all words: Rick Taylor
all photos: Bill Jenne
Just how varied and multi-faceted are the talents of DC-based indie rock trio Girl Loves Distortion? All three of the band members—Christopher Goett, Steven Rubin and Jenn Thomas—take turns singing. Christopher and Steven both play guitar, bass and organ (depending on the song of course). Christopher also plays the mellotron. Steven also plays drums, though Jenn is the band’s percussionist on most of their material. Oh yeah, Jenn can also twiddle a synthesizer with the best of them.
But the most seriously impressive talent the band has, at least as far as this listener is concerned, is in the songwriting department. To put it simply, these guys and gal have a knack for crafting catchy tunes that stick with you like bubblegum on the bottom of a sneaker. Furthermore, there is an urgency, honesty and heft about Girl Loves Distortion’s particular brand of rough-edged guitar pop that can’t be ignored. And the band’s predilection for shaking things up—experimenting with different sounds, textures and instruments—keeps listeners never knowing what’s coming next.
This week marks the official release of the band’s second album, “You Better Run, Your Highness,” which is available via the band’s own Etxe Records. To mark the occasion, BYT sent the band a few questions via e-mail and the group was kind enough to offer some insightful responses. Read on!
BYT: First things first: Can you tell us a little about how the band came together initially? I know that Chris and Steve played in a previous band together (Eight Track Mind) and that Jenn was in the Dischord band Cry Baby Cry.
Steve: Around 2004 or so a mutual friend introduced me to Chris at a party, with the assumption that we would hit it off both personally and musically, which we did. At that time I was recording a “project” called Eight Track Mind with just a drummer that I had been playing with for 10 years. I really wanted to put a live group together to play these songs out. Chris was anxious to join up and do the same. We threw a lineup together with Chris on rhythm guitar, did a few local shows, and it just sorta fizzled out for various reasons. The band had been rehearsing in Jenn’s basement, so a friendship with her was forged as well. After ETM disbanded, Chris and I were still into the idea of forming a new band together. I asked him if he thought Jenn would be interested in playing drums with us. The rest, as they say, is history.
BYT: When you decided to make music together, did you have a pretty clear idea of how you wanted Girl Loves Distortion to sound?
Being that we each come from different musical backgrounds, but with some overlapping tastes and definite appreciation for where each other was coming from, we never actually set out to define what we wanted to sound like as much as what we didn’t want to sound like: anybody else. We all agreed that we liked the idea of experimenting with “sounds,” “layers”, and “textures” and not just guitar, bass, and drums. Even though most of the sounds are made with those instruments, we’ve infused electronic elements and really like to focus on our vocals. Overall I think we just really like the idea of songwriting vs. jamming and music that sets a mood.
BYT: Speaking of the band’s origins, Girl Loves Distortion is a very distinctive band name. Where did that come from? Could you also talk about the logo you guys developed to go with the name?
Steve: The name Girl Loves Distortion was actually the title of a song I had written for Eight Track Mind. The chorus was something like, “girl loves distortion, it takes her places she could never go.” I think the song was sort of a take on the whole snobby music fan who thinks their tastes are more refined than everyone else’s. So when it came time to actually name our band, we did what most bands do: throw together a list and pick the best one. Ironically, the name was in place long before I had even met Jenn. So contrary to popular belief, she is NOT the girl the band was named for. Though she does love distortion, which I am sure many girls do. And boys can love distortion too. Of course, we made sure it was singular because we would never assume that all girls love distortion.
As for the logo, that was all Chris. He had talked to me about this concept he had and even though he will tell you he isn’t too versed in graphic design, he threw the logo together and we just fell in love with it. It was perfect.
BYT: If BYT readers were to go to the band’s website (www.girllovesdistortion.com), they would find a highly amusing story of an elementary age tomboy getting chased by a strange man in a car with promises of jolly ranchers and candy necklaces. The story has a funny ending that I promise not to spoil here. But please, enlighten us––did this really happen?
Jenn: Absolutely. And almost verbatim with the lyrics of the song. (Spoiler alert!!) My uncle was in town visiting. My dad and uncle had gone to the liquor store and were driving home when they saw me walking home from the library. They pulled over and my uncle got out with a brown paper sack that actually held a six pack, he later told me. My uncle said the lines in the song jokingly…. but I was too caught up in my thoughts, was startled by his sudden appearance, couldn’t see him and didn’t recognize him, and, well … the song tells the rest.
The song is important to me because it speaks about vanity and the culture of fear we build up in our lives — both of which are so pertinent today, of course, with our media onslaught on image and identity and our daily security warnings to “report suspicious activity!” When I was in elementary school there were commercials all over TV about kidnapping and “Don’t speak to strangers!” Add to that the media messages of what makes a girl attractive and cool—talk about a mind-fuck cocktail! No wonder glasses didn’t fit into my idea of the cool tomboy.
All these forces acting upon us make us do completely stupid things, like bolting in complete panic from one’s own father. Or hating/fearing someone because of how they look. It all boils down to vanity and fear.
BYT: Obviously, DC’s independent music scene has evolved quite a lot since the heyday of Dischord. Jenn, I know you worked for Dischord as well as being in Cry Baby Cry, so I was especially curious to get your take on the transformation of the city’s music scene. Is it better, worse, or just different now?
Jenn: Oh, it’s always different. But isn’t that the cool part? All these people who lived these experiences and have taken what they’ve learned and absorbed and used it to impact their world. Some in a broad-reaching way, some more tightly focused, but all profoundly. Is it better or worse? Neither. There are still artists struggling to have an impact through singing or performing right alongside those struggling to be seen and those struggling to stay alive.
I think the only changing part is one’s perspective. In the early 80’s I was deeply involved in the punk scenes in Texas and here. I set up shows, flyered for them, played in them. The people in bands were not just musicians, they were my roommates, my friends. Their lyrics and music were also my story and I knew the between-the-lines stories. When a band played we were ALL a part of it, no matter how close to the mic we were. These days I’m not as intimate with the artists nor the audience or organizers. All the energies and thoughts behind what is happening are not as clear to me. I miss that. But I also have this cool new perspective as a person who was there when so much was taking place and who is now a rock’n’roll mom. My focus has shifted. It is largely confined to arranging baby-sitters so I can have band practice and figuring out how to stay awake at a late night rock show when my usual bedtime is 10pm and nothing is going to stop my son from waking me at 6am. And my sense of cause has shifted. It’s narrower—rather than a movement, it is now focused on an issue, that of women in music, and empowering women to remain in music long-term. Beating that stereotype of “now-mom no-rock” with a big ol’ bat.
BYT: Kind of a follow-up question: In light of Jenn’s background, and the fact that you are a DC band, how does the band feel about mixing politics with music? You guys obviously have a few songs that are political, but they never come close to being overtly didactic or potentially ponderous.
Jenn: That’s like asking me how I feel about mixing singing with breathing. Politics is a fancy word for “connectivity.” Music connects people. So it comes WITH politics. Even love songs. Or ditties about cats. Or ballads about loving cats. I don’t believe it is possible for anyone to be without politics. Even hermits have politics. And if one is in a community and is an artist, one has politics and impacts politics, even through silence. Being from DC just lends this veil of righteousness—like we know more than some one from Po-dunk, Nevada, would know! Ha-ha.
On an aside, my perspective is that the power of politics is also a veil. The leaders only get to lead because we’ve decided it’s still their turn. And every word you or I ever publish impacts that veil. Secretly, they must be shit-scared all the time. Sucks for them.
BYT: I want to learn more about the band’s songwriting process. Girl Loves Distortion consists of not only three highly competent musicians, but also individuals who are capable at any moment of being a songwriter or lead vocalist. What sort of challenges does this present when the band is writing or selecting songs for an album? Is the process ever a juggling act?
Steve: I don’t look at it as a challenge as much as I look at it as a blessing. We are blessed to have three musicians who are each capable of writing, singing, and playing music. I think it offers our fans a nice blend of styles that contrast just enough yet remain cohesive. Many times it is Chris that will bring a song he is working on and the band will refine it, but he comes with the chords in place, the lyrics, the mood. I tend to bring fully written songs to the band with more specific ideas of how I envision the music flowing. Of course, every song is open to full interpretation and each member has equal say in all aspects. There are many times when a song just comes out of rehearsals. Chris starts playing a riff, or Jenn plays a drum line, or I have some chords I’ve been working on, and sometimes those turn into full songs. Some of my favorite songs are the ones we have written together as a band.
The only time the process becomes a juggling act is when we play live. We love the idea of switching up instruments and having three singers. So when we write set lists, of course we have to think about who is playing what on which songs and how often we want to put the crowd through another one of our rotations. For albums, we just pick the best songs we have. We rarely, if ever, think of things like “well, we have to play 6 Steve songs, and 6 Chris songs tonight.” We play the songs we love best and feel will fit whatever venue or bill we happen to be playing on. There is very little ego in this band when it comes to our music. We like offering a variety to our audience and are lucky enough to be able to do it.
BYT: Your debut album, “Earth Beings on Exhibit,” was released in August 2008. The full-length follow-up, “You Better Run, Your Highness,” comes out less than a year later––is that a sign of how prolific the band is at writing songs or have you had a lot of songs gestating for a while?
Steve: A little bit of both. Some of the songs on YBRYH were around while we recorded EBOE, we just chose not to record them at that point.
Some songs needed time to grow into their own while we as a band needed to be more coomfortable with them. I always like to think that once a song is recorded you have taken it to the point where you think it is ready to stand on its own. Then again, I’m also the guy who likes to take our songs and totally deconstruct and redo them. The song, “(Twisted) Dolly (Voices)” on EBOE has like five versions.
As well, and I think Jenn and Chris can attest to this, I get very restless, musically speaking. That drives me to continually be writing new songs and challenging myself to come up with new ideas. I think Chris really takes his time maturing his songs before he likes to bring them to the band. We have such different writing styles yet when we get into the room and start working on songs those differences disappear because in the end, its all about what’s best for the music. Jenn is very much into writing lyrics and melodies and comes up with great ideas for concepts for songs we write as a band. Her input is invaluable when we are in the middle of constructing our music.
We probably already have more than half of the songs written for the next album. We’re starting to write more as a band as well.
BYT: It sounds to me like the new album is an expansion as well as a refinement of the band’s sound. You guys are experimenting more (such as the usual guitar tunings and forays into noisy electronics), but at the same time, offering an even sharper selection of abrasive guitar pop alongside more subdued moments. How do you see the trajectory of the band’s sound taking shape?
Steve: Our number one expectation as a band is to not keep the same expectations. Each of us grows every day. We learn something new every day. What I’m listening to at 9am might be different than what I’m listening to at 9pm. Chris and I always joke about the types of bands we want to play in because we have such eclectic tastes that its sometimes hard to just limit yourself to “rock” or “punk” or “metal.” But at the same time, you don’t want to be all over the place. You don’t want to wear your influences on your sleeve, as they say. We never set out to be a certain type of band, it just happened.
We will always experiment as a band, look for new sounds to explore, while still keeping our “sound.” No matter what we do, it will be our sound because we are the ones playing it. We might do a take on a certain genre, whether on purpose or not. Like the song “Dick and/or Jane” from YBRYH. To me, that song is just a dirty blues song. To others, they might hear something else. If anything, I see the band getting more experimental while still maintaining its songwriting edge. We take great pride in writing “songs” and not just throwing chords together with some lyrics and a beat and calling it done. We want the listener to feel our music the way we want it to be felt. Hopefully we can continue down that road in the future.
BYT: The new album was recorded at the legendary Inner Ear Recording Studio (where the majority of Dischord recordings were made). What was that like for the band?
CG: It was a great experience. When we decided we wanted to record the follow-up full-length album, we ran through a list of possible studios and producers. Recording is all about timing. Brendan Canty’s studio was right in our neighborhood and we thought that would be a great fit initially. Our schedules weren’t going to align – he recommended we seek out Devin Ocampo (who mastered our first CD). Devin was adamant about recording our new songs at Inner Ear.
On our first record, we teamed up with our good friend Hugh McElroy. Being that it was our first time recording as a band, GLD dragged out the process a touch with doing some overdubs. This time around we were resolute on getting everything recorded in four days. We did that with Devin’s support and I think that tenacity and determination comes through on the recording. It’s hard NOT to feed off the energy of Don, Inner Ear, and all the wonderful music that has been recorded there — we had a great time.
BYT: I also wanted to ask about Etxe Records, the band’s own label. What prompted the label and how have things been going so far? What are you hoping to achieve with it?
CG: The concept of an artist collective under the name “Etxe” had been kicking around for several years. I’m fascinated with language. One of the oldest European based languages is Basque. Etxe comes from Basque and refers to a “home” or “domicile” – a crucial element of community. The idea started when I lived in San Diego. When we were getting ready to release our first CD, Earth Beings On Exhibit, it seemed like the perfect event to make this concept a bit more official.
Etxe Records and Productions (www.etxerecords.com) is artist run. We want to put out music and music related projects that are provocative. We are thinking of doing small run unique vinyl releases. Jenn has been discussing the possibility of doing a compilation to benefit Girls Rock DC that would heavily feature music from the ladies who organize the camp. I’d love to get some split releases into the world. We have a band we met on tour in Toledo (Fangs Out) that we will be recording this fall at Empress of Sound Studios- where I lend a hand with recording and production. So we’re keeping busy, trying our best not to stretch ourselves too thin.
BYT: Speaking of Etxe Records, I have to ask you about the fantastic packaging of the new album, particularly the vinyl release. Can you talk about the cover art as well as the color of the record itself? It’s not everyday I get to put a bluish/purplish record on my turntable!
CG: As a band we wanted to do something different in terms of our artwork for this release. The cover shot for EBOE is very polished. We wanted something a little more textural and compelling that would suit the music on You Better Run, Your Highness. The idea of taking the character from “Bell Bottoms . . .” and representing her on the cover in a cool way became unanimous. Jenn’s sister Katie absolutely nailed it. We gave her some vague ideas about how we wanted the animation to happen – her first sketch was the one we used.
On a recent trip to the Bay Area this spring, I met with our vinyl manufacturer. I wanted to touch and see various ideas for this release. The LP jacket is actually on what’s called “reverse board” which is like a really durable matte finish. It works great with the animation artwork. The actual vinyl takes a really nice shade of transparent blue and mixes in a bit of a transparent purple. It looks kind of like stained glass on heavy grade vinyl. We couldn’t be happier with the result aurally, visually, and texturally.
If people are going to spend their hard earned money on a physical release – our feeling was that it should be special. The vinyl comes with the actual CD as well so that a listener can enjoy the music in all the formats she or he desires.
BYT: The band recently had a new album release party show at Velvet Lounge––how did that go? And while we’re on the subject of the Velvet Lounge, can you tell us what some of your favorite places to play are?
CG: The show was great! We had the wonderful opportunity to play with our friends Trophy Wife and Thee Lexington Arrows to celebrate the occasion. It was an awesome evening of live music all around. If you haven’t made it to a Trophy Wife show you need to.
It is really hard to beat playing at Fort Reno as the sun dips below the horizon in Northwest DC. Fort Reno is totally fueled by volunteers and the greater DC music community. I think we really feed off that energy and enjoy ourselves the most in that environment. The fact that Amanda has also coordinated with GRDC to have their annual Instrument Drive for the camp when Girl Loves Distortion has played Fort Reno makes the event all the more meaningful for us. Jenn and Dante go a ways back – so every opportunity we’ve had to play the Black Cat has been awesome as well.
BYT: Your last album drew notable praise from famed DC music critic Mark Jenkins. I was wondering if you’ve gotten any notable critical responses from the new album yet or if it’s still too early?
CG: It is probably a bit too early to comment on any notable critical response since our album was just officially released this week. As a band, one of the nicest things about Mark Jenkins’ piece on our last record was how thoughtful and intentional it was. It was very evident to us that he sat and listened a few times before composing any ideas about it. As a result, he nailed it on a big picture level and that was tremendously meaningful for us.
BYT: Okay then. This is the part of the interview where we ask you to comment on a few songs, so take it away…
CG: I had written this song thinking about the music first. I wanted to really use the studio to capture the various guitar elements on separate tracks in order to create a sense of motion and depth. As a band we took this song as an opportunity to change things up a bit – Jenn is playing synths and Steve is playing drums. We’ve never played a song in this configuration – and the recording benefits from this “new” approach and has a hypnotic feel.
The lyrics are reflective of being asked about what it is like to live in DC. I’ve fielded many questions from friends, particularly those from other countries, about what it is like to live in DC with such hypocrisy going on so close to where we live, work, and create music. (I’m getting slightly different questions now with Obama being in office.) This song touches on those themes a bit – while stressing the importance of being self-aware.
“… Bell Bottoms Flapping As I’m Run Down by the Evil Disco Princess”
Steve: This is a song actually written as a band out of thin air. I remember that we were practicing one night and in between songs, during the usual fiddling around, Jenn started kicking this drum beat that blew us away. Suddenly, Chris started hitting this pulsating one note bass line. I had my guitar tuned in drop B and just started mimicking what Chris was doing and the groove just started feeling right. I had been working on some lyrics and took some from another song I had written and blended them together. I remember when we were done playing it for the first time I turned to Chris and Jenn and said, “this song sounds like some evil disco music.” Disco turned to conversations about the 70’s which turned to bell bottoms which turned into the title. I love really long song titles. The lyrics are about running. That’s it. About someone running a marathon or running away from something or someone. Hence the reference to a four-minute mile, the fabled hare, and shoelaces.
Steve: I had originally written this song to record on an acoustic album and had never planned to even bring it to the band. I was concerned it didn’t fit the GLD mold. The original song is just a voice and acoustic guitar. On the surface the lyrics might seem like it’s a song about a faltering, one-sided relationship. But if you want to read more into it you will see that it also takes on the context of addiction. The line, “when all along you have always stated the reasons” is meant to be a person having a conversation with their addiction, knowing that it would always end up this way yet continuing down that road anyway. Other lyrics such as “got a taste of it and it was so fantastic, never wondered whether it would be everlasting” are more obvious in tone.
One day when Chris couldn’t make it to practice I was playing with Jenn and mentioned the song. She asked me to play it and she started hitting this really spooky mallet-based drum beat which took the song to an entirely new place. Next practice we played it for Chris and he got on the synth and found a nice smooth sound to blend underneath the song, instead of playing bass. I think it’s the first song we wrote that used the synth as a main instrument in place of the bass.
When we got to Inner Ear to record the song we really wanted the textures to stick out, for the mood of the song to really hit you. We toned down the guitar part, added a simple piano line, and along with some other layers of keys and vocals, accomplished what we set out to do. Funny enough, Don Zientara from Inner Ear happened to be in the control room during one of the listen backs and seemed to really enjoy the song. Stating it had a “spook” to it—which we all took as a very high compliment. The song really changes the direction of the album and is why we wanted to put it as song one of side two.
CG: Cryptograms is about pursuit. Pursuit of a significant other. It’s about being totally enamored with someone and swept away in their wiles. Musically, the song does not follow a conventional musical path, similar to way that infatuation blossoming into something great is often illogical. There is no linear path in matters of the heart.
This was a great song to work out with Jenn & Steve. I brought this sheet in to practice with all the different “parts” mapped out. We worked on getting the best transition and dynamics moving from piece to piece. Steve’s fluid bass lines juxtapose wonderfully with my scrappy guitar parts. Jenn’s backing vocals and propulsive beats really congeal the whole thing into something I’m quite proud of.
BYT: Thanks very much guys!
More info here:
Download link: http://girllovesdistortion.bandcamp.com/
Mark Sept. 4 on your calendars! Girl Loves Distortion will be playing the Black Cat’s mainstage with legendary DC punk heroes The Slickee Boys!!!