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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

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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.

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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. 

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Albums

Discog Dives: Beat Happening – “Dreamy”

In the land of DIY indie rock, it would be a crime not to acknowledge the influence of lo-fi twee pop three-piece Beat Happening. Formed in Olympia, Washington at Evergreen State College by Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis, and Bret Lunsford, Beat Happening were one of the seminal bands to break the conventional rules of musicianship in the ’80s and ’90s. The band has influenced several groups that emerged from Olympia, Washington, including Fugazi, Bratmobile, and even Nirvana. Calvin Johnson was also the founder of independent label K Records, which kickstarted the careers of several indie bands like The Vaselines, Built to Spill, and Modest Mouse.

Beat Happening has become one of my favorite bands over the past few years. Like many others, I discovered the band through Nirvana, specifically when Kurt Cobain referenced the group on the Nevermind song Lounge Act.

Beat Happening’s records are well known for their naive and childlike aesthetic, which is utilized to navigate mature subject matter in their lyrics. This is beautifully complemented by the band’s primitive instrumentals, the gentle unorthodox lead vocals of Heather Lewis, and Calvin Johnson’s soothing, almost hypnotizing baritone voice.

The band’s 1991 record, Dreamy, was released hot off the heels of their critically-acclaimed self-titled record (1985), and the following releases of Jamboree (1988) and Black Candy (1989). The band used childlike imagery and motifs to highlight the unique trials and tribulations of adolescence and adulthood. The song “Hot Chocolate Boy” illustrates an awkward young man trying to work up the courage to talk to a girl he is attracted to, and also trying hard not to capitulate to unhealthy standards of manhood (“Hot chocolate boy/Every girl yelling/Wanting him to be the terror”).

The wistful vocals of Heather Lewis on sweeter cuts like the buoyant love song “Fortune Cookie Prize,” and the more distorted, fast-paced cuts like “Collide,” are also a large part of album’s charm. On “Cry For a Shadow,” Calvin Johnson sheds the menacing tough guy veneer and bares his soul over Bret Lunsford’s twangy guitar riffs.

“Nancy Sin,” “Me Untamed,” and “Collide,” are all unabashedly sexual in nature. The former’s booming percussion and Johnson’s urge to be dominated as he chants the lyrics “FILL. MY. MOUTH. WITH. HOT. SAND,” is guaranteed to jolt the listener out of the trance that previous tracks will easily put them in. It’s definitely a change of pace, as is the closing track “Red Head Walking.”

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Albums

Discog Dives: Alice Glass – “Alice Glass”

Trauma is experienced and expressed in varying degrees and there are many ways that people who experience abuse cope with their trauma.

Alice Glass, formerly known as the brutal, thrashing front woman of Toronto electro punk band Crystal Castles, released her debut EP in 2018. The project was self-titled, illustrating Glass’s determination to reclaim her identity and re-assert her autonomy after leaving an abusive partnership with her former bandmate in Crystal Castles. It is a sheer departure from Crystal Castles, this time with Alice at the wheel, her guttural vocals this time buoyed by the digital hardcore mix and trap beats, no longer obscured by the production.

In a conversation with Interview Magazine, Glass expressed her love of post-punk and riot grrrl bands including Kleenex (formerly known as LiLiPut), Bratmobile, and Bikini Kill. The sonic brutality on songs like “Natural Selection” off her EP perfectly matches the vengeful fury of the riot grrrl sound and aesthetic, and the pulsating synth bass lines on “Forgiveness” feel like a throwback to the industrial electropunk of the Normal and Cabaret Voltaire.

The center focus of the EP is Glass finding catharsis in her attempts to heal. Many of the songs focus on her determination to permanently gouge her abuser out of her life. “Tell me where to spit/Don’t tell me what to swallow,” she asserts in the opening track “Without Love.”

Near the end of the third track, “Natural Selection,” there is a monstrous roar coupled with the explosive, clashing sound that I would liken to tinsel being tossed in a microwave. This is followed by Glass screaming “GET THE FUCK OFF OF ME!” four times in a row. This energy carries into the following track, “White Lies.” “This is not the voice in my head/You’re depraved, soaking to the bone/Wash away what’s left of my blood,” she chants defiantly. On “Blood Oath,” this roaring sound is looped throughout the song and embellished with squeaking synths and production glitches that sound like gunshots.

The EP’s closing track “The Altar,” strongly contrasts with the remaining songs on the EP. It is the only slow cut on the project, and also much shorter in length. “Somewhere else, someone else feels worse/Forget that the sun is in the universe,” she repeats, continuing her internal monologue. She’s persevering in the face of adversity, hoping that one day she will find peace. This track shows Alice coming back down to earth after ruminating on her anger and giving the listener a level-headed reflection of what she went through.

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Album Release Albums

Add to Queue: New Releases – Dorian Electra “My Agenda”

Being a hyper masculine edgelord is officially gay™ now, thanks in no small part to queer hyperpop icon Dorian Electra and their new album, My Agenda. With colorful production by Count Baldor, Dylan Brady, Clarence Clarity, umru, and many others, the versatile soundscapes on My Agenda embody every conceivable sound from bubblegum-bass to dubstep and aggressive noise rock.

Dorian’s previous album, Flamboyant, deconstructed gender roles and masculine archetypes ranging from the cowboy to the sugar daddy, business mogul, and boxers/street fighters. On My Agenda, they are cranking the satire up to eleven, tackling the culture surrounding incels and gamers on tracks like “Edgelord,” featuring Rebecca Black, as well as “Gentleman,” and “M’lady.” They also hilariously unpack the sexually ambiguous homosocial dude-bro dynamic on “Sorry Bro (I Love You).”

The standout tracks are “My Agenda” featuring Village People and Pussy Riot, “F the World” with the Garden, Quay Dash, and d0llywood, and “Ram it Down,” with Mood Killer, Lil Mariko, and Lil Texas. These tracks all embody the tortuous relationships that men have with sexuality and masculinity that the patriarchy imposes upon them. “Ram it Down,” speaks from the perspective of a person who perpetuates the age-old homophobic trope of being “fine with gay people, as long as they don’t shove their sexuality in my face,” (“Hey man/Love all you want/But just don’t ram it down my throat”). The breakdown of the song, which culminates in Lil Mariko screaming, “RAM IT DOWN! RAM IT DOWN! RAM IT DOWN!” over and over again, is a sonic assault of chaotic, hard-hitting dubstep beats and death metal vocal dynamics hitting the listener over the head.

On the outstanding title track “My Agenda,” Electra reclaims all the disparaging rhetoric that straight people love to rattle off at the expense of queer people, spreading their conspiracy theories about the quote-un-quote “gay agenda.” Dorian touches on the Lavender Scare, which prevented people from hiring queer people during the Eisenhower administration (“You can always spot us/By the way we walk/As we’re plotting to take over/And destroy you all”), the AIDS crisis (“My agenda/Will infect ya”), and even those infamous InfoWars conspiracy theories about frogs (“We’re out here turning frogs homosexual”).

There are up to eleven features on this album, which can be a risk for many artists, because the guests could easily outshine the main act. However, like their collaborative pop contemporary, Charli XCX, Dorian is an excellent collaborator. These features add so much quality to the project. Mood Killer and Quay Dash are two of my favorite underground acts at the moment, and both of their verses are hilarious and deliciously fierce.

Tackling topics as grim as incels, edgelords, toxic masculinity, and homophobia is not an easy wormhole to venture into. Dorian Electra’s ability to satirize such grim subject matter and collaborate seamlessly with innovative producers and futuristic sounds makes them one of the most exciting artists of today.

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Album Release

Add to Queue – New Releases: Sizzy Rocket “ANARCHY”

Emerging alt-pop powerhouse and Vegas native, Sizzy Rocket, deserves to be on everybody’s radar. Her unique soundscape of rebellious, punk-tinged dark hyperpop is a bold combination that music consumers like myself have been starved for.

Her sophomore album, Grrrl–one of my absolute favorite releases of 2019–was a trap-infused dark pop album about self-discovery, heartbreak, and sexuality. The title was influenced by her love for Riot Grrrl and the production invoked shades of modern hip hop acts like Travis Scott and Denzel Curry. Her iconic raspy falsetto, and the emotionally-wrought soundscapes of each song coupled with her messy and unfiltered lyrics that detailed her life of excessive partying, touring, and fleeting romantic relationships with men and women was awe-inspiring, gritty and fresh.

Her newest album, ANARCHY, is a much more bold, definitive, and liberated body of work. Rocket has described the album title as “a nod to [her] punk roots and [her] own personal chaos… [Anarchy] is a state of disorder due to non-recognition of authority. Nobody can tell you what to do or who to be.”

Recorded in an “eight-day creative outburst” last winter, ANARCHY is the chaotic, messy, and unfiltered soundtrack to Rocket shedding an old skin after a breakup, obliterating old ideas of who she thought she could be. If Grrrl was the product of a star emerging from underwater, ANARCHY is her bursting to the surface.

Her punk attitude and unapologetic rockstar bravado on two of the album’s opening tracks, “That Bitch,” and “Running with Scissors,” is contagious. The repackaged trap-punk instrumentatals are also extremely fresh and gritty. “& It Feels Like Love” is an ode to the ’70s and ’80s, complete with nods to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and Janis Joplin. The distorted bass also sounds like it could easily be a riff that was plucked from PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me.

Her dark humor is another massive highlight. The most reviled type of person in our society is often a woman who acts out for attention. “Crazy Bitch” sympathizes with this archetype and unpacks the spectacle of the “crazy bitch.” The song is told from the perspective of the “crazy bitch,” allowing her to control her own narrative outside of the horrendous jokes and comments people make at her expense. The lyrics take shots at the people who claim to hate her, when in reality they are the same people who depend on her antics for entertainment (“I would die just to be someone/Ain’t that exactly what you want”).

The sonic outbursts on the album’s closer, “Queen of the World,” perfectly mirror the pure chaos in the chorus as she paints a picture of herself hanging out the window of a speeding car, screaming at the top of her lungs “I could live forever in this moment!” Her mission statement for this album was to take back her power, to be reckless, and unapologetically own her stories without having to water down her identity. And it’s very clear that the process was extremely cathartic for her.

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