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Interview: Hand Grenade Job


Photo by Sarah O’Donoghue

We’re living in incredibly trying times. Like many people, I turn to music for comfort. But the best music finds comfort in discomfort: it reminds us of the constant struggle of the human condition in order to alleviate the stress & pain. DC-based duo Hand Grenade Job insist that discomfort is nothing new, and certainly not something that arose after a presidential inauguration. They require you to look deeper into systems inextricable from our way of life, and require that these systems be purged. It’s a heavy motive: not lofty, but militantly philosophical… and in this, somehow comforting.

On February 23rd Hand Grenade Job will release a new album Devotionals. It’s a dark delight. It opens and closes with a phone call from a woman working at a Counseling Center denying Beck Levy of HGJ the services she’s in need of. In between are eight rather somber, visceral & complicated tracks. “New Year” stands out with it’s incessant tambourine metronome and blonde guitar strums; like tracking through snow in search of a campfire. Other tracks, like “July” and “True Story Of The Monster Of The Potomac” feature a similar gold shimmer. But speckled throughout, eerie droning tracks swing and sway.

“Jupiter” has been haunting my dreams with its marching-build behind the repeated refrain: “She treated me more like a hurt dog than a human.” I imagine this thought regards the denied services in the opening/closing tracks. “Buffalo” could almost be a long-lost White Stripes b-side, with chords continually stepping downwards as if the track were a massive wrought-iron spiral staircase with the sounds of drain runoff pouring throughout. Conceptually Devotionals eschews simplicity and convenience while maintaining simple, digestible structures. It’s a haunting paradox.

I spoke with Hand Grenade Job’s Beck Levy and Erin McCarley to delve further into their intentions, read below:

In the past you’ve been very outspoken against prisons. It’s not a common topic/passion in music outside of hip-hop, so I find it very interesting. Can you expand on this a bit? What political/critical/social issues do you hope to explore in this album?

Beck: Prison abolition is at the center of my politics. It claims to be an institution of justice but it only reflects and reproduces violence and inequality. As Michelle Alexander points out, you can draw a straight, uninterrupted line from chattel slavery to today’s prisons. They utilize slave labor, the corporations who use that labor extract huge profit from it (in this way, all prisons are for-profit prisons). Prisons are where our society disposes of poor people, people of color, it’s our biggest institution for dealing with mental illness. Like Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, prisons are a geographic solution to a (manufactured) social problem. You just take people out of society and geographically isolate them. Geographically they take up so much land, they have a devastating impact on the environment. They are the enclosure, the place where the commons goes to die (this is an idea from Silvia Federici). They enclose swaths of land and steal them from the public. They enclose huge portions of our budgets, stealing our wealth from our communities. They enclose our people, stealing them from our families, stealing their lives, their futures. They must be broken open so all of this trapped life can be released.

Erin: We don’t plan out the political messages in our songs the way punk bands traditionally do. I think our politics are in the fabric of our lives and so are in everything we create. Themes that emerge on this album would include isolation, revenge, and the unfair burden women have to perform emotional labor.

What types of alternatives do you propose to destroy the prison-industrial complex? What can music do to push these alternatives? 

Beck: Abolishing prisons necessarily requires the transformation of society at every level. You can’t just change the way we deal with justice, nothing exists in a vacuum. There should be massive truth and reconciliation processes at local and national levels. There are models for reckoning with horrors, trying to heal and rebuild. I just read an interview with Paul Beatty where he points to South Africa’s truth and reconciliation processes. These days I’m thinking a lot about the Greensboro Massacre. It was 1979. The cops colluded with Nazis and the KKK to entrap and murder members of the Communist Worker’s Party. It’s on my mind because last week on Inauguration Day, here in DC, the police kettled hundreds of protestors, holding them for hours, then arresting them. Protestors were maced, beaten, trapped. I urge you all to watch videos of what happened here, on the streets of the city in which I was born. Find the video where the child gets pepper sprayed in the eyes, and the elderly woman, and the disabled man. Everyone is screaming for medics but they don’t come, because they were all in the kettle. That day, the police were colluding with Nazis and the KKK too. Because our new president is a white-supremacist rapist autocrat, and to defend him is to be complicit with that toxic ideology. Luckily J20 didn’t turn into a massacre – but it did end with 230 demonstrators being charged with felonies. Please follow their cases and never forget what we’re dealing with here in DC, in the belly of the beast.

Anyway…with the Greensboro Massacre, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed–it was a community undertaking without formal power to enforce consequences or accountability, but it did create a public record. When we abolish prisons and dismantle every piece of this carceral society, there will need to be such a reckoning. You can fight for parts of it now – like the need for reparations!

Erin: People I know keep talking about how it feels like a waste of time to play music in this day and age. But to me it seems even more important. We need culture. We need it more than ever, we need a culture strong and rich enough to sustain us during dark times, a culture powerful enough to defeat the culture of fascism.

“Anyone who knows me owns a piece of me,” you sing on ‘July.’ In what ways do you consider this philosophy to define you? “My friends won’t let me change,” you sing later on ‘New Year.’ Maybe knowing someone puts you in a sort of prison?

Beck: I do feel like I belong to my family, my friends, my community. I reject the western invention of the individual as the fundamental social unit. I believe in autonomy, but I also believe we don’t belong to ourselves. As an intensely depressed person, I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation as long as I can remember. But knowing that I’m an intrinsic part of people’s lives sustains me. It’s beautiful, but it’s also terrifying. Giving so much of yourself to other people is rewarding, but you also make yourself very vulnerable. Whatever, this is the life that chose me!

Erin: It’s interesting to hear those two lines juxtaposed, because they do seem to be in conversation. But we wrote them at such different times. “New Year” is definitely about being locked into a harmful cycle or pattern. Our relationships can reinforce our worst tendencies sometimes. I haven’t thought of it like a prison, but since everything is built around prisons, it makes sense that our intimate relationships at their worst can function just like a prison.

The opener and closer of Devotionals is “Mary from the JFK Community Counseling Center” leaving a voicemail that includes a number of “referrals” to crisis support, social services, and assisting agencies’ phone numbers—having to let you down from services at her organization. A strong feedback builds over these two tracks, seemingly split in half and placed at either end of the album, with an eerie sung vocal track. It’s one of the most original concepts for an intro/outro I’ve heard in a long while. How do you hope these tracks frame the theme and sound of the album? 

Beck: Dear Mary, I know you were just doing your job. But it hurt all the same.

Erin: This is an instance where the theme of isolation comes through. There’s a sense of, what’s next?

Beck: The brackets surround a story of a woman on the verge.

Hand Grenade Job sounds like something unequivocally needed in the new era of DC. I know you’d left the DMV for a while, and you seem to be back, with your Sister Polygon Records involvement. Why the return? Are there intentions to return out West/to New Orleans?

Erin: Beck moved to Oakland for a couple years, then the housing crisis out there brought her back to me. My other band Governess just did a tape with SPR. I love the label’s values, aesthetic, and their dedication to the local. All those things appealed to us. We are going to be playing some shows with Priests going down to New Orleans and back in late February, and then we get to come back to New Orleans around an SXSW-destined tour in March. We’ll be touring the northeast in April with SPR labelmates Gauche.

I get the feeling that the ‘Post-Americana’ label is more of a statement about the HGJ headspace or political intention rather than a distinct musical genre: Post-American. Considering how much of a musical departure Devotionals is from Governess or Turboslut, what’s the musical aesthetic you hope to achieve with this ‘genre?’

Beck: Defeat or Humiliate the United States of Americana.

Erin: We do use some instrumentation that has more to do with Americana than punk, like the autoharp or some of our less-conventional percussion. Inventing our own genre gives us freedom to sound like however we want, and be responsive to our changing needs as musicians. Though our sounds have evolved from older bands, Beck and I both tend to play music because it’s what we want to hear. We feel there’s a certain void, something missing, and we try to fill it.

Beck: This goes back to your first couple questions for me. When we ask “if not prisons, then what?” We know the answer, though it sounds cryptic, is in the question: if not prisons, then: a world without prisons. A world without prisons looks fundamentally different from this one, because that one institution can’t just be neatly plucked away. Imagining a future without America is an important, generative exercise of the imagination. Imagining a future without nationstates and without borders. This is what we should be fighting for, just as we fight for more specific and immediately attainable goals like Medicare for All and the decriminalization of drugs and sex work. The biggest problem with the American left is it compromises before it even reaches the negotiating table…

‘Pre-Punk’ calls to mind something similar—perhaps a statement on what punk has come to mean versus what it might have originally meant. Thoughts on modern day “punk” as a scene?

Beck: Man I am so completely embarrassed by all the “will Trump spur a great new era of punk/hardcore?” stupid, stupid, stupid articles. But I do think that this is a historical moment when subcultures have to decide if they are actually countercultures or not. The three cities where I have communities of friends – Oakland, New Orleans, and DC – are showing signs of promise in that regard. These horrible times will be miserable, and deadly for some. But they will also bring out the best in people, the fiercest love, the most full-hearted resistance.

I’ve not yet seen your live show, but I’ve heard great things—talks of witchcraft, a constantly evolving set, a cappella chanting, etc. You’ll be performing in NC, a state starving for an intervention, and a few other Bible Belt states. What can attendees look forward to? How does your approach change in these more conservative states versus the liberal cities you’ve been based in?

Beck: All states are conservative. The south gets a bad rap – and I get why – but the north has just as ugly and racist a legacy. People who are interested in the revolutionary history of the South should read Dixie Be Damned by Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford.

Erin: We don’t want to spoil any surprises. Our band was founded on the principle of responding to the settings in which we play, and bringing our own habitat to them. We bring our own constructed habitat so that we feel comfortable, so that we can have a certain experience performing. It just so happens that this creates a certain experience for the audience as well.

Beck: People often describe us as being performance art, which is possibly true, or “not even really a band,” which may also be true, though for folks who are only encountering our project through recordings, that doesn’t seem quite right…last month after the Ghostship fire, I read a beautiful remembrance of Joey who passed away that day, December 2nd. Erin lived in Olympia at the same time as him many years ago and crossed paths…anyway, the remembrance describes Joey not as a musician or DJ but as a “facilitator of experiences.” That is what we aspire to be. We aspire to facilitate a certain experience. When HGJ started I thought of it as an experiment surfing the exchange of power between audience and performer. Now I think of it as being a spiritual ceremony where we channel that power and use it to create a Temporary Autonomous Zone. Damn. That is a lofty goal and I hope people aren’t disappointed if they come see us and it’s actually just two bitter women playing sad songs next to a dying plant…

Devotionals is out February 23rd. You can listen to the first two singles above, or on Bandcamp. You can also pre-order it on cassette from Sister Polygon Records. Keep up with Hand Grenade Job on FacebookInstagram, Twitter and Tumblr. Check out some of their tour dates below and the rest here.

February 23 Washington, DC @ Black Cat with Pissed Jeans
February 26 Athens, GA @ Cookie Road with Deep State
March 1 
New Orleans, LA @ Sisters in Christ with Kallie
March 2 New Orleans, LA @ Mudlark Theater with Priests and Gland
March 3 Talahassee, FL with Priests
March 4 Atlanta, GA @ the Drunken Unicorn with Priests
March 5 Durham, NC @ the Pinhook with Priests
March 12 Richmond, VA @ Gallery 5
March 13
Greensboro, NC
March 14 Asheville, NC @ Static Age

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