“Do you know Cabrillo?” asks the cab driver.
I don’t, but Nathan Williams does. I’m in a van with the Wavves frontman, the band’s bassist Stephen Pope, and Williams’ girlfriend, Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast, heading home from dinner in downtown Los Angeles. This conversation started with the GPS that led us north out of downtown and right into — what else? — bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 101. We’ve since discussed the Magellan system (inferior), the explorer Magellan (no complaints), and finally Cabrillo.
“He discovered California, right?” Williams says.
The 26-year-old singer-guitarist’s grasp of trivia is impressive. Especially considering that he’s drunk off of several Bud Lights, a carafe of hot sake, and one sake bomb, and his formal education was cut short due to his propensity to skip classes to, as he says, “skateboard and take drugs.”
But Williams also has a slight advantage: There’s a monument in his hometown of San Diego to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who in 1542 became the first European explorer to set foot in California. Millions of seekers have discovered the state in the years since, often fetishizing it in the process. This is particularly true of its southern half, and the city that lies along the outer edge of the area’s chaise-shaped geography, exporting countless blockbusters and advertising endless summers. The Beach Boys immortalized its actual and mythical charms; Joan Didion found those same charms disillusioning.
I moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn six weeks ago, and until then, my vision of the place was overwhelmingly sketched from pop-culture testimony. First off, California knew how to party. In addition, night driving was better for fast getaways; Minnesota teenagers were always scandalized by its unwholesomeness; and Rodeo Drive shopgirls treated hookers poorly (big mistake). It was a ridiculous fiction, and in many ways, that fiction is still being written.
Something about living in California also creates a need to constantly talk about living in California, as if the presence of so many palm trees makes it hard to believe that the place could ever be anyone’s home. Or maybe because Los Angeles’ own narrative is so dominated by contradiction — between the decrepit vintage signage along Sunset Boulevard and the expansive beachfront it leads to, between the beautiful weather and the hellaciously ugly traffic — that it tends to invite debate and monopolize conversation.
Williams and Cosentino, 25, of course, are no exception to this phenomenon. Wavves’ last full-length was titled King of the Beach — even though he once nearly drowned in the Pacific, and the album was recorded in Oxford, Mississippi. Best Coast’s recently released The Only Place poses the question “Why would you live anywhere else?” and then proceeds to refer to frequent crying jags.
Our driver notices Pope taking the phone and pretending to be Williams while expertly answering obligatory questions from an Australian publication about Snacks, Williams and Cosentino’s Internet-famous cat. Cosentino explains that they’re all musicians. “We’re called Best Coast and Wavves because we love the ocean,” she says. “But secretly we hate it.”
Last night, Pope and Williams psyched themselves up for today’s NBA showdown between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder by pitting the two teams against each other on PlayStation3. Really, though, they just smoked a lot of weed and sat on the couch in Williams’ ample house in the hills overlooking Eagle Rock, where he lives with his brother Joel (the two just released a mixtape as the hip-hop-oriented production duo Sweet Valley).
Pope, who moved from Memphis to Echo Park only a few months ago to work on Wavves’ as-yet-untitled fourth album, is disarmingly polite, a Fraggly looking dude with an untamed mess of curly hair and a fondness for Metallica T-shirts. Williams’ Lakers won the PS3 matchup, but Pope bet us $20 that the outcome would be different in the actual game today.
We settle into Nike’s luxury box at the Staples Center, as arranged by Best Coast’s booking agent; Cosentino and Williams sit together, holding hands. When noted head case Ron “Metta World Peace” Artest (who complained about Williams smoking a blunt at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards) elbows the Thunder’s James Harden in the head and is ejected himself, Williams looks worried. “This sucks. We might lose now,” he says, adding that he forgives Artest for the VMA incident.
Cosentino, the fleeting enthusiast, asks, “How do they change the floors between the games so quickly?” And, referring to the Jumbotron’s live feed, “Is this an instant replay?”
“Babe, come on. You’ve had, like, one beer,” Williams teases.
Before heading out to the game, Cosentino had debated whether to debut a slender varsity jacket from her current capsule collection for Urban Outfitters, plum-colored in honor of the Lakers and inspired by a red jacket that Williams regularly wears, but decided it would be overkill; instead, she wore a blue sundress. Her line, which she worked on while recording The Only Place and considers an extension of Best Coast, consists of racer-backed men’s-style shirts, rompers, and simply flourished dresses named after ’90s-era television characters: My So-Called Life’s Rayanne Graff and Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes. “The first time I see someone wearing Bethany Cosentino for Urban Outfitters at one of my shows is going to be …” She pauses. “It’ll be like when I heard Best Coast on the radio for the first time.”
Wavves is similarly branded. King of the Beach sold a modest 31,000 copies in the U.S., but Williams has monetized his well-earned stoner rep, selling grinders as well as rolling papers emblazoned with the image of Snacks, who has graced the covers of albums by both Wavves and Best Coast and is a testament to the memeification of pop — Iron Maiden’s Eddie as LOLcat. Williams is also releasing a Paperboy-style video game, Weed Demon, which he’d like to adapt for the iPhone. Like Cosentino, he’s savvy and unapologetic about matters of commerce.
“I’m so, so, so, so far past caring what anybody says as far as, like, a general response to any creative thing,” he says.
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2012 Outside Issue of SPIN, which you can order here now.