At the Subliminal Projects gallery in Los Angeles, iconic visual artist Shepard Fairey is back on the DJ decks and laptop, spinning a party mix of classic punk, electronics and a new band called Nøise. He's here leading a celebration for this week's release of Little Lions, the debut EP from the group, Fairey's quartet of eclectic players that emerged from his desire to make some experimental sounds of his own. On the wall behind him is his freshly painted logo for the band, depicting an orb of red and gold spewing waves of mysterious sound.
Fairey is known around the world for his provocative paintings, posters, street murals and graphic designs that are culturally obsessed and politically charged. His underground street art has led to occasional arrests, his 2008 Obama "Hope" poster now hangs in the Smithsonian. As a high-profile graphic artist, Fairey has created record cover artwork for bands from Interpol to Led Zeppelin, but Little Lions is the first he's ever designed for his own.
"I look at it like: I better be really happy with this," he says with a laugh. "It's like getting a tattoo. You can't walk it back."
After a quarter-century making art, he fully expects his recording project to be met with some skepticism, but identifies with a long tradition of artists active in both the musical and visual worlds.
"Iggy paints and David Bowie painted. Z-Trip can throw a tag down like you wouldn't believe. A lot of my heroes in music are people who dabbled in art," Fairey says. "Our culture likes people to stay in their lane. I'm fine to be an irritant by not staying in my lane."
Joining Fairey are multi-instrumental noisemakers Joe Cassidy and John Goff along with singer Merritt Lear, a recent touring violinist and singing partner for Jason Mraz. Fairey first started DJing around 14 years ago, and was soon experimenting with longtime friend Goff, whose repertoire stretches from punk rock and electronics to bagpipes and spent time in Los Angeles Eighties experimental music stalwarts Crash Worship.
"Anyone that is deeply passionate about music can be a musician and should," Goff says of working with Fairey. "I just brought out what he wanted to do and helped him with it, but they were his ideas."
"We haven't agreed on every single thing, but for the most part it's come together really organically," says Fairey. "There's no Rivers Cuomo to this project, no Brian Wilson to this project. Everybody brings something to the equation."
The songs were created slowly, beginning with Fairey and Goff together recording a track, before Cassidy and Lear each took turns adding sound, texture and vocals, editing each other along the way. "It's like sculpting. You keep on chopping away until you go, Oh, that's cool!" says Cassidy.
The lyrics for ""Little Lions" were inspired by Lear's time at Yale University amid the ancient architecture and "epic spaces," where mysterious secret society "tombs" closed off for a generation or more were found and occupied by students. "Each of the verses in 'Little Lions' is to me someone in their own little private world – getting pulled into going an adventure and trespassing," she says. "We would love to break in and find them. "
The band launched by releasing a single – "Little Lions" b/w "Automatic" – that was available only at Fairey's Subliminal Projects. The new EP collects those tracks wildly diverse remixes by the likes of Moby, Tim Armstrong of Rancid, the Crystal Method and Z-Trip.
"Our mission is just to create cool shit, have fun," says Lear. "I don't think anyone was aiming to start a band or even aimed to release music for that matter – much less corral a bunch of cool remixers to come play with us. They had just been screwing around passing tracks back and forth."
On another gallery wall is a TV monitor showing the band's first music video, with Lear standing elegantly centerstage in a smoky, David Lynch-ian bar scene to perform "Little Lions." In the video, she sings an eccentric pop melody over layers of beats, electronics and tightly wound guitar, as patrons slip into a trance and are quietly robbed by small children.
Fairey says the band has other tracks in the early stages, and if the response demands it, Nøise could be completing more tracks in the near future. "I'm really happy with the chemistry with this group of people," Fairey says. "For me, the idea is that this could evolve in any number of directions."