Throwaway Style: An Interview with Rachel Ratner of Wimps

Throwaway Style, Interviews, Local Music
Martin Douglas
Photo by Kelly O

Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every Thursday on the KEXP Blog.

It takes unique talent to be able to sensationalize the mundane, to inject singularity and verve into the dull moments which fill the days we have to sometimes slog through. Few bands have achieved this feat better than Wimps; their songs about everyday life are heavily peppered with hysterical insights and asides, augmented by a kinetic slack-motherfucker-punk energy.

“I don’t want to do the laundry,” frontwoman Rachel Ratner and bassist Matt Nyce sing in unison on “Procrastination,” the closest Wimps come to the sneer of some of their civic forebears. “I’ll do it in a minute.” Wimps’ deliriously catchy brand of bratty punk music for adults scales to the height of its powers on Garbage People (out July 13th on Kill Rock Stars); the songs are structured and played tighter than ever for maximum impact.

Musically, it is the most fully-realized Wimps album to date: “Giant Brain” sounds like a surrealist’s marriage of the Clean and the Descendants, while “Cave Life” and “Bees” are bolstered by a squawking saxophone being utilized as artfully as Sonic Youth used feedback – the work of either a gifted saxophonist pretending they don’t know a lick about the instrument or someone who can’t play at all pretending they’re an avant-garde virtuoso.

The album's proverbial lyric sheet reads like a napkin hastily scrawled with the very best inside jokes from a night spent taking over a the booth at the back of the bar. In the hands of lesser groups this might be taken as an insult, but this area is where Wimps thrive. “Quitter” is about the downside of giving up vices like meat and smoking, “Monday” is Morrissey’s “Everyday is Like Sunday” sped up, blown out, and custom-fitted for a generation of working stiffs too burnt out to live for the weekend.

During the thick of a period where I was listening to Garbage People for hours on end almost every day, Ratner paid a visit to KEXP after most everybody in the office went home. We commandeered one of the empty conference rooms and discussed a range of topics, including being an active part of Seattle’s punk scene in your thirties (aka being the old guy at the party), Wimps’ approach to writing songs, interspersing songs about serious issues with ones about pizza, and the potential for an emotional masterpiece centered around the life and times of the band's heroic drummer Dave Ramm.

KEXP: What is your least favorite thing to be asked during interviews?

Rachel Ratner: Oh boy, my least favorite thing. I don't know. I don't know if I have a least favorite thing. It's hard to think of negative things. People usually ask a lot of the same things, but I don't think they're bad. Like, "How did you get together? What's your name?"

More of a monotonous sort of thing.

I think people need to ask us those questions to get them out of the way. I've never been asked anything super terrible or bad or anything. I don't have a good answer for you, I guess.

Hey, as long as you've never gotten any openly bad questions.

Yeah, I don't know if I've even gotten this in a really long time, but more like something about being a woman and like, "Oh, you play guitar?" I mean, there's only three of us in the band. I have to do something! [laughs]. People always seem surprised that I play music and stuff, but it hasn't been like that in a long time. So, I would say nothing super bad, I guess.

What percentage of songs in the Wimps catalog would you say start out as funny observations or inside jokes?

I would say 90 percent. That's usually, like, my songwriting process is that I'll have a funny idea or there will be a funny joke or somebody in my band, [bassist] Matt [Nyce] or [drummer] Dave [Ramm], will say something funny or interesting. I'll kind of write down the idea, and then I'll have a bunch of ideas, and then we'll start jamming or I'll put together a song and then I'll be like, "Oh, this makes sense with this idea." Then we'll kind of flesh it out. So yeah, I think I usually am idea first and then maybe the chorus second and then the rest of it comes third.

Any memorable stories that led to an idea?

Well, one of the songs on our new record is called "Other People's Pizza" and that's sung from the perspective of Dave, by Dave. I wrote it on his behalf because he was my muse. He loves pizza, but he'll only eat cheese pizza. He won't eat any other kind of pizza. He doesn't like toppings. He's just a purist. He's from New York, and he just likes a simple slice, and he was talking about how much he wanted pizza. So I was offering him a pizza, but it wasn't cheese pizza [laughs].

We were like, "Oh, we should have a whole album around Dave Ramm. It'd be like the Dave Ramm solo album." Then Matt and Dave came up with the title "Other People's Pizza" and then that was maybe the first song of the Dave Ramm album, and then we ended up writing it and putting it on this album.

Ah, kind of jumped the gun a little.

Well, it was so good that we thought we'd take it further. If it gets really successful then we'll have to write a whole Dave themed album, and then he can sing all those songs.

What is Dave's favorite place in Seattle to get pizza?

I wish he were here. I almost feel like I should text him. He eats at Pagliacci's a lot. He likes a real simple slice that's, like, not too thin, not too thick. Like, New York style, and, if you want, I can follow up and text him. He's actually in New York right now, so I can text him and get the actual best pizza because he's tried every single place in Seattle. He would think it was important. I don't want to say the wrong pizza place [laughs].

[A note of particular significance: Shortly after our interview took place, Rachel emailed me with confirmation of Dave’s favorite pizza place, which is actually Ballard Pizza Company.]

Is "Garbage People" a metaphor?

Well, I meant it kind of literally, but my bandmates thought it was a metaphor. So it can be taken however you like. I was thinking kind of specifically about how much, like, all the stuff that we're seeing about plastics in the ocean and all the garbage we're making everyday, how much garbage do we make, and when, like, humanity is gone we'll have piles of garbage left behind. So I was making it like, garbage people; all we do is make garbage all day long, and we eat garbage. But my bandmates took it as a metaphor for people who are kind of bad people or garbage-y people. So you can interpret it however you like [laughs].

Okay, so now we're leading into the other ten percent of the Wimps catalogue. You explore these very trenchant topics -- like on the new album there's "Bees" about global warming. Do you feel as though it's a conscious direction to kind of pepper these songs in? Or is it just that everything you write is what you’re feeling?

It kind of is the [latter]. I'm pretty good at being myself, but I'm not really good at being other people. So I'm usually just writing about what I think is funny or how I'm feeling. When times were good, maybe in previous administrations, I was feeling more jovial so I was writing more funnier songs. Then I remember, when the [presidential] election [of 2016] came, we had a couple songs that were a little bit lighter, and I was like, "I can't sing this song anymore." It was like, you know, we were going to put it on the new album, and then all we wrote after that were more serious songs because that's how I was feeling.

I can't pretend I wasn't feeling that way. So I think some of those [more serious songs] are more just me being cognizant of all these heavier things happening right now, and they seep into the songs that we write. We still would write funny things, like "Other People's Pizza" and stuff, because that's funny. But yeah, I would say it's just how I, and we, as a band, were feeling.

Of how much importance is it to still make those songs sound fun?

I would say, for me, pretty important. I've always liked punk music, and some of my favorite bands to watch live are punk bands because they're energetic and fun. I like listening to fun bands. So I've always kind of wanted to be in a band that I would like to listen to, you know, that I would think was fun. So I enjoy hearing something upbeat even though the content might be more serious. That's just what I like. That's how I am. So it's important to me to make them fun to listen to – and not boring and often short – but still have more serious or sad messages if that's how I'm feeling. I get bored listening to slow songs sometimes.

I think we all do. You have to have a certain capacity for it sometimes.

I think unless people are super proficient technically and really good musicians – which, I'm not down on myself, but that's not one of my strengths. I think if I wrote a ten minute song and it was super intricate, interesting and flowed then that'd be great, but after about two minutes I've, like, figured out all the parts, figured out what the music is going to do. I don't know if I could really make it that much longer. You know, anyone can do anything. I probably could, but I'm not interested in doing that.

Fair enough. So you've been a musician here in Seattle for a long time, even before Wimps. Do you ever come across young musicians who consider you an elder statesperson of the scene?

[Laughs] Sometimes, yeah. Especially now. There's definitely some younger folks who come out to the shows, and they're like, "Oh, I remember when you were in this band..." I was in this band called Butts that did a lot of silly songs. Or, "I remember when you played bass..." I played bass in a band called Partman Parthorse, but especially Butts. I think people liked Butts, and they told me because it was, like, so simple and so, kind of like, not self aware.

Like, it was just us just having fun and a lot of people were like, "Oh, I was, like, nervous about being in a band, but I saw how you're playing these stupid songs, and it was fun, and I can, like, I can play stupid songs too." You know? And that's great. If I can inspire people to feel comfortable playing whatever and not being too focused on messing up. You know, I'd mess up every show in that band because I was so new and so nervous. Yeah. So sometimes I hear that.

I forgot you were in Partman Parthorse.

That was the first band I was in. I was really shy, and the singer [Gary Smith] is very charismatic. So he would kind of take over, and I could hide in the corner and play and get comfortable being onstage, which helped me out a lot since then.

So, listening to songs like "Wanna Go Out" and "Trip Around the Sun" make me think about the passage of time and how I'm getting older, and how I prefer hanging out at home, [steaming vegetables] and going to sleep at 9:30 [laughter]. Do you feel the crunch of getting older? How do you respond to that?

For sure I do. I mean, I'm in my late-thirties and especially, being a musician, a lot of my peers are younger than me now, because a lot of people who play out in smaller punk shows tend to be younger. There are some older people in bands still that are my age, but you're around a bunch of people who are younger than you, more energetic than you, and want to stay out later than you and drink more than you.

I like talking to people and being out and playing shows, but also then I'm like, “I'm very excited to go home and hang out my cat and go to bed early and feel good in the morning.” So, I think I'm more aware of [the fact that] I'm just, like, not indestructible. Even if I wanted to stay out, like, I need a good night's sleep, and I need to not be super hung over so I can go to work tomorrow [laughs].

I think I'm more aware of treating my body better. So this kind of time for me is more like being aware of my limitations as a human and trying to be good to myself, if that makes sense. And also, yeah, being less interested maybe in going out for going out's sake. I would rather just talk to my friends and have a nice conversation than get drunk for getting drunk's sake, which I probably would have done ten years ago.

How has your writing process changed since the early days of Wimps?

I think it's the same in that I generally start with an idea or something that's funny or interesting to me and kind of flesh it out. If anything I spent a little more time on... usually the way I write the words is kind of the same. Like, I'll kind of work on it almost like a poem, and I'll revise it, and I'll revise it, and then I'll start singing it, and then if doesn't sound right singing it then I'll revise the phrasing and stuff like that until it makes sense.

But I've been working more, at least on this record, on working with Matt, the bass player, on singing harmonies and stuff. We've never done that before, mainly because I wasn't super confident in my ability to pull it off, but I liked doing it. So we've been trying to do more simple harmonies and figuring out more like "arranging," [makes finger quotes] which I never did before. Like, I would usually just sing kind of a straightforward melody, and now we're trying to figure out how to make it more interesting for us so we can try new things.

Was there an "aha" moment where you knew you wanted to play music, or was it more of a gradual thing?

When I was a teenager I thought [playing music] was the coolest thing in the world. And my brother had a guitar that he wasn't playing, so I commandeered it and I learned how to play some Nirvana and stuff like that. I mean, being a shy person inherently, I never thought it was something I would do. So, I just liked it, but it was always a kind of, like, a pipe dream, you know.

And then, when I moved up to Seattle when I was in my early twenties, I started working at Easy Street Records and meeting a lot of musicians through that [job]. Then I was like, "Wow, I really could do this." Once I realized it was something that I can kind of do and feel comfortable doing then it was something that just kind of gradually... I wouldn't have considered myself a musician until maybe recently because I was like, "Oh, I'm just someone who's in a band because it's fun." And now I'm actually like, "I'm okay at this, and I like it. It's something that I care about." So, it was something that I always wanted to do but didn't think I could do, and now I'm slowly kind of growing into it, I guess.

How was recording this album versus your previous releases? Like, is Wimps the type of band that prefers to plow through songs as quickly as possible and use no studio time?

Usually for financial reasons, yes. [laughs] So, on our previous records we've mostly done just that. Well, we'll have a studio for the weekend, and we'll record all the songs that weekend and all the vocals, and then we have another weekend where we do maybe overdubs and then mix it and try to do it very quickly, which lends itself pretty well to our stuff. But on this one we kind of lucked out.

We recorded with our friend Aaron at Pierced Ears Recording, and he set up his basement and wasvery flexible with us coming in for a couple of hours this weekend and then a couple hours the next weekend, and we would spread out and hear it and think about it and add things to it, which we've never really had the luxury of doing before. So we ended up doing it over maybe four sessions over the course of the summer. Like, every couple weeks we'd meet up and then we'd add new stuff or record a different song, and we could think about it and revisit it.

I think that made it really fun and, like, more relaxed, and we were able to play around with percussion or change harmonies since we were new with them, and we figured out a lot of them kind of on the spot and stuff. I think it allowed us to add a little more arranging to the songs than we ever did before. So it was fun to be able to do that.

Is Wimps one of those bands that secretly has dozens of unreleased songs or do you write pretty much everything during whatever album cycle you're working on?

I think we have a fair amount of unreleased stuff. Even for this one we recorded maybe eighteen, and we put out thirteen [for the album]. So there's definitely quite a few that I write that I think aren't as great. We all voted on our top ten favorites, and we had kind of different ones, and then the ones that we all kind of overlapped on were the ones we put on the record because people have different taste. So, yeah, I'd say maybe one day we'll put out a [collection of] not-as-great b-sides. Songs that are okay, or maybe not. But yeah, there's definitely some.

What is the best title among the unreleased songs?

Well, there's another Dave song called "A Million Crushes, A Million Flushes of My Heart" that we wrote with him. That was really funny, I think. There was one called "Baby Fever." [laughs] You write about being an older lady and seeing babies around. I don't know. There's quite a few.

New and News

Seattle Public Library's PlayBack Program is Now Accepting Submissions

Seattle musicians are encouraged to submit their tunes to Seattle Public Library during an open submission period for their PlayBack program, where selected artists will have their songs featured of the library's music collection. You'll have a chance to get paid a little for doing so, and of course this is definitely the sort of resource that will bring your music to a wider local audience. The submission period closes on July 31. Learn more about PlayBack here.

Live and Loud: This Week's Recommended Shows

July 12: Jeremy Enigk and Chris Staples at Chop Suey

July 13: The Intelligence, Fall-Outs, and Tissue at Clock-Out Lounge

July 14: The Briefs, NO!SE, Dreadful Children, and Ten Pole Drunk at Jazzbones

July 14: Wimps, The Fabulous Downey Brothers, and Sleepover Club at Clock-Out Lounge

July 15: Tres Leches, Guayaba, and Terror/Cactus at Timbre Room

July 16: Surf Curse, Lunchlady, and Seacats at The Vera Project

July 17: Joan of Arc and Whitney Ballen at The Vera Project

July 18: Bellows, iji, and Joe Waine Band at Barboza

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