All photos by Andrea Domanick
“Do you watch The Bachelor?” Bleached guitarist Jessie Clavin asks excitedly—her default disposition—upon opening the door to her older sister Jennifer’s Echo Park apartment. Jen, Bleached’s singer and guitarist, is currently wrist-deep in a blob of pizza dough, preparing the goods for the pie-making extravaganza ahead of us. She greets me with a laugh, apologizing for not being able to shake my hand.
I do not watch The Bachelor, a confession that's met with both pity and understanding; it is, after all, their guilty pleasure.
Bassist Micayla Grace walks in from the other room, offering me a choice of the evening’s beverages—raspberry seltzer or root beer—as we settle into the couch while the sisters take a few minutes to catch up on the previous night’s episode before we delve into their new album, Welcome the Worms.
They speak in a sort of shorthand forged from an upbringing spent moving across LA with their family, hiding skateboading injuries and trips to The Smell from their parents, and eventually dropping out of high school to pursue music full time.
The Clavins' first project, lo-fi quintet Mika Miko, became something of a staple in the local DIY scene. But the group dissolved in 2009, and from it Bleached was formed as a duo, with Grace signing on as touring bassist not long after.
If our evening together is a low-key affair, the trio could use it. A few nights earlier, they played Saint Laurent's runway show at Hollywood’s storied Palladium, at the request of Hedi Slimane himself, a longtime fan of LA's underground who brefriended (and photographed) the band back in their days opening for No Age at The Smell. The trio's set during Slimane's final show with the iconic fashion house rocked so hard that it prompted one fan to jump from the balcony into the crowd, momentarily putting the whole event on hold (he broke his jaw, but was fine).
It's been more or less nonstop in the months since: After enduring the bootcamp that was SXSW, the band dove stright into photo shoots, press appearances, rehearsals, and more gigs surrounding Welcome the Worms, their second LP, out now on Dead Oceans. That unto itself is a warm up for Bleached's summer tour across the US, Europe, and Austrialia, which will see them dolling out their sinister brand of pop punk to the masses through October.
Their bright future hinges on a decidedly darker album, one helmed by production heavyweight Joe Chiccarelli (Morrissey, The Strokes, The Shins, Elton John), and Bleached's first involving Grace as a full-time member. This time around, the trio sheds the bratty surf pop odes to summer flings and daydreams of their 2013 debut, Ride Your Heart, in favor of confronting, well, real life—worms and all.
"I wanna actually look at the real problem in myself," Jen says. "And the way I cope with things, and just growing, and learning. And hating myself, and loving myself, and wanting to feel pain—you know? All that."
A friend of Jen’s described the album as “evil Go-Gos,” and that’s pretty on the nose. Welcome the Worms is imbued with the sneering sheen and melodic punk bones of their LA pop-punk foremothers, with songwriting that tackles self-loathing, isolation, destructive relationships, and other adventures in adulting with “oo-whoo-hoo” gusto. The result is an equal parts urgent, honest, and, in a weird way, comforting, portrayal of stumbling through your 20s, and into your sense of self.
Over our tasty, slightly undercooked slices and goblets of root beer, we sidled up on Jen’s kitchen floor to talk the band’s evolution, Oi! punk, and the importance of knowing that you really don't know shit.
NOISEY: What's been the biggest shift in your dynamic as a trio since the last album? Do you spend much time just hanging out like this?
Jessie Clavin: Right now we're doing this thing where we’re trying every day to all get together and work on practicing so we don’t have to cram rehearsals in panic mode before a show. Which we used to do. So, we've been seeing each other every day. But then we take days off. My sister and I, we see each other mainly every day, and when we go to visit our parents...When we do practice it's usually really fun because we're all just like, hanging out. Mikayla will order a pizza. We all love pizza [Laughs].
Jen Clavin: We're more prepared now. I just feel really confident to play the songs really well, to the point that it’s just a really good time. Touring our first album, I mean Bleached was a really new band at the time. We'd been around, but there were all these variables, and getting to know each other. We were definitely more garage rock, and now we're actually trying to sound good live.
Does garage rock mean not sounding good live?
Jen: Um, it's just like a messier rock ‘n’ roll. You can play and mess up, but almost no one knows because you have so much reverb on your guitars, and most of the time you're just playing your guitars all the way through. Now it's like we have songs where we have to actually play a certain style of guitar, and then pause, and then wait and come in. I feel like the last album didn't have that type of playing at all.
How did the album's themes—I'm thinking of songs like "Trying to Lose Myself Again" and "Desolate Town"—come to be? Is that what you had set out for, or did that start to emerge along the way?
Jen: I figured out the name of the album was gonna be called “Welcome the Worms,” my friend and I had been doing mushrooms or psychedelics. It was 9 AM and we were walking around Echo Park Lake and these people gave us a pamphlet, like a religious pamphlet that they had made themselves. One of the cut-and-paste lines said, "Welcome the worms." And it hit me—that’s what this frickin’ record is about. I felt like embracing the dark side of life and all bad stuff happens, but some of it is good stuff. We can’t ignore when something bad happens and just accept it.
Jessie: Or push it away, yeah, just don’t push it away. Just accept it and live through it ‘cause that’s life. And it’s all beautiful in the end. I feel like we’re lucky to have the emotions that we even have. You know? Even if they’re horrible sometimes. I don’t know, just feeling is like something that we should appreciate more and not just be like, “Fuck this, I hate that I’m sad right now. I hate that I’m angry.” And just be like, I’m angry, okay? I’m angry. Yeah!
Micayla: And think about any experiences you’ve had that were rough, or you wish you weren’t going through it at the time. But afterwards, you’re like, “Thank God that happened.” I think that way about certain bands I was in. I was like, “Fuck that band,” but then I probably wouldn’t be in this band. And I wouldn’t have met that person. It’s all important.
This record doesn't sound like anything that Bleached has put out before. What steered the shift in your sound?
Jen: For me, personally, I've always wanted to try to make music that sounded like this record. I've always tried to make our songs go in this direction but I didn't really know how to. When we met Joe Chiccarelli, and he was like, "You should make these songs scary, big, and loud. You can't lose those melodies underneath that type of sound." And when he said that I was like, "I know, exactly! Can you just produce this record? Because you totally get it."
He didn't tell us to listen to anything, but we have a lot [of music] that we would refer to. We were going back into a lot of punk that we used to listen to, a lot of obscure punk or Oi! punk. Just like weird stuff that I don't listen to every day but I had a big moment in my life [with].
Jessie: I'm thinking of "Sour Candy," where we were like, "We need to toughen this up a little bit," and we went back and listened to a specific Oi! band, Sham 69.
Jen: And then I remember listening to Cock Sparrer, and Chron Gen. And also 70s disco punk. Always Siouxsie and the Banshees. There's this one Siouxsie video from a VHS I had in high school called "Girls Bite Back." There's an interview where they're like, "How do you feel about being the best female vocalist?" And she's like, "I'm not the best female vocalist, I'm the best vocalist." So tight!
Also, I feel like there's a level of confidence that we've reached [so] that we wouldn't have been able to make this record before. It took me going through whatever I was going through. Also just like growing up a little and having just more experience playing a guitar and singing. You know. Experiences help. Living.
What kind of experiences? The record was in part inspired by a break-up, right?
Jen: Yeah. The last record was about my relationship problems, and that sort of thing. And this record I was like, I wanna actually look at the real problem in myself. And bad relationship stuff triggered that. [I wanna look at] the way I cope with things, growing, learning. Hating myself, and loving myself, and wanting to feel pain—you know? All of that. This record is a lot about that.
Why do you think it’s so hard to accept that? We all know it's coming, that this bad stuff is just a part of life that comes and goes.
Jessie: 'Cause it feels bad! When you’re in the moment, it’s really hard to see past that. Heartbreak is the worst feeling in the world. You’re just trying to feel anything but that. But if you avoid it, it will just be there, still. You have to feel it. I think if the really bad stuff happened then we wouldn’t appreciate the really amazing things either. You know?
Jen: So, it’s kind of good. But as children, just watching our parents in pain over things, we probably pick up on that...We were talking about how Jess and I went to junior high in Beverly Hills, where everyone had really nice mansions, but then all my friends, their parents were like, divorced. I feel like they were all really unhappy little brats. It’s just funny 'cause you think, you’re so rich and you could probably have anything you want. But you’re still not happy.
Since so much of the record is about figuring yourself out, how did that reconcile with your first time writing together as a trio?
Micayla: When it’s at the time, I feel kind of paralyzed. When you’re in the middle of that really intense feeling or emotion, it doesn’t come out of me right away, it’s looking back. But I think Jen works really well when she’s in the middle of something.
Jen: You felt like you related to a lot to the lyrics after?
Micayla: I realized that we had been going through a lot of the same things. ’Cause you feel like you’re on your own in your own struggle, and you’re like, well these are my friends, and we all understand our own struggle [but not each other’s]. But then you see the lyrics all written out, and you’re like, “Holy shit, that makes so much sense from the place we’re I’ve been, too.”
Jessie: Obviously when you’re writing lyrics, you’re not being super specific. There’s a vagueness, so it’s easier for you to take those words and make them more your own story. Which I like. I like how someone going through a breakup, or someone that just lost their mom or something, I don’t know, could still take from the same song. And get something out of it...Grief is a totally shitty and lonely feeling. Or like, loss. Sadness. You’re like, no one else understands!
Jen: Yeah, and you isolate, and the best thing to do is not isolate.
Mikayla: Yeah, you push everyone you love away. Everyone that you need the most.
So how did you learn not to isolate? Especially when you're making a record together?
Jen: I think you have to force yourself not to. And then just having really good friends. A lot about my life right now is really appreciating my friends. Before, I was always in a relationship that wasn’t very healthy, and I feel like I almost pushed my friends away. Now that I’m single and really happy with myself and have really amazing friends, it’s like this new part of life that I feel like I’ve never experienced before. You just inspire each other and you learn from each other, but you do it with such an open mind. In a relationship, it’s easier for me to nit pick and find the wrong in someone. Maybe now that I have good friendships and respect myself I could hopefully find a good, healthy relationship...It’s important to have that time to work on yourself. And when you’re consistently in relationships, it becomes toxic.
Micayla: Do you think that the sister relationship also made it so you didn’t need as many friends before?
Jessie: Oh, I never thought about that.
Micayla: ‘Cause I’m an only child, and I was thinking about that when I was sad. I was like, it’d be really nice to have a sister that just understood. And I could be like, “I’m so depressed right now,” and they’re like, “I got you.”
Jessie: I feel like being young growing up, in my head, no one was as cool as Jen. So I could have as many friends, but no one was as cool as Jen. [Laughs]
Jen: I remember my best friend in high school—I would ditch school as much as I could ’cause I hated school. I remember she would come over after school to see how I was, ‘cause she knew I wasn’t sick, but she’d come to the door and I would hide. ‘Cause I knew, I didn’t want to—I don’t know, I was so anti-social. And then she would climb my roof and sneak in my house to get me. [To Jessie] You remember how anti-social I was? And she knew how to make it so I would hang out with her.
Jessie: It’s so funny going through different phases of your life, and looking back at what type of person you were then, and how that person then would never guess you’d be the person you are now. And how back then, you thought you knew everything. And now looking back, I didn’t know shit, and I still don’t know shit. I’m gonna learn more.
And then you just keep realizing how much shit you don’t know.
Jessie: I remember realizing that it didn’t matter what other people thought. And that was a big realization. I was like, Oh my god, it doesn’t matter what people think. That kind of changed my life. I was like 19 or something. But at some point, you really care what people think. And then you realize you don’t have to, and that’s really liberating.
Jenn: Yeah. I feel like going to school makes you care so much cuz that’s what school’s about. Like who’s the most popular person, who’s the coolest. And then you realize, oh, it didn’t matter.
Jessie: And all the coolest people suck now.
Jessie: Which is so tight.
Bleached's Welcome the Worms is out now via Dead Oceans. Catch them on tour now.
Andrea Domanick loves a good pizza party. Follow her on Twitter.