Get to know the beautiful harmonies and fiery pop of the San Francisco three-piece.
“We didn’t start the conversation about us being women.” Lillian Maring, drummer of San Francisco three-piece, Grass Widow isn’t the first person in the world to express her frustration at the media focus on her gender (“I’m going to stop talking about it, when everyone else stops talking about it”). Although, that doesn’t mean the she and fellow band mates, bassist Hannah Lew and guitarist Raven Mahon, don’t’ have some very strong feelings on the subject. “When you’re a guy and you play music people think of you as, ‘he’s a guitar player and I happen to know he’s good at golf’,” adds bassist Hannah, through another phone, from another room at her mum’s house, “But when you’re a woman it’s, ‘well, I’d fuck her, and also she plays good music’.”
Beginning in 2007, Grass Widow was born from Hannah and Raven’s previous band, Shitstorm, which was more classically rooted in DIY dereliction than the melodious trips into a naïve pop universe they now create. “That whole band existed in such a different planet from Grass Widow that it’s hard to think about it in the same context,” says Raven, “but that’s how we formed. Frankie Rose [Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls] used to be the drummer for that band, so Lilly filled in for her. Then Wu, the fourth member left for this epic road trip down the coast of Guatemala on his bicycle. There was this moment where the three of us were practising for a Shitstorm show; we were playing around with this idea, we were harmonising and within that moment we realised that there was something good that we wanted to keep doing.” As the inherently sexist adage goes: ‘when the men are away, the women will play’ and in the case of the three friends, it turned out to be most apt, even if the underlying sentiment isn’t exactly the same. Since the end of Shitstorm, there have been a handful of EPs and cassettes, two Grass Widow albums and a dream tour with UK post punk heroes The Raincoats. Their second album, Past Time, was released on the iconic Kill Rock Stars label in 2010 and their third LP drops on their own HLR on May 29th.
The title alone, ‘Internal Logic’, is emblematic of the band’s friendship, working relationship and creative output. “It relates primarily to the way we communicate as a band and how we write our songs and how we’re creative together,” Raven says about the phrase, which they’d unconsciously picked up from a review of their album ‘Past Time’ by critic and Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail. “The way she wrote about us, was one of the first times we really felt that someone had gotten it; really understood where we were coming from, as musicians and people working together,” Raven adds. “Especially, when you collaborate on songs the way that we do. Where we’re all contributing lyrics and talking about the subject matter, writing the instrumentation, doing the arrangements; it all happens together, so there has to be an internal logic. Especially because we’re not using the structure of music theory and annotation to write the songs.”
It’s rare you come across a band that functions solely on consensus and actually works. But, with Grass Widow, it’s something you can hear in their songs and see in their performances. No single member is given pride of place on stage, their glorious three-way vocal harmonies flickering above complex instrumental arrangements that are as much founded on melody as a jerky rhythm still rooted in their punk and DIY past. Even while speaking to them over the phone, it’s clear that the portals of communication between the three are always open. In a conference call setting, each member is given the opportunity to speak uninterrupted, while they all seem to be in agreement when it comes to the notion of ‘success’. “If your success is that you want the validation of men and you want to be seen as ‘sexy’ and basically have fans jerk off to pictures of you on the internet, then you can succeed at that,” Raven really only half-jokes, “but if your goal is to be a musician and you’re trying to reach people that way, you can do that too.”
That’s a sentiment echoed in the ‘Internal Logic’ track, Advice. It’s rhythm runs sideways along words like “Your version of success… empty and atrophied”, while songs like the classical acoustic number A Light In The Static and piano closer Response To Photographs introduce a whole new element to the Grass Widow oeuvre. “It’s funny to me that people have commented on those songs so much,” adds Hannah, “It keeps stopping people in their tracks and it’s like. ‘What about Queen records, when they just go a capella for three-minutes in the middle of a song? Or how about David Bowie records where there are two bars of acoustic guitar? What about Sonic Youth? There are so many songs and so many musicians that do whatever the fuck they want and that’s what we do too.” And ‘whatever the fuck they want’ is what Grass Widow continue to do, even in so far as forming their own unique language to create to: “We make up words to describe certain parts of each song and use them as a guide to write the parts,” Raven says, “They usually have nothing to do with the music itself. Like ‘that’s the hamburger part. This is the part with cheese or pickle’, she adds laughing, “We’d just find ways to describe the music and having played together for so long, this really intensive way to communicate because we do have our own internal logic.”