James Di Salvio and Steve “Liquid” Hawley of the Montreal collective recall the genesis of their genre-defying 90s hit single
In the sprawling realm of 90s alternative music, a Canadian collective emerged with a sound as eclectic as their own cultural roots. Formed in 1994, Bran Van 3000 was the brainchild of DJ James Di Salvio who was joined by a melting pot of talent from Canada, the US and beyond. One long-standing member included the MC and performing artist Steve “Liquid” Hawley. Their music defied easy categorisation, seamlessly fusing elements of hip-hop, rock, pop, and electronica, with a dash of quirky, irreverent humour that set them apart.
Yet, it was Drinking In L.A. that launched the career of Bran Van 3000 in 1997. The song’s hypnotic beats, witty lyrics, and laid-back vibe struck a chord with listeners worldwide, especially in the UK where it reached No 3 in the singles chart. It was a slice of sonic sunshine, a tune that transported you straight to the palm-lined streets of Los Angeles, even if you were halfway across the globe.
But the story behind Drinking In L.A. is far more fascinating than just its catchy melody. So, fill your glass, sit back and let James and Steve be your guides, as we delve deep into the genesis of this timeless anthem…
If we had overthought it, it would have never happened
Steve Hawley: “Well, I think James should go first, because I know he had written the lyrics prior to when we came together.”
James Di Salvio: “At one point, I’d started toying around with the idea of writing songs after Liquid and I had both been on a track called Johnny Go, which I helped produce with [Bran Van 3000 co-founder] E.P. Bergen. Bran Van 3000 kind of came to life on this French song called Take The Money And Go. Liquid had been very much in the hip hop community, but I’d been as a DJ more, so the idea for the lyrics started happening in those years and one of the first ones was because of a little bit of real narrative. The line came to me, and in my head I thought that would be a song. But it didn’t happen until many years later.”
SH: “You were with Propaganda Films at the time, right, James? In LA when you got the whole theme to the lyrics?”
JD: “Yeah, pretty much. I was directing videos that were getting attention from Propaganda, which was like the Mecca at the time for young filmmakers. I was in that mid zone between David Fincher, Mark Romanek and Spike Jonze, and everybody coming up. But I was so young, I don’t know, 18 or 19… Long story short, [Drinking In L.A.] is about a director who really should be finishing his job, but he’s falling in love with rock and roll and Hollywood nights. And, you know, the kids in Hollywood, I don’t think anybody parties harder!”
SH: “James was a DJ at his father’s club, which was on the strip, the boulevard, here [in Montreal]. And at that time, it was booming…I had been going there to grab the mic with the acid jazz movement and the cats from all over New York and the East Coast were coming down to play in Montreal – the jazz cats, and the producer Haig V. I’d been going there too. Haig moved his studio into my basement and mentioned me to James… And that’s where I think you started putting the lyrics together.”
JD: “Exactly… I think Steve writes a lot of verses first, and for me too, so it’s rare that a chorus pops into my head so hard. But I’d had that chorus and the melody bouncing around my head for years! Also, I was living that life of like, ‘Should I stay or should I go be a director? But this rock and roll thing is so much fun.’ So those three verses were brewing.
“And Nervous Dwayne Larson – who wrote a lot of the guitar-based songs with us on the Glee record – was a big part of us not just sticking to samplers and keyboards, because we’re mostly that kind of people. I’m not really a guitar man, you know. Anyway, he found his guitar in a dumpster, and he had a special way of doing things, like he just plugged it in and he goes [plays the riff], ‘Hey Jamie, this is for you, it’s that drinking in L.A. song.’ So [for him to] remember the chorus and remember the melody, I guess it says something. And if he hadn’t given it a real rock and roll riff and sound to it, I don’t know if the song would have progressed because the verses hadn’t been written yet. Then we kind of went from there.
“I remember hearing a story about Leonard Cohen – it’s probably an urban myth – that he did a Russian roulette game with himself to finish Beautiful Losers. He locked himself in a room for, like, a year, in Greece, and he said, ‘I’m not leaving this room until I’ve finished this novel.’ So I did the same, but in one night. I said, ‘I’m not finishing this night without three verses written.’”
SH: “That’s where I saw the collective come [together] because I know James had worked with Sara Johnson and Jayne Hill before… I’d written poetry since I was eight years old…but all of us young kids were learning how to put everything together. Nervous Dwayne came into the beat-forming with Haig V and I remember we had a debate over who was gonna sing your lyrics. I said, you have to, obviously, but there were moments when we did the radio intro and all the things that became a part of the song and make it what it is.”
JD: “It still was a song with me [singing the chorus vocal] almost by record time… You know, for me, this song is such a love affair of The Clash and Lou Reed and at the same time disco and Martha Wash. Stéphane [Moraille, the vocalist on the chorus] and I were loving Jocelyn Brown and all the great divas – and I’d put her in that category.”
SH: “[On songwriting as a collective] I would say don’t overthink it, because it can get complicated. After we went with Capitol Records, they wanted to have us write more songs and I think that’s where the real collective writing started to come.”
JD: “Yeah that’s a good one, Steve. If we had overthought it, it would have never happened. I remember we called the album Glee because it was a true abandonment to music, just like a love affair with the music… It’s hard to believe in a song and it gets even trickier when it becomes official, like after Glee when we were professional songwriters or performers, or whatever. I only have gratitude for what is a great thing to do, from record to record.”
SH: “The funniest part was when the song came out on radio and everybody kept calling me saying, ‘Hey, man, like, are you getting tickets?’ They still do it to this day when people hear the song… It’s funny how that became a part of it.”
Bran Van 3000’s Liquid Ltd has a new track out now, I Walked. Find out more on his Instagram profile