In 'Rockville, CA' the Music Tells the Story

By 11/10/2008
In 'Rockville, CA' the Music Tells the Story

Rockville, CAPhantom Planet takes the stage for The‘s Rockville, CA (Photos by Brady Brim-DeForest)

Alex Patsavas is chatting on her Blackberry pacing the sidewalk outside the Sunset entrance to The Echo. It’s a decently mild fall afternoon and her black leather coat and dark rim glasses blend perfectly in this neighborhood — this is Echo Park after all. We’re 100 yards from the intersection of Sunset and Glendale boulevards, smack dab in eye of the anointed hub of LA’s thriving indie rock scene.

Playing The Echo or its Silver Lake sister club Spaceland is an aspiring band’s right of passage as it hones its sound and cultivates the affections of music scenesters. Seven nights a week The Echo and its underground appendage The Echoplex pump out the latest in local and traveling indie acts. Beck, The Decemberists, Autolux, Band of Horses, Dntel, GoGoGo Airheart have all graced the stage, but they aren’t really who you come to see. You come to discover. You come to be in on something the mainstream hasn’t picked up a whiff of yet.

You wouldn’t know it passing by, as her unassuming presence and disarming smile could be confused with any other thirtysomething music fan, but Patsavas is Hollywood’s indie rock kingmaker. On the other end of that Blackberry call is most likely one of her dozens of label contacts working out clearances for another hand-picked song she must have in one of her roster of hit TV shows — Gossip Girl, Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy, Chuck, Numb3rs.

She’s single-handedly catapulted lesser-known bands into mainstream adoration complete with the accompanying jaw-dropping boost in album sales. LA-based Rooney struggled selling copies of their debut album until Patsavas chose them in 2004 for a cameo on an episode of the The O.C. thereby vaulting sales and making them a household name for the teen drama faithful. She can also take credit for Death Cab For Cutie (The O.C.), The Fray (Grey’s Anatomy) and The Killers (The O.C.).

O.C. and Gossip Girl creator Josh Schwartz has been a fan of Patsavas for a while, and it’s no surprise he chose the queen of TV soundtracks to team up with him on what is no doubt the most musically ambitious web series ever put together: Rockville, CA.

Hollywood Returns

LA’s Eastside is a neighborhood steeped rich in entertainment history — it was after-all, the birthplace of Hollywood’s film industry going back to the early days of silent movies. But before Hollywood was Hollywood, Mack Sennett‘s silent film studio dominated the business atop its Echo Park (then called Edendale) perch, with stars like Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, and Bing Crosby cutting their teeth on his stages.

It was only a matter of time before Hollywood would return to this hallowed ground. This time it’s in search of a cool that abandoned the TMZ-obsessed westside clubs years ago.

We head inside, downstairs to the cavernous basement that is the Echoplex, now bustling with the business typical of any TV shoot. Deep greens and reds beam from overhead stage lights, painting a colorfully dark set akin to some sort of cosmic playground. There must be sixty or so people down here, including about a two dozen fashionable young extras out of Central Casting set to serve as this episode’s adoring headbobbers.

Club RockvilleIt dawns on me that this whole setup could have been easily recreated on a soundstage. There’s nothing visually unmistakable about this place that meant production had to be centered here. They’ve even dressed up a wall with a six-foot black-on-white sign plastered with “Club Rockville” reminding us that it isn’t The Echo or The Echoplex at all, at least not in a physical sense. But the venue choice was no accident. Schwartz and Patsavas knew exactly what they were going after — the idea of The Echo — an authentic cool that you just can’t tap from a replica. 

There’s No Place Like Home

Phantom Planet - The BandBack upstairs, we catch a few minutes with Phantom Planet, this episode’s main attraction. They’re just finishing up a spot on Extra! and roll naturally from one interview into another, veterans of never-ending PR rounds most of us will never experience. We shake hands as they sit on the nearby barstools, assuming the positions they seem to know too well with front man Alex Greenwald plopping down front and center. There’s a relaxed cool about these guys. It could be that they’re finally home after a grueling seven-month tour, back in the club they used to play and watch fellow LA bands on random Tuesdays.

“We’ve seen so many shows here,” Greenwald tells me, “and it’s the same sound guys from the club so it’s totally comfortable, totally easy to get in the swing of things.” Of course the dolly tracks, catering spread, and suite of cameras don’t go unnoticed by the band. “It’s a little strange though that downstairs where there’s usually a security guard and a ticket counter, now there’s just tons of clothing racks.”

I stay clear of talking of the Jason Schwartzman days of the band, the pre-2003 days before Josh Schwartz called them up after seeing them play the Whisky years before, insisting that their track “California” be the theme song for his fledgling pilot for The O.C. Instead, I want to know about their web video exploits, about their side of the explosion in creative activity in music and video online.

Greenwald and his mates have a pretty active YouTube channel (Phantom36), even throwing up live acoustic vids for nine straight days at one point. Their creative style fits right in with the YouTube UGC set — crafty, somewhat amateur effects laid over various rhythmic tracks and the occasional title cards. (See: “Atlanta is Haunted” below)

On the road they end up watching a lot of TV online and even a few web series. “Drunk History,” replies guitarist Darren Robinson when I ask which web series they like best right now. The others chuckle in agreement, clearly having all watched together. They also hit their laptops to catch up on Tim and Eric, a surreal sketch comedy show that is Adult Swim’s most-viewed non-animated program. It’s probably not a coincidence that co-creator Eric Wareheim directed the band’s latest music video for their new single “Dropped.”

“Dropped” and “Raise the Dead” are making their debut as singles in Rockville, lending the series some of that cutting edge cred it needs to avoid being cast away as just another teen pop drama du jour.

Playing Themselves

The whole 20-episode series takes place in the club, centering around a group of twentysomethings trying to make it up the ranks of their music industry jobs. Today’s scenes are all about Alexandra Chando (As The World Turns) and Andrew West (Privileged), or Alex and Andy as they introduce themselves to me. Chando plays Deb, a young A/R rep at a small label assigned to scout the club’s rotating bands for the next breakout. West plays Hunter, an online music marketer, a title so vague that “he himself doesn’t even know what that means,” says West of his character. “The character reminds me of myself and a lot of my friends,” he adds mentioning his time spent at Eastside clubs supporting the local bands. “This is my stomping ground. And Hunter is definitely a guy I’ve met before many times.”Alexandra Chando

Chatting with the young stars I can see Schwartz’s casting prowess staring back at me. Chando’s Deb is an East Coast transplant who started in the music business at 16, with one of those lucky gigs that turns passion into profession. Chando herself is straight East Coast — New York via Pennsylvania — turning her early community theater hobby into a contract role as Maddie on As The World Turns. She’s also a bit of a music prodigy from what I’ve learned, even singing the National Anthem at a few baseball games.

“The writing was just so smart – very realistic and natural,” Chando tells me of her choice to do the project. “I really connected to the character and the way that she speaks.” I’m curious to know what working on a web series even means to these budding TV stars. Is this just another job on a charted path to A-list opulence?

“It’s a whole new medium,” Chando muses of the web. West picks up on that, “I think it can really be this cool new form of entertainment.” He’s clearly excited about the prospects of working on a platform his generation is rabidly adopting as their primary means of accessing and experiencing entertainment. “I’m on the internet every day,” adds Chando, suggesting this is a series they would actually watch even if they had nothing to with it. My guess is the same could be said of their co-stars who aren’t on set today – Ryan Hansen (Veronica Mars) and Mighty Rasta (My Wife and Kids).

It would be too easy but too careless to call this series The ‘Burg set in Echo Park. Hipsters there, hipsters here, sure why not. But it isn’t the scenester archetypes that are at the heart of the Rockville story. It’s the music. Chando puts it well, “without the music, it would just be another typical show in a club.”

Before shooting, the actors were handed a stack of CDs of the bands that will play Rockville. A heck of a homework assignment: The Little Ones, Earlimart, Lykke Li, Nico Stai, The Kooks, Eagles of Death Metal, The Broken West, Passion Pit, White Lies, Frightened Rabbit, The Duke Spirit. I ask which one stands out for them. “I can’t stop listening to White Lies – their song ‘Death’ is constantly playing in my car,” says Chando. West concurs, having a little fun with words, “I would be lying if I said anybody else but White Lies.”

Crossing the Line

Later we head back downstairs where Phantom Planet has taken the stage, ready to belt out their “Dropped” and “Raise the Dead” to the Club Rockville faithful. The crowd of extras shuffles up to the stage, but the 1st AD urgently needs more bodies to fill it out. Perhaps the order came from director Norman Buckley. Brady and I are recruited for crowd duty and it’s hard to say no to this guy.

Andrew West and Alexandra Chando in Rockville, USASuddenly we’ve crossed the line – feeling oddly enveloped in the story we came to cover. But so is everyone else around us – the PAs, the grips, the wardrobe folks – they all beam with an inculpable energy you don’t find on a typical film set. We are all transfixed by the band, some jumping, some clapping, all of us transported to Club Rockville. A camera finds Chando and West in the crowd leaning on a table then pulls back to weave through the room in a playfully orchestrated dance.

The authenticity is legit. Phantom Planet works through their two-song set a few times, each one besting the energy of the previous take. Hollywood has indeed arrived in Echo Park, but it treads lightly. The club is still open every night and the whole operation has to pack up and be out by 6pm to prep for the Happy Hollows show later that night.

It will be months before the series takes the stage on Warner Bros.’ new online portal, complete with bonus features like full versions of all the band’s performances. But for now, we can’t quite get the sound of Phantom Planet out of our heads. For Rockville, after-all, the music is the story.