Turntable Interview: Grass Widow
There’s no other band that sounds quite like Grass Widow. The San Francisco post-punk three-piece composed of drummer Lillian Maring, guitarist Raven Mahon, and bassist Hannah Lew consistently churns out complex and catchy songs that blend genres, pairing sounds like spacey Moog with powerful punk beats and three-part harmonies. They put out two albums on Kill Rock Stars before opting to release their third record, Internal Logic, on their own label, HLR, which draws its name from the initials of the band’s three members. We spoke with bassist Hannah Lew about self-publishing, feminism, filmmaking, and how much they want to be on Saturday Night Live (so much!).
HANNAH LEW: Hi!
Melissa Locker started playing “Back In Your Head” by Tegan & Sara
STEREOGUM: Hello, welcome to Turntable Interviews!
HANNAH LEW:Thanks! This is actually pretty fun and way easier than I thought it was gonna be.
STEREOGUM: Yes, spread the word! So you are just back from tour, how was it this time out?
HANNAH LEW:Yeah – we got back a couple of weeks ago.
Hannah Lew started playing “The 15th” by Wire
HANNAH LEW: I would say it was a really good overall. We played a lot of towns we’ve never been to. It feels really good to share the songs from our new record.
STEREOGUM: This was the first album you self-published, right?
HANNAH LEW: Yes, this is the first LP we’ve released on HLR, but we released two 7″s from the record earlier this year.
STEREOGUM: Was self-publishing more of a labor of love?
HANNAH LEW: HLR is really just a way for us to give a name to all the work we’ve always done. Even though we’ve collaborated with other labels in the past, we’re always really hands on. Working with Kill Rock Stars taught us a lot about some business stuff and when it came time to release a new record – we decided to take that knowledge and do things exactly how we wanted. It feels really good to have control over all aspects and do everything exactly how we want to/work with exactly who we want to
Hannah Lew started playing “Neat Neat Neat” by The Damned
STEREOGUM: Your album features an acoustic classical track, and “Response To Photographs” is piano, which aren’t typical additions to a rock album
HANNAH LEW: Yeah, Raven wrote that. She is actually a really amazing classical guitarist and I’m glad we could include that aspect of her talent into the album. A lot of people were thrown off by the acoustic interludes, which I think is funny. David Bowie just busts out into acoustic guitar in the middle of a song and it’s no biggie. We wanted to include whatever we were feeling on the record.
STEREOGUM: Right! And Queen does it all the time. You and Raven have worked together for a loooong time now. How has your relationship changed over the years?
Melissa Locker started playing “David” by The Radio Dept.
HANNAH LEW: Yeah, Raven and I have been playing for almost a decade. We are lifelong songwriting partners in whatever form that takes. We discovered through our friendship that we could use music writing as a way to transcend our problems/issues. We have a common sonic language between us.
STEREOGUM: Do you think your partnership is still maturing? As in do you think Internal Logic is the culmination of that friendship?
Hannah Lew started playing “Seagreen Serenades” by Silver Apples
STEREOGUM: Oh I love the Silver Apples!
HANNAH LEW: I think the three of us are on a roll creatively and I’m looking forward to continuing. Our music is very much an extension of the three of our friendship and idioglossia.
STEREOGUM: Idioglossia? BRB Googling.
HANNAH LEW: Internal Logic is my favorite record we have made. It’s the most hopeful and fun to play.
STEREOGUM: Goldilocks is an incredible track.
HANNAH LEW: Thanks!
STEREOGUM: Just because it’s a particular interest of mine, why did you decide to go through your own label?
HANNAH LEW:Goldilocks Zone
STEREOGUM: Right, sorry for the shorthand.
Melissa Locker started playing “Octavio” by Viva Voce
STEREOGUM: Was it just the next logical evolution for you?
HANNAH LEW: Are you Googling the Goldilocks Zone now?
STEREOGUM: No, I’m Googling “idioglossia.” I found it. “An idiosyncratic language invented and spoken by only one person or very few people.” My word-a-day calendar missed that one.
HANNAH LEW: Well, “Past Time” was written during a really hard time for us personally and all we could write about was death. Those songs were really hard to perform and when it came time to write Internal Logic we just wanted to write songs that had positive affirmations and were fun to play.
STEREOGUM: You can definitely tell that you are having fun on the album. The review of Internal Logic by Vice caused a lot of waves.
HANNAH LEW: I don’t want to give Vice any credit for starting a conversation about gender. We’ve always talked about our role as women in the music world.
STEREOGUM: Did you read Judy Berman’s response to the review? I would give her the credit.
HANNAH LEW: I did think a lot of interesting things happened in cyberspace.
STEREOGUM: That is true. This interview for instance!
HANNAH LEW: At least people are talking and I think there have been some interesting conversations. I think a lot of people truly don’t realize what we’re up against.
STEREOGUM: All you have to do is spend an afternoon on reddit looking at all the women-in-the-kitchen “jokes” to know that it’s alive and well.
Hannah Lew started playing “Don’t Lie” by The Mantles
HANNAH LEW: Judy Berman chose to screengrab instead of linking to Vice, which I thought was a cool way to give form to an amorphous, anonymous outlet.
STEREOGUM: I agree. It was one of the savviest moves I’ve seen.
HANNAH LEW: Also, anyone that thought misogyny is over in 2012 can think twice.
STEREOGUM: Do you think people think misogyny is over?
HANNAH LEW: It’s not the issues that 1st wave feminism or the Riot Grrrl movement had. It’s internet sexism.
Melissa Locker started playing “Sugar” by Bikini Kill
STEREOGUM: Right, It’s easy to be sexist anonymously online where the only thing you are calling out are other anonymous people
HANNAH LEW: That’s what we deal with the most as girls in the scene. Maybe all artists do? When I was young no one ever commented online. We had MTV, which is a one-way screen. but now everything is so interactive. It’s just different.
STEREOGUM: I interviewed Marnie Stern and she said she never really experienced sexism, except for the occasional catcall. What has your experience been?
Hannah Lew started playing “Paranoid Video” by Total Control
HANNAH LEW: My personal experience as a woman in music? I find that people refer to our gender before our musicianship a lot.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, it’s always “female guitarists” “female rappers”
HANNAH LEW: I think a woman can be good at anything, but her sexuality will be recognized before anything else. There’s a lot of things about me. I think everyone has a fractured identity. I’m a bass player, I’m a film maker, I’m a woman, I’m Jewish, etc…
STEREOGUM: What lead you to filmmaking?
Melissa Locker started playing “Whirring” by the Joy Formidable
HANNAH LEW: When I was younger I was having a hard time and I wanted to prove to myself that I could start and finish a really big project. I had always filmed things with my super 8 camera since I was 17 or so – and had always been interested in film, but then I made my first movie in 2005 and eventually I made a music video for Fried Egg (GW) and then a bunch of other bands asked me to make videos, so I’ve been doing that.
STEREOGUM: How does your storytelling differ between music and film? And I love your Fried Egg video.
HANNAH LEW: It’s a lot like songwriting – same attention span. We use language in a very abstract way in our songwriting and I like to abstract narrative visually as well. There are a lot of nuances that I don’t think language does justice to, so there’s melody and colors.
STEREOGUM: If you could make a video for any artist who would it be?
HANNAH LEW: If I could make a video for any artist… oooh that’s hard! I’ve mostly done videos for people I know. I approach it like portrait art. I think in another dimension. I am an oil painter.
STEREOGUM: I was wondering if who you would make a video for would be different from who you would want to tour with?
HANNAH LEW: Well, when I make a video I really try to understand what an artist is going for and emulate that accurately with my own lens. Touring is very specific for us. We tend to grandma out a lot. The funnest videos I’ve done were with people that were very outgoing. I definitely compartmentalize sometimes. I can make a video for someone that is saying something different that I am, but I can empathize.
Melissa Locker started playing “Christine” by Siouxsie & The Banshees
STEREOGUM: What do you mean “grandma out” on tour? Like knit?
HANNAH LEW: No tour knitting. I guess I hear about crazy party times on tour. I know we usually play and then it’s like 2am and we’re ready for bed. We do a lot of books on tape in the van.
STEREOGUM: What did you listen to this time out?
HANNAH LEW: A couple of David Sedaris books. We’ve done Tina Fey in the past
Melissa Locker started playing “6’1″” by Liz Phair
STEREOGUM: What bands would you like to tour with? I’m sure there are other musicians who appreciate Sedaris and Fey on tape
HANNAH LEW: We’ve toured with The Raincoats twice and it is a dream team. I would tour anywhere with them again.
STEREOGUM: I saw that in New York. It was truly amazing.
HANNAH LEW: People were crying at all the shows. We joined them for Lola and Fairytale in the Supermarket on the last tour and I couldn’t believe it every night!
Hannah Lew started playing “Say What’s On Your Mind” by Broken Water
STEREOGUM: Do you hope to be making music when you are the same age as The Raincoats?
HANNAH LEW: Yes, the Raincoats are very inspiring because they have kept music as part of their lives in many different forms. Ana didn’t even play in a band until she was 28.
STEREOGUM: Do you think women have a responsibility to support female musicians?
HANNAH LEW: I think men need to be feminists too or there’s no point.
STEREOGUM: True. Do you think music is a good medium for that message?
HANNAH LEW: I think any art form offer an opportunity to express an individual idea. I think women have a responsibility to express individual female identities so people can stop thinking of women as one kind of woman-some it girl. I think any art forms offer an opportunity to express an individual idea.
STEREOGUM: So what do you make of artists like Katy Perry?
HANNAH LEW: I don’t personally feel inspired by Katy Perry.
STEREOGUM: Her movie is billed as inspirational. I know you have to go, so last question: what artists do you think are doing a good representing feminism in music right now?
Melissa Locker started playing “Your Silent Face” by New Order
HANNAH LEW: I think female sexuality and desire gets expressed in a way that seems very much for validation from men. I like when you see women expressing themselves in a way that is for them. Hunx. I think he offers an expression of what it might mean to express gender in an individual way.
STEREOGUM: From Hunx and his Punx?
HANNAH LEW: Yeah. Honestly I think Grass Widow, too. We are three totally different women expressing our multiplicity.
STEREOGUM: What’s next for Grass Widow?
HANNAH LEW: We will be touring the record till the end of the year. We’ve been taking a bit of a writing hiatus and working on some solo stuff – but are planning to regroup and start working on the next record this fall! Also, we’re trying to play on SNL. I’m just gonna plant that seed right now.
STEREOGUM: Whoa! That would be AMAZING. You had an excellent turn on Portlandia, SNL is the next logical step!
HANNAH LEW: I know. We want to be in the skits too. Although now without Kristin Wiig and Andy Samberg…
STEREOGUM: …They need more stars and you women are just the ones to do it
HANNAH LEW: We actually met Andy Samberg when we were on Portlandia and told him most of our tour jokes were based on his skits. He said us and Maroon 5 have that in common.
Hannah Lew started playing “Trash” by New York Dolls
STEREOGUM: Ha! That may be the only thing you have in common with Maroon 5
HANNAH LEW: Really?
STEREOGUM: What do you think you have in common with Maroon 5?
HANNAH LEW: Nothing. JK
STEREOGUM: Ha! Well thank you so much. It’s been great.
HANNAH LEW: Yes! Nice tunes too! It’s way more fun to do an interview when you get to jam out at the same time. See ya!
Internal Logic is out now via HLR. Grass Widow is on tour in November:
11/02 – Brooklyn, NY @ 285 Kent
11/04 – Allston, MA @ Great Scott
11/05 – Montreal, QC @ Il Motore
11/06 – Toronto, ON @ Parts & Labor
11/07 – Ann Arbor, MI @ Yellow Barn
11/08 – Chicago, IL @ Empty Bottle
11/09 – Columbus, OH @ Double Happiness
11/10 – Baltimore, MD @ The Metro Gallery
11/11 – Washington, DC @ Comet Ping Pong
11/12 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Barbary