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.
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.
Covering songs is a science. Remaining faithful to the original creator while simultaneously reinventing the wheel as you sing lyrics that were written by somebody else is no easy balance to strike. But it takes an exceptionally unique individual to render a well-known tune almost unrecognizable.
Cat Power’s Chan Marshall is a master at transformative cover songs, which was displayed on her two previous well-loved cover albums, TheCovers Record and Jukebox, where she turned stomping libidinous renegades like The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” into lethargic and yearning dirges.
Marshall’s newest self-produced installment in this series, Covers, transforms and reinvents both well-known hits and beloved obscurities by the likes of The Replacements, Billie Holiday, Frank Ocean, Iggy Pop, Lana Del Rey, Kitty Wells, Bob Seger, Jackson Browne, the Pogues, Dead Man’s Bones, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Throughout the album, Marshall draws from each track a well of untouched themes and nuances with lush, dynamic arrangements—a strong departure from her signature minimal sound. The album opens with a swinging piano-laden take on Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion,” trading Ocean’s soulful keening and weeping organ solos into a lo-fi lounge groove with tentative breaks of snare hits and reverb-drenched guitar.
A remarkable standout moment on the record is when Marshall covers herself on “Unhate,” an unnerving and defiant reinterpretation of the song “Hate” from The Greatest. Unless listeners had the lyrics right in front of them, I wouldn’t blame them for thinking these were two completely different songs. With chopped up vocals over twangy lo-fi strumming and full-bodied idiosyncratic percussion, never has Chan Marshall uttering the words “I said I hate myself and I want to die,” felt more unhinged. The only way I can describe the track is that it feels like you are listening to Marshall perform an exorcism on her past self right before your very eyes.
On her approach to covering songs, Marshall has said “When I work, I don’t look back—I just keep going. Trusting my gut is a survival technique. My approach is elementary—it’s not technical or super academic. My mission is to complete what I see, and as soon as the fibers of that vision are realized, I move on to the next song.” And this organic outlook and radical sense of self-trust is precisely what makes this record sound as fresh as it does.
From faithful tributes to Jackson Browne/Nico’s “These Days,” The Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular,” and Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” to the propulsive, ominous rattle on her update of Nick Cave’s “I Had a Dream Joe,” and the roiling guitar feedback on her cover of Iggy Pop’s “Endless Sea,” Marshall subverts listeners’ expectations at every turn, transcending the art of covering itself and eviscerating any lingering expectations of her that audiences might have held onto in the past.
All of Them, the latest album by Chicago queer music collective Glad Rags, is an eclectic orgy of disco, post punk, psychedelic garage rock, and chamber pop with shiny orbs of synths, sitar, cello, and dynamic vocals. The album balances heavy subject matter with candy-coated pop melodies, its lyrics unraveling the politics of pleasure in addition to ruminating on cancel culture and the nuances of community-oriented healing in art spaces.
Today, Glad Rags unveils the music video for their single “What’s My Body Up 2?” which was directed and edited by core band member and synth player Jacqueline Baker. The video’s vibrantly animated graphics are intercut with footage of the band cavorting and dancing around their homes in an infectious burst of LED flashes and fuschia-tinted jubilation.
I caught up with Glad Rags to discuss the process of shooting the video, their ethos as a collective, and their latest album.
How would you describe Glad Rags to new listeners?
Jacqueline Baker: Whenever people ask us to describe the band, we never quite know how. It’s pretty hard to pin down our sound. All of our songs are quite different. From a genre standpoint, I would say I always end up describing us in terms of what other people have told us we sound like. But whenever I talk about our vibe or how we operate creatively, I always make it apparent that we have a lot of fun bouncing ideas off each other.
Kelsee Vandervall: I will never forget this, but the first time I met Mabel, they described Glad Rags to me as a Randy Newman dance band.
What is the biggest benefit of operating in a collective as opposed to a band with a fixed set of members with predetermined roles?
Baker: I feel like there’s always a lot of room for growth. It certainly doesn’t diminish growth if a band does operate in the more traditional sense, but what’s nice for me is that I never feel boxed in with this group. If there’s a song where I want to add or change something, I never feel weird or uncomfortable asking Mabel if I can change it. Our strengths as individuals are always nurtured, and that’s what’s really nice about being part of a collective. Everyone wears a lot of different hats.
Mable Gladly: We’re pretty much the six core members, but we always bring in other people from our network to collaborate with in the studio.
Baker: I feel like right now the lineup that we have has been stable for a while. Post-COVID it’s been interesting, because there have been a lot of lineup changes since the pandemic. At this point a lot of the session musicians who had played with us in the past aren’t here now, we have to figure out how to re-adapt the music. We have to bring in new ideas constantly, but it’s fun to go with the flow.
Your sound is very eclectic. What’s it like to cobble all these different influences together in the studio?
Gladly: It’s kind of all over the place. We all enjoy very different styles of music, so having all these different genres [cross-pollinate] allows it to never be boring.
Vandervall: I think it gives us a really big range. We all put ourselves into it in some way or another. With my string lines, I might be able to react to [another compositional choice from a band member] and we’ll help each other out. Some people hate using the word organic, but something really natural always comes out of us just playing music together.
Mah Nu: Whenever we bring in the skeleton of a new song, we tend to patchwork our own individual parts together. Coming from all different musical backgrounds really adds to it as well.
Baker: My music taste has really changed and evolved a lot since I started playing in Glad Rags. Mable is very into disco, and I’ve found myself doing a series of deep dives into disco since first joining the group. I’d totally written disco off for a long time and the more that I play with different musicians with various backgrounds, it makes me appreciate different styles of music that I probably wouldn’t have before.
What were the first albums that got each of you into music as a whole?
Patrick Sundlof: I would say Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Trilogy. There was something about the instrumentation that made it sound bigger than what it was, and that’s what I wanted to do personally.
Salem Iyabode: Thundercat’s Golden Age of Apocalypse comes to mind. That was a fun discovery. That album really shows the versatility of bass playing.
Gladly: I feel like one that’s definitely influenced me was Swing Slow by Haruomi Hosono. There’s a lot of dissonant little sensory sounds in the background which really affected the way we would record and sequence the flow of our albums.
Vandervall: I’m a classically trained string instrumentalist, and I grew up listening to a lot of what my parents were listening to, which was a lot of old school R&B and disco. I was just about to finish my degree when Daft Punk came out with their Random Access Memories album. It was just the perfect blend of pop, disco, and those really thick, heavy string lines. I was a ’90s baby, so to have Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers on that album, it basically had everything that I was really interested in. I spent the entire summer after graduation listening to that album on repeat during my day job or on the train. Still, to this day, there’s elements of that album I just never get sick of.
Baker: For me it’s really hard to pick just one, because there’s so many albums that have been so formative for me. One where I can really define the point where my relationship to music changed was when I heard Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. There were so many choices they made that were completely new. They were like the Justin Bieber of their time. They were at a point where they wanted to do something really experimental, and they were told it would destroy their career. That album was such a brave jumping off point for Brian Wilson and the band. The choices they made from a sonic standpoint were so monumental. I think that was the first ever charting rock album to use a theremin. All of those insane choices are what made that album so great, and that’s why I love making impulsive choices. It gives our albums so many cool quirks.
Nu: There’s a Brazilian psych rock compilation called Tropicalia that really expanded my horizons as far as imagination goes with music. It has a lot of Brazilian artists on it like Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, and Os Mutantes. I heard that album my freshman year of college and it really opened up my brain to the process of collective collaboration. I really liked the looseness of how it was recorded. There’s a lot of lo-fi background noise and really showcases the fusion of sounds that psychedelic music can have.
What would you say the driving throughline on All of Them is?
Gladly: A lot of it is pretty heavy, particularly the tracks that delve into community responses to harmful behavior like sexual and financial abuse. A lot of the songs jump perspectives of various situations and ask how we can heal together.
Baker: There’s also a lot of stuff that reckons with how to navigate an art world where we’re asking ourselves a bunch of questions about harmful behavior in art communities that’s been glossed over for such a long time.
Gladly: And there’s often no resolution for a lot of these things. A lot of it can end in a glare of smoke or people move to another state to avoid accountability.
Nu: Yeah. A lot of the content is very heavy and I think making it into a pop song can make something so disturbing a little more digestible.
Baker: Absolutely. Taking dense subject matter and trying to make it palatable through a pop song is a major part of it. You can enjoy it on multiple levels. You can listen to it in a more synthetic way through instrumentation, and you can also digest the lyrics in a more conscious way.
Gladly: A lot of us also work to curate live events, where there’s no formal structures in place to reckon with harm. You can’t just not respond to it, whether that’s on an artistic level or in reality.
Baker: I remember going to a lot of DIY shows where there would be a lot of the same garage rock type stuff, and trying to go to a show like that now would be very strange. I would go to venues and there would be literally four of the same bands playing and there was a very specific type of sound that people wanted to hear. When I look at the origins of garage rock, it’s just a bunch of cis white dudes thinking there’s no other way to express their anger. I used to have to work really hard to seek out bands that were actually worth listening to, and now those bands are playing really big venues and it’s so nice to see.
The new music video seemed a lot of fun to shoot! What were your favorite parts of conceptualizing it?
Gladly: Jackie directed and edited the video. We did a little demo of the song and people seemed to really like it so we decided to make a music video.
Baker: Yeah. Right from the jump I wanted the music video to not take itself seriously at all. A lot of the inspiration came from a video that I saw by Kiana Ledé, who’s a really cool R&B/hip hop artist who makes a lot of singer-songwriter type stuff. She made a song with Ari Lennox called “Chocolate” and I was reading about the video where she said that they had this huge video shoot planned in Joshua Tree and they had to cancel it because of the pandemic, so she just ended up shooting a video of her and her friend lip synching on FaceTime. The fact that they took this situation that could have been so disappointing and still managed to have a blast with it was really nice to see in the video. We really wanted to showcase the joy and maintain the friendship in the music video without taking ourselves super seriously either. Visual editing wasn’t something I was an expert at but I took the opportunity to really have fun with it. I borrowed Salem’s camera and everybody was super helpful in making it a really fun process.
If you’re a fan of indie rock — even from a distance — there’s a good chance you’ve heard the name Gordon Raphael before. He’s renowned for being the person who helped break The Strokes’ signature sound when he produced The Modern Age EP and their first two albums Is This It and Room on Fire — a distinctively dangerous and invigorating sound that single-handedly launched the early aughts garage rock revival and continues to be imitated by an endless barrage of indie rock bands to this day.
Working with The Strokes has garnered Raphael international praise and adoration from millions of people, including myself. But reducing him to “The Strokes guy” doesn’t do justice to the amount of innovative realms he’s opened up for music as a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer over the past several decades.
Raphael started playing keyboards at an early age and spent years refining his craft in his hometown of Seattle, going on to play in several local bands like Mental Mannequin, Sky Cries Mary, and Absinthee with Anna Mercedes, among others. He’s credited as an engineer on Green River’s Dry As a Bone EP, and was also asked to temporarily join Nirvana when they were looking for an extra guitar player — an offer he ultimately declined, but doesn’t regret.
Raphael later relocated to his birthplace of New York where he set up a basement studio at the Transporterraum in the East Village. There he recorded The Strokes and also produced Regina Spektor’s widely-treasured debut album Soviet Kitsch. Since then he’s continued to release his own music and traveled internationally, working with bands in Berlin, Mexico, Argentina, England, Spain, and countless other places. He’s also produced and engineered records for Hinds, Blonde Redhead, and Colleen Green.
Now he’s gearing up for the release of his upcoming memoir, The World Is Going to Love This: Up From the Basement with The Strokes. The book chronicles his life as a musician and producer leading up to the point when he met The Strokes at the Luna Lounge on Ludlow Street and helped them create one of the most revered indie rock albums of the early-2000s.
I caught up with Raphael to discuss the upcoming book, the 20th anniversary of Is This It, spending a night at Wendy Carlos’s studio, and much more.
Hi Gordon! How are you doing?
I’m doing very well, thank you.
How was recording in Berlin?
That went surprisingly well! Whenever I go to work with a new band, I already have a song or two as a reference, so I know they’re going to be good. But I love it when I get surprised. I noticed right away that there was something really special about the band I worked with in Berlin. I had three jobs this year where I showed up to work with several groups, but after a while it just hit me how phenomenal these guys were. I was having the best time ever. So I’ve had a very lucky year. The pandemic has made it a bit harder to travel, but it’s been so worthwhile.
What was it like to travel again after the restrictions were lifted?
Well I would normally go back to my hometown once a year, which is Seattle. I would also travel to New York, which is also my town because I was born there and had also lived there for a while. Working out arrangements with the bands I recorded was really simple, but the travel arrangements were so freaky. There’s panic about airline complications and having to remember all the documents you’re supposed to carry now like passports, tickets, vaccination proof, passenger locator form, and test results from three days before. The first time I got a COVID test to fly I had to take a train to Manchester, which is about 50 minutes from where I live in the UK. I’ll usually get another test somewhere else just to be safe in case the lab messes up.
I read that you spent a night at Wendy Carlos’s studio at one point. How did that come about?
Wendy Carlos was so influential to me growing up. I had always listened to all these progressive rockers who were playing moog synthesizers and I always wanted to get my hands on that stuff when I was a teenager. But then I saw A Clockwork Orange in a theater with the choir singing in German, the synthesizers, and the Beethoven music that she did. I was in a band in Seattle at the time called Sky Cries Mary. And I had told a friend of mine I was going to New York and he goes, “Oh, then you got to stay with my friend Tom O’Horgan.” Tom O’Horgan was theBroadway director who did Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. His apartment was a loft the size of an entire city block. Everywhere you looked there were thousands of instruments on the walls. The whole ceiling was covered in vines and bells from all over the world. He had a grand piano, a pipe organ, and a hallway of gardens that were used in the Jesus Christ Superstar musical in the ‘60s. And so we were talking and he said, “So what do you do?” and I told him I play synthesizers. He went, “Oh, there’s this woman down the street. She plays synthesizers too. She’s always trying to get me to go out to dinner with her, but I just haven’t had time.” I asked him who it was and he told me it was Wendy Carlos. I just started gasping and thinking really fast about how I could convince him to arrange for me to tag along when he went to see her.
When we went to dinner, Wendy was really overjoyed to see Tom O’Horgan. When he introduced me to her as his “friend who also plays synthesizers,” she looked right at me and said, “Well, don’t come to me with your problems.” Those were the first words she directed at me. So we had dinner and she was talking about how she’d just gotten back from the Sahara Desert where she saw an eclipse, at which point I decided I’d make a joke and say “I didn’t know the power was stable enough there to run your synthesizers.” And then she was taken aback, glared at me and said “That was terrible.” All day I had been rehearsing these different questions I’d planned on asking her, and now I’m thinking I blew my chance. So at the end of dinner she asked Tom to come to her studio, and it was like 8:30 P.M. or something, which was normally when he went to sleep. But he decided to go to the studio for my sake. They lived one block from each other at the time. Tom O’Horgan is no longer alive, but Wendy Carlos is alive and well. I actually got a beautiful email from her last week. I’d written her a late birthday message, just as an excuse to reconnect. And she’s been very, very kind to me ever since this moment in history.
So we got to her apartment and went to the back where she had this wonderland of a studio that she built into a ritzy New York apartment on Broadway. She built the walls, the speakers, the mixing console, she put chicken wire inside the walls so that no electromagnetic interference would come from the telephones while she was recording. There was the Switched-On Bach synththat Robert Moog made for her back in the old days and she had these Egyptian cats lounging on the synthesizer.
So she takes Tom to the front while I’m still marveling at the space. She mentioned that she was trying to get more into computer-based music and someone had sent her a whole sound library. And there were a set of sounds that she couldn’t discern, but she knew that Tom had played thousands of instruments and he would probably know what the sounds were. So she played a sound. And I had been sampling through the 90s. It was something that I’d been doing for five years before I met her. So she played these sounds while Tom kind of scratched his chin trying to figure it out and once in a while I would look up and say, “That’s a slowed down tom-tom.” The second or third time I answered one of her questions she turned around and she actually saw me for the first time. She looked at me and said, “Wow, Gordon. You really do know your stuff.” So Tom said his goodbyes and I stuck around. There was no more suspicion that I was going to be an embarrassment to her.
The fourth question I asked her was what keyboards she had leaning against the curtain. She said “Those are Kurzweil K2000 sampling keyboards. I never tried them. I invented a tuning system for them.” And so I said, “Oh wow, K2000. Those are supposed to be the best samplers,” and she said, “I think sampling is a gimmick,” and I said, “No, no, it’s great, let me show you!” So I took her K2000 from the curtain and I couldn’t really figure out immediately how to get it to work. I didn’t know what to do or what buttons to push. So around midnight I said, “Hey, do you have the owner’s manual for this?” And she said “Sure, it’s right there.” So I took the Kurzweil home and came back the next night and had her try it out with her autoharp and she was mystified. And then she went on to start a whole new chapter of work with a sampling orchestra. It was beyond anything anyone had ever done. She sent it to MIT for harmonic readouts of every orchestral instrument at different velocities that she had programmed. I think it was 250 oscillators per voice, so that certain frequencies would emerge like how a real violin would behave. And she wound up making a record called Tales of Heaven and Hell with this new sample system and she put my name in the credits. It said something like, “K2000 tutorial by Gordon Raphael.” That pretty much made my life. I didn’t feel like I had to do anything else.
You mentioned in passing earlier that you were born in New York. What made you decide to return after the ‘90s?
I was born in the Bronx. My dad was going to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and my mom’s from Brooklyn. I was 13 when I started playing in bands. Even as a teenager, if you were going to actually have a musical career, you were either going to go to L.A. or New York. All my music friends from Seattle had tried to move to New York and had various levels of success. A bunch of them wound up in Madonna’s Desperately Seeking Susan movie and in the club scenes. But it almost always ended really tragically for them when they moved to New York. They had either gone crazy or got strung out on drugs or would have to come back home and stay with their parents. It was very common for Seattle musicians to go to New York and wind up in really bad trouble. At that time, the image of L.A. was the complete opposite of where my mind was at. So there was no question about being in New York.
What can you tell me about the landscape in Seattle around the time you formed your initial bands?
A lot of the people who were savvy enough to be young and at the forefront of the music scene there — which would normally be the people who worked at Sub Pop and various people who were trying to sell records and push these bands — they have a different viewpoint of it. They think it all got really silly once it got in the hands of the mainstream, when bands’ singles were being used in movies and hundred-dollar flannel designer shirts started showing up in Vogue. But for a person who grew up in Seattle and saw this wave of music and culture from our own town hit the mainstream and bounce back to us, it was really incredible. It was absolutely jaw-dropping. Up until then, there were only two or three small venues. When it got past the Nevermind era, there were suddenly several Seattle venues open seven nights a week. Bootsy Collins and Funkadelic and George Clinton came around almost four or five times a year to play sold out shows, and every night was a party. Bands started migrating to Seattle like they would to New York and L.A. Bands in the area were getting signed left and right and getting asked to dinner with publishing companies from Beverly Hills.
It was also interesting because a lot of the core bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains — all from Seattle — they weren’t there for the grunge years. They were on the road. They were everywhere else. So there were a lot of other smaller bands, like the bands I was in and other local bands, and it was a great time. I had finally gotten offered a record deal after trying for years and years. Suddenly, I started living comfortably and was paying my own rent just from playing music all the time. So for me it was a golden time. It lasted five or six years. Then it was over as drastically as it had begun.
Microsoft was also getting a big foot in the grunge scene. My band was involved in helping Microsoft pioneer CD-ROM technology and we were invited to one of the Windows launches. It was a really big deal. Before that, Seattle was mostly a place for people who went fishing, or were cowboys and airplane makers. To be a musician was considered an anomaly. People thought, What are you going to do with your life? Just hang out in your basement, drink beer, and practice your guitar?When are you going to give that up? That was what it was like before it all began. So that moment in time was really special.
Can you recall one of the first times that art transformed your life in a significant way?
According to my dad, whenever I cried as a child, my parents figured out that if they held me a certain way where I could see a painting on the wall behind me, I would quiet down. At a certain point in my young teenage years, I would immerse myself in art books from places like the Prado in Madrid. There were the weird European Renaissance guys like Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. They really showed me the human potential that could be drawn, like demons bursting out of fire with nuns and pigs and all these skeletons.
My dad was a jazz musician and I didn’t really like jazz, but he introduced me to Frank Zappa and the Beatles when I was about 10. The music and the lyrics really painted a picture of what became really important to me. That really made me want to play music.
What made you decide to write a memoir about your time with The Strokes 20 years after Is This It came out?
Well, for starters, a lot of people all over the world wanted to talk about the 20th anniversary of Is This It. And The Strokes don’t really talk about it. So I got really lucky in 2021, because every media company that wanted to do something about The Strokes 20th anniversary, the band would always refer them to me, like, “Well, you can call Gordon, he’s happy to speak to you.” So I was getting a lot of press and I got to blab so much. I was popping up on Israeli radio stations, NME Magazine, and Rolling Stone. Now I’ve gone around the world producing bands for the past 20 years. Before that I just did it in my basement studio. As soon as The Strokes album hit, bands from all over the world wanted to fly me out to their studios in Brazil, Seattle, Paris, or the Netherlands. And the reason why they wanted to work with me was because they loved The Strokes record so much. I’ve been working non-stop for 20 years because of the first couple Strokes albums. Everyone’s always asking me, “What were those guys like?”
I always get asked to tell stories. I’ve been telling certain stories over and over. And when I told one of my friends some of these stories he said, “God, you’ve got to write a book.” And I thought, Oh, that sounds miserable. Sitting in a chair for hours or days on end just sounded lonely and too weird. So flash-forward to March 2020, I had my first gigs of the year canceled and I’d never said no to work before, but I was suddenly bailing on productions. Everything was closing down and I had no choice but to stay home. I tried writing songs, but it didn’t thrill me like it usually did. So eventually a little voice in my head said, Why don’t you write that book? So I sat down and started from the beginning, which is in the prologue where I talk about why I wrote the book. And then I started telling my stories that I’ve been telling for 20 years. So I’d always wanted to do this, but I never thought I was actually going to be able to sit still long enough to finish it. The pandemic gave me a reason to write it, and it was really fun. I really enjoyed the process.
Is the book a series of vignettes or is it told in a more linear narrative?
It’s definitely very linear because I go into detail about how one thing led to another. I basically started telling a story and would ask myself, When did that happen? So then I would go on the internet and search “Strokes setlist Boston 2001,” and think Oh yeah, that’s the day that I was there. I have a pretty good memory of all these stories, but the internet really locked it in. So it’s pretty chronological.
Where were you when Is This It came out? Were you like 10 years old or something when the album came out?
Oh god, I hadn’t even learned to walk yet. I was pushing two, I think.
I love that. It’svery interesting and gratifying to hear that all these years later younger people are still discovering The Strokes and getting heavily into the band. Because by the time you got it, it wasn’t trending. It wasn’t the hot new thing, yet it had an impact in an artistic way or a magical correspondence. And that’s so gratifying. I love that.
Definitely. That’s the best part of listening to something after the hype dies down. You get to enjoy the music in its purest form. You’ve said that The Strokes make you feel “committed to the powerful, sacred majesty in song and lyrics,” and a lot of listeners and fans — regardless of age — feel the same way.
Yeah, I mean,I listen to a lot of old music. I listen to stuff from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s and those songs are just as potent now as they were the first time I heard them. It’s like a time capsule of energy, and it always delivers.
I also wanted to ask about Regina Spektor, who still speaks so highly of you and The Strokes. What can you tell me about recording her?
It’s interesting that you bring that up because while I was recording in Berlin a few weeks ago, I was hanging out with the engineer who owns the studio. I would play him different music that would really show off his speakers. He’d somehow never heard Regina before, so I played him some of her stuff and told him stories about all the time I spent working with her. He basically started listening to it nonstop. It became his family’s new favorite record. So that was a really nice Regina moment I had recently. I hadn’t heard that stuff for a while. It sounded so good. She completely blew my mind, you know? And there’s a lot of information in my book about exactly what happened and what I went through when I first met her. Working with her was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me and one of the most enjoyable musical experiences I’ve ever had. It was so weird that in all my years of doing music, The Strokes and her happened back-to-back. They were like one right after the other.
She’s really special. I can’t stress enough how valuable that Soviet Kitsch record still is to me and so many of my friends who are full-time musicians.
I’m glad to hear that.Itwas incredibly fun and very different. I won’t tell you exactly how it was, because that’s all included in my book, and it’s pretty interesting. But she wanted to do things in a way that nobody had done before, and I was happy to oblige. We recorded [“Modern Girls and Old Fashioned Men”] with her and The Strokes at BearCreek Studios. That studio is like a family studio to me. So I wanted to invite The Strokes to record there in the hopes that maybe they would do an album there.
What was one of the first albums you heard throughout your life that really blew your mind?
That’s easy. We’re Only In It for the Money by the Mothers of Invention. My dad used to be the medical expert who would give slideshow presentations about drugs at PTA meetings. This was at a time when the moral panic among parents about their kids doing drugs was running rampant. My dad had a presentation that he would show to the parents at PTA meetings to quell their fears about their kids possibly doing drugs and he would play Frank Zappa as part of the slide show. So when I was a little kid, seeing these images and hearing this music, it was like the musical equivalent of Hieronymous Bosch for me. The sounds, the humor, the lyrics — everything about it opened up my brain in a major way.
I remember all the songs I played when I was 8, 10, 13. I became a keyboard player because I met this guitar player who was around my age and he could play anything. He could play Jimi Hendrix at 13. So I thought if I couldn’t play guitar I would just play keyboards. Being a keyboard player in a band put me in the same family as The Doors. The Doors were a big influence on me and I really gravitated towards bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. They were bringing out these synthesizers and performing rock ‘n roll in a very extravagant way. Those were the moments when I knew my future was with synthesizers.
It’s interesting that you mention Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer being a major influence on you. I feel like history should have been a little kinder to those bands.
Oh, absolutely. During the punk days I would have roommates and friends take my Emerson, Lake & Palmer records off the turntable and frisbee them into the park in front of my house. I had to wrestle people away from that turntable a lot. So I definitely felt the pain of that transition into punk. It wasn’t an easy one for me, but certain music came out around the time that really opened my eyes to new ways to use crazy sounds. Once I heard Devo and Kraftwerk I thought, Okay, you can still play synthesizers and it doesn’t have to only be like Tony Banks doing Genesis solos. There’s another way to use it. Skinny Puppy was one of those bands that was extremely influential to me through the grunge years. I was actually listening to Skinny Puppy all the time because they were doing this really horror-based synthesizer music that had nothing to do with pretty sounds or spacey sounds. It was super aggressive, and I really liked it.
If I may pivot back to The Strokes, what did working with them teach you about collaboration?
Let’s just say there were a lot of important lessons that I learned working with them. As a producer I’ve always tried to do the opposite of what all the producers and engineers did with me when I was a kid. They would treat me like I didn’t know anything and acted like they knew everything because they were the experts. And if I wanted to try something else, they would talk me out of doing it. So I always wanted to be the kind of producer who wouldn’t pull that type of attitude on a band. The Strokes helped me find places where I was still holding on to that attitude and they forced me to let go of it. I had to really listen to what they were saying to go forward. If I didn’t, we wouldn’t have gotten very far because they were so precise about what they wanted. So the big lesson that I learned working with the Strokes was to always listen to ideas from people who I work very closely with, and not just assume that because I have more experience that I know more than they do.
Is it true that the band initially objected to that iconic lo-fi vocal processing you put on the tracks?
Well that also goes back to Skinny Puppy. They wanted to have something super distinctive about the vocals so I gave them the Skinny Puppy treatment, which was the process that Skinny Puppy called the Shit-A-Lyzer. I basically just distorted the vocals beyond recognition and into oblivion and they just looked at me and said “That’s really awful. We don’t like that.” And then we worked on going from there to the sound you hear on the album within a ten-minute interval of time. And so it was good that I listened to them, because they helped me fine-tune it into something that people like.
Are there any newer records from this year that you’ve enjoyed?
I haven’t really found a lot of great stuff. I really like Colleen Green’s new album, Cool, which was an album I worked on. The last time I got really, really excited about new music was when I discovered Lil Peep. I came a little late to that party, but I found that very interesting. So I’ll sometimes hear new music and I think it’s good, but I haven’t found much that made me want to hear it a second time in a long time. I also finally started listening to Mitski this year and wow. She’s really something else.
Thank you so much for joining me today. This is already the highlight of my week.
You’re very welcome. It was very nice speaking with you.
Regardless of music preferences, we can all agree that Britney Spears has left an indelible mark on pop culture that will be remembered for decades to come. Britney is one of the few pop stars who exists in a realm outside the rigid structures of genre. Everybody loves Britney, from classic rock dads to indie kids, hip hop heads, and even K-pop stans. As the author of Being Britney Jennifer Otter Bickerdike said, “There is no other artist who has had the same cultural impact as Britney, except maybe Elvis and The Beatles. Britney transcends presidents and she transcends the progression from brick and mortar music stores to the digital age.”
As a celebration of Britney’s freedom from her conservatorship and a tribute to her legacy, a collective of DIY artists from Boston and Canada have banned together to render a genre-bending collection of Spears covers in a compilation titled Now That’s What I Call Britney, Bitch.
This labor of love was organized by Andrea Neuenfeldt of Boston-based DIY bands Birdwatching, Fake Rays, and Pismo Beach Disaster. “As the Britney Spears conservatorship news and the grassroots rallying cry for her freedom became a front-page mainstream issue, I started rediscovering her as an artist, and as a formative part of my musical coming of age,” Neuenfeldt tells me. “Like so many fans, I saw a tiny bit of myself in her as someone who has struggled with mental health. I decided after watching a few docs on her and listening to her early albums on repeat that this could be a cool little project, and a way to honor a pop icon.”
The track list consists of nine reinterpretations of Britney hits, from Al Z’s lo-fi slowcore take on “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” to Phased Approach’s bubblegum glitch version of “Till the World Ends,” and a post-punk noir cover of “Toxic” by Daphne Blue Underworld with skittering drum patterns and zany guitar licks.
“It’s really impressive to see what people are capable of, especially given time and technology constraints,” Neuenfeldt continues. “Another aspect of covering an artist is the chance to try new instruments, and being adventurous with choices that we don’t always make when we’re writing our own music. I love being surprised with the end result. This has been such a gratifying project to organize, to see DIY musicians in a new light and to witness the depths of their abilities.”
A Grrrl’s Two Sound Cents is thrilled to premiere this eclectic tribute to the pop icon, which is available exclusively on Bandcamp. The proceeds will go to It Starts With Us, a community database documenting missing and murdered Indigenous Two-Spirit, trans, non-binary, and femme individuals in Canada.
Hailing from the South of London, frenzied post-punk outfit Scrounge is the gruesome twosome of Lucy Alexander (guitar, vocals) and Luke Cartledge (percussion). The duo have mastered the art of crafting arresting tunes driven by shrewdly compelling riffs and percussion so immediate that it’s physically impossible to ignore.
Calling Scrounge a “band” doesn’t exactly do them justice. A more apt description would be a clamoring two-piece wrecking crew with a serious knack for rhythm and melody. Lucy’s dynamic riffs and Luke’s thrashing percussion on songs like “Purpose,” and “Badoom,” craft a distinctly stirring soundscape that draws from an array of influences, from Sonic Youth to Warpaint.
Their most recent single “Leaking Drains,” which closely followed the release of their 2019 EP Ideal, ruminates on the decaying state of society with slashing guitars, primal lead vocals, and whiplash percussion.
I spoke to Scrounge frontwoman Lucy Alexander about the origins of the band, her love of Tyler, the Creator, and teaching the history of punk to primary school kids.
How are you today?
Good! I just finished teaching. I’m a music teacher, so it’s very Jack Black. My class has been making zines this afternoon. The kids are ages 10-11 and I gave them a project to make zines on radical forms of art and why music matters to them. They came up with some really cool stuff, actually.
How would you describe Scrounge to new listeners?
We’re a noisy two-piece post punk band from South London.
What was your first favorite band?
Oh god. I was listening to really terrible stuff at an early age. But as soon as I started seriously getting into music and saw Warpaint play live for the first time, I was sold. That made me realize this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
What made you and Luke initially click when you first met?
We met at Goldsmiths where we played together intermittently. Luke originally played the guitar, and I thought he was the best guitar player I’d ever seen. After we first played together we had a chat about music we both liked and we started going to gigs together. We were in loads of different bands together before we formed Scrounge. We didn’t really know what we were doing and we originally wanted to call ourselves Mint, which is British slang for dope or cool. We eventually stumbled into Scrounge because it was snappy and quick.
What attracted you to the post-punk realm?
It’s so immediate. I love the urgency of the sound and how it demands the listener’s attention. A lot of our favorite bands do that, and we’re just in awe of how effortlessly they attract attention with the sounds they produce. There aren’t many rules in post-punk, which was also a great way to express ourselves and work out where we fit into the world after leaving University.
I was out of breath just listening to “Leaking Drains.” What’s it like to play that song live?
We actually start all our sets with it now, cause it’s such a quick song and it’s a great way for us to get in the zone, especially when it’s just the two of us. It really propels us forward to keep going.
What song are you most proud of?
I would say “Purpose.” That was the first song of ours that was played on the radio. That song allowed us to go from recording in a shed to acquiring studio space and putting hours into our work. Another one I’m particularly proud of is “Starve.” That was the second song we wrote together and it’s the one moment where we actually get to relax and center ourselves in our sets.
How on earth did Luke come up with those cacophonous drum breaks on “Purpose?” That might be the most jarring sound I’ve ever heard.
Luke has a really great ear. He wanted to create the sound of two bin lids crashing together and eventually found some midi keyboard with that specific sound and just went off the wall.
What is a band you’ve been compared to that’s either surprised or flattered you?
Well, because there’s two of us people are really quick to put us in a box. One that we get compared to quite a bit because we’re a two-piece is The White Stripes, which is nice. But we’re nowhere near their level, and our sound is nothing like theirs. I wouldn’t put the White Stripes in the category of post-punk at all. It’s definitely more straight blues rock. I find it nicer to be compared to individuals rather than to other bands, because that’s how we operate. We don’t come in a package. But one publication recently compared us to Sonic Youth, which was a huge compliment.
You’ve said that your guitar playing is inspired by the likes of Sleater-Kinney and Warpaint. What is it about their particular guitar parts that draws you in?
Watching someone like Carrie Brownstein play, her guitar style is so dynamic. The sounds she manages to wrangle out of her guitar is just phenomenal. When I first saw Warpaint play, they made these incredible melodic sounds with their guitars that I’m just mesmerized by. If I could make anything as good as that I would be quite pleased with myself. Whenever Luke and I are in the studio we’re able to lay different parts down that meld together so well because our brains work completely differently.
Are you a big consumer of music-based media and/or books?
Definitely. I loved reading Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein’s autobiographies. I’m a big fan of music-based podcasts as well. There’s really geeky ones like “Switched on Pop” and “Song Exploder” that I’m just obsessed with. Mark Ronson’s podcast is great as well. He recently had Japanese Breakfast on and I’ve been dying to read her book.
How does personal identity and the culture around you pour into your work?
I write from my own experience quite a lot, whereas Luke writes a lot about the social and cultural stuff. At this point in time with so much going on in the world it’s almost impossible for that not to filter into our work. This past year for everyone has been incredibly tough. That experience has filtered into our upcoming projects as well and I hope we’re able to convey our own experiences in a substantial way.
How does the way you listen to music filter into your work?
When I first started performing I was really focused on sounding a certain way, but it’s really about trying different things until we come up with something cohesive. Luke will listen to various drum patterns and find ways to articulate them in his own way, whereas I always draw from live experiences. I just saw Róisín Murphy at Brixton Academy, and she’s renowned for being an incredible performer. The one thing that blew my mind seeing her was that her guitar player played the same loop for almost five minutes, and I was just mesmerized.
I love Róisín! How was that show?
It was absolutely mad. I had actually never seen her before, but my girlfriend had seen her loads. The last time my girlfriend saw her she had the costume department on stage so she could wear whatever she wanted and would dress as different Shakespeare characters. When I saw her she started out backstage on the screen, giving the audience a tour and doing her quick changes with all these elaborate wigs and suits. It was a very cleverly structured performance and she ended her set in the corridors of the venue which was just amazing to watch. If I ever decide to put on a massive spectacle in a live performance I’m definitely going to have to take a page out of her book. If you ever get the chance to see her you definitely should take the opportunity. I’m not sure what touring in the U.S. is like n0w but it seems like it’s up and running again.
For sure. But after what’s happened with Astroworld in Texas, I’m not so sure how I feel about going to the pit at festivals anymore.
That was so awful. Horrible. I actually watched the Travis Scott documentary on Netflix last year, and from what I saw of those live shows I remember thinking, Someone’s gonna get seriously hurt. I went through a serious Odd Future phase when I was younger. I still love Tyler, the Creator dearly, but that was the most chaotic environment I’d ever been in. I could never handle that atmosphere with a bunch of entitled white boys at hip hop shows again. Looking back, that was just extremely toxic. The men there were just… ooooof. Not good. It was really claustrophobic. I remember all the men shoving to the front and a man next to me put his arm up for five minutes and my face was literally right up in his armpit. I went to the Igor tour a year and a half ago, and that environment was on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. There were less bros and more of a mix of people from different backgrounds, which was nice to see.
When you’re experiencing stress what is the first song you put on to relieve yourself?
I’ve been listening to so much Self Esteem. She has this amazing song called “The Best,” so she’s my number 1 at the moment. She just released an album called Prioritise Pleasure that’s topping all the best album lists. She used to be in an indie band, and this album is purely intelligent pop. It’s very feel-good but it also speaks to the female experience in a very sincere and honest way.
We’re all about discovering new music here. What should we be listening to right now?
Like I said, if you’re looking for relief, Self Esteem. And if you want some bangers to smash around to, Special Interest.
Forgiveness is uneasy ground to tread. How do we forgive without giving the transgressor a pass? Perhaps we’ll manage to convince ourselves that the purpose in forgiving is for self-preservation and we really aren’t co-signing what happened to us. But why is it always more difficult to forgive ourselves?
Mitski ponders this invariable question on her forthcoming album, Laurel Hell. “I needed songs that could help me forgive both others and myself,” she confessed. “I needed to create this space mostly for myself where I sat in that gray area.”
Yesterday, Mitski unearthed the album’s spellbinding third single, “Heat Lightning,” which was preceded by the equally arresting “Working for the Knife” and “The Only Heartbreaker.”
“Heat Lightning” is a blossoming rumination on guilt-induced insomnia. “And there’s nothing I can do / Not much I can change / Can I give it up to you / Would that be okay?” she muses over pulsing synths, orchestral string swells, and dynamic reverb-drenched piano melodies. The song closely echoes the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” with its screeching guitar parts and Moe Tucker-like drum arrangements.
When asked what her intentions were on her upcoming album, Mitski answered, “I wrote what I needed to hear, as I’ve always done.” And the unrestrained urgency on “Heat Lightning” only further cements her uncanny ability to transform affliction into exaltation.
The formation of Brooklyn-based shredders Razor Braids is an inspiring story of triumph in the wake of trauma. Shortly after experiencing a fall and a subsequent head injury that left her temporarily incapacitated, bandleader Hollye Bynum (vocals, bass), decided to pick up a bass and start a band. Shortly after being joined by Janie Peacock (guitar), Hanna Nichols (drums), and Jilly Karande (rhythm guitar, vocals), Razor Braids swiftly picked up speed and became mainstays at legendary New York venues including The Mercury Lounge, Rough Trade, and Baby’s All Right.
Much like their name, Razor Braids’ gritty and eclectic sound is unapologetically feminine and sharp as a tack. It is the quintessential sound of New York. And no, not New York as an aspirational touchpoint for voyeuristic cultural tourism, but a city saturated with over-stimulation, where people in all five boroughs are forced to scrounge for crumbs and develop a backbone of steel just to survive. The place where artists can find camaraderie and solace in community, despite the flawed environmental circumstances around them.
“Here [in New York] there’s a very straightforward, rough-around-the-edges sort of ‘fuck you’ attitude that rises to the surface in our sound,” frontwoman Hollye Bynum tells me. “So I would say that our music is absolutely tethered to our experience living in Brooklyn.”
Finding strength during hard times is the hallmark of Razor Braids’ output. This is expanded on the band’s debut record out tomorrow, I Could Cry Right Now If You Wanted Me To, a dynamic ten-track album that cobbles together pastiches of genres including shoegaze, post-hardcore, folk, psych, 90s riot grrrl, and abrasive indie rock. The percussive immediacy paired with Peacock and Karande’s rippling riffs and fuzzy guitar tones, all bond like a magnet to the push-and-pull of tension and release in Bynum’s unrestrained lead vocals. “No I’m not dead, no not quite yet,” she sneers defiantly on the opening track against the stomping renegade of Nichols’ drumming. The album also contains spiky high-energy thrashers like “Don’t Stop!” which is strongly reminiscent of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Date with The Night.”
But it’s the slower cuts like “I’m a Blackhole (and you’ll never get out),” “White Noise Machine,” and “42,” that hit the hardest. “Blackhole” culminates in the entire band singing together in four-part harmonies, each one of their voices on equal footing. The grand finale, “42,” is a six-minute epic slow burn with an almost operatic quality. Bynum’s warbling lead vocals and Peacock’s weeping slide guitars are guaranteed to have an undeniable emotional pull on the listener.
I sat down with Razor Braids for a chat about how their unbreakable bond as a band strengthened over lockdown, the spiritual awakenings they’ve had when performing on stage, harnessing their vulnerability in songwriting, and the evolution of guitar music on the East Coast.
How would you describe Razor Braids to a stranger?
Hollye Bynum: Our sound and our vibe is very eclectic. Jilly came up with a great short and concise description the other day that I really liked!
Jilly Karande: Well, I would say that first and foremost that we’re a rock band. But we like to combine indie rock vulnerability with a punk rock energy tied up in a little 90s DIY package.
Hollye, would you be comfortable talking a little about your backstory and how that led to starting a band?
Bynum: After five and a half years of running a dance company in New York, I started shifting my focus back to music after learning that a woman I worked with played the drums and we started a band together.
Around November 17th of 2017 I was visiting my parents for Thanksgiving when I slipped and got a pretty serious head injury. After six months of not being able to do any physical activity, I took one of my last paychecks from a music video I choreographed and said “Fuck it, I’m gonna buy a bass!” I would say learning bass absolutely helped me get the wheels turning again in my brain as I went through rehabilitation. I got connected to Janie through a mutual friend who knew I was looking for a guitarist, and I already knew Jilly from an acting class we had taken together. Once Jilly joined the band we played Punk Island, where we saw a band called Space Bitch and their drummer was Hannah. So I messaged her totally fangirling over her skills and asked if she wanted to join the band. We had just let our former drummer go, so everything ended up falling into place at exactly the right time.
You guys were playing legendary New York venues like Rough Trade and Brooklyn Bowl before the big shutdown. What was it like having to constantly re-adjust through different phases of the pandemic?
Bynum: It was a little bit of a bummer for me at first. It was extremely scary for everyone because nobody knew what was going to happen next. We had all spent so much time prepping for this release and we were so close to touring outside of New York. When the shutdown ended up becoming more permanent than we initially realized, we had to adjust our expectations a lot. I don’t want to speak for everybody but I feel like the silver lining of one of the biggest errors of humanity was that we were forced to slow down and consider what mattered the most to us.
When we finally reunited physically as a band it was incredible because of all the time we had to reflect and reconnect through songwriting. But it really gave us a lot of time and space to record. Recording became such an intensive and emotional process for us and we got so much closer. We never had that time to emotionally connect until the big shutdown, so I’m very grateful for that.
Janie Peacock: I’ll tell you, it definitely made me appreciate the act of performing live a lot more. I now perform every show as if it’s my last. There’s a new sense of energy I can unleash whenever we perform, because at this point we never know when that could be taken away from us.
Karande: For me switching the gears from performing live to only recording in the studio was an adjustment at first but it was exciting to really dive into these songs and pick them apart. It was really cool to spend more time in the studio, and since live shows are back it’s been cool to find that happy medium of making the songs performable and finding a balance between recording and the live experience.
For each of you, what is the one record that made you a full-time music fan?
Hanna Nichols: I would say Penis Envy by Crass. Growing up I was a huge fan of that album and its anarcho-feminist ethos. I actually got to stay at Dial House during my first trip to Europe and I had tea time with the people who still live there, which was fucking rad.
Karande: This is a bit of a joke answer but the 1999 Grammy-nominated compilation was definitely life-changing for me. I remember being three years old at the time and thinking ‘The Goo Goo Dolls? What’s that? This is so much better than my Barney music.’ The serious answer would be Lorde’s Melodrama. That album was really cool because it was nice to see a pop album that centered young female feelings actually get taken seriously.
Bynum: I remember being obsessed with Jessica Lea Mayfield’s Make My Head Sing. I always come back to that album like it’s my first time listening to it and wear the hell out of it. The first track on the album opens with the most distorted and booming bass I’ve ever heard and then Jessica Lea Mayfield comes in with her delicate, twangy, falsetto country voice and it’s so badass. That was the first time I realized I didn’t have to make pretty singer-songwriter music all the time. I realized I could think about tone and be eclectic in my approach to my own songs. She has a song called “Party Drugs” about being strung out and making bad choices, and I’m just obsessed with it.
Peacock: The first one that comes to mind for me is Icky Thump by the White Stripes. I used to own this little iPod and I would go to sleep and wake up listening to that album. When I was ten years old I would just lie down, listen to that album, and imagine that I was Jack White. I didn’t know that was a possibility until I joined Razor Braids.
I love that! What are some of the most memorable out-of-body experiences you’ve had onstage?
Peacock: There are certain moments we’ll have onstage as a band where we’ll all make eye contact and feel this unspeakable connection. Whenever we all feel the stimulation of the lights, noise, and adrenaline, we’ll experience these [moments of synchronicity] where it feels like a higher power has overtaken us, and there’s no other feeling like that.
Bynum: There will be times when Janie will rip up her fingers and bleed all over the place without even noticing. Those are times where I can tell she’s just connected with some higher fucking power on the stage. I feel like she’s living the Jack White experience every time she’s onstage, especially after lockdown because none of us are holding back anymore.
Nichols: I feel like Janie is a cross between Jack White and Jack Black.
What are some of the most memorable experiences you had recording the album?
Bynum: Recording the album was great because we were no longer withholding anything and were really able to be present and open up to one another. I’ve never felt more connected to anybody up to that point. It really felt like everything was on the line and we were all showing up equally. There was a magnifying glass on us and we brought everything from within to the forefront. I could not be more proud of how each one of us showed up for each other and for ourselves. The level of skill and talent that each of us brought to the table as individuals was one of the most inspiring experiences that I’ll take to my grave. There was one point where Janie got electrocuted and continued to shred like nobody’s business, it was insane.
Nichols: I remember when we recorded “42,” the final track on the album. Hollye was laying on the floor and we all started crying at the end. It was one of those really precious moments that I’ll cherish forever.
Bynum: “42” definitely turned us all into a wreck. I remember us all huddled around the computer and clutching at each other.
Karande: Janie got into the booth and laid down that entire guitar part in one take. That was truly mesmerizing.
Bynum: Yeah, that was a spiritual experience. But please don’t get electrocuted again!
Peacock: It was definitely a spiritual experience because I had never felt that way while playing before we recorded that song. It was an out-of-body experience.
I definitely hear what you’re saying because listening to that song really made me sit down and reflect on a lot.
I also wanted to ask you guys about the current state of being a guitar band in New York. Do you ever feel the weight of such a heavy legacy?
Bynum: When I started the band I had just read Meet Me in the Bathroom [an oral history of New York garage rock and electronic music in the 2000s]. That book is pretty much the reason why I’m in a band now. I grew up loving those groups. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs living in Williamsburg in the early 2000s and playing loft shows was such a vibe. Then you had the communities on the Lower East Side with The Strokes and Interpol. And The East Village was booming in the 70s with CBGB and the punk scene. After becoming so aware of the cyclical phases of guitar music in New York where these incredible scenes rise and then die out for a little bit before shortly rising again has always fascinated me. I would have loved to be alive when CBGB was still going.
Exactly. It’s pretty wild that at that time CBGB was considered one of the most undesirable bars in the neighborhood, but the environment and the music was so incredible.
Bynum: Exactly, and the atmosphere often doesn’t matter. What matters is the music, the community, and how great it feels to be present, hanging out, playing shows, and just being around each other no matter the location.
That was what really bummed me out about Covid, because it felt like–just barely–we were finally inching back to building a sustainable community and scene in Brooklyn. Fortunately, we’re back there again, we didn’t completely lose it. There’s a very specific voice and community of musicians that’s being cultivated here. I think it’s so interesting to listen to an artist’s discography and then read a book where they go into how things were at the time and everything that transpired, especially since I was a big fan of The Strokes growing up.
Same here. Been Stellar said something in an interview about how guitar bands in New York should never cover The Strokes. It’s incredible how New York today is still reeling from the massive bomb they dropped when Is This It? came out twenty years ago.
Bynum: Yeah. There are certain artists that are just off limits. Because The Strokes were just so purely who they were. So much of it was about attitude and an image that could never be authentically replicated. That’s why all of the bands trying to capitalize off of copying the Strokes failed. There will never be another Strokes. Trying to emulate that is doing yourself a disservice. I wouldn’t say I necessarily agree with not being allowed to cover certain bands, but it’s definitely a heavy legacy to take on.
As instrumentalists, are there any specific musicians who have influenced the ways each of you play?
Peacock: I’d say Ty Segall was the biggest influence for me tone-wise. I really aimed to replicate that fuzzy, distorted sound similar to what Billy Corgan did in the Smashing Pumpkins. Riff-wise, I always return to Jack White because so much of his guitar work is so straightforward and simple but so catchy. I love a head-banging riff! Harnessing that power and energy is what I aim for.
Nichols: Definitely Bill Ward, the drummer from Black Sabbath. Jon Bonham too. I know every rock drummer says that, but how can you not? Ginger Baker is another one. I feel like those three really set the groundwork for rock drumming.
Karande: I played a lot of folky acoustic guitar growing up, so when I started it was a lot of Elliott Smith and the Tallest Man on Earth. I really studied a lot of the intricate finger-picking and I think it’s been really fun to translate that into our sound. I feel like Mitski walks that line really well. And I’m also obsessed with Sleater-Kinney’s guitar tones because they’re just insane.
Bynum: I started out as a vocalist and didn’t start playing bass until later to support my voice. I feel like starting out when I did gave me a lot more freedom to not follow any specific formula or emulate other people. There’s a lot of great bass lines in soul music and standup bass in bluegrass music. But tone-wise, I really dig the work that Adam Devonshire from IDLES does on bass. I’m a sucker for really thick bass lines.
How has it been prepping for the album release so far?
Bynum: I was actually lying down the other night and wondering if anything else needed to be changed and Janie really forced me to take a step back. We’ve listened to this album and performed these songs so many times, and I’ve realized after all this buildup, the release finally being here is just surreal. We basically already have enough material to put on our next record. This is only the beginning for us, so it’s such a nostalgic feeling to be back here and finally be sharing all the work we’ve put into this album. There are some songs we’ve never played live that we’re playing at our release show, and I’m ready for the loud, wild, New York energy baby!
Seattle-based punk virtuosoSofiiak’s debut EP Cowgrrrl (the revolution demos) is slated to come out on November 26 via Riot Grrrl Records. The project is a genre-bending fever dream that spans country, jazz, dreampop, and riot grrrl. The best way I can describe sound of this EP is if Le Tigre and Dolly Parton were catapulted into the 1930s to play at a jazz lounge in Kansas City with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
Sofia Krutikova is the brains behind Sofiiak. They grew up in the mosh pit, which opened the door for them to work at local Seattle venues as a sound engineer. There, they quickly fell in love with the intricacies of producing, which led them to enroll in KEXP’s 90.TEEN public radio program in high school. Krutikovahas also made a name for themself as a journalist in The Stranger and as a co-founder of the Riot Grrrl Records label, whichpublishes monthly zines modernizing the riot grrrl movement.
On this EP, Sofiiak combines the searing bite of Bratmobile records with the serene tranquility of Mazzy Star and the cracked-out production glitches of hyperpop records.
I sat down with Sofiiak to chat about the EP as well as their favorite bands, their love of Rico Nasty, and the punk essence of Charlie Parker. We also talked about their obsession with the omnichord, a portable synthesizer with preset string-rhythms and bass lines that has the ability to produce otherworldly sounds.
What is the most important statement you are trying to make with this project?
That self-care is really important. It’s super easy to get burnt out in the music world and in general. I touch on this in the song “online school during covid,” but daily life can get super repetitive. Continuing to live from project to project and shift to shift is really unhealthy. It’s a really big anti-capitalist statement in favor of self-care. With the production I was really exploring pushing the boundaries of how many weird sounds I could make in Logic while sharing the invasive thoughts in my head about injustice and physical and mental burnout.
Who are three people who make up the Holy Trinity of Riot Grrrl for you?
Well Rico Nasty is up top. I love her. I think that her ethos is the most hardcore Riot Grrrl mentality I’ve ever witnessed. I would also say Bam Bam because they are grunge pioneers, and I believe that Riot Grrrl and grunge go hand-in-hand. And of course, I’m gonna have to go with the classic, Bikini Kill.
How did you cobble all of your versatile influences together for this EP?
I would say that jazz is a big influence, especially Charlie Parker and bebop jazz. I took a jazz history class during the making of this EP and the history of jazz is just insane because none of them were doing it for profit. They were playing music just for the sake of playing music. When you really think about it, the first punk bands were 100% jazz. They weren’t trying to appeal to mass audiences. They were tinkering and improvising. And I took a very similar approach in making this EP. This is music for me. If audiences like it then that’s just a bonus.
I was very inspired by Hannah Jadagu, a bedroom pop artist who signed to Sub Pop this year. I was also influenced by a lot of Russian darkwave and goth, being Russian and Ukrainian myself. There’s this one song called “Disconnexion” by La Femme. It’s a club track with a banjo, and that’s the type of chaos I’m going for. I was also highly influenced by a lot of country music, especially Dolly Parton. I’ve been loving everything that Lil Nas X and Orville Peck have been doing as well.
How important has your background as a sound engineer and mixer been to your own music?
I think it’s super important. I’ve always been attracted to the STEM field of music. I’m an engineer at several venues in Seattle and I love being in control of live sound, so being able to utilize that background in my own music gives me the freedom to create the exact sound that I want, rather than other people dictating what I get to sound like. Producing has also been beneficial to the way I operate as an engineer because it gives me more knowledge of how to apply effects correctly, depending on the setting.
How’s that search for an omnichord going?
I’m so glad you asked, because I couldn’t stop talking about the omnichord in the latest article I wrote for The Stranger. I’m still looking for one. One of my friends has one, so I might go over to their house and jam. I believe the omnichord will arrive in my life when the universe deems it fit.
What does Dolly Parton mean to you?
I love Dolly. I was Goth Dolly Parton for Halloween. I love her aesthetic, her sound, and what she does with her platform. She’s the picture of humility. She basically funded the Maderna vaccine and it feels nice to know that my vaccine is Dolly-approved. The amount she was able to accomplish in such a male-dominated field like country music is incredibly inspiring. I would love to do a goth-inspired synth cover of “Jolene” at some point.
What influenced the vocal techniques on this EP?
A lot of it has been riot grrrl approaches to vocals. I did choir for two years when I went to Russian school, but my choir teacher was hell. A lot of my vocal style comes from trying to match pitch with the records I listen to while incorporating theory into it to make sure my voice stays in key. And I’m addicted to reverb. I love how it envelopes the vocals in a blanket of echoes. I think there’s so much you can do with vocal effects that a lot of people in mainstream music don’t utilize cause they’re afraid of sounding weird.
Your lyric on the final track about dickheads who question your music taste was really cathartic to hear. Dudes who musicsplain are the absolute worst. What drove you to write about it?
I’ve worked at record stores since I was sixteen and I’ve literally had men come up to me and ask me, “Do you even buy records?” at my literal job! Like, YES I buy records sir, I’ve been collecting since I was twelve. Whatever. If these men need to believe they’re introducing me to Nirvana in order to feel special, then that’s not my problem. It’s actually pretty sad.
Did you really break your guitar while singing Angel Olsen?
Yes! I was playing “Shut Up Kiss Me,” and I broke the whammy bar on my guitar. They couldn’t get it fixed at Guitar Center so I ended up having to buy a new one. That’s okay, I still love you, Angel Olsen!
What are some of your favorite music discoveries you’ve made this year?
I love this one song called “Autopilot” by russian.girls. I’ve become a big fan of Vegyn’s production, especially the work he does with Frank Ocean. I fell into a Billie Holiday rabbit hole after watching the Billie Holiday biopic. I just love the way she wrote about her personal life in her lyrics and her vocal style. The new Snail Mail record is incredible as well. I really wanted to book an interview with her for the zine, but she’s literally been on the cover of Rolling Stone, so I never expected her people to get back to me. I’ve been listening to so much Regina Spektor. She makes me feel seen as a Russian-American musician and that Soviet Kitsch album is just incredible. That one later Miles Davis album – I think it was called Doo-Bop – is also great. That was basically a hip hop album.
From Protomartyr to black midi, Dehd, Dry Cleaning, and Iceage, an exciting barrage of guitar rock bands are finally making their way through the sludge. There’s still debate over whether the Strokes opened up a new world for indie rock or if they simply put a collective curse on guitar music after 2001. But New York-based indie outfit Been Stellar can certainly feel the weight of that legacy looming over them. “You should never cover a Strokes song if you’re in a guitar band from New York City. Never,” they told Monster Children in September. “Word gets out that you do a Strokes cover and that’s what you do.”
Crawling out of the crevices of New York’s DIY art scene, Been Stellar was first formed by high school friends Sam Slocum (Vocals) and Skyler St. Marx (Guitar). Slocum and St. Marx later attended NYU where they would be joined by Nando Dale (Guitar), Laila Wayans (Drums), and Nico Brunstein (Bass). The gritty and enticing post punk five-piece emerged last year with their initial singles, “Fear of Heights,” “The Poets,” and “Louis XIV.” The three aforementioned songs are melodic and confrontational indie rock psalms that unravel the harsh realities of growing up in a city where culture is eclipsed by corporate commercialism and American tourism.
Been Stellar’s latest single, “Kids 1995,” is an emotional unfurling of self-reflection against washed out guitars and a semi-detached delivery reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. Inspired by the controversial Larry Clark and Harmony Korine film Kids, the song directly references the movie in the lyrics, with lead singer Sam Slocum reciting dialogue from the end of the film as well as the soundtrack (“‘What the hell happened?’ And then the credits rolled/’Spoiled,’ Sebadoh”). The song evokes moving images of young students smoking and waxing poetic outside at a party on the eve of their college graduation, marking the end of youth and the start of an uncertain adult life (“It’s up to you/But it’s also up to you”).
I spoke to Been Stellar about growing up, their favorite albums, and the the undesirable parts of living in New York in your early twenties.
Congrats on the new single! How’s the release cycle been treating you?
Skyler St. Marx: Pretty good. Can’t complain!
Sam Slocum: It feels pretty weird to put it out now. We wrote it around two and a half years ago, so we have a [totally different] connection with it at this point. It was also a lot of fun making the music video. We did a showing the other night and people seem to really like the song, which is awesome.
Laila Wayans: Yeah, we did write it a while ago. I would say we definitely altered the song to make it more aligned with what we’re doing now.
That’s interesting. How do you feel your relationship with the song has changed since you wrote it?
Slocum: Well we definitely connect with it, cause we wouldn’t ever put out a song we didn’t like. But it’s always a little weird to revisit an older part of yourself, especially since the world has changed so much since we wrote the song. It almost feels like I’m watching a movie of my past self whenever I hear the song. People seem to really connect with it, though.
You open the song recalling a first-time viewing of the movie Kids. Was watching that film the catalyst for the song in real life or was it something else that transpired that inspired the actual song?
Slocum: No, that was it. I watched the movie Kids in my sophomore year of college and it made me really reflect on my own life. To be honest, the song doesn’t really have much to do with the actual movie, it’s more about the internal thoughts I had after watching it.
What kind of internal thoughts?
Slocum: I guess it’s a sort of self-examination by way of another person. It has a lot to do with my own personal experience witnessing a person I was close with grow into a different person and using that as a foil to examine my own internal struggles. A lot of it has to do with the loss of innocence, which is displayed in the film — the idea of being robbed of this sort of protection [from an unforgiving world] that shelters you as a child.
I could definitely sense that, but the song also seems to contain a degree of hope. Would you agree?
Slocum: There’s one lyric in the song that goes, “It’s up to you, but it’s also up to you.” I think it can go either way because on one hand it sounds optimistic and on the other hand it’s kind of sad. I feel like you can place the emphasis of hope on either side. I don’t know if we thought about it that deeply while we were writing it, though.
St. Marx: It definitely strikes me as hopeful. To me it sounds a lot like the narrator is giving their friend some really sound advice, and hoping that the friend will take their advice to heart and do the right thing. The end of the song seems to demonstrate a sort of restored faith [in humanity] and self-assurance.
What is one album that changed the way each of you listen to music?
St. Marx: For me the first album that really made me fall in love with the intricacies of music is probably Turn on the Bright Lights by Interpol or The Velvet Underground & Nico. The Velvet Underground really taught me how lyrics can really be integral to a song without seeming too complimentary to the instruments.
Slocum: For me it’s probably Kid A by Radiohead. That was the first time I listened to something outside of the pop realm and it really changed the way I thought popular music could sound.
Nando Dale: I would say Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. Hearing the guitar tones and the way it’s produced really made me reconsider the formula of a rock song. I definitely carry that influence with me today.
Wayans: I’m torn between two polar opposite albums. The first is Product by SOPHIE because I’d never heard sounds like that in my life. That album shook my whole world.
The other one would be [Siamese Dream] by Smashing Pumpkins, because I’ve listened to that album since I was a kid but didn’t have the wherewithal to understand the lyrics. Listening to “Today” in my early-twenties really made me reconsider the weight of these lyrics that had previously gone over my head as a child.
Nico Brunstein: I would say Let It Be(The Naked Version) by The Beatles, because it was so interesting hearing how that record got from point A to point B — what the band wanted the album to sound like versus what the producer made it sound like. I thought that was a really interesting way to look at how music can change based on who is at the wheel.
What drew you to the realm of sound you embody in your music?
St. Marx: Well we all come from a very diverse background of influences. There’s definitely some core records that we all really like, but we all bring something different to the table. Our songwriting process is very collaborative and we tend to write as a unit, rather than one person writing everything. We’ve gone through a few different evolutions of trying stuff out that we aren’t super stoked on in retrospect. We’ve found over the years that we like the lyrics to be really clear and at the forefront with guitars that are also transparent but simultaneously washed over with sound like the Sonic Youth/shoegaze type of sound. What got us there was a lot of hacking away at different ideas. In the middle of the pandemic we got a practice space of our own, which was new because before the pandemic we would only practice at NYU facilities, which didn’t really give us the tools to thrive creatively because it wasn’t our space. Having a space of our own has helped us out a lot.
Dale: Returning to the city in the middle of the pandemic to create really enhanced our sound, so that time away was actually good for us.
As you guys know, living in New York as a 20-something is very different from the popular view of New York as this American ideal/aspirational touchstone. Is that something you often tackle in your music?
St. Marx: Absolutely. Especially the point New York City’s at now. To be our age in New York at this time is just very strange. There’s a lot of stuff about the city that we really don’t like, but there’s also a lot of stuff we’re hopeful for. We’re all really drawn to the idea of song lyrics being tethered to one place. You can always tell on certain albums that were made at certain locations that they couldn’t have been made anywhere else. That’s something that we’re very conscious of, but New York as a whole has always been confusing to us.
What was it like to go on your first national tour after everything that’s happened in the past year?
Wayans: It was absolutely crazy.
Dale: Yeah, it was definitely at the right time too. Everything was starting to open back up and we were all so eager to experience life and see the country. It was definitely the most tired we’ve ever been in our lives.
St. Marx: Yeah. For our first tour to be really DIY was weird. We were supporting Catcher at really interesting venues around the country, but the logistics of everything were in our own hands.
Dale: There were certain points where we couldn’t even hang out or have a drink cause we had to drive for seventeen hours to get to the next stop.
Wayans: Definitely. But in the same token after being stuck in one place for so long, being on the road sort of kept us sane. We were finally able to experience life after lockdown and see the country.
Slocum: We came back and for a good five days and we were really out of it. It took a minute to adjust to being in one place again.
What was the most interesting stop you made on tour?
St. Marx: Definitely Texas. Going to Texas is like going to another planet. We also really enjoyed Birmingham, Alabama and Seattle. San Diego was also cool. Not to sound like a coastal elite, but we had a very cursory experience of each city, and I still can’t see myself living anywhere other than New York.
Do you have anything else to plug?
St. Marx: We’re playing a show at Elsewhere on November 21.
Dale: We also have a music video for the B-side coming out soon, so stay tuned for that.
After a two-year hiatus from music, queer folk singer-songwriter Mae Krell returned this year to continue tugging on the collective heartstrings of their devoted listeners and fans with the singles “are you sure,” “colorblind,” “rest stop,” and “snow.” Their newest single “phantom limb,” was released last week.
“phantom limb” swells with crisp acoustic plucking and echoing walls of reverberating piano. The soft instrumental accompaniment and melancholy tonalities of Krell’s voice evokes the style of Big Thief and Phoebe Bridgers.
Throughout the song, Krell unravels their shortcomings in the process of recovering from addiction. “You’re still here like a phantom limb/An itch I can’t scratch cause I’ll tear off my skin,” they sigh in a sorrowful lilting vocal delivery over scintillating production.
“People often expect me to be ‘healed’ now that I’m sober, not realizing that my disease will continue to trail behind me for the rest of my life,” Mae revealed. “‘phantom limb’ speaks to my recovery, and what it’s like to choose to carry something difficult with you instead of letting it go untreated.”
I know what it’s like to love someone who struggles with addiction, and this song is a stab-in-the-heart reminder that no matter what a person does to help their recovering loved ones, there really is no way to understand a person’s relationship to substance abuse unless you’ve lived through addiction yourself. Krell has lived that experience, and their transparency in “phantom limb” is honest without diminishing the struggle nor overstating it.