Article and Interview by: Makenzie Creden
Brooklyn-based punk group, Gustaf, has hit the ground running since their debut album, Audio Drag For Ego Slobs, released last October on Royal Mountain Records. Since then, they’ve played a U.S. tour opening for IDLES and they’re playing Tomorrow Never Knows.
This week we had the opportunity to sit down with a few members of the band: Lydia Gammel (vocals), Tarra Thiessen (vocals, percussion), Vram Kherlopian (guitar), and Mel Lucciola (drums).
Although they’ve grown and signed to a label, Gustaf’s roots are firmly planted in the DIY world. The band’s formation was a result of a mission to get down to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest.
“It all came together pretty fortuitously and quickly,” Lydia explains. Tarra was in a band called Ex-Girlfriends that Tine, our bassist, was in with her. She had to get her car down to SXSW to use for a tour afterward and asked if I wanted to help drive. I said, ‘Yeah let’s play some shows.’ She said, ‘Do you have a band?’ and I said ‘No…’ So we pulled Tara from that band. Then Vram and Tara were dating (still dating), and we needed a guitarist. We had her boyfriend so we just grabbed him. Then Mel joined us a year later. That’s the specific story, but more or less y’know, we’ve all been hanging out in Brooklyn for 10 years… Playing music… Making friends… Sometimes it sticks.”
“I guess it was all through going to enough shows and wanting to be in bands. Whenever anyone is curious about the best way to start a band, just go to shows and meet people. I think we were all just consciously, or subconsciously, doing that: just trying to see music and make music,” Vram says.
The group bounced around the country, playing shows at DIY venues such as SuperHappyFunland in Houston, NYC basements, and random houses in small towns. “DIY touring is fun because you’re not all caught up thinking about specific markets,” Lydia says, “It’s fun to look at a map and see the gaps and be like, ‘Huh, where is there a music scene?’”
The group was born on a stage. The recording for Audio Drag for Ego Slobs didn’t happen until November 2020 during a time of quarantine and social distancing.
“For Gustaf, the entire life of the band was very much focused on playing live and trying to play as many shows as possible, because we all wanted to,” Vram says, ” Having to quarantine finally gave us some time to kind of sit down and really focus on the album without being distracted. It’s always so hard to turn down show offers. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, of course, I’d love to do this,’ so you’re like, ‘Alright yeah, we can do the album next week…’”
The record is filled with driving basslines reminiscent of Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads, post-punk guitar riffs, punchy drum tracks, and talky, distorted vocals that sweep you away into the world of “audio drag.”
“Audio drag” refers to Tarra’s vocal pitch shifting pedal. It also refers to a state of mind.
“Drag is a hyperbolizing of a form, usually gender (but it’s becoming so much more). It’s some sort of heightening or disguise to emphasize something. Also, I have a lower voice, so I like being ambiguous in my delivery sometimes, and specifically Tara’s pedal.”
An “ego slob,” a phrase that Lydia came up with, is someone who does a poor job of translating the outside world within the context of themselves.
“Thinking about that mistranslation process and when it is that we get so comically and outrageously upset about stuff… It usually comes through a poor translation process of us and our surroundings, so it’s music made for people who are lost in translation,” Lydia explains, “Which is all of us sometimes.”
In a past interview, you said something about the “narrator” of the songs. I took that to mean kind of a separate entity other than yourself.
Lydia: Yeah, with the start of Gustaf, I liked thinking about it within a certain “world” because it felt easier to have a parameter to work within. When I’m doing the lyrics, it’s thinking about a certain type of character rather than myself because I feel like there’s more of a comfort in that, and I feel like I can be more honest and explore more if it wasn’t something that was truly tried to me. I feel like it’s harder for me to try and communicate things on a broader level if it’s too tied into something. I was also trying to get out of myself, my own individual grievances, and joys and try to dilute that to more popular problems within us all.
That totally comes across. I also feel like the lyrics have a sense of wit and almost humor, but not total humor- like “Dog” for example. Can you talk a little about that?
Lydia: Ah yes… Gentle humor. I think times we’re really upset are kind of comical in a way, like there’s just sort of more truth in comedy than in seriousness. So I always try to use it as a tool to really delve in on something conceptually, but also in a way that’s more impactful than like, “Look at the world! I’m so upset!”
Do you have a favorite track?
Mel: I personally love “Book.” I love playing that song and I love listening to that song.
Vram: Book is a fun one. I have a fun time playing “Dog.” For me, it has this intense energy, but at the same time really kind of… Silly isn’t the right word, but I feel like lyrically is just a fun concept of like, “Oh, I was totally over you, but then I saw you have this cute little animal and now I’m in love all over again,” and so the cycle begins. So yeah, “Dog” for me.
Tarra: I like “Dog” too because I bark
Lydia: First-take barker right here!
Tarra: I barked at a lot of people in 2021
Lydia: I like “Happy.” It’s fun to amp it up with that one. My dad, that’s his favorite. That was his favorite song for awhile
Mel: We had her dad come up and sing it!
Lydia: A very tender moment on tour. Everyone else in the band was kind of like, “It felt like your father-daughter dance or something.
What do you hope audiences will take from going to a live show of yours?
Mel: I think personally a big part is not taking yourself too seriously. When a band can get that across… I always love this example, like Tara, when she puts on her vocal pedal to soundcheck “test test test” (pitched down) and everyone starts giggling…. It’s like the inner child thing. It wakes up in people a lot at our shows, which I think is such an awesome experience. I’ve always loved that about the Gustaf shows. People just have fun, and they can loosen up within themselves. If we’re doing it, then they can do it too.
Vram: I feel like the highest compliment is when someone comes up to you and is like, “That was so awesome I want to start a band now.” I feel like that is the peak kind of compliment whenever you’re doing anything performance-based. Like, “Hey that was so great, I want to spend my time doing something similar to that.”
From what I’ve read, you seem to be into movies. What’s a must-see film for a music lover?
Tarra: Almost Famous and Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains
Vram: And Koyaanisqatsi
Tarra: Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack is amazing, it’s Phillip Glass. It has really cool imagery, it’s like a music video.
Vram: Yeah, like a 2-hour music video.
Gustaf plays Tomorrow Never Knows at Lincoln Hall on Saturday, January 21 with Geese and Native Sun.
Follow Gustaf on Instagram here.
Check out Audio Drag for Ego Slobs on all major streaming platforms now.