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Interview: Poppies

New York-based four-piece Poppies are the perfect blend of bedroom pop infused with a nebulous, yet distinctly evocative 90s sound. They have the secret-telling intimacy of Frankie Cosmos and Alex G, but something about them feels like a harder Yo La Tengo, like something from “And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out” the way their songs seem to float away, as they twist and turn into themselves.

“Dynamo,” the closing track of their Good EP, released this June by Topshelf, is the most representative of this, with its perfect mingling of male and female vocals, as they echo and braid over each other for an effect that lingers long after the song fades away. Their songs often start out sleepy and soft, like opener “Devin,” and build their momentum. “Devin” also exemplifies Poppies’ eerie, haunting quality in its lyrics “Sometimes I feel like he’s not mine / that boy is Rosemary’s Child” and in lead vocalist’s May Rio’s shrill cry that leads the song to its end. In this, their name is extremely fitting – Poppies embody the same double-edged quality of their namesake — like the flower, they straddle the bridge between light and dark, soft and hard. They can entrance you, pull you under past the point of return.

“Dog Years” features a cascading guitar bridge that spirals out almost as quickly as it comes. The band strips down for sparse acoustic track “Sunburn” that feels as aching as its name. The band thrives in strange, in-between places — lyrically, the songs explore the labyrinthine realm between childhood and adulthood: “He’s older now but he’s still young / he just confuses right and wrong.” Good EP feels like a teaser on what’s to come from Poppies, as they expand their hazy, turbid world.

We caught up with Poppies’ members May and Ian for more on their origins, filming music videos on Halloweekend, the kindness of strangers, and the geese in Richmond.

We want to get to know Poppies. Can you give us some background on the band? How did you meet and how long have you been playing music together?

May: Ian and I met a couple of years ago because I was seeing his roommate. We clicked instantly (we’re roommates now). There was a lot of overlap with our musical interests and just general interests, so we started playing together. We pulled in my friend Keith on bass and then later his childhood friend Steven on drums. Steven’s leaving NYC, so now we have Steven’s good friend Lex on drums. I guess Poppies has been a band for a year and a half now? It feels like it’s been going on a long time, I still forget that we’re kinda new.

Ian: May and I began writing almost immediately after meeting. I remember she heard me working on some dinky unfinished songs in the old apartment and asked if I would want to try playing some of what I was working on, as well as her material. I was taking a year away from school, so I began working on music for the first time since high school, then May came along!  

How do you feel about Poppies tendency to be billed as “adorable” or “precious”?

May: Yeah! Good question. I don’t think those words would be being thrown around if we had a dude on lead vocals. So I guess how I feel about it is that it’s infantilizing, patronizing and demeaning — fucked in a word.

Ian: Hah, yeah couldn’t agree more with May. Although I get it, Keith is such a cutie.

The video for “Mistakes” is so intriguing. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind it and the making of it?

May: Sam Kuhn, the director, had been wanting to work with us, but when we finally had some money in the band fund he was days from moving away. Halloween weekend was coming up so we decided to film then. From start to finish all the planning and shooting took place in under a week. The vision was all Sam’s and we just went along with it. I gotta say, it was a really fun experience. Keith almost caught on fire and Ian’s long hair was very useful for headbanging.

Sam also brought in his friend Z, she let us use her Volvo for the opening shot, and she did my makeup, which took over two hours of applying those sticky gems to my face. It was nice getting to know her that way because she turned out to be an amazing set designer and artist, you can look her up through Sam’s work, he did this great short film about her.

What’s the weirdest or most memorable experience you’ve had on tour so far?

May: The geese in Richmond.

Ian: Towards the end of the most recent tour we had this crazy long drive from Pittsburgh to North Hampton, so we ended up getting to the venue 30 minutes before it closed, played a short set then asked if anyone would put us up for the night. These kids from the band Tundrastomper volunteered and they turned out to be really cool! They fed us and showed us around the town the next day, it was one of those experiences that makes you believe that there are actually nice, interesting people out there.

Do you remember a certain song or album that made you realize that you wanted to make your own music? What’s one song you wish you could have written?

May: I guess earlier on I was really inspired by Damon Albarn‘s songwriting — how it seemed like the vast majority of his songs weren’t about love at all. I found that, and still do find that, very refreshing. Although, I don’t make rules for myself what about I’ll write about anymore. Now my answer would probably be anything from Hosono House.

Ian: Steven and I grew up together, we would exchange and play music in middle school, burning data discs of music for each other and learning Nirvana covers at his house. We had a band called Crucial Party in middle school, I think we were trying to write our own versions of Nirvana and The Misfits songs. I remember hearing “Last Caress” before seeing what the Misfits looked like, not anticipating the dev-locks and skull face paint. The fact that they could look one way and sound another was so cool to me. What I wish I could have written is always changing… right now it’s probably The Rolling Stones” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”: It’s alllllriighhttt nooowwwww.

Are you guys working on an LP? How do you see it building on or diverge from the EP?

May: Yeah, we’ll be back in the studio in September. On a really basic level, things will sound different because we have Lex instead of Steven on drums now. Bigger picture I don’t know. We don’t really plan out how we’re going to sound, it just kinda comes out when we start to lay it all down. We definitely don’t want to make the same thing over and over though.

Ian: I feel like our heads are in a similar place, whereas in the past, recording has felt primarily like a learning experience. We’re also better players now, more experienced etc. We’ll be recording with Hunter Davidsohn again, he’s great at getting good sounds and has the ability to switch from engineer to musician, which is really helpful. It’s nice having access to an engineer who understands what the band is trying to achieve.

Poppies are playing at Sunnyvale on August 18th

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