Band To Watch: Pom Pom Squad

Sammy Ray Nelson

Band To Watch: Pom Pom Squad

Sammy Ray Nelson

“The last time I did my cards was right after New Year’s,” Mia Berrin tells me over the phone on a dreary Wednesday. In 2019, when I last interviewed Berrin, the leader of the Brooklyn-based group Pom Pom Squad, she read our Tarot cards in a cemetery. A lot has changed in the two years since. “I pulled a Major Arcana, which is a sign of an important change,” Berrin says of her recent reading. “It was The Hermit. The symbol of needing some time to isolate and be with yourself and reflect on what you’re supposed to do away from everybody else’s intentions. It’s funny because it was right after I finished the record.”

That record is Death Of A Cheerleader, Pom Pom Squad’s full-length debut, announced today along with a video for new single “Head Cheerleader,” which features backing vocals from Tegan Quin of Tegan And Sara. The album follows 2019’s Ow EP, a gorgeous, visceral collection of seven songs that reckon with love, pain, youth, and identity. On the EP, Berrin’s vocals are endlessly refreshing and smooth, and with Shelby Keller on drums, Alex Mercuri on guitar, and Mari Ale Figeman on bass, each track is a dynamic indie-rock wonderland. Death Of A Cheerleader, produced by Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties with co-production by Berrin, is an even more colossal piece of music: 14 tracks unrelenting in their drama, sounding bigger and brighter than Pom Pom Squad ever has, spanning Misfits-style punk bursts, longer grunge ballads, and a lot of pop.

A lot of rumination was necessary for this album to come to fruition — for the creative process, but also as a result of the pandemic. “There was nothing but time to think about the past like five or six years,” Berrin says, sighing, “and there’s a lot to reflect on.” Spending time in her apartment in Brooklyn, she worked on some songs she had written years ago, such as recent single “Lux” and “Drunk Voicemail,” while creating completely new material at the same time.

What separates Death Of A Cheerleader from the rest of Pom Pom Squad’s discography is its theatrics and its cinematic essence. There’s a constant glow emanating from these anthems — a powerful, infectious energy like from a movie. It captures the most intense moments, including “walking home drunk with your shoes in your hands just crying and beating yourself up and wanting something better from somebody that you can’t get,” as Berrin describes “Drunk Voicemail.” The record really takes the listener’s hand and brings them into those complicated nights, conveying that simultaneous pain and thrill.

Below, watch Berrin and Julia Sub’s video for “Head Cheerleader” and read our interview with Berrin.

What was the making of this record like?

MIA BERRIN: It was beautiful, but so hard — probably one of the most difficult artistic experiences I’ve ever had. Which is funny because Ow was so much more emotionally raw in terms of the style. Not that anything on this record is any less personal or honest than what was on Ow. This one has that heart but is delivered in a very different way, in a more whimsical, fun way. It was so difficult. It brought up so much insecurity that I never dealt with before, but it was really special. After pulling [The Hermit card], I didn’t listen to the record until maybe a month ago. And we recorded in November of last year. It took me a minute to be able to come back to it, and I think that card symbolized needing some time for myself to build my own confidence as a person away from who I am as an artist.

This album feels a lot more dramatic and theatrical. The song “Crying,” in particular, feels like an indulgently sad anthem that’s both funny and tragic.

BERRIN: That song is me parodying myself in a way. It’s kind of a self-drag. I knew when I was conceptualizing the album that I really wanted to mix this Motown, Phil Spector Wall of Sound kind of production with more orchestral sounds with what I do, which is grunge and punk and indie rock. And when I write a longer piece, I think about it like each spot on the album is a slot and each song is narrative arc, and I just slide each one in or write something that needs to fill the gap. “Crying” was the last song I finished and almost didn’t make it on the album, but I knew that I wanted to make something that really, obviously moved between grunge and this kind of orchestral and Motown stuff kind of clumsily. It was the first one where we really just mashed them both together.

But the subject matter of that song… [laughs] it’s just me calling myself a whiny little bitch. I think when you’re a person who’s depressed, especially people in our age group, it’s super easy to make a joke about it. I think a lot of the times when I was younger it was so much easier to make a joke about how depressed I was or how anxious I was than to actually deal with it or do something positive with it. My sense of humor would just bury that feeling. I think now that I feel a little bit more stable and in a healthier place, I can make fun of myself a little bit more but in an honest, self-reflective way rather than just the “this is a cry for help” kind of humor on Twitter dot com. Pom Pom Squad has always been described as music to cry to, and what we became known for was people coming to shows and sobbing. I just thought, how funny would it be to just literally have a song called “Crying” and have it be about how much of a whiny bitch I am.

It’s like you’re taking the whole “sad girl indie” subgenre to the next level.

BERRIN: I don’t think that I could be just a sad girl in earnest. It’s not that I resent that title, but I do feel like sometimes when you make sad music you’re written off as a sad person. People used to always comment on photos of me being like, “I’ve never seen you smile before! Why don’t you smile in your album art?” And it’s like, because I like the way I look when I don’t smile in pictures! I have a janky tooth; I don’t know! I smile for my friends. I tend to be really silly and weird and goofy to people that I’m close with. But I write sad music. It’s how I process and it makes me feel good. I think, subconsciously, the song is me subverting that and playing around with the idea. I got called melodramatic for so long that I was like, yeah let’s just lean fully into that. Why not.

That gives you more agency over it.

BERRIN: It’s equally empowering and also a defense mechanism in a weird way. It’s like when you say, oh I’m really bad at this, before someone can tell you that you’re bad at it. Except I genuinely feel like this song is just me having fun with my own image and my own identity and how I’m seen and how I see myself.

To return to what you were saying earlier about the album’s arc and narrative, this album definitely came across to me as a sort of punk rock opera. Especially because it begins with “Soundcheck” and ends with “Thank You And Goodnight.”

BERRIN: I’ve never thought of that before. That’s funny. Whenever I hear rock opera, I just think of the secret Weezer space opera.

Oh, no.

BERRIN: Do you not know about this?

I don’t think so.

BERRIN: I think Pinkerton was supposed to be like a rock opera space thing. I was obsessed with it as a teenager [laughs]. It’s so funny to me. I totally don’t think of it that way just because when you say, oh it’s a concept record or it’s a story or whatever, I just tend to think in narrative. I thought the same with Ow. It felt like a progression and I just kind of love bookends and opening and closing the door so to speak. I can definitely see that interpretation.

But I kind of think of it more as a landscape almost. I like to listen to music that lets me fantasize or escape the world for a little bit. I was listening to a lot of jazz and Motown and ’50s novelty songs. I really just liked where it took me — to this sort of surreal place. I feel like so many older songs sound so saccharine to the point of being eerie. I thought it was so interesting how that kind of energy is created from something that’s made totally in earnest. I think it’s an aesthetic that a lot of directors and photographers I’ve seen take advantage of. I loved the images that were evoked from that feeling and I wanted to recreate that feeling through my own personal lens. I don’t know. It’s weird to think about genre lately, and kind of trying to define anything by anything.

I just think of it like a landscape. I want someone to come in for 30 minutes, take a look around, feel how they feel, and then you’re out.

I also feel like the song defies genre in a way.

BERRIN: I feel like with genre… I was actually listening to an interview with Bartees Strange today, and we’ve had some of these conversations, but he was talking about how genre can be used as a weapon almost to say: Here’s who’s allowed to listen to this and here’s who’s not. It really does affect access. It’s one of the reasons that, for me, arguably being a musician is a job in a way for me now. I don’t say that as, oh it sucks that I have this job; I’m proud of it and I’m so excited about it. But when I was younger I didn’t see anyone who looks like me doing this and I still have trouble calling myself a musician because of that. My bandmates get really mad at me because a lot of the time I still really struggle with if I’m allowed to call myself a musician.

I think the titles that we give people are the titles that we allow people to take, and it can be really damaging to the listening experience of the emotional experience or just experience in general. If I had seen another Black person who made the kind of music I made and it wasn’t defined as a Black person doing indie rock or when I meet a lot of other people who are Black who make what I would call ‘indie rock’ music they’re referred to as R&B or soul or urban and it sets people on an unfair track. It tells you that you’re either an urban listener or you’re not which isn’t fair to the listener or to the artist.

Definition can be a calling card for people to join a community and can mean really positive things or it can be like a solid gate around something that says you are or you aren’t allowed to come in.

I think people are always trying to figure out whether these new developments in the music industry — mostly happening on the internet — are good or bad, like with TikTok.

BERRIN: Maybe it’s neither. Maybe it’s both. I think that’s the other thing. About whether TikTok is good or is it bad… it’s good for some people. It’s good for something. It serves a purpose. Algorithms in general can be fantastic or they can be harmful, as we’ve learned from some of the extremist political situations that have happened. Who an algorithm favors or doesn’t favor can be very telling and can be extremely coded. But also in some situations it elevates an artist who wouldn’t have gotten the kind of exposure they should’ve had.

I think Lil Nas X is a really crazy pop culture figure right now. To have this Black, gay person write an openly gay song where he gives the devil a lap dance and have it be #1 in the country is amazing. It’s actually so cool and shows a huge shift in culture in so many ways. But the other side of that is it potentially getting removed from Spotify in several countries or having his line of shoes get cancelled or having Wrangler people boycott his collaboration with literally a line of jeans because he’s gay and Black. He, to me, stands out as the particular North Star for this conversation about breaking genre and using a system that’s typically stacked against you to actually capitalize on what you’re doing in a positive way. He represents a lot to a lot of people. It’s hard. Because it’s also the algorithm who’s showing it to all these angry white parents who are like, my perfect white child should not be listening to a gay man. Everything is more complicated than I think the music industry would like to allow it to be.

TRACKLIST:
01 “Soundcheck”
02 “Head Cheerleader”
03 “Crying”
04 “Second That”
05 “Cake”
06 “Lux”
07 “Crimson + Clover”
08 “Red With Love”
09 “Forever”
10 “Shame Reactions”
11 “Drunk Voicemail”
12 “This Couldn’t Happen”
13 “Be Good”
14 “Thank You And Goodnight”

Death Of A Cheerleader is out 6/25 on City Slang. Pre-order it here.

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