On a warm day in Los Angeles, we headed to the Echo Park home of Darren Weiss, the lead singer and drummer of PAPA. PAPA is currently on tour supporting their debut LP Tender Madness, an album we’re big fans of. We talked about second album plans, his huge vinyl collection, and his friendship with the wildly popular sisters of HAIM.
We began by talking about the Bottom of the Hill Show in November:
Darren: That was a really fun night. We always have so much fun in San Francisco. We don't know the reason behind it. There's something in the air that with us and that fan base, good things happen.
[See our review of their awesome show at The Independent on May 23rd here]
SFCS: So what do you think is the band's biggest accomplishment so far?
Darren: That's a hard question because I think, as most artists do, to tend to focus on their failures to learn from mistakes rather than their successes, but I am very proud of where we are. I suppose all else I think is that we've been able to grow and grow and grow in this very sort of grass roots underground culture way, which is always how we've wanted to do it because we never wanted to have anything to do with any pop culture radio scheming like that, and there's a lot of ways that bands sacrifice a lot of different elements of artistic vision to obtain different levels of success. And I suppose our biggest accomplishment is that we still don't give a fuck, that there's no interruption in the way that we see our vision and the way that we see it through. So that above anything else. I'm proud of the music we make and the kind of shows that we put on. I'm very excited about the songs that we're writing now. We're about 3/4 done writing for the next album already and we're really excited about that. But mainly just that we're not worried about the outside world, like the indie culture that we may or may not belong to, that philosophically and ethically we're sort of an island, in a way that I think is really positive.
SFCS: That's cool! If you had to cover a song at your next show, what would it be?
Darren: Well we will be covering a song at our next show, but I can't tell you that now!
[The cover was "Love Is A Battlefield" by Pat Benatar]
SFCS: What's most important to you in a live show?
Darren: What's most important to me is not how many people are there, or even how well we play. Because some of our best, most exciting, and most inspiring shows have been shows where I perform at a lower level than I would like to. Personally, as a musician, as a drummer and singer, I may not have sung my best, or played drums as well as I'd like to. But what matters is this intangible thing that I think any performance artist is always chasing, this kinetic relationship between the audience. So what's most important to me is that, there's no really way to ensure that it's going to happen. It's something we chase every night on tour. But I think the way that we position ourselves to achieve that is sort of like to not get into any routines on stage, to be very aware that it's a two way street every night, that the audience is just as big a part of the show as we are on the stage. So we're not playing with our eyes closed in a sense that we don't do the same things every night. We very much play off the energy of the crowd, the conversations we have with the crowd, the kind of songs they respond to. Sometimes we don't have a setlist and we just call it off based on how the energy feels.
SFCS: How do you know when you've hit that moment?
Darren: Everybody feels it. When that moment happens, we all just look at each other. There's no way to say "this is how, and this is why, and this is how we achieve it again.” You just have to be free and honest and willing to move with the energy of the night.
SFCS: What was the last live show you attended as a fan?
Darren: I went to see Charles Bradley at The Fonda Theatre here in LA on Saturday night. And I'm going to see another show tomorrow, The Secret Sisters with Nickel Creek. The Secret Sisters are a band that I played drums on their record, which just came out, which is really cool. One of the two sisters is Lydia Rogers, who sings on the last song, the duet on the PAPA record. They're opening for Nickel Creek at The Wiltern tomorrow so I'm gonna go see that. Charles Bradley at The Fonda was mind blowing.
SFCS: Who are you excited to see at Sasquatch?
Darren: The day we're playing, Brody Dalle, who I love and I just played on her record that just came out, she's playing but earlier in the day. HAIM, who are old old friends of ours, our sets overlap, so I'll try to catch some of their set. We're close with the guys from Queens of the Stone Age but they're playing last and we have to drive through the night to get to Missoula the next day, so I don't know. I'm just gonna have to feel it out.
SFCS: How did you meet the girls from HAIM?
Darren: I've known them forever, for years and years. We both grew up in the valley. They're from Studio City, I'm from Encino. And we just were very close and sort of as teenagers would play music together, have jam sessions and play covers. I've played drums for HAIM before, and at the first show that I ever played drums and sung at the same time, Danielle was the guitar player for that. We were opening for Dawes at The Troubadour. I haven't seen them in a really long time because of their schedules.
SFCS: What's the most interesting venue you've ever performed at?
Darren: We played at a museum in Iceland, but that wasn't that weird, that was just cool! I think still the weirdest venue I've ever played is a club here in LA, when I was a teenager, called the CIA Club, and their claim was that they had the corpse of a clown on display, and different bizarre circus artifacts. And they also had bands play. It was in North Hollywood.
SFCS: When did you start drumming?
Darren: Well piano is my first instrument, I started playing drums when I was 11. And then I taught myself guitar because my dad and brother play guitar, so guitars were always around, so I just picked it up and taught myself.
SFCS: If you have a day off in a city, such as San Francisco, where would you go?
Darren: Well usually the first place I want to go is the record shop. As you can see [points to huge shelving collection on wall full of vinyl] we collect a lot of vinyl. It's fun going to vintage record shops and finding things that you could only find at this place at this moment. The keyboard player in our band makes incredible coffee, like pre-bottled cold brewed coffee, he's incredible. He's really into coffee and coffee culture, so he'll look up the best coffee place, which is great because I love tea. We also look to find a park, we bring our baseball mitts, and a baseball and a football. We love to play catch and just run around. And also go to museums and things like that.
SFCS: Where's your favorite coffee in San Francisco?
Darren: Well Blue Bottle is really nice. We always stay at the Phoenix hotel, where I lived for a little while, when I was working with Girls. There's a restaurant called Farm Table that's on Geary I think, closer to Union Square, and they've got great tea and coffee. But Blue Bottle is probably the place.
SFCS: What's the most important song you've written?
Darren: Oh, I don't know [laughs]. I think every song that I write, at the time is the most important song to me. I won't play a song, I won't show a demo to the guys, I won't work on it if I don't think it has in one way or another to be the most important song, or at least the most vital song for us to play or work on in that moment. So I don't know, in what capacity do you mean important?
SFCS: What's the most meaningful to you?
Darren: There are different songs. There are love songs that I've written that still make me emotional when I play them every night because they're so real to a specific instance in my life. And those are powerful for me, but at the same time there are songs, and especially the songs that we're working on now, are less about specific relationships in my life and more about sort of views I have on social culture that we have here in youth based America and things of that nature. And I think it's important that someone say what they feel about that, radio and television and pop culture in general. The radio is probably the worst form of youth representation but it is because it has the loudest voice to the most people for what music is going on. So for me to have a voice to sort of speak up about how I feel about a lot of the culture we experience doesn't speak to or on behalf of most of us, or a lot of us. I think that's really important and that is a big part of the next chapter for PAPA. So I don't know. Hopefully I haven't written it yet.
SFCS: So then let's go back a bit… what's your most prized record store find?
Darren: I've got a couple, I mean, for awhile I was collecting a lot of 7 inches that were really important to me. There's this Gun Club record is one of my favorite records. This is an original pressing, "Fire of Love" Gun Club, found in Chicago. There's this Bob Dylan record that I have, that's original pressing also, it's a single of "Positively 4th Street." This is one of my prized possessions because it's still in great condition. It has photographs from the Highway 61 Revisited Session that I've never seen anywhere else and I'm pretty obsessive, so to find a new piece from something like that is very special to me. Those are two very prized possessions.
SFCS: So your book came out last October. Can you talk a little about your background in literature?
Darren: Well my love for literature actually started as a result of touring because I started touring nine years ago when I was 17, and I was never a Game Boy kid or whatever, and obviously the smartphone was not a thing, so to entertain myself on these 12 hour drives I started reading really intensely. I feel like a lot of people get into literature through Bukowski, Kerouac, but I sort of discovered that I didn't have friends that read. That's not to insult them, that's just the truth. I feel like a lot of people just don't read for pleasure. And so I don't really have anyone to talk to about these books that were having profound effects on me, so when I went to college, I initially had gotten in to study jazz drumming, and then I said fuck it, I don't want to go music school, I can listen to all the jazz records I want. I want to talk to people about the books I love. So I went and studied literature and that's what I got my degree in. I'm always reading, I always have at least a handful of books on deck waiting to go [points at a tall stack of books to bring on the upcoming tour]. Every day I read a lot. It sort of helps me with all kinds of things, like mental things, and the way I want to write. but literature and poetry is just as important to me as music and visual art. They're very equal to me. I write all the time and when I'm not writing for a song, the way I write wouldn't find into a song, I don't know if you've read the book, but it's more like prose poetry, a couple rhyming poems, the rest are short prose poems. It was something that I wanted to share, it's also drawings and you know, I'm working on the next collection now. It's something I want to continue to do as long as I can, because it's a very big part of my outlet and source of creativity and all of those things. A lot of the authors that I love, I feel much closer to those people than to people in my family or my friends. They're very important to me in many ways.
SFCS: That's very interesting. The EP is titled A Good Woman is Hard to Find, a Flannery O’Connor reference?
Darren: Yeah. I'm a fan of hers. But she's certainly not for everybody, it's not like a fun easy read or anything like that.
SFCS: How'd you discover her?
Darren: I don't know. Now again I don't have a lot of people to talk about books with because I've graduated college but a lot of it comes from studying artists and novelists, and who were they reading when they wrote this and who were their influences. Same things with records, if there's a record I love, I don't just listen to it and put it away. I study it, it becomes a sort of world that I dip into and I'll study all the players, what other records did they play on? The producer, what other shit he was working on, what year it came out, what the context of the record was and what those people, who they toured with, who they loved. And that's sort of how I research.
SFCS: What are you reading now?
Darren: Right now I'm actually reading the autobiography of Dr. J, Julius Irving, the basketball player, which was a gift from my girlfriend recently. I'm about to read, Whashot Chronicle by John Cheever and The Recognitions by William Gaddis.
SFCS: Who's on your current playlist?
Darren: Nas. Twin Peaks. Charles Bradley. Secret Sisters. Mos Def. The Clash, always. Bud Powell. That's who I've realistically been listening to in the last week or two.
SFCS: Where's your favorite ice cream?
Darren: Good question. In New York, where I used to live, there's a place called Sundaes and Cones and I used to go way too much, but I love that place, they had really interesting flavors.
SFCS: What's the first restaurant you got to when you get home from tour?
Darren: In Los Angeles… probably Stella in Silver Lake here, sort of a French style restaurant that I love. I probably eat at Stella, Sage — which is a vegan place right here, it's really good, and Little Dom's in Los Feliz. Those are probably my three go to places.
SFCS: Are you vegan?
Darren: No, but I do like vegan food a lot.
SFCS: Do you cook? Are you a big chef?
Darren: Not a big cook, but I try to have friends over once a week to cook. I think people should know how to do it, how to cook for themselves. I love to do it, to have people over that I care about, and put time into making something that I think they'll like and share it with them, it's fun cause I don't drink or do drugs or anything like that. Sometimes it's hard cause my friends are like "oh let's go to this bar," so a dinner party is much more fun for me.
SFCS: If you could be any kitchen utensil, what would you be?
Darren: The spoon.
Darren: Yogurt. No. Ice cream.
SFCS: If you could take credit for any song and claim it as your own, what would you pick?
Darren: "This Magic Moment" performed by The Drifters. That recording in particular, even more than the song, but that recording to me is the most perfect sounding recording of all time in pop music. But also maybe "Clair de Lune" by Debussy. It's a classic piece. That to me is the most beautiful piece of music ever. Any time I listen to it I can only put it on when I know I'm not gonna be around other people and if I try to put anything on after within like a half hour, no matter what it is, it could be The Beatles, sounds like trash to me. It's kind of like I have to listen to it, meditate, then come back to the world. So I'd say that.
SFCS: Can you tell us about The Social Army that you guys just launched?
Darren: Yeah! It's just kind of like how I was saying that when I love an artist I research them, what are they into, what inspires them, who are they seeking out. I studied musicians and artists more than I studied anything in college. So we wanted to have some kind of abstract place to communicate those things with our fans, and actually up to this point it's really been more Danny's thing than mine. But still, same kind of thing. Because we don't want to exist in different facets of pop culture, we want to have other lanes of communication open with the people who care about us and the people we care about to build this Papa culture together that we can all live in. And that extends beyond just our records, but that is the culture of Papa, whether it's classical music or literature. The music that we make is all part of the world that we exist in and we want to share that world with the people who want to be in it. And so that's really what it's about.
[Editor’s Note: Darren mentioned the restaurant Farm Table and cited it as on Geary, it is actually located at 754 Post Street, in between Leavenworth and Jones.]
Photo by Sam Engel