Rock, Feminism & the Challenges of DIY Punk
By Deborah J. Draisin
I met Lauren West backstage at a Bouncing Souls concert earlier
this month prior to her big debut singing alongside Greg Attonito
on the little-known song “Wish Me Well (You Can Go To
Hell.” We hit it off right away and shared both cocktails
and regular tales. She told me all about her band, American
Pinup (formerly known as Big Sister and risen out of the ashes
of Marissa Feldman) and I waxed poetic about the joys of freelance
pop culture journalism. She shared with me how both nervous
and excited she was to perform that night, adding that performing
with one of her idols was much tougher than headlining one
of AP’s own shows.
The video for their single “Strongbow” off the
recently dropped “Strange Creatures” album has
been posted on their site. The band is about to embark upon
their first real tour as a new addition to Altercation Records
and has also scored a coveted slot on SXSW at Headhunter’s
in Austin, TX this coming March 15 at 7 p.m.
American Pinup’s incredibly catchy ska/surf-punk sound
will appeal to fans of other fierce female-fronted bands such
as Hole and No Doubt.
Q: Okay, I have to know: who is Marissa Feldman? Your
blog teases fans to ask their parents, but assuming that said
parents would be about my age, I still don’t know who
you’re referring to – unless you mean that girl
I went to camp with in the sixth grade…
Lauren: It's a little known fact that we used to go under
the name Big Sister. Even lesser known is that before that
(circa 2006) - when we also had a different lineup - we went
under the name Marissa Feldman, which was a moniker that the
guys had chosen based upon the name of a made-up girl used
to prank a high school friend (perfectly innocently, of course!)
We played a Battle of the Bands at Playland in Rye, New York
and a show at the University of Maryland's radio station under
the name and then and decided we needed to change it so that
people would stop calling me Marissa. We were completely off
the radar then, so the "Ask your parents" crack
is just an example of my snark.
Q: Now they just wonder whose big sister posed for
Playboy. Now here you are in your early twenties, already
feeling jaded by lyrics that you wrote in your mid-teens?
Imagine how our idols must feel, still playing songs they
wrote at that age some twenty or thirty years ago! Does the
disconnect result more from a change in attitude or a change
Lauren: I wouldn't say that I'm jaded by the lyrics that I
wrote in my teens, but I guess
you could say that I'm sometimes embarrassed by them - I don't
think that's particularly uncommon for a songwriter. A change
in attitude may have something to do with it, but growing
as a person and an artist don't always go hand-in-hand. Sometimes
you just get better at your craft with practice, and I think
that's what I've done over the years.
I set higher standards for myself these days and try to take
more pride in what I put out into the world. I'm no longer
comfortable with scrawling down something half-baked, because,
to me, that's not a complete thought as a composition; it's
half-assed. For instance, a song like "Go!" - which
I wrote when I was fifteen - will probably never get old for
me, but I don't know if I would write something like that
today. There is no denying that it's a really fun song, and
there's merit to that, but it's not saying much; it has a
point, but no deeper meaning. If there's no deeper meaning,
it's hard to maintain that feeling of being "connected"
to the material years later.
Q: Very well said. So, van tour, that’s huge!
Lining up a working van is often a big hurdle for new bands.
Other than loading up your AAA card just in case, what precautions
are taking to avoid leaving one another on the side of the
Lauren: Well we certainly won't be leaving anyone behind in
Memphis or anything; we try to be slightly more organized
than that! However, we did get the van inspected to make sure
that everything checked out, and they say it's good to go,
so hopefully we won't have to deal with any disasters on that
Right now, it seems like budgeting is the hardest part. We'll
be packing a big cooler full of plenty of food and water to
minimize our rest stop expenses and bringing sleeping bags
to save on lodging. I even went so far as to map out the cheapest
places to gas up. Luckily, our label-mates The Jukebox Romantics
will be traveling with us, so we'll be able to follow their
example a bit, as they've had some experience on the road.
I'm sure it'll be a good time no matter what problems we encounter,
but it helps to be prepared.
Q: It definitely doesn’t hurt! Packing your
own shit is a good start, provided you don’t want to
set fire to all of it by the end of the tour. Speaking of
which, “Feeling like a stranger doesn’t really
feel so strange” is an interesting line from “Bus
Stop.” It can also apply to the artist/audience relationship
as well, can’t it?
Lauren: That line is really just a reflection on the idea
that feeling out of place can become routine. I'm sure I'll
experience this to some degree on the road - playing to rooms
of strangers on a daily basis - and I'm sure I'll get used
to it over time. However, I think that the line is reflecting
u[on something slightly different.
It's really referring to something that I think far more people
can relate to: feeling alienated from the people that you're
surrounded by in your everyday life -- your community, your
classmates, your family, etc. -- but also feeling like this
alienation is normal, like it's just your default state of
existence. It's not about malicious isolation, it's not even
really about being ostracized, it's just about being that
person who no one really "gets" and being cool with
I think that being an artist - especially one with a lot of
devoted fans - is like being surrounded by strangers who feel
as though they understand you, as opposed to being surrounded
by familiar faces who don't understand you at all. So, in
a way, they're contradicting ideas, but they're definitely
closely related. "Bus Stop," as a whole, is really
a song about nostalgia, and how, ultimately, it has more to
do with the recalling of certain feelings and old habits than
it does with memories of specific events or incidents in one's
life. Nostalgia is like looking at a bad photocopy of those
old feelings or temporarily morphing into this strange simulacrum
of your former self.
Q: That’s an awesome insight. Alienation is
definitely my default state of existence, I can’t even
deny it. It’s also an interesting time to mention this,
considering the current state of affairs surrounding women
in society at the moment, but we spoke briefly last month
about the pluses and minuses of the attention that arises
from being a female-fronted operation. To expound a bit for
the readers: Are you finding yourselves being taken seriously
out there? As the main songwriter and an obvious focal point,
does the band ever feel overshadowed and how do you combat
Lauren: It's old-fashioned and it’s disconcerting, but
it also true that we're often thought of as the "chick
band." In fact, a recent review of our album referred
to our music as "chick rock," and did so as if to
say that meant it exists in a second class of music. I just
think that's such a misguided and dismissive point of view.
One of the more disenchanting things about being a musician
is my discovery that this perspective, though warped and dated,
is not as uncommon as I once thought. I have been called "fluff"
to my face (and I'm sure behind my back as well.) I have been
mistaken for someone's girlfriend while carrying my own guitar.
I have endured the condescending looks of surprise when people
discover I write my own songs. It's part of it, though. Everyone
has some kind of disadvantage or another in this business.
This is a really complex issue and it definitely ties into
the issue of the "spotlight." For some reason, having
a woman fronting a band makes it impossible for some people
to pay attention to anything else. "Look, a girl!"
People can get so wrapped up in the aesthetics of femininity
- whether it's how I look on stage or how my voice sounds
on a record – that they overlook the content. They also
sometimes overlook my incredibly gifted bandmates, each of
whom brings something invaluable to our act. At the ground
level, you don't have much say in how you're marketed, and
you'll never have a say in how people respond to you.
At the end of the day, I think the guys and I all understand
who we are as a band and take pride in what we do together.
Our bond as bandmates supersedes any resentment that could
arise from such a lame misinterpretation of what we're trying
to do. We stand by one another and make great music together
and that's all that matters.
Q: I really respect that. It’s unfair, no doubt
– I wonder if it’ll ever be a level playing field
out there. Another thing that might get missed is the fact
that you guys really go for it live, no matter how tiny the
club. Do you have anything special planned to amp up the upcoming
shows even more?
Lauren: We're preparing a few covers for the road that we've
never done before, so that'll be exciting. I think my goal
for this tour is to really get comfortable playing in front
of bigger crowds and total strangers. I'm pretty shy and I
think that can sometimes come across on stage, so I want to
take this opportunity to get over that. As a band, we just
want to get tighter and more energetic. We're practicing our
asses off and stepping up our backup vocals, which we haven't
been so consistent about in the past. Generally, we're just
trying to get out there and impress some folks.
Q: I think you will. American Pinup has managed to
retain a loyal fanbase through two name and several lineup
changes. Does having that sort of support early on make it
easier to keep going, or do you feel pressure not to deviate
too far from your roots?
Lauren: We definitely, absolutely, totally do not feel restricted
or pigeonholed! Our album is ample evidence of our willingness
to try new things, experiment with different genres, and be
whatever kind of band we want to be at any given moment. I
think that having the loyal support we've had has actually
encouraged us to do this. We don't worry about how "punk"
we come off even though we're technically on a punk label
and are very much a part of that scene. The great thing about
our band is that we all have very similar taste and when something
sounds good to us, we stand by it. We do whatever the fuck
we want because we trust each other's instincts and talent
- that's actually pretty punk rock anyway.
Q: I cannot stand it when people wax too poetic about
what is and isn’t punk! I’m glad you mentioned
that. Loyal fanbase or no, Westchester must have been a hell
of a difficult place to get a scene going. How would you advise
other young up-and-comings to pursue their art in earnest?
What to look out for, what to ignore?
Lauren: Avoid pay-to-play scenarios and venues that require
you to bring a minimum number of people. Those places aren't
going to expose you to new crowds. The reason they ask you
to bring people is often because they're struggling for business
in the first place. This is a very common thing in New York
City. It's so easy to get into that rut of playing to your
friends over and over again.
Music is such a competitive environment these days, you have
to be willing to literally go the extra mile. Be very adventurous,
play everywhere, and practice a lot. Communicating with your
bandmates about your goals is also crucial. When everyone
is on the same page and working toward the same goal, things
happen a lot faster.
Now, this is my controversial piece of advice: never, ever
give your music away for free, especially to total strangers.
This is really difficult sometimes, because we live in a world
where people now feel entitled to free media, including music,
but you have to stick to your guns. This isn't greed; it's
strategy. If you don't value your work, neither will other
people. If someone hands me a free CD, I know I'm not going
to listen to it, at least not right away, and I think if I
wasn't a musician, I wouldn't listen to them at all. However,
if I buy a CD from someone, even if it's for a couple of bucks,
it'll immediately go in my CD player when I get in my car.
At the very least, people will be curious about what they
just spent their money on. You have to insist that your work
is worth something to the world. It's so easy to be taken
advantage of in this business and that's one small way in
which you can practice the art of standing your ground.
Q: You’re right, that is an unpopular standpoint.
I think most bands advise the exact opposite, but I never
really thought of it in the context that you’re putting
it in. It’s food for thought, surely.
Thanks so much for your time, Lauren. I’m
really looking forward to American Pinup playing a date
here and trading more war stories at the bar afterwards!
Lauren: Thank you! It was great to meet you. Hopefully I'll
catch you at our next Jersey gig!
Q: I’ll be there!
Check out American Pinup and order their new CD
View the video for “Strongbow” -
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