hat were you doing at sixteen years old? It probably wasn’t that interesting and if you were making art of any kind, I can almost guarantee that no professional in that field thought that anything you were doing was worth noting. And that’s okay, because everything we did as a teen was shit. Your teens are the age in life where you’re supposed to look back and cringe, at your fashion, your dramatic disposition, your carefree lack of responsibility yet the oppressive weight of the future standing on your chest. At sixteen we’re not worthless un-molded lumps of clay waiting to be shaped, we’re worthless semi-molded lumps of clay that still have decades to go before we even begin to resemble a reasonable human being. Again, all that art you created, the plays you performed, the poetry you scrawled with metallic gel pens, all the angsty songs you wrote with the band you created with your friends, all of it is best left in a shoebox collecting dust at the bottom of your closet. If you’re lucky the art you’re going to create down the road is going to be beautiful, and meaningful, and full of humanity, but hide that terrible shit from the past, unless you happen to be Tigerlily Cooley, Anabella Bird Cooley, or Emiko Nakagawa Gantt of the band Bleachbear, because these teenagers have made music that fools you into believing they’re veteran musicians.
Any good band that has a story or a hook is going to find it easy to get some publicity, it’s easy to tell a compelling story about three teenagers, 18, 16, and 16, and it’s even more compelling when you learn that they’re two sisters and a cousin. “Here are three talented youngsters, and they’re just so darn cute.” You can ride that wave until it breaks, until the wax wears off the board and everyone loses interest. If you’re going to stay up on that board people will need to see that you’re not three talented teenage musicians, you’re three talented musicians who are also teenagers. Bleachbear is not a trio of teens playing around in the garage with music equipment, they’re not in this to impress their friends, they take everything they do seriously and put in the work to back it up. On the wall of their practice space is a list of ten “Band Practice Rules” a blunt and direct representation of the image the band has had to work against, and the ethic they adhere to that has helped them push past that image.
So sure you’re going to get a certain amount of “novelty” play, you might get some social media traffic, maybe sell a few more albums, but the novelty of age comes with more than a few drawbacks. Seattle isn’t exactly booming with all ages venues, the Vera Project being the most famous, but Ground Zero in Bellevue is no longer scheduling shows. You can find a way around that absence, Bleachbear has managed to schedule shows at Neumos and the Sunset in Seattle, playing with some of the most notable names in the city, but there lies the other more hidden drawback of being a teenager, “The music industry is so heavily based around networking, it’s often hard to network when you’re so young. I always felt uncomfortable going up to chat with some of the other bands who are playing. When you’re chatting with forty year old guys I felt like it’s ‘why is this little girl trying to talk to me?'” Tigerlily tells me. That vitally important step of connecting with other bands and even learning from them is an awkward experience. Even associating with other under 21 bands can prove challenging because they’re equally disinterested in chatting up the sixteen year olds. Those ten “Band Practice Rules” have served Bleachbear well, and they show up to sound check ready to work not messing around, hoping to prove to everyone that they know exactly what they’re doing.
Tigerlily was the real catalyst for the band, Emiko’s dad was an avid music fan connected with members of bands like the Fastbacks and Flop, “Music over schoolwork,” Tigerlily remembers, much to her mother’s chagrin. She recalls hours upon hours spent watching videos of Nirvana concerts on Youtube, by the second grade she was obsessed with Kurt Cobain he was the be all and end all of cool, and if she was going to ever touch that cool she’d have to start a band.
“I tried to recruit bandmates on the playground but nobody played instruments back then.”
“I tried to recruit bandmates on the playground but nobody played instruments back then. My mom kept telling me ‘you should play with Anabella and Emiko,’ I thought back in Elementary school that was embarrassing to play with your younger siblings.” By the eighth grade the self-imposed pressure to start a band reached a boiling point and she finally convinced her sister and cousin to learn instruments and start a band. Bleachbear; the name is derived from the two greatest influences on their music, Bleach being the title of Nirvana’s debut LP and Bear a representation of the Northwest.
The trio credits an early University District street fair performance where they made t-shirts and spray painted “bleachbear” on them as being the moment when everything felt real, it was a small beginning “We were performing in a doorway across from the beer garden,” Tigerlily adds. Committing to something as brutal and fluid as a band, especially as teenagers with school, and puberty, and the pressures of growing up is a special feat, eventually the whole thing would probably dissolve amongst the ocean of more important work to be done. With that fear in mind some studio time was booked for Beachbear to commit the songs they’d written to a slickly produced cd. “Originally we were going to create a little album just for us, my stepdad wanted to make sure we had a keepsake of the songs we had. As we recorded we realized ‘actually these songs are pretty good, we could probably release this and play around,'” Emiko says.
Lost Parade was recorded simply by accident, and if that show in the doorway across from the beer garden was the moment that the three really felt like a real band, it was the surprise result of Lost Parade that made them take the band seriously. “After the cd release show a bunch of people bought cd’s and had us sign them. It came as a complete surprise, it was like ‘oh you want my autograph?'” Bird says of that first album. When you listen to Lost Parade you hear a band in musical conflict, there are these moments “singer/songwriter” as Tigerlily puts it, colliding up against these harsher moments that recall their grunge influence. The album definitely doesn’t sound like it was written by a sixteen year old and her fourteen year old cousin and sister, but it is somewhat uneven. Seattle Weekly in their best of Seattle issue named them the best Underage Band, and later they made it into the finals of EMP’s Soundoff competition.
As adults our art is the result of experimentation and the regular experiences we go through in life, we’re always maturing and gaining experience, but there’s something to be said for grappling with your artistic image and going through the most drastic growth and change of your entire life. Bleachbear went from being just the novelty young teens with instruments to serious teenagers old enough to drive cars and with enough experience to have strong opinions about the direction of their second album. “We were a lot more involved in the process of the second record. We were more purposeful with the sound we wanted. ‘What do we want our sound to be?’ We never asked ourselves that with the first record.” Tigerlily says about the bands recently released Cowboy Movie Star. The band really thought through what they wanted out of their second record, what sound, what image they wanted to project. Most notably, they wanted to be “edgy.” “We created a look board,” Bird says, then Tigerlily cuts in “I think we went too in depth, we even created new haircuts for everyone. There was this big fight because I was like ‘Emiko, you have to get bangs!’ Because we realized we all had the same haircut.”
Contextually the album was inspired by a book of vintage postcards Tigerlily found and then began writing songs around. But also in that time between Lost Parade and Cowboy Movie Star the band found a band-coach in the form of Tigerlily’s guitar teacher, Deep Sea Diver’s Jessica Dobson. “She’d push us to experiment, she’d give us the courage to go out and try more edgy things that we probably wouldn’t have put into the songs originally,” Bird says. The albums lead single Boy was one example where Jessica’s influence can be heard, the song originally began on guitar, but it was at her suggestion that they went with that crunchy bassline instead. “She’s very electric guitar oriented. She really pushed me to add in some guitar solos, get some new peddles,” Tigerlily adds of Jessica’s influence. Cowboy Movie Star also owes much of it’s more dramatic and biting sound to that Soundoff competition where bands are judged both on the sound as well as the entertainment factor, which encouraged the band to skew their music toward a more dramatic sound with those solos, downbeats, and bent notes.
For the album Bleachbear used local music legend Kurt Bloch (Fastbacks/Young Fresh Fellows) to produce. “He has that light attitude that we all lack,” Emiko says. “He’s less of a perfectionist, he has a fun attitude toward things. I was the perfectionist in the relationship when we were recording things,” Tigerlily adds. Cowboy Movie Star is an example of a band that matured their sound both as they became more experienced musicians and more confident in their skill to shy away from that easy pop sound exploring the sound of bent notes and less conventional structure. The sound pulls from surf rock and the classic doo-wop bands of the 1960’s as well as that gritty edgy sound of fuzzed up grunge rock. “Because it was our second time in, we were able to be a lot more comfortable in the studio, so we were able to try new things,” Bird says. Cowboy Movie Star isn’t just a great album for a bunch of teens, it’s a great album period, the vision and attention paid to the sound pays off in every song, and for the first time Bleachbear really makes the case to be taken seriously not just because of their novelty but as serious musicians.
You’d think that there’s a fine wire that Beachbear must balance upon being related to one another,
“You get more mad at each other, you can have a lot more fun too. It’s a very different dynamic than just being in a band with your friends,”
“You get more mad at each other, you can have a lot more fun too. It’s a very different dynamic than just being in a band with your friends,” Emiko says. “Even when you fight there’s this underlying, ‘I have to like you,’ quality,” Tigerlily adds. “Also if you do get mad at each other, where are you going to go?” Bird caps everything off. For Bleachbear playing with family members could certainly have it’s drawbacks, for Tigerlily and Bird there’s no hiding, when you’re bandmates know where you are and what you’re doing at every moment, you can’t skip out on practice, or call in sick, at least not if you’re not really sick. Overall for the trio being family is what gives the band a special and necessary working relationship. “It definitely helps, because we’re completely open with each other, we know each other so well that we’re not afraid to tell the truth. It’s very open, if we have an idea, we’re not nervous it’s going to suck even if it does suck. We’re family members nothing bad is going to happen. You can be like ‘this doesn’t sound good,’ and not worry about offending them,” Bird tells me. It’s fair to say that Bleachbear wouldn’t work or sound the way it does were these just three friends, it’s that brutal honesty and familiarity that each member relies on to have the courage to share their vision and really experiment with something.
I think that being family is also what has helped Bleachbear prevail though the difficulties of being in a band so young, dealing with being rejected by venues because of their age, or finding a way to network with bands twice your age, or finding a way for people to take them seriously. “When you’re young and really short, and a girl, people just don’t take you seriously,” Tigerlily says. For everything that works for them, it would seem that everything out of their control works against them. And this all goes back to those 10 Band Practice Rules, and the way they carry themselves and the extra work they have to put in that other bands take for granted. In order to show sound engineers that they know what their doing they have to come in with their beats ready to execute at soundcheck. “After shows people would come up to us-I heard this so many times, ‘oh you’re so cute.’ We’ve been called cute so many times,” Bird says a note of disgust to her voice as she says the word cute. “We used to get mad about the cute comments because… I think it was Soundoff where they’d comment about our music, then they’d comment about or outfits. It has to do with age, it has to do with gender… Trying to break free of the cute stereotype was another reason we wanted to have more edgy music,” Tigerlily says putting the bands collective intelligence and resilience on full display.
The band holds onto a certain positivity that I can only hope continues as the pressures of the industry grow, they’ve had to learn about the harsh realities regarding the way society and the industry sees them despite all their hard work and talent. Even as they get older and more experienced, it’s likely they they’ll still have to fight that “cute” image and will still have prove to engineers that they know what their doing, they’ll still have to prove to people that they’re not good for being young women, their good period. I hope they keep that air of positivity about them because I think it helps fuel their curiosity and drive for musical exploration, and if Cowboy Movie Star is the kind of album you can write at 18 and 16, then we are all in for a treat as they continue to play and grow together. Tigerlily is headed off to New York for school in what is going to be Beachbear’s biggest challenge yet, distance and distractions are sure to threaten the band over the next year, but as of now Tigerlily, Bird, and Emiko are determined to drive this band forward, and if there are any three individuals with the determination to do it, it’s Bleachbear.
Cowboy Movie Star is out now, and it is truly one of 2016’s best, find it at bleachbear.bandcamp.com. You can find Bleachbear at bleachbear.com. The above quotes were taken from my podcast interview with the band which you can find in itunes over at depthsounder.org or right here. The recording of Bleachbear performing Boy can be found on our soundcloud page, and the video can be found on our youtube page.