Interview: pronoun (SXSW 2018)

featured / Interviews / News / Special Features / April 13, 2018

While at SXSW 2018, MV Staffers Chris Lantinen and Michael Escanuelas spoke with Alyse Vellturo, better known as pop-rock outfit pronoun. Vellturo recently followed up celebrated 2016 EP, There’s No One New Around You., with “run,” the first taste of 2018’s new output. We talked the new song, Genius messing up your lyrics, Third Eye Blind and yes, unfortunately, Trump.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chris Lantinen: You’re actually bringing artists here to SXSW under your label, Sleep Well Records, so you’re acting as both advisor/organizer and performer. What do you tell bands about coming here if they haven’t been here before?

Alyse: Oy…I don’t even know.

Chris: Stay away from the Viceland bus.

Alyse: Stay away from what?

Chris: The Viceland Bus, the party bus.

Alyse: Oh yes, I don’t even know what that is…I don’t really know honestly, because my experience is very different because I also work in music. I know a bunch of bands I work with that are playing here, I know a bunch of labels that I work with that are playing here, so I have like a skewed vision of what South By is for that reason.

I think it’s basically, it’s bootcamp, especially if you’re a new band. It teaches you how to like run around. You don’t get sound checks, stuff isn’t going to work all the time, like backline might not be there, [so it tells them] to always be prepared for whatever’s going to happen. I also think, depending on the band playing as many shows as possible, it gives people the option to see you as much as possible because everyone has such crazy schedules. So the more shows you have, the more likely someone can make something work that wants to see you. But also don’t overwork yourself; someone just sent me another showcase and I don’t think we can do it because it’s too much for me at this point. 

Go exploring! Like my whole band is back at the Airbnb, which is great, like I mean I guess relax, but like I’ve driven the entire way from New York and I’m like, “We’re only here once!” Go out, meet people, have fun. Go exploring. Any random place that has music, walk in and see if you like it.

Chris: So, it’s kind of like a training ground for these opening bands just to see how many shows they can play in three days without collapsing?

Alyse: Pretty much. It’s that and if you can survive this, everything else is going to seem like a breeze.

Two quick SXSW questions. One positive, one negative. What is the best performance you’ve ever seen at this event?

Alyse: Huh…my own performance — no I’m just kidding that was a nightmare (everyone laughs). I’ve seen Diet Cig a million times because I came last year and the year before that, and they played like 13 showcases each time and they’re incredible live all the time. Like seven or eight years ago I came here and I saw Baths, who I had loved, and it was my first South By and he did a great job. I also loved Prawn, who are on Topshelf Records. I saw them two years ago closing out Sidewinder, which is really great. Those are like the top three; I don’t know, I’ve seen so many and maybe they aren’t, but I can’t remember any [others] so that probably means they are the best.

What is your SXSW low?

Alyse: Well, there are different kinds of lows. There’s lows for me as Pronoun and then there’s lows for me in general. When people are like, “Are you coming to the Island Records tent?” and I’m like: “Why is there an Island Records tent? This is South By.” It used to be where young bands could come and get discovered because they were great performers, and when stuff like that takes over it makes me upset, but I think people like you guys and others still come and find genuine new cool bands that do need this support and need help.

My personal low is a story I told earlier today [when] we were upstairs having beers. My official showcase, the first official showcase I ever played was last year, and I left my pedalboard at another place that was far away and I had to drive back to go and get it. I had left plenty of time because I’m such a great organizer and got caught in traffic and a homeless person jumped in front of my van and tried to get me to hit her and I didn’t and it was very weird.

Chris: I like this abbreviated version, it feels very chaotic (laughs). 

Mike: It really adds to the chaos.

Alyse: Yeah it was something else.

Chris: It culminated with you running down 6th Street with two guitars.

Alyse: Yes. Basically I could not find parking. I had my bassist’s bass guitar and his pedalboard and my guitar and my pedalboard and my backback and um, running down 6th Street with all of it and realizing that I had left the pedal board I went to get and…

Mike: And 6th Street is a nightmare by the way. Like that should be noted, it’s awful.

Alyse: I was like sweating, I was disgusting and I realized halfway to the venue that I left my pedalboard outside the van and it was still back there and I’m like, “I don’t have time to go back, someone’s going to steal it.” And I’m going through this nightmare because I was trying to get my pedalboard. It all ended up working out, which is great (Editor’s Note: Alyse would borrow a pedalboard from another band playing). I feel like it’s a lesson, like for the most part things always work out for whatever reason, so be good to people because karma is real and they will help you out if you’re a good person. 

Mike: It was a good show too. We came to that show and for Chris and James (Cassar, MV Podcast co-host) it was their first time seeing you play.

Chris: That was the “Crazy” cover right? You used to do a cover of “Crazy.”

Alyse: Oh my god I forgot about that. I should do that again.

You’ve got new music coming, including a song called “run” that you just released a couple of weeks ago, and I thought it would be useful to get into your headspace for this by comparison. You said for this previous EP that you wrote it cumulatively in like a week and recorded it and “it flowed out so easily I didn’t even have to think about it.” So how would that process stack up with your current crop of music that you’ve worked on and have been working on?

Alyse: Well, the current crop of music, a lot of it was written around the same time as the EP actually, and I was trying originally to make a full length record — a debut LP, not a debut EP — because I was like, “fuck that, I’m not going to be that guy who’s like, I’m gonna test the waters with this music because I don’t fully believe in it.” So, I had been writing a fair amount when I wrote the EP and when I wrote “Snowed In,” I was like, “That’s it, like there doesn’t need to be another song, I’ve said everything I want to say in those four songs and adding or taking any of them away is not necessary and doesn’t represent [the] art very well.”

Chris: So that perspective was your message had been delivered so you were ready to get out.

Alyse: I was like, yeah, that’s it, it’s done. Which is a great feeling, kind of, crippling self-doubt and insecurities aside, but a lot of the album were songs that I had kind of half-written. Perhaps there’s just a verse and a chorus, or there’s just a chorus and a bridge or just the production of it. It really depends, but “run” itself, I had written the first half of it around the time I wrote the EP. And a lot of the songs are like that, so I’m pushing myself to finish them cuz I want them to be genuine, but it’s also hard to get back to that place because it’s been so long since I was that upset.

I’m kind of still waiting — not waiting — I’m still letting it flow out; every once in a while I’m waiting to go to sleep and I’ll be like, “wait I got it,” and I’ll write it down and go in and record it the next day and that’s kind of how “run” happened. I took a month off — oh, not a month, a month off work, what world do I live in — I took a week off work to finish my album, and I was like “that will make me finish it!” and I didn’t at all (everyone laughs). 

But I did finish “run,” which I wasn’t even sure was a song until I was kind of bored waiting for the production space I’m renting out to open, so I was like, “oh I’ll just work on stuff here,” and I basically finished the song there. I was like, shit, this is the only full song. I did the guitar solo and finished the verse and I was like, wait it’s done. We have to release something for South By and this is the thing that’s most done. I was a little hesitant because it’s more alternative and rock and live-feeling than the other stuff, maybe not as “playlistable” as people would say. Who cares though! It’s the only one you have done and maybe people will [like it]. I can’t believe how much support it’s gotten. I thought it was a huge mistake, but I didn’t see any other option besides putting it out, and I’m really happy that we did and it’s probably going to change how I roll with other things too. Just be like, “no trust your gut, it’s going to be okay.” 

How do you balance your mental health with the idea of having to go back to this very painful part of your life for, you know, the purpose of songwriting?  How do you go into that mode and then decide afterwards: ‘OK, I want to come back to a healthy place. So I need to get out of whatever that mode of songwriting is where it is you revisiting these painful parts of your life that fuel your songs.”

Alyse: I guess, you try to get yourself back into a sad place and try to remember what it was like there, but I never felt mentally unstable. I felt very, “this is fucked up and I don’t feel like I’m being ridiculous.” I think this is a fucked up situation and I don’t feel bad about writing about it. I don’t feel bad about being honest about it. I don’t feel embarrassed by it…Well I feel a little embarrassed (everyone laughs). 

But it doesn’t affect me too much. Like every once and a while something will come back and I’ll put it in there. But it’s more like, when that weird thought comes in your head and you’re like, OH WAIT OH that’s good. I don’t like cycle into this mode of depression or anything [though]. It’s kind of like, that reference is great and write that down and maybe work off of that.

I’ve read in interviews before and you can correct me if your feelings have changed, but the idea that you just don’t believe you’re very good at playing guitar and the instruments that you play; you don’t have a ton of confidence in your abilities. Do you feel like you put more pressure on your songwriting as a result? Like the songwriting has to be solid because of these shortcomings that I see in myself as a musician?

Alyse: Now that some of it’s done and I’ve been with the EP now for a year and a half, and I’m working on the new stuff and watching it grow and playing live and talking to people, I’ve started thinking about why it stands out. I think the fact that I’m not good at instruments makes it stands out because most people making music are good at instruments (laughter). 

Chris: I don’t know, I think we can name some bands that are not good at instruments and are also not good.

Mike: I feel like there’s that balance of trying to create something that balances what you’re trying to say. Now that you mention trying to write the solo for the new song, and even with like a musician’s ear or a listener’s ear, it sounds good because it has a lot of passion behind it.

Alyse: Right, someone was talking to me earlier and they were asking me how I emotionally express myself, and I don’t even remember, I was exhausted, we had just gotten in and I’m like going to kill someone in that van. I think the instrumentation of things — I’ve always had a thing for when someone can play a guitar, a solo or a breakdown or whatever, that makes you feel someone and there’s no words and there’s no singing [and]  there’s no lyrics and you feel sad or happy or relieved or anything. That’s super special and a lot of the music I like does that, so I hope that I’m drawing from that kind of stuff.

I think a great example is Jimmy Eat World. Their guitar licks are so perfect and really, you can’t imagine anything else there, but what is there just flows together so seamlessly and it truly feels like someone was pouring their heart out, but it’s just in a simple little lick or melody or something.

We’ve all played Rock Band, what’s your favorite Rock Band song to play and perform?

Editor’s Note: We had talked about Rock Band previously…this question did not just arrive out of thin air. 

Alyse: I haven’t played it in like 10 years maybe, but whatever Strokes song was on it. “When You Were young” was on there, but also what instrument [for this question] because I had different songs for different instrument.

Chris: I could really only do vocals for “Maps” because it was just mumbling. I could do that. “Move Along” was really good too.

So on the production level when it came to “run,” one of the things I was really impressed with was the vocals, the vocal delivery. When it comes to the new material and for what you’ve been recording for what’s coming out next, do you feel like you’re going into this record with a new perspective on your sound and how you’re kind of handling vocals?

Alyse: Yes. I think so…The hard part is a lot of the vocals on these new songs are from two years ago, but they’re done really horribly — they were from an inbox from like 2008 into like pro tools 7. I was so sad. You don’t remember because it was so long ago, but then you hear vocal takes and you’re like “holy shit,” that was like so vulnerable and sad, but we can’t use them because there’s buzzing. And then you have to redeliver it and get used to the new stuff.

For the album as a whole I’m very excited, I was really nervous around “run” about the entire album in general, but the reaction around “run” is making me feel good about it. I never want to make the same song twice. I want to always grow, and for it to sound like me and to sound distinct, but I never want to have just a drum loop and the same layers — it just, it sounds like growth to me.”

Chris: Each of the overlays is a different pace, so there’s like these different pacing choices going on, and I think that’s what really —because we just listened to the whole catalogue today on Spotify just to see those changes and that growth — stuck out to me. I don’t know if that was intentional or…

Alyse: Probably not (laughs). 

The song itself deals with, and I’m going to quote the Stereogum piece, “coming to terms with someone you love taking the easy way out and running away from the entire life you built together because times got tough.”And I think lyrically it’s very straightforward in that way and the exact circumstances that you add is context that we need, but if i just listen to the song I’d get basically that. I guess my question is, in regard to the delivery and the songwriting, was there ever a temptation to shroud it in more metaphorical work?

We just talked about Camp Cope and how their writing is very straightforward, and I thought that was a real asset to that record because it was a very powerful message and they felt they didn’t need metaphor. So when it comes to songwriting how poetic are you willing to get? How do you make that choice or is it just, what’s in front of you at the time and kind of where you’re at?

Alyse: It’s mostly, I really don’t think about it much, which is why it’s been taking me a while now, but mostly I have the melody and the rhythm in my head and I need to fill it in and I go through different phrases that would fill it appropriately and make it sound like I want it to sound.

Chris: Do you feel like your brain just doesn’t operate in more flowery language or do you feel like it’s just a choice or preference?”

Alyse: Maybe it will [eventually], but for right now music is just exactly, literally, what I’m thinking and feeling.

Chris: Again that’s the Camp Cope comparison like, that’s what they’re thinking so why shroud it in mystery. Why make it a dissection you don’t need.”

Alyse: I teeter back and forth like, do you want to use more metaphors and leave it more open to the listener to interpret it, but something like Julien Baker, if you’re saying exactly what you mean people will find a way to relate to it.

I’ve been listening to so much music on the way down here like Third Eye Blind and Jimmy Eat World and like, oh my god, this is the new album. I didn’t realize this was the album because I was having so much trouble just finding the genre or like where it fit, like for fans of [who]. My girlfriend was like, “I figured it out, it’s Third Eye Blind,” and I was like “oh my god, you’re right.” Third Eye Blind would sing “run,” like that sounds like something that was inspired by Third Eye Blind. And I started listening to the records again and — oh shit I’m on a tangent now.

Mike: To me, there’s layers to the idea of even using a phrase like, “it’s the way,” with something like that, where you’re using a phrase, its not necessarily a metaphor in any way, but that phrase is still something you can interpret.

Can we also ask you, what is backboarding?

Alyse: It’s not backboarding! (everyone laughs) Someone put that up! The lyrics are on Soundcloud and someone put those [wrong ones up].

Chris: It’s on Genius so they messed it up, so what does it actually say?

Mike: Genius has a lot of question marks.

Alyse: Like how do I get in touch with Genius because that’s like so weird, that’s not what it is.

Chris: I think like, someone has to submit it right, so when you release. 

Alyse: I think when you first do it [people can submit lyrics].

Loud beeping in the distance.

Chris: There’s an emergency only exit alarm going off right now.

Alyse: Emergency this is a bad question (everyone laughs).

Mike: Emergency wrong lyric alert! Wrong lyric alert!

Chris: The Genius alarm just went off at the headquarters.

Chris: So like for Genius somebody submits the lyrics, I always thought that was like, the label that put them on there. 

Alyse: Nope, I never submitted anything and my label definitely doesn’t know what Genius lyrics is. It’s backburning.

Mike: Backburning. That makes WAY more sense.

Alyse: It does make a lot more sense, I’m so confused why someone would put backboarding. 

Chris: We were thinking like a sports reference, like a rebound person. Because you throw it off the backboard and get a rebound. 

Mike: You’re using me like a backboard because you want to like shoot the goal, but you use me as a backboard (Editor’s Note: Mike knows literally nothing about sports).  

Chris: And then…should we say — we went on Urban Dictionary.

Mike: Yeah don’t go on Urban Dictionary.

Chris: We were like, this is definitely not what she was talking about.

Mike: Do NOT go on Urban Dictionary

Chris: It’s a terrible thing.

So last year you release “It’s The Way,” which was based off the Trump election, a reaction to it, and you just kind of recorded it because that’s what you were feeling at the time and obviously that was this sick, sad tipping point for our country. And not to get too real here after talking about backboarding — which our readers are immediately looking up right now — but things have gotten worse, there’s really no debate.

Alyse: Oh yeah, it’s all horrible.

Chris: Has there been a temptation to work some political stuff in there, or to think politically, or to filter it through the political lens?

Alyse: No…in general there’s a lot of anger in the next album and all thrown towards that breakup. I think that political times, not only for my stuff, is influencing all music and it’s easy to feel angry about anything right now.

Chris: It’s just the tone.

Alyse: And on top of it, Trump’s the president.

Chris: You have a bad day and you’re thinking you’re going to bed, thinking you’ll be uplifted by Twitter. And it’s like, oh by the way, Trump is thinking about giving the death penalty to weed dealers, and it’s like “what the fuck?”

Alyse: It’s almost like he’s just saying it to see like what they’ll say, like how much, how many ridiculous things can he say and I hope and I pray, and I know it’s not true, that he’s smart and this is a game show, and he’s like, “lol how much shit can we say and have the dumb people agree with and be like ‘YEAH DO IT.’”

Chris: Well, at the beginning, I was talking to my wife about Trump and when he got elected, at the beginning I was like maybe he’s an OK guy, he’s not a Republican, he’s not a Democrat obviously, he’s just some weirdo famous guy who wants fame. I don’t know, maybe he has a sense of morality but it keeps getting worse and worse and worse.

Mike: Oh god, he proved you wrong real quick. 

Chris: It was ridiculous.

Alyse: He talks and it doesn’t makes sense. If anyone talked like that to you at your day job, you’d be like, “who’s this guy” who lasts like a day. You can’t even form a sentence, everything you’re saying doesn’t make sense.

Mike: It’s that total definition of a bullshitter, when someone comes up to you and talks to you about nothing and it’s like that every speech.

Chris: But he’s running our country.

Mike: Yeah, it’s a nightmare.

Alyse: The only perk is, I think, well actually…that’s a lie, there is no perk. He’s so dumb that he’s not going to get anything done, which — you know — is annoying because it’s four years we could have been doing things, but it’s better than you actually doing things because you’re an idiot. Or we could all be nuked tomorrow, like…we really don’t know.

Mike: Stupidity could lead to destruction.

Alyse: I think it’s impressive that when he ends his term, the highlight will be like, the world still exists.

Chris: The highlight, according to Stormy Daniels, is that we may see Trump’s business because apparently there’s photos.

Mike: There’s nude photos of Trump, like that’s his legacy.

Chris: We’re gonna steer back into the music here.

So we have some quickfire, and we perused your Twitter for it so some of the stuff you already talked about a little. So, best Third Eye Blind song?

Alyse: I don’t know, there’s so many tiers.

Mike: Top tier.

Alyse: Well, emotional-wise I think “Motorcycle Drive By.” I don’t know [though], “Faster” and “Losing a Whole Year” are like perfect album openers.

Chris: Yeah, “Losing a Whole Year” still gets me with the build at the end.

Mike: Oh God yeah.

Chris: Like, when they just explode into whatever they’re doing, I’m blown away every time. It was literally the first CD I ever got.

Alyse: Me too honestly.

Chris: Really? It was from The Wall, a CD store that used to give lifetime guarantees to their CDs; my brother bought it for me for my birthday and it had The Wall sticker on it, it was a lifetime guarantee, and I literally still have the CD copy of the album.

Alyse: So it’s true.

Chris: Yeah lifetime guarantee baby (all laugh). 

Mike: If there’s ever a band to do it, it’s Third Eye Blind to give you a lifetime guarantee.

Chris: That song is excellent though, and “Motorcycle Drive By” has a really similar build, I guess they just did that really well.

Alyse: Yeah.

Favorite Now, Now song.

Alyse: I think “SGL,” like, I only know the first album and then “SGL” and “Yours” and “Arizona.” Like the first album, I love the whole album and I can’t remember the song names of each of them but  “SGL ” I think is the best pop song of this year, if not the past five years.

What’s the last TV show you binge-watched?

Alyse: I don’t really watch TV.

(Chris gives a very disgusted noise)

Alyse: What’s going on?

Mike: He — he loves TV.

Alyse: I don’t want to just like, stare at a screen, but then I go to bed and look at my iPhone, which is like the exact same thing. I basically watch Parks and Rec, Friends, Modern Family, Frankie and Grace, but I like, I can’t really get into TV shows. I don’t like binge watching because either I’m working the entire day and I’m trying to work on music or hanging out.

Chris: There’s definitely a thing now where I let my wife watch things I only half-like because then I can work through it. It’s one of those things. I’m like, yeah go ahead and watch them. The recent example was Queer Eye, and then I got so into it. I got so into it, I couldn’t work.

What’s the last truly great movie you saw?

Alyse: I also don’t watch movies.

(Mike laughs)

Chris: Not a good question.

Alyse: I don’t like sitting in front of a screen — actually I don’t like, it takes a lot to get me to do it, and once I do it I love it, but I feel weird just staring a screen.

Chris: Do you ever go to the movies?

Alyse: Yes but very rarely. I saw “I,Tonya.” I think that might have been the last movie I saw, I see like one movie a year.

Chris: Oh jesus. That’s Mike’s strategy, Mike is forever a bad moviegoer.

Mike: I never watch movies, I never watch TV.

Chris: It used to be like, a Star Wars. If a Star Wars comes out [Mike would see it].

Mike: If Star Wars came out, like, my family loves seeing it, so I would go with my family every Christmas when I go home like, when “Rogue One” came out that was the only time I went to movies that year.

Tell us about the bands on your label.

Alyse: So I started the label a little over a year ago basically for Charles Fauna who’s here with me also. And it started out where I don’t have any money, starting to like kind of do pronoun.

Chris: Well, naturally if you don’t have any money, the first step is to start a label.

Alyse: Yes. No yeah…the thought was, what if I started a company that I used my name to start building and the money I eventually make with it to invest into it and that I can have forever. Like I can turn 50 and yeah, I’m probably not going to be touring when I’m 50, but like I can run a record label maybe and I work in music distribution so I manage labels. I see what works and what doesn’t and I see the struggles and what people like to see, and I see the bullshit that people try to make you think and all those things. I met up with Charlie and he was gonna release a single, and he wanted to hire press. I was like, if you’re gonna hire press, I want to represent the master side and make sure that after that premiere goes out that it doesn’t die, so I kind of started it for him.

I signed a girl named Sulene who plays with Nate Ruess of Fun. She plays with LPX and MsMr, she’s an amazing guitarist and she’s an amazing indie-pop artist too — she had an EP done, so [I said] let’s start with this and it just kind of grew from there. Like, I can’t give you money, I don’t have any money to put into this, but if you have money or we can get creative together, I can tell you where to put it.

So, it kinda started as consulting and campaign management and like, intros, and I work with a lot of — I know a lot of agents and I know a lot of publicist and I know managers, and I know like — oh you know who would dig this, you know who definitely wouldn’t dig this, or you know who’s gonna fuck you over, like don’t go with this guy or whatever.

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Christopher Lantinen
Chris Lantinen is the owner and editor-in-chief of Modern Vinyl. Along with his modest collection of sad sounding records, he collects his share of soundtracks and previously adored indie up-and-comers. Chris is currently a professor of journalism and public relations at Edinboro University in the Erie, Pennsylvania area.

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