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INTERVIEW: Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves

The punk singer discusses privilege, backlash in the Syracuse hardcore scene, and the essential influence of her dad.

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- Mar 11, 2014

Less than a year after their breakthrough cassette demo I have lost all desire for feeling, Syracuse punk group Perfect Pussy have released their debut full-length Say Yes To Love on Captured Tracks. It's a spartan release, in every sense of the word: a lean 23-minute dispatch from the psychic minefield we all have but fear to tread. But vocalist Meredith Graves goes there, both inside and out of her music.

I spoke to Graves on the phone a couple of weeks ago, and our interview drifted from her musical beginnings into a lengthy, enlightening discussion about privilege and the painful self-knowledge she had to gain to record Say Yes To Love.

Perfect Pussy - "I" (Oaf - icial Video)


Do you follow the coverage of your band?

Meredith Graves: I try. I don’t have a computer, but I have an iPhone, and I get emails that have tons of links to the articles. I get really excited about the really big articles like us getting a review in Rolling Stone. Only because I can show my dad.

Is he a big Rolling Stone head?

No, he’s just been in the music scene since he was much younger than me. He’s an old wonk. He cares so much about music, all different kinds, and introduced me to everything. He got me to where I am today. Anything that’s like a "big thing" is a big deal to me because it will be a big deal to my dad. [He] gets a good laugh out of it.

How has your father helped direct or influence your career so far?



He still shows me bands that I’ve never heard of. He’s an old jazz guy, so he introduced me to Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock and Charles Mingus. I grew up with a firm understanding of where rock and roll came from. I was never so delusional to think punk came out of nothing.

He has worked the genealogy of rock and roll [with me] from kindergarten on. He gave me this bright yellow, indestructible Walkman for my sixth birthday. And the first few bands I remember him introducing to me to were The Clash and They Might Be Giants. They were a pretty fuckin’ punk band, which I didn’t realize until I was an adult. But the songs were so funny for 6-year old me. I wanted to be in a band ever since I started listening to They Might Be Giants. So, I have my dad to thank for actually everything, everything.

Your lyrics have gotten a lot of press for being intensely personal. How do you write them? Can you envision them from music that's being written?

Usually the guys will write a song and I'll go to practice with them and make a little field recording of it. Then I'll start writing, but I’m so precise. I don’t fuck around. If I’m not entirely sure that I'm saying exactly what I need to be saying all the time, it will not go in the song. If I even have a shred of doubt about it, it will not go in, especially on the record. I have to be careful about that because I said some shit that kind of even made the hair on my neck stand up.

That must be so invigorating.

It’s so much easier to get up on a microphone and say “Fuck you fuck you fuck you forever, fuck you and the horse you rode in on” than “Hey, I got dumped.”

It sort of is, but I’ve learned between the demo and the record that it’s so much easier to sing about hate than it is to sing about love and grief. It’s so much easier to get up on a microphone and be like “Fuck you fuck you fuck you forever, fuck you and the horse you rode in on” than it is to be like “Hey, I got dumped.”

But I am critical of what I see going on around me, to the point where I have a reputation. I’ve been called histrionic and self-important, I've been called the PC fun police, I’m constantly accused of being politically correct. Which I think is slang for "I’m not a complete piece of shit."

Is it mostly white men who are delivering those charges?

Oh, of course. I don’t want anyone to ever get too comfortable, including myself. I’m constantly trying to stay on top of my own shit. One way of doing that is not being complacent when I see it in my peers. So self-importance? No, it’s called doing the work and not being an asshole. And that shouldn’t be difficult for anybody, but everybody’s probably too tired to do the work. But everyone has to do their best. It’s the people that are unwilling to do anything that end up on the wrong side of my fist.

I’m not trying to be a talking head either for the politics of the hardcore scene or anything bigger or smaller than that. I’m just trying to speak the truth as I see it and try to bring light to places where there might only be darkness. I’m not a fucking messiah, I’m just angry and really sad. So I talk a lot about that.

I’ve already hit the worst, when I spoke out about the negative feelings I had about the hardcore scene in my hometown. There’s a whole message board devoted to talking shit about me and my bandmates, and people threatening to beat me up. If that’s the worst I ever get, then bring it on. I was so sad for like a week and then I was like, wait, I thought I was supposed to be on top of this, not be rolled over by it. I had to grow a set and get over it.

Do you think your gender has anything to do with the resentment? More than just your personality?

Absolutely. There was a direct quote from somebody in the hardcore scene: “Is it sexist for me to not punch this bitch in the face?” It’s absolutely a gendered argument, because I have people in my hometown telling me that my anger doesn’t help the feminist cause. To which I say if you were in my circumstances you might be angry too, living under the constant auspices of gender bias. And that’s without bringing sexuality into it. There’s so many levels, and the point is everyone has to constantly keep a watchful eye over it.

Do you feel like those privileges, as they’ve manifested towards you - the hate, the threats of violence - do you feel like that is sort of an unspoken problem in the punk and hardcore scene?

I think a lot of people in the punk scene are talking about it from a specific perspective of feminism that means it won’t happen anymore, but really there’s so many other levels of the conversation that are more important. Like, does the fact that I’m white factor into why this band would be more popular than, say, other bands of colour? Does the fact that I’m a white woman makes our band somehow safer to some people who don’t want to consider the racial bias in the punk scene? That was something I came up against when I was talking about how all but two bands in our scene are all white men. All white, all men. They’re saying there’s no racism in that, [but] I try to think about how my whiteness factors in, or my physical privileges.

Racism is a political statement, too.

Absolutely, if someone wants to talk about how much we jump around on stage, there’s a reason I can do that. I have privileges that I need to check. And it should make you uncomfortable, you should be able to talk about it and feel uncomfortable, and that should help you move forward in your understanding of how you interact in society.

Just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. That’s exactly why you should do it.

[There's] an author called Pema Chödrön. She writes about the idea that when something terrifies you, you have to not just embrace it, you have to run towards it screaming. You have to run towards something that frightens you, or else you’ll never understand it, ever. It’s not necessarily a white person’s place to understand race so much as it is a white person’s place to understand whiteness and its effects on race.

If you’re white and you start to look at the entire spectrum of how whiteness effects all conversations of race and other races, that can be a sickening thing.

It’s the people that are unwilling to do anything that end up on the wrong side of my fist.

Absolutely, and I feel it should draw self-hatred in a way, but at the same time the other problem is it cannot become a conversation about how bad you [should] feel for being white. That’s centring the conversation on whiteness. I am pretty much done with having critical oppressions of whiteness, because I’m sick of the conversation being centered around white people. Just like I’m fucking tired of educating men about feminism. Because it means the conversation swings towards the privilege of males. I’m tired of the conversation about race because it becomes about the perpetrator. I only want to talk to and about and learn from people who are generous enough to share their experience. The people who are oppressed, it’s not their position to educate me. I and others are willing to go out and educate our goddamn selves. There’s a wealth of information out there. It’s called fucking Google, it’s called a god damn library. Move towards academics.

And no matter how deep into you go, you’ll still find barriers. It’s a constant process. It involves taking a hammer to your self-identity. Especially your national identity, your racial identity. You start to realize you’re unravelling yourself, you end up standing there naked because you get it all out.

Which is the last thing anybody wants.

But that’s another thing from Pema Chödrön, you pretty much have to give up everything. It’s the release of suffering in only realizing that nothing is permanent. Nothing about you is permanent. Nothing you think of yourself is real. You have this concept of yourself that you build up and only when releasing that can you move forward with your life. And not be a dick.

I was about to ask you what the best advice that you have to give somebody who struggles with self-confidence but I feel like you just answered it.

Yeah, just give up. Honestly. Like stop fighting. I deal with this shit all the time. I’m not always very fun to be around, extremely paranoid. [I'm] weird in social situations and I’m always worried about what are other people thinking about me. I’ve spent 26 years of my life hating the way I look, hating the way I talk, hating the fact that I’m so awkward, not knowing how to shut my mouth. It’s a constant cycle of judgement.

What was the turning point?

I went through a really bad breakup this year. And that’s actually what the whole album is about. It took me a while to realize that. I really, really, loved this guy and the relationship wasn’t perfect, but it was the first functionally not-destructive romantic relationship I have ever been in. He was super good to me, and so when I lost him, that really hurt. It was like, who am I now that I realize that losing this person actually feels more like losing myself. And I went back to living alone, looking at myself and judging myself, saying "I’m not good enough, I’m not good enough." Then I realized we broke up because I was so anxious and depressed. I mean, the boy’s not without flaws. But, I look at everything I hate about myself and then I looked at where those feelings came from and I realize that I was completely buying in to a system that I fundamentally disagree with.

And what was that realization like? 

It was incredible, because I literally realized that I could fold up all that shit, put it in the suitcase and shake it off a fucking bridge. I have an option. I don’t have to love myself, but I can definitely find better things to do with my time than hate myself. I got bored. You literally just surrender to it, you say "Okay, it doesn't matter how I feel, it matters what I do with my time." And what I do with the energy that I have. Because I have such a limited source of energy. I use a lot of energy every day that goes into just existing. It’s tiring. If I have such a limited amount of energy I should be using that energy to better myself and take care of the people that I love.

And I know that not everyone can do exactly what I do. Not everyone has the privilege. I read this great article the other day about how that ‘do what you love, love what you do’ actually is so totally classist. But in that way, I think [about] "do what you love" in terms of turning away from societal pressures that are a waste of time and benefit you in no way, regardless of what class you’re from or what you’re doing with your life.

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