Two years after the release of their breakthrough debut album, 2013’s sweetly corrosive Feast of Love, Michigan dream-rock quartet Pity Sex find themselves a band in the right place at the right time — and more importantly, reviving the right time. Since recording their first LP in Philadelphia, the band has seen the City of Brotherly Love turn into the most exciting breeding ground for breakout rock bands, including War on Drugs, The Districts and Swearin’, while their ’90s-indebted sound — Feast of Love fell somewhere in between Yo La Tengo and My Bloody Valentine — has become right in line with the likes of Speedy Ortiz, Diet Cig, and Nothing, all of whom call back to different musical styles prominent during alt-rock’s heyday.
“I feel like everything is going on here,” drummer and lyricist Sean St. Charles says of the band’s adopted home. “It’s wild that this is where everybody lives, because it’s always cheaper than New York City but there’s still always so much going on.” As for the ’90s-revivalist tag, St. Charles doesn’t run from it. “It’s been interesting because I feel like genre revivalism as a concept is easy to latch onto, either in writing or in how your band wants to sound,” he says of the recent trend in Buzz Bin-era musical nostalgia. “And I respect that. You just want to play the music that you want to play. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
SPIN talked to St. Charles over the phone on the day Pity Sex wrapped recording on their upcoming second LP, and discussed the band’s rotation of Philly band crash pads, their integration of the hardcore ethos into their “big and hooky and riffy” pop songs, and their borderline-heretical distaste for the local convenience store of choice.
Do you feel more comfortable in the studio this time around?
Yeah, for sure. Last time was our first time working in a studio ever, really. Originally we just recorded in basement. Me and Brennan [Greaves], the guitar player, used to play in hardcore bands, and Britty [Drake, guitar/vocals] would play with hardcore and punk bands, and [in those scenes] you would set up in a basement with a shitty mic and just do it. That’s everything we had ever done before that. But last time, half the battle was learning how to record a record, which was cool. But this one, definitely, we had a lot more confidence coming in. We could spend all the time that we were worried about learning how to record, thinking about how everything works [for the album], so that was cool.
And you guys were recording in Philly this time?
Yeah. The studio is in Conshohocken, which is like 25 minutes out. The studio used to be Ruffhouse Records. The guy that [producer Will Yip] owns the studio with, Phil Nicolo, he produced and recorded [The Fugees‘] “Killing Me Softly.” That all happened in the studio. There’s a lot of history which is cool.
Everything since Feast of Love, our first LP, we recorded here. So we did that and then we did two songs for a split and then we did like a single for comp here.
Have you guys been fully indoctrinated into the cult of Wawa yet?
We’re not into it. I don’t know. It’s just like 7/11. I get why people like it…
Oh man, you better not be saying that in front of any locals…
That will definitely piss them off, but we’re all vegans so we don’t get down with the Wawa. It’s like a convenience store, I guess. I feel like Sheetz is the same way, people go wild on that, we’re like “This is… whatever.” But also, Michigan is not that far away, so it’s not like we’ve been out of the loop of Wawa for our whole life. It’s always funny when someone’s like “Yo, I can’t believe you’re talking bad about Wawa.”
What do you guys do in Philadelphia when you’re not recording?
It’s weird; almost every band that we’re friends with is from Philadelphia. It seems like it’s a scene for DIY and punk and indie. We usually just float around and stay with different friends. Last time we recorded, we stayed with the Crutchfields, so in the house was Waxahatachee, Swearin’ and Radiator Hosptial, ‘coz they all lived in the same house in West Philly. And then this time we stayed with our booking agent in Fishtown, who plays in that band The World is a Beautiful Place. It just seems like on any given night we can just kick it with anybody. But we’re also getting into the studio at 11 everyday and recording until about 8 or 9 so that when we get back, it’s like, “Oh, we should go out and do karaoke, or we should go do something,” but we’re mostly like, “Maybe we should just go to sleep.” It’s kind of a bummer.
Is there anything different in the band dynamics since the last time you were in the studio?
Two years later along in life everybody just has different commitments. Brennan and I have been here the whole time, every single day. And our bass player [Brandan Pierce], he came out for the first weekend because he runs a non-profit organization [826michigan] in Detroit that he just couldn’t get any time off for. So he came in and did bass stuff. Britty came in this past Tuesday and left yesterday morning because she’s still in college and she also works at a research lab. It was different in that we were never all together, which is kind of crazy. But we’ve been friends forever and we were just more comfortable than the last time we were recording. Everything was easy and nice and pleasant while still being exciting.
Do you and Brennan have other jobs? Other lives?
We both have college degrees and stuff. He does some freelance graphic design work and then sometimes he’ll work at this screen printing shop called VGKIDS who are pretty well known for doing a lot of band stuff, but also a lot of art prints that are really cool. I work at like a nice coffee shop while I’m home which are both jobs that we can take off when we need to. I feel like every year we ask ourselves, “Should we go to grad school? Should we do other stuff?” But we just keep putting it off. Why not? It’s fun.
Are there any different expectations for the second album than there were for the first? Either ones that you guys are feeling more of or are putting on yourself?
I think internally the expectations were just to take everything we really like about our band and just do it better and more interesting. Right off the bat, [the album] will seem pretty different and then it’s going to set into a mood that fits with everything we’ve always done. It’s always been pop music that’s been inspired by big fuzzy guitar rock and shoegaze, indie-pop and all those things. But at any given moment it’s more of those things. There will be moments where it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t think they would write a song like this,” but at the end it makes perfect sense. We’ve always had a wide range of influences and interests. So, I don’t think it’s like, “This is the record where Pity Sex does this genre.” It’s definitely not like that.
You mentioned earlier that you have roots in hardcore. Do you ever feel like that kind of filters into the band’s music?
Absolutely. That’s where we all come from. Brennan and I played in a band together and we met Britty because she used to book our band, and she’s been in it as long as any of us. That’s the ethos behind, like… Number one, always do what you want. ‘Cause in hardcore, there’s never expectations. There’s never like, “Oh, the label wants you to write a song like this.” It’s just you being in the moment and you just go with it. I think we try to bring that ethos to how we write these kinds of songs.
That was what was fun about it. It was just like, “Let’s do pop songs, but make them huge in a way like a hardcore song, big and hookey and riffey.” That’s the difference between us and “We’re a band and we want to be in the industry” or whatever. That shades how you write songs, or how you present your band and that was never it for us, because we played in punk bands and we went to school, and we just thought we would be doing other things [for a living]. So there was never this pressure of, like, “This is it.” None of us have ever had that thought. Which is just more freeing. You can kind of just do whatever you want.
What are you guys listening to in the studio when you’re not recording?
We all have sort of different things. I know Britty’s big thing is stuff that she grew up loving and that made her sing, like Jewel or the Cranberries and things like that. For me, it’s a lot of Yo La Tengo and the Lemonheads, a similar era. This is what I like about pop songs in the ’90s: for the classic acts that we’ve been listening to, it’s mostly a combination of that stuff. Brennan loves Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, and that affects our bass guitar. I think all those things are congruent but you can tell how I plays the drums, versus how he plays guitar, versus how Britty sings, that they’re all stemming from different places but they kind of mesh I think.
Are you guys conscious of any kind of ’90s revival in Philadelphia or on an national scale?
Oh yeah, it’s undeniable. Among our peer group, those are the bands that we love. Like, Speedy Ortiz is undeniably a great band, and Waxahatchee. Everything we listen to (and are a part of) in the current music community, it’s all about ’90s revivalism. But the bands that are great are the ones that don’t sound like they’re just aping that, or the band is like — [they] could have been that band in the ’90s. But we’ve always tried to be conscious of, “We like that kind of stuff, but what’s the point of just being a band that’s a rip off of a band you like?” So I feel like we could be considered part of that, but I’d like to think that we’re not writing songs just to sound like that. We’re just doing what feels good, which just happens to be influenced by that.
Do you think there was just a lack of that in the years between ’90s and the last few years, when this has kind of come back around?
I feel like it’s definitely a response to how music has evolved. In the mid-’00s, you could start making music the way that rappers did music, with guitar bands. You could sit in Garage Band and either do it on your computer, like electronic stuff, or just record a whole record by yourself. That’s something you are able to do now, like [Philly singer/songwriter] Alex G. That record’s incredible. He just sits in his apartment and does that whole record on his computer and I feel that’s like how music works now.
But it’s interesting to see how it has moved. Like five years ago, every band was like a new wave inspired band. There was a second where every band was an emo inspired band. Now everything is like a ’90s guitar rock-inspired band. That’s what people our age in this moment grew up listening to, so of course it’s coming back. That just makes sense. Everything is cyclical. It’s just a matter of picking apart… are you’re doing it because it’s a cool look, or are you doing it because it’s internal, that’s what you grew up listening to, so of course that shapes how you think about music?
Are there any nineties acts that have recently reunited or are going to reunite that you’re excited about?
Yeah I mean, we’re stoked about a lot of them I would say. Mazzy Star putting out a record the other year. “Fade Into You” is my favorite song of all time, and I think that’s awesome. The Slowdive thing, that’s really cool. Inversely there is a lot of stuff that’s lame. I don’t want to call out bands that I love so I won’t go there. But there’s plenty of bands where you could see that this is just a cash grab.
I would say it’s pretty evenly split. There’s definitely a lot of bands getting back together you’re like this is lame, they don’t get it. They don’t get why they were good and they probably don’t care. But it’s awesome to see a band like Mazzy Star, or Ride coming back. It’s not like those bands were crazy popular in the moment anyway. Or even a band like Swans evolving like every record. They don’t sound anything like they used to but those records but those records are really interesting because it feels like they always care more about that than being like, “Oh, we should come back and make money by living off nostalgia.”