Meg Remy has just gotten off stage at San Francisco’s iconic Fillmore Auditorium. Her band, U.S. Girls, are on tour with 4AD labelmates Tune-Yards and just as we begin talking, Remy gets interrupted to be handed a book of poetry by Mike Donovan of bygone SF garage rock band Sic Alps. The topaz blue eyes that just hypnotized the crowd into elation, widen and with an ear-to-ear smile, Remy clutches the book and sets it aside. “He’s a Bay Area legend!” she says, and comfortably exhales back into conversation.
Moments before this, the Chicago-born and now Toronto-based Remy was leading the nine-piece U.S. Girls for yet another incredible performance. There’s Remy on lead vocals, a second female vocalist, a keyboard playing male vocalist, a saxophone player, drummer, two guitarists, bass and conga player, all firing on every cylinder. And it seems as though everywhere I’ve been this year, U.S. Girls have been there stealing the show: Twice at Austin’s SXSW festival where they laid down the most impeccable SXSW performance I’ve ever seen, then headlining the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco in late-March, this late-October evening’s show at the Fillmore and a couple weeks before that at Treasure Island Music Fest. Every single one of these performances has left everyone in its path with a feeling that they just witnessed something glowing, unpredictable and triumphant. When the band finally exits the stage, I could always feel the buzz around me, the glee, the joy and the sheer sense of surprise of how affected people were by what they just experienced.
Following the release of this year’s standout LP, In A Poem Unlimited, it’s almost as if something has been awakened inside of Remy on stage. She oozes mystique and comes across as totally in control of a diabolical plan to woo a crowd that never fails. Whether it’s her entranced ABBA-meets-Blondie disco dominance on “M.A.H.,” the sheer theatrics and distinct feminine energy of the stunning “Window Shades,” or seemingly losing her fucking mind as the eight people alongside her send her spinning into a vortex of beatific madness, with Remy at the helm, there is no other band enacting the glistening finished product that U.S. Girls are putting down live right now. With that, we bring you a conversation with Meg Remy of U.S. Girls, Paste’s Best Live Band of 2018.
(This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity)
Paste: Your live set has really stood out to me since the first time I saw you guys in Austin this year. What do you tell your band before you go out there?
Meg Remy: Nothing. [chuckles]
Paste: Nothing at all?
Remy: They don’t really need any direction at all. That’s what’s good about it. Everyone just uses their skill set and it all makes like a transformer. Everyone in the band is confident and has a lot of experience. And I think understands the material and the references and what’s trying to happen emotionally and psychologically and musically…the whole thing. So it kinda just goes off.
Paste: So what are you trying to present in that emotional and psychological sense?
Remy: Trying to bring more concepts into an entertainment setting that wouldn’t normally be there. I think it’s everything from how we look…you know, like [second singer] Kassie and I embracing and touching on stage and sharing the front of the stage which is often not the case with women or bands in general when there’s a lead singer or something…
Paste: It definitely feels like a sisterhood between you two up there. It’s a very palpable emotion that comes across.
Remy: Yeah! That’s definitely something that we want to convey that’s important to us and that I think we both found through music and music that we like. I think the point is to prove that challenging things can be liberating and they can also be entertaining. Escapism can also be dissection.
Paste: So are you thinking about anything when you’re up there or just going through the motions?
Remy: It depends. I mean, last night we played a show and there was a little girl in front, like really young…eight probably, with little cat ears on and she was there with her mom, and it’s hard to not think about that. Or when you see somebody and they’re really feeling it and you’re thinking about that maybe. But, there’s not much consciousness. It’s more just…fuck man, I don’t know! I almost shut off up there. Someone saw us the other night, and they said the one word that came to their mind was ‘hedonistic’—and I thought that was really interesting and I feel that up there, you know what I mean? It’s…indulgent. But for me, we’re all coming from a non-decadent place. It’s not a wasteful decadence or hedonism. It’s like a necessary unity hedonism.
Paste: So the way you express yourself up there. Did something change in you that brought our this persona and this whole show that you’re putting on now?
Remy: This is new for me. I think it started coming out the record before (Half-Free). Because I was touring with this woman Amanda who comes from a dance background. And I think she hadn’t really toured much before so her dance background with wanting to meet my level of experience meant that she really started putting on a show and all of a sudden that started happening next to me, and I was like “Damn, she’s just doing this!” So then I had to up the ante and I learned through her about performance. Before that, I was just kinda focused on my machines, and I was doing a lot, operating a lot of things, working with a lot of tapes and that takes a lot of concentration. And until I started working with her and started doing more dancing material like was on Half Free, I’d never thought about performance. I enjoyed it so much that when it was time to make this record I definitely wanted to make something that can go to the next level. So that’s why I’m not using tape anymore. All the samples are from tape, but I can be more focused then on the performance aspect instead of queueing up tapes, which kept always breaking the performance cause I was always rewinding.
Paste: I’ve noticed that you’ve opened yourself up to collaboration. And I also hear more melody in your music in the last two albums.
Remy: I didn’t know what melody was before. Well, I knew what it was instinctually from just singing, but I guess what I should say is that I didn’t know about harmony too. I didn’t know that when I heard cool vocals together that they were harmonizing. I thought that they were just singing, which they are as well, but I took vocal lessons and that starting changing things. And then Max [Turnbull, Remy’s husband who plays guitar for U.S. Girls] and I, we’re in another band called Darling Shrug where there’s four singers, and I write for all those singers, so that started changing things melodically for me. To be writing basic things for people who were really good singers that then took them and made them explode. And it was like “Ohhhh!” I can get help with the basic things I need to make them exceptional then, instead of how when I used to work alone I would just keep them at that basement level, cause that was all I could do. Which was cool, it was very raw expression, but I didn’t know it could go to another level by getting assistance. And it’s like, why would you not do that? [laughs]
Paste: All eight of those people behind you bring their own thing. And it really comes through in a song like “Window Shades”—one element at a time, very deliberately. So, when I first saw you, I really connected with your live set. But how does it feel to think about the fact that people might not resonate with the lyrical content of what your songs are about? There are a lot of important themes that you’re presenting, especially on this latest record. Is that the goal for the listener to get the whole idea?
Remy: It’s great. I mean, I just make the stuff and then put it out. I can’t control how someone then digests it and what they do with it. Yeah, that’s fine for me. I mean, lyrics matter to me. But it’s like my husband and I—he listens to mostly instrumental music and when he does listen to stuff with lyrics, he’s never actually listening to what they say, he’s just hearing the melody. And I’m like “this song is about this!” and he’s goes “What?! It says that?” It doesn’t register for him, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love the song and isn’t obsessed with the album or the production. There are just so many things to get out of music—lyrics matter to me, but not for everybody. So you can’t really set goals for other people. You can only set goals for yourself basically.
Paste: I think that the first time I ever heard of you was through the Polaris Music Prize, when Half Free was shortlisted for Best Canadian Album of the Year. So you moved to Canada in 2010, and I was reading about how you came to terms with what you had gone through in the States before then. And once you went to Canada you were able to open up and present all of that on your record.
Remy: I think that more so than it being Canada, it had a lot to do with my husband and the kind of family I started building up there. So it was like I felt safe to then go through my personal history and start working through it. And your personal history obviously can’t not be connected to a larger history of the society that you live in, you know? I think having an actual physical border between me and my past was a symbol, it was something that made me feel safe. But it also had to do with some of the people that I got involved with up there, who are very smart and told me about some books that I started reading, that started opening my mind up to other things. Like getting older—I’ve lived in Canada for eight years. So it’s eight years of processing, learning and being married, which is like a whole other level of existence. Married, or close partnership or whatever, that adds another layer. I think I’ve aged a lot.
Paste: You did this Rolling Stone “Art and Commercialism” livestream Q&A with Merrill Garbus (of Tune-Yards) recently and you laid out a bunch of quotes that meant something to you. One of the ones that stuck with me, was that you’re “tired of manufacturing fodder for someone that you have disdain for” and fuck if I don’t feel that myself sometimes.
Remy: I mean that’s interesting to bring up, for you being a journalist. I think that it’s kind of our duty if we are aware of what’s going on to try and work it into the things that we do. I think that means that we can do it in a clever way and you don’t always have to be preaching. But it could be the things you decide to cover as a journalist. The things you choose not to cover. It could be deciding to expose certain things about the music industry. Or talk real about it and be transparent about things. Or just being at the end of an article being like “oh, too bad none of this matters because billions of people are about to die of climate change.” I don’t know…I’m not sure.
Paste: That’s like something you told me at SXSW, in my portrait series. You said, “We’re all the same here…we’re all fucked” and you made me smile. That’s something you delved into more in that art and commercialism panel, about how artists always have to create content and “artists always have to be on the internet a lot and promote yourself.” To me, that’s problematic, because for example, I love your label, but look at what happened with Torres. Where she came out and said that they didn’t think she was commercially viable enough and got dropped.
Remy: I really liked how she came out and was really transparent about her feelings. There’s so much smoke and mirrors about how we’re not a part of a system or that these labels aren’t businesses….and they are. Culture is not outside of capitalism. It’s a tool for it.
Paste: And then you quoted Thoreau. “The more money, the less virtue.”
Remy: I think it’s true, and I think we see it time and time again. And that’s why I think there should be a cap on the rich. It’s been proven time and time again that that’s the case. A cap on the rich, for their own sake…
Paste: It’s weird cause now for you, you’re doing well and..
Remy: But I’m not making any money. I’m not making more than before.
Paste: But still…what road are you on then? Just to keep doing it?
Remy: Yeah. I just want to make a body of work before I die.
Paste: What do you do that nobody else does right now?
Remy: Read a lot…[laughs] That’s all I do.
Paste: Well I think there’s something you’re doing on stage that nobody else is.
Remy: Well you can tell me that, I can’t watch it. I’m just up there, so…
In A Poem Unlimited is out now on 4AD. Also, too bad none of this matters because billions of people are about to die of climate change. (Here’s how you can help victims of California’s deadly Camp Fire)