San Francisco trio Grass Widow are self-taught musicians and creators of their own record label and bring more than just your average DIY action to the post-punk table. It could quite possibly be love at first listen. That is, if you’re into a Kinks-meets-Neo Boys inspired sort of thing. Which you should be. Hannah, Lily, and Raven talk to us about not being dudes, their thrift store audio collages, and an obsessive-compulsive desire to take pictures of everything they bring on tour. They play tonight at Psycho Beach Party. This interview by Chelsea Green.
Was there ever a specific concert or musical experience that made you decide to get involved with music?
Hannah Lew (bass/vocals): I feel like the kind of music that we do is really based on our personal needs as artists to express ourselves. We’ve really come to music from a personal desire to play, and for the enjoyment that we get from it.
Raven Mahon (guitar/vocals): Growing up in Albuquerque, I did go to some punk shows in high school but there were a lot of stadium bands that came through. My first concert that my mom took me to was Tori Amos. [laughs] That kind of stuff isn’t really approachable or accessible so I never thought, ‘Maybe one day I’ll be on the big stage.’
Lily Maring (drums/vocals): It wasn’t until I went to shows at this coffee shop in my small town where there were all these dude punk bands playing, and that didn’t feel very accessible to me either. That actually made me feel more like I wanted to start playing music, and so I started inserting myself into that scene even though I stuck out like a sore thumb because I wasn’t playing in a punk band. I wasn’t a dude then, I’m not a dude now. So I didn’t feel very inspired or empowered to play music at that point, but I felt like I had to because there was this monopoly on the scene. When I moved to Olympia, there were all sorts of rad ladies starting bands with their friends, playing in their living rooms. Those are the shows where I learned how to play in a band, and I feel like that was the most empowering experience, to just be in this really organic community. That turned into touring basements and living rooms on the West Coast, and that’s how I met Hannah and Raven.
What was it like being an all-girl band?
H: I played in bands with boys when I was younger and I don’t know if it was a gender thing, but I never felt extremely empowered to play instruments. We really learned how to play instruments the way we do—together. We put a lot of emphasis on musicianship. That’s what we care about, so I think it’s really unfortunate when our gender is the first thing that people talk about. In the sphere of how hard we work, it’s ridiculous that it would be the thing that’s noticed. It’s more of society as a whole that wants to compare women. We’re individuals and we’re just trying to express that in what we do.
R: It kind of depends on the context, if we want to draw attention to that or not. If we’re in San Francisco, or L.A., or New York, the conversation doesn’t necessarily come up or seem to be as important to talk about gender. We want to acknowledge and celebrate our gender, but in ways that we want, and not feel pigeon-holed. Every year we play the lunch time show at the Bay Area Girls Rock Camp and the conversation with the campers—who are girls ages 8-18—can be geared towards gender. It does feel important to promote girl power in that context because as a young woman growing up—even now—objectification is still pretty real. Even in the realm of rock music.
H: I think that there are a lot of grey areas within the idea of what it means to be female. There are a lot of different ways to express femininity, and there are some limiting descriptions that we’ll often hear. For example, the term ‘girl group’ describes one type of woman musician because it’s referencing the time. I think there’s a lot of different ways to express what it means to be a woman playing music. I’m just glad that we’re able to express our femininity through our music in a way that’s really us, and really different amongst the three of us, because we’re three different women, which is a big part of who we are too.
L: I don’t know if the whole novelty of girls playing in bands is over yet. It’s easy to feel like we want it to be. The popularity of Girls Rock Camp speaks to that push of normalizing it, and making it more accessible. But it still exists, and it is really important, because girls still don’t feel empowered in a lot of ways.
H: When we all started playing together I don’t really feel like we had a lot of big positive female role models. We made for ourselves what we needed to hear, and that’s sort of our M.O. with writing songs because we write songs that we need to hear, and we sing messages that we want to hear ourselves say. I would just be happy if what women got from what we did was that they wanted to do their own thing too.
In doing your split cassette with Rank/Xerox, you had mentioned in a previous interview that you take old cassette tapes from thrift stores and record over them during your practices, sometimes leaving remnants of the original tape on your recordings.
R: Before we graduated to a computer recording our practice, we would just do it on a cassette recorder and we would just get old cassettes like ‘Bambi’ or ‘Motivational Speaking’ or ‘Improve Your Vocabulary’ tapes, and in between the takes of the ideas and songs we were recording, we would leave little snippets. It was never really planned out, but there was always funny little vignettes in between our songs. When we put together our side of that split, theirs turned out totally immaculate but ours was kind of pieced-together ideas and little sound bites from these thrift store tapes.
Hannah, are you going to be directing more Grass Widow videos? And Shannon and the Clams?
H: Yeah, I have some ideas stewing for a really ambitious Grass Widow music video to coincide with the release of our LP. I just finished a Shannon and the Clams video, and I’m working on another, and also a Yellow Fever video. I have some stuff coming down the pike for sure.
You’re all heading off to Europe after your show in L.A. What are you looking forward to?
R: We played a UK tour that was booked by Chris Tipton at Upset the Rhythm in London. We played in three cities last October that we’re returning to—Amsterdam, Berlin, and Paris. We booked it ourselves this time, so it’s been a lot of work, and we’re not really sure how it’s gonna work out in the end. People have emailed us in the past year or two with requests to come and play, so I wrote them and through that network, found bookers and promoters in other cities. A lot of the places we’re playing are squats and galleries, informal show spaces. We did spend a little bit of time there last October so we kind of got a feel for the whole scene there. It seems pretty different than touring in the US. You really get taken care of. People make sure you’re fed and have a place to stay. We definitely felt people were really generous and hospitable in the U.K., and we’ve heard that Europe is even more so.
L: It’s really exciting because this tour is coinciding with our first release on this label that we’re doing ourselves now. It’s our first 7”. We’ve put an EP out before but it was a 12” and it was on a different label. So now we’re starting our own label, and it’s called H.L.R.—you can guess what that stands for. We’re picking it up from the plant this week. It’s kind of like our release tour, and it’s in Europe. So we’re definitely being ambitious right now—sticking our necks out there and hoping for the best. You kind of have to do things for yourself, and if shit isn’t working out, and if you don’t want to work with someone to book your tour, and if you wanna put out your own record even if it’s gonna put you in the hole, if it’s what you really care about, that’s the way you’ve got to do it, and that’s the way we’ve been doing it.
H: This was probably our most positive recording experience ever because we got to record the vocals altogether at the same time, which we hadn’t done before. Also we had the opportunity to record with Phil Manley at Lucky Cat Studios in San Francisco. That was a really great experience. This new release is also a part of a series we’re doing called Common Chord Series. We’re doing collaborative pieces that we’re going to release in a series of 7’’s and this is the first. It has two covers on the B-side—one is a Neo-Boys cover, which is one of our favorite bands, and the other is a Wire cover. Also, we didn’t really use any effects. We used the natural reverb of the room we recorded in. It was a really good experience and we’re really excited to share the 7” that comes out on May 31st. We’re actually picking up the record the day of our show in L.A., so that’s really exciting.
R: We haven’t talked about whether we’re gonna sell them at the show. Hmm …
H: We’ve been talking about touring a lot, and it’s funny because the first single called ‘Milo Minute’ is on the A-side of our 7” and is about being on tour. To coincide with that, when we were at SXSW I had all of us lay out everything we brought on the trip and I drew our belongings on different pieces of paper, overlapped the three drawings, and that’s what the album cover is. It’s very much about touring.
What were some of the things in those pictures that you definitely need on tour?
L: It was mostly clothes.
R: You know what we do love on tour? Coffee. We try to be as healthy as possible. But mostly those drawings just consist of clothes and instruments.
H: I don’t know why—it’s just some kind of obsessive compulsive desire I’ve always had to take everything I own and lay it out in a meadow and just take a picture of it all and be like, ‘This is everything I own.’ I think we started to do that in our music video for ‘Fried Egg.’ We all brought 10 outfits and we changed. I got some of it out of my system, but I really feel like this was doing it in a controlled way without taking everything out of my house. There’s something really great about traveling and having the bare minimum—and when we’re on tour, we just have our instruments, and each other. And some socks!
L.A. RECORD PRESENTS GRASS WIDOW WITH X-RAY EYEBALLS AND DIRT DRESS ON FRI., MAY 20, AT PSYCHO BEACH PARTY AT THE BLUE STAR, 220 E. 15TH ST., DOWNTOWN. 9 PM / $10 / 18+. LARECORD.COM/SHOWS. ADVANCE TICKETS HERE!