Sophie Thatcher and The Serfs Are Evolving

The friends talk musical taste, Mormonism, and more.

Sophie Thatcher is an actress (you’ve probably seen her as the younger Natalie on Yellowjackets) and a musician; Andie Lumen, Dylan McCartney, and Dakota Carlyle are The Serfs, an electronic post-punk band from Cincinnati. The Serfs’ new record, Half-Eaten By Dogs, is out this Friday on Trouble in Mind, so to celebrate, the friends got on a Zoom call earlier this month to catch up. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Sophie Thatcher: Where are you guys right now?

Andie Luman: We’re in our apartment. Dakota and I live together. 

Sophie: Nice. I just got to Vancouver, I’m shooting here for the next few months. It’s been raining all day, and it’s been really nice,

Dylan McCartney: What movie are you filming?

Sophie: I’m filming this A24 movie. A24 is basically one of the only production companies that is able to film right now, because of the strike. I play a Mormon missionary — and I grew up Mormon, so that’s crazy coming back to everything. But it’s with Hugh Grant, and I had the biggest crush on Hugh Grant when I was younger, and now he gets to torture me and shit. So I’m excited. I think it’ll be good. 

I listened to your guys’ songs. I’ve been a fan for a while, and the two new songs are really sick. I’m just going to ask you some basic ass questions and then we can start the conversation from there. How did you guys all meet? What was the connection? 

Dylan: Their story begins separately. 

Dakota Carlyle: Yeah. I mean, it’s a collection of cosmic events, but I met Andie 10 years ago at a party when I was briefly in college at the University of Cincinnati, and then Dylan and I met just playing in different bands. We were the only people that wanted to make music like we did at the time, so that kind of just naturally continued from there. But it was a slow thing. 

Andie: Yeah, I’d say we all became friends first, just kind of hanging out at shows.

Sophie: What were the other bands you guys were in together?

Dylan: Well, the band that they were in at that time is still a band that we all play in together now, Crime of Passing. My old band was called Mardou. Chaotic group. 

Dakota: Yeah, one night the guitar player couldn’t make it, and I had just seen the band a couple times and ended up just winging it on guitar.

Sophie: I want to talk about the new album, because I’m excited to hear more from it. The two new songs remind me of Severed Heads or SPK. I feel like the sound is so cohesive, and from what you said, I imagine that you guys all have similar taste. But I was just wondering how your taste has evolved or how it’s shaped this new record, and what the process was like?

Dakota: I mean, first off, it’s pretty interesting to hear you say that because I think it’s not that cohesive. Every record we’ve ever made, every song sounds like it came from another time or something.

Sophie: Absolutely. And that’s the charm of your music, too.

Dakota: When we make music, we don’t go to a studio for a week and record an album. We just make songs on nights when we feel like making them and then end up creating a narrative from those pieces. 

Andie: It is a true collection of creations over time.

Sophie: How does it usually start out? Is it like somebody sends someone something, or you’re all just together experimenting? 

Dakota: We kind of recorded between here and where Dylan lives, so often I think one of us just starts with some something [that’s] varying degrees of fleshed out. But then once we start to piece together a cohesive record, we kind of focus on it for a month and finish it all. It’s always bits and pieces and we’re all kind of all over the place with it anyway. So sometimes stuff will get made a year earlier, and then we’ll pull up the bass and drum track and just finish it that night, and it ends up being on the record that we thought was done.

Sophie: Does this record and this process feel different from your last two records?

Dylan: The songs were based more in experimental ideas than maybe the other ones were.

Sophie: Yeah, it’s a fuller sound now. It’s stranger. The two new songs heard, it’s a much more all encompassing sound.

Dakota: Yeah. It’s more contemplative over time, a little bit. 

Dylan: We’re also just getting older. Listening back to certain things from the early days kind of makes you cringe a little bit.

Sophie: But that’s everybody. That’s just the natural progression of making music. That’s where I’m at now.

Dakota: Also, the first [record] came out in January 2020, so we played maybe 10 shows locally and then everything shut down. And then we put out another record, and once that record was out, we were able to actually play. For me personally, I think the kind of band that we are in, the records that were out at the time — not throwing shade at anybody, but we would often get booked with just like, three other darkwave bands or something. This is a genre that gets pretty repetitive…

Dylan: [Laughs.] I’m sending no specific shade, but just the, like, three dudes with a laptop… 

Dakota: Now playing shows since our last record, I think I’m a little more turned off from the more coldwave and darkwave elements of it. 

Dylan: We joked when we started the band that we were trying to destroy that from the inside out.

Andie: I feel like we evolved a lot once we were able to go on tour and see how it was to play for people.

Dylan: Yeah, because when we started the band too, we had no intentions of playing live. We were going to be like Chrome and just play our first show in Italy or something, or not play at all before that.

Sophie: I want to know about each person’s introduction to music, because I feel like that’s always interesting — hearing about what you grew up liking and how your taste has evolved as you’ve gotten older. 

Dylan: You should go first on that question.

Sophie: OK. I grew up with an older brother who’s 15 years older than me, and he introduced me to Elliott Smith really early on. So that was number one. And then I would always steal his Gang of Four shirt — I was like, “What’s this mean?” And then I started listening to that. We grew up Mormon, but my brother wasn’t Mormon. My brother and my older sister had left the church, and they were trying to get me to leave the church as well. And I left when I was 13. I was still listening to alternative music, but didn’t really dive deep into YouTube until I was at least 15, 16. I was like, Oh, I can make ambient music. I got a synth and I was obsessed. I went through my fucking Animal Collective phase, and I was obsessed with Avey Tare’s girlfriend, Kria Brekkan, who was in the band Múm. So when I was 16, I started making music like that.

Then when I moved to New York, it was a lot of punk. I feel like my music tastes now… I think I’m less pretentious. I think my peak pretentiousness was at 17, because I wanted so badly to prove myself, that I had good taste. 

Dylan: I think 17 is the best age to peak at your pretentiousness.

Sophie: Yeah. Because you’re learning so much and everything is so new and exciting that it feels different. But now I feel like I’ve calmed down and I’m able to listen to things that I wouldn’t listen to a while ago.

Dylan: Like what? 

Sophie: A band that I always didn’t really like for a while, and it’s now one of my top favorite bands: Royal Trux. I was always really annoyed by the vocals and knew the labels they were on, and now it’s just taken a different shift in my life and I’m less judgmental. I’m able to listen to music without judging it as much at first and putting it into a genre. Because I think when I was younger, I was really just like, I know this genre and I can connect all the dots. And it’s not about that. But yeah, I’ve become less pretentious and I think that’s definitely for the best. What about you guys?

Dylan: I’d say we’ve all become less pretentious over time as well, with exceptions.

Dakota: Yeah. I mean, I was born in Las Vegas, but then when I moved to Ohio, I had an older cousin who got me into a lot of music. But prior, I was the oldest sibling, so I kind of went through a lot of phases of what was in front of me, what was available. I really had no one showing me anything.

Sophie: It’s interesting how older siblings just change everything. You’re on your own.

Dakota: Yeah, my first introductions to loud and live music was when I lived in Las Vegas — both of my parents were professional dancers, and we couldn’t really afford babysitters, so I just lived backstage at those shows. I always was attracted to the pit orchestras or the live bands that were a part of those Vegas casino shows. But in high school, yeah, similar thing: I got into all that indie rock stuff that was popular at the time and started making music with people when I was 15. I feel like that’s probably where a lot of the stuff I’m even into now first started popping up, and maybe I wasn’t ready for it at the time.

Andie: I feel like music for me growing up was more nostalgic than anything else. I liked a lot of things that my mom really liked, because it reminded me of her. I guess that all started with soul music for the most part. Otis Redding was huge in our family. But honestly, I was really into mainstream music as a kid. As soon as I kind of broke away from my peers and started doing my own thing, I really started to dive into music. I was really into indie music, I went through a hardcore phase, and then kind of naturally went to new wave and punk, and ended up here through all of that.

Dylan: There’s not anybody else in my family that’s ever been a musician, but they’re all people who really had a lot of reverence for it. Especially my dad. He’s a rocker who’s seen some of the great bands. I grew up listening to New Order and Echo and the Bunnymen. I loved that stuff as a kid, and then I also had an awkward teenage phase where I was playing a death metal band and wearing satanic merch, making horrorcore rap. I just wanted everything to be evil. But then I came back around in college. I started to listen to Deerhunter or whatever. And I had a good friend who passed away a couple of years ago who I can credit for introducing me to minimal wave and dub.

Sophie: There’s always the one person.

Dylan: He just blew my mind every day by showing me something. I’d say that was when the door really opened. And since then, I’m always trying to find that rare Eastern European single that I haven’t heard yet, or whatever.

Sophie: [Laughs.] Honestly, I’ve been bad with [searching for new music]. I think it’s because it really depends on what phase I am in life. Right now, I’m just trying to find samples for a song — I sent you the song. It just sounded too perfect. I completely agree with the “80% right, 20% wrong,” and I couldn’t find the wrongness in it. It was so clean. Every time I listened to it, it would drive me crazy because it was just very stagnant. So yeah, before talking to you guys, I was just on YouTube trying to find samples. And found some good shit, and immediately in adding a little noise, I’m like, Oh, so much better.

Dylan: I know how that goes. But the song sounds great.

Sophie: I feel like it really is too clean for my taste. But it sucks because now I’m here and I don’t have — I just brought my Scarlett. I’m going to get a guitar later today, but I didn’t bring my keyboard or anything. So now I just kind of have some samples to put into Ableton, reverse them and fuck them up, and that’s it.

Dylan: How much time do you have to work on music? 

Sophie: Well, I’ve had the past two months off because of the strike. I was working on a movie in New York with the people that made Barbarian. We didn’t finish it because we had to stop two weeks early. Since then, I’ve just been working on music. I got a new synth, a very nice Nord Stage synth, and it made everything sound really clean. I feel like I never added enough effects on it to fuck it up enough.

Dylan: Those Nords always sound super clean. 

Sophie: They’re so fucking professional, to a point that I’m not used to. 

Dylan: We just play half-working, busted vintage shit.

Sophie: But it brings the charm, it brings something lived in and interesting. And it’s interesting for me now, having started all these songs on this synth, trying to replicate that sound in other ways. That’s exciting for me, because I have a week off — I have all this downtime and it’s been raining all day and I’ve just been looking for samples. I’m gonna dig deep on YouTube after this. I go through phases whenever I feel manic and I’m like, I need inspiration! I can’t do anything myself! And then immediately it’s like, Oh, I’m wasting time. Listening to other music feels like I’m wasting time and I need to make my own. Which isn’t true, but…

Dakota: I’m curious about when you left the Mormon Church, because I grew up in that as well.

Sophie: You did?

Dakota: Yeah. I was never properly in it, because my mom was Catholic, so I used to go to Catholic church every other Sunday. I’d go to the Latter Day Saints one Sunday, and then the Catholic one [the next week].

Sophie: That’s interesting, because you’re from Las Vegas, right?

Dakota: Yeah.

Sophie: I feel like there’s quite the Mormon population there, and in California as well. Chicago is kind of a random place to be Mormon, but most of my family’s from Utah and Idaho. I mean, I left when I was. 13. Both of my parents grew up Mormon, all of my cousins are Mormon. I think because we grew up in a more liberal place, my older siblings found a way out through literature and art, and were the black sheep of the family. My mom has seven siblings and my dad has seven siblings, so it’s just like endless family.

Dylan: You have a twin, right?

Sophie: I have a twin. And none of us are Mormon — Ellie is not Mormon at all. Ellie’s fucking sick. 

Dylan: Her art is incredible. 

Sophie: It’s fucking crazy. But yeah, I feel like with us all growing up Mormon — I don’t know if you can relate, but you grow up with a lot of art and musicality within the Mormon Church. And because we had our older siblings’ influences, that is kind of the key component growing up that influences your taste and your path. I left because I started working professionally; when I was 10, I started doing theater and that was my way out, because I was doing Sunday matinees. And I never really believed in anything. I was surrounded by so many people that weren’t Mormon that I realized how abnormal it was and how strange it felt. 

And it was never a totally negative thing. I’m looking back at it now because I’m playing a Mormon, so I’m trying to create a positive mindset about it — or not totally negative and judgmental. [Laughs.] Which is weird, because it used to be that way, but now I’m trying to come back from a more understanding perspective, and trying to get back into what my family feels and what I probably felt at some point. 

Dylan: That is an interesting puzzle piece.

Sophie: Yeah. I’m curious how it’ll affect me. Of course, growing up Mormon isn’t an ideal experience for someone that is an other, or is different, so it automatically makes you feel a certain way. And I think going back into that will be interesting for me, but we’ll see.

Dylan: Can’t wait to see it.

Sophie: Well, I think we’ve talked over some good shit. 

Andie: Thank you for doing this! It was really great to talk to you.

Sophie: Of fucking course! I love your guys’ music so much and want to see you guys soon. Just hearing your new songs is exciting, because it keeps expanding.

Dylan: Your music’s great too, I can’t wait for you to release it.

Sophie: Thank you. I’ll send you more shit too, as it gets weirder.

(Photo Credit: left, Myles Hendrik; right, Liese Stiebritz)

The Serfs are a deliberately nebulous and incidentally industrialist gang of dance-floor hymners — perturbed and tranced-out troubadours whose sound and musical ideology seems to be a causal manifestation of their immediate environments. Like their Ohio predecessors, The Serfs seem askew from the art that surrounds them, and proud of it.

Their latest record, Half Eaten By Dogs, is out October 27, 2023 on Trouble in Mind.

(Photo Credit: Liese Stiebritz)