On their upcoming EP Existential Shred New York pop punk band Baby Got Back Talk delve into the very nature of human existence. They tackle death, life changes, and the state of the world with excellent literary lyrics, plenty of synths, and a healthy dose of hope. Existential Shred will be out September 9 via Wiretap Records. Punknews editor Em Moore caught up with vocalist and bassist G’Ra Asim, synth operator Rhiana Hernandez, and guitarist Jake Lazaroff over Zoom to talk about the new EP, existential riddles, who the punkest author is, decolonizing pop-punk, and so much more. Read the interview below!
Your new EP Existential Shred will be your first release on Wiretap Records. How did you choose who to sign with?
Rhiana: It was an interesting situation. We had kind of interacted with Wiretap a little bit, they had put out a calling for groups that were similar to us, and we definitely had been looking to work with a record label that was aligned with what we had in terms of values and everything. So it really ended up meshing well together. It was almost serendipitous. We basically handed ourselves to them. We had reached out and had some really great conversations, we felt comfortable, and it’s been a really great partnership since. Working with Wiretap as well as Earshot Media which has been really huge as well. So it’s been really, really exciting so far.
What’s the biggest difference between self-releasing all your stuff and now having a label behind you?
G’Ra: In the days of a highly digitalized music landscape there are folks, including people close to us and who we’ve collaborated with, who are sort of philosophically inclined to be anti-label. Who think that the things that a label offers in 2022 are not worth the trade-off in the way they might have been a generation ago or perhaps even 10 years ago. I think what’s been cool about working with Wiretap is it’s small enough and DIY and hustle-oriented enough that it’s kinda just like having another person in our corner. I would almost liken it to if the band is Mohammad Ali, Wiretap is kinda like Bundini Brown. Like a corner man being like, “hey, keep this in mind. Did you get this water? Did you notice your opponent is doing this? Why don’t you take five and catch your breath?” But at the end of the day the band is still the entity in the ring, actually carrying out the sport and willing their way to victory or not. I don’t know if every label nowadays would function like Bundini Brown but one of the reasons we were attracted to Wiretap is that they do and everybody needs a corner person.
On your new EP you’ve moved in a little bit of a new direction musically. You have more synths and keys and I believe you’ve described your sound as “less fiddles, more existential riddles”. What inspired this change of direction?
Jake: I think it’s like an amalgam of things. It kinda feels like pop-punk is having this almost resurgence right now and it seems like there’s a lot of people, a lot of groups who are taking it in really interesting directions that haven’t been seen before and incorporating some new electronic elements. Which isn’t to say that we’re just trying to like hop on a trend. I think we all have very diverse musical tastes and there’s a lot of things that we’re interested in that don’t necessarily fit into the mold of early 2000s pop-punk which is how we’ve been described before. So we’re trying to incorporate more diverse influences, more diverse production techniques, more instruments.
What’s your favourite existential riddle on the EP?
G’Ra: I’m pretty excited about a song on the EP called “Full Circle” that deals with mortal peril. As my bandmates probably know, I try to sneak in a song about death on every release. This one seems like it’s a little more explicit. But in the bridge the speaker in the song is having a kind of transcendental communion with a dead writer - arguably the most celebrated American writer of the past 100 years, Toni Morrison. So the lyrics actually name-drop Toni Morrison and this experience of seeming to communicate with Toni Morrison across time. And where the song leaves it, it’s not totally clear if that’s a literal experience or just a metaphor, a way of describing something that might’ve been deep and powerful and moving but not totally reality based. I think in terms of what’s our favourite existential riddle, I think the situation in that song just felt like some topical territory that we hadn’t delved into before and it’s kind of exciting to do it in a pop-punk context which most people seem to associate with songs about detention and bubblegum. And to Jake’s earlier point about sort of reaching in and rummaging around in a different bag then our previous releases and incorporating elements that people don't usually associate with the genre. I think that’s one of the more subtle but impactful examples of that.
Jake: I kind of like on “Season Premiere”, the song that we just dropped a couple weeks ago which isn’t quite about death but not super far off from it, in verse two there is a line about being satisfied with a wife and a mortgage and a tire swing. And yeah G’Ra to your point about a lot of pop-punk being about like detention and bubblegum, we are kind of fitting this band in among a bunch of other things that we have going on in our lives. I think there’s a lot of expectations about what to do at certain points in your life and sometimes I’m very cognizant about bucking the trend so to speak and it can be a little scary or disconcerting. So that would be my favourite existential riddle.
Rhiana: I was also going to go for those two! [laughs] They were my favourite, especially with “Season Premiere”. I like how it kind of echoes that feeling of constantly having a new start to some portion of where you are, like new season, new things going on, picking up where you left off, and leaving this openness to always having a new opportunity to change things. I think that’s something that is not always appreciated as much as I feel like it should be considered. G’Ra’s looking at a song about death but there’s something a little more hopeful in that regard as well.
What would you say to somebody who’s going through an existential crisis?
Jake: One of the things that I’ve been trying to keep in mind is just how much I’ll care about something in six months or a year or will you even remember having this crisis x-many years down the line so just try to take the long view. It might feel acute right now but keep the big picture in mind.
G’Ra: Related to that I think the thing that I always come back to is pretty simple: that you only lose if you give up. That struggle is endemic to human experience. That anything you want, anything you don’t want, there’s going to be some process of having to fight to achieve it and protect it. So the very fact that you are in crisis or struggling, you might be feeling it more acutely at that moment but that’s just the nature of being a person and when you keep in mind, regardless of the socially imposed goalposts related to the things Jake was talking about, the only real scoreboard that matters is do you keep going, do you keep striving and hopefully maintain some level of integrity while you’re doing that. And as long as you’re doing that regardless of the outcome, where we sit as a punk band, you can’t lose.
How would you describe your songwriting process?
Rhiana: It’s definitely changed over the past couple of years. Especially since at some points we’ve been kind of spread out. Definitely a lot of recording sections and sending lyrics back and forth and checking in like, “does this sound good?” or “do you have anything to go with this part?” Lots of sharing and virtual discussion, virtual collaboration about how to link everything together - which has its ups and downs, of course, as I’m sure other folks can agree. When we find time to get into the studio together and hash everything out, it’s exciting in my opinion.
Jake: Yeah. For Existential Shred we got to work with John D'clario who produced a lot of formative bands for us. We went in intentionally with a rougher idea. Some songs weren’t finished but we had a rougher idea of what we wanted to do, hoping we would have a fruitful collaboration with him and he would help us fill in some of the things that we had been tossing back and forth. And it was very positive.
You do have quite a few literary references within your lyrics. What were you reading during the writing and recording process?
G’Ra: Wow, it’s cool you picked up on that. It sounds weird, but I think one book that sorta set the tone for Existential Shred is actually Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex which was a book I was kinda reading and the locus of my interest was one thing but the thing that I was kinda inspired by or took away from it was another. And De Beauvoir in that book is overall trying to make an argument that difference doesn’t produce otherness but rather otherness produces difference, at least the perception of difference. She has this whole idea that something like otherness is a fundamental category of human thought. Without getting too deep in the weeds about that, I would just say one thing that stuck with me about that was all those observations are meant to underscore this argument that life is way more open-ended than any system or earthly power tells you it is. You inherit a lot of unchangeables in life that you don’t have a say in but within that there’s absolute freedom to make meaning for yourself and it doesn’t have to be a meaning that anybody else co-signs or understands. Clearly that’s a philosophical template that really resonates with the tradition of punk rock. As participants in that scene for a long time, we’re people who are already sort of tilted that way, already on that wavelength. But I think encountering something I saw as very resonate with the punk ethos in another context really made me, at least, want to bring songs to the table that were sort of operating with that idea as a premise and trying to apply it to some of the challenges and riddles that are particular to the station in life that we’re all at.
In your opinion, excluding musicians who have written books, who do you think is the punkest author?
Rhiana: Well G’Ra actually wrote a book (Boyz n the Void: a mixtape to my brother) so that’s the only one I know because he’s actually in a band.
G’Ra: I don’t think I’ve earned the crown on that front but I gotta be in the mix, I figure. Some people that come to mind other than Simone, I think she’s got an argument, are Michel Houellebecq. The ideology that comes through in his novels is not necessarily one that I endorse so he’s like the most punk in the sense that he’s a shock rocker. More in the Ben Weasel school of punk author. Audre Lord has gotta be in there as well. That really is an excellent question. I’ll probably be thinking about that all week.
In Baby Got Back Talk you often call for the decolonization of pop-punk. Why focus on pop-punk specifically?
Jake: It’s our scene, so to speak. It’s where we fit in as a band and it’s kind of more broadly where we identify musically so there’s a closer affinity to that and what that entails. I mean obviously pop-punk is not unique in its struggles with inclusion or with equity but it is the one that we are the most directly connected to. So there’s like a sense of ownership that we have over what goes down here.
G’Ra: An ongoing conversation both among the members of this band and also with listeners and people we interact with at shows is that we all recognize that we grew up with a set of touchstones in punk culture and pop-punk culture, if you view those as two separate things but I don’t really, that we recognize as having regressive elements. Having components that are clearly misogynist, having components that are serving to center whiteness to the exclusion of people of other races, serving to center men to the exclusion of other genders, serving to center straight people to the exclusion of people of other sexualities. We both enjoy that music and that culture and have been formed by it but also recognize that are elements that we would like to jettison or evolve beyond. So we have always positioned ourselves as a band that is not trying to run from the fact that the cultural roots of what we’re doing have aspects to them that are questionable or viewed as passe but that we are hoping to to be a band to shape the transition past those things. That is taking what is good about the forebearers we have in the genre and the tradition, making some interventions of our own and leaving the rest behind.
What steps would you like to see taken to that end?
Rhiana: I think that, other than the acknowledgement, also making more of a point of inclusion in these spaces than we’re used to. Now that the horizon is different and altered because of what the pandemic has caused and a bunch of other different factors, it’s also brought to light some of the things that we already discuss often in the pieces we create. It’s been mentioned between all of us how despite our catalog of music being out for a bit of time, it always seems relevant to the current day and what’s occurring. With time, there has been some recognition as to what we’ve been singing about in songs afterward. We’ve also done work with the AAPF Group on the Say Her Name movements. We see that there’s more attention paid to it and we just want to maintain that and push it a little bit further and have these spaces be more accessible, bringing forward that decolonization as we’ve discussed.
G’Ra: One thing I think about sometimes and I’ll confess this is a still gestating thought, I think there’s this tension in our scene that punk is supposed to be confrontational, potentially dangerous and definitely not overly concerned with placating the audience. And then there’s sort of this new-school attitude which is more like, “we need to have scruples, we need to be careful not to offend or alienate anyone, and we need to make sure no part of the band is complicit with something we view as distasteful or unjust”. I hope to see a little more of a synthesis rather than a tension between those two sensibilities and what I really mean by that is we’re a band that operates from the understanding that no one’s hands are clean. We’re never speaking down to our audience from this soapbox where we have all the unassailably correct political opinions and people who don’t rock with us are necessarily misguided. We would rather operate from the understanding that as a punk band there are some things that we’re going to do and say that probably do touch some third rails and probably are provocative and uncomfortable for some folks but the purpose of doing it is well-intended. We are trying to push our audience to think critically about received wisdom, whether that process leads to them agreeing with us or not. I think that sort of latitude for bands is the ability to not only challenge the status quo but challenge some of the orthodoxies that exist among the people who are challenging the status quo. It is important to the future of this genre. I hope it’s something that we can help to advance and I think there are other bands who are already doing it as well.
What are some bands?
G’Ra: One that comes to mind - I think they did a Punknews interview last summer [ed note. They did! You can read it right here!] - is The Muslims. That’s something that I really admire about them is even though they are strident politically, I think there’s a very clear and potent irreverent fun-loving streak to it where I don’t feel I’m being cornered and lectured to. I feel like it's a group of people who have a set of grievances about the status quo that they’ve made tuneful and energizing and maybe most importantly, playful. Like I said, that sensibility exists in the scene but I’d love to see more of it.
Your video for “Model Minority” pays tribute to My Chemical Romance’s video for “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)”. Why did you choose to base the video for “Model Minority” off that video specifically?
Rhiana: We wanted to make an allusion to the nostalgia with the punk that we’ve all kinda grown up with. It was a very iconic work but also we wanted to modernize that in a way that brought it to what people are actually going through right now and what they’re experiencing in this current time. What was a common thing other than being super cool now and that they’ve come back and they are touring now. It was a way to make it familiar for a wider audience to appreciate. For people who are in our own community and demographic for pop-punk but also for other folks. It was a great time filming that music video. We worked with Carla Troconis at that time. It was exciting.
How would you describe the punk and DIY scene in New York?
Rhiana: I think it’s a fantastic community to be within. There’s a lot of collaborative work in terms of interacting with other bands and forming different communities locally. Everyone’s working a day job during the day then coming out to perform somewhere at night and finding that balance in between while also making everything so cohesive and trying to like have the band be successful, it is a lot. We have the opportunity to work with bands like Rebelmatic, the 1865, MAAFA, Winterwolf, in our sphere which are cool. I personally find it collaborative and I enjoy it in the sense that we all kinda know who each other are, we do kind of stay within the same sphere, it’s like a feeling of camaraderie almost. It’s enjoyable.
G’Ra: We kinda have an embarrassment of riches in the NYC DIY scene. I’ve been a punk rocker in a few states and I remember I was in a scene in Champagne, Illinois like 10-12 years ago and there was like one hardcore band in the whole city. They were called Commodity, almost sort of making fun of that situation. One the one hand it was really cool that if there’s 50 hardcore kids in that neighbourhood they were all at the Commodity show because there weren’t a whole lot of options but on the other hand, it kinda sucked that there weren’t a whole lot of options. So New York is sort of the exact opposite of that. On a given night there’s probably three or four pretty rad shows going on involving bands in different parts of the giant city that we’ve either played with or interacted with online or have a friend in the band. That vibrance, that energy, that abundance is something that really informs how we approach our music and we can’t really help but be energized and inspired by it. On the other hand you could say, a downside of that is that it’s harder to be as tight-knit when there’s so many options. But I’m really appreciative of the creativity and resilience of the bands in our region and also really appreciative of how friendly and accepting the lion’s share of them have been to our band really since we started and we’re fortunate to be in in a place where there is that sense of camaraderie and mutual aid.
Why do you think that the sense of camaraderie is so strong in the New York scene specifically?
G’Ra: I’ll pose it to you two as well but I’m gonna guess it comes from the fact that it’s an impossible place to live so people are sort of predisposed to sympathize with the difficulty of trying to make ends meet and also do something extra that’s not super lucrative on top of that.
Rhiana: Yep, that part.
What are you listening to right now?
Jake: Oh man, there’s a lot. [laughs]
Rhiana: There is a lot.
Jake: I like the new Beabadoobee record. It’s very sweet. I liked her last record a lot and this kinda goes more in that acoustic-y singer-songwriter direction. I’m excited for new Polyphia.
Rhiana: I’m scouring my brain to see if there’s anything that’s not the new Beyonce album. [laughs]
Jake: New Mint Green is dope too.
Rhiana: Oh, yes. The new Mint Green is good.
G’Ra: I’ve been jamming some Wiretap bands pretty much since we linked up with them. I had actually never heard of Mercy Music who are dope. I’m super into them, especially all the shredding going on in the context of otherwise pitch perfect pop songs. I’ve been digging the steady stream of singles that Tiny Stills have been releasing. We’re going to be playing with them in October, we’re really excited about it. We just played a show with American Thrills who I’ve also been spinning a lot at home. Me and Jake were talking about it and they feel like a confluence between older Get Up Kids and early career Gaslight Anthem which is like one hell of a sweet spot if you ask me. And they’re sick live as we just found out.
Rhiana: They’re really good live and just a good bunch of folks too.
What’s next for Baby Got Back Talk?
Jake: Existential Shred comes out September 9 so that’s the real big thing in the near future. We’re playing a couple shows as G’Ra alluded to in October. October 7 and October 18, if I’m not mistaken. So New York come through.
G’Ra: We also have been doing a comic this cycle, if you wanna call it that, called The Most Interesting Band in The World. You should look out for more installments of that as well as more music videos on the horizon. We’re looking to get out of the state a little bit to play elsewhere on the coast, in the Philly area, Connecticut, New England area. If you are a promoter or a band and you wanna bring us there we are super game, just shoot us an email.
Any bands specifically that you wanna tour with?
G’Ra: Whitesnake in their prime.
G’Ra: But realistically, I’m not sure. I feel like it’d be really cool to open for MxPx.
Rhiana: I’d be ok with My Chemical Romance, actually. [laughs] Join them for the second half of their tour. They’re supposed to be coming to New York in September. Maybe I’ll just storm the stage, I’ll be in the back. [laughs]
Jake: Yeah, I guess Armor For Sleep was like my band so like now that they’re back, I’m putting it out in the universe.
G’Ra: Our Armor For Sleep connection deepened because we just did a boatload of songs with John D'clario who worked on some of the earliest Armor stuff. So being in the studio with him and kinda picking his brain about the process made me even more curious about the band. I know them peripherally and through Jake but hearing about the early days really heightened my curiosity.
Well that’s the thing you never know who’s reading.
G’Ra: It’s true.
Rhiana: You’re right. [laughs]