Twisted Sisters: Puro Instinct
SKYLAR (LEFT) AND PIPER KAPLAN OF PURO INSTINCT.
PHOTO COURTESY OF JEANEEN LUND
Pink pillows, fog machines, white bunnies, an aquarium, a Maserati: an oddball mélange of imagery surrounds the character of Piper Kaplan, the frontwoman of the defiant and aurally unexpected act Puro Instinct. For the promo photo shoot of the group’s latest album, Headbangers in Ecstasy, these glitter-spiked, disco-perfumed props were an eerie but welcomed coincidence that had deeper implications for Piper. After a few production snafus and wayward art direction, Kaplan arrived on set to discover a big, bright bunny. She was born in the Year of the Rabbit. These “subliminal” parallels, as she likes to call them, neatly define the history of the band she shares with her teenage sister, Skylar.
Piper and Skylar make music that echoes the waves moored by their native state California during the 20th century. Psychedelic, synth, punk, and surf sounds are notable ropes on Puro Instinct’s deck, but it is the Kaplan sisters’ uninhibited appropriation of these monumental modes that makes their music compelling. Their music feels familiar but alarming, coltish but charming. For barely being legal, they’ve already grown into a new name; the band was previously formally known as Pearl Harbor, or “someone else’s burden,” as Piper puts it. Piper’s unnerving mastery of music history has also landed her in LA’s avant-garde scene, with Ariel Pink and James Ferraro, and her band aches with street cred. Still, Puro Instinct is fueling their current Escape from LA tour from a Kickstarter. From the outside, it seems like it couldn’t work, and yet it does. Perhaps that’s just the way the Kaplan sisters are.
BAUMGARDNER: I was reading some of your interviews, and I have to say, I was blown away by your taste in music and music knowledge.
KAPLAN: [laughs] I don’t know. I just really like to listen to music. I guess that’s it.
BAUMGARDNER: When did you get into music?
KAPLAN: I’ve always been into music, you know—when I was little, I had little cute friends, Sonya and Deedee. They were my little partners in crime, and we’d cruise around LA in their dad’s Volkswagen Rabbit convertible listening to The Beach Boys. Also, my dad was into picking me up from middle school with The Stranglers blasting really loud, embarrassing me. At first I was like, “Oh my god, Dad, what are you doing?”
BAUMGARDNER: And then you were all, “I love it…”
KAPLAN: Yeah, actually The Stranglers are pretty cool—I emailed him about it the other day, saying “I thought you were a real asshole at the time, but you’re pretty cool, Dad; Love, Piper.”
BAUMGARDNER: Are your parents musicians?
KAPLAN: Mmm, no—I wouldn’t say that, no.
BAUMGARDNER: Maybe like amateur musicians?
KAPLAN: Yeah, I’ve seen my dad put on some pretty sweet concerts in the privacy of my own home for whatever beer buddies he had hanging out. Or he’d cook dinner for us, and put UB-40 on and we’d dance around the living room—he’d be drunk, I was seven, it was fun.
BAUMGARDNER: When you were older, did you sneak out of the house and go out in Hollywood?
KAPLAN: I was definitely a troublesome teenager. I met Rozz from Christian Death once at this party—there was this pirate radio station that was broadcasted out of this guy’s apartment that was right around the corner from the apartment I grew up in. He was friends with all these ’80s punk icons, and I met Rozz. When I would go and hang out in Hollywood, I ran into people like that. This was the kind of stuff I got into when I was like 13—drinking, smoking weed, and hanging out with Christian Death. Then, I started doing this shirt line called Surfside Slashers, named after a Rikk Agnew song, so I hung out with him a couple of times. He came over to my house and gave my bulldog props. I have pictures of it.
BAUMGARDNER: A lot of critics want to ascribe Puro Instinct as having a very LA sound because it’s hazy and beach vibe, but LA also has a historically significant punk scene. Do you think that element isn’t given enough credit in your music?
KAPLAN: I think we’re writing music from a very punk perspective that is sort of coming from a very visceral place. There’s nothing academic about what we’re doing – it’s all deliberate. It’s has a tendency to be abrasive, but we’re trying to be abrasive in a very soothing sort of way, like softening the blow of intensity. I think that’s where the effects come in, that haziness that people want to slap on there. I don’t think about why I’m going to do things as much as what am I going to do. Most of what I try to accomplish when I’m writing music is trying to find a nice balance between a synth-pop total fist-pumper and a fantasy paradise disco vibe. Something you can twirl a disco ball around on a dance floor.
BAUMGARDNER: Do you think that there is a LA scene now? There’s been a tendency to lump you into a grouping of LA bands with Glasser and Dunes and Best Coast. Do you think that exists?
KAPLAN: Well, I don’t think of it as it being a scene. I think about the way that I listen to music now; the way you can transition from a hip-hop song into Omar Souleyman. I feel the same sentiment towards either song. I feel that way about a lot of the music that happens around LA. For example, James Ferraro gets lumped into the noise scene, but I just think of him as my buddy who I hang out with at home, and he’s part of my scene. The way we are categorized is from an outside perspective and not from any idea of how we live or how we think. That actually holds more sway than any chorus reverb pedals.
BAUMGARDNER: And you’re good friends with Ariel Pink. How did you meet up with him?
KAPLAN: A mutual friend of ours, Cole, who is in Night Jewel, was DJing at a night with Gary War at Verdugo Bar in L.A., and I met Ariel because they had asked me to play records there one night. Ariel was there too, and was like, “This girl doesn’t have any cool records,” and he was all ready to talk shit. Then he went through my records and was like, “Oh, actually…” After that we bonded over lowbrow comedy and thrills and have been good ever since.
BAUMGARDNER: When did you start DJing? Was it when you’re a teenager?
KAPLAN: My first DJing gig, I was about 18 or something. I did this Diva Radio party because it was right down the street from my house. My friend worked there and they paid me a bunch of money, so I thought, “Okay.” Ever since then, I figured, well I have all these records, I might as well share them with people.
BAUMGARDNER: Did you collect records before your started DJing?
KAPLAN: Yes, but I think DJing makes you a little more eager to get the songs you really, really love on vinyl.
BAUMGARDNER: Does that love of music and abundance of records push the music you create with your sister, or is DJing only an outlet for you to play the music you love?
KAPLAN: DJing was mostly—well, I have a really hard time holding a job; I’m just not very good at it.
BAUMGARDNER: I guess you don’t really need to, now.
KAPLAN: Well I do need to, but I don’t. I guess I just choose to live in squalor and try to make ends meet. When I work, I can’t be creative. I’ve had jobs before! I was working at a pizza place for like a month, and I really didn’t do anything wrong honestly, but I got fired. I guess I manifest whatever I want, because it becomes a reality in some twisted way. I do things that make people want me to defect.
BAUMGARDNER: Or fire you…
KAPLAN: [laughs] Yes, so that I can keep moving on, keep growing personally, growing at the expense of others. Joke. But I mostly started DJing because I needed to make money and since I was spending so much money on records that I thought maybe I could bring some of that back in. It’s hard to be girlfriend material when you’re totally poor and smelly…
BAUMGARDNER: Isn’t that what boyfriends are for?
KAPLAN: Yes, I know! I’ve never had one of them. I pick the ones who need me to have money.