Mamalarky’s inception is only possible in our digital age — a move across the country, old friendships, and a Tinder date all intersected at the perfect point in time.
These happenstances resulted in a fuzzy, mellifluous self-titled debut. Formerly based in Los Angeles, three-fourths of Mamalarky now live in Atlanta, Georgia, and are waiting for the pandemic to blow over by spending their time writing music, gardening, and playing with their three foster cats.
While singer/guitarist Livvy Bennett, keyboardist Michael Hunter, and bassist Noor Khan moved to Atlanta, drummer Dylan Hill decided to stay put in Austin. Subsequently, I spoke to the trio over-the-phone to discuss their early beginnings and find out how their new self-titled LP came together. Bennett speaks for most of the interview, but Khan and the very soft-spoken Hunter chime in, entirely in sync as if they were performing music.
Despite not having any meaning, their band name has a subtle playfulness that describes not only the music but also their personalities. They tell me that at the time, their roommates wrote down a bunch of random words while they jammed in their apartment, and that name just stuck out. To me, this story fits the chaotic and random instances that brought them together.
“I felt from an early age, and hopefully you don’t pick up on this now, I actually had a hard time accepting myself,” says Bennett adamantly. “I had a hard time just talking and making friends. I’m really faking it until I make it in these kinds of situations. I feel like music is a good place where I can be myself. It’s kind of like a conversation, but it felt safer.”
Growing up in Austin, music was a source of safety and comfort for Bennett. Not surprisingly, longtime pals and now bandmates, Hunter and Hill felt the same way. Hill and Bennett met while in middle school and played in the school band together. In high school, they met Hunter through the underground music scene that they would frequent. Before Mamalarky even became a thought, the trio would play together in college, taking any shows they could get. “We started in Austin, Texas, which is where I, Michael, and Dillon are from originally. It was kind of a loose collaboration at the beginning, and it gradually got more serious,” says Bennett.
A few states away in Georgia, bassist Noor Khan navigated her way through Atlanta’s music scene. Although she would frequently go to Los Angeles for months at a time as a kid to visit her sister, her real home was always Atlanta. To Khan, making it in any facet of the music business sufficed. One of her first music industry jobs was as a tour manager, managing acts like Madame Gandhi, Faye Webster, and Winter. This experience came in handy when running Mamalarky’s shows.
Eventually, both Khan and Bennett would move to L.A, pursuing their respective careers in music. When Khan and Bennett first arrived there, it was a complete culture shock, especially when compared to their hometowns. They were alone in a new city, which caused a deep sense of alienation and disconnect.
“For me, it was extremely intimidating. I felt like I had no footing for a second,” Bennett says. “I had work, but I didn’t have friends, and I didn’t know what shows to go even. Honestly, until me and Noor linked on Tinder, I didn’t have groups of friends to hang out with and go to stuff.”
“I was born and raised in Atlanta and lived there all my life,” adds Khan. “You’re so unfamiliar with music scenes specifically in L.A. I definitely didn’t go to as many shows as I did in Atlanta.” After living in L.A for a year and working as a solo artist, Bennett decided to find a bassist through Tinder and set up a virtual wanted ad. When she met Khan in real life, they hit it off and became friends. After a few sessions with the group, Khan joined the fold and they played their first show as a group in November 2018 in a wristwatch factory next to a half-pipe filled with skaters.
Since they all had day jobs; Hunter as a member of White Denim, Bennett as a touring bassist for Cherry Glazer, Hill as a member of Big Wy’s Brass Band, and Khan as a tour manager and sometimes musician, they could only record when they had the time, causing them to take two long years to complete their first record.
“A lot of that was because, early on while recording, Noor wasn’t even in the band yet,” says Bennett. “Michael was touring with other bands. He would basically drive out to L.A every few months and record our newest ideas. There are a lot of demos and uncompleted ideas still out there from that time period. I guess it took so long because we were picky with our songs, and we were geographically a little spread out. We recorded most of the album in our living room with our roommate Joey Oaxaca, so a lot of it [is] self-recorded, which is super special.”
After long hours driving from gig to gig and city to city, writing and recording for Mamalarky became a welcomed endeavor for the whole group after many months of the drab, repetitiveness of touring with their respective bands. “I feel like being on the road, so many months out of the year gives you a lot of pent up creative energy,” says Hunter softly. “By the time you get off the road, you have a lot of new music that’s kind of been stewing.”
The album is built on vignettes that are loosely connected, whilst exploring different issues. The songs are mostly about figuring yourself out in your early 20s in Los Angeles and how that pertains to independence, love, and finding confidence in self-expression. Bennett says Deerhoof influenced her, a band she would listen to regularly. Another significant influence from her high school days is Animal Collective, which she and Hunter heavily gravitated towards.
“I think we just gravitated to a more art rocky sound, but also I tend to write very straight-ahead… like indie-pop songs, so there’s a sort of melding there,” says Bennett
A good starting point for the album is “Drugstore Model”, a song Bennett wrote when she first moved to Los Angeles. She was inspired by an ad she saw while walking alone in downtown L.A. one night, and started to think about who this drugstore model was as a person. What resulted was a song critiquing the vapidness and superficiality of Los Angeles. The lyrics describe a relationship where a model requires constant validation — a sign that someone has an unstable sense of self because their ego is built from the outside instead of the inside.
“I’m in this strange town, and everybody is taking pictures. It’s kind of this weird song about ego and the ego that I was running into in my travels, in my journey to L.A,” says Bennett.
Not that they hated it, but living under the superficial thumb of Los Angeles wasn’t a permanent sentence for the group. Unlike Sisyphus, they were able to move away to the country. Since the music industry was essentially shut down because of COVID-19, they’ve had to figure out ways to make ends meet, taking odd jobs as they came up. Khan was the first one to make a move. An Atlanta native, she went back to be with her family with the intention of staying a short time.
“My family is here, and when the Coronavirus hit, I came back to be here for like two weeks,” says Khan. “Obviously, that wasn’t the case, so I ended up being here for like five months. And then it came up that Livvy was considering moving spots, potentially going back to Austin. And I jokingly was like: ‘move to Atlanta, let’s do it.’ We really wanted to be together.”
Eventually, Bennett and Hunter followed suit and made their way to Atlanta. They were all surprised to discover they enjoyed the change of pace and attitude when compared to the bustling city of Los Angeles. Although COVID-19 has changed the music paradigm for many other bands, it helped bring this band closer together. This move to Atlanta allowed them to find a cheaper, bigger place, a place with a bedroom studio where they can record anytime they want and even have their own garden. With a lot of time on their hands, Bennett has even begun pushing herself to work on the band’s next LP.
“In terms of writing, I’m really pushing myself to write and record new music. I think part of the paradigm situation is pushing me to put out the next album that I can tour on. I’m really eager to make that happen.”
Playing music isn’t the only thing they do these days, though. The move allowed them to seek other interests unrelated to music like tending to their oasis made up of donated plants. “When Livvy first moved here, we would walk around a lot and look at a bunch of houses with really beautiful gardens,” says Khan. “She was like fuck it. I’m going to see if they would be down to give me extra plants that they might have lying around. Obviously, we just moved here, so we didn’t have any plants in our house. One person hit us up and gave us like 30 plants, indoor and outdoor, and hella pots. It’s probably worth $200, maybe more.”
With Khan back in Atlanta, and Bennett and Hunter itching to get back to their hometown of Austin, Mamalarky’s journey has come full chaotic circle, with some added plants and pots, of course. Their album is a testament to this journey. It’s a record about figuring yourself out in a strange place in order to find a home within yourself. Inevitably, it seems like it’s led them home, quite literally.