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Lois Maffeo


I interviewed Lois right before I talked to Heavenly. Both bands were at the K Records compound in Olympia, WA, and when Lois and I were done, she simply passed the phone to Mathew and Amelia Heavenly. More on them later. I wish I had the words to describe how her songs make me feel, but they don't exist and I don't have time to invent them.


How are you doing today?
Lois: Excellent. I played my first show with Heavenly last night in Seattle with Built To Spill and it was great. There was a huge crowd and it was really fun. In fact, a lot of the people couldn't get in the show so Calvin and I and Dug and a couple of the Heavenlies went outside and did a little impromptu show for all of the sad and chagrined fans that couldn't make it into the show because it was sold out. It was really fun.
So we're talking about the Halo Benders and friends?
Lois: Sort of, yeah. I went out there with my guitar and Heather came out and started doing a little drums, then someone requested a Beat Happening song that I covered a long time ago called "Don't Mix The Colors" so Calvin started singing along and then he grabbed Dug and they did a couple of Halo Benders songs and it just evolved. Hold on a second. Okay. Heavenly is busy shooting a video.
I can't think of many bands that would do something like that except in the indie world.
Lois: Uh-huh. That's true.
It seems like most rock bands would just say "You should have bought the tickets when they went on sale. Sorry."
Lois: People even came outside to see what was happening. It was fun. I probably had a better time doing that than playing the real show.
It always seems like the spontaneous things like that are more fun than the arranged things.
Lois: Yeah, it's true. It's just because spontaneity is kind of fun.
So "Strumpet" was the last album I can remember from you. Have you put anything out since then like singles, EPs, anything like that?
Lois: No. In fact, that was the last thing I recorded and it came out last November and I just recorded a new album that's going to come out in January and so I'm kind of between things right now. I recorded some songs with some people in Washington D.C. and we recorded about four songs with Ian MacKaye and they've come out on various compilations. One of them, I think the one I'm the proudest of, Jody from the band Hazel is putting out a compilation called "Free To Fight" and it's a women's self-defense handbook and CD and that song is on it. I'm looking forward to that coming out pretty soon. It's really cool. It's going to have a zine slash self-defense manual and a lot of songs. There's a song by Rebecca Gates from the Spinanes and Team Dresch.
In all honesty, your music and Ian MacKaye are two things I can't really see together.
Lois: I know that's a little bit strange, but I think it's easier to understand when you think about it. When I first moved to D.C., I realized the music itself between Olympia and D.C. was really different, but the spirit of making the music was somewhat similar. I think there are a lot of parallels between Dischord and K in terms of putting out records that you really believe in and that you support, that are joined in a way, somewhat philosophically although that's a little too lofty a term to describe it. So when I became friends with Ian I started to realize that even though musically we don't really have a lot in common, our love of music comes out in the same way, the scene's commitment to independence and honesty and a good ethic. Yeah, he was really happy to do that. I thought it was pretty funny that he was so stoked about doing that but it was really nice.
Yeah, it makes sense when you think about it, because Dischord has Slant 6 and K has Karp.
Lois: I think just when you think a label is going to be the same forever, they kind of throw a curveball. I honestly predict that Dischord will have even greater changes in the coming year, even further afield from Slant 6 because there are tons of new bands in D.C. right now. Last year, lots of bands broke up and split up like Hoover and some others stopped playing and now a lot of younger people and older scene members are starting again. It's something to look forward to.
So about "Strumpet," there was one specific line in the title cut that really grabbed me the first time I heard it. "I might be a social disease but I can't be caught."
Lois: Well, I think that sometimes you hear people say things, for instance at the Yo-Yo A Go-Go festival when a lot of the punk kids, including myself, were in the parade, and my housemate overheard a cop looking at us, the members of the punk community that were marching in the parade, and he turned to his friend and said "There go the future welfare rats of America." When I first thought of that line, I thought calling someone a social disease is kind f like they're a loser or no good and so with that line, I'm owning up to it. I'm saying, "Sure, yeah, I'm kind of a deadbeat but you can't change me."
Yay welfare rats!
Lois: Yay welfare rats!
Actually, the entire song grabbed me just because it was really bouncy and it wasn't quite as introspective or reflective as some of the other things on the album like "Evening In Paris" and the entire song was basically saying things like, "So I cuss a lot. So what?"
Lois: Yeah, exactly, or just being proud of the way you are instead of like "Oh, sorry," you know?
Yeah, I didn't quite mean to be an individual, sorry.
Lois: I think the spirit of the time I wrote it was a lot of young women in D.C. and Olympia were starting to become more aware of the political aspect of their social lives, what they wore, how they talked. I was really excited about what was happening with that.
You've been loosely associated with riot grrrl, but your music is virtually nothing like any of the bands normally associated with riot grrrl.
Lois: Part of it is just geographic. I was around in both of those scenes that were kind of considered the riot grrrl birthplaces, Olympia and D.C., and for a long time I did this all girl radio show called "Your Dream Girl." I just have been interested for many, many years in women making music and was always trying to encourage people to play and still do. I feel a lot of more of my mission has to do with that rather than entertain people. I think riot grrrl seems to be a movement kind of created outside of what really happened. I think what really happened is people began to feel more self-confident and met in groups of people where they felt safe to talk about different issues and stuff like that. I've already read about three pronouncements that riot grrrl is dead and I'm just kind of like, "Well, whatever." Whoever said it was alive, whoever said it was dead, it's a moot point.
Gosh, I guess I'd better start writing letters to my friends and let them know. I mean, they have their chapters and everything and maybe someone should tell them riot grrrl is dead. That would at least be polite.
Lois: I know. Like, "Oh, didn't anyone send out a press release?"
I'm sure I got something from Sony about that in the mail.
Lois: That's true. Women in rock or whatever, looking at the new Rolling Stone that has this article on women in rock, at first I was mad. I was like "Oh God, this is so dumb! This is really stupid!" And then I realized I don't care if all those losers who read Rolling Stone think Liz Phair and Kim Gordon are what women in rock is all about because I don't want them to destroy my scene where women in rock are really proliferating and doing amazing stuff. I'm saying I don't mind if the media misinterprets it anymore because I saw what happened with riot grrrl and I would rather cruise at a lower altitude and not be able to be detected by their radar. That's kind of how I would like it to be.
It seems like you build a continuum of women's music styles in your songs, from people like Joni Mitchell clear on back to Patsy Cline.
Lois: I try to kind of think about the tradition and that's just what I listen to. I love all sorts of stuff, I love everything that's on K and I love Karp and Lync and all the things that are happening like that, but when I buy records and stuff, I buy a lot women artists. I don't know what it is, what the continuum is all about, it's just kind of an organic feeling, but it's there.
So what else inspires your music? I mean, "Evening In Paris" sounds like a reflective song, kind of sad, it even sounds kind of blue.
Lois: It's probably in a minor key, although I'm not really sure what minor keys are. Surprisingly, I think some of my songs that sound kind of upbeat are actually, in their lyrical content, sadder than "Evening In Paris" which is very somber. Stephen Immerwahr from Codeine did the bass line on that really grounds it down and creates this anchor in a way. Other than that, "Evening In Paris" was kind of a song more about the chagrin of two friends of mine who were parting and I felt like "Oh, you didn't really give it a chance." It was kind of sad that you didn't wait to catch up with each other. It was sad in a way but it was also not really anything tragic or super sad. "Sugar Rush" stays a lot more upbeat, although to me it sounds sadder. It's hard to say. I mean, who knows? Most listeners probably don't care or know what the songs are about specifically because I don't write songs specifically about a very certain thing. I kind of let them blend through other things and other people's experiences and other voices.
It seems like a lot of musicians don't write very specific songs, and that most people would rather write about slightly more general topics that are open to interpretation.
Lois: That's true. I mean, I think it would take an entirely brave person to say "Here is my autobiography on record and this is really true and this really what happened to me." The basic fact of the matter is that if it comes out in your art, it becomes an experience of your own anyway so if I write a song about someone who jumps off a bridge, I didn't jump off a bridge but by that experience coming through me through the song, there's a memory and an interpretation of it. It's a real shaggy area that most musicians just try and avoid strenuously. I've seen interviews with R.E.M. where Michael Stipe is just tap-dancing around the songs, saying "Oh, they're not really about anything" and "I never write love songs," etc. etc. etc. It's funny and charming and totally normal because I think all of us who write songs are kind of like that, saying "Oh, it's up to you to decide." I think we're all probably embarrassed that if people really knew what the songs were about, they'd think we're all a bunch of dorks and wouldn't like us anymore.
So why do you do music? What got you into it?
Lois: Living in Olympia in the early '80s, there was a magazine here which later became Option, and Bruce Pavitt was doing the Sub Pop fanzine and tapes and Calvin was just beginning to put out cassettes on the newly formed K label. There was just a lot of creativity and amazing stuff going on and I just kind of became really excited about it. At first I was like "Oh, I don't know how to play music and this is all really great but it doesn't matter because I don't do it." Then I figured out that it wasn't really that hard to do so that kind of inspired me to play. That and doing my radio show when I was just listening to a lot of women in rock and roll and it was great. It made me think, "Well, that's what I want to do." I kind of was a late starter, a late bloomer as it were. I didn't start playing guitar until I was about 24 and that was years and years ago. See where it gets you?
Straight into welfare rat territory.
Lois: Exactly.
I like that territory because it takes a load of worries off your mind. You know you're broke so you don't have to worry about paying rent.
Lois: Yeah. You just kind of go with it.
Right, sleep on people's couches or whatever. I noticed another element is this kind of ethereal jangly pop edge, but there's a definite mood to it. How do you go about setting that up?
Lois: Well, it's just the way I play. I'm not a real ambitious musician in terms of getting any better or any worse, so style in my case isn't something I try to have. It's just what exists because I don't really know how to play guitar. I don't know what the notes are. If someone said "Play that in the key of A," I would just have no idea. I just strum and it's really rhythmic. I think that's the thing that people respond to in that way, that it's weird strumming patterns. That's like asking why some people eat food in a certain way. When I started listening to music really seriously, a lot of the bands, like the Marine Girls and Young Marble Giants, those kind of minimalist bands really appealed to me.
Now, your name is Lois Maffeo, but you release albums as Lois. Why?
Lois: The rationale is just so I can play solo when I want and have a band when I want. It's not really that uncommon. Prince, Madonna, TAD, Beck. It's their names and with Madonna, it's never like a band, like the Madonna, but it just simplifies things for me and plus I'm not that creative in thinking of band names.
Going back to the style, it doesn't sound like you had any "professional" training.
Lois: Yes, that is correct. I actually bought a guitar because I thought it was pretty and then after I had it for a while, I figured, "Oh, I guess I have this thing, I might as well learn how to play it." A friend that knew how to play gave me chord diagrams. There was a really famous punk poster from England and it might have been for the Damned, I'm not really sure, but it shows three chords, G, A and D and says "Here's three chords, now start a band." I kind of used that as my inspiration.
Finally, you mentioned your mission earlier. What's that about?
Lois: I kind of figure there are rewards from performing and there are rewards from being involved in music and selling records and stuff but I get really jazzed if someone is inspired to play or is just inspired to not be afraid to do something they want to do. I kind of feel like if you have all these tools sitting around, it's ridiculous not to use them to help other people realize what their potential is. It's not like I go out and stump for everybody starting a band or doing what they want to do, but I know sometimes it just takes a small push for someone to decide like, "Well, why do I sell shirts for my boyfriend's band? Why don't I just start my own band?" That happens on all levels. I just kind of want to be steady in a way, just somebody who does something that's simple and easy to replicate.

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Last modified on Wednesday, March 26, 2008