Whores Find Freedom in Noise Rock
Stream 'Gold,' the Atlanta trio's impossibly heavy debut album for eOne Music, and read our in-depth interview with vocalist/guitarist Christian Lembach.
Atlanta's "new kings of noise rock" Whores have hit the proverbial big time. With a two EPs that have achieved near-cult classic status in the noise rock underground and countless cross-country tours, over the past five years the band have managed to gain the kind of respect usually reserved for acts that have been pounding the pavement for decades. At the helm is veteran musician Christian Lembach, whose knack for combining sludgy, crushing riffs and immense walls of feedback is amplified further during the band's hypnotic live show. By all accounts, Lembach has never given less than his all for a crowd, and this assertion is validated by his tireless dedication to fan accessibility.
When I spoke with Lembach recently, he was home in Atlanta on a night off between the band's rigorous every-other-day practice schedule. Earlier this year, they signed to monolith label eOne Music, home not only to metal giants like High On Fire, but legends across the board like Snoop Dogg, Faith Evans, and Bush. The band's debut full-length, Gold, will be released October 28, and even through the phone, Lembach's excited energy is palpable.
With only a few rehearsals left before tour, he was jovial, pleasantly loquacious, and surprisingly open about any and all topics I brought up. This could be because we're acquaintances, but I also think Lembach is just that kind of guy—you'll never see him turn away the chance genuinely engage a fan, whether it be in person or on social media. After exchanging pleasantries about the upcoming tour and how much we both love Riot Grrl, we got down to brass tacks.
Noisey: Whores is not a new band, but this is your debut full length and you're doing it on a monster label. Does that validate all the years and effort you've poured into making this band your life?
Christian Lembach: Ehh…no [laughs]. I mean, the reason we decided to work with eOne as opposed to other labels who had shown interest is because of the people who work there. It doesn't really have much to do with the size of the company. I think it's rad they own Peppa Pig and Trailer Park Boys in addition to High on Fire—I think it's cool that they have their hands in a lot of different things. That can only work as a benefit for us! But when we started talking to them, I could tell that they were really into the band not as something they could exploit, but as something they were excited about personally. That's why we picked them over anybody else. It's true too, because the other night I sent an email that was just some small edit on some art—something really minor—and I thought about it and sent the email at 11:30 at night thinking, 'If I don't do this now, I'll forget it.' I got an email back ten minutes later, then Bill at the label who was on copy chimed in with 'What's up? What can we fix?' There they were, Johnny on the spot at midnight on a weeknight. A company that big having that level of personal attention is a unicorn.
It seems like you've been working on this album for a while now. When did you get to the point where you knew you had a finished product?
We didn't even really start writing until late last year. We had a couple of songs maybe late last year, but nothing so significant that we would even think about scheduling studio time. We just stayed really busy playing shows the last two years, so it was difficult for us to carve out time to say, 'We have three practices this week, two of those we're going to spend writing.' If we have dates coming up, we have to cover the set at practice. We would love to be there every day of the week but we can't because we have other obligations. We didn't really go full throttle writing until early this year, and then we started with two songs at that point. We played one of them on New Year's Even in Austin at a fly-in show there, and we wrote the rest of it the first three months of the year. We wanted to go in the studio sooner, but Ryan who engineered this and the last record wasn't available, so once he was, we went in and did basic tracking in four or five days. Then he and I went back and added all the noise stuff—feedback, all the layers—and then we mixed each song as we were recording it. It was just a small piece at a time.
We would love to go to the practice space like it was our job, and hopefully someday that will be the case, but it's not yet, so we just have to work on it. We're really diligent about practice. The first six months of this year we were on an every other day schedule—Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday—which is good because in the past there were people in the band who made it difficult for us to do that, and that's not an issue anymore. It took a long time but we're there now so that's what I care about.
It must feel good to have honed it down to where you want to be.
Yeah, we all have a clear idea of where we want to go. All of us do. We all feel the same way.
Your past material comes off as thematically cohesive and rooted in real life. You've said things in past interviews like 'The songs we play come from the heart which is incidentally why I don't sing about wizards or dragons.'
[Laughs] Yeah, that's ridiculous. It's true though! I got nothing against that stuff—I love that kind of music, it's just weird to me. I could never tell those kinds of stories.
Without prying too hard into your personal life, is there anything that happened in your writing this time around that wasn't present on the first EPs?
Well, I've had a lot of pretty heavy loss in the past two years in my family, personal life, friends, relationships, and even band mates—a lot of stuff is changing or has changed in the past couple of years. My stepdad is getting up in age. He's 88 and having some difficulty. My mom's been in chemotherapy for a couple of years. I had a long-term relationship go south. I had band mates we had to part ways with. You know, it's a lot of stuff that was just out of my control that went away. Then our practice space in Atlanta closed, and the other two kind of crummy practice spots closed, so there was nowhere for us to go.
We had this storage space halfway between Atlanta and Athens, pretty far away really, and I was driving out there to go to practice. Halfway there is a small mountain called Stone Mountain where there are no streetlights. Driving to and from practice it would get really dark, and I would think about my life: Where am I at in my life? Is this really what I want? Do I want to sacrifice things like security and stability in order to really do this? I was getting really reflective while driving into this…I don't want to say abyss because that sounds melodramatic. I was just inside my brain, like you do when you're not even listening to music but just thinking. It was really cool, like a clean slate. I started thinking about failure as sort of a release. When something goes bad, all you have left is rebuilding. There's this freedom in, not suffering, but when things are bad and out of your control. Once you really accept and internalize it, then you're free. That's what half the songs are about. That's actually what the cover art is about, too!
That's actually my next question! Go on…
I don't want to say it's championing crumminess so much as it's recognizing things for what they really are and that being positive, whether it's a positive thing or a negative thing or a dirty thing. When you really get an accurate read on it, it becomes a reward.
Definitely. Did you come up with the concept on your own?
Yeah, I spray painted that garbage can! I went to the hardware store and bought the trash can. I'm looking at the spray paint can right now in my van, and that trash can is still in my apartment.
It's pretty funny, too. Do you think part of accepting failure and starting over is being able to laugh at yourself in the process?
Yes, it's like gallows humor. I'm a big Morrissey fan and a lot of his lyrics are super funny, and people think they're morose. They are morose, but they're hilarious! So much of his stuff is dark, but it's also really darkly funny.
That definitely seems like your style.
Yeah, for example the song titles are ridiculous, and then we build words around them. The song will become serious, but the name usually starts out as something that's funny at the time.
In addition to the new label and record this year, you collaborated with Idiot Box on a fuzz pedal this year. How did that come about?
Oh yeah! We've got another version coming around, too. We did a Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin two years ago with a bunch of great bands like Deafheaven, Entombed and this band from Texas called Venomous Maximous. I saw that on their table, they had a little boost pedal that was made by Idiot Box. I thought, 'Oh that's so cool. This guy's a Texas guy and he collaborated with a Texas band.' I'm familiar with his stuff because I'm really into that world, so I hit him up on Instagram. He was familiar with our band and liked us. I talked about something I use that's a combination of several different pedals, so he put those all into one thing and sent me a prototype. He tweaked a couple of things where I said 'I little more this, a little less that' and then he sent us a bunch of them based on a preorder we did. He sent them to us to sign—which is crazy but awesome—and we sent them back.
That version had a upside cross on it, and this new one coming out has a little gold trash can on it for the new record. It's a bit juvenile design-wise, but I love it and it's on my board. It's not just a vanity thing.
You're not just putting your name on something you don't give a damn about.
We would never do that. We have a publishing deal, and we're always worried. I don't want to ever hear our songs in like, a fucking Walmart commercial or something! We've been assured that they'll run anything past us. Something like a tie-in with a company like Vans is fine since we already all wear Vans anyway. But if it's something like 'Target's new fall…' Fuck off! There's no way.
You mean you don't want "Cougars Not Kittens" out there as the jingle for a dating website for women of a certain age
[Laughs] Oh god, it's over. It's over once you start doing that kind of thing. You know, we've had a lot of trouble with our name, and people just misinterpret it. If we were to change like that, we would just have to break up and start a new band. It would ruin it all. We'd just be another fucking band, and there are plenty of those already.
Speaking of which, I know you've had a bunch of people who tried to call you out on the name when you were first getting started.
Oh god, it's never-ending.
With the tense political atmosphere of this year combined with the new exposure you're getting, has that brought on a new batch of critics unhappy with your name?
It hasn't yet, but I know it's coming.. I'm asked about it almost every time somebody new encounters our music after we get written about. Even people that like our band will put in some caveat like, 'Oh I like this band a lot but…' and it's like man, you coward. I don't want to say that I don't care, but I can't really worry about it as much as I have in the past because either you get it or you don't. It's okay if you don't. I don't have to please everybody. A lot of people misinterpret it, and the thing that's really heartbreaking about it is people that I would consider allies, people who are on the far left side of the political spectrum who are anti-racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia—these are the people who are coming at us. I feel like those people are closet conservatives, frankly.
I've talked to a couple of people who've been in the same world that we operate in for decades. I'm not going to name drop, but two people who I respect immensely and was able to meet through the band—we talked about this thing where there's a rise in the conservative left, and it's really fucking weird. One of the guys used an analogy with the gentrification of neighborhoods to say there's a gentrification of the underground where we're doing this kind of parallel thing. It was just an off-the-cuff conversation and wasn't trying to be profound but he was saying that people move into these neighborhoods because they're kind of scary, then they want to change it. It's like 'You came here—you're a tourist. You're not from here.' I feel like the people who misinterpret the name are tourists. They don't come from the same place that we come from. They don't get that I'm not here to please you. Of course I want people to like the band, but that's just a bonus. We're going to do it no matter what.
It seems like some of the criticism is misguided, too, and almost veers into anti-sex worker territory.
Yeah, it's a lot of patting themselves on the shoulder on social media saying "Look how enlightened I am."
Here's a great example: We were playing in Seattle and I heard the show was getting protested so of course I thought 'Killer!' and went outside to check it out. It was just some flyers somebody threw up on a wall, snapped a picture for their Instagram and scurried away. It's like, let's talk about this. If you want to talk about it, I will talk about it. I'm willing to talk about it. I'm absolutely against violence, but I'm not against confrontation. I can be assertive without being aggressive. I'm an adult, I can control myself, and I will defend our name.
That's the whole internet really. It's tagging someone and running away. It makes it easier for everyone's voice to be the same volume, which on paper is a great idea. The democratizing effect of the internet is awesome, but the problem is now there's so much noise that every single person's voice is the same level. Maybe someone who doesn't know what the fuck they're talking about will come at you sideways, and you can't even engage it because as soon as engage and address it, you're immediately the bad guy. You have to pretend it's not happening unless it's a real one-on-one conversation, which people like that are afraid of.
I think it's great that people are becoming more sensitive and are trying to break down the walls of all these –isms. Peoples' hearts are in the right place. It's the right gut feeling. I just think it's the way it's being handled that's done poorly.
So you've been at this for awhile now. How do you feel about the new bands emerging on the noise rock scene?
I love it! I refuse to be a grumpy elder statesman. I want to turn into Nick Cave. I want to be Tom Waits in 40 years. I like being involved. I like new music. I like going to see shows. I'm not one of those people who says, 'Only this is good and only this time period is good.' I think there's so much great stuff out right now. I'm buying records constantly—old ones and new ones. I'm obsessed with music. I think it's great that new people are getting into it! It's sort of inspiring because a lot of guitars are going away, and it's a lot of more laptop-sequencer-synth stuff, and I'm not hating on that music! I love that music, too. I do think it's cool that it's swinging back and there seems to be this resurgence of bands who are influenced by the stuff that we're influenced by.
What's the most rewarding part of getting a record deal like you have and becoming successful while living a dream that many have long considered dead?
It's kind of hard to have perspective because I'm inside it. Right now, we're still operating the way we've always operated. Our friend recorded our record who recorded our last one, we're still in a van, we're not staying in super nice hotels or have a tour bus or anything like that, and I don't know if we ever will. I try not to think about stuff like that. I try to stay grateful, definitely. The only way to be happy is to recognize all the good things that you do have, not all the stuff that you want. What you have right now is where the happiness is.
I am always thinking in terms of the next move. We had practice last night, and we always discuss business like, 'Do we get these T-shirts printed? What's going on with Europe? Do we have backline sorted out?' We just discuss day-to-day operations of the band. We don't have a manager or anything, and we may at some point but for now, I handle all of the administrative stuff for the band. We have a booking agent and a lawyer, and it's great to have eOne because for example, we have this string of headline dates on the way to a big festival, which is rad, but eOne totally made all this art for us and these rad posters. They're really helping us out.
I guess I don't think of it as living the dream. I think of it as fulfilling my purpose in the world. I'm not starry-eyed about it anymore because it's more about the day-to-day stuff that I love doing. I don't have any problem talking about tee shirt art or writing emails or doing inventory. I love doing it. Not because I have a math mind, but because I really love this band. The flipside of that is that I will very frequently take stuff too seriously and have these minor freak-outs about stuff that doesn't matter. I've been trying to tamp that down. I've only recognized when it's happening in the last year. It'll be this small little thing, and I'll have a meltdown.
To be fair, I'm not sure I've ever met a creative person who didn't have that happen very frequently!
I try to apologize when I'm doing it because I realize I'm doing it now. I just did it a week ago with some press that came out. I hit the label up and wanted to know what was going on. They told me to relax, and of course I did and was like, 'Ahh, okay sorry, sorry. My bad! I'll take a mulligan!'
Well, I'm sure you'll be forgiven by your very loyal fans. You're very good at interacting with them, whether it be via social media or face-to-face contact at shows. Do you find those interactions energizing, or is that just you being a friendly Southern gentleman?
Oh, no. It's not just being friendly. My family's from New York and I grew up in south Florida, but I have been in Georgia for over twenty years now so I guess I get my Georgia card. It's definitely not just manners though! If people care about our band enough to actually ask a question, I'm not just gonna try to let them dangle. It matters! Everything you do is under a microscope so if you're just at the base level of civility for someone who likes your band, their story is, 'They are the nicest guys ever.' If you're in a crummy mood and kind of blow somebody off, their story is, 'That guy is such a jerk. I hate their band now.' I've been on the other side of it. I've met people I used to look up to and they were jerks, and now I can't even like their bands. I don't ever want to do that to somebody. It's such a let down.
If you engage with somebody and they say, 'Hey, when are you coming to town X?' and you respond, 'Well, we're coming to town X on this date,' they're there. And not only is it the right kind of thing to do emotionally or spiritually or however you want to frame it, it also ends up serving your band, too. That's not the motivation, that's just a pleasant benefit of it.
Well then, let's wrap it up with a favorite fanboy moment of yours.
So we played a festival with Metallica, and I was like, five feet away from James Hetfield watching him play. It was a big festival and we were low man on the totem pole, but we were there! They had a little space carved out between the main stage and the crowd area where, if you played the festival, you could walk in that area right up against the stage. They did this thing where it was "Metallica by Request" and they did "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Battery," and all the songs you want to hear and they were just ripping it.
I thought, 'Rock 'n' roll brought me here to watch these legends, and I'm here shoulder to shoulder with them.' They're giant, obviously, and hero worship is kinda gross generally speaking. Still, there's this part of you that's a kid forever that had that poster on your wall and now you're playing a festival with that band. It's mind-blowing.
Whores is currently on tour—check out the remaining dates below!
October 27 Memphis, TN Murphy's
November 18 San Francisco, CA Slim's *
November 19 Pomona, CA Glasshouse *
November 20 Los Angeles, CA Teragram Ballroom *
November 22 San Diego, CA Casbah *
November 23 Phoenix, AZ Rebel Lounge *
November 25 Austin, TX Mohawk *
November 26 Dallas, TX Three Links *
November 27 Houston, TX Warehouse Studio *
November 29 Atlanta, GA Masquerade *
November 30 Durham, NC Motorco *
December 1 Washington, DC Rock and Roll Hotel *
December 2 Philadelphia, PA Underground Arts *
December 3 Brooklyn, NY Music Hall of Williamsburg *
December 4 Boston, MA The Sinclair *
December 5 New York, NY Mercury Lounge *
December 7 Pittsburgh, PA Spirit Lounge *
December 8 Cleveland, OH Beachland Ballroom *
December 9 Detroit, MI El Club *
December 10 Chicago, IL Metro *
December 11 Bloomington, IL Castle Theater *
December 13 Denver, CO Bluebird Theater *
December 14 Salt Lake City, UT Urban Lounge *
December 15 Boise, ID Neurolux *
December 16 Seattle, WA Showbox *
December 17 Portland, OR Wonder Ballroom *
Kelsey Zimmerman is all about the -isms on Twitter.