Throwaway Style is a monthly 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, the first Thursday of every new month on KEXP.org.
The theme of "not getting what you want" runs throughout the undercurrent of Wild Powwers’ excellent new album, What You Wanted. Expectations are snuffed out through sudden or prolonged heartbreaks, the difficulty of reaching your goals, and generally putting your heart and soul into things that ultimately don’t work out. If it sounds like a bummer — well, it kinda is. Usually known for sprinkling a casually brilliant sense of humor into their work, the Wild Powwers of What You Wanted trade in the inside jokes and funny song titles for their most profound set of songs yet. It’s a weighty album both musically and thematically.
But that’s not to say the album is a slog to get through by any means; the power trio of Lara Hilgemann, Jojo Gomes, and Lupe Flores (nicknamed "Loops" below) — guitar/vocals, bass, and drums/vocals respectively — rock hard in an era where rocking hard is not necessarily standard issue for Seattle guitar bands. Neo-grunge, heavy alt-rock, whatever you want to call them, Wild Powwers have a very “old Seattle” approach to songcraft, but don’t mistake that for being derivative.
As they always have, the band goes a long way on personality and making their songs as outstanding as possible. In the case of What You Wanted, it comes from the members drawing from deep inside themselves to stack skyward riffs and its megaton rhythm section on top of ruminations on depression, Greek mythology, toxic modes of thinking, and brushing against death in Texas while on a marathon tour. (The latter an extreme circumstance of doggedly and sometimes exasperatedly living the life of a musician, another of the song’s topics.) The band wrangles their sound masterfully yet again here, pushing forward on "Bone Throw," showing a tender side of themselves on "Decades," and scaling toward arena anthem status on "Tricky." Wild Powwers have never shied away from the concept of writing all-caps SONGS, and on their fourth full-length outing, they put their best foot forward in the realm of songcraft.
I recently reached out to the band to get their thoughts on each of the ten tracks on What You Wanted, and their responses were as candid as you’d expect given the album’s subject matter.
On “…Sucks,” what exactly — um, sucks?
Lara Hilgemann: This song is mostly about how much it sucks to put your self-worth far below the people around you. It’s about how we don’t advocate for our own needs enough. Especially when another person/other persons that we are charmed by are involved. It sucks that we do that to ourselves, and we should all definitely take a step back and make sure that we aren’t compromising our own self-worth to let someone else feel amazing.
Jojo Gomes: This was definitely a song born of frustration. Lupe had a particularly rough night behind the bar the night before practice, and all of our commiserating about dealing with awful people while at service jobs led to a need to play something heavy and cathartic. When I first heard Loops play that drum intro, I knew I wanted to play a sort of David Wm. Sims-inspired bassline.
Lupe Flores: Like Jojo said, I came to practice with some BIG FEELINGS I needed to express. As soon as I sat down to play, that opening drum beat came out, and the song was built around that. It turns out we all had some BIG FEELINGS. Ha! What else is new?
Hilgemann: Being a musician can be pretty rough sometimes. You put time, effort, love, and money into it at all times. You sacrifice personal relationships and stability to do it as much as you possibly can. You sleep on dirty floors — or in a van — and eat truck stop carrots out of a watery plastic container. And most of the time, you only break even. It can be exhausting and kill every bit of confidence you have in yourself to make art. And you still won't stop doing it because it is still the best way to spend time with the people you are lucky to be creating with. It is still the best thing in the world.
Gomes: The bassline for the “B” section of this song had been kicking around for quite a while trying to find a home. There were a few songs it was in we scrapped but always wanted to keep that part, and eventually some of these other parts came up that fit great to it. This was a fun experiment, trying to come up with a different type of arrangement for a fairly straight forward song with three sections. Also Lara’s lyrics on this song are about something the three of us have discussed often; how even, when all the cards are stacked against you and you’re grinding away just to break even or lose money, why would you ever want to do anything other than play music? It’s always worth all the bullshit it takes to keep doing it.
Flores: Oh man, this song. I love it, but damn. Speaking for myself, it's something I grapple with on the daily. I feel like I'm lucky to know my thing — drumming. At the same time, it's so incredibly heartbreaking, knowing we live in a culture that doesn't value art and music nearly as much as is needed for artists and musicians to survive. So you find yourself in this whirlpool of needing to create for your own sanity, while also needing to find time to do something that actually makes money, so you can you know, like eat and stuff. Writing, practicing, and touring IS actual hard work. And it's the only work I want to do. I just wish that was a viable option.
It seems as though on a lot of the album, the concept of wanting is closely tied to disappointment. Was this a conscious approach?
Hilgemann: Oh absolutely. I have had a very bad habit in my life of pouring myself into things for far longer than I should simply because I wanted them to work out a certain way. A lot of these songs represent different facets of this habit. I’m not necessarily saying every single one is a bad thing, but it can be exhausting and diminishing when things just don’t pan out even when you put all of yourself into it. “...Sucks” represents that idea through speaking on investing in people. “Bone Throw” represents that idea through speaking on how hard it is to be a musician these days but at the same time how even the most disappointing experiences can’t stop us from wanting to push on. We all (everyone, not just our band) want things to work out for us, and a lot of the time we settle for a disappointing outcome and carry on.
Hilgemann: This song is about being a total wreck and thinking that as long as you admit to being a wreck out loud, you don't have to be accountable for your actions. Saying that you are screwing up or admitting you have a problem is not the same as doing the work to be better.
Gomes: Definitely one of the more straightforward songs in this batch, but I always really loved how melodic it is for being a bit more of a straight up punk song. Definitely nodded a bit to the Buzzcocks and the Jam on that chorus bass run, hopefully not too much, ha.
Flores: Musically speaking, I think we just needed to thrash on this song, but then make it weird at the same time. This song came quick and naturally. Lyrically, I think we were talking shop about being frustrated with how some people settle into being callous and self-centered, and feel like as long as they add a disclaimer that they're shitty, it gives them a license to continue being that way. You know, instead of being a considerate and thoughtful human being and all of that good stuff.
Hilgemann: Depression is not just a couple days of feeling really sad and then you bounce back and go about your life. Depression is a constant struggle, it is something you wake up to every day. As hard as depression is to live with, seeking the help you need is even harder. It feels so much easier to just give up and roll over. Mental health is so important, especially after this very hard year. Please seek help if you are having thoughts of self harm.
Gomes: Actually one of the earlier songs written for this record; I want to say came about while we were still waiting to release [their 2018 album] Skin. I had the bassline for the verses and the chorus chords sitting around for a minute, unsure of where else to take them, but once we all jammed on it together the pieces came together pretty quickly. "Decades" came about as a working title because we thought it was funny how the verse and chorus sections had this 80's, Cure-y, New Order-y feel, and the bridge ended up being so 90's sounding.
Flores: Hoo boy, this song. It's the first song we wrote for What You Wanted, and is maybe still my favorite. [Producer/engineer] Sam Bell really helped flesh out the harmonies and dynamics during the recording process, and it changed the way we play the song now, for the better in my opinion. The dynamics are really pronounced. This song speaks to depression, which we all struggle with from time to time. Ron Harrell, (who made the video for this song), really captured all the meaning and general vibe of why we wrote it and our feelings behind it, and combined that with the general malaise of this past year in lockdown. He made something truly beautiful in my opinion.
Sometimes, even though we've played it a million times at this point, this song still gets me choked up. I think it's one of the best things we've done to date, and I hope if anyone out there relates to this, they find solace in knowing they're not alone.
On “Decades,” which Lara spoke to us about a few weeks ago, there’s a sunny musical approach to this song, which is essentially about a depression so deep-rooted it’s become a part of everyday life. Tell me about marrying the lyrics of this song to the music.
Hilgemann: Depression is something I have struggled with for more than half my life. A lot of people I know also struggle with it. On better days, you can get out of the house and complete small simple tasks. Or you can still get yourself to work because you can’t sacrifice your livelihood; but you do it knowing that all of your energy will be gone the second you clock out. Sometimes you can even get yourself out of the house to see friends and try to have a good time. Again, those are good days with it. And sometimes people think that means you’re doing just fine because you’re going about like things are “normal.” So life can be going on in the background, and people can assume you’re doing great and everything is “sunny,” but the second you get home you’re just going to disconnect and stare at the ceiling trying to sleep like it’s some form of shitty time travel to get to a better day. Sunny on the outside, very hollow on the inside. Badabing badaboom, that’s depression sometimes, babay!
Hilgemann: The last tour we were on, we had a car accident that was inches away from being a very bad situation. Someone had a tire blow, causing them to hit our backside and send us spinning on the freeway. We spun three times, and somehow didn't hit anyone. We somehow didn't flip (the cops that responded were shocked we didn't flip). We stopped right before the entire left side of our van went crashing into a concrete wall. We were so close that our side mirror was bent backwards and smashed. We sat facing the opposite direction of traffic in shock. We proceeded to play the worst show ever that night and then had a full release of trauma as we ate Whataburger and then got ourselves a nice hotel room. This song is about that moment spinning on the freeway.
Gomes: The origins of this tune date back to the end of 2016 or so when I got really into trying to write songs in different tunings, specifically variations of D modal (DADGAD). The opening section riff is the first thing I ever came up with in that tuning that stuck, I just really liked it immediately. For a long time as I worked on this song I didn't see it as a Wild Powwers song, figuring it would end up on some of my own work or in another project at some point, but I'm so happy I chose to rework it for bass and bring it to my bandmates. Between the syncopated feel between the instruments, the vocal harmonies, and Lara's lyrics about our terrifying "this is the end" moment in Texas, this one ended up one of my absolute favorites on this record.
Flores: This is one of my favorite songs on the record. Right after playing one of our best and funnest shows at SXSW, we were ridin' high, and headed north to Fort Worth. Ten minutes before reaching the venue, we were struck from behind on the freeway. I was driving. Time slowed down to almost a standstill, as we spun around three times on the freeway, our van up on two wheels, and we careened toward a concrete wall. In those few seconds, I thought of my bandmates, and how I booked this crazy 27-day tour with NO days off. And how that was stupid. And now here we were, about to die, and I felt wholly responsible. And then all of the people I loved in my life, and the memories we've made started flashing in my brain like an old-timey movie. And everything was silent.
Our van finally settled on all four wheels and came to a stop right as I was parallel and face to face with that concrete wall. We've never been so terrified.
Then we wrote this weird song, and my bandmates took a horrible experience and made it lovely and strange with their music and lyrics. I feel lucky to be a part of reclaiming a terrifying thing as our own, and making something beautiful out of it.
Hilgemann: “Pygmalion” is loosely based around the Greek myth. But more than anything, it represents how we sometimes create an idea of a person in our mind and how obsessive we can become. Sometimes we create scenarios in our mind that do not match reality, and then we unfairly pine over a thing that does not and will not exist. Taking the idea of someone and trying to mold them to your expectations is out of touch and toxic, and leads to a very lonely existence.
Gomes: Another one of my favorites on this album. I don't remember much about writing this one, other than that it came together pretty quickly and naturally. I have always felt like the build of the bass and drums during the bridge section is a bit indebted to when Loops and I were a part of a Led Zeppelin cover set some years back. When learning “Good Times, Bad Times” for that show, I totally geeked out on how in the second verse John Paul Jones adds to the pass every time the phrase starts over. It gets more intricate and more amped up every new pass, it's just so cool and really builds intensity. I love the way this section turned out especially with Lara’s vocals getting more and more heavy at the same time.
Flores: I also love Lara's vocals on this song especially. Lyrically, she really captured how I often feel when I find myself really drawn to people who are difficult to read, emotionally unavailable, and seem closed off to the world. I dunno what it is about them, or why I continue this pattern, but it kicks me in the ass every time. When she screams, "Why does it feel like you're made of stone," I scream along with her in my brain. It's cathartic. You can't change people, but you sure can beat the shit out of the drums and scream about it.
Hilgemann: On that note, trying to mold ourselves to meet other people's expectations is also not great! It is exhausting and disappointing, and will never work in our favor. Accept yourself for who you are, and give that courtesy to the people around you. Fitting into different molds is boring.
Gomes: This one started out for a project in Boise we took part in while at Treefort Fest some years back. The idea was for bands and artists to write a song around a story written by a sick child from a local Children's Hospital. This song just kept kicking around long after and we decided we liked it enough to rework it for the album, minus the initial theme of dinosaurs destroying a city.
Flores: What started out as a song about dinosaurs, turned into a super fun and satisfying song to play. I was listening to a lot of Nirvana at the time (what else is new), and was trying (unsuccessfully) to conjure up Dave Grohl on some of those drum breaks. We were lucky to have my neighbor — and Mother Love Bone/Green River guitar player — Bruce Fairweather lay down some guitar overdubs on this song, which was a total honor and really fun. He's heard us practice it a million times over in my basement, so we were flattered that he wasn't too sick of it to come into the studio and do his thing.
There’s a theme running through “Pageant” which suggests looking your best doesn’t necessarily mean feeling your best. What kind of feelings were present when you all were writing this song?
Hilgemann: I think I can speak for a lot of us when I say that I am tired of trying to make myself look a certain way to try and get validation from people around me that do not matter. I’m especially tired of feeling like youth and beauty (especially for femmes) is our only transactional value, and once you lose that you aren’t worth much anymore. I have coveted different body types and different looks, knowing that I won’t ever fit into those boxes. It’s bullshit and I’m tired of it. So, if you can’t find the value in people past their surface, eat my shorts.
Hilgemann: “Tricky” is a love song in a way. It's about feeling very defeated by heartbreak, and wishing that things weren't so fleeting. And hopefully next time things have a better timeline. Every time you try, it gets harder and harder to trust that things can turn out differently, and it's hard not to fall into old patterns that become corrosive in relationships. But, who knows, maybe next time will be better.
Gomes: Another song [whose] working title stuck. This song was deceptively tricky to figure out. The verse sections, while everyone's parts are fairly simple, are all counted and felt differently, which I think really makes the vibe work on this. I still mouth "one" to Loops after I get the drone going right before the rhythm section comes in. I love the way this song came out, such a cool mix of all of the different things we all like, while still sounding very much like a Powwers song.
Flores: What started out as a song that was difficult for us to figure out how to play, (hence, "Tricky"), held true in the song's meaning. My favorite lyric that Lara ever wrote is in this song: "Broken hearts never heal the same." They just fucking don't. Every heartbreak adds a layer of scar tissue that gets harder and harder to penetrate. And that's "Tricky," and it sucks. I especially relate to this song lately — having gone through some massive heartbreak somewhat recently. Knowing I'll never get back to "normal," but knowing I will still find a way to float above it. Everyone who's had their heart broken can relate (I hope). Which is therapeutic and also sad.
Hilgemann: This is a weird one. It doesn't really have any basis in reality. It's more like seeing the feral version of yourself at a distance and knowing that for now, you are safe from that part of yourself. But it is walking towards you and it eventually will catch up.
Gomes: Ah, the sneak attack pain in the ass in the studio song! This was the only one we went in to record where it wasn't fully dialed in, thinking we'd craft it in the studio a bit. Forever indebted to Sam Bell for sticking it out with me figuring out how to properly build the bridge section out while my bandmates were very frustrated with me for making them work on this. Will never forget the moment of:
Sam: "Who wrote this?" Lupe and Lara, deadpan in unison, pointing at me: "Him." Sorry y'all!
Flores: We never really settled into this song until we recorded it, and now, damn! I'm glad we did. It's very fun and challenging to play. Sam Bell really had me reel in my drumming during the progressive middle part of the song, where Jojo sets a loop, and I have to do my best to stick to that loop so we don't get off time. Maybe this is the song we should have called "Tricky," haha. At the time, I remember feeling like, "Don't boss me, Sam!" But then after I heard the final product, when Lara comes in with that bangin' guitar lead, I realized he was right. It's far more interesting to build those dynamics collectively, to have it hit harder in the end.
Was the feeling of speeding down the freeway in a Trans Am present when you were writing “Trans Am”? Because it definitely gives off that vibe. Also, at what point in the recording process did you all know this was going to be the album’s closing track?
Hilgemann: This song is so fun to play, and so energetic, we knew it had to be the closing track as well as a closer for when we play live. It is for sure a song for cruising down the highway late at night. We like to make sure that we don’t have 100% sad basement Seattle songs, because that would just bum us out. We also like to have fun and be fun. We always want to have a couple party tracks.
Pedal to the metal, party party party. Don't let yourself stay awake counting the wooden planks above the bed of someone who doesn't feel the same way as you. Don't let all the doubt keep you up at night. Just cruise by that stupid stuff and let go.
Gomes: Probably the most fun song to play live that we've ever written. Also a funny instance of a random pedal combination making the sound for basically the whole song (also a good reminder to try plugging things in "wrong" more often). This one kinda felt like it wrote itself after I came up with that initial riff. Have a feeling this will likely remain our live "closer" for quite a while.
Flores: Jojo was fucking around with his pedals one practice, (what else is new, haha), and this riff came out, and I remember being like "Stop everything! What is that?!?" I LOVE his riff in this song. It reminded me of the band Trans Am, and of an actual Trans Am. My drum beat came right away, and Lara started wailing, and we finished writing that song that same practice. It is INCREDIBLY satisfying to play live. I don't care if it's self-indulgent, I love it.
After I stopped recording my interview with Gary Campbell — the filmmaker behind NEWCOMER, the driving force of limited-run record label Crane City Music, and humble student of Seattle’s rap music scene — we talked pretty extensively about an idea he was developing: an online encyclopedia of sorts that focuses on every aspect of Seattle’s hip-hop scene. Town Love is officially live, packed with a growing database of over 1000 releases; not just records, cassettes, and CDs, but short films, music videos, and movies as well. Starting June 17th, there will be a Northwest Hip-Hop in Film exhibit, featuring a number of short films and documentaries (some of which are already on live on the site). Campbell personally recommended Jonathan Moore Speaks to me.
The database spans over 40 years and allows readers and viewers to browse by both artist and year. My favorite thing to do is select a year at random and dig into all the stuff I hadn’t heard of. Whether you’re a neophyte or an expert, Town Love is a tremendous resource for anyone wanting to dig a little (or a lot) deeper into Seattle rap music.
[Approach with extreme caution! If you have yet to watch the Danny Denial-written-and-directed web series in full, I would recommend skipping this section for spoilers.]
So, let me get this straight: the evil forces partnering up with Tundra and running the City of Seattle are … aliens? The revelation simultaneously uttered by Ace (Cozell Wilson) and Gab (Eva Walker) leads to a stage-crashing battle between the fascist tech organization and the activist artists mightily resisting it, along with Gab seemingly running away from her fate — exactly what led her away from Seattle in the first place. Purple (Christiana Crabbe) oscillates between hard truths and taunting pessimism, telling Gab she isn’t the one who gets to save everybody. Augmented by Walker playing a haunting acoustic song instantly reminiscent of Finnish folk singer Mirel Wagner, Gab spends the night driving and wakes up on the side of the road with voices and visions in her head, only to see that Mayor Tums has found her.
“It’s not my city anymore,” Gab laments, facing down Mayor Tums with a pistol. “You’ve made sure of that.” The mayor laughs and reveals the underlying premise of the entire series: She is only one of many generals in a species of millions. “Your people? They’re all asleep,” Tums asserts. BAZZOOKA ends up being a reverse-Lovecraftian science-fiction epic about how capitalism walks hand-in-hand with white supremacy. The Black kids gone missing throughout the series. Maya being brainwashed by Tundra. The mayor’s strict diet of celery. Ultimately, Gab does what she has to do and kills Mayor Tums, and a vision of Black (Danny Denial) — with a great new hairstyle — smiles at Gab for a job well done. If you are only thrilled by big name actors and exorbitant budgets, I don’t see you ever checking for BAZZOOKA, but if you find yourself being taken in by an intriguing plot and great characters who bring a fictionalized version of a very real world to life, it might just be your new favorite idiosyncratic hidden jewel.
While we wait with bated breath for the new long-player from Seaan Brooks, the poet laureate of Hilltop has blessed us with a new single about being caught in the hurricane of a tumultuous relationship. Over a kick drum-heavy beat with a sunny, pitch-shifted melody reminiscent of cruising down Ruston Way before all the “NO CRUISING” signs went up and the cops cracked down, Brooks laments a toxic relationship and all the subtweets that come with it. He ruminates on being misunderstood as cynical when he’s just kinda miserable, the Instagram comments which lead to fights, and lying about missing his lady. (Brooks wrote an Instagram post himself offering a little context about the song.) For his emerging brilliance in the sport of linguistic gymnastics, Brooks also creates great songs from being loose and clever — the song’s chorus contains the couplet, “Old phone, who this? / Old soul, new chick” — the places in his work where he’s casual and conversational emphasize the sort of humanity many rappers willfully ignore.
As the world opens up and concerts start to take place again, I’ve been… pretty goddamn anxious about it? I’m also very excited about seeing live shows for the first time in 16 months because they are the lifeblood of most music fans; but post-vaccination anxiety after spending nearly a year and a half out of most public settings has got me on edge. There’s a very specific twinge of body horror I feel about sharing closed space with other people — especially considering the strong anti-vaxx contingent in America — that I’m not quite over. I’m hoping to attend some shows this summer and maybe even head over to Boise for Treefort (because seeing rap superduo Armand Hammer is surely worth the potential risk), but I’m not quite ready just yet to start recommending live shows to the community.
Maybe later this summer. Maybe over the browning leaves of fall. Maybe my new aesthetic will be I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. Stay tuned.
KEXP Songbook Series is an event where the authors of notable music literature are spotlighted in conversation about their works, boasting a list of luminaries which include Billy Bragg and Lol Tolhurst of the Cure. Somehow, I have been asked to join these names as Throwaway Style will be the focus of its next edition. Join me in conversation with my colleague, friend, and Throwaway Style creator Dusty Henry as we discuss the origins of the column, the flourishment of the Pacific Northwest music scene in the three years since I took over the column, and the unbridled love I have for our community. The Throwaway Style installment of Songbook Series will air live on KEXP's Facebook page on Wednesday, June 16th at noon PST. Please join us for what is certain to be a very fun conversation!
Seattle trio Wild Powwers share the sofened third single from their forthcoming album 'What You Wanted'
On a special Friday edition of Throwaway Style, Martin Douglas explores the new album from the Seattle grunge (not "neo-grunge") trio.