Despite lineup changes and stylistic shifts, Cold Beat stays true to its name. Over the course of three full-lengths, the band has never abandoned its signature icy coldwave jaggedness and sensuous pulse, illuminated by Hannah Lew's celestial vocals. On the band's latest effort, Chaos By Invitation, Lew establishes herself as a gracefully multifaceted songwriter, combining emotive lyricism, affecting guitar work, and electronic flourishes. Before she and a new touring band unleash a muscly, fleshed-out incarnation of the new record on September 21 at The Park Church Co-op, Lew spoke to AdHoc about the importance of connecting with one's emotions in a time of crisis—both personal and political—and resisting commodification.
AdHoc: Chaos By Invitation showcases real stylistic fluidity, both within the record and in comparison to your previous releases. What other artists or genres have helped facilitate this shift?
Hannah Lew: When I’m in a writing zone, I tend to only listen to what I’m making. I get really insular and I almost don’t even listen to music while I’m recording. But I think that the process is what really led the songs to the more singular style. I was just writing a lot at home with a computer. It made for a more solitary process, in which I was zoning out in a computer program a lot more—and then fleshing it out from there. It was a tunnel-vision way of doing things.
Actually, one of the songs, “Strawberry Moon,” my husband Andrew helped me write, just at home. I was like, “I’m struggling with this song!” and he helped me finish it. We then toured with it as a band and added things to it. It’s been an interesting process: I recorded things at home and brought the sessions into the studio [from there]. At a point, I didn’t really have a band. One of my bandmates was having a baby, and the other one was in five bands, and it was a lull. [Cold Beat guitarist] Kyle [King] was half-in, half-out; he came to the recording session for a day or two, but, for the most part, I was just sort of in there. I did some post-production stuff with Mikey Young [of Australian post-punk outfit Total Control]. But, for the most part, it was an in-the-computer process.
Since the formation of the [touring] band, there’s been so much fleshing out, and people have brought so much of themselves to it, that it’s like the live version is its own incarnation. For that reason, we’re bringing this exclusive tour tape with us on the trip—that’s the Part Time Punks sessions that we’ve done that are different versions of the songs. The album is kind of like the demo, and the Part Time Punks versions are the band playing the songs.
How has this more electronic approach changed your relationship to your songs in a live setting?
The live set has definitely changed. The songs were written, and then they really came to life when people brought so much to them. There’s even new parts on the album that we played live—I’m like, “Damn, I wish that we’d played these for years before I wrote the album.” But it’s just it’s own thing. But it’s definitely what makes it worth seeing us play live. The people in the band right now make us the best lineup.
When I saw the title for “Chainmaille,” with its olde-timey spelling and medieval resonance, I was expecting to hear a Cold Beat throwback with messy guitar and real drums. Instead, I stumbled into the spaciest song on the record, complete with blips, robotic chants, and wonky synth burbles. What goes into your naming process?
Sometimes it’s just really intangible. I think I actually wrote that when I was feeling particularly misanthropic. I live pretty close to Golden Gate Park, and [the festival] Outside Lands was happening. I was like, “Hmm, should I go to Outside Lands? Maybe I can get in for free,” and there were a couple of bands I was interested in seeing. But [during Outside Lands], the Bay Area gets really overrun, and I was like, “Oh my God—I can’t go outside!” So I just decided that I was going to play as loud as I could in my house while this huge festival was going on. I wrote this song in a shutting-out of the world. I played my Moog through stuff—it’s got a lot of analog instrumentation in its conception, as opposed to other songs, which I made on Logic.
I don’t really write from a very literal place. I think that’s the role of music and abstraction for me: to try to sum up things that I can’t give form to, like feelings. It’s been a struggle, because I was making the record, and then this election happened. I found myself wishing my music was literal, and starting making protest songs, because that’s all I care about right now. But then I was like, “You know what? In the midst of all this, people are still going to be feeling things and not understanding all the depth of their feeling, so [this work] is still extremely valid and important.” It’s really important to have songs that come from a literal place and that speak about all the injustice in the world, but people aren’t going to survive a resistance if they don’t pay attention to how they feel. We’re not going to survive anything if we aren’t taking into account the emotional aspects of everything. For me, singing feels like yelling—but it doesn’t hurt.
How do you see your voice and lyrics in relation to the instrumental side of your work?
Sometimes, they’re born together. Sometimes, the vocal comes first, and things come after. It’s really song for song—there are really no rules. Most of the time, there’s a feeling or a color, and everything follows that. There’s a bit of discipline: I have to sit down with things and hear them out. Sometimes, I’ll write a part even though I don’t know what the words are. I’ll just sing sounds until they become words. It’s really psycho—it’s as if the sounds guide the feeling. All the words are there, all the songs are there; you just have to make yourself available. Language falls really short for me a lot. Using analogy and different things that are evocative of what things feel like or look like or seem like gets more to the point than specific words. People can enter in and have their own time with something. It’s there; I’m not telling them what it’s about.
Your voice has always struck me as beautiful, in a refined, resonant, almost operatic way. Where did you learn to sing?
Well, first of all, thank you! It’s weird that you say that, because we were just practicing, and I was explaining to my bandmate that I have zero training in singing. We were working on harmonies—just the duo—and I realized that I learn to how to sing with the people I’m singing with. But with Cold Beat, it’s so much of just me harmonizing with myself: I have a lot of range. I can sing high and pretty low. I like exercising different modalities with my voice—thinking of it not just as a lead singer voice. I really respect singers who can sing in really pretty ways, but who aren’t afraid to sing in really ugly ways, too. I think that, sometimes, I have to sing ugly to convey something.
“UDW,”despite its meager 43 second length and the absence of your voice, is actually a really moving blip. What inspired you to keep it so short?
I just wanted this album to be more of an experience. I really like songs: I like a lot of different bands and genres, and, as long as they have songs, I’m into it. I never really get into bands for an aesthetic. If a band has a certain sound, that’s cool, but they usually don’t grab me. It’s usually about the songs. But I really think it’s capitalist to have an album that’s pop song after pop song, that someone can just buy. I’d rather people chill out and just listen to what I made—put on an album and just listen to it. It’s not hit after hit, and that’s why the album has the reprise—and [can] be listened to in a cyclical way because of the way it’s sequenced. I thought about it as more of an experience, and less as a set of commodities.
At the end of “In Motion Reprise,” all that’s audible is a gust of wind. It sounds almost like a sigh of relief. What does that sound signify, if anything?
Well, it’s also the beginning. It’s part of that cyclical feeling. The reprise is the demo that I made when the very raw emotion hit me for the song. I went back and made a version that was more produced, but the feeling of the demo was really emotional, and I wanted to include it somehow. I mixed it with sounds from my neighborhood. I was listening to the radio a lot when I was home, so I included those radio sounds. I had the sound of this church—that’s right by my house—this church bell. First of all, you can make really awesome wind sounds on one of my synthesizers. It’s just endless fun. You can make arctic tundra for hours. It’s got endless variety. But the wind was a way to settle your ears onto the planet of the album. It’s like the takeoff and a landing, a bookend.