Field Mouse and Control Top Talk Ditching Grad School and the Meaning of Meaning

To celebrate the new Field Mouse record, frontwoman Rachel Browne and sat down with Control Top's Ali Carter for a chat.

Rachel Browne is the singer and guitarist for the Brooklyn-based rock band Field Mouse; Ali Carter is the singer and bassist for the Philly-based post-punk trio Control Top. To celebrate the new Field Mouse record Meaning — out now on Top Shelf Records — the two sat down to talk about it, along with how technology and the 2016 presidential election has influenced their music careers.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Associate Editor

Ali Carter: I want to talk about your new record. It’s called Meaning, which is what we try to do through music, right? Make meaning. It’s your first release in a couple years. How did it come together?

Rachel Browne: Our last record came out in 2016, three years ago this week, and then we did two back-to-back tours. It was like a sandwich of the election, and the post-election one was so bleak, a national tour right through all of it, coast to coast, and we were just like, holy shit. It was weird because it was a cool tour with The Good Life, and we all love them, but things in the country were so bleak. Every night on stage everyone was talking about the election between songs. Everyone we met at the shows was pretty much on board and shared our feelings about all of it, but the rest of the world outside the rock show or the city we were in felt the opposite. 

Everything started to feel like it was completely out of control, like this wasn’t just conjecture anymore. This was really happening. It was the new reality, and now we needed to consider how to live in it. We didn’t talk about breaking up as a band or anything, but we didn’t play any shows for a long time. We got home and reassessed what we were doing.

Ali: What did that mean for you personally? 

Rachel: There was a full year where I would play guitar at home, but I wasn’t playing shows, I wasn’t writing. I got a real-person job and applied to grad school, which was a fucked up thing to do, especially thinking about it now. I thought getting a degree in music therapy was a good alternative. I got in, and I was like, cool, I got into grad school. But then when I actually saw the tuition and the financial aid offer, I realized how long it would take to pay off loans as a music therapist, and I just couldn’t do it.

There are plenty of things you can do with your life that benefit others and yourself, are interesting and will not cripple you financially forever. So I didn’t go to grad school. But I did spend a lot of time working non-band jobs, and I got engaged, which is super normal person thing to do.

Ali: You were taking time to live for yourself and see what your life would look like without your band being the centerpiece of it at all times.

Rachel: Plus, music industry stuff. We didn’t start touring until 2013. Our first album came out the next year. The industry is a certain way. I never had high expectations for our growth within it. And by the end of the 2016 tour, I didn’t see the band exploding and becoming the thing that pays my bills. I wanted to try not to feel bad about that and try not to take it personally, or have it be a reflection of my worth or value or ability to play or write or anything. Just roll with it and figure out other stuff I can do that is emotionally and creatively satisfying. 

You can still write and play music and not expect it to be your money-making career. But that’s a shift. Even though I had low expectations, it’s still a shift. I think a lot of it was also recontextualizing music and bringing it back to just being fun, playing with people and writing. And it’s therapeutic!

Ali: Getting back to basics. I can relate to that. When I started Control Top, I had no expectations of the band’s success. We were just having fun. It was a very low-pressure situation, and then a shift happened. I saw myself growing as an artist and wanted to challenge myself more with songwriting, I wanted to tour, and I wanted to try to turn the band into something that could sustain me. I had some hard conversations and started playing with Al and Alex, amazing musicians and forces of their own. I found a true creative collaborator with Al, a fountain of ideas who could also teach me a lot about composition and engineering. We all shared the same vision for the band. We wanted to see how far we could take this. And that’s where we’ve been the last couple years. How do we keep moving this forward? How do we make more money so we have more resources to put into the band? But it is strange, having to shift the outlook of your creative pursuit into something that is more business-oriented.

Rachel: It’s very weird. Art and business are not really made for each other. There’s a way, though, and I think you’re doing it in the best possible way. You have great teammates.

Ali: Thanks, I do have great teammates. I’m very lucky. I think you need that in a band. Everyone doesn’t have to be good at everything as long as everyone is good at one or two things that help the band. I’ve learned so much from them. Of course, values are super important, and a high level of commitment. Al and Alex were both interested in touring and wanted to make the band a big piece of their lives. Joining a band is like joining a cult. It’s your new religion, whether you like to look at it that way or not. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the band and doing stuff for the band. While that’s been cool, I am regretful not having as much time or energy to spend on actually making music. That’s all incentive for bringing in people like booking agents and managers who can take on the business elements of the band so we can focus on why we’re all here, the music. Under capitalism, everyone’s guilty in some way, shape or form. All we’re trying to do is live as close to our authentic selves as we can and not hurt people.

Rachel: Your band is your business, and you can run your business how you want, to an extent. You have your own ethics and you’re working with, in my opinion, an ethical label and ethical bandmates. There’s not a whole lot you can do about the system around it other than try to be the change.

Ali: It’s true. Alex has done an excellent job of modeling what an independent label can do and look like, that it’s actually to everyone’s benefit to recognize and amplify diverse talent, that labels and artists can work together in a symbiotic and non-exploitative way. 

In our society right now, money is power. If we can get to a certain level as a band, we can start changing the structures around us more. But where we are now, we don’t have that sway.

Rachel: You’re still working within it, and you hope that when like-minded people get to a certain place where they have sway and a way to change things that they will still want to.

Ali: Exactly. 

So you went on tour right after the election; you all felt pretty impacted by the political atmosphere at the time and worn out from the musical endeavor, and you were trying to figure out how else to work music into your life and reshape your life to feel better and more stable. How did you start writing music again, and how did it grow into this new record?

Rachel: Within that first year of not doing anything, I was just playing for fun, and there was an audition for Temple, the grad school that I got into and didn’t go to. I had to play a bunch of songs, have a repertoire and be able to show that I could do basic music stuff, and that helped me. If nothing else, I was like, wow, I forgot that playing other people’s songs is cool! We have a little music room in our apartment, and I wrote one song in that entire year after the last 2016 tour. And I thought, someday, I might do something with this song, but for now it’s just an exercise. Then, I don’t know exactly. The political landscape was growing weirder and sadder every day. It was becoming clear that it wasn’t going to change anytime soon, so I thought, let’s process this and figure out how we talk about it, and let’s actually talk about it. For a while, I certainly was just dissociating.

Ali: I was dissociating too. After the election, I had to turn off the news and focus on very basic things like feeding myself, showering, connecting with friends. Now I read the news every week, but it’s at a pace I can handle so that I’m not paralyzed.

Rachel: We have to be intentional about how we use the internet and social media. It’s funny to think about now, because it used to be a form of escapism. What was once something I used to see what my friends were up to has become an inundation of horrifying things.

Ali: And in many ways, it’s getting worse. So how do we as artists react?

Rachel: And promote our stuff.

Ali: As artists, we’re expected to be on social media. We’re more or less required to have an online presence to share who we are and what we’re doing, and provide an avenue for connecting with fans. We also have to decide to what extent we’re going to use these platforms to talk about what’s happening in the world and ask ourselves, is what we have to contribute to the conversation meaningful or helpful?

Rachel: It’s very strange. Social media has become the weirdest part of being alive.

Ali: It really has. There’s not a moment when we’re not with our phones. There was a time when that wasn’t real, and I wonder what the future will hold in that regard.

Rachel: I think about this part of life constantly, because even if you aren’t one of those people, you still see people who go through crosswalks texting, drive texting. People just can’t disconnect.

Ali: People fall off cliffs taking photos.

Rachel: It’s too weird to be real, and yet you can’t make this shit up. How did we get to this point?

Ali: The answer is individuals and corporations who don’t give a damn about what humans do to damage themselves or each other as long as they’re making money.

Rachel: Yes. Bottom line stuff. It’s very true.

Ali: So you wrote one song that year. What was that song called, and what was it about?

Rachel: That song was called “Locusts” at the time, and it was pretty much about stopping a music career.

Ali: And what is it called now?

Rachel: It’s called “Plague Number Eight” because that’s also locusts in the Bible, which as an atheist Jew I don’t really care for. But anyway, there are 10 plagues, and the eighth one is locusts, which are terrifying and destroy crops at rapid-fire speed.

Ali: So what’s the metaphor there?

Rachel: Well, I was imagining them coming for me, or my soul, I guess. 

Ali: The music industry, you mean?

Rachel: Pretty much, like they were saying, “We’re deciding that you’re done. Whatever that energy is, your cycle’s past.” And with these things, like locusts, everything is in a cycle form.

Ali: The cycle feels so arbitrary but also inescapable at the same time. Like if you don’t put your album out at this specific time, you’re going to miss the press cycle, which could affect your sales and your ability to tour in the next five years of your career. So you wrote this song in response to all that?

Rachel: Yeah, I wrote this song. More time passed. I got married, which is weird but cool and it’s great, but surrounding that time, so much shit kept happening. Again, the whole backdrop was what was happening globally. But also, my mom’s sister was really sick, she was she was fighting pretty hard and we were hopeful that she was going to be at the wedding. We were close and there’s a whole story there. But we got the news that she passed away as we were driving up to the wedding venue. So the undercurrent of the whole day was that happening and just balance-of-life stuff, and then instead of going somewhere to honeymoon, we ended the week at her memorial. Then, in the same month, my friend from high school committed suicide. They were just very dark times. Reflecting on the first year post-election, it was around November at that point, this year of what the fuck is happening, I was feeling crazy, I had no expectations for what being a newlywed was going to be like or anything. I don’t think I had a typical experience. You just do what you can for each other when things are like that.

Ali: I feel like in these dark times, something like marriage can feel very powerful because more than ever we need to be able to support each other. And if you find someone who can share that kind of deep love with you and is like, I would literally do anything for you, that’s super powerful.

Rachel: Absolutely. Of course, I fully do not know how I would have gotten through all of this stuff if not for that kind of love. It helped me keep my head above water and function. And after all of those things happened, settling into the reality of all of it, I did start writing poetry and stuff before I came back to music, even if it was just stream-of-consciousness writing. Then when I started putting things to music, I was like, this feels very good, this is really helpful, and it’s helping me express things that are almost impossible to otherwise.

Ali: Did it feel natural for you go there, like it was all there beneath the surface?

Rachel: Yeah, it did. It was time to do it. It just hit me. I had a lot of questions and I still do. I was not expecting to find answers for them, but I think asking them and sort of being like, do you have these questions too? What does all this mean and why is this happening and can it be okay? Things that everyone wants comforting answers for, but there might not be answers for them. But just posing the questions and knowing that people relate and there’s human connection despite everything… that’s what I was thinking about. 

Once I wrote a couple songs, I talked to Andrew, my bandmate, we exchanged a few ideas, and at some point we decided we should make a third album. Because why not? The world is ending, so let’s just do it. It brings us joy.

Ali: And maybe it’s the most and the best you can do in this kind of atmosphere.

Rachel: Also, we went into it with no real expectations. We thought, it’s going to come out, and that’s awesome. If someone’s going to press it to vinyl and we can play some shows, that’s cool. But I’m not trying to headline festivals. I can just do what I want and if people like it, they like it. I feel so differently about this record than I did about the other ones because I think I was still in a mindset where I thought, well, if write certain types of songs… I was still holding onto more of a career-oriented thing. I had gone from playing in bands since being a teenager and just being like, this is fun, I don’t care, I don’t know what money is, to seeing my friends and peers touring and thinking, well, maybe I can get to that point too. And now… it’s like a bell curve. But I like this album so much more than the ones we made before, even when they were new to me. I am so happy with it and maybe the key is just giving yourself time and not forcing stuff.

Ali: For us, the record-making process was so intense and we were working on it all the time for a year of our lives. When we weren’t writing, we were recording, and we rewrote and re-recorded a lot along the way too. Our goal was to make and put out a full-length album as fast as possible, all while balancing jobs or school. We were operating at high speed because, in our minds, we needed to get the album done and pressed in time for our first full US and Canada tour with Laura Jane Grace. We also wanted to make a really great record that we could be proud of because it was our first release and that means something. Al started recording us in January 2018, we brought in Jeff Zeigler to help finish recording and mixing in October, and we sent the mixes to be mastered in January 2019. We all were miserable for much of that time because we were working so hard and not giving ourselves time for self-care. Not to say there weren’t also super satisfying moments of recognizing this amazing thing we were doing. I’m just really glad we kept going and didn’t compromise.

Rachel: Me too. It sounds so good. It’s full-sounding and layered and crisp but harsh at the same time, and the mix really stands out. The performances are insane, and the live energy is captured nicely. It’s mastered loud, and you really feel it when you put it on. It’s impossible for it to be background music.

Ali: Thank you, I like that about the recording. It sounds like it was done in a studio, but it also has a live feel to it. Music, like you said, is about processing experience, but not everything we process has a positive outcome.

Rachel: Or a resolution, or answer. Processing is just that — it comes in as one thing and goes out as something else that you’ve sorted through, but that doesn’t mean it’s good or that you don’t still hurt.

Ali: Often, music puts a type of pain on display in order to work through it personally and communally.

Rachel: That communal aspect has always felt like the real draw of music for me. This person wrote about this thing in their life, and yet it’s making me feel better about this thing in my life, because it’s the human experience. For the most part, as I get older I understand more that we are all working through things together, we’re all in this together, period. The more we are willing to contribute to that communication and language, that life is hard and we don’t have to come up with a solution, the better, as long as we are giving things names and acknowledging them, having agency together, and expressing ourselves —

Ali: And working through difficult emotions. A big part of the Control Top record is how human communication is under threat — via our phones, social media, surveillance culture, the political divide, our ability to be honest. And what is honesty?

Rachel: You can edit your life, you can show only what you want to people.

Ali: You can have an assortment of different identities online and no one would know which one was correct. How many “impressions” are things making? The more you see something online, does that make you want to emulate it more, or want to have it? How does that imprint on your brain and how you shape your life, what is pleasing or ugly to you, your motivations, who you are?

Rachel: And this all ties into how social media literally affects your dopamine levels and the way that your neurotransmitters work. It basically rewires parts of your brain. We’re all kind of part of this mass experiment. We just don’t know what the long-term effects will be. I know that my mind feels bad when I’m stuck scrolling, and when I can disconnect for a few days, I’m able to feel human again. It’s crazy.

Ali: Totally. I went to the woods in Vermont with some friends in July, and it took me at least 48 hours to disconnect, digitally detox and not want to look at my phone. It was very strange. Suddenly, I was seeing the world again for the first time. Our phones force us into this peripheral vision with increasingly narrow blinders.

Rachel: And it’s under the guise of connecting with the entire world, but you’re doing the opposite with your direct world.

Ali: None of these apps have an algorithm for variability or diversity. They show you what they think you want to see. I think that’s what we’re trying to fight against, this passivity. It’s to the benefit of people in power for the populus to be passive. Social media encourages that, and it encourages dealing with difficult emotions through numbing ourselves or buying something. We’re just expected to be ok with being advertised to constantly, that’s the background. And it’s a luxury if you don’t want to be advertised to, you have to pay for it. I get ads on social media influencing me to be self-conscious about my appearance and buy stuff to correct my imperfections. I’m being marketed makeup, skincare, whatever. I don’t like looking at myself in the mirror. If I look at myself in the mirror for too long, I’ll start to focus on the things I don’t like, inventing ways to improve myself, but why? For who?

Rachel: Who does that benefit, when you are made to feel insecure, like you need to buy a product? Who am I going to pay to make my insecurities feel better?

Ali: When you’re in this industry, there’s this expectation, unless your a man, that you have to be young and attractive forever. Part of me tells myself I dress up because I want to. It’s fun for me and freeing to wear things that I wouldn’t wear in my everyday life, and I have this safe space to do it. I want my appearance to be provocative and eye-catching. I enjoy experimenting with fashion and performance. At the same time, if I don’t do this, I wonder, will people stop paying attention to me?

Rachel: It’s imbedded in all of us. That’s why it’s important to be able to enjoy it and have fun with it. It’s nearly impossible to unlearn all the things that have been taught to us for our entire lives. But it’s not real!

Ali: I think that’s the lie that kept me away from music for so long. That’s why when I ask fans if they play music and they’re like, no, I think I’m past that point, I’m 24, I say, no! You’re not past that point! You can master an instrument well enough — maybe not fully master it, that can take a lifetime — but you can get really good at something if you work on it in the course of one year.

Rachel: Absolutely. When did you start playing bass?

Ali: When Control Top started, I played guitar. I did that for a couple years and didn’t start playing bass until 2016. I just did it. I didn’t practice every day. I got better through rehearsing with the band, playing shows and writing parts or Al writing parts that were beyond my ability and rising to meet the challenge.

Rachel: It’s a great way to learn. But your ability to perform it live… some people can play bass at home or in a studio setting, but being able to sing and play bass the way you do doesn’t come to everyone naturally.

Ali: Thanks, I’m still working on it very much all the time.

Rachel: It’s so much fun to watch!

Ali: We’re a trio and all of us are doing our best to be the focus of the audience. And it’s just more fun for me when I can get really physical in my performance. I do believe if I were just a bassist or just a vocalist I’d probably do one of those things better than doing them both at the same time. But the fact that I have to work really hard to do both at a level that I feel like is doing the audience a service keeps me engaged and challenged. Also, again, we’re talking about these deep-seated things inside of us… most of the women I saw in music growing up were vocalists. I’ve been able to perform with an instrument on stage and I hope it inspires other women in the audience to pick up an instrument. Because it took me way too long to do that and believe that I could do that.

Rachel: That’s a good point. When we were growing up, Gwen Stefani and all these women I idolized, at least until I started listening to more punk stuff or a little less mainstream stuff, for the most part they were vocalists and playing an instrument wasn’t part of it. That era of marketing was pretty wild too, lest we forget. But you are providing that service. Every young person that sees you is like, “Right on, that’s a woman playing bass and I am also not a man and can probably play bass too.”

Ali: Totally. When we were on tour, sometimes I would talk to the audience about the fact that I haven’t been doing music for very long, about four years now. Our song “Prism” is about being who you want to be and doing whatever you want to do no matter what society is trying to get you to do. And built in there is that you don’t have to look a certain way to pick up a certain instrument or be a certain age to get involved in music. You don’t have to be one thing. You can try something and then put it down if it’s not working for you. You can always change your mind. Things are not set in stone.

Rachel: That’s so helpful, by the way. If it’s helpful for me in my early 30s, then I think for younger people to hear that is really, really, really important.

Ali: I love playing for kids, they’re the best. They’re so excited, they’re so energized and they make me hopeful. I think what’s attracted me to music and performance on stage is that there’s a level of freedom you have that you just don’t experience in everyday life. You can morph yourself into anything. I can shout in people’s faces! I wouldn’t be able to just walk up to someone on the street and shout in their face and get away with it.

Rachel: Performance allows you to create a world for the time that you’re on stage. You’re inviting people into your world for that amount of time. It’s very special —

Ali: Because the everyday world can be difficult to deal with. And being a musician, there’s so much shit that happens to you. It keeps things very interesting, I’ll say that. At the very least, it keeps things very interesting.

(Photo Credit: left, Katie Krulock; right, Kevin Condon)

Rachel Browne and Andrew Futral formed Field Mouse sometime in 2009 after meeting at SUNY Purchase. After releasing two 7″ singles, they signed to Topshelf Records and released their first full length Hold Still Life (2014) followed by Episodic (2016). Their new album, Meaning, was released August 16, 2019.