When musicians enter that sacred bond of starting up a band, it's natural to assume they do so out of a shared reverence and admiration for similar styles of music. They're brothers and sisters in instruments—musical soulmates. Aren't they?
Not all the time. When it comes to Le Chateau, finding agreement on what to listen to on the radio often proves elusive. Singer Laura Levenhagen—a transplant from Wisconsin—comes from more of a folk background, and has an ear for big-budget pop. Guitarist Frank Green prefers classic indie rock and, as he puts it, "dad rock." And keyboardist Erik Visnyak is the most left-field of the three, with tastes that range from contemporary electronic music like Purity Ring to New Orleans sludge metal.
Eclectic tastes and different perspectives can be a positive thing, but the differences between those of the members of Le Chateau were vast enough to have caught more than a few people off guard when they announced their new mutual musical project.
"Our friends thought we were kinda weird when we said we were starting a band, because we have such different tastes," Visnyak says. "They were just like that's going to be a trainwreck.'" Visnyak and Green, in particular, still argue over what to listen to on the way to rehearsal, but while they comprise an unlikely team of collaborators, Le Chateau is a band whose music thrives despite—or, perhaps, because of—those conflicts. Two longtime friends and veterans of San Diego's music scene, Visnyak and Green—who formerly played with Hotel St. George and Greg Gibson, respectively (as well as with other bands)—had talked about starting a band for a long time, reaching a climactic moment when an inebriated afternoon at the Golden Hill Street Fair led to the realization that the two musicians had been putting it off long enough.
Le Chateau play June 15 at The Office
They began working on material not long thereafter, and needed one more element to complete the sound: A vocalist. They discovered Levenhagen through a review of her solo EP in CityBeat (you're welcome, San Diego), and after one rehearsal, Chateau was born (later changed to Le Chateau after a band with the same name sent them a cease-and-desist letter).
In February, the band released their self-titled debut EP, and it's a stunning document of the unexpected musical synergy these three individuals create. Leadoff track "Bury You" buzzes with heady synthesizers beneath Levenhagen's soaring vocals, while "Tiger" has a dreamier, guitar-driven pop sound. And "The Bird, The Bee, The Owl" is a stark, atmospheric highlight that strongly showcases Levenhagen's knack for both vocal dynamics and storytelling. The band's music is a unique blend of styles and influences, and comes from a partnership where each member has a specific, if loosely defined role.
"I fill the role of the more physical side of the musicianship. And Erik is insanely smart with working with the mixing," Green says. "He's almost, like, producing everything at the same time we're playing the songs. We're able to bounce small ideas off each other."
When the members of Le Chateau do bounce ideas off each other, the process of shaping those fragments and kernels into songs can be pretty intensive. The band is ultimately a democracy, and with three people involved, majority rule works out more often than not. Not that there are any hard feelings when someone's ideas don't make the cut—as long as the finished product is the best song they can make, there's no need to be timid.
"We all do our own thing, and we all did solo records," Visnyak says. "And Frank and I played in bands.
But what I've come to appreciate over time is how do you make a really good song? How do you make something that really sticks with people? And part of that is really knowing when to step back. We can critique each other and not take offense. We're really trying to make good songs that people can connect with."
"If two of us have one opinion, and the other person has an opposite opinion, the other person is always good about saying Oh well, you think this, so I'll go along with it,'" Levenhagen adds. "But in the end, the one person that disagrees always ends up agreeing with the other two after hearing the finished product."
If the six songs on the band's debut EP are any indication, Le Chateau is off to a good start. In a way, this is something that Green, Levenhagen and Visnyak have been building up to for years. Green and Visnyak, who are both in their thirties, have long lost interest in the coolness factor of being in a band. And all three members are unified in their pursuit of an end goal: To write great songs.
"When you're younger, people just want to be in bands to be cool and play shows. They don't care too much about the substance," Green says. "We just want our music to be really fucking good."