Marco Hernandez
L.A. Witch. Credit: Marco Hernandez

While many bands struggle to develop a sound that is both unique and comfortingly familiar, L.A. Witch seems to do it with ease.

L.A. Witch is a power trio from Los Angeles whose music hits you like a 90-mph slap to the face. The band includes Ellie English on drums, Irita Pai on bass and Sade Sanchez on guitar. Each member contributes to a sound that stretches among rock ’n’ roll, punk, psych and garage rock.

The band in August released Play With Fire, a follow-up to the group’s self-titled debut in 2017, and 2018’s Octubre EP. The album is packed tight with jams that, well, feel like you’re playing with fire. Each track sizzles into the next, with Sanchez’s piercing guitar and vocals backed by lightning-quick and heavy grooved back beats from Pai and English, shining bright on tracks like “Fire Starter,” “I Wanna Lose” and “True Believers.” I spoke with them over Zoom about their recollections of recording the album, which have been hazed due to this Dumpster fire of a year.

“We hadn’t put out an album for a while, so it was like, ‘All right, you guys need to put out an album,’” English said. “We had to write it in a month and record it the next month. It was a very short time span for figuring it all out. I think we recorded it last year?”

Added Sanchez: “I remember recording in February. I’m not sure, really. Like, ‘Damn, was it really that long ago?’”

Added Pai: “This year has just been so long. It honestly feels like we did it yesterday.”

In years prior, the band was almost constantly on tour—while 2020 has left the band with a brand-new album, but no tour. L.A. Witch decided to test out the current trend of streamed shows with an album-release concert filmed in September at Gold Diggers in Los Angeles.

“I actually kind of liked it,” Sanchez said. “I thought it was going to be really weird, and we were hesitant to do it right away; we kind of jumped on it a little bit after there had been some other bands doing it. We said, ‘Fuck it,’ and tried it, because it would be the closest thing we’ll get to a release show. We did it at Gold Diggers, and they have a really amazing spot—a hotel, a studio—and the guys who work there are super rad.

“For me, when I was playing, it felt like a real show. I don’t know if that was a mental thing, where I was knowing that people were going to watch it. There are some mistakes on there. I don’t know if people can hear it, but there’s a rawness to it. We tried to make it fun and brought out a dragon prop we bought at Costco. It was kind of cool and interesting, and we’d be down to continue experimenting and trying it out.”

Pai said the absence of an audience was strange.

“For me, the only thing that was weird about it, because sometimes we really feed off of the energy of the crowd, was finishing a song and hearing nothing but a dragon roaring,” said Pai. “Our friend Gregg Foreman, who produced our Octubre EP, played guitar with us, and he brought this psychedelic light that we used for a prop, but it was also a sleep machine that played cricket noises. We’d finish playing, and I would hear literal crickets. Other than that, it was really fun, and the sound was amazing.”

As is the case with many SoCal bands, L.A. Witch has a Coachella Valley connection, beyond playing at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club a few times. I learned about it when I found an L.A. Witch single in a Chicago record shop, turned it around and saw a familiar name—Jason Hall, a desert dweller deeply involved in the local music scene. He runs Ruined Vibes, a 7-inch-vinyl boutique-record label. Ruined Vibes’ first release as a label was, coincidentally, L.A. Witch’s first release on vinyl. I recently spoke to Hall about his history with the band.

“My friend Brent went to Levitation—back then, it was called Austin Psych Fest—and the band played there,” Hall said. “It was the year 13th Floor Elevators reunited, and it was crazy. It was also super-rained out and muddy. I was living in Austin at the time, and everyone wanted to go, but it was really tough to get there and also to find parking. Brent braved through it, and said, ‘Man, you need to see these girls; they’re insane. They’re so good.’ I instantly looked them up, and it was early on in their career, so there was really only one video on YouTube. I heard it and was like, ‘Holy shit!’ I saw that they were playing this place called Hotel Vegas in Austin two weeks later, so I went to the show and got to hear a whole set.”

Pai said the story of how the band met Jason was “crazy.”

“It was one of the many times we played at Hotel Vegas in Austin, and this guy comes up to us and says, ‘I really love your music, and I really want to put out your single, a 7-inch, because you guys really need to be on vinyl,’” Pai said. “We thought that was pretty cool.”

Hall said he was floored by the band’s performance.

“I had been toying with this idea of making a 7-inch-only record label, and every release would have this crazy thing that’s never been done before to make it highly collectible,” he said. “It was from both my love of music and the fact that my dad was a DJ for a radio station in the ’80s, so vinyl has been a part of my life since I was born. I asked L.A. Witch if they would be down to do it, and that it would be my first release. They were into the idea, but told me to talk to their manager. I talked to their manager; things progressed; and we ended up releasing ‘Drive My Car.’”

As for making the record “highly collectible,” Hall worked with the band on a unique photography idea.

“We did 400 black copies, and 100 white with grey smoke, so it looked like a smoke cloud,” said Hall. “That was going to be our special edition, but once they told me they were going on tour, I asked if there was any chance I could supply them with Polaroid film, and they could snap 100 Polaroids. It was random shit, whatever they wanted to do, and they did that. That was the ultra-exclusive.”

Pai talked about the aftermath of one of the photos.

“I saw one on eBay one time. It was just a Polaroid of me, and I thought it was so awkward,” she said.

Soon after the release, L.A. Witch began their uptick toward success. Both the band and Hall said their collaboration came at the right place at the right time.

“We got really lucky with that whole thing, because at the time, we didn’t have anything out,” Sanchez said. “I don’t know how many years we had been a band, but we definitely were still pretty young, and we didn’t have a label or anything.”

Hall said the collaboration would not have happened today.

“L.A. Witch has progressed so far. They’re still incredibly humble and sweet, and every time I see them, they hop offstage and give me a giant hug,” he said. “The only reason I released it was sheer luck. They were new; I was brand new. It was complete timing.”

The “Drive My Car” single helped lead them into getting signed with a major label, Suicide Squeeze Records.

“We were really just touring a bunch for a while after that,” Sanchez said. “Then we met David Dickenson from Suicide Squeeze. He came to one of our shows, and it was a really shitty and terrible show. We had to do our own sound—there was no sound guy—and there wasn’t even a stage. I was like, ‘Of course this is the show that a label is going to come check us out.’ … I was so bummed out, and thought we weren’t going to get signed. Then we got an email from our manager, and he said that David was stoked and wanted to talk.”

I chatted with the band about the fact that the days of a young band relentlessly touring until finding success may not return for a while.

“This time forces you to think outside of the box and be creative,” Sanchez said. “A lot of people are tuning into visual stuff, and now more than ever, people have time to search for new music, or learn to play an instrument. I just talked to the dudes at Fender, and for a while, I had heard they weren’t doing so well—but now they’re doing so well that they can’t keep up with production. People finally have the time to learn how to play guitar.

“It’s weird for bands like us who had to play every shitty venue in L.A. and wherever in the U.S., but now people are looking for stuff. … I don’t think it’s a bad thing; it’s just one of those things that you have to adapt to.”

For now, the group is finding pleasure in playing music with no schedule.

“Normally, I wouldn’t have this much time to be able to write or learn new things, so I’ve learned some new recording programs and have been playing guitar,” Sanchez said. “It’s nice to be able to write and not feel rushed, and that I’m able to take my time with a song and not have to worry about going on tour soon.”

Added Pai: “I feel like it’s more fun. There’s no pressure; you’re just playing to work stuff out, and you don’t have to worry about practicing for a recording or a tour.”

Bands everywhere are struggling to safely meet during the pandemic. The members of L.A. Witch said they were in the same boat.

“We didn’t see each other for a long time during quarantine,” Sanchez said. “We were hesitant about doing photo shoots, because we were concerned about each other and each other’s families. Once we all got tested, we slowly got comfortable with having our masks off and being distanced from each other. Obviously, during a show, you have to share a very tight space, but we all got tested before that. It was really hard in the beginning, and we haven’t really had the chance to set any practices. We also lost our rehearsal space, which makes things a little bit harder. It’s all been hard—and probably will be until the end of 2021. Hopefully that means a lot of bands will have time to come up with some really cool shit. We’ll be able to really appreciate how much music means, and what it does for a community and for yourself.”

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Matt King

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...