In the air and on the ground: An interview with Hannah Lew

Post Author: Victoria Ruiz

This started as an interview with Hannah Lew about Cold Beat and their new album, Into the Air, released earlier this month on Lew’s own label Crime On the Moon. It turned into a very real conversation about all things in the air and on the ground. In advance of the band’s weekend of NYC release shows, we talked about Lew’s hometown, inspirations, what it means to be outspoken, and the importance of playing for people who maybe don’t already fundamentally agree with you.

Why did you decide to play three shows in NYC for Cold Beat’s new album release?

We wanted to celebrate and do something different. Originally, we wanted to do something in Europe, but we couldn’t figure out a way to make it work financially. At first, I was feeling pretty down about it, but then I realized a lot of bands are paying out of pocket to go to Europe. So instead we decided to go to New York for the weekend and knew this would be special. We are playing a record release show in October in the Bay Area, but it is hard because there are not really that many bands we can play with in the Bay Area. We don’t have the biggest community there. We have played at a lot of big venues in the Bay Area but haven’t been paid really well. In the end it leaves me with a warped perception of our value. We don’t have a really big or strong support system there right now. Home, San Francisco, is not necessarily having an exciting time for music right now.

Do you believe San Francisco will always be your home?

Yes, me and my husband grew up here. My mom lives ten blocks away from me. The band is able to exist there because we are focused on writing and making music and not really being part of a scene. Our focus is not really on playing a lot of shows out right now, and it’s sort of ideal. We can actually be creative and experimental and see what works, instead of just practicing what we already have and getting our set together for shows. I don’t really feel like I’m miss anything by not playing a ton of shows. Carrying gear around, organizing a group, it’s a lot. It is really fun to be playing shows in New York, though, and to work for it. The city has really shown us a lot of love.

”Outrunning Shadows” is the emotional Autumn anthem. What is it about?

It’s interesting you bring up this song because it is related to New York. In the past, I have come to New York by myself to kind of shake myself out of where I am. I came out here last year, which is when the song came about. I was emotionally suffering in San Francisco and I wanted to see if I could outrun my shadow and be somewhere else for a different perspective. I think the expression is, “wherever you go there you are?” Or, “can you trick your shadows?” Even Grass Widow had a song called, “Shadow”. It is about darkness and if you are feeling a darkness come on, how you can trick it or shake it. It was definitely conceived once when I came to New York in order to try and trick my shadow. After being on a trip by myself I came home and realized that in order to outrun your shadow, you have to violently shake it.

How has art and music and culture impacted your sense of place?

It is getting increasingly tougher to make stuff in San Francisco. It is so expensive. A lot of people are asking if we’ll be touring with the new record. I would love to, but we all pay Bay Area rent. It is definitely a factor in playing. People just can’t take off work because we don’t get paid. Maybe when I was younger we could all work shitty jobs and then just quit and come back, but now it really affects you.

I am in the middle of really trying to make it work and part of that is looking at resources. I spent a lot of time thinking that the city is catered to billionaires, but I am working on it. There is not a thriving culture of criticism but an overarching presence of the elite, people with money. The whole Google bus thing is really strange. I grew up taking the public bus in San Francisco. You end up seeing everybody. There is something about that and I feel lucky to have been raised with a lot of diversity. All my friends growing up were from all different nationalities. I really value having a knowledge of that and of multiple income lifestyles. People who come here for tech jobs and only ride the Google buses, these big, white, and unmarked buses, they are all the same type of person, from the same money making bracket. It is scary that it is this monoculture.

I have been dying to talk about the “Google Bus” and San Francisco. Please tell me more.

It is difficult that they (Google bus riders) don’t want to know me, or know anyone from San Francisco, or anyone who wants to make less money than they do. For me, I draw my inspiration from inside. I go to the beach a lot. It is chill and will always be there. And, I draw inspiration from the people who are still in San Francisco.

The reason that I started playing in bands was because there was a subculture of actually challenging society.

People who are still there? What happened to the people who left?

There was an exodus. So many people moved away. With Grass Widow and with Cold Beat it has always been important to foster inclusiveness and have people from the community included in what I do. I don’t know if it’s a backlash to the elite and rich culture, but there is just a lot of bullshit in San Francisco right now. Every time we play a show, I have to ask about whoever is on the bill because I don’t want to play with a band wearing swastikas. It is a huge part of why I don’t like playing shows in the Bay Area, which is really weird because there is such a big history here, of the beat generation, political speech movements… The reason that I started playing in bands was because there was a subculture of actually challenging society. I don’t know if that is happening that much in the Bay Area right now. But, I think it is happening in other places. I know that any community is what you make it, and I do what I can to make community. I have a reputation of being PC in San Francisco and I’m totally not, I just will saying something about what I care about.

What makes being an artist, and your life in general, sustainable for you?

Working from home helps, and not going to an office. These days my friends don’t really come to my shows. People have babies, people are older, people have to go to bed. But, also it’s the space. The space doesn’t foster community, people aren’t doing the work to support the dialogue of what we actually want the space to look like. This is also why I am not playing that many shows.

There are some rad people in the Bay Area, all the Think and Die Thinking kids in San Jose. They’re young and doing cool shit and hopefully they will lead the way, and by the time they’re my age, things will be chill everyone will be doing cool stuff. There are people that I am still excited to participate with in the Bay Area, but there are just a lot of people that I’m not excited about, and that is ok, too. You have to be okay to not work with everybody. It is slim pickings in San Francisco. My ideal would be to play more shows my friends come to.

What do you think it means to be an outspoken and, perhaps we can even say, political artist?

When people say political it just means that you’re willing to voice your discontent even if people don’t like you for it. Of course I am. I have friends, I don’t need to make new friends. We have to be ok with saying what’s wrong with the world.

With Grass Widow we played during a different time. All of my friends used to come out during Grass Widow shows. I don’t really know the Cold Beat fan base in San Francisco. The city itself will always be beautiful and amazing. I think it is experiencing a wake up call right now.

People often go for this “apolitical” stance, but that might end up being seen as a very political choice. What do you think about this viewpoint of “staying out of it,” or taking a “no comment stance.”

I’ve had some experiences that I have challenged, like there’s an all-ages venue in San Francisco with a confederate flag casually hanging up, and the owner feels entitled to that. A lot of my friends who have continued to play with bands and people that have serious issues. The people I thought were my peers gave excuses like, “It’s not so black and white” and “those guys are our friends.” And I have to be like, “no,” and really be in the margins. I’m happy to be in the margins in San Francisco. I don’t trust San Francisco politically and artistically right now.

It’s not good art if it’s not speaking to the problems in the world or is challenging. There is so much strength in justing making and doing things. Making stuff alone is political and so powerful.

It’s not good art if it’s not speaking to the problems in the world or is challenging.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

We lived in NYC until I was 11 and then we moved to San Francisco. My dad was a rabbi. So many people in the Bay Area don’t know anything about Jewish culture. People don’t want to pay attention to history. There is still oppression in the world and we need to take it seriously. People cannot trivialize history. I really valued growing up in an environment where I learned about oppression, and how important it is to advocate for people differently than you. I really value that and find it very important. There is not really a big enough emphasis on that in many music scenes right now. Any Cold Beat show that I play, I just want people to feel comfortable and safe.

What responsibility do artists have to history?

It’s an opportunity more than a responsibility. If you have the mic, you have the opportunity to make a safe space. I’m not a dictator or a preacher, but when we have a show, we are an active group of people. A lot of us go through the world feeling unsafe in the world, and so when we have a moment and it’s in your control, that’s a moment we can choose to use. It’s a decision when people choose not to do anything with it. You always have choices and opportunities. You can really make waves or ripples. It’s really more of a privilege to be able to do this sometimes, than a responsibility.

It is really incredible that you have been doing this for so long. It seems like part of why people move on from DIY music and art is because of resources, really money.

A lot of people in music want to pretend we are above capitalism, but we aren’t. As a band we don’t get paid very much. And this is by our peers. People don’t want to talk it, but it really affects our band. We have to pay for gas, for food; people are taking off work. Thinking about money in a critical way is more important than simply not caring about money. People get mad at Dischord for licensing music, but it’s like, Dischord is thinking about how they make money and use money in a critical way.

What has your experience been playing to people who don’t know you and might not agree with you?

Preaching to the choir doesn’t do much. Bands like Nirvana brought a rawness and noise to a bigger sphere; what they brought wasn’t there in the same way before them. People who don’t know you should know your message. It’s a good experience to play to people who don’t know you. There’s no point in being safe behind thick glass. We have to be around people who are not like we are.