Versions of Modern Performance, out June 3 on Matador Records.
Penelope Lowenstein, Nora Cheng and Gigi Reece grew up in Chicago, separately learning to play music in youth art programs like School of Rock and Old Town before connecting at a DIY warehouse show in late 2018. “Nora and I had started playing guitar together at that point, but it was the first time we had really played with another person, and we clicked really well,” says Lowenstein, who shares guitar and vocal duties with Cheng while Reece is on drums.
Reece — a college freshman, like Cheng, while Lowenstein is finishing up high school — says that fiddling around with songs in a basement together became “our favorite weekend activity… obviously it’s become much more than just that now, but it’s still just how we bond together and like to spend time together.”
During hangouts and sessions, the trio would also geek out about — and draw from — different sonic aspects of their favorite indie bands of yore: the lip-smacking repetition of Gang Of Four’s Entertainment! era, the one-chord dirtiness of The Clean’s guitars, Stereolab’s vocal arrangements, practically everything about Sonic Youth.
Those influences inform Versions of Modern Performance, which was recorded at Chicago’s Electrical Audio with producer John Angello (The Breeders, Dinosaur Jr.), but Horsegirl synthesize post-punk, indie rock and pop hallmarks into a current, vital product. Recent release “Dirtbag Transformation (Still Dirty)” revels in scuzzy charm and “oooo-wooo-OOH!” harmonies, while breakthrough track “Anti-glory” and “Homage to Birdnoculars” clang then glide, uncovering tender moments amidst the ample noise.
Horsegirl’s song construction is a democratic process, out of necessity: “We write together in a room, all three of us, and it’s not really like a certain song is a certain person’s,” Cheng explains. Lowenstein adds that “because [the vocal melodies] working together is really important to each song — and since we’re a trio and each element feels so important — [everything] sort of has to happen together, in the same room.”
The members of Horsegirl started sending out demos after honing in on a sound, and one of them landed at The Chicago Tribune, which featured the band in an extended profile in late 2020. “I feel like it’s sort of an old-school story — a hometown newspaper article! — but we were surprised at how far that article took us,” says Lowenstein.
Management and label reps started reaching out, but because the pandemic was at its peak, all discussions had to take place over Zoom. “Our parents were like, ‘Is this a scam?’” Lowenstein says with a laugh. The group’s deal with Matador Records was announced in April 2021, giving Horsegirl a year to ramp up to South By Southwest 2022 — where they played four packed shows in 2022 — and the promotion of Versions of Modern Performance.
On June 5, the same day that Lowenstein graduates high school, Horsegirl will play a hometown record release show at Chicago’s Thalia Hall, having already performed at a major festival, Boston Calling, the week prior. Then it’s off to Europe for a month-long tour before performing across North America this summer.
“South By Southwest was kind of an important moment” for a band still finding its touring sea legs, says Reece. “We just played so many shows back to back to people that actually like, knew who we are! And it’s not just our friends! And I think that, after doing that, I feel like we came together stronger.”
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Lowenstein: “Don’t take yourself too seriously. We like to have fun with stuff like naming the songs, and our Instagram captions aren’t super robotic. It’s also okay to not have a sampler onstage because you want to sound exactly like the record. Sometimes those mistakes are humanizing, and it’s nice to feel like the band is playing for real. We will make mistakes live, because we are not doing karaoke.”
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Reece: “How nice everyone is. Those folks over at Matador Records? They have my heart.”
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Lowenstein: “Charlie Megira [an Israeli singer-songwriter with a cult following who passed away in 2016]. The songs are completely accessible, and I feel like it especially appeals to young people.”
Reece: “I just feel like everyone would like Charlie Megira. Why is no one on it?”
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Lowenstein: “Mainly that it was made by three friends together in a basement. We hope that comes through.”