interview: Grass Widow


After chugging through their set at San Francisco’s Verdi Club for the Milo Minute release show several weeks ago, a somewhat bleary-eyed Lillian Maring  looked down from her drumset into the crowd and half-heartedly entreated the audience for a ride back to the East Bay. This was Grass Widow — lauded by The New Yorker, recruited by Kill Rock Stars, booked to open for the likes of Sonic Youth — coming home and willing to chum up to cruise across the Bay back home, a small but telling indicator of the band’s legendary DIY ethic. After an extensive European tour and months of recording and self-releasing the 7″ on their new label, HLR, we found time to talk to Lillian, bassist Hannah Lew and guitarist Raven Mahon about pajama yuppies and stonercam.

Welcome back — any highlights from Europe?
RM: We had a really good time. It was our first time to Europe (not considering three shows we played there last fall), so we kind of had an idea of what to expect, but I was really blown away by the hospitality. It’s amazing that Europe has this built-in infrastructure for providing touring bands with places to stay and home-cooked meals no matter what kind of band you are or what sort of show it is. We really lack that in the United States. Right after we got home we played a record release show for the 7″ we just put out and were really inspired by the Euro hospitality so we bought everyone burritos.

HL: We had dinner with Anna De Silva and her partner Shirley. It was amazing to meet her and talk “shop.” We got to play in some pretty amazing legalized squats in Europe. Many of the places we played had flats designated for the touring bands. There’s so little funding for the arts in the U.S. and in general touring as an American band you get used to traveling pretty roughly, so it was refreshing to tour in a hospitable place . I could have stayed longer!

You got along so well with touring buds/blind dates Trash Kit that you recorded a joint music video – are they any other bands you were introduced to out there that we should listen to?

RM: Yeah, definitely. There is another incarnation of Trash Kit and Wet Dog happening in London right now which is called Cover Girl. Also, Rachel, the drummer from Trash Kit has another project called Halo Halo. We played with a band in Vienna that we all really liked called Plaided. Two ladies — they were rad.

HL:  We played with a great band called Thee Irma and Louise in Zurich as well. Also a band called Silver Fox in London. I really liked them!

Oaklanders Nectarine Pie just put out a video shot with a Super 8 with the help of Southpaw label-head Rob Fales (read our interview with him here). When it comes to Grass Widow’s own videos, what’s the appeal of shooting with an older film camera? Is it purely aesthetic — or is there a subtext of conscious luddism, something you have talked about in past interviews?

HL: Shooting on Super 8 is the cheapest way to shoot with actual film. You can’t just turn on the camcorder and hit stonercam. Each cartridge is 3 minutes long and when you shoot you really have to plan. I have shot with Super 8 for a long time and I actually think in the color scheme of the film stock at this point. When they discontinued Kodachrome I thought I would just stop making films, but then Kodak made a new Ektachrome film stock with nice colors so I’m back in the saddle.
This might be totally incriminating…but a big reason I initially got into shooting with Super 8 was because Kodak had this old deal with Cala Foods (a local grocery store that is now out of business) where you could drop rolls of Super 8 to get processed along with the 35mm still pictures in a slot in the grocery store. It cost $3.00 to process a roll there–which is really cheap!

Shooting with Super 8 has allowed me to shoot affordable videos for my friends’ bands. I have shot a few of my films on 16mm, but Super 8 is really my true love.
If the aesthetic of shooting on Super 8 carries over into GW in any way I guess it would be through the approach to making something ambitious using limited resources — using what you have. I’m not a “conscious luddite” or anything. I actually use computers a great deal in my creative process musically and film-wise. Computers are an undeniably great tool, but people use them in weird ways sometimes.
Awhile ago we talked with Anthony Atlas about sharing a recording studio with Grass Widow at the rehearsal studio on 16th. Any crazy building manager stories to add?
LM: The manager once set up a television set in the hallway with a Nintendo hooked up, and left it there with the Super Mario Bros start menu on. It was just sitting in the hallway with the controllers plugged in and everything, so a friend and I started playing it….he immediately came out, told us not to touch it, and went back into his room. That was weird.
RM: Thank god that guy is gone. He still sort of haunts us… I saw him at a remote gas station 150 miles away from SF one time….
Back to videos — Hannah, your self-shot videos have drawn acclaim from many corners of the Internet (watch her video for Shannon and the Clams, debuted by TBB, here). I’m interested in your critical consideration of digital media, including themes of voyeurism and disengagement. Do you ever feel that your stance is paradoxical considering where you live/perform — the Bay Area being the regional home of many of the social technologies that lead to that “disassociation,” the growing gap between a person’s authentic self and the image they project? It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
HL: As a San Francisco native who lived here since before the Silicon Valley dot-com boom I do not relate to the identity that our city has taken on as the hotbed for social networking sites. My city is still a beautiful place near the ocean with lots of cultural diversity. I love SF! Interestingly enough– I think people in our music community use social networking in a much healthier way than in LA or NY for example. People here are actually friends and actually hang out. They’re not just “Friends” who “Like” each other.  It is weird because there are a lot more yuppies in SF than there used to be. I remember back when yuppies wore suits. Now they all wear pajamas out because they work from a computer at home. People have always loved SF, but there is definitely a new type of pajama yuppie that has moved here with lots of money and desires for what they want the city to be (i.e. specialty by the cup coffee, cheese shops, curiosity shops, organic kid’s toys (ed: what) etc…).

I use computers a lot and I don’t think this is paradoxical given my scrutiny of social technology. Having unlimited access to information has changed our world in a lot of positive ways–but also negative ones–and I think about those things very critically. I don’t think of technology as a black-and-white thing– I know its role in our lives is constantly changing and that it is up to us to know when things are serving us or not. I think it’s great that people have had so much access to our music and to my film work via the Internet . Unfortunately I think a lot more people spend time emotionally cutting and living out some “allegory of the cave” on the computer in general. As a woman navigating through a modern world of representation and heightened voyeurism, I think the most feminist thing I can do is create my own images and words to add to this context. I need to create things for the world I want to live in.
Now that you’re stateside again, what are your plans for the next 6 months?
HL: We are working on our new album! We’ve been recording it in installations– so we have a couple sessions lined up with Phil Manley at Lucky Cat.
LM: We’re going to do some more touring in the states. We’re going to the Northwest in August, and we want to go to the East Coast in the fall — that’s about as far as we’ve gotten with tour plans so far. But, as Hannah said, we’ll be recording soon. We’re working on a bunch of new songs right now. We plan to release a series of singles, mostly on our new label called HLR, that will eventually lead to a full length album.
Milo Minute is available via the band’s website here. Stream the song “Mannequin” below. More of Hannah’s film work can be viewed on her personal website, so check that out too.

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