Death of the Party
Chastity Belt bassist Annie Truscott's tale of getting the seal of approval from the former Smiths guitarist is just one of many surreal and unexpected things to have happened to the Seattle four-piece in 2015.
“I remember reading about it on Twitter; we were at Gretchen’s mum’s house and I was like ‘Johnny Marr knows who we are?!’ That was so cool.”
Spending an hour in the company of Chastity Belt is one of the most enjoyable things you can do. Singer and guitarist Julia Shapiro, guitarist Lydia Lund, Truscott and drummer Gretchen Grimm are wonderful company and as endlessly quotable as their lyrics. Their gang mentality is apparent from the off, they laugh like drains and constantly finish each other’s sentences.
Their second record, this year’s Time to Go Home was a quantum leap from their 2013 debut No Regrets with the title holding no surprises. Gone is the "Seattle Party" of the debut, and the question posed by that song of "are we having fun?" has been answered with a resounding no. The excitement on Time to Go Home comes from the everyday, things that we might regard as mundane and run of the mill.
On Time to Go Home some of the songs are about being a woman, but there’s also those that are gender unspecific. Lund thinks their music relates to their generation as much as their gender. “I think it’s more just about being our age, being in a position where you’ve graduated and now you’re in the city trying to figure out what you’re going to do and what will make you happy.”
The lyrics are witty, reminiscent of the way The Smiths might have mixed comedy and pathos. Shapiro was a Smiths fan at school and loved how Morrissey’s lyrics combined grumpiness with comedy, but she feels the humour in Chastity Belt’s songs get overlooked. “Not everyone understands it, they take it pretty literally. My favourite lyricists are always pretty witty. I really like Courtney Barnett and Elliott Smith."
"The words to our songs are kind of like laughing at misery.”
One thing you can appear to take from Time to Go Home is that the word “love” only appears once, on the wonderful “Lydia”. It turns out that the “L” word isn’t actually on the record at all. Its writer, Lund, looks baffled at the question, but gamely humours me. “No… I don’t say that word. I don’t say it.” But isn’t the first line “Will you keep our love?”? Truscott quickly corrects me and sings the actual line, which is in fact “Will you keep, all of…”
Once their laughter stops they discuss why they’re not interested in writing love songs, with Shapiro explaining “I didn’t want to be one of those bands that’s like ‘I love my boyfriend.’ That’s like Best Coast. My other band Childbirth has a song called “Breast Coast” and that’s making fun of Best Coast. One of the lyrics is ‘I love my boyfriend, I love him cos he’s hot, hanging out with my boyfriend, I love him cos he’s hot.’ They actually have lyrics like that. I try really hard not to make lyrics cheesy, that’s my main concern, I can’t handle bands who write cheesy lyrics.”
Lund agrees: “That’s why it’s really funny that you say it’s in ‘Lydia’, because when I wrote those lyrics, I thought I couldn’t make those lyrics cheesy either.” Does that mean that a love song is, by its very nature, cheesy? Grimm cites country legend Lucinda Williams as an example of how to do it correctly. “When I think about her love songs, they’re not cheesy or one dimensional, they’re just really sad.”
Shapiro wants to write about atypical themes for Chastity Belt. “I just feel that there are enough love songs. It may happen eventually but I don’t want to force it you know? There’s so many other things that haven’t been written about that I want to write about, smaller things than love. Love is just such a distinct feeling, I guess it doesn’t have to be, but it’s such a vague thing. I’m more interested in capturing smaller thoughts and day to day feelings.”
For Lund, day to day experiences make for more interesting songwriting material. “Relating to a love song can be so weird, you’re either not in love or you’re in love and you’re listening to a song about someone else being in love or not being in love. It’s a blanket statement, not something that happens on a daily basis. It’s not an experience you relate to in a passing way and those experiences that are in a passing way can be just as meaningful and impactful on your life.” When I ask her for an example she immediately bats back with “Getting too wasted! Hanging with your friends and thinking ‘Fuck, this is great’ or feeling like shit."
“There’s so many other things that haven’t been written about that I want to write about, smaller things than love. I’m more interested in capturing smaller thoughts and day to day feelings.”
Another theme of Time to Go Home is the transition away from partying. Grimm starts by saying she doesn’t feel the need to party all the time anymore. However, she points out that they haven’t turned their back on letting their hair down either. “Don’t worry; we’re not too straight-edged. Annie and I live together in this small apartment; we got noise complaints and the other night.”
Underlining the fact that their songs are anything but straightforward is Shapiro’s approach to writing lyrics. “I think all of our songs have an underlying sadness but also a happiness and that’s how I feel most of the time. I’m feeling all kinds of emotions all at once, everything’s a mix. It’s not so black and white.” Lund returns to the limitations of love songs. “That’s why they’re so one dimensional! It’s like ‘I’m in love!’ or ‘I’m not in love.’”
The album’s title track features the line “Everything is beautiful, because we’re delusional’ (when Shapiro wrote the line she had to Google it because she was convinced it had already been written). Does that mean that there’s something superficial about going out and getting wasted? “I think of that song as being a progression from being really bored and getting drunk out of boredom and that being like the feeling of ecstasy,” she says, “where you’re so drunk and so happy and when it ends you’re like, ‘I don’t feel good anymore’. It’s the feeling of getting really fucked up and the sadness behind that, that things can only be beautiful when you’re fucked up or something, that song captures that for me.”
Grimm talks about the removal of inhibitions alcohol brings. “We’ve talked about this a lot, how when you’re drunk you can just let loose and sometimes you feel so much like yourself, like ‘it’s the true me’. It’s sad that most of the time you’re self-conscious when you’re sober, you’re just like… ‘Why can’t I connect in that way now?’”
"No one my age can get a good job, I’m so glad that there are so many people interested in finding about all these small bands and giving them a chance."
Lund recently went to a friend’s memorial service and remembers the speeches focussed on his hedonistic side. “I thought that was a wonderful thing, it was so cool and inspiring. Everything is beautiful, maybe, when you’re delusional, when you’re indulging, but that’s still beautiful, that doesn’t take away from the beauty of it at all. You can still be helping other people to be happy, you’re entertaining the people around you, you’re the life of the party and you’re sharing something. It’s beautiful when you’re being yourself.”
But the sting in the tail is the next line in the song: “Yeah, I think I’ve figured it out”, which Shapiro compares to the feeling of the night out and the morning after. “I’ve had so many moments where I do feel that ecstasy and have been pretty drunk and it’s like ‘Oh, it all makes sense’, whereas the next morning it’s ‘I don’t understand anything!’” For Lund, the cold light of day can be just as enlightening. “There’s times when you wake up with a hangover and are like, ‘I understand everything!’ That was a beautiful moment and now it’s not so beautiful and I’m lying in bed.’”
With nods to musical references as diverse as Television, Buddy Holly and Patti Smith and it’s not easy to pin Chastity Belt down to a specific musical genre. Shapiro says they’ve no interest in recreating one type of music. “It’s not like we’ve defined ourselves through a genre like some bands do, like ‘We’re a pop-punk band’ or ‘We’re a surf-rock band’. I can’t have that box.”
Grimm attributes this to their varying tastes. “We all like a lot of different music, it would be boring to play the same song and what I love about Julia’s songwriting is there’s a wide range of feelings that you can access. When I’m writing drum beats I don’t just want to keep doing the same sort of thing. I’ll see a poppy band or something techno-ish - we saw Autechre and we were like ‘those beats are so are so cool’ - and then I’ll watch a hardcore band and I’ll like the beats they’re playing.” Lund agrees with her bandmates: “I think we’ve never been trying to go for any ‘thing’, we’ve always played what’s come naturally to us from listening to each other.”
Whilst some of the songs are short and sharp, particularly the earlier ones, as they continue to write songs they find they’re getting longer. Shapiro says “For me now it’s really hard to write short songs; I feel like our songs are slower now and that makes them longer too, but I come up with so many different parts, it’s not verse/chorus, there’s bridges in there too.”
She sees Chastity Belt as having moved away from the early stage of their musical career. “Fans have said things like “I knew you since ‘James Dean’! (from No Regrets which has the immortal line ‘When I fuck you, you make me feel like a prostitute, when you fuck me, I make you feel just like James Dean’) and that’s funny, I feel like we’re a very different band now, but it’s cool, I’m like ‘props to you!’ But we’re not going to play that song.”
"Everything is beautiful, maybe, when you’re delusional, when you’re indulging, but that’s still beautiful. That doesn’t take away from the beauty of it at all"
We talk about how Beach House have just released their second album in just under two months, but Chasity Belt are limited by the fact they have day jobs too, which slows down how often they can tour, record and rehearse. Grimm says that juggling band and work life is a challenge financially, but one they’re prepared to make. Truscott thinks that the only way they can do it is having fluid working arrangements. “I’m a nanny and they have other nannies. We’ve all found really flexible jobs”
Ideally they’d do the band full time and Grimm would love them all to set up home together: “Our dream is to move into a cheap house together and be able to play and record there and not have day jobs, but that’s still a dream.” They debunk another myth about their partying, by saying that life at chez Chastity Belt would be somewhere they’d “play a lot of board games and puzzles.”
The impact of labels investing less money in bands has also influenced how they listen to other music. Shapiro admits that she often listens to music for free, but through necessity more than anything else. “I definitely don’t pay for it; if I was making more money as a musician then I would definitely pay for music, so it’s like a cycle I guess.”
Lund sees this as one of the impacts of the recession. “No one my age can get a good job, I’m so glad that there are so many people interested in finding about all these small bands and giving them a chance, I think that’s really cool. I can’t believe that Marc Riley heard us two or three years ago, that’s insane, we’re such a small band, no one else gave us any attention. It’s wild that someone over here could find us.”
They believe that free downloads have helped them and point out the positive side of sites like Spotify, with Lund saying “It makes it easier to discover things and get people spending their money on going to shows and buying a T-Shirt or a record at a show. If I really like a band then I’ll definitely spend money on them, but it’s kind of nice to discover things without having to pay for them.”
In the meantime their admirers are growing very quickly. On the two nights they played in London both evenings were rammed, which took them by surprise. Truscott says “We had no idea; I didn’t know that so many people wanted to come and see us.” On the first night Grimm was humbled by the reception they received. “It was so welcoming, I looked out at one point and this girl was wiping tears from her eyes and I thought ‘That’s it! We’ve made it!"