Raven Mahon, Lillian Maring, and Hannah Lew of Grass Widow.
The Vastness of Opportunity
Jun 08, 2012
Photography by Dillon Donovon Web Exclusive
"Goldilocks Zone," the opening track on Grass Widow's third LP, Internal Logic, begins with evocative Moog oscillations that conjure images of 1960s sci-fi films or memories of waiting in line for Space Mountain at Disneyland. Space, science, and sci-fi constitute a prevailing theme on Internal Logic, which includes other titles such as "Under the Atmosphere" and "Spock on Muni," and whose cover image depicts the moon. The San Francisco post-punk trio's preoccupation with the unknown evolved from the shifting mindset of bandmates Hannah Lew (bass, vocals), Lillian Maring (drums, vocals), and Raven Mahon (guitar, vocals) after recording and touring their intensely personal second album, 2010's Past Time. Prior to making that album, Lew's father passed away, and Maring lost her boyfriend to cancer. The making of Past Time was therapeutic for the band, but playing the songs live proved to be emotionally draining. For Internal Logic, the three musicians, who write collaboratively, intended to compose songs that expressed positivity and affirmation. In the process, they found comfort in the mysteries of science.
Prior to the formation of Grass Widow in 2007, Lew and Mahon had been playing together in the four-piece, Shitstorm, with Frankie Rose. When Rose left the band to relocate to New York, Maring replaced her on drums. Shortly thereafter, Shitstorm guitarist Wu Li Leung moved to Mexico, and Lew, Mahon and Maring continued on as Grass Widow. They count The Kinks, Wire, and Neo Boys as influences, and their music is highlighted by their celestial vocal harmonies. There is no frontperson; they sing together atop propulsive rhythms and zigzagging guitar lines, sometimes veering into '60s surf-rock territory. In a 2010 review, Under the Radar writer Nate Daly likened Grass Widow to Minutemen for its "rolling punk progressivism." However, there are delicate moments as well on Internal Logic, such as the acoustic guitar instrumental, "A Light in the Static," and the piano instrumental, "Response to Photographs," which closes the album on a reflective note.
Embracing the DIY ethos, Grass Widow released Internal Logic last week on its own label, HLR Records (HLR standing for the names of the band members). Copies of the band's singles with hand-marbleized covers can be bought at shows. Under the Radar spoke with drummer Lillian Maring the day before the band flew to the East Coast to hit the road. Among other topics, she discussed the band's decision to start its own label, Internal Logic's sci-fi connection, the relationship between zoo gorillas and spectacle, and how the band ended up playing a pop festival in Yanqing, China.
Chris Tinkham: What were the reasons for starting your own label for this record?
Lillian Maring: We've always been really hands-on with all of the business, even when we're working with other labels. A couple of the labels we've worked with are basically friends. We've always had an opportunity to make a lot of decisions regarding our projects, and then when we worked with Kill Rock Stars, which is the biggest label we've worked with, they gave us so many opportunities, and we learned a lot from them about how a label works and what kind of decisions you can make as a band who's given more opportunities and how you want to conduct your business. We started working with Michelle, our booking agent then, and we're working with PR people, and we realized how many decisions a band is really faced with, and you kind of have this choice whether you want to just let other people decide how things work for your band or if you want to really assert what your own desires as a band are and how you want your business to be conducted, or how much money you want to share with other bands at shows, or if you want to play all-ages shows, or if you want your records to be sold wholesale at this price or that price. Sometimes you have to really push those points a lot, because people want to help you make more money, and you want to make more money, and if you're doing something that's in the interest of inclusiveness or accessibility, then there's less money involved and you find yourself having to reiterate those points over and over again when you're working with people in the industry. It took us a while. There was a period where we were like, "Who can we really trust in this business?" You get a lot of people that are like, "Look, I've been doing this for this many years, and this is how this is, and you're just gonna have to get used to it." We were like, "Well, no we don't. We just need to find people who actually get what we're talking about," and maybe come from a DYI background the way that we do, but are just interested in sharing ideas from our community with a wider audience, but doing it in a way that is in no way "selling out" or compromising your integrity.
I feel really fortunate, because through working with Kill Rock Stars and because of all the people we've met touring and everything, we have a really strong team of people that we really love, and I think that that enabled us to feel like we could take on this project. We're not really in a place financially to be doing what we're doing, but we wanted to do it so badly that we went way into debt, and we just really believe in what we're putting out there, and we wanted to have complete control over it, because why not? And we feel like we have the resources and we have a really good community of people that are into working with us. And that feels really good. So we just wanted to put our own stamp on it. We're like, "We're doing all of this work. People know who we are already." And we thought we could forgo the affiliation with a label, which is a big part of why it's exciting to be on a label—because people will affiliate you with something that they like—but, we were like, "We just want people to like us because they like us. So let's just put out our own music." And so far, it's going well. The record comes out tomorrow. We've got this tour planned and we're just hoping that it does well. We really like it. [Laughs]
That all makes sense, if you have the energy and commitment to do it.
Yeah, I would encourage people to do as much of the work for their own project as possible, but it is a lot of work. And, we all have day jobs and we all pay rent in the Bay Area, which is not something to sneeze at. It's an incredible amount of work but it's the kind that is really fulfilling if that's what you care about. We may or may not make that money back. We're hoping to break even, but we may not ever actually get paid personally. It's just a risk you have to take, but I think we're all thinking about it in a broader sense. 15 years from now, do we want to look back and be like, "Well, we never took any risks and nothing great ever happened." I just know that if I'm putting out something that I think is really respectable and something that I think is relevant, then, whether anyone else understands that or not—now or at any other point in time—is kind of irrelevant to me. But maybe they will. This is like a leap of faith thing.
I love some of the titles on the record. Are you sci-fi fans?
[Laughs] Yes. I think that we all have a similar interest in looking at a broader scope of things when we're inspecting our own lives. In hard times especially or at times that are confusing, we find it helpful to take a giant step back away from the planet and look at ourselves as ants. And so, when we were writing Past Time, it was a really intense grief period for us and we were trying to narrate a lot of things and trying to make sense out of a lot of perplexing situations that we were experiencing. Internal Logic is kind of the next step after that, where we've come out of our dark period and are just trying to experience the vastness of opportunities and trying to take a look at everything that you can't understand but just accept it. And outer space is kind of the best way to describe that. We have a song, "Goldilocks Zone." Hanna found out that there was this place discovered in outer space that was being named the Goldilocks Zone because it's just right. Because they found that it's a place that's actually inhabitable and there could be humans living there, because it's perfect for us, but we don't know if there is life there or if they look just like us or if they look like little green men. But, the fact that it exists is really all you have to know, and we really don't care whether they're there. It's just like a beautiful mystery that exists, and we may never know, and that's kind of cool. And, just relaxing into the mystery. Things that you could be fearful about could be the exact opposite for you. They could be things that make you feel comforted. So, it's kind of exploring ideas like that.
What was the idea behind "Spock on Muni"?
Oh, Muni, that's our public transportation system in San Francisco. The name of that song doesn't actually have anything to do with that song. There's this Star Trek movie, there's a scene where Spock puts the Vulcan grip on this guy that's playing really loud punk music on the Muni, and he's bugging everyone, and Spock just reaches over and is like, "You're going to pass out now." It was just a funny— [Laughs] It has nothing to do with our song though.
"Disappearing Industries" is another title that intrigued me. I was curious what might have inspired that.
That song is kind of about changing times and looking at your neighborhood and realizing that the Internet is kind of destroying everything tangible. It's a little bit about gentrification; it's also just about people not having actual places to go anymore. 'Cause you could go to the video store and rent something and actually have a conversation with someone in real life about a movie that you're going to watch or you could just go on Netflix and never talk to anyone ever again. Everything is changing, and it's interesting, especially in a city that has such a high turnover rate for business spaces because the rent is so high, just to see what is surviving and what isn't right now. And it's kind of sad, and that song's a nod to that.
You have two instrumentals on the record, "A Light in the Static" and "Response to Photographs." How did those tracks come about?
Raven spends a lot of time alone in Mendocino; there's this job up there where she does woodworking, which is what her job is when she's not in the band, and she plays her classical guitar up there a lot, and that song is a product of her time alone up there, and we wanted to include that on the album. And the piano song, "Response to Photographs," Hannah was in her mom's basement going through photographs, because we were gonna do something where we were going to use pictures of ourselves as kids. And so, she was looking for a picture of herself as a kid, and she saw these photographs of her father, who passed away a couple years ago, as we were writing Past Time, and she was having these responses, feeling these things about the pictures, and she would run over to her mom's out of tune piano and just start playing it. So that song is literally a response to photographs that she was looking at of her family. We talked a little bit about changing it or getting a better recording of it, or changing it so that it was a more professionally played piano piece or something, but then we realized that what she recorded on her phone was very raw and powerful and full of emotion and it should just be on the record just the way that it is. And it's also kind of a step forward from all of the narrating that we were trying to do on Past Time about grief. And the song is accepting that you live with grief, you can survive, you don't have to try to make sense out of it all. That's why that song doesn't have any lyrics. It is what it is, and it's kind of meditative and it's an acceptance in a way.
You've alluded to how Past Time dealt with some heavy stuff, such as grief, and I'm wondering how you three are able to collaborate on material when the songs are so personal. That must be tricky.
Oh, of course. Truly collaborating in every aspect of the band is really tricky, and it's not easy. It doesn't just happen. We have to check in about it all the time. Hannah's dad had died. That happened two days after I found out that my boyfriend at the time had a brain tumor. And that was insane. I feel like, after that point, our lives have been completely different. We've looked at our records as kind of like a timeline of our growth together. We had our first record, and then we had our self-titled EP, and I feel like after that, it was the end of innocence. We were both dealing with that stuff and basically using the project as a way to try to talk about it and use it as a kind of psychotherapy. And there were a lot metaphors that applied to both of our situations. I had a really similar dream to a dream that Hannah's mom had, about her dad, and I had a dream about my friend with cancer, and it was so weird. So we ended up writing a song that was tackling the metaphors that were shared between our dreams. And then there was a dream that Raven's mom had too, and we threw that in there. That song is "Give Me Shapes." That song is like taking a building and applying metaphors to the different levels of the building and traveling up to the top of the building or down to the bottom of it. It's like an emotional scale. But that song is also about trying to apply visible or tangible objects to things that don't make sense at all. "Give Me Shapes" is about trying to put some kind of context around something that's really too big for your human brain to understand at all. We were just talking about that stuff for months, and that's what that record was. We basically had to be really supportive for each other; it was a time when anyone could just start crying. That was just the way it was. So, we had this understanding that it was important that we put out this record and we were all in it together even if we felt like crawling into a hole or something. It was a really productive, supportive time, and I really wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn't been working on that project at that time. I think it really pulled me out of myself a lot and forced me to be honest about what was happening. So that was really important for all of us.
How did things play out with your boyfriend?
He passed away.
Was that soon after you'd heard the diagnosis?
No. Actually, we were apart for a while before we wrote Past Time. I went to Maine for a while. We were apart for like six months, and so Hannah was grieving that whole time and I was living with him and he had cancer, and then I came back and we wrote that record.
That's tough, I'm sorry to hear that. It sounds like you three are pretty close between albums.
We're always writing songs. In between Past Time and Internal Logic, the whole time we were touring and writing Internal Logic. So there's never a time when we're not really being a band. We're actually taking a little bit of a creative hiatus right now, so that we can work on other projects, but that's the first time since we weren't together for those six months before Past Time. It's a continual project. It's like an everyday thing. Actually, Hannah and I just went on a camping trip. We're together all the time.
You mentioned working on other projects. What are you going to be doing?
Hanna and I have been writing music on the side. We each have been writing our own songs and we've been trying to figure out what to do with them. 'Cause, since Grass Widow writes all the songs collaboratively, there's some things that we either bring to the table—and it's like, we're not going to make this a Grass Widow song—or we just don't bring it to the table. For the last three years, I've been writing things that I'm like, "This isn't a grass widow song." I keep it to myself and I don't know what I'm going to do with it. But Hannah and I tried to combine efforts, and we were playing on each other's songs a little bit, and we weren't sure if we were going to collaborate on these songs. We both realized that we just wanted to write our own songs, so we got some friends together and recorded four tracks, but we're not sure what's going to happen with them. It's weird to play music outside of this band where we have this dynamic that is so unique. It's kind of rewired my brain [laughs] in terms of songwriting, and I'm just trying to figure out how to do it any other way again, 'cause it's been so long. And I'm trying to set up some kind of residency for the month of August, so I can write songs by myself for a month. And Hannah makes music videos. She's probably going to work on that; she's always working on that in the midst of our project, and I think Raven is going to try to play some music on the side too. We're so intimately connected with each other and we're so creatively connected that the step for us right now is to explore things outside of that, so that we can come back together refreshed. 'Cause putting out this record too is so much work. Even if we're not working on things together creatively, we're working on all these business aspects, and I think we owe it to ourselves to take a little step back and then come back together.
Photo by Aubree Bernier-Clark
Do you produce yourselves?
Yeah. We recorded with Phil Manley at Lucky Cat studios in San Francisco, just us and him. Whenever we record, we're just trying to capture what happens live. We don't write songs in the studio; we're not building things from scratch in there. All the decision about how much reverb goes on our vocals or whatever, that's all our decision and our input. Phil might have an idea, but it's completely up to us what the songs sound like at the end of the day.
Have you three been singing together long enough that you've pretty much locked in to each other's voices, or is there some vocal arranging that goes on with each track?
I think we just have a magic combo.[Laughs] That was something we discovered when we started. Before we started playing, Hannah was like, "I have this vocal idea. Why don't you try to do this, you do this, and I do this." We sang this little measure together and our eyes all kind of bugged out for a second. We were like, "Whoa! We should keep doing that." [Laughs] The way that we arrange the vocals is basically the same way that we arrange the instruments. We have this way of constructing a song where we just want to fill out the spectrum of highs and lows, and if we have a guitar playing a high part, then we'll try to put our voices in the middle. It's as though we have six different instruments—the drums, the guitar, the bass, and all three of our vocals—and we're basically applying them to a position on a scale to try to fill out the spectrum. Things that are written for the guitar sometimes end up becoming a vocal part and vice versa. And it's the same with the bass, and that's why Hannah plays her bass in such a high register, because she's playing it like a guitar.
The video for "Milo Minute." What was it like shooting that, playing for gorillas? Were you given any kind of unusual instructions before playing for them?
It was an idea hatched by Hannah and our friend Laurel [Braitman]. She met Laurel at a wedding, and they started talking. Laurel is writing a book about animal madness right now, and they launched this huge discussion about spectacle—the position of females in society as performers and entertainers, and animals in zoos, and the similarities—and what it is to be gawked at. And Laurel has this project called Music for Animals, where she has musicians play for animals, an experiment to see how relationships work, or just to allow the animal to be the observer and to see how they respond, because animals have personalities too. And we often lump them together as a species and generalize about their preferences, but Laurel's been doing a lot of work to try to dissect that and look at animals as individuals and learn more about individual animals' stories. Like, she knows the whole story of the MGM lion—at the beginning of the films, that lion that's roaring. That's a real lion, and he has a story, and it's touching. There are a million stories like that, that people don't really know about. So she put us together with that group of gorillas, because she thought, due to their personal histories, that we would be a good match. It's a group of female gorillas who've kinda been through a lot of shit, and we're a group of women who've been through a lot of shit. And she told us a lot about the behavior patterns of gorillas, and we went into that not knowing if they were going to absolutely hate it, or if they were going to like it, or how we would even be able to decipher that. But we asked ourselves, "If we start playing, and they really don't like it, are we gonna keep playing or should we stop?" You know, try to figure out what was the most respectful way to do this. So we went into the zoo the day before and met up with the zookeepers there and talked to them about the project and explained what we were doing and learned more about the gorillas and what we should expect. Like, a lot of people just want to walk up and look them in the eye, and they think that's really rude. It's like we don't want someone to just stare at us [laughs], or to look at us and start smiling at us and talking to us. It would be really weird. But what they like to do is be turned away from you and kind of look at you out of the corner of their eye. And you have to pretend that you're not looking at them. And you can kind of take turns doing that. Which, you realize that, maybe in a public space, that's what people do too.[Laughs] You don't want to get caught staring at someone or have someone staring at you.
What essentially happened is, we went to the zo before they opened, which is a time when the gorillas usually get to hide or they get to have their really personal pull-it-together moment before they're on display all day, and they're interacting with the people that are looking at them. It's like a nine-to-five job for them. So, they didn't even have to watch us. It was their choice whether they were interested in what we were doing or not. But we played a set for them, and I think their response was great. There's a video that came out of this mariachi band playing for dolphins, and the dolphins are watching and they're wiggling and they're kind of putting on a show themselves. But that's what they're trained to do. Oh no, it wasn't dolphins, it was a beluga whale. I don't even remember. Anyway, but the gorillas actually came up. There was glass between us, but they were looking at our instruments, and they were wondering what those things were and what we were doing and why we were making noise. And they came up and banged on the glass, and they brought their baby up to the glass. And I felt like, although they seemed perplexed, they were interested, and that was a really great outcome. And that was really amazing, and it felt cool to finally put on a show for them, because once the zoo opened, you realized that they're just being observed all day. And I imagine that must be pretty exhausting, because I know it's exhausting to just play a half an hour of set and be observed for that amount of time and be talking about it all the time.
What did that indicate when the gorilla banged on the glass?
I'm not sure. [Laughs] I don't know. What does it indicate when people start a mosh pit during a show? I feel like she was just expressing something. She might have been angry at us. She might have been saying, "Right on, this is great." Yeah, I'm not sure how to interpret that.
When did you play in China?
Right after we were signed to Kill Rock Stars. This label in China just brought us over for a festival [Tanglewood Forest Music Festival ]. We were there for three days, and that was the first international traveling we'd done together as a band [laughs], going to China for three days and coming back. They brought us to this area [Yanqing County, north of Beijing] that isn't traveled often. It's not really a tourist zone, but they wanted to develop it more, so they set up this festival and had people come out and camp out in the forest and watch all these bands play. We didn't go over so hot. And the guy that brought us there was just like, "You're too weird. They're just not ready for you." [Laughs]
What were the other bands like?
A lot of pop bands. A lot of singing, pop song kind of beautiful, really easy to swallow stuff.
How did you get on this bill with these other pop acts?
I think that t was like, "Oh, let's bring the new Kill Rock Stars band over. It's like a girl group."[Laughs] We were asking ourselves "What are we doing here?" a lot, but it was amazing. It was an amazing opportunity.
Did you play just one set for those three days?
Yeah, we played one show.
What will you miss most while on tour, and what are you looking forward to?
Comforts of home, you miss those things. You miss being able to sleep in your own bed. We all have boyfriends. We're all gonna miss our boyfriends. We probably won't miss our day jobs. [Laughs] We're really looking forward to sharing our songs on tour. We really like the new record. We really like playing these songs. We wrote the songs to be played every night. That was why we wrote the songs. We were like, "What do we want to hear ourselves singing every night? What do we want to share with ourselves every day? " And they're kind of written as mantras or affirmations to ourselves, being a band going out and seeing new faces every night. We've got a lot a lot of friends out there that we're really excited to visit, and we've never been to Nashville, and there are a few places we're gonna hit up we haven't been to, and so that's gonna be really fun. We're gonna play with a lot of really good bands.
Wednesday, May 30 - Allston, MA @ Great Scott's
Thursday, May 31 - Buffalo, NY @ Mohawk Place
Friday, June 1 - Detroit, MI @ Lager House w/ F'ke Blood, Swimsuit
Saturday, June 2 - Chicago, IL @ Beat Kitchen w/ Hollows
Sunday, June 3 - Iowa City, IA @ Gabe's w/Wet Hair, Outside World
Monday, June 4 - Kansas City, MO @ Record Bar
Tuesday, June 5 - Farmington, MO @ The Vault
Wednesday, June 6 - Nashville, TN @ FooBar w/Heavy Cream
Thursday, June 7 - Chattanooga, TN @ Sluggos w/ Future Virgins, Big Kitty
Friday, June 8 - Atlanta, GA @ The Earl
Saturday, June 9 - Greensboro, NC @ CFBG's
Sunday, June 10 - Durham, NC @ The Pinhook
Monday, June 11 - Harrisonburg, VA @ Blue Nile
Tuesday, June 12 - Washington, DC @ Comet Pizza
Wednesday, June 13 - Albany, NY @ Valentine's
Thursday, June 14 - Toronto, ON @ The Garrison w/ The Men, The Black Belles, Mac Demarco, Gap Dream*
Saturday, June 16 - Brooklyn, NY @ Knitting Factory w/ The Black Belles, Gap Dream**
* Panache NXNE Showcase
** Panache Northside Festival Showcase