When she answers the phone, Bambi Browning is standing in windy Joshua Tree, California. The Reptaliens frontperson is about to eat breakfast on a day off from her band’s long national tour with East Coast punk bands Turnstile and Turnover. The night before was spent at a friend’s comfy house in the California desert, and after breakfast, Browning and her bandmates will head south to the massive Coachella music festival—not to perform, but just to hang out, thanks to the generosity of their tour partners.
“It’s a lovely magical desert weekend,” Browning says. “We have the best luck.”
That seems to be true going all the way back to Reptaliens’ origin story, which goes like this: Bambi was minding her own business one day when Cole Browning—formerly of Portland band Wampire and many others—approached her and asked if she’d like to play basketball with him for a music video. She agreed; they played hoops and then got burritos, where Cole played her a “poppy bratty punk” (her words) song he’d been working on. Cole didn’t have a band at the time, so Bambi—who’d spent time in local bands Blouse and Seance Crasher, among others—offered to help him start one. Before they knew it, they were writing together, and Reptaliens was born.
The band went about recording some songs and building a fan base, in Portland and beyond. Before they’d even released an album, they caught the attention of a record label, and not just any label—Bambi’s favorite label. “There’s only one label that I care about, and that’s Captured Tracks,” she says of the vaunted Brooklyn-based purveyor of dream-pop. After a live show and some discussion, Reptaliens signed with them.
This time, Browning doesn’t use the word luck. She does, however, call the band’s relationship with Captured Tracks “magical.” That magic produced Reptaliens’ debut full-length, called FM-2030, in late 2017; a follow-up, Valis, comes out on April 26.
Like its predecessor, Valis is a collection of effervescent synth-pop songs that live at the midpoint between 1980s new wave and early K Records–style twee-pop. Bambi’s vocals are airy but vibrant, while the band’s arrangements are pastel without lacking punch. If you’re familiar with the general sound of Captured Tracks, you’ll know why they snapped up Reptaliens when they had the chance.
If there’s a clear difference between FM-2030 and Valis, it’s in Bambi’s lyrics, which are noticeably more personal these days. “On the first record, I was kind of hesitant to explore lyrics that looked and focused inward, so I chose to write about characters,” she says. “I was just living in this lyrical fantasy land. I was kind of concerned that people would be less interested in hearing about my feelings on a personal level.”
As a result, the songs on FM-2030 were “hyper-obsessed about other people’s obsessions, thoughts, and theories,” Browning says, explaining that album’s preoccupation with science fiction, cult mind-set, conspiracies, and other fringe cultural topics. Valis still contains the occasional reference to lizard men and lunar affection, but for the most part Bambi is singing about love, loss, loneliness, distance, memories, and dreams.
For her newfound willingness to bare her own thoughts and feelings, she credits touring extensively with a tight-knit band. “When we’re on the road, we’re just a communal living group in a van. You have no choice but to let your inner self out because there’s no real privacy,” Bambi says. “But it’s nice, because we’re all such good friends that it’s a safe space to have those feelings and emotions exposed.”
That safe space, of course, is reinforced by the fact that Cole is in the band (and the van). He’s also her husband now, and Bambi credits him for her shift in songwriting perspective.
“He’s the first person who ever believed in me. I’ve always just been like, ‘I’ll play bass or guitar and I’ll write my own parts,’ but if I ever came to a practice with a different band to nervously present a song, I’d [be shot down],” she says. “Cole is the first person to let me explore songwriting and encourage me.”
To recap, the Brownings are happily married, make music they love, are signed to their favorite label, and are growing as artists, not to mention the occasional magical weekend in the California desert. All because Bambi agreed to play basketball with Cole one day several years ago.
To say they’re appreciative would be an understatement. “I think about it every single day,” Bambi says. “It feels unreal. Now I’m here with my best friend continuing to have these lucky streaks. We’re incredibly fortunate.”