At the second night of a three-part Don Giovanni showcase last Friday, we caught up with three of the New Brunswick-based punk label’s brightest and best. We also decided to pioneer a new interviewing technique based on a popular children’s fortune telling game, using a folded paper “cootie-catcher” (or “saltcellar” or “chatterbox” or “whirlybird” or whatever you may have called it).
Lauren Denitzio, lead singer of Worriers, isn’t at all squeamish about dealing with weighty concepts when it comes to songwriting. Her band’s debut full-length, Cruel Optimist, draws from rich literal references, personal experiences, and the politics of being a feminist. Denitzio’s words sometimes come across as a challenge to examine privilege, and she’s spent plenty of time here delving into her own and opening up about the conclusions she’s come to, without any heavy-handedness. When taken together, the album’s overall feeling is one of exhilaration, energy, and inspiring call to action. And her band, comprised of former bandmates from The Measure
LAUREN PICKS CAT, 8, 4, 5 and gets the question: What’s more important, the personal or the political?
LD: Woah. That is a good question. Maybe I’ll say the personal because of the saying “the personal is political”. Over the years, the way I’ve written songs comes from a very personal place, trying to find a way to use personal things that I write about to talk about other, political things. That’s what I try to have fun with, is writing about personal things that are cathartic for me to write about and sing about but they’re also talking about larger issues. And being able to bring that into the band without it being like “We are a POLITICAL BAND, and we’re going to sing about these things that are important to us but don’t necessarily relate directly to our personal lives.” So yeah, I’d say the personal. Because I think it can be more dynamic.
LAUREN PICKS GHOST, 6, 2, 7 and gets the question: What’s your favorite song from “Cruel Optimist”?
LD: I’ll say “Best Case Scenario” is my favorite one. I think a lot of the songs maybe have more to them than face value, but I think “Best Case” is really fun to play, really fun to sing, and it’s also just a straight-up love song about my sweetheart, so I always really enjoy that one.
LAUREN PICKS GUITAR, 3, 9, 2 and gets the question: “Passion” is a reference to Jeanette Winterson, and there are lots of literary references on the record. What’s a book you think everyone should read and if it happens to relate to your songs, how so?
LD: Well I feel like the obvious answer to this would be Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant. It’s kind of where the title for the record came from and I think that it’s a more theoretical, maybe a bit more academic book than say, Passion by Jeanette Winterson. But I think it’s an accessible read. She talks about a lot of things that make a lot of sense to me in terms of how we define success and how people can be very attached to this mainstream, neo-liberal, everyone for themselves, very capitalist mentality of the quote-unquote good life – whatever that means to you. And how detaching from that can bring about new possibilities. Regardless of the examples that she uses in the book, it has been really useful for me in both my artwork and music in thinking about how we construct our own worlds and our own lives based on goals that don’t have to do with what we’ve been told growing up or what the news wants to tell you is successful or the right life path. She also talks about how those things can be where living takes place, like in the pursuit of the good life. But I think it’s a really interesting book. I really love it, and love her writing and it’s a book I would hand to anyone.
AF: Do you think she knows that you named a record after her book?
LD: In fact I do know that, because her publisher, Duke University Press, found a link to the record online and links to it underneath her book on their website. It says, listen to the Worriers’ punk song “Cruel Optimist”. And I’ve written to her and told her it was an inspiration and she approves. She likes the music, she thinks it’s rad. It gave me a reason to talk to someone I admire. The record is Lauren Berlant approved.
LAUREN PICKS BEER, 2, 6, 3, and gets the question: How did you get involved with the folks at Don Giovanni?
LD: Well, the first band I was ever in, The Measure [sa], was based in New Brunswick, where Joe and the label are also based. Most of the original Don Giovanni bands were from New Brunswick, so just through knowing people from New Brunswick, through my friendship with Joe. He’s just always been very supportive, and I think the focus of the label is really on the creative output of his friends, even though that’s kind of widening location-wise.
AF: So it’s sort of like a family?
LAUREN PICKS GHOST, 3, 8, 4 and gets the question: Are you worried right now? If so, what about?
LD: I’m worried about when we have to go on! [laughs] But I’m not worried all the time. I mean I think it definitely reflects a certain sensibility that I have sometimes. And that we as a band had when it started. It’s a mix of just trying to humorous and actually being apprehensive.
LAUREN PICKS CAT, 7, 5, 6 and gets the question: How have the bands you’ve been in in the past shaped the current band you’re in?
LD: Well, I think it has definitely influenced the way I interact with other people I’m playing music with, especially because I’m really the only songwriter in this band. It’s influenced how I respond to not having someone else consistently writing songs. If I want there to be a range and don’t want everything to sound the same it’s kind of up to me to do that. But I also have all these freedoms, and I feel like I paid my dues in other bands and really worked hard and put out a lot of records and really went for it. Knowing that you can really play as many shows as you want and do it all the time, even as I am getting older or whatever, it’s a reminder that there’s really nothing stopping me from just making it happen.
LAUREN PICKS GUITAR, 3, 4, 9 and gets the question: If you were asked to take part in the Winter Olympics, which sport would you choose?
LD: Oh my god [laughing]. Well first off I wouldn’t participate in the Winter Olympics. The olympics are a very nationalist, problematic thing that I wouldn’t want to actually participate in. But, in terms of athletic prowess, you know, if you were asking me to participate in an athletic competition of such caliber –
AF: The Don Giovanni Winter Games.
LD: Yes! If I had all the athletic ability in the world, maybe snowboarding. Only because as a kid there was this Tony Hawk video game I would play, I think. I feel like that would be like the “punk” sport. Or ski jumping maybe. I could never do either of these things. I would just be too scared. But in this universe where I am playing winter games, I am also not scared, so there we go.
And lastly: What’s the scariest thing about declaring yourself a feminist?
LD: Well I think in general, it is a scary concept to put your foot down about your own politics, especially if you’re using the word “feminist” around people who don’t identify that way or aren’t as familiar with it. They may be a little scared of it or have preconceived notions about it. So I think it’s scary to try to hold your own when people want to attack you for that or don’t agree with you. It’s that way about any political belief, kind of. For me personally, I am not scared any more. I’ve had confrontations between friends, and on the internet, and wherever, where I’ve had to defend feminism or the things that I think because I consider myself a feminist. The scariest thing is just having to put out the emotional effort to have difficult discussions with people who you otherwise get along with, or to think that people are gonna judge you for that or any other thing that you do or say politically. Any time you make a big statement that you can fully put your weight behind, you wonder if someone is gonna give you a hard time, or push back on it. I just don’t care any more, and on the flip side it’s great to be able to be be like “Whatever man, this is how I feel” and I’m not gonna change because somebody doesn’t think it’s a popular thing.
That fearlessness comes across in the content of her music as well as her performance of it. On stage, Denitzio’s lighthearted interactions with her bandmates belie the most serious subject matter. The band rounded out selections from Cruel Optimism by revisiting work from 2011’s Past Lives EP and playing two songs from a 7″ single recently released on Berlin’s Yo-Yo Records titled Sinead O’Rebellion. Denitzio’s unadorned vocal delivery is matter-of-fact, assured and refreshing, while Erg, Burke, and Rubino play with a classically indefatigable punk spirit, giving the sense that no one on stage is worried in the least.