We already explained why Pom Pom Squad is one of our favorite finds in this essential roundup of bands that you shouldn't be sleeping on in 2019. The Brooklyn-based four-piece is bringing LGBT and POC-friendly "quiet grrrl" punk to the forefront with brutally honest and emotionally stirring songs that pour out controlled like a purge from the heart. Today, we're premiering their outstanding Ow EP in advance of the official release on September 6.
Ahead of the drop, we caught up with lead singer and guitarist Mia Berrin to find out more about the forceful project and peel back some of those grungy layers that keep us warm when the rest of the world feels cold. Scroll down to read the conversation while you stream the full EP in all its glory. Buckle up because these tracks hit deep in the gut.
How exactly did Pom Pom Squad form?
I started Pom Pom Squad the summer after high school. When I was a teenager I had wanted to start a band so badly. My hometown was very homogeneous in the music scene, there was a lot of hardcore and pop punk bros... I didn't know any other girls that wanted to play music, and if I had to take a wild guess, there were probably a lot who felt the same way and they were making music that never left their bedrooms. When I was 18 and I got to go to college the whole bedroom pop trend started. I looked into Frankie Cosmos and all of these people who were just recording things in their bedrooms so I started doing the same and it was a fun hobby that I would do just to let off steam. Eventually, I came to New York and played my first show and totally fell in love with playing music.
Were there try-outs or auditions involved for the band?
I had this first band who I liked and were some of the guys that I had met in school, but basically we ended up going separate directions. I didn't want to give up playing shows just because people didn't want to play with me so I started playing solo around Brooklyn and doing my thing by myself. It kind of feels like my current line up I met very serendipitously. I have a friend who calls them magnet days, she's like "There are certain days where it's just everything happens at once." That particular day was a magnet day for me.
I had broken up with somebody that morning and had a show at night. I was like, "I don't really know how I'm going to get through this," because obviously I was pretty raw and feeling a lot. So when I got to the venue, I had to pull myself together. It kind of activated this manic like "fuck it" energy in me. The story that Shelby and Maria tell me is that I came into the dressing room. I got practically naked in front of everybody and then put on the outfit and walked out. Everyone was kind of like "Who the fuck is that?" and they ended up talking to me and coming up to me. They said some things like, "Oh your outfit matches your guitar" and I was like "Thanks so much, I just broke up with someone."
We ended up spilling our guts out to each other and they watched me play by myself and came up to me both separately and joined me after the set and were like, "Why don't we have a band?" I was like, "I don't know, you tell me." So we started playing together that summer and then I met our new guitarist through Shelby—I auditioned Ethan because he came in a little bit later, but the second that I played with him I knew we could've thrown him on the stage the next day and played this set. We're all very close.
Can you break down the tag lines that all the band members have and how that comes into play IRL? (Head cheerleader, witch, camp counselor, and token male.)
When I introduce all of us on stage I usually call Ethan our token male. Shelby is our resident camp counselor, Maria is our old bass witch or the baddest babe bitch because she's just crazy fucking talented. I came up with those tag lines mostly as a joke, but obviously the whole token male thing is a play on the token female in bands. He's our only guy so it's cute. Shelby is the sweetest most nurturing human being and a huge part of how the new iteration of the band came together. Shelby's so talkative and can get anyone to open up immediately and also dresses like a camp counselor so that helps.
I feel more comfortable in my creative process with these people who are my best friends. We've all basically lived with each other at some point or currently live with each other. We spend a lot of time together and we fight like family and make up like family. There's a lot of about this lineup that works so fucking well and I think it really shows in the music, or I hear it in it.
What does the image of a cheerleader symbolize to you?
The cheerleader to me seems like a neatly wrapped up poster of femininity and what this privilege of attractiveness and what womanhood was. It was this character that seemed really distant from me... It was aspirational and also appalling. It was a thing that I was very ambivalent towards, but really undeniably fascinated by.
I always think of Courtney Love when I'm talking about this because something that I always loved about her persona was that she clearly hated the persona of models, actresses, and beauty queens. She was very critical of those characters, but also you could tell how badly she wanted to embody them and to be perceived as beautiful. She has this very layered persona of being a pretty girl who thought she was an ugly girl who wanted to be a pretty girl. It created this confrontational character.
What are your thoughts on the uniform and how that contributes to the cheerleader persona?
When I started playing under the name Pom Pom Squad, I initially revoked dressing like a cheerleader and making it so literal. Then there was a part of me that was like "What would it feel like to put on a uniform? How would that change the perception of my fans? How would that change the perception? As a person of color, what would it mean?" It's not performance art, but I analyze it in the same way that I would look at a lot of there performances that I admire and I look up to. Like, look at what they're trying to embody. What did say to put yourself in that context?
What is Ow all about? As the title alludes, there's obviously some pain involved... How have you grown on this project?
The theme, definitely as a genre, is that it's therapy material. It's grown in that I feel a lot freer on this. It's messier not in terms of production, but emotionally and artistically a little bit messier. I took a lot of risks in my guitar playing that I'm really proud of. I held myself to a much lower of a standard of perfection in terms of song structure or production value or this or that. I'm still happy with how beautiful the product sounds but I think I sort of worked more from the inside out rather than from the outside in.
It does feel like a lot of pain. I wrote it at a time when I was in a much worse place with me playing and coping with my own thoughts and my feelings and it became a process of learning for me. I was writing these songs to teach myself something and to be able to put a face and name to these feelings. I got to experience these meta feelings where I'm angry about how upset I am or confused about how sad I am. You pile all these feelings on to your feelings and they can bury you. This was a really helpful way of just letting myself feel them, write them down, process them, and then turn them into something that I could consume easily. It taught me something about the way that I deal with my mental health and my own illnesses.
It has a really similar arc to Hate it Here and in some ways it feels like a sister EP, but it feels more actualized. It feels more honest which isn't to say those songs weren't honest, but I was nervous and sensitive when I wrote the older songs. Now I feel a little bit more comfortable and empowered in the process of making it. In-between these EPs I learned how to mix and how to produce and about the mastering process. I had a heavy hand in every aspect of it. I had amazing fucking collaborators too who I felt comfortable around. These songs came together in band practice and it has a very organic growth for them.
Can you elaborate on some of the song themes?
The feelings that I was feeling when I wrote it were very difficult. The Ow intro was the first song that I wrote and it was in the midst of the gut reaction. I was basically asking myself harder questions about how I experience pain, what it means to me, and what worth was because of everything he tells you, being all these great things... I'll just write a song about it, and that's what I did, but at the same time it's hard when you're in the moment and in the middle of a really difficult feeling to take yourself out of it and process it enough to put it in a song.
There's this pervasive trend in writing that people talk to female musicians about like "Oh, it just feels like its ripped from a page of your diary." If you've looked at anybody's diary, it would not be quite as structured as a song. This whole process was taking the messy things and taking in these difficult things at every stage. You write the song. Six months later, you record it. Three months later, you have to master it. However many months later, you're playing it live for an audience. It forces you to look at it in different contexts, in different ways, over and over, and over, and over, and over again.
The thing that amazes me about it still is that when I play the songs and I experience the songs again, it still brings me back to that feeling and allows me to re-embody that feeling which is a super cathartic experience. To have felt it and to now feel stronger and more empowered in spite of it, and then to give it away to someone else and let them process it in the way that they need to. I'm a firm believer in, once the song is released, not that it doesn't belong to me anymore, but it's not my place to say any interpretation of it unless the interpretation is offensive or harmful. That interpretation of it is personal, it means something to somebody, or it'll make somebody think of their own negative or positive experiences and help somebody on their journey which is something I may have never been through. Who am I to say that that's not the correct interpretation?
What has your experience in the music industry been like so far?
Some people know this and some people don't, but I grew up in kind of an industry family. My dad was an artist and my mom was an artist manager for a very brief time. It's funny because in some way, because of that, I came to music very late whereas a lot of kids started playing when they were young. I played guitar when I was 14 and would do covers in my room a little, but I didn't start writing songs or thinking about myself as a songwriter until I was 18 or 19 which wasn't that long ago.
I feel comfortable and cautious [about the music industry]. PR is interesting because I really didn't know a lot about it until was in the middle of it. I don't want to give away all my secrets, but a lot of people think PR saves lives and careers, and that's not really true. Writers are artists now and they'll pick up what they want when they want to. It also can be very hard for young bands to break into the press world because as we're moving towards the new format there are very few tastemaker publications anymore that will take a risk on a new artist.
I feel super grateful that people have been writing about us, and some people will think it came out of absolutely nowhere, but we've been playing in New York, which is a tough market, for a couple of years. We've played three shows a month every month for about two years and now we're finally at the point where we're like "OK, we'll do one show a month." The industry can kind of be a huge mystery to people, especially if they didn't have the privilege of growing up the way that I did and seeing it firsthand and knowing what goes into it.
Also, as I'm approaching it as an artist, it's changing so quickly and it's so different for artists now than it was for my parents or people that age. We're a new generation. It used to be if you wanted to break an indie band, they had to do a pull out show in every major market. Now you can do that and go up and nothing can happen. You can get the biggest write-up in the world and nothing can happen. The biggest thing I've learned about the industry if you're an artist perspective is really that I have to focus on what I'm making, you know, and just let people come to it when they're ready.
This is a big question, but what are you hoping to accomplish as an artist?
For me, I'm always going to make music because every time I peel back a layer of myself, I find another layer that I need to peel back. The same way that I was talking about that spiritual magnet day situation, making this brings me closer to my spiritual self. I'm a huge believer in the collective unconscious and the big giant question of "What is it to be human? What's important about being? Why are we here?" As fucking weird as it sounds, making indie rock music is what helps me, the human, get closer to that question. Not the press, not the contracts, not any of that stuff.
There's this theory that music is like our evolutionary reward for coming together as a community. It's like harmony in a literal musical sense—people singing together activates something. As I see this trend of genre lines getting really blurry and people being less tied to what kind of music that they listen to and what kind of music they feel is acceptable for them to listen to because of their identify or their location or whatever separations that we've put on music in the past... Seeing this homogenizing of music.
What I want as an artist is to keep learning, teaching myself something, and searching for the human element. At the place that I am in my life right now, having just finished the EP and feeling like I did capture something that I've been wanting to capture for a long time, my next challenge is writing about things... I've gotten so good at writing about anger or depression or sadness that I'm like, "OK, now how do I write about love and how do I write about happiness? How do I write about all the amazing things that I'm experiencing in my life right now that have all come from following this thing and following music and following these songs to wherever they need to go?" So, I think my goal and where I see myself going is on the verge.
What is your favorite cheerleader movie of all time?
Oh, my God. OK, I'm conflicted on this one... I feel like as a queer, I'm obligated to say But I'm a Cheerleader. Gay cheerleaders, iconic. Color coordination, super iconic. Natasha Lyonne, a straight women who should be gay... Like if the universe was just, Natasha Lyonne would be gay, but it's not so there you go. As a kid who grew up in the 2000s, the Bring It On with Kirsten Dunst is a classic, but also the one with Solange. Solange did that choreography... And Hayden Panetierre! Something I remember about her is that she's five foot nothing and she used to always date really tall men so there would be hilarious pictures of her in a Juicy tracksuit walking with a giant man.