Widowspeak Gets to the Point
ABOVE: PHOTO COURTESY OF ANDREW ST. CLAIR.
If you invite the Brooklyn-based indie rock darlings Widowspeak over to your house for a late-night barbeque, they will insist on cooking only one thing: hot dogs split in half and filled with cream cheese, onions, and Sriracha sauce, all sloppily stuffed into a toasted bun. An urban delicacy in Seattle, they insist.
In a time period where MacBooks, iPads, and Gameboys qualify as musical instruments, Widowspeak stands out with a doe-eyed earnestness, much like a suburban ’50s-era teenager with his first guitar would. Their debut album, Gun Shy, permeated its way through the music blogs since it dropped in August, causing the band to gain traction and notoriety in a matter of months. And it’s no wonder—Widowspeak creates songs that are chock full of era-crossing musical morsels, layered and melted together in a way akin to that of a gluttonous dessert. Beneath the eerily ambient, melodic hollow shell, listeners can find a nugget of American western culture suspended in brooding ’90s nostalgia—and all topped off by smooth, wallowing ennui.
One album, one European tour, and one new addition to the band (Pamela Garavano-Coolbaugh, a female bassist) later, Widowspeak is just trying to figure it all out. On an unseasonably balmy night, Interview spoke to the original trio, made up of drummer Michael Stasiak, guitarist and singer Molly Hamilton, and lead guitarist Robert Earl Thomas, about their whirlwind of a year, why they brought on a new bandmate, and their hopes to drop their follow-up record this fall.
CHELSEA BURCZ: Your first album dropped last summer, and a lot has changed since then. Critics particularly loved it, and you gained a lot of fans practically overnight. How did it feel to have validation from the get-go?
MICHAEL STASIAK: It wasn’t validation from the get-go, though. There was at least a year and a half before the record came out where we were still figuring out how to be a band.
MOLLY HAMILTON: But it’s really cool that we got to put out a record right as we were writing it. I know so many people spend a lot of time on the way they want a record to sound, which is a cool way to go about writing a record, but I feel lucky that we had the weird experience of throwing it together as it happened.
BURCZ: How did you all meet?
HAMILTON: Me and Michael were part of this group of friends back in Tacoma… he approached me and was like, “Let’s start a band! We’re in Brooklyn and we’re bored!”
STASIAK: I just pestered her.
HAMILTON: I was really afraid of singing in front of people. And even when we would practice and write songs, I would only pretend to sing in front of them. I would take the tracks home and sing by myself and record it and let them listen to it when I was out of the room. It’s funny because, literally, I don’t think Rob ever heard me sing until two months into the band.
ROBERT EARL THOMAS: Michael was like, “Yeah, she has a really beautiful voice.” And I pulled him aside and was like, “Dude, she’s not really singing. Is she going to sing?”
BURCZ: How did you get over your fear of singing?
HAMILTON: There’s only so many shows where you can actually be moved to tears because you’re so scared. After a certain point you’re little less scared than the last time. Even now, when we play a bigger show, I still get really nervous. But, I mean, I have to do it. Also, the stage whiskey helps. It loosens up your throat, so it’s almost like a placebo effect.
BURCZ: How did you guys come up with the name Widowspeak?
HAMILTON: I really wanted to start a creepy Disney soundtrack folk group. That has never happened. I still want it to happen. But for a while I wanted to call it Widow’s Peak, two words. I don’t think we ever had another name.
BURCZ: What are some of your musical influences?
STASIAK: I’m into bands that did a lot with very little. The Feelies, early indie rock and post-punk. Also, a lot of old country. The Louvin Brothers. Things you don’t even really recognize that there’s drums in them. That was the goal. Hang back as much as possible.
HAMILTON: My parents weren’t really that into older music. They were into music of the time. They were always buying records that were coming out as I was growing up in Washington. So I listened to a lot of ’90s, a lot of grunge, a lot of alt rock. College rock. I’m having to go back and relearn what most kids grew up knowing. I hadn’t even heard Velvet Underground until I was 18 or 19!
THOMAS: I kind of live in my own bubble when it comes to music. I like freak folk and overproduced ’70s rock music. Pretty much T-Rex. That’s my bible.
STASIAK: I think Pam has said before that her favorite band ever is Spacemen 3. She comes up with her very subtle, melodic bass parts, but they aren’t distracting.
BURCZ: Pam, the bassist, is a new addition to your original trio. When did Pam start?
HAMILTON: Maybe two months ago, or three. We were about to go on that tour with the Dum Dum Girls with bigger venues. We wanted to see how a bassist would be live because we recorded bass on our record. It’s interesting because she actually isn’t a bassist. She is a classically trained pianist, so she knows how to read music. But I also didn’t play electric guitar before we started playing together. I would play banjo and folk guitar, but I never really had an amp.
STASIAK: Pam came to practice, and when she played, it was completely different than anything that was on the record. She was like, “That was it, right?” We were like, “No, but that was so much better.”
BURCZ: You have this new album apparently coming out in the fall, right?
HAMILTON: Yes, oh yes. We’re writing it right now and really want to record this summer. I want it out before the end of the year because I’m convinced the world is going to end. Okay, I’m a little superstitious and I know the world is probably not going to end. But then there was that whole world-ending thing earlier this year! Or even when I was a little kid, when somebody told me Nostradamus or whatever had predicted the world ending on November 6, 1999. And then all those apocalyptic movies came out in the mid-’90s. I was freaked out.
BURCZ: Do you think your sound has changed from your first album, especially with a new bassist and a larger fan base?
THOMAS: One of the things about the first record is that there are a lot of good songs on it, but sometimes we were worried if it was cohesive. We thought, “That’s a good pop song,” or, “That’s a good creepy song,” but do they necessarily need to be paired together? Our sound has a sense of space and atmosphere, so I think we are going to explore that more when we make the next record, that atmospheric sound.
HAMILTON: There are also styles we gravitate towards, not necessarily western things but more historically American kind of sounds.
THOMAS: We have a moniker we came up with; it’s “cowboy grunge.”
STASIAK AND THOMAS: When wide-open spaces, dread, love, romance, tenderness, evil, a little bit of aggression, horses, Wrangler jeans, were cool.
BURCZ: You don’t have any music videos as of yet. Do you have any plans to make any cool music videos soon?
HAMILTON: I really love music videos as a medium, but we were kind of distracted and preoccupied with a lot of other things going on. We had never done any of this before, going on tour, etc.
STASIAK: We are also holding out for a real celebrity cameo.
THOMAS: We’re trying for Winona Ryder.
HAMILTON: [laughs] We tweeted at Winona the other day. We are trying to be better about our Twitter so we could get some celebrity followers. We were like, “How do we tweet at Winona Ryder?” Then we googled, “What is Winona Ryder’s Twitter name?”
STASIAK: There were two and we tried both, but nobody responded. [laughs]
BURCZ: Where do you see Widowspeak in five years?
HAMILTON: We’re doing everything really quickly right now and we’re on a roll. And if the roll keeps rolling as quickly as it has been, I think we’ll just keep rolling with it.
STASIAK: It only costs $200,000 to go to outer space, right? I feel like by the time we make a fourth or fifth record, we could potentially play it in space.
HAMILTON: Or holograph. We could have holographic shows.
BURCZ: Like Tupac at Coachella recently?
HAMILTON: I thought he was dead?
THOMAS: Honestly though, Widowspeak is a self-sustaining thing. None of us necessarily have to do this. It’s not our whole lives; it’s not how we define ourselves. It’s something we do, and something that continues to have a life of its own. Right? That’s what I want.
HAMILTON: Rolling with the roll.
THOMAS: That’s what the new record will be called.
WIDOWSPEAK’S GUN SHY IS OUT NOW. THE BAND IS PLAYING A DJ SET AT MERCURY LOUNGE TOMORROW, MAY 5, AND WILL PLAY THE KNITTING FACTORY JUNE 9 AND MERCURY LOUNGE JUNE 11. FOR MORE ON WIDOWSPEAK, VISIT THEIR FACEBOOK PAGE.