Horsegirl are reviving the spirit of punk for a disillusioned generation
This article is taken from Issue 133. Get your copy via the online store.
Horsegirl have just received their first-ever piece of hate mail.
“It was because we said that we make music for young people and an old guy got mad,” proudly grins guitarist and singer Penelope Lowenstein. “The subject line of the email was ‘ageism’, all in lowercase,” fellow guitarist and vocalist Nora Cheng adds, struggling not to laugh at the absurdity of the interaction. “He said we should just be thankful for our fans regardless of their age.” Drummer Gigi Reece then politely chimes in: “We are thankful for our older fans, thank you for your support,” – a statement that may also be partially directed at me.
Truth be told, it’s pretty easy to feel ancient in the Chicago band’s company: Cheng and Reece are college freshmen, while Lowenstein has just graduated from high school. “I’m missing my graduation ceremony to play our album release show,” she enthuses with a peppiness that proves characteristic over the course of our conversation. Her geniality is balanced out by Cheng, who is more reserved but visibly buoyed by the company of her bandmates, while Reece – a deep thinker with a propensity for effusive outbursts – is like a blend of the two.
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Huddled together in front of a laptop at Lowenstein’s parents’ house in Chicago, the trio display the sort of uncynical camaraderie you only ever really experience in adolescence. A tight unit for the last four-plus years, their paths initially crossed at various youth music programmes around the city, including Girls Rock! Chicago and courses at the Old Town School of Folk Music. The first time they hung out all together was at an all-ages DIY show put on by their peers.
After bonding over Belle and Sebastian, Pavement and cult New Zealand indie label Flying Nun, they formed Horsegirl – with precisely zero band experience between them – and were playing their brilliantly scrappy, lo-fi indie at underage venues within the year. “Literally the first song I ever wrote was with Nora, and it was [Horsegirl’s debut single] Sea Life Sandwich Boy,” Lowenstein laughs. “Mine was an extra credit song for math class,” Cheng replies, chuckling at the tenuous excuse. “It mentioned the quadratic formula.”
“I think it’s sweet that our band is based on friendship. Because of that, something special gets captured in our music”
If anything, the lack of musical experience has proved something of a superpower for Horsegirl. A youthful fearlessness bolstered by the unshakable mutual trust that exists within the group. As Lowenstein puts it, “I think it’s sweet that our band is based on friendship because I don’t know a lot of adult bands that do that. This started as something fun that we just did, kind of carelessly. And because of that, I think something special gets captured in our music.”
This undeniable chemistry is front and centre on Versions of Modern Performance, the band’s thrillingly loose-limbed debut album. Nodding to no wave, shoegaze, post-punk and grunge, and balancing choppy, coruscating guitars with impressively robust melodies, it’s a skilfully realised collection that posits the teen trio as alt-rock inheritors rather than imitators.
Created at the end of summer 2020, they fully intended to record the songs themselves in Lowenstein’s parents’ basement, just as they had their first three singles – which are compiled on 2020’s Ballroom Dance Scene Et Cetera (Best of Horsegirl). But when The Chicago Tribune – the city’s most-read daily newspaper – ran a glowing profile of the band in November of that year, they suddenly found themselves at the centre of a bidding war that was ultimately won by Matador Records, the home of so many of their musical heroes.
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Horsegirl still seem punch-drunk when recounting an interaction with their now-labelmate Kim Gordon at last year’s Pitchfork Festival. “She was so nice! Like, she didn’t need to be that nice to us,” Reece gushes, while Lowenstein nods vehemently, adding, “She kept asking questions to keep the conversation going longer than it needed to, which made me so happy.” They speak with similar reverence of producer John Agnello (the Breeders, Dinosaur Jr., Kurt Vile), who they recorded their album with in the summer of 2021, at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio.
“He was the perfect fit both musically and personality-wise for us,” Lowenstein says of Agnello. “He even wrote me my college letter of recommendation.” Cheng concurs: “He made us feel so comfortable, and that was so important to us. He would goof around with us but also talk to us fully about our visions for songs. We really trusted him.”
Agnello’s brief was to capture the energy of the band’s live experience, from the electric sense of spontaneity to the abundance of billowing guitar distortion and Cheng and Lowenstein’s interweaving vocal lines. Throughout the album, the two singers alternate vocal and lyrical duties, stitching together an often inscrutable patchwork of half-heard phrases, abstract imagery, mantra-like repetition and intriguingly nebulous character sketches, from “brand new friend” Emma on the Gang of Four-referencing World of Pots and Pans to the boy washing his robes “in preparation to be crucified” on Billy. Indeed, in an era characterised by mass oversharing, Horsegirl’s decision to obfuscate rather than bare their souls for other people’s pleasure could be construed as a radical act.
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“I do think there’s something nice about removing the pressure of being like, ‘I just had a breakup – time to write a song!’” Lowenstein considers. “And instead saying, ‘What words do we want to put with this music?’ I think that’s equally valid, because I don’t think a song needs to be super specific to be relatable. I mean, Stereolab are a huge vocal influence for us, and I’ve never listened to those songs like, ‘Wow, that was the story of my whole life.’ They just made me feel a certain way.”
“As a teenager there is a universal experience of feeling like you’re getting short-changed by the world. People our age could use a good punk show to embrace that rage and have an awesome time”
As dedicated music nerds, Horsegirl put a tremendous amount of thought and care into creating a positive experience for their own fans, establishing a closer connection in the process. It’s one of the reasons why the band continue to create their own artwork, handwrite liner notes and self-produce music videos, despite having graduated from Chicago’s fecund youth DIY scene by signing with Matador. At their shows, you’ll often encounter zine sellers, which Reece explains is designed to “uplift the voices of young people or marginalised voices that may not be getting the respect they deserve”.
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This struggle to be heard is why the band believe their music is for young people, first and foremost. In light of global economic instability post-pandemic, not to mention the climate crisis and the rise of war-mongering populists, the generation currently coming of age could really use an outlet for their anxieties. As Lowenstein recognises, “If there was anyone who needed to go to a punk show right now, it would be kids our age.”
Reece agrees. “As a teenager there is a universal experience of feeling like you’re getting short-changed by the world, right? I mean, there definitely is this sense of hopelessness, but, like Penelope said, people our age could use a good punk show to embrace that rage and have an awesome time. We are young people that are trying to get young people into guitar music, because we know old people are already into it.”
However, Cheng cites a general ambivalence towards guitar bands among her peers. “In high school I knew people who would be like, ‘My dad loves your band, my dad hears you on the radio all the time, my dad’s gonna go to Pitchfork Festival to see you.’” Reece jumps in, exasperated: “It’s like, why aren’t you coming to the show!”
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It’s an idea they poke fun at on The Guitar is Dead 3, the album’s final instrumental interlude, based around eerily echoing piano in the upper registers. But if Gen Z are looking for guitar heroes that speak to and for them, they could do a lot worse than look to Horsegirl: a group of self-sufficient but community-minded creatives making accessible yet inventive alt-rock in their own stride, with their very best friends.
“If kids can find guitar music the way we did and think it’s important to them, that would be awesome,” says Lowenstein of the band’s ambitions. “All we know how to do is be kids who listen to music. And all our friends are kids who are in bands with guitars, who are into the DIY scene. That’s our audience. We’ve found that being in this scene has brought a lot of happiness to our lives. We just want others to feel the same.”
And what about the guy who sent the hate mail? “I hope that he likes the record. Even though it’s not for him,” Reece deadpans mischievously, as Lowenstein rushes in to perform some damage limitation. “It can be for him! It’s just mostly not for him.” But Reece gets the final word: “We know that he’ll like it. But we want kids to like it.”
Versions of Modern Performance is out now via Matador Records