COLLEEN GREEN: TRY TO BE CHILL
photography by alex the brown
Colleen Green’s newest album comes from the triangle between Deal sisters’ bad-assery, the nowheresville take on L.A. that came out of that dog and the dry-ice wit of the Vaselines, whose “Sex Sux” could make for a great Colleen cover one day. It’s called I Want To Grow Up, both in reaction and homage to her beloved Descendents. (Naturally she’s instantly able to explain how this fits in with All’s command to “not commit adulthood.”) Backed by members of Diarrhea Planet and JEFF the Brotherhood, Grow Up is a dark and even harrowing album beneath the fuzz and the melody. “Deeper Than Love” and “Some People” are fearlessly powerfully honest, and the flat-affect voice Green uses so well makes them cut even deeper. If the spirit of the Descendents is at work here, as it is in all Colleen’s works—although she shares her psyche with Akon now—then its in that irreducible sense of surface-street exhaustion, when you don’t know where to go or why you’re even going anywhere, anyway. She speaks now about group projects, going solo and how to make ‘fuck you!’ something hopeful. She performs at the Echo on Fri., Mar. 27, and at Burgerama over the weekend. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
There’s a story about the Pixies where the soundman started fading down the house music before they went on, but the song he was fading was the Stooges’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog.’ And Frank Black made him play the Stooges again from the beginning ‘out of respect for Iggy.’ What’s a song you’d force someone to play in its entirety out of respect for the artist?
I had that happen with Akon before. In London. I was like, ‘Put Akon on as my entrance music or I’m not gonna play tonight!’ No, but I was like, ‘You have to play Akon!’ and I knew the sound guy so he put it on. As soon as he put it on, this other guy that worked at the club ran over to the sound booth like, ‘Hey! What’s going on with the music?’ I was like, ‘Don’t you touch that! You let it play!’
What first made you want to make music? And then what made you think could make music?
As a baby, I’d write songs. When I was 5 years old. I don’t really remember what they were, but I’d write lyrics on paper and keep them in a little pouch that I made. But they were just lyrics. I always wanted to be a singer, my whole life. I inherited from my mom and my grandmother. They both really wanted to be singers. My dad was a drummer and fancied himself a musician. They liked rock ‘n’ roll. They’d always go to shows when they were dating in the 70s. So we always listened to a lot of music. We lived in a really small town so we’d always be in the car listening to the oldies station in Boston or classic rock. It was always a part of my life. It’s been part of me as far back as I can remember.
The Kinks’ album Village Green was originally just a bunch of unconnected songs, but then Ray Davies wrote ‘Village Green Preservation Society’ and realized he had a concept he could build an album on. Did you have something like that for I Want To Grow Up?
It all started with the title. I had been thinking about a Descendents tattoo a lot—the ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’ with the baby logo. A lot of my friends have that and a lot of people in general in the world have that. I just remember thinking, ‘That could be a cool tattoo to get …’ but going back and forth and thinking about that concept. Like getting a mantra tattooed on your body forever? It’s like … but you are gonna grow up. Maybe I don’t want that tattoo cuz I do wanna grow up. Not just physically. It’s another nod to the Descendents—I love referential stuff anyway. It’s what I do.
Every band I’ve ever loved has done that, too. All the artists I hold in the highest esteem utilized that, and understood it’s not bad. It’s not copying, it’s tribute. It’s for people who might listen to your music but are fans of that other music—you share your influences.
Why the Descendents?
They’re my band. I love them. They’re geniuses. I love their philosophy and all their songs and ideas. I totally believe in All. Fuck yeah. Even before I knew about All, that was a personal philosophy I was trying to strive for in my own life, from a formative way. I always liked the Descendents, but when I actually learned what All is about, I was like, ‘Whoa.’
Isn’t one of the rules in ‘Allogistics’ ‘thou shalt not commit adulthood’? Are you committing All heresy on this album?
No! No, I’m not. I’m not committing adulthood cuz the future that I see for myself isn’t the future the Descendents saw for adults, quote/unquote. Adulthood is definitely defined by them as being forced into wearing a suit and a tie everyday, forced to do things you don’t necessarily wanna do and not living life for yourself. That’s their vision of adulthood as a negative thing. But my adulthood is a positive thing. And it’s different. If the Descendents knew how I felt about it, they’d agree with me.
Is this something you’d already thought about? That’s an instantly detailed answer.
Yes, I have thought about it.
What about the other commandments? Dost thou not commit laundry?
I’m pretty good about not committing laundry. I have a giant pile in my room at all times.
There’s that famous story about the Ramones where someone told them, ‘You guys are really negative—every song is “I don’t wanna…”’ So they wrote ‘Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.’ Are you in an ‘I Wanna’ or ‘I Don’t Wanna’ phase now?
I’m in the ‘I Don’t Wanna’ phase. Or … a ‘I Don’t Wanna’ phase. I don’t wanna do certain things. I don’t want to drink coffee anymore, I don’t want to smoke weed anymore, I don’t want to drink alcohol anymore. I don’t want to have to be this craven female that’s needing to wear tons of makeup and high heels and stuff. I don’t want to feel like those are the things I have to do to be a real woman. I don’t wanna do things that I feel will be bad for me in the long run. You’re right—it is a lot easier to say ‘I Don’t Wanna.’ But that’s the first step—recognizing those things you want to get rid of. I feel like I’m on the path to ‘I Wanna.’ It’s in the distance. But it’s close, though, too.
When did you first decide you didn’t wanna? This album seems to have a lot to do with exhaustion—you’re tired of doing things for other people, tired of putting up with the usual bullshit, tired of not being grown up. And there’s something about control, too. Like what you control in your life, and what parts of your life other people control, and how you move between the two.
It all kinda started about five years ago when I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. It’s really funny and kind of awesome you say the album feels exhausted, cuz my disease … I’m good now, I’m managed, but the disease’s name literally means ‘serious muscle weakness.’ It makes you tired, makes you fatigued. So yeah, I’m pretty tired and I’ve been pretty tired these past years. That was the thing that made me realize I can’t live like this anymore. I can’t drink all the time, not get sleep, go to this really menial job everyday where I’m not even making enough money to buy food … It’s fun and everything, but I can’t keep doing this. When I started having symptoms of MG, it was really hard for me to even be around people so something had to change. My whole life had to change, basically. I don’t know if I knew that at the time, but I knew I had to get out and do something different. That’s when I moved to L.A. My brother opened up his home to me and took me in. From that point, my whole life did change. I thought that was good. I was like, ‘OK, my life now is different and I’m doing exactly what I was trying to do this whole time, but not being able to for whatever reason.’
Which was music, right? This all happened at the same time?
Yeah. I always wanted to do it. I was in a band in Boston and another band I moved to Oakland with, and it was like, ‘That’s what we’re doing. We’re in a band and that’s what we’re doing.’ That was our identity. I moved to Oakland with five of my friends, and that was amazing but also too easy. We had each other. I love those people and we were like a family. But when I moved to L.A., I was completely on my own. The security blanket was gone. Now I’m here and I’m alone and what do I do now?
Did you want to be that way? To just step out in the world by yourself?
I was like, ‘I’m gonna go there and make solo recordings.’ I’d always been in bands and I’d made a couple songs on [my computer] and put them online. People were like, ‘You should make a solo record—I’d totally buy it and listen to this stuff.’ It all compounded and happened. That shit happened and it was awful, and I knew I was gonna move to L.A. and leave my band behind, and I knew I’d continue making music on my own. It all worked out really well. It was the worst shit ever but it all worked out. I got here and didn’t have a job and couldn’t really work and didn’t know anyone … I’ve never been the type to feel like posting an ad on Craigslist for bandmates is a good idea. So I wanted to make music on my own. I had a drum machine which I never really played around with. ‘Well, this is a good opportunity to figure this thing out.’ I started experimenting and that’s how it started. Mostly when I listen to my old music, I think about relationships I was having and who those songs are about. Almost all my old stuff is relationship stuff and it follows me over the course of three years. I was so extremely lonely when I first moved to L.A. Those first few years that was all I wanted to write about cuz it was all I was thinking about. I wouldn’t talk to anyone … but I was really desperate for someone to talk to. Those few relationships I had in that time span were very important to me, and obviously took a lot of my energy. That’s what the earlier songs are about.
On the first song, you talk about being sick of being dumb and sick of being young—do those two things have to go together?
Oh no, they don’t necessarily go together. It’s just two different things.
Are you smarter now?
I’ve probably been the same level of smartness my whole life. But I think I’m more understanding. And trying to be more understanding with every new year. Not being so annoying and hyper? I know I was smart when I was younger but I definitely was a quote/unquote idiot, which I think all young people are.
Did you make it out of that era of your life without a tattoo?
I only have one tattoo. It was a really considered tattoo. I thought about it for years until I got it. I think was 19 or 20? It was spur of the moment. Me and my friends just decided to get tattoos. It’s a Sublime tattoo, and it’s the only one I think I’ll ever get. I decided I don’t really like tattoos. It’s not the sun—it’s a photograph of Bradley and Lou Dog sitting on a rock, like a silhouette of them sitting on a big rock in the middle of the ocean. I used to paint it a lot in art classes. Everything I did was Sublime-related in those days. I thought about it for years and when the day came, I wanted to get it and I did.
Is that tattoo your principal lifetime commitment to date?
It’s the one thing, but it’s under my arm, so out of sight, out of mind. It’s a commitment and it’s lifelong but it’s not staring me in the face.
You do so much of your work by yourself—you’re very self-reliant. Did you become more self-reliant by making music by yourself, or were you able to make music by yourself cuz you’d rather work alone anyway?
I’ve always been cool with being by myself. I never wanted to feel like I needed people to be happy or to get done what I wanted to get done. It’s from feeling like the outcast in my younger years, maybe? I’ve always been more introverted and quiet. I enjoyed doing schoolwork and working on projects, and I always preferred to work alone. If I do it, I know I’ll do a good job. But with other people, you have to let them do stuff and they might not do it right.
So not a fan of group projects.
No cuz it’d be me doing all the work. I tried to take a stand against it once in high school and my teacher came up to me and said, ‘You got a shitty group—you need to do all the work or you’re gonna fail.’ I’m serious! My group had all the slackers. I was trying to be like, ‘Not my problem!’ But he was, ‘No, you have to do this.’ I don’t like to fail on things. If I have something to do, I’ll usually get it done.
Do you fear failure?
Isn’t there no such thing as failure?
That’s how I feel. I hate ‘fail.’ If anything, you did something at least. If it didn’t work the way you wanted, hopefully you can at least learn from that and improve on it somehow? It’s all a learning experience. Some people I’m sure would call it failure, but like everything else, it’s all what you make it.
This is like Colleen-ogistics. What other principles do you live by?
Try to be chill. And go with the flow.
When you’re writing a song about a relationship, is it about the other person? Or is it about you as reflected in that person?
About me—everybody does that and maybe they just don’t realize it. If you’re writing about an experience, it seems natural that you are seeing and experiencing it through your own eyes. Even when it has to do with somebody else, it goes back to how you feel—how it affects you. We’re just human and that’s how we think.
Who’s another musician you’d be honored to have write a break-up song about you?
Maybe Cassie Ramone? Cassie has really amazing break-up songs. Like this song called ‘I Send My Love To You.’ It’s really sad and touching and you can really feel her love in the song, and the love that is gone—not gone but it’s suffered. After getting to know her a bit over the course of our Japan tour, I learned more about her and what her songs were about. So by the end of the tour, I knew what all the songs were about, and it was very touching. I love listening to really sad songs. Especially really sad love songs. But I don’t listen to them ever. I know when some people are depressed they’ll listen to really sad music, but not me. When I’m really sad, I’d rather listen to nothing. And just stare. And smoke tons of weed.
‘Deeper Than Love’ is one of the heaviest songs on the album—it starts with ‘Sometimes I hope for a lover to kill me’ and ends with you worrying that intimacy is going to kill you.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about for several years. Sometimes, yeah—I don’t think I ‘wish’ that, but I think about it. It’s interesting to me why that’s a thing to me. And what my interest is—trying to understand where that desire comes from? There’s a whole school of people that fetishize that kind of thing, and learning where they’re coming from … I’m not trying to psychoanalyze it, or I guess that’s what I’m doing in the song. I definitely do have a fear of intimacy. It’s trying to understand and make sense of it all. Mike Hunchback is like my idol—he’s a musician from New York, from a band called Hunchback. Part of the New Brunswick, New Jersey, the Ergs and Don Giovanni scene. They were amazing. He’s a really big inspiration to me. His solo stuff always had some fucked-up lyrical material. I always appreciated that. I guess cuz it was kinda bad? And interesting? I’d never really heard songs with lyrics like that before. That’s what everybody thinks about, right? You gotta write about whatever you can think of to write—that’s how I feel.
You’ve said it was the song you were most worried about putting out. But now it seems like it’s becoming the stand-out song for people.
That always happens! That happened when I put out Milo Goes To Compton. I had the song ‘Worship You.’ When I was writing that, I was like, ‘This is filler, this song sucks …’ and then I put it on way at the end. Like, ‘That song is bullshit and no one will ever like it.’ Then this guy put out my tape in the UK and that is what he put out as the single, and everybody ended up liking that song a lot. I feel the same way about ‘Deeper Than Love.’ I’m sure musicians go through this, but I already just hate the whole album. I’m over it, man.
What if you got a dance remix of ‘Deeper Than Love’? Who would you want?
Do you have to ask? I think he’d do a good job.
How did you get so into Akon?
I don’t really listen to very much music. He’s my go-to right now. That’s also why I say the same bands over and over. I was going to Europe to open for EMA and fly to Norway and meet them. I knew I had a lot of long flights without anyone to talk to or anything to do, and I was putting music on my [tablet] and I wanted to put stuff on there that wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll. I just didn’t feel like rock ‘n’ roll. And I’d been wanting to check him out. I’d heard ‘Smack That.’ That’s what I’d been going off of.
‘I wonder if he’s going to smack something else? I should find out.’
I went [online], found his full albums and I remember being on the plane—I think I had eaten some edibles, too?—and I just remember listening and putting my headphones on and just drifting away. Like ‘This is amazing!’ The most pleasant cute poppy melodic electronic music ever and I just loved it. I ended up listening to that album Freedom every single day for the rest of tour. I just needed to listen to it.
What do you know about Akon that casual ringtone purchasers might not know?
I used to know his sign. I think he’s a Leo, which explains a lot of it. He’s very alpha and wants to be in charge, wants to be the best. His history is a little spotty. He says he’s been in prison but legal documents show he only spent a couple weeks here and there for really petty shit.
Have you ever exaggerated your own prison record?
I have no criminal record whatsoever! I’ve never even gotten a detention.
The art for I Want To Grow up has the little evolutionary chart of you—your drawings of you as a baby, a girl, a young woman and then you as you are now. What would have come next?
It’s me as an old woman. I actually did draw it on the promo poster for the record. It’s got current me and then old version of me. I’m really old and wrinkly.
Why’d you skip 30 years? That’s the biggest jump in the chart.
Good point. I’m done growing physically but hopefully not done mentally. If I was to keep drawing more stages, it’d have to be my brain going through changes. My body will hopefully look pretty much the same.
Not planning to become a cyborg?
Maybe after the old lady stage.
What would it take for you to make an album called I Have Grown Up? You say you don’t want to get married, don’t want to have kids—those are the traditional markers. What happens without them?
I dunno if I’ll ever be able to make that record. But it’s important to take the markers away. Growing up doesn’t involve another person or another entity at all. It’s all within you. I know a lot of people that are married and have kids and are like the least mature people ever and are just big babies who suck. I don’t think we need any more of that. I’m very into the idea of self-actualization. That’s something I’ve been thinking about for many many years now and hoping one day I can get to that point. It’s always in the back of my mind. I’m not sure what I’ll have to do to get to that stage, but I hope it happens. Hopefully I will never stop growing. If you stop growing before you’re dead, that isn’t good. I just need to be the best Colleen I can be.
‘Grinding My Teeth’ is also a pretty stark song—it’s like a break-up song between the human race and the Earth. What do you mean when you sing about ‘the sad fate of my planet’?
I feel very sad for all forms of life right now. I very cynically believe there won’t be sharks or anything. Maybe in another million years? It seems so imminent right now. That thing you said about feeling in control and how the record is about control—that’s another part of it. It feels like the world and humanity and society … it’s all going to shit so bad right now! I feel very helpless. Politics and American politics—I have absolutely no control or say, but it dictates how I can live my life. As I get older, that’s something I really struggle with. That’s where that line is from. The ‘grinding my teeth’ thing is feeling that inability to anything. All you can do is grind your teeth. There’s nothing getting done. I have this vision of my head of what the … have you ever seen Masters of the Universe with Dolph Lundgren?
If I’m not wrong, the famous dimensional portal scene in that movie was filmed in uptown Whittier.
In the opening scene, it’s Castle Grayskull and Skeletor has just made a mess of everything and the whole planet Eternia is just barren. There’s lightning all day long. It’s just dust and dirt and no trees, nothing green. It’s all brown and terrifying and depressing and dead. That’s what I imagine. Total devastation for the planet. I dunno. I know throughout the years there have been many things that alarm people, like, ‘Oh no, the world’s gonna end!’ But it really does feel like it’s going that way now.
What does it say about your character that you don’t expect any Dolph Lundgren to come save us?
I’m cynical! I’m desolate. That’s my soul—Eternia.
Is there any ‘80s muscleman you believe in at all any more?
I do believe in Dolph. He’s just very small. Not in physical terms but when I picture that world, he’s there but he’s not super promiment. He’s there but he’s just a glimmer. But that says something too—I do still have hope. But it’s faint. It’s hard. But he’s there.
So the last line in the last song is ‘I can do whatever I want.’ Is that a hopeful ending or like a last-person-in-the-world ending? Or a ‘fuck you!’ ending?
It’s definitely hopeful. After all is said and done, OK—it doesn’t end here. I can do whatever I want. The world is my oyster. I don’t have to listen to what anyone says. It doesn’t matter if people don’t like what you’re doing. It’s like the ‘being yourself’ thing. Do what you have to do to be yourself as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. You have to just go for it. No one knows better than you what’s gonna work for you and what’s gonna make you happy. It’s a ‘fuck you!’ but it’s hopeful, too.
COLLEEN GREEN WITH HINDS AND SONNY AND THE SUNSETS ON FRI., MAR. 27, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / $10-$12 / 18+ / GET TICKETS HERE! AND WITH TY SEGALL, ARIEL PINK AND MORE ON SUN., MAR. 29, AT BURGERAMA FOUR AT THE OBSERVATORY, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA. NOON / $47.50-$120 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! COLLEEN GREEN’S I WANT TO GROW UP IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM HARDLY ART. VISIT COLLEEN GREEN AT FACEBOOK.COM/COLLEENGREEN420.