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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Cold Beat's Hannah Lew Talks Gender Issues In Music and San Francisco's Techie Invasion

Posted By on Thu, Oct 22, 2015 at 3:49 PM

click to enlarge hl_bigger_10.jpeg
I meet up with Hannah Lew at a nautical-themed bakery a few blocks from her house in the Upper Haight. She buys a slice of their $4 honey drenched toast and makes me try some. I nibble on the edge and agree: the toast is amazing. “So this is what San Francisco has become,” she says, while laughing, “looking like an asshole while I walk by the cops, on my way to buy $4 toast and talk about my punk music.”

Formerly part of the Grass Widow trio, Lew now steers Cold Beat: an atmospheric punk band that is as apt to leverage garage-rock guitar riffs as it is breathy vocals and synthetic overlays. Lew is an intimidating presence — with a deep, sonic voice that is interspersed with sweet, endearing laughter. Her presence is somehow both wry and jovial, and the combination creates a sense of mystery and excitement. A demeanor best described, perhaps, as a classical aloofness. It only takes a few minutes of conversation to tell that she is the real deal. In evidence of this: as soon as we sit, Lew pronounces that red and blue (which also happen to be the colors of the tracksuit zip-up that she is wearing) are the new black and white. And then she laughs about it.

A SF native, Lew has a lot to say about how the city has changed from an artist’s haven into an unaffordable “millionaire’s club,” and has funneled much of her criticism and questioning into the music that she writes and produces. Last year, her label Crime On The Moon put out San Francisco Is Doomed: a compilation of local musical talent that bemoans the various lack-of-foresights and material inconsistencies that have occurred in the wake of SF’s tech boom. The physical/emotional dislocations and alienations felt by these rapid changes can also be heard in the music she wrote for Cold Beat’s most recent record, Into Thin Air. Released in early September, Into The Air harnesses Lew’s vocals delightfully, providing melodies that echo while they pierce.

While Lew and I sip our espressos, loud disco music in the background, we discuss the politics of the drum machine, why she is un-inspired by SF’s tech scene, and how shopping in thrift stores should be considered a feminist act.

HR: How did you start making music? I know you have a background in visual art, and were a painter for a while. And then in your early 20s you taught yourself how to play the bass—

HL: It sounds like you already know the answer! [laughter]

Well, I want to give you something new to talk about! You said something in an interview once, “I never felt empowered to make music as a young lady,” and I’m curious, how did that change for you?

When I was in my late 20s, I was playing the moog in a band and mostly jumping around a lot on stage. Later on, I was with a friend and we were like “we need to start playing music, we need to do this, we need to feel empowered and do something that is creative.” I’m stubborn, I’m not good at taking lessons in things. And I didn’t want anyone to mansplain how to play the bass to me so it came down to having a friend that was also learning an instrument. That would be my biggest piece of advice to anyone wanting to be in a band or learn how to play an instrument: play with someone else. Don’t think about your solo act at all. Just the act of playing together will push you. It really worked. We surpassed a lot of depression by playing music together. Creating things for me is a coping mechanism, it’s a way to synthesize my world. If there are things that I can’t really deal with, it’s a way to deal with those things in an abstract, therapeutic way.

Were you writing together?

Yeah, we were writing together. With music — learning how to collaborate and being honest about what feels good to you and what role you want to play are skills. It’s really about how to work with other people and about group dynamics. It’s like a romantic relationship a lot of the time.

I’m curious about your relationship with writing, do you write things other than songs? Were you writing before music?

Like lyrically?

Like poetry or fiction?

No. I grew up in a very literary household, but I never really pursued writing. It’s funny because my mom is a writer, and whenever she reads my lyrics she’s like, “what is this song about?” and I’m like — if I wanted people to have access to my exact thoughts I would write more literal lyrics. I think narrative thinking informs what I do, but I’ve never done it. I don’t really feel creative in a literal way. Music is a place for me to synthesize things that I don’t totally understand, and I don’t expect anyone else to understand it either.

So music kind of offers a space to synthesize and express thoughts, without the responsibility of being directly communicative?

It’s a form of communication that’s non-literal, which is something I really value. You can literally talk about something, but it never really sums it up. Our reality experience is very abstract and emotional. Emotions are not something you can exactly describe, and with music, it’s just emotions and things that pass by us, they aren’t things we can just nail down. And I feel like language has a way of nailing things down in a way that I don’t respond to as much. I’m always happy when I have an "aha moment" and there’s a melody or visual expression that can sum up how I’m feeling. Because emotions — they are moving.

It is interesting, the way you talk about emotions as a form of movement, because the mediums that you primarily work in are mediums that move — such as sound and film.

It’s a very Lacanian attitude towards how we experience. What are ways that we can further explore who we are, our responses etc. to it all? I think film and music are mediums that are capable of expressing that, partly because of how accessibly they are to everybody. With most Visual Art, what you’re asking is for someone to come up to a wall and stare at it. And honestly, that’s asking a lot.
What about the process of painting versus the process of making a film?

I always had a narrative of my own identity, when I was growing up as a painter, that was kind of like Goya, where nobody would know about me in my lifetime, but I would be part of this visual index, and then later on after my lifetime, someone would see what I did and be like “oh!” But now that I do music and film stuff — I interact with so many people through my art, while I’m alive. It is very different than what I imagined as a kid. Even so, I still hold on to that way of thinking about myself and what I make. I feel more like Goya than Madonna.

I’m curious about your relationship with color.

Hm. Well I will say, a free association, I think red and blue is just the same as black and white. I definitely think in colors when I’m designing videos. When I hear a song, I think of colors right away. I don’t know, its interesting because we just made the album art for our new record, which is in progress right now, and applying colors to songs kind of made the songs sound better. I don’t know how to explain that.

Your song creation process, how does that go down?

Songs that get finished easier are always the ones that come with lyrics and the music together. Sometimes I just write the music and I write the lyrics later. But once I get removed from the original sentiment, it’s harder for the song to get finished. I often record with a drum machine and a bass, and sometimes guitar parts and keyboard parts, and multiple vocal parts. Then I’ll send it to the band and we all come up with ideas to make it sound good.

Is it nerve-wracking to send out something that you’ve made to other people?

It would be if they weren’t really cool people. But I totally trust my band. I don’t feel embarrassed sending them my weird demos. They are really supportive, I feel totally safe. In a lot of the demos, I’m just humming the part, its not for anyone else’s ears.

Your second album just came out, Into This Air. What was it like to work on that together?

The process was really different than our first album. We recorded it in pieces. Bianca (our drummer) had just had a baby, so we had to figure out how to keep making music even though she was on leave. It was difficult. I was still writing a lot of songs, and we wanted to stay active even though we had so many different drummers filling in, so during that time I ended up writing a lot of songs with a drum machine instead of relying on a drummer to be part of the process. So there are four songs that don’t have a drummer, which was a product of what was going on with our band at the time. I’m glad we kept making stuff though. We made a point to stay active creatively with ourselves and not let the turmoil affect our songwriting. It was cool because me, Kyle, and Jackson all lean toward making electronic music anyways, so it was cool to be like, okay, lets just do it. We got to expand and really explore that territory more.

What kinds of things were you processing or writing about for the new album?

We called the record Into The Air because, without realizing it, I was writing a lot of songs about things going into the air. There’s a lot of subject matter covered on the record, but mostly the first record was about heartbreak, abandonment and weird bad feelings. This one is post that, a record of having my bearings. It wasn’t just an outlet for personal feelings. One song was like directly an Ursula Le Guin plot that turned into a song. I don’t think there’s a really overarching theme.

I’ve always really respected your openness about struggling with depression, and how your emotions so heavily influence the work that you make. Do you think that depression is something that is necessarily an aspect of creativity?

I’m sure there are a lot of really happy, mellowed-out, grounded creative people — I just don’t know very many. For me, I think, when I was younger, I would struggle with a lot of feelings that I didn’t know how to deal with. As I’ve gotten older, I feel a lot more mellowed out. A lot of that has to do with recognizing when I am depressed and taking care of myself. Like I’ll just treat myself like I’m sick, 'cause I am in those moments. It’s sort of giving yourself a break, and saying, “I am down right now and there is nothing bad going on.” Of course there is: the world is a fucked up place, and there are people that don’t have drinking water while I’m eating four dollar toast. That sucks.

Having creative outlets for me is super crucial for emotional survival. I’d probably be addicted to drugs or dead if I didn’t have music. It’s just an outlet that actually works for dealing with my feelings. I don’t understand my feelings, but that isn’t really the point. It’s a way to appreciate them and give them space to breathe. I don’t mind being open about that. A lot of people deal with depression and other problems and they don’t want to admit it to themselves, so they give themselves a really hard time. But it’s fine! We’re complex humans. We’re not always happy. With music, I feel like I’ve found a way to manage depression without romanticizing it.

You've talked about the relationship between art and solitude, and that sense of futility or apathy that can feel really overpowering. How do you continue producing if you have that voice saying, "whats the point?"

I don’t really have a voice that says "what’s the point?" A lot of the time I’ll be like, I can’t sleep, it’s 5 in the morning, I’m going to go deal with these feelings by writing these songs. It’s often used as a tool. I wish I wrote more when I was just happy, but I don’t know how to do that. I usually write when I have problems, and a lot of my favorite music comes from those places. Not that those songs are all agitated, but they come from real feelings that I don’t understand. I can thank my heartbreak because it’s helped me produce good things. Sometimes I feel numb, which makes me feel worse than feeling sad. I’d rather feel sad than feel numb. I don’t know, I try to do what I can to be active in my discontent and deal with it.

Do you ever feel like there’s any kind of gendering around artistic anxiety?

I don’t know. I mean, my husband is a musician too and I feel like we both deal with similar things, in terms of what we’re making, if we're properly accepting ourselves and having a satisfied outlet. I did really resent being so gendered as an artist when I was in Grass Widow though — everyone could only talk about us as a “girlband” and I feel like we were constantly held up to these limited standards and expectations.

Like what?

Expectations to sexualize ourselves, all the weird dumbass McCarthy-era things, about how women should act. Just because I have a vagina doesn’t mean I’m the same as another artist with a vagina. Yes, all women come up with the same set of expectations. But what it really boils down to is: what kind of person are you? Do you care what people think about you? Where does your validation for what you do come from? Unfortunately for a lot of women it does come from sexual validation and validation from men. But, I don’t really feel that way. I’m much more happy when people pay attention to what I’m doing as an individual, as Hannah Lew, and not as a woman.

That idea of, “where do you get your validation from” is really interesting. What kind of boxes do you feel put in and how do you work around them? What kind of female do you feel like you are?

I don’t really relate to the idea that there is just one way to be a certain kind of gender. I just want to be regarded as an individual and not expected to sexualize myself for anyone, be held up to some standard about body type or anything. I find that stuff to be really constricting and oppressive.

I am dedicated to being confidant in what I do and not measuring myself against anyone else. I think that being yourself is the most political thing that you can do. Really just thinking about your own feelings and thinking about your own sense of what makes you feel like you. For example, expressing individual style feels really political. Trendy fashion is the antithesis of feminism to me, because you walk into a store like Forever 21 and there’s one girl in there that everyone is trying to be, and it’s a girl that wears belly shirts and shit, or American Apparel or HM or any of those stores. When you walk into a store like that, it’s really overwhelming — the suggestion that there’s this it girl that everyone should dress like. Trends are like advertisements — what you have isn’t good enough, you need to get some things so that you will be better. Expressing individuality and not thinking about how that plays into gender is really crucial. And for men too: men have to deal with a lot of really weird male stereotypes, and if any of the men I’m close with were like any of those stereotypes, I’d be like, "ew yuck." I know so many cool men that have fought the stereotypes that society have laid out for them. I really value that.

I talk to a lot of female artists and musicians and it’s always an interesting dynamic, for me, of wanting to talk about the struggles that are unique to being a female artist but not genderize the person or the conversation. I find there to be a lot of pushback when I discuss womanhood — people saying, “no, I just want to be regarded as an artist, and not as a woman.”

I’m a lot of things: I’m Jewish, I’m a filmmaker, I’m a sister, I’m a wife: I’m so many things. I’m not just a woman.

If there’s anything I can do in my place in society is to transcend that and just be myself, and create spaces where others can do the same. I think that that was a really annoying thing about being in Grass Widow — we were constantly compared with other bands with girls in them. No one ever talked about us in conjunction with male bands, when they talked about our music. It got to be really frustrating and really limiting, because people rarely actually talked about our music. I really like being in a mixed gender band right now, because people actually talk about the music. I get to be regarded as a musician before a woman. I get hard on myself just like anyone else. But in the midst of that, the best thing, most political thing I can do is be really confidant about what I put out there, regardless of who anyone is measuring me up to. And support other women to express themselves beyond the roles they are given by society.

Though it is worth mentioning that women play into it though too, you know. There are tons of women that are perpetuating the system — it’s not just men doing it. People give men a hard time, I mean yes: a patriarchal run society is a problem. It is a problem that white men have run things for so long. But women are part of it. It’s up to men being feminists. But it’s also up to women being willing to get out of those shitty dynamics and paradigms and promote themselves. It’s up to women and men. Men are part of the solution just as much as women are.

I think it’s a re-learning of self worth — because so much of our validation (as both men and women) comes from playing out these tired gender paradigms. For women, in particular, so much of it comes from being attractive and desired by men.

Yeah, and I feel like that dynamic is unproductive. I really wish that I didn’t have to have the way that I look be part of what I’m doing. It’s a drag. It’s like, “I’m so excited to show this song”… and, get my picture taken by a million people on Instagram and all that shit constantly. I don’t really want to get my picture taken all the time. I think for some people in the industry they are half model and half musician, and it’s all part of that dynamic of celebrity. I don’t mind people seeing how I look but it’s not part of my identity. If I wanted to do that I would go to the gym for five hours a day and try to model — but it’s not really what inspires me about music. Back to Goya — I don’t know what the fuck Goya looks like, and I think that’s cool.

There is definitely a different culture now, around performance art and music. Particularly because of how social media forces us to privilege the visual over all other mediums of consumption.

I’m like man, I look too Jewish or something to ever be super famous! Even if my songs were really good — society would not like me enough. Of course there are people who have become famous who look different. But they have to make a thing about it, like Lena Dunham, who is always going to be in the nude. It’s a sense of like “I’m not a normal body type, so I’m naked!” When it comes to mainstream culture, it can be frustrating. Someone like Grimes — she’s a really beautiful and really skinny person that can fit into any designer clothes, so she is both a musician and a model. The idea of anything like that, of me interacting with clothes and cameras in that way is comical to me.

Feeling beauty and having integrity is something that every woman should get a chance to have — and expressing beauty should and can happen outside of the sort of alien woman in the fashion magazine. It’s sort of weird that as far as we’ve gotten in society, the tall skinny white woman that is an impossible size and can fit into all the clothes from all the stores is still the prominent beauty standard. It really ties into a lot — men want to be seen with that women, and women want to be seen as that women. It’s a vicious cycle.

My big critique with women in pop culture is kind of about that — how you can have so many different women with such different artistic visions, and yet, they all have the same body type. They are all, always, skinny.

I guess one of my struggles is trying to look good, or at least not super awkward or weird. If I feel okay about myself when I’m out, that feels political too. And it takes a lot of courage because there aren’t a lot of other people doing it. As a woman, I interface with literally not fitting into clothes from the stores because I’m not a normal body type — and this affects the way that I think about how the world is not really made for me.

I think that a main objective for women today is creating spaces to fit into, for themselves. I am really happy for all the model-type women in pop music who feel good about fitting into that role, but for all those who don’t fit into that role, and don’t want to play that little game — it’s important to exercise some muscle and create space for yourself. Everyone has a right to integrity, even if they don’t fit into the clothes. And that’s why I like thrift stores too, because you’re not limited by a certain design or homogenized style.

You and your husband both grew up in San Francisco, and I know you have a lot of thoughts on how the city is changing. I wonder, 10 years down the road, what do you see SF looking like?

Maybe a big fault line with a bunch of Google buses inside? I don’t know, who fucking knows. Things have changed so much here that there’s really no telling. I hope it becomes more accessible to people of mixed incomes, because I really value having grown up in a place that was diverse. Knowing people of a lot of different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds is really important to me in a place that I live. This mono-culture thing sucks. And its not like N.Y. or L.A., where people have moved here to pursue the arts. People have moved here to become millionaires off of video games.

You’ve talked about your love of Sci-Fi in the past, and how that inspires you creatively. Are you into the tech scene here at all? Do you value it?

See that’s the thing! I want to be inspired by the tech industry because I think it’s crazy all the new shit they’re coming up with. I want to feel psyched about it. But, I just don’t. I wish I felt more excited about the innovation in the tech industry, but a lot of it is like video games and Facebook and shit — these big time wasters. The apps that are being developed don’t feel important at all. I feel like there’s this culture of you gotta come up with the next big idea! We’re gonna have a hackathon and someones gonna be the next Steve Jobs and come up with a crazy idea! And that kind of creative pressure, and that way of using ideas for concrete profit, it’s not really good for creativity.

It feels really different to me than a group of people getting together and talking about ideas that are about paying attention to our world or about our consciousness or something. I know there are so many people who flock to SF because they’re so excited about that “think tank” kinda like everyone coming up with ideas thing. I just haven’t seen a lot of those ideas surmount to something that I thought was affecting the world positively. We could cure cancer and end world hunger with the amount of energy going towards dating apps — you know what I mean?

What can people who work in tech and make a lot of money do to help keep San Francisco affordable and artistic?

I think the big problem with S.F. right now is that, because of insane rent prices, it’s not a city that people can come in and out of. There isn’t a lot of movement, and because of that it is no longer a creative hub. There’s no time or space to make things. All the people I’m involved with are stuck here with these golden handcuffs — we get to stay because we have rent-controlled apartments, but that also means that we can’t move. If me and my husband got evicted, we’d have to leave San Francisco.

It’s insulting because there doesn’t seem to be a big emphasis on any kind of synthesis of all these parts. There’s no room for any kind of discussion about anything, other than people spewing random shit on the internet. I don’t know, I feel like the tech companies could have had a little more forethought on the social change that starting their companies in this area has. It boils down to the people who have the money, and what they do with it. In general, all the wrong people have the money and I’m not very impressed with what I’ve seen people do with that money. Like Twitter wanting to “clean up” mid-market, and it’s like yeah that area is kind of rough, but its also where the Phillipino community lives in S.F.— so they’re also talking about displacing that community. It feels like what they are doing is making room for more restaurants that are catered to specialized needs of a certain class, and its really shitty. It doesn’t make me feel inspired or that anyone is having any big picture vision.

Where would you move if you had to leave?

I don’t know. I really don’t.

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Hannah Rubin


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