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Interview Music

Interview with Thomas Clark of Divingstation95

Memphis indie pop act Divingstation95 just released a collection of emotionally-wrought and meticulously produced songs that delve into topics ranging from death to revenge, body image, and mental illness. The album borders on art pop, post-punk, and even dark wave, with lyrics that ruminate on grim places ranging from funeral homes in Memphis to the remote wastelands off 1nterstate Highway 45 in Texas, also known as the Texas Killing Fields.

I was fortunate enough to chat with Thomas Clark, the creative force behind the project, and we discussed a myriad of topics ranging from the pandemic, to learning to play the violin at three-years-old, Radiohead, and the new album, Fear is My Constant Companion.

Q: So my first question is how would you personally describe yourself as an artist? What is your style, and would you classify your music in certain genres or do you believe you transcend genre? Who are your biggest influences?

A: I’ve been calling myself “doom pop,” which might be a bit pretentious but it’s the best description I’ve been able to come up with. I’m making pretty bleak music most of the time, especially with this last album, and even though it goes into abrasive territory sometimes, I usually try to make sure there’s a fundamentally catchy pop song underneath it. I think a lot of artists limit themselves by setting out to make rock, or hip-hop, or electronic music rather than just letting the ideas flow. For the most part, I don’t actively try to make any genre of music – I just use ideas I think are interesting regardless of where they come from. That’s part of why Radiohead are such big heroes of mine, I feel like they look at music the same way.

Q: I totally agree, and that’s a perfect segue into my next question. I have really enjoyed how you regularly post mini journal entries about your influences, like Xiu Xiu, Nicole [Dollanganger], and Perfume Genius. Would you say that Radiohead was the first act to disrupt the way you looked at music as a whole and your approach to songwriting, or were there others?

A: Definitely – Radiohead was the first really big one. I wanted to be a writer as a kid, and then I heard “Creep” in the video game Rock Band when I was 10 or 11 and that basically changed everything. I dug deeper into their catalog as I got older and it blew my mind.

Burial also changed the way I looked at music, the things I could do with vocal manipulation – initially I didn’t want to use my own voice, so I applied the pitch shifting and autotune techniques he used.

Xiu Xiu was another revelation for me, and the most recent one I think. I first got into them though their album Angel Guts: Red Classroom and was amazed by how it was both brutally harsh and deeply sensitive and empathetic. This was extreme and shocking music, but it wasn’t just trying to push buttons. There was this really sensitive soul to it underneath the harshness, and that set it apart from a lot of the very abrasive music I’d heard before. I had long been obsessed with the epidemic of sexual abuse in our society, the way it’s covered up and treated like it doesn’t happen at all (especially pre-#MeToo), and Xiu Xiu opened a door and provided me with a blueprint for tackling such horrible subjects in a way that was neither preachy nor insensitive.

Q: That was another thing I found extremely refreshing, the way you unabashedly tackled this bleak subject matter–whether it be sexual violence, body dysmorphia, or death–and I was wondering how important it is for you to purge those feelings in your songwriting. How do you feel you are able to find a balance in your life while tackling such harsh subject matter. Do you ever feel that you need to take breaks and decompress?

A: It’s definitely really important to get it out into music. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, so I don’t let go of bad feelings easily. My life is pretty great compared to a lot of people, but I spend a lot of time struggling with internal problems. I don’t really need to take breaks because there’s nowhere to run, as bleak as that is. We live in a time when things are very, very bad, and to me music and art is a reason to keep going, even if the subject matter is awful. I feel best when I can listen back to a song and go, “yes, that’s exactly what I’m feeling.” It validates those feelings in a way.

When I hear a song like Giles Corey’s “I’m Going to Do It” (“it” being suicide), it doesn’t depress me. It makes me feel like someone else understands. That’s what I try to aim for.

One thing I do try to be careful about is desensitizing myself, because if I’m writing about Junko Furuta and I don’t feel anything, that’s a problem.

Q: I actually wasn’t aware of the Junko Furuta and Nikki Kuhnhausen cases until I heard the songs you dedicated to them on the album, and I remember being in disbelief at what happened to these women and also feeling guilty for not knowing their stories. Did you feel it was almost sort of a responsibility for you to put those songs out for listeners who may have not been aware as well? I would also love to hear your thoughts on the concept of “revenge” since the legal system that had a responsibility to deliver justice to these women is so fucked up globally.

A: Yeah, I’m never sure how to say this without sounding self-important, but I do feel some obligation to write about these things, because it seems like so often people just don’t care. I have conflicting feelings about true crime as entertainment, because I found out about several of the deaths on the album through the unresolved mysteries sub on reddit, so I’m likely as guilty of indulging in that as anybody else. But it bothers me that these things get turned into pure spectacle for people to gawk at and get a thrill from. I feel like people respond differently to music than they do, say, a podcast – there’s a more visceral emotional response there. Songs can get under people’s skin.

As for revenge – I’m kind of an angry person in a lot of ways, and the idea of merciless justice is pretty appealing to me as an idea even if real life is more complicated. The way things are set up now, there’s no real way to make sure any kind of justice is delivered – our system of dealing with sexual abuse is so broken that the only resort victims have left is to rely on public accusations via social media, which comes with its own issues. I liked the idea of a pure revenge fantasy where everybody responsible gets what they deserve with no ambiguity. I wanted people to feel the hate and rage in the Junko Furuta song – to deliver a reminder of its realness in a way that hits harder than just reading the facts to spook yourself.

Q: How did growing up in your hometown [Memphis] shape your music? What sort of scenes, if any, were you surrounded by and do you remember what age you started playing?

A: I’m from Memphis, but the internet was more formative to me than any live scene. I used to go on this long-dead streaming service called Grooveshark and just devour hours upon hours of new music while I did my homework, from The Smiths to Aphex Twin. I had a friend who knew more about music than I did, and I got a lot from her as well.

A ton of great music has come from Memphis but at the moment the only type of music that thrives there is hip-hop, a genre I love and respect but obviously don’t belong to. Every other scene is kind of backward-looking, like at the moment the feeling is “well, we had Elvis and the blues, so I guess we don’t really need to try anymore.” It’s cool that all that history has been documented and preserved, but turning an entire music culture into a shrine for the past doesn’t seem healthy to me.

I was about three years old when I first picked up an instrument – I played violin – and was composing my own pieces within a few years (though obviously they were all terrible, because I was a small child). I never had any interest in following it as a career until I discovered Radiohead, though. They changed just about everything for me.

My mom died when I was young, so I was a disturbed kid – getting into physical fights and things like that. I was depressed from a very young age, I just didn’t know that’s what it was. Music became an obsession because I saw myself in troubled artists like Thom Yorke – they made me feel like I wasn’t alone. It was like having a friend.

Q: I love what you said about musicians feeling like long-distant friends cause that’s exactly the same way that I felt about the third-wave emo of the early 2000s, as corny as some of it was, because those bands were accessible and singing about mental health in ways that felt real and not sensationalized or mocked like it was in mainstream media. 

The glitches and distortions on the production with the track “Me and My Fucked Up Body” felt like they obscured your vocals. I was wondering if that was intentional, since being vulnerable and laying bare a lot of those thoughts can be a lot sometimes.

A: Part of why the vocals are mixed like that is because I just think it sounds good. But you’re right that that’s another part of it – it can be really uncomfortable exposing those feelings to people. And it’s not telling strangers that makes me uncomfortable, it’s family members who might listen to it and think of it the next time they see me. This is probably the furthest I’ve come out of my shell, though – I could never have written “Me and My Fucked Up Body” or “Suicide Forest” a few years ago.

The next album is even more upfront, though it isn’t quite as bleak. I’m trying to be more confident in how I write about sex, which is maybe the absolute most awkward thing for family members to hear me sing about, but it’s kind of unavoidable – I have a complicated and tortuous relationship with my own sexuality, and for a long time I’ve wanted to get to a place where I can comfortably dissect that in my work. Nicole Dollanganger has been a big inspiration there.

Q: With “Overseas” in mind, I was wondering how you feel like the current political climate has affected your work with all that’s been happening globally?

A: “Overseas” wasn’t supposed to be the first single, but I ended up releasing it that way because it looked like we were about to invade Iran and start World War 3. I deliberately wrote it so it would be dated to a specific time – the narrator was born in 2003 and turns 17 in 2020 – as a way to capture the way things were at that moment.

Outside of that, I would say the political climate has influenced the music a great deal but mostly indirectly. The perpetual fear referenced in the title might not exist if our civilization weren’t hurtling toward destruction. I spent about a year paralyzed in terror over climate change, smoking as much weed as possible to squash the feeling, and though the album was written after that period was over I think it came out the way it did because I was in such a dark place for so long.

Q: Lastly, I noticed that you also have another project in the works and I was wondering how being in lockdown has changed your approach to creating. Has it made you more productive, or vice versa?

A: Honestly, my process hasn’t really changed much at all, because I’m kind of a hermit. If not for work, I would go lengthy periods of time without leaving the house. It’s an unhealthy habit, but I isolate when left to my own devices. I’m trying to get better about that, though at the moment I don’t have much choice but to stay in my old ways.

The new album is coming together way faster than any of the previous ones, and I’m not sure why, but I’m not complaining – it feels good.

Fear is My Constant Companion is available on all streaming services.

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Music

Queering Gerard Way Part I: Lola’s Pronouns

Queer people are often forced to grow up in isolation and watch people who look like us get pathologized and cast as outsiders because they are different. So when we see somebody who looks like us cross over into the mainstream, it can feel like a victory.

This was how I felt when I discovered My Chemical Romance. I certainly wasn’t old enough to be deconstructing queer theory and gender roles at thirteen, but I definitely see the band as an early indicator of my queerness, even though none of the members identified as queer.

Gerard Way was a rebellious, non-conforming individual whose entire career was a deliberate act of social transgression, from the the way he acted and dressed to the way he treated his fans. As a student of rock icons like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Nick Cave and Brian Eno, he was able to emulate what they did so well by constantly reinventing his image. Each album cycle was accompanied by new eras of storytelling and elaborate character-building that he was able to pull from his previous career as a comic book writer.

In the same vein as Bowie adopting a myriad of personas throughout his career like Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and Major Tom, Way created his own characters like The Patient and Party Poison. Picture Ziggy Stardust getting massacred and revived as a zombie. That was Way in the era of “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge.” For “The Black Parade,” he cut his hair and bleached it and covered his face in white powder, becoming The Patient; a person dying of cancer who crossed over to death in the form of a parade.

When MCR fans started referring to the Danger Days character Party Poison as non-binary, Way welcomed that interpretation with open arms. It made total sense that Party Poison was a superhero in a post-apocalyptic future, because Way has been that person for so many queer, trans, and gender nonconforming kids who feel like we are living in a world that doesn’t want us to exist.

A perfect example of Way queering the music scene is the song “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us In Prison” off of “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge.” The title and the lyrics are unmistakably homoerotic (“We’re just two men as God had made us/Well I can’t/Well I can”), and he had a ritual at every show where he would get all the men in the audience to undress, taking control of a situation in a scene that normally objectified young women and flipping it on its head, making a spectacle out of it.

Way has always been an open book. He’s opened up in interviews about his lower-middle class upbringing in New Jersey, and he’s always been drawn to unconventional beauty and those who embraced the unsavory aspects of life. He was an art student who regularly went to school in drag, and when MCR started to take off in the early 2000s he used his platform on a regular basis to speak out against misogyny and homophobia in the music scene, going out of his way to portray women and girls in his music videos and comic books as human beings without exploiting or sexualizing them. He would later open up in a reddit AMA about how he “always identified a fair amount with the female gender,” albeit not on the same scale as somebody who identifies as trans or non binary.

When My Chemical Romance announced their reunion in 2019, I fell into a tunnel of nostalgia. I combed through their entire discography, re-watched their earliest gigs on Youtube playing in New Jersey basements with less than fifty people, and returned to those thirty-second clips of Gerard Way and Frank Iero making out on stage, which provided those breadcrumbs of representation I was craving as a closeted teen in a small town.

I will never forget the first time I ever saw Way writhing and wailing incoherently to the point of having a nervous breakdown. My cousin and I used to binge watch music videos on AOL, and that was how I first saw the “Helena” video. His long wavy hair that flowed down to his shoulders and red smokey eye had me completely awestruck. I would have walked to the nearest Sephora or Hot Topic just to get my hands on that Urban Decay Gash eyeshadow he used to wear. He was the first person I ever saw present as gender fluid, and it resonated with me for reasons I didn’t have the language to unpack yet.

When people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up as a kid and I would tell them I wanted to be the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, they would get visibly uncomfortable or laugh nervously like it was a joke, almost like they thought I should feel shame for relating more to Gerard than any of the hyper-feminine icons I saw growing up.

But their revulsion only made me latch onto Way more, because it genuinely felt like he was the only person who understood me. He was unapologetically flawed and being a “freak” was his superpower. Songs like “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” taught me that it was okay to be angry and vulnerable when the rest of the world advised against it, and joining the MCR fandom showed me that there were a million other kids out there who felt exactly the same as I did.

When MCR disbanded and Way started working on solo material he made his debut album’s mascot, Lola, non-binary, and would always correct reporters who used the wrong pronouns on them. Not everybody took it seriously because Lola was a fictional character. But the fact that the genesis of Lola coincided with Way touring all around the globe and taking time out of every show to let his trans and non-binary fans know that he was in their corner, was no happy accident.

A love for the transgressive and going against social norms are inherently queer acts, and Way’s entire career was defined by these qualities. His song lyrics, the stories he crafted through concept albums, illustrations and comics, and his outspoken nature made him a mouthpiece for the outcasts, the disaffected youth, and anybody in the middle who felt “different” or “other.”

My Chemical Romance attained longevity even after disappearing for seven years because their message remained–if you are uncool then be uncool; embrace every part of who you are to the fullest and live your life unapologetically and without shame, because trying to be somebody you’re not is a waste of a life.

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Album Review Music

Pretty Sick Ventures Into Shoegaze Territory on New EP

Singer-songwriter, model, and bassist Sabrina Fuentes wears many hats. She started the NYC-based new age grunge band Pretty Sick when she was only thirteen, capturing the attention of audiences all around the globe with her darkly sardonic vocal range, dirty grunge-laced basslines, and songs about being caught up in toxic relationships, with heavy instrumental accompaniment from a multitude of rotating band members. This time she is joined by Wade Oates of the Virgins on guitar and Austin Williamson from Onyx Collective on drums.

Last year, Pretty Sick released their debut EP, Deep Divine, through the UK indie label Dirty Hit. Earlier this week, they released their follow-up EP, Come Down. And if Deep Divine was meant to encapsulate being caught up in the intoxicating rapture of self-destructive youth and toxic love, then Come Down represents the dreary hangover of the aftermath.

Fuentes’ uninhibited lead vocals, Wade Oates’ crisp, feedback-heavy guitar solos and Austin Williamson’s tom-heavy drum fills are guaranteed to grab every listener by the throat. Songs like “Bet My Blood” and “Devil in Me”—with their crunchy guitar solos and vocals that sound like they’ve been run through Courtney Love’s blender—are heavily contrasted with slower cuts where Fuentes emits these soft “ooohs” over pedal-heavy distortion.

“I have a real taste for pop music, and my songwriting style has a real pop music sensibility,” Fuentes said in a recent interview with Alternative Press. This is no more apparent than in the lead single, “Dumb,” an infectious earworm with a hook that is eerily similar to “Hanging Around” by the Cardigans.

Fuentes’ vocal range alternates between the airy, mystic coos of My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher on “Pillbug” and “Bare,” the unrestrained trills of Babes in Toyland’s Kat Bjelland on “She,” and the grating screams of Mia Zapata from the Gits on “Self Control.” “Pillbug” could easily pass for a B-side off of My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything, which is the last thing I would have expected from a grunge band. And that only adds to the EP’s allure.

Come Down as a whole is an amalgamation of reflections on love lost, and what it’s like to grow up in New York—a laborious and emotionally-draining undertaking that both prepares you for the crushing weight of heartbreak and simultaneously leaves an even nastier bruise when a relationship doesn’t work out. And it sounds magnificent.

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Album Review Music

Liz Phair’s “Soberish” is a Liberating Return to Form

Liz Phair is nothing if not a polarizing figure. In 1994, she smashed barriers and directly challenged what was acceptable for women to sing about with her critically lauded and sexually-liberated debut album, Exile in Guyville. Unfortunately, that album would go on to hang over her head like the Sword of Damocles throughout the course of her career. Her follow-up records, Whip-Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg were still critically-revered, but not as well-received as her debut. And when she released her eponymous fourth album in 2003 and a follow-up record, Funstyle in 2010, she was demolished by critics for embracing a more accessible pop sound.

Now, after an 11-year hiatus and a frenetic reissuing of demo tapes, the pioneering queen of alternative Gen X folk rock is back to reclaim her crown. The first single off the album, “Good Side,” leaves a memorable and lasting impression on the listener. While one could assume that the lyrics depict Phair reflecting on a relationship gone sour, any listener familiar with the trajectory of Liz Phair’s career could easily draw a parallel between the lyrics and her complicated legacy (“Done plenty more wrong than I ever did right/Still I’m not a criminal”).

“I think there’s a sense of counterbalancing the weight of my memoir being concerned with the darkness and haunting aspects of the past. “Good Side” captures the optimism and acceptance I feel even in the face of disappointments,” Phair revealed in an interview with Stereogum.

From the hypnotic “Spanish Doors” to the pulsing synths and zany guitar strokes on the bridge of “Ba Ba Ba” to the creeping electric piano groove of “Soul Sucker” to the percussive handclaps on “In There,” and “Hey Lou”—her playful tribute to Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson—there are several glorious highlights on this record where Phair packs absolutely no punches.

However, there are also certain points on the record where the songwriting flatlines a bit. The title track is lyrically bland at best, and I can’t say that the instrumentally one-note “Lonely Street” will be getting any replays from me. But Soberish remains a solid release.

And if the album sounds at all like it’s clashing with itself or that Phair might have trouble picking a lane, that’s kind of the point. Soberish seems to embody every image that Liz Phair has adopted throughout her evolving career, as well as everything she excels at; the exceptional song-crafting, the poignant lyrical self-reflection, the cathartic rage, the irreverence, and the razor-sharp wit that made both fans and critics alike fall in love with her in 1994.

It must also be noted that now that it’s more acceptable for certain genres to cross-pollinate, Phair is also now able to write the excellent sugary pop melodies that once got her mercilessly bashed by critics. Soberish may not be a perfect album, but it’s still something exciting and something new. And there’s certainly no disputing the fact that any day Liz Phair puts out something new is a good day.

Favorite tracks: Hey Lou, Ba Ba Ba, Good Side, Soul Sucker, Bad Kitty

Least Favorite Tracks: Soberish, Dosage, Lonely Street

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Album Review Music

St. Vincent is Taking Things Personally This Time… And it Sounds Magnificent

Singer-songwriter Annie Clark—better known as St. Vincent—has famously said that she’s never been a proponent of nostalgia or looking to the past. But on her newest and most deeply personal album yet, Daddy’s Home, Clark seems to have realized that looking back does not always have to be painful. And what a statement it is, that while you don’t have to look back, you still can.

Daddy’s Home trades the punishing, acidic drug-trip of her previous record, Masseduction, for a sepia-toned psychedelic dream. The album packs absolutely no punches on songs like the show-stopping glam opener, “Pay Your Way in Pain,” and the brutally distorted “Down.” This album sees Clark wearing her influences on her sleeve in the most reverent ways, interpolating ‘70s and ‘80s classics like Sheena Easton’s “9 to 5 (Morning Train)” on my favorite track, “My Baby Wants a Baby,” and the melodies and rhythm patterns of David Bowie’s “Fame” on “Pay Your Way in Pain.” She pulls from Lou Reed, Stevie Wonder, Funkadelic, Pink Floyd, and even Yes—that’s right, Yes. But the overall soft and twangy reverb-infused sonic palette clearly resembles Clark’s most prominent and upfront influence, which is Steely Dan.

This new era feels like a breakthrough moment for Clark. The album is a lovely homage to her personal heroines from Joni Mitchell, to Tori Amos, and Candy Darling. “There’s something glamorous and tragic and incredibly strong about those characters I was writing about,” Clark recently told Vogue, before going on to say, “And I’ve been that girl. I’ve been the girl wearing last night’s heels on the morning train.” Whether she is channeling Gena Rowlands in a Cassavetes feature film, or taking on the persona of Candy Darling’s ghost haunting the corridors of the Chelsea Hotel, she doesn’t ever shy away from identifying with these women who history wasn’t always kind to.

St. Vincent has always written from personal experience, but never like this. On other records she normally kept her guard up, her personal experiences shrouded in metaphor and fictional characters. This time she throws all of that to the side and brings her personal experiences to the forefront—recounting signing autographs in prison visitation rooms, toxic romantic relationships, and a strong reluctance to have children out of fear that her identity and her lifetime achievements will evaporate completely. It is a form of oversharing that is so unexpected for Clark, and yet—considering her constant willingness to reinvent herself and venture into unexplored territories—it makes perfect sense.

This album is a very sharp left turn, yet it’s still quintessentially St. Vincent—a sweet and sour, blues-filled acid trip of elation, self-destruction, and stinging confrontation—but this time, it’s unapologetically in-your-face and on-the-nose. Just when you think she’s fulfilled the listener’s expectations, she immediately rips the rug out from underneath them before lulling them back into an intoxicating trance equivalent to that of a subway ride at 5 A.M., when everybody around you is heading to work while you leave the party, clutching “last nights heels” in your arms as you ride the long “morning train” downtown.

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Interview Music

Artist Spotlight: Celeste Felsheim of King Sheim

Hailing from Seattle, Washington, the fresh-faced punk trio, King Sheim, is one of the most enticing and sickeningly sweet DIY punk pop bands currently making waves in the Seattle indie scene, along with other Seattle-based bands like Mommy Long Legs, Childbirth, Tacocat, and Chastity Belt. While the band has a rotating ensemble of members, the original lineup consists of Eli Bolan on drums, Luke Sorenson on bass, and the exuberant, charismatic, and delightfully brash Celeste Felsheim on lead vocals. Felsheim’s high-energy playing and style of singing that is equally delicate and brutal—with their smooth alto croons, and grittily evocative snarls—is the sonic equivalent of Brody Dalle getting into a fist fight with Fiona Apple. 

King Sheim started making noise in the Seattle indie scene with their eponymous debut EP in 2019, with delightfully sweet and sour pop rock anthems like “Prom Heels,” and “Grape Soda.” The band’s debut album, King Sheim Is… Taking Things Personally, is packed to the brim with high-energy thrashers, like the blistering album opener, “Center of the Universe,” as well as lethargic slow jams, like “Pacify.” The album strongly recalls nineties pop rock outfits and legendary grunge acts from the Seattle rock pantheon—the sludgy, off-kilter instrumentation coupled with Felsheim’s cathartic growls on “Magic 8 Ball,” sounds like somebody has taken Shirley Manson and Green River and put them in a blender. “Spiders!” evokes grotesque imagery of obsessive-compulsive paranoia. “At least I’ll have control,” Felsheim sneers on the chorus, their raw vocals sounding like they’ve been processed in a meat grinder as they defiantly chant, “Clean my whole house.” Mellower cuts like “Queen of the Losers” finds Felsheim grappling with the fact that they feel trapped in a never-ending rat race for validation—constantly faking, pushing, projecting, and trying hard to prove to their peers and to themselves that they are busy, relevant, and worthy of respect (“I’m afraid of never leaving here, the comfort of mediocrity/But I gotta calm down, it’s only Tuesday”). 

Speaking to Felsheim, it’s clear that their sound was plucked from an eclectic mélange of influences—everything from Taylor Swift to the Beastie Boys to Bikini Kill. Below is our full conversation where we speak in depth about the modern age of DIY music-making, the fragmented scene in Seattle, Steely Dan, and Celeste’s love of teaching music to city youth.  

If you wouldn’t mind, I would love for you to walk me back to the genesis of King Sheim. What was it about the collaborative effort of playing in a band––as opposed to playing as a solo act––that really drew you in?

I’ve always loved to play with other musicians, whether it be covers, or playing in my friend’s bands. Originally, I wrote the King Sheim songs by myself, but then recruited Eli Bolan to play drums. Eli and I have played together in bands before, and he completely got my vision for King Sheim on the spot! I wasn’t great at arranging back then, (this was the summer after I graduated from high school) so we played around with lots of drum parts and I basically got to choose the ones I liked the most from Eli’s large brain-library of wonderful creations. It was this collaborative energy that really started to entice me, as I got to create melodies and chords and rhythms and Eli helped fill out the structure.

After recruiting Luke Sorensen to play bass, we had a pretty awesome trio to play shows with, and it was super fun giving my songs the attention that they deserve! As the band rotated and changed, I learned more about myself as a bandleader, my confidence grew and I saw what I liked and didn’t like about playing with others. King Sheim also gave me a chance to work on my confidence in decision making, and helped me grow into more of a semi-adult. My last show before covid was with that original trio and it was kick-ass, and gives me a good pre-covid show memory to look back on.

What was the first record you heard that changed your relationship to music (or the way you thought about songwriting/playing), and how has your relationship to music evolved since?

Wow, there’s so many! The first song I heard that really made me fall in love with rock ‘n’ roll was probably “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I learned it on my acoustic guitar and showed it to my dad when he came home. 

I’ve been a Taylor Swift fan for just about my entire existence, and she is one of my biggest songwriting influences. Her albums, Red and 1989, defined my early high school years and really changed my outlook. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a couple of semesters ago I took a Javanese gamelan ensemble at Cornish College of the Arts where I attend school, and it totally flipped my musical outlook on its head. Learning about this entirely percussive ensemble in which I couldn’t read the music or pronounce the song names–feeling like I truly knew nothing–was a great music-making experience. I got to sit on the ground for 80 minutes a couple times a week and just make music with people in the class. It was magic! I really recommend Gamelan music. 

I’m a pop lover at my core! While punk and rock ‘n’ roll defined my later teen years, they say you never shake what you love at 14.

– Celeste Felsheim

I read that your mom was a punk rocker in the 90s and your dad is heavily into classic rock, so I imagine that your family must have had a killer record collection. Who were some of the artists that you had in heavy rotation in your house growing up?

Yes! I love them so much. They have the greatest music taste! While my parents aren’t musicians, they are the greatest music-appreciators that have ever lived. I remember being woken up on Saturdays by Good Vibrations on KEXP, and now when I hear reggae on a Saturday in my car I smile and think of all the cleaning and cooking we did to that music. I heard Aretha Franklin, Prince, The Beastie Boys, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Rait, John Prine and of course Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan from my dad. Being surrounded by music my entire life is one of the reasons I’m still creating today, my love of music is so deeply ingrained in my soul that it’s just a part of me now! My parents instilled in me a love of music so strong, diverse, and overflowing.

What I love about your music is that you’re clearly inspired by riot grrrl and punk, but you also have a serious knack for crafting these fantastic earworm-y pop songs. Are there any specific influences that have recently crept their way into your songwriting process that listeners might not expect?

Oh gosh, yes. I’m a pop lover at my core! While punk and rock ‘n’ roll defined my later teen years, they say you never shake what you love at 14, and I believe my music is most influenced by Avril Lavigne, early Demi Lovato and Taylor Swift. I truly believe that writing a good pop song is an art form, and these women did so in a way that really will stick with me forever.

You’ve been studying music for a while now and you also teach voice and piano. What is one specific tool that you’ve learned from being classically trained as a musician and teaching that has been particularly useful to remember as your profile continues to grow?

Honestly, as I’ve gotten into teaching lessons, I’ve learned how essential it is to use teaching as a tool for your own learning. As I relay concepts to my students they are cemented into my brain several times over in a way that could never be told to me. I’ve also realized the importance of effective practicing, and how you can spend 3 hours “practicing” but not getting better, but 30 minutes of practicing in a way that makes sense to you, whether it be in the form of a game, or a YouTube video, or metronome practice, or anything else that is specific to you is so much more effective. I also try to experience music and art everyday in some way!

It’s wonderful to see the growing accessibility of creating your own music as it becomes something everyone can enjoy at some level, which is closer to our base instincts as humans that tell us to dance and sing and play even if it’s not our job or main hobby!

– Celeste Felsheim

I would love for you to tell me a little bit about your local scene over in Seattle. The state of Washington has such a rich culture and history with scenes like riot grrrl, grunge, and stations like KEXP. What is the local music scene/community like now, and what is your favorite thing about it?

Ahhh the scene. Honestly, it feels disconnected, especially because of covid. But Seattle has always had a great place in the scene for young people, so I have been and still am able to get gigs and play shows. I’ve recently gotten more involved and connected through my work with Dan’s Tunes Seattle, interacting with other artists through my essay writing and social media work, which has been really fun, and has helped me feel more connected. I LOVE all of the youth programs, Rain City Rock Camp and Soundoff! are my faves.

We seem to be living in a very exciting time for DIY artists, especially since the internet has offered more accessibility to music and less creative limitations with the cross-pollination of genres. Do you feel lucky to see your music gaining traction in the current climate?

Oh, I feel so lucky. I love creating music and all sorts of art, and quarantine especially has given me the time to appreciate how much I really enjoyed my life of playing gigs. I’ve made some wonderful friends playing shows, and learned so many things from people online, so it’s incredible to see the scene open up and flower. It’s wonderful to see the growing accessibility of creating your own music as it becomes something everyone can enjoy at some level, which is closer to our base instincts as humans that tell us to dance and sing and play even if it’s not our job or main hobby!

What has been one of the most valuable discoveries you’ve made as you continue to develop a musical identity of your own?

Oh wow. These questions are so good. I’ve always thought that I have or had a solid musical identity, through every phase and genre that I experience. I thought I was really good at being in the orchestra in high school and that it was my thing, and it totally was for a while, but now I have an appreciation for all of the classical and experimental that I never will shake. I guess the lesson here is that no growth will ever be linear, and all of the phases you go through just become tools in your [arsenal]. I’m a punk rocker at heart, yet my bones were hand crafted by Taylor Swift and Dvorak and Brahms and Bikini Kill! It’s totally cool to be an amalgamation.

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Categories
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