Hurtling Back In Time
Los Angeles-based Mystic Braves’ latest album is drenched in 1960s-era nostalgia but still finds a way to contribute to a larger musical conversation
Vintage Trouble earned multiple TV appearances and an opening slot on the Who’s 2012 and 2013 tours thanks largely to the lift that lead singer Ty Taylor’s James Brown-style performances lends to the band’s already strong music. Flo Rida’s sampling of Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” for “Good Feeling” became an inescapable Billboard top 10 hit in 2011, and the electro-funk-inspired “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars spent 14 weeks atop the U.S. Billboard charts on its way to becoming one of the best-selling singles in history.
As much as music’s latest players may strive to reinvent the wheel, nostalgia remains powerful in the creation and absorption of music, whether it takes the form of an album inspired by a specific source or an off-the-cuff cover performance. But is there a line that newer bands should avoid crossing when it comes to making music of their own?
Julian Ducatenzeiler doesn’t seem to think so. The lead singer and guitarist of Mystic Braves, a Los Angeles-based quintet that bears striking resemblance in sound and style to a 1960s psychedelic rock band, isn’t bothered by the comparisons he’s been hearing since the band formed in 2011; after all, it’s the music they know best. “It’s quite obvious that we’re all into that era of music,” Ducatenzeiler said last week, just hours before Mystic Braves—comprised of Ducatenzeiler, bassist and vocalist Tony Malacara, guitarist and vocalist Shane Stotsenberg, drummer Cameron Gartung and organist Ignacio Gonzalez—were due to perform at an album release show for their latest with Lolipop Records, The Great Unknown. “We’re not really trying to be a straightforward revival band. At the same time, most of our influences come from 1960s psychedelic pop and garage rock.”
Play any of Mystic Braves’ four albums—no really, any will do—and the music will wash over you like a wave of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys mixed with the Byrds’ harmonies and the Beatles’ knack for catchy hooks. The quintessentially ’60s sound of their music is somewhat confusing: Haven’t we been exactly here, about 50 years ago? Bands draw inspiration from the ’60s all the time, but Mystic Braves tap into the nostalgia vein much more overtly than their contemporaries. The real question is whether or not it matters.
Mystic Braves fans know exactly what they’re going to get when the band shares new recordings. The music is new, but it’s also transportive, capable of delivering listeners back in time a half century to when musical narratives were told through strings of rhyming couplets and grounding tempos worked with multi-part harmonies to form cohesive song structures. These qualities are evident in The Great Unknown tracks like “Point of View” and “What Went Wrong,” the latter of which Ducatenzeiler identifies as a personal favorite for its Beatlesque harmonies. But any musician can mimic musical trends of the past. After digging beneath the initial wall of surf rock and psychedelia, what’s perhaps most notable about Mystic Braves’ new music is how closely its lyrical delivery follows the style of ’60s pop music.
“Accessibility is what we were going for in the lyrics: easy to understand but deep in the message,” Ducatenzeiler explained. The Great Unknown is at its core a breakup album, full of deliberations over relationships gone sour and personal identity in the face of shattered promises. The meaning of each song is relayed clearly enough to remove the burden of deciphering lyrics, a quality that remains in some of today’s pop music but which has become complicated by the drive to be innovative and, at times, mysterious. “If I can’t have you then I can’t have love,” Ducatenzeiler exclaims in “Can’t Have Love,” laying bare the raw emotion of the song right as it starts. In “Perfect Person,” Mystic Braves mull over a stickier problem: “To keep these memories from dying / You know I won’t stop trying / How can I change for you?” The lyrics are almost painfully relatable, voicing thoughts that most everyone eventually encounters in pursuit of love. The songs’ deliberations fit in with the emotional honesty of ballads by the Supremes, the Temptations and countless other groups that rose to prominence decades ago, but the compromises they’re willing to make don’t fit as well with the themes of independence and resilience found in many of today’s Top 40 hits.
Perhaps the fast-paced, roller-coaster nature of 2018 demands music that’s more complex in form and style. But the 1960s weren’t exactly a walk in the park, either. “Things were so crazy back then; it was a big turning point in the world,” Ducatenzeiler said. “[The music] came from a really natural, emotional state.” Mystic Braves have leaned into that approach from the beginning, but while earlier albums like 2015’s Days of Yesteryear employed 12-string guitar work and plenty of fuzz to bring the songs to life, the band wanted to create something even cleaner on their new album. “It’s more musical in the sense that it has fewer gimmicks,” Ducatenzeiler said of The Great Unknown. “We just wanted to put out a straightforward, pop-structured musical album. It’s more mature, more musical.”
As Mystic Braves embraces comparisons drawn between its music and that of an era gone by, the band also points out that The Great Unknown is a reflection not of some long-lost struggle for identity but of battles they’ve fought personally. “We try to make it modern,” Ducatenzeiler said, describing the writing process as a group effort. “A couple of the songs for me were just kind of capturing the feelings of the past, describing them as best I could.”
The songs that transcend time are those that deliver messages listeners can identify with regardless of era and genre. Mystic Braves’ preference for psychedelia and surf rock won’t connect with every listener, but the messages those sounds carry have a far greater chance of sticking the landing. Nostalgia certainly has its place in music creation, but if its use doesn’t add anything new to the wider musical landscape, then it’s not creative—it’s repetitive. Mystic Braves are walking on a tightrope each time they release new material, but they haven’t fallen into the pit yet—and it’s exciting to watch them dare to try amid such high stakes.
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