There’s some Op Ivy lyric about not needing a crowd but a gathering instead. Maybe that was the point of talking to bassist Hannah Lew, who is one-third of the post-punk trio Grass Widow, alongside drummer Lillian Maring and guitarist Raven Mahon. While not plying four-stringed instruments, she wrangles film and video for her band and a wealth of personal, purposeful projects as well. Taking a break from clerking at a properly stocked San Francisco video shop, Lew was able to discuss just about everything from the band’s DIY ethic and her own criticisms of digital media to the eventuality of Grass Widow self-releasing music instead of working, as they have, with labels like Captured Tracks and Kill Rock Stars, who released their 2010 sophomore album Past Time.
Hannah Lew: I think there’s a myth about California [that it’s always sunny and warm]. I’m a native San Franciscan, so I know that myth’s purely myth. You have to plan for all seasons each day here, which is why you see tourists walking around with San Francisco sweatshirts – they were out, they got cold, and they had to buy a sweatshirt.
Skyscraper: I didn’t even know micro-climates existed until I moved out there and someone levied all that on me.
HL: Yeah, there’s a famous gardening book called Golden Gate Gardening, because there are areas of town where you can only grow certain things. You can grow tomatoes in the Mission, but not in the Richmond District.
Skyscraper: When you’re not reading gardening books, you work at a video store. Are you a high ranking member of their staff? How long have you been there?
HL: Yeah, I work at Lost Weekend Video [check out the presumed namesake] and when we’re not playing, I spend a lot of time on movie related stuff. I’ve been there about four years. And yes, I am extremely high ranking. There are three owners here – one of my bosses, Adam Pfahler, was the drummer in Jawbreaker. The other two were [Jawbreaker’s] tour manager and, I think, Dave was the accountant. But when they stopped touring, they opened a video store. That was about 15 years ago.
It’s just friends who work here. Actually, four people who’ve worked here happened to have released albums on Kill Rock Stars. Just pure coincidence. I got my job through my friend Bianca Sparta, who’s in Erase Errata. Ed Rodriguez from Deerhoof and Weasel Walter have worked here, too. We’re just tryin’ to survive as an independent business. A lot of things have changed here. Grass Widow was just on tour for a few weeks. When we came back, three new bars and two new novelty shops had opened. People who work for Google or eBay – all those things are near here; the employees move to the area and have different desires.
Skyscraper: You started a Master’s program in film, but put if off to focus on the band?
HL: I was at San Francisco State, and doing pretty well, I guess. All this stuff happened – my dad passed away, we got crazy offers to go to China. So, I realized it was a bad time for me to be in school. I’ve been able to get my work seen, though, maybe more than if I’d tried to schmooze in film school or go to festivals. I ended up doing music videos and just had a video premiere at The Bay Bridged, a video for Shannon and the Clams. There are some other projects and planning going on right now, but music videos are really a great way for me to work. In a lot of ways they’re the new music single, because the way people download albums, songs rarely get a chance to live as a single. When a music video gets premiered, it lives in its own space.
Skyscraper: Do you shoot everything on film or is it digital?
HL: It’s all Super 8. Actually, I’ve shot a few things on 16mm. But it’s expensive.
Skyscraper: Do you like the process of laying hands on a piece of film?
HL: I think in that color scheme – in colors on film stock, not video. I think in a painterly way about film.
Skyscraper: That’s you sitting in a room by yourself, which is drastically different than making music with two other people.
HL: I was just thinking the other day, the way I experience work with computers – they’re really designed for a person to use alone. But I use computers in a collaborative way. We use GarageBand when we record at our practice space. When I edit, I don’t edit alone, I use programs with other people. I was just thinking, “I’m done using computers, they want me to sit in a room alone. I won’t do it.”
Skyscraper: I saw the video you did for “Fried Egg” and it made me think about Head (1968) by the Monkees.
HL: Also, Norman McLaren did a lot of that floating around stuff. He’s awesome, a Film Board of Canada guy who did a lot of stop motion and animation. He’s definitely a huge inspiration of mine.
Skyscraper: Do you know Anthony Stern? The way you described music videos, in my head, is how in the 1950s and 1960s experimental filmmakers had to turn showing a short into an event. Anyway, Stern made San Francisco (1968) during the late 1960s and Pink Floyd recorded a version of “Interstellar Overdrive” for the soundtrack. But the film’s all real fast cuts of people caught unawares or just in the middle of mundane normalcy, interspersed with trippy lighting effects. It plays into the romantic idea of Bay Area bohemia. Is the throng of garage bands accidentally replicating that vibe and is there a tipping point? Can there be too many bands?
HL: Even you saying there’ve been a throng of garage bands over the last five years – I don’t think any band here would think of themselves as a garage band. I think about what music scenes are in a regional perspective. In San Francisco, there are all these bands that don’t sound the same, but everyone’s friends. The way social networking works here is really different than other places. Maybe it’s just the way I think about it, maybe I’m wrong. But in New York or LA, for example, there’s a lot more social networking and a lot less real community. I feel like in San Francisco, it’s a small enough place that people actually know each other, see each other and are friends. In New York, people have that center of the world kinda thing. So, you move to the city because it already has the trend there. You can just attach yourself to it. I find that a lot of bands there sound really similar. That happens, to an extent, in LA – but bands there seem a lot more concerned with celebrity than bands in San Francisco. They think about celebrity, but not what they can do with celebrity.
I’m really glad to be a musician and filmmaker in San Francisco right now. It’s just a good time – people doing their own thing and getting involved in the community in a real way.
Skyscraper: Out of the three places you mentioned, the Bay’s easily the most livable. It’s interesting that you said each coast is concerned with celebrity, but work with it differently. You’re not gonna walk down the street in San Francisco and run into Cameron Diaz, though.
HL: I’m not even talking about Cameron Diaz. I’m talking about people who I consider my peers. In San Francisco, all these bands are really peers. When we play shows together, everyone gets paid fairly. There’s no concept of, “I’m big now, I’m a celebrity.” My experience playing shows in Los Angeles or New York, bands just have a different attitude towards other bands and I think it has to do with where they come from. They think of themselves as celebrities and treat other bands as protégés, not peers. You can really feel that – that’s the big difference. Bands here, there’s a lot of mutual respect and individuality.
Skyscraper: You’ve talked about bands becoming commodities and emulation in other interviews, but the underground market seems like a small scale replica of major label business.
HL: Just because a band emulates punk aesthetics doesn’t mean they’re a punk band. A lot of people do rely heavily on aesthetics, but it seems just like nods to things in the past that were really cool. There’s semiotic value in the leather jacket, but it’s an indexical reference to a time when the leather jacket was actually rebellious. In this modern context, there’re a lot of references to vintage aesthetics. I love the 1960s, but I’m also fond of these times. I’m more impressed by bands who are individuals and not just ripping off old, cool stuff. There’s a lot of that right now – I like old things, I like old music or older styles. What makes using those ideas unique, what makes it empowering, is for artists to use them in a modern context.
A lot of musicians have different goals and different ideas about success. We get lumped in with a lot of other bands and people don’t realize we have a totally different concept of what success is for us. It can get really annoying to be compared to every other band that has women in it. We’re all female, does that mean we have the same goals? Do all men have the same goals?
Skyscraper: What correlation is there between how Grass Widow projects itself as cohesive concept and your work in film?
HL: One of the things I’m interested in, in terms of filmmaking, is feminist film theory, which brings up some feminist ideas to really profound levels. We’re dealing with the way women are portrayed and the whole idea of the gaze. Women deal with that in a modern context – if you’re in a band, people are going to be looking at you, talking about you, not to you. If women are creating their own images out there, that’s a kind of feminist action – creating images that are meant for women, including women in the audience, and aren’t in the service of men or searching for any type of validation. We think about that stuff a lot, the way our images are used. We deal with people just writing stuff about the way we look on the Internet. If there’s anything we can put out there about ourselves, that’s empowering.
Skyscraper: You seem dubious regarding how media’s manipulated. You’ve talked about disengaging from the digital media circus. So, how do you decide what interviews to do and why do one with us?
HL: We always try to do interviews, because speaking on your own behalf is important. There’s a distinction to be made between having a luddite approach to technology and being critical of the way people use it. You can see people tweeting while we’re playing a show. We just flew across the country, stick with us. People are dissociating right now or performing for the sake of the image they’ve put out there. That’s shaky ground.
With everyone having public profiles, you can voyeuristically stalk someone and use it to your advantage. But none of that’s real – talking to a person and interacting with them, that’s real. Those are the kinds of connections we’re trying to make as a band, not seeing how many friends we can get.
Skyscraper: You guys get asked a bunch of inane questions during interviews – my favorite being “How do you feel about getting signed to Kill Rock Stars,” or if you favor robots or dinosaurs.
HL: I know what you’re saying. Someone asked us what kind of cheeses we like. We’re always trying to take the opportunity to talk about things we care about. Going back to how different regions approach celebrity, there are a lot of people talking about themselves like they’re important. I guess, to a certain extent, I care about where people are from and when they felt confident enough to play music. Sometimes people can’t see past themselves and their own success to the world or the world they want to live in. It’s really apparent in interviews. Our goals as a band are almost the opposite. We want people to feel included and empowered, it’s not really about us. It’s about what we’re trying to provide.
Skyscraper: You not wanting to Tweet while you’re at a show makes you part of the minority now.
HL: That’s the thing, people used to be in those situations, at shows, and feel empowered. Now, people just want to announce that they’re there – they’re performing.
Skyscraper: I’d imagine most people play music for the reasons we’re discussing: to empower themselves or to create community. Do you need to complicate playing in a band with all these other activities, like doing a phone interview with me?
HL: It’s less about empowerment and more about… It feels like people are having things provided for them or being told what they like. That’s disempowering. Things like Last.fm, it’ll tell you 30 bands you like if you type in the name of one group. If something’s on Facebook and 50 people “like” it, the post develops its own presence. I’ve experienced that from playing music – a whole bunch of people will like our band, because someone else cool likes us. I’d rather have people come to it on their own.
That’s why I get bummed when people are tweeting at our shows – just enjoy it. Just be here. Maybe no one will actually know you’re having a good time. Maybe the world can go 15 minutes without knowing you’re having a good time and went to a good show.
Skyscraper: How is making film – since that’s you proclaiming something – different?
HL: The difference is, with the Internet or other media, there’s this sort of immediacy. The reality is, you can read a whole bunch of stuff on the Internet that’s just one person sitting in front of a screen, writing by themselves.
The way I think about songs and music videos, it’s the same realm. There’s a chance to use metaphor and have people interact with the subject matter. It’s not just a person spewing out ideas about themselves. It is a form of expression, but there’s a difference between expression and putting out some identity-thing or a profile that you want people to believe.
Skyscraper: I guarantee, sadly enough, a lot of people spend as much time making profiles as you do writing songs.
Photos (top to bottom): Jean Blackstenthree; Venita Wadsworth; Sam Wolk; JR Tarantinoone.