The day before Bleached played Panorama Festival in 2017, the stage they were supposed to play on collapsed.
That didn’t stop them from putting on a big rock ‘n’ roll show at the New York City fest. Guitarists/core members Jennifer and Jessie Clavin were loud, punchy, and on-point — their chemistry as strong as you’d expect from two sisters who had been in the same bands for over a decade. There were some rock-star stances; their transitions from song to song were snappy; they even worked in a cover of a Nevermind deep cut amongst their own peppy garage rock. I caught up with the Clavins for a brief interview after the show, and they were in especially good spirits, chatting about their new EP and zine as the Panorama dance tent thumped nearby.
Two years later, leading up to Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough? (out today on Dead Oceans), the Clavins admit the new LP is the first they’ve written since both deciding to go sober, as alcohol was threatening to derail their lives. Seeing them at the fest, I had no idea they’d recently made this leap of faith, but now it’s clear how it’s improved… everything.
“[Panorama] was a perfect example where I was super nervous before we played,” says Jennifer, the older of the Clavin sisters and the band’s lead vocalist and lyricist. There was once a time when they’d perform close to a blackout level of drunk, partially for the punk cool, moreso to cover for nagging insecurities that they have since faced.
“Drinking and playing music was so romantic — that’s just what I thought you did,” says Jessie, the band’s guitarist and chief instrumentalist. “A lot of times as a drinker I just wanted to numb feelings,” Jennifer remembers. “Once we got onstage [at Panorama], all my nerves went away and I was having a great time.”
Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough? is one of the year’s best rock albums, and far more than a survival tale. It’s Bleached’s third full-length, and if you count Mika Miko — the cult-famous punk quintet both Clavins played in throughout the 2000s — their fifth LP, alongside several handfuls of EPs and singles. They’ve been trafficking in Black Flag and Blondie-indebted dive bar rawk for well over a decade, and on that note, the new album turns a major corner. On 2016’s Welcome the Worms, Bleached battled through drinking, drugs and abusive relationships with ferocious, open-road riffage; today they rock out when necessary, but with space for rubbery disco bass lines, whistles, cowbell, and arty minimalism.
Recent single “Hard To Kill” sounds like LCD Soundsyetem getting down to business and writing a three-and-a-half-minute pop song. “Kiss You Goodbye” and its call-and-response breakdown discinctly sounds like a band that’s become friends, collaborators and touring partners with After Laughter-era Paramore. It all ends with “Shitty Ballet,” a bare-bones rocker they had the guts to leave sounding like a demo.
Calling in from their L.A. home base last week, the Clavins explain to Billboard just how they wound up at this point in their career.
You were just on tour with the Hives and Refused. Are you honorary Swedes now?
Jennifer: Our mom’s side of the family is Swedish. We wanted to make a button that says “Our Mom Is Swedish,” but we forgot.
Jessie: When we were on tour, it hit us what showmen they are. I was like, we definitely need to channel these live performances.
Jennifer: The Hives‘ showmanship is next-level good. Everyone plays a role — it’s not one guy carrying the whole show. Refused were really cool because they kept talking about back in the day when stuff was really punk. Seeing where they’re at now, it was really inspiring.
You toured Europe with Paramore in 2017. What did you take away from that?
Jennifer: Once again we were on tour with a band that really kills it live… We’re touring with these bands that have a huge crew and budget. Then it’s just the four of us with maybe a tour manager. Sometimes it’s a little intimidating because I feel we’re just left to fend for ourselves.
Jessie: Because Paramore has three guitarists onstage, that tour opened me up to a lot of guitar tones. We [sometimes] have Jen just singing so she can run around and interact with the audience more and I’m just left on guitar. I was like, I really want to explore with different tones, make things more peaceful and simple.
Jennifer: Watching how hard they give it, I really connect with that, because when I play I also tap into this place where I’m putting on a show. I think it’s important to channel your best performance, just lose yourself in the live show. That’s also been a bit of a struggle because when I was a teenager I could really lose myself because I didn’t care if I was messing up or singing poorly because that’s the point, I’m putting on a show. Now there’s a side of me that wants to put on a good, professional show as well as the fun side. Trying to find that balance is something I’m working on.
From starting in the punk world during the Mika Miko days, it sounds like you’re learning where it makes sense to take Bleached today.
Jessie: Yeah, even going back to our roots… Some post-punk I never realized was pretty. Some has really cool, dance-y guitars. It’s not this crazy, heavy punk.
“Hard To Kill” on the new album is so dance-y, with the cowbell and everything! I can see how touring with Paramore could have rubbed off there.
Jennifer: It was fun to watch the audience get really into it, too. If we’re going to be playing so many live shows, I want to have fun doing this. It inspired me to want to write dancier stuff. Plus Jessie and I are super into disco and post-punk. It made a lot of sense.
You worked with a handful of collaborators and co-writers on your new album. Who are some you want to highlight?
Jennifer: “Shitty Ballet” we wrote with this girl Madi [Diaz], and it was really cool. I’d never met her before — our manager [Christian Stavros] was like, “Oh she’s really awesome, you guys should try to write.” [Diaz and I] were talking about what we both were going for and we were both dealing with a similar situation so the lyrics came really easily. Everyone was so stoked on the demo — just vocals and one guitar — that we were like, “This needs to be what the song sounds like.” We also went to Nashville and ended up playing with some of our friends we met in Paramore: Joey [Howard] the bassist, and Joey [Mullen] the percussionist. We had so many demos.
Jessie: They jammed out some songs with us, which is so necessary. With Jen and I writing, we don’t have a live band.
Sobriety played a crucial role for both of you in making this record. Were there defining moments that made you say, enough is enough, time for a change?
Jennifer: For me, there was a defining moment I don’t feel comfortable sharing, but yes, there was that moment: What am I doing? Why am I living my life like this? I could potentially die. This needs to end. It was really scary, but also very hopeful. I’ve been sober for three-and-a-half years. I have a good support system. Noticing what sobriety has done to my life, how much it’s improved my life, this is one of my favorite records we’ve ever written… No one ever gets sober and they’re like, “Oh, my life sucks” [Laughs]. You have to take that leap of faith that it’s gonna be okay. It’s hard. For me, alcohol was my love. I had to let it go.
Jessie: Drinking and playing music was so romantic. That’s just what I thought you did. I know people who didn’t live past 27. Like, it’s cool people get sober but [I thought,] “I’m not like that, I’m very different from everyone, I’m supposed to be partying like this!”
But I started seeing a lot of the damage I was making in my party days and at a very young age I was already doing a lot of crazy stuff. It just took me a little bit longer to see it. It wasn’t an immediate thing. I guess needed more chaos in my life to finally be like, “Oh yeah I should try and get sober.”
How is the writing and creative process different with a sober mind and body?
Jennifer: Honestly, it’s not difficult. I thought it was gonna be difficult, but I kinda just let things come to me. I had to rely more on the power within myself to bring whatever needed to come out: a song, melody, guitar part. I used to think I had to get really fucked up to write the best music. I remember we would [be] up all night writing and then finally, pass out, wake up in the morning like, “Wait, what did we even write last night?” We’d listen back and be like, “Oh, that sounds like shit,” or “Oh, that’s cool.”
When I record, I get this anxiety that everything’s not gonna be the way I want it to be. I feel like it’s because it’s my art, I want to hold it and mold it and shape it exactly how I see it. But I know that’s not possible. With alcohol and drugs you can kind of numb yourself. Numbing yourself allows you to let go of this control you wanted to have over your art. Being sober, I had to learn to let go and let this art take shape on its own. I can’t control it, because it’s something bigger than me.
What about performing? I know that alcohol can help take the edge off when you’re in front of a crowd.
Jennifer: When I first started performing sober, I was coming offstage with this insane high. Like whoa, this is crazier than anything that would happen when I was performing [drunk], blacked out even. The worst would be when I’d play and then be like, “Oh my God, what did I do? I don’t even know how I performed, if I was acting crazy or what.” I hadn’t thought about that in so long because now it’s been three and a half years — now I’m used to performing sober.
I think when you drink and you perform, you force yourself out of your head, and when you’re performing sober you can get stuck in your head a little bit. I think it’s easy to get out of that. Once I’m onstage, I’m just looking at the members in my band and realizing we’re all here together and there’s nothing I could really do to fuck everything up. Maybe I’ll fuck up one little thing, but no one’s gonna notice… I don’t have that much power to fuck up a whole song!
Along with your 2017 EP Can You Deal?, you compiled a zine featuring writing from other female musicians — Lizzo, Liz Phair, Alice Glass — about their experiences in the industry. As you made this album, did you find any of their contributions particularly influential?
Jennifer: I think the whole thing really resonated with me. It was super empowering to have all these women share that we’ve all been feeling a similar way. And I think just getting it off our chest and having a place to accept ourselves and have people actually hear what we were saying was so empowering. From that, I was able to move on to the next chapter of whatever I’m doing, and not keep dwelling on the fact of, yeah, people are gonna ask you what it’s like to be a girl in a band. It’s funny because now we don’t get asked that question at all.
Was that what inspired the zine — always getting bombarded with that question?
Jennifer: Yeah. Even when we were younger in [Mika Miko], it was always, “So what is it like being girls in a band?” We were like, what do they mean by that? That can go in so many directions. I thought maybe it’s because we’re an all-girl punk band. Maybe they were just trying to talk about how the punk scene is very male-dominant, which I totally understand, but it just kept happening to Bleached. We were three girls and one guy. I was like, why are we still getting asked this? A lot of writers appreciated it was brought to our attention, which I thought was cool.
Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough? is your first album in three years. What are you hoping to achieve with this album that you hadn’t before?
Jennifer: There’s a part of me that’s like, yeah, you should set your goals but there’s [another] part of me that just wants to go with the flow. It feels a little overwhelming to be back in record cycle world. This is the longest amount of time I’ve ever had off — about a year — but I didn’t know how to relax during that year because I was so used to touring. So I kept living in Bleached world. All of a sudden, I’m really in it again.