The first thing you notice about almost any given Grass Widow song is that there’s more than one voice present in the mix. On Internal Logic, the San Francisco post-punk trio’s third full-length, the band writes complex and catchy songs that meander in and out of a variety of genres, but one thing remains constant: They sound like a unit. With the release of the new album the group has taken that idea of unity once step further by releasing the record on its own label, HLR, which draws its name from the initials of the band’s three members.
It turns out the band applies the same democratic philosophy to interviews. Bassist Hannah Lew, guitarist Raven Mahon and drummer Lillian Maring spoke to me from separate rooms in the same apartment in San Francisco, turning the phone call into a wide-ranging conference call that covered the origins of HLR, douchey sound guys and Star Trek.
Goldilocks Zone by Grass Widow
Internal Logic is the first album released on your HLR label. What made you guys want to start your own record label?
Hannah Lew: We’ve done some records on other labels, and we really learned a lot from working with those labels, but the one thing that was a little lackluster was that there were so many elements we wanted to control ourselves, and we wanted to be able to know exactly who we were working with, exactly where all the money was going and just really be able to have full glory [laughs] from the beginning of songwriting until the end when we’re selling the record. It’s harder because the benefit of working with a record label is that they front the money for production, so for that we had to take out loans and stuff, but now we just look at our timeline, and we’re like, “OK, three months from now our wholesale orders will come in, and that will cover the cost.” It’s just about being willing to be broke for a few months, but then after that for the rest of our lives we get a 100% of our royalties, and it feels really good to really care about something and have every aspect be covered and know exactly what’s going on.
Raven Mahon: It’s also really satisfying to know that we’ve done it ourselves. This is our third LP, and even with the first one we worked with a local label; our friends have a label in San Francisco called Make A Mess, and we did a lot of the distribution for that one ourselves. They helped us financially and put it all together, but it was fun to address each individual order and send it out and know where it was going. There was just a lot of satisfaction in being a part of that process. Financially it can be a little tricky, and it can take a lot of time and work, but it’s worth it, and it’s something I would recommend for other bands.
With the last record you were on Kill Rock Stars. Did that feel limiting?
Hannah: There were definitely a lot of people referencing the riot grrrl movement and calling us a riot grrrl band. I don’t think that was a bad thing at all. We learned a lot from the experience of working with Kill Rock Stars, and I’m sure a lot of people who hadn’t heard of our music learned about us through being on that roster, but there are pros and cons to every situation.
Lillian Maring: We got a lot of really amazing opportunities working with Kill Rock Stars, and we did get a lot of attention. I think even though all of the throwing around of the riot grrrl label, that provided us with an opportunity to talk about riot grrrl and actually where we stand in present day as women playing music.
The new album focuses a lot on space travel and science-fiction themes. What was the inspiration for that?
Hannah: We had come of out of a phase of songwriting when we were writing [the group’s last album] Past Time that was very much about trying to understand the unknown because we were dealing with death and really sad [things] in our lives. We were in an intense grief period while making that record, and we realized we just couldn’t play a lot of those songs live. They were just so hard to play, and then we started working on Internal Logic, and we were like, “We’ve got to write songs that feel good to play, that will empower us every night!” So a lot of the songs are just things that we need to yell about like douchey sound guys who give us advice on stage or like different things you run into constantly on tour.
And there’s a specific Star Trek reference too on the track “Spock On Muni.”
Hannah: There is a scene from one of the Star Trek movies that takes place in San Francisco and Spock is on Muni, which is our public transit here, and he’s on a bus, and this punk guy, he’s blasting tunes on the bus with a boombox, and everyone on the bus is so annoyed, so Spock puts the Vulcan death grip on his neck, and the punk falls asleep. It’s just a really San Francisco moment, and it’s awesome because it slightly relates, but that song, we really just named it that as sort of an homage to that image, but the song itself isn’t even about Spock.
The title Internal Logic is such a perfect fit. What’s the origin of that?
Lillian: We actually got that phrase from a write up that Tobi Vail wrote about us, and it seemed to be the first time that someone had actually described us the way we felt we were; how because we’ve been playing together for so long and because of the way we work with each other, we each have an internal logic to how a song works. Hannah or Raven might have a completely different understanding of what is actually happening in the song, and so we’re each hearing our own different version of the song… What was that word, Hannah?
Hannah: Oh yeah, well we definitely have our own idioglossia amongst ourselves, which is something that I realized. But the word idioglossia is not a good album name, cause it’s too, “Oh Idioglossia, I have to look that up,” which you’re free to do right now, but it’s like basically a language that people only have amongst themselves. It’s their own language; often twins will have it, or there’s a documentary I’ve seen about the twins that have their own language and no one else could understand them. I was like, “Hey that’s just like us.”
Do you think that democratic teamwork aspect helps keep that sense of integrity alive when you guys are dealing with the music industry?
Hannah: We’ve been a band for five years, and beyond that, Raven and I have been playing music together for nine years. A lot of other bands that came up around the same time as us have had a lot of rotating members, and you hear about lots of bands over the history of rock music having lots of different members, and I think one thing about us is that this band is specifically about the three of us. We couldn’t rotate out a member. It’s impossible. And that’s on purpose because we all want to feel totally invested equally. I’ve been in other bands where you’re playing someone else’s songs, and you can’t do that for five years if you’re a creative person. At a certain point you have to express yourself, and even though we have different ratios of how much different people put into any given specific song on the album, we’re all in there.