Interview: Slothrust go for grunge clarity on ‘The Pact’

There’s a lot of thoughts crowding Slothrust lead singer Leah Wellbaum’s mind: Inter-dimensional objects, the obvious decay of the planet, whether it’s worth it to share her experiences as a queer women with straight white dude interviewers.

But on one fall day in Boise, Idaho, Wellbaum is pondering the lifelong question of what it means to really be able to say that you legitimately grew up just outside of Boston in Brookline.

Formed in Boston roughly eight years ago, the grunge trio has since moved several times, eventually settling in Los Angeles, where they worked on their most recent release, the 12-track zinger The Pact. The record marks the group’s second full-length release on Dangerbird Records and their fourth LP to date.

As a whole, The Pact represents a major sonic shift for the group, allowing their heaviness to shrink back and forth between their rhythms and lyrics while their all-around grit remains perfectly intact, boxing them into moody millennial hard rock. Their spectacle returns home this Saturday, November 10 at The Sinclair in Cambridge with Mannequin Pussy.

In advance of their Massachusetts gig this weekend, Vanyaland hopped on the phone with Wellbaum to dissect matters of queer power, environmentalism, and gleaning clarity from their most recent strain of grunge.

Victoria Wasylak: Where in Boston are you from, specifically?

Leah Wellbaum: I grew up in Brookline. I lived in the part of Brookline that was right next to West Roxbury and Roslindale. I feel like technically I was in the suburbs, but if I ran fast for two minutes, then I was in Boston proper, so that’s the same thing, right?

That definitely counts. When did you guys decide to move to L.A.?

We decided to move to LA almost three years ago at this point. We were all living in New York for quite a while and doing the band out there. That was amazing because New York has so many venues that we were able to play multiple times a week. We cut our teeth playing live, which is what we were really passionate about. But as you go on as a band, it becomes a thing where you can only play certain markets a few times a year because you’re playing bigger rooms and ticket sales start to matter. Will and Kyle actually moved to Philadelphia and I stayed in New York and kept doing my thing. Then as more time passed, I was definetly ready to live somewhere that had more space, and L.A. has a poppin’ music industry, so we moved out there.

If I remember correctly, two-thirds of you are from Massachusetts. A lot of bands in the Boston area form there, play there for a while, and then they eventually decide that for one reason or other, they have to leave and go somewhere bigger. What was that like for you?

I feel like we really came into our own as a band in New York, which was pretty much as big as you can go – it’s either New York or L.A. or Nashville for people. We were really coming out of New York anyways, and we really didn’t want to move to a bigger city. It kind of felt more like an upgrade in my lifestyle. New York was hard. For a while there, we were getting a bunch of tours, so I didn’t even have an apartment, I was floating around to save money in order to make things work. And then I had a room with no windows for a while, and towards the end of my time in New York, I actually had an awesome room, I lived in Windsor Terrace, which was really nice, but I was just ready to go. I was moving further and further away from the city and more into areas that were greener and residential-feeling.

For The Pact, you said that this was the most fun you had been able to have making an album, and you were able to take more risks. Do you feel that’s something that comes with time?

Well, we had more resources for making this record than we had in the past. In the past we’ve had to work incredibly efficiently and make a lot of compromises in order to get the record done with what we were working with in the timeframe we had. But this record was planned way further in advance and it’s our first record with a proper producer, which is Billy Bush. That really opened up the whole thing because he has really good ears and a totally different perspective. He’s not someone who has known the band for years. He’s heard our demos, and that’s how he got to know us. We were kind of approaching this as a bit more of a clean slate than we have in the past, and because Dangerbird owns their own studio, it made it so that we could try more things and take our time a little bit more. If something didn’t feel right, we could scrap it and review it.

That’s good to hear – for a lot of bands I know, it’s almost like the more people that know about them, the less fun they have working on a record because people expect so much from them.

Yeah, it was great. In the past we’ve done records that were essentially attempting to capture our live show in a really glossed-up way, and that was really fun in the past, but we’re at this point now where we’ve been doing that for a while. It was great to make music [and be] not as concerned about the live arrangements and not resisting to a add a bunch of layers and a bunch of things we’re not going to be able to have at our live show. There’s a track that has a horn section on it. We’re definitely not touring with a horn section, and that’s ok! And then it’s a whole other interesting challenge to figure out how to make a record like that translate live. I think we’ve been pretty creative about it and figured out some fun things. It’s been great to grow as a band in that direction, especially a direction that’s a little less heavy and maybe has a little more clarity in the music.

When listening to The Pact, talking about pretending to be sick comes up a couple times, and I was wondering what prompted that theme.

It’s funny – I often don’t notice those themes going in, and then I notice them after the record’s been completed. You don’t necessarily notice it up front, which is funny. I think you’re totally correct. There are these reoccurring themes of sickness and feeling unnerved, if you will. I think I think of sickness as a pretty expansive thing in general, but in terms of where that inspiration comes from in my lyrics…I have trouble tracking it sometimes, but I have a lot of stomach problems. I’ve always had a very unwell stomach that I’m happy to say in my adult life is a lot better than when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time figuring out what level of pain to express to other people. I’m someone who tries to keep it moving even if I’m not feeling well and I’m not doing great. I was interested in this idea of really being sick, but pretending that you’re fine, and then pretending that you’re sick and actually being okay. It’s like, to what degree do you let sickness interfere with your life and what does that mean?

On your song “Planetarium,” you talk about how the earth is really sick and dying and we’re kind of just ignoring it. Was there a certain event that inspired that song?

I think it’s interesting to think of the planetarium as a parallel for the sky and the aquarium a parallel to the ocean. I’ve always thought about voyeurism a lot in general, the ways in which humans are voyeuristic of nature and whether or not nature is watching us back is disputable, I suppose. It’s pretty horrifying the way that humans continue to take and take and take, and mass produce, mass produce, mass produce, and people having kids for the sake of ego. It’s definitely a very broken system, and it’s something I think about a lot.

It’s interesting how it plays into a lot of music that’s come out in 2018 and 2017, because music that is concerned about the political climate and environmentalism has always existed, but there’s been so much of it coming out in the past two years. It’s so prevalent and everyone is hyper-focused on it.

In some ways I feel like the aquarium parallel picks up where the last album did – very bodies of water-themed, and very ocean-themed. I was incredibly obsessed with the ocean when I was making a lot of that record, and obsessively taking photos of the ocean, really fixated on it.

When you came up with the title The Pact for your album, what were you referring to?

The Pact is referential to a lyric in “Birthday Cake,” but generally speaking, I liked that as the album name because it feels like as humans, we make a lot of promises that we can’t keep. It’s not that we can’t keep them because we were trying to lie in the moment – [but rather] sometimes thing don’t work out. It’s me thinking about the theories of different types of pacts that everyone has made over the course of their lives, whether it’s with themselves or someone else, or pacts with the world and trying to be a better person. I like the idea of people reading that album title and thinking what it means to them. It’s one of those slightly opened-ended ones [titles] where it’s like, “what does The Pact mean to you?”

On the flip side, for your song “Double Down,” I look at the lyrics to a song like that and see a woman singing it — “I do what I want / I wear what I want” — does that have to do at all with your experiences as a woman, or is that more of a general “fuck you” song?

I think of that as being a queer power song, for sure. More so queer than a woman, I would say. But yeah, this idea of standing up to people and to a system that makes you feel strange and small, and sort of stepping outside and doing it with clarity – realizing how unimportant those people are.

When people ask you questions about being in a band, or like I just did about song lyrics, and they put the twist of “you’re a front woman,” does that get frustrating? Or do you like talking about it? Obviously, there are bullshit questions no matter what, but what are your feelings on something like that?

I would say I’m interested in talking about gender expression and sexuality to people who have something to either contribute to the conversation or are really ready to listen. I’ve done a ton of interviews with straight white guys and I’m not as interested in talking about gender politics to them, but that being said, I try to stay open-minded about conversations, because you never know where they’re going to go, and you never know what the readership is going to be, per se. I would love to be able to contribute to the greater world having access to whatever it is that makes them feel less alone. It’s kind of case by case. I try to be cool about it for sure, but it can get old.

It’s tricky. I can see how there’s the desire to talk about those things – you wrote a song about being a woman and queer power — but at the same time, sometimes people can put you in a box for it.

The song on the record that’s explicitly about being born/assigned female is “New Red Pants.” I’m interested to see how that manifests in interview in the future.

Are you ever nervous when you’re putting something out like that?

Well, with that song no, I’m sure most people don’t understand it. But with “Planetarium,” which is a little bit more explicit, you’re always going to get a little bit of a backlash if you talk about anything that is political. But I mean, our fans are more or less on the same page as us, politically – at least I hope so.

For The Pact, you guys had this very specific aesthetic – this purple, velvety, mystical backdrop. Where did that come from?

In the process of making this record I’ve really become obsessed with magic and different dimensions, and an object looking one way in one dimension and totally different in another one. I can get pretty deep into that, I can talk about parallel timelines, stuff like that, but in terms of the purple balloon itself, that’s something that just came to me. I was thinking about the album artwork of this record for a really long time and tried to come up with colors and concepts that would translate in a package, and things that I thought could give the music more context. I thought about it in context with the music as well, which I hadn’t done quite as much in the past, at least actively. For example, for Of Course You Do, I knew right away that the cover of that record was going to be that ostrich photo that I took, but this one took more time to develop, and I wasn’t sure exactly what it would look like until it was all done. We collaborated with this photo duo from Seattle called cé • ça, but it was all long-distance so it was definitely an interesting collaboration to see how they manifested certain ideas that I had, and the ways that their eyes work differently than mine. The purple balloon just came to me as a visitor.

After all the times you’ve moved, how does it feel when you guys come back to Boston to play a show?

It feels awesome, we love to play Boston. It’s always fun to see people turn up at your shows that you knew from years ago that you wouldn’t necessarily think know who the band is. It always feels good to go home, and growing up in Boston was really influential to me in terms of seeing live music. I went to a lot of punk and hardcore shows there my whole life. It’s fun and interesting to re-integrate into a music scene in a city that has changed so much.

SLOTHRUST + MANNEQUIN PUSSY :: Saturday, November 10 at The Sinclair, 52 Church St. in Cambridge, MA :: Doors 7 p.m., all ages, $15 advance, $18 day of show :: Advance tickets :: Facebook event page :: Featured photo courtesy of Tell All Your Friends PR