Interview: Alone, Together: Chastity Belt

Alone, Together: Chastity Belt

With new album ‘I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone’, the Washington quartet are becoming even more of a family.

The general assumption about Chastity Belt is that they don’t take themselves too seriously.
 
After all, they’re constantly cracking jokes both on stage and across social media, their debut album No Regerts was replete with their well-honed sense of humour, and there’s a tangible sense of camaraderie within the band that hints at something closer to a gang than a deadly-strict musical outfit.
 
If at any point you’d scratched beneath the surface, though, you’d have figured out pretty quickly that looks were always deceiving with this Seattle group. If you’re just dicking around with friends in a garage, you don’t sign to Hardly Art, the hugely exciting offshoot of legendary Washington offshoot Sub Pop. If it’s all just supposed to be a bit of fun, you don’t agree to tour Europe with the ne plus ultra of indie rock in your hometown - in this case, Death Cab for Cutie, who Chastity Belt opened for across the continent in late 2015. If everything’s just meant to be one big laugh, you don’t gradually work more thoughtful ideas into your lyricism, in the way that Julia Shapiro did on their sophomore album, Time to Go Home.
 
Therein lay the dilemma for Chastity Belt. It was one thing to make music together with no pressure whatsoever in the equation, as they did in the fledgling days of their post-graduate life with ‘No Regerts’, right after they finished up at the university at which they met, Whitman College in Washington. It was another to try and figure out how to make a record with a palpable number of eyes tracking their every move; the critical success of Time to Go Home two years ago meant that album number three increasingly looked likely to be a make-or-break moment.

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“There’s still a little bit of humour in there, though. We’ll never be totally serious.”

Julia Shapiro

“The thing about ‘Time to Go Home’,” says Shapiro over the phone from her Seattle apartment, “is that there was never any kind of pressure when we made it, because we recorded it before had a deal with Hardly Art. It was like we made it for ourselves, and then tried to sell it. This time, though, it probably evened out a little bit. There was a touch more in the way of expectation, but at the same time, we were able to give ourselves more time to actually work on it. We managed it pretty well.” 

The resulting full-length, ‘I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone’, is a record that’s emotionally fraught throughout and yet musically hazy, with dainty guitar lines set alongside an unhurried rhythm section. It’s Chastity Belt’s ‘grown-up’ LP on paper, but in truth, they might well have made it earlier if resources had allowed - especially given that the production work of Wire’s Matthew Simms seems to have held the key. “We didn’t really have the funds to fly him out for ‘Time to Go Home’,” says Shapiro of the album he mixed last time out. “This time, we wanted to get out of Seattle so that there were fewer distractions, and I guess Larry Crane had suggested his studio in Portland to Matt”.
 
Accordingly, the four-piece decamped to Oregon to cut their new tracks, many of which they’d already aired in the UK last time they were on tour here in May of 2016. Just as striking as the duskier, more measured sound of the album, though - whereby the spiky punk of old is so often eschewed in favour of something more melodic and considered - is the shift in terms of Shapiro’s lyrics. In the past, her default sitting was sardonic, but on I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone, she sounds by turns angry, downbeat, thoughtful, and pragmatic.
 
“I think we’re all just more comfortable expressing ourselves,” she explains. “Early on, we were definitely hiding behind our senses of humour. It helped us cope with negative reviews; “oh, we’re just joking, and you don’t get it”. Now we’re at a point where we know we’re good musicians, and we’re able to approach things in a way that’s a little deeper, so why not be more genuine? There’s still a little bit of humour in there, though. We’ll never be totally serious.”

“All that time in each other’s company has only made us stronger, and that’s really cool.”

Julia Shapiro

That’s something that carries over all the way into the title of the album, which is plucked from the penultimate track, ‘Used to Spend’; like so many others on the album, it’s preoccupied primarily with worries over getting older and the realisation that the boundless promise of post-collegiate life might well have been a mirage all along. “It kind of has multiple meanings,” reflects Sharpiro on that striking title. “It was a thought I had, because I was spending so much time around other people, between being in a band on the road and having just moved in with my boyfriend. It’s all pretty new to me. There was still that feeling that all of it could break at any moment, and that I’d be alone again, but I knew that I could handle it, because I used to spend so much time alone.”

The group embark on an extensive world tour once the album’s out, kicking off with a hometown release show at Seattle’s legendary Crocodile Café, and will reach the UK in early September. So many bands wilt under the strain of having practically zero time to themselves as individuals on the road, especially when the remit involves endless hours in the back of the van. Chastity Belt, though, seem to have been able to use it to their advantage. “At this point, the girls just feel like an extension of my family,” laughs Shapiro. “It’s crazy how much time we’ve spent together, but it still just feels like a nice familial situation. It’s nice that we’ve gotten closer, rather than fighting all the time and falling apart, because I know that can happen. All that time in each other’s company has only made us stronger, and that’s really cool. That’s not always the way that it goes down.”
 
I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone is available on June 2nd via Hardly Art. Chastity Belt play ten UK dates from September 4th.