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Piper (left) and Skylar Kaplan of L.A. band Puro Instinct.

Puro Instinct

Beyond Pearl Harbor

Jul 15, 2011 Puro Instinct
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Puro Instinct’s Piper Kaplan likes to have a laugh, oftentimes at her own exploits. On Twitter and Facebook posts, the vocalist for the L.A. dream pop outfit gives the impression of someone who leads a colorful life. She referred to her band’s performances at SXSW this year as the “where the fuck am I can’t feel my face tour,” and, along with frequent links to videos for obscure or forgotten songs, there are repeated mentions of her fondness for weed. Together, with her professed affection for ‘80s Soviet New Wave, the adoption of faux Cyrillic typography on a couple of the band’s releases, and a debut LP entitled Headbangers in Ecstasy, Kaplan’s persona suggests ironic outré chic.

In conversation, however, the 23-year-old is candid, down to earth and at times self-deprecating. She speaks seriously about music and gushes about her 16-year-old sister and bandmate, Skylar, a guitarist with legit skills. Skylar’s nimble playing, glossed with chorus effect, allies Puro Instinct’s music with 4AD bands of the late ‘80s, while tracks “Luv Goon” and “Slivers of You” hint at early R.E.M. Yet, there are also kaleidoscopic currents and surprising twists, such as a sax surfacing on “Escape Forever.”

Piper and Skylar formed their band three years ago, calling themselves Pearl Harbor. Just a year later, Pearl Harbor began to earn favor on music blogs in anticipation of its debut EP, Something About the Chaparrals, released on the band’s current label, Mexican Summer. A second EP, Puro Instinct, was released last year, before the band changed its name and embarked on a nationwide tour supporting Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti (Pink guests on the Headbangers in Ecstasy single, “Stilyagi,” and “Luv Goon”). Live, Puro Instinct is rounded out with four additional musiciansCody Porter (guitar), Austin Hinkle (bass), Mike Baum (drums), and Brooke Murray (keys)giving the band’s sound more muscle and dynamic guitar interplay.

When Under the Radar spoke with Kaplan, she discussed, among other topics, the early days of the band, how she developed a friendship with home recording pioneer R. Stevie Moore (who guests as a DJ on Headbangers in Ecstasy ), and how the worst human being she’s ever met derailed her ambitions in graphic design.

Chris Tinkham: Officially, Puro Instinct is just you and your sister?

Piper Kaplan: Well, I would say, for the most part, yeah, but you can also say Cody Porter, he’s a big part of it, just because he helps us flesh things out that we need, ‘cause he’s rad. [Laughs] But he’s one of the main members.

How did you meet Cody?

Cody and I used to date. We met when I was 17. He was 19. We met at a bar that neither of us were supposed to be in [laughs], and I think I made fun of him. We knew of each other, but I teased him a little bit, and I think we hit it off pretty nicely from there, and we dated for about four years or so, and we broke up, but we’re probably better than ever now.

The first time I saw you play was last summer, and you had four other players. What were your first shows like?

Our first shows were pretty hilarious. It started out the three of usSkylar, myself and Codyand we had three shitty little practice amps. Skylar had a guitar that was one of those shitty Guitar Center hundred dollar Strats. And the bass we were using was something that a friend just gave me. And the amps were just these little shitty Vox amps that had effects built in. It’s actually really rad. I still use it all the time. It’s one of my favorite things. But yeah, we had to have them mic’d. And Nite Jewel was generous enough to let us use a drum machine that she had upgraded from. And we just shredded with our little toys. [Laughs]

I read that you’ve been collecting vinyl since you were around 14. Do you remember if there was a particular band that steered you off the mainstream path of what typical teenagers listen to?

I kind of went through a bunch of revelations. I think the first time I ever heard The Stranglers. My dad would, embarrassingly enough, pick me up from middle school blasting No More Heroes. It was pretty fucking embarrassing at the time [laughs], to have dad cruise up totally loud and proud. But, now I look back, I’m like, “My dad was pretty killer, blazin’ Stranglers like that.” My whole approach to music, and what I respond to in music, is shaped a lot by bands like that. And if there’s a record that further steered me away from punk in generalthat’s almost mainstream to meI guess My Bloody Valentine was something that kind of opened my eyes to different sorts of production, and the idea that you can totally shred and be aggressive but very dreamy and ethereal at the same time, which, I think, is pretty powerful. Also Slowdive and Pale Saints, those are some other groups that really shaped my tastes.

And you started the band with your sister in the summer of 2008?


And this was the first band for both of you?


I read that you were inspired by an encounter with R. Stevie Moore, that you recorded some vocals with him, but also that you found some instruments lying around the house.

The instruments that we found lying around the house, we definitely still use on our recordings. My mom had a weird Yamaha that she had under a bed, that I kind of excavated and made our drummer for a while, before Nite Jewel passed on the drum machine, which I actually never took much of a liking to, because I liked the Yamaha a lot. [Laughs] I had a melodica that I was pretty stoked about, but I don’t know that that really became a linchpin of our sound or anything. Hasn’t yet. We’ll see what happens.

The recording with Stevie thing, yes, I was working a temp job at Disney for a while, while I was living with our former bass player, Jessie [Clavin, formerly of Mika Miko]I was a roommate with her for a while, years before she joined the bandand they were paying me an unbelievable amount of money per hour just to sit around and download music all day [laughs] and fuck around. I don’t know that they knew that I was doing that, but it was just kind of a free-for-all situation. And my friend Paul [Rosales], who’s in Wonder Wheel, he was booked to play a show with Stevie in New York, which I think was actually July 19th, 2008, and I went over there. I was like, “Oh my God, I really want to go do this.” ‘Cause I was a huge fan. I was like, “I really want to DJ this show and hang out.” And I really needed desperately to get out of L.A., because it was driving me fucking crazyeveryone. And I booked a flight at work, as soon as I got word that it was cool for me to cruise by, and I used the company’s FedEx account to basically I think I overnighted $600 worth of vinyl to my grandpa’s house. And I put some weed in a Royal Wood record, and then I put some in a Todd Rundgren A Wizard, A True Star record, and it was there waiting for me when I got there, all in one piece. I don’t know if it’s legal for me to admit that. [Laughs] Is that gonna come back to bite me in the ass? [Laughs] Maybe don’t get me into any trouble with the law, or Disney, but put what you must, I guess.

Anyway, I show up to Cake Shop and just start playing records, and Stevie was super stoked on the selections. We really hit it off about music, and he invited usPaul and Iback to his house later on in the week, in Jersey, and we took the bus down there and hung out with him and his girlfriend Krys, and it was a really wonderful time. He showed us these really cool movies that he’d made throughout different periods of his life, just really amazing stuff. And we talked about records and listened to records, and then we started noodling around with different recordings. At one point, I seriously wanted to cry. He played us kind of like an updated, more electronic version of “I’ve Begun to Fall in Love,” which is one of my favorite R. Stevie Moore songs. He played it for us in his living room, and it was just one of those moments that probably will define, for me, how powerful home recording can be. It’s very intimate, and you really get a personal perspective on how people feel. It’s a very real experience, and it definitely changed me. That day changed me. That was one thing that I think I’ll never be able to take away from my memory, no matter how much gnarly shit I do to myself. [Laughs]

Also, he let us record some songs. I recorded a bunch of weird little phrases that he had written down, kind of in the same vein as his “Chantilly Lace” cover. For me, to see how simple that was, and also just how fun it was, it inspired me to go home and try to navigate my own kind of music zone with my sister.

Had you ever thought of yourself as a singer or musician before that?

No, not at all. I still don’t think of myself[laughs] I don’t really think of things in terms of labels. What is a musician? What is an artist? What’s music to one man is shit to another. You know what I mean? And sometimes, my music sounds like shit to me. Some days I love what we’ve done, and some days I think, “Shit, man, I would’ve done that totally differently.” It’s all kind of relative to how I’m feeling about everything else.

I guess what I meant was, given how much you were into music, were you itching to start up and play with other people and get on stage and sing?

Well, I definitely wanted to do it. There’s no doubt about it. But it’s one of those things where I refused to do it because I think that going up on stage just to totally fucking suck seems like a waste of time, a waste of everyone’s time. And I think that, more important than wanting to be seen and to get out there and do it, is quality control. And I think that kind of outweighed my desire to do it, because I really didn’t know that I could do it, and I just didn’t want to suck. [Laughs]

Did any of those recordings you made with Stevie get released?

No, they’re just pure pleasure.

What were you up to before then? Had you gone to college?

Yeah, on and off. I was kind of back and forth with that. I think at that point I was doing graphic design stuff, but I stopped with it. There was a serious barricade in my willingness to progress in that field because one of the professors that I had to go through to get the certification was kind of like the worst human being I’ve ever met. And I knew that I was going to have to wake up at 7 a.m. every day to sit there and watch him suck for four hours and not teach me anything. And we kind of had a tumultuous relationship anyways. And it just came to like, “Well, I have what I need. I might as well say ‘fuck it’ and do something else that doesn’t irritate me every morning.” So I stopped doing that and focused more on DJing and doing what I was doing. I don’t even remember, probably just sitting around.[Laughs]

How did you get from starting up your first band with your sister, and using Nite Jewel’s drum machine, to putting out an EP on Mexican Summer?

It’s just kind of fucking weird how you end up meeting people. I met Cole [M. Greif-Neill], who is Ramona’s [Gonzalez, aka Nite Jewel] husband and used to be in Haunted Graffiti, through DJing at The Smell. He was doing sound, and I was DJing, and I was basically telling him to do his job better, because I couldn’t hear my shit. And we both thought that the other person was kind of a dick. [Laughs] And then we ended up being cool, because we started talking about music and stuff that we liked. And I hung out with him and a mutual friend of ours at this funny margarita spot in Echo Park. We just got really drunk and started throwing down, and it was like, “Oh yeah, you guys are pretty cool, man.” So we kind of were friends for a while, and he asked me to DJ a night at Verdugo Bar, which is a place Cole had a night with the rest of Haunted Graffiti for a while, and it’s just a place in Glendale. So we all got to know each other through music and hanging out. And, from there, we stayed in touch; we all lived pretty close to each other. And I ended up moving to Lincoln Heights, which is where I live now, and Cole and Ramona were my neighbors, so our bands practiced across from each other, and we just kind of share things, you know, just neighboring out, neighbor style. And they were really generous, as far as helping me realize this project. Cole helped me digitize a lot of our early tracks. He helped digitize the first stuff that Mexican Summer ever heard. And everything kind of snowballed from there.

That all happened pretty quickly though, right?

Oh yeah, in hindsight. It always seems to take forever when you’re dealing with it, but it’s definitely been really fast.

I’ve come across so many varied descriptions of your band’s sound. I’ve read lo-fi, psychedelic, dream pop, Soviet pop, beachy, ‘70s soft rock, California pop, inspired by Fleetwood Mac, inspired by Lush. Are you amused by the descriptors that come up when writers cover you?

Oh yeah, it’s hilarious. I feel like a lot of people that write these things treat their job like I was treating my job at Disney. Like, fucking off behind a desk all day and kind of pretending to have a finished product to show the boss at the end of the day. [Laughs] And that’s cool, but it’s to the detriment of our image, as far as people getting into our music’s concerned. I mean, I don’t really care, ‘cause I don’t read magazines for tips on what to listen to, so it’s not really like I care that much, but I could see how people wouldn’t give a shit about checking out our band based on what they’ve read, because no one is doing their job right. But if people listen to our record, they can make their own choices. So, I guess our name somewhere is better than our name nowhere. Maybe. I don’t know. [Laughs]

You’ve professed an affinity for ‘80s Soviet and eastern European new wave, and I imagine that a lot of obscure stuff filters through in your sound. Yet, I hear some very radio friendly sounds in your music, like early R.E.M. Have you gotten that as well?

A couple of people have said early R.E.M., and I really dig that. I feel like that’s probably more in line with what’s goin’ on. It’s not deliberate. I never really got into R.E.M., but I know that they have some pretty fuckin’ sweet guitar sounds, and it’s a more flattering comparison than fuckin’ Best Coast or something. It’s like, “Wow, you guys really didn’t listen to anything that we worked really hard on making.” So, I think that I would much prefer people to be drawing those kinds of conclusions versus other ones.

PURO INSTINCT, “Silky Eyes” Music Video from Sirocco Research Labs on Vimeo.

Does your sister play all the prominent guitar parts?

Yeah. With the exception of a second guitar part on “Silky Eyes” that Cody came up withit’s more of an atmospheric addition to the songshe plays all the guitar parts on the record.

And she’s still in school?


What’s it like being in a band when you’re somewhat dependent on a 16-year-old in high school?

She’s fuckin’ very mature and reliable, and she wants to do this as much as I want to do it, and I think it means as much to her as it means to me, so it’s very easy to work together and make this happen. She’s so pumped on it. We’re very humbled by how much people have helped us to realize this project, because it could have fallen super flat, and I think that she really appreciates how much time and blood and sweat and tears have gone into growing. And she’s just, I think, very excited about it. It’s super easy to collaborate, ‘cause we’re both equally feeling really good about it.

Do her friends have any grasp of what a cool position she’s in right now?

I don’t know. Actually, it’s pretty funny. I’m gonna say some do and some don’t. She just had like a sweet sixteen party, and Haunted Graffiti played, and it was at my friend Ian Marshall’s shop in Highland Park, Wombleton Records, and it was so cute because we were all joking that maybe the average height of the entire audience was 5’ 5” or something. I looked around the room, and there were some kids that were mesmerized, and then there were others that were just like, “Argh, what the fuck is this?” [Laughs] There was one kid that had the poutiest face and his arms crossed, and [I’m] just like, “Oh my God, who invited this loser?” [Laughs] I’m just kidding. I would never call a 16-year-old a loser. My friends were joking about that. It’s also really funny because there’s some of the most fucking derelict 30-year-olds that I know mixed in with these fresh-faced teenage babies, and they’re all trying to smoke pot in the back. And [the teenagers] are asking me to buy them beer, and I don’t know if I should be cool mom or lame mom right now, but I feel like maybe I should not buy them beer. It’s not because I don’t want teenagers to drink. I want them to make all the mistakes that I got to make when I was 16, but I think it’s mostly I have a personal bias against 16-year-old girls drinking, because they always pretend to be way drunker than they are and act like little pukesand then puke. It’s kind of unflattering and not very ladylike. So I think I ended up not doing it, but I think my friend Cisco did. [Laughs]

That’s what I’m curious about. When you’re on tour with your sister, are you protective of her?

Oh, of course. I mean, I’m protective of her when we go to the fucking grocery store. I’m probably way more protective of her than I need to be, and I’m trying to kind of rein in those instincts a little bit, because she’s 16. She should be able to chill. I feel like I was just so fucking crazy when I was her age that I don’t know if I want her to do the kinds of things that I did. I’m really protective of her. I get really weird if I catch her smoking pot or something. I kind of am like, “Ah, don’t do that.” And who cares? It’s not even a big deal. But it kind of is, to me.

Are your parents artists or musicians?

My dad, he used to be I mean, he still paints and stuff. Our nuclear family is not super musical.

I was curious why your mom had that Yamaha.

Oh, I don’t know, really. She’s a crafty lady. She’s got a lot of tricks up her sleeve she doesn’t even know about, probably. [Laughs]

Piper and Skylar, those are interesting names. Were you two named after anyone?

Well, I named my sister, ‘cause I was right there when my mom was going through labor. So we’re pretty deeply psychologically attached to each other. I think my dad was opening his mouth to name her, and I was like, “Skylar!” [Laughs] And that kind of is how that ended up happening. My mom, I think, really likes the name, maybe likes the connotation of what Piper is or something. The Pied Piper? I don’t know what the hell her reasoning was.





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