San Francisco's GRASS WIDOW play tonight at Great Scott with Fat Creeps and Creaturos. Last week, I called singer/bassist Hanna Lew at the apartment she's currently subletting in Brooklyn. We talked about idioglossia versus cryptophasia, why record labels don’t really make sense, owning your Internet presence, and other stuff. Read the Q&A below, and stream a cut from their most recent LP, Internal Logic, self-released by the band after years of working with Kill Rock Stars, Captured Tracks, and Make a Mess Records.
I was reading a Grass Widow interview, discussing the title Internal Logic. You used another word to describe that sort of internal secret-language group dynamic -- idioglossia. It reminded me of a word my twin sister and I use a lot -- cryptophasia -- it's a word for the secret languages that twins create between each other when they're kids.
Oh I love that kind of thing. I think having sisters at all – you develop this language, this shared landscape through your experience together, and you kind of come up with your own set of monikers to describe your experience. That’s definitely something that we think about a lot. We're kind of on our own planet and it has to do with this landscape we’re always building together. We have words that we use, that if someone else heard, would think it meant something totally different.
It was cool to see how that translated on your album -- that alien-like quality of being on your own planet and coming up with your own “internal logic”.
I’m glad it comes across. I think this record is probably the most realized record we've made, the most self-realized. We wanted to play songs that felt good. We weren't thinking as much about our place. It was a more grown up album. Where we were just really allowing ourselves to experiment together.
I’d imagine starting your own label allowed you to do that more.
Oh yea. Doing stuff with other labels was a really good learning experience – but when it came time to put this record out, we wanted to do it exactly how we wanted to do it. We didn't compromise anything at all. We were making exactly what we wanted. We were able to choose everyone we worked with, and we love everyone who worked with us. It's hard to think about doing an album with a label again after this. That’s for sure.
What was the most rewarding aspect of doing everything yourself?
No one else outside of our idioglossia is involved. We have our own thing together ... [why have] this separate entity come in and help make decisions? That doesn't make any sense to us. How can someone who doesn't know about the minutia of this record be involved in this process? It just seems ridiculous at this point. That is just a given in the music industry -- you make something and then share the proceeds and so much of it with people who had nothing to do with its conception. And that’s just normal. It’s kind of crazy. At this point we really appreciate that we can get 100% of the glory and proceeds coming back only to us. It just feels really good.
Yea. Even independent labels can sometimes operate so similarly to major labels. It seems like there are a lot of little compromises that might not seem like a big deal individually but then you step back and in the big picture, you realize there was so much you didn’t have control over.
Oh yeah. Definitely. At this point, where we're at, any compromise feels huge. And to share any of it, or compromise any of it, this work that you feel is so important to you, it’s your soul, it just feels wrong at this point. I think there's a trade off.
Now is a really good time to do it yourself. But a lot of bands don’t do it because it does cost a lot of money to make a record. So if a label offers to do it, it seems like a sweet deal. But then for the rest of your life, even if it’s 50 percent, which is a normal percentage for independent labels – that’s 50% for the rest of your life. That’s half. That’s a lot. So for us, since we’d worked with a local imprint in San Francisco, Make a Mess, and then with Captured Tracks and Kill Rock Stars, we were like, wait a minute, we know how this works, why don’t we just take out a loan? We took out a loan from my bank and from Raven’s credit card. If we're going to owe anyone money, why not owe it to ourselves? These are our songs. We want to keep them for ourselves.
It is really inspiring. There are bands that on a small scale will self-release on limited runs, or release on DIY labels and boutique imprints – which all totally rules -- but I feel like you guys are operating on a bigger scale. I was surprised when I found out your new record was self-released.
It’s funny. We're constantly having this – not identity crisis – but we can’t tell. Some other bands in our community think we're this big band. But in some ways, we're a very small band. We don’t know what that means. We can't even tell how big our shadows are. But I think that’s part of who we are. When you work with booking agents, a PR person, labels, managers -- not that we've ever had a manager – sometimes they want you to pretend you are a bigger band than you are. We’ve heard stories from other bands whose labels wanted them to pretend they were these huge bands that were mainstream and famous. I think for us, we know that we are total freaks and we're never going to be a mainstream band. That’s something we don’t want to be. We’re just so happy that we're reaching people at all in our lifetime. That is just amazing to us.
I think when we were first a band, some people thought we were a ‘buzz band’ because we came out at the same time as some other bands that were. But we’re still around. We have the same three members. Five years later. I think it’s clear to people that we’re not a buzz band, we’re just three people who were inspired by each other and wanted to play with each other. And I think that’s part of our longevity. Doing it ourselves was a way to push away this pretense of pressure and thinking about where we stand. We don’t want to hear about other artists on the label. That’s something that’s really important to us – to be seen on our own merit, in every area, and that includes the people that we work with. We work with a PR agent and a booking agent but we never hear from the other people they’re working with. We're just doing our own thing.
It’s clear that you have managed to stay connected with DIY and punk and underground.
I think that’s mostly where we're from. That’s our scene we're from. On our first tour, we put the tour from my list of contacts from my old band, which was before Myspace even existed and you would just call people. That tour was before we even had a cassette out, and we played mostly house shows.
It’s interesting. I feel like we've been able to exist in a lot of different realms because we're not exactly one kind of band. We can play with a lot of different types of bands.
People definitely try to label us many times. It’s frustrating. It happens especially with women. People can’t just see you on your own terms, they want to compare you, and that’s the only way they can see what you’re doing. As time goes on, people are just starting to see us for who we are and not trying to put us into some weird box.
I'm glad you brought up the aspect of your gender. I've noticed that you all aren't afraid to talk about those things in interviews. A lot of time, people don't want to talk about anything but their art and music. But being in a band you have a cool opportunity to talk about those things and raise people's awareness about them.
The conversation about gender is something we're always going to talk about as long as it isn’t normalized in our culture. I think we’re a long ways off from feeling like we don’t have to deal with it. I think for us, we're happiest when people are able to listen to our music and really hear what we're doing and not think of us as women first. That’s just one piece of our identity. We don't want to be perceived as just women first. But unfortunately I think it’s just a cross cultural thing where if a woman does anything creative or professional, she's thought of as a woman first and usually a sexualized woman first. It’s a role women have been forced into for so long, to be seen as sexualized beings before anything else.
It’s the thing that bums me out, when people bring that into the sphere of what we're doing. We just want to be heard as musicians first. It’s music- that’s why we're doing this. If we wanted to pursue modeling careers, we’d try that. I think that aspect of performance is what defines us from other bands ... The whole DIY and punk community that we come from puts more of an emphasis on craft and less on this idea of celebrity and gender that really doesn't serve us.
I think that there's women in music who want to be perceived as sex symbols and celebrities. That's their thing. That’s not why we're doing this. It’s not anything that’s ever inspired me. It feels like a game … I think, with us, we are three very different types of women and we definitely want to be living examples of how women can be individuals and how there’s not one way to be, not one beauty standard and not one way to be a musician and a woman in the world. There’s so many ways. It’s something that I wish we didn't have to deal with.
I feel like a lot of people wish they didn't have to deal with that – but it’s a reality that’s not going to fix itself. A lot of people ignore the fact that music is this really gendered thing because they don't want to acknowledge it. So as much as it sucks, I think its cool when people don't ignore it. It sucks when people pretend it’s something that we're past the point of having to discuss.
Just in general, for women there’s so much pressure to be skinny sex symbols and no matter what you’re doing with your life it’s a struggle people deal with. We struggle with it too. It’s something we’re working on – creating situations at shows that feel good for us and for all of the women in the audience. Because if it’s not a good experience for everyone – then what are we doing? Any women at all playing music, I think that’s a great thing… but the further you can do, so everyone else feels good, instead of it just being “wow look women on stage!” How does that make the women in the audience feel?
As someone who writes about music, I usually try to avoid talking to bands about “music writing”. But I thought it was important to check in about that terrible review that was written about Grass Widow for Vice. Have you been asked about this hundreds of times?
We have been asked it so many times, and it is really annoying . . . I wish we didn't have to have these conversations, but then shit like that happens, and of course people will talk about it. We’re not in the clear yet. I don't want to give that guy any credit for starting a conversation about gender. It's been a while since we've wanted to interact with Vice. We’ve turned down opportunities to do interviews because I think their editorial style is really exploitative and uninspiring.
We think of our interviews as places to talk about our politics, since our songs don’t have [those sort of] messages. We’re not shoving anything down anyones throat in terms of our politics, but doing interviews is a good way to have that dialogue. That “review” was a good example of the way people abuse music writing. If anyone has a question about whether we are still dealing with patriarchy in 2012, there you go – we still are.
The Internet is this crazy thing. But bands can really choose where they want to send their records to be reviewed and what context they want that to be in. It's not just this no man’s land. It’s another way how bands can choose what they want to give energy to. We'd much rather have our music thought about in a critical sphere. And I always appreciate people ask interesting questions. It's appreciated way more than you can imagine. Some people will call us and ask us questions about cheese. My favorite artists, I want to hear their ideas about their experiences.
That thing was really boring and stupid. I don’t even read Vice. I was just annoyed that people kept asking us about it. That guy doesn’t even realize, if you make a huge rape comment right before we go on tour, that means someone is going to ask us about rape every day on tour. How do we feel about rape? It just wasn’t very thought out.
What do you hope people can learn and take away from the whole situation? You were getting at this idea that folks can have control over their media presence more than they think…
It got a conversation going. Maybe people who hadn’t realized gender was a big deal still, maybe they were able to get something from that. For us, we were just like, “Seriously? Again? Still?”
I hated the idea that it was giving them traffic. When stuff like that blows up, someone on the other end is always psyched on page hits.
Some good things came out of it. Like Judy Berman's screen grabbing response.
Vice to me is the poster child for apathy. For our generation's apathy, with the whole Bush administration, this whole shock value thing, that whole vibe. They kind of sum that up. And I think right now, the way things are with the internet, where everyone is just kind of giving up, and everyone feels so entitled to everyone’s images. People are taking pictures of you constantly.
But I think with the whole Vice thing, people started thinking – well where do we have control? I think they were relying on us being self-conscious about what they said. It made a lot of people realize that they do care about this. It's not cool to not care. It's cool to have an identity and care about it. To me, it felt like a sign that we’re in more of a post-apathy place. So that was cool. Judy Berman’s response was saying, “Hey, there’s another way to use the Internet. We don’t have to just give Vice a million hits. That’s what they want.” They're praying on the idea that people are going to feel self-conscious when they care about it.
It was good that it got people talking. I’m definitely sick of talking about it though. I don't read that magazine for a reason. It's so boring.
What you said about apathy and the Internet is interesting -- about it being cool to have an identity that you care about. I feel like people are starting to realize the value of owning your Internet presence and being more careful about it.
There are good things about Twitter and Instagram – they’re an opportunity for women, in this world where the gaze is everywhere. The challenge for women in representation is that men are constantly projecting their desires of what they want women to be, and women playing into that. The challenge is having our own desires being part of those images, part of that music and our lives. I think with Twitter and Instagram and Facebook (which I don't use) it gives women an opportunity to [express] their perspective. It’s words, and pictures they are taking, about their experiences. So at least it’s a move in the direction of self-publishing…
You can approach it critically. At first I was like, "Twitter, fuck, this sucks. Another way for people to write shit about us?” But then I thought, “Actually, we can write shit about us.” If you approach it critically . . . its form isn't its function. You can use it however you want. There are ways for women to use social media in ways that really serve us, rather than be further victimized by it and the whole cycle of this whole gaze thing.
I think you see that a lot with a lot of teenage girls using Tumblr. It can be a really empowering thing.
That’s definitely happening. I’m so excited for teenage girls right now, to see what they do later. There’s so much set up to help them later.
On the flip side, having access to any image at any time -- women can use that in the same way they’ve always used fashion magazine, where they’re flipping through them and sitting alone in their rooms at their computers thinking everyone is having more fun than them.
But, if you can make your Internet presence something you want it to be, you can make it something that feels good. [laughs] I don't know, I'm hopeful.