Bliss Is Ignorance for Analytical Post-Punkers Cold Beat
Cold Beat have been releasing consistently excellent post-punk records for the past few years, each new effort more complex and thoughtful than the last. Recently, the band issued Chaos by Invitation, an 11-track jaunt infected with synthy melody and huge soundscapes. Each song is densely but subtly filled to the brim with intricate textures and sounds, displaying a keen ear for songwriting and mood. We spoke to singer Hannah Lew about the record, and what drives the conceptual and musical intent of her output.
You’ve lived in various cities across America. What would you say San Francisco offers creatively that’s different than NYC or Philadelphia?
I loved living in New York, and in a lot of ways feel the most at home there. I'd like to retire and be an old lady there. I lived in N.Y. as a young child and have a lot of family in the area. My family moved to S.F. when I was 11, and I consider myself a San Franciscan, but very much a New Yorker temperamentally. I moved back on my own when I was 17 and lived in the East Village for several years, which very much formed who I am. I moved to Philly after New York because I wanted to have time and space to make music. The move to Philly gave me a chance to live the kind of life where you can live in a huge house and practice in your basement for very low overhead. That was where I first started playing music. Even though N.Y. is endlessly inspiring, people have way less free time and space. A city like Philly can really incubate artists. I wish I could say the same for S.F., but the city is so expensive now. We don't really get a lot of new musicians and artists moving here, and people are definitely hustling here in a way that leaves less creative time. I'm really grateful for the creative time I do have, and for the people that share their time with me to be creative together.
How would you say the energy of the city has changed and affected you over time? I grew up in the Sunset District, and whenever I return to visit my parents, it can be a little alienating seeing how things have changed.
Oh, wow, cool! I grew up (from 11 and on) in the Inner Richmond District, so I can definitely relate! I currently live 10 blocks from my mom, and I love the easy access to the beach, but most of the city has grown to be pretty inaccessible, which can be frustrating. There are a lot of people with a lot of money that want everything custom-made for them. There are all these lifestyle stores, parklets and expensive home goods stores catering to those folks. I almost feel like I'm living within a projection of San Francisco that tourists have designed and projected onto the real city.
All that being said, my husband and I opened a record store in Oakland a few months ago called Contact Records in the East Bay. The shop has given us a lot of purpose here for the first time in a while. It's nice to know that new things can be positive here, 'cause we're so used to all new things being shitty as of late.
How do you get your music to intersect with your visual art? Do you see yourself exploring similar themes through both mediums?
Video art gives me a chance to extend song ideas, for sure. I tend to use music as a way to describe intangible feelings and sometimes design new landscapes. I like to create my own new horizons when I feel trapped by my landscape.
What makes you decide between having a song be primarily guitar- or synth-based? You go back and forth between the two on the record, which makes for an interesting palette of sound that I think evokes different feelings in specific ways.
I will often record several vocal tracks when making demos of songs, and then audition those melodies on guitar or synth and see what sounds best. We mess around a lot with swapping voices for parts in practice. But also, a lot of the time a part is written with a voice in mind. It's really song-to-song. I've sort of distanced myself from the local rock scene in recent years, which might have an effect of why I don't think in a rock voice as much. I was definitely tied to a like-minded community when I was first making music in the Bay Area, but with the dissolution of these old bands and relationships, I sort of found myself surrounded by bands that I don't share values with, and I think that has affected how I write. I still love playing bass, and often write on bass guitar. Playing guitar with other people is just really pleasurable. It's so fun coming up with guitarmonies with another person. But without a collaborative writing experience, my palette has broadened. It's all a little dystopian, but I do a lot of writing by myself with my computer — programming drums and synths — these days more than I do with other people. It's in the fleshing-everything-out-with-the-live-band that the collaborative energy comes in. That has been really rewarding with the current lineup. Everyone has been bringing a lot of positive creativity to the live setup, and the set has been sounding really great. The guys come up with melody lines and ways of carrying things out that are sounding really great, so it's a nice treat after a mostly solitary recording experience.
Conceptually for you, what does Chaos by Invitation mean?
It's sort of about being aware of your role in chaos that is in your life and your role in welcoming it. I think I had a really humbling year, which forced me to slow down and exercise grace in the face of what felt like a lot of opposition. Really, I'm always trying to remind myself that if I feel like something is "happening" to me, it's often something I had agency in. Like when you have a friend that you let in that treats you badly, you gotta remember that you let that person in. So, it's sort of about accountability. I named the album this before Trump became president, but the title certainly applies to that whole situation.
From what I’ve read, the process of recording this album saw you going on your own a lot more than previously. What was it like having to take on that role?
Well, at times it was confusing. At the beginning of writing the album, I was writing with Jackson [Blumgart] and Kyle [King], who were in the former lineup of the band. We tried out writing from songs they had started that I just added vocals to. Jackson and I wrote some songs together. Inevitably, all those songs got scrapped, and Jackson left the band to pursue other projects. We're still good friends; his project Magnetizer is, in fact, playing the Cold Beat record release show April 28 at Starline Social Club in Oakland. Kyle had not been as into writing for the band at the time either. But yeah, as both of their involvement changed, I spent more time learning Logic in my computer. I then went in to the studio with Phil Manley and laid down some songs with Jackson, Kyle and Alex Shen, but then Phil got really busy and couldn't finish the record, so I finished it with Mikey Young, and also on my own back at home. The songs were really a hot potato, and I was at the mercy of a lot of people's schedules and life changes, which burnt me out a little. It was never anything personal — just bad timing for all involved parties. But anyways, it has really paid off, because now everyone playing in the band comes to it with unbridled enthusiasm, and I've been feeding off of that in a really positive way. So, I think all the perseverance was worth it, though I struggled with doubt at times.
Kyle did end up writing parts for "62 Moons" and "Don't Touch." The stuff he's been playing for the live show adds so much. He has little cool guitar, synth and drum machine lines he's written post-recording for songs that make me feel like the live show is gonna sound even better than the recording, because it includes more of his voice. He's been in the band since the beginning, and has been the only real constant. I'm really grateful for him.
Does isolation / disassociation make its way onto the record thematically? What did you find yourself tackling lyrically?
There is a variety of subject matter represented on the album. I expressed a lot of my softer side and let myself delve into themes of sensuality and sexuality more than on other albums. This is probably a product of writing on my own and coming from a more singular, personal place.
Additionally, while writing the album, I've been dealing with some pain related to sad family stuff, and also made some bad decisions with people I allowed myself to get close to — chaos I suppose I invited. I don't really have a narrative that sits well about any of it, so I just allow songwriting to help me describe an emotional landscape that is at times too painful to describe plainly. It's a way out of that pain sometimes. Or a way into it — to just feel it wholly so I can move on. Music lets me focus on beauty and pleasure instead of horror and pain, so I'm grateful for that outlet.
Is irony an important aspect to your work? There’s several songs on the record that have an incredibly pop edge to them, with just a twinge of sadness.
Well, I like songs. I'm not a particularly saccharine person, and don't have it in me to write blissed-out, naive music. I don't really look at the world in simple terms. I'm always questioning things and viewing things from a somewhat analytic standpoint, so I think that point of view is evident in my music. It's possible that I would enjoy more commercial success if I stood from a naive and more palatable standpoint, but that's just not me. I'm in my mid-30s, so maybe my old age has something to do with it. I think that's like 65 in pop music years. So, when I write pop songs, they are mature pop songs, I guess?
Bookending the album are two versions of “In Motion” — the original song and the reprise. What was behind that choice?
The reprise is the demo version of "In Motion" with added atmosphere samples from around my house, where the song was demoed. After recording the studio version of "In Motion," there were still things I couldn't recreate about the demo, so I wanted to include it somehow. I wanted the whole album to be a listening experience, taken in as one big piece. So, bookending the record helped with that cohesion, I think.
Between writing, recording, playing live and everything else, what point of the music-making process makes you happiest as a musician?
Band practice is really fun! It's like I get to play a fun show once a week where the sound / lighting and company is perfect.