“A big part of music for me has always been advocacy, and about having a space where people who feel marginalized by society can do things together.”
Singer and bassist Hannah Lew describes her band as being on “Planet Cold Beat in the San Francisco Galaxy,” which is pretty apt. Cold Beat, like a closed system in classical mechanics, doesn’t exchange matter with its surroundings, and their newest LP, Into the Air, is a distinctly isolated affair—with keyboards and drum machines opposing the dominant guitar-rock scene of San Francisco. It’s a disarming feeling to spend time on this planet: give it a chance and maybe your respiratory system will adjust to the whiplash pace of “Cracks,” which sets one of Lew’s trademark icy melodies against bleak synth oscillations that could erode Fisherman’s Wharf and send tourists on their rusty rented bicycles into the water. The same goes for “Spirals,” which sounds as if Kraftwerk, unsatisfied with Dusseldorf, sailed off to the New World. The final track, “Ashes,” bionically glides along to a grim conclusion, leaving us hanging in its aftermath. Into the Air is another fully realized effort from Cold Beat, a chilling open-ended reflection on the impending Singularity of the modern age. I spoke with her about the conceptual transformation of the band, the themes of this new album, and the venture of starting your own label.
Gary Canino I like how Cold Beat is a concept for a band, down to the name itself. Even the album titles are somehow directional—Over Me followed by Into the Air. This new record is far more electronic-based than previous releases. Was this a conscious decision for the record, or did your interest in synthesizers just peak recently?
Hannah Lew It was this natural evolution, as I found myself shifting away from wanting to play normal rock shows. I’ve always been writing or had a sensibility toward more synthetic, electronic instrumentation, and so I’m just getting closer to my vision. I’ve already recorded six songs for another new record, which is all electronic—there’s no real drums in it yet, and only a little bit of guitar. It’s just an evolution happening, where the band is becoming more bionic. It’s nice to step out and explore different types of harmonies.
Plus it’s always been a goal to have more synthetic drums, and I feel really creative writing drum parts these days. I’m always thinking: How can I be relevant and challenge myself? ...whether it’s changing up instruments or using songwriting sensibilities. And then, part of being in a band is just organizing a group of people. It sounds dystopian, but with electronic music, you need less people performing, though our lineup right now is five people. Kyle King [guitar] is playing more synthesizer, and Jackson Blumgart [guitar] is playing a drum machine live at the shows. It’s been a challenge to break the guitar/bass/drums mold. We have three guitars on a lot of songs now.
GC You’ve mentioned elsewhere that “Spirals” is a song about surrender, and your most personal yet. It’s always intriguing when the inhuman timbre of a synthesizer evokes so much more emotion than one might think.
HL Can you imagine showing raw emotion when you’re with a drummer and three guitar players? Instead, you can just pare it down and make more space for expressing those emotions. With simple instruments, there’s less worrying about so many personalities. Even though Cold Beat songs have mostly been guitar-based in the past, there’s something intimate about not relying on as many people to bring a song to fruition. It’s territory I’ve always dipped into, but I’m just diving deeper these days.
GC This new LP is the sixth release on your label, Crime Over the Moon. You’ve mentioned in the past that you enjoy the freedom of making capitalist decisions with your label. Does that ever affect the creative aspects of it as well?
HL When you release music with a label behind you, you sort of have this built in advocacy or system, or a team of people pushing for you. Doing it yourself, you have to make sure you have love for what you’re doing so much more. That’s something I struggle with when I’m writing songs. I don’t know if it’s good, but everyone in the band likes it, and that’s where it stays until it lands half a year later when the record comes out. Then people hear it, which is interesting because it hasn’t gone through that initial wave of record label people who say, “We’re behind this! Good job!” You have to put in your own feelings of validation.
By that same token, when you make all those decisions yourself there’s no pressure to play a bunch of shows. Touring hasn’t been incredibly sustainable for us, and without having a booking agent or manager or label, it’s pretty hard actually. We can do whatever we feel like doing. And it’s better in a way, as a band, to do stuff we’re excited about.
GC Your cover artwork is handmade as well?
HL Yes, we silk screen all the 7-inch records we do. We’re actually about to put out a 7 inch by this artist Tropic Green, and I’m really excited to work on the art. It’s hard work but so rewarding to make it by hand and for other people. But what else am I gonna do? I don’t have a personal Facebook account, so whenever I don’t see somebody for a while, they say, “You seem like you’ve been really busy!” But really I think I just get more done than people who have Facebook! (laughter) Having your own label is a great opportunity to express what you’re excited about, how you spend money, and what vision is you want to add to the world. You curate what’s important to you or what’s missing from the world. It’s funny though, I’m happy with just my six releases, even when I see labels who have 500 releases a year and wonder how they pull it off.
GC I love the album art for Into the Air. What’s the story behind it?
HL [Photographer] Abby Banks shot the record’s cover, and she really did such a good job. I had this idea of clouds reflecting off a building and described it to her. She was on tour, and took a picture of exactly what I was talking about. It looks beautiful. It’s a building in New York.
GC My interpretation of the record is that it seems to be about the transformation of immaterial things, like clouds, into more physical things, like dust or ashes.
HL I like that. An interpretation is just like looking at the clouds; it’s whatever you see. I like writing non-didactic lyrics that someone can interpret themselves. I write from a specific place, and it’s not ambiguous to me what the songs are about, but I always like to deliver them in a way where people can enter in wherever and have their own experience. My husband was going through the lyric sheet yesterday and noticed a lot of themes about air, sky, and dust. That’s a good observation about immateriality.
Jackson just came up with the album’s title after he realized a lot of the songs are about this kind of ascension. It wasn’t that I set out to make a concept record, but there are a lot of themes running throughout—really just things going on at the time. The album cover sums up the record well because there’s this tension between complete, vast freedom and the idea of a wall, this distinction between those two spaces.
GC “Ashes,” the final track on the album, ends with an ominous, quiet electronic coda.
HL That initially went on for four minutes, but we cut it down. (laughter) We had a lot of room to experiment because Kyle and Jackson recorded the record. I recorded all the vocals in the living room of my house, except for “Spirals,” where the vocals were done on a retreat. We recorded the instruments in a studio that Jackson and Kyle have been building, and we had a lot more time. We weren’t spending money, and there wasn’t any time pressure, so we would play with ideas and use the recording process as a writing process more often, which is the modality I’ve been enjoying. You can’t really write something like what’s at the end of “Ashes.” You can have the idea for it, but it reveals itself when you’re recording, or “jamming” the idea.
GC I love the instrumental track, “Clouds.” It sort of reminds me of “Frozen Jap” from Paul McCartney’s McCartney II.
HL That one just didn’t need vocals. I was playing autoharp, then we sent it through all these synthesizers. Kyle and Jackson were twisting knobs, and we didn’t even know we were making a song. So that one came from a pure place of enjoying the sounds we were making. “This sounds great, let’s just record it!” It goes back to the non-didactic thing; it’s an instrumental where you can take whatever you want from it.
GC I noticed “7 Sisters” is the first Cold Beat song where you don’t sing the lead vocal.
HL Yeah! Jackson pretty much wrote and sang that song in it’s entirety. I just did the lyrics and the melody, but the whole song was already there. This band started out as an outlet for my songwriting, but Kyle and Jackson have been in it for a while now. It’s nice to give them the space, and Jackson’s been bringing more and more to the project. It’s always been a given that I sing every song, but he’s got a great voice, and I wanted to open the floor a little more. Kyle sings on a lot of the record as well.
Grass Widow [an earlier project] was all about these three part female harmonies, so it’s interesting singing with male voices. It’s a different kind of singing, but I really enjoy it. Singing with people just makes you feel really close to them because these sounds are coming out of the body and working together. I think people feel that sensation in church choirs; it’s one of the most fun things they do, probably.
Even if I get bogged down with how things are negatively changing in our scene, I still feel this joy when I’m singing, no matter what setting I’m in. At the beginning of this project, I’d been singing with other women for so long, and it was like “Could I be the singer of a band? Is my voice strong enough?” But I sort of found that voice on the first record by singing on my own, and now I feel like I can totally hold it down. This record, in general, was about opening up everything to other people and being more vulnerable. That can be scary, but it’s been good. It’s cool to have the luxury of being in charge, but this version of the group is a definitely more of a band experience.
GC I saw Cold Beat is doing a bunch of record release shows in New York instead of San Francisco.
HL Right now, it’s just not the most exciting time to be playing shows in San Francisco. I don’t feel as connected to the scene there. There’ve been eras in music where I’ve felt more part of a community, and I don’t feel as tied to a specific place right now. We also had so much fun playing in NY last time around. It’s also fun to just get out of your city and be somewhere.
GC There’s been so much talk about the exodus of bands and artists from San Francisco to Los Angeles, due to the rising tech and start-up culture.
HL When I was first playing in bands here it was just a totally different scene. With Grass Widow, I was on tour so much that when I finally slowed down and was just around here again, a lot of people had moved away. There’s just less bands that are into the same kind of stuff I’m into. I disagree with a lot of the way the scene is here. For example, the only all-ages venue here has a Confederate flag in it. The owner feels entitled to that. And then our only punk promoter here calls himself “Scott Alcoholocaust.” I just don’t feel very connected to a lot of the bands, or the culture around music here right now. It’s uninspiring to me.
A big part of music for me has always been advocacy, and about having a space where people who feel marginalized by society can do things together. There’s a lot of pushback right now about the millionaire/techie culture, but people aren’t really responding in a way that feels constructive. And then you have bands using swastikas and all this weird shit that never would have happened in the Bay Area, say, even ten years ago. I’m just not feelin’ it.
A positive thing that I’ve drawn from that, though, is the music I’m making is not at all for the validation of any peers, or part of any peer group. I’m just making stuff in a vacuum. I feel like our band is on Planet Cold Beat in the San Francisco Galaxy. I feel like we’re doing our own thing. That’s been good, in a creative way. It’s not really about a scene or anything, but that being said, I don’t really care about making the scene here. Shows have become less about being out or part of anything, and more about the music, which is interesting. We are doing a record release show here in October, but it feels like we could almost do the release shows somewhere else and it would make sense.
GC I like what you said about creating in a vacuum. It reminds me of a funny Frank Black quote about his distaste for practicing next to so many bands: “I don’t want to be the best band in town. I want to be Bob Dylan.”
HL (laughter) Weirdo! Because I’ve been playing in bands for fifteen years, I remember eras where I’d play alongside other bands, and we’d book shows together, and there was all this culture there, but I don’t feel that now. It’s just a different time. It makes me think about what performance means. Also, a lot of my friends are getting older. So never mind that we’re all in bands, they don’t come to my shows anymore because it’s late and they have babies to take care of! So I have these feelings about this changing scene, but I’m also changing as well.
GC My brother plays in RVIVR, and as they’re getting older, they have similar circumstances. When they’ve been on tour for so long or they’re tired or sick, they often don’t want to play last or “headline” these smaller punk shows that often have five bands. Once there was a show in Richmond where they wanted to play third instead of fifth, and it started this huge dramatic fight between the local bands and RVIVR because a lot of people left after their set and didn’t stick around to watch the fourth or fifth band.
HL Yeah, people just don’t get it that you’re on tour sometimes. But I feel like people now are less invested in a band on tour. It depends on the community, but people don’t really realize like, “Hey, we’re all part of this underground system.” At one of our shows on our last tour, we had people come from far away to see us, and it was getting pretty late on a weeknight, so we asked the guy in the next band if we could play second to last, instead of last. And he was like, “Well, my amp’s already set up.” And it’s just like, “Dude, we’re 3000 miles away from home right now!” So these weird power dynamics make playing shows different than it used to be. People’s investment in each other or experiences being a certain way—it’s a little different right now. But I’m still excited to play shows in New York. (laughter) It’s definitely more fun to play shows there than here right now.
Gary Canino is a musician and writer based in New York City.