Hayley Livingston (guitar/vocals), Marisa Gershenhorn (guitar/vocals), Vicki Guillem (drums), and Abby Austin (bass) met in 2014 amongst NYU and the city’s indie rock scene. They bonded over a shared love of classic punk, and soon after joined forces to create Human People. In 2016, they released two EPs—Sleep Year and Veronica—that blended the primal energy of early New York punk, the off-kilter tunefulness of ‘90s alternative, and the unbridled eccentricity shared by their community of fellow Northeastern musicians (bands like Washer, Stove, and Remember Sports). The band carved out a unique space with their wide range of influences (everything from post-punk to riot grrrl to power-pop), sharp lyrics, and energetic live shows, all the while navigating the existential messiness of college, interpersonal relationships, and one’s own inner dialogue.
Hear First is Talkhouse’s series of album premieres. Along with streams of upcoming albums—today’s is Human People’s debut Butterflies Drink Turtle Tears—we publish statements from artists and their peers about the mindsets and impressions that go into, or come out of reflection on, a record. Here, Marisa Gershenhorn and Hayley Livingston discuss writing from a villain’s perspective; smashing up a computer for an upcoming music video; and the process of making their debut LP, which you can listen to right here.
—Annie Fell, associate editor, Talkhouse
Marisa Gershenhorn: We’re currently smashing up a keyboard and a bunch of other computer parts for a video.
Hayley Livingston: For a mystery song that might appear on our album. [To Marisa] So we have a pretty out there title to our album.
MG: Is there a question there?
HL: I guess my question is, should we talk about our album title? What’s it mean? I don’t know.
MG: You don’t know?
HL: I don’t know. You tell me.
MG: I mean, the title is just from an article I saw. I thought it was good.
HL: What’s it mean?
MG: OK, so I feel like to me, it just kind of speaks to making something out of negativity—something coming from sadness, or whatever.
HL: Like an album?
MG: Yeah, exactly. It’s like having something productive and nice come out of it.
HL: Just an album title about making albums.
MG: I think it also speaks to the reflexivity of some of the feelings on the album, about having negative emotions or experiences, but also about reflecting on it.
HL: Yeah, like trying to learn from your shitty feelings.
MG: Yeah, and the opposite; just feeling shitty because of your shitty feelings. Feeling like a bad person because you have bad feelings.
HL: Yeah, I feel that. I’ve definitely written songs with lyrics that I wouldn’t say represent how I feel about things now. Not necessarily on this album. We write a song about a shitty time and get past it, hopefully, but it’s just interesting to have those feelings crystallized in a song.
MG: Yeah. That’s how I feel about “No Tides”—that’s not how I feel now. Having the freedom to write songs from the perspective of the villain, also—this is a thing that’s maybe specific to me, but I almost enjoy writing from that perspective, being evil, or something. It’s fun, and that’s the more liberating character in the story. Being the hero is really boring.
HL: No one who writes songs is the hero of anything. Unless you’re, like, Bruce Springsteen.
MG: I don’t know. I feel like there is this thing in music now where the character of the person singing in the song is often a very innocent, soft character. That’s just never something I’ve related to very much.
So, what’s your song writing process like?
HL: I feel like I get a phrase in my head of something I hear or something I see on the street that makes me hear something in my head, and I try and translate that to a song. Sometimes it [works] directly and I can just figure out the chords, and sometimes you kind of have to work for it. You have to really mess around with it.
MG: So from a phrase, but a phrase inspired by something. Not a phrase, but an idea inspired by something you see.
HL: Well, it usually is literally a phrase. You know the song “Run Me Over”—I was like, I want a song where I’m just going to be, like, “Run me over,” at the end.
MG: So does it usually start from the lyrics?
HL: In a way, yes. What often happens is I write a song that has words here and there, but it’s pretty much just gibberish over some chords, which is honestly the way I like to do it. Then from there, I fill in the lyrics when I can think of them. Sometimes it happens all at once, which is kind of when I know it’s a good song, when it all just flows from my brain at one time. Usually I have to work for it to work out the chord progressions, but sometimes you get lucky and it just goes straight from your brain to the real world. What about you?
MG: Well for me, I think usually the lyrics already have a tune to them. Then it’s figuring out the chord progression of that tune. Then I have to figure out more lyrics that go into that tune later.
HL: Yeah, definitely. I just feel like your songs are like… not more lyrical, because both the songs obviously have lyrics, but I don’t know.
MG: I feel like I usually will go overboard with the lyrics.
HL: I love you going overboard with the lyrics.
MG: I’m a little bit surprised that you come up with songs that way, because I feel like your songs are always so… all the instruments are so integrated in the song. You love coming up with drum parts—sometimes I feel like you do write songs that you’re trying to do the drum part.
HL: The drum part honestly comes naturally to me. I just know what the drums are supposed to play if I write a song. But then the challenge is often the second guitar part or the bass. I wish I could write cool bass lines, but I just can’t. That’s the one instrument where I really just don’t know how to do it, so that’s always up to Abby [Austin, bassist] to think of something cool.
MG: Yeah, well that makes sense.
HL: There’s only really so many parts you can put in a song, because if every instrument is playing a cool line, then it’s probably all just going to sound weird together—like three, four cool lines. You have your vocal melody, your chords, and your second guitar melody. That’s a lot of sonic real estate already, and trying to add a cool bass line and a cool drum part.
With “Radiator Water,” I feel like for a week before I wrote that song, I was telling people, “Isn’t the phrase ‘radiator water’ a cool phrase?”
MG: Yeah, and we were like, “What are you talking about?”
HL: Rolls off the tongue. Everybody was like, “What the fuck?” Then from there, I’m like, How do I make a song that has “radiator water” in it but is a coherent narrative?
MG: The thing about that song is that you told me that the lyrics didn’t mean anything. But that’s a song where I love the lyrics.
HL: I guess I was writing more for imagery than for meaning. I feel like there’s really cool imagery, but if you try and piece it together, it doesn’t quite make sense.
MG: It’s not a fully literal meaning, but the imagery paints a very specific picture. I remember when we were coming up with the idea for the video, I was like, Wait, this actually makes sense with the lyrics.
HL: Just dark stuff. We’re a dark band.
MG: Do you think there’s anything that was different about making this album than making the EPs?
HL: It was just such a bigger undertaking. Our first EP we recorded was five songs. We did it in three or four separate days, I think.
MG: Yeah, we did it much faster.
HL: We basically did the instrumentals for all the songs [for the EP] in two days. There was definitely a lot more pressure since a lot of the songs you just had kicking around for a while. It was kind of like, We need to get this out. We need to do this. We recorded [at the now defunct] Silent Barn. For a while, they thought that they weren’t going to have the studio there anymore.
I mean, recording is my least favorite. Recording instrumental tracks just make my bones tense up.
MG: Oh yeah. It’s super stressful. The way we did it was drinking lots of Monster all the time.
HL: Yeah, we drank so much. We should have gotten sponsored by Monster for our session.
MG: Working with Jesse [Paller, who recorded the album] made it less stressful because he’s always so chill and enthusiastic.
HL: Yeah, and he was really excited to work on it, which is cool and very helpful. It was also cool because he wasn’t trying to commandeer the session. He was just like, “I’m here to record you guys. I’m not here to produce this album.” I feel like sometimes I’d have to pry advice out of him, which is, for me, a good thing because I don’t want anyone to be like, “We’re doing it this way.”
MG: You had very specific ideas about production.
HL: Yeah, me and Jesse [met up] before everyone else got there, and we tried out different drum sounds. So I was very involved. I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like, especially in terms of drum sounds. I’m very particular about my snare drums, about my floor toms.
MG: I just stabbed myself with the circuit.
HL: You’re going to turn into a computer.
MG: Zero, zero, zero, zero, one, one, one, one, zero!
HL: Oh no! That’s what all our riffs are going to be like after this. All the guitar parts—it’s going to be like, Zero, one, zero, one.
Recording was definitely my least favorite part of the process, besides all the other parts after that. No, just kidding! We did four rounds of mixes, which is a lot of rounds of mixes. I guess some people do literally like 30 rounds, but luckily we had KT [Pipal], who’s super awesome and was able to deal with my bullshit. I feel like when you’re making your record, you almost forget what a record is supposed to sound like. I’m just like I can’t even tell if this sounds good or not, at a certain point. We just worked a lot on it and, again, I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like, but then there are some times when it doesn’t sound exactly what you wanted it to sound like, and you just have to deal with that because, for any reason, that picture you have in your head just can’t be quite translated; the sonic picture.
It was definitely really cool to record in a real studio. The last EP, we recorded in a basement, and then “Radiator Water” we also recorded in a basement.
MG: Which is on the album, but we recorded it in a basement. The first time we tried, the basement flooded. There was a huge storm and the whole thing flooded the minute that we had everything set up.
HL: Yeah, we set up everything and we finally were like, “Everything sounds great! We’re so excited to record this!” Then water just comes pouring in from the outside.
MG: We had to take everything down and spent the whole day bailing out water from the basement.
HL: We had to come back [a different day]. There’s always struggles when you’re recording. There’s always something that’s just not going the way you want it to. That felt pretty drastically not the way we wanted it to go.
[To Marisa] Oh no, don’t hurt yourself.
MG: It’s going to be fine. All for the art.
HL: It’s all for the art. That’s the thing about us—we just are all about the art.
MG: We have no fingers. We can play guitar with only our fists.
HL: That’s why you should care about us, because we like to fist our guitars [Laughs]. All these pieces are so sharp.
MG: Do you think that the songs are all thematically related? Are you okay?
HL: Yeah, I’m fine. I’m totally fine. I think in a way they are [related]. Definitely the idea of inner world versus outer world and feelings of isolation, because that’s where I know a lot of my songs came [from].
MG: Mine as well.
HL: For me, a lot of the songs I wrote when I was living in LA for, like, two months and had no friends there. I had my sister there, but I didn’t go out at night or anything. I just sat there and ended up writing songs about it.
MG: I feel like your lyrics usually are pretty general, but I wonder if there’s any Easter eggs in there?
HL: “Black Flowers” is kind of just about questioning whether you feel shitty because you’re making yourself feel shitty, or because everything else is making you feel shitty. But originally, it was about getting abducted by aliens, which is why in the bridge there’s a part that’s like, “I want to believe,” which is an X-Files reference. That’s an Easter egg.
MG: So do you think those things are related, or is it just like a fun [thing]?
HL: Well, originally it was more like… You know the theme of the song is, Am I doing this to myself or is someone else doing it? It’s kind of like a third answer—aliens are doing it. But as much as I love talking about sci-fi and shit, I was kind of like, I want this song to be about something more tangible. Not that I don’t believe in aliens, but I haven’t been abducted by one.
MG: I like that as a metaphor, though. Also because that is kind of a thing that could be a paranoid delusion. Aliens abducting you, or thinking that people around you are aliens.
HL: Yeah, invasion of the body snatchers. I used to always feel like I was an alien. I’m like, Why am I just not like other people? Why can’t I just be a person? I felt very inhuman in a lot of different ways, and I think that song stems from that a little bit. It’s kind of like the flip side of it—I’m a human, but other people are aliens as opposed to, I’m an alien and [other] people are people, which is a little harder to grapple with.
I love to be part of a band. A lot of bands are actually solo projects sort of where it’s one person who writes the songs and everyone else is the band, and [that one person’s] the main focus. I really like being in a band.
MG: Yeah, but you usually write most of the parts for your songs.
HL: I feel like it’s different though. I feel like everyone has equal say and if someone doesn’t want to do something, I’m not like, “I write the songs, we’re doing it this way.” At least I hope I’m not.
MG: No, it is different from bands where it is fully, like, a solo person who is like, “I need to find someone to play this part and this part and this part.” I feel like we wouldn’t be the same band if we had different people.
HL: No, definitely. Our sound and our general energy is totally the four of us as people. We play shows sometimes with other people if we really want to play a show, but one of us can’t play it. We’ll sometimes get a fill in, but it really does feel like the core of the band is the four of us. I can’t imagine the band without the four of us.
MG: Yeah, me neither.
Butterflies Drink Turtle Tears is out September 21 via Exploding in Sound Records.
(Photo Credit: Claire Dorfman)