During her first trip to the West Coast in 2007, Meredith Graves discovered the genius of Kool Keith. After an introduction made by a “financial dominatrix,” Graves combed through the iconic rapper’s extensive discography, listening to classics like Dr. Octagonologyst, and especially connecting to the iconic rapper’s 1999 masterpiece Black Elvis/Lost in Space her junior year of college. Finding solace in Keith’s deconstruction of late-’90s rap, Graves, who is now the frontwoman of New York clamor-punk act Perfect Pussy, was inspired by his analytical critique of the hip-hop’s empty excess, and related to Keith’s blatant disregard for structure. “I get lost in his delivery,” explains Graves from her home in Syracuse, New York, “and how he always ends up wrapping things up. Some of his songs have these amazing hooks, but he doesn’t really care for continuity. Everything can fall apart in a moment and that’s also okay.” Like Black Elvis/Lost in Space, Perfect Pussy—whose performance at NYU’s E&L Auditorium last December saw the New York Times calling them “the next crucial punk band to know about”—and their debut album, Say Yes to Love, share similar traits of bedlam and perspective to Black Elvis, albeit way noisier, way more feminist and, well, a bit more punk. Debuting today off Captured Tracks, the 23-minute LP boasts an onslaught of lyrical distortion and unconstrained noise rock as seen on the band’s latest video “I” off their 2013 demo, I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling. In a recent conversation with Graves earlier this month, we spoke candidly about the bands unexpected rise to fame, dealing with anxiety onstage when you’re shy, and why comparing musicians to other musicians is basically the worst thing a music journalist can do.
Has the amount of attention you’ve received felt surreal?
It’s crazy. It’s nothing I ever expected. I don’t think I’m doing very well with it as I’ve come to realize in the last week or two. I needed a reality check and I definitely got one.
When you say reality check, what do you mean?
The last couple of weeks have been really intense periods of a lot of foo foo-looking interior lies about the experience and how strange it’s gotten and how happy I am. It’s led to me to a lot of realizations about myself and how I feel about this experience and how I feel about the world. And it’s nice because we’ve been moving around so much. Even this last month that we’ve had “off,” I’ve been in a different city every two days just doing stuff. It feels good to have a renewed sense of purpose and a certain clarity of vision.
Has this experience given you a new perspective on fame?
It’s definitely given me a new perspective on how people interact with the world. I want everyone to live exactly the way they want to as long as they aren’t hurting themselves or other people, but I think I understand a little better where I fall in that. It’s helped me come to a clearer understanding of myself in relation to other people, which is something I’ve always had trouble with because I’m a very lonely, very isolated person. I’ve never felt like socializing was my strong suit. Now I have a better sense of it.
Does it feel good to go into yourself, so to speak, and face the things that have inhibited you?
It doesn’t really feel good, but it doesn’t have to feel good. If I wanted to do something that would make me feel good, I would go drink a beer and make out with somebody. But the self-actualization process doesn’t always have to feel good. In fact, it can be really uncomfortable. It’s learning to sit with your discomfort and do something constructive with it. There’s no sense in saying, ‘Look at me, I’m so great for understanding myself.’ It’s like, no. You have to move forward and actually walk the walk. So I have about two more days of pajamas and then I’m out walking the walk.
Growing up in the suburbs, I remember how good it felt the first time I left. Do you remember how you felt when you first left your town and went out on the road?
I’ve been in touring bands since I was 19, so I’ve actually toured the country a lot. This band is a completely different experience because I never thought I would be a person singing in a band. The last band I was in I played guitar and sang, but that was different. This band I feel like I’m pushing myself to do things that are way out of my comfort zone. It’s a new world even though I’ve seen it before.
You obviously love music, but you also love fashion and theater. Do you feel like they ever intersect?
Oh, yeah. Being in a band is theater. I get up on stage every night and it’s not just singing the same songs that I’ve written. I’m actually physically performing what I’m going through. I’m actually sort of performing it like an actress performs a character. It’s very honestly me, which is more draining because I’m forcing myself to be present in myself every night.
Where does theater stand next to fashion and music? Do they all hold the same weight?
I love everything. I have about 97 hobbies and they all intersect and I try not to privilege any one of them over the other. Like now I’m doing more music-type stuff, but all it’s really leading me to do is to want to do other stuff. I love writing. I love photography. I do so many things and I’m not very good at them, but I genuinely enjoy them all. And since most of the hobbies I love, I love to do on my own, I can bring them on the road with me…so I’m never bored. I’m crazy. If I’m not always working on a million things I get really depressed and really anxious.
You mentioned writing a moment ago. The other day I was reading an essay you wrote on Kool Keith’s Black Elvis/Lost in Space. What was it about that album that impacted you so much?
I was introduced to Kool Keith by this woman I met the first time I travelled to the West Coast like six or seven years ago with my first serious boyfriend. He introduced me to this friend of his who was a professional dominatrix. She was a financial dominatrix which is a highly specified line of work. She was extremely assertive. I wanted to get my haircut, for instance, and I was too scared to go into the salon—I’ve always been shy. She barged me into the salon and was like, ‘Cut this girls hair,’ and when we were talking she said she danced on stage with Kool Keith and that she was in Kool Keith’s top eight on Myspace back in 2007. I had heard Dr. Octagonecologyst [Kool Keith’s 1996 debut album] before, but of everything in his discography, I loved Black Elvis/Lost in Space because it encompassed a lot of the characters he had been developing up to that point. It’s so funny.
I’ve heard bits and pieces of the album, but not the whole thing. Isn’t Black Elvis/Lost in Space about Kool Keith’s dislike of early ’90s rap?
It is. I love how open he is about his complete disenfranchisement with the culture surrounding him. I think a lot of people try to make critiques about hip-hop and rap culture and it’s not their place, so it’s cool to hear Kool Keith turn around say, ‘I’m going to dissect hip hop and talk about why it’s so problematic.’ His critiques aren’t like other peoples. He completely eviscerates what was surrounding him at the time, which was Courvoisier, fur coats, fancy cars. It was an interesting point in American musical culture and he looks at it and says, ‘Why are you standing in the club talking on a cellphone that doesn’t work? Why do you roll up in a Benz that is rented?’ His critique is so on point He dissects what he sees around him in a way that’s so genius that nine songs later he wraps about working at a cellphone kiosk in the mall. I dissolve so much into his music.
Do you enjoy writing about music?
Sort of. My favorite magazine has always been Maximum Rocknroll – I’ve been reading it since I was 12. But some of the people that review records for Maximum lived for that punk thing of, ‘I know more about music than everybody else.’ The only way you can review music is by saying it sounds like this band, then you get the fucking record and it doesn’t sound anything like that. I want to hear, ‘I listened to this record and it made me go out into my garage and eat half a box of ho hos and smash stuff.’ That will get me to listen to a record. I think there needs to be a shift in music writing. Actually, no. I think everyone should be able to write about whatever they want, but I would like to see more people writing about music that write about it differently. I just want to hear about how the record made you feel.
In terms of feelings, earlier you talked about being a shy person. When you’re onstage is it easy for you to perform and disconnect from your anxiety?
Performing and theater is a job and I take it very seriously. I know what I have to do when I’m onstage. There are times when you kind of have to show up and punk doesn’t take sick days. I can’t not go to someone’s house and play a sweaty, disgusting show in their basement to a bunch of excited people because my feelings are hurt. You don’t get to take a day off. Music is bigger than that. Doing this is a constant reminder that everything in the world is bigger than me. It makes you feel so small to get onstage every night and know that all these people in the room are paying attention to your voice.
Do you feel like that the band has become bigger than you envisioned?
I never really envisioned anything for it. I’m kind of notorious for having no expectations for things. I do things because they’re entertaining and that gets me into a lot of trouble. I run towards experiences I’ve never had before, no matter how stupid they might be. So going into this with no expectations, I can’t really speak to how I feel about how it’s going. I think it’s interesting and I’m still not quite sure why it’s happening.
I think doing things because they’re new is important.
I’m totally terrified of everything. I came to this realization a year ago during the summer. I went through a really bad breakup. That was the moment when I was like, you kind of have to go out into the world and say yes to everything or else you’re going to stay pissed off forever. The first big decision I made was to stop being afraid of meaningful relationships with people. That was when I committed to being violently honest and trying to develop relationships because I realized that at any moment, I can lose what I’m holding. That’s why you have to say yes to absolutely everything. I refuse to die bored.
Does everyone else in the band share this similar view?
Everyone in this band is brilliant. Everyone in this band has varied, really intense views of the way life should be lived. I’m working with the smartest, kindest group of men that I’ve ever known in my life. They’re so good, I think this band has pushed everyone to that point where were all in this place where we’ll say yes to anything. Yeah, we’ll put our album out on this label. Yeah, we’ll do this music video. Yeah we’ll go to Europe. We’ll do whatever opportunities are afforded us because for us, it’s like a dream world. We’re nobody from nowhere. We want to have this experience because we know that it’s going to be over tomorrow.