In 2011, the Syrcause, New York band Shoppers released its only album, Silver Year. It was a focused burst of mid-tempo punk with squalid guitar noise saturating every crevice. Meredith Graves' deeply personal lyrics spoke the gritty consequences and anxiety of youthful abandon in arrestingly frank and evocative terms. Silver Year was well-received in the punk scene, appearing in most year-end best-of lists from contributors to the local punk rag, Maximum Rocknroll, but Shoppers abruptly broke up. As she explains now, Shoppers bound Graves to an unhealthy relationship, and she took over a year off from music following the band's dissolution. At CMJ this year, punks, blog rockers, and all manner of indie aficionados alike became acquainted with Graves' new punk band, Perfect Pussy. On the strength of just a demo cassette tape and a riveting live show, Perfect Pussy earned praise from outlets like Pitchfork and NPR and landed on the roster of respected NYC label Captured Tracks. In a conversation ahead of two underground shows in the Bay Area this weekend, Graves speaks about Perfect Pussy's "fluke" success, vulnerability as a compass to navigate the music industry, and the transformative power of honesty.
The shows you're playing in the Bay Area are at unconventional venues. Do you worry that working with a booking agent is going to make shows like that less frequent?
No, because our booking agent is the guy who does Chaos [in Tejas, an annual punk and hardcore festival.] We're very aware of the fact that doing this project ... at the level we are is a weird fluke, and he understands that we have no interest in anything remotely approximating industry-level success. For this tour itinerary, I sent him a black-out list of all of the dates I'd take care of and he just said, "Okay, I'll fill in the blanks." I like to put my foot down and insist on all-ages shows, house shows, hardcore shows, and I don't want to play with sketchy people.
I imagine you were contacted by many different record labels over the past year or so. Can you speak to why you decided to go with Captured Tracks?
They afforded us the most freedom and they were the least domineering. Captured Tracks signs bands that have no previous records out, bands that they're genuinely interested in, and gives them an outlet to do what they want. I'm such a control freak that it would be hard for us to sign with anyone that had intentions to design us. This feels like a friend is putting out our record.
The best answer I can give as to why we're doing this is that it's the only time we've had the opportunity. It feels like such a weird fluke that this random, fundamentally shitty and noisy band is a topic of interest to anyone. We've been in bands for years, we've been putting out records ourselves and booking our own tours and doing everything DIY for so long, but the one band that we were only doing as a fun hobby became of interest. No one in this band thinks of it as anything besides an interesting experience and a cool, curious thing.
Shoppers made a well-received album and toured it thoroughly within the punk community. You call Perfect Pussy's greater notoriety "a fluke." What do you think explains it?
I have no idea. We did have some very shitty people approach us, so I'm glad we decided to be thorough and try to make friends with people before letting them put out records for us. A yardstick for me was trying to have really honest and vulnerable conversations with people. Some people in the music industry seem to be afraid of emotional vulnerability, so it came down to whether I was able to look them in the eye and say, "Can you tell me something? Why? Can you explain why you care? Why you think this band is important? Because I can't figure out why this is happening." Ninety-nine percent of people were fumbling when I turned the mirror and said, "I don't want to talk about me anymore. I want to talk about you."
After Shoppers' dissolution, you took over a year off of music. Did that solitude inform your songwriting for Perfect Pussy?
It's an extremely direct connection. When Shoppers broke up, I came forward about being a survivor of domestic abuse. People in my community called me a liar and basically pushed me out of hardcore. I didn't want to see the people who had stayed at my house, heard me and my partner screaming at each other, heard me crying hysterically, and still said it didn't happen. So, I moved away to a different neighborhood with the man I had been dating. It was less about being alone, and more about being away from the people who had violated me. By the time we recorded the demo, the songs that came out were about that experience of feeling abandoned. By the time we started playing shows, I was ready to sing those songs to people in a room.
Does singing these songs help you let go or find closure with the subject matter?
Yeah, and I still revisit those feelings every time we get up to perform. I'm just reiterating for myself why I pushed so hard to survive. The songs are a reminder to not go back to a place where I'm working with supposedly progressive comrades who don't have my back when I go down. What happened to me in that relationship stripped me of my humanity. I felt debased. Performing songs about that violence and internalized self-hatred after two years of fighting it is very empowering.
Everyone notes the frank, confessional nature of your lyrics. Were you ever tempted to veil the content in more allusive terms?
I don't think about it. It's not a style.
Going back to what you call the "fluke" success, one thing that seems exceptional about the Perfect Pussy material to me is that it is very direct and unambiguous, because a lot of new, dark rock music is very vague. I think people find the directness of your writing refreshing.
I'm sickened by that distancing, that removal of self from material. There's what we jokingly refer to as "Nirvana goth," which is bands that sing about the beach and drugs and really boring shit. Then, there's the mysterious guy hardcore camp of violent metaphors where people are distancing themselves from problematic subject matter by making it either a fictive thing, or not about themselves -- the Hitler youth haircut kids that want to make veiled references and call it art, thinking they're Death in June or some shit. That's a practice taken on by people who are worried by putting their actual selves into it. I just don't know any other way to be.
Performance can be a therapeutic ritual, [but] the only way of achieving that is to be honest.