File under: Frosty post-punk with shadows in the windows and ghosts in the graveyard
For fans of: Joy Division, early Cure, the Aislers Set at a seance
From: San Francisco
Personae: Hannah Lew (bass/vocals), Kyle King (guitar), Sam Lefebvre (drums)
San Francisco’s Cold Beat make haunting, compelling rock music from seemingly disparate elements. On Over Me, the group’s thrilling full-length debut, singer/guitarist Hannah Lew’s songs veer from austere, chilly goth to apocalyptic surf rock — sometimes within the same song.
With Cold Beat, Lew further refines the approach she first explored with Grass Widow, blending stiff, propulsive rhythms with dreamy, drifting vocals, for songs that are equal parts dread and ecstasy.
Tobias Carroll sat down with Lew to talk about the album’s origins, her other musical ventures, and how her work in video affects her songwriting.
On the themes of Over Me:
There are a lot of songs about abandonment that are about my grief over my dad’s death five years ago. I didn’t dive as deeply into that [in the past], so I went there, and once I started going there it was this snowball. I wrote a song about money — how we rely on money, how we can’t survive without it. Some people live in gated communities while other people are dying from not having enough clean water. [I thought], “Well, I’d better include everything that’s terrible. If I’m going to write five terrible songs, I might as well write five more.” I didn’t stop. There was a lot of personal stuff that I felt like I had to purge, and then that became a record. I got a lot out of my system. I feel like I didn’t hold back.
[I struggle] with depression, and I think music is one of the few places where it’s OK to talk about negative stuff. You can take something very negative and make something positive out of it — something that’s catchy, you know? My emotional survival is to write music. Not all of my songs are based in terror or bad feelings, but I tend to thrive on negative energy when I write, [and use that] to make songs that feel really good to play. It’s a transcendent process. It’s very much about survival.
This most recent song that I was writing is about how people reduce good feelings to sexuality a lot of the time. It’s sort of about pleasure, I guess.
On the album’s strange evolution:
I wasn’t really sure how I wanted to bring the songs together. A good third of the record was written during the time [I was in] Grass Widow. At a certain point in the band, especially when I was going through a lot of stuff personally, I started stockpiling songs. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with them, I had to figure it out. And I’ve always been into the idea of a band — that’s why it’s called Cold Beat, and not, like, the Hannah Lew Experience or something.
On the changing geography of San Francisco:
I’m a San Francisco native. When I was growing up, there were actually middle-class people that lived there. People have always moved to San Francisco because it’s a place for artists and musicians. Now, people are moving there to become millionaires. It feels really different, because a lot of things are there for the millionaires: way-too-specifically focused restaurants are now five per block. They’re things that feel very much curated for a certain type of person. I never thought San Francisco would feel like it wasn’t made for me. It’s not a place where artists and musicians can really live anymore. It’s been an adjustment.
“Tinted Glass,” the second song on the record, is about the Google bus. It’s a big, scary white bus with tinted windows that all the tech people go on. Muni is our public transportation, and most of the tech people don’t ride public transportation — they ride the Google bus. It’s separate. They don’t have to interact with anyone in the city. They just get on the bus, and…it’s weird. It creates this really weird dynamic, culturally.
There’s all this talk right now about cleaning up Mid-Market [a neighborhood around Market Street — Ed.], and what “cleaning up” really means is relocating people. There’s a lot of weird classist stuff going on, and it feels like it’s very much being done to meet the needs of certain people. I would rather be in a neighborhood where there aren’t five coffee shops a block apart. It’s overwhelming.
Even the Mission [District]. Only in the past 10 years has the Mission become a fancy place. When I was in high school, we’d go to shows there and I’d think, “Oh, fuck! I’m in the dangerous neighborhood!” There are certain neighborhoods in San Francisco that are almost unrecognizable. And I’m not opposed to things changing. When I saw the Italian Futurist exhibit [at the Whitney Museum in New York], I was thinking of how in love with the times they were. Airplanes had just been invented and everyone just loved the airplane. It was all about speed and going fast and not being nostalgic. I think about that: How can I have that attitude? How can I fall in love with these times? How can I fall in love with all the internet stuff and not get nostalgic for how things used to be? I would love to do that: to just say, “Wow! We have the internet! It’s amazing!”
On the creation of her record label, Crime on the Moon:
With Grass Widow, we had worked with several different labels. We decided, at some point, that we just wanted to do it ourselves. We knew how we wanted to do everything, and it seemed, with the way that the music industry is, we could just do it ourselves. And we did. When it came time to put out my own stuff, I knew exactly how I wanted to do everything. I was just excited to start my own thing. I can come up with my own capitalist model; I can choose how money gets spent, and I can choose how everything gets done. I’m donating 2 percent of all my profit to Charity Water. Here I am making money and deciding how money happens — I want it to matter. It’s one of the many critical decisions I get to make on my own.
This LP that’s coming out is Crime on the Moon 3, and Crime on the Moon 4 is a compilation of Bay Area bands that wrote songs about the tech boom.
The reason I put out the compilation was because everyone is talking about the tech stuff. I didn’t want to make a manifesto about “who deserves to be in San Francisco” or something like that. It was more, here’s a snapshot of these times, right now. Because there’s nothing we can do about it. The time for a big, rich, music and art scene is over in San Francisco. But we can at least take a snapshot. I’m calling the comp San Francisco is Doomed, partially as an homage to Crime [the late-'70s San Francisco band whose first LP is called San Francisco's Doomed. — Ed.]. It’s funny — I guess we’ve been doomed for a long time.
On the status of her current projects:
I’ve also been playing in this other band, Generation Loss. We just recorded our second record, so we’ve been working on that. We’re also making a VHS album — we’re making a video for every song, mostly [shot] with VHS. I just think certain formats make sense [for certain projects]. We released the Generation Loss record on cassette, but the three of us [in the band] all make videos, so we thought that would be exciting.
I think we all thrive on hard work, too, so we thought, “Let’s be really ambitious and make a whole VHS album.” I think we’ll probably include a DVD with it as well. The medium just looks different. There’s a lot of generation loss you get when you dub from VCR to VCR.
I might release the San Francisco is Doomed comp on vinyl at some point, but comps are really tough, marketing-wise. I mean, there are some big bands on it: there’s an Oh Sees song, and an unreleased Erase Errata song, which I think people are going to be really excited about. But it costs so much money, and I’m just one dude. I think I have to be careful about how I spend money, because I don’t have a huge capital pool. But if I did — oh, if I did…