Heathers are a Los Angeles-based indiepop trio who got together in 2013. Michael Franics plays guitar and sings, Thom Lucero plays bass and sings back up vocals, and Mikey W. plays drums. They have a fresh sound and we feel they’re going to go far – hence why they’re today’s new artists of the day. For Louder Than War, Glenn Airey caught up with Michael to have a chat about the band.
Ever found yourself sitting in the Californian sunshine, wishing you were in England with the rain lashing down? Probably not, but Anglophile indiepop newcomers Heathers draw much of their inspiration from our humdrum towns. Oh, and Virginia Woolf. Glenn Airey fires the questions at main man Michael Francis.
Louder Than War: On your website you describe Heathers as ‘miserablist guitar pop from Los Angeles.’ Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? How can you hope to be properly miserable in all that sunshine?
Michael Francis: I grew up in Los Angeles and always hated the summer. My parents tell me that on my fifth birthday (a sweltering day in mid-June) I insisted on wearing a hooded sweatshirt zipped up to my chin. So I guess it’s just in my nature to prefer the cold and grey. I lived in Portland for five years before moving back to LA and I absolutely loved the rain and cold weather. If I can wear a sweater or a coat, I’m happy. So I suppose it is a bit of a deliberate contradiction: so much music coming out of LA now has that kind of rollicking sunshine feel, and I just don’t identify with that kind of attitude at all. “A dreaded sunny day” is nearly every day. Although I’m not miserable at all — not lately, anyway. Warm weather isn’t sinister enough for me. And now it’s September and still in the high 80s here and I’m aching for that crisp autumn that hints at coming shadows. So I have to do my best to find things to be miserable about, really.
Years ago, I met kids in California who hated the place and couldn’t wait to leave. This seemed incredible to me, especially as they generally wanted to come to England. I gather you’re quite an Anglophile yourself. Do you think there’s an ‘exoticism of distance’ at work, i.e. we each think the other side of the pond is automatically more glamorous and interesting?
It’s entirely possible — I had a very similar conversation with a friend of mine from Brighton who was in LA to play some shows. I told him how much I want to live in England and he talked about how much he’d love to live in LA. Perhaps that’s where the feeling comes from, that exocitism of distance; but I’ve spent a fair amount of time in London and always feel so much more at home there, especially in the winter. Though I’m sure that if I had grown up there I wouldn’t romanticize it as much. But yeah, I’m a total Anglophile, both geographically and culturally. I won’t be surprised if I end up living in London in the future — if I can ever afford it that is.
The new single Teenage Clothes is tremendous. A rollicking indie-pop charmer with lyrics hinting at all sorts of sexual intrigue. Care to elaborate or are we simply to make of them what we will?
Thank you! That song’s been knocking around in my head for the better part of three years. I think I wrote it back in early 2011? Glad it finally came together in Heathers. The lyrics do tell a tale of some kind of sexual intrigue. The image I have in my mind is of a young man sitting on a park bench wearing a coat and nothing under it, waiting to meet another young man who comes sauntering up to him wearing his mother’s old clothes. This other boy likes to romp around town with older men. So there’s definitely some playful sexual intrigue there. What the true nature of the relationship between these two young men is I do not know. Are they in love? Are they curious? Do they feel like they have to hide their sexuality in the shadows? I don’t know. From there, make of it what you will.
Visually, and lyrically I guess, there are a lot of echoes of the Smiths here. Are they a band of particular importance to you? Who else would you count as influences?
I am tempted to be coy, but honestly, yes, the Smiths are incredibly important to me, especially on a lyrical and visual level. I could never write lyrics as clever as Morrissey or guitar lines as interesting and compelling as Marr, but I absolutely adore that band. Morrissey’s subversive wit has no equal. A lot of the visual aesthetic of Heathers so far has been very much inspired by Smiths artwork: a solitary figure with simple, bold text. But to be honest that wasn’t particularly on my mind when the band first started out, and certainly was not forefront when I wrote “Teenage Clothes.”
Other influences are a bit old hat; I’m not really drawing on anything untapped or heretofore under-appreciated bands, really. Smiths, Pixies, Velvet Underground, Nirvana, that old set. Bands like Felt and McCarthy occupy a particular place in my mind, especially over the last year or so. The Wedding Present has become a recent obsession of mine. “Teenage Clothes” began, to be honest, as an attempt to write something reminiscent of a Pains of Being Pure at Heart song — that first Pains LP is still to me an absolutely perfect LP, front to back. And it served as a gateway to a lot of bands that have become extremely important to me over the last four years or so. Belle & Sebastian are really important to me as well — we’ve got a song called “Guiding Light” that’s my best Murdoch impression, with lyrics lifted straight from the man himself to boot. And then there’s Slumberland, a towering influence in my mind. One of the most perfect labels ever. I’ve been inspired by countless Slumberland bands, and SLR continues to be a huge part of my life, musically, ethically, and personally.
Colossi of Memnon has a different, darker vibe than the new single, and again a lovely lyric. Does your full set vary much in terms of mood? You do realise that in indie pop, all your songs are supposed to sound the same?
Haha! The thought has crossed my mind. There is a part of me that just wants to write jangly indiepop songs — a veritable hit parade, if you will. But yeah, our set does actually vary quite a bit in terms of mood and sound. I do hope indiepop purists won’t hold it against us because that’s the tribe I most want to be a part of! There was actually some forethought when we released Colossi online. Thom and I had already put up Teenage Clothes and were debating about which song to put up next (we recorded six songs last November, of which Teenage Clothes and I Don’t Wanna Be Adored are two) and we decided to suggest our spectrum of mood by releasing a song that represents a broader sound when listened to alongside Teenage Clothes. We don’t really have any other songs as dark as that one though. Not yet, anyway.
Not being much of a Stone Roses fan, I’d like to think that I Don’t Wanna Be Adored was a little dig in their direction. Any truth in this explosive revelation that I just made up?
Completely true, completely true. I don’t mind if people take it as an homage to them, but I’m not a big Stone Roses fan either. I’ve tried really hard to get into them, but just can’t. It’s not meant to be an overt dig, but it’s certainly a slight nudge in the side I suppose. Cheeky rather than dismissive. But I’m the fool in the end because I do want to be adored.
I see you (Michael) majored in literature, and Virginia Woolf specifically. You don’t need to be well-read as a songwriter, but it does seem to help. Your lyrics clearly relate to a narrative. Are you essentially telling stories or am I overstating things?
I don’t think you’re overstating things, although I’ve never really considered myself a storytelling songwriter. But I guess when I write songs they always end up being their own kind of self-contained narrative, a vignette rather than a plot-driven story. I’m shit at plot and classic narrative devices, so the best I can muster is to take an image in my head and describe it as best I can.
I’m interested in the way that narrative and meaning develop and map themselves out through space and overlap and fold in on themselves rather than a kind of straight, linear meaning-making. I like suggestive lyrics that turn meaning on itself. I always think about Woolf’s image in Mrs. Dalloway of Big Ben’s chimes expanding through space like leaden rings. Or ripples in a pool of water. You know, that kind of modernist, post-impressionistic kind of thing. Oh christ, I didn’t want to get all liberal artsy, but I guess I can’t really help it. But I do like narratives that leave a space for the audience to engage and assemble the pieces on its own, as it were. And speaking of Woolf, we actually have a song that will see the light of day sometime soon (I hope) about her suicide. So yeah, she’s a pretty important figure to me.
We need to hear more from Heathers ASAP. What’s next?
Hmm, what’s next indeed? We’ve got a few different ideas for releases we’re working on. We’re definitely doing a cassette, likely next year, and we’re working on putting together a set of songs that could only be on cassette. I can’t quite articulate it that well because I’ve never been a big cassette person, so I’m kind of following Thom’s guide on this one. We’re also hoping to do a 10″ or 12″ release of Colossi (once we rerecord it in November) and a few other songs. I’ve got a few ideas, although a lot of them depend on having the money to do them ourselves or having a record label interested in us. So I guess the short answer to that is that I have no idea, really. We’re sitting on a load of songs right now, and I’ve got a bunch more that I’ve been working on, so I really hope that we’ll have some more opportunities in the future to get these all out there. And of course Thom and I have already had the First Album talk, although Lord knows when that will happen. We have got a title picked out already though, because why not?
I’m guessing you took the name Heathers from the wonderfully dark 1988 Winona flick? A favourite of yours?
I did indeed, although I keep wanting to tell people I named us after that Wedding Present song “Heather” or the Sonic Youth song “Bull in the Heather” but both would be plain lies. Yeah, it’s one of my favorite movies ever. It’s absolutely brilliant. Although I’m very careful / deliberate in not incorporating anything to do with the movie into our sound / aesthetic. And I’ve always thought that heather is such a beautiful word. A field of heather — what sounds more lovely than a roll about in that?
What’s the story with your Death Party label? Some fine-looking singles on the website. What’s the best way for UK punters to catch up?
Thanks! Death Party is a label I started back in 2011 when I was living in a basement in Portland feeling useless. I’ve put out a few records, mostly by friends of mine. I’d love it to be a more full-time operation, but as it is now it’s just me in my kitchen. Pebble Records in the UK has stocked some of our releases in the past, but I have no idea what their current stock is like. Very Gun is stocking the Heathers 7″, although I suspect they’ve sold out by now. My friends Reeks of Effort (run by Max from Joanna Gruesome) should have some copies in soon as well. I’m always looking for more people to help, especially in the UK. Any clue how to get some stuff to Rough Trade? That’d be a dream. I found my old band’s 7″ there once. One of the finest moments of my little life. But barring that, most of the releases are up on DPR soundcloud. And all info and streams and the like are available here.