Words by David C. Obenour
We all need to work on how we talk with each other. Sometimes we need to shout. Sometimes we need to talk. Sometimes we need to give space for each other. Sometimes we need to give space to ourselves. In performing and purpose, Minneapolis’ Scrunchies attempt to live that out. How inclusivity could and should be. And how jerking to and from dynamics in singing and thrashing on a guitar can prompt a powerful response.
Formed from the spirit of riot grrrl scene, Laura Larson, Danielle Cusack, and Matt Castore bring intention to many aspects of Scrunchies. Having experienced – and continuing to experience – the toxic elements of being anything except a white guy in the scene, their songs empower them and their audience. It isn’t perfect and it continues to evolve, but as with any progress, that’s how it should be.
Off Shelf: You’ve been in a number of bands to date, what excites you about Scrunchies? How do you think the band relates to the music you want to make now?
Laura Larson: This band is exciting to me because I am writing the kind of music I like to listen to. It helps that Danielle and Matt provide the rhythm section of my dreams, and I have the trust of my bandmates to realize the complete vision for this project so I can run wild with my ambitions for it.
When I started Scrunchies I wanted to stop believing that I needed to accommodate an unspoken set of guidelines around how and what I create, how I present myself and my projects. I really let outside forces and narratives misalign me and trip me up and I really lost track of who I was and what I knew I was capable of. I’m becoming more comfortable writing music in this band because I feel like I am becoming more comfortable with myself.
OS: Before Scrunchies, you and Danielle played together on the Buzzcocks tribute act, Buzzcunts. It’s a pretty remarkable name so I have to wonder, did the band name or idea come first? How do you think that project laid the groundwork for playing together in Scrunchies?
LL: Buzzcunts was the brainchild of Clara Salyer, who has played in Prissy Clerks and Royal Brat – two of the best bands to come out of Minneapolis in the past 10 years. An additional piece of punk trivia is that she was also picked up by Kat Bjelland and Lori Barbaro to play bass during the 2018 Babes in Toyland reunion shows.
I actually reached out to Clara to ask what came first – she said the name was in her brain far before the band came around. When we formed it was the first time in nearly a decade I was playing guitar and singing in a band – the last band I had done that in was Cadette, who disbanded years ago. Even playing the Buzzcocks covers felt like “coming home” in terms of being in that role, it was like this ridiculous epiphany, a real Oprah ah-ha moment.
Danielle being on drums meant I got to work with her in a creative capacity where we could try each other out – turns out we have fantastic chemistry and a lot of fun playing together. She’s everything I could hope for and more in a drummer, she’s absolutely insane. Janet Weiss meets Dave Grohl, are you kidding me?
OS: The press release for Feral Coast talks about your passion for encouraging young women and queer musicians to find empowerment through playing. What have been the most powerful aspects of music for your own space and realization?
LL: Danielle and I both started playing in bands when we were teenagers, and both acquired some slight attention for our early projects. Both of our experiences were both empowering and marred by our age and gender. We were sexualized, revered, and dismissed in the same breath. The articles written about us – with titles like “What Makes Laura Larson Scream” – and the way people would talk to/about us – like asking if we were jailbait – when we were still finding our own voices was so disorienting. I knew at the time that these things were fucked up but didn’t really know how to articulate because it felt very “in the water” and I felt I should just live with it.
Around that age, I was really into bands like Nirvana, Hole, and Bikini Kill, all of which had a history of elevating smaller bands, playing with gender and sexuality, and calling out the flagrant misogyny in the music scene. It was so important that I was able to see other artists and musicians who had experienced what I was experiencing and spoke up against it, or just made amazing music in spite of it all. I wanted to make sure that the people coming up in the scene after us felt like they had a history to look toward even as they forge their own paths.
My mentors in this regard were far from perfect, and I know I will be too – kill yr idols – but even among these flaws I learned different ways of looking at music and writing, crafting my own weird lyricism, avoiding complacency, standing up for others, standing up for myself.
We have a tendency to want women artists to define themselves absolutely, to carve out the “what kind of women musician are you” narrative. I am still learning to undo my own assumptions around this, and through that can hopefully leave an environment where younger people don’t have to play the game that people expect them to play.
DC: I grew up mostly having male friends and never really thought about gender. I watched Josie and the Pussycats and the Powerpuff Girls, and it just didn’t cross my mind that girls could be anything but entirely capable.
I was playing drums for a while and always felt not super included and didn’t know why. I didn’t know what was culturally malicious was affecting me until I watched The Punk Singer when I was 16 and was like, “Oh fuck, this is something I’m experiencing, and I didn’t know was a universal one.” It helped me get into feminism and showed me that I could use my voice through being in bands.
I started playing in feminist punk bands and was really politically vocal. I don’t think I’d be as willing to talk about politics if riot grrrl didn’t give me that “in”. Punk and riot grrrl gave me the ability to learn about politics in a way that’s interesting and relatable and calls you in instead of making you feel stupid, and that feels really important for younger non-men and queers to have access to.
OS: How do you hope to foster an environment that conveys that to others – fans, bands, venue staff, etc?
LL: The music business can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Participating in it at any level is bonkers – it prides itself on being inclusive and that anyone can do it but there are so many hoops to jump through, weird power dynamics, pinning women/non-men against each other because we’re made to feel like there is not enough room for all of us. We have this idea that we are excused from the pitfalls of capitalism because we’re doing something – art – that parades itself around as a holy alternative to exploitation and greed. But often we end up recreating the same dynamics because to survive in this world through our art, through our work, means you have to “play the game”. Since this is pretty inescapable, we try to be our authentic selves and live the values we believe in and find the reasons we love doing this because it will not easily love you back. We hope that that mentality will create environments for our community that feels exciting, safe, attainable.
We try to remind ourselves we are not inherently exempt from the toxic aspects of creating because we are women. We try to remind ourselves and others – be aware of who you ask to play with, be conscious of who you surround yourself with, don’t feel like you have to adjust yourself or act insincerely to get attention. Even musicians have a tendency to think that since they struggled, the next generation should struggle too. That’s so unnecessary and halts any progress of evolving this silly industry, and the people who are hurt most in that process are those who already lack resources. The more accessible we make this the better environment it will be for all of us.
And, for venues and venue staff, a great reference would be Shawna Potter’s book Making Spaces Safer.
OS: Are there ways to provide that space and environment at shows that can be done by your audience who don’t find themselves in marginalized groups?
LL: I think in any space, those in “dominant” communities – whatever that looks like for the space you’re in – could take a look at the space you take up and see where it can give. This can be as literal as the physical space you’re taking up. The amount of times men just stand directly in front of me at a show when there is plenty of other space around is astounding – or taking the time to consider what you’re saying to a performer from a marginalized group. We’re still hearing plenty of “you’re actually a really good band!” Think about how you talk about musicians – younger ones, bands consisting of women/NB folks, and/or people of color. How often do we use the term “industry plant” to describe a majority non-male band?
Consider what you expect women/non-men/POC to do – are they the ones managing the scheduling, the logistics, the cleaning? Who is acting as caretaker? Who is going out of their way to make an experience more comfortable for others? Who gets talked over, or their ideas dismissed or co-opted? Who is thinking about whether a space feels safe before they are even inside, and continuing to consider that throughout the night? If you’re a journalist, what kind of questions are you asking non-male artists that you wouldn’t ask male artists? Even the most dyed-in-the-wool feminist men I know fall disappointingly flat in these regards, inside the music scene and out.
Also, don’t be afraid to stand up for people that you see being marginalized! Is some drunk dude talking a little too close to your friend? Did you overhear someone misgender someone else? Don’t make a huge deal about it, and definitely don’t embarrass the recipient, but a little integrity and empathy goes a long way. Maybe it was you that fucked up a little, committed a microaggression or got jealous and said that someone wasn’t deserving of their success. A simple and sincere apology means you identify and want to fix the mistake.
Among all of this, it’s really important to meet all of this with love and best intentions. Nobody is perfect and we are all going to make mistakes. It makes a difference for people when they are able to feel like you are trying your best.
OS: Live music is going through a bit of a restart as we come out of the pandemic. What do you hope we can do better as a scene as we reinhabit these spaces?
LL: It’s nearly impossible to survive as a musician monetarily, mentally, or logistically. I don’t think a lot of people realize how many of their favorite bands have side hustles or day jobs, how even bigger indie bands crash on cat-litter covered floors to be able to afford gas to get to the next city. We demand so much of musicians and artists and give them crumbs in return. Look at how Mitski is treated by her “fans”. Look at how the band Wednesday posted about struggling with tour expenses and they got torn to shreds.
Of course, the pandemic is far from over and the biggest thing right now is that artists are begging people to wear masks at their shows! Touring is still a total gamble in terms of money, time and energy to have to pull the plug three shows in – and this is happening on nearly every tour! It’s so defeating as an artist, it’s defeating for fans. The government is giving up on us and we have to support each other, this is the simplest way to start – aside from buying merch!
OS: Feral Coast also does a great job of capturing a live show’s energy. How did you capture that in the studio and through production?
LL: Matt, our bassist, has been recording and producing my projects for years, and recorded Stunner as well as Feral Coast. He has a great sense of the energy we want to bring to recordings His studio is in the basement of his house so that is already one step towards avoiding a too-polished vibe; coupled with the fact we record everything live and in as few takes as possible means we’re not ending up with robotic, over-rehearsed songs.
With Stunner, we wrote and recorded all of the songs very quickly and before playing even a single show. On Feral Coast, we had more space to work songs out by playing them live. This made it way easier to bring those dynamics into the studio because the familiarity was with the energy of the live sets. My favorite albums are those that feel like they’re on the precipice of falling apart, and Matt is able to capture that extremely well.
OS: The album also balances dynamics – both in terms of moments of stripped down instrumentation or when singing turns to shouting – is how you sequence those moments similar in putting together a set list and album track order? Or do you have different considerations?
LL: One of our goals when we were writing this album was to push the soft softer and the heavy heavier. The individual songs, the albums, the set all seem to be a fractal of itself – the track order is influenced by how we play live, the songs’ dynamics are influenced by where they are in relation to each other. I guess despite saying “fractal” there isn’t a real science to it, we do what sounds good and has a good flow and narrative. It’s a little subconscious, we try not to overthink it. AKA I just have Danielle do it, otherwise it will definitely be over-thought.
OS: Now that you’ve released your debut album, what are you looking forward to with Scrunchies? How have you evolved since then that you’re excited to explore further as a band?
LL: We’re really proud of Feral Coast and happy it’s getting good reception. We’re excited to tour and for more people to hear this album! Half of Feral Coast was written before Matt was in the band, and we’re ready to start exploring what’s possible with him. We haven’t had the opportunity to really lean into the dynamics of this new line up in the writing process so I’m very antsy to get working on the next album.
OS: Over the past few years, America has been going through some painful periods of ugly growth or less optimistically, regression. Minneapolis was one of our latest epicenters of attempted racial reckoning – as a local caught in these headlines, how has that felt? How does it feel differently now?
LL: Well to start, the experiences we had at the time were nowhere near what it was like for the Black community in Minneapolis. We defer to them for how the reality of these issues affect them and their families.
That being said, you couldn’t live in this city and simply watch from the sidelines. Because of pandemic unemployment many of us had had resources to stay home, which means we had the energy and time in late May/early June to participate in protests, mutual aid, organizing, etc. A huge takeaway looking back at that time is such a clear-cut example of how capitalism keeps us exhausted and complacent. When we had resources at our disposal, we could participate fully in our right to protest, to take political action, to provide our community with support and mutual aid. We were able – and required – to reassess the racial and financial disparities in this city and address them ourselves, knowing that no one else was going to do it for us. The entire Twin Cities community worked with each other – it wasn’t about who was in charge, who was cool, who had the most eloquent Instagram post about what was happening.
I was listening to a podcast the other day from that time period and it was so intense, we were so sure things were permanently changing, that we were on the brink of something huge and different. It’s both devastating and completely unsurprising that nothing has shifted and is in fact worsening. The police in Minneapolis have killed four men of color since George Floyd, the majority of which were covered up – Dolal Idd, Daunte Wright, Winston Smith, and Amir Locke. The homeless community in this city regularly has their encampments and belongings bulldozed, often in the dead of winter. None of this stuff is particularly unique to Minneapolis but we have this idea that we are a liberal beacon- the events of the past couple of years continue to prove that’s simply not true.