Last week we met up for coffee and conversation at Nina’s Coffee Café in St. Paul. As true Northerners, we sat outside on a brisk, windy October morning.
Bonar and her band, Gramma’s Boyfriend, have a new album, Perm, out on Friday, October 9.
If you are unfamiliar with Gramma’s Boyfriend, it is a claustrophobic, skittering, occasionally spastic rock 'n' roll revue starring Bonar, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Mark Erickson, Luke Anderson, and Jacob Hanson. It’s like every subgenre of danceable rock music was stuffed into a phone booth, and hit by the Dead Kennedys tour van being driven by Gallagher.
It’s so complicated that it is simple; don’t think too much about it. Perm is a wonderful swaggering beast that will beg you to open the windows, even as the weather is getting cooler.
City Pages: I don’t have a ton of questions, but I’m going to be honest with you. I am going to play up a Halloween angle…
Haley Bonar: Great! Our release show [October 30, Icehouse] is a costume party.
CP: Will there be any prizes, themes, anything like that?
HB: No, basically if you don’t wear a costume, you’re an asshole. Just dress up. Just do it. People don’t do it enough, you know? It’s the one time a year that it’s acceptable. I mean, I do it all the time in this band…
CP: You’re hitting all my questions right out of the gate. I have looked online for Gramma’s Boyfriend images, and you guys love to dress up.
HB: Well, me.
CP: Do have any favorite costumes? I have seen lots of images of you in costume, like that giant Christmas ball looking thing ... What’s that all about?
HB: The piñata. My sister made that for me. She papier-mâchéd a giant beach ball, and put armholes in it. That one is great. My favorite is probably the “body” suit [flesh colored leotard, showing the female internal organs] ...
CP: I saw that one. It is amazing.
HB: That one is my favorite because it, no pun intended, embodies the kitschy side of our band. It’s playful. Yeah, it’s the inside of a woman’s body which is awesome, but it also really 1950s science book-looking, and just silly, which is the whole point of our band.
CP: Any concert costumes for the Icehouse show you would like to divulge?
HB: I cannot divulge. It’s a surprise, but I will say that there will be more than one. There is going to be a costume change — or two.
CP: I have never seen Gramma’s Boyfriend in concert. What should I expect?
HB: Um, well, this is a quote from a friend. She said, “Whenever I go to a Gramma’s Boyfriend show I feel like I am seeing every band I listened to when I was younger wrapped into one, but funnier”. We cover a lot of ground. Our live shows are fun, people are laughing and dancing, which isn’t something you necessarily see around here a lot.
It’s a challenge to get people out of their self-conscious-I’m-too cool-I’m-going-to-stand-here-with-my-arms-folded-looking-jaded attitude. You have to let that go right away. We’re kind of emotional in a weird way, but not sad. It’s just fun, and it’s also angry, and you’re also kind of scared. People like being scared, so…
CP: Any covers played during a Gramma’s Boyfriend show?
HB: Well, we did that Daniel Johnston cover that we put on [Perm], “I Live In my Broken Dreams”. We’ve covered that for a while. We’re working on something more seasonally appropriate to cover. When we first started, when we were an experimental band, we just got on stage and played covers.
CP: My initial reaction to the name of the new album, Perm, was I thought of all the terrible hairstyles from the '80s. I hope that isn’t offensive…
HB: No, no, that’s good. On the back of the record, the guy who did our art, Josh Journey-Heinz, had us all pose kind of like Herbal Essences commercials. Kind of like sensual washing of hair, and he drew our faces, and our hair is chemical bubbles. This perm-y looking thing. That’s more or less where the name came from, and it’s funny. Perm. Perm chemicals. Remember when people did that all the time?
CP: I only did it once. I was in 8th grade. I wanted to look like Paul Reiser.
HB: I got one once, and I cried.
CP: Regarding the album itself, the press materials I received cautioned about to not think too much about the music because Gramma’s Boyfriend sure isn’t. Is this selling Perm a little short?
HB: In terms of reviewing a record, I suppose. You take what you want out of it. The songs stand on their own. It’s more about the overall vibe of the band. The whole swagger, what I love about no wave, and new wave, and punk rock ... I’m not going to sell this to you. Just listen to it, and if you like it, great. We’re certainly not advertising ourselves as the next fucking whatever.
CP: Any more shows upcoming?
HB: We have Chicago on October 12, and then we are heading to the New York for CMJ, and a ton of stuff out there. It should be fun. It’s our first tour, tour.
CP: I’m trying to separate your solo career from Gramma’s Boyfriend, but I noticed songs like “Little Lightning” on Perm that wouldn’t sound out of place on [Bonar’s last album] Last War. How is work coming on your next album?
HB: It’s being mixed as we speak, and I feel like more and more, I think we talked about this during the last interview, these bands are talking to each other, essentially. They’re going to rub off. There are like three songs that could be on one of my records.
“Forget the Stones” for sure. Of course it’s going to sound like me. I write the words, and sing, it is me. I certainly think that new record, my new record, is going more that road, but it still has songwriter oriented stuff. It has a lot more noise on it for sure.
CP: Do you have any songs within Gramma’s Boyfriend that you are looking forward to playing live more than others?
HB: Long before we recorded them [for Perm], we’d been playing them live. I love how comfortable we are in them. We are able to get pretty free with them. My favorite song to sing is the Daniel Johnston one [“I Live In My Broken Dreams”], because I just love that song. Perfect range, and it has such a good, happy energy to it.
CP: Last Halloween question, can you rank the Hershey’s “fun size” candy bar mix? As a refresher, there is milk chocolate, dark chocolate, Krackle, and Mr. Goodbar.
HB: Krackle would be my first, milk, dark, and then Mr. Goodbar because I don’t really like that one.
CP: See?! This is proving a theory I have had. NO ONE likes Mr. Goodbar.
HB: Why do they even still make it?
CP: Anything else you would like to say about Perm or Gramma’s Boyfriend in general?
HB: This band is a big mystery. It’s a big pile of personalities. Everybody’s personality is very strong, and we’re all very busy people. Most of us have families now, and it’s kind of like the fountain of youth whenever we get together and play in this band, but it’s really tough these days for anybody to get out there and “make it” when there a million fucking bands coming out on Pitchfork or whatever.
You can’t compete. The only think you can do is just try to make good music, and do what you can. We certainly try to extend ourselves beyond just being a local party bag or whatever. I love it. I believe in the project a lot. It’s a happy place.
When: 10:30 p.m. Fri., Oct. 30.
Tickets: $10; more info here.