Poliça: ‘We’re Very Angry People’

With their new album, Poliça are challenging perceptions.

“You can have an image of a woman, blood running down her feet in a bathtub, painted nails… It’s at once the beauty and brutality of the woman. It could be bloody because it happens naturally once a month, or it could be she’s gotten hurt, or she’s just washing out her hair dye because she’s trying to look prettier. But it looks really brutal, right?”

Poliça ringleader Channy Leaneagh is waxing lyrical about her rather off-putting new album artwork, shot by fellow Minneapolite Isaac Gale. It’s hard not to wince. “It looks really brutal. And I think that’s Poliça in general, right from the beginning,” she claims. “We’re all people that are walking that line between brutal and beautiful all the time, very nice people but very angry people. We’re living in that dichotomy constantly.”

Exhausted after a summer of non-stop touring, it’s sunny, early September and Channy is sipping tea in hard-to-find, little-bit-posh members’ club Soho House. Relaxed and smiling, brutality seems like a far-flung reality, but she seems well at home talking about it.

Yes, the enigmatic musician is as soft-spoken as ever (audibility is a problem), but her confidence has obviously boomed. After all, this past year has changed her life completely. Following what seemed like an incendiary rise out of nowhere, 2012’s breakthrough ‘Give Up The Ghost’ was universally acclaimed as one of the best albums of the year. The band’s unique sound was hailed as originality itself with autotune finally put to good use and melodies to die for. Everyone, from Jay-Z to The xx, jumped on the bandwagon and they’ve just played some dates with Sigur Rós, including a gig at the “beautiful and inspiring” Jodrell Bank Observatory. So, who wouldn’t have gained a little more verbal gumption?

A year and a half ago, Channy told of her surprise at being able to fly over to the UK and play a tiny headline show at the capital’s CAMP Basement, but when quizzed about playing in front of nearly 2,000 fans at Shepherd’s Bush Empire earlier this year, she dismisses any notion of nervousness with a thwack. “It doesn’t really matter how big the crowd is,” she says now. “It’s more about the vibe and the feeling of the crowd, and the venue. Every night, it just kind of depends on how you’re doing as a person.”

Eighteen ‘It’s all about moving to a beat.’ months of vertiginous hype since that brilliant debut and the band are releasing follow-up ‘Shulamith’, named after the feminine form of the Hebrew name Solomon, also meaning ‘peace’. In fact, the title pays homage to trailblazing feminist thinker Shulamith Firestone, who Channy considers a “muse and mentor”, and whose themes run throughout. Notably, the band has personally commissioned a lithograph from local artist Michael Gaughan to go alongside special editions of the album. It depicts a half-woman half-taurus hybrid reaching down to a man, which says it all.

Accordingly, this is an album that sinks its claws deep into the listener’s skin, exhilarating and thought-provoking from start to finish. “Drums. Bass. Synths. Me, Women,” in Channy’s own words.

Not to begin lightly, opening number ‘Chain My Name’ reflects another change in Channy’s character. Whereas last time around she was in the midst of a divorce and that was one of the key motifs of the all-pervasive gloom, this time around she’s singing about how she doesn’t want to feel “too chained down”. Or as she laughs out loud, “it’s an anti-marriage song, I guess.” But is it a truly happy song? “I think so. I enjoy not being married,” she confirms. “Maybe I have a weird version of happiness, but I think happiness is knowing yourself and getting yourself out of bad situations, finding freedom and you know, not being tied down to bad things.”

If that’s what she classes as their upbeat material, then lead single ‘Tiff’, featuring Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon, is Poliça’s darkest moment yet. Over a lilting beat and sinister bass groove, the two singers swap vocal duties in shakily sketching “a portrait of a woman as her own worst enemy.” The whole song is brought to life by the promo video, with remarkable acting from Channy, repeated writhing and self-inflicted waterboarding, but it’s the words that blow your mind. Lines like “I’m a pawn in the hype machine / you’re a pawn in the caring scheme” are as impactful as they get.

Previously, Channy has described the songwriting process as entirely collaborative with bandmate Ryan Olson, a prolific musician and producer who she first met at a birthday party in a club, before he asked asking her to join short-lived Minneapolis collective Gayngs. Back then, she stated, “I was just trying to emulate a mood and paint a picture of what the music Ryan was playing made me feel.” But would she say that still holds now? “Yes. I had more time with each song this time, but the lyrics and melodies are still based on that first reaction to the mood of what he plays me, when we first meet up.”

This said, Ryan spent a lot of time in Brazil during the making of ‘Shulamith’. “I had time during tours and things,” Channy explains, “to develop the songs a bit more and spend some time with them. He would email me the tracks he was working on, so we didn’t always have that initial time together, but I would just try to do it immediately in order to record my first instincts.”

As for the live show, her songwriting partner never plays with the band; his synth parts are pre-recorded. Instead, the spectacle consists of two mind-meltingly fast drummers, Drew Christopherson and Ben Ivascu, who are also members of Ryan’s noise rock venture Marujuana Deathsquads (one of Channy’s “biggest influences”). Lastly, they’re joined by jazzy bassist and backing vocalist Chris Bierden, who is often spotted zoning out on-stage, providing the lower octave counterpoint to Channy’s zorbing, otherworldly R&B vocals.

But all this begs the question, how does one get a Poliça song underway? The manifold harmonies seem incredibly, impossibly crafted, the drum parts too well intertwined, the whole thing too fluid. It seems chance and in-built beat-making have played a role. “I think rhythm is super important, which is probably why I write a lot when I’m walking because there’s movement in your body,” she posits. “And then I just start thinking of a melody. I don’t have a formula. Even right now I’m a little concerned that I won’t be able to write any more songs. But it does help a lot that I react to rhythm and so on. I can just get a beat in my head and I can walk along. It’s all about moving to the beat. And that’s it, I guess.”

Poliça’s new album ‘Shulamith’ is out now via Memphis Industries.

Taken from the October 2013 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.