Band To Watch: Girlpool
If rebellion had a sound, I imagine it would end up sounding a lot like Girlpool. It’s not necessarily a descriptor that they would ascribe to themselves — they’d probably go with honest — but what is honesty except a form of rebellion against expectations? And Girlpool subvert expectations at every turn. Made up of Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker, the duo chose early on to do more with less: They use only a guitar, a bass, and their own voices to craft prickly and powerful rock. Their minimalist approach to sound allows the lyrics to take center stage, and those lyrics are achingly genuine and upfront. Above all else, the band values their vulnerability: It’s something they reiterated when I talked to them last week, and it’s something that comes through potently in their music. It’s punk in the best sense of the word: fresh, raw, and uncompromising, a callback to the heyday of riot grrl exceptionalism.
What is perhaps the thematic through-line of their upcoming debut EP is on “Plants And Worms”: “Your pain is an endless cycle/ The globe is a spinning rifle/ It’s hard to see things simply/ When my thoughts are evoked within me.” There’s an inherent injustice in the world and, once you take notice of that, it’s hard — impossible, really — to sit back and say nothing. So they do say something, and it’s pained and frustrated and not always pretty. It’s something we’d rather not hear about ourselves or our loved ones or the society we live in. Girlpool addresses these injustices in smart and poignant ways: There’s racial inequality on “Paint Me Colors,” slut-shaming on “Slutmouth,” double standards on “American Beauty.” These songs are all brimming with purpose, each couplet an effective scribe against oppression.
It also helps that the music is a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. These songs are mechanical in their catchiness, churning like rusty gears. None of the tracks travel past the three-minute mark, and the duo uses that time to methodically explore every melody they create. They are punctuated by dramatic flourishes, like the piercing screams on the anthemic “Jane” or the clipped vocals in “Blah Blah Blah.” Their songs are simply constructed yet expertly weighted, crackling with an intense energy. They’re vital and pertinent and have a strong sense of urgency, one that’s bound to get them noticed. In January, the duo put out their debut EP, which quickly gained steam and was picked up by Wichita Recordings, who are reissuing it next month. And even though they formed less then a year ago, they’re set to open for Jenny Lewis for a string of tour dates later in the fall, so it’s clear the duo is doing something right.
STEREOGUM: What’s the songwriting process for you like?
HARMONY TIVIDAD: Well, for the EP, it’s both songs that were written by us separately and songs we wrote together. The song that were written separately would blossom into a collaborative piece when we would share them. Currently, our process is extremely collaborative and almost all of our new music has been written together from start to finish.
STEREOGUM: Besides the more collaborative aspect, what else do you think has changed in your newer songs? Any lessons learned?
CLEO TUCKER: Nothing has really changed. Of course we’ve both grown and learned a lot since the beginning of Girlpool. Our ethos remains the same — to write honest and sincere music. The sound of our new music has matured. Our new music and lyrics are more thoughtful and come from a deeper place.
STEREOGUM: Do you think you may end up expanding to a “fuller” sound in the future? Is not having a drummer just how the two of you work best together or was it just sort of a matter of circumstance?
TUCKER: I’m open to expanding our sound in the future. I think that would be really fun. Right now, I’m really enjoying exploring where Harmony and I can go musically together. It’s been so natural and we’ve been having so much fun. The lack of drummer was both due to our circumstances and also exciting to us. Without drums there’s a “rock ‘n roll” void in our sound, the absence of something that’s intriguing to experiment with.
TIVIDAD: We’ve discussed that a lot and potentially we may — some songs we could really see with more instrumentation, but it would definitely change the performance and potentially alter the way someone absorbs our lyrics (which we consider our main focus). What we love about our current setup (without a drummer) is how transparent we are, both in our lyrics and in the instruments we have. If one of us messes up, it’s obvious and really pushes us as musicians and writers. It’s also amazing because we are so close with one another (because there’s only two of us) that writing/performing is extremely intimate and special.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned before in interviews that being vulnerable is really important to your music. Do you think that ties in with your current setup with keeping the band just the two of you?
TIVIDAD: Yes, I think it all is very interrelated — we want to be as real as possible and currently feel most creatively comfortable in the context of Girlpool being that way with one another.
TUCKER: Absolutely. The music I feel the most connected to is emotionally present and comes from a place of vulnerability. The power of music is so immense. Being vulnerable by being true to myself in music can only further the intense experience I have when playing music. The stripped down lineup/instrumental setup in Girlpool reflects the concept of vulnerability, a large intention in our music.
STEREOGUM: So let’s talk a little about that vulnerability in relation to the lyrics. A lot of your songs are about the fucked up power dynamics in gender relationships. How does … I guess “owning” that vulnerability lead to empowerment?
TUCKER: My goal isn’t to start a revolution/be empowering to people. If that does happen, that’s fantastic. I am writing songs that I feel inclined to write in the moment I am writing them. I believe in being vulnerable and true to myself for only the purpose of having a creative outlet that brings me internal satisfaction.
TIVIDAD: My perspective on all things that debilitate or shame a person is to “own” whatever it is — for example, if I do something shitty, I can own it my saying, “I did something shitty and I’m sorry/I feel bad/etc.” To not take responsibility/own it will further make me feel worse (and make me feel bad towards the people/environment involved). “Owning” it will remove most (if not all) harsh feelings because being responsible for yourself and your emotions is important to both you and the people who choose to surround you. Being honest about things that affect you and that YOU perceive as unfair is extremely IMPORTANT because life is so subjective and there is undoubtedly someone undergoing the exact same bullshit as you. By owning this vulnerability, these things that make you feel weak or powerless or shitty, you are empowering yourself through speaking on them and honoring your voice. Being vulnerable is perceived as this weak thing when it isn’t — there’s strength in it, and all the music I truly love embodies this vulnerability. It’s not even just about gender roles and the fucked up dynamics of that because that is just one side of life’s Rubik’s cube. Our goal is just to genuinely speak on our experience, and I hope it encourages others to speak in an honest way too, because it is way more satisfying to be real than allow things to overtake you.
STEREOGUM: I know you expressed some reservations about the “eat me out like American Beauty” line in “American Beauty” because of how it was being interpreted at shows, and that you were working on changing that by balancing it out in a live setting. Does the whole idea of being a role model to a lot of young girls affect how you act in a public space and what you write about?
TIVIDAD: When Girlpool started, we definitely did not think we were going to wind up being role models. Now it definitely is on my mind, but I am not going to change how I would act in a public setting or what I write about because that would be disingenuous and contradict our ideal of vulnerability.
TUCKER: My actions and decisions are dictated solely by what I identify with on the inside. I do not allow expectations to distract me from myself.
STEREOGUM: One more “heavy” question before moving back to some basics. I was reading an article on you recently and you were described as “shrieky” and I was reminded of an article Sasha Geffen wrote for New Inquiry a little while ago about how female voices are characterized in music writing. I’m not sure if you read or heard about it, but basically she was saying that if a female voice isn’t “pleasant” or “ethereal,” then it becomes “shrill” and a source of discomfort for predominantly male critics who prefer to consume female voices that fit their view of a woman (basically non-threatening). Her analysis primarily was about pop, but that sort of attitude unfortunately leaks over into rock/punk music as well. What do you think about that and specifically, I guess, in how it relates to how people describe your music?
TUCKER: Sasha Geffen raises an interesting point. That isn’t a description we see often (describing our voices as shrill). We’ve learned quickly that people are going to write all kinds of things about our music, but it doesn’t change the way we feel about it or alter any of the weight that’s present in it for us.
STEREOGUM: So how’d you get involved with Wichita?
TIVIDAD: Our dear friend Rogie had us play his house and he interns for Wichita. [Wichita co-founder] Mark [Bowen] had been hearing about us and wanted to attend the show but couldn’t, so he booked us as an opener on a show he was DJing. (He had followed us on Twitter a few weeks prior, ha ha.) After seeing us play, Mark approached us and said he wanted to meet with us. We met and the rest is “history.” Seriously, I am so grateful for everything Wichita has done for us already (I think I speak for Cleo here, too). They are such an amazing label with a great staff and Mark is so passionate and really gets “it.”
STEREOGUM: Since these songs have been “around” for a while, what does it feel like to kind of reintroduce yourself to a different/larger audience?
TUCKER: It feels exciting! We have already created so much more. I’m eager to move forward. I’m really looking forward to branching out into new cities and places other than Los Angeles.
10/10 Los Angeles, CA @ Bootleg Bar
10/12 Los Angeles, CA @ Jewel’s Catch One
10/17 Philadelphia, PA @ Hazzard Hall w/ Mannequin Pussy, Slutever
10/18 New York, NY @ Death By Audio w/ Pink Wash, Slutever
10/19 New York, NY @ Silent Barn w/ Radiator Hospital, Allison Crutchfield, Slutever, Libbie 2000
10/20 Annandale-on-Hudson, NY @ Bard w/ Slutever
10/22 New York, NY @ Glasslands
10/23 New York, NY @ Death By Audio
10/24 New York, NY @ Silent Barn
10/28 Purchase, NY @ SUNY Purchase w/ Free Cake For Every Creature, Adult Mom
10/30 Philadelphia, NY @ Lava Space w/ Radiator Hospital, Allison Crutchfield, Free Cake For Every Creature, Cyberbully Mom Club, Kississippi
11/05 New York, NY @ Terminal 5 w/ Jenny Lewis
11/06 Westbury, NY @ The Space w/ Jenny Lewis
11/07 Northampton, MA @ Calvin Theatre w/ Jenny Lewis
11/08 Ithaca, NY @ State Theatre w/ Jenny Lewis
11/17 London, UK @ Shacklewell Arms
11/18 London, UK @ Rough Trade West
11/19 London, UK @ Sebright Arms w/ Alex G
11/23 Leeds, UK @ Gold Sounds Festival
12/1 Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo w/ Slutever, Debt, Post Life
12/8 Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo w/ Upset, tRAPS Ps, Michael Vidal
12/15 Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo w/ So Many Wizards, L.A. Takedown, Arjuna Genome
12/22 Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo w/ IAN, Media Jeweler
[Photo by Alice Baxley.]