Photos by Julia Khoroshilov.
Karen and Rej of the Kentucky based duo GRLWood don’t consider their music to be punk. On first glance, it’s an easy assumption to fall into. The music is loud, dizzying, almost violently emphatic. With Rej’s operatic vocals vibrating throughout your core.
But more than that, the music is hilarious. It seems these days that the only way to discuss the ridiculousness of the culture we are living in is through satire, and GRLWood has the wit to rival Groucho Marx. As they make quips about the nature of sexuality, gender politics, and identity, they do so with the light-hearted joy of someone who is against all odds hopeful for the future of this world.
Karen and Rej are hopeful, it’s refreshing to see. To hear them talk about their love for pop music, see them lose it over feral cats, and observe the way that they let negativity and ignorance roll off their shoulders, even as they actively combat it is impressive.
At the end of their set at the East Village’s Niagara, I was filled with a newfound hope and covered in a few new bruises. The latter may have been from the mosh pit though.
You two identify as “Angry Lesbians”, where does the anger come from, is it from historical treatment of the LGBTQI community and within that community its own internal prejudice? Is it from the current abhorrent political landscape?
Rej: It’s easy to save face and just be like “angry lesbian feminist music,” but me, myself, I would identify more on the queer spectrum based on my own personal gender identity. There are many reasons to be not happy. Culturally, Kentucky has a more southern attitude.
Karen: People rock confederate flags there. Lesbian has just become one of those words I’ve become comfortable with. Even if what I identify with isn’t exactly that.
Rej: it gives you a general mindset as to what’s comfortable with. And I’m not about to sit here and lecture you on gender theory.
The stereotype of bisexuality is that people of this sexuality are easily changeable and there seems to be a point to be made about that in your single. What are your thoughts on the legitimacy of bisexuality and why do you think it’s so difficult even for queer people to accept it as a valid LGBTQI identity? Do you think that because of the discourse concerning this sexual identity, that there are those who will misunderstand the point of the single?
Rej: Bisexuality gets a lot of bullshit from all sides of the spectrum because there is a lot of stigma with the oppression olympics. Within the hierarchy of queerness, I think that is so fucked up. Anyone’s identity is legitimate. It sucks that we live in a time where minority groups can even want to build a hierarchy within those groups. Pure homosexual white dudes are at the top and then on the way down it’s just a fight over who is gayer.
Karen: This guy told us we weren’t allowed to use the word faggot because we’re not men and women aren’t oppressed by that word. We’ve all been called a faggot, the term is genderless.
Rej: When I wrote the song “Bisexual”, the first thing I said to Karen after solidifying the chorus was, do you think this is going to be taken as a hate song? And then Karen was like, nahhh. And I was like, I can definitely see this being taken as a hate song. But it’s like I’ll be damned if I’m not allowed to sit here and critique my own environment and the cultural substructures that I exist within because we always need to be working to make our situations better for everyone. We write a lot of songs where I like to wear that more negative character. Because I could sit here and talk to you about queer theory and mire radical feelings all the time but its so easy to become desensitized to that. But it’s a lot easier for me to instead say “I’m your dad” and just wear that character. So people can react to that however they will and be like “Oh yea!” Or like “That’s hilarious” I’m not going to lie I’ve had people come up to me and be like “Yeah fuck bisexuals”
Karen: Fun fact about Rej and I, we’ve both come out as bisexual and experienced all of that.
Rej: Art belongs to everyone to perceive how they want to. So if you want this to be a hate song, that’s your interpretation but if you ask me what I wrote that song about, I’ll be more than happy to tell you.
Karem: Most of the album is pretty heavy with satire but at the time that our single was released with no context… we sort of get it.
The rager in your video for “Bisexual” reminds me of the 1980’s limelight days when fluidity was first being explored. It seems like since that time we have gone backward a bit in the conversation concerning sexuality, or maybe just that we haven’t made the sort of progress that was being hinted at in that time period. What are your thoughts on where we are at today in regards to identity and what are some things you think could help for our community to move forward?
Karen: I think we’ve gone forward. All of the changes in laws and support groups. I think it’s getting more progressive despite the election. But I think this is only making us stronger.
Rej: I think everything abs and flows but we’re going to see it progress in different ways. I mean that show from the video was an actual show, it wasn’t staged. It’s so powerful to have this sea of underage baby Queer-Dohs expressing themselves the way they want through alternative music. I agree we are moving forward.
Karen: It’s also really nice to see all these kids who are coming out as gay in school, coming out as trans in school. I’m like, whoa, these kids now, they are very brave. It’s awesome that kids are starting to feel that they can do that.
Your sound strikes me as a mix between pop and punk, although the stereotype for both musicians genres seems so disparate. How do you guys strike a balance between the two sounds? What in your attitude is particularly poppy or particularly punk?
Karen: The world is not all just angry and the world is not al just happy. I know when I listen to bands I like diversity. I like heavy music but when I listen to a whole album all the way through heavy, I just feel like, alright I need to go do something with myself. We try to have balance with our music because we would get bored. And our attitudes in life are reflected in music. Its important in art to show everything within yourself.
Rej: I’m a sad bitch. I have a lot of musical influence all over the place and interestingly, I don’t have a lot of musical influence in punk. I’m just angry and I guess that’s how that comes out. I have a lot of musical influence from living in Scandinavia and Central America. And when I meet with Karen who has a lot of musical influence similarly but not quite… we don’t make a balance and I feel like we don’t compromise, we just meet where we meet and sometimes we move further in one direction than the there but. Feel like we always easily flow with each other. Pop music is on the clit. My legs are open for Madonna, my legs are open for Rihanna, Drake… I haven’t operated within typical mainstream western culture for a long time because I’ve been gone, living as a hobo in the streets in Central America and I’ve only been back since 2016.
Rej, I have read that you felt like GRLWood was your release from an unhealthy and controlling musical relationship that you had previously been a part of. How do you think that reality and that sense of release has effected your sound as a duo?
Rej: I don’t want to make it out like the blame is only on the other partner. That music project was really great and that person was really great but I definitely feel I was ready to grow very hard and very fast in a different direction by the end of it. After I left I learned how to scream. I learned how to d those operatic vibratos that I had never done before. These are all very new techniques and abilities I have found in myself. It’s my declaration of independence. Not that the other band made me that, I made myself that. I would never be what I am now if it hadn’t been for that experience and I appreciate that but I very aggressively and volatility needed it.
The single “Im Yer Dad” seems to be both a commentary as well as a satire on toxic masculinity. Do you think that the satire of this single goes over the heads of the men who might listen to it? What makes satire the easiest way to address and start a conversation around such a sensitive issue?
Rej: “Im Yer Dad” is one that doesn’t go over head as much as “Bisexual.” I also have a bathing suit which is a man body bathing suit that I take off so if you didn’t know I was singing satirically, you get it then. I wrote the song because when I was in Cincinnati and I overheard this conversation between two girls where one girl was saying how her coworker calls her father daddy and she thinks its so gross and then the other girl started saying how sometimes she lets the word daddy slip up during sex and they just start saying how its not weird to call your boyfriend daddy but if they’re boyfriends called them mommy it would be weird. They just didn’t see the dissonance at all.
In fact much of the album seems to focus on serious issues while also pointing out the humor of the situations. Why do you think it’s so important to be able to laugh about these sorts of things, especially in a time where so much even in pop culture seems to be always pointing out the negative?
Karen: It’s important to be positive, humor is the best release.
Rej: We’re very overwhelmed with extreme radical information all the time. How does your mind now how to filter out what is what. I typically express myself b potting out the obvious ridiculousness of things.
Do you think there is such a thing as toxic femininity as well? What do you see as the most common examples of that and how do you address it through your music?
Rej: That’s not even the word for it. It is an issue though.
Karen: Terfs, or women who maybe expect a man to hold the door for them…
Rej: People screaming equality but it’s not exactly equality. To flip the switch and have the exact opposite is just as bad as what is happening now. It’s equality not supremacy. People really do feel threatened by the fact that so much media does have strong female characters in prominent roles.It’ss the same animal that comes out when people come to our show and they go “Oh yeah I don’t fuck with bisexuals.” Or, “So you hate men!”