From Kittie to the White Swan: Mercedes Lander Is Still Here
The former teen metal prodigy-turned-heavy music lifer talks her new band, adulthood, riot grrrl, and touring with Slipknot.
"I never really wanted to be here, and somehow I'm still here."
Twenty years after Mercedes Lander started Canadian metal band Kittie (with sister Morgan and original bandmates Fallon Bowman and Tanya Candler) in London, Ontario, she can still articulate one of the major internal struggles of an angsty teen—anywhere-but-here syndrome.
That's exactly what attracted so many of us to Kittie in the first place: when the teenage nu-metal phenoms hit the scene in the late 90s, this group of girls – not much older than we were—made music that sounded like the chaos inside of our heads. Now we've grown up, and so have they. Sort of.
"I always describe myself as a 15-year-old boy trapped in like a 30-year-old woman's body," says Lander. "But at the same time…I'm pretty good at being an adult, too."
Kittie has put out five albums—and gone through even more line-up changes—since their gold-certified debut Spit. There's another record looming, Lander assures me, but these days, it's one on a list of competing priorities. I'm sitting on the drummer's couch, drinking strong coffee ("diesel fuel," she calls it) and getting to know her new band, the White Swan. They just released their first EP, Anubis – a three-track introduction to their synth-tinged collision of doom and sludge—on December 1.
As frontwoman, Lander has added keys, guitar and lead vocals to her list of duties. The line-up also sees Kira Longeuay on bass and Shane Jeffers on guitar; both met Lander after they moved to London to study music at Fanshawe College. Though it might seem like an odd place for aspiring musicians to put down roots, back when Kittie was recording in London, the scene here was thriving. But there's always been a rough side to the city, and in the past few years, it's been hurting especially hard.
"So many venues have closed down," says Longeuay. "Bands kind of stopped playing."
One of London's biggest losses was the Embassy Hotel, host to bands like Dying Fetus, Behemoth and Cannibal Corpse during its active years. After it shuttered, the Embassy burned down—one in a string of arsons.
It's against the backdrop of this dying scene that Lander and Longeuay spring-boarded from the Alcohollys—a party band with a sound reminiscent of the riot grrl movement—into The White Swan. Longeuay describes her musical background as punk and metal, while Lander co-shepherded Kittie through their album-by-album—and sometimes song-by-song—evolution through myriad sub-genres, from nu-metal laced with grunge pop, to heavier stuff spiked with elements of black metal.
The White Swan introduces something a little darker and a little weirder. There are elements of the familiar, certainly—the churning guitar riffs and haunting vocals of Illuminate, the first song on the EP, won't disappoint Lander's longstanding fans. But there's also some psychedelic stuff going on, and at times Lander's voice sounds so ethereal in contrast to all the noise and fuzz, it's downright trippy. After the Alcohollys, Lander explains, The White Swan is an attempt to "take it a little more seriously." Beyond the music, they've also hired a publicist from the UK and begun talks with labels.
That might come as a surprise to those Kittie fans who remember the band's legal battle with Artemis Records. The suit, which eventually settled out of court, took the label to task for $900,000 in unpaid royalties and compensation. But, Lander says that labels are still a necessity of the business. "Unless you have an amazing bankroll and somebody that's fronting you money, it's impossible to keep up with [everything]."
And Lander's biggest financial priority for The White Swan is funding a tour. She's been staying close to home the last few years, and it hasn't been easy on her—although it has influenced the music she's putting out.
"I wanted everything to be slow and sad," Lander says of the first few tracks she wrote for The White Swan, "like how I was feeling because I wasn't on the road."
When I ask her about this, she explains: "As a human being, I feel like I was built to be out on the road all the time," she says. "That's just who I am. I love it…I feel like a piece of me has really died."
Maybe it's because she's spent months time-coding old footage for Kittie's twentieth anniversary documentary—a crowd-funded project two years in the making—but Lander still remembers the early tours like they were yesterday. Take, for example, her reminiscences on late 90s New York.
"We got lost in Brooklyn once—when Tanya was still in the band, so this was mid-1999...We were coming from some CMJ thing, and then we were going to Brooklyn to play at L'amours that night…We were lost for three hours. And we got out to ask for directions and a cop was like, 'You need to get back in your car, turn around and go back wherever you came from.'"
She adds that whatever dangerous path they'd stumbled down, rich white people probably live there now. Lander notes that this seems to be the pattern in every city. "Atlanta's the same thing," she says. "All the venues there are closing, the Masquerade is donezo."
Vanishing venues aren't the only reason why it's not as easy as it once was to take things beyond the local gig stage—especially without a label. "The expensive part [of touring] for us is visas, travel, stuff like that," says Lander.
While Lander found a captive audience for Kittie in America, the present political landscape threatens to cut off future opportunities for international bands—even those from just north of Detroit. "They're making it harder and harder for bands from outside the country to come in and work, but I don't think they're seeing the big picture…They're not seeing that we hire an American bus company when we go there. We hire American crew," says Lander. "I've been told by many border people, you're stealing American jobs. It's like, no, we're making American jobs."
Lander is passionate about the "big picture" view—but what else would you expect from an industry veteran? While most teenagers were trying to avoid detention, she was learning the ways of the road.
"I can remember the first time we ever went out with Slipknot—it wasn't our first tour, but it was our first major production tour," says Lander. "And their tour manager told us that if we touched anything, if we ate catering before them, if we took a shower before them, that we would be kicked off the tour."
Those were just the rules, she shrugs. But her experience—and total lack of ego about it—gives her bandmates an advantage as they plan for 2017. "With Kittie, I felt like we had to leave Canada in order to gain notoriety in our own country," says Lander.
And while America doesn't look promising this time around—the cost of visas is about to go up by 42 percent—The White Swan has eyes on Europe as a target audience to, as Longeuay puts it, "spread the doom."
Says Lander, "When I went over there with Jennie [Vee] it was just like, 'Oh, oh hi, here's our paperwork.' And they were like, 'Oh, see you later, have fun!'"
In the meantime, the band just played their first Toronto gig, headlining an all-female-fronted metal event at the soon-to-be-demolished Cherry Cola's. Ask Lander about the current state of the industry for women, and you'll see the irony.
"Until people stop segregating the style of music—like, 'Oh, that's girl metal,' 'Oh, they're a female-fronted band'—until people stop pointing at that fact, there's never going to be any true change with the way that being a female in a band is viewed," she says.
It's a battle she's been fighting since Kittie hit the scene in 1999. Lander points out that even as she and her bandmates tried to be recognized solely on their artistic merits, they had to fight harder to be taken seriously because they were young women.
"One person [from a hugely influential metal band of the 90s] I caught telling people that I didn't even play on our albums…I was 16 years old and I went and confronted him. And I was like, why are you talking badly? What are you getting out of this?"
Fast forward to the present day and there's still a ways to go. After the White Swan kicks off at Cherry Cola's with their newest, an instrumental belter called North Carolina, someone in the audience yells out, "You're hot!"
But Lander, finally back on stage, is in her element; she doesn't even notice. Instead, Jeffers and set drummer Sam Charles yell back in unison, "Thanks!" When Lander finds out later, she smiles. "They couldn't have handled it better," she says.
"One person isn't gonna change the world, and I think it has to be a conscious fucking effort for everyone to focus on what's important," Lander says of female musicians in the media. "The reason why we're all here…is music."
The White Swan on tour:
12.31.16 Toronto ON. Canada @ Stop Drop And Roll
1.13.17 London ON. Canada @ 765 Old East Bar w/Hammerhands
1.14.17 Waterloo ON. Canada @ TBD w/Hammerhands
3.18.17 Toronto ON. Canada @ The Bovine Sex Club
Lindsay Burgess is taking care of business on Twitter.
Photos by Katrina Thorn