Words by Tommy Johnson
Call it serendipity or declare Gal Pal meeting as the stars aligning ever so perfectly, the trio of Emelia Austin, Shay Hahn, and Nico Romero were all residing on the same floor within the same dormitory when they finally stumbled on each other. At some point, their lives were surely going to intersect.
What would soon be a collective of individuals finding common aspirations moved into the territory of exploration in music, each member dispersing instruments fluidly with one another. The results were trading riffs and rhythms until songs began flowing naturally, highlighted in Gal Pal’s debut GIRLISH (2017) and the EP Unrest/Unfeeling (2019).
This and Other Gestures mark the most personal effort from Gal Pal. Throughout the last few years, the band has encountered unique experiences that have swayed from the highest of euphoria to the lowest of despair. Subjects such as overcoming gender dysphoria, confusion, and personal loss, to seeing self-acceptance is within reach. This and Other Gestures is triumphant in possessing a stylish blend of intimate vocals, blistering guitar riffs, and resounding drum lines.
Off Shelf: What has residing in Los Angeles done for you all about discovering your passion for music?
Shay Hahn: Being in Los Angeles as a musician has been quite inspiring; there’s an endless influx of creativity out here between local scenes and touring artists coming through. Anytime you feel like you’ve seen it all, you’re always humbled by finding something new and interesting. You truly get to be a creative sponge and soak it all up.
OS: While attending college, all of you were looking to play music in a space that felt non-judgemental and generative. Was there a glaring issue within the area regarding finding such?
SH: There were some cool little pockets of bands and people in Santa Cruz; finding a solid sense of community there was crucial. When we first started playing shows, there weren’t any other bands without cis men, which influenced how we related in many spaces. Once we started getting some local traction, we noticed we’d only get asked to open for “femme” bands at larger venues, while all-male bands would be asked to hop on all kinds of bills. Overall we had a lot of great experiences – the queer music scene was immensely supportive – it was a good place to start out as a band.
OS: I read from a previous interview that all of you linked up jamming to Karen O. What other things made you feel that something special was looming?
SH: The way we felt when we started jamming together was really distinct – there was such a flow of creative expression and comfort in experimenting – like there was an unspoken understanding among us about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it. It just felt natural – exciting and easy. Some of us were picking up a certain instrument for the first time, and none of us studied music theory, so there was no pressure to keep up with one another; we were always at the same speed.
OS: Did any of you feel reluctant to get Gal Pal rolling at first? Or was it full throttle from the jump?
Emelia Austin: We got asked to play our first show a few weeks after we began casually jamming in Nico’s garage. It was a house show with like seven bands on the bill. We didn’t even have a band name before agreeing to play. And It was Nico and Emelia who were more interested in performing at first – Shay would have been content to keep rocking in the garage.
OS: The new album is the first in over six years. Does it feel like This and Other Gestures has the feeling of being your debut all over?
SM: Definitely. We’ve all grown so much as individuals, musicians, and together as a band that this album feels like the kind of sound we have always wanted to have. It’s been really exciting to have the opportunity to capture that and share it all with everyone. It feels important to constantly learn, evolve, and redefine yourself in the process.
OS: What was the driving force to write separately and then come together for This and Other Gestures?
Nico Romero: Most of the decision to begin writing separately just came from the context of the pandemic. Shay worked in mental health care and was in a pretty high-risk setting, so we did what we had to do to stay safe and keep our creative process going. We’d send ideas through voice memos to each other. Even though, at the time, there was so much eagerness to be together, in hindsight, the time apart was very cathartic in the writing process. Forcing ourselves to face some challenges alone, noodling and noodling until noodling became a route, discovering what we were capable of and what we wanted to say. We had spent a lot of years growing together musically; it was time for us to grow a bit on our own.
OS: What similarities did everyone catch on to after reconvening during the writing process?
SM: Because we all learned at least one of our instruments in the context of playing in Gal Pal, we’ve all developed pretty distinct styles that just mesh well with one another. These songs we wrote apart were all mostly bones when we finally brought them to each other in person in 2021. The form was there; now we just needed to give it that Gal Pal feel. Some bones looked like completely different species at first, too, which felt scary, each of us wondering how we would put ourselves into someone else’s song. When we entered the studio, that’s when the fear faded. Just felt like seeing an old friend; it came easy. Everything was exciting. Just being in the studio was a complete dream. We were kids bouncing up and down in our seats, connecting to one another through our shared dream.
OS: With so much happening over the past couple of years with each of you, how therapeutic was it for you all to channel those emotions within the new album?
SM: Incredibly therapeutic. Having this project as an outlet and a collective expression of anything and everything is a goddamn gift. We all find ourselves crying at different moments, either listening to the record or playing it live. This project has provided us with a space to embody whatever we want at that moment. Playing music is so physical; using your body to deliver a message, to let out something poking at you from the inside.
OS: What was the recording process for This and Other Gestures like compared to previous albums?
NR: Night and day. In March 2020, we won three free studio session days courtesy of Danny Nogueiras, owner of Balboa Studios based in Glassell Park. Emelia entered a contest through Instagram. It’s hard to express now exactly how we felt then. I don’t know if the words can contain those feelings of joy. Some of us had lost our jobs due to the pandemic, so we knew we had to make those days count, considering we couldn’t even afford much bedroom studio time, let alone a professional studio like that. Going into that first day at Balboa, we had an air-tight schedule for how we would spend those three days with the goal of finishing what we could of our fourteen-track record. Halfway through the day, Danny sat us down and said he liked what we had, that he believed in it, and wanted to help us finish the record the right way, giving it all the time it needed. From the Summer of 2021 into the following Spring, we spent a total of more than twenty-five days in the studio working with Danny. He changed our lives. We can never thank him enough. The recording process was complete fun; we learned so much and were literally living in an actual dream. The songs really came together there. No other recording process will ever be like that one.
OS: On “Pleasures,” you open and close on play-by-play announcer Joe Buck, calling a baseball game’s ending. I searched endlessly to find that moment and failed. It drove me nuts! [laughs] What game did you incorporate, and why was it significant enough to add to the song?
NR: Wow, good ear! Yup, that’s Joe Buck saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever done a major league baseball game and not thought of my dad.” I borrowed from the broadcast of the last inning of the 2020 World Series, in which Julio Urais pitches his way into a Dodgers win. The song also features Joes Davis announcing a three-run walk-off home run courtesy of Will Smith of the Dodgers . It’s completely epic. Specifically, Buck mentioning his father is something I understood deeply. The song touches on the perception of my transhood/gender identity through the lens of my brothers and my dad, questioning if they would accept me into their own world of masculinity. Baseball has always been a mode of communicative transportation between me and my father. It’s how we used to relate. To me, there’s nothing more comforting than the sounds of baseball; it means home. On a broader note, the tension, success, and celebration that comes with a three-run walk-off or a hometown world series win felt parallel to me in this moment of life. I had spent years battling fear, shrinking myself to fit the mold of what others found comfortable. Then I grew, and with the support of my community, I abandoned the mold and found peace. Happiness did not come at the crack of one single baseball bat but rather seasons and seasons of effort. The song is a celebration of life, a celebration for myself and my team.
OS: What are some of the songs on This and Other Gestures that you feel are going to be ones that you will cherish longer than others?
SM: A lot of the songs are really emotionally driven; those will always hold a certain weight. ‘And the Sun was Still Hot’ commemorates a friend who died by suicide, the title track, ‘This and Other Gestures,’ is a really meaningful one as well – it’s developed a lot since we recorded it. Still, in this version, we got to fill it out in a way that felt immensely gratifying. Some songs will also just hold a special place in our hearts after going through certain writing/recording processes to have them come together. They all feel timeless to us, though, and we hope to always hold them in high regard as we continue to evolve.
OS: It’s hard to question just how captivating the chemistry is between you when you spin This and Other Gestures and the other albums. Do you feel that even with the tightness you have with one another, there are times you catch yourself discovering something new?
NR: Absolutely. Sonically and socially, we are definitely always needing to check in with each other. It’s a long-term relationship; it’s not always perfect and harmonious; it needs communication, boundaries, and a reigniting spark. There is a lot of discovery that comes with that effort. And looking forward, as this project crosses new territory, such as music videos, touring, and even interviews, we continue to discover more from one another and from ourselves. We’ve collaborated with each other for six years now, and the discoveries are more exciting now than they’ve ever been.