An Evening With Grass Widow

Plenty think-pieces have sprouted from the prolific theorizing of rapper Lil B, a twenty-two year old Berkeley boy who is now an Internet content farm and once was in The Pack (of “Vans” fame, widely, and of “In My Car” fame, personally). Among the descriptions of his oeuvre, analysis of Lil B’s heralding of “based” life often, if not always, ends with a shrug. As an idea it resists definition. Like “chill” or “cool,” the word “based” requires some empirical knowledge, some willingness to stop thinking too much about it, and ultimately, once you know about it, some active resistance to the word seeping into your descriptions, lest you sound dumb. Let me see if I can describe it adequately. “Based” is a vibe, an increase in thoughtfulness, a comfort derived from self-acceptance, a way of life that seems to be dictated by both individuality and a desire to work with others. It’s a term that is hard to digest if you’re more at ease with irony than with positive thinking.

Although they’d probably never call themselves such a thing, and I’m almost embarrassed in doing so because it might come across as flip, “based” is what you see when you see the women in Grass Widow, who are also rooted in the Bay Area. Raven Mahon, the band’s guitarist, frames the band’s positivity as karmic: “We have a philosophy about how we want to interact with the world as a band and with each other. We talk about that a lot in our interviews. We are now what we have put out there and [what we have] consciously tried to communicate to people. We’re seeing a return.”

That return is crucial to the band’s current phase: with the release of their third record, Internal Logic, Grass Widow see a milestone. They are relishing the success that comes from making their own decisions. What began as a band called Shitstorm, initially with Frankie Rose of the Vivian Girls on drums, transformed into Grass Widow when Frankie left for Brooklyn and Lillian Maring sat behind the drums in her place. “I called [Lillian] from the top of a mountain, actually,” bassist Hannah Lew recalls, recounting a pivotal hike she was on when she decided this band could be a major project. “I was like, ‘We have to do this project!’ It was epic.” Now the owners of their own record label, they’re only half-joking when they say they need an intern. “We make all our business decisions together,” Hannah says. “There are places within the songwriting process where there’s bits of singularity but it’s mostly an exercise in multiplicity. We don’t have a front person, we don’t have an idea of celebrity or an It Girl.”

It’s true when you talk to them; they share an intensity that varies in tone and they don’t clash with one another. Their conversation, in many ways, mirrors their music. They listen intently, and they play off what the others say. Hannah is perhaps the more gregarious one, making jokes right off the bat; Raven is quieter but will jump in to recall the plot to a Star Trek movie we’re trying to remember (“the one with the humpback whales,” she clarifies, which in case you’re wondering is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, shot extensively on location in San Francisco); and Lillian the drummer is “Lilli” to her bandmates and the most politically pointed in our conversation. “We live in a country where we’re not really supported in being artists unless we’re okay with making money,” Lilli says passionately. The other two nod and chime in: it’s tough to make a living as musicians, but they try for it anyway.

The song that prompted our Star Trek reminiscence, “Spock on MUNI,” came out of a conversation about the uncanny in their everyday lives. “I was sitting with a friend outside a coffee shop,” Hannah remembers, “and all of a sudden all the power went out. And I looked behind us and everyone was sitting in the dark, not changing what they were doing at all, but just sitting in the dark. That same week Lilli had been on a BART train, and all the lights had gone out too. It was also within the same two-week period where I had been at the beach with some friends that weren’t from San Francisco and I wanted to take them to see the sunset. They were facing me, and I was facing this scene where it was obvious that someone had drowned. There were all these cops around, and it was a really paranoid moment.”

They’re trying, she says, to “celebrate the unknown.”

“I feel,” Hannah says, “like we’re always in this place where we’re like, ‘Are we a big band or not?’ ‘I don’t know!’ ‘I mean, I guess not?’” She exaggerates the dialogue for comic effect, but the sincerity still comes through. “It’s been up and down.” Raven jumps in: “We’re definitely not a buzz band, but I think we’re starting to get a response now.”

Their most recent tour of the East coast has been an important step in the band’s life together. “A group of young women will come up to us at a show and say, ‘We started a band because of you! We appreciate what you do!’” Raven says excitedly. Hannah agrees: “It’s really moving. There have been multiple times when people have been like, ‘I drove like three or four hours to see you.’ And it’s really nice. I feel like we’re starting to fill bigger rooms.”

Later, when talking about public support for the arts, Lilli remembers being that kid who would drive hours to see a band she liked. “I just remember growing up in a small town and being so thirsty for anything other than the norm of what was on MTV. Any time I got to drive three hours to see a show, if they had a female member, I was inspired by that. When we took this project around the country, I realized, oh yeah, it is a big deal that we’re women, and people still do care about that and need a lot more support and a lot more intelligent media.” The other women agree. “We love talking about this stuff,” Raven says.

When the conversation’s over, I go to the Knitting Factory where Grass Widow will be playing at the top of a showcase. The band is playing after midnight, after several other bands, and the early acts are sparsely attended, perhaps because the Olivia Tremor Control is playing elsewhere in Brooklyn, perhaps because it’s just hard these days to garner attention in the din. Early in the evening I find three very young-looking men—let’s call them boys—who are camped out before the doors open with beers at the bar, shyly averting their eyes from the attractive bartender showing off her new underarm tattoo. One is wearing a Grass Widow shirt, and the others seem like they would be equally at home at a ball game, in cargo shorts and gray Hanes shirts, with tall boys in paper bags. It’s hard to be sure in that part of Williamsburg these days who’s visiting, but their milling around suggests “out of town” to me. I go up to them and ask which band they are at the showcase to see.

“Grass Widow,” the boy in their t-shirt immediately says.

When they find out that I’m going to be writing about the band, they get excited. “Grass Widow is the best fucking band in the whole world,” the one in the Grass Widow shirt yells, like he’s about to knock over a sand castle. “We drove all the way from Aldan, Pennsylvania,” one of the other boys says.

“Do any of your friends listen to Grass Widow?” I ask.

“No,” they say forcefully in unison.

“Everyone we know listens to rap and dubstep,” says one of them.

“And country,” another says.

“Is that bad?” I ask, laughing.

“Yeah,” they say in unison. “It fucking sucks,” the one in the band’s t-shirt says, shaking his head.

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