Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Marisa Dabice on the unconventional path to Mannequin Pussy’s Perfect EP

Colins Regisford, Marisa Dabice, and Kaleen Reading of Mannequin Pussy (Photo: Phobymo)
Colins Regisford, Marisa Dabice, and Kaleen Reading of Mannequin Pussy (Photo: Phobymo)

Mannequin Pussy knew it wanted to make new music. The Philadelphia band needed a creative outlet for the complex emotions its members were feeling during the pandemic and one of the most challenging years in recent memory. To assemble their new songs, bandleader Marisa Dabice, Kaleen Reading, Thanasi Paul (who left the band after recording Perfect) and Colins “Bear” Regisford knew swapping new material and ideas via email and Zoom wouldn’t work, so the trio got into a studio together in a safe manner last summer, and allowed themselves to revisit and reimagine old material as well as craft fresh songs. The resulting EP, Perfect, explores the pop-tinged sound the band leaned into in Patience, juxtaposed with punk rippers “Pigs Is Pigs” and the title track. The A.V. Club caught up with Dabice back in April to discuss what working on Perfect during the pandemic was like, how the EP ended up including the band’s most political song yet, and Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner role in encouraging Dabice to direct her own music videos.

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The A.V. Club: You started working on Perfect in the midst of the pandemic, but when did the writing process begin?

Marisa Dabice: I think we started working on it in about late August, I believe. But we have been talking for a long time about—we tried to do the thing that other bands were saying they were doing, where they’re like, “Oh, we’re sharing ideas through email, and we’re recording little demos at home and doing that,” and we just all were like, “I can’t think of anything. I feel so numb.” I think when you’re numb and you’re feeling depressed and all those things, it doesn’t really make for creativity. So we were like, “Okay, then what can we do that would be a way around the fact that this isn’t working? The only way this would work is if we could actually get into a room together.” So we just booked studio time without really having anything to record. We were like, “Okay, well, we’ll force ourselves into it, and hopefully it won’t be a waste of time.” So I think the first session was like, end of August. A few sessions in between then, and then I think my last session with Will [Yip] was in January and we finished mixing it in February.

AVC: It does feel like a very emotionally charged EP. What was it like to try to put all your complicated emotions from everything going in the pandemic into these songs?

MD: It was recorded in 2020, which is the year I think we’re all gonna remember [as the pandemic year]. But all the emotions and the themes that we talk about are feelings that exist well beyond the confines or the context of the pandemic; all the emotions that we explore on it are things that we walk around with all the time. If anything, we’re just heightened by the fact that we were stuck in this place in a period of so much reflection, and not just on ourselves but where our society is at.

AVC: You’ve been really vocal about how difficult it was to be a musician who had just started doing music full-time, and having to go into a pandemic without knowing how to make the same kind of income without touring. Do you think that working on the EP made you feel like things were kind of back to normal?

MD: Yeah, for the moments that we were in the studio, just physically present in the studio, there were moments when I forgot what was going on. And that’s just this moment of peace, where you’re back in this familiar setting, you’re back in a communal group, you’re back collaborating with your favorite people to collaborate with, and suddenly things feel normal for a moment. And then the moment you step outside of the studio, you’re immediately reminded “Okay, no, things aren’t actually normal. I just had an eight-hour period where I almost forgot, because I was back with people again, and now I’m going home alone to isolate until I see them again.” [Laughs.] So yeah, it was absolutely a lifeline last year, to have this thing, going in, not having really any songs except for “Control,” and then suddenly having something to be like, “Oh, I have something to work on again, I have something to obsess over, I have something to pour all the words I’ve been searching for into.” I keep coming back to that “lifeline” analogy, just those moments that felt normal.

AVC: I’m sure that writing it also felt therapeutic.

MD: I think you never sometimes really know what the themes are of an album until after it’s done, and you are listening back, and you’re like, “Oh, okay, we were really feeling something there.” So much of what Mannequin Pussy songs have always been is finding themselves somewhere in the process of grief. So my theory has always been, “Why would I write the same aggressive song over and over if the way that we feel about situations that have happened in our lives, the way that we feel about experiences that have happened in our life, do change over time?” The five stages of grief—first you deny that it happened to you, then you get very angry that it happened to you, then you get depressed that it happened to you, then bargaining is one but I wouldn’t know how to put that into a song. And eventually you have acceptance.

So the idea that you’re somewhere on that spectrum has always been really interesting to me as to “Where am I in this experience?” And I think last year very quickly went from just denial to depression, and just kind of stayed there. Something so big is happening to millions of people around the world, it’s so much bigger than losing shows and losing tours, that’s by far not the most important loss of last year. But when Bear and I were talking about it, we were like, these are all things that come up in our lives all the time. The feelings of loneliness and isolation and longing for people and the way that we have to present ourselves to look so perfect and manicured, and artists are inspired to be more like content creators nowadays rather than people who focus a lot of time in isolation working on things. And then for “Pigs Is Pigs” which is Bear’s song about his experience as a Black man in America, it’s just like, these are not things that only existed last year. These are things that will continue to be part of our lives, pandemic or not.

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AVC: That’s a song I was very curious about. I was wondering if Bear wrote it all by himself.

MD: I think we worked on the lyrics together. He wrote the first verse, and I had some lines. He wrote it first on bass. And we kind of came in with guitar and drum parts for it. I was trying to write for it, and the more I tried to write for it, I was like, “I just feel this as a Bear song. I don’t know why, but Bear, everything I’m writing for this I hear your voice on it, so I think you should just take it, and you should do it.” Bear has started screaming on songs with me on Patience, and I love Bear’s voice. I want to hear him more. This was a perfect opportunity to do that and hand him over the keys to the song and being like, “Please just write whatever you’re feeling.” Once he wrote it I was just like, “Yeah, this is it, there’s nothing to change here.” And then I think I showed him a few lines I had written for it, which I think some of them ended up getting plucked into that second verse, but it’s very much a Bear song.

AVC: You all have been super vocal about your political views and being against police brutality. But this is the first overtly political song that you’ve worked on. Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was murdered by police recently. It’s so fucked up that Black people are still being killed by police nonstop despite the strong call for action last year to demand change. Did you consider releasing “Pigs Is Pigs” as a single?

MD: We definitely talked about it as a single, but we decided to hold onto it until the EP comes out. But Bear and I are workshopping ideas for a visual to make with it or a music video as well. There definitely were conversations about it, but I think in some ways, I’m not a Black person, so my experience is that of a white woman, to say maybe it’s more important to wait when people aren’t talking about something, to remind them that they should still be talking about something.

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In our conversation today, a 13-year-old boy was murdered by the police in Chicago two days ago, and before that a 20-year-old was murdered by police outside of Minneapolis. So it’s very unfortunate that no matter when you put out a song like “Pigs Is Pigs,” it has relevance. You wish that could be a rearview moment, but it’s not. It’s still a reflection of what is happening at current. And I think when I kind of felt that as a Bear song, I didn’t really know why, and then when he showed us what he wanted to say, I was like, “Oh, this is why.” I would love to have more moments in punk that are political. We’ve always been a political band, but I think our politics, at least lyrically, have been a little more subverted. It’s never been as direct. If you’re paying attention, if you’re listening to what’s being said, the political themes are there, but it’s not as like, ‘This is exactly what I’m talking about.”

AVC: One song I also want to talk about is “Control,” which you chose as your lead single. Can you tell me a bit more about that one?

MD: I started writing that song in the beginning of 2019. We were still very much waiting for so many things to happen. We went through so much with trying to sign to Epitaph and finish the record and I think at the time we were all working multiple jobs and hoping for the ability to go on tour, and I just felt so stuck where I was. I felt like I had not progressed at all as an artist. I was almost legally unable to put out music for two years. I wasn’t able to do the things that I’d grown so accustomed to doing, which was just creating songs and sharing them and recording them. Suddenly it became this very complicated process. And just trying to remind myself the only thing I have control over is the way I personally respond to this. I don’t have control, is kind of the whole idea of “Control.” No one has really any idea where they’re going or what’s going to happen. And releasing to that is kind of freeing in a way, because the moment that you stop trying to control your situation, the more control you have maybe. I keep trying to ask myself that. ‘Cause the less I expect of situations, the more I feel comfortable with whatever the outcome is.

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AVC: I remember you tweeting that this EP has a “happy slut bad bitch” song. Is that “To Lose You?”

MD: No, that’s “Perfect.” I mean, I’m saying like, “Spit on my tits, laugh in my face” in “Perfect.”

AVC: I read both as really sexual for some reason.

MD: I feel like there is a sexual element to “To Lose You,” but in this very pop sheen. [“To Lose You”] is definitely a song that I think we would have cut if we had more time. In the studio we wrote “Perfect,” “To Lose You,” and “Pigs Is Pigs” in two days. And then “Darling,” the last song, was a demo I had made five years earlier, that we just reworked into a song in the studio. “To Lose You,” at first I was like, “This song just feels so corny.” It’s so big and shimmery and whatever, and then when you go to record lyrics to something like that, you just kinda let your voice take over and it just decides what it is for you. But now that you say it, I can definitely see the elements of sex and lust that come up in it as well.

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AVC: It’s also interesting that you said “Darling” was written five years ago, because I feel like it’s so different from anything you’ve done. It’s so soft.

MD: That’s exactly why I wanted to do something like that. When Will and I were looking at the four songs that we had, and we were listening back to them, he was like, “Do you wanna record another song?” And I was like, “Well, we could try to write something new again, or we could do something we’ve never done before. We could end this EP on a very soft, intimate feeling, and just completely go for a style and feel that we’ve never had happen.” And he was like, “Okay, yeah, let’s do that. That sounds more fun.”

I wanted to make something that felt like it was truly written in a bedroom, and maybe even kind of sounded like that, just as a testament to where we all were last year. And then I started thinking about all these songs I had written five years ago that never got turned into full songs, and I was like, “Oh, ‘Darling’ I love. I love this song. I never got to record it really, I would love it to become a Mannequin Pussy song. It would be so exciting for me.” And the band was like, “Yeah, cool, do it.” They were totally fine with me taking all the reins on it, and Will made the drum beat, and I did all the guitars and synths and all that. So it was nice that they allowed me to have that freedom with that song and still call it a Mannequin Pussy song.

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AVC: I remember you tweeting that you directed your music videos for the EP. What was that experience like?

MD: I absolutely love directing. Michelle from Japanese Breakfast got me into it, because for the “Drunk II” music video, that was the first video I ever directed. Michelle and I have been friends for a long time, and at the time she was starting to direct music videos for other people, and so I went to her and asked her to direct “Drunk II,” and she was like, “Well, what do you wanna do?” And I think I went off on this 10-minute like, “Okay, so we’re gonna enter and then I’m gonna walk through a tunnel of love and everyone in the room is making out and I’m all alone,” and she was like, “Marisa, you are a director. Everything you just said to me is the job that I would do. You could do this. Do you wanna do it?” I was like, “Yeah, I do, but I don’t know how.” And she was like, ‘No, you already know how. You just have to make decisions and assemble a team and be a boss and that’s it.” So “Drunk II” really set that off in motion to me as like, “Oh my god, I love this.”

AVC: You teased your pop project a while back. What happened to those songs? Are you ever going to release them?

MD: I hope so. We have a song that I’m actually working on a music video for for the summer that we’re gonna put out.

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AVC: Are you going to put out a Mannequin Pussy LP later on, too?

MD: Yeah, we’re starting to work on the new record now. Not too much, just starting to write. We have a practice space now and our goal is definitely to record another record by the end of this year and hopefully put it out around this time next year, would be great.

Update: A previous version of this interview stated Thanasi Paul left the band before Mannequin Pussy recorded Patience. We regret the error.

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