The lights are off and the sun is setting. The members of Seattle band Great Grandpa sit semicircle in the living room of guitarist Dylan Hanwright’s wooded Beacon Hill home. Hanwright’s two cats move from lap to lap and walk across the coffee table. As daylight slowly slips away, I ask the band about the song “All Things Must Behave” from their upcoming album, Plastic Cough. A sudden tenderness fills the room, the band’s faces beaming.
“It makes me cry sometimes,” lead vocalist Alex Menne says.
“Me too!” chimes in bassist Carrie Miller. “When you [Alex] perform it live, I want to cry onstage sometimes.”
The band asks if it’s OK to like listening to its own music.
On “All Things Must Behave,” Great Grandpa is at its most tender. Throughout, Menne repeats “All my friends are almost dead” while layers of acoustic guitars and tape whirls move beneath her. Every member performs with the same level of transparency, down to Cam LaFlam’s tasteful, sparse drums. It’s unclear if the words are meant to be literal, but the feeling behind them is tangible—trying your best and feeling as if you and the ones you love are in a downward spiral. That something so full of heartache can exist on the same album as a distorted zombie-ganja anthem called “28 J’s L8R” speaks to multitudes contained within the band. That wide spectrum has existed since the project began.
“Hey, do you wanna be in a band?” That’s the message guitarist and vocalist Patrick Goodwin sent to Menne back in 2014. He’d worked with her previously, mastering her solo Hello EP. At the time he was playing in experimental math-rock group Postmadonna, but felt it was falling apart, other members not sharing his drive. He followed up by sending Menne a Speedy Ortiz record and continued to recruit friends from his many musical lives. LaFlam he knew from playing in separate groups at Seattle University. He knew Miller as a “shredder on piano,” but she’d never played in a band before. Though she was nervous, he reassured her, “If I can be in a band, you can be in a band.”
The band functioned as a four-piece for a short time and moved rapidly, forming in August 2014 and recording the Can Opener EP that November. On its first day in the studio, Goodwin brought in guitarist and fellow sound engineer Hanwright. He played on the record and has been a member ever since.
Can Opener revealed just how unpredictable Great Grandpa is both musically and lyrically. Goodwin and Hanwright’s twisting guitar lines become the whirlpool foundation for Menne’s thrilling, rising-and-falling vocals. This all sounded great on Can Opener, but it’s fully realized on Plastic Cough. The songs feel like they’re ever-changing. Tempo and mood might shift drastically from verse to chorus, throwing wild, mangled riffs underneath Menne’s screams before opening up to life-giving choruses.
“It’s the haphazard gluing of things that shouldn’t be put together,” Goodwin says of the unpredictability in their music. Most of the main riffs and melodies begin with Goodwin, but often in the forms of “fragments and shards.” “A lot of the stuff I write doesn’t come in any logical order,” he adds. Given Goodwin’s experience in math rock, it’s no wonder the songs teeter on such precisely calculated shifts. It’s not always a clean process, though, he says. “I spew it out in a bunch of creepy little chunks, and later I’m like, ‘Surgery time! How can I possibly put these things back together and resolve them?’ ”
Bringing these pieces to the band, the musicians begin arranging and finding ways to stitch the pieces together. It’s why songs like “28 J’s L8R” and “Expert Eraser” can feel as if they’re moving back and forth between different songs, and it’s what makes the record so exciting. It’s hard to determine the main songwriter at any given time. While Menne handles most of the lyrical duties on Plastic Cough, Miller and LaFlam also contributed words, then Hanwright began taking a larger arrangement role. Listening to Plastic Cough isn’t getting just a single perspective, whether it’s a rabid guitar line or a confessional; it’s the voices and thoughts of all five band members coalescing into a single document.
“I think what helps bring that out with this particular group is the chemistry we have with one another, so that as individuals moving through this world, all of us have pretty rich inner lives,” LaFlam says. “It’s just something we devote attention to in terms of wanting to reflect on the inner workings that are going on and how we want to express that.”
Those “inner workings” aren’t always serious. The band opts for candidness. Just as much as they want to think about the questions that have plagued mankind since the dawn of time, they’re also people who eat junk food and watch TV. They can talk about wanting the blandest pizza on “Pardon My Speech,” then turn around on “Fade” with oh-my-God-I-feel-that-way-too phrases like “I’m in the same place, but I’m changing.”
“I don’t really take myself that seriously, but also have a lot of deep-seated emotional issues and thoughts,” Menne says. “I really like to reflect on the inner workings, but also love to joke around and say stupid shit.”
If one descriptor gets tagged to the band most often, it’s “slacker rock.” When I broach this, we spend time trying to figure out what slacker rock even means. Is it like Pavement and Weezer, who Great Grandpa says sometimes show up in elements of its music? Is it the members’ relaxed attitude and how they sometimes sing about Cheetos and pizza, topics you’d imagine would show up in slacker rock? Great Grandpa doesn’t have the answers, and it’s not a genre they’ve ever sought to be. Jokingly, they say they’d consider themselves “snack rock” instead. The irony of aligning them with a title like “slacker” is that Great Grandpa is a band that gives a shit. Plastic Cough was recorded over six months in three different studios and three different houses. Even before that, the band was workshopping these songs for years in basement shows.
“Some of our stuff I feel like is the antithesis of slacker rock. It’s like try-hard rock,” Goodwin says. He’s not lying—Plastic Cough really does sound like a band trying hard and aiming to create something great, willing to expose its inner thoughts whether it’s coping with emotional trauma or lines about the mundanity of life: “Buy me a pizza/No cheese please/I’m lactose-intolerant/I can’t have veggies/Make my sauce extra-bland.”
Luckily, the sauce the band put on Plastic Cough is far from bland. This is some tasty snack rock.
Plastic Cough is out Fri., July 7 via Double Double Whammy