Doll Skin have been collecting stuffed toy rats. There's one named Potato Potato Potato, another who goes by Potato Potato Potato Potato, and one they call Douglas. Nicole Rich, the raucous alt rock band's bassist, just happens to really like rodents.
"Rats are fuckin' adorable," she says, sitting backstage at Times Square's Playstation Theater in June, sporting a magenta bob. The band is here to open for veteran pop punks New Found Glory on their summer tour, and as she explains the process of mocking up the rat-centric cover art for their second album, Love is Dead and We Killed Her, I notice she's even wearing a gold necklace that says "Ratatouille."
"I made a collage and there was a tiny rat and everyone was like, 'Oh, that's so cute—the little rat, at the bottom,'" she says. Meghan Herring, the band's pint-size, cherry-haired drummer, interrupts: "I always thought it was because of the rats in the cabin!"
The band explains that early this year, while staying in a cabin in Southern California ski town Big Bear to record Love is Dead with Will McCoy (5 Seconds of Summer, Real Friends) and Mike Green (Paramore, All Time Low), they were haunted by a rat that left droppings for them to discover every morning. "I'd clean up poop in the bedroom, and the next day there'd be poop on the couch!" says guitarist Alex Snowden, who's got thick-framed glasses and long blue hair. Sydney Dolezal, Doll Skin's bubbly vocalist, tells me that after they posted the album cover, their fans started calling themselves the "Rat Pack."
It's been around fifteen years since pop punk's commercial height—Green Day's American Idiot and Panic! at the Disco's A Fever You Can't Sweat Out, for instance, both came out in 2004—which seems just about the right amount of time for the #altrock genre to shed its cringe factor. A decade or so ago, it was decidedly uncool to be into bands like Say Anything, Simple Plan, and Motion City Soundtrack; the word "emo" was thrown around as an insult. Now, alongside bands like Stand Atlantic, Yours Truly, and As December Falls, to name just a few (not to mention Gerard Way's recent solo efforts, Lil Uzi Vert's public Paramore love, Good Charlotte's Lil Peep tribute—the list goes on), Doll Skin is helping to usher in a new wave of the brooding, arena-sized sound born in the era of MySpace and Hot Topic. But instead of angry boys in eyeliner and dyed black hair singing about how girls ruin their lives, Alex, Meghan, Sydney, and Nicole write songs about making it through hard times, and how they will totally destroy you if you cross them.
Judging by their ages—Sydney, the youngest, is 19, and Meghan, 22, is the oldest—one might be surprised to learn that Doll Skin has been a band for six years now. Sydney was "literally thirteen" when she, Meghan, and Alex started playing together in 2013 at the School of Rock after-school program in their hometown of Phoenix, AZ (they met Nicole through a neighboring SoR program). When Meghan, then a high school junior, decided to compete in her school's Battle of the Bands, an annual amateur rock contest, she asked Alex, Sydney, and Nicole to play with her. With their covers of Dead Sara's "Weatherman" and Alanis Morisette's "Uninvited," along with the anthemic ode to rock concerts, "Family of Strangers," their first original song, they ended up taking first place. "Which is like, a big deal at that high school," Sydney notes. Megadeth bassist David Ellefson happened to be sitting in the audience, and shortly thereafter, he became Doll Skin's manager. It was fate.
In 2015, the band self-released In Your Face, a seven-track EP which they would reissue the following year after signing to Ellefson's label, EMP. It includes "Family of Strangers" plus six bold, grungy emo songs they wrote because they kept getting asked to play shows. Meghan, who Sydney notes "has been a poet forever," is the primary lyricist of Doll Skin's brazen tunes, though Sydney sings them. They're filled with combative imagery, emotional honesty, and an earnest, no-fucks misfit perspective. "Do I seem a little strange? / Does it look like I care?" Sydney sings on In Your Face cut "Let's Be Honest." Though she typically writes about her own angst, Meghan channels her bandmates' thoughts and feelings as well—such as on In Your Face's "So Much Nothing," a proggy track about Sydney's depression, on which she sings, "I feel so much everything / So now it feels like nothing / Nothing feels real anymore."
2017 saw the release of their debut full-length, Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which feels like a glammy, riff-laden middle-ground between the impassioned pop of Paramore and Taking Back Sunday and the heaviness and malaise of Avenged Sevenfold and My Chemical Romance—acts most of the group's members say were formative for them when they were growing up.
Sydney, for her part, says it was Hannah Montana and One Direction that inspired her to take to the stage. "Embarrassingly," she says, "I was super into pop music for the majority of my life." Her parents were stoked when she found School of Rock and directed her knack for performing to music. "They were sick of me saying, 'Hey, can we turn on Disney Channel?'" Sydney's expansive voice and rousing delivery give songs like "Shut Up (You Miss Me)," about an ex who won't stop talking, and "Rubi," a spacious love letter to powerful women based on a fictional sci-fi character Meghan created, an exciting, theatrical flair.
That flair has garnered Doll Skin enough local press to cement their status as the rock darlings of Phoenix. And since Manic Pixie’s release, they've played Warped Tour two years in a row, done two stints in Europe, and toured with Dead Kennedys, OTEP, and Escape the Fate. This year, they signed with long-running Los Angeles label Hopeless Records, joining the ranks of their, childhood heroes: When I ask what kind of music they listened to growing up, all four members say at once, "Um, all the bands on our label," referencing acts like Taking Back Sunday, The Used, and Yellowcard. "Are you kidding me?" Meghan trills. "That was my universe."
As with many millennial artists, Doll Skin’s social media presence has been instrumental in their rise. (Although Alex says they're more on the millennial-Gen Z cusp: "'Cause we're not buying houses, but we're not Juuling in middle school.") Each member of Doll Skin has her own, very compelling Instagram persona: Nicole "bite[s] back" and loves art and has an eye for thrift store fashion; Meghan is always cheesing in band tees; she's into photography and her dog Ruby; Sydney is a road-tripping Sagittarius with gauged lobes and multi-colored hair; Alex is outdoorsy and vegan and pulls off a laid-back hard rock look with ease.
With their distinct individual personalities and enthusiastic openness, Doll Skin have made it easy to become invested in their story. It's one reason their fans—the Rat Pack—are so passionate. And the interest goes both ways. "We've seen fans have babies," says Meghan. "Propose to each other, get married," Nicole continues. "Couples met because of us. They have tats. It's crazy."
Doll Skin's just-released third full-length, which is out via Hopeless, is another window into the lives of these young women as they grow into adulthood. "Each album is a little spot in time, representing—I'm serious!—what we were going through," Meghan says, referencing a lyric from the La Dispute song "Woman (In Mirror)." Aside from the brisk, aggressive "Puncha Nazi," the gist of which should be pretty self-explanatory, Manic Pixie was mostly about shitty boys Meghan was involved with, at a time in her life when she "had no idea what the heck was going on."
Love is Dead is a purposeful move away from writing about romance and heartbreak. "Outta My Mind," for instance, is a buoyant cut that Sydney says is about "finding better ways to cope with your shit." Sydney, who's two months sober when we talk, tells me it's about abusing drugs and alcohol, trying to "fill your emptiness" with substances that will ultimately harm you. "It's a really important song to me," she says. "Every night I'm reminded that I am finding new ways, and I am doing better now." (According to Doll Skin, by the way, some better ways to cope include taking a shit and then taking a shower, drinking lots of water, letting yourself decompress, and going to therapy.)
Talking to the members of Doll Skin, it's clear they approached each song with a strong sense of purpose; they even chose a word—"relentless"—and a color—"deep maroon"—to help guide their writing. It was also the first time they'd ever written with outside help. Doll Skin completed the very cathartic "Mark My Words," Love's seething, melodic lead single, in just a day, with writing and engineering assistance from producer Mike Green, who fourteen years ago helped give Paramore's debut its kick. That's the one they say is Kill Bill and Girl With The Dragon Tattoo-inspired, the cinematic revenge track.
The whole album is strong, but it's the sentimental songs that really stand out. One standout is the uber-poppy "No Fears," which Sydney calls the "alien song" and Nicole describes as a "spacey song about space." Meghan says she wrote it about being depressed and wanting to be "anywhere else but in my brain." Sydney's voice sounds radiant on it, especially when she sings, "Too afraid to live a new life / Amongst the stars and meteorites / An endless galaxy black / Can never stop this heart attack"—and it makes you want to cry, the way a song like "Rocket Man" does.
So does "Empty House," a self-empowerment banger where Alex wails on her guitar, and Sydney belts, "Just me myself and I / I know I'm worth fighting for." Sydney says it was inspired by the experience of finding herself single for the first time since she was in, like, fourth grade. "I had never really been on my own to learn who I am," she explains. "I had been in some shitty relationships, where they weren't very fair to me. I was figuring out my worth, and figuring out what I needed, and what I deserved." Sydney says she came up with the concept and Meghan came up with the lyrics—and that they wanted the song to feel like a timeline of Sydney's self-love awakening, like she was "growing in the middle of the song." "I was like, 'Meghan, I used to be sad but now I'm not—put that into cool words!'" she says.
When they play the song live at Playstation Theater, their energy is contagious. Sydney sings her heart out to a crowd of lip-syncing fans, bounding from one side of the stage to the other. It's obvious they're hyped to be here, doing this, letting everyone in on their personal journeys, and rocking their butts off in the process. "That song means a lot to me," Sydney says backstage. "To look out and see other people singing along, and telling me that song means a lot to them, is really cool. 'Cause I'm like, 'Whoa, you guys can relate?!' That's cool. I want to be able to help people through our lyrics."
This article originally appeared on VICE US.