PWR BTTM – Pageant review

PWR BTTM pageant

Originally published for The Skinny May 2017 issue.

★★★★

Album title: Pageant
Artist: PWR BTTM
Label: Big Scary Monsters / Polyvinyl
Release date: 12 May

Any PWR BTTM fans hoping for more of the same fun, upbeat pop-punk anthems as heard on their debut Ugly Cherries will be surprised by what they hear on Pageant, but fortunately it’s a good surprise.

In a recent interview with The Skinny, PWR BTTM’s Liv Bruce told us, “(Pageant) reflects the difference in who Ben (Hopkins) and I are since we made (Ugly Cherries).” That difference is that they’re a whole lot more grown up and they’ve got the music to prove it.

All the album’s tracks remain under three minutes in true PWR BTTM style, sticking to their punk-rock roots, but there’s more of a sense of self-reflection on Pageant. Where Ugly Cherries felt spontaneous and carefree, Pageant feels more mature and considered.

There are still the thrashing guitar riffs, like on the epic glam-rock opener Silly, and the classically humorous lyrics: “I sweat out seven pounds in water weight / Just asking for your number”, sings Bruce on Answer My Text; but there are more moments of melancholy on Pageant.

Tracks like LOL and Now, Now show a more self-deprecating side to the band, telling tales of identity struggles and battling your inner demons, while Oh, Boy and Wash reminisce about past loves. On the other hand, Sissy and Big Beautiful Day are modern-day queer anthems and two massive fingers up to the haters, showing that the duo are still as feisty as ever.

If Ugly Cherries was PWR BTTM’s fun-loving, footloose and fancy-free effort than Pageant is their moment to be recognised as serious musicians, who have much more to talk about than just wanting a boy to keep the bed warm during numerous different situations. That’s all part of their charm, of course, but second albums are about progression and on Pageant, progress they certainly have.

Listen to: LOL, Sissy

 

The Pursuit of Happiness: Perfume Genius interview

perfume genius

Originally published for The Skinny May 2017 issue.

Perfume Genius tells us about trying to feel happiness and rebelling against himself on new album No Shape

Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, is known to bare his soul in his music but once a tortured soul has expelled all their demons, can they ever achieve real happiness?

‘Let all them voices slip away,’ sings Hadreas on Slip Away, the lead single from new album No Shape. The track is indicative of Hadreas’ new writing style and, seemingly, his current state of mind. “I was writing more in the moment about how I feel or how I wanted to feel, as opposed to going over old stories of things that have already happened to me,” he says.

Hadreas’ first two albums as Perfume Genius, Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It, introduced us to some of his deepest, darkest secrets: battling drug and alcohol addiction, teenage sexual abuse and struggling with his sexuality, to name a few. But 2014’s Too Bright really felt like Hadreas’ coming out; his departure from lo-fi piano-playing, singer-songwriter to fully fledged queer icon.

Hadreas’ music is heart-wrenchingly honest and on each album, we’ve listened to him processing different issues in his life, with Too Bright feeling like the moment he finally unleashed all that lingering internal anger. Now that he’s shed that skin, on new album No Shape he has been able to explore more positive themes. “I never really get happy, but I’m really trying to,” he says. “There’s a lot of rebelling against my own self and my own brain in some of the songs.”

Writing optimistic songs doesn’t come easy to Hadreas, who is more accustomed to drudging up dark moments from his past. “I find it really easy to write something really disturbing,” he says. “Even the happier moments have a dissonant thread underneath but there is something vulnerable about it because you’re just admitting that you have no idea what’s going on.”

Despite his previous material dealing with darker issues thematically, there has always been an underlying sense of hope in Hadreas’ writing; a desire to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. With his life in a much less tumultuous state nowadays, he had to make a conscious effort to tackle new ground musically and emotionally for his latest effort and it appears he has finally come to terms with his own contentment. “I thought about it all together, not just the emotional content but how to push myself farther in the structure of the songs and the chords that I went to,” he says. “Happy chords for me felt fresh, just to try more major keys.”

While Too Bright had its experimental moments, and toyed with the idea of a bigger sound, No Shape is much more boldly cinematic and epic. Hadreas enlisted Grammy-nominated producer Blake Mills to assist on the songs, taking his music to another level of grandeur. “I kind of let everybody go to town on the songs,” he says. “I knew I was writing these anthemic, stadium songs so I wanted it to have that kind of feeling and I knew working with Blake would take it there.”

Much of Hadreas’ music is created at home. His debut album Learning was recorded in his mum’s house outside of Seattle, following a stint in rehab, and the songs for every album since have been created in his own home. Taking his music from such a personal space into a big studio may have taken some getting used to at first but for No Shape, Hadreas knew he wanted a fuller sound right from the beginning.

“I wrote this album knowing much more than before that that was going to happen,” he says. “I knew that the piano was a placeholder and I wrote the songs knowing that the sound was going to be completely created after the demo.”

Hadreas’ boyfriend Alan Wyffels is the somewhat unsung hero of Perfume Genius. The pair first met during a period when Hadreas had relapsed and Wyffels helped him get sober again. They have now been together eight years and live a very normal, peaceful life together in Tacoma, Washington with their dog. But Wyffels is much more than just Hadreas’ muse, if you could even call him that in the first place.

Wyffels, a classically trained musician, has seen Hadreas through every step of the making of his last three albums – every album apart from Learning – and has lent a helping hand on each one along the way. “I write the music but he’s played every single live show with me and he helps figure out how to translate the songs live,” Hadreas tells us. “It’s nice to be talking about him more because even though he’s been here the whole time, I’m always the one getting my picture taken.”

Sometimes getting your picture taken isn’t so bad though. Hadreas worked with Dutch photography duo Inez and Vinoodh on the artwork for No Shape, which sees him facing away from the camera looking upon a picturesque landscape. “When we were doing all the pictures, I thought for certain we would use the one that was a more traditional portrait and I even had to fight my label after for this one,” he says. “I felt like it fit with the songs, having this warmer energy but then underneath there’s always some discomfort.”

Interestingly, Too Bright is the only Perfume Genius album to use a portrait shot on the artwork, while both Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It used images where faces are masked or covered up in one way or another. “I think for [Too Bright] having that picture felt really rebellious. It felt more defiant to be on the cover of that one, the way that it was,” he says.

Hadreas has never shied away from his sexuality and he openly deals with queer issues in his music. “I can’t get too mad about constantly talking about my sexuality, because if I didn’t want to then I probably shouldn’t have made three albums about it,” he says. But that’s not to say you must be queer to identify with his music. The emotions and feelings dealt with in Hadreas’ music are universal, but being labelled a queer artist can create unfair prejudices.

“People are allowed to steal ideas, or to play with the same things that queer people play with, but as long as they’re not actually queer then it’s seen as subversive and exciting and somehow people can be thrilled by it, but not feel like they need to be uncomfortable and that can be really frustrating,” he says. “Some people think listening to a queer artist means something about their sexuality, and sometimes it does and it can then be a really powerful thing, but you don’t have to qualify before you like my music.”

You begin to get a sense that Hadreas really does struggle to allow himself to be happy, but it seems that in many ways, he is also his own worst enemy. Although he makes steps towards a more positive, uplifting sound on No Shape, there are still plenty of cracks to be found underneath the surface and those demons appear to still be there, even if they aren’t as obvious as they once were.

Whether Hadreas will ever be able to reach that light at the end of the tunnel is uncertain, but one thing’s for sure,  he’ll never stop trying.

No Shape is out on 5 May via Matador; Perfume Genius play with The xx @ The Galvanizers Yard, Glasgow, 29 & 30 Aug

PWR BTTM @ CCA, Glasgow, 15 Apr

pwr bttm cca

Originally published for The Skinny.

★★★★★

PWR BTTM’s Ben Hopkins makes a crucial observation about the difference between British and American crowds halfway through tonight’s show at Glasgow’s CCA: that Americans will scream in your face and maybe even throw a cheeseburger at you if they enjoy the show, whereas British people will tell you ten reasons why they found it interesting.

To begin, there are two very important things to be taken from the show: 1) Support band Orchards are about to be your new favourite indie band and 2) PWR BTTM are the most exciting live band around right now. Here are a few more reasons why the show was interesting.

Hopkins shredded the life out of his guitar and his vocal cords throughout most of the show but particularly during performances of Silly, from new album Pageant, and Ugly Cherries, from the duo’s eponymous debut. When Liv Bruce takes over the mic, the biggest singalongs of the evening occur, to fan favourite I Wanna Boi and recent single Answer My Text.

The chemistry between Bruce and Hopkins is unlike that in many other bands. The pair bounce off each other like a pendulum swinging at full force, exchanging banter back and forth between songs, making for a thrilling – and hilarious – punk-rock show from two performers in their absolute prime.

If all musicians could be as enthusiastic about being in a band together and playing their music live as PWR BTTM are music, and the world, would be in a far better state.

K.Flay – Every Where Is Some Where review

k.flay

Originally published for The Skinny.

★★

Album title: Every Where Is Some Where
Artist: K. Flay
Label: Night Street / Interscope Records
Release date: 7 Apr

Just a few seconds into the opening track on K. Flay’s second album Every Where Is Some Where and you’ll know whether you want to continue listening or swiftly turn it off.

Hailing from San Francisco, alt-pop singer K. Flay has been heralded as ‘the next big thing’ by many, but it’s difficult to see why. If there’s anything to be said for the singer, it’s that she has catchy pop choruses down, but her lyrical abilities are seriously lacking.

There are several failed attempts at political commentary on Every Where Is Some Where and a lot of clichéd references to not needing drink or drugs to feel high. To top it off, all of this is sung in a squeaky, baby-voice that makes Lorde sound listenable.

There are some tolerable tracks, however. Black Wave is a noisy, grungy piece of electro-pop reminiscent of early Crystal Castles and It’s Just A Lot is a solid dark-pop tune, with some interesting harmonies and instrumentation. You Felt Right is almost good, with its cutesy dream-pop chorus but is sadly ruined by the poorly attempted rap verses, something which seems to be a recurring theme on the album.

K. Flay is definitely a Marmite artist and her alternative take on electro-pop/rock is likely to appeal to a lot of people, but unfortunately for some it will be quite difficult to stomach.

Listen to: Black Wave, It’s Just A Lot

Flying High: Little Dragon interview

little dragon

Originally published for The Skinny April 2017 issue.

Little Dragon tell us about celebrating twenty years together and finally feeling comfortable in their own skin

Not many bands can boast twenty years of friendship, but Little Dragon seem to have found the secret to making it work, even if they can’t quite put their finger on it.

“It gets stranger and stranger to work together and it gets creepy sometimes,” says frontwoman Yukimi Nagano. “Somehow, we’ve managed to stay together and change, all in different ways, and still like each other.”

Over the years, the Gothenburg four-piece have made a name for themselves as musicians’ musicians, collaborating with everyone from Gorillaz to Big Boi and featuring on tracks from SBTRKT, DJ Shadow and Kaytranada. It really feels like Little Dragon have done it all.

Coming off the back of their Grammy-nominated fourth album Nabuma Rubberband, however, the band were keen to take things back to basics for their next project and not let all the success go to their heads. “We’re trying to go back even more to the time when we didn’t have a record deal and we were just making songs for the fun of it,” says drummer Erik Bodin. “We’ve gone through phases and all of them have been equally important and part of our journey but right now, we’re not trying to fit in as much,” agrees Nagano.

Earlier this year, the band teased us with the first single from their new album Season High with the seductive, 90s R’n’B-influenced slow jam High, appropriately released on Valentine’s Day. But just when it looked like the band might be taking things in a softer, more mellow direction, they followed it up with the club-ready, electro-pop banger Sweet, just to keep us on our toes. “We always like to mix flavours,” says Bodin.

The band worked with surrealist filmmaker and frequent Yung Lean collaborator Ossian Melin on the videos for both singles and, despite admitting to not being particularly aware of his previous work, they appear to have formed a strong bond with him, almost like kindred spirits. “He’s a character and a real sort of tortured creative soul that we totally connected with,” says Nagano. “He has a strong artistic personality and his expression is very inspiring so we’re very happy we found out that he existed on the planet,” adds Bodin.

For the first time in the band’s history, they chose to work with outside producers on Season High, accepting a helping hand from Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford and revered pop producer Patrik Berger (Robyn / Charlie XCX / Santigold / Icona Pop / Lana Del Rey). Despite the calibre of those producers though, the band say they are always nervous allowing others into their close-knit circle to work with them on their music. “With our own music, we feel a bit protective because we really feel like it is already a big collaboration between the four of us,” says Bodin. “It’s a big process working with four strong-willed people, trying to get to a conclusion and we’re still working on that,” adds Nagano.

Once they’ve reached that conclusion, however, they don’t seem to feel that natural sense of relief most people would when completing something. “It’s always a bit frustrating to finish an album,” says Bodin. “You want to leave it sort of fresh and have a feeling that it’s a bit unfinished almost so it’s still open for taking it to the live shows and you can keep on developing it.”

The band’s process now sounds just like what it was when they first got together, one big old jamming session. So much so that one of their biggest struggles, they say, is trying to rein themselves in. “There are quite a few songs on the album that are over four minutes and there’s one even going on eight minutes, but it’s just showing our classic ability of not knowing when to end a song,” says Nagano. “An average song at three and a half minutes always feels too short to us… I think it’s like a little beautiful accident constantly.”

Just like all their albums previously, Season High was made in the band’s home studio in Gothenburg, which they built themselves and have continued to develop over the years. “There’s a personal touch to it and I think everyone feels at home,” says Nagano. “I think that kind of security is important when you want to somehow express yourself and not feel any walls or restraints, especially when you’re trying to find something new and dig within yourself.”

Having that studio space has also allowed the band to encounter fellow like-minded Gothenburg musicians, such as their studio neighbour sir Was, who features on the album playing clarinet on the track Butterflies. “He’s a bit of a Swedish Woody Allen, a beautiful neurotic person whom we love very much, so it was fun to have him on the album,” says Nagano. But the family affair doesn’t stop there, a childhood friend of the band, Agge, also features on the album. “Some of our first shows we actually did were with him, just at the local shitty jazz club or whatever. He’s someone who everyone in the band loves so for him to be on the album feels like the most natural thing ever,” adds Nagano.

It seems routine for the band to take a two- or three-year gap between each album, something they believe allows them the ability to maintain a fresh creative outlook and a healthy balance of work and personal life. “We really make music out of passion in our hearts, not to please anybody’s demand so I think creatively it’s better when you have time and that freedom, but we also prioritise life,” says Nagano. “It’s nice to step out and take a break from it because then you keep your ears and your mind fresh for when you come back and work with the music.”

For Little Dragon, the secret to being able to stay together for so long seems to be keeping things simple. By working in their own studio space and rarely collaborating with anyone outwith their tight-knit unit on their own music, they manage to avoid a lot of the pressures that may come with being a globally successful band and instead, focus on doing things their way, on their own terms.

Little Dragon’s Top Collaborations

SBTRKT – Wildfire

Much of Little Dragon’s mainstream success can be put down to their feature on this 2011 dubstep smash from the mask-wearing British producer SBTRKT. The track was such a hit that it even spawned a hip-hop remix from Drake, taking it to even bigger, but not necessarily greater, heights.

Big Boi – Higher Res

The band featured on three tracks on ex-OutKast member Big Boi’s 2012 album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumours but this track, also featuring the ever-elusive Jai Paul, is certainly the best of the bunch. Nagano described working with Big Boi as “the most exciting collaboration we’ve done so far.”

Gorillaz – Empire Antz

Damon Albarn selected Little Dragon as his ‘star of the future’ for Dazed & Confused’s 20th Anniversary issue in 2011 after working with them on two tracks for Gorillaz’ 2010 album Plastic Beach. The subtlety in the production of this track brings Nagano’s vocals to an almost otherworldly dimension.

De La Soul – Drawn

One of the band’s heroes, De La Soul got them on board for a track on their 2016 Kickstarter-funded album …And the Anonymous NobodyKelvin ‘Posdnuos’ Mercer cited the track as one of the reasons DLS decided to crowd-fund the album, due to its experimental nature.

 

Season High is released on 14 Apr via Because Music.

Tropical Thunder: Paradise Palms Records

palms.jpg

Originally published for The Skinny April 2017 issue.

We speak to Paradise Palms Records’ boss Aaron Main about championing local music and the importance of community

Edinburgh’s music scene has long been hindered by strict council legislation and a lack of opportunities for local artists, but small communities brewing across the city are beginning to change this. One of these communities is Paradise Palms, a tropical-themed dive bar which has grown into a hub for local musicians from varying backgrounds, particularly with the development of its own label last year. “It was quite easy to gauge that there wasn’t enough support for Edinburgh artists in such a broad sense,” says label manager Aaron Main, aka Chow Main. “It was apparent we needed to do something here to help the scene as far as putting out music, especially on record.”

It seems fitting given the bar’s aesthetic that the label’s first release, in September 2016, was entitled Bonnie Tropical: a 12” compilation featuring tracks by 12 artists predominantly from Edinburgh and Glasgow – or “a collection of tracks from acts near here”, as it is simply put on the back of the record sleeve.

The label’s latest venture is a digital single release from Paris-based electronic duo Hey Mother Death for their track Deranged My Love, which will include two remixes by local artists. This will then be followed by a vinyl release for Record Store Day, featuring a further four remixes of the track. “The exciting thing is that this project is bringing a lot of different artists together,” says Main. “It’s quite a broad spectrum and I knew each one of those artists would bring something unique to the table.”

 

Many of the artists featured on Bonnie Tropical and on the upcoming RSD release have previously featured on the label’s monthly SoundCloud playlists or have played at its Paradise Palms Presents nights in the bar. “I think establishing Paradise Palms as a community for music and allowing it to grow organically is how we’ve been able to get those artists on board,” says Main. They hope to continue incorporating this community feel into a new singles club series. “We’re going to do a series of 7” records that will not necessarily be people from Scotland, but people who have played at the bar,” he adds.

But the label is also taking steps further afield, with its first music video currently in the works. “One thing we noticed when we started this label was that there aren’t many music videos for local artists. That’s one of the things we wanted to offer artists on the label,” says Main, and the label has been duly working with Edinburgh-based experimentalist M.O.T.O on a video for his track Long Shot, alongside filmmaker Magnus Huntly-Grant. “It’s a really powerful track and we wanted to give the artist the opportunity to express what it meant to him visually, so we’ve given him the creative control to represent what it means to him in a music video context.”

As well as the label, the bar opened its own record shop last year, which is currently co-managed by Matt Belcher and Andrea Montalto. “We’re trying to focus a lot on what’s going on in Scotland and mainly stock everything new that’s coming from Scotland in electronic music,” says Montalto. “We really aim to keep a community feeling, especially for new DJs and young people who are just starting to buy records.”

Both Main and Montalto agree that having the store within a bar setting allows for a less intimidating environment for record buyers. “It’s a friendly environment down at the bar and it’s nice having the records not be the main thing but by the side while you’re having a drink,” says Montalto.

“It’s a much more relaxed approach to the sale of music and there’s no pressure to buy anything,” agrees Main. “If you want advice, you can get it or you can just have a listen.”

While the two don’t work particularly closely together currently, there is hope that as both businesses grow, more opportunity to do so will arise. “We hang out together, we listen together, we exchange music tips between all of us involved here,” says Montalto, “so there is a connection because we are on the same page.”

“I think they go hand in hand quite nicely,” adds Main. “As time goes on we’ll be able to sell more music that we’re making and promote more local music that’s getting made in Scotland.”

Community is certainly key within Paradise Palms, as a venue, record shop and label. It is this sense of community that seems to be the reason why so many local musicians are willing to jump on board with its different projects. With a strong focus on supporting and promoting local music, it manages to transcend its potential status as ‘just another bar’ – it’s pretty clearly that it’s not just the Buckfast daiquiris that keep people coming back.

 

PWR BTTM’s favourite Queer Rappers

mykki blanco

Originally published for The Skinny 2017 April issue.

We caught up with PWR BTTM to discuss their new album Pageant, but also got onto a sidetrack discussing their favourite queer rappers. Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce introduce us to three of their faves…

Big Momma

“The first mixtape that he put out was seriously fire,” says Bruce. “He has some of the most tense and fucked up flow that I’ve ever heard.”

Big Momma may not be the most well-known rapper in the movement but he’s certainly one of its unsung heroes, gaining attention guesting on tracks by fellow queer rapper Cakes Da Killa. Describing his aesthetic as a mix between Lil’ Kim and the WWE wrestler The Undertaker, Big Momma’s music is fast, frank and fearless.

 

Khalif Jones (f.k.a. Le1f)

“I think Le1f has been hinting on Twitter that he might be wrapping up that project and starting to work under a different name,” says Bruce – right enough, Le1f recently uploaded his “last music video as Le1f” for the track Umami / Water to Facebook in February, and has since deleted his Twitter. But Le1f’s legacy will live on as one of the most honest and outspoken rappers of his generation, with Jones sharing his first music under his new alias earlier this month.

Mykki Blanco 

“She is such a genius, incredible creator and has become a friend,” says Hopkins of the performance artist turned rapper. Initially created as a female alter-ego for a video art project before switching to a gender-fluid persona, Mykki Blanco quickly rose to the forefront of the queer rap movement. Following a string of independent releases, Blanco released much-anticipated debut album Mykki through Berlin-based !K7 Records late last year.

 

Catch Mykki Blanco at Love Saves The Day festival in Bristol on 28 May, and at Southbank in London on 17 Jun as part of the M.I.A-curated Meltdown Festival.