by Jacob Sprecher
Ever-influential though sometimes misapplied, post-punk is a sub-genre currently on a return trip. Born beneath the mainstream in wake of the punk explosion of the late-’70s, post-punk became an artier expression of punk rock ethos and musicality. With many groups coming from across the pond, bands like Wire excelled with franticly technical songwriting and a suffocated production process (Pink Flag), while Young Marble Giants thrived by way of outright minimalism to the point of a deserved “no wave” delineation.
30 years later, post-punk is still a viable independent medium, and is enjoying something of a renaissance. One such band that is most certainly contributing to this resurgence is San Francisco-based three-piece Grass Widow. Comprised of Raven Mahon (guitar, vocals), Hannah Lew (bass, vocals) and Lilian Maring (drums, vocals), Grass Widow embodies many of the genres finest qualities with punky songwriting that’s both anxious and placid while leaning on deceptive and dark pop melodies. A steed in Kill Rock Stars’ stable, Grass Widow found critical success with the release of their 2010 debut, Past Time. And with a new 7” under arm, the group will make their way through Chico while rounding out a small northwestern jaunt before heading East as support for the recently reunited Raincoats. In anticipation of their stop at Duffy’s Tavern on Friday, August 26th, Synthesis spoke with co-frontwoman Raven Mahon, who has a little Chico history of her own.
So you actually lived in Chico back in the day.
I lived there for two years about 10 years ago. I’d been living in New Mexico but got my California residency and started taking classes at Butte College and then transferred to San Francisco State. I wasn’t [in a band], but I worked at Herreid, which is ironic ‘cause I didn’t play then. [I used to go see] Experimental Dental School, Comfy Chairs, but it was a time before I got into music. But Chico has it’s own character outside of the college community that I found myself a part of; I really appreciated people making community themselves. But it wasn’t until I got back down to San Francisco that I started building that myself; the people that I met down here when I first moved were the people I’m playing music with now…but I think a lot of that incubated in Chico.
How did Grass Widow officially come about?
We’ve probably been together about four years now, but the bass player, Hannah, and I started playing music eight years ago in a band called Shitstorm. The drummer from Shitstorm was Frankie Rose, and she ended up moving to New York and starting Vivian Girls. But Hannah and I stayed close…then Lillian moved to town and she actually was a fill-in drummer for a few Shitstorm reunion shows, and that eventually evolved into Grass Widow.
Was it post-punk and no wave stylings from the start? Were you thinking Wire and Delta 5?
I suppose it was, but without pinpointing those references. We definitely are all influenced by older bands like The Move or The Raincoats, but we didn’t design a sound. There wasn’t any sort of conversation about the construction of our band identity. And we all felt from the beginning that we didn’t want there to be a leader in the band or a dominant person in terms of songwriting or vocals; we made it a point to be as collaborative as possible the whole way through.
You guys really sink the pocket with groups like Brilliant Colors and Liechtenstein. And I think it’s cool that this sound, you know, old Vaselines, Black Tambourine, is happening right now, and happening in a good way. It’s not derivative; it’s just kind of a natural expression.
Yeah, I think it is. It has to be relevant, the music you play. If you’re gonna be engaging with this stuff, going on tours and playing the same songs every night, it has to be meaningful. And I think you have a tendency to create things that sound right to you, and maybe that comes from what you’ve been influenced by. Ultimately it has to be something that really speaks to whatever it is you need to hear, and whatever it is you want to be reminded of the next time you sing it or play it.
A friend asked recently why she didn’t see more female-driven rock ‘n’ roll bands. I used Grass Widow as an example of a strong, independent band that is female-driven—do you take that as a badge of honor to an extent? Or like a power? I know it’s not supposed to be a gender-based thing, but…
You know, it’s interesting. There’s so many different ways to use gender, and depending on where you’re coming from or what environment you exist in or the audience you’re speaking to, maybe gender does play a role. For us, maybe we do want to have conversations about what it’s like to be a female band… I think it is empowering, but it’s empowering to feel that we’re at a point where we don’t have to think about our gender. I don’t necessarily identify as somebody that’s “paving the way,” you know? If someone else perceives that then great; if there’s going to be a conversation about gender I’d rather it be about that than, “Oh here’s another girl band that sounds like this girl band.” I think that’s limiting, and if you’re talking about the music itself, we’d much rather be autonomous and genderless, appreciated for our music.
Now, did I read a press blast that said you guys opened for Gorillaz?
[Laughs] We played for gorillas in the Boston Zoo.
Oooh…I was a little confused for a second there.
We have a friend here in San Francisco that started a project called Music For Animals…she was a PhD student at MIT and she had established a relationship with the primatologist at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. The idea is that animals in captivity don’t have a lot of stimulation…[so] we had the opportunity to go to the zoo, and there was this one [gorilla] in particular, Gee-Gee, and she’s kind of the curmudgeonly grandma of the group, and I guess she doesn’t like women. So we talked to all the zookeepers and made a plan and the next morning we brought in all of our gear and played for them. And Gee-Gee just walked up to the glass, sat down and watched the entire show.