From Punk to Pop & Back Again: Potty Mouth's Utterly Unique Path to Its Hook-Filled Sophomore LP 'Snafu'
Six years since their debut, the power-poppers reemerge from industry hassles & hangups that would've thwarted most bands.
For much of this decade, Potty Mouth has been, as the industry likes to say, a band to watch. A band on the rise. Up-and-comers. A punk band with a solid following built off a couple of promising releases, on the brink of something bigger. What exactly was that something? That's the first place they started to buck industry expectations.
In summer 2015, the Western Mass.-bred trio released a catchy, polished self-titled EP led by their sonic sunbeam of a single, "Cherry Picking." It upped the ante considerably from their scuzzier, punker 2013 debut, Hell Bent. When Potty Mouth formed in 2011, frontwoman Abby Weems, then still in high school, was admittedly just learning to play guitar. Same for guitarist Phoebe Harris (who left the band before the EP release). Ally Einbinder felt her growth as a bassist had been stifled by playing in bands (often populated by dudes) that just told her what to play. "We made a lot of decisions early on that helped forge our own path," Einbinder tells Billboard. "It’s easy to forget how capable and equipped you are on your own."
With drummer Victoria Mandanas helping hold it all together, their growth in just a few short years was remarkable. Their improved songcraft repped Weezer, Liz Phair, and Veruca Salt -- acts from the '90s and early aughts that could claim an underground legacy alongside easily-hummable radio hits. Those artists enjoyed the best of both worlds and songs like "Cherry Picking" suggested Potty Mouth could, too. Resources from Atlantic Records facilitated the self-released 2015 EP and the two sides considered a more formal pact heading towards their sophomore full length.
The world of punk and DIY wasn't producing crossover stars like it used to -- and frankly, it's often averse to the sort of aspirations Potty Mouth had. But the group had the chops, and good heads on their shoulders, too. ("Trust your gut," Einbinder advises. "Trust that if you did something in the past and it worked out for you, it will probably work again.") Wanting to create alongside women who shared their progressive ethos brought them together in the first place and they now aspired to take their message to a larger audience. Why not Potty Mouth?
Well, life happened. The industry happened. They waited. And recorded. And waited more. Had some falling outs. And recorded more. Then got tired of waiting. "It was this constant cycle of things not lining up perfectly," Weems says. "Eventually we were like, screw it... We don't have to wait for anyone to give us the green light."
Six years after their debut, Potty Mouth's sophomore LP Snafu arrives today (March 1). Potty Mouth remains a band you should be paying attention to and Snafu is a very good record. At ten tracks in just over 37 minutes, it's a tidy pop-rock power surge: "Do It Again" and "Smash Hit" are pure Fountains of Wayne sugar, "22," spry, Buzzcocky pop-punk, "Massachusetts," chug-a-chug rawk that's appropriately Pixies. It arrives through Get Better Records, a respected Philly DIY imprint that's worked with underground heroes like Sheer Mag, Worriers, and Cayetana. "There’s no one trying to develop us, portray us into something they’re already looking for," Einbinder says.
So what took so long? Well, a lot. Fortunately, the trio is at a place where they can joke about it now. The first 200 copies of Snafu come with a comic book, crafted by Weems, that shows a geriatric version of the band 100 years from now still quibbling over how to release the record. Crisis averted: Here's Billboard's recent sit-down with Potty Mouth.
Your first full length in six years is out in a matter of days -- how does it feel?
Weems: Really surreal. It feels like we haven’t been able to stop to let it sink in because we’ve just been going so hard. When it comes out it’s gonna feel very freeing.
Einbinder: We've been sitting with some of these songs for over three years. Some are newer. In many ways it feels like the first time we've ever been able to prepare the way we wanted for a release. That 2015 EP came out so quickly. And [our debut album in] 2013 just feels like another lifetime ago. I don't even know what our mindset was back then.
I remember seeing Potty Mouth perform a show at CMJ 2015 and the lineup from that day seems so incredible now: Sheer Mag, Downtown Boys, Perfect Pussy, Protomartyr, Pity Sex, etc. What do you feel you took away from the DIY scene in those days?
Einbinder: It’s interesting how we can talk about 2015 like a different time -- because it was. Even though it was only four years ago. Like, Spotify wasn’t what it is now. CMJ doesn’t exist anymore.
It’s nice to have a larger support network of bands who have been through this experience, so you can reflect back with each other and be like, “Yeah, isn’t it weird how no one seems to be doing premieres anymore?” There’s no one else to talk about it with, unless it's someone in the industry who knows. It’s such a unique experience being in a band and trying to figure these things out. To have that kind of support and friendship with bands is so vital.
Snafu includes some songs like "Smash Hit" which I remember hearing live a couple years ago. Did you have a lot to pick through for the final ten?
Einbinder: "Smash Hit" was released as a single in 2016. The version on the record is just a little bit different, re-recorded and remixed. We actually do have a bunch of other songs. After Snafu was done we went into the studio and recorded a whole other record’s worth of songs. We don’t know exactly how some them are gonna be used but we know for sure two of them -- “I Wanna” and “Easy Way” -- are on an exclusive seven-inch available at retail stores when you buy Snafu.
You co-wrote "Smash Hit" with former Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla. What was that like?
Weems: It was basically how I would write a song normally, but he was also in the room, too. Either validating a part, or saying like, “What if you did this part quiet this time?” Just throwing stuff out there. That was a really good experience, one of the first co-writing experiences where it felt very casual.
And the album track "Fencewalker" came out of a writing session with Go-Go's drummer Gina Schock.
Weems: She’s just really cool and badass and honest. It was cool to be in a writing session where… I think she was very fascinated by me and what I wanted out of it. Normally writing sessions are for pop music. Any time I go into a studio and start writing on guitar, people are like, "Whoa! Guitars? What!" She was very encouraging... I never felt pressured by her to make the songs sound a certain way.
Einbinder: She gets it. The Go-Go's are a direct inspiration to a band like us, because they were a rock band of women that had songs that were poppy and hooky, but still rock songs.
That's a pretty unique experience these days: a band from the DIY world doing co-writing sessions.
Weems: It definitely took some getting used to. It wasn’t my favorite thing. I learned a lot. You'd go in and someone would have an idea already and I’d be like, "No thank you, how about this?" And just come up with something on the spot, spend time listening to references on Spotify -- Nirvana, Garbage, Fountains of Wayne -- then just playing guitar. I think that was very new and exciting for a lot of people. A lot of writers would be like, “Oh my god, I haven’t written on guitar in 10 years! This is awesome!” It was definitely a learning experience on both sides.
So some co-writers would come with something pre-written like, “This would work for Potty Mouth.” What was that like?
Weems: It was so uncomfortable. Because I am a control freak about our music… And it sucks to go into a situation where you’re immediately not super-stoked on someone else’s idea. Whenever I would start writing on something, the person in the room would be like, "Oh, what if we did this, or we could try this." And if I didn’t like the idea, it was so hard to navigate politely saying no.
Einbinder: I don’t want to emphasize that, because those are not the songs on Snafu.
Around that time, Potty Mouth was in talks with Atlantic Records, but I suppose that didn't pan out?
Einbinder: That’s just one of those things where they were really stoked on us, and we had a good tentative relationship with them where we put out the  EP, would see where that would go -- and then, based on that, we would sign with them. What happened was… We just weren’t a high enough priority for them, because it was a little experiment. We didn’t get a big budget for radio or anything like that, so they didn’t get the numbers or reaction that they were expecting. And we didn’t get the attention and support we were hoping for. So we just mutually decided it would be best for us to not go through with it.
Weems: Yeah it was a mutual departure from one another. It was happening during this interesting shift, where streaming was starting to matter just as much as sales. So we kind of were caught up in that, where we -- with a label very focused on sales; rightfully so -- you invest money, you want to make it back. But it was also in a time where streaming was really picking up as the main way people listen to music. So when you put the streaming counts next to the sales numbers and they don’t match up it can look weird. But it’s like, now we know, where it’s 2019 -- streaming, playlists, that’s where it’s at and that’s how music is heard.
I would think at least you’d come away with insight and experience that most artists from your scene wouldn’t get.
Weems: I feel like most of our peer-level bands are on smaller labels like Polyvinyl or Hardly Art. Those are labels where you’re actually in contact with everyone who works there, and you know them and you’ve probably met them. Whereas Atlantic, we literally only talked to our A&R person, only ever met that one person from within the company. It’s much more of a business relationship. It was a good experience for us, and we got a free EP out of it, but other than that, a band like ours can’t really operate in that lane.
How did Get Better Records come to be the home for Snafu?
Einbinder: Get Better is a label that was started by my partner Alex Lichtenauer 10 years ago, just as a way to put out their friends' music. Since then it's grown into something bigger.
Weems: We had been waiting for so long for someone to come to us and had misleading advice: wait for a label, wait it out for something better. It was this constant cycle of things not lining up perfectly. Eventually we were like, "Screw it, let’s just do it with our friend’s label that we trust." That way we can still be in control of everything and don’t have to wait for anyone to give us a green light.
Einbinder: We also have a label services agreement with a company based in the UK called Kartel Music Group. They are the ones helping us with the distribution, stocking the album in retail stores... It’s kind of a best-case scenario, because it allows for maximum freedom and creative control. Everyone obviously wants us to be successful; we want us to be successful.
There aren’t many punk bands in the major-label ecosystem these days. Did you get a sense they didn’t know what to do with you?
Weems: Yeah totally. I think people still don’t know what to do with us. I kind of don’t even know what to do with us. Because we’re a punk band and a pop band at the same time. There really aren’t a lot of other bands like that right now. So it’s like you don’t want to feel you’re too punk for the pop kids or too pop for the punk kids.
You could say you’re a pop-punk band...
Einbinder: That’s what everyone ends up saying but that’s why I think pop-punk -- the phrase -- has come to represent so many other things that don't feel fitting…
Weems: It’s more emo now.
Einbinder: You hear pop-punk and [think of] New Found Glory, Blink-182. And it also doesn’t feel very encompassing of women, in my mind, just because pop-punk feels mostly like dudes.
Since you started Potty Mouth, have you seen improvements in how young women are treated in music?
Mandanas: Feminism is just way more popular now overall than it was then.
Weems: The better part is you have more all-male bands that are more conscious of the culture right now, so they’re more likely to bring bands with women on their tours. Which is good; that’s what they should be doing. I don’t want to see an all-male band bring another all-male band on tour.
Mandanas: But you don’t want to see another all-male band bring an all-girl band [on tour] and hit on them the whole time.
Einbinder: Exactly. That’s the gender double-bind, finding a balance in between being a token and…
Weems: That’s why touring with Bayside was cool. They’re all dudes, their fans are all that pop-punk kind of fan. This was also after we’d done shows with CHVRCHES, so the complete opposite. I could tell both Bayside and CHVRCHES had us open because they knew their fans would like us. That was awesome that Bayside did that. They used their power to open their fans’ eyes to other kinds of music made by women.
It's cool you bring up Bayside that way. I've been seeing them for years and I'm sure they were definitely on plenty of all-male lineups in the aughts.
Weems: We played the last year of Warped Tour in 2018. [The three of us] made up [a high percentage] of the women that played on Warped Tour, and it’s just crazy. It’s the same bands, too. They’re all men. And they’ve all been playing Warped Tour for 20 years. You’d think they would want to use that platform to introduce their fans to other music and support the music culture and community in that way.
Mandanas: The minute we got offstage we heard that 3OH!3 song ["Don't trust a ho/ never trust a ho/ 'cause a ho won't trust me"] in the distance...
For being on the road, making your livelihood, how important is selling physical albums and merch?
Einbinder: That’s how we make most of our money when we’re on tour. We get guarantees or a door deal, but unless you’re selling out stadiums, you’re not making that much money playing in a bar every night. So having merch and buying the physical copies is the fastest and surest way to keep us afloat.
A comic book you guys made is coming packaged with the album. How did that come together?
Weems: I was trying to get back into drawing so I posted some drawings on Instagram and people started asking for Potty Mouth comic book.
It starts off with us playing one of our oldest songs, and it’s supposed to be us playing 100 years in the future. And we’re like, "We’re gonna release our album soon, don’t worry!" And I wake up like, “No! That was all a dream!” And then I go over to Ally’s house where she and Victoria are hanging out. I’m like, "We need to do this, this and this." And they’re like, "Actually, people have been telling us what to do and that’s not working. So let’s do it our way."