Over deli sandwiches, Falyn Walsh of Grumpster told me that she thinks some people are meant to become friends.
I had met her, along with Lalo Gonzalez Deetz (guitar) and Noel Agtane (drums) at Gilman Brewing some hours earlier, where we discussed the Oakland band’s debut album, Underwhelmed.
The night before, I had gone to their sold-out show at iconic Berkeley venue 924 Gilman, where the trio gleefully performed their longest set ever to an audience with the ceaseless kinetic energy of an ant colony. I saw no less than three green-dyed heads, an accidental homage to Walsh’s short green crop that made it seem as if the place was being slowly overtaken by punky sprites.
At one point, the band held up the Gilman’s DIY SOLD OUT sign, grinning ear to ear. It was, unquestionably, a night of triumph that was still palpable the next day, tired bodies notwithstanding.
Speaking of bodies, Underwhelmed, besides relentlessly espousing its titular theme, is a very bodily album. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it embraces full-on gore, but the concept of body-as-antagonist is clear. The most obvious example of this comes in “Nausea,” where Walsh details what feels like a weeks-long panic attack that has her asking “What’s become of me?/Tear my organs/from my body/the world/will finally/dispose of me.” The song later dives into one of the best metaphors on the record, where Walsh interrupts the wall of guitar with this exhausted, repeated warning: “And my hands shake like earthquakes/so stop telling me to get a grip.” Some references are a little more hidden, though this may only be because they lack the commentary of a live performance. For example, in one of my favorite moments of the release show, Walsh introduced “Put Me to Sleep” by yelling, “If you have ever had to deal with PMS, GET IN THE FUCKING PIT!”
The titular song sets the tone for this all very well, a little three-act performance before getting to the meat of the record. “If I was a pig I’d be the target of your slaughter/I’m shit out of luck/because you don’t give a fuck about me,” accuses Walsh over a sparse riff in Act I. Act II comes when she begins to detail the destructive effect this person has over her, guitars coming faster now, the whole thing sounding like a mini soundtrack for two people circling each other at a party. It’s not clear whether the antagonist in question is a former romantic partner or a friend, but the central point here is that it doesn’t matter — Grumpster is outfitting their j’accuse thesis in hard guitars and drums to lend some release to a very slow-burn sense of perpetual disappointment with everyone.
Act III is the reprise, where Walsh recalls her old bright-eyed, bushy-tailed self with little nostalgia. “Too bad,” she sings in a dry-eyed deadpan. “Nobody ever apologizes/until you’ve drank yourself to death/I guess your friends all care once you’re six feet underground.”
“Roots” is a stand-out song, and absolutely killed at the Gilman show — though not for the reasons you would expect. On the heels of a quick explanation from Walsh, the audience — some of whom had clearly done this before — started pairing up, hands on waists and shoulders, couples and friends and probably a few strangers. It was time for the slow dance.
Well, slow is relative, but watching a dozen-odd odd couples half sock-hop, half-mosh to the “Roots” rolling-hills riff is truly one of my favorite show moments ever.
Beyond the body and untrustworthy friends, another notable antagonist on the record is the mythical, unnamed “town” or “city,” such a mainstay detractor in punk records that its mentions in “Underwhelmed” and single “Crumbling” must be delivered with a touch of irony. “The city took my house and its people took my things/my neighbors took my books and all my shiny rings,” Walsh states on the former with the air of a disillusioned storybook character.
Yet even as misery has taken on a monolithic, mythical quality on Underwhelmed, so too have the people and places that Grumpster finds solace in. Deetz, for one, grew up a stone’s throw from 924 Gilman. “It was always very mysterious to me,” he said of the venue. Citing Green Day as his gateway to playing punk music, it comes as no surprise that inching ever so slowly towards the Gilman and its unofficial rites of passage was inevitable for Deetz. So too, apparently, was meeting Walsh.
“I came on a trip to San Francisco in 2016.” Walsh recalls. “I went to a show at Gilman. Lalo [Deetz] and I saw each other at the show and we were like, ‘this person looks interesting,’ but we didn’t meet… I went back to Massachusetts, bought a one way plane ticket, moved out here, and then like two months after moving we met each other… That’s the cosmic connection, dude!”
Agtane came from a musical family and had tried out various instruments throughout the years. Despite the many guitars and basses around his family home, Agtane’s own cosmic moment came in his late teens. “Once I started playing the drums,” he says, “I was like, ‘Oh. Yeah. This is supernatural.’”
All three of them speak of music with palpable love, even deification. Not to say that they are particularly woo-woo about it, but it’s clear that music inspires in Grumpster the sort of religious zeal that enables the Jehovah’s Witnesses at Powell BART to stand for hours in heeled shoes behind a table of leaflets and signs that ask, WILL SUFFERING END?
Well, probably not. As Underwhelmed reluctantly states, event if Agtane, Deetz, and Walsh have found cosmic kinship with the Bay Area and each other, that feeling of circling the drain can creep up on you even in the best of places — which is why its so damn disheartening enough to inspire a full record. Because if you can’t find solace here, where can you? We can only keep trying, and keep making music and art when it feels like we can’t.