Westerner: The New Frontier of West L.A. Music

Written by Matthew Montañez with Photography by Sergio Solorzano

Westerner is a four-piece psychedelic, dance, rock band with a group chemistry that could only be described as electric. We sat down in their West L.A. rehearsal space to learn their story. Along the way, we learned how founder, guitarist, and lead singer Enigma attracted the rest of the crew one by one like a magnet, and Westerner helped us uncover the current state of the West L.A. music scene.

From left to right in the above photo, band members include Volto (Javier Olmedo) on lead guitar, Mojo (Brandon Valerino) on bass and backup vocals, Enigma (Cooper Bombadil) on guitar and lead vocals, and Shadow (Mike Gattshall) on drums.

Where does your band name, Westerner, come from and what does it represent?

Enigma I started to write this graphic novel a while ago, and I wanted to call it Westerner. It was about a cowboy in modern times going from city to city and then eventually going into space. I liked the idea of Westerner being this person who's always on the frontier - somebody who goes far into space and then internally into their own mind. The idea is that the frontier doesn't exist necessarily on earth or in the physical realm so you can't go west anymore there. You have to begin moving deep inside yourself to stay on the frontier. The novel was never completed, but when it came time to re-name the band, we felt that Westerner would best represent what we wanted to create musically.

How is the 'Westerner' concept reflected in your music?

Enigma At one aspect, it's spacey. The psychedelic element makes it spacey. Since the Westerner is someone who continues into the frontier, where the frontier can be space or the frontier can be internal, our music can be meditative and hypnotic.

Shadow We also aim for a new take on music in general which lends to the 'new frontier' aspect. We come up with new ideas and we go, "let's Westernerize it". So we start screwing with the music trying to make something completely different. Westerner gives us a foundation to work from.

Do you ever find yourselves creating a song and feeling that it's not 'Westerner' enough?

Shadow (Laughs) All the time. We have a bunch of stuff on the back burner that we have to kind of 'Westernerize'.

Volto The three main tenets we have when westernerizing a song are: dancey, dark, and pop. In other words, the song should be funky, psychedelic with all the spacey sounds, but still have accessible melodies. Those three elements inform most of our songs.

Mojo Right. Some of our songs are more straight up disco, some are really psychedelic and some have a darker vibe. But they all have those three tenets.

How early on did you define the tenets of Westerner songs, or did those evolve over time?

Mojo Well, Enigma wrote the bulk of the material before we joined, but the longer that we've been in this iteration of the band, the more clearly defined it's become. We've really begun to dial it in, in terms of the aesthetic.

In other bands that each of you have played in, was the character of the music as well defined or is this something that is unique towards your experience in Westerner?

Shadow Personally, I feel that it's extremely unique. The way I play in this band is not how I play in any other bands. I take a completely different approach to how I think about what I'm doing. Obviously, I'm pulling my muscle memory and general drum beats but I'm applying a bunch of styles and techniques that I can't do in other bands, they just don't work anywhere else. So it's completely a different mind frame.

Mojo I actually play saxophone. It's my main instrument. So this is much different.

Is your band's dress style a reflection of the principles of Westerner music? Was there a point that you decided to represent yourselves in a particular way?

Enigma It evolved. I mean, this style is new, within the last couple of weeks. When I first started and members were coming into the band, I'd say "think of what you would wear if you lived in a schizophrenic dystopian future." Since then, it's moved beyond that. And now it's like, you know, find something that's looks new but also has a sense of oldness to it. Something psychedelic or futuristic but then also find some way to ground it with something retro or old feeling. I like to think of our music as having a retro feel with a new spin.

Who do see as your creative inspiration?

Volto A modern band that we can say is a good reference is Tame Impala. They have similar psychedelic and dancy aspects. Especially recently, they're a little more dancy.

Enigma There was a time, a while ago, when I had a core group of bands that was all I listened to: Radiohead, Tool, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Rós. After a while, I made a concerted effort to listen to as many different styles as I could and find something in each style that I liked. From that, formed the basis of those pillars that make up Westerner.

As far as newer bands, lately I've been listening to a band called Demob Happy. They're from Britain and they're like fuzzy punk. Older stuff that influence me personally are bands like Black rivers or Deltron 3030, Led Zeppelin, a bit of Nine Inch Nails, Justin Timberlake and too many others to name.

How long have you been playing together as band?

Shadow It started with Enigma. He wrote the first album basically on his own. He had some help from other musicians recording and performing. I first saw Westerner playing when my previous band played the same gig, and I was blown away. I knew immediately that I wanted to play in Westerner and that I had to find some way to make it happen. When I heard that Westerner's drummer at the time was leaving, I reached out: "Engima, please. I have a sample pad. You're gonna love it."

But I was already in six other bands at the time and Enigma told me he needed someone who was dedicated - I told him, "I'll quit all the bands." I had to convince him that I'd be able to make time for it. That was a good indication of how serious he was about the project. Volto was the next person that came into the band.

Volto Same story. I saw them play a year or two ago before I joined and thought, "Whoa, who the fuck is this band." I happened to catch them on a random night while supporting another friends band. Enigma and I started talking and he mentioned that it was actually his guitarist's last show. "We're holding auditions next Wednesday, do you want to come?" I responded, "Fuck yeah."

The whole crowd was mesmerized, dancing almost like they had been drugged, they were just so into it.

Mojo The first time I saw Westerner was with Volto at Rafas lounge, and I thought "What the hell is this band?" - in a good way. I saw them again after Volto joined about a year later when they played at Lot 1 and the whole crowd was mesmerized, dancing almost like they had been drugged, they were just so into it. I thought the band was so cool. And then about a year ago to this day, the band hit me up to be a sub for a show or two.

I really liked the music so I listened to it over and over and tried to transcribe it out. I played a couple shows with the band and they asked if I'd like to stick around - "Yeah for sure."

Engima So it's been about a year with this line up. It's wild when you think about it because it seems like we've come a long way.

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As a band and as individuals, you've played shows in many cities and states. How have those experiences contributed to your work ethic in Westerner?

Mojo There are two kinds of attitudes you can have, especially when you're in close with so many different people. You can either complain about everything on the journey and think, "this is such a drag", or you can see it how I saw it when playing in Costa Rica, as an awesome experience.

So what if it's 90 degrees and 100 percent humidity and you're uncomfortable. We're here to play music and we're on a beach and we're on a foreign land. Everybody speaks Spanish. That was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and that was a sliver, that was a taste of how awesome it would be to have that as your life and your career, traveling everywhere. There's nothing like it.

If you're a serious musician and want to go places, you've got to be down with that and be OK with the people around you and keep a positive attitude because it's easy to get caught up in the details. Play music and do your thing. Loving the music is a huge factor.

What have you recorded so far? Have you produced any albums?

Enigma We've released an album: Unreal City. It's a sci-fi, rock, opera concept album. Then we have a handful of singles. Recently, we've released a single called Soft Playground along with its' music video, and we have a couple singles we haven't released yet. We're going to be recording more soon.

What are the channels that you leverage to release your music? Do you have anybody help the band with distribution or do you do it all yourselves?

Enigma It's the scattershot: Instagram, Spotify, Youtube, iTunes. These days it's all DIY. You just go through CD Baby and they disperse it to all the things.

Do you have goals for monetizing your music or are you more focused on the creative outlet at this time? What is your ambition as a band?

Shadow We're looking at working with a label right now so that's where we're headed. Once we dive into that, we'll have a better idea of where our goals are. Overall, we love the music and it's a huge passion project for us. We spend a lot of time and invest a lot of money into it so, for me at least, the overall goal is just to be able to pay rent with the music. In general, the industry is confusing right now for everybody. If you put your music on Spotify you might make ten cents off of 50,000 listens. That doesn't sound like a good business plan.

Mojo We all kind of have the same goal: if we could make a living off of just playing in this band and playing shows and selling our music online, we would. Who wouldn't, right? But we love it so much, I mean maybe I speak for myself but I don't think I do, that would be the ultimate goal. And like Shadow's saying, Spotify is so tricky right now but that's what we're working towards, getting that video on YouTube that has a million hits 'cus that's when you start making money. It's just about building - starting from nothing basically, DIY like Engima was saying, and building it up.

Enigma It's hard to have multiple focuses as a band. You know, when you're writing a song, you're not thinking about the money, you're thinking about the connection you have with the music and the connection other people will have with it. When you're not, you gotta think about making a living off of it and that's a different mindset. But we just want to get to a place where we can focus on the music and have it sustain us.

The industry is confusing right now for everybody. If you put your music on Spotify you might make ten cents off of 50,000 listens. That doesn't sound like a good business plan.

Mojo As a side note, I've played in a lot of different projects and I've never been in a group where all members are so driven and down to make it happen. Spending the time at home practicing, getting the different effects, showing up early, working on an outfit - there are just so many aspects of a band. Every single member of this band is 100 percent in it to win it. That's a huge difference from so many bands in L.A.

Shadow You have to have the discipline, energy, and passion to do something otherwise it's just a hobby. And that's fine, if it's just a hobby that's fine. But we want to do this. We've all wanted to do this since we were as young as we could remember. So this is our opportunity to do it.

Where can readers find your music?

Enigma If you go to westernerband.com you can find the links to all the places but you know Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, Bandcamp.

Mojo Even on Facebook and Instagram, we post a lot of live videos of our shows.

Shadow We try to do a live stream of every show. If you go to our Facebook we have the past 10 or 15 shows all live on there. Our handle is @westernerband on Instagram and Facebook and pretty much any of those platforms, if you type @westernerband in any of those you'll find us.

Think of what you would wear if you lived in a schizophrenic dystopian future.

Shadow We've discussed seriously live streaming our performances before, I know there are channels that do that, but it's not time to for us to focus on that now. We mostly do the live stream on Facebook and Instagram for ourselves because we like to go back and critique and adjust.

Do you have favorite venues to play?

Enigma Townhouse - the Del Monte Speakeasy technically. Bootleg is great. We play mostly on the west side. Almost anything on the west side we love because people like us there.

Volto Yeah that's an interesting thing that's unique to this band. Most of the bands here in L.A. are indie and alternative bands based on the east-side. That's kind of the Mecca: Silver Lake, Echo park, Highland Park. But with this band, we're doing the exact opposite. We're really killin' the west side.

Do you have bands that you play with often? Is there a west side scene?

Shadow Yeah, there's the West Side Revival which happens at the townhouse. The promoter brings in a bunch of West L.A. bands. The Beatjackers are there and I love the Absynths and the Absurd as well. We haven't played with them in a while though. There's a lot of bands now that are popping up on the west side that are trying to make something out of it.

The West Side Revival happens every second Sunday. It's all about making music on the west side big, equal to the east side, which benefits all of L.A.

Enigma The West Side Revival happens every third Sunday, it's a really awesome thing. People need to come to that because it's amazing. So many people who love music come in and absolutely have so much fun. It's a really new event but it's already growing. From the first show it was big. It's all about making music on the west side big, equal to the east side, which benefits all of L.A. And it's free.

Mojo We were originally booked to play that show after we became friends with the manager. He laid out his vision for us and we were like "Fuck yeah, we want to be a part of it."

Enigma He's very community minded. He's invited a bunch of bands to help him, so he's not trying to be the overlord or whatever, his name's Aaron Mendoza. He's very organized, very ambitious and he's making things happen, it's great.

Do you have any help booking shows or is that process DIY?

Mojo We tend to find shows through other shows we've played and through mutual friends. It can be kind of random.

Enigma People often reach out to us lately, and we've got a couple of great people helping us too. Some of the bigger shows have come through them.

All of us have been doing this long enough to know that you can play at a great venue, that you've been dreaming about playing forever, and it won't make a difference if you're not ready to play it.

Shadow It's one of those things that we're trying to leave to other people. We're really focusing on the music and playing shows that come up but we're not out there scheduling a tour. It's not the time for us to do that yet, but we take on things that seem like a right choice.

Enigma We definitely want to play at great venues and there are some venues that would be a dream to play at, but all of us have been doing this long enough to know that you can play at a great venue, that you've been dreaming about playing forever, and it won't make a difference if you're not ready to play it. So right now we're happy where we're at and happy playing where we're at. We have several venues we love playing. We're happy playing those in rotation and continuing to build our fan base. When the other venues come around we'll be ready.

Is there a particular show or experience that stands out for you as a band?

Shadow The last two shows were pretty phenomenal, actually. The last West Side Revival show was killer. There were so many people there and Enigma saw some people that we didn't know singing the lyrics of our songs. That's a nice indicator that we're making the proper steps.

Enigma Things happened at the last couple shows that hadn't happened before and not only that but it was two shows in a row so it felt really good, it felt special. You know, you can play all sorts of shows and you can do certain things to excite the crowd and people won't react, but at the last several shows we would do something like Shadow has an electronic drum kit that he'd sweep into with a filter. I remember that happening and somebody in the audience going 'Woaaaaahhh' and someone else, 'Yeahhhhh'. That happened both shows. People were tapped in and dancing their asses off the whole time.

Mojo That's another thing about this band: it's the first band I've been in where people dance to the music and it's awesome. This is how rock music should work, guys. People who are at their first show of ours, too. We're pretty high energy on stage. Even if there's nobody in the room, we'll still be high energy, and then when the audience is also high energy, it's just cyclical, it keeps building.

Where can we see Westerner perform?

Shadow We play in Mar Vista at the Grand View Market which is right next to Time Warp records. It's an actual market. There's heads of lettuce and bananas around so you can also do your shopping. Very convenient.

Enigma It's a great spot. That little corner of the community is so awesome because you've got Time Warp records and Grand View Market which both have music on the weekends so the whole community comes out. When we first played Grand View Market we were lucky because it was on an art walk night so everybody was out.

The place was full and we started playing and everybody was like "What the hell, there's CUCUMBERS over here and they're ROCKING OUT over there." It's a great way to surprise people because they're outside of the typical environment where you see live music.

First Fridays is our show there and it's called the psychedeli because it's psychedelic music and there's a deli.

Westerner's live performance at Grand View Market was recently recorded by Local Music Channel. You can find more Westerner videos and recorded performances of other great independent bands at the Local Music Channel website and YouTube channel.

What advice can you provide for a young band that's getting together and trying to create some music?

Mojo Practice. A shit ton.

Volto I would say define your goals because if you're making music as a hobby or as a creative outlet, that's going to require a much different commitment than somebody who wants to make a living from it. The time, effort, and money spent is going to look way different. Definitely define your goals as soon as you can.

Enigma Look up the Charles Bukowski poem "Roll the dice". That's basically my guiding principle: "... do it, do it, do it. / do it. / all the way / all the way. / you will ride life straight to / perfect laughter, its / the only good fight / there is."

Big thanks to Westerner for taking the time to talk with us and shedding some light on the west L.A. scene.

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