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An interview with Try the Pie
by Jason Brownstein

Photo by Adrian Discipulo

Try The Pie is the songwriting project of San Jose based musician/writer/artist Bean Tupou. At any given time Bean's list of projects is immense. In addition to writing and playing in Try The Pie, they also play in multiple other active bands (currently Plume, Crabapple and Salt Flat), coordinate the art program at San Jose's Chromatic Coffee, and are a founding member of the Think and Die Thinking booking collective. Initially a singer/songwriter project, the forthcoming record Domestication marks Try The Pie's first release as a full band with the addition of fellow San Jose based musicians Richard Gutierrez (of Sourpatch, Younger Lovers, Busted Outlook, Permanent Ruin) and Nick Lopez (Ugly Winner). Domestication' will be out on Salinas Records this Spring.

How did Try the Pie start? What were some of the influences in your life that led to this project?

When I was younger I never really knew anyone that was really serious about playing in a band or playing music, so in high school I just started recording myself with tape recorders. My dad was learning how to play guitar and sing so he would record himself on those little memo recorders. He was a preacher so he would also record himself practicing sermons, preaching in Tongan, sometimes for hours. He was really obsessed with it. I got the idea from him to record myself playing songs, but I never really showed anyone because I was so embarrassed. Even if what I was doing then wasn't necessarily called "Try The Pie" -- playing these kinds of songs has always been around.

Were there people in your life growing up that introduced you to the larger DIY scene and to playing in bands?

When I met Nicole from Sourpatch she was in this band Miss Flo, and they were all still in high school. They were a queer, all-women band, and at the time I was just playing talent shows at school or open mics. My friend signed me up for an open mic at the Billy de Frank Center (a queer community center in San Jose, where we now have Think and Die Thinking Fest). I had never been there but all of my friends would go for Wednesday night youth group. This open mic I played was the first time people told me that what I was doing was good which was serious to me. Before that I didn't think too much about whether or not people would like it, but I just did it anyway.

At the end of the night Miss Flo played and it kind of blew my mind. I had an idea that this existed, but I really didn't know about riot grrrl or anything other than the pop punk I would listen to. I started spending time with them and the more I hung out with them the more I was exposed to this really awesome music. It was pivotal for me to see people like me in order to see myself playing music. Before that the only place I could see myself was in Tongan Church and choir and things like that.

Describe the early stages of Sourpatch. How did playing in that band change your songwriting and your perspective with Try The Pie?

I always wanted to be in a band. Try The Pie was something I did because I needed to play music, but being in a band felt like something different. I wanted to be in a band the way people want to fall in love. When Sourpatch happened it was so fast. Being in a band with Rich means that once you are on the train it just keeps going. He's pretty prolific and he knows how to run stuff and motivate people. Recording happened really fast. It was really distracting musically, and it was also really scary. My first shows I just turned down the amp all the way, because I was playing lead guitar and I had never done that before. When I went home I would just listen to Go Sailor and Tiger Trap and try to listen to the lead guitar parts. That was the sound I wanted, it was the sound that we were bound together by.

During that time Try The Pie was still happening, and I was able to incorporate a lot more into it, because once I started to observe Sourpatch as a band I could incorporate the things I was learning. That goes for any band that I've played in. Try The Pie is kind of like a sponge. It collects everything that happens around me.

Recording an album with a full band and releasing it with a label are both new steps for Try The Pie. What's the difference between then and now for you as a songwriter and an artist?

I'm a little more confident about what the aim of this project is, and it's made it easier to incorporate other people and to do things like record a full record. Before I wanted to do everything myself because I didn't feel like I could explain to somebody what this is about. Trying to remove that block is all a part of growing up. At first you are trying to figure out who you are and what you are about, so you make the decision to deal with things privately. When I made my first album, Rest, I made CD-Rs and just slipped them underneath my roommates' doors and gave it to people I knew. But I put a lot of time into everything on that record. I put a lot of myself in to it, and I was really proud of spending my time doing that. So I guess the difference is now I'm exposing it to other people in a way where I am confident and I believe in it. It's easier now to record with someone else and assert what I want from the recordings too. Now I know for sure what the project means to me, and it's easier not to compromise that.

I don't really know how it goes premiering things. I think sometimes there is this scripted way of showing things to people, but I just like sharing things with people. I've already sent the tracks to a lot of my friends and people are like, "hey! you are leaking your album" but I don't really feel like it's that sacred or secret.

Seeing as the record is coming out on a label and getting pressed on vinyl, a lot of new people are going to hear your songs. Do you have any feelings about showing these songs to a wider audience?

It will be nice for people that don't know me to be able to listen to it without any context to it. It's exciting to me that they can listen to it and get whatever they want out of it. I really enjoy that about albums I listen to. That is the number one thing I've been thinking about in regard to putting it out there is people not really knowing or having context, not being close to it at all. When I listen to a record I don't know a lot about already I can enjoy it from really far away. I think things are enjoyed so much differently that way. I'm excited for them to have that experience with Domestication. They get to see it for what it is.

How was it transitioning from a singer-songwriter to a full band? What were some of the considerations when choosing people to play with, what instruments to incorporate, or what it would sound like?

I thought a lot about it. Playing in Plume was really what got me used to playing very loud, dynamic music. Even small things like just learning about feedback and electric guitar with Jenna in Salt Flat contributed to the thought. Being involved in so many full bands for so long, I thought, "why don't I just do this?" I like the way these bands sound. For some reason the culture behind the full band as opposed to just playing solo seems so separate to me. There is this wedge between those two worlds. People were asking me to play shows with a bunch of other solo artists, but I really wanted to play with bands.

I remember playing solo at the Sutro Baths cave with Dreamdecay and Wild Moth, and I remember Austin from Wild Moth asking if I ever needed another guitarist because he would love to play the songs. Interactions like that were indicators to me. I knew that I wouldn't be subjecting anyone to anything they didn't want to do by asking them to play with me. Rich and I ran into Nick Lopez and he was saying that he hadn't been playing music since Ugly Winner broke up. I told him I was thinking about doing a Try The Pie full band and he was immediately on board. He is such a sweet person and so pleasant and so incredibly reliable. He is always on time to practice to the minute. He memorizes songs really well and he is super dedicated. It makes me feel like he is playing with me rather than me subjecting him to my songs.

Rich just kinda happened because he is always around. I also like that Rich and Nick have punk history in San Jose together. Their hardcore bands had played together before when Rich was in high school. The fact that we all live in San Jose and the fact that we are so ingrained in the culture here has also made it really easy. In that sense it's nice to have a purely local band that practices very often. It was like that with Sourpatch in a way.

How do your many identities play a role in Try The Pie as a band? Does one part of your identity show through more than another?

I have always seen myself as a really sensitive person. Even growing up I was so sensitive and I hated it, but now I feel a little better about it. It's my sensitivity that is the number one thing that shows through in Try The Pie. I also love writing. Even though I never really went to school for that, it's something that I've loved forever. I do identify as a writer even though I would never say it out loud.

It's hard to think about your identity in that way because thinking about people incorporating their identity into music is complicated. Art is sometimes supposed to be this "vacuum" but I have never really seen it that way. Sometimes when someone incorporates their identity into something, or makes something personalized at all, it's seen as a gimmick, which is problematic to me. I think it's really really brave for people to put themselves out there. Like Downtown Boys - I think its really brave to be able to speak between songs and talk about exactly what they are about. I feel the same about Busted Outlook when Rich talks about his songs.

Having a confessional kind of project is one thing, but actually talking about who you are and the things that brought you here, and talking about the things that are inevitably who you are, is really brave. I try to think about that and try to be braver with how I talk about my identity in Try The Pie, but for the most part it's a lot of me being really sensitive and feeling a lot of feelings.

You touched on something there about how sometimes artists are discouraged from incorporating their identity into their music, or how your personality isn't necessarily supposed to show in your work. Can you expand on that?

I'm not an authority on art but I do think that there is a certain echelon of people that have incorporated their identity into their music. When I was younger and seeing Santigold or MIA or even Rhianna - these are women of color and their different backgrounds and contexts definitely show through in their music. And despite that, they still have this mainstream appeal. It's important to see that, as somebody that comes from an identity that is for the most part invisible unless I am actively talking about it all the time. It's important for me to see these people who are vocal about it. I could not stop listening to MIA's first record Arular, which was her dads name. My friend that is a white queer boy showed it to me and said, "it is so sad." He tried to explain to me why it was sad, but to me it was so inspirational that she was talking about her background and her family and Sri Lanka. That's the kind of stuff that really reminds me that this shit is not a gimmick. It's just who someone is, and they incorporate it into their art. Obviously it is going to translate into more sensationalized versions, because that is how art and pop is.

Does it ever occur to you now that you are someone that people are going to see? Do you think about how you are going to be someone that people pay attention to and interpret?

Well it didn't at first, but recently this person who moved to San Francisco from Long Beach or the OC who is also half Tongan and queer got in touch with me and we have become friends. He is 8 years younger than I am but we got each other's number and we have been talking and we went to a Pacific Islander meetup together. He texted me about the song "Unholy Island" and asked me if the song was about Tonga. It was really so affirming that he said that, because he totally got that. People might relate to that song or think it's pretty but just because of the particular experience that he is coming from - which is really similar to my experience as both first generation and hafekasi, Tongan and White - It was so great to hear him get that connection. It makes me think that this isn't totally ridiculous, because sometimes I think this is gibberish nonsense. He asked if it was about Tonga and about feeling separated from your culture and where you come from but also feeling so inevitably connected to it. It was really really cool.

How does your family play a role in the songwriting of Try The Pie?

I'm reading this zine right now that Cynthia Schemmer sent me that is about faith, grief and loss. It talks about how we choose to talk about these things that happen to us. Some of the songs were written before my mom passed away, and some of them were written directly after. There is definitely a difference, but they are mixed throughout the record. People who know me can probably pick them out. In my mind - maybe this happens to a lot of people when they lose loved ones - you separate your time into two categories: before they were gone and after. I'm really fortunate that I wanted to play music afterwards, because I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about it, or really about anything. Things definitely feel different. Everything feels different to the point where I try to remember how things felt before, to get back there, and it doesn't really work. But I'm trying to be patient with myself.

I think I wrote the song "Thomas" right after she passed away. It's about a lot of things, but it's mostly the feeling that I had to tell my brother about her passing away. We were in the basement playing music and he was living with me at the time. I got all these phone calls, so I went upstairs and there were phone calls from my aunt and my mom's phone and I kind of knew that was a really bad combination of phone calls. I left the basement and I went into my room and I talked to my Aunt and heard the news and kind of collapsed with a rush of just feeling awful and sad and knowing that I had to tell my brother about it.

It's also about experiences you have in a family unit as siblings. You all experience things so differently. You get your parents differently, you get life differently. You have had similar upbringings so you have so many similarities, more than you would be similar to anyone else. Essentially domesticated and socialized so similarly, but he and I are so different. It is something that I meditated on in that song and I wrote in five minutes or something.

I always thought it would be harder to talk about, but I think it's good for me. Someone told me early on, "it's good that you're talking about it." There are certain things that I can't talk about, but as far as family goes, it's all over the project. I think that it's healthy and I even feel lucky that I can have an outlet like that. I think Try The Pie will never not be about intimate relationships.

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