Behind the Scenes with Lala Lala
MOLLY BRYSON // OCTOBER 11, 2019
“College!” Lillie West of Lala Lala howled into the mic. It was a Friday night, the audience was all buzzed off their ‘Sco ramp cigarettes and dollar High Lifes, and the sudden onset of fall had left the air refreshingly brisk and cool. “I hope you’re all...learning to seize the means of production!,” West said, and gestured towards the packed crowd of students staring starry-eyed up at her. The final chords of Lala Lala’s breakout hit “Destroyer,” off their newest record The Lamb, reverberated through the room. West kept her lips on the mic; “That’s what the tools are here for!” Her voice wobbled a bit in its Britishness, sounding equally punk and self-aware. Over the course of the night, I grew to love that odd contradiction in West’s stage presence—the carefree rock ‘n’ roll mentality combined with the slightly hesitant, almost sardonic consciousness. It gave her, and her music, a raw, relatable quality. “Sometimes I feel like other people,” West sang in her finale, “I don’t remember anymore.” The lyrics sounded to me like the musical version of a shrug: demure and unapologetic all at once.
When I got the chance to talk to West off-stage, her demeanor was much the same. She was smaller than I had anticipated (that’s a 5’1’’ or 2’’ to my mere 5’4½’’), and her clothes were cool but unflashy—faded black jeans, an oversized hoodie, a beanie tucked over her bleach blonde hair. After asking Vivian, the band’s bassist, to order her a salad from the Feve, West motioned for me to follow her outside of the green room (A.K.A. an undisclosed nook somewhere in the maze of Wilder), saying she was too embarrassed to interview in front of her bandmates. It seemed like protocol.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Molly: You’re from London, but now you’re based in Chicago. How do you feel that these two senses of place emerge and/or (don’t) merge in your music? Or how have they influenced you?
Lillie: I’m not sure about London, because I moved to America when I was like thirteen, so I was never really an adult there. As dramatic as it sounds, I feel like I’m always missing somewhere or someone, because my family and all my siblings still live in England, but when I’m in England I don’t really feel at home; I miss my community in Chicago. So there’s definitely a sense of that in my work and life. And Chicago—how I feel it influences me—is mostly in terms of the community. Like, the community’s so supportive. I always say it’s just a really good place to be an artist, ‘cause it’s a big city but it’s affordable. There’s so much going on, so many different scenes, and for the most part, you don’t have to stick to just one...you know, people are welcoming. And everyone just loves music. I feel that there’s not, like, a social pressure aspect. I went to high school in Los Angeles, and as much as I like California, I feel that there are undercurrents of social pressure, and I don’t feel that way in Chicago at all. I feel that everyone is just stoked on each other.
M: Yeah, I always say that Chicago is, like, the humblest of the big cities. You can be an artist, and you can be a good artist, but you don’t have to be braggy about it.
L: Right, totally.
M: Do you feel that the DIY community has been important in your music career?
L: One hundred percent. We did DIY for so long. When I moved to Chicago, I didn’t know to what extent [the DIY community] existed. I’m a little out of touch with it now, but the scene when I was nineteen or twenty was crazy. There were so many house shows going on—like, five days a week, if not everyday. And I just hadn’t known you could do that! I hadn’t known you could create your own environment in that way. I was just so inspired by it. We DIY toured for so long, like—basements, sleeping on the floor, no money, five people at the show—for so long. I don’t think that I could do that anymore, but I try to hold on to that desire that I had. I wanted to do music so badly that I didn’t even think about those things as being hard—
M: Right. There’s like, a spirit that comes with it.
L: Yeah, I was just like I love this! And now I’m older, and I really can’t sleep on the floor anymore, I have sciatica [laughs]—but I still love music, and I try to hold onto that “spirit.”
M: You didn’t start playing music until you were in college at the School of the Art Institute, right?
L: Well I played a little bit of piano as a kid, but really not a lot. I knew like three guitar chords. And then when I moved to Chicago when I was nineteen or twenty—I really don’t know what implored me to do this—but I just bought a guitar off Craigslist, and I started messing around with it, writing songs, and then...I don’t know...the focus shifted there, and I left school to do [music]. But yeah, I didn’t start as a young person, which I often regret, but that’s just how the world works. You can’t control that kind of thing.
M: Do you think it was being in art school that inspired you to pick up this new hobby, or did art school maybe push you to want to get out of the...more stifling art world?
L: When I was in high school, I thought I was going to be a really serious oil painter. I was like, this is the only thing that I do. But being in art school and experimenting a lot made me realize that I didn’t necessarily—I just didn’t feel drawn to art anymore, in the same way. Just going to shows [inspired me to start playing music]. Emily Kempf, who is in this band called Dehd—
M: I saw them play in Cleveland a few weeks ago!
L: They’re so good! Yeah, [Emily] was in this band called Supermagical, or Whitegold, that just completely changed my life. She performed with such energy and had such cool songs. [Seeing her perform] was really the thing that shifted my focus. I was just like: I want to do this, I want to be a part of this. And so I moved into a warehouse and started having shows at my house, and it just snowballed.
M: Do you have any other music inspirations? Was there anything you were listening to when you first started playing that really inspired your music?
L: When I moved to America, the idea of America was so cool to me. It sounds like a joke, but I would watch Grease and be like “woooah!” Even the way that high school [in America] was structured was so different; it seemed so casual and cool to me. That’s why I was initially drawn to rock music. And bands in L.A.— like, Together Pangea. When I first started playing, I would try to learn all their songs. I was really into Beat Happening when I first started playing, too, ‘cause I could play all their songs, and I was so excited by that. I was really into rock music, punk music...and then just stuff in Chicago.
M: Any specific Chicago bands, besides the ones you mentioned?
L: This band The Funs—you ever see them? They’ve been around for 10 plus years. They have a label called Manic Static out of St Louis, and they put out the first Lala tape ever. They were really inspiring to me—just a really passionate, sick two piece punk band. NE-HI was coming up at that time. The first tour I ever went on I was just hanging out, and I went with Emily from Supermagical and NEHI.
M: And after this you’re touring with Whitney and Twin Peaks, two Chicago bands. How do you see yourself factoring in there? Were you ever in the same scene in Chicago?
L: Yeah, I’m friends with them. Clay (from Twin Peaks) and I collaborate. Every time I go on tour, I’m inspired in a different way. Everyone I go on tour with takes music seriously in a different way, and whatever way that is I find inspiring. It’s never usually what I anticipate. But I know that with Twin Peaks...they’re just so good live, such incredible performers. I’m excited to try and go as hard as them, basically. I feel like that’s gonna be a “rock” tour.
M: I spent my whole adolescence going to Twin Peaks house shows. They do sort of embody this kind of “old school” rock and roll.
L: Yeah! And then Whitney—they’re all just such good musicians. They’re really masters of their instruments. I’m excited to hang out with all of them.
M: Do you ever feel—and I don’t mean this to be a cliche “woman in the music industry” question—but do you think there are some politics around there being so many all-dude bands? How do you see yourself amidst that?
L: I think I used to feel differently. I think it used to be more of a “boys club,” but now people are making more of an effort, and being more aware of [the gender divide]. I’m definitely completely aware that we’re about to go on tour with fifteen boys with guitars from Chicago. But I mean, that’s how their band formed, that’s how their friendships are in relation to their music, and all they can do is bring women—you know, put women on stage—and all I can do is be on stage and do it. But yeah, I think about it a lot less than I used to. It really used to be on my mind, but I feel that things are improving.
M: I was looking up Lala Lala on Spotify, and you come up in this Spotify-created playlist that’s called “Badass Women Musicians,” which also includes people like Courtney Barnett, Mitski, Big Thief...all of these sort of classic women in the indie genre—
L: Yeah—like what does that even mean, “badass?”
M: Yeah, like you wouldn’t make a playlist that’s called “Badass Male Musicians.” It’s like, because you’re women playing rock music then you’re labeled “badass.”
L: Yeah, it’s really silly. It doesn’t even mean anything. Recently someone tagged me in a thing that was like “British Openly Bi/Lesbian Indie Rock Muscians with Medium Length Blonde Hair,” and I was like...this is so specific, actually kind of the opposite of “badass.” Yes, the playlists...
M: I mean, however you define “badassery,” is that something you think about when you’re playing music?
L: I just try to be free. I feel like life is so stressful, and I just want to be free. I want to be present. I’m also aware that it’s a unique opportunity. I just try to have as much fun as possible. I mean, I also take it really seriously, but I feel like the performance is less of the work, you know? Obviously we spend a lot of time practicing, but the work is moreso writing the music. Performing is really—
M: The release.
L: Yeah, the release. And then you’re getting to share it with all the people there.
M: And I feel like your music wavers between being fun—even the name “Lala Lala” feels whimsical to me—and being kind of haunting and dealing with serious issues. Is that medium something you think about when writing songs?
L: I don’t think about that too much, but I do feel like it changes. Like recently, I’ve been more into “melodramatic” music—or, for lack of a better term, “epic,” stuff. I used to be more punk, like, “whatever...lala, lala.” The name came from a time when I was also more whimsical, I guess. When writing lyrics, I try and communicate feelings sincerely without spelling them out. I think that’s what a lot of people are trying to do—to imply what they might be feeling as opposed to telling you “this is sad.” But yeah, I do think a lot about skirting different lines, yeah.
M: ‘Cause, I mean, all music is so much about emotion and personal experience, but to communicate that in a way that isn’t so explicit or explanatory is such a craft. Do you have any advice for young people trying to pursue music?
L: That you can do it. That’s my advice, really. Obviously, it’s challenging to create a career in music, but to just play music at all...you totally can. I really think I didn’t start playing music for so long because it didn’t occur to me that it was possible—whether it was because only my male friends played music growing up, or I just thought it was too late. But you can totally do it; you can do anything! I fully intend on doing professional dance in some capacity at some point in my life—even though I’m a bad dancer, I’m not good at dancing—but I just love it, and I want to do it. Just try to remember it’s never too late, I guess.
M: Is there anything else you wanna say?
L: I don’t think so…I never know what to say...uh…
M: That’s okay, I never know what to—
L: Vote for me!
L: [laughs] I don’t know.
M: No, that’s good!
L: [lowering voice and gesturing a pointer finger into the air] Vote for me!