INTERVIEW: Chicago Synth-Punks Pixel Grip on their Debut LP Heavy Handed

band photos by Alexa Viscius

With “band interests” listed as “fresh cut flowers & cum” on their Facebook page, it’s no surprise that Pixel Grip’s debut LP, Heavy Handed, is about as sweet as a goth-disco record can be. Bandmates Rita Lukea, Jonathan Freund and Tyler Ommen grew up in Chicago suburb, Crystal Lake, but found themselves drawn to the house and electronic sounds that their neighboring city has to offer. After taking two years to fine-tune the record, the result is a lush, dark-wave wonderland, filled with catchy hooks and cutting lyrics.

Imagine if Aphex Twin, Lorde, LCD Soundsystem and SURVIVE  got together to make a supergroup. Entré Heavy Handed. Made primarily from three different analog synths, Pixel Grip definitely leans into the vintage synth realm without sounding derivative. The clarity and range of Lukea’s voice differentiate the group from archetypal “synth-pop” acts and guides the listener through the record’s peaks and valleys – of which there are many.

There’s a little bit of everything thematically on the record, from fun, lovestruck bangers like “Tell Him Off” to dark murder fantasies in “Body Like That.” Resounding themes of freedom, escapism and acceptance reverberate throughout the record. That being said, the band doesn’t seem to take themselves too seriously – it’s a delicate balance of blending life’s absurdity with brutal honesty and a whole lot of dirty synths.

AF: I read that you recorded this record over the last two years — how did you all start playing together? When and how did the first song on the record come together?

Jonathan Freund: We all met in high school. Rita and I had been making music together since then and Tyler joined about two years ago. “Golden Moses” is the oldest song, that one came about as an improvisation we later developed into a pop song.

AF: What type of synths do you use? How do you all normally start working on a track?

Rita Lukea: A few songs on the album start with a really crude demo. I would record a little demo on my phone using a $10 Yamaha that I found at a thrift store and my loop station. Jon would then go in and use more sophisticated equipment and sounds to produce a track.

JF: We also like to improvise all together and record what we come up on the spot, then stitch together the best moments into a song. We use a core group of three analog synthesizers, one vintage and two recent ones.

AF: What are some of the artists you grew up listening to? Did you all grow up in Chicago? How has being in Chicago now affected your sound as a band?

RL:  We grew up in Crystal Lake, a northwest suburb in a Red County.

JF: We shared a love for groups such as Daft Punk, Boards of Canada, Little Dragon, Trust, the list goes on! Chicago has an exciting music scene – we’re definitely noticing the club and techno influence starting to creep in.

AF: Your music feels very escapist — is this purposeful? How do you hope listeners feel when they hear your music?

RL: It’s not intentional but I welcome that.

JF: I want listeners to be taken on a ride when listening to Heavy Handed, as we embraced a variety of sounds and moods throughout the album.

AF: In “Body Like That,” the music is so fun but clouded with a terrifying theme. What inspired this song? Is it difficult to write/perform this kind of material?

RL: “Body Like That” was written during a very stressful time for me when a guy I had fling with over the summer started stalking me during the fall. I wrote the song as a form of catharsis and a warning. The girl I “met in Texas” is fictional. It’s just one long “don’t fuck with me” in the form of a narrative.

AF: What are some of the Chicago house bands that you’re inspired by?

JF: We love the classics, especially Mr. Fingers. We have the same synthesizer he used to make his first dance hits, the Roland Alpha Juno, and it feels like that instrument allows us to channel his spirit more closely.

AF: How did you all learn your instruments?

Tyler Ommen: I bought a drum pad and would play along with the radio. Once I purchased my first drum kit, I started playing along with my favorite records as best as I could and played in rock bands with some friends in middle school. I became really obsessed with drumming and started working with local instructors and entering myself into drum solo contests. Eventually, I moved to Chicago to study music performance and music business at Columbia.

JF: I learned saxophone and piano growing up, but switched to electronics the minute I heard Aphex Twin for the very first time.

AF: Death metal or k-pop?

RL: K-Pop.

TO: Death metal.