Photos by Stasia de Tilly & Mia Jacobs. Words by Stasia de Tilly
NYC-based by way of Orlando, FL, Mia Berrin, mastermind behind Pom Pom Squad released her debut EP Hate It Here in April 2017.
The warm lights of Veselka cradles the face of Mia Berrin and her sleepy band members, Alex Carr, Zoltan Sindhu, and Greg Tock. Sitting at the head of a 12 person table Berrin is a performance embodied. She captivates the table, conversing, thinking, and projecting her spiraling thoughts. It’s 3 am but her mind is still going, she wears a calm expression and chatters off about James Joyce while her producer and engineer, Carr, insists that the mint julep is Faulkner’s signature beverage.
Five hours earlier you could have peeked your head into Sunnyvale and witnessed Berrin flirting with the audience while spilling her eloquent mind into the shy moshpit. The signature beverage for the occasion was well shots and Tecates. Berrin’s visuals of choice is The Virgin Suicide playing from start to finish.
Arriving for Pom Pom Squad’s set a panting Mia ran into me outside of the venue, “It’s a big turn out,” she says between deep breaths, “I’m pretty nervous.” She sports a pale pink jumpsuit and her signature stars dance around her eyes, “Oh, I have about a million of these at home.” Berrin exudes an other-worldly energy, these stars that dot her face feel precious, perhaps hard to hold. Simultaneously, her music and lyrics are so vulnerable and grounded in reality. Mia is like a cult leader, she exists on the plane between dream girl and sad girl where you fall in love instantaneously.
Berrin brings flowers to every show as if showing gratitude to the varied audience members that have supported her through her unwilted time in the New York Scene. “They met at a Spike Lee party actually,” Mia said about her parents, “in Palladium when it was a night club. In some ways, I’ve been in this area for a long time but just haven’t known it.”
Berrin’s performance is feverous. “You/Him (Maybe)” goes off into an homage to pussy-riot yelling her own witchy-poetry. Her feminine voice riots against the brooding guitar loop, “rhythmically I erase your name, from the places I see every day.” “He Never Shows” casts a spell over the audience, feeling torn between the musical and lyrical heart break that the track evokes.
Mia’s gift to the listener is in her words. With each line I find myself thinking ‘where did she get that from?’ “watching your fingerprints fall from my face, I will look you in the eyes and feel nothing.” “Sunday Song” shines brightest of the 5 tracks on the EP. Carr’s production is flexible, creating a buzzing intro that prioritizes Berrin’s vocal melody and evolves this ode to Sundays into a commanding and potent ending to this EP. For such a young producer, his work is extremely versatile moving from clean indie production to big sounds that manage to not overwhelm.
The three boys sitting around her at Veselka’s are more than just band mates. “I want you guys to burn a success candle with me,” Berrin says looking pouty yet appreciatively towards the three. It’s one of her many witchy rituals that her bandmates sentimentally agree to. Sindhu recorded percussions and bass on her freshman EP and Tock is their live drummer. Carr is Berrin’s partner in crime. Playing lead guitar he wore a black jumpsuit that night to match Berrin in her pink.
If I had to describe Mia’s music to you I’d say Riot Grrl, Mazy Star, Mitski, Perfect Pussy, overlaid by her own witchy poetry with just a hint of noise. But now I’ll let her do the talking…
How did you get into music?
I grew up in a very musically inclined family. My dad was an artist and my mom worked at a record label. I was around a lot of music; my dad was a lot of classic hip-hop late early 80-90 Eric B and Rakim.
Wasn’t your dad in a hip-hop group?
Yeah, he was in a group called 3rd Bass. My uncle actually had the longest running Hip-Hop show at WNYU in history. My father was a recording artist and he produced a lot of people who are pretty big now. I’m not sure what my mom was doing. She ended up managing him later. They met at a Spike Lee party actually in Palladium when it was a night club. In some ways, I’ve been in this area for a long time but just haven’t known it. My mom loved the smiths and the cure, she was a punk, she was a cool girl. They were like the New York couple. I got involved in music by listening to what they played on the radio and that middle ground was alternative between the two. I started listening to the Beatles when I was a little kid. Then my first favorite band was Weezer.
Pork N Beans man!
Yeah! “Island in the Sun” was my favorite song and “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles because I was a depressive child. I was asking myself ‘why are you so sad? ‘You don’t have anything to be sad about, you just are sad’. I started playing guitar when I was 12/13. I didn’t realize I could make music until much later in my life.
So Pom Pom Squad was started at the end of high school, what’s the conception story?
Pom Pom Squad was my first attempt at music. My best friend is a drummer and so I started playing guitar and so we wanted to start a band. That’s the natural progression of things. What would we call our band? I saw this photo of this girl wearing a sweater that said ‘Pom Pom Squad’ and I looked it up to see if it was a brand but it ended up being just an old cheerleading sweatshirt. Omg that’s the name! So when I was 15 I took the name on all social media (@pompomsquad) and didn’t use the accounts until much later when I started releasing music.
I started to get into surf rock because I desperately wanted to be a California kid, being from Orlando. I loved surf rock and Riot Grrrl and it seemed really easy. They were all chords that I knew, fuck yeah, I can do this. So I started writing dumb surf rock shit like about the summer, sunshine, and how much I hated high school. These songs are still in the file cabinet of my brain now.
Then I went to this music festival where I met this guy who was making music. Then I wrote and recorded “Pharmacy,” which was the first Pom Pom Squad song. That was the summer of my senior year. I took all the photos myself and recorded everything in my bedroom, and it was shitty and super lo-fi but it was fun. I had a lot of fun creating the aesthetics of it.
There were lots of hard core guys…then me. I used to do acoustic coffee house shit. I stole my brother’s electric guitar and just love how powerful it was.
Tell me about Hate It Here!
Well I wrote Hate It Here the summer after my freshman year of college. It was after a relationship that fucked with my identity and my perception of myself.
When I was in Orlando I was at a hetero-normative prep school. It was very Americana, cheerleaders, football players, your classic high school bullshit. Me and my best friend were these kinda ethnic alternative girls who were super into counter culture. So confused by what was going on but also fascinated by it because we moved around a lot. We didn’t really didn’t understand what our predominant culture was at that point.
We adopted and fell in love with the aesthetics of high school. We were so confident in ourselves and what we saw and thought about. Then I came to college and everything is crazy. I was super confused by my identity and thrown off.
What do you mean by that?
So the song “Your Best American Girl” by Mitski is the first time I’d even heard someone talking about being multi-racial. She talks about it in interviews that she didn’t write it to be a protest song or a fuck-you to people who aren’t multi-racial and male indie rock. What she did for me was that she wrote a song that summed up and defined everything that I had felt for so long and didn’t know how to put into words. It is just really hard sometimes to love someone who is from the opposite side of the world. He came from this perfect household, perfect family, in my perception at least.
When we would talk about issues of race he would respond with “why are you yelling at me?” I’d be like “I’m not.” This is what it feels like to be me. It’s just different. We didn’t understand each other but we cared a lot about each other. It got to a point where communication got so bad because we were speaking two different languages. During that relationship, I tried really hard to conform to what I thought I was supposed to be. How do I be the good girl friend? How do I be American girl? How do I be the girl that I should have been in high school? Head cheerleader, perfect. That’s what it was.
In my previous relationship, we kind of became each other together, we grew up together. Then with this later one we were growing in a different way but I was becoming a person that I didn’t like. I was in a really weird place. Also, being in a relationship your first week of your freshman year of college totally changes the experience for you. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, because we got to explore New York together. But I didn’t get to figure out who I was as a college student or as Mia.
So is Hate it Here about hating New York because of that relationship?
It’s funny because Hate it Here isn’t about New York, I wrote it when I went back home for the summer and had to deal and stew in those emotions. The moment when you figure out that the constant in all of the things you hate is you. You hate your emotional state, where you are in your relationship, you hate it when you’re at home or at school.
Then you’re like, fuck the only thing that is constant in these situations is me. I got into a big fight with my parents and I remember just going into my room and writing ‘hate it here’ on everything. Which is so on brand. It’s funny because when I go home I automatically revert to being 17. I’m in my teenage bedroom surrounded by all my teenage things and just stewing. You don’t really think when you’re in New York you kind of just go and start thinking with your body then at home I was in bed all day. The first song I wrote was “Sunday,” which is the last song of the EP.
Do you like Sundays?
I think Sundays are a day of renewal. The song is like when you wake up alone in your room and you just go about your day and just are. I love those moment, nobody is watching you and so you’re not self-conscious. It’s the day you wake up and finally are ok again.
Tell me about your music?
I hate defining myself. Someone called us garage-pop and I was laughing with Alex about it. I guess we’re garage-pop. I jokingly made the BandCamp bio “sad girl music NYC” and that’s become what people define it as.
What are some of your influences? I know you’re big into Mitski.
Who isn’t nowadays, she’s the modern classic, she’s the chosen one. I’ve understood the worlds of two artists viscerally, Mitski and Frida Kahlo. There’s just something in that work that I get on a weird fundamental level, it just gets in my body and in my ribcage.
She hits on a lot of stuff that no one had done before, in her way. Seeing a mixed-race artist who had moved around a ton, I had never seen that in rock. Riot Grrrl was a huge influence on me for so long, then I realized that there are no girls that look like me in Riot Grrrl. There are other issues that I wanted to talk about that I wasn’t talking about yet, it wasn’t intersectional. I love Perfect Pussy. Her words are poetry there’s something symbolic about the way her voice fights this noise. It speaks to a larger conversation.
To have this feminine voice and dress the way she does and criticism like “you’re not punk enough because you’re wearing a stripy t-shirt.” I don’t think punk has to be leather jackets, it’s a way of being. Butoh is a form of Japanese theatre that is rebelling against your culture and it should be contentious and its pretty scary, it’s indefinable. Punk is like that. I think Bjork is a punk. Not in her music but she’s a goddamned punk. I’ve been listening to Patsy Klein lately. I’m all over the spectrum in terms of music.
Do you want to speak on being a woman in the New York music scene?
It can be annoying. It’s hard to be respected. Sometimes it feels like because I didn’t start when I was two there’s a respect level that I need to fight for. I love the boys in my band. I am so lucky to have them and their talent and be able to work with them but I’m definitely scared of them sometimes because I’m bad at timing. I know what my blocks are and I want to be better but I’m not going to be on the same level as them because I don’t have the training yet.
I just love to perform, it’s my biggest draw. The way it makes you feel, other people, and how you can affect people in doing what you do. At the end of the day I’m a performer. It does get hard when need to ask the guys to talk to a sound person or when sound guys are mean to me because I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. We had a female sound person at Sunnyvale and she was incredible and took her time with everyone with respect to everyone. It was awesome and the sound quality is incredible. That’s something that woman bring to the industry is respect and a care for each other’s artistry. I keep up my Instagram and for some reason guys use it to hit on me, this is a band.
I used to use my pretty friends for the covers and people thought they were making the music. Then I started putting myself in the forefront as a brown girl making punk. It was hard and it’s been fine so far. It’s a brand that I want to maintain and create but its also hard being the face and dealing with the repercussions of being the face.
What’s the response to the EP been like?
It’s been so nice. I like when teenage girls listen. I also do live streams in my bedroom just to see who will listen and chat. Some girls came in and were like ‘how do you get through high school?’ I will absolutely talk to you about this, because this is what I did to get through high school. This is my dream since I was 14 and now I get to do it on the smallest scale and it’s amazing. I do think about creating a space for girls, women, and people. If people see it and say, ‘I want to play guitar’ that’s awesome.
I should credit Alex and Zolo and Greg.
I wrote the record, Alex produced and engineered and plays lead, Zoltan did bass and percussion. Alex was my partner in crime in all of this. I came in with ideas for the drums and the leads and then got to fuck around. Greg is our live drummer. Greg is so funny. We have this joke where I introduce him as Just Chilling Greg because it’s his Instagram handle and I forget to say his real name, Greg Tock, and I need to be better about that.
Pom Pom Squad is currently working on a new record. Hate it Here is available on bandcamp now!