Photo by Bristol Hayward-Hughes

Pleather’s New EP Deconstructs Pop and Contemporary Seattle

On ‘Tether,’ the mutant pop duo tackles the service industry, Frappuccinos, and a commodified Seattle.

As Pleather, vocalist Claire Nelson and guitarist Andrew McKibben craft deconstructed pop that’s the sonic equivalent of cracking into a cold can of LaCroix. MIDI synths bubble over a crush of ASMR-inducing fuzz to create something simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic. Against the backdrop of McKibben’s romantic, sentimental New Wave riffs, Nelson’s disaffected vocals sound all the more cynical.

McKibben and Nelson, who describe their bond as akin to siblinghood, first met around five years ago, when both were playing in other bands (McKibben as a guitarist in M. Women and Nelson as a bassist in FF, both punk groups). Later on, each fresh out of a long-term relationship, the duo became roommates and struck up a deep friendship. They decided to start a project together, but soon realized the thought of playing in yet another rock band bored them both to tears.

In the light streaming through the windows of Slate Coffee Bar in the U District, as McKibben’s dog Teddy snoozes nearby in a sunbeam, Nelson (known as Butter to her friends) recalls one moment in particular where they were trying to play some songs McKibben had written and couldn’t continue. “We were sitting at opposite ends of the living room, and we looked at each other and were like, ‘This isn’t working,’ ” she says.

With Pleather, they set out to take a sledgehammer to traditional rock music and collage the fragments into something completely different, or what Nelson dubs an “amalgamous music blob,” citing the Deftones as one influence they wanted to subvert. McKibben describes Pleather’s sound as “taking masculine, boring ideas about rock music and trying to recreate them through blatantly artificial means … using drum machines and making music that has the intensity or energy of rock music, or on the surface sounds like a band playing rock music, but isn’t.”

While subverting tropes was a core drive behind the unique pastiche, the search for an original sound was another. “I didn’t want to feel like I was copying anybody,” says Nelson. “With my last band, everyone said we sounded like My Bloody Valentine, and I freaking hated that. I just wanted to sound like something that nobody could say we were appropriating.”

Nelson and McKibben eschewed the ubiquitous grunge-revival sound that surrounded them and the Seattle scene in favor of something that actually reflected the rapidly changing scenery around them, and their resultant anxieties. Their debut EP, Tether, out now, provides a soundtrack for a city of Starbucks-swilling young professionals being charioted about by Ubers.

For Tether, the band worked with visual artist Bristol Hayward-Hughes to create the cover art and filmed an upcoming video with her for the song “Prius.” Peppered with tongue-in-cheek brand references and pulsing with metallic beats, the record sometimes evokes the cold gleam of a newly built high-rise condo. “We’ve talked a lot about how construction sites are dominating the landscape and how some of our songs seem like construction sites,” says Nelson. “Or deconstruction sites, really.”

The EP also deals with the service industry and the emotional labor it demands of its employees: “commodifying a body, and what that body wants or doesn’t want,” Nelson says. On the opening track, “I Don’t Want to See You There,” she sings, “I don’t want to smile when I don’t care/Don’t make me pretend and then perform.”

Earlier this year, Nelson released a song on her personal Soundcloud called “But I Am Who You’re Looking For,” in which she doles out corporate clichés expected of her in an imaginary job interview and pledges her subservience to a potential employer. “When you tell me what to do, I’ll do it … I’ll do it better than you ever could have imagined,” she drones in a bored, flat monotone. “I would sweep up the dust from the carpet with my tongue/I would take your documents and shred them for you, destroy the evidence.”

Nelson’s frustration is palpable as she sings, “My body is a drain/Is there nothing to qualify my work?” with piercing urgency on “Play Nice.” “I was inspired to write that song by that Tom Petty writing style, where it’s this disillusioned person wondering if anything that they’re actually saying is getting through to people, and wondering if it matters whatsoever what you’re doing. I think I struggle with that a lot. As artists, we don’t really get monetary rewards for what we do, or even accolades, in any concrete way. So what we do has to be for us.”

On the track “Frappuccino Love,” a sarcastic ode to consumerism underscored by a flurry of fractured digital blips and beeps, Nelson belts, “I sip it up… I think it’s love,” and sings about applying “designer lotion made with me in mind.” The song seems especially appropriate given the Unicorn Frappuccino that came and went this week in a blaze of magenta-and-turquoise maltodextrin glory.

“Starbucks is very Seattle, obviously, and Frappuccinos are these pieces of trash, coffee-glitter-explosion-extravagance,” she says. “I was inspired by that, the habits that we follow: We get a coffee in the morning, and we get an Uber. It’s just these brands and these products that we use every day, but we may not necessarily think much of them or want them or love them. But you know they’re there and they also have a voice … what they’re designed to be for you.”

The record’s sense of humor might read like satire, but for the group, it’s a way to get at a kind of truthfulness they couldn’t articulate otherwise. “The thing that we always jokingly talk about is taking being a Seattle band really seriously and trying to really intentionally place ourselves in Seattle. We were just like, what is our Seattle, what do we see around us in Seattle?” says McKibben. “And that’s more what Seattle looks like to us, when we look around. For better or worse.”

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