Arts & Entertainment Editor
Prior to their show at Velvet Jones last Friday, Seattle-based punk trio So Pitted sat down for an interview with The Bottom Line. The discussion coincidentally coincided with the end of their Big$hot Jackpot U.S.A. tour, where they played an opening slot for electronic punk two-piece The Garden alongside pop punk duo Heyrocco.
So Pitted, consisting of lead singer/guitarist/drummer Nathan Rodriguez, guitarist Jeannine Kowler, and drummer/singer/guitarist Liam Downey, are one of the newest additions to the roster of Sub Pop Records. The Seattle-based label was a major force in popularizing alternative rock in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when they promoted trailblazing Seattle grunge bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney during their rise to mainstream popularity. So Pitted continue the label’s tradition of hard-edged alternative with their own brand of sinister, crunchy, noise-drowned punk that makes art out of screaming feedback and over-fuzzed distortion.
The text below is a condensed and edited version of a 40-minute interview that touched on their history as musicians, some seriously interesting, intuitive, and common misconceptions about record labels, and writing Marilyn Manson covers.
How did you all get into making music originally?
Nathan: Ummm, Liam you’ve been playing since how old?
Liam: Since the fifth grade. In school bands.
N: I started playing guitar when my Mom bought me a guitar when I was fifteen. And that’s kinda how I started for a long time. How did you start Jeannine?
Jeannine: I started playing music when Nathan asked me to join the band.
Really? Just like that?
N: Yeah I taught her how to play guitar. She learned really fast. She’s great now.
J: I’m proficient in So Pitted guitar.
N: I guess she’s a professional musician now.
Tell me a little about the bands you were in before So Pitted.
N: I was in a band called Spurm, spelled S-P-U-R-M. It was, like my first experience playing live music, and it was alright. Nothing to write home about. Also, it taught me a lot about what I didn’t want to do. But it wasn’t horrible; it just wasn’t a fun band. It wasn’t even that good of a band…I don’t even know how to describe it. I love So Pitted. I don’t love Spurm.
J: [Laughs] Ouch!
N: It doesn’t have to hurt. It doesn’t need to be an intended… y’know I don’t think the people in Spurm like Spurm. I don’t think anyone loves Spurm.
So it was kind of like a mutual dislike?
J: Well, not even a dislike. Just no love. Liam was in a band as well, tons of bands. Liam’s been in —
L: Too many.
J: How many bands do you think you’ve been in at this point, that had recordings?
L: [Pauses] Eh, maybe not that many. Probably just five. I’ll just try to name them all, that’s actually fun. The band I was in was with my brother; it was called Badush. That band is now called The Fabulous Downey Brothers. And they still play.
Then, I was in another band called Marilyn Scissorhands. It was a Marilyn Manson parody, not a cover band. We wrote our own Marilyn Manson songs. But we weren’t like a parody, like a joke, we were serious. And then that band turned into Ooh-Ah-Ah. And then…D.O.D Grunge — total shit — then Natalie Portman’s Shaved Heads, and then that turned into Brite Futures, and then that turned into So Pitted.
N: Natalie Portman’s Shaved Heads is probably the most efficient.
L: Yeah, we were signed to Warner Brothers for a bit.
N: They opened for Weezer and stuff like that.
L: Toured with the Faint, CSS, Lily Allen.
What time period was that?
L: Like 2007-2009.
And that eventually became So Pitted?
L: Well I left.
N: He left, and I also met Liam because I was a fan of that band. I was like a superfan, but the thing is, before anyone flatters themselves, I was a superfan for a lot of bands.
What music have you been listening to lately?
N: Um, there was that cool electronic music.
J: Ooh, that was tight. I’ve been listening to a lot of techno lately. But who was that guy?
N: It was like noise electronic.
J: Container, that was his name!
N: It’s like, I think there’s a lot out there to be excited about, but at the moment I don’t feel like I’m inspired by a whole lot of music. We’ve been listening to The Chemical Brothers more recently.
I guess I find out about things through different ways, like they’re on a soundtrack that I really like for this Gregg Araki film, that I listened to because someone said we sounded like the soundtrack to a Gregg Araki film.
J: Wait, but didn’t we watch Nowhere together?
N: Oh no, I think it was another one.
J: Doom Generation.
N: Yeah we watched Doom Generation together. Also, I’m in a phase where I’m in to listening to soundtracks for movies I’ve never seen. Like Dancer in the Dark.
J: Yeah, he didn’t used to like Bjork, and now I think he kind of likes Bjork now.
N: Yeah, I have an appreciation for her now because of that. That is like a regular fix now. Someone actually told me I should listen to Metamorphosis [by Hillary Duff] from front to back, and I was like “really?”
J: Dude, I turned on Hillary Duff earlier in this tour and everyone got mad.
Nathan, part of your development as a musician came from learning about music theory on Wikipedia. How has that self-education helped you create music?
N: I feel that every experience listening to music is quantified in some way. Even though it’s not completely explainable, I do think there is an answer, reason, and feeling, and I think it does connect to music theory completely.
And it comes down to so many things at once. Like timing, gear, personality; it’s a stirring pot of all that stuff that makes a band sound the way they do. I don’t think music theory is all of it, but it’s a huge part of it.
Do you all practice music every day?
J: Nathan does.
N: Liam, do you practice music every day?
L: No, it’s unhealthy. There’s more to life.
J: I practice at practice. I should practice more, but I don’t.
N: I love playing everyday. It makes me so happy. I don’t really watch TV at home by myself — I watch TV with friends. I don’t have a working computer, my cell phone sucks, so when I’m home I just play guitar. So I play everyday. I love it.
Do you play synthesizer specifically, or do you play keyboard and piano as well?
L: Just synthesizer, I took a piano course in community college —
J: Me too!
L: — but I didn’t really enjoy learning piano. I enjoy learning to create sounds for it, like the keyboard that I have is a semi-modular synth. It’s different every night, it’s never the same sound, I never work with premades, and it’s a blast, I love it.
What kind of synth is that?
L: It’s a newer Korg Mini MS-20. It’s a remake of the older one, it does the same things though.
Jeannine, do you still do ballet?
N: It’s crazy that they put that in the [Bandcamp description]. Bio writing is some of the biggest bullshit there is.
J: I mean, I dance every day, but I haven’t done ballet in like 10-plus years. Yeah I don’t know why they made that such a big part, I think I didn’t talk much in our interview for that bio.
N: Now that we did it I have different perspectives about bio writing.
J: In general I feel pretty wary about what I say in interviews.
N: I think if someone is going to be writing a bio about a band, they should have some sort of frame of reference before. Like they should either be personally connected to the band, or a fan already, and I think they’re just getting paid to do it and they’re a good writer then I don’t think it’s the right place.
L: I think they should just have Mad Libs where they just put in our information.
J: I love ballet, and maybe I’ll pick it up again.
How’s the tour going in general?
N: Best tour yet.
J: Never want it to end. This is the last show; so bummed.
N: Last show with The Garden and Heyrocco, it’s been a lot of fun. Been a fan of The Garden for a long time, I never imagined doing this.
We did a full U.S. tour, I’ve always dreamed of that, now we’ve done it. Now I get to go home and –
J: Cross that off your bucket list.
L: Smoke good weed.
N: Smoke good weed for once.
What was your first show together like?
N: First show together we played a Halloween cover show. Jeannine got black out drunk. We played covers: the covers we played were “Terrible Lie” by Nine Inch Nails and —
J: I think I played one note too.
N: You played one string at a time, it was fine, it’s okay. You played multiple notes, but you played on one string.
We played “Terrible Lie” by Nine Inch Nails and “Shoplifters of the World” by The Smiths. A great, great collection of covers.
J: Good cover night.
N: We’ve done lots of good covers. We’ve done that, the year after that we did, uh –
J: Was that the Rob Zombie night? Or that was the year after.
N: We did Rob Zombie’s “Living Dead Girl” and we did Smashing Pumpkins’ “Zero,” and the year after that, which is the last year we’ll ever do that again, we did Marilyn Manson’s “Reflecting God,” and Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” One of the personal highlights of my entire life.
What’s it like working with a label as historic and continually relevant as Sub Pop Records?
N: It’s cool, but it’s a little more underwhelming than you’d think. I think people have assumptions for what record labels do, I mean at least the way people talk to me, and they don’t do as much as people think, or at least assume.
What are some assumptions that you’ve found to be untrue?
N: People think they have roles in our booking, they have no roles in our booking. People think they pay us a lot of money.
L: People think we’re also successful. Jeannine put it the best, right now we’re at the bottom of the top. Like we just signed to them, we just released our first record, so it might seem like it’s this rewarding thing, but we haven’t really reaped the rewards from it yet, because we honestly need to work harder still.
N: The label reinforces the idea of touring, promotes record sales, and press. You just need to tour, which is great, we’ll tour. But they had nothing to do with us getting this tour. Maybe they put us in a position to be heard a little bit more, but we’re doing it on our own.
It’s kind of like having a hype man that’s not you. And, you know, there are people who listen to them. We toured Europe, and a lot of people in Europe like Sub Pop, but it depends who you’re talking to.
Going back to your music, songs like “The Sickness” and “rot in hell” were originally released on some of your earlier EPs, but were re-recorded and modified on successive releases. Would you say the recordings on neo are the final versions?
N: Absolutely. I definitely feel like they weren’t captured the way I wanted them to be captured before, and on neo I can finally put it to rest. It’s also our first full-length. We only ever recorded EPs, because that’s all we ever felt comfortable with, but that’s done now. Those times are behind us.
But it was cool. I never wanted to be a band that re-recorded songs, but we did. “rot in hell” sounds better as it does now, “The Sickness” sounds better as it does now. You’d be surprised when people are trying to record us, they want to change certain things about us, but I think we, when it comes to our art, we understand our art the best. Visually and sonically.
L: It’s been pretty frustrating.
L: A lot of labels don’t trust the bands as visual artists. They’re like: “You make the music; we’ll make you look a certain way.” And it’s like no, we’ve listened to music our whole lives.
N: People want to adjust the visual aspects of our band a lot, and that’s bullshit.
L: I’m a huge Devo fan, and that whole band is based off of really controlling their image and their aesthetic. Like to the utmost. No one is allowed to define who they are, but themselves y’know. So it’s like, why wouldn’t other bands do that? So many other bands let people dictate how they look.
N: I mean a lot of bands don’t care, but we care. I wish they trusted us more.
Who picked the album art for neo?
N: We really had to fight for that. I took the picture on the front cover, but we had to fight for it. I finally had to make them see it as a still from a movie, like our album as a movie. Kind of like the cover of a late-eighties film, like a VHS cover. Once I did that, they were able to go with it and help us make that.
But we really had to fight for that. I had to talk about the composition of the picture, and why it was strong, what it was, how it could be interpreted. I really had to do a mini-dissertation on it. It was weird. I spent weeks talking about this.
How was the recording of neo different from your recording of past albums?
N: I feel like neo [sounds] the closest to how we are live. Our past albums didn’t really capture [that]. I think we even have a stronger impact live, but neo’s the closest we’ve ever been. I feel like I hear myself when I listen to neo, and I don’t cringe, where I could cringe on certain aspects of other [releases]. It’s kind of like seeing a bad picture of yourself you don’t like that much.
Do you have any dream producers you’d want to work with?
J: Move on please.
L: I mean, Mark Mothersbaugh.
N: I’d like to work with…what’s that guy in Garbage?
L: Oh, Butch Vig.
N: Yeah, I’d like to work with Butch Vig. But all these guys are out of our reach. The budget we have allotted for our kind of albums, they’re not even within arm-reach. It’s like really disheartening sometimes. We’re lucky enough to work for someone who’s really cheap and affordable: Dylan Wall. He’s great to us.
L: I’ve always been curious to work with Sylvia Massy. She did Undertow by Tool.
N: I’d also like to work with John Leckie. John Leckie recorded Radiohead’s The Bends, and he also recorded Muse’s first two albums. Muse was a huge influence on me when I was younger, I’m a little more critical of them now.
L: Trent Reznor. I don’t give a fuck. Everyone can hate him, I’ll record with him.
Liam, at the end of the video for “rot in hell” you’re eating carrots with everyone in the band, and then you kind of refuse them because they’re not organic. Was that part of an act, or are you conscious of what you eat to that extent?
L: I think at the time I was more into eating organic, like I’d taken environmental science and it fucked with me. I do stand by my argument that organic carrots are the same price.
L: They are the same price at QFC, so why not?
N: QFC is a Kroger company. They’re a chain of grocery stores.
L: Obviously in the video Jeannine’s is just being a smart-ass and just trying to be cute in front of the camera, and so am I. We’re both just being shitheads to each other.
N: Somehow during that part I managed to say almost nothing. I was eating carrots and just watching.
L: I do think that organic is better, and people who try to argue it…they just makes no sense. Like our current model is just destroying the Earth.
N: Just eating GMO food is not sustainable. It’s sustainable on a short term, but if you look at the long it’s not.
L: Even if you look at the health benefits or whatever, like, we don’t know. Yeah, it might be healthier, it might not be, but we don’t know what GMOs do. We still don’t know.
I don’t that much about the science behind it, and I do think there are harmful GMOs, but–
L: Yeah, there can be good ones as well. In the future we’re gonna have genetically modified meat that’s gonna be safer for us to eat.
N: The argument for GMOs is that they really did a lot for world hunger in some ways, and it’s made food production a lot cheaper.