TOBI VAIL INTERVIEWS GRASS WIDOW
Grass Widow don’t sound like any other band. Struggling to describe what I mean by this in a review of their previous album, Past Time, I wrote “they create their own formalistic, aesthetic universe with its own internal logic. They don’t sound like they are following anyone’s rules at all. They sound like they are listening to themselves and each other and creating their own musical language.” I was happy and surprised when they told that me they decided to name their album “Internal Logic” as a reference to my review.
I first met Grass Widow last fall in Brooklyn when I got to DJ their show opening for The Raincoats. It was a perfect match. The audience was there to see both bands and it was the rare occasion where neither band seemed to overshadow the other. The next morning we all went out to breakfast and the conversation was easy and free and at times very funny. It felt nice to be in a group of fifteen or so women artists who were all prioritizing their work. Gender wasn’t the focus that day, but it wasn’t absent from the table either. It was good to be in a place where we could all be comfortable in our own skin and not forced into some kind of rigid category or prescribed role. It made me realize how much I miss playing music with other women and need to seek out creative female comrades. We became friends that day and have since kept in touch.
The next time we met, Grass Widow was touring the west coast with The Raincoats and their show in Seattle was even better than the one in Brooklyn. We decided to capture some of our conversation for The Believer, so we met in Olympia for coffee the following morning and I asked them what they would like to talk about in an interview. Stupidly, we didn’t record it, but I did take notes. The interview below happened a few weeks later, when Grass Widow was back in town for a few days to play shows with Deep Time. I think of it as a moment in an ongoing conversation between friends that will continue with or without the tape recorder. – Tobi Vail
TOBI VAIL: I just listened to your new record, Internal Logic. Let’s talk about how it came about.
HANNAH LEW: When we were writing our previous record, Past Time, it was a really hard time for us personally. My dad passed away and all these terrible things happened; a lot of the songs were really therapeutic to write, but not as pleasurable to play. So when we were writing Internal Logic, we intentionally wrote songs that felt good to play, and we thought about what we would want to hear ourselves sing about night after night; sentiments that we’d want to hear every night.
LILIAN MARING: I think Past Time sounds tense because we were really tense. We were basically trying to narrate our own survival. Internal Logic is more like, “Hey, we’re free to just be the way we want to be” now. There’s some jammy parts and it sounds like we’re more comfortable with ourselves and with playing with each other and just being happy. I think for a while it felt like we had to be brave to be happy. It was hard to be happy, and we couldn’t trust our lives to relax into happiness. This record is us relaxing into what we want to be as a band.
RAVEN MAHON: I like the new songs a lot more than some of our Past Tense songs.
LM: We also knew pretty much the whole time that we wanted to put it out ourselves, so I feel like that also influenced what we were doing. We weren’t wondering if anyone was going to like it enough to work with us, so we were kind of free to—to do whatever we wanted. Not that when we put out records with other people we didn’t feel free to do whatever we wanted…
TV: Okay, let’s talk about that. How are you doing the business part? Are you doing everything yourself or do you delegate?
RM: We have a band email account, so all of our business is channelled through that, and we’ll each answer emails or take on certain aspects, but not in a pre-determined way. It’s sort of as things come up; each one of us will take it on and then communicate to the rest of what the status is. We hired a publicist and have a booking agent that we really love, and being able to delegate those tasks is really helpful, because then we can concentrate on the music or the creative elements of the record.
HL: There isn’t one person in the band who does the business and everyone else gets to be creative. We’re all equally creative and we’re all equally diligent with all the work. We have a lot of decisions we’re constantly making—like all bands—but we make those choices together, and all those choices are informed by conversations we’ve had. Like, the way that we spend our money: it’s not an abstract amount of money. It’s like, “This is the money we made playing shows and selling records. We’re gonna spend it paying a publicist.” Our distributor is four blocks from our practice space at Revolver. We know them. It’s a completely tangible process. It’s not abstract to us. The way that music is right now, you can make a lot of choices. There are so many paths bands can go down –
RM: Even going to the record-pressing plant. We went to the plant together. There really isn’t any element of our music or the business that we aren’t all directly participating in.
TV: Hanna, you’ve mentioned that your publicist knows what your politics are. Do you want to articulate that a little bit?
HL: We were approached by a couple of publicity places, abd we basically had real conversations, letting them know what we felt was important. One thing that was really important was not to be marketed as “a girl band,” but to be marketed as musicians, and to have the merit of our musicianship be something he was publicising, instead of some kind of look.
I think that a lot of the punks pretend that they’re outside of capitalism and somehow off the grid, but I think you can make money and be honest about the way you’re making money—and not fuck people over. I That’s a distinction that a lot of people can’t make. It does cost money to put out a record, and we live in the Bay Area. We have to pay rent.
RM: The music isn’t an isolated thing. It’s the music and how we approach business and how we approach playing shows and the communication we want to have with the audience. That is what it is to be a band right now. A lot of bands don’t think about that stuff, or they decide not to make their decisions known. Or they default to whatever the greater machine is asking of them.
TV: So before you took the business aspect into your own hands, you kind of were getting ripped off a bit. Was that true also at shows?
LM: Yeah. It’s really insulting when you go to play a huge show that has a fourteen dollar ticket, and you know the band that’s headlining is getting paid thousands of dollars, and you’re offered a hundred. It never feels OK. Starting out as a band, people will just say “Oh, that’s normal.”
RM: We won’t do it. It just feels like you’re being used because you’re not being compensated with anything but this abstract idea of exposure.
LM: Or when you put out a record with a label, most of the time they’re getting fifty percent of your profit. We wrote those songs. We paid rent and stuff while we were writing those songs. Our souls are in there. Not only do we want to see back all the money and time we put into this, but we want all the glory [laughs] because we are the only people who really sweat and bled for this!
TV: It almost feels like you’re subverting capitalism because you’re the workers who have created your own work, and you’re selling your own work on your own terms. You still exist in a capitalist economy, but the label/artist relationship is gone.
HL: We’re all involved with capitalism. Everyone is. The punks that are eating out of the dumpsters—yeah, they’re eating for free, but the people that work on those farms are working. The people that work in that store are working. You can’t pretend that you’re not involved with capitalism. But what you can do is make a choice about how you’re going to approach it.
RM: It’s also way more profitable to put out a record yourself. You know exactly where every penny it’s going. That feels really good; being able to set prices, like the wholesale price and the retail price …
LM: It’s pretty unfashionable to talk about money. A lot of people are like, at the end of the show [quietly] “Can we talk about money now?” They avoid talking about it even though it’s really their decision how it gets distributed. They’re like, “Oh, I don’t like talking about money. Sorry guys, I fucked you over. I didn’t mean to…” It’s like, how about we just fuckin’ talk about it?
II. THE IMAGE
LM: A friend recently said to me, “I feel like I should just quit playing music and do something important like being a teacher.” And I thought, “Why don’t you just make your music as important as you think it should be?” There’s no reason you should stop playing music when that’s what you’re really good at and people love it when you play music. Why don’t you make your music do something?
HL: I think it’s really good—especially for women—to find ways to have a voice. With Twitter, for a while we were like, “That’s so stupid. We’re not gonna do Twitter.” But after a while, in this age of everyone just feeling entitled to talk about you or whatever, why not be the person that’s broadcasting your own thing that you say about yourself?
LM: Yeah. We’ll be, like, “OK, thanks for taking pictures at our show, but can you send them to us so we can tell you which ones we like?” Some photographers are like, “Yeah” and some are like, “Good luck trying to control your image on the Internet.” And we’re like, “Thanks.” Because we do. It’s that little bit of extra effort asking people to collaborate with you, because people just feel entitled to use your image and your music. Which is great, because I like sharing, but if we can have any sense of control over what we’re putting out there, we want to. We don’t want to take a picture where we’re sitting in a field of flowers looking cute. It seemed a little daunting at first, like, Are we the only ones that feel this way? But I feel like people are starting to get it. I would want to encourage anyone else to feel free to have that amount of control, top.
HL: When you’re being intentional about what images are out there of you, it’s not vanity. It’s up to us in our subculture to change things, and if we can offer different versions of what a woman is—like, the three of us are totally different kinds of women—we’re not automatons or something—that multiplicity in itself could be powerful, and hopefully would inspire other ladies to express their individuality.
LM: We’re really writing music for our pleasure, and it’s not for the validation of men. That might sound like a really simplistic statement, but I think a lot of women’s roles in culture have been to gain popularity or validation through expressing a certain aspect of sexuality that is for, like, the eyes of men and for the ears of men. It might sound redundant, but all this is about our pleasure. Thinking about what you like as a woman or as a young person is really important, because that’s a powerful moment—for a woman, especially, to say, This is my desire. Our music and everything we do is purely that. It’s our desire. And there’s nothing outside of that.
III. OUTER SPACE
TV: I want you to talk a bit about the songs on your new album. Are there stories behind any of them?
HL: One song is about how every time we go on tour, there’s douchey sound guys that talk down to us. It happens a lot. We don’t travel with a sound person, and I wish we did—so there’s this song that’s about being in that position of, We know what we want and what we’re doing and what we like. It feels good to yell that every night.
We talk about outer space a lot on this album. I think that’s because… a couple reasons. One of them is, for me, if I’m going through an upsetting time, I’ll move towards science or even sci-fi and just imagine things that are completely far away—like to make myself realize what an ant I am in terms of the whole galaxy. That can be a sobering and hopeful place to be.
I read this article that NASA had found this inhabitable zone galaxies away called the Goldilocks Zone. It’s just like earth. They didn’t find aliens, but they know that it’s totally possible that life could be there. Anything like that is good, where we can have fun and imagine some other landscape that doesn’t have to do with us—and which can be a nuanced, sonic place that can be described with instruments…
LM: The outer space theme is really important, because a lot of the stuff we’ve talked about is about breaking out of the realm of thinking based in limitations. I feel like people try to impose limitations on us all the time. Being a woman and trying to live outside of limitations that society has placed on you—it’s a lifelong struggle. It’s what our band is.
So looking at earth from far away or looking out from earth and not knowing what you’re seeing… that’s about breaking you out of limitations, and instead thinking about things that could be possible. You bring that into your daily life and that changes it. There might be another planet where gender doesn’t exist. OK, that makes me feel better, you know? I kind of want to take pieces from my imagination and bring that into my daily life and live those.
HL: And yeah, things are fucked up for women and they have been for so long, but I really do trust that things are going to get better. And that things already are better. Not just for women. For the world. As women, we can go through our world and make all the decisions we can about what we’re doing, and at the same time, I think the most feminist thing is to have a sense of humor; to be able to relax and just say, “Yeah, it’s my world.” I don’t need to be constantly fighting for that.
TV: What makes a Grass Widow song a Grass Widow song? Because I think you guys have a very unique way of collaborating, which I can hear when I listen to your music. Everything sounds very intertwined, but not in a traditionally arranged way. It sounds like the instruments are making a chord together. It’s like telepathy or something. It’s kind of intense. Could you talk a little about how you make that happen musically?
LM: The way you described how each instrument together creates a chord… that describes it well. For one thing, a lot of people use the bass to fill out the lower end of the song, but we use it more in the same register as the guitar, so they can play off of each other. Then, I don’t know… I kind of visualize a spectrum and it seems like, using each of our voices and each of our instruments, we’re trying to fill the spectrum of sound. The drums play into that, too.
HL: Some songs just come out—they just spill out in some kind of weird, lubricated kind of way, and with some songs there’s a stubbornness somewhere. Sometimes someone will bring almost an entire song to rehearsal, sometimes someone will bring a riff and we’ll build off it. Sometimes someone will bring an idea…
With “Disappearing Industries” … I work at a video store on Valencia Street, which I’ve worked at for about five years, and I’m a San Francisco native. And our city, like many cities in the U.S. is getting really gentrified, and there was just this moment when I was just walking down the street, looking at all the specialty novelty coffee places and whatever, and I felt sheer anger. I was like, “I want to paintball this whole street!” I’m from here and I feel like an outsider in my own town! So sometimes it’ll start with subject matter. It’s like, “I need to talk about this right now.” I’m walking down the street and feeling this sadness, and also thinking about entropy, imagining San Francisco two hundred years ago and imagining it two hundred years in the future.” So I brought that to rehearsal and the three of us synthesized it together. We sat around—we wrote some of the instrumentation and then wrote a bunch of lyrics to sum up what all three of us have to say, and then we read what we wrote and put it together in a way that felt good to sing.
RM: Sometimes we’ll do band retreats—intensive song writing weekends. We went to our friend’s mom’s house in Sebastapol and locked ourselves in for a couple days… we spent one entire day sitting on a couch, scribbling in notebooks [about the San Francisco song].
HL: As we’re talking about the writing of that song, I’m remembering all the invisible parts. Like, there was this whole meditation in my mind about Detroit, and the idea of people there dedicating their entire lives to this one industry—which is what I feel like we’re doing with music. Then the idea that your body is an industry—that you’re constantly, every day working on and trying to make healthy and good and better, and then at one point everything disappears. And the idea that all these things we love—it’s not in vain to spend so much time on them, even though they may not be here one day… But we’re also, I guess, immortalizing ourselves with our music, so it’s kind of different. It’s not like the car industry. But all that rust belt stuff was in my mind when we were thinking about San Francisco being in rubble one day. Which is not a happy thought.
RM: It might be really beautiful.
LM: With the song “Fuck the Internet,” that was like a moment of anger; it’s a moment, a response, but also a call to action: how, when thing are changing, do you keep the things you love?
RM: Yell about it.
LM: Yeah, yell about it.
Tobi Vail blogs at http://jigsawunderground.blogspot.com/