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Pop Music for an Uncertain Future :: A Conversation with Weyes Blood

Pop Music for an Uncertain Future :: A Conversation with Weyes Blood

By Maxwell Williams

When Weyes Blood’s new album, Front Row Seat to Earth, came out in October, we were innocents. Well, that’s not exactly true. But things hadn’t gotten so scary cynical quite yet. It’s like Front Row Seat to Earth was forecasting some kind of imminent doom.

Sure, it had some tracks that were cynical. In the song “Generation Why,” for instance, Weyes Blood a.k.a. Natalie Mering, reminded us that we do, in fact, only live once, that the generational malaise experienced by Millennials is fucking depressing, that the world is changing, and maybe not for the better.

But more of than not, Mering lays it all out on the table in a nodding warble that’d sounds as faraway as a somber snowbound farmhouse concert by the heat of a wood-burning stove. Songs like “Seven Words” and “Do You Need My Love” are like colorful quilts made by a former paramour, homemade and skillful, melancholy in their embrace.

Which isn’t to say Weyes Blood is stuck in the funk of folk—nah, she’s just warm to it, having found that there’s value in presenting ideas with a clear diction after years of obfuscation in the D.I.Y. noise scenes of Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Now, having been back in L.A. for a few years—where she was born, it should be noted—Weyes Blood is soaring above the bullshit, soulfully brooding on a recent collaboration with Drugdealer (a.k.a. Michael Collins f.k.a. Run DMT and Salvia Plath) like Karen Carpenter never left us. We caught up with her in December after the cynicism of the world had descended on us, and we chatted about Front Row Seat to Earth and the journey it took her to get here.

MAXWELL WILLIAMS: So you must have been on tour during the election? Where were you?

NATALIE MERING: I was in Baltimore, actually. The show was heavy. Nobody was in good spirits. It was one of the heaviest shows I’ve ever played. Some of my bandmates were so heartbroken, it was hard for them to play, but I saw it as we should play. Some of the things that the songs were about made a lot of sense.

How so?

They’re about changes in America.

I thought about the album title, Front Row Seat to Earth, as a way of distancing yourself from the songs. Like you’re watching society through your songs or something.

I feel that, but I think there’s a lot going on symbolically with the title that has to do with our perception, and how we perceive things now especially through our phones and computers.

On Gatorade: “I think it’s really meaningful as humans that we have this technology food. It’s really addictive, too. I’m craving it right now, just talking about it.”

So, how did you find the scene [when you were living in Pennsylvania]?

There was a record store in my town, but how I found out about weird music was this college radio station in Pennsylvania called WPRB. It’s Princeton’s, so it was Jersey, but I would get it in Pennsylvania. I noticed mainstream music was getting really bad. First it was Spice Girls and Hanson, and I was like, ‘Something’s not right.’ And it got worse and worse with Britney Spears and ‘N SYNC. So I started listening to classic rock. I got way into radio classic rock, and it was through that that I found the college radio station. And I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ and finding out that things were new, but sounded old. I would write down everything the DJs would play and put a star next to the things I liked. The rest is history.

I used to be a college radio DJ. That makes me feel good.

Oh yeah, I wouldn’t be a musician if it weren’t for college radio. It changed my whole thing.

When you moved to Philadelphia, did it feel like you entered a different phase?

Yeah, definitely. Really early Weyes Blood was just acoustic guitar, and I had these two saw players that would play saw, and we’d play a little tape manipulation, but it was really slow samba folk, and at the time, I was just starting to see a lot of really cool, ecstatic noise bands. And inevitably, that caught my attention in a way that I couldn’t keep playing the acoustic folk shows, because I felt like it wasn’t the most exciting. And all the people doing folky stuff at the time were freak folk people—older, more established, adult people. I was like, ‘These people pretend punk didn’t happen! This is just so weak!’ Even though I love some of those records still. So then I moved, and I started going to school, and I dropped out of school.

Where did you move to?

Portland, Oregon.

Did you go to Reed or something?

Lewis & Clark. But I didn’t finish. But I did have a radio show on the college radio station. I only brought seven records out to the West Coast, and I would just play them all layered on top of each other on my radio show.

Do you remember the records?

Yeah, I had The United States of America; Sonic Youth’s EVOL; a Tibetan bowls record; I had a Throbbing Gristle greatest hits record; and Inca Ore—she was a noise lady; there was probably some weird neo-classical, like Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet pour la fin du temps. That was my favorite at the time. And maybe Feathers, this freak-folk band. And there were lots of sound effects that I could play on top of the songs. It just made sense.

When you moved back [to Los Angeles], did it feel like this was where you always meant to end up?

Yeah, I feel like five years ago, I was like, ‘I’m going end up out here,’ but I had to go deal with New York, because I didn’t want to be out here thinking, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll just go live in New York later.’ I had to get it out of my system. I know that I didn’t want to live there ever again. It’s like boot camp. It’s good for your soul, and I learned a lot, and I wouldn’t be as good at music if I hadn’t lived there, I don’t think.

.

I feel the same way about writing. If I hadn’t lived there, and beaten myself up and almost died, I wouldn’t have gotten the work ethic I have.

Yeah, you’ve got to get to the bottom, and you’ve got to be in the worst place to be at the bottom, which is New York. Everyone’s just like, ‘Get out of here.’ Nobody wants you there. It constantly wants to spit you out. And I got spit out a bunch of times. I ended up in Rockaway Beach, which was paradise. That was a wonderful way to end it.

So this is your first record that you made in California? Did you make it here?

Yeah. In Lincoln Heights.

“Human civilization is founded on cataclysm… It’s all about accepting and getting better at riding that sublime violent wave”

Who did you record with?

Chris Cohen. He played guitar in Deerhoof, and he also has solo music.

Was the recording process any different?

A little bit, because Chris is a friend, so we could work together on friend terms, and the guy that mixed it is this guy Kenny Gilmore, who plays in Ariel Pink’s band, and has worked on a lot of his recent records. He and I are really eye-to-eye on a lot of stuff, and he’s an old friend, too. So I was working with people I trusted, and there weren’t a lot of random opinions flying around. I got to steer the ship, which was really cool.

I read somewhere that you said something about how all your dreams include the apocalypse. Do you remember that?

Maybe. I don’t know if I said that exactly. I don’t dream about the apocalypse, but I dream about the future, where I guess things are apocalyptic. I’ve had a lot of dreams about the apocalypse, for sure. I think most human beings have. I wouldn’t say that I’m apocalypse-heavy. I think people have been putting that on me lately.

Oops, sorry.

No, it’s totally fine! I just think that it’s a very gentle misinterpretation of what I mean, which is not so much, ‘The apocalypse is coming!’ but more like, ‘Well, it’s always been coming.’ Human civilization is founded on cataclysm. It’s always been gnarly and insane. It’s all about accepting and getting better at riding that sublime violent wave that is whatever’s going to happen to humanity at this point, which is a boiling, tipping point for the planet.

The album has this futuristic element to it, but it’s also so based on human relationships—like I feel like it has this feeling of resignation at the end of a relationship. It’s music that is present about that, but wallowing in that feeling of being heartbroken or hurt. Does that resonate with you at all?

That it’s ‘wallowing’? I don’t know. To me I hear that word as a negative thing.

I don’t mean it negatively. I mean, ‘spending time and feeling the emotions.’

Totally. I think I’m a feeler, and I wear my feelings on my sleeve, and it’s vulnerable in that sense. But, I mean, a lot of it isn’t about staying there. A lot of it’s about moving on. And a part of moving on is taking that emotion or that experience is universalizing it, or transcending it above you, and romanticizing it. It’s super vague to try to talk about it, without sounding really stereotypical: ‘It happens to everybody.’

It’s deeper than that—I feel like my brand of experience is very specific to me, and maybe other people would have a different one, because I move so fast. I’m a seeker. I constantly change and move. So, there’s a little bit of the wanderer in my music who is just wandering and seeking and waving goodbye as I continue on my journey to nowhere.

A lot of people listening to your music will connect to those universalized feelings, even if those personal experiences are yours. Do you have that interaction with your fans? How closely do you pay attention the people that do connect with those things? Do you have experiences of talking to people who listen to your music?

Yeah, definitely. Anytime somebody comes to me, and they’re in a deep emotional state, I’ll pay attention to them. Even though it’s so hard at shows when a lot of people are trying to talk to you. And I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say really heavy things. One person, especially, just came up to me and started crying, because his brother had died, and he wasn’t sure how to deal with death, and a song I wrote on my last record, ‘Bad Magic,’ when I was writing it, it was about a lot of things, but it was also about a roommate of mine whose ex-girlfriend committed suicide, so he had to live with this really intense burden. So there was a lot of death in the air when I wrote that song, and he tapped into what that song was really about, and we bonded over it. It was really strange; this other girl came up, and was like, ‘My sister died.’ His brother had died, her sister died, and we all bonded. It was a weird, universalized moment. And I’ve had people write me messages about the new stuff, too.

“… there’s a little bit of the wanderer in my music who is just wandering and seeking and waving goodbye as I continue on my journey to nowhere.”

When I’m watching your videos, I noticed that someone’s always drinking a Gatorade.

Future juice. Gatorade is crazy chemicals. It’s brominated vegetable oil. It’s what you would put in a car. It’s the food equivalent of gas. So I think it’s so hilarious. And I think it’s really meaningful as humans that we have this technology food. It’s really addictive, too. I’m craving it right now, just talking about it.

There is a sense that you find yourself in places where there is a musician community. You work with Ariel Pink, Chris Cohen, Drugdealer.

Yeah, L.A. is the collaborative hotbed, because I feel like I’m the most from here. I heard Ariel Pink for the first time in high school, and I was making a lot of four-track music at the time, and just working on my songs. When I first heard his recordings, I was like, ‘Okay, this is my mentor.’ I decided then he was doing exactly what I hoped somebody would do in the 21st century. It’s interesting how that’s evolved over time now; the musical landscape is so different. But at that time, it was wonderful, and I think a lot of people identify with his music and cherish it. To me, it was such a huge event, it’s hard to see in hindsight that it might’ve not been as all-encompassing as it felt at the time, but to have somebody writing pop songs that were catchy, but were also sonically estranged from mainstream music, it was a real pleasure. I was listening to a lot of noise and ambient music. That stuff was great, but it was such a treat to get all that stuff plus great songwriting all in one.

I do think he was the connection of all the noise kids finally breaking out of the insular scene.

He really was! And I still to this day am reconciling my secret arsenal of experimental stuff that I’m going to slowly leak more in my future records, because I held it at bay to learn how to write songs better, because I used to use it as a crutch and write okay songs but have some really great sounds going, and now I want to have both be refined and not just do one or the other.

Did this record feel like it was straightforward?

I think it’s a little straightforward, yeah. I don’t think it’s that weird. To me, it’s weird-er. It’s a slow progression. I think some people might say it’s weird, but I think in general I still haven’t tipped over to the other side of having it be notably strange. It’s still kind of getting there. My first record, The Outside Room, I’m still trying to remake that record, but really well.

It’s harder to freak people out these days. I feel like in 2000s New York, or wherever we were, when we first came across Ariel Pink or noise music, the way noise developed was a part of freak-out culture, and I don’t know if it’s harder to freak people out now.

People don’t freak out anymore. Did you notice that? I think a lot of that came from hardcore. I think that rock ‘n’ roll kind of died, and then with other political things happening, it really died. I watched a lot of my noise friends get into techno, and I watched a lot of my harsh guitar buds get slacker rock, and me, I went the folk-y route. But it’s like anything else: people were legitimately different then. People are different now. There was a little bit more elitism, a little bit more localized cultural phenomenon. The Internet and the way I was raised as a younger Millennial, there’s no room for hate, so people kind of like everything. What’s interesting in experimental now plays into the mainstream more. It doesn’t operate separate of the mainstream. Everything is pointing to the great singularity; I feel like more attached to that. It might be because of the recession too. Recession music—people just wanting nostalgia and good feelings, and not anything too ‘out there’ and innovative.

Do you think now that people are unsettled by the political situation with the government—not to put too much on art—but is it more necessary now to push things outside of convention?

Yeah, I think things will definitely get pushed. I just don’t see it in the D.I.Y.—D.I.Y. has become this other weird thing. I’m so sorry. It’s fine, but it’s really laptop heavy. It’s basically laptops. It’s no longer ‘Do-It-Yourself,’ it’s ‘Direct In Youth.’ It’s people plugging shit in. I haven’t seen anything really that interesting happening there. But that’s why I like more indie mainstream music, because I see more interesting things happening on that level than in the more sub-underground level. But there’s always space for growth. Knowing the previous generation—Twig [Harper] and Carly [Ptak of Nautical Almanac], Lightning Bolt, and Wolf Eyes—and then seeing what happened after that, there was an echo chamber of people playing shows just for each other, and not trying to reach people. Wolf Eyes was actually trying to reach people. They were trying to get on Sub Pop. They’re not trying to play for the same five people for 10 years over and over again.

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In February, Weyes Blood will be headlining a tour for Front Row Seat to Earth, including tour stops at Music Hall of Williamsburg on March 30 and Barcelona’s Primavera festival.

weyesblood.com. Follow Natalie Mering on Twitter @weyesblood and Instagram @weyesblood.

Photos by Nathanael Turner.

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