The story of ‘Drinking in L.A.,’ 20 years later
Back in the 1990s, after a heavy night of drinking, James Di Salvio found himself one morning groggily coming to consciousness, face-down on a pristinely green West Hollywood lawn and, with his head throbbing angrily, he quietly reprimanded himself: “What the hell am I doing, drinking in L.A.?”
Two decades later, it’s the hangover that keeps on giving. At the time, Di Salvio was a filmmaker at the once-estimable music-video production company Propaganda Films — where he counted Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze as colleagues — with a side career as a DJ that wasn’t his primary focus.
He could never have known then that he would soon return to Montreal to craft an album with a cavalry of collaborators under the gibberish name Bran Van 3000, or that he would always remember that self-admonishment from that woozy morning until it became the irrepressible hook for one of the quirkiest and best-loved hits of the ’90s. Life would soon be for the taking and he wised up and took it quick.
“It’s really strange that the song took us around the world,” Di Salvio recalled recently from, yes, L.A. “These days, I find it more and more strange.
“It’s just been a crazy ride.”
It’s been 20 years since “Drinking in L.A.” and Bran Van 3000’s eclectic debut Glee dropped back in February 1997, when the group’s hip, kitschy, kitchen-sink esthetic and genre-defying mixtape intoxication were so en vogue that even Madonna was drawn into the bidding war.
But Bran Van 3000’s unlikely story starts earlier than that, when Di Salvio was strolling through New York’s Washington Square Park with his mind on money and money on his mind.
In 1994, Di Salvio had been enduring some stress around his ever-inflating credit-card bill. When a royalty cheque finally arrived for a remix he had done for Quebec songwriter Jean Leloup’s “1990,” it felt like a monsoon in a southern California summer. Conservation wasn’t in the cards; Di Salvio wanted to set up a studio. E.P. Bergen, an old buddy of Di Salvio’s from the Montreal club scene, recalls his friend inviting him to “come help him spend the money.”
During Bergen’s ensuing trip to New York, the duo named the group during a walk through the park (“we just came up with those words and didn’t even know what they meant,” Di Salvio recalls) and bought sampling equipment at Sam Ash in Times Square.
Di Salvio and Bergen then returned to Mile End in Montreal and work on Glee began — if it can be called work.
Really, it seems like the duo hosted the musical equivalent of a pickup basketball game, with a cast of collaborators including Stéphane Moraille, Sara Johnston, Liquid, producer Haig Vartzbedian, Adam Chaki and Raymond Akira Betts contributing. It wasn’t an exclusive club. Bergen recalls that they once heard a Montreal street performer capably trilling a clarinet; days later he was performing on “Couch Surfer” and “Supermodel.”
The sprightly and spritzy Glee seems to treat the idea of cohesiveness as a quaint relic from the buttoned-up past, cramming in as many ideas, performers and styles as possible and trusting the listener to keep up, or at least to dance.
It’s the kind of giddily eclectic genre mélange that seemed especially exciting in the days just before the internet became ubiquitous. From the deadpan indie-pop yarn “Couch Surfer” to the gritty hip-hop of “Afrodiziak” (which boasted an appearance from Gravediggaz’s Poetic, made possible by a field trip to the Wu Tang Clan’s hotel headquarters in Manhattan) or the ambient beauty of “Problems,” the record seemed impossible to pin down.
They knew right away that “Drinking in L.A.” was special. It was the last song finished for the record, a layered labour of love that combined a fuzzy dew of guitars, gorgeous harmonies and a knockout hook that would make Manny Pacquiao jealous.
“It was almost like one of those movies where an animated blue bird swings by over the real live footage,” Di Salvio said. “It’s cheesy, but I knew in my heart it was a hit.”
He wasn’t alone. From the beginning, record-company executives in the thriving ’90s saw dollars in Bran Van 3000.
Di Salvio recalls his first trip down to Texas for South by Southwest, when they brought a few dozen white-label cassettes with “Glee”on the cover in Helvetica along with his 514 phone number. On the last day of the festival, Di Salvio managed to get one of the tapes to Moby, who was participating in a panel discussing the electronic music boom.
Three weeks later, he got a call from a Geffen executive who had been searching for the mysterious group behind the tape. Di Salvio and friends were at the Montreal offices of their label Audiogram gathered around a speaker phone.
“We were all tripping. Then he asked the Mexican standoff question: ‘When can I see you live?’ I said six weeks,” Di Salvio remembered. “We didn’t have a band. The idea of a band did not exist.”
Still, they pulled together a touring group and the industry interest only intensified. Other electronic artists like the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy were throttling up the charts, and Bran Van’s “timing was crazy.” Labels including Madonna’s Maverick Records, A&M Records and Capitol were stopping at nothing to sign them, sending Bentleys to pick them up for evening-long schmoozes.
“It went from eating ramen to a Drake song in 15 minutes,” Di Salvio reflected. “I remember the MTV Awards. Everybody was there and it was like all eyes on me.”
He remembers rubbing shoulders with Anthony Kiedis, Marilyn Manson, Billy Corgan and the Beastie Boys’ Mike D, who hosted Di Salvio for a jam session at his house. He remembers Bran Van members knocking a soccer ball around with Massive Attack in Amsterdam, comparing samplers with Prodigy after a festival set and hearing “Drinking in L.A.” booming full-throated from the crowd at the historic Tibetan Freedom Concert.
“When people started buying us drinks everywhere we went, I knew there was something going on,” Bergen said.
“It was a very Hollywood, very surreal time,” Di Salvio added.
Ultimately, it’s still “Drinking in L.A.” that people most remember. The song hit the Top 10 in the U.K., Sweden, Norway and Italy, and seems to have only accumulated affection over the years. Its appeal is intangible, though Di Salvio credits its female voices: “I’m a big fan of the girls. Sara and Jayne (Hill) sing those harmonies so perfectly, and Stéphane just owns the chorus.”
Three more Bran Van albums came afterward, and Di Salvio’s career as a composer/DJ was launched. But you only get one once-in-a-lifetime hit. He hears it frequently still, living as he now does in the City of Angels, blaring from car stereo systems, bar jukeboxes and even supermarkets. Even during this conversation, a woman overhears Di Salvio reminiscing and stops by his table to wish him a happy anniversary.
“I’m not a conventional musician by any means, so the story of Bran Van is ‘with a little help from my friends,’ ” he reflected. “This thing was about family in so many ways. It’s like looking back at your family photo album. I’m so proud.
“It’s just nice to be told happy anniversary, all these years later.”