Photo by Molly Matalon
This interview between Meg Duffy of Hand Habits and Girlpool will appear in AdHoc Issue 19, coming later this month. Catch Girlpool at AdHoc’s unoffocial SxSW showcase on Wednesday, March 15. If you can’t make it to Texas, they’ll also be playing at Warsaw in Brooklyn on June 9. Their new album, Power Plant, is out May 12 via Anti-.
About two years ago I was eating a meal inside a festival’s hospitality tent somewhere in the Netherlands. I remember being very psychedelically tired from a drive with the Kevin Morby crew—it was around two weeks deep into a tour. I have no recollection of playing a set that day.
While eating bread soaked in some sort of chicken juice and noticing the conversations around me, I spied a tall redhead bopping around the cutlery zone with a blue-haired accomplice. I admired their fashion. I recognized them both but couldn't remember from where.
To my surprise, the two sat down at my table! Soon I learned that they were Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, aka Girlpool. We had many mutual friends back on the East Coast. I didn't catch their set at the festival, but during our time there, our crews merged. We climbed a jungle gym, ate delicious Belgian waffles and ice cream, and talked about jet lag and how strange it was to be at a festival very far from home with so many friends of friends.
Since that day, Cleo and Harm moved back to Los Angeles (where I also live), made a new record called Power Plant (that I love), and expanded their live band to include two new collaborators. They also each have one new pair of pants, which I know, because recently we all went shopping together. This winter—while I was in a van on tour with my band Hand Habits, and while Cleo and Harm were in their respective homes in LA—we spoke on the phone about friends, feedback, and collaboration. —Meg Duffy
Meg Duffy: So you guys live in Los Angeles now. What are you doing out there?
Cleo Tucker: We’ve been rehearsing with the new band; we’re gonna go to SxSW and then hopefully have some time to record a ton of music. And then we’re gonna hit the road at the end of May for like a month, and then we’re gonna go to Europe.
Who is in the new band?
Cleo Tucker: It’s Miles Wintner from Traps PS on drums, and Stephen Steinbrink on synth and guitar. And then… us.
Are you guys gonna be playing your new songs from Power Plant at SxSW?
Cleo: Hell yeah we are.
Are you playing only new songs?
Cleo: No, we’ll play a few songs from [our last album,] Before the World Was Big.
Do you think that you’ll miss playing the old songs when you stop playing them?
Are you sick of them?
Harmony Tividad: We just got our fill. Now it’s time to play new ones.
What was it like recording with Drew [Fischer, at Comp-ny Studios in LA]?
Cleo: Great. He’s great—like the perfect amount of hands-off, calm, supportive, and excited. And we did it so fast.
How long did recording take?
Harmony: A week and a half.
But you recorded the Power Plant demos yourself, right? Where?
Cleo: I was in New York, and Harmony was in Philly. So I would record my guitar part and sing my vocals, and then ride my bike to the Mega Bog practice space and record the drums. Then I would email them to Harmony, and she would record bass parts and her vocals.
You haven’t really toured with the full band yet, right?
Cleo: Right. We haven’t.
How does having Miles in the band change the arrangements of the songs when you’re practicing?
Harmony: He’s an incredible musician and human and artist.
Cleo: Yeah, he’s great. It feels super natural. We’ll just play something and kind of explain like, “Oh, this is the feeling of this song.” And Miles just feels it.
I was wondering how letting other people into this really crafted and psychic space that you guys have together affects things.
Cleo: I think we just really keep an open dialogue about the transition, because it’s something that every—Harmony, am I talking too much for us right now?
Harmony: No, I think it’s been pretty even.
Cleo: I’ll just finish this thought, and then do you want to address it?
Harmony: I’ll add, sure.
Cleo: I think that the first few practices, we were very transparently trying to navigate a comfortable, equal dynamic between me, Miles, and Harmony, and talking about what it means to all do this together, as one musical entity. When we’re all playing music together, it doesn’t feel like it’s Harmony and me, and then the band. It really feels like a giant collaboration of feeling.
For sure. It feels collaborative, even though you guys are the songwriters.
Cleo: Totally. It’s a different outlet. That’s what’s so cool—there are so many subsections of music. There’s a painting, and then there’s a sculpture of the feeling, and then there’s all kinds of…. Harmony?
Harmony: I think adding people was something to emotionally overcome, because working with the same person all the time is so comfortable. We initially were talking about adding a bunch of people at once, and for me, the idea of that was kind of overwhelming, because I’m so accustomed to just talking to Cleo. We just know how each other work, and there’s a really easy, direct line of communication. We know each other’s parts where we can get a little irritated—we know how to say, “Okay, this is what I mean. This is what’s going on.” Adding multiple people at once felt kind of daunting, because it threatened that communicative pattern.
But I think adding Miles was really, really healthy and helpful. First of all, we love him; he’s amazing and so inspiring. And he just gets it and is such an amazing communicator. It was literally seamless to begin to play with him. And I think it began a transition where it’s easier to start playing with more people, too. Now we kind of know what the intention is with the person we’re adding.
It’s kind of like if you guys were in some sort of—well, you are in an intimate relationship in a way, because playing music with someone is really intimate. If you were to open up your relationship, it would be really overwhelming. And I’m not even speaking romantically, but using it as a parallel to be like, “Okay, cool, so now we’re gonna try to fuck or date three other people.”
Harmony: Exactly. It’s literally like that.
It’s all of the same criteria, except you don’t have sex involved. I almost think it’s more complicated, because sex is an arena [where people] let go of a lot of emotions.
Cleo: Honestly. We talk about this all the time. Love you [to Harmony].
Harmony: Love you [to Cleo].
Just building on the social aspect of playing music—do you feel more nervous playing for your friends, or for a bunch of strangers?
Harmony: I feel more nervous playing for a group of friends, for sure.
Cleo: Friends, absolutely.
Why do you think that is?
Harmony: Because of expectations [people have about] your character, probably. They know you, so you’re letting them down if you fuck up.
Cleo: I also admire so many of my friends so much.
You don’t think that your friends would be more forgiving, though, than a stranger? I’m sorry, I’m playing devil’s advocate.
Cleo: I know you are.
Harmony: I feel like sometimes your friends can be harder on you, because they know your full potential. When you’re not representing your full potential, it’s disappointing.
Do you guys surround yourselves with friends who give constructive criticism? Friends who will be honest with you when giving you feedback on performances or records?
Harmony: I think yes.
Cleo: I have some friends that are more like, “Oh my God, I love this person—she’s doing what she loves, and I love to just watch her do it.” And then I have friends that are more invested in art and music, and weigh in more critically.
I think it’s important to have both—it can get messy if all your friends are super invested. Have you had a lot of people give you feedback about Power Plant?
Harmony: I’ve gotten a lot of feedback
When people give you feedback, do you ever think about changing the product, even if it was already submitted or “finalized”? Or do you just take the feedback into account for the future? Or do you not take it into account at all?
Harmony: I think feedback can be interesting, but I don’t take it super to heart. I guess it depends on what it is, and if I see validity in it. I think you should take everything with a grain of salt and determine for yourself how valid it is—or how much of it you actually feel connected to.
Cleo: What I find so interesting is, if we make a song and record it, or if I’m working on a demo, I’m listening to it and thinking, “What should I change?” And then when I show it to somebody else, new things stick out, because I’m aware that the other person is hearing it. For some reason, when I’m sharing the song with someone else—even if they’re not saying anything—I think about what I want people to hear, and what I don’t.
Does that apply more to the sound or the lyrics?
Cleo: Usually sound. With lyrics, I feel like I can differentiate on my own. I’ll be like, “That doesn’t feel right.” But I guess it’s a bit of both. Do you feel that way, Harmony? How is your experience listening to a song that you made different when you’re showing it to somebody? Like, is that actually helpful in differentiating what feels more or less right?
Harmony: I guess it just depends on the song, really. For me, each song is different: there are things I feel more connected to in different zones. Sometimes I want the tempo to be different when I play it for someone, or for there to be a break somewhere.
I feel like I don’t know what else to ask you. Maybe our interview’s over… or should we keep going?
Harmony: I think it’s done. I think it was great.
Cleo: I think you did a really good job. You nailed it.