The formation of Brooklyn-based shredders Razor Braids is an inspiring story of triumph in the wake of trauma. Shortly after experiencing a fall and a subsequent head injury that left her temporarily incapacitated, bandleader Hollye Bynum (vocals, bass), decided to pick up a bass and start a band. Shortly after being joined by Janie Peacock (guitar), Hanna Nichols (drums), and Jilly Karande (rhythm guitar, vocals), Razor Braids swiftly picked up speed and became mainstays at legendary New York venues including The Mercury Lounge, Rough Trade, and Baby’s All Right.
Much like their name, Razor Braids’ gritty and eclectic sound is unapologetically feminine and sharp as a tack. It is the quintessential sound of New York. And no, not New York as an aspirational touchpoint for voyeuristic cultural tourism, but a city saturated with over-stimulation, where people in all five boroughs are forced to scrounge for crumbs and develop a backbone of steel just to survive. The place where artists can find camaraderie and solace in community, despite the flawed environmental circumstances around them.
“Here [in New York] there’s a very straightforward, rough-around-the-edges sort of ‘fuck you’ attitude that rises to the surface in our sound,” frontwoman Hollye Bynum tells me. “So I would say that our music is absolutely tethered to our experience living in Brooklyn.”
Finding strength during hard times is the hallmark of Razor Braids’ output. This is expanded on the band’s debut record out tomorrow, I Could Cry Right Now If You Wanted Me To, a dynamic ten-track album that cobbles together pastiches of genres including shoegaze, post-hardcore, folk, psych, 90s riot grrrl, and abrasive indie rock. The percussive immediacy paired with Peacock and Karande’s rippling riffs and fuzzy guitar tones, all bond like a magnet to the push-and-pull of tension and release in Bynum’s unrestrained lead vocals. “No I’m not dead, no not quite yet,” she sneers defiantly on the opening track against the stomping renegade of Nichols’ drumming. The album also contains spiky high-energy thrashers like “Don’t Stop!” which is strongly reminiscent of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Date with The Night.”
But it’s the slower cuts like “I’m a Blackhole (and you’ll never get out),” “White Noise Machine,” and “42,” that hit the hardest. “Blackhole” culminates in the entire band singing together in four-part harmonies, each one of their voices on equal footing. The grand finale, “42,” is a six-minute epic slow burn with an almost operatic quality. Bynum’s warbling lead vocals and Peacock’s weeping slide guitars are guaranteed to have an undeniable emotional pull on the listener.
I sat down with Razor Braids for a chat about how their unbreakable bond as a band strengthened over lockdown, the spiritual awakenings they’ve had when performing on stage, harnessing their vulnerability in songwriting, and the evolution of guitar music on the East Coast.
How would you describe Razor Braids to a stranger?
Hollye Bynum: Our sound and our vibe is very eclectic. Jilly came up with a great short and concise description the other day that I really liked!
Jilly Karande: Well, I would say that first and foremost that we’re a rock band. But we like to combine indie rock vulnerability with a punk rock energy tied up in a little 90s DIY package.
Hollye, would you be comfortable talking a little about your backstory and how that led to starting a band?
Bynum: After five and a half years of running a dance company in New York, I started shifting my focus back to music after learning that a woman I worked with played the drums and we started a band together.
Around November 17th of 2017 I was visiting my parents for Thanksgiving when I slipped and got a pretty serious head injury. After six months of not being able to do any physical activity, I took one of my last paychecks from a music video I choreographed and said “Fuck it, I’m gonna buy a bass!” I would say learning bass absolutely helped me get the wheels turning again in my brain as I went through rehabilitation. I got connected to Janie through a mutual friend who knew I was looking for a guitarist, and I already knew Jilly from an acting class we had taken together. Once Jilly joined the band we played Punk Island, where we saw a band called Space Bitch and their drummer was Hannah. So I messaged her totally fangirling over her skills and asked if she wanted to join the band. We had just let our former drummer go, so everything ended up falling into place at exactly the right time.
You guys were playing legendary New York venues like Rough Trade and Brooklyn Bowl before the big shutdown. What was it like having to constantly re-adjust through different phases of the pandemic?
Bynum: It was a little bit of a bummer for me at first. It was extremely scary for everyone because nobody knew what was going to happen next. We had all spent so much time prepping for this release and we were so close to touring outside of New York. When the shutdown ended up becoming more permanent than we initially realized, we had to adjust our expectations a lot. I don’t want to speak for everybody but I feel like the silver lining of one of the biggest errors of humanity was that we were forced to slow down and consider what mattered the most to us.
When we finally reunited physically as a band it was incredible because of all the time we had to reflect and reconnect through songwriting. But it really gave us a lot of time and space to record. Recording became such an intensive and emotional process for us and we got so much closer. We never had that time to emotionally connect until the big shutdown, so I’m very grateful for that.
Janie Peacock: I’ll tell you, it definitely made me appreciate the act of performing live a lot more. I now perform every show as if it’s my last. There’s a new sense of energy I can unleash whenever we perform, because at this point we never know when that could be taken away from us.
Karande: For me switching the gears from performing live to only recording in the studio was an adjustment at first but it was exciting to really dive into these songs and pick them apart. It was really cool to spend more time in the studio, and since live shows are back it’s been cool to find that happy medium of making the songs performable and finding a balance between recording and the live experience.
For each of you, what is the one record that made you a full-time music fan?
Hanna Nichols: I would say Penis Envy by Crass. Growing up I was a huge fan of that album and its anarcho-feminist ethos. I actually got to stay at Dial House during my first trip to Europe and I had tea time with the people who still live there, which was fucking rad.
Karande: This is a bit of a joke answer but the 1999 Grammy-nominated compilation was definitely life-changing for me. I remember being three years old at the time and thinking ‘The Goo Goo Dolls? What’s that? This is so much better than my Barney music.’ The serious answer would be Lorde’s Melodrama. That album was really cool because it was nice to see a pop album that centered young female feelings actually get taken seriously.
Bynum: I remember being obsessed with Jessica Lea Mayfield’s Make My Head Sing. I always come back to that album like it’s my first time listening to it and wear the hell out of it. The first track on the album opens with the most distorted and booming bass I’ve ever heard and then Jessica Lea Mayfield comes in with her delicate, twangy, falsetto country voice and it’s so badass. That was the first time I realized I didn’t have to make pretty singer-songwriter music all the time. I realized I could think about tone and be eclectic in my approach to my own songs. She has a song called “Party Drugs” about being strung out and making bad choices, and I’m just obsessed with it.
Peacock: The first one that comes to mind for me is Icky Thump by the White Stripes. I used to own this little iPod and I would go to sleep and wake up listening to that album. When I was ten years old I would just lie down, listen to that album, and imagine that I was Jack White. I didn’t know that was a possibility until I joined Razor Braids.
I love that! What are some of the most memorable out-of-body experiences you’ve had onstage?
Peacock: There are certain moments we’ll have onstage as a band where we’ll all make eye contact and feel this unspeakable connection. Whenever we all feel the stimulation of the lights, noise, and adrenaline, we’ll experience these [moments of synchronicity] where it feels like a higher power has overtaken us, and there’s no other feeling like that.
Bynum: There will be times when Janie will rip up her fingers and bleed all over the place without even noticing. Those are times where I can tell she’s just connected with some higher fucking power on the stage. I feel like she’s living the Jack White experience every time she’s onstage, especially after lockdown because none of us are holding back anymore.
Nichols: I feel like Janie is a cross between Jack White and Jack Black.
What are some of the most memorable experiences you had recording the album?
Bynum: Recording the album was great because we were no longer withholding anything and were really able to be present and open up to one another. I’ve never felt more connected to anybody up to that point. It really felt like everything was on the line and we were all showing up equally. There was a magnifying glass on us and we brought everything from within to the forefront. I could not be more proud of how each one of us showed up for each other and for ourselves. The level of skill and talent that each of us brought to the table as individuals was one of the most inspiring experiences that I’ll take to my grave. There was one point where Janie got electrocuted and continued to shred like nobody’s business, it was insane.
Nichols: I remember when we recorded “42,” the final track on the album. Hollye was laying on the floor and we all started crying at the end. It was one of those really precious moments that I’ll cherish forever.
Bynum: “42” definitely turned us all into a wreck. I remember us all huddled around the computer and clutching at each other.
Karande: Janie got into the booth and laid down that entire guitar part in one take. That was truly mesmerizing.
Bynum: Yeah, that was a spiritual experience. But please don’t get electrocuted again!
Peacock: It was definitely a spiritual experience because I had never felt that way while playing before we recorded that song. It was an out-of-body experience.
I definitely hear what you’re saying because listening to that song really made me sit down and reflect on a lot.
I also wanted to ask you guys about the current state of being a guitar band in New York. Do you ever feel the weight of such a heavy legacy?
Bynum: When I started the band I had just read Meet Me in the Bathroom [an oral history of New York garage rock and electronic music in the 2000s]. That book is pretty much the reason why I’m in a band now. I grew up loving those groups. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs living in Williamsburg in the early 2000s and playing loft shows was such a vibe. Then you had the communities on the Lower East Side with The Strokes and Interpol. And The East Village was booming in the 70s with CBGB and the punk scene. After becoming so aware of the cyclical phases of guitar music in New York where these incredible scenes rise and then die out for a little bit before shortly rising again has always fascinated me. I would have loved to be alive when CBGB was still going.
Exactly. It’s pretty wild that at that time CBGB was considered one of the most undesirable bars in the neighborhood, but the environment and the music was so incredible.
Bynum: Exactly, and the atmosphere often doesn’t matter. What matters is the music, the community, and how great it feels to be present, hanging out, playing shows, and just being around each other no matter the location.
That was what really bummed me out about Covid, because it felt like–just barely–we were finally inching back to building a sustainable community and scene in Brooklyn. Fortunately, we’re back there again, we didn’t completely lose it. There’s a very specific voice and community of musicians that’s being cultivated here. I think it’s so interesting to listen to an artist’s discography and then read a book where they go into how things were at the time and everything that transpired, especially since I was a big fan of The Strokes growing up.
Same here. Been Stellar said something in an interview about how guitar bands in New York should never cover The Strokes. It’s incredible how New York today is still reeling from the massive bomb they dropped when Is This It? came out twenty years ago.
Bynum: Yeah. There are certain artists that are just off limits. Because The Strokes were just so purely who they were. So much of it was about attitude and an image that could never be authentically replicated. That’s why all of the bands trying to capitalize off of copying the Strokes failed. There will never be another Strokes. Trying to emulate that is doing yourself a disservice. I wouldn’t say I necessarily agree with not being allowed to cover certain bands, but it’s definitely a heavy legacy to take on.
As instrumentalists, are there any specific musicians who have influenced the ways each of you play?
Peacock: I’d say Ty Segall was the biggest influence for me tone-wise. I really aimed to replicate that fuzzy, distorted sound similar to what Billy Corgan did in the Smashing Pumpkins. Riff-wise, I always return to Jack White because so much of his guitar work is so straightforward and simple but so catchy. I love a head-banging riff! Harnessing that power and energy is what I aim for.
Nichols: Definitely Bill Ward, the drummer from Black Sabbath. Jon Bonham too. I know every rock drummer says that, but how can you not? Ginger Baker is another one. I feel like those three really set the groundwork for rock drumming.
Karande: I played a lot of folky acoustic guitar growing up, so when I started it was a lot of Elliott Smith and the Tallest Man on Earth. I really studied a lot of the intricate finger-picking and I think it’s been really fun to translate that into our sound. I feel like Mitski walks that line really well. And I’m also obsessed with Sleater-Kinney’s guitar tones because they’re just insane.
Bynum: I started out as a vocalist and didn’t start playing bass until later to support my voice. I feel like starting out when I did gave me a lot more freedom to not follow any specific formula or emulate other people. There’s a lot of great bass lines in soul music and standup bass in bluegrass music. But tone-wise, I really dig the work that Adam Devonshire from IDLES does on bass. I’m a sucker for really thick bass lines.
How has it been prepping for the album release so far?
Bynum: I was actually lying down the other night and wondering if anything else needed to be changed and Janie really forced me to take a step back. We’ve listened to this album and performed these songs so many times, and I’ve realized after all this buildup, the release finally being here is just surreal. We basically already have enough material to put on our next record. This is only the beginning for us, so it’s such a nostalgic feeling to be back here and finally be sharing all the work we’ve put into this album. There are some songs we’ve never played live that we’re playing at our release show, and I’m ready for the loud, wild, New York energy baby!
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