San Francisco’s favorite feminist band The Total Bettys are shaking up the pop-punk scene. As a four-piece of all queer women and non-binary people, Maggie Grabmeier (vocals/guitar), Reese Grey (guitar/vocals), Chloé Lee (bass/vocals) and Kayla Billos (drums) break the mold of an almost-comically homogenous (read: straight and male) genre. Next Friday (November 16th), the band will release their sophomore LP This is Paradise. We talked with Grabmeier about the upcoming album, the issues affecting the pop-punk scene, and which bands you’re missing out on.
1. Let’s start with the basics: What inspired the title This is Paradise?
This is Paradise is actually a line in the album’s first song, “Am I Glowing”. That song is about learning to be alone after a breakup. The lyrics are basically an inner dialogue of denial – you convince yourself that actually you’re happier now that you’re alone, and that your new situation is “paradise,” when really it might be healthier to just let yourself feel your feelings and be sad. I like This is Paradise as a title because it means one thing out of context, and another thing entirely in the context of the song.
2. The Total Bettys started as a duo [Grabmeier and Grey] and later grew into a four-piece. How did that growth affect your creative process?
Reese and I started writing songs together back in 2015, but we always knew we wanted to be a four-piece. It’s just taken some time to find a lineup that really felt sustainable. We’re really lucky that we found Chloé and Kayla because not only are they both wonderful people who are great to spend time with, but they’re also beautifully creative musicians, and they breathe life into the songs. The Total Bettys are a loud, high-energy band, and I really think each musical part can and should stand out.
3. Time for the “chicken or the egg” question – Which comes to you first: the lyrics or the melody?
Usually it’s the lyrics for me, but not all of the songs follow the same process. Most of the time the urge to write a song comes when I’m feeling something intense, and I just need to process it, and for me that happens with words. But sometimes Reese will be like, “I just wrote this killer riff,” and I’m like, “we have to turn that into a song right now!” so there’s definitely no hard and fast rule.
4. Speaking of your creative process, which song took the longest time to come together from inception to completion and which took the shortest?
That’s a really interesting question! I think the song that we spent the longest time rewriting is probably “Sleeping Next to You”. It’s another breakup song, but this one is a lot more earnest than “Am I Glowing” — it’s about admitting to all the ways you still want to grow, and how your problems and insecurities can affect your loved ones. As we were workshopping this song as a band, we tried a lot of different styles, and it was hard for us to find a sound that matched what we wanted to say.
On the other extreme, “Dark and Stormy” was the song that came together the fastest. It was about four weeks before we were supposed to go into the studio, all the songs on the album were written, and we were just fine tuning and getting ready to record, and in the course of a day I wrote “Dark and Stormy” and begged my bandmates to help me finish it before we went into the studio. I was thinking about sexual assault accusations about men in the pop-punk scene of my youth, and I really wanted to process it, and this song was how I was able to do it. Thankfully the rest of the band was into it, and I think the pressure of our studio dates helped us to be really focused.
5. You recorded this album with Grace Coleman who also recorded your debut LP Peach. What was that collaboration like and was anything different the second time round in the studio with Grace?
We love working with Grace. She’s so talented and so patient. Whenever we were feeling stuck, she had some bit of wisdom that helped us reframe a part of a song – no matter how small. I think this time around we all knew each other a little better, and we just felt more comfortable spending time together. The days in the studio are long, and we learned so much the first time around, on how to ask to hear things a different way, how to use the studio gear to our advantage, how much food to pack…everything went a little smoother this time around.
6. Do you have a song off the new record you’re most excited to hear fans’ reactions to?
That’s a really tough one! I think all of the songs come from different little parts of our experiences and our hearts, and I hope that different songs resonate with different people.
7. As a band, you don’t shy away from addressing political (or let’s be real – humanist) issues like sexism and sexual assault within the pop-punk scene (ex. “Dark and Stormy”). Have you ever had any hesitations about speaking out (i.e. career fears, etc.)?
Compared to some other women and queer people, we have it so easy I think. A lot of people aren’t in safe enough places to come forward, some people are at risk of violence or losing their jobs if they are vocal about sexism and sexual assault. I think there is a lot more The Total Bettys could be doing to make a difference, and to speak out about things that matter to us, but the most important thing for us is to uplift the voices of people who have everything to lose. We live in the Bay Area, we surround ourselves with friends and other bands who support and uplift us – I’m lucky that I feel like I can be as vocal as I want about issues that affect my scene. The times when I hesitate to speak up are times when I think maybe I should be working to amplify other voices rather than taking up space myself, and I’m definitely still working on that.
8. Despite the heavy subject matter of some of the tracks, the overall feel of the album is one of empowerment. Was that vibe something you were careful to curate or did that happen naturally?
I really appreciate that! I think the thing we were trying to consciously change about this album was to be a little more honest. In Peach, I think a lot of the songs were pretty snarky, and though there is definitely still quite a lot of that in This is Paradise, we wanted to also open up, and to be empowered to say things that are difficult to say. Owning up to our insecurities and traumas in a real way, and just letting them sit without judgment– it’s harder to do than I thought. I had to consciously stop myself from turning difficult things into a joke (which I’ll admit I sometimes fail to do on this album) because I think that’s a way that I cope with hard stuff. I am really glad that this comes off as empowering because it did feel freeing to write it.
9. LGBTQ+ women and non-binary people are sorely neglected in the pop-punk scene; which LGBTQ+/non-binary artists do you think fans are desperately missing out on?
Here is a list!
And here are some awesome Bay Area bands that we love playing with:
Try the Pie
10. Let’s talk the future: What would your dream tour line-up look like (with you as the headliner of course)?
Even in my fantasy, I can’t picture these bands opening for us! But we have always wanted to play with Tancred– they seem like really fun people to hang out with. Also on the lineup would be Palehound, one of our favorite favorite bands from Massachusetts. At the very least I know I’d love to listen to them play twenty shows in a row.
11. You’re playing a release show at Bottom of the Hill on Nov. 15th. What about the show are you most excited about?
We are so excited to be playing with two other amazing bands, See Night and Like Roses. See Night is actually also releasing their EP on November 16th, so this is a release show for them as well. We are so excited to share this moment with them! Also, I’m not going to lie, I am very excited about some of our new merch we’ll be unveiling at this show!
12. And finally, what do the Total Bettys have in store for us in 2019?
We have so many great things coming up (many of which we’re not allowed to talk about yet!), but I can say that we’re super pumped to go on tour in January. Our dates will be announced shortly, but we’re traveling to Nevada, Arizona, and Southern California, and we can’t wait for that. Follow us on social media to keep up with our tour announcement and other exciting announcements!