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An interview with Hannah Lew / by Liz Pelly

Hannah Lew is spending some alone time in New York. “I’ve been doing a lot of stuff by myself here and having a really good time,” she tells me over coffee in Brooklyn on a Tuesday afternoon. “When you go to a museum by yourself, you just take it in in a different way. New York is a place I’ve spent a lot of time alone. That’s sort of my relationship to the place.”

It’s a fitting way to start a conversation with Lew, whose new band Cold Beat, plays songs that are laced with a palpable sense of isolation. Lew started writing the songs for the dark and deeply textured post-punk record Over Me as long as 5 years ago. The resultant 12-song collection is finally out next month via her own imprint Crime On The Moon, and it sounds as distant and detached as the band name suggests.

Laced with eerie symbolism (chains, knives) and more straightforward lyrics than Lew’s previous songs, the songs on Over Me are “less about death and more about separation and distance,” Lew says. “I just started out writing about things that were important to me and ended up with six songs about separation, insomnia, and other mental torment … I got a lot of out of my system.” (Lew has explained that her first single, “Worms,” was written after her father’s death in 2009. “I couldn't help but imagine worms eating his corpse,” she said in one interview.)

Lew, best known as one-third of the sadly now-defunct Bay Area post-punk trio Grass Widow, has spent over a decade carving out an identity for herself in the worlds of underground music and visual art. A San Francisco native, Lew spent time living in New York and Philadelphia before returning to the Bay Area, where she now lives and works. “When I lived here I felt like it was some of the most important and loneliest time of my life,” she tells me. “I didn’t really ever date people when I was younger. I just was like a real loner. I mean, I still am, even though I’m married. I’m still a huge loner. My and my husband are both very independent.”

During our mid-May conversation, Lew and I spoke mostly about the Cold Beat record, as well as her numerous other current bands and art projects, her label, the end of Grass Widow, singing candidly about grief, her struggles with insomnia, demoing songs in the middle of the night, watching San Francisco change, and a lot more.

The Media: Did you play in bands when you lived here?

Hannah Lew: No, I made visual art when I lived here. I was 22. I always was very musical but I never pursued music because I was working constantly to be able to live in New York. I didn’t have any free time when I lived here. It was really a different time when I lived in New York. Most of my friends lived in squats in Alphabet City.

I had to move away from New York to start doing music. That’s actually why I left New York. I moved to Philadelphia and played in my first band. And then I went from there and traveled a lot and eventually moved home to San Francisco. That’s when I really started playing the bass with Frankie Rose, my first band mate. I played bass and she played drums. That was the beginning of our band. We actually played music together last week. It was really funny. We were just jamming. But it was the first time we played where she was playing drums and I was playing bass in over ten years. It was a trip.

Who else was in that band?

It was the two of us, our friend Wu, and Raven from Grass Widow. It was a really long time ago. We were both just like, “we want to learn how to play instruments.” We didn’t have any friends at all. We just hung out together. No one wanted to hang out with us so we were like let’s start a band and we did. And we just learned how to play our instruments together and that was the beginning really. From then on she was a drummer and I was a bass player and we just did that in all the projects going forward.

How old were you then?

When I started playing bass I was 23. That was really the beginning of me writing songs. It was an important time. And it was pretty arbitrary, we were just like “we should start a band” and I was like “ok, I’ll play bass ... ok I’ll play drums.” I bought the cheapest bass you could buy.

What was the band you started in Philly?

Oh, it’s really dated. It was the late 90s, early 00s, mind you. Don’t judge me. We were called The Insides and I played a Moog. My brother gave me a Moog when I was really young. I was really into Devo, those were my favorite formative kind of bands. He gave me this Moog because his was broken and I got it fixed. So I played that and I sang and jumped around a lot.

When you started playing music, did you feel distracted from visual art at all? Did you feel like you had time for everything?

My whole life, I was a painter and a printmaker. And I enjoyed that, but I spent a lot of time alone doing that. I never really felt satisfied. I’ve always felt like a loner and I’ve always felt kind of isolated, but I didn’t really feel like I was connecting with people properly with it. I wasn’t really interested in the gallery world. There’s so much money and pretext and a lot of side elements to the art world that were not inspiring to me.

I like how quickly an idea or an emotion can get jotted down with music or film. I don’t have the same access to my emotions with visual art. I still make visual art sometimes, usually for album art, but as an every day practice I find music and film to be more accessible to everyone and easier to connect with. So I still always work visual art into what I do but it’s more the kind of stuff that anyone can have. I don’t really make many one-of-a-kind things. I don’t make anything worth a lot of money.

Is Grass Widow still a band?

As far as I can tell, we’re not a band anymore. We played in that band for 6 years. It was the only band all of us did. I don’t know. Lily moved away, so we haven’t played music together in a while. I don’t know what her plans are but it just kind of seems like everyone’s doing their own thing. Raven is really focused on her woodworking.

Raven and I put out a 7-inch last year with our band Bridge Collapse. We’re still writing music. I haven’t heard from Lily in a little bit. She moved in with her parents in Washington. She’s been living there and doing school stuff.

So was it an official break up?

No. I’m more of a direct person. I would be of the mind to say, “let’s make a statement about where we’re at.” But not everyone else feels like that and wants it to be more open ended. So I guess the rest of the world is going to have to deal with that ambiguity. As am I.

Creatively, what are your main focuses right now other than Cold Beat?

Grass Widow was so monogamous. We were touring so much and really only writing together. Once that dissipated, I suddenly realized there were all of these people I’d wanted to connect with but I hadn’t because I’d been so one-track-minded. So I’ve been doing Cold Beat and working on videos for that, and that’s been taking up a lot of my creative energy. Also I started another band called Generation Loss, which is me and these two guys from San Francisco and that’s really fun too. We’re making this insane, ambitious VHS album and it’s going to be out June 6. We put out a tape and we just recorded our second record.

I’m here in New York right now playing music with a few friends. I feel like my creative energy is really open right now. I feel open to new projects without taking them too seriously, just trying to explore stuff, with video and with music. Working with a lot of new people, branching out a lot more. It feels good. I feel like I’m in a definitive place creatively where it’s less about my identity within a group and more about just who I am and how my energies intermingle with other people. It feels like a good year.

After such a long time of being 1/3 of a band, it must feel really good to finally be conveying your own singular identity as an artist and be able to express that more.

I struggled with that. Some of the songs on the Cold Beat record are 4, 5 years old. With Grass Widow it was very much about having a shared identity and shared experience, even with lyric writing. It was always, “Okay, how would I relate to what you just said?” With Cold Beat, I’m the only person who writes lyrics. I’m standing in the middle. There are a lot of things that are different for me and it took me a while to get into that identity. Because I like bands. I’ve never really responded to solo artists.

It’s a generalization, but when it comes to making stuff, I’m really interested in making stuff that isn’t so focused on celebrity or a person as an icon. It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to do it. I didn’t know how I feel about standing in the middle because I was so used to standing in a triangle, with my voice hiding in harmony. With Cold Beat I wasn’t even sure if I could sing on my own and what that would be like. I got used to it. It’s just a different type of singing when you’re singing by yourself than when you are harmonizing and your voice is sort of lost. It’s an adjustment.

It’s interesting that you’re in a place where you don’t want to get lost in the mix of three other people, but you also don’t want any of the projects to be all about you.

In Grass Widow, our voices would melt together so much, I was in there, but no one knew who I was. There was a certain level on anonymity that was very safe. Towards the end of the last record, we were writing less together. I was still writing a lot of songs and they didn’t feel like Grass Widow songs. I started to actually need that speed of finishing songs and not waiting until people were ready to work on them. There was a certain amount of momentum. I had a few creative surges where it just became apparent that it was time to just kind of do my own thing. It took me a long time to figure out. It was also unclear to me whether Grass Widow was going to play again. At a certain point I thought it was just time to go forward and do Cold Beat.

It all kind of reminds me of being a twin, that sentiment like “my identity is getting lost in the mix – I need to do my own thing.” The song “Mirror” – you’ve said it’s about duality of identity. I wanted to ask you what you meant by that?

When I was writing that I was thinking about identity. I was having a moment where I was identifying in so many ways. I got married last year so I was identifying as a wife, and as a person in this band. In the midst of that I was just getting really into being an individual and thinking about identity.

At the same time I watched that I was watching Twin Peaks for the first time ever. I was sort of put off by David Lynch when I was younger. Everyone loved him and I thought – well if everyone loves him I’ll probably hate him.

Did you hear that newly released Bikini Kill song called “Fuck Twin Peaks”? It’s on the Yeah Yeah Yeah reissue. They thought the romanticized dead girl was inherently fucked up. There’s a story about them going to a Twin Peaks screening and just pulling the cord out of the wall or something.

No I haven’t heard it. See that’s funny. I had an opposite reaction. When I watched it, I saw the way it deals with grief. When you look at pop culture, there’s no space for grief in our society. No one knows what to do. But on that TV show, it’s David Lynch so he lets people get weird, the way he used this combination of terror and humor. I was actually impressed. I was surprised by how much I responded to it because of its dealing with grief in that way.

I guess I can see what they mean about the romanticized dead girl, but my response was, “oh I can relate to losing a family member in my nuclear family.” I get that deep kind of grief. It’s sort of this – grief does this weird thing to people that’s really hard to describe and I think he did a really good job.

A lot of Cold Beat songs deal with grief, right?

For me, songwriting is a safe place to talk about really dark things. I’m not an inherently positive person. When I am positive, I am surprised. I deal with depression just like any other artist. With music, it’s a safe space where I can talk about negative things in a positive way and it’s sort of transcendent. Also, I love pop music. To write a pop song about grief is pretty cathartic to me. The songs are all really fun to perform even though some of them are pretty fucked up.

I found this study recently that said societies that talked about death and dying more actually ended up being happier.

I could see that. It’s this huge unknown. It’s so unsettling. If we thought about it every day we’d go nuts. I think in American culture we’ve gone a little far in negating death. I think when you lose someone close to you, you get a little closer to it, for a lack of better words, you become a little more open to the spirit world. I’ve definitely thought about death a lot, especially in the last 5 or 6 years.

Do you think that comes through a lot in Cold Beat songs?

The record is less about death and more about separation and distance. To me it sounds like a very distant record. It’s me distancing myself from a lot of things I was apart of. I just started out writing about things that were important to me and ended up with six songs about separation, insomnia, and other mental torment. I was like, “well, might as well write about all of the demons too.” I kind of covered a lot of bases with the subject matter. It ended up being a really cathartic experience for me to just let it rip. Because I’m the only songwriter, I can talk about anything I want. I got a lot out of my system.

Where did that band name come from?

I had written a bunch of songs, I’d say half or a third of the record. They were kind of coming from a place of terror or insomnia. I got really into this band called The Sound. They have a song called Cold Beat. So that song came from that.

A lot of the songs are pretty symbol heavy.

I get annoyed when people downplay semiotics in our world. We have such a visual world. Symbols and icons are a language everyone uses. I kind of respect symbols and I include them in what I think about. It’s less an abstraction and more just a different way of describing things. I feel like language is pretty limited. I’d say the lyrics in Cold Beat are much more straightforward than Grass Widow lyrics.

I have recurring symbols for sure. There are themes in the record. It’s almost its own code. If you hear the same word a lot, it’s probably because that word or that object is a symbol. Music has the ability to describe things in a different way the same way visual art does with symbols. I guess I rely heavily on symbols.

Are there any specific ones that recur?

Chains became kind of a big symbol. And knives. I guess a lot of weapons. I didn’t mean for that to happen. The chains are about control, I guess. There are a lot of themes of control on the record. Chains to me feel like something where you can hold on one end and know how far the chain goes, and you know how far you are from something, but they’re also something that can bind you. There are different modalities of control that I dealt with a lot on this record.

There is a lot of knife imagery, too. That’s basically just about being decisive. Like making a decisive cut.

Is the album cover a posed photo?

The cover is a video still from one of the videos that’s going to come out next month. In the video there’s a bunch of strobe light stuff going on. There’s all this weird refraction of light. It’s actually 2 video stills, one next to the other, laid on top of each other.

I wanted to ask you about the song Fatal Bond.

It’s pretty dark. That song, like some other songs on the records, was demoed at 6am after being up all night. It’s about insomnia. I don’t know if you suffer from it. I’ve always struggled with sleeping my whole life. I’m really bad at it. I get mad at myself for it. Now if I’m having trouble sleeping, I’ll just get up and bake a cake and go back to bed. For me, I kind of took that to heart, and thought, “maybe I should just finish the songs in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep.” This one came together by 6, 7am. Like a lot of the other songs I guess it’s about separation. About the kind of futile thought of “I wish I could go back in time.” It’s like, did you ever wish you could fly when you were a kid?

That song is about time in a lot of ways, and what it really means to be connected to someone. Because a fatal bond is when you’re connected to someone, usually familial, and maybe you don’t feel good around them, maybe they’re going to die one day, but you’re connected to them. It’s about that kind of connection. Some parts of that song are also about people I’m connected to where its not exactly the best for me. It’s a little bit about time passing. Time can pass real slow in the middle of the night when you’re laying there.

Have you always suffered from insomnia?

Yeah. When I was a little kid I remember staying up for 2 weeks once. I just never slept well. I don’t think I need that much sleep, like 5 or 6 hours. I just like to wake up early and do stuff. And I like to stay up late.

I was afraid of sleeping when I was a kid because I used to have really vivid nightmares. It’s probably a control thing. When you’re asleep you can’t control where your mind is going to go. I think when I was a kid I was afraid of the dream world and afraid of where my mind would go.

Something I worked on a lot with this record was not being too hard on myself. If you’re a person who deals with insomnia, then while you’re awake, do something cool that you feel excited about. If you’re a person who suffers from depression, make something out of it. Honor that it’s something you deal with. You can’t be hard on yourself about it.

Do you think that’s something you’ve gotten better about as you’ve gotten older?

Oh yeah. It’s about being nice to yourself. We’re all good at some things and have a hard time with others. You can’t work it into your identity too much. You have to just take it easy on yourself and not give yourself a hard time. I know I’m not good at sleeping. I’m not just going to sit there and be like “ugh I wish I could sleep like a normal person!” Instead I’m going to admit – I’m not good at sleeping – and while everyone else is sleeping I’m just going to do stuff. It’s kind of about honoring your own process.

How have things been going with your label, Crime on the Moon?

Having the label has been really fun for me because I get to make all of the decisions. It’s my capitalist model. I’m in charge. It makes you think, “What is my role is capitalism? How do I want to deal with this?” Especially because I quit my job in November and decided for a few months to try to just do music stuff, with some odd jobs, and selling my stuff. It was kind of a leap of faith.

What was the job you quit?

I was working in a video store for the past 7 years. I was getting paid pretty well because I worked there so long. Lots of musicians have worked there. We opened a theatre. It was really great, but it wasn’t my business and I had been there for so long and I wanted to do something else. I was feeling really broke. I sold a bunch of my records, a bunch of my clothes. I’ve been selling some of my Dad’s belongings which is kind of morbid but I think it’s the right thing to do. I was just feeling broke and overwhelmed by how broke I was and it just led me closer to letting go.

Being so broke, but also knowing that I will bounce back, made me think a lot. I know I’m broke now and I’ll figure it out later but there are some places in the world where people can’t even get clean drinking water. It just started hitting me really hard in my daily life, thinking about what money means to people and thinking about how we as humans have invented this stuff that we rely on just like we rely on rain. It’s insane.

And so I decided that all of the Crime on the Moon proceeds, I donate a percentage to this charity, Charity Water. I was thinking about it a lot. “How can I give back a little bit of what I make, even though I’m so broke?” I was thinking about all of the stuff I care about and it’s just a catchall. It’s a women’s issue -- there are women in many parts of the world who are just walking 8 hours a day, that’s all they do, to get clean water. And then they get the water home and decide, “do I want to eat with this? Do I want to cook wit this? Do I want to wash clothes with this?” Female thought is completely missing from so much of the world’s society because these women are spending time on these sorts of decisions, just going to get water.

Then also, people are just dying from not having water. I can’t believe that a simple thing like clean water systems is not available when people here are deciding, “how many records do I want to buy today?” Which is more similar to the place that I’m in. I don’t know, it just feels good to be able to make decisions about what I want to do with my money when it comes to doing a label.

A lot of people in music don’t want to talk about money. They want to pretend that they are above capitalism. There are a lot of people in the music world who came from money, so they never had to work, and then they started doing music, and they did really well, so they still didn’t have to work. And they are happy to never talk about money. You’ll play a show together and they’ll say, “I don’t want to have anything to do with the money!” Why are we pretending we’re not involved with capitalism here?

It’s felt really good for me to be able to be in charge of what I do with money and be really transparent about it. I come from a punk background. I’ve always wanted the releases I have to be cheap so people can afford them. That’s always been important to me. Things have changed so much in the record industry though. In the 90s when I was first playing music, people could actually make money off record sales, which is something you can’t do anymore. You cannot survive as a musician off of record sales. The ways people make money these days is through licensing. If you asked me 10 years ago if I would license music I would have said, no I don’t want to have my music attached to anything.

Has that changed?

I’ve really changed the way I think about it. I write music for my emotional survival. It’s something I do. I don’t write music to sell things. But if someone hears a song of mine and they want to use it for something and they’re going to pay me for it – hell yeah they can use it. I can get over myself in that situation. Say someone gives me 80,000 dollars? First of all, I’m going to take that and give a percentage to giving water to people. And also, if anyone should have that money it should be me. We have a ridiculous offset pyramid of capitalism that we’re dealing with. All of the wrong people have the money. And it’s all privatized. It’s not like in other countries where there’s actually money for the arts. All of the wrong people have the money. If you’re a musician, the only way you’re going to have access to it is maybe through private companies. I think when it comes to making money with music there’s totally a way to do it that sticks to your values. You can be critical about the money you make.

Your label is releasing a compilation of all songs written about changes in San Francisco. Can you tell me about that tape?

It’s a compilation of songs written about the tech boom in San Francisco. It really came together because every conversation I was having with anyone in the Bay Area seemed to always be about the tech boom. I just though, “I want to give form to this conversation that everyone is always having.” It feels good. So many people have things to say. It’s something you just can’t help but think about there because we’re all just getting priced out so harshly.

Who’s on it? And what people are singing about?

Erase Erratta actually has a new record coming out in the fall, and they gave me a song for the comp. There was this bill passed in San Francisco recently making it illegal for people to sit or lay down in the street. Basically, there are a lot of homeless people in San Francisco because it’s warm all year long. It’s not that warm, but you will survive. So Ray’s song was about that. It’s just like a classist kind of thing with all the tech people moving in. Twitter is in downtown San Francisco – they did this whole campaign to “clean up” downtown. They just want to displace people. There are a lot of weird, classist attitudes going on in San Francisco right now.

There’s also an Oh Sees song on the tape that Josh gave it to me right before he moved to LA. A lot of people on the comp have since moved away, or broken up. It’s a huge time of change. That’s kind of what the problem is. It’s less a claim about the scene in San Francisco right now, and more a snapshot of this time of really big change. A lot of the bands on the comp are not necessarily bands that I really came up with. They’re more just bands that happen to be around right now writing songs and had something to say.

Shannon Shaw from Shannon and the Clams has a song on it, about Delores Park and how much it’s changed. All of the songs are about change. There’s a lot of anger in there. It’s becoming a city where artists and musicians can’t really afford to live anymore. A lot of my friends have moved away. I really only hang out with the same 4 people all the time. I mean, the older you get the fewer friends you really need. You just need quality friends. So it’s fine. But there’s less of a community in San Francisco for sure. People are moving to the city to become millionaires. It’s pretty alienating.

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