P.E. Redefines the Concept of the Muse on Sophomore LP The Leather Lemon

Photo Credit: Vince McClelland

NYC experimental outfit P.E. get super weird on their sophomore record The Leather Lemon – and I mean that in the best way. Out March 25 on Wharf Cat Records, the album opens with “Blue Nude,” wherein singer Veronica Torres purrs, “You want to make me beg,” establishing a power dynamic right off the bat.

Musedom – or inspiration – is central to The Leather Lemon, which is brimming with mystery, romance and sex appeal. “Blue Nude” references Matisse, while “Lying with the Wolf” is based on a Kiki Smith work. But Torres (who writes the lyrics) isn’t just casually name-dropping fine artists. As she stated in a recent interview: “I’ve always been concerned with this concept of muse… women weren’t allowed to be creators, so they would just be put on a pedestal and inspire art, which I think is bullshit.”

That Torres is grappling with such ideas in her lyricism becomes all the more intriguing when you consider that she is the sole woman in her band, which is a Brooklyn underground supergroup of sorts, composed of members of PILL and Eaters. Jonathan Schenke, Bob Jones, Jonny Campolo and Benjamin Jaffe (who plays the guileful saxophone slinking its way through the whole record) write the music, but as the lyricist, Torres is the megaphone imparting the band’s message. In that sense, Torres flips the script – she is not the muse; rather, she is looking outward at the muse.

When I ask her about this, she makes sure to emphasize that she is “lucky [to be] working with really talented and supportive dudes.” That said, she notes that “the whole muse concept in a historical sense [is] not very far away. You can go to the museum now and get a Guerrilla Girls tote bag – which, I totally want that tote bag – but you know, it’s funny that you’re getting this deliverable item referencing something that was only 30 years ago, which was a piece about how women weren’t in museums.”

While she is critical of this particularly feminized nuance of the muse as a concept, let us remember that its contemporary definition is “a person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.” While it’s a historically female word for the reasons Torres articulates, it really could be anything, and on The Leather Lemon, it is. 

It helps that several members of the band are visual artists. In fact, the album title comes from multi-instrumentalist member Campolo’s visual art practice. “The Leather Lemon is actually a phrase that Jonny Campolo coined,” Torres explains. “He was making these drawings out of lemon and orange rinds. However they fell, he would sketch them, and they often looked like people.”

The juxtaposition of these unlikely materials and textures speaks to a new era for the band. Wharf Cat describes the record as “a wild ride through chewy bubblegum pop, sweeping synthetic orchestrations, and mutant club beats.” Strangely enough, what the record evoked for me was the 1988 thriller Frantic, set in the smoky back rooms of Paris nightclubs against a soundtrack laced with Grace Jones and Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone. My mind wanders through the enigmatic, sensual amalgamation of jazz, synthy nightclub sounds, and ’90s Bjork, the last of which Torres emphasizes as a specific influence, although she quantifies it: “Can anybody be ’90s Bjork? No. But it influenced [the record].” At one point during the recording, Campolo even described the sound as “’90s Bjorkish,” to which Torres said, “That’s what I was going for!”

I found this to be the most evident on the latter half of the record, namely tracks like “The Reason for My Love” and “Magic Hands.” The supportive nature of the band knows no gender in the sense that everyone brings their weird, unique ideas and works together to layer them. “Someone will start with something, and then it’s just building, over and over and over, and there’s a lot of editing as well,” Torres states. 

“It’s nice to have people be so encouraging, enabling me to explore a different side of what I’m capable of musically,” she continues. “They’re also just so supportive of my weird lyrics.”

In that way the muse is fluid. Just as much as visual art and the idea of the muse itself are central to the album’s genesis, Torres says she drew equal inspiration from a more traditional source as well: “I’m in love, so there’s definitely love songs too.” So while she’s looking outward at the muse, she looks inward as well, and opens herself up to the possibility of being someone else’s muse.

On “New Kind of Zen,” she sings, “Make me part of your spiritual practice.” When taken in consideration with where we started – “You want to make me beg” – it sums up the idea that we contain multitudes. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. The muse is not a default position of creative resignation for women anymore; on The Leather Lemon, it’s just what you make it.

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Album art by Jon Campolo

Pill gives us strength as we come to terms with chaos in the premiere of “Side Eye,” a single from their upcoming EP entitled Aggressive Advertising. Due to be released on June 30, they are following up their 2016 debut LP Convenience with a second release on Dull Tools, returning to the cassette tape roots of their first EP.

Pill is Veronica Torres, Jon Campolo, Ben Jaffe, and Andrew Spaulding. Politics remain important to Pill and these themes persist in “Side Eye.” They refuse to roll back efforts to scratch away at the burning itch of misogyny, although arduous. They maintain creative flexibility and innovation in these seven tracks as moods range from guarded and abrasive to relaxed and danceable.

Torres and Campolo talk with Audiofemme about the underlying theme of “Side Eye” and their recent European Tour.

AudioFemme: What is the subject or theme of “Side Eye”?

Veronica Torres: The song explores the duplicitous feeling of needing to take action and burn down walls against misogyny, and then the exhaustion that comes along with being questioned for every action and your capability to do any job. In an interview last fall a journalist asked me if I was an angry girl, and I battled against it and fiercely denied the term he applied to me and our music. I still believe that if I was a man I would not be positioned so crudely into a one-dimensional feeling. I think it would have been padded to suggest some focus in ideology, or at the very least I could have been called a woman. At the end of the day though, I guess I am angry. There is a lot to fight—sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc—but I feel comforted by the fact that there are so many beautiful people holding up a torch in these dark times.

AF: Where was Aggressive Advertising recorded? What did you look to for inspiration while creating?

Jonathan Campolo: We recorded Aggressive Advertising with fifth Pill Andy Chugg, who’s produced everything we’ve made. This EP comes with a little reinvention, a little shift in language—for instance, I sing throughout a full track for the first time (“Afraid of the Mirror”), something we plan to work with more for the next record. There are also moments, like in “Piña Queen,” that are legitimately posi and danceable, a feeling not so present on our first LP Convenience, with all of its anxieties.

VT: We really wanted to push the boundaries of what we ourselves think Pill is as a band, and to also have fun since it’s an EP. We were initially inspired by a library “muzak” record that Andrew got his hands on—also called Aggressive Advertising—that had a sharp 80s business edge. I could hear the stock market rising and all the power suits tightening around every crotch.

AF: How did the making of this record differ from previous releases?

JC: This new EP still retains all the genre-jumping and instrumental changes that every Pill release has had so far, but more concentrated. On tracks like “Side Eye,” we combined almost four different demos into one song. The format of an EP is very fun for that reason—we don’t feel pressure to keep to a single narrative, concept, etc.

VT: With this EP we had a much more touch and go approach. There are some pretty strange songs that didn’t make the cut, but I hope will get released some day…

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Photo Courtesy of Pill: (L-R) Andrew Spaulding, Veronica Torres, Jon Campolo, Ben Jaffe

AF: Who are some local bands that inspire you and why?

VT: I feel so lucky that Olivia Neutron-John is now a local NYC performer! I am also deeply in love with Sarah Kinlaw’s new recordings on Soap Library.

JC: Other local weirdos we love are: Palberta, Frank Hurricane, Dougie Poole, Macula Dog, Tredici Bacci . . . All of these people are invested in invention. For all those who are lost that believe nothing feels “new” anymore, leave your homes!

AF: What was the most interesting and/or challenging experience of your recent European tour? Did you feel a difference between Europe and America in their attitude toward your work?

JC: DIY is alive and thriving! On this last Euro tour we played squats, house shows, tiny bars, and festivals—really ran the gamut. My favorite memory was post show in Hanover, DE. We were taken to a STATE-FUNDED artist village made out of shipping containers that a friend-of-a-friend was DJing (Cumbia all night baby), and got to jam on a drum kit and guitar setup in the middle of a hand-made skatepark. (Veronica played guitar?!) We kind of hijacked it, maybe drunk jammed for about two hours, then realized no one was left.

AF: What’s next for tour? Will there be a release show?

JC: YES!!!!! We are concentrating on writing again, and will have a release show this month; details are still in the works. We have some local shows this summer and may tour ye olde USA a little this fall. See you out there!

Stream “Side Eye” from Aggressive Advertising below!