As longtime readers of Curating LA know, I love talking to writers, musicians and artists who are inspired by Los Angeles and whose work is able to reveal some truth about the city through their artistic expression. I was therefore very intrigued when Martin Lopez-Iu reached out to offer Curating LA the opportunity to premiere his music video titled Mulholland’s Nightmare, which tells the story of William Mulholland’s fall from grace as a result of the catastrophic St. Francis Dam failure.
After watching the video, listening to several other tracks off his debut album, Mid-Latitudes, and reading some background material about Lopez-Iu, who is also the guitarist for the LA-based indie psychedelic-surrealist band, The Anti-Job, I knew I wanted to learn more about him and his solo project Zanja Madre. What follows is an edited transcript of an interview that I conducted via email.
JIM GILBERT: What inspired you to write the song Mulholland’s Nightmare?
MARTIN LOPEZ-IU: Despite growing up in Los Angeles, it was actually in college in New York where I first learned about William Mulholland. I was taking an environmental studies course on water resources and we spent a number of days learning about the water history of the West, so of course we talked a great deal about Mulholland and the Los Angeles Aqueduct – his bold engineering feat that brought water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles and all the positive and negative ramifications that came along with it.
He immediately struck me as a complicated historical figure – this Irish immigrant who came from nothing and started out digging ditches in Los Angeles, but with these unmatched abilities and drive. He became this sort of larger-than-life character, this visionary engineer who saw a great potential for his city and would eventually be responsible for its enormous growth in the 20th century. At the same time his projects had all these negative consequences, some which he was fully aware of but managed to convince himself were necessary and others, like the breaking of the St. Francis Dam, which the song is about, that he never anticipated and ended up destroying him – a man once revered as a hero, consumed and broken by grief.
I’ve always been drawn to songs that use historical events or figures as jumping off points to examine the human condition more broadly, finding common themes and feelings that we can all relate to. Although it’s an extreme case, the crushing weight of guilt that Mulholland felt and the complicated relationship he had to the place he loved, are things that I think everyone has experienced on some level and can hopefully relate to.
GILBERT: Why did you decide to turn the song into a music video?
LOPEZ-IU: It’s the first song on the album and although it’s a bit on the darker, heavier side I felt like it set in motion a few themes that weave their way through the entirety of the album. It’s sort of a narrative, almost like historical fiction and I thought that it lent itself to imagery and storytelling through video.
GILBERT: Who conceived of the video and helped you produce it?
LOPEZ-IU: My good friend and long time creative collaborator Joshua Fu is a writer/director here in LA and when it came time to think about doing a music video I immediately called him up. We both agreed that this song would be a fun one to play with and before I knew it he was sending over concepts for the video. He had this idea of dramatizing Mulholland’s fall from grace – beginning with a wide-eyed and hopeful Mulholland exploring hillsides and forests, following rivers, searching for a water source for LA. When he finally finds the lake he’s been looking for he sets up camp for the night and then falls into this dream, a vision of what LA could be if it had enough water to sustain itself. The dream quickly turns into a nightmare as these unintended consequences of modernism begin to plague Mulholland and he wakes in a fit of guilt and desperation.
We shot it, just the two of us, over a couple weeks at a few different locations around LA – Malibu Creek State Park, Solstice Canyon and the Wisdom Tree in the Hollywood Hills.
GILBERT: I love that you shot the video using Super8 film. What’s behind that decision?
LOPEZ-IU: There were a few reasons why it felt right. Josh had just taken a class on Super 8 filmmaking, so he was excited to try something with it. This great place in LA, the Echo Park Film Center, teaches these classes and lets you rent out Super 8 cameras. Josh also had the idea of cutting old stock footage into the dream sequences – idyllic scenes of Southern California life in the 40s and 50s, and then scenes of flooding and destructive water when the dream turns into a nightmare, so by shooting on black and white 8mm our footage matched the old stock footage better.
It also seemed like a fun restriction to put on ourselves. There are so many possibilities at our fingertips these days, in music making, filmmaking, etc. that putting restrictions on yourself can be really beneficial I find. We were constantly being forced to conserve film, we could only shoot certain angles and at certain times of day, so it really made us work deliberately. Every shot was carefully planned out and nothing was frivolous. That being said, we totally messed up using the camera’s light meter for the first few days of shooting and a bunch of footage came out overexposed and unusable, so we had to reshoot a lot of it. And it was during one of those brutal heat waves over the summer, so we were out there in the middle afternoon for days on end carrying all this gear, and me wearing that terrible tweed coat, wool hat and fake mustache – we were definitely cursing our decision to shoot on 8mm for a while there. But in the end it was totally worth it. I’m really happy with the effect it created.
GILBERT: Why do you think your songs tend to be deeply rooted in places?
LOPEZ-IU: I’m sure it has something to do with the music, literature, film – really a lot of the art in general – that I’m naturally drawn to. There tends to be a presence of place. Sometimes the setting is a character in and of itself, affecting the course of the story. I really like that, so I suppose that technique has found its way into my writing. It’s not entirely conscious, but for some reason a lot of my memories, feelings, experiences that can serve as a backdrop for a song tend to be tied to specific places.
I wrote a lot of the songs on the album during a period when, after bouncing around a bit, I had decided to move back to LA. I had to come to terms with my home and was beginning to wrap my head around concepts of putting down roots and truly belonging to a place, but also letting go of some of the places I had been and the (perhaps imagined) freedom of a more transient life, so a lot of that process came out in the songs.
There’s this great book called Wisdom Sits in Places that this anthropologist Keith Basso wrote about the Western Apaches in Arizona and their relationship to place. He writes about how all their wisdom, all their stories and lessons come from very specific places in their landscape, some as small and simple as a rock that they’ve named and holds significance. That idea has stayed with me and I certainly feel like a lot of the meaningful moments in my life are attached to specific places, so they tend to make their way into the songs. It’s not necessarily as simple as, “oh I remember I had this experience at this particular place, let me put that in a song”. It’s a bit more ethereal and intangible; more of an exploration of how memory and nostalgia can change a place or even create a place that might not actually exist.
GILBERT: Why did you name your solo project Zanja Madre?
LOPEZ-IU: I was looking for a name that would, again, speak to a sense of place. The Zanja Madre, which translates to Mother Ditch, is what the first Spanish settlers called the clay aqueduct that they built to bring water from the LA River to the pueblo. You can actually still see a portion of it that they uncovered while building the Gold Line metro tracks across from the LA State Historic Park in Chinatown. I also just like the way the name sounds.
GILBERT: Did you know what you wanted to create when you started working on this project or did it unfold along the way?
LOPEZ-IU: I definitely had no preconceived notions. I wrote the songs that ended up on the album over a 4-5 year span. I wasn’t even sure I’d record them and put them out until towards the end of that period. So it was a pleasant surprise to step back and find some common themes among them when I began to think about putting together an album. When it was time to come up with an album title, do the cover art, make a music video, etc. I had a better idea of the concepts and aesthetic I wanted to create.
GILBERT: Where in Los Angeles did you grow up?
LOPEZ-IU: I grew up (and still live) in Palms, right off Venice Blvd. on one of my favorite stretches of street in LA.
GILBERT: Why did you leave the city and what drew you back?
LOPEZ-IU: To be honest, I hated Los Angeles when I was growing up here and I wanted to get as far away as possible as soon as I could. Part of that was just being a snotty teenager and part of it was a legitimate narrow vision of LA. I saw LA as this city that stood to defy nature with its endless freeways, concrete sprawl, seemingly complete disregard for the natural landscape. It took some time away and rethinking of what I considered “natural” before I started to rediscover Los Angeles and all it has to offer. Now I can find nature in a freeway underpass or a concrete-lined river. It’s not the nature of some supposedly pristine, untouched wilderness, it’s a nature that includes humans and I think it’s really the only way forward.
GILBERT: How has Los Angeles influenced your work?
LOPEZ-IU: Well, it’s my hometown. And for everyone, to an extent I think, hometowns tend to carry a lot of baggage. At some point we all have to face where we’ve come from and recognize the way it’s molded us, for better or for worse. So I think there’s a lot of self-discovery that’s made its way into my songs for which I have Los Angeles to thank.
There’s also just so much amazing diversity and potential in this city. If you’re willing to dig you can find so many hidden treasures. I’m a big fan of walking, biking, taking the bus or train in LA. I’ve found that getting out of a car can allow you to see the city at a more human scale and it’s a great way to cultivate the space needed to write a song.
LA is also so misunderstood and misrepresented – people love to hate it. It’s always been the underdog. And I’m a sucker for underdogs. It’s given me such rich topics to write about, from the LA River to the Santa Ana Winds, to name a couple that show up on the album.
GILBERT: Who / what bands are your primary musical influences?
LOPEZ-IU: I love the good old folk singers like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Dylan, Loretta Lynn, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Springsteen. Along with punk music and late 90s-early 2000s pop-rock, I listened to those guys the most while growing up and probably soaked in the most from their songwriting. Some of my favorite modern songwriters are John K. Samson from The Weakerthans, Neko Case, Conor Oberst, John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats. I think they are some of the best out there at crafting a song and also have really grounded, healthy and genuine approaches to music-making.
Even though I guess my stuff is singer-songwriter-y I always like to try and do more than just the acoustic guitar and vocals thing (though sometimes that’s definitely the best way to do a song), so I really like bands that create an interesting sonic landscape. I just saw Sigur Rós at the Hollywood Bowl a couple nights ago and I was reminded how much I admire their ability to do that with actually very little instrumentation.
GILBERT: What other LA-based musicians / bands do you admire and why?
LOPEZ-IU: I’m so lucky to be surrounded by some amazing musicians doing really great work. It’s funny – LA has this reputation of being so over-saturated with bands that things can get competitive or unfriendly, but I’ve really never experienced that. My friends and band mates from The Anti-Job, Amanda Jones and Lee Harcourt helped me out so much with this album and I’m eternally grateful to have them in my life. A couple other LA bands that everyone should check out are Blackwater Jukebox and Diamonds; they are genuinely amazing people making amazing music with really healthy, supportive and collaborative attitudes.
GILBERT: When are you planning to release your first album?
LOPEZ-IU: The debut album, Mid-Latitudes, comes out November 3rd! It will be available on all digital platforms and you can even order an old fashion CD (with download code) that includes a large fold out lyric sheet printed on sugarcane paper with beautiful full album art designed by my good friend and amazing artist, Fernando Isai Garcia.
GILBERT: Where can people catch you playing material from the new album live? Are you planning local gigs and a tour?
LOPEZ-IU: An album release show is in the works for early November. You can keep an eye on the social media pages or join the email list to stay informed!