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Interview New Music

How Prince Johnny Merged Pride, Absurdity, and Melodrama on Their Newest EP

New York is the place where many of us flee to in hopes of starting anew. The senses become heightened as we absorb the smog that permeates the air and contaminates the lungs, passing street vendors selling fruit, and having near death experiences every time a taxi carelessly swerves around a tight corner while we are crossing the street. 

The isolation that comes with living in pockets of the city can either transform us beyond recognition or break us entirely. We will occasionally escape the noise by fleeing to places like the West Side Piers and Rockaway Beach, inhaling the salty air, listening to the rippling of the trash-filled bodies of water before the inevitable return to the whirring white noise of midtown traffic, chugging subway cars, and business deals being made over the phone. It’s a city that tests our capacity for resilience, before we eventually decide to leave or begrudgingly grow to love it, even if it never cared about us.  

New York is the place where many queer individuals migrate to when we are attempting to purge the oppressive poison that we internalized growing up. We become hardened and hyper-sensitive, careful not to let our guards down while simultaneously trying to liberate ourselves from shame and prove to ourselves, our families, our co-workers and our lovers that we are busy, relevant, and special. 

Queer New York is as vast and complex as it is confusing. The city is easily malleable, allowing queer communities to find spaces that we can transform into our own. We commiserate with each other in underground nightlife spaces—bars, clubs, and cabarets—the few places where we can escape the violent heteronormative gaze of the streets, public transit, and work and create a world of our own. 

After moving to New York and surviving by busking in subway stations, singer-songwriter Viktor Vladimirovich began making waves in the Brooklyn indie scene by writing and recording music under the moniker Prince Johnny, a reference to the St. Vincent song of the same name. Their music is an amalgamation of cabaret-infused folk and indie pop that finds a middle ground between tragedy, humor, and radical emotionality.

Prince Johnny is no stranger to the power of transformative work. Refusing to shy away from how their identity informs the ways that they see the world, their music encompasses every feeling imaginable from uncomfortable confrontations to warm hugs and sighs of relief.

Prince Johnny’s newest EP, Stupid Sex, which is slated to be released on May 17th, is a blisteringly emotional and delightfully lighthearted portrait of the modern queer experience in the shadow of the AIDS crisis. Places like New York and Amsterdam provide the backdrop to their introspective journey to exist on their own terms while navigating the world of self-loathing on slow, sorrowful ballads like “Sex Party” and “Fort Tryon,” which each have shades of Mitski, Leonard Cohen, and Daniel Johnston. Meanwhile, more lighthearted cabaret-themed songs like “Boys Just Wanna Have Fun,” and “Stupid Sex,” do an impeccable job of tackling the pervasive hyper-sexualization of the queer male gaze and the fine line between sex and mortality.  

Stupid Sex EP

Below is my full conversation with Prince Johnny, where we discuss how they came to fully embrace their artistic impulses, starting their own collective in Brooklyn’s artistic queer community, and finding inspiration in Regina Spektor’s capacity for empathy. 

If you wouldn’t mind, I would love for you to walk me through your first foray into music-making. How did you come to decide that it was something that you wanted to pursue?

My body told me who I was before I had the courage to accept it. My parents told me that as a child I would go around belting “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” any opportunity I got. Starting in middle school, I began compulsively writing Regina Spektor and Amanda Palmer lyrics in my notebooks during class. I don’t know why I started, or anyone else that did it, but I’d always de-focus from the subject being taught and find myself writing out lyrics. I also remember writing them on whiteboards in our choir wing’s piano closet. If I’m walking anywhere alone I still sing about 83% of the time and have been since I can remember. 

In terms of making something myself, I remember really wanting to write songs but thinking I wasn’t “chosen” to do it. I remember watching an interview with Alanis Morisette in middle school where she talked about walking around her house and melodies just “floating into [her] head.” I was super bitter because my favorite people were my songwriters and I wanted to be like them. Then one day I was practicing Moonlight Sonata and a pattern of notes struck me as really beautiful and I repeated it over and over and added my own chords underneath and then suddenly a melody floated in and I wrote my first song. 

I continued to write songs throughout college but my neuroses were far too powerful to allow me to share anything publicly. I remember having little meetings with my closest friends and “coming out” to them as a songwriter. I felt ashamed and hopeless. The volatility of a musician’s life scared me. I didn’t think I was good enough. Why couldn’t I be someone that could be content with something safer & more normal? I resented that I had no control over what I needed to be doing to feel alive. I continued to keep everything bottled up until about 22 when I was having the classic first year in NYC rock-bottom moment and I found myself screening therapists. I sheepishly told one that alI thought about all day was lyrics and songs and I thought I was a musician. He asked if I was actually doing music. I got really defensive and tried to explain that I couldn’t even afford my food—how could I do something so silly and childish as try to be an artist. And he matter of factly said, “if you are an artist and you don’t let yourself make art you will never be happy.” That was the mindset shift I needed and a few months later I went to my first open-mic and the rest is herstory. I see it less as something I decided I wanted to pursue, but more as something I finally accepted I needed to do.

I think of my work as winking with a tear in your eye. It’s direct emotionality and eye contact, but also an acknowledgement of the inherent absurdity and melodrama of our neuroses.

– Prince Johnny

In what specific ways have your most formative influences (Perfume Genius, St. Vincent, Regina Spektor, Amanda Palmer, etc.) affected the ways that you create your own music?

Oh man, they’re my everything. I believe the stories they gave me in my adolescence developed the infrastructure of my mind. They all taught me so much but I’ll try to pair it down to a few things for each. Amanda taught me how to play with exaggeration, theatrics, character work and “lying” in order to better tell a truth. Regina taught me empathy. What it means to live in another’s world and how to take details from the world and craft lyric from it. She also encouraged idiosyncrasy, reminding me that I could deliver things [however] I wanted in whatever style.

Perfume Genius taught me the power in wielding my inherent fagginess & femininity as a source of strength, instead of shrinking away & hiding it. He taught me simple but visceral lyricism. He taught me to ask myself with every lyric I write “what am I risking? What am I revealing?” Annie [St. Vincent] taught me about the power of contrast, juxtaposing something soft and delicate with something acidic and brutal. Mitski taught me to reframe my relationship with yearning, and how to integrate that primal tension into my lyrics. She showed me how I could get my lyrics to glow all soft and romantic.

What this EP does so well is balance the heavier themes–like the fine line between sex and mortality in the shadow of the AIDS crisis–with lighthearted humor. The cover art [for ‘Boys Just Wanna Have Fun’] in particular was giving me “horror and decay but make it camp,” which I loved. Was that in keeping with the theme of exploring these specific anxieties?

Yes [ …] you hit the nail [right] on the head. I think of my work as winking with a tear in your eye. It’s direct emotionality and eye contact, but also an acknowledgement of the inherent absurdity and melodrama of our neuroses. I want to honor the emotions they bring up, while never falling into victimhood about it. I think our demons get most mad when we laugh at them. & I love to see them pressed.

Something that a lot of queer youth recognize is the necessity to create spaces for ourselves outside of mainstream society. In what ways do you feel your actions and art have allowed you to transform certain spaces into your own?

I think what we want, at the end of the day, is to be accepted for who we see ourselves as. I know I expected this queer wonderland when I got to New York, but could not find my community. So, I created “The Troubadour Lounge,” which is a monthly performance showcase of queer songwriters I curate to play sets alongside my band. It’s like Tiny Desk mixed with Sofar Sounds, but gay. Those nights are some of the best of my life. Because it isn’t asking to fit into traditional spaces, it’s a space specifically made for queer people to queer TF out. I aim to bring them back post-quarantine and I would love to hear any suggestions for queer songwriting talent in NYC! Anyone [who has any suggestions] can feel free to email me.

Being around so many strong personalities is a test of your sense of self because it’s so easy to just fall into what’s happening around you.

– Prince Johnny

I really resonated with the way songs like “Stupid Sex” capture, in your own words, “being queer in the way you think you should be” in NYC (cause I very much relate). How has New York in particular informed your work?

Ah, New York. Smoke free lungs, alien pods, game show hosts, the souls of the dead, crumb free bread, the back of a car, roadway maps, the back of a head, the back of YOUR head, to be more specific. Those are the things Regina says you can find being sold from the back of a truck in this heinously gorgeous city. 

New York cuts your teeth sharp as hell, but then you’re constantly biting your lips and bleeding everywhere before you get used to it. You can also find yourself biting into foods you don’t actually like, but think you’re supposed to, since everyone else seems to be enjoying it?

Being around so many strong personalities is a test of your sense of self because it’s so easy to just fall into what’s happening around you. [But] oftentimes, the loudest thing is not what actually aligns with who you are. You have to learn to ask yourself what you actually want.

Once you connect to your true essence, that’s when the party really begins. I felt like New York cooly and coyly challenges you to show up as the Super Saiyan version of yourself. Find that swagger, take up that space, reclaim what’s yours, become your own hero. 

I began my career busking in the 175th street station. New Yorkers WILL tell you how they feel. I had all sorts of experiences. A man screamed in my face to “SHUT THE FUCK UP,” a kind grandma made me promise her I’d never stop performing, this one man gave me $5 so that I could “go get some voice lessons.” One time I looked down and someone had left me a bag with a water and chips from the bodega in it. I see busking as a bootcamp for performers and everyone should try it. I’d go hours and hours being ignored while singing my heart out. It eviscerated my ego into the best way.

Living in strict opposition to dogma can be just as confining a prison as buying into it. I want to be what my body wants me to be, not an exaggerated inverse.

– Prince Johnny

On “Sex Party” and “Boys Just Wanna Have Fun,” you explore the urge to liberate yourself from shame but also somehow never feeling quite satisfied. Tell me a little more about that.

There’s a spiteful rebelliousness I’ve felt concerning my sexual expression since I can remember. I always resented all the forces that come together to undermine a queer person’s right to find their own version of healthy sexuality. I think shame is one of the most pervasive and insidious detractors of a queer person’s sexuality. What I explore is how this overcorrection with hyper-sexuality that a lot of queer people fall into can be just as detrimental as shame-fueled avoidance. 

There can be this urge to prove to yourself that the bigots haven’t won and that all of the shame you’ve internalized against your will hasn’t stopped you from becoming who you’re meant to and doing all the shit that pisses them off. But living in strict opposition to dogma can be just as confining a prison as buying into it. I want to be what my body wants me to be, not an exaggerated inverse.

In those songs I explore the emptiness, confusion, and anxious self-loathing that I felt after trying to make myself fit into what I saw as modern queer culture. Why did going to that Dutch dark room in Amsterdam send me into a week-long depressive spiral? Wasn’t I supposed to love random hook-ups? Why were my ears ringing and my body going into fight-or-flight even before this stranger showed up to my door? Maybe I just needed more practice. Why was I so fucking ~~sensitive~~?? Did I want the sex or was I just trading my body in hopes of a cuddle after? I think other people enjoying these things is fantastic, but I had to figure out that for me—right now at least—it was not serving me.

I also wanted to ask you about Regina Spektor (who we are both massive fans of) because she is a figure who you seem to connect with over both music and a similar background. What does she mean to you?

My heart feels glowy just reading that. I could write a dissertation. I think of her as family, not in the sense that I want to be invited to her kid’s bar mitzvah, but in the sense that her worldview has consistently guided me through my adolescence and young adulthood. When I imagine the way she sees the world I feel buckets and buckets full of empathy and loving attention to detail. 

I think of the “new shoes stuck to aging feet” she notices of older people in the Upper East Side thinking of “how things were right when they were young and veins were tight“ in “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” I think of the “heroin boy” in “Daniel Cowman” realizing he just died of an overdose. I think of the “androgynous powder nosed girl next door” in “Back of a Truck” wanting “more, more, more.” I think of the “Genius Next Door” drowning himself in the lake. I think of the “Man of a Thousand Faces” smiling “at the moon like he knows her.” I think of the old woman in “Happy New Year” wrapped in her blanket greeting the New Year alone with her bottle of champagne next to her open window. I feel her quietly contemplating and reflecting on the way her life has gone.

Damn, I literally [just] got teary eyed. That lady always makes me cry when I spend enough time with her. I adore the way Regina brings us these details about these people, the way she takes the time to try to understand them. These people float around in my head and show up in my songs too. [Empathy is my best quality] and I believe listening to my [favorite] songwriters and their lyrics is how I developed mine. Regina means so, so much to me. I met her a few years back at a small Amanda Palmer concert. We talked about raw emotionality in songwriting while I did my best to dissipate the panic in my face by white-knuckle squeezing the back of a chair. It was a lovely experience.

What do you feel is the most important takeaway audiences should have when listening to your work?

A Joni Mitchell quote comes to mind: “If you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, now you’re getting something out of it.”

Categories
Interview Music Theatre

A Conversation with Gina Young About Riot Grrrl, Queer Theatre, & Feminist Historical Recovery

The first year that I attended college in New York City, I had gone to a party at a nightclub in the Financial District. I remember hearing a song that blared through the speakers with these rapid, mosquito guitar licks and a woman’s playful, childlike voice shouting, “Wanna disco? Wanna see me disco?/Let me hear you depoliticize my rhyme!” That song was called “Deceptacon,” and the band was a lo-fi electronic rock outfit called Le Tigre. I later discovered that the lead singer of Le Tigre was a feminist punk pioneer from Olympia, Washington named Kathleen Hanna. And she was a leader and a torchbearer for the Riot Grrrl movement, which originated in the early nineties.

After hearing Le Tigre for the first time, I immediately fell down a Riot Grrrl rabbit hole. I read all about the punk scene in Olympia, Washington, where Kathleen Hanna, drummer Tobi Vail, and bassist Kathi Wilcox formed the band Bikini Kill. I then discovered other quintessential Riot Grrrl bands like Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, Team Dresch, Tribe 8, and Sleater-Kinney.

What made Riot Grrrl so great was the fact that it grew out of a need for young women in music—many of whom were queer—to build their own musical communities outside of male-dominated punk scenes. With their blisteringly emotional and unabashedly political songwriting that called out institutional sexism, homophobia, and sexual assault, bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney made me realize that my feelings of resentment and anger—just aching to be seen and heard as a young queer woman—were shared by many of my queer feminist foremothers. It didn’t feel like I was shouting into the void anymore. There were others.

Bikini Kill Performing at Club Asylum in Washington, 1992.

Unfortunately, there are still many critics and music fans who believe that Riot Grrrl died at the tail-end of the nineties, which is false. Riot Grrrl is not some miniscule niche movement from the past. The movement has spread to at least twenty-six countries. Bikini Kill reunited last year, and over the past five years, new Riot Grrrl chapters have sprung up in places like Paraguay and Argentina.

But after some of the most well-known American Riot Grrrl bands—including Bikini Kill and Bratmobile—disbanded in the late nineties, the male-dominated music press seemed determined to quash any and all evidence that Riot Grrrl ever existed. And they almost succeeded. Riot Grrrl is still rarely acknowledged as an important part of rock canon and feminist history. I have been an ardent music fan since I was fourteen, and I still didn’t find out about Riot Grrrl until I had graduated from high school. 

Sleater-Kinney Performs at SXSW Music Festival in Austin, TX, 2005.

But the spirit of Riot Grrrl is still very much alive. We now have musicians like Tamar-kali Brown, Maya Glick, Simi Stone, and Honeychild Coleman writing brilliant punk anthems and curating alternative spaces for black womxn in punk, like Sista Grrrl Riot and Decolonize Fest. We also have punk bands led by trans women like G.L.O.S.S. (now broken-up, but still fantastic), Against Me!, and Trap Girl writing queer anarchist anthems. And who could forget about Pussy Riot doing elaborate public demonstrations and risking arrest to protest Putin’s Russia? 

A few weeks ago I attended an event called “Riot Grrrl’s Little Siblings,” which was curated by the June Mazer Lesbian Archives and the award-winning playwright and musician, Gina Young. Gina Young has written and directed several queer feminist stage shows and musicals including STRAIGHT PLAY, BUTCH BALLET, and This Is Why I Don’t Come Home. She is also a singer/songwriter who has released several albums and toured the country opening for artists like Le Tigre, Team Dresch, and Kimya Dawson. Gina also served as a leading organizer in the NYC chapter of Riot Grrrl in the early 2000s, while they were still a theatre student at NYU/Tisch. 

I first encountered Gina’s work when I left New York and came back to Massachusetts for winter break during my sophomore year of college. I had been sitting in the back of my family’s minivan on the way to a family gathering out of state. I wore out my Riot Grrrl playlist on Spotify, blasting songs by Tribe 8 and Sleater-Kinney on a loop, and one of the first songs that popped up on Spotify’s radio algorithm was one of Gina’s most beloved songs, “So Called Str8 Grrrl,” a confrontational punk anthem that chronicles the turbulent relationship between two young women. Gina narrates the song from the perspective of a girl who is already out (“I know you see me/Over your boyfriend’s shoulder”), and sympathizes with her love interest, who is still not ready to come out because she fears that her family and her inner circle of friends will reject her.

While media that caters to queer people has certainly increased over the past couple of decades, that doesn’t change the fact that many queer people—especially trans, nonbinary, intersex, disabled, and BIPOC queer folks—still do not feel seen, heard, or adequately represented on screen or on stage; let alone behind the camera. Legions of queer people, myself included, do not even feel safe holding hands with our partners in public. Gina has always understood the necessity for queer people to create our own spaces of outside of mainstream society, which is why I was so eager to talk to her. Gina’s first two albums, Intractable and She’s So Androgynous, have been my biggest comfort records during quarantine, and they recently released a collection of previously unheard demos and bonus tracks, in a compilation album called Little Sibling.

I first reached out to Gina after attending “Riot Grrrl’s Little Sibling.” We spoke about how cleaning her house during quarantine has led to the creation of these new digital Riot Grrrl archives, being inspired by writers like Kathy Acker and Audre Lorde, and why it’s so important for queer creators to take the reins ourselves when the overwhelmingly white, cishet male gatekeepers will not let us through the door. 

Who was the first artist (musician, author, filmmaker, or otherwise) who you felt like you could genuinely relate to? 

Definitely Riot Grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. I was raised in a conservative area (13 years of Catholic school!) so it wasn’t until I found bands like that, and writers like Kathy Acker and Audre Lorde, that I was able to understand who I was and who I could be.

When did you initially discover that you had a knack for crafting these stories that you’ve transformed into plays, songs, and films? Was it something that you always enjoyed, or was it a more gradual discovery?

I grew up in a family and community full of musicians and singers, which was really inspiring. I know now how lucky I was to have that. And then I was the kind of kid who was just always—every time there was a family gathering or a dinner party or free time at school—I was like “OK! We’re making a play!” and I’d be roping my cousins and my friends into making something. We’d put together whole musicals to show our parents, or write songs, or make up dance choreography to songs on the radio. My cousin Joanna and I did a whole “lip sync concert” to Motown songs at the beach one summer, with makeup and costumes like baby drag queens or something.

The biggest thing for me is that the media declared Riot Grrrl “dead” in the mid-90s, when actually, Riot Grrrl chapters and bands and activism were going strong for like another 10 years. And I think that’s important to note; they tried to erase us.

– Gina Young
Credit: Gina Young Collection at the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives

I really enjoyed “Riot Grrrl’s Little Siblings.” What made you decide to get in touch with the Mazer archives, and what do you feel the current media discourse about Riot Grrrl today is still missing?

Thanks for coming to the event! What happened was that Casey Winkleman from the The June Mazer Lesbian Archives was in the audience for the last play I wrote, which was called STRAIGHT PLAY (a queer beach blanket musical). She approached me after the show and was like, “hey, the Archives would love to have a copy of the script and any incidental materials from the creation of the show, like notes and the program and stuff.” I was like, “be careful what you wish for!” Haha. A few months later I sent them a *massive* box of materials from my music career and from my theater company, SORORITY. Then I spent a large part of quarantine going through all my old things and creating a digital archive of over 500 images from my personal collection for them. It includes riot grrrl zines, flyers and photos from the late 90s and early 2000s, a lot of material from all of the plays I’ve done, and a bunch of other feminist and queer stuff from y2k to the present that I thought people might want to see. This will all be available online via the Mazer’s website.

So then, I suggested we do an event together—mainly because they mentioned that the Mazer didn’t have any riot grrrl materials yet! I think most of their audience is a little older, and most of my audience is a little bit younger, so I thought this could be a perfect opportunity to do something intergenerational and really bring people from different walks of life together. So we did an event called “Riot Grrrl’s Little Siblings” on Zoom, which took the name from Little Sibling (my new album of old demos and live material I just released), and we had performances I curated from some of my favorite SORORITY regulars, I sang a couple songs, and then the Mazer and I did a slideshow of some of my materials and a Q&A. The whole thing was recorded so I think you’ll also be able to watch that online via the Mazer’s site and eventually SORORITY’s YouTube as well.

But to answer your question about the media discourse, the biggest thing for me is that the media declared Riot Grrrl “dead” in the mid-90s, when actually, Riot Grrrl chapters and bands and activism were going strong for like another 10 years. And I think that’s important to note; they tried to erase us. So it’s twice as important to tell our own stories and preserve our own history. And now I see Riot Grrrl and queercore bands getting attention all over Spotify and TikTok, and Bikini Kill is touring again, so it’s clear that everything that was happening back then is just as vital and relevant today.

When did you first come up with the idea to start SORORITY, and what is your favorite part of getting to curate these events and performances? 

SORORITY came about in 2016 because I was looking for an artistic community. I had moved to Los Angeles about 5 years prior, and while LA has so many amazing queer and feminist artists, a lot of them didn’t know each other and there wasn’t a centralized hub for our work. (LA is a really decentralized city—with traffic it can sometimes take an hour or two to get places you might want to go.) I wanted to create a community for the kind of queer and feminist work I wanted to see, and the kind of people that I wanted to hang out with. It’s a great alternative to the bar scene, too—I love queer bars, but SORORITY is a space that doesn’t hinge on alcohol, and the shows are usually salon-style, so it’s like an exchange of ideas with a room full of interesting people and sister artists (of all genders). So yeah, we’ve been doing the shows for five years now—just hit our five year anniversary! I think my favorite part of curating the events is just getting to hang out with everyone and see their amazing work. Also to know that I’m providing the kind of space for emerging artists and queer folks that was so important to me when I was finding my voice.

It’s really cool to be a small part of the movement [where] queer and trans people are ready for representation, and we demand to write the roles, play the roles, and have safe work environments.

– Gina Young

I also recently discovered your Team Gina raps, and I loved how they took a genre that can be (sometimes, but not always) homophobic and misogynist, and reappropriated it to cater to the queer feminine gaze. How did that project come about?

Haha Team Gina!! Well first of all, I think it’s important to note that not all hip hop is misogynist and homophobic, and the hip hop Gina Bling and I bonded over was often by women and queer artists who were underground at that time. Gina Bling and I met in Olympia Washington and both ended up living in Seattle. We were introduced by Cindy Wonderful from Scream Club and were instantly like, “Woah! We’re both named Gina!! We’re both allergic to cats! We’re both obsessed with musical theatre… and butches!” It was wild to have so much in common. Like how many people do you know that own tap shoes, know all the lyrics to Low End Theory, AND want to hang out at the Wildrose (Seattle’s lesbian bar) every weekend? So we became best friends, and we wanted to start a performance art pop project that was flipped pop culture on its head. You’re totally right about how you characterized our intention. We were like, what does pop music do? We’re going to do that, but queer it. So most of our tracks were produced by “producers,” we had costume designers and stylists, we had stage shows with a ton of synchronized dance moves, kind of like what the Spice Girls or Destiny’s Child might do, and then we tried to really flip a lot of pop culture tropes on their head, especially when it came to gender. The other Gina went by Gina Bling because she wanted to manifest glamour and luxury, I went by Gina Genius because I wanted to manifest business savvy and being the brains of the operation (that’s why my Instagram handle is @ginagenius) but above all, our guiding principle was FUN, like any time we had a “business meeting” we would watch Sex & the City and weigh all of our band decisions on how fun it would be or not. Touring to play underground queer venues in Croatia and Slovenia? Woah sounds incredibly fun! Opening for misogynist boy bands? Not so much. We made one music video that went really viral, in the early days of YouTube and Facebook when going viral wasn’t even really a thing yet. It’s called Butch/Femme and it’s all about how much we love butches; the video is a bunch of butches auditioning to be our girlfriends, haha. Team Gina’s music isn’t really available on streaming platforms, but I still have a few of the CDs left in my online shop!

The most surprising part to me is how many people come to my class to heal from bad experiences they’ve had with other teachers, universities and acting studios. That challenged me to grow really quickly.

– Gina Young

How does it feel to continue to have young queer kids reach out to you about your music after all these years? I imagine it must be overwhelming and also rewarding. 

It’s really cool and honestly it was so unexpected. Like after I stopped touring I kind of expected all that to stop. And it did for a few years. But then a younger generation of queers and feminists found my music on Spotify and TikTok and started messaging… and I can’t speak for everyone but I know for some of them, they appreciated that I never hid anything with pronouns or calling out politicians… it’s all pretty out there and explicit. And it’s an honor that the songs mean so much to people. “Punkrockdyke” is a song that still resonates with a lot of folks, because it’s basically about finding someone to love who is as militant and passionate as you. And “So-Called Str8 Grrrl” is another one that resonates, which is funny because it’s just about that kind of universal experience of falling in love with a “straight” girl who is clearly not straight at all, but chooses maybe a safer path because she’s not ready to be on your level yet. My music is on the streaming platforms and I love hearing from people that they’ve put it on playlists for their crushes and stuff.

@grease_bat

I have no desire to be desired by those who have not deconstructed their desire #queer #fyp #foryoupage #tiktokqueer #forthegays #trans #lgbt #gay

♬ So-called Str8 Grrrl – Gina Young

When did you first come up with the idea to hold acting classes, and in addition to your students, do you feel like they’ve helped you grow in certain ways as well?

Honestly Feminist Acting Class was born out of my own frustration with actor training. As with a lot of institutions in this country, we’re taught that this is “just the way it is” and that we can’t do anything about it. But… why not? A lot of the old giants are dying. A lot of the dinosaurs are going extinct. When I studied theatre, there was so much sexism, racism and homophobia. It was normalized in the classroom, and in the work that was taught. The vast majority of plays produced in America are written and directed by straight white men. So then the quantity and quality of roles for straight white men is vastly superior to those for the rest of us. We’re relegated to stereotypes and villains and trauma porn. It’s really cool to be a small part of the movement [where] queer and trans people are ready for representation, and we demand to write the roles, play the roles, and have safe work environments. And women & other groups will no longer accept harassment, sizeism, etc. So my class, Feminist Acting Class, is an experiment to see what an acting class free of sexism and stereotypes might look like. One where we make the rules.

The most surprising part to me is how many people come to my class to heal from bad experiences they’ve had with other teachers, universities and acting studios. That challenged me to grow really quickly. I’m not a trained therapist or anything. But I think I’ve stepped up my game to better hold space for everyone. And my students have also challenged me to improve the ableist practices in my teaching. There are certain things that as a white, physically abled teacher I will always need to grow on. Holding classes on Zoom has been one way to make them more accessible to disabled and chronically ill students. And the biggest reward has been seeing students become best friends. I mean seriously, so many of them keep in touch, collaborate on projects and support each other’s performances. I LOVE TO SEE IT.

What do you feel is the most important thing that audiences should take away from your work?

I talk about this a lot… we are a community. Part of the reason that I love theatre and live music is that it puts us in the same room together and reminds us that we are accountable to each other. We don’t have to feel isolated all the time. And I hope that especially, after this pandemic, there will be a renewed interest in building queer and feminist community and supporting each other and each other’s creative work. I hope my work reminds you that you’re not alone and encourages you to connect with like-minded people. That’s it, yeah!

Categories
Music

Fanny: The Best Band You (Probably) Haven’t Heard Of

Contrary to what we may have learned about music history, rock music has never just been a boys club. However, it is also not a secret that many women get sidelined and under-appreciated in the music industry, especially in rock.

But believe it or not, some of the most radical unwritten heroes of musical invention and composition were women. Two of the first composers to produce electronic sound, were Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, sound engineers who worked in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Oram produced tunes with electronic oscillators and tape loops, decades before synthesizers were invented. Derbyshire was responsible for creating the siren-like sounds we hear in the Dr. Who theme. 

Daphne Oram

Another groundbreaking composer in music history who came later was Laurie Spiegel. In the ‘80s, Spiegel invented the electronic musical composition software, Music Mouse, which was one of the first programs used to produce music on the computer. Similarly, pioneering queer feminist folk rock singers like Laura Nyro and Joan Armatrading from the ‘60s, paved the way for the likes of Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, and Kate Bush. But they were unfortunately written out of music history. 

And one particular band whose story we rarely hear, was a trailblazing rock band with all women. Before the Runaways, before the Go-Gos and the Bangles, there was a band called Fanny. Fanny emerged in the 1960s alongside Creedence Clearwater Revival, and they were David Bowie’s favorite band. Bowie reached out to the group by writing them a fan letter and inviting them to one of his parties in Liverpool, and in a 1999 interview with Rolling Stone, Bowie called Fanny “one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time.” He goes on to say, “They were extraordinary: they wrote everything, they played like motherfuckers, they were just colossal and wonderful, and nobody’s ever mentioned them. They’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever; it just wasn’t their time.” Notice that he said rock band, not “girl band,” rock band

Fanny was founded in 1969 by Jean and June Millington, two sisters from the Philippines who had started playing music together after moving to California. June played lead guitar and Jean played bass, and the band went through various lineup changes over the years, recruiting the musicianship skills of Brie Brandt, Alice de Buhr, Patti Quatro, Nicky Barclay, and Cam Davis. 

Fanny may have been the first all-female and all-queer rock act to release an album on a major label, but even in the major label department they were far from the first rock act with all women. There is so much unwritten and undiscovered history of women in music. In the lost notes segment on the podcast, “Switched on Pop,” the feminist music critic, Jessica Hopper, mines the history of Fanny. 

“They’re just not really remembered outside of feminist-minded music histories,” Hopper says, before going on to say, “and when they are written into a lineage, they’re talked about as sort of pre-dating the Runaways. Kim Fowley came to one of their shows and said, ‘I’m gonna do what you’re doing, but I’m going to make money off of it.’ And then a year later there was the Runaways.”

The band was signed to Reprise Records shortly after they had formed. Unfortunately, they would soon come to learn that the label had signed them on the grounds of them being a novelty act, not for their genuine musical talent. They were lucky enough to be mentored by many experienced musicians in the industry, and they certainly worked harder than most of their male counterparts, but those who mentored them often did so because they hadn’t seen them as a threat.

But they were not hindered in the slightest by this pressure from their label to pander to corporate “girl group” standards. They remained authentic to their rock roots all the way to the bitter end. “No matter how much [people] sneered, we kept getting better, and that mattered,” June Millington told Guitar Girl Mag in 2018. 

“We had to create our own frame, and then step into it,” Millington told the Guardian in 2018. They were a consciously united band. Even when some of the members like Nickey Barclay and the Millington sisters clashed and didn’t always get along, they insisted that “our music got along, and what you all saw – the smiles, the laughter, the grinning asides – was a part of it, and therefore was the real thing.”

As Francky Knapp wrote in Messy Nessy magazine, “The united front they put up on stage wasn’t a front, it was ‘a conscious thought,’ to show that they ‘were rock and roll survivors.’ As women who’d carved out a place for themselves on the stage, the last thing they wanted to do was pander to the press’ desire for ‘girl group drama.'”

The group opened for bands like Jethro Tull, Slade, and the Kinks. They also collaborated with Barbra Streisand, Todd Rundgren, and Geoff Emerick, who engineered the Beatles’ discography. Fanny was not only a group of women who fought to maintain their creative freedom, but a band that was started by queer women and immigrants. And they really knew how to shred. Listen to any single one of their songs, and their force and passion is extraordinarily palpable. 

The band crumbled in 1974 for all the reasons that one would expect: the pressure and lack of promotion from their label, and their inability to reach people before technology and the DIY indie culture of the later punk movement really took off. They were unfortunately a little too ahead of their time. But this doesn’t mean they were forgotten. The Runaways, the Bangles, Heart, and several other pioneering rock bands helmed by women, have all cited Fanny as an influence. 

“They’re flag-bearers – they should be in the front of the parade,” Bangles guitarist Vicki Peterson told Rolling Stone in 2018. “As a 10-year-old, or 12-year-old, I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God, these women play better than anyone needs to, and play great music and look great and rock with a ferocious spirit.’”

Cherie Currie from the Runaways has said that the members of Fanny are “like queens to [her],” before going on to say, “They started all of it. They cracked that door and made it possible for us to believe that we could do it too.”

In 2018, the Millington sisters and Brie Howard reunited to form the band Fanny Walked the Earth. They released an album of brand new material with guest players from the Bangles, the Runaways, and the Go-Go’s. When asked why they decided to record their new record under a different name, Millington told Rolling Stone, “I have no attraction to competing with our 23, 24, 25-year-old selves. I think that’s crazy. For us to be nostalgic about the past, there’s no point. Look at where we are now: We’re in an exalted state, doing what we do and being who we are.” 

Changing the language matters if we want to shift the framework. It is important that we stop referring to women who play music as “female artists.” Female is not a genre; it’s half the world. And the fact that half the world has always been innovating in one of the most healing and immersive art forms in the world, is far from an anomaly; it’s common sense.

This is why feminist historical recovery in music is so important. These women have always been here. They never went anywhere. We already know that the music business is a toxic environment for a lot of women, and there are slim resources within the industry to hold people accountable for sidelining these women. It’s our job to not only give these women their flowers, but to create an environment where they never have to be left out in the cold again.

Categories
Interview Music

A Conversation with Froggy About Their New EP, Riot Grrrl, and Frank Zappa

Combining the lighthearted satire of the Dead Milkmen with the raw, grating energy of Babes in Toyland and the Lunachicks, Philly-based hardcore riot grrrl trio Froggy deserve just as much praise as their indie contemporaries in bands like Priests and Skinny Girl Diet. With songs like “Midwest Emo Scum,” “Silverskin,” and “7/11 Nachos,” Froggy strikes the perfect balance between unrelenting rage and absurdist humor, poking fun at the music industry and dumping on society’s unhealthy expectations of young womxn.

When I hop on a zoom call with songwriter and bassist, Brooke Feenie, she is in the middle of designing a flyer for an art contest that the band will host on social media in a few days. In addition to writing songs and playing bass in Froggy, Feenie designs most of the band’s merch, promotional materials, and album art. Observing her intense DIY work ethic firsthand, it’s incredibly clear that lot of time, care, and effort goes into the band’s output.

As children of the internet, Froggy are highly aware that in order for a band to succeed in the digital world, the marketing and branding side of the hustle is just as crucial as musical talent and band practice, if not more. “We’re still learning. We’re trying new [marketing strategies] all the time… It’s very competitive,” Feenie tells me. “A lot of musicians think they’re above [promoting their music] on social media, but at the end of the day, a band who only posts once a month is not going to grow,” she adds.

Drummer Fiona Clark is the second member to join the call, enthusiastically telling Feenie that she’s just washed her brand new costume for next Halloween. “[Fiona and I] are going to dress up as the members of The Garden from their music video, ‘Call This # Now,'” Feenie tells me.

We are eventually joined by lead-singer/songwriter, Morgan McClain, who ends up getting ambushed by a large dog. “This is Callie, my partner’s dog,” McClain says as she attempts to wrestle the dog back to the floor.

As I chat with the band for an hour, we discuss a wide range of topics including their brand new EP, “Sopa de Elote,” the Philadelphia punk scene, the Riot Grrrl movement, and Nikki Sixx being a fan. 

What were the first songs you learned to play on instruments? 

Morgan: The first song that I ever successfully learned to play on guitar was “Brain Stew” by Green Day. 

Fiona: Dude, no way! “Brain Stew” was the first song I learned on drums! I had seen [a kid from school] perform “Brainstew” at a 5th grade talent show and decided to learn it as well. 

Brooke: The first song I learned on bass was “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz. I was going through a serious Gorillaz phase at that point.

Fiona: I went through a phase in seventh grade where the only band I listened to was Green Day! 

Morgan: Me too, I started with [Green Day] and then I got into Blink-182, My Chemical Romance, and just kept going. I think we all had that pop punk/emo phase in middle school! 

Brooke: Oh yeah! In seventh grade I fell into that dark niche hole where everybody was into the emo trinity–Panic! At the Disco, Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance… 

Morgan: My sister is 11, and she’s just entered her hardcore emo phase. She’s listening to all the stuff I used to listen to when I was her age, which is crazy. It’s really cool to see how my taste has been passed down to her! 

Walk me back to when you initially started playing together. When did the magic really start to happen? 

Morgan: Well, it started with me in quarantine. I posted on my Instagram story, asking if anyone would like to start a punk band, and [Fiona and Brooke] were the first to respond. We then started sharing our ideas and piecing together what each of us had written, and those became the first couple of songs! 

Fiona: Yeah, it was meant to be. We should probably make up a more interesting story, though. I can pretend Morgan sent me to the hospital and Brooke was the doctor! 

Morgan: Yeah, or I could like, pretend that I hit Fiona with my car!

Brooke: Like Gorillaz? Or we could just be like Twenty One Pilots, and change the story all the time! 

People always ask us who our musical influences are, and it’s always been a little bit of everything.

– Morgan McClain
Froggy – Left to Right: Brooke Feenie (Bass), Morgan McClain (Vocals & Guitar), Fiona Clark (Drums)

What initially sparked your interest in playing music, and how has your relationship with music developed over time? 

Morgan: When I got older, I started to deal with really bad anxiety. I wasn’t sure how to handle that until I picked up a guitar. My parents had put me in music school, and I remember one of the administrators asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I probably should have said something mature, like, “I want to be a professional musician.” Instead I said, “I wanna be a rockstar!” and they just scoffed. But I’ve always maintained that mentality. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that music is the best outlet for me to express myself and get my energy out. The biggest inspiration for me was Riot Grrrl. That is what drives me to continue working on my craft, and not care about what the outcome is. 

Brooke: I actually used to listen to a lot of techno music, so I didn’t really think about playing much as a kid. Then my parents took me to see a Sleater-Kinney show, and that was my [first foray] into punk. When I first heard The Dead Milkmen, I obsessed over their basslines and also realized how easy it is to write these silly lyrics that also have substance. My dad bought me a bass one Christmas, and I decided to join a music program, which was where I formed a lot of close friendships. It was mostly dudes, and I went through a brief phase of [internalized misogyny] that I definitely regret now, but that experience really helped me improve and get to where I am now. 

Fiona: I was in 5th or 6th grade. One of my close friends had asked me if I wanted to join his band, but I couldn’t join because I didn’t know how to play an instrument. The following year, I decided to learn how to play instrument so that I could join a band like my friend. I enrolled in classes where I learned to play a variety of different styles, but nothing has really stuck with me until I discovered Seattle grunge and Riot Grrrl. Those scenes really spoke to me more than anything else. 

We’ve never really tried to hide what we like or what inspires us.

– Morgan McClain
Froggy – Left to Right: Brooke Feenie (Bass), Morgan McClain (Vocals & Guitar), Fiona Clark (Drums)

It’s clear that you guys have really studied your Riot Grrrl history. Are you the type of band to wear your influences on your sleeve, or is that something you try to avoid?

Morgan: We’ve never really tried to hide what we like or what inspires us. 

Fiona: Yeah, sometimes we’ll write a song and think, “Oh my god, this could totally be a Lunachicks [B-side],” but we’ll usually just go for it without thinking about it. 

Morgan: People always ask us who our musical influences are, and it’s always been a little bit of everything. All of the music the three of us have listened to over the years has [melded] together. Whatever pops out of our heads sometimes ends up sounding like something else, but that is never intentional. When you think about the infinite amount of music that has been produced over time, it would be pretty difficult to write a song that doesn’t sound like anything else. 

I’m not a lyric writer, but whenever I come up with an idea, [Brooke and Morgan] will have written an entire song ten minutes after I tell them! It’s crazy and so awesome.

– Fiona Clark

I would also like to point out how striking your song titles are (“7/11 Nachos,” “Midwest Emo Scum,” etc.). I really loved how the lyrics tackled serious topics with layers of humor, and I was wondering if you are aware of how well you are able to balance the two? 

Morgan: We’re definitely aware of that, but we never go into [a session] thinking, “We’re gonna write this type of song today!” because that never works. It just happens naturally. “Midwest Emo Scum” was written by Brooke about a [weird] interaction that she had with an older musician. A lot of the sillier stuff comes from Brooke. She wrote “7/11 Nachos,” “Midwest Emo Scum,” and “Pizza Ball (An homage to Eric Andre).” Those are the heaviest Dead Milkmen influences. I usually write with a more serious tone. I wrote “Silverskin,” and Brooke and I collaborated on “Livvie Folds.” I’m more on the heavy side and I love to combine that with Brooke’s more lighthearted tone. 

Fiona: Yeah, it’s crazy. I’m not a lyric writer, but whenever I come up with an idea, [Brooke and Morgan] will have written an entire song ten minutes after I tell them about it! It’s crazy and so awesome. 

Brooke: I was talking to our producer the other day. I had written another song about a creepy dude that I’d encountered, and I was saying, “Dude, why am I always running into these creeps? It’s getting annoying,” and he said, “Well, at least you’ll never run out of stuff to write about!” 

Morgan: Yeah, same. Whenever I get angry about these horrible situations in my life, it’s very [cathartic] to be able to transform those awful experiences into songs. 

Fiona: Yeah, but at what cost?

Brooke: Yeah, Nikki Sixx told me the other day to keep up the great songwriting, but I also wondered, “at what cost?” 

Morgan: Oh god! That was incredibly overwhelming too. Like, holy shit! Nikki Sixx has heard us sing and play! That was just too much to process.  

Brooke: Yeah, that was really cool. He asked us to send him some merch the other day too, and we were like, “Yes, my liege!” 

Whenever I get angry about these horrible situations in my life, it’s very [cathartic] to be able to transform those awful experiences into a song.

– Morgan McClain
Froggy: Morgan McClain (Vocals & Guitar)

Were there any records that challenged how you thought about music? How have your relationships to music changed over time? 

Morgan: Great question! For me it was the records that captured the essence of punk [and its subgenres]. I’m much less interested in records that try too hard to be musically advanced. My favorite album of all time is “Facelift” by Alice in Chains. A lot of people don’t consider that to be their best album, but it’s always been my favorite because of how well it channels the raw emotional energy of punk. Another favorite of mine is “Bricks Are Heavy” by L7.

Brooke: For me it was “We’re Only In It For The Money” by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. [That album] changed everything for me. The intricate sounds and vocals they produced totally blew me away. I loved the way he wrote about stuff that was culturally relevant, and used crude humor to communicate the message of each song. I know Frank Zappa wasn’t exactly the biggest feminist in the world, but he always did what he wanted and wasn’t afraid to poke fun at society. Hearing him mock religion, misogyny, and electoral politics really resonated with me, because I have my own strong opinions about all of those topics. I constantly try to channel that type of attitude in my own writing. 

Fiona: The record that had changed everything for me was “Ladies, Women, & Girls,” by Bratmobile. That was the first Riot Grrrl album I ever listened to. I had never heard anything like it before, and it blew me away. 

What do you value the most about being in a band? 

Morgan: What I value the most is the sisterhood. You need to have chemistry with your bandmates if you want your band to last. If you are going to be putting your heart and soul into making music, you have to be each other’s support network. We spend all of our time together. We practically live at Fiona’s house. That bond is what allows us to thrive.

Brooke: We always take care of each other and take one another into account. Without that type of relationship, a band has no foundation. 

Morgan: Definitely. I recently went through a nasty breakup, and I was a total wreck after that. Brooke and Fiona were the people who helped me get back on my feet, and I have no idea where I’d be if it wasn’t for the band. 

Brooke: Yeah, I always say that if I didn’t have Froggy, I’d either still be getting bullied or I’d probably be dead. 

Morgan: Yeah, me too! That’s why the band is so important to me. We all really believe in what we do. 

What is the DIY music scene like in Philadelphia? Are most of your gigs community-driven or are they more isolated? 

Brooke: There’s a lot of pop punk and post punk bands, but it’s also an eclectic mix. I would go to shows every weekend [before lockdown] and the lineups were always unique. I went to one show that blended reggae, punk, and hip hop. Philadelphia was the birthplace of the Dead Milkmen, Ween, and Bloodhound Gang. Those are three of my biggest inspirations, and they practically formed right in my backyard, which is nuts.

We haven’t gotten to play many live gigs during the pandemic. We’ve been playing a lot of outdoor, socially-distanced shows since things started opening back up. My podcast has really helped us book gigs. Bands that I’ve interviewed were gracious enough to add us to the bill on several of their shows. We’ll be playing at FDR Skate Park in a couple of weeks. We were also invited to play at Camp Punksylvania in September by two lovely ladies from Riot Squad Media. We’re very honored and fortunate to have connected with these other bands in the area. The overwhelming community support has been unreal. 

Categories
Interview Music

Divingstation95 on His New Album, David Lynch, & The Importance of Taking It Too Far

Thomas Clark of Divingstation95 classifies his music as “doom pop,” a label that is extremely fitting for his hauntingly melodic and equally disorienting catalogue of hard-hitting pop songs. The Memphis-based indie artist already had several other full-length projects under his belt, including the albums Lonely Souls, The Gospel of Prosperity, and Fear is My Constant Companion. His music often tackles the disquieting malaise of internal battles against the self, with lyrics juxtaposed against walls of sinister, abrasive textures and washed-out vocal effects.

What makes the music of Divingstation95 so important is the way that it tackles trauma and tragedy – especially when it pertains to true crime – with the layers of sensitivity and self-awareness that are so necessary to tackling these often bleak topics; a sympathetic tone that is severely lacking in media representations of mental health and tragedy.

Divingstation95’s newly-released album, Black Lodge, is a collection of singles in his repertoire from 2015-2019 that have been re-worked. It is very clear that a lot of work and care has gone into the making of album, which has just as many haunting, ambient earworms as it does ear-splitting bangers.

We chatted about the incentive behind reworking some of his older material, alleviating the pressure to constantly churn out new projects, and of course, David Lynch.


Since this is a compilation album of songs you’ve made over the past few years, were the songs reworked or re-purposed in any way? 

I slightly altered the mix to sound more professional, and removed a few sections of tracks that I wasn’t satisfied with or couldn’t legally use (“Hell” originally ended with a sample of “The Ballad of Grim and Lily” by Bree Sharp, and “Normalpornfornormalpeople” included a snippet of “Annie Dog” by the Smashing Pumpkins). Mostly, though, these songs are untouched. I wrote many of them during a period of experimentation, as I was trying to figure out what direction to go in – there are musical decisions I made then that I probably wouldn’t make now, but that’s why they capture a certain place and time for me, and I think it would remove some of the soul if I polished them up too much.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve developed more of an appreciation for music off the beaten path – I’ve always liked weird art but my interest in artists like Swans, whose music requires a lot of patience because the songs are very long and very unconventional, is a relatively recent development.

– Divingstation95

I understand that you have gone through several different cycles of recording different sequences of material for an album that you were not entirely satisfied with. Walk me through a bit of what it has been like, if you’re comfortable.

It’s immensely frustrating but totally necessary. I don’t have a particularly big audience, so the most important person to try to please when I release music is myself. There’s not some insane hype machine banging on my door demanding that my next album drop immediately, so if I rushed it and threw together a bunch of tracks that didn’t go together, it wouldn’t benefit anybody. I wouldn’t be happy with it, and what audience I do have would probably be able to tell that I had put out a slapdash work. If I don’t think it’s a masterpiece, I have no reason to release it. 

Also, I hadn’t thought about it until you asked the question, but most of Black Lodge comes from a time in my life very similar to this one: I find myself with a ton of ideas and half-finished tracks but no clear path to putting them together, and I’m facing the possibility that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. My solution at the time was to temporarily ditch everything I had made and focus on a completely new collection of songs, but I don’t think I’m going to do that this time. This current batch of unreleased songs could be something truly special and better than anything I’ve put out before. I just need to figure out how to pull it all off. 

Are there any artists you are listening to now that you wouldn’t have thought you’d be into before?

There are a few artists who I kind of wrote off as uninteresting who I’ve since become a huge fan of – Too Bright by Perfume Genius came out a few months before I started work on Black Lodge, for instance, and I dismissed it as an album of half-finished songs that resembled watered-down Xiu Xiu more than anything else. It wasn’t until five years later that I listened to the rest of his work, which put Too Bright in a very different context just in time for “Describe” to drop and blow me away. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is probably in my top 10 albums of all time, if I had to make a list. 

I never want to be noisy or disturbing for its own sake. There must be a reason and it must serve the song. Approaching it any other way can only harm the music.

– Divingstation95

I really loved “A Hole In the World,” because it was totally unexpected from what I’m used to hearing from you. What made you decide to have that track open the album? 

Thank you! “A Hole in the World” was basically the first Divingstation95 song. I had recorded plenty of music before under a different name, but nothing I had ever actually sung on – it was all made up of spliced and edited vocal samples, in the style of Burial. It took years to figure out how to write songs with my own vocals, and this was the result. The first few lines are actually based on a song I wrote when I was 12, originally dealing with the severe depression I was feeling even then (I’ve been a miserable bastard since day one!). I reworked it my freshman year of college and it was going to be the second-to-last track on the original Black Lodge album, but when I was unable to find the files for the intended opener while re-assembling it this year, I decided to move “A Hole in the World” to the beginning. It felt fitting to start the album off with my first song.

When you’re writing and recording now, have any new influences crept their way into the process for you, or have they been more or less the same?

As I’ve gotten older I’ve developed more of an appreciation for music off the beaten path – I’ve always liked weird art but my interest in artists like Swans, whose music requires a lot of patience because the songs are very long and very unconventional, is a relatively recent development. 

At the same time I’ve also become more passionate about and appreciative of relatively straightforward indie rock. There are two things I try to remember and live by as a musician: Jamie Stewart’s quote about how you should always take it too far, and that at the end of the day, no amount of experimentation will amount to anything worth listening to if there’s not a great fucking song at the core. Bands like Okkervil River, the New Pornographers, and Shearwater are proof of the latter. I could put together a 20 minute collage of guitar feedback, and it might sound kind of cool, but would it make me feel the way “Down Down the Deep River” by Okkervil River does? I could easily make something more experimental than “Pale Kings” by Shearwater, but would it be as good? Almost certainly not, because those are two of the best songs of all time! My music is often abrasive and abstract, and it’s only gone further in that direction over the years, so remembering this has become very important. I never want to be noisy or disturbing for its own sake. There must be a reason and it must serve the song. Approaching it any other way can only harm the music.

This also ties into the fact that I’ve developed a clearer understanding of what I do not want my work to be. In that sense, I have taken influence from repellent films like Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built (probably my least favorite movie of all time) – it’s a piece of art that deals with many of the same things my hero David Lynch writes about, but in a manner I find to be morally bankrupt. It pretends to be an artsy meditation on the nature of evil or some bullshit, but the truth is that it’s an exercise in sadism, a movie made by a shock-value hack who obviously gets off on the thought of women being tortured and killed. It’s phony. If I had written the Junko Furuta song on the last album from a perspective of “dude, this is so sick and twisted, you’re never gonna believe this happened bro, haha” I would deserve to be shot.

I understand you’re a massive Twin Peaks fan and from what I’ve seen, the show has definitely influenced certain elements of your music. What does the work of David Lynch mean to you?

To me, Lynch’s work is about the things we aren’t supposed to talk about, and those are of course the most interesting things to discuss. 

I had a ridiculously sheltered childhood – I was homeschooled, kept away from anything with even minor violence in it, and my mom disapproved of nearly everything that was popular among other kids my age – until she suddenly became very sick and fell into a coma when I was 9 or 10, and I was forced into the ‘real world.’ So it was this sudden, violent loss of innocence rather than the gradual process that most kids go through. When I discovered Lynch (much, much later) it felt like he was a kindred spirit, somebody who was also obsessed with shattered innocence and the hidden ugliness of the world. Like Thom Yorke, his work made me think “oh, somebody else understands.” 

When we last spoke we discussed the artists that you think very highly of (Xiu Xiu, Radiohead, Perfume Genius, etc.) When it comes to DIY music-making, were there any other artists that you feel had really opened the door for you and showed you that you could do it as well? 

Burial, as I mentioned above, was a huge inspiration when I was first starting out and making strictly electronic music. He makes music with virtually no resources other than his laptop, and I took huge influence from his method of creating new and often haunting melodic lines out of re-arranged samples from other artists. Until “A Hole in the World,” that’s how I did all of it. His influence eased me into more traditional forms of songwriting and I don’t know where I’d be without him.

Listen: https://divingstation95.bandcamp.com/album/black-lodge-songs-2015-to-2019

Categories
Albums Music

Current Obsession: French Vanilla – “How Am I Not Myself?”

After being inside for 371 days and counting, something I’ve been incredibly grateful for is being able sit down and voraciously consume as much new music as humanly possible. And one of the most valuable discoveries I’ve made has to be the radical and forward-thinking Los Angeles queer art punk quartet, French Vanilla. CLRVNT has described French Vanilla as a group “that takes a dissonant, politically-minded approach to no wave that hearkens back to the genre’s glory days; think Bush Tetras after a weekend of binge-reading Audre Lorde and taking saxophone lessons.”

French Vanilla began making waves on the L.A. DIY punk scene when they released their self-titled debut album in 2017, and have since toured with the likes of Girlpool, ESG, and Cherry Glazerr.

French Vanilla’s sophomore album, How Am I Not Myself?, was released in 2019 and produced by Sean Cook, who also produced and engineered St. Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION. The album combines infectious guitar and sax leads with idiosyncratic rhythm sections and a radical political literacy that is not too dissimilar from their Washington, DC contemporaries, Priests. The group does a sublime job of combining jittery post punk vocal stylings and instrumentals a-la Essential Logic and Suburban Lawns, with politically-conscious writing and outrageous performance art similar to ’80s queercore artists like Vaginal Davis.

With the whirling vocals of frontwoman Sally Spitz, and playing that juggles the sonic energies of new wave and minimalist art punk, the band sounds like the love child of the B-52s, Le Tigre, and Bush Tetras. Combining a danceable, saxophone-laden groove with feminist nursery rhymes, How Am I Not Myself? both revels in absurdity and interrogates the heterosexist power structures in an oppressively patriarchal society.

The song “Bromosapien,” finds Spitz flaunting her signature caterwauling against Daniel Trautfield’s crisp saxophone leads, with lyrics that rail against misogynistic institutions that strip away the autonomy of young women and girls (“How do I know you are sexist?/Because you’re ego is so delicate”). The instrumentation on “Lost Power,” draws contagiously twangy leads from lead guitarist Ali Day, while Spitz unpacks the paranoia and sense of lost identity that comes with being in a visibly heteronormative relationship (“All night I think I’m sick/Losing color and I’m falling quick”).

“All the Time,” boasts bouncing, brassy instrumentals that stand in stark contrast to the serious lyrical subject matter. Spitz’s robotic vocal stylings hearken back to early DEVO records, while the lyrics find the song’s narrator fighting for self-actualization through the act of attempting to please others, whether it be potential lovers, friends, clients, or families (“Oh, I wanted you to see, you to see/Everything that we could be, we could be”).

On “Joan of Marc by Marc,” the band does their best Josef K impression with rapidly jangling instrumentals. The narrator of the song feels corrupted by their unrelenting libido as they find themselves in a tug-of-war between their attraction to men and women, while simultaneously struggling to fight off the heteronormative dogma that forces women into subordinate roles in heterosexual relationships (“I gag on the ordinary”).

Writing songs about the intersection of the personal and the political in a way that makes listeners want to burst out dancing is never an easy task. French Vanilla’s How Am I Not Myself strikes the perfect balance between seriousness and whimsical satire with relentless energy, textures, and bright color palettes.

Score: 8.5/10

Categories
Interview Music

Interview with Francesca Fey of Goth Lipstick

Music fans all over the world were collectively shell-shocked after receiving the news that experimental avant-pop artist and trans pioneer SOPHIE had passed away on January 30th of this year. SOPHIE was constantly challenging peoples’ pre-conceived notions of what pop music could sound like, pushing pop into the ether with elastic, hyper-industrial production and catchy, anthemic melodies. Her work was sacred to many LGBTQIA+ music lovers, myself included. Millions of young queer kids who looked to her as a guiding source of light are still reeling from the loss.

But SOPHIE’s mission to push pop to its most exaggerated, bold, and bright state, is not finished. Just look at the legion of protégées she’s left behind. Maximalist hyperpop acts who followed in her wake, like 100 gecs, Black Dresses, and several artists on the PC Music roster, have all released game-changing records and amassed large cult followings over the past couple of years.

However, the most exciting new bands are the underground acts bubbling to the surface, ready to take the world by storm. Enter Goth Lipstick: a duo on the rise made up of two friends, Francesca and J. The duo has released two full-length LPs and an EP over the past year. Their newest album, crystalline corset, is a syrupy-sweet masterpiece with sporadic production that delves into themes of self-doubt and queer liberation. The watery, crunchy synths and infectious pop song structures are juxtaposed against devastating, angst-ridden lyrics, narrated through various characters Francesca has created from her imagination. With songs like the sugary “catgirl goes to college,” and the menacing and masochistic “10 years,” the album takes the listener on a journey of self-discovery through the musings and personal failures of a young queer person.

I was fortunate enough to chat with Francesca from Goth Lipstick, and we discussed a myriad of topics ranging from her love of classic jazz, to her favorite anime characters, and idolizing Joy Division and the 1975.

Izzy: Let me just tell you how obsessed I am with every single track on this project. It pretty much encapsulates everything that I love about the way that pop is progressing. I would love for you to walk me back to the moment when you and your bandmates decided to make a full project and release it. What drove that motive?

Francesca: After we had put out our first album, Decidere, I was actually really disappointed with it. I had been going for this deeply-emotional concept and it just didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. Then I decided that I had to do something that I would ultimately be proud of. My first idea was to write a concept album about dystopia. I wrote the song “10 years” in one afternoon. I hadn’t [yet] conceptualized the album, but that was the starting point. From there it was just a matter of writing instrumentals that I liked and trying to tell stories through songs that were unrelated to each other.

[Creating these characters] was a good way for me to emotionally detach and feel more comfortable with writing really personal stuff.

– Francesa Fey

Izzy: I was reading that you had created different characters based on your favorite anime to represent your own personal experiences. How have these characters breathed life into these songs for you?

Francesca: So the idea of the album is that there are three characters: the catgirl, the transhuman, and the witch. They all represent parts of myself, but they are each based on a different protagonist from different anime that I’ve been loving lately. The transhuman is based on Genos from One Punch Man, who is a cyborg. I wrote the song “witch on a broom,” after watching Kiki’s Delivery Service, which is a Ghibli film about witches. [The song] “catgirl goes to college” is the most removed from this idea, but the ethos of the catgirl character was based on Aqua from an anime called KonoSuba. [Creating these characters] was a good way for me to emotionally detach and feel more comfortable with writing really personal stuff.

Izzy: The album is all over the place stylistically, which I love. You and I are both really big fans of Black Dresses and SOPHIE, and I can tell that they both influenced the project. I’m even detecting some emo and pop punk influences, especially on “past life / succubus.” Are there any specific artists you were listening to that you feel might have bled into this record?

Francesca: As you mentioned, Black Dresses, SOPHIE (rest in peace to a legend), 100 gecs—I feel like it’s almost cliché to cite 100 gecs as a hyperpop influence at this point, but I was listening to them a lot. Lots of nineties emo for sure. A band that I absolutely love is Saves the Day. I love their guitar tones and pop song structures. Also, the Pixies. When I listened to Surfer Rosa, I felt like I truly understood the value of mixing your drums really high. With tracks like “10 years,” I was blasting the drums to the top of the mix, and that was inspired by the production on tracks like “Gigantic” and “Where is My Mind.” [I was listening to] a lot of slowthai as well.

Usually when I sit down and decide, “I’m gonna write a song today!” it just never works… The best lyrics usually come when I’m least expecting them.

– Francesca Fey

Izzy: I was very drawn to how you were able to synthesize these lyrics that are very confrontational and also vulnerable against the backdrop of this incredibly sweet, bubbly hyperpop instrumentation. I hear queer euphoria, pain, ecstasy, and catharsis. What is the writing and recording process normally like for you. What does it do for you personally?

Francesca: Usually when I sit down and decide, “I’m gonna write a song today!” it just never works. And then if I end up coming up with anything at all, I’ll just scrap it and maybe save a line or two for later. The best lyrics usually come when I’m least expecting them. The song “witch on a broom,” is a track about feeling like a disappointment and a failure. I wrote that track after I went on a long walk alone. I passed an apartment complex near my house and I immediately wished that I was independent and capable enough to have my own place.

I sat down at my phone and typed out notes about how I was feeling, and those lyrics ended up being the metaphorical basis for the character of the witch. The instrumentals are very [upbeat] and contradictory to the [grim] lyrics, which was inspired by the band Third Eye Blind. They write incredibly devastating lyrics, but they’re always set to the most danceable guitar tracks. So that was a very conscious [artistic] decision.

Izzy: One of my favorite tracks on the album is “synthetic girls.” I especially love the glitchy, chaotic, noisy breakdown. How did that song come about?

Francesca: That was actually the toughest song to master. I came up with a great chord progression and a catchy melody, but I couldn’t decide which synthesizer to use. It took a couple of months to develop, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to sing over a track that was so noisy. I’m ultimately super proud of how the song turned out, because of how complex it is. There isn’t one chorus, it’s just a hook and a verse and then the breakdown. My hope is that people who listen to it will want to burst out dancing once that climax hits. That track was heavily influenced by Black Dresses.

My biggest hero is SOPHIE… to have that positive representation of somebody as creative and powerful as she was is very special.

– Francesca Fey

Izzy: So this is a two-part question: I was browsing your album topster the other day and was very impressed with how eclectic it is: we’ve got everything from hyperpop to classic rock, indie rock, emo, shoegaze, hip hop, jazz, post punk, the list goes on… Who are your top three musical heroes and if you had the chance to collaborate with any artist (living or dead), who would it be and why?

Francesca: I would say my biggest hero is SOPHIE. Obviously both of us are trans women; and to have that positive representation of somebody as creative and powerful as she was is very special. She was the person who inspired me to start making music in the first place. Also, Ian Curtis from Joy Division. I just admire his lyricism so much. Lastly, this is kind of an out-of-nowhere pick, but I love Matty Healy from the 1975. I feel like he is a bit of a controversial figure among music nerds, but I just think he’s really funny and clever. And his presence as a frontman in a band is what I aspire to be like. He’s just a funny guy who’s willing to be in the spotlight and have a good time with it. As for collaborating, I would love to collaborate with Miles Davis. I just think he’s a complete genius and I can’t imagine how wild a track that fuses glitchy noise pop and classic jazz would be.

Izzy: Last question: if you were assigned to teach a music history class, what is the first record you would send your students home with?

Francesca: Oh wow… I feel like this is such a boring, by-the-numbers pick, but I would probably just go with some Gregorian Chants. [If you’re teaching music history], you’d have to start far enough back to contextualize everything else. Unfortunately I only know of Pérotin, who was a composer of Gregorian Chants. But I don’t know if anybody has actually assembled any of his work into an actual record. If there was maybe a compilation, like “Pérotins Greatest Hits from the 1100s” or something like that, that would be it!

Goth Lipstick’s newest album, crystalline corset, is now available to stream on Bandcamp.

Categories
Interview

AntiHana: Rewriting The Rulebook of Indie Pop

Pulling from glittery dream pop, disco and new wave, R&B, and the boisterous DIY ethos and aggression of punk and garage rock, the considerably impressive catalog of 23-year-old musician AntiHana completely transcends any label or categorization.

From the airy dream pop soundscapes of “WANNA SEE U CRY,” to the slinky bass on “Do U Want It,” and the simmering talking breakdown on the deliciously vengeful “Call Your Mama,” AntiHana does not disappoint when it comes to writing and recording deeply introspective and personal pop tunes that are incredibly fun to dance to.

I had the pleasure of speaking with AntiHana last week, and we discussed a myriad of topics including the beautifully sporadic nature of crafting different song stories, the liberating experience of channeling one of her most beloved rock icons for a music video, and the unmatched euphoria of nailing a songwriting session.


Q: What is the writing and recording process normally like for you, and what part of creating do you enjoy the most?

A: It’s truly different every song. Sometimes I create a beat and go from there, sometimes I’ll start with guitar, or bass, or keys. Sometimes it starts from the vocals – I’m constantly jotting down lyrics and recording little voice memos of melodies that pop into my head, so sometimes I’ll try to build something around that. And sometimes it comes from playing around with another person.

My favorite part of it all is when I feel like I’ve cracked something, when I’ve hit my stride with a song. Kinda corny, but it really does feel like it’s this thing coming from inside me and it’s just pulling me somewhere, like I’m barely even trying, it’s just pouring out of me. I get a legitimate buzz from it, like I’m high. That feeling is so precious to me that I actually have a bit of a fear that one day it’ll go away.


To be able to synthesize the confusing mess in my head and heart into something outside of myself, and that I can share with others, definitely brings some peace sometimes.

– AntiHana
Photo by Lukas Markou

Q: Would you say that your songwriting comes from personal experience, crafting fictional narratives, or a little bit of both?

A: Definitely a bit of both! Sometimes I write things that aren’t literally true but feel true, if that makes sense. I guess sometimes I play around with writing from different perspectives, or from the perspective of a persona. And sometimes it’s total nonsense that just sounds good.

Q: Your attitude and voice in so many of your songs is very commanding and incredibly fun. The talking breakdown on “Call Your Mama” is one of my favorite parts of the song, it reminded me a little bit of Robyn’s “Body Talk.” Would you say that writing and singing about exactly how you feel in ways that you might not always be able to articulate in daily situations is a cathartic process for you?

A: So cathartic! To be able to synthesize the confusing mess in my head and heart into something outside of myself, and that I can share with others, definitely brings some peace sometimes.

Q: What is the number one thing that you hope listeners will get out of listening to your music?

A: Dang such a good question. One of my favorite things I get out of music is when it makes me walk a little taller and strut down the street, fills me up with this feeling like no one can fuck with me, or when I’m driving in my car and it makes me and whoever’s in it dance or belt it out at the top of our lungs. If any of my songs could make anyone feel like that, that would make me really happy.

Q: Who would you say some of your biggest inspirations are songwriting and sound-wise?

A: Oh man there’s too many to list, but to name just a few: Blondie and Gwen Stefani, not just in their sounds but in their performance styles, are go-to’s for me. I grew up listening to David Bowie because he’s my dad’s favorite. The Strokes were the first band that ever knocked me out and made me go “wait someone else feels that exact way too? and they put it in a song?” Missy Elliott’s music was some of the first to give me the feeling I described in the last question and never fails to pick me up when I’m down. ABBA – I mean coooome oooon. Mitski – I’d love to hang out with her and brush each other’s hair you know? And what I would give to have Selena’s stage presence, to bring the same emotion to my voice, and oh my god to be able to dance the way she did on stage – pretty sure that will never happen for me though. I just don’t have it in my body, try as I might.


 One of my favorite things I get out of music is when it makes me walk a little taller and strut down the street, fills me up with this feeling like no one can fuck with me, or when I’m driving in my car and it makes me and whoever’s in it dance or belt it out at the top of our lungs. If any of my songs could make anyone feel like that, that would make me really happy.

– AntiHana
Photo by Tao Antrim

Q: Something you and I have in common is that we’re both massive Strokes fans, and I understand that they were part of the inspiration for “Heart in a Cafe.” I really loved the pulsing urgency in your voice/the production on that song (the music video is also immaculate). If you don’t mind, I would love for you to walk me through what creating all of that was like for you.

A: Okay so my last semester of college was in LA. I was at the 101 Coffee Shop, sitting at the counter, and, in the mirror hanging on the opposite wall, I happened to see Julian Casablancas walk by. I turned around just to see him leaving. At first I didn’t want to bother him but then I was also like what are the chances and when else am I ever gonna have the opportunity to tell him how much he means to me, so I ran out to see if I could catch him, but he was gone. They’ve been my favorite band since I was old enough to have a favorite band, so I got really excited and unexpectedly emotional, like some actual tears welled up. 

And then for my final project in one of my classes, about LA as a character in film, we could either write a paper or do a creative project. I definitely wasn’t trying to write a paper, so I wrote Heart in a Cafe. I didn’t end up getting the best grade on it because my professor was like wtf does this have to do with LA? But I hit a stride with the song and I just had to keep going, writing more about my feelings for Julian than about LA. 

Our last week in LA, me and my friends Emme, Tallulah, and Morgan were bored and itching to make something. We had just watched Dominic Fike’s music video (the original one) for 3 Nights, and felt inspired by that, so we decided we were just gonna make something. We came up with the concept of throwing clothes at me, and me sort of becoming Julian in some way, or like an ode to Julian, fostering the masculine rock star living inside me (and dare I say in us all?). We drove up to the Hollywood Hills and did two takes, but that’s a joint I’m smoking, so after the second take I was… not fit to film another. The take we ended up putting out was the first one anyway. It was so fun. 

At the beginning of this month, the 101 became another tragic casualty of the pandemic. For me, a little piece of the 101 is immortalized in Heart in a Cafe. I hope it rises from the dead.

Q: Has quarantine changed the creative process at all for you, or has it remained more or less the same?

A: I’ve been using my extra time cooped up in my room to try to get better at guitar. Wouldn’t it be so cool if one day I could rip a solo on stage? Maybe one day…

Categories
Albums Dream Pop

My 8 Essential Dream Pop Picks

When people think of music scenes that originated in the ’90s, the ones that often come to mind are the boisterous and upfront alternative rock umbrellas known as britpop and grunge. But one specific genre that often gets overlooked is the wistfully psychedelic-infused effervescence known as dream pop, which usually overlaps with the effect-driven, droning sounds of shoegaze.

Dream pop, known for its faded vocals and gliding instrumentals, provided a tranquil alternative to the posturing male aggression that became synonymous with later alternative rock and post-grunge. My favorite dream pop records are the ones that concoct a sonic atmosphere that floats in between the states of sleeping and waking.

These are my eight essential dream pop records that I would recommend to all listeners.

  1. Cocteau Twins – Garlands

No band captures the essence of dreams better than the Cocteau Twins. Their most popular records, Blue Bell Knoll and Heaven Or Las Vegas, had Liz Fraser’s signature operatic vocals overlapping with Robin Guthrie’s elaborate and effect-laden guitar loops. But I always appreciate hearing her voice when it’s more upfront than the instruments. The title track, “Garlands,” showcases Fraser’s dreamy vocal abilities at the forefront fully and clearly.

2. Mazzy Star – She Hangs Brightly

Whenever I hear Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star’s hypnotic vocals, I always feel like I’m being transported to an alternate universe or practicing witchcraft in the backwoods of my home town. The infectious psych/garage-esque track “Ghost Highway,” and the intervals and sliding guitar manipulation on songs like “She Hangs Brightly,” and “I’m Sailin'” are equally as captivating as Sandoval’s crooning voice. And the harmonic strings and organs throughout the record are just as intoxicating.

3. Mojave 3 – Ask Me Tomorrow

Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead of the popular shoegaze band, Slowdive, reformed as Mojave 3 in 1995 alongside Ian McCutcheon, Simon Rowe, and Alan Forrester. Their debut record, Ask Me Tomorrow, conjures up a dreamy, melancholic haze.

The album is riddled with sweeping harmonies and lazy-slide guitar leads on tracks like “Love Songs on The Radio” and “Tomorrow’s Taken.” An incredible highlight of the sound change is having Goswell’s gorgeous vocals at the forefront of multiple songs, no longer obscured by effects or distortion like they were on Slowdive records.

4. Julee Cruise – Floating Into The Night

You may know Julee Cruise as the singer who provided the gloomy and airy soundtrack to the David Lynch series, Twin Peaks. Her entire discography is worth getting lost in, but her critically-acclaimed 1989 debut, Floating Into The Night, is undoubtedly her magnum opus. With gliding instrumentals and Cruise’s ethereal vocal performance on songs like “Falling,” “Floating,” and “The Nightingale,” the album really lives up to its name, putting listeners in a state of floating around in weightless bliss.

5. A.R. Kane – 69

While many people look to The Cocteau Twins and The Jesus and Mary Chain as the arbiters of dream pop and shoegaze, A.R. Kane are largely considered to be the unsung heroes that launched dream pop into a proper movement. The duo, made up of Alex Ayuli and Rudy Tambala, released their debut album, 69, in 1988. With heavy feedback and dubs on songs like, “Baby Milk Snatcher,” the album blends elements of dream pop, psych rock, funk, and even post-punk. Their following record, i, is also worth checking out.

6. Lush – Gala

Before My Bloody Valentine, Chapterhouse, and Slowdive, the band Lush was at the forefront of early shoegaze and dream pop soundscapes. Gala is a combination of the band’s first three EPs. Critic Andy Kellman described them as able “to veer from violent and edgy noise breaks to pop effervescence.”

The cracked soprano vocals from front-woman Miki Berenyi are largely obscured by echoing guitar feedback on the slower dreampop cuts like “Sunbathing,” and “Scarlet.” But on more aggressive rock songs like “Bitter,” she’s much more upfront with her delivery, which stands in stark contrast to her more restrained approach to singing on lighter cuts. The lo-fi production is another massive part of the record’s charm.

7. Galaxie 500 – Today

Galaxie 500’s mystical debut, Today, is one of my all-time favorite slowcore albums. Each song, especially the dreamy opener, “Flowers,” and the fuzzed-out “Tugboat,” remain sonically grounded with Dean Wareham’s upper-register vocals completely gliding across his lilting guitar leads and Naomi Yang’s textured basslines, all of which are soaking in reverb.

8. Broadcast – Tender Buttons

What is so remarkable about this particular Broadcast album is the fact that it was made after the departure of several band members, leaving only vocalist Trish Keenan and bassist James Cargill to work as a duo. But that didn’t stop them from making their most iconic record of all time.

Blending elements of psych pop, avant pop, and experimental space age electronica, Tender Buttons hits every nerve with static shock, drum machines, and crunchy synths on tracks like “I Found The F,” and “Corporeal.” The non-conventional instrumentation beautifully blends with Keenan’s serene vocals. It is also very difficult not to weep whenever the languid ballad “Tears In The Typing Pool” plays.

Categories
Music

The Emotional Timelessness of The Strokes

What I never expected during a year of total isolation was all of the nostalgia-fueled musical journeys I’ve been on thus far; whether it be reflecting on how My Chemical Romance provided an outlet for my queer awakening in middle school, or finally shedding my “not-like-other-girls” mentality and admitting to myself that I’ve always kinda liked Taylor Swift. 

But nothing could have prepared me for the rabbit hole I would fall headfirst into the minute I picked up Meet Me in the Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s oral history of the garage rock renaissance that blew up in New York City at the turn of the 21st century. 

All of those bands mirrored certain turning points in my life. Karen O’s magnetic vocal performance on “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was a healing balm that soothed and comforted me through the emotional turbulence of starting puberty. Interpol’s “Evil” was the first dirty bassline I ever heard when I was five, and it changed my world. And the sorrowful “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down,” by LCD Soundsystem was comforting to listen to whenever it felt like New York was crushing me.

But there’s one particular band whose discography I always return to every few months. And that is a little old band called The Strokes.

When I first arrived in New York, I was convinced it would kill me. The mythology I had internalized about the city being the place where people with “big dreams” go to “make it,” was immediately upended the day I arrived. It felt like having my soul sucked out by a demon. Everything was expensive. The smell of piss, garbage and tainted molecules permeated my senses every day, and the MTA was always late. I absolutely fucking hated it. And yet, that romantic mythology was, and is, still alive in me. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The Strokes’ very first record, “Is This It,” was the soundtrack to my transition into college life, constantly in the backdrop of my excursions around the city from borough to borough.

Since the beginning of lockdown in March, I’ve been stuck in my childhood home in the armpit of suburban Massachusetts. It’s been exactly ten months and a total of 309 days; the longest I’ve ever been away from New York. As a result I’ve suffered from crippling depression, sleeping day after day with zero semblance of a routine except for school work. The only thing that’s been keeping me somewhat motivated to stay active and do something has been music. And the closest I’ve gotten to putting myself back into the spirit of when my bright-eyed, bushy-tailed self first arrived in New York at eighteen, was in April, when The Strokes released a record for the first time in seven years. The album cover was a Basquiat painting and the lead single “At the Door,” was a melodic, almost operatic departure from their typical classic rock sound.

What is it about the Strokes that makes me so emotional? Well, the appropriate answer would be everything, but especially the way that the band uses intervals. I think Regina Spektor put it best when she said that the band’s riffs mirror that of a classical symphony, where the intervals compress and pulsate until they finally reach a climax and release, eliciting an emotional response from listeners.

Lead singer Julian Casablancas’s rough, husky vibrato, Albert Hammond Jr.’s ascending leads, and Nick Valensi’s iconic intervals trigger these physical and emotional pangs in me that are hard to describe. The band is the very definition of the whole being greater than the sum of their parts. When they start playing, they transcend space and time. And the writing is sublime. The lyrics on a song like “Someday” are so melancholic and regretful. Casablancas references his fears coming to him in “threes,” breakups, and becoming an adult and quickly realizing that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. The narrator is forced to work overtime just to survive, and like clockwork, he immediately wishes he could reclaim his youth; the “good old days.”

Is it possible to only be 22-years-old and already feel like “the good old days” are behind you? I’m about to graduate college without the experience of being on campus. I won’t be able to commemorate the experience with friends. I can’t see live music and I won’t be able to go out to my favorite spot in the city and get wasted one last time before I have to face the soul-sucking pressures of adult life. I still don’t have a clue what I ultimately want to do or how I’m going to survive. 

But by some miracle, every time I listen to The Strokes I feel like I’m being reassured that somehow things are going to turn out alright. I can’t quite put my finger on the pulse of what exactly it is about The Strokes that draws that response out of me, but they took so many sensibilities from many of my other favorite bands (The Velvet Underground, Guided by Voices, The Cars) and carried that invigorating sound and spirit into the modern age.

People often argue about The Strokes’ legacy, and many people are quick to diminish their impact. But nothing can take away the raw timelessness of a record like “Is This It.” And the fact that they released a sublime new record in April was a damn good silver lining to find in this dumpster fire of a past year. 

I haven’t been setting any goals or resolutions for 2021. The most activity I’ve done is weep in my childhood bedroom while looping the song “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus,” as I continue down the path of figuring things out for myself. And that makes the idea of moving forward feel strangely comforting.