Were you expecting this / when you escaped your hometown / there's nothing much right here/ you'll never matter here / when everybody 'round/ has talent to be sold”
Not far from the entertainment capital of the world, four friends lamented a culture where the “next big thing” is far more often tailored than discovered. Not an astounding revelation, but the four humble gentlemen of Long Beach’s The Valley Arena have spent the last two years creating music that may soon change that.
Their violently beautiful and moving songs are a culmination of each member’s distinct life experiences and creativity. The foursome—singer/guitarist Warren Woodward, guitarist/vocalist Chris Stevens, bassist Dave South, and drummer Mike Nielson—certainly paid their dues with each other in other bands working the SoCal circuit (Mike and Chris first played together at the age of 13), but the first time the four of them attempted to combine their separate pursuits into a cohesive entity, their talents ramped things up quickly. In the short order of a few weeks from their initial inception, the group wrote the seven songs that would become debut EP, and a mere few months later completed the batch of songs that would become their debut LP, Take Comfort in Strangers.
In 2003, The Valley Arena self-released the EP, Kinetic Aesthetic, and toured the West Coast relentlessly, charming listeners at both traditional rock clubs and all-ages art/community spaces. Quickly, they attracted a steadfast following, including producer/engineer Jason Cupp (Rilo Kiley, Finch, Social Distortion), who recorded/produced The Valley Arena's debut full-length even though they didn't have a record deal yet.
"He usually works with big bands, but he decided to slum it with us and our non-existent recording budget," Woodward recalls.
Cupp was attracted to the warm, self-effacing personality of the band and their meaty, angular sound. A blend of D.C. darlings Fugazi and a Different Damage -era Q And Not U, the darker undertones of the first generation of post-punk and art-punk (The Fall, The Cure, Talking Heads), and just a hint of mid-1990s Touch and Go Records-style aggression, theirs is a record built on angst and ennui, not anger. And with lyrics that frequently reference both animal instincts and literal animals—and not a single scream to be heard—it's more than the flavor of the month.
"We're always a little shocked when the hipster kids are into us because we don't fit into the whole LA/San Diego fashioncore scene," says Woodward. "We generally get lumped with the catchall 'indie' label. Some people like to call us names involving 'post': post-punk, post-hardcore. Apparently we're the poster boys of “post'."
Those who know them will tell you, however, that the last thing they are interested in is being poster boys for anything. “We’re not interested in having our faces plastered on magazine covers–we make music for the sake of the creative process and the release it gives us,” Woodward says. That’s a refreshing trend in an era of bands that place haircuts and flashy stage presence first, songs second.
Early in 2005, the Valley Arena signed with New Jersey's Astro Magnetics, despite never touring on the East Coast.
"We sent Eyeball Records a copy of our record on a Monday to check out," says Woodward, "and then I got an email from [Astro Magnetics co-owner] Geoff Rickley on Tuesday saying that he wanted to talk to us. We talked on the phone that day for a long time, and at some point I mentioned I was shocked that they got the CD so fast. He was like 'You guys sent us a CD?' He had actually been checking us out on his own. It was a crazy coincidence."
Rickley flew out to California to see the live show and was impressed with the taut, sinewy rhythm section and the intricate guitar interplay. A deal was struck almost immediately.
With the release of Take Comfort in Strangers and the purchase of a (semi-) new van in anticipation of plans for indefinite touring, The Valley Arena are ready and willing to infiltrate the pop-culture machine.
Woodward is sure that as quickly as things have changed for them, they are still the same underdogs, looking to change things slowly, but surely. "We are putting everything we have into this, not with the expectation of being rock stars, but just with the hope of being able to look back on this when we get old and not hate ourselves, and maybe have inspired a few kids in the same way that our favorite music has inspired us.”