Interview: Chastity Belt Opens Up and Shares Key To Being Yourself

After catching punk favorites Chastity Belt on tour with Protomartyr last month, we found ourselves #blessed to have them back in sunny Southern California for their Dirty Laundry TV show with French Vanilla and Upset at Non Plus Ultra.

It’s been said: never meet your heroes. And since we’ve been listening to both their albums, No Regerts and Time To Go Home, obsessively for over a year—dissecting songs, sharing with friends—this band definitely clocks in at hero-level status for us. But this adage was not a warning to heed; sure, the members of Chastity Belt can no longer be unattainable rock goddesses on golden pedestals to us, but that’s probably a good thing. They are, after all, just people, and materialized as such on the day of the interview. (Albeit, extremely talented and humble people who can shrug off their first album as being half-full of joke songs they never intended to record, when there is clearly some incredible musical merit, biting social satire, and strong signs of the talent and potential of this young band on that album.)

That is the draw of the band: their humanity and authenticity (rare qualities in the music industry and life in general). They are always simply themselves. Time to Go Home, their first release with Hardly Art, is full of honest and personal perspectives, but the personal can quickly evolve into the universal as the music expands into layers of lingering mediation. Humorous lyrics about parties are laid over guitars that intone existential dread. We have heard nothing else that so tonely encapsulates the feeling of modern life.

Chastity Belt’s songs speak directly to the razor-edged heart, to the dichotomous brain, to the inarticulate desires, motives, and malaise of being a young woman in America (or an older man in Britain – read on for more information on this); these musicians feel like me and you and everyone we know. Yet, they articulate themselves better: using two guitars, a bass, and a drum kit to produce post-punk, post-drunk rock songs of incredible maturity.

We met up with the band outside the venue on an unassuming residential street in Los Feliz. They had spent the day with friends in Manhattan Beach, and the draining time in the sun was being reversed by cans of that must-have on-tour beverage, Red Bull (sly wink toward any Red Bull reps reading this) to power up for the inevitable energy of their show.

We walked through the venue — a unique loft/warehouse DIY space, sparkling with string-lights and beer cans, that the band said reminded them of places in Seattle — to the upstairs patio for a sunset interview.

There, the foursome (Julia Shapiro – guitar/vocals; Gretchen Grimm – drums; Annie Truscott – bass; Lydia Lund – guitar) who formed Chastity Belt in college in Washington, settled together on a small stoop to talk with us about tours, labels, process, and those oh-so-elusive feats: just doing your thing and being yourself.

Welcome to LA. You played FemFest yesterday at USC.  How was that?

Julia: It was alright. It was nice, an outdoor show. A college show. Brings back some college memories.

Annie: We were on campus for like 10 hours. It was too much.

Lydia: Gretchen and I did a really cool photo shoot with our selfie stick.

Gretchen: They had good statues there.

Annie: And plants. They had some nice plants. It seemed like a really fancy college. The other bands were really good, too.

You all recently toured with Courtney Barnett, and even more recently with Protomartyr. Do you enjoy touring?

All: Yeah.

Annie: Especially when it’s with another band. It’s fun to have people to meet up with every night. Like Courtney Barnett and them were so fun. We had such a good time. (a pause) It can be exhausting, but we’ve got that Red Bull.

I’ll be sure to put that in there.

Annie: Yeah. Definitely mention the Red Bull.

Lydia: Trying to get that sponsorship.

A lot of what has been written about you, and Tacocat, and a couple of other bands in Seattle has now been given a label: The Seattle Feminist Punk Movement. I’m always curious when a place and time gets a certain label and whether it feels like—for those who are in it—that it’s really this community of people working together, or if it’s just a fantasy that outsiders have about this place?

Julia: A little of both, I guess. I definitely feel like a part of a community, but I don’t know if the community [that the media] is portraying is exactly what it is.

Annie: There is a lot of collaboration between some bands, like sharing band members, but—

Julia: It’s really supportive but it’s not like just feminism.

Annie: —it’s not like we’re all in it together as just feminist bands.

Julia: Like all my friends are feminists. They all have feminist music, but they’re not all female.

Annie: I do get overwhelmed by how many creative and talented women I feel like I’m surrounded by in Seattle. It’s really overwhelming in a really cool way. And not just in music, but in the other arts, as well.

It’s interesting to get labeled in a certain way. Obviously you’re feminists and not ashamed to admit it, but people do get wary of labels because I feel like you’re just trying to write music you want to write. Do you feel like you are trying to make political statements or are you more just doing your thing?

Julia: We’re more just doing our thing.

*All laugh.

Julia: We’re feminists so that’s going to come through in our music. It’s not like we’re trying really hard to make a clear feminist statement.

What’s your process of working together? Do you jam together and the music comes first? Or do lyrics come first?

Julia: We usually all come up with the basic outline—

Annie: —skeleton—

Julia: —skeleton of a song and then I’ll play it further. Or just recently, Gretchen and Lydia have been writing songs that we’re working on. For me, lyrics definitely come second. I don’t think I’ve ever written a song where the lyrics came first.

Annie: I like jamming on it and giving each other feedback, and trying out new things. Then eventually finding what feels good.

We caught you on your most recent tour with Protomartyr, and noticed you played some new songs. Are you working on recording the new material as well?

Julia: Yeah, we have a bunch of songs. We’re trying to record them this summer.

Annie: August or September.

Are you recording in Seattle?

Julia: We’re not sure yet. Probably not in Seattle. Well, we recorded our last album in Anacortes.

Gretchen: It’s a couple hours north of Seattle. A small town.

Annie: We’re trying to do a little destination recording.

*All laugh

The reviews of Time to Go Home call it more mature than your first album. Do you feel that in it, too? Do you feel you are progressing as musicians?

All: Yeah. Definitely.

Julia: The first album, like, half the songs were straight-up joke songs that we wrote in college and didn’t even think about recording them when we first wrote them. Yeah, I’d say we’re more mature.

Annie: And we’ve all gotten a lot better at our instruments and playing together.

I like origin stories about how you came to play the instruments that you did. Were you musically inclined as kids and took music lessons, or was it something you came into in college?

Lydia: Julia and I both took guitar lessons since middle school.

Annie: I played violin growing up, and then I got a bass in high school and never played it. And then, when we were forming, I was like, Oh, I have a bass. I’ll bring it to school next year. So I did.

Gretchen: And I played drums because I didn’t play anything.

*All laugh.

Gretchen: So I picked it up for the band.

That’s punk AF. The desire for the music comes first, and then you learn the instrument as you go along. It’s interesting to me that the lyrics come last because so much of the humor is there, so I’m curious about whether there are musical moments—chords or rhythms—that feel inherently humorous? Same thing with the political—are there inherently political sounds?

Julia: I would say that more than anything a song will feel “sad” or feel “cheesy.” And when it feels cheesy, I try really hard not to also write cheesy lyrics.

Lydia: In “Time To Go Home,” I think there are humorous moments, like I think the breakdown is humorous.

Julia: It goes along with the lyrics.

Lydia: Yeah, so maybe the tone of a song can be influenced by the lyrics. Or I’ll change my [guitar] parts to fit.

I read that “Drone” was inspired by Sheila Heti’s novel How Should A Person Be? which was a book I was reading at the time. Are you guys reading anything now? Or are there other art forms you draw inspiration from?

Julia: Right now, I just started Dawn by Octavia Butler. Just today, so I’m only about thirty pages in. But yeah, most of the songs aren’t about a book I’ve read or a movie I’ve seen. Most of the time, it’s just personal experiences.

[The songs] do feel very personal. I relate to them in that way, in what I feel like is my experience as an “American woman.” You guys are going on tour in England next; do you feel like these personal experiences you have can expand and cross borders and cultures?

Julia: Totally. If anything, people get us better in the UK.

Lydia: Especially in England.

Gretchen: Our sense of humor lines up with their’s better.

Annie: We do seem to have a lot of 20-something female fans. But then there are also a lot of—

Annie and Julia: (together) —older dudes.

Annie: Who really like the music, too.

Julia: A lot of older British dudes—

Annie: —like, singing along with “Drone. I mean, it’s cool that it speaks to them.

We noticed that at the Bottom Of The Hill show, too. It seemed like a lot of the people who were singing along with your songs were older male dudes.

Julia: There was one dude at our show last night who came up and said he saw us tour with Wire years ago and came out to see us again.

(Here, we were interrupted by a group of young men behind us on the patio, one of whom opened up with such unabashed, rapid-fire questions that maybe he should have been doing the interview.)

Random Dude: You guys opened for Wire?
Chastity Belt: Yeah.

Random Dude: You guys playing tonight?
Chastity Belt: Yeah.

Random Dude: Oh cool. What’s your band’s name?
Chastity Belt: Chastity Belt.

Random Dude: I listened to about a minute of your music today. That’s all I’ve heard so far.
Julia: It’ll be a surprise.

Random Dude’s Friend: But it was worth the $7 to see you live.
Annie:  I can’t make any promises.

 

“When we first started, we acted way more punk and were like, “Fuck the fans! Fuck everyone!” but now we’re like…It’s way more fun to be yourself.”

 

Speaking of the show, I’m always interested in performativity. Do you feel like you guys have to “perform”? As in are you performing characters on stage or are you just yourselves?

Julia: No. We used to feel that way. When we first started, we acted way more punk and were like, “Fuck the fans! Fuck everyone!” And would throw shit at people, but now we’re like—

Annie: —It’s way more fun to be yourself.

All: (repeating, contemplating, laughing) It’s always more fun to be yourself.

That’s actually a great message to end on.

Chastity Belt: Just be yourself.

Courtlin Byrd is a freelance writer living & working in Los Angeles. Most days, she can be found driving the hills in her ’97 Volvo, dancing in diners Audrey-Horne-style, or online here.

All images copyright © James Juarez