Horsegirl and Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich on Rock Band Survival
Horsegirl makes music for kids, according to guitarist Penelope Lowenstein. This declaration isn’t surprising, given the band, made up of Lowenstein, Nora Cheng, and Gigi Reece, formed at an after-school program in Chicago, where they cut their teeth as teens in the city’s vibrant DIY scene before graduating high school. Now they’re living in New York, plotting the follow-up to their debut album Versions of Modern Performance, a thrumming, guitar-heavy rock record with lyrics that capture the dizzying disorientation of urban adolescence. Their labelmate Bob Nastanovich began his music career with alt-rock icons Pavement, which after 12 year hiatus, began an reunion tour this spring, culminating in an October 2nd show at the King’s Theater in Brooklyn, with Horsegirl as the opener. Before they shared a marquee, Nastanovich and Horsegirl shared their thoughts on the dreaded sophomore slump, performing across the pond, and becoming the coolest kids in Iowa. —CAITLIN LENT
BOB NASTANOVICH: My laptop broke, and now I’m on this iPad that I brought from Steve West’s wife Andrea. I didn’t know you guys would see my 9:00 a.m. face.
PENELOPE LOWENSTEIN: Looking good.
NASTANOVICH: How’s it going, y’all?
NORA CHENG: It’s good. How are you?
NASTANOVICH: Good. Are you together, all three, right now, in the same room?
CHENG: We’re in the same city, but we’re not in the same space.
NASTANOVICH: Are you on tour? What are you doing?
LOWENSTEIN: We’re in school. I just had my first college class ever. I’m in my dorm.
NASTANOVICH: You’re in Chicago?
LOWENSTEIN: No, I just moved to New York a week ago.
NASTANOVICH: Okay. Now, where are you going to school, Penelope?
LOWENSTEIN: New York University.
NASTANOVICH: Did you get there a few days ago?
LOWENSTEIN: Yeah. New York has been very fun.
NASTANOVICH: And you’ve obviously been there before, but now you’re a resident.
LOWENSTEIN: Oh yeah. One week in, I’m a New Yorker. [Laughs]
NASTANOVICH: When I went to school in 1985, I had a random roommate. Do you have a mystery roommate?
LOWENSTEIN: No, I’m rooming with someone I know. There’s a rumor about a girl in my building who has a tarantula.
NASTANOVICH: Are you allowed to have pets in your room?
LOWENSTEIN: I think they’re illegal tarantulas.
NASTANOVICH: I wonder if she has a roommate who’s a stranger.
LOWENSTEIN: She does. I met them. They’re not happy.
NASTANOVICH: There’s two of them?
LOWENSTEIN: Yeah. I’m glad that’s not me.
NASTANOVICH: Oh my lord. So there’s a tarantula for each.
LOWENSTEIN: [Laughs] I know. They each have one.
NASTANOVICH: So Nora, you’re also in New York?
CHENG: Yeah, I’m also at NYU, but I’m not in the dorms. It’s my second year, so I have an apartment.
NASTANOVICH: Are you now being referred to as a Chicago slash New York band?
REECE: No, no, no. We don’t let that happen. We’re not a New York band.
NASTANOVICH: That’s badass. In a similar fashion to Pavement in ’89, things have happened wildly fast. I know you guys have some background with the youth arts in Chicago. Chicago is a much hipper place, but you also were five years younger [than us]. There is a difference between being in a band when you’re 15 and when you’re 21. You’ll see that in a year or two. Gigi, are you at NYU also?
REECE: No, I’m not in school, but I live in New York. Not with them, but we’re all around.
NASTANOVICH: So when did you guys start playing? When was your first live show?
REECE: In 2019. We were 15 and 16.
LOWENSTEIN: I was a freshman in high school.
NASTANOVICH: How many songs had you made up before you did your first show?
LOWENSTEIN: Four songs.
CHENG: I think we kept only one of them.
NASTANOVICH: You basically got together, jammed, then there’s an opportunity to play some sort of live thing?
REECE: Yeah. We played open mics for a while.
LOWENSTEIN: In Chicago, there’s like a teen open mic that happens at this folk school. It’s free. It’s one of the best things for young people in Chicago, because there’s no criteria.
NASTANOVICH: And no pressure, really. Other than peer pressure.
LOWENSTEIN: I think if we weren’t in Chicago, none of this could have happened. To be 15 and feel like, “Oh, I can start a band.” You have to see other people do it in order to think it’s possible.
NASTANOVICH: There’s also a certain amount of big city sophistication. How did you guys start listening to rock music?
REECE: Penelope and Nora made me truly love rock music. I listened to stupid music for a while.
NASTANOVICH: There is no stupid music.
LOWENSTEIN: I agree.
REECE: Yeah, so I was just in a funk for a long time, and then I met Penelope and Nora, and I started discovering things.
NASTANOVICH: I bought your first seven-inch about a year and a half ago and I love it. I was DJing in Nashville a few months ago, and I played the song “Ballroom Dance Scene.” It just sounds great in a DJ set. So I play it, and a guy comes over to ask about the song, which is the ultimate compliment for a vinyl DJ in a rock club. So I just hand him the sleeve, and he’s looking at the sleeve and stuff. Then he walks off with my record, and I was like, “Hold on, I gotta get that thing back!”
REECE: Did you get it back?
NASTANOVICH: Oh yeah. Immediately. I’m not letting that baby go. It’s a good record. And what’s the story behind that? Because I know Sonic Cathedral to an extent.
LOWENSTEIN: Sonic Cathedral just reached out to us.
NASTANOVICH: Were you freaked out by some English guy who’s like—
LOWENSTEIN: Calling us? Yeah. At that point we were just so excited that anyone was listening to Horsegirl, especially people in other countries.
NASTANOVICH: Have you played [in England] yet?
LOWENSTEIN: Yeah. Over the summer.
NASTANOVICH: Oh my God. I’m sure they love you there. When Pavement was a band, we played there for the first time in ’92. The U.S. is a hub of indie rock snobbery. There’s a lot of, “Impress us,” in the audience. Then you go to England and you start your first song, and half the crowd is singing all the words to it. England, and the continent, embraced Pavement more so than this country. Is it sort of the same still?
REECE: I felt like it was reversed. We had to work more to impress people in Europe.
CHENG: The crowd was a lot older because of Sonic Cathedral, and they’re just more stoic. They didn’t want to move around as much.
LOWENSTEIN: Our American crowds reminded us more of what it felt like to play Chicago DIY shows. We prefer playing to kids, so it was special to come back to the States after being in Europe and play the younger crowds. Kids would show up with homemade Horsegirl shirts that they drew with Sharpies.
NASTANOVICH: That’s awesome.
LOWENSTEIN: It’s that energy that really motivates us.
NASTANOVICH: That’s got to give you a lift. Do guys already have super fans that will follow you for three or four shows in a row?
REECE: Yes! Well, barely. We have one.
NASTANOVICH: It starts with one!
REECE: Somebody gave us a banner. I have it. It’s just this little homemade banner that says Horsegirl.
LOWENSTEIN: I’m sure it’ll get crazier. Are there any crazy Pavement fan stories?
NASTANOVICH: I don’t even really know where to start. I was notorious for sneaking people into our shows who couldn’t pay for them, by saying that they were my nephew or niece, and handing them some of my gear, and then walking them in through the back. We were playing all these 21 and over things. Do you do 21 and over?
LOWENSTEIN: Yes. But we would rather only play all-ages shows. We have a lot of situations of sneaking friends into over-age shows. I remember there was a show one of our friends was playing that was at a bar, where they switched it up on them and changed it to 21 plus because they wanted to sell drinks last minute.
NASTANOVICH: Yes, where the money is.
LOWENSTEIN: One of the kids playing, his dad took 20 kids and was like, “These are all my nephews,” and he got them all in.
REECE: I was one of those kids!
CHENG: Are there any people that you’re expecting to see at any of the shows that you remember from a really long time ago?
NASTANOVICH: Yeah, they come out of the woodwork. I don’t know if you’ll ever be in a band where you only play every 10 to 12 years, it’s a unique experience in and of itself.
LOWENSTEIN: Well, this summer was our first big tour. I was thinking, how do people do this for years? It’s such a crazy job. Do you have advice for bands on how to stick with it and not burn out?
NASTANOVICH: Well, obviously the most important thing is to try to make good songs and good records, so you guys have covered that so far. Make sure you don’t go into the dreaded sophomore slump.
CHENG: That’s so scary.
NASTANOVICH: Don’t even think about it. I mean, it doesn’t exist. It’s just BS. It’s a rock-critic creation.
CHENG: I hear you.
NASTANOVICH: When you guys tour, do all three of you drive?
CHENG: No. I’m the only one that actually knows how to drive.
LOWENSTEIN: I got my license a few months ago. I’m getting there.
NASTANOVICH: Have you toured in the Midwestern winter?
LOWENSTEIN: No, but we have lived in the Midwestern winter.
NASTANOVICH: I’ve lived in Des Moines for the last 14 years.
NASTANOVICH: We basically get the same weather as you guys about eight to 12 hours before and we send it your way. We say, “Good luck Chicago!”
REECE: [Laughs] Iowa’s awesome.
CHENG: When we were driving through Iowa, Gigi was like, “I love it here.”
REECE: It was my favorite scenery because it was so flat. I was listening to Arthur Russell and being like, “Wow, this is inspiring.” Do you feel that way about Iowa?
NASTANOVICH: What I think about your experience in Iowa, Gigi, is maybe you should keep it that way, keep your headphones on and—
REECE: Never go back. [Laughs]
NASTANOVICH: I lived in Des Moines, which is basically the only liberal enclave in the state. When you leave Des Moines, you fill up your tank with gas and you don’t stop until you get out.
REECE: I have faith in Iowa.
NASTANOVICH: I’ll tell you what. My friend came and visited me there 10 years ago, and he’s very good at assessing cities. He came up with the one line, he said, “Des Moines is actually really cool. It just needs more cool people.”
REECE: I’d just be the coolest kid in Iowa.
LOWENSTEIN: You are so cool.
REECE: But I’ve got the ball and chain here of the band.
NASTANOVICH: It’s a lovely ball and chain, isn’t it Gigi?
NASTANOVICH: You wouldn’t trade, would you? You’d rather be doing what you’re doing right now than any other thing you can think of?
REECE: 100 percent.
NASTANOVICH: So what’s next with you guys? What’s going on here other than school, and what’s next with the band?
CHENG: Well, we’re opening for Pavement!
LOWENSTEIN: And we’re going to write the second album. It’s not going to be a slump. It’s going to be epic and even crazier.
NASTANOVICH: Oh, for sure.
CHENG: It’s going to be a sophomore—
NASTANOVICH: How many songs do you feel like you have in the larval stage for your second record already?
NASTANOVICH: You’re starting from scratch?
LOWENSTEIN: Oh no, we have ideas.
REECE: We have one in the works.
CHENG: We have a really fantastic jam.
LOWENSTEIN: We have the concept.
NASTANOVICH: That’s awesome.
LOWENSTEIN: We can all articulate it to each other, but not to anyone else. It’s going to be like nothing anyone has ever heard before. That’s a really high bar.
NASTANOVICH: It sounds like a great game plan. That’ll keep the bar really high, and if you make it two-thirds of the way there, it’ll still be a home run.
NASTANOVICH: And is this already actually planned or in session?
CHENG: We don’t even have a practice space yet.
REECE: But what’s next for me is I have to go get my phone from the venue we played last night, because I lost it there.
NASTANOVICHL: What happened last night where you’re throwing your phone around?
REECE: It was the most insane rager! No, that’s a joke. [Laughs] It was a show at Bowery Ballroom. If my phone was just gone, I’d get a flip phone. I would make it work.
NASTANOVICH: Totally cool.
LOWENSTEIN: You would get a Nokia?
REECE: Yes, I would.
LOWENSTEIN: I want a Nokia, too.
NASTANOVICH: [Laughs] I wonder what Interview‘s going to do with this material.
LOWENSTEIN: I think we’ve given them so much to choose from.
NASTANOVICH: Maybe too much. Do you guys have any more questions for me?
LOWENSTEIN: No, I don’t. This was lovely. Thank you for talking with us.
NASTANOVICH: Anytime. You guys, we’ll set up the Zoom anytime you guys want to chat. I mean, I live in Paris, Tennessee. I’ve got a corgi, a wife, and one friend who lives across the street.
REECE: Sounds perfect.
NASTANOVICH: It’s lovely, actually. I don’t mind the solitude. Which day do we play together? Do you know?
REECE: I think October 2nd.
NASTANOVICH: That’ll be one of the last [shows of the tour].
REECE: We have a bunch of friends driving in from Chicago for the show.
NASTANOVICH: What is that, like 16 hours?
NASTANOVICH: Have to drive fast. All right, you guys have a wonderful afternoon.
LOWENSTEIN: You too. Thank you for talking to us.
NASTANOVICH: Lovely to meet you all. Gigi, get your phone back!