olson’s pop sensibilities.
L.A. Takedown’s second album II (pronounced “dos”) dropped on May 10, drawing accolades from the likes of Noisey and NPR, and carried the band into a tour this spring that included an emotional stop at the Casbah in Little Italy.
Having now settled back into his L.A. life — with an oh-so-apt gig at the Silver Lake Library — Olson took time to reminisce about his first awkward shows at Del Mar Hills Elementary School, the subliminal influence of concerts at Powerhouse Park, the Del Mar Fairgrounds’ surprisingly hip acts, and how an hours-long walk to Black’s Beach became, 15 years later, the namesake inspiration for his band’s latest video. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
You started L.A. Takedown as a project to score a friend’s short films. The name comes from a 1989 movie by Michael Mann. Your songs are cinematic, instrumental compositions. Is that cinematic feel the essence of what you’re trying to do?
Olson: What I’m really trying to do is to make music that I would enjoy listening to, and it just so happens that I enjoy film scores. So I guess my goal is to make music with that feeling of a film score but that also infuses elements of a three-minute pop song. Because I really am a big fan of pop music, from the Beatles to things like Tears for Fears. I’m trying to do things with instrumental music that can work those elements into it. I just love instrumental music. Growing up in Del Mar in the late ’90s and early 2000s, in the circles I ran in, everyone was really into Tortoise and all those Thrill Jockey and Drag City records, so I grew up with that ingrained in me.
Did you have formative musical experiences at Del Mar Hills Elementary School?
Olson: I had a band in elementary school. We would practice at our drummer’s house; he lived just north of the Del Mar Plaza. We played at a couple assemblies. It was just whatever songs we happened to be able to figure out. I remember playing some probably pretty bad versions of Jimi Hendrix. I remember playing “Hey Mickey” — I have no idea why. This is 5th and 6th grade, so we were just figuring out our tastes, I guess.
You went on to San Dieguito High School Academy. Do you remember your music teachers there? Was there someone who had a big influence on you?
Olson: The two things that I did as a kid were music and skateboarding. They would kind of waver on which would be more at the forefront. Once I got to high school, I started meeting more musicians, and all the music classes offered at San Dieguito were a big thing for me. When I started we had Dr. Van Decker. He provided a lot of resources. He brought in a recording arts class; he also started a MIDI class. Those were pretty big for me, to be able to spend two hours a day sitting in recording arts class or working on computer music. With a MIDI I could make impossible music — just the fastest, unending runs and scales, polyrhythmic stuff that I couldn’t play on my own. I think, in turn, that got me into Philip Glass and Tangerine Dream and things influenced by minimalism. Those were things that weren’t available at many high schools, for sure.
Did you know then that you wanted to make music professionally?
Olson: I didn’t admit it to myself but I knew that I loved to make music. I had a band in high school. It was instrumental. We really just played at our battle of the bands. This was at the turn of the 2000s; I was just a teenage kid heading down to Che Cafe at UCSD, where underground bands passing through San Diego would play — you would see Pinback play there when they were starting out. I was never old enough for Belly Up when I lived there. Same for Casbah. Playing the Casbah [on L.A. Takedown’s recent tour] was kind of kind of like a mini-dream come true, because that’s where all the cool bands would play that I could never go see.
The cover art for the new album is a painting by your dad, of two fingers holding a white pill. The image resurfaces in one of your videos. What’s the story behind that?
Olson: He painted it in 1975, before I was born. It just lived in our house forever. It was 4 feet by 4 feet, this huge painting that I never even questioned. It just always made sense. Then when I was thinking of album art, that popped into my head, and it was like ‘Oh yeah that’s beautiful.’ As far as I know that’s the only painting he has completed.
Were your parents musical? What kind of stuff was in their record collections?
Olson: They always listened to music a lot. My mom played piano a bit, casually. I definitely grew up on Bob Dylan, The Beatles. Stop Making Sense [by The Talking Heads] was played quite a bit. And Graceland [by Paul Simon]. Those were the albums in heavy rotation growing up. And because of my mom I listened to a lot of Bonnie Raitt. My brother and I got those records, and I still collect records.
The new album has a song called ‘Bad Night at Black’s Beach.’ Care to elaborate?
Olson: I was in junior high and my brother was in high school and he was with some friends. This would’ve been just before everyone had cell phones. I was going to meet them down at Black’s Beach, so I was like ‘Oh yeah I’ll grab my Walkman and my backpack, I’ll walk down there on the beach,’ which is kind of far thinking back on it, from 15th Street to Black’s Beach. I finally got down there, exhausted, and there was no sign of my brother or his friends. I remember seeing a fire in the distance, so I walk towards it and as I get closer I can see that there is a guy standing there, he was just standing at the fire with his T-shirt on and nothing else, just fully Porky Pig-style and I was just like ‘What am I doing, where is this night taking me?’ It was this ongoing trek across the sand for hours finding weird things. When I made the song I was trying to conjure the feeling of endlessly walking dunes or sand and then I remembered that night, that’s totally what that was. It’s also a reference to an old western called Bad Day at Black Rock, and it’s also a reference to a Byrd’s song that I like called Bad Night at the Whiskey. I’m a big fan of The Byrds. Chris Hillman, their bassist, went to San Dieguito. Not a lot of people know that.
Your music has this if-Kraftwerk-grew-up-on-the-Pacific-Ocean thing going on. Is that what you’re going for?
Olson: I don’t think I had that in mind but I think that’s accurate. I’m flattered by that description. That is what it is. I can’t help it, I’m definitely a California person and I’ve always lived on the Pacific Ocean and growing up in Del Mar was a huge part of that. I never surfed or anything but my friends and I would go skateboarding around Del Mar all the time. The parking lot down at 15th Street beach, there was a bump off the sidewalk we used to skate a lot. Del Mar folk did not generally take kindly to us skateboarding around. We used to skate this ledge at L’Auberge and we’d always get in trouble for that.
I used to skateboard a lot at the Vons next to where my mom lived. There used to be a video rental store called Video Vault. They had a nice ledge there, by the Jack in the Box. I went to my share of summer concerts at Powerhouse Park. I saw James Brown at the Del Mar Fair. It was right before he died, so getting to see him, that was super rad. And I saw The Flaming Lips there. The Del Mar Fair was surprisingly cool, especially for the fair circuit, they would get really cool bands. It wasn’t like they would have Peter Cetera or something.
Actually, they did have him this year.
Oh really?! [laughs] I would be stoked to see Peter Cetera now but in high school I would have been like ‘Laaame.’
Right, there’s not exactly anger in your music.
I’m not really setting out to make angst-y music. I’ve enjoyed my share of that, but the closest thing now is that sometimes our songs have some metal elements in it. Growing up with the ocean right there, it was kind of paradise. I definitely loved growing up in Del Mar. It was just so pleasant and chill. It afforded me a little Zen to find my creative self.