It might be the easy option to stay in the background of a band, take a cut of the paycheck and stay quiet when the singer or preening guitarist has their latest in a long line of hissy fits, rather than step out in the spotlight and face the possibility of ridicule and failure when it all goes wrong. That’s not what Kristina ‘Teeny’ Lieberson chose to do – she left her keyboard station with Brooklynites Here We Go Magic in order to write her own songs and have a deserved share of the limelight.
By forming TEEN with her sisters Katherine and Lizzie, and longtime friend Jane Herships (the woman behind Spider) she’s found an outlet for some great music, a mix of folk-ish harmonies, the psychedelic chug of Velvet Underground and Can and the thrilling complexities of bands like Braids. Their debut full-length In Limbo sings with Technicolor charm and primal rhythms, and to find out more about the band’s formation we caught up with Teeny at her apartment in Queens, NYC.
I start by asking the obvious question – why did Teeny leave Here We Go Magic? “It was pretty simple,” she says. “I just wanted to write and sing my own songs.” Was this a hard decision to make, given that there might be more pressure put on her shoulders as the front woman in TEEN? “No, it wasn’t hard, but it definitely was a shift.” Teeny reveals it wasn’t without its worries, though: “Being the leader is just more nerve wracking!”
TEEN sound like they’ve been playing together for years and it turns out that they’ve been at least fully-formed in Teeny’s mind for some time: “I think I always wanted to play with everyone who’s in the band – the idea was always there,” she reveals. “It became a reality when I started writing vocal part on top of vocal part and I was thinking, who’s gonna be able to sing this?” And that’s where sisters Lizzie [keys/vocals] and Katherine [drums/vocals] came in, then? “Yeah, so I knew I had to get people whose voices would blend really naturally.” And were her sisters happy to join in? “I think even if my bandmates [the Lieberson sisters are joined by Brooklyn folker Jane Herships on bass and vocals] hadn’t been as readily available, the same thing would’ve happened. It was just time for me to move on and do my own thing.”
I ask Teeny (vocals/guitars) about being in a band with her sisters, but also what interests me is how Jane Herships fits in – does she feel left out of any sisterly bonding? She reassures me this isn’t the case: “Jane fits in perfectly. I just think she gets annoyed when conversations get pretty emotional pretty quickly! We’re lucky she puts up with us.” There also an upside to having such a close-knit band with sisters, and that’s trust: “Because we’re sisters and we’re so close, there’s so much trust which is the best space to create in,” says Teeny. “No one is trying to one up each other. We can really explore ’cause we feel comfortable.” I get the impression that whilst in Here We Go Magic, Teeny wasn’t given the chance to express herself as much as she wanted or deserved – but that band’s loss is our gain, now that we have TEEN.
Teeny’s new album, In Limbo, is an interesting mix of Mountain Man-style vocal harmonies matched to psychedelic explorations and rather primal drumming in places. I want to know what Teeny and the band were listening to when they were recording, and what influenced the sound of the album – Teeny reveals there’s quite a variety. “The songs were written over a period of a couple years so the influences are widely varied. I was listening to Radio Ethopique by Patti Smith, Pylon, Can and Neu! While we were recording we listened to a lot of Pink Floyd’s Animals – that’s a good summertime record.” And when it came to song construction, what did Teeny want from the process? “I wanted to write simple songs but have more creative arrangements,” she says. “I think also taking away density and trying to wean out what truly needs to be there… and I think I could still go further in that direction!
In Limbo is a bright and confident statement of intent, yet there’s a real sense of heartbreak and loss on songs like ‘Charlie’ and ‘Come Back’. Those are balanced against the strutting and defiant likes of ‘Better’ (“I’ll do it better than anyone else”), and Teeny explains that the record came out of having to move on. “They’re definitely personal songs, a lot of processing out loud type stuff,” she explains. “Originally, we weren’t sure of even including ‘Better’ on the record ‘cause it is so different. But we decided that the contrast was kind of cool because I suppose the main theme of the record is transition.” Is the point of In Limbo purposely to provide the listener with variety via various themes? “Yeah, having one song varied from the other was kind of the point. I got dumped, someone close to me was sick; I was confused about where I wanted to be… the record really explores all of those different situations that were going on at the time.”
There seems to be a real balance between the natural and the synthetic in TEEN’s songs. On one hand we have these beautiful harmonies and voices mingling together, but the music is electronic, psychedelic, space-y and motorik at various points – is it simply a case of pulling together various influences? “Yes,” affirms Lieberson. “I think that it is just a matter of being attracted to different types of music and writing in a particular style. But a lot of that ‘sound’ is cause of Pete [Kember, aka Spacemen 3’s Sonic Boom]. He really added a whole new element that made it its own thing.” What was it like working with a producer like Sonic Boom? “It was a pleasure,” says Teeny. “He’s totally brilliant and really, really funny. I am a huge fan of his music so I was totally stoked that he was interested in working with us.” Teeny explains that the band met the psych legend through “our friend Sam Fleischner. He introduced us to him ‘cause he was working on a video for ‘Better’. Pete heard the song and really liked it. I then gave him some demos and we moved on from there. I was so happy that he was into working with us ‘cause I knew he’d be a perfect fit.” And it’s true. The psychedelic elements are strong on In Limbo but what Kember does best is marry the various styles without losing a bright sonic palette. He’s helped by TEEN not becoming another all-female garage band or, ugh, “girl group” and instead go along with Sonic Boom for the ride. It’s very structured, sure, but also incredibly adventurous.
And then there are those beautiful vocals. I ask Teeny how the sisters’ voices work together, and cite The Staves (a band that also contains sisters) as an act who says their voices naturally find registers that create harmonies, and it’s been the same since they were children. Is this same for the Liebersons? “Yes!” she confirms. “Katherine is high, and Lizzie and I switch from mid to low. It’s always been that way, and it makes for easy deciding of parts!” As we’re loosely on the subject of family, was the Lieberson household a musical one? “Yeah, our father was a composer and our mother was a singer and guitarist. We were always playing music and singing.” What about for Teeny personally; was there a record or band that inspired her to want to be part of a band? “I think Live Through This was one of the first records that made me think about being in a band. When we were really little we listened to The Beatles. I also loved that Ella and Louis duets record.”
Finally, what of that name? Clearly it comes from Teeny’s name, but was the capitalisation to make the band easier to find on the Internet? “Yes, I suppose that was the idea. Has it worked?” To be honest, it really hasn’t, but give them a bit more time and it’s infinitely possible that TEEN will end up being one of the first results you come across.
In Limbo is available now through Carpark Records.