Weyes Blood’s ‘Front Row’ to a Beautiful Wasteland
Weyes Blood makes music that's deceptive and beautiful. Your first impression of Front Row Seat to Earth (just released on Mexican Summer) would probably be a tinge of nostalgia at the gorgeous soundscapes. But the more you listen, the more meaning creaks out from underneath, thanks to mastermind Natalie Mering's high-concept approach. Ordinary regret over lost loves becomes apocalyptic under the cloud cover of "Diary." "Generation Why" transplants YOLO into spectral chants. The record focuses its gaze on lovers and the earth, somehow both wandering and winking to the audience the entire time.
We talked to Mering about the new album, doomsday situations, femininity and much more.
So, where do you consider home?
You know, I’d say California is my home. A lot of my ancestors are from here. I think I’m seventh-generation Californian or something, which is rare.
Seems like a low-key place.
Yeah, the Inland Empire.
So, much music comes from it, too — everything from Deftones to Death Grips to Chelsea Wolfe. It breeds all sorts of different things.
Yeah, very strange bands. And UC Davis is a very cool music school — well, it’s not a music school, but it’s got a great scene. I know they have a good radio [station], and I’ve played there once. Davis is just so flat and trippy ... and it’s just the belly of the state.
What’s the most depressing place you’ve visited?
I think the times I have actually have felt depressed were in Europe. No, I take that back. Tijuana in the early '90s was the most depressing place I’ve ever visited. It’s changed a lot and has become more touristy, but then there were villages of homeless people living in cardboard houses with children, and the children would go out with little sippy cups and beg. So, you’d be onslaughted by five or six kids for quarters and things like that, and then amputees screaming and crying. I’ve never seen people beg like that before — it was terrifying.
How old were you?
Six. I just remember being so overwhelmed, and we gave away our money almost immediately. And the people there were like, “Oh no, he’s always screaming and crying — that’s how he begs.” It really emotionally affected me.
Do you see yourself living in California for an extended period of time?
Yeah, I mean, we’ll see what happens with the earthquake or the apocalypse, because California always seems to be on the tipping point — uninhabitable. But I think we’ve got a few more. I wouldn’t be surprised if it lasted quite a bit longer.
Are you ready for the Big One? Do you have your gear in place?
I need a water filter, and I’m going to need some dry goods, some extra gasoline. Going through Hurricane Sandy out here, it made me realize how unprepared I was. The water thing in L.A. is kind of sketchy — the supply can get fucked in a big earthquake, so having a surplus is key. Here, there’s ground water, which is a bit different. I know some lady who spent $10,000 worth of food that would last her 15 years. And it was like, would you even want to live for that long after the apocalypse? I guess we won’t know until we get there, but I don’t know how much people would want to survive. What would the infrastructure even look like to evacuate California?
Do you think about doomsday situations a lot?
Late at night in bed, for sure. Like, right before I go to sleep, I’m kind of like, “Oooh, is that a little shake?” And it turns out it’s just a big four-wheeler on the freeway next to my house kind of bouncing around. But when I lived in downtown L.A., I lived in this third story of a really big cement building, and I used to think a lot about that in there. Like, it was a tall building — would not want to get stuck in here during the rumbling. But I live in a one-story bungalow, It’s in an earthquake-active part of town, so I think, “Well, that house might slide to the left a little bit, but I should be okay to camp out here.”
When you were a kid, you got into self-recording, and your dad was a musician, too, before becoming a pastor. Did your family encourage the self-recording thing?
Yeah, definitely. We had a lot of tape decks as kids because my mom would sketch out songs on tape. She’d jam out and record something on a cassette deck. My older brothers would make, like, funny radio shows, so as soon as I got a tape deck with a "record" function, I was recording my voice and skits, and we were having a blast. It’s always been a big part of my family, and in middle school I found my dad’s four-track in the attic, and that’s when I started multi-tracking and starting a role for myself. I couldn’t find anyone to be in a band with, so I started jamming by myself.
What was the first stuff you started making?
Sort of weird, echoey, delayed guitar mixed with this really cheesy Roland synthesizer my dad had from the '90s, and I’d add some little harpsichord sounds. I was into Animal Collective at the time, so there’s a lot of Sung Tongs-y kind of scratchy acoustic guitars with me banging on water glasses. I would, like, break apart Styrofoam and put a short delay on it. I was out there.
I remember hearing your first record a while ago and being really impressed by all the textures and sorts of things you would pull from. Going to this new one, was playing beautiful music something that took time, or was it there from the start?
No, when I first started playing, it was like that. When I started playing, it was all really beautiful — people were hypnotized and liked it — but I didn’t feel a part of what was going on, which was the noise world. And I was so infatuated with that Stooges-esque energy, that real balls-to-the-wall musical impulse, which my music didn’t have. It was just really beautiful and it would make people cry, and that was always what I did best; but I wanted to diverge into more ecstatic territory, because around that time in 2006, that music was popping off. It was a really fun time, so I switched to playing this electric instrument I built and singing louder and more improvisatory and getting more aggressive. It was so much fun. That kind of sonic exploration lead to [2011's] The Outside Room, which was like, “I play these songs with the noise,” and after that was, “I should just focus on the songs.” This one was, “I’m going to try to bring some of the noise back.” You have to get good at one thing at a time, but I feel like the songwriting would suffer in favor of the songmaking, so it’s striking a balance.
Tell me about the title of Front Row Seat to Earth. It makes me think of being passive on social media and constantly being glued to the screen.
The title is ... yeah, "everyone glued to the screen" is a good way to put it. We’re witnessing the globalized community as a first world country, supposedly at the front row of the world, but we’re so divorced from what’s going on on the stage. It’s kind of like the way we perceive reality — our mind is reflecting what we see out here, but we’re only seeing what’s in our mind. It’s not necessarily any fault of our own, like we can if we wanted to, but it’s impossible for our minds to proceed. The idea of the theater and the archetypes play into human consciousness.
Do you remember the first time when you outwardly noticed it?
I outwardly noticed it when I noticed there were so many problems out in the world where nobody “could do anything about it,” except make some weird post on Facebook. Like have some kind of public outcry on Facebook, to preach to the choir. And here we are with all these new tools and technology, interconnection, but we still can’t make statements.
I always feel like a huge hypocrite on Facebook, because while I cringe at people changing their profile picture or whatever to "raise awareness," I know I can't really help a situation much either.
Humans are elastic — us being younger, we’re used to this now. I feel like people that are older might still get, “Holy shit, we’ve gotta change,” whereas we’re like, “What can we do?” I used to cry when there was a shooting, but the last time there was a shooting, I didn’t. And it’s like, the bar gets lower for what we can expect, but in some ways it’s a secret blessing because if things were to ever get really gnarly, we’d at least think our children wouldn’t be pissed about being born because the bar is down here now. [Laughs] We can still smile and have fun — the elasticity of the human emotion spectrum is fascinating. It’s sad that we’ve been desensitized, but at the same time I think it’s a survival mechanism. And for other people, when it affects their own survival is when they’ve gotta step up. I think the mind is programmed to keep you alive, not to be the hero. The hero is a rare soul.
Do you think we’re living in the apocalypse now?
I think we always have been; human life is just cataclysmic. Like WWII, the plague — we’ve been through it. Now our problems are different. I don’t think there’s ever a time where it wasn’t the end of the world.
What scares you the most?
That’s a really hard question. There’s a bunch of different answers. There’s the extremely personal answer, which is falling in love. And the more trans-personal answer is, I’m the most scared of being scared. I’m scared of being overcome with anxiety about climate change. If we have another really freaky warm Christmas, that’s going to be a dark feeling. Last year had this really dark vibe, especially if anything really hit the fan, like I’d really want to be with [family]. The family is a complicated infrastructure — there’s problems within all families, you’re facing your problems, and the ones you were born with and imprinted on you, and it sounds like a really gnarly combo.
How do you decide who to let into your circle of collaborators in the live setting?
Well, Booker [Stardrum], my drummer, plays on the record. He has a really great feel, and I trust him because he doesn’t overplay on the drums. And Ben [Babbit] and Walt [McClements], my bassist and keyboardist, live together in L.A., and they’re music geeks who make music for video games. They have a long history with it and know how to tour; some people can’t do it. Some people just aren’t built for it or don’t like it. If you’re with someone who complains the whole time, they’re dragging down the entire vibe. So, I had to get some seasoned players. I wanted to get women to play, but all the girls were locked up. If you’re incredible and a woman, everyone wants you in their band, because everyone wants that feminine vibe. It’s a great thing to have around. It’s a great thing to tour with. So, I find that all the incredible women I’d want to tour with are already in big indie bands, and shredding. [Laughs]
Do you identify with femininity?
I don’t identify as much as ... I more admire femininity than I embody it. Even though I am feminine and do embody it, I think I had a masculine upbringing with my brothers. In the predominantly male music industry, I had to become more aware of who I am. When I was 23, I had to realize, “I’m a woman.” This whole time I’ve been hiding things to blend in better. For me to be a non-threatening female meant dressing down, and acting more wholesome, to not act like a threat sexually to any of my male musician friends. It took a long time to realize that was going on. For a while, I was like, “This is who I am!” But then I wondered if it was really me or if it was who I was coerced into being to keep my presence mellow.
Especially from what I can tell in noise rock, there would be women in bands, but femininity was something just completely absent. It makes people uncomfortable.
It does make people uncomfortable. In my town, there’s tons of hardcore and screamo bands, and the singers would always have the super hot Suicide Girls girlfriend. It’s not like there’d be these drab females out there. And it’s not like all women dress down to be non-threatening; obviously, it’s for comfort. But yeah, there’s a little bit of a stereotype against “the princess.” Which is funny, because I’ll get together with my girlfriends and we get jokingly jealous that gay men have the capacity to bring the princess, and it’s never questioned and it’s always celebrated amongst liberals — not amongst everyone, obviously. But if you’re a woman who’s like that, it’s like, “Oof.” Threatening, and also ... it’s looked down upon. It’s an interesting archetype that got overblown out of proportion, so in a male-dominated scene, they’d probably not embrace that or think it’s weird.
Musically, was it hard to incorporate femininity into your work?
Yeah, I think a lot of it was. I’m pretty sure that I do singing and songwriting really well. The experimental avant-garde scene was a bunch of patriarchal record collectors, a bunch of egos, and the recession made that take a really big hit. I knew people who were living off of selling cassettes and CDRs, but now people probably throw that stuff in the trash. You used to be able to buy it on eBay for $200. So, times have really changed, and soon as they did, I was like, “Oh, I guess this is dead. I guess I never really was a part of this anyways because I was too young.” So, I was able to wipe my mind clean of any influence and think “Who am I?” besides all the influences, and it’s a singer-songwriter.
At first, I tried to play down the femininity because I knew I would lose a lot of my aggressive male supporters who liked my noise stuff, and liked when I freaked out. When I brought on the pretty, it wasn’t for everybody, and I had to say goodbye to that old world. Luckily, my favorite band from that era was this '90s band called the Shadow Ring; they’re based in the U.K. I started a pen pal relationship with the leader of that band, and luckily, he was a huge beauty fan, and he’d send me Italian prog / opera / pop / female vocal mood music. He loved Kate Bush. He worshiped femininity, and I know it’s sad I have to get the stamp of approval from some dude, but as a young 20-year-old, it was really cool to meet a man who respected women on a really deep archetypal level. And he’s married to Adris Hoyos, the drummer of Harry Pussy, who’s like one of the most powerful female drummers of all time. So, I knew he could take the heat. And through that, when I went through that world, it became clear [that] everyone loved female singing. It’s not like a deal-breaker for most people. It just happened to be a deal-breaker for noise people.
Last question: Is it an intentional conceptual thing to pair these themes of apocalypse and passivity born from modern anxieties with songwriting and sounds reminiscent of late '60s and early '70s songwriters?
Yeah, I think that comes from liking the way singer-songwriters used to arrange their music then. Like, I can’t get into the way singer-songwriters of today ... the weird vocal affectation that’s standardized. I guess if I sounded like that, no one would mention the '60s and '70s. But that new sound sounds bad to me, so why would I sound that way? I’m not trying to sound like the '60s and '70s; I’m trying to sound like I’m trying to sound. So, as much as we like to make these huge, striding, “Oh that was 30-40 years ago!” [statements], that’s not that long of a time. Everyone is throwing back now because the momentum around the turn of the century got weird. As soon as Hanson, Spice Girls, Britney Spears [got big], the industry [had] a chokehold over mainstream music. Luckily, since then, it’s evened out, and there’s been some producers and rappers and Top 40 shit that’s good again, in the last 10 years, in its own world. But there’s been a thousand different musical worlds born out of that death. I wouldn’t consider my music nostalgic, but music that sounds like it’s from a different time or world is part of that sprawl.
John Hill is Tweeting in the wastes.