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Artist to Watch: Army Navy Spin Power-pop from the L.A. Highlife

California guys work in showbiz by day, craft catchy, Seventies-schooled tunes by night

August 19, 2011 4:40 PM ET
army navy artist to watch
Army Navy
Courtesy of Big Hassle Publicity

Click here to listen to Army Navy's "The Long Goodbye"

Who: Power-pop traditionalists as lively as as they are lovelorn — which is quite a lot on their latest self-released album, The Last Place. Lead singer and lyricist Justin Kennedy wrote it entirely about a relationship he had with a woman who's both a celebrity and very much attached. Army Navy's that kind of band; ordinary Los Angeles dudes who travel in rarified circles. Their first drummer is now writing a remake of RoboCop, and his replacement on their 2008 debut album was Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello & the Attractions. Their mix of raw emotion and nuanced craft is bound to charm the pants off of anyone who's ever loved Cheap Trick, Big Star, and other brash yet bittersweet guitar bands.

Auspicious beginnings: Kennedy grew up in the small naval port of Bremerton, Washington where he met high school buddy Ben Gibbard. Together they lead the band Pinwheel until Gibbard devoted himself to a little side project called Death Cab for Cutie. Kennedy moved to Los Angeles, and a band gelled around Kennedy's whine and multi-instrumentalist Louie Schultz's layered guitars. When Variety tipped drummer Josh Zetumer as a young screenwriter to watch just as Army Navy started recording its first album, a replacement had to be found fast. 'I was friends with Tennessee Thomas of The Like, a band we played with," Kennedy recalls. 'She said, ‘You should ask my dad. He likes your band.' Sure enough, he was totally into it and probably had more energy than all of us put together. Then we were like, ‘Crap, now we have to fill Pete Thomas's shoes!'" This they soon did with Zetumer's dynamo drummer pal, Doug Randall.

Day jobs: Schultz does music editing for TV shows like Hung and Eastbound & Down. Randall works at an instrument repair shop; new bassist Grant Loveless is currently unemployed, but Kennedy has held onto his gig as a freelance wardrobe stylist. 'A lot of times it's like, whatever, but then the other day I worked with Ted Danson," he enthuses. 'Even he referred to himself as Sam Malone!" The singer has also outfitted musicians like Morrissey and Elton John, as well as a long string of comedic actors — Zach Galifianakis, Jack Black, Ed Helms, and Steve Martin. 'I gave a CD to Keanu, but I rarely cross that line."

Deep pockets: Army Navy can afford not to exploit its famous friends. For a completely independent and relatively unknown band, the foursome has had great luck in landing its songs in films like Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist and Beastly. Its remarkably kick-ass version of Maxine Nightingale's ‘70s pop smash "Right Back Where We Started From" scored the trailer for Shrek Forever After. "I went to see Avatar with my dad in Gig Harbor, Washington, and suddenly my song was playing through this crazy theater system. We both laughed at how weird it was. But with that placement, we were able to afford our new album."

Kissing but not quite telling: That record, The Last Place, took sixth months of studio time with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah producer Adam Lasus. Kennedy had to get it just right: He'd written the whole thing about a real-life relationship with a famous married woman who left him devastated. Despite certain details like a Neiman-Marcus parking lot where they secretly met, Kennedy maintains her anonymity. "I honestly don't know if she'll hear it, so I didn't write it particularly for her. But it was a way to speak directly to her without anyone else knowing, and cathartic to write it all down so I could be open to what was next."

Make way for the bad guy: Those confessions cleared a path that's lead upward and onward. The Last Place recently won rave reviews; a video for its "Ode to Janice Melt" was shot with John Ritter's son Jason, and a fall tour is primed to propel the band beyond its illustrious home base. "We recently played a record release show at this Hollywood bar and afterward this guy came up to me. He's in his 50s and got a bunch of necklaces on, all buff and stuff. He's going on about how we've got to play together 'cause he's got an acoustic rock band, and I'm like, 'OK, sure.' And then he goes, 'I'm an actor as well, you know — I was in Scarface.' Then I realized, ‘Holy shit, you were Tony Montana's buddy!'"

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