Music as Community: A Q&A with Foxtrails
All of our stories, our personal struggles and shared experience are just a drop in the ocean.
By Leigh Patterson, Michael Brenner, and Robert Schwan
We’re continually inspired by the individuals who work alongside us across the Gjelina Group — from painters to innovators, musicians to writers, everyone’s story makes our community more rich.
Today we’re in conversation with Michael Brenner and Robert Schwan; respectively prior deli lead at Gjusta and Gjelina’s Managing Partner for over a decade. In addition, Michael is one of seven musicians in Foxtrails, a local Venice band started in 2017. At the time of its founding, many of the members happened to be working across Gjelina, Gjusta, and GTA, finding a home for their music with Robert’s label Prizefight Records. Below, we discuss the songwriting process, finding inspiration in the California landscape, and how the Venice community provided a backdrop for the band’s evolution.
Can you share a bit more about Foxtrails origin story?
Foxtrails goes back to 2017, when a number of band members were living in a house on Zanja Street in Venice. It was a sort of an artist commune with eight people living in this little three-bedroom house. We were all working across Gjelina, Gjusta, and GTA. That was our community. It seemed like everyone who lived there was a musician or a creator of some kind, and I just fell right in with them. Within a few months I was playing in several different bands that featured house members in different arrangements.
Blake (the vocalist) had just moved to town from St. Louis and was living in what seemed like a broom closet. He and I really connected on music and since we were both sort of the new guys, I think we just took to each other. We started playing and writing some songs and Foxtrails was basically born out of that period. Eventually we wanted to try playing live so we found Dane and Micah to fill out the rhythm section and Cory to play keys. And then we were a band.
Robert was a regular face at the Zanja house for house parties and jams. Dane met Robert in 2012 working at Gjelina. He came by one night and saw us playing a new idea for a song called Floras around the campfire. He loved the idea and suggested that we try working with him at a studio he knew about called Earthstar on Rose Avenue in Venice. That was the start of our first record, released under Prizefight Records.
Can you share a bit more about your songwriting process?
The songwriting process is a dynamic, ever-changing thing in this group. For our most recent record we were recording as a seven-piece band so a lot of the ideas started as simple melodies sung over guitar playing. The songs get built through a process of layering on each musician and having them perform to the original recording. Everyone in the group is an incredible player and writer so we end up having these dense recordings that need a lot of editing to get them to places where they feel cohesive.
What sort of musical decisions do you have to make to distill your distinctive sound? Was this a process that evolves organically as you collaborate?
The process of making the last record was full of creative decision-making. I would say it is definitely an ever-evolving process that is dependent upon the song being written. Most songs that start with a vocal idea end up being filtered through the person writing a lot of the lyrics. I would say the ethos in the band is generally to serve the song, so whatever instrumentation the story or music calls for is what we try to provide as musicians.
The process of creating with seven people can feel a bit tedious as people often have different ideas about what they want in the song. It falls on the lyricist to listen to the ideas and see what they feel best fits their narrative.
We're sure most musicians resist the narrowness of any sort of neat definition. But we're curious: What's influenced you the most in clarifying Foxtrails' point of view?
Foxtrails has always been influenced through our collective experiences in nature. A lot of us spent the better part of our youth outdoors and continue to this day. That definitely seeps into the music.
Our most recent record was mostly written between Three Rivers, CA and Topanga Canyon. The whole band was very inspired by the rugged landscapes we were in and they sort of naturally found their way into the songs. What I took from my time in these places was that we are all such transient beings, just passing through these timeless places. All of our stories, our personal struggles and shared experience are just a drop in the ocean, and these mountains and rivers and rocks and trees are witness to all of it.
What connects you to the Venice community? What, as the neighborhood has evolved, has remained special to you about this place and its community?
When Foxtrails got started, the Venice community provided a place for us to feel connected to other people. In the beginning we all lived and worked in Venice (at Gjelina, Gjusta, GTA) so we felt very close to the pulse of this part of the city. Our first shows were all in Venice, many times at the Del Monte Speakeasy, and many of the fans and collaborators that we have worked with have stemmed from relationships that started through this community.
In the last several years, the neighborhood has evolved and many of us have moved to different parts of the Los Angeles area. We still feel a unique connection to this neighborhood and its many eccentricities. It is one of the last great artist communities of Los Angeles and we hope that it continues to be for years to come.
What's kept your creative process moving? What's feeling in flow right now?
We are constantly creating new music. We have already begun the process of recording new songs. It is this constant push forward that drives us as a creators, to share the sounds and stories that are inspiring us currently. The last record took us nearly three years to complete, so we’re feeling motivated to create new music as consistently as we can. We feel it is important for us to create quickly so we can be making music that feels relevant to ourselves and to the current moment, both personally and as part of a larger community.
You're driving, with no place to be in particular. The weather is just right. What's playing?
“Someday We’ll All Be Free” by Donny Hathaway (Michael Brenner)
I was recently driving back to Venice from Three Rivers and “Life on Mars” by Bowie came on and the opening bars always get me where I live. (Robert Schwan)