If aliens were to visit Earth tomorrow, what’s the one song or album that you would show them to introduce them to music?
“He was just talking about this!”
“Which one was it?”
“When you were talking about the mariachi music?”
“Oh yeah, I would show them very classic Mexican hispanic folk music. Literally everyone in the band is just shredding their instruments so hard. It’s like controlled chaos in a way. If an alien came to Earth this is what I would want them to hear.”
It’s conversations like these that happen over a long weekend at Coachella, where Portland, Oregon-based dream pop group Reptaliens just happened to be the night before. The group—originated by married duo Bambi and Cole Browning—attended the music festival to support Turnover and Turnstile, whom they are opening for on this spring tour and, for a few shows, they are also joined by Canadian electro-pop group Men I Trust. The bands clicked right at the beginning. Cole explains, “There wasn’t any kind of getting to know you type stuff. We were just like, hugging, after day one.”
Although it’s only a three-hour drive from Indio to Anaheim, Coachella and Orange County’s all ages club Chain Reaction are worlds apart. The Anaheim music venue has served as a stomping ground for punk and hardcore fans for years. When Turnover played Chain Reaction back in 2013, it was an obvious fit. But as their music drifted towards a mellower, dreamier sound, a return to the venue felt somewhat atypical—the selection of acts has started to diversify (surf rockers Summer Salt played the venue last month), giving a unique opportunity for indie poppers such as Reptaliens to play in an intimate space for a packed house.
Chain Reaction becomes so intimate, in fact, that it’s impossible to conduct an interview during soundcheck. Even inside the green room, the sound reverberates loudly off the thin walls. So we head outside, where we find a run-down thrift store. An array of mismatched chairs and couches line the curb—it seems as good a place to sit as any. Within mere seconds, the owner appears, eyeing us apprehensively. “Can we sit in these chairs for a few minutes?” Cole asks.
“You may try them out. But they’re sold!”
Bambi and Cole sit down hesitantly, the shop owner not moving an inch. After a few moments, he gives them an expecting look. “Well? What do you think?”
Stifling a small laugh, Bambi responds, “Now this right here, this is a nice chair.”
We negotiate until we get permission to use a small black sofa and a faded pool chair. The rest of the group, guitarist Julian Kowalski, drummer Tyler Verigin, and guitarist/percussionist/masked performer Austin Smith, join us as we perch on the sidewalk and parking blocks. They all seem comfortable, and it quickly occurs to me that this group of musicians is highly adaptable—chameleons in any situation.
The easiest way to get a glimpse into Reptaliens’ kaleidoscopic world is through their website, done in virtual reality (VR). The interactive wormhole features seven “secrets” that you can discover by clicking on objects around the 360-degree space. When asked about how the rapidly increasing presence of technology will influence the music industry, Cole answers, “I feel like album covers are going to become moving GIFs. I’m surprised that hasn’t happened already.”
“That’s some Harry Potter shit,” Bambi interjects. I ask if the future of concert-going is in virtual reality.
“Didn’t they do like something like that? Like a video concert online that everyone logged into and watched?” Cole asks the others.
“Yeah, that rings a bell.”
“Or maybe that was just a PORTLANDIA skit.”
The fact that the group hails from Portland lends itself to the inevitable opinions on cult TV show PORTLANDIA. “The [skits] are vague enough that they could be any city, but when people find out we’re from Portland, it always comes up,” Cole says before Bambi muses, “[Portland] was kind of like a little dream happy land. Everyone blames that show for the influx of people moving to the city. But you still find yourself experiencing like, everyday, times where your current situation could be a PORTLANDIA skit.”
In recent years, another bizarre chapter of Oregon’s cultural history was brought to attention with Netflix’s docu-series WILD, WILD COUNTRY, which tells the chilling tale of the failed utopian community Rajneeshpuram in Wasco County. “We actually just re-watched that on the last big drive!” Cole shares.
“I have this theory that that’s why Portland wasn’t heavily populated for so long,” Bambi imparts. “People got so freaked out by the Bhagwan’s followers—I think that fear kept it untouched for a while.”
“Everytime we see somebody driving a really fancy car we go, ‘Oh, there’s the Bhagwan.’”
“Yeah, or all the Rolls Royces at Coachella.”
Drawing inspiration from cult mentality (which is a recurring theme in both their live performances and videos), I inquire if the group witnessed any culty behavior while at Coachella. “It seemed a bit like an Instagram cult,” Bambi remarks. Everyone nods in agreement. “It was just like ROLLER COASTER TYCOON: MUSIC VERSION,” Austin chimes in, “with Sims people running around taking pictures of themselves.” Julien recalls a time the group was waiting in line for the bathroom, when they realized the line was actually for taking a selfie with an art installation.
Reptaliens’ sophomore album VALIS is only a few weeks from being released when we chat, coming out on buzzy indie label Captured Tracks. When I bring it up, the group collectively responds in excitement; their 2017 debut album, FM-2030, saw Reptaliens at a different stage in their career—as Cole observes, “We were just starting out, and still trying stuff to see what would stick. We would write songs to just fill up the album. But now we’re more familiar with ourselves and our sound, and we knew that we definitely wanted to make an album instead of a collection of singles.” That decision is ever-present throughout VALIS’ course, encapsulating a mood that bends and shifts through wavy synths, effervescent vocals, and sun-soaked guitar hooks.
In the age of music streaming services, more and more artists are being pushed towards releasing a string of algorithmic hits rather than a fully-conceived, cohesive album. VALIS pushes against this, focusing on a summery, shimmering portrait of pop culture matched with enigmatic lyrics. It resembles the delicate balance of a hallucinogenic experience, a perfectly constructed paradise one bad vibe away from descent into darkness. VALIS takes its name from the 1981 science fiction novel written by Philip K. Dick (an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System). Bambi notes that she’d done extensive research on Dick’s life, and describes a story in which he was under the influence of sodium pentothal. One day, he answered his door to a hallucinatory epiphany when a door-to-door Bible pusher was holding a Vesica Pisces with an oval around it. “It was glowing this brilliant pink color, and he thought in that moment he had seen God. I found all these similarities… just thinking about some drug-induced personal reflective period that makes you feel comfortable with yourself, and like you have a purpose.” She pauses in thought before adding, “He’s a tripper though. He’s so crazy!”
A couple of hours later, Chain Reaction is filled to the brim with concert-goers. The compact stage is able to fill up with smoke easily, creating a trance-like atmosphere. From the mist, a towering figure emerges wearing a shimmering silver cape. Not to mention—he’s got the head of an alien. A New Age narration plays overhead. “Imagine yourself enveloped by the world. Picture yourself floating down a long hallway.” The audience responds accordingly, whipping out their camera phones to capture the bizarre scene. It’s pretty genius—the shock value ensures that the crowd is on their toes. The band jumps headfirst into the groovy “666Bus” and after the song, that towering figure reveals himself to be Austin Smith, who plays a few numbers with the band before exiting for his next quick change.
The costumed antics ensue throughout, punctuating the set with compelling theatrics. But rather than serve as a distraction, they offer a visual spectacle that complement and enhance each song, like a music video come to life. It’s really something you have to see to believe. Just like it had been earlier in the day, on stage it’s clear that each member is very in sync with each other, feeding off each other’s energy. I was reminded just how ritualistic live music can be—it’s like a cult, but in the best possible way. Reptaliens close with the spellbinding “Nunya,” a deceptively dreamy tune about a voyeuristic stalker. When Austin rematerializes from the mist a third time in a lizard mask to dance with Bambi, it somehow all makes perfect sense. I can’t really explain how, but in this realm of surreality, it just does. In a world where music, technology, and pop culture are melting into one big amalgamous heap, Reptaliens sure make it one hell of a trip. If martians were asking me for music recommendations, I have a feeling they would really dig Reptaliens.
Reptaliens latest album, VALIS, is available everywhere right now.