May 6, 2016

Interview: Tonopah

Step into the magical world of Los Angeles' Tonopah and Gal Palace.

Los Angeles’ Gal Palace is a cozy, DIY haven unlike any other. Shrouded by some of the trickiest parking in the whole city, the space has lived on as a well-kept community secret. Chickens roam in a coop off the front porch. There’s a cat, but she bites. Inside, a Lite-Brite marks the designated merch table. Some raised portion of wood paneling serves as a stage for folksy sets, feminist storytelling events and karaoke nights. Gal Palace’s coziness may be attributable to SoCal temperatures and poor insulation within the century-old structure, though it can also be derived from the twee sounds of Tonopah, the acting in-house band.

Tonopah’s latest album Always Almost exhibits slow-dissolving sweetness that could only be matched by a massive jawbreaker – the kind that you work on for days at a time before the sugary layers begin to ebb away. Lyricist Effie Ralli sings of things that end with time, age and the end of a season. On “Dreamin’,” guitar riffs slow to meet the bridge and her coy declaration: “I’d rather stare into your eyes than stare up at the ceiling.” It’s a line to share behind the cabin at camp, or perhaps side-stage at Gal Palace, beneath a string of lights and a portrait of Barbara Streisand. When I stop by to talk with Tonopah, I find members Aerienne Russell and Charlotte Nuqui sharing a loveseat. The cat alternately flicks its tail at each of them. Drummer Alice Berliner sits opposite, sketching a quick portrait of Nuqui. Ralli passes me a flier to her gender-free swing dancing class. It’s about 85 degrees inside the place and all is right in the twee-pop world.

THE LE SIGH: What came first – Tonopah or Gal Palace? 


EFFIE RALLI: I met Charlotte first. She was the first Tonopah-er other than me. I had been making music in college, but I didn't think I was good at making songs. When I moved to LA, I tried to get into some bands. I thought it would be so fun to be in a band as the lead guitarist. But it didn’t really work, or I didn’t find bands that I really wanted to be in. I realized that I might as well do my own songs. Then I met the old guitarist Susanne because we went to a show together for a band we both liked. She said, "I wish I was in a band like this," and I said, "Alright!" So she was in the band, and then I recruited Charlotte. We met at a party and she said, "Alright!"

CHARLOTTE NUQUI: Well, I said, "I’ll help you find people" and then you asked me to do it.

ER: Yeah. I asked, "Do you play bass?" and you said, "Not really." So I said I’d teach her. Through the years, these two [Russell and Berliner] have replaced the people who moved out of town and such.

TLS: What are you working on right now? 

ER: Well, we have two new songs, which we’ve been playing for the past few months. My goal is to make three more songs, so then we can have an EP of 5 songs. But it’s a very slow process because I write the songs and I can only do it when I am feeling very inspired. It’s so hard for me. I usually write like three songs a year, so we’re on track.

TLS: You all went on tour at the end of last year, too. Was that your first tour up the west coast?

ER: Up the West Coast, yeah. We played two shows in New York two years ago. That was really fun, but this was our first time, like, renting a van and going to every city.

TLS: What was your favorite place that you played? 

AERIENNE RUSSELL: I really liked Seattle. I feel like there are great musicians in Seattle right now, so we played with some talented bands.

ER: My aunt came to the show. I hadn’t seen her in like 15 years, and she was in the front row and she said, [in high-pitched voice] "Can you believe that’s my niece?" That’s how she sounds, right? "Isn’t she the most wonderful human?" In the middle of the show.

ALICE BERLINER: I think that was our most special show, the one in Seattle in the basement of that house. I think part of it was because Effie’s family was there, but also the energy was amazing. The two bands we played with were so cool.

THE LE SIGH: Who were the bands? 

ER: Ings and Pleasures.

TLS: You just had a show at Gal Palace with a few Seattle bands, right? 

AR: And Ings was one of them, actually. That was our Gal Palace Spring Fling.

TLS: How does booking work at Gal Palace? 

AR: So most of the shows that we book here, we don’t plan out. It’s more like bands coming to us and we build a show around them. We try to have a lot of touring bands come through rather than booking all local shows. So it’s usually through word-of-mouth for bands to get in touch with us. If the music fits in with our vibe – being kind of mellow or female-fronted, queer, etc. – we’ll try to book them.

TLS: How did you decide to host events here regularly?

AR: There was this DIY space called the Echo Country Outpost, and right as we moved into this space, they were kind of shutting down. So our first couple shows were ones that they were supposed to have but ended up falling through. The first was with Diane Cluck. We weren’t even Gal Palace yet. It was basically a house show. But from there, we started building an email newsletter.

ER: All of the information was through word-of-mouth or friends of friends, but people just kept coming.

TLS: Well, I think people like this place because there’s not really a space like this elsewhere in LA, at least one that’s as intersectional and friendly and homey. Do any others come to mind for you?

CN: Well, I think of Pehrspace, just because everyone I know and their mom has played there, but it’s a different vibe. That’s more like a gallery.

ER: And I know there are a bunch of houses that occasionally have shows, but we have such a special space – just in the layout – that we can have more shows than others.

TLS: I feel like you told me it was an old music school or something.

AR: It was built as the Westlake School of Music in 1913, so it’s over 100 years old. I’m really fascinated by that because I found old newspaper clippings advertising events here and it ran events all the way through the ‘50s. There was this one ad for a benefit for anti-fascist refugees in Mexico City with avant-garde pianists and vocalists. To imagine that what was happening here 100 years ago is still happening here is really, really cool to me.

AB: I thought it used to be a church.

ER: I think it was, at one point.

AR: Right, the neighbors said it used to be a community church.

CN: And then it was a house.

AR: Other artists lived here in the ‘70s. They came to our door one time and were like, "We used to live here!" and gave us a painting that they made.

TLS: What was the most memorable show here? 

ER: There are two that I would pick. The one we played, which was for Aerienne’s birthday party, with The Wild Reeds, one of my favorite bands. Oh my gosh. That was just so cute. And there was also the secret show Tacocat played. That was just ridiculous.

AB: That was the show where I met you guys.

ER: That’s why it stands out!

AB: That was like a Honey Power/Gal Palace show, and I was briefly friendly with the Honey Power people, so I was here helping out and then I met these guys. They told me they were looking for a drummer and I played drums in high school. That was a really good show though.

ER: Girlpool just hopped on stage for a set, too. It was chill. It was Slutever, Tacocat and surprise Girlpool.

TLS: Are you planning on booking events over the summer?

ER: We have a Tonopah show here on Mother’s Day. Everyone’s invited.

AR: We’re booking other shows too, and Rainbow Fish.

ER: Rainbow Fish is a queer community mixer. It’s really chill and cool. That was also at the Echo Country Outpost, and I went to it and I really liked it. We started doing it here and have been ever since. It’s really cool because it’s just a place to hang out, and an alternative to having to go to a club to meet queer people. You can just come to this place and play board games and there’s an open mic and sometimes I teach a swing lesson. It’s very cute.

TLS: This would be a great spot for karaoke. Is that a thing here?

AR: We’re having a karaoke event on May 7, I think. It’s called Hater-Free Karaoke. It’s a judgement-free zone.

TLS: Do you have any go-to karaoke songs? 

CN: The Cranberries.

TLS: Which one? 

CN: “Zombie.”

TLS: That’s intense! 

AB: ABBA is always fun.

AR: I like doing ‘80s pop. I usually do “Our Lips Are Sealed” by The Go-Go’s.

ER: I don’t have one, but once I tried to do “Calendar Girl” by Neil Sedaka. It was in a terrible key for me and it was the worst karaoke of my life.

TLS: What are you listening to right now? 

ER: I’m listening to tons of ‘30s and ‘40s big bands with female vocalists. Helen Forrest, Helen Ward, Anita O’Day. I’ve always loved Billie Holiday, because I do swing dancing.

AB: I’m always listening to western swing and old gospel music. I really like Connie Converse. She recorded this album in her kitchen and it’s very haunting.

AR: I’ve been listening to Michael Nau. He’s always been my favorite musician, ever since I was 15. He just put out a new album and it really plucks my heart strings.

Listen to Tonopah on bandcamp.

Cory Lomberg is a student at Occidental College studying English and Comparative Literature. She enjoys blogging, baking, doing crossword puzzles and talking about her feelings.