by Chris Matei
It’s a very Vancouver kind of day in Mount Pleasant, the neighbourhood where I meet Thee Ahs on the eve of their album release show for Names, their new record out on Kingfisher Bluez . It’s bright, almost idyllic: we’re in the back garden of guitarist Davina Shell’s family home as the band runs through its set in rehearsal mode. There are friends setting up kegs and putting out posters, drawn with vocalist Sarah Lowenbot’s signature hypercute stylings in Sharpie marker, that proclaim: “PARTY-WA OVER HERE DESU!” Copies of Names, with its soft pink cover, adorn nearby tables. The atmosphere is summery, but it’s crisp outside, chilly even: it’s that bittersweet fulcrum point when people start reaching for their jackets to keep warm. The changing of the seasons.
It’s a moment, and a location, of importance and change for the band, too. After all, this very backyard is where the musical idea that became Thee Ahs has evolved since 2011’s Thee Ahs Nation. Davina explains a bit of that history as we sit down to tape the interview: “Yeah! This is my parents’ house and we’ve been doing shows here for like… five years? Since I was nineteen? It’s just been so insane, because I’m leaving soon…”
With that admission, the atmosphere in the room changes noticeably. The upcoming trip will take Davina across the Atlantic to live Amsterdam, where new musical projects await – including a self-described “ambient, spoken-word poetry thing.” Though Sarah, and bassist Dan On, will be collaborating on some of these new projects – with a possible reunion stop in Norway for Indiefjord festival next year, the optimism of cross-continental expansion comes with a note of resignation. “It won’t be Thee Ahs.”
Ambient spoken-word seems like a significant departure from Thee Ahs’ current aesthetic, which is by their own definition “black bubblegum pop.” The discussion turns to Malcolm McLaren, the creatively eccentric former manager of the Sex Pistols, who called punk music “dirty bubblegum.” There’s something subtly punk about Thee Ahs themselves, who have roundly rejected labels like “twee” despite their heart-on-sleeve approach to songcraft, blending jangly pop and shoegaze noise with diary-like lyricism. Garage shows! Albums on cassette! But it’s not just an aesthetic quirk: Davina rattles off a list of musical influences including Crass, The Slits, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex (“that one, what was her name, she became a Hare Krishna!”) and Flipper.
A kind of rawness of expression inspired by bands such as those makes its way onto Names in both sonic and lyrical dimensions. The album’s songs are directly pointed responses to the kinds of feelings that hit you right in the gut: some of them “were written maybe the same day” as the events that inspired them, and Names as a whole took only three months to emerge as a complete concept. Though described as “not a concept album” in the traditional sense of songs linked by an overarching framework, Names revolves around challenging the abstraction of the other-figure in pop music, the nameless “you” as object of scorn or affection. “I don’t think I had a concept of “I’m going to go do this symbolic thing” says Davina – “I was always writing songs about people.”
Thee Ahs prefer to be raunchy but not vulgar: they’re not writing fiery takedowns of high-school nemeses in the vein of early-millennium pop-punk bands. Davina explains: “basically most of these songs are really flattering! One of the songs I wrote before (“I’m Not Angry Anymore” from Corey’s Coathangers) was like, “whatever! Fuck her!” but I didn’t name any names – that being said, at worst, these songs (on Names) are about saying things like “I miss you” and so on. In some cases the bridges had already been burned. But still, I didn’t want to, like, piss on an already-burned bridge.”
Listening to Names can feel like a throwback to the days when new crushes still made mixtapes for each other, or when finding just the right song could carry you through a dark moment. In the age of Spotify, there’s a potent nostalgia for these kinds of gestures. Dan, on the other hand, raises an interesting point to challenge the Rob Gordons of the world. “I don’t know if I’d even enjoy getting a mixtape!” he protests. “It’s like… so, you’re going to tell me what to listen to?” (For the record, he’d probably dig Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps,” while Sarah expressed a fondness for “Come Thru” by Drake.) Davina contorts the idea of musical nostalgia and mixtape diaries as well: “It’s kind of self-indulgent! For me it’s all about the tape being able to show me songs I didn’t know. So I don’t know what song it would be, because I haven’t heard it yet!”
Thee Ahs’ album release show had the same bittersweet quality as the day that it fell on. It felt like a band that started as an adolescent project had come to a deeper understanding about itself – only to be separated by the inherently tough and very much adult kinds of life choices that have to be made by everyone sooner or later. Names could be a time capsule, a preservation of that moment: a mixtape that doesn’t have to be gifted to anyone else.