Written by Charlie Schmidlin for The GRAWN.
The eternal festival dilemma: two bands, one time slot, and a miles-long expanse between them across a once-green field, now turned into an unspeakably dense mud pit. This dilemma was cleaned up, cut in distance, and turned vertical last month by Unraveled Artists, a locally-run fashion and music label, as they chose the DTLA gallery Machine Inspired Art (one of four total) to help host their first-ever music festival.
On the street-level floor, they turned MIA’s unique interior—furniture and sculptures made from metal materials, colored lights glowing beside exposed wiring—into a main stage, as bands shuffled in and out with their equipment as their set time approached. It was a great contrast to the floor below, a low-lit concrete basement where solo and duo acts commanded a PA system in the corner.
A bit of a ramshackle set-up, sure, but for Unraveled the last year has been one for feeling out the messy layers of DTLA.
Their ethos of promoting new bands through designer-curated t-shirts and online interviews caught much attention upon landing in LA from Boston, where its founder Farida Amar started the company. When I spoke with Amar last spring, she was completing their first batch of signed artists and clothes.
“There’s the music and designs, but it’s not just the shirts,” she explained. “It’s also about live performance and building the community so you have a place to go and see and experience the coming together of sounds and visuals.”
During February’s Art Walk night at owner Behn Samareh’s MIA Gallery, I catch the result of this idea by witnessing Unraveled’s newest musical collaborators. Local band Memoir, a five-piece pop/rock band, is up first; they’re arguably the most high profile act tonight, after their song “Los Angeles” spread across the internet with ease. They deliver: lead singer Dena Deadly possesses a stellar voice, and her band exerts a confident professionalism that’s enjoyed by the crowd—most of all Samareh’s young daughter, sat cross-legged in front and wearing noise-reducing headphones.
Their towering sound exposes the main trend of the night, however. Juxtaposed with the downstairs stylings of bands like Little Big Man, an acoustic folk duo from San Diego who strum out plaintive tunes on love and heartbreak, it seems audiences simply gravitate toward the louder outfit. I stand near the steps between the main floor and basement, each band’s songs bleeding over into one another, and wonder how each band prepared for their unexpected audience tug-of-war over volume.
As it should be, mostly the performers dictate their success. Oakland rapper Skinny Joey Murtle holds my attention with well-produced solo hip-hop on industry struggles and his uncertain relationship with his mother. Later, rapper Brandon Tory sits mute upon a table for 15 minutes before his set while sludged-up beats washed over a confused crowd. I soon duck out and catch the last few songs from LA indie rockers Indian Summer, their politically-charged lyrics striking over forceful riffs from its four members.
They’re followed by the self-described “psychedelic cult rap” group Got Damage, whose barrage of incoherent rhymes in songs like “Fuck Shit Up” try to convey an atmosphere that neither the crowd nor myself are having. Still, let’s call them unique simply for featuring a sound man tucked away in back wearing a terrifying mask a la “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and also co-frontman Spitting Bull—a lanky gentleman whose top hat, handlebar moustache and puzzling vocal delivery conjures an image of time-traveling Civil War reporter-turned-rapper.
The Spreewells close out the night with quick two-minute stabs of harmless pop-rock on topics like Angry Birds, and I gain awareness of two new bands whom I’m likely to check out further. I can’t account for those experiencing the music in the other six venues, but in the community that Unraveled is well on its way to building, we’ll all meet on the street, share our experiences, and revel in the rewards.