On the final track of Potty Mouth’s upcoming full length, Hell Bent, Phoebe Harris drawls, “Here’s the thing/I’m the best/I know it’s hard to digest,” with the kind of conviction surprising to find in such a relatively green act already swamped by harping haters. But this is indicative of an essential part of the foursome’s stark garage sound: They know what they’re doing, they like what they’re doing, and so what if their music isn’t polished and doesn’t feature Thom Yorke? It’s damn good.
Harris, Ally Einbinder, Abby Weems and Victoria Mandanas are the women behind Potty Mouth. Hell Bent (out September 17 via Old Flame/Marshall Teller) is a collection of badass twee mingled with punk sensibilities, rife with the simple chords and bold-faced instrumentation of musicians doing what they want. Their vocals are slightly monotone with lines frequently ending in a downward drop, and stacked against their unshaven guitars, it sounds like an anything-goes band practice sharpened into 10 tracks of their most impressive moments.
As a band, Potty Mouth seems to have the kind of relationship that allows for a musical open forum: one held up by strength of conviction and a respect for what each member contributes. When I spoke to them last week, each member had strong opinions, but they agreed with each other unanimously, weaving in compliments and building on what other members had previously said, like an eager, unchoreographed, but still graceful dance. I caught up with Ally, Abby and Phoebe to talk learning their instruments, political content vs. being a political band, and lame internet commenters.
The general story about the founding of Potty Mouth is that three of you went to Smith College and basically said, “Fuck it let’s do this,” but was there more to it than that?
Ally: Yeah, me, Phoebe and Victoria all went to Smith College. I had been in two bands before Potty Mouth and I had just started playing bass, I was really learning to play bass through those two bands. I was enjoying doing that, but I wanted to be in a band with all women, specifically with people who were also not as experienced with their instruments because I feel more comfortable taking more risks, being more confident and just trying out new things, because in my other bands I was the more inexperienced musician and it was always kind of a weird dynamic. Phoebe had been my really good friend at Smith and I knew she was really interested in being in a band, but she never played guitar or anything before.
We were just talking one night and we were like “You know, let’s just do it.” She looked into buying a guitar and we knew that Victoria happened to been a really good drummer, and we knew having a good drummer was the foundation of having a really good band. It didn’t really matter that both of us were kind of inexperienced at our instruments. We knew Abby was interested in being in a band too and she had never really played guitar before either, but we just decided to do it. It was really awkward at first [laughs], but we just kept with it.
Was it awkward just because you didn’t know what you were doing?
Ally: It was awkward because at our first practice I didn’t know Abby at all and Victoria didn’t know Abby. We weren’t very close friends, with the exception of me and Phoebe. And the fact that Abby and Phoebe had just started playing guitar was kind of awkward. So we literally just tried to see what sounded right in our ears and kind of spoke to each other in the only way we knew how to speak to each other because no one knew the names of notes or anything.
So what was the process like for that first practice when you were trying to play songs together?
Abby: Our first practice, I think we had maybe written a couple of riffs and we all just sat down and tried to figure out who could play chords, who wanted to sing and those kinds of things. At first, we wanted to sing in a Grass Widow type of way, but as our songs got more complicated we just ended up saying, “OK, Abby sings this song,” “Phoebe sings this song.”
How do you think your music has changed as you’ve become more comfortable playing your instruments and with each other?
Ally: At this point we’ve all been playing together for like two years, we’re all getting a lot more comfortable and a lot more confident. We’ve kind of hit a groove, especially Abby, because she’s the one writing the foundation of every song. We’ve found a common sound that runs throughout all our songs. Phoebe is really good at coming up with guitar leads that match Abby’s vocals really well. It’s really interesting that it happens that way, because she never hears Abby’s vocals before she comes up with it.
Abby: Yeah, vocals usually come last.
Listening to Hell Bent, I feel like you’re telling stories about events specific to you as well as broad-spectrum, sort of general population occurrences. Where do you get your lyrical inspiration from?
Abby: Definitely from things we’ve experienced. I can’t imagine writing about something that I can’t relate to. I always write about something that has happened to myself or somebody that we know and try to put it in a more general sense. I don’t want it to feel like I’m talking about personal things all the time because I want other people to be able to relate to the songs—that’s the most important thing to me.
Ally: Abby is just really good at writing lyrics that are really simple, but somehow carry universal weight that resonate with a lot of people. Everyone really likes the song “Dog Song” because everyone can relate to the feeling of being lonely and feeling confined and neglected.
You’ve mentioned this in interviews before, that there are a lot of descriptions of your music as riot grrrl and I can imagine that getting kind of grating, so I wanted to give you a chance to describe your music yourself. What are some phrases you would use to describe your sound?
Abby: That’s a good question. I would say ’90′s-inspired pop-punk,’ ‘reverb drenched.’ [laughs]. Someone once said ‘reverb drenched’ and I think it was a direct reference to “Dog Song” because there’s one riff in it that sounds like a Pixies riff. Phoebe’s riffs are really surfy and reverby.
Ally: Yeah, it’s really a mixture of like pop-punk and surf I guess. It’s hard to describe. Our goal is to find really good bands to be able to relate to.
Abby: I just really hate being pop-punk because it harbors such a negative connotation. That phrase kind of emerged from this uprising of bands like Blink-182, New Found Glory or whatever. I don’t think we’re like that. I think we play pop music that has a lot of punk influences and a lot of punk style and sound to it. So I just usually say punk-influenced pop music.
On that note, I’m wondering what your personal definition of punk is. I feel like everyone has a different definition of what it is in terms of whether it’s a specific sound, a mindset, or if it ended when Never Mind The Bollocks came out.
Ally: I think punk can’t fit into one definition because it’s both a historical moment as well as a very distinct punk culture. It’s like comparing apples to oranges to say punk was the same in the late ’70s as it is now, because now we have the internet and stuff. I often find myself wishing that I was a teenager in the ’70s and not in the 2000s, because I think that it was so cool that when all that music was being made back then and people started dressing weird it was the first time all of that was happening. I really like the idea of it being the first time and everyone being like “What the fuck? Where is this coming from?” At the same time, there are definite benefits to being a band now. For one, touring is a lot easier now. You could start a band today and go record a demo and be on tour in a month because we have the internet and social media. And there is this internationally spanning DIY culture that’s really awesome because it’s kind of an honor system where, whenever we book our tours we are constantly meeting people coming to our shows we’ve never met before and staying at their houses, often having them feed us and we’ve never once thought, “Oh this is kind of weird.” It’s a very self-sustaining system. The reason why it works so well is because everyone involved in making it work is playing their part and if they’re not playing their part, or they’re fucking over bands then everyone will know and it won’t be able to continue.
I read that you were playing in New Haven tonight. Are you on tour now?
Ally: Our drummer’s other band Chemical Peel is on tour so we’ve done a few shows with them. Last night we played Northampton with them and then tomorrow we are playing in Boston with them. We’re supposed to play New Haven tonight, but speaking of DIY, it’s been really frustrating because the person who booked the show, emailed us at midnight last night saying that she didn’t have a PA and that she’d rather postpone the show. And that’s really unprofessional show etiquette especially when you have a band from South Carolina that needs gas money to get to their next destination. If that were me, and I messed up and couldn’t find a PA for a show, I would do everything I could to find a new space and ask everyone I know for a PA.
Do you have any wacky tour stories? I know you went to Ladyfest Philly. I really wanted to go. Did I miss out?
Phoebe: Ladyfest Philly was really awesome. That was on a mini-tour that we did and it felt so well-promoted and professional and it was really successful. That’s not really a story.
Ally: Yeah that was just a really good experience. They cooked for every band and it was really well organized.
They cooked for you?
Phoebe: Yeah they cooked for every band that played. It was a pretty amazing effort on their part. They did great things like tie bandanas around their arms to identify who was working Lady Fest Philly because it was pretty big festival and that was really nice way to be able to identify to who you could ask if you had a question. We played Ladyfest in Providence and that was not as well organized.
Ally: I just thought of one crazy tour story. We toured in the south last January and we played a show in New Orleans. We were told that the show was happening in this abandoned rented out strip mall, kind of off the grid. I think it had maybe been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina but they were going to run the show on a generator. The whole situation when we first got there was super sketchy, we were told to get there at 8 p.m., we got there at 8 p.m. and it was dark, we had to cross a bunch of train tracks and walk through a field to find this building. Then when we got there, it was just concrete walls with nothing inside and we could’t imagine how they were possibly going to have a show there. We were all kind of freaking out a little bit, thinking, “Should we do this?” and then we left to go get coffee until the person running the show actually showed up. We go back an hour later, and the promoter is there with a generator, the place was all lit up and there were over a hundred people there. So it ended up being one of the funnest shows we ever played because it was probably one of the most DIY shows we ever played.
Abby: It could have been scary but it worked out.
In your interview with the New Museum, when you were talking about shitty comments from a post on Brooklyn Vegan, I believe it was you Ally who said that it’s not your job to educate people and it’s not the job of marginalized groups to educate privileged groups. I think that it’s true, it’s not their job, but historically it has been marginalized groups who sort of take on that responsibility. It also seems from interviews I’ve read with you that you’re not actually just diffusing that responsibility to male-dominated bands, which also seems alienating and kind of fruitless. I’m just wondering if your ideas have changed on that.
Ally: I think my thoughts are more complicated than what I boiled it down to there. Yes, it’s not our job in theory, but it always has been our job and it pisses me off. It should’t be our job but that’s the way it is. I think that comment came out of a lot of anger when we were posting on Facebook and people were commenting. Phoebe’s friend commented on a post saying, “I think you should use your band as a platform for educating people on sexism and feminism and how to talk about gender,” and I was like “Are you serious? Why don’t all male bands use their band as a platform? Why should we use our band as a platform?.” It’s more of a frustrating thing that people can talk about you in such a degrading and disgusting way, that constantly blows my mind that it’s accepted.
Phoebe: And I think that whole “It’s not our job to teach you” kind of thing comes from this whole bullshit idea that women’s issues are strictly women’s issues and men don’t have any responsibility. And it’s extremely frustrating because it’s men who are the most important aspect of that—men need to learn the most. It’s just extremely frustrating when men are making those comments about us that are totally degrading and violent and yet when we speak up for ourselves, it’s totally pushed aside and seen as not a legitimate kind of reaction.
Ally: We definitely didn’t start this band to be a political outlet. But we’re not going to pass up a chance to talk about these issues.
That seems like a good way to look at it.
Ally: It’s still hard for me to ignore the comments section on Brooklyn Vegan, but it’s fascinating to see with a website like that that carries so much heightened cultural power, it’s interesting to me to see the kinds of things people will say when they’re allowed to comment anonymously. I think it is really telling of the kind of attitudes people really have.