At Juliette Commagere's Los Angeles high school, which was populated by the kids of Hollywood stars, success felt like an entitlement — an inheritance of sorts. Forming a band with her childhood friend Joachim Cooder — son of Ry Cooder, a career guitarist who's worked with Taj Mahal, the Rolling Stones and Buena Vista Social Club, to name a few — the idea of nepotism hit particularly close to home. So it seemed only appropriate that the pair, joined by Michigan transplant Jared Smith (and just recently, by newest member Ben Messelbeck), address the topic on their debut album, Hello Stranger (Aeronaut, 2006). “Everyone comes here,” Commagere sings on the track of the same name. “We're so much closer than you to the prize.”
The latter statement may indeed contain a grain of truth: Ry Cooder produced the album in a collaboration that would probably not have come about were it not for his familial proximity, and the Hello Stranger trio also had opportunity to lend its songwriting and instrumental skills to Ry's own recordings — in particular his latest, Cháves Ravine.
There's no doubt that Ry contributed to Hello Stranger's shimmering pop sound, though Commagere is quick to point out that the Cooder name hasn't exactly made the band an automatic heir to Ry's legacy: “Even with Joachim and his dad, we may get a meeting with a label, but it definitely doesn't get you signed, and it doesn't guarantee you a lot of success.”
Though they'd been collaborating since age 15, Cooder and Commagere didn't start their first band until two years later. Hello Stranger, originally called Vagenius, emerged in 2003. “[The name Vagenius] was trademarked by a clothing company, so we had to let it go,” Commagere says. “It's probably better because certain clubs wouldn't even book us with that name. I didn't realize people would be so offended by the letters V-A-G, but they are.”
But Hello Stranger still carries on Vagenius' tradition of synth-pop melodies punctuated at turns by explosive drum patterning and atmospheric electronic programming. Led by the über-pretty vocals of Commagere, Hello Stranger applies just enough sci-fi psychedelia to its discolike verse-chorus structures to situate the band outside the mainstream box. That unique position stems in part from the band's unorthodox tools: a Roland Jupiter-8 and SH-101, Korg Mono/Poly, Alesis Andromeda A6, a homemade guitar Smith fashioned from vintage materials, a 1952 Fender Strat once owned by Keith Richards and Commagere's collection of keytars. These days, she owns six; her favorite among them is a 1978 Moog Liberation.
“It's almost 20 pounds though — it's a monster,” she says with a laugh. “I had it for a while before I ever had the courage to play it onstage because it is a little volatile, and it's hard to control. It's not in the best shape ever, so sometimes one of the oscillators will give out or certain notes will stick, and it goes out of tune really fast. Sometimes we'll be dancing and freaking out onstage, and I'll hit one of the guys, and the whole thing will go out.”
In the studio, production goes down in an impromptu fashion. Take “Robody,” a song that goes through several rhythm changes before settling comfortably into its shimmying choral melody. “Jared and Joachim came up with some samples using the Andromeda,” Commagere says. “They just had two sections, and I thought of the second section as the chorus, which wasn't what it was intended for, and I wrote that song over it. Then a year went by, and we revisited that song in the studio. Everybody just started plugging in different instruments, and Joachim went over to a Clavinet and played it on the chorus — I think that's really what makes the song happen.”
Finally, they trusted in Ry Cooder's expertise as a producer, who recorded the majority of the album live. The result is an album with all the raw, emotive texture of a live rock show and the polish of layered electronic production. “Ry doesn't like to make things perfect, so all the vocal stuff was done in like one or two takes,” Commagere recalls. “If the track was rocking, he's like, ‘That's it, we're done.’”