Talking with Summer Girlfriends

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Before moving to Chicago everyone on the East Coast kept telling me how warm and welcoming the Midwest was. While no one has spit on me yet, I hadn’t really experienced this hometown sincerity until entering the cozy practice space of local rock ‘n’ roll five-piece Summer Girlfriends. Within the first five minutes it was clear that this was a band that not only care about their music but also each other. Having been around less than two years, Summer Girlfriends is on the fast track as a band to watch out for due to infectious live performances, simple, but powerful pop ditties and an overall unique sound. The past month has been an exhausting one with the release of their first full-length Shockwaves (Addenda Records) along with a tour of the Midwest and East Coast in support of it. The summer is far from over as the group still has their local release show this Friday at The Burlington with Blizzard Babies and Orca Team, and much more in store for the humid months ahead.

How did the first big tour go?

Sara (bass): Life changing, no joke

So, generally a positive experience?

Collective: Oh absolutely.

Nicole (drums): Overwhelmingly, all of us had hesitations because either we hadn’t been away from significant others for that long or also hadn’t been in a van with four other women for that long. We’d hear other people being like 'Good luck with that.'

Kristin (guitar): And from people who have done it for years and just tour all the time. When we got back they asked how it went and we were like good, we didn’t lose any money, or get in fights, and the boys jaws just dropped open from surprise. Five girls and not one single fight!

Caitlin (singer): It was great. We had brunch five out of seven times on tour.

How did you go about figuring out tour logistics?

Kristin: It was kind of awesome because we do have people in this band with boyfriends and husbands who have toured and toured, so we got advice from them, but we did it ourselves for the most part. We got a tip or contact info but really it was all ourselves. We pooled all of our resources, made a Google Doc and did it ourselves.

Caitlin: We also relied on the other bands and venues we played with or at. You don’t just book the show; then you also have to find other bands to play with, which can be a whole other beast of its own.

Kristin: But that was also awesome because locals would say they liked our music, and we’d ask them to help us out. People do that to us, so we are always happy to return the favor.

Sara: The Internet.

Kristin: How could we even have done this without the Internet or Chicago?

Caitlin: (laughing) We wouldn’t have done it.

Nikita (guitar): This awesome girl we met in Brooklyn, who within three seconds had offered us a place to crash because our place had fell through, wrote on her feminist blog that people should listen to Summer Girlfriends. Then, two bands emailed, having heard us through the blog, about how they would love to play with us when they come to Chicago.

The mention of the Internet reminds me that you picked your second band name via a Facebook poll, and I was wondering how you use social media as a band. It makes things so much easier in terms of getting information out about a show or music out there but has there been any backlash with it?

Nicole: Not yet luckily. We’ve been really fortunate that it has been a positive experience. However we are acutely aware of the fact that we are an all-female band so we’re careful not to objectify ourselves.

Nikita: We don’t want to be stereotyped as anything because we are not anything. We are what we are.

Nicole: I think we walk that fine line of playing with the stereotype but not enforcing it so much.

Kristen: We are a girl band. We all like being cute and wearing cute clothes.

That can become an issue where people think if you are a “feminist”, then no, you cannot look a certain way or wear make up, be pretty, etc.

Collective. Exactly

Nicole: That’s where we try to blur the line a little, because when it comes down to it, it’s about the music.

Nikita: We’re celebrating it, not objectifying it.

Did you guys all play prior to starting Summer Girlfriends or was it a let’s do this and learn instruments in the process?

Nicole: Kind of happened after. Most of us knew how to play. Some kind of knew, some were okay. I wouldn’t say any of us are masters of our instruments. Caitlin is the one who has been singing the longest, out all of us.

Caitlin: But never in a band. Talking, like, choir.

Sara: I had been playing bass for a while, but I was playing really simple punk rock kind of music and in this band I am able to have more space to write my own parts and push myself to try to get better.

Caitlin: We all write our own parts, at least for now. We all collaborate. It’s not like one person writes it and we all learn it, which is another reason why I love our band and why it is hard to describe it. We all have different musical backgrounds in terms of what music we like and we put it all together to create what this is.

Nikita: I didn’t know how to play guitar before I started. I played bass in a band when I was sixteen for like six months or so.

Nicole: That counts!

Nikita: I had never played guitar before, and I just wanted to be in a band.

Caitlin: She told me like two years before we started the band that she wanted to start a band and I was like 'Okay, cool,' but then we just didn’t talk about it anymore. Then the next year at New Year's Eve she was like 'I really want to start that band!' so I was like 'Okay, let’s just do it,' so that’s how it happened.

Sara: I think we are really good at knowing how to cater to our strengths, which is so great. I’m not this crazy funk bassist (group laughter). I know what I can and cannot do, so we write our songs based on what we can do well.

Kristin: Like, what Sara was saying before about writing our own parts, it’s cool that we can because we can try something crazy and you can do it and it’s cool.

Caitlin: No one is judging here. We are all open to anything, which is really nice to me.

Nikita: And we’ve grown. The first song we wrote was one note on the guitar part and the other guitar part was “whir” on the one note because that was all we could do at that point. And then it grew.

Kristin: And that’s one of the songs people like the most, the one we made the video for, “Shockwaves.”

Summer Girlfriends – “Shockwaves” from Danger Russ on Vimeo.

How you all write your own parts perhaps speaks to why it’s hard to label your sound, since of all these different influences are combining. But even though it all sounds different, in ways, it still works together really well. Do you guys all come in with an idea and work from there?

Nikita: It’s usually me, Sara, Kristin, and Caitlin who will come up with an idea and then we share it, and then everyone adds their part.

Kristin: And then it ends up sounding totally different.

Caitlin: But that’s great, we need something to jump off from.

In a lot of reviews I’ve read it seems that critics like to compare you to the girl group sounds of the sixties. While I hear that inspiration in some songs, it is not an overwhelming theme of the band. Do you ever feel that you are being stereotyped into the 1960’s Girl Group revitalization because you are girls in a band?

Sara: I was actually just commenting today that we do get a lot of great reviews but I do notice that people say “girl group” a lot. But I don’t think that is something we are trying to do.

Caitlin: Well first off only one of us sings and all the girl groups from the sixties had like thirty women singing (laughs).

Nicole: I personally don’t think we sound like that at all, I think it is very different.

Nikita: We do a cover of a Shirelles’ song and when we were learning it there were so many minors and majors and 7ths and it was so complicated and all our songs have three or four chords and are real simple and are pop songs. It’s totally different.

Caitlin: I think also that we don’t sound like a lot of people, so it can be hard for some people to describe us.

Sara: People want to relate to the music and make it simple as in 'This is what this sounds like.” Especially if you’re a journalist, which good journalists won’t but some people just need something to compare you to so they have a story.

Nikita: Hollows [local Chicago group that Summer Girlfriends have played with] who do sound a lot like that [60’s sound] don’t even like getting compared to it. I think it might just be the plight of the girl band.

Something I’ve noticed since coming to Chicago is the prevalence of women in bands here compared to other places. It would be nice to be in a world where that wasn’t the first few things people might notice about a band, but music is still a very male dominated field and I was wondering: How you all have found Chicago to be as women musicians?

Caitlin: I think Chicago is very supportive of female artists. Females support females, and all the male bands do as well. Anyone we’ve come into contact with has supported us a 100%. It’s just a good scene. Everybody loves everybody. Not a lot of controversy, everyone is just really supportive, as far as I’ve noticed.

Nikita: We are all super supportive of other women in music and we’re actually in August doing a “Women in Music” night with a bunch of other awesome girl bands, whom we are all super good friends with.

Nicole: I still think as far as gender goes at shows you go to, the audience it’s probably a 50/50 mix but in terms of most of the people playing it’s still like 10% female and 90% male, so yes, while Chicago is very supportive, I still think we have a long way to go.

Kristin: Recently it’s been cool because, with the record coming out, we’ve gotten some nice write-ups, and it’s been really cool every time someone has just reviewed the record with out saying “this all girl band” and just reviewed it without it being about a girl band. I’m sure it irritates a lot of us if someone says “for a girl band” but no one really does that. We’ve just been getting a lot of awesome, subjective “this is a good band” write-ups.

Nicole: Focusing on the music and not the group.

Sara: I’ve had friends come up to me and they see males responding to our shows, but they also see women in the audience that seem really excited and connected to what we’re doing, which is awesome. We all go to shows and we all enjoy music but to really feel that these people are making music that you relate to and to inspire other women is awesome.

Nikita: I think we all feel this need to carry the torch on (everyone nods), especially for me in influencing other women to start playing music because I had never been in a band before, and we came together and made this thing happen. It’s about the music, and people like the music and we’re not just girls. You can do it, it’s not an unlearnable thing, how to play music and write songs.

Collective: You gotta just do it.

I think it is really important to see a reflection of somewhat you up there as a female. When you read a lot about the indie scene, especially back in the 1980s, you read about guys seeing these bands playing and realizing that they can also create music but it can be a bit different when you are a girl.

Caitlin: Totally intimidating. Let me tell you, when we first started it was super intimidating because we know all these people who had been in bands forever. We have boyfriends and husbands who have been playing forever. It was intimidating, but then you get over it. We have fun when we play music. We are not up there to “be in a band” or to be cool. We’re just having fun and we genuinely enjoy each other and have fun on Sundays talking at practice. It’s almost like Sunday Brunch but it’s band practice.

Kristin: We all just got back from tour last Sunday and we miss it. We’re all “why can’t I play music with you tonight?”

Sara: The whole tour, maybe halfway through everything coalesced and we all got to this level. We were deliriously tired, but we all got to this level where it started happening where we were all on stage laughing and Nikita and me had these dance move moments where we would look at each other. It just made everything come together in a really nice way.

It seems that if the tour went so well that recording probably did too. But how was it going into the studio for the first time, did you find it stressful?

Nicole: I feel like it was more surreal. We had this opportunity to go in to record but we didn’t know if it would be a tape or an album. It really depend on Addenda and if they liked it or not. It was a strange setup because we really just had no pressure.

Caitlin: We are so new at this. We don’t know how to be critical of ourselves. We haven’t been doing it for ten years and we don’t know how to sound a certain way or how to do stuff. We were very fresh and not hard on ourselves. We had what we had. That’s how we did it. We went in and recorded what we had. We didn’t change anything, everything that was recorded, we had before.

Nicole: And we practiced our butts off.

Nikita: Seven songs in three days. It was real fast. We only had seven songs when we first went in and then we came back and wrote four other songs and went back to recorded those, which was a little harder, but I think it turned out well.

You guys clearly have worked really hard to get where you are, practicing a ton, playing a lot of local shows and going on tour, but do you ever feel that people might be annoyed that you’ve only been around for a year or so and have had such success?

Caitlin: (nodding) I’m very conscious of that because I have friends that mean the world to me and have the most amazing music and I’m very conscious of how lucky we’ve been with what we’ve gotten.

Nicole: I feel like we’ve earned every step of the way. We haven’t sat on our laurels in any way.

Caitlin: We’ve worked really hard, especially since we didn’t know how to play instruments for the most part and never been in a band. We’ve worked really hard, but yes.

Nikita: Every good show we’ve gotten we’ve worked our asses off for. It’s not like someone calls and says, “take this amazing show.” It’s like hey I’m calling you 3x a day. We just got West Fest and we worked hard for that.

To wrap things up, I just wanted to ask you each individually what would you say is the band or musician that listening to makes you just realize how much you love music? I know you’ve already opened for The Coathangers, but if you could open for anyone who would it be?

Kristin: My favorite band that is making music right now is Thee Oh Sees, because they are so much fun to watch live and are always doing something new and interesting and their sound is totally unique. So when I listen to them it’s kind of like 'Wow.' They are awesome. In terms of opening for anyone, I don’t know, I kind of feel like we are getting a dream come true at West Fest opening for The Black Lips. There might be six bands in between us and them (laughs) but they are kind of the pioneers of the 'Work hard play fun music.' They aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel or anything. They are having a good time and working really, really hard at it and that is something I look up to.

Nicole: I just remember being a little kid and going to The Superdome in New Orleans and seeing New Kids On The Block and I know it’s really embarrassing but I just remember thinking 'Music is everything,' and holy shit, it changed my life. It was incredible. That was my first memory of music being awesome. This sounds lame but I really want to open for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club because I think those dudes are really cool.

Sara: When I was in high school it was the era of Nirvana, and it sounds really cliché but everyone I knew who grew up during that time found out about every cool band through them because they were really good at promoting bands. Like The Vaselines, and Flipper, and all of those awesome bands, that’s how I found out about them. I’d say that was the most exciting time of music for me. I was like fifteen years old and reading the biography of Kurt Cobain, basically with a highlighter and highlighting all the bands I had to listen to. In terms of right now, if there were any new band I would love to open for it would be the Super Wild Horses from Australia. They are a two-girl band that are super adorable and have great music. I think it is amazing what they do with two people and I would love to open for them.

Nikita: I’m going to give the really cliché answer. So I actually never started playing guitar until I was 27, which is pretty late in life. I always looked up to a certain band and thought 'I wish I could be her,' and that was Sleater-Kinney. They are amazing to me and such a source of inspiration. If I could open for a band, again they are going to laugh at me, because they know what I’m going to say. I was super nerdy about The Coathangers but we opened for them, so I had to pick someone else and I love cats and I love her, I’m going to say Best Coast.

Kristin: We totally sent a letter to Santa asking to open for the Best Coast show.

Caitlin: When I was growing up I didn’t listen to “normal music” because my dad was a huge influence and he was into Sinatra and Big Band stuff. I would say Billie Holiday and Lena Horne. They got me really into singing, which is why I joined choir as a kid. I still to this day almost prefer that music to really crazy hard music. I’m really into Lykke Li and I would love to open for her. It would be a really fun not too big but not too small band to open for.

See Summer Girlfriends this Friday at their record release at The Burlington with Blizzard Babies and Orca Team. Their full-length Shockwaves is now available on Addenda Records.