Lead singer and songwriter Annie Hardy weighs in on Giant Drag's return, and how battling the corporate ogre, along with an extended break, has made her stronger and shaped her songs for the better.
Giant Drag, like so many other promising indie bands of the past, present, and probably future, were scooped up like Easter eggs by an opportunistic major label following the breakthrough success of 2003’s Hearts and Unicorns. A few years later, also much like many an indie band once the music industry found itself in a seemingly irreparable shambles, they were unceremoniously dropped by Interscope, having failed to produce a follow-up. It could have ended as a sad, dispiriting story like so many others, or alternately, it could have lead to a sort of redemption thanks to a new artistic energy and a wealth of unexpected creative freedom.
Thankfully, judging by what Giant Drag's singer, guitarist and composer Annie Hardy has to say about their story, it’s the latter. The end of the band’s brief Interscope tenure has meant a breath of fresh air for the Los Angeles duo, and this is reflected in the eclectic offerings on their latest EP, The Swan Song EP, which finds Giant Drag exploring some new sounds and new directions. They're an older and wiser band for all the experiences of the past five years, which have provided a bounty of bile and dark humor to enchant their audience. The EP is also a precursor to upcoming full-length.
I caught up with Annie a couple weeks ago by phone. She informed me that we were conducting an ‘illegal interview’ as she was driving and talking to me on her cell phone at once, a California no-no. She then lamented similar-minded SoCal smoking laws, and generally responded to my questions in her typical arch, wry, witty manner. Very little has changed in Ms. Hardy’s personality during her band’s time away, and if her happiness is any indicator of the direction Giant Drag is headed in this time around, we can expect one hell of an album to follow.
First off, its been a while since we’ve heard from Giant Drag. Does it feel as if you’ve never left, or does this definitely feel like a comeback of sorts?
Well, it kind of feels like we left in the "putting stuff out and playing shows" sense, but I have so much communication with fans who have donated so much money to making this album happen, and to me eating food on a daily basis. Musically, I guess it’s a comeback after being gone for so long.
A sense of humor, namely dark humor, has always seemed pretty important to your work. Do you think that wittiness is something that’s missing from music right now? And do you think that’s absolutely a necessary component of the Giant Drag sound?
I think that’s something that happens on accident with this band. I just started being funny. We had to adjust synthesizers between songs, and it would take 30 seconds to a minute of stage time, and I had to fill in with talking. So I just talked. I don’t know if it’s essential for other music. There’s a lot of things missing right now in music that it needs, but I don’t know if it’s a sense of humor. Maybe quality. I think there will always be a sense of humor with us because I know I don’t take myself too seriously. That’s just how I roll. To make people laugh, make jokes, I’ve always been that way since I was a little kid. But it’s not going to be an album full of like little talkie weird things, like Hearts and Unicorns. I think the sense of humor has gone into the music itself. Not that we’re writing Tenacious D songs, but something like, ‘Ah, this is a funny guitar riff’ or something like that, although there is some talking, now that I think about it more.
How do you think the time off has affected the sound of the EP? Do you think it’s been a maturation process, a kind of natural progression?
It’s been a natural progression due to Micah quitting the band, and for a couple of years I was basically doing it on my own. As for the EP, it’s a kind of progression from Hearts and Unicorns, which was a blueprint for where we were headed, what to build from on top of that. The EP was recorded a while ago. It took longer to record our first album than to record and master the EP. You get hit with every possible setback. It takes a long time for some of these things. Like "Hey Micah, why is your friend taking seven months to put together artwork for an EP, which we’ll steal off the internet anyway?”
Was the time off a necessary sort of thing or a planned-out idea? Judging from what you’re saying, it sounds like the latter.
It was definitely the latter. Getting dropped from Interscope, and from that came losing faith in myself and my own musical abilities Micah wasn’t there and... I don’t know, it was a big mess. It made me feel like I wasn’t good enough, and then Joe Cardamone [of The Icarus Line], my best friend, kind of came along with a shovel and scraped me off the ground and started putting every confidence he could in the band and trying things out to make this record possible, and being just as invested in it as I have. Which like, if anyone knows Joe, he doesn’t get emotionally invested in anyone’s records except his own. For him to believe in me, it made me believe in myself again. So fuck those guys, I don’t know who they are, but fuck those guys, we made an awesome record! Joe’s always been a great producer, and now he’s learned how to engineer, and I never say this about my own records, but I think it’s awesome, most of it anyway. Some things are going to get trashed, but there’s some really good songs in it that I thought "Wow this is a good song, and I wrote it."
Do you look at something like an EP as a prototype of sorts for an LP?
Definitely. It’s like a little appetizer, a little piece of what’s to come. But appetizers are smaller, and the record will be bigger, more filling, with more experience.
With Micah having come and gone on a couple of occasions, has that experience affected the relationship between the two of you? Is there still a sense of unpredictability in the dynamic?
There definitely is. Right before getting signed to Interscope’s subsidiary, and then Interscope proper, Micah quit the band. It was right before I signed the papers that gave us, basically, like $20,000. Every time he comes back, it was like he never left, except that I know he did.
Do you think male audiences that come to see you perform expect some sort of formula, some simpering sort of Jenny Lewis cuteness? Do you think that kind of preconceived notion of how a female rock musician should behave harms the progress of female musicians in general?
There’s more female musicians than when I stated playing out in Giant Drag, more big ones. Lady Gaga is around, this sort of female Marilyn Manson. So I think all bets are kind are off. I remember touring in the UK and opening for an all-male band and getting a lot of "Show us your tits!" I’d say something back to them, when I think that what most people do is ignore that, and I’d get a whole crowd to turn around and laugh. I think it sets a ‘Don’t fuck with me’ standard. But people still fuck with me because they think I’m drunk, and I never am! II don’t drink at all. It’s confusing, it mostly happens in England. I think its because I’m kind of weird. I’m not like Lady Gaga weird. No stage show. But I’m not like Jenny Lewis. She’s a very nice girl who makes some nice music, but I’m somewhere in the middle. People I know are used to it, but on the stage in front of a couple thousand strangers, it freaks some people out how I talk and act.
Perhaps some people see a confident female performer and assume that kind of confidence must come from alcohol.
Yeah! People think I can’t be the way I am sober. But they also don’t have to get up on stage with one other person in a band, and lead a rock band, and try not to get overtaken by a crowd of men. Not harping on England, but fans get very vocal over there. In America, people shout out song requests, or “I Love You!” In England, they’re probably all a little more wasted. I think their bars close earlier over there. But it also seems like they appreciate music more over there. They actually want physical copies of things, they want vinyl as opposed to just the indie, artsy people who are just collectors.
So presumably the whole package is important to you as a musician? The physical release as opposed to a collection of bits in a file?
Exactly. I’ve had my hard drive die on my computer, and its like “Oh no, there it goes.” And I have to go, “I’m just gonna let that shit go away.” I have physical copies of everything important to me. I’m down for the things that internet has done as far as making it easier to discover music, but its also flooded the market because there’s so much music that I end up just listening the same shit I’ve listened to for years. The newest thing I’ve listened to is the new Jay-Z album.
Do you want to give us a little background as to the mood of the songs this time around? What’s different from your previous work, and what’s the same?
The EP is definitely a bunch of songs. A lot of them are depressing, and coming out of a dark period of my life. I’ve been writing them for the past five years. But there’s other ones that are like things I never thought I’d hear coming from myself. The first album was very “I’m angry at a guy, and here’s a bunch of songs about a couple of relationships”. The new album is more like "Here’s a bunch of songs and I don’t know where they came from." They got kind of like poured from my brain and out of my mouth and hands. And there’s different genres, so it's kind of off the wall. We’re making this great second record, totally different from the first one, and I hope that everyone doesn’t hate it because its different. People don’t like change. We definitely lost the "My Bloody Valentine guitars" from the first album, and it’s a more bare bones situation, but there’s a place for every instrument, and it’s all spread out. Its not like overpowered, only the vocals are overpowered. Everything that we’ve added has been added around my vocals.
The shoegaze tag has followed your band around for awhile. Do you think it’ll be harder for critics to pinpoint your sound now without that convenient touchstone?
I think it will be, because that was super easy. There was a lot of overdubbing, tons of tracks of guitars, and this one’s kind all over the place. You’ve got your straightforward rock songs, but you've got this one like bossa nova, fucking Tahiti song. It’s got an alt-country, spaghetti western sort of song, and there’s pedal steel on that song. It’s the saddest instrument I’ve ever heard in my life. When we were recording, the guy tracking and Joe were looking at each other like "Holy shit, this makes me want to cry.”
Do you think people have any preconceived notions about Giant Drag that you’d like to dissuade? Or do you think the fans understand your intentions fairly well?
I think the true fans understand my intentions. It’s still my voice, mostly my guitar playing, although I stepped aside and let the boys play some guitar on this album. And its got a lot of synthesizer bass, which sounds amazing. But nothing is so shockingly different that it’s going to make people hate me, I hope. I don’t think it’s too different for being labored over more. There are a couple wild cards, like I said. The bossa nova jam.
So ten years from now, do you hope to have accomplished all you’ve wanted to with Giant Drag, or do you not think that far ahead as far as ultimate goals go?
I don’t like to think that far ahead, really. In the present moment, it’s going to be awesome. If I think ten years ahead, I’ll start worrying about shit. Honestly, I’ve accomplished most everything I ever wanted to do as a kid, with this band. But I’d like to make a couple more albums and see where things keep progressing to. If I never toured again, I wouldn’t cry about it. I don’t like touring that much. But being in a band, it’s necessary.
How do you think things have changed in the music industry while Giant Drag has been away? Is there a glimmer of improvement there, or do you see a continued decline?
I think it’s led to a little more power for artists who aren’t on major labels. They’ve failed to keep up with internet’s attack on their sales and all that shit. New artists trying to get signed will get fucked, but if you’re a more established artist, like me, you kind of have it okay. There’s so many different choices about making your record, so many different avenues to choose from, for how you want to go about operating. There’s more options. Things have changed a lot, but the record labels haven’t changed enough.
Is there anything you’d do differently, looking back at the beginning of your career?
I really wouldn’t. Everything’s fallen into place for us so easily. We got to have the major label experience on their dime. It almost sounds like we’re working backwards. I don’t think we’ve paid our dues touring-wise. We’ve never slept on floors or anything. But I think that everything happens for a reason, and where we are now is not a bad place, I don’t think. I’m not homeless. It’s very hot today! I’m pretty happy with life.