That most complex of human emotions, love—or a hole where love once was—finds itself in the most wonderful and agonizing parts of life and death, and to a lucky percentage of souls, past and present: art. The sophomore album from Portland’s two-piece experimental act Muscle and Marrow, Love, is a requiem for vocalist/guitarist Kira Clark’s grandmother, who helped raise her and recently passed away after battling Alzheimer’s at the end of her life. The record is spellbindingly beautiful yet confrontational and unsettling, and journeys through the entire range of emotions one undergoes when unmasking in the face of love. Love (which is out May 27 via The Flenser) refuses to sacrifice either its immense heaviness or its beauty, which shores up its appeal to Muscle and Marrow’s traditionally metal-oriented audience while allowing for more accessible pop leanings that could land it in the hands of the mainstream.
More subtly, Love is also a nod to Courtney Love. The infamous Hole singer has become a recent influence to Clark, influencing her to revel in her own femininity as an act of subversion, even—and especially— in the midst of a month-long tour surrounded by the most masculine of metal fans. Courtney Love has also been a muse for the band itself: Since the discovery of their admiration for her between the release of their 2014 debut, The Human Cry, and now, Clark and drummer Keith McGraw have shifted the band’s aesthetics from dark, witchy and morose to pink, flowery, and femme without losing an ounce of the dark discomfort for which they have become widely known.
Clark and McGraw’s innate understanding of love is multifaceted: The two are a couple who live and create art together, tour the continent together, mourn the loss of family together, cry, laugh, and scream together, and now, given the success of the band, find themselves navigating the unforgiving intricacies of the music industry together, too. Seated next to each other in a quiet, candle-lit bar in Portland, taking turns exchanging supportive smiles, the two met up with Noisey to talk about Love, Love, and love, as well as finding footing as a feminine force in a sea of dude-sweat.
Noisey: How did Courtney Love’s influence come into your life?
Kira Clark: It was maybe a year and a half ago. I was at work, and the silly satellite radio station was playing, and “Doll Parts” came on. And I knew the song sounded like it was from the 90s, and I didn’t know who it was. I’m from Oklahoma, okay? I wasn’t exposed to cool culture at all. My favorite band growing up was Bright Eyes. I Googled the lyrics, found out it was Hole, and it just blew my mind because I—this is really embarrassing to admit out loud—but I didn’t really even know that she was in a band [laughs].
So many people have this idea that she’s just some crazy person, because that’s the only way mainstream media likes to portray her. In the documentaries and whatnot, there’s not a lot of mention of her creative life.
Clark: Exactly! Growing up, I had my whole Nirvana phase. I was in middle school or something, and fell in love with Kurt Cobain and bought his diary or whatever, and I watched that conspiracy murder movie Kurt & Courtney. I remember watching that and hating her, and I remember being convinced that she killed him. My conception of her was just this insane, unstable person who was maybe a murderer. So anyway, I started going down this rabbit hole of Courtney Love. I became obsessed. I started watching live videos of Hole, and all of these interviews. I don’t think for a second that she’s not complicated and flawed, you know? But that’s why I love her. She’s messy, and maybe a bit nutty, but I think she’s extremely, viciously intelligent. I think that she has this ambition that I cannot fathom, this belief in herself, and I think—this is such an overused word—but she is such a survivor. Her life certainly rivaled Kurt Cobain’s life in terms of hardships. Instead of what I do, or what I feel like I do, which is kind of shrink, she just became larger than the entire world. She consumed life in this ferocious way.
We went on tour with Author & Punisher, and I am so glad that we did, but it was hard for me. It was only dudes on tour. It was us and Tristan Shone and two other dudes who were doing the sound and lighting. I felt really isolated on that tour, and I felt really scared and sensitive and insecure constantly, and when I feel those emotions, I channel Courtney, who seems to me like the antithesis of that. Obviously she’s insecure and scared, but she responds to hardship in a way that I just find astonishing. She’s insane! I love her! She believed that she deserved whatever she wanted. And I mean, she made a lot of mistakes along the way, but she survived. She’s still here.
Keith McGraw: She’s electric.
Clark: Also, I can’t believe that I was denied female role models growing up. It’s not anyone’s fault, really, but what’s available to you is changing. What was available to me as a person growing up in Oklahoma was male role models only. The canon of literature, everything. I loved male authors, I loved male musicians. [Keith and I] have talked about this. Our formative, nostalgic high school bands—his are all guys; mine are mostly guys.
As an adult, to be able to re-frame and fix something, to consciously reinvent who I admire, is important to me. And that means loving Courtney Love. And everyone else hating her just makes me love her more. But it’s extremely symbolically important to me to be able to reinvent who I admire. And it feels important that they’re women right now because I spent 27 years only having men. And men are brilliant and talented, of course! But I just feel like I’m making up for a lot of lost time.
McGraw: I think Yoko Ono occupies a similar space in a lot of ways. I remember learning about her as a child because my dad was a big Beatles fan, and the only thing I knew about Yoko was that she was crazy, and that she broke up The Beatles. And when we were in New York last summer, we went to the MoMA exhibition of hers, and it was fucking incredible! She was—she is—an amazing person, and I had no idea! And that’s a disservice to me, and to that general sentiment. It’s very similar to Courtney.
The average fan doesn’t realize that the celebrity musician they love is probably just as unstable as their partner, but the more famous one tends to have the advantage of having this curated image that the public sees, while their loved one gets painted as crazy.
Clark: And Kurt was also a drug addict, also crazy. It’s just for some reason the public perceived his inability to survive as “purity,” and “sensitivity.”
McGraw: “Too good for this world.”
Clark: And they perceived Courtney as toxic. It’s sad. I think they were both super flawed, super brilliant people.
You are also two highly creative people living and making art together, who also happen to be in love. How do you give each other space to be creative while also being there to support each other?
Clark: It’s hard. Sometimes we forget to be in love.
McGraw: Yeah. I mean, it’s funny. In some ways, they don’t exist at the same time. Our time is so divided. Like, right now we’re in a band, and we’re doing things together, and we get mad at each other for band reasons, and of course, obviously, there’s a massive bleed. It’s complex, though—it is simultaneously much more difficult and much, much easier.
Clark: We’ve had to really work on not taking out stress that we’re feeling on each other. But in terms of how we make space for each other to create, we do spend a lot of time apart. We create apart most of the time. But there’s a lot of feelings involved. There’s a lot of fighting. I don’t think we’ll ever feel completely supported by each other, because the expectation is so much higher. I need to feel perfectly supported by him. Which is impossible.
McGraw: It doesn’t matter how intimate we are, how long we’ve lived together, or how long we’ve slept in the same bed. It’s still vulnerable to show something to each other. I don’t know if it ever won’t be.
Clark: I think if it isn’t, you’re not making good stuff.
There’s always been this tone in Muscle and Marrow where it feels like taking vulnerability and using that to empower yourself. The subject matter on Love is so intensely personal and sad, and you turned it into this powerful, confrontational thing.
Clark: The first songs I was writing, for a really long time, were just sad. Very simply sad, mournful and pretty. And that kind of became boring to me. Or it didn’t feel like it was a complicated enough space, or something. And then Courtney Love really showed me that I could be disgusting also. I think, looking back on live performances on tour, I kind of feel like sometimes what people perceive as raw authenticity was actually me trying to keep up a little bit with the really heavy metal bands around me. I knew I had to exceed their intensity, because what I was doing wasn’t actually metal. And I knew I had to beat them in the emotional game. I’m at a point where I kind of want to reassess. I did that for two records, and I’m really proud of it, and it was really cathartic for me to be kind of ugly. But I also really want to have the freedom and the space and the right to change whenever I want.
On the topic of directional change, when you premiered the song “Black Hole,” you said that song is really indicative of the direction Muscle and Marrow is going in for the next record. Would you say that the next album is going to be, I don’t want to say “poppier”…
McGraw: Poppier isn’t that ill-fitting. More electronic stuff. We’re definitely pushing the melody a lot, too.
Clark: It feels false to me to continue to revisit a very specific emotion over and over again. It was extremely organic and natural for these two records to sound that way because I was dealing with a lot of stuff. But I don’t want to keep revisiting that if it doesn’t feel real or current. I am so many things other than just upset [laughs].
There was a really big aesthetic shift between The Human Cry and Love. In your promo photos, the things you’re posting on social media, and your color schemes. It used to be dark, cloudy, and witchy, and now it’s pink and flowers and sparkles, which is fantastic—I mean, women and men can both be all of those things at once. Do you think your newfound obsession with Courtney Love inspired that shift?
Clark: Maybe indirectly, because she encourages me to do whatever the fuck I want to do, whenever I want to do it. I think this current push of almost this caricature of femininity is coming from a position of feeling like the feminine is invisible in the musical world that we inhabit, to some extent. So I want to make it hyper-visible. I’m—[laughs]—I’m about to compare myself to Nicki Minaj.
Clark: I can’t speak for her, obviously, but I think she was doing the same thing for a bit. She was wearing those baby pink wigs and everything was so girlish. Obviously she played off the fact that there were multiple characters, but the rap world is so heavily dominated by hyper masculinity, so it felt like she was pushing against that. I’m kind of rebellious, in the sense that anytime someone thinks they understand or thinks they can pigeonhole us into something, I push against that. I want to be continually interesting, and changing. I’m not someone who is a lifetime musician. This is new. I’m finding my artistic footing, stumbling around. In some ways on The Human Cry, I was young, artistically speaking, and I was influenced by a lot of other bands and people around me, and I don’t think the witchy aesthetic was very original. I think subversion feels inspiring, and right now what feels subversive is pink and flowers.
McGraw: I mean, I’m only addressing a very small part of this, but I’ve been really drawn to flowers lately as well.
Last fall, The New Yorker did a really incredible cover story on Nicki Minaj, and she talked about feeling like she has to play up this badass bitch personality when men are around because she doesn’t get taken seriously when she’s quiet and feminine. So, in order to let down her guard and be herself creatively, she works on her verses in the studio completely alone. But as soon as someone walks in, she has to put the tough mask back on.
Clark: I’m horrified onstage. But like you said about Nicki Minaj, I have to be a character. I have to be so extreme up there that they cannot deny what I’m doing. I felt it even more intensely because I knew that we were going into crowds who may not like us. So I felt this protectiveness, and kind of became a character. Which is a powerful tool while performing, but it’s exhausting to do over and over. So interestingly enough, what people sometimes perceived as, “Wow, this person is being so raw and vulnerable” was, in some ways, me protecting myself. It was me saying, “I’m going to be so raw and so vulnerable up here that you will not be able to talk over my set, or talk to your dude friends in the corner and not listen to me. You’re going to fucking listen to me.”
I think a part of me is just pushing up against people’s expectations. I just want to push our fan base a little bit. Like, “You think you like our music, and you think you like what we’re about, but what if I do this? Are you still going to like our music?”
The handful of times I’ve seen Author & Punisher, the crowds have been ultra masculine. It’s funny, because I don’t think he set out for that or that his music even directly speaks to that, but he picked up a lot of fans when he toured with Phil Anselmo. How did those fans react to seeing you play the music you play, with glitter and Stevie Nicks-inspired flowy dresses?
Clark: I think his fan base is interesting. You can almost divide them into three groups, which is obviously simplistic and not really fair: one being Phil Anselmo fans, one being industrial fans, and one being, like, “whatever” people. And the “whatever” people were usually the nicest to us. It was better than it could have been. The Phil Anselmo fans were the worst, but sometimes they surprised me. People were nice to us on that tour for the most part, too. I think often there’s a complicated experience going on with those kinds of people not even knowing why they like it. We’d hear, “I was not expecting that!” or, “I don’t know what the hell just happened but I really liked it!”
If you want to be subversive and push the fans, you may get that reaction a lot. Which is a good thing.
Clark: Yeah. I don’t want anybody to be comfortable, really.
McGraw: We’re certainly not comfortable. It’s in my nature to be sort of a quiet person, and the stage gives me a venue, an outlet, that I don’t feel like I have in my ordinary life. It’s funny because in some ways, it’s a mask, but it’s also a revealing as well.
Kira, you’ve been vocal on social media about the way you get treated on the road as a woman. What are a few stories that stick out in your mind?
Clark: We played the Housecore Festival, and the sound was amazing—it was really cool to play that room—but that was the worst experience. The first thing that happened that day was we walked in and a guy who was affiliated with the festival came up and only addressed [Keith], and only introduced himself to him. He told Keith to follow him, and I kind of trailed behind like a puppy because I had to get my badge, even though I hadn’t even been addressed or acknowledged, and we went into a room where he said, “This is Keith. He is Muscle And Marrow.” And I said, “I’m actually in the band.”
Later that day, we started loading in, and we had made several trips already, and on the third or fourth trip, the security guard turned to Keith and said, “She needs to leave when you’re done with this. It’s bands only.” I think, for the first time, I said something like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” I think I was actually mean. It’s funny because that guy was embarrassed, and he was nice about it. I’m sure he’s a nice guy. It’s not like everyone who makes those mistakes are bad people. It’s internalized!
It was like 2PM—it was a weird time, because we were playing early that day. It was really disorienting in general. So I was tired, and I went into the corner, and I just started sobbing. There were lots of people loading in, and lots of various men fluttering around the room, and I just decided, “No, I’m gonna cry in this corner. I’m not going to hide it. I’m going to publicly cry right now, and I’m not going to apologize for it, because this shitty thing happened to me.” And it felt like a way of fighting back in my own way against me being hurt, you know? Because my response is always, frustratingly, to cry. But to use that as a weapon, almost, or a tool to be visible when I was made to feel invisible, to feel like I was erased, felt good. But that feeling of anxiety of having to prove more than other people that I should be in this space, is something that I carried around. It’s hard.
McGraw: That was a pretty common occurrence. When we were loading in, someone would say, “It’s bands only.”
Clark: That was the most explicit version. But I’d be stopped, like, “I’m sorry, can I help you?” when I’m about to walk into the green room.
McGraw: Almost more egregious than that security guard was a previous tour, a really long time ago, when we were in San Jose, the door guy stopped us as we were loading in and said to her, “Alright, are you in the band?” And she said yes. And he goes, “But, you’re IN the band?” Like, “You play music on stage?” Yes, you fucking idiot!
Clark: So of course my response is, “I’m gonna post vaginas and flowers.” Because you’re making me feel fucking invisible. I’m not going to post skulls and dark shit anymore because I don’t want to fight to just be just another dude. I want to be seen for the femme I am.
Yeah, you shouldn’t have to play the “tough girl who can hang with the dudes” card. You can be as girly as you want and play music alongside them.
Clark: Exactly! And I can make sad music and you can like it. You don’t have to not like it just because I’m posting photos of myself crying. People are multifaceted and complicated and when you shrink everything down, it’s not enough space to hold how complicated we all are. So when I look back at the witchy, dark stuff, I know that was coming from a part of me wanting to be accepted. Which is really normal. I’m just finding my footing.
Cat Jones is staying tough on Twitter.