INTERVIEW: Adult Mom

Two years ago, as I was on my weekly pursuit for new and noteworthy musicians to add to my go-to crying playlist, my eye was caught by album art that appeared in my “suggested for you” sidebar. The aesthetic was simple yet arresting: lush green leaves poked through a safety orange construction fence, seemingly hand-painted and boasting visible brushstrokes. In small block letters were the words “Momentary Lapse of Happily.” I clicked play. The first three songs were enchantingly raw. I bobbed my head in time with the catchy reprises, goofily grinning and congratulating myself for stumbling upon this band. I texted a couple of my friends, eager to share with them these stripped-down yet bubblegum-sweet tunes: “Hey, listen to this band – you’ll love them. Their name is Adult Mom.” Then came the album’s fourth track, “Told Ya So.” About a minute into the song, my overpriced mascara was streaking down my cheeks. A velvety voice confronted me with a question I didn’t know I needed to be asked until that moment: “Has anyone ever told you that it’s OK to cry?” I sniffled. And then, a few bars later, my typically stoic self was hit by a truck: “It is OK to feel the world/It is OK to kiss girls.” I was blubbering. At the time, I was a closeted queer, too timid and ashamed to emerge from my unconvincing heterosexual façade. The fear of rejection, not only from loved ones and peers, but from my perfectionist self and the “straight is great” sentiments that I had internalized for years, seemed to melt away in that fleeting moment of listening. The lyrics were candor, matter-of-fact, cogent. And yet, they offered an unfamiliar sense of comfort. A nameless voice had just granted me permission to live as my authentic self – as grossly cliché as that sounds – and I needed to know who it belonged to. The answer: Steph Knipe, a gender non-conforming musician (who uses they/them pronouns) and front-person of New York-based indie pop group, Adult Mom. Knipe seems to make a habit of crafting addictively intimate lyrics which teeter between reassurance (“If you feel like nothing, I’ll tell you that you are something”) and commination (“I set fire to abusers/like a war, I am a terror”), all while remaining unabashedly queer.

That said, I made it a goal to see them perform live, and, though it took an excruciatingly long time for that vision to come to fruition (two entire years!!!), I was finally lucky enough to see them a few weeks ago while they were on tour promoting their sophomore LP, Soft Spots. As if seeing them weren’t enough of a privilege, I also had the honor of interviewing Knipe over a pre-gig cup of coffee at my favorite café. There, we engaged in lively, cackle-filled conversation about crushes and heartbreak, our mutual obsession with Twitter, kooky tour stories, and of course, the new album (which, for the record, is flawless). Check out our conversation below and be sure to hit-up Adult Mom’s Bandcamp where you can give Soft Spots a listen.

 

You’ve been on tour for your new record, Soft Spots, about a month now. How’s it been going?

Overall, it’s been amazing. A lot of the shows have been fantastic – especially playing along the West Coast and experiencing all these new places and meeting all these new people, and having crowds in places we’ve never played before. It’s all been really validating.

I’ve seen some tweets about how exhausted you are. How do you take care of yourself while you’re on tour for such a long stretch of time?

I guess a couple of days ago I was just on a major dip of like, “I’m so ready to be home.” But a lot of this tour I worked really hard to make sure I was on top of myself and doing what I needed to do and getting what I needed. It comes down to such little things on tour, like just eating better, that’s important. Also having friends to check-in with who aren’t in the band – people from home or others. Oh, and journaling and writing a lot and being like, “This is what I did today,” and taking a lot of space to myself [away from the band] to just process. But yeah, we’ve been really lucky. We’ve been sleeping really well – most of the sleep set-ups have been pretty comfy. Overall, it’s been good. It’s hard to even think about what are the good self-care tactics for tour because it’s day-to-day. It constantly changes. And it’s such an intense environment to put yourself in, especially if you have depression or anxiety or you’re mentally ill in any way. But it also helps to be in a band with people who are my best friends and who communicate well together.

Can you talk about the driving force behind Soft Spots? Is there a certain emotion behind it that you can pinpoint?

I feel like I was writing it when I was falling in love, and also dealing with residual trauma. So, going into the record, I was trying to articulate what it feels like to put yourself out there again and feel love without it being traumatizing, which is really hard for people [like me] who have PTSD. So, writing the album was just me trying to process that, and trying to be happy and normal, in a way [laughs]. But also, like, recognize that I have my shit and have to deal with it.

I really love Momentary Lapse of Happily, but this album feels a little more curated, or perhaps more full-bodied. Can you talk a bit about the differences between the two in terms of writing and recording processes?

I think with Momentary, I wasn’t directionless, but I wanted to throw a lot of things into the pot. I was like, “Woah, I wrote all of these songs, let’s record them!” But this album was definitely more curated and edited-down. I think I presented fifteen songs or more – I have so many written – and I did a very heavy selection process with the band and with Mike, who’s our engineer. I was like, “Yeah, OK, I want to make an album that is cohesive in its content but it also woven together,” which is really hard to do, especially because I feel like I’m a reactionary songwriter. I’m not a concept or themed songwriter. But yeah, it was my last year of college and I was working on my senior thesis when I was finishing it, and my mentor at the time [my professor] was like, “You have to treat your thesis like you treat your music. It’s a cohesive piece of work with purpose.” And so I was like, “That’s exactly what I need to do with this record.” So, I tried to do that. But I think the recording process changed it, too. Working with Mike – he’s recorded all of our albums, and we work really well collaboratively – I kind of opened myself up more to true collaboration and let go of a lot of ropes and stubbornness.

[laughs] Stubbornness – aren’t you a Taurus?

[laughing] I’m VERY much a Taurus. I feel like that has a lot of influence, too, in terms of being collaborative and working really hard to make things sound good instead of just being like, “We’re going to record this in two weeks.” It took us about five months, sporadically, to record it. I took my time, which was hard.

So were you just writing songs as they came to you, and then after-the-fact you revisited them and tried to find a unifying theme among them?

Hmm, not necessarily. I think it was a little more organic than that. I feel like, for some reason, every year of my life has a different theme that separates itself. So that was just a year of my life that I was writing about and thankfully it was cohesive in a way. Actually, it might have been more like two years. Some of the songs are older, but they’re all things I needed to figure out.

Do you have a favorite track on the new album?

Mhm. My favorite is “Drive Me Home.” I loved writing that song. It was like an out-of-body experience. It was one of things where I just wrote the melody so fast, and the lyrics just came out of me like, I don’t know, a bird [laughs]. It was just like butter, it just happened. It was such a cool writing experience for me, and I felt like it sounded a lot different than anything I had written before.

So, the song “J Station” – is that about the J-Train in New York?

It is!

OK, having lived off the J for a few months in Brooklyn, I have some strange stories from that train [laughs] – do you have any? It must be significant if you wrote a song about it. 

Well, I guess the full-story from the song is a weird one. It wasn’t in Brooklyn, though, it was in the Lower East Side – like, Essex St. area. Basically, I got pick-pocketed the night the story takes place. It was the fucking weirdest day of my life…

OK, this is how the story starts: I’m coming back on the bus [from Massachusetts] after we played a show, and Rolling Stone posted an article about Sometimes Bad Happens, which was our first tape. They put us on some list, and I was like, “Oh my God! Woah!” So, I texted my ex-boyfriend [who the tape was about] because we were on friendly terms, and I was like “Ha ha, look what I did with your shitty shittiness,” and he was like, “Ha, that’s hilarious. Also, I’m in New York City right now, do you want to meet up?” And I was like, “Yeah, let’s go!”

So, we meet up at some Cuban place, and I get kind of drunk, and it was just so emotional. I was so in love him, even still, and this was a year after we broke up. We were talking, and I was just so wrapped up in the whole thing that literally someone just pick-pocketed me [without me realizing] outside of the J station. It was January, so it was really cold, and we were running around the city trying to find my wallet. We thought maybe I left it at the restaurant, or at Dunkin Donuts [laughs], but it was freezing, like, my fingers were falling off, and I was with this person who I was so in love with and who ruined my life… And then we had to take the J back to whatever connecting train to get to Harlem. Then he drove me home through New Jersey – and there’s more to the story, if you can believe it. So we’re at a 7-11 because I was like, “I need beer, please buy me beer.” So, we’re drinking beer in the parking lot, and then a cop comes up and we get yelled at, and my ex almost gets arrested because I don’t have my wallet on me, and there’s no proof that I’m 21. I was also wearing ripped stockings, and the cop was like, “Did that happen tonight? Or is that fashion?” [laughing] I told him it was fashion and proceeded to give this cop my sob story, and then my ex drove me to my parents’ house, and he held my hand and was like, “That was wild.” And I was like, “OK, I gotta go…”

But yeah, that was maybe the most intense night of my life. So that’s what the song is about.

How do you feel about the term “bedroom pop” as it’s applied to your music?

[sighs] OK, I think it’s…interesting. I guess when I was doing bedroom recordings, like, straight-up bedroom recordings, the label made sense. It was applied to bands like Frankie Cosmos and others because they were just doing home recordings. But I think it’s kind of funny because… [pause] Well, I mean we mostly do still record in bedrooms. The majority of Soft Spots’ vocals and harmonies were recorded in bedrooms, so, OK. And I write all of the songs in bedrooms, potentially. But yeah, it’s this weird thing, because who doesn’t write things in their bedrooms? Don’t most people do that? Or, I don’t know, I think it’s supposed to be about an intimacy, which I like, but it’s just weird. It’s just like a silly genre definer.

Yeah, I feel like a lot of people have been labeling bands as bedroom pop who record in studios… I also feel like it’s a bit of a gendered term and that it’s usually associated with femme people and non-men.

Right, it’s like, “How do we categorize these people, because I don’t know how to talk about non-men in music?” [laughs]

Yes! Sometimes I feel like it can be reductionist, just throwing all of these musicians into this single category.

God, yes. I think my least favorite is the genre “DIY…” It actually makes no sense, and it’s always bands with women and non-men in them. Critics are always like, “It sounds a little scrappy, which means it’s DIY,” or something. And I’m like, most music is “do it yourself” because you’re literally making it. I’d much rather just be an indie pop genre. That’s fine with me, let’s just leave it there.

I get that. I feel like music writers (and I can be guilty of this, too) are always trying to find new ways of saying things, so sometimes they’re inventing genres or using terms like “lo-fi…” They kinda drive me nuts sometimes.

Ugh, I’m really relieved that we’re outta that whole lo-fi business. I feel like it’s being used less and less, thank God.

Alright, this next question is fun, too. I like to get into some potentially controversial questions. I hope you’re ready.

Well I love to talk shit, so.

We already talked briefly about Twitter, but how do you think that social media impacts the indie music scene? A lot of artists that I follow closely are fairly active on social media. What kind of roles do you think that plays?

Twitter is the music social media, I feel. I think Instagram is more visual arts, fashion, graphic design, or whatever, but Twitter is primarily musicians and writers. I cannot get a handle on how it has either helped or hurt my band [laughs]. I think it has helped? It has a super intense influence on who I know and how I make connections with other artists. I’ve met so many artists through Twitter. I’ve been able to book tours and play shows with other musicians through Twitter, and it doesn’t feel like slimy networking. It feels more just like, “Hey, I really like your band, let’s chat.” So, we wind up chatting via direct messages. I have people who follow me who I thought would never interact with me in my lifetime; and that’s kind of the beauty of social media. I think it’s definitely had a huge impact on us, and I think it’s good. I think it’s good that we can keep up with what other people are doing. And, I think Twitter is so funny because – since I am technically a writer – writing tweets is something I love doing. I love putting them out there. I wouldn’t say it’s a part of my art, like, definitely not [laughs], but it feels like a part of my band, or something. I don’t know.

I feel like it really enhances fan-to-artist relationships. For example, I remember Carrie Brownstein responded to one of my tweets last year and I almost went into cardiac arrest…

Um yeah, I would have had a heart attack too. It really bridges this hierarchy that I always feel in music. Like, this person is cooler than me, and they liked my tweet, so I’m COOL now [laughs].

Social media also plays a huge role in call-out culture. A good reference would be your stream of tweets after the incident with a *certain* queer band that occurred last month… Would you say that’s beneficial? Or, more generally, how do you feel about call-out culture in music?

Woo, that is a loaded question… I think I have a super difficult relationship to it. I enjoy call-out culture when it is directly helping the people who have been harmed in situations. I think there is a lot about call-out culture that can be criticized. Some of it can feel very performative and reactionary in a way that’s not serving the purpose it’s supposed to serve, if you know what I mean… This is so hard to explain. But say someone is like, “This person is an assaulter, someone posted this on Facebook” –  I guess that’s callout culture, but then the turnaround from it is like, “Great, so what are we gonna do about it?” And then no one actually does anything. I guess my point with the whole thread after the PWR BTTM fallout was to ask how we heal from these things and how we learn.

What I’m getting at is this: call-out culture can feel very black and white, like, “You’re wrong, I’m right” in a lot of situations, which I think are totally valid things to feel. But I think learning from that whole PWR BTTM thing is like, we all have the capability to harm and to do things that are not good. I mean, maybe most of us are not going to harm on that level, but it’s an important reflection process to be like, “How do I keep myself in-check? How do I keep my friends in-check? How do I continue to be a safe person or act safely, like, forever?” So, it’s complicated, but I support call-out culture 100 percent, I just think it needs to be extended more.

Right. I read an interesting piece recently that conflated call-out culture to mass incarceration – it was a bit drastic, but it was talking about how we throw people away after they do something wrong, rather than attempting to heal them or help them. So how that plays into the music scene is really thought-provoking for me. I feel like the line is blurred when it comes to who we decide to rehab and who we decide to just do-away with, you know?

Yeah, and it’s hard because abuse is a heavy word. There’s a lot that goes into what that is. There is so much about abuse that is like, “Does this person have legitimate power over somebody?” And this is not even in an attempt to silence anybody’s abuse, but I think that a lot of times, people see things from the outside and are like, “I don’t like that, that’s a bad person, fuck that person, that’s abusive.” But my thing is, we should take a step back and try to figure things out. Abuse is so intertwined with our culture. I’ve been abused probably millions of times by so many people. Even by friends, I have felt/been in situations that have been manipulative, but most of the time those situations are mendable. You can just say “Hey, this was pretty manipulative of you,” and then they’re like, “Oh my god, I wasn’t even thinking, I’m going to change how I do that now.” But then there are some situations where it’s just impossible, because a lot of abusers are impossible to reach and to get them to understand… I feel like I’m going on a crazy tangent. Nothing in this world is cut and dry, is what I feel. I hope that these conversations can continue to be had instead of being like, “You’re out, goodbye, you’re cancelled,” and having people believe that they’re on some sort of moral high ground for that, because we’re not – as people, we are not. Most of us will fuck things up.

I do feel like a lot of people use call-out culture to appear more “woke,” and its only for their own gain.

Right. It’s this moral high ground and like, listen, I get it. In college, I worked so hard at trying to make a safer space in our student center, which was a music venue, and it was the most difficult thing in the world. I was very reactionary. Oftentimes I was like, “You’re bad, you’re out,” and I still feel that sometimes, and I think every survivor should have the power to decide what happens to their abuser. Then it’s up to the people who aren’t harmed to figure out how to heal and grow, because if we keep casting people out, it turns into this weird witch hunt. I don’t know, there are levels to all of this. I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to silence anybody’s harm. In short, I don’t really care what happens to a rapist – that’s up to the survivor to decide – but I do care how a community heals from a rapist’s actions.

So what are your post-tour plans looking like?

Honestly, the past six months have been some of the worst of my life. But now I’m on the upswing – it’s been a lot better. I’m just trying to figure out where to move after the summer. I want to go to California sooo bad. I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s a desire that is stronger than like anything I’ve ever felt. I was there and was like, “I need this.” We were there on tour for four days, and I have a lot of family and friends who live there, so I’m really thinking about it. I was also very serious about moving to Chicago for a while. I love Chicago, it is one of my favorite cities. But if I were to move there, I would feel like I was making a half-step and not a whole-step, because where I really want to be is the West Coast. I’ve always wanted it, so we’ll see… It’s hard, because [while touring] we’re in new places all the time, and I’m such a sucker. I’m always just like, “This could be me… That person in that coffee shop? That could be my life.” I romanticize the shit out of everything… That’s my Leo rising. I just fall in love with places so deeply, and it’s so wrapped up in the idea that my life could be amazing and beautiful. So, I’m just trying to ground myself. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt totally settled in a place. I thought I did for a little bit while I was living with my ex, but that all went to doo-doo.

Woof, yeah. I lived with an ex of mine for about four months before my flighty Aquarius ass got bored and decided to scoot on outta there.

My Venus in Gemini ass is… a nightmare. In terms of my love life, the only people that can quote unquote “keep up with me” because of my Venus in Gemini tend to be Scorpios and Leos. I just need a lot of difference and variation. Scorps and Leos are both just so passionate and present; I think they’re great. I have a theory that you’re supposed to be with someone who is your Ascendant sign rather than your Sun sign. I could never date another Taurus – I would lose my fucking mind. My problem is my Taurus self is so dedicated and loves commitment, but then my Gemini Venus makes me crazy… I don’t know. I love being in love – it’s probably my favorite thing in the world, which is why I’m in a relationship all of the time. This is actually the longest I’ve been single since I was 14 years old, and it’s only been six months.

Oh my God. I cannot comprehend that. I can last for (maybe) three months if you’re lucky. I have a theory that, within a vein similar to “dog years” exists “Aquarius years.” Like, two months of dating for an Aquarius is the equivalent to one year of dating for non-Aquarians. After two months I’m horrified and feel like I’m married, so naturally I flee the scene.

Ok but for me, after two months I’m like, “Why AREN’T we married yet?” [laughs]

If I’ve learned anything in this shit year, it’s that literally anything can happen. Even if you have a crush who’s like, a million miles away, you can just fly out and see them. Or [laughing], you can book a tour.

Yeah dang. I should start a band so I can land cute tour crushes. That’ll be my main motivator.

[Laughs] OK, so right now I’m writing the next album, and last summer, I wrote a song about our guitarist, Mike, who had this really intense crush on somebody. And I was in a relationship at the time, so I was just witnessing this. And you know, they would be sitting on the couch and like, their knees would be touching, and all of that little stuff that made me think “Aw, I remember what that feels like.” So, I wrote a song from his perspective of the situation [for the new album]. And then I wrote another song from another friend’s crushing perspective, and I have like four other songs about my crushes, and the rest are about leaving my ex. So, it’s going to be an interesting curation of content [laughing]. But, writing about crushes is so fun, and so beautiful. It’s awesome. I love that shit.

Crushes…ruin my life.

I get so wrapped up in that shit. Actually, I think that’s a big thing about me [in general]. I think this is one of the reasons why I write – I get so overwhelmed with things, especially when I’m happy. I just want to shoot myself to the moon, or I wanna be a firecracker. If I’m feeling joy, I need to harness it. It’s almost this feeling of like, “I could be unhappy in five minutes – how do I figure this out?” So, writing helps me feel as if I’m making it last – it’s like a way of memorializing those emotions.

Do you have a favorite tour memory that you would be willing to share – whether it be just a shining moment or an occurrence that was particularly strange? I love weird tour stories.

There are so many, it’s hard. Hmm. I can think of two: one weird one and one really good one. The first one happened recently when we were in Olympia, WA. We were staying at a friend of a friend’s house. The person who lived there wasn’t home, but they were like, “The house is yours, the door will be open, help yourself.” We were like, “OK, great!” But they gave us the wrong address, so we drove around for a while until we finally found the house with the correct address. So, the front door is open, we’re going inside, etc. But then, we open another door and there was just a person sleeping in there. So… We had walked into the wrong house, and we just ran out so FAST. I was so embarrassed. My face was beet red and I was so stressed and nervous, and then the woman came outside and was like “WHAT THE FUCK!?” So, we had to apologize and explain what had happened, and she told us that the house we were supposed to be staying in was across the street. So, we went over there and we were finally getting settled, and then that same woman came and knocked on the door and was like, “Hey, someone left this sweater in my house.” And we apologized, but she was totally cool at that point and didn’t really seem to care. But, yeah, apparently people don’t lock their doors in Washington. That was totally horrifying, but whatever, we’re over it. 

And then… Actually, you know what, I’m just going to tell another weird story, because that’s funnier. So, my first tour ever, ever, ever [in January 2014], we were driving to Kentucky, and we went a weird route because roads were closed, so we had to drive over a mountain. It was the middle of January, and the fog was so thick, we couldn’t see any signs for miles – literally miles. We were running out of gas, and the service kept dropping, so the GPS signal was fading in and out, and we had absolutely no idea where we were going. We couldn’t see anything – I seriously cannot dramatize this enough. It was horrifying. We kept calling the promoter and asking them to help us navigate this mountain, and they were yelling “WHAT?” into the phone, and then the call would drop, and we were all just screaming “IT’S NOT WORTH IT!” and considered turning back. But eventually we wound up convincing Bruce, our bassist, to drive over this fucking mountain. We were in the car debating this for an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Finally, we start to move in this thick-ass fog and encroach over it, and then we just see a golden McDonald’s arch illuminated. We got out of the car and I wanted to kiss the ground. By the time we got there, we were just so thankful to be alive. I mean, that’s like the twisted tour shit that people don’t talk about that much, those near-death experiences. But it’s great – tour’s great. I love what I do.