The Bay area band Pllush once referred to themselves as “four-piece San Francisco sob rock,” and that’s perhaps the most fitting description to date. Critics have referred to them as a shoegaze or a dream pop revival band, but, according to vocalist and guitarist, Karli Helm, a fan recently shared the most accurate designation of the band’s sound to date, saying, “you may be headbanging but we know underneath your hair, you’re crying.”
Since arriving in the Bay Area music scene four years ago, the quartet comprised of Helm, guitarist and writer, Eva Treadway, drummer Dylan Lockey, and bassist Sinclair Riley, have made a habit of constantly evolving their autobiographical lyricism and ethereal melodies. In 2016 they released their EP, Please, garnering attention through five tracks full of reverberating guitars, layered melodies, and dreamy distortion. The EP distinguished the band as a force to be reckoned with, squaring them up with their influences a la Mazzy Star, Slowdrive, and Sonic Youth.
This June, they share their first full length, Stranger To The Pain, an album their most adamant critics (their parents and closest friends) have described as a “cleaner” and more “grown-up” version of their sound. The album still wallows in the dizzying melodies the band is known for, but the 12 tracks that make up this iteration are decidedly less superfluous.
Acknowledging the tighter, less distorted sound of the album, Helm shares, “we got rid of a lot of these reverb-y vocals and lots of the effects. We were like, we don’t need to hide behind the shoegaze veil anymore. I hope that people notice that, in a good way.”
The albums lead single, “Shannon,” shows off their newfound propensity for just the essentials. In it, Helm sings the chorus in high pitched breaking vocals as deftly played drums and steady strumming play in the background. The lyrics, “You ask me if I’ve ever felt this way / Well I don’t know / I’m hoping everything will fall into place / Well I don’t know / But I won’t” are sung with the shakiness of someone with newfound confidence, an effect that emphasizing the coming of age lyrics. Unlike their previous singles, with “Shannon” there’s space between the music to show off Helm’s vocal agility, allowing her to make her point before the music starts to swell in the bridge.
For Lockey, the new approach to their sound has a lot to do with a fresh approach in the studio. “I think we started talking about the record last spring,” he remembered. “But we gave ourselves until the end of the summer to actually write the record, which we’ve never done before. A lot of the time when we’ve recorded music, it’s been in the studio scrambling. This was the first time we’d ever gotten into a studio setting having the songs done. I think that comes through on the record.”
When asked about their preference, languid days in the studio compared to the driving pressure of quickly laying down tracks, Helm agreed with Lockey — more studio time not only helped them experiment with sound but allowed her to find her voice as well.
“With the Please EP, I think the songs were great,” she said. “We recorded them, I don’t want to make it sound like we’re unhappy with how it turned out or anything, but I know that with those songs we didn’t have them completed for long enough to perform them a few times before recording. Performing those songs live I would come up with a different vocal melody that I liked better. I started to use my voice differently. I would do growly vocals, things that I was like, ‘damn I really wish we would’ve had the time to play these songs live and figure out the parts we like better so that they were on the record!’ With this release, we had a lot more time to run through them together to come up with those ideas and more time in the studio to experiment with too.”
There was a short moment of silence after Helm’s comment before Lockey broke it, laughing, “we still barely finished the record.” Helm quipped back wittily, “So… there was like a little bit of pressure there.”
Though Pllush seem bent towards progress, one thing that luckily hasn’t changed is their gravitation towards visceral and vulnerable lyricism. In fact, they waste no time getting to the heavy in the new album.
“The opening track “Elliot” is about a friend of mine who passed away roughly two years ago,” Helm shared. “That was the first time I’d ever written about it, whether it was a song or any other form of writing. It’s a little bit gnarly to open the album with such a heavy thing. I did my best to write it so that it’s not immediately like, oh that’s about something that heavy. From the feedback that I’ve gotten people think I’m singing about an ex-boyfriend, or a relationship that didn’t work out, which I’m fine with.”
To be fair, the light-headed vocals and sweet crooning of the lyrics “Oh Elliot, why’d you have to rush away? / I know we disconnected / We went our separate ways” sung over swelling guitar melody can innocently be mistaken for a breakup song. And, “Elliot” is not the album’s only instance of sweetening the bitter. The last and longest track of the album, “Blue Room” plays like an echoing lullaby, but in reality is about Helm’s strained relationship with her father.
“I find that it’s very difficult for me to write music about neutral to good times because I use the songwriting process as a coping method,” she explained. “There’s a song on the album that’s about my dad and our estranged relationship and past relationship. It’s just about getting these negative feelings out into something productive.”
When asked what they want fans, listeners, et al. to take away from their new album, both Lockey and Helm said they wish to share the advantages of embracing vulnerability.
“It’s easier to not feel in the current climate, because, who would want to?” Lockey acknowledged, “But, I hope that us playing the record gives you a moment where you can allow yourself to feel and be vulnerable and let everything out. That’s the end goal all the time for me; making people feel something, ideally better. If not that, something at all.”
Agreeing with Lockey, Helm also notes the desire for their fan base to feel empowered to be who they are, unabashedly.
“For me as an individual, the message of this record is vulnerability,” she said. “Not being afraid to share parts of yourself that you feel aren’t socially OK, especially as marginalized people or women. You’re allowed to cry, you’re allowed to feel bummed, you’re allowed to talk about your ex-boyfriend and your shitty dad. That’s OK. It doesn’t make you dramatic, and it doesn’t make you weak. When we perform, the majority of our crowd, the people who are typically up front having the most fun are young women and non-binary folks, and I hope that they’re able to feel inspired by the intimacy and the vulnerability of it. That’s my ultimate goal.”
Stranger To The Pain is out 6/8 via Father Daughter Records. Get it here.