To listen to Pinkshift is to experience a form of catharsis and no more so is this evident than on their upcoming debut full-length Love Me Forever. The album sees the Baltimore based punks delve deeper into their rage than ever before, with unapologetic, piercing lyrics, excellent musicianship, and an undeniable spirit that you can feel in your bones. Love Me Forever will be out everywhere October 21 via Hopeless Records and Pinkshift are currently on their first full US headlining tour.
Punknews editor Em Moore caught up with guitarist Paul Vallejo and drummer Myron Houngbedji to talk about the evolution of their songwriting process, signing with Hopeless Records for the new album, the importance of expressing yourself, My Chemical Romance, and so much more. Read the interview below!
Your upcoming LP Love Me Forever will be your first release on Hopeless Records. How did you decide who to sign with?
Myron: We’ve been talking with Hopeless for a minute. The head of A&R Eric Tobin reached out to us like 2020 I think, right?
Paul: Yeah. He was one of the first people to reach out to us right after “I'm Gonna Tell My Therapist on You” dropped and not even in a like, “hey let’s sign something right now” way but more of a, “hey who are you?” way.
Myron: It was really genuine, them reaching out and being like, “you guys are really cool, let’s just talk”. It wasn’t pushing for us to join the label or anything. He was a face that kinda showed up over and over. When we were at Sad Summer he was there and on the Mannequin Pussy tour he came out to some of the shows with some of the team. We really vibed with them and we were able to come to an agreement both legally and logistics-wise and something that we are both comfortable with. After that it was kinda a no-brainer because we didn’t have that kind of relationship at that point with any of the other labels we were speaking to.
Paul: The vision that they had for Pinkshift and the vision that we had for Pinkshift aligned and they definitely backed what we wanted to do. I think they fully trust us to take a lot of control of what we wanna do, which I think was a huge thing for us too. At a certain point, it felt less like joining a label and more like joining a team who’re joining us as a foundational support and also as an economic support that we need. [laughs] Everyone’s super nice and super enthusiastic too.
Myron: Yeah, they really are. They really believe in it which is really cool and that’s really apparent too. It’s not fake. They don’t act like it’s their job to support us, they actually believe in the music which is really cool.
What’s been the biggest difference between releasing music on your own and being part of the label?
Myron: I feel like there's less for us specifically to worry about. I remember for “Therapist” for example, Ashrita [Kumar, vocalist] was reaching out to a lot of publications beforehand trying to get people to talk about the single months in advance and not knowing if playlisting or anything would work. Now we have someone on the team who does all that, gets our singles out to press and helps get playlisting for us on Spotify and Apple Music and such. We take less of an active role as of right now with stuff like that, we can if we wanted to but they’re taking care of that right now. Also it’s just nice to have a team that helps organize the roll-out of this album and give suggested dates for such. We talk back and forth about when we want things to release. Things are facilitated a little bit which is really cool.
Paul: I think when you have a budget that allows publicists to do all these things that we normally would have done before by ourselves, you have a little more mental space to be a bit more present with listeners and be a little bit more interactive. I know Ashrita has put up a few more posts. But aside from that, I think it’s different because when we were doing things ourselves, our listener count and fan count was at a different level than what it was when we signed so it’s like comparing two different things in a sense.
You recorded this album with Will Yip at Studio 4 and I believe this was your first time in a studio. What was the recording process like?
Myron: We did it in three weeks. Normally we would have more time but we were going on tour April 1 and we started the second week of March. We banged out drums for every song in the first week on consecutive days. It’s really, really cool working with Will because he gives his honest ideas and suggestions about things in terms of how things should be structured and what we can change from what we had already written. We came in with our ideas like 90% complete essentially, the songs were already written. Recording drums was really great for me in terms of my self-improvement because of how much he pushes me and how much he pushes all of us really. I came out of that hitting more precisely and actually being conscious of specific techniques that I had no idea that I was supposed to be doing beforehand. I would work with Will and come up with different fills for things and try to keep different feels for different songs and that kind of helped me get better at feeling what’s needed for specific songs in general. He’s great, he’s been really motivating during this entire process because he gets really excited about stuff and when he gets excited it’s really fun.
Paul: He’s a drummer first and foremost, so him and Myron went really deep into the drums. We did have a few days of pre-production before that where we all laid out all the tracks and made sure everything flowed really well. Myron originally wasn’t supposed to bang them all out. Normally I think Will likes to give drummers breaks and stuff and kinda build the songs a little bit intermittently but because of the time crunch we had to really just go “a, b, c, d” with everything. All the drums were recorded then we went straight to bass and guitar which was fun in the sense that he really is one of those producers who’s really nit-picky about the takes that he records. At least we’re all very used to hearing “again, again”. [laughs] We all record ourselves when we demo it out and we’re very much able to be like, “yep, that’s good enough” whether it’s a demo or not. But Will is very much a perfectionist in the sense that, “oh, this has to sound in this certain way or else we’re not going to get the overall vibe or sound that you guys are going for". I think Will is really good at looking at the big picture of a project. He definitely did a really good job of taking what our vision was for the project and what vibes, what messages we wanted to convey and efficiently recorded that in such a short time period. I know that it was kinda stressful at the end, because he was also pushing Ashrita to do some new things vocally and pushing their voice. I think they scream a couple times on the record which they do live now. They’ve been doing it during our live sets so much but I know during the recording process that’s something they haven’t done in the studio. So trying to get those takes in such a short time definitely made it feel a little bit stressful at times. But he knows exactly what he’s doing, he’s done this a million other times with a million other bands in a million other situations. So he knew what constraints we had and was like, “we’re gonna do the best that we can with the time we have”. I think it came out sounding pretty fucking awesome. [laughs]
It did! How would you describe your songwriting process?
Myron: I feel like there’s different ways different songs come about. Sometimes we’ll write things - or at least start things - individually. Ashrita may write entire chord progressions and have lyrics with them already and bring them to us. From there I’ll write drums on it and Paul will do his little thing with it, Paul makes instrumentals in general so he’ll put his ideas on it. Then we’ll come together and either practice it or figure out the structure specifically for it or add or get rid of different sections and such. Recently, I’ve been trying to write potential ideas for different verses, pre-choruses, and choruses on guitar and I’ll send that into the group chat and from there we expand on that together.
Paul: That’s a new thing too! Myron’s like right at it. I think one of the first ideas that he sent recently we made it full band. Ashrita put lyrics on it almost immediately. Myron pretty much wrote the progression for a lot of it so I was like, “let me write the drums then!” So we swapped roles, pretty much.
Myron: Swapped roles, it’s fun! I’m trying to get better at guitar so songwriting can be a little more seamless among all of us and we’ll all be able to share our ideas really easily that way. A lot of the times before, like with “Therapist” for example, I would have ideas for just drums. I wasn’t really sure of anything melody-wise in general but now I think we all give more for every section, if that makes sense. On our own respective instruments we make our own tweaks and refine those ourselves for what we want to play specifically without getting rid of the feel of the song. I think that’s been more of a process recently. Paul will also make guitar instrumentals and send them to us, Ashrita will put lyrics over that and I’ll put down drums or tweak any drums that Paul had already put on it. From there we’ll see if we like the chorus of it because there’s times where we write a song or we start writing a song and then we just drop it and we don’t like it until a drastic change is made. That was the case for at least two of the songs on the new album.
Paul: I would like to say that there’s a formula for the songs we put on the record, except for “In A Breath”, that’s kinda the oddball out there. It was a song that Ashrita wrote on their own way before we even knew each other. It made it on the album because it just fit. But other than that, I would say that every other song has been written in a different fashion, in a different length of time, and a different period of time too. Like Myron said, at the end of the day even though we all kinda dabble in each other’s respective parts - except for lyrics. Ashrita has really pretty much taken up all the lyrics thus far. Myron takes all the drum parts he gets and ultimately makes the final tweaks to what he does and I’ll do the same with the strings and ultimately what we get is literally just a big glob of our art. We just mess with shit everywhere and it turns out sounding like Pinkshift, I guess. [laughs]
That’s the magic. Love Me Forever is heavier both musically and lyrically than your 2021 EP Saccharine, you have angrier songs and more emotional songs. What helps you tap into your emotions and lean into your anger?
Paul: For me personally, I think a big inspiration is just our bandmate Ashrita because they are really good at writing lyrics that are very accessible. Right now, they’ve written lyrics that hopefully a lot of people listen to. The more I listen to this record, the more I listen to what they’re saying. On some of these songs they’re unapologetically angry and rightfully so. Sometimes your biggest supporters and motivators are really your best friends. They’ve taught me a lot about what it means to be angry and letting themselves be angry. I’m personally someone who's pretty reserved and I will not be angry because I’ve been raised to be calm and take my time with things. But it’s healthy to be angry and there are healthy ways of expressing anger and frustration. Playing music and being able to share cathartic live experiences with our songs is a healthy way of expressing any pent up emotion that we have. I’ll let Myron speak for himself.
Myron: For me, hearing Ashrita’s lyrics and also just hearing them talk about different things to us or to anyone else about shit that’s fucked up really helps me get in that mindset. Also just living in the past two years, you know. [laughs] A lot of stuff has gone on, a lot of cognitive dissonance. I feel like I was stifled in not only my personality but also with any of the energy that I gave out, especially in the world I was in before in academia and medicine. It’s not really a place to be angry or show any negative emotion because I’m dealing with patients and such. So playing drums and making music was definitely like a catharsis. Physically I'm banging the shit out of the drums for these songs specifically because of how much is pent up and accessing those emotions during shows. It’s a huge release when we’re out there playing and I’m able to share all my energy with not only with my bandmates but also the crowd and everyone who came to see us at that specific show. I try to expend all of my energy in every 35 minute set that we have. [laughs] In the studio it was the same thing, pretty much. I was really trying to tap into that, dealing with the past two years of bullshit essentially. Not only with the world but with my personal life in terms of making this entire career switch and dealing with all the people I was going to disappoint.
The cover of Saccharine shows a lollipop being stabbed and broken and then the cover of Love Me Forever shows a heart being repaired with gold - kintsugi style. What is the significance of one cover showing destruction and the next cover showing repair?
Paul: Damn. I’m gonna be honest, that’s the first time I heard that.
Myron: That’s the first time I’ve thought of that.
Paul: Well, did we do that subconsciously?
Myron: I remember I doodled the Saccharine art and our friend Grace digitized it and made it the actual art. I like that theme.
Paul: I forgot! I guess you were literally the foundation behind both covers. Myron does a lot of art for the band. It’s not the actual final piece but Myron visualizes, “oh, this would be a cool idea” and doodles it out and we have friends that have access to all these illustrative programs.
Myron: Whenever we talk about the album, Ashrita describes it as someone going through the motions of a mental breakdown and I’m trying to relate that to the cover. It was an off the brain kind of thing like, “oh we should do a cow heart kind of as a joke”. Then our friend actually brought one out for the photoshoot.
Paul: It was very spontaneous. Even just saying "stuck cow heart" was a spontaneous idea that we didn’t think was actually going to happen. So once we actually had it in our hands we were like, “damn ok”. We were in Denver and we had a limited amount of time because we had to go to the next city in a day or so. So we were like, “we have to do something” and in med student, pre-med fashion, Ashrita and Myron were like, “oh, let’s just cut this up”. Then they were stitching it up. I don’t even know how that idea came about. I was just literally there vibing.
Myron: We had a Pinterest board that did have pictures that were similar to that heart. It was an anatomical heart that had stitches in it. But yeah, I don’t think any of that was intentional, I think it just had to deal with the title track. I’m sure Ashrita can explain it better just because it would be a lot more tied with the lyrics of the songs, you know.
Paul: We are more confident and more tight-knit as a unit now then we were in 2019. Maybe Myron was just going through a bit in 2020 when he doodled that.
Myron: I definitely was. I was going through so much.
Paul: Myron was going through an existential crisis, as one does.
That’s so cool that it was a spontaneous idea and it fits the album to a T.
Myron: Thank you. I feel like a lot of things have been working out in that kind of way where it’s like, “oh, snap! This just kinda fits”. Even the songs we picked for this album weren't written specifically for an album release, they were just songs that we had been writing. Because they had been written during the same time period and in the same circumstances and as we were going through things in our own lives, they just happened to thematically blend and be a cohesive project. That’s also why “In A Breath” was also included because Ashrita had written it so long ago but it still thematically made sense in the context of the album. That’s why it’s right smack in the middle.
Through your music you encourage people to express themselves, feel their emotions, and be true to themselves. If someone is struggling with that, what advice would you give them?
Paul: As someone who I think was a bit late to the game in that respect, I would say that being true to yourself is an always-changing sort of deal. I think really taking the time to reflect is important because I feel like with the pandemic everyone has taken the chance to slow down and really kinda take a step back from reality for a minute. You’re not really processing things, it’s just like, “blank mind, empty head” because everything is just overwhelming. But just taking a second to think about what it is that you really want and what it is that’s really important to you, what do you really love doing and then drawing the line between what it is that you like and what it is that other people have been influencing you to do. Which is not to say that influences on you can be only bad or good, they can be both. But I think when you’re in the thick of it, if you’re working constantly or doing school constantly, those things can kind of blend together and over time can really get lost. In my personal experience, you can reach a point where you don't really know if what you’re doing is because you really love it or it’s because you’re used to doing it and it’s comfortable. Fortunately, I have a support system of friends who are always kinda pushing me and challenging me to think about myself differently. Those kinds of connections with friends are priceless, they are crucial. I’m still learning shit about myself every day. Also remembering that if you have friends that care about you, really listen to your friends. I know that sounds kinda contradictory. There’s so many ways to go about it. We’ve all taken time to slow down because of the pandemic to really chill the fuck out but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve taken the time to figure out what we want for ourselves. I think actively dedicating time for that is a very good first step and re-evaluating your priorities and how you want to exist. [laughs]
Myron: I really agree with that. It’s a little bit more subtle but I kinda work the same, especially near the end of college where I was losing who I am in a sense. One thing I found worked really well for me was having some kind of outlet and that can vary for anyone in terms of having something that you enjoy that’ll allow you to be your genuine self. You can be in school or at a job somewhere where you’re not being your genuine self just because of the context but if there’s something that you know that you enjoy that you know allows you to express yourself unapologetically without the feeling of being judged - whether it be something art-wise or being invested in a specific kind of media or show and talking to different people about that then I feel like you should do that. I remember I would also do the same thing like Paul was saying where it’s like you trick yourself into thinking you really like something because it’s convenient and it’s your way of life. But being about to sit down and think and be like, “am I actually happy in this?” really helps put things in perspective. If negative ideas about a specific thing keep coming up in your head and they don’t outweigh the positives that you make up for yourself then maybe it’s something to actually think about. That happens all the time for me anyway, where I’m just in a situation where I’m just like, “yeah, I’m convincing myself this is right but why do I find myself actively convincing myself?” Also this is kinda semi-related but if you’re trying to express yourself creatively and you’re scared to do so because it’s cringe, everything’s cringe. Being onstage is cringey.
Paul: It’s so cringey. [laughs] I like to bang my head because it’s what I’m feeling at the moment but then you look back and it’s like, “what the fuck is he doing?”
Myron: All of your favourite artists are cringey. They’re all cringey. But that’s why they’re successful. There’s a mental block there for sure but if you allow yourself to really feel what you’re feeling in the moment and advocate for yourself and what you’re doing then eventually people will see the vision and be like, “oh, this is pretty cool”. For anything that anyone does at least one person will find it cringey and that’s fine, that’s chill.
Embrace the cringe, smash the fear, go for what you want.
Paul: Myron Houngbedji, 2022.
Myron: Literally. MCR’s so cringey but they’re great.
Paul: They’re the cringe masters, for real. But I give them so much of my money. [laughs]
Myron: Yeah, exactly! [laughs]
Speaking of tours, you’re heading out on your first full US headlining tour this fall.
Myron: Yes! Yes, I’m so excited.
Jigsaw Youth and Yasmin Nur are your openers. How did you decide who to take on tour?
Myron: We’ve played shows with both of them before. We played our first show with Jigsaw Youth last summer at a house show in Baltimore and they were really heavy and really cool. They’re just really sick people. We saw that they also opened for Destroy Boys last fall, I believe, and they did another tour too so they’re getting pretty good at touring as well. Just having that connection and really believing in their music we were just like, “wait, this is kind of like a no-brainer”. They really fit in with what we’re doing, they’re in the same scene, and we really want to uplift them as well. We met Yasmin Nur in Kansas City, I believe. I think they were a local opener on the Mannequin Pussy tour last fall and they’re also a Desi woman so Ashrita was really excited about having Yasmin on tour as well. Their music is getting really heavy too and it’s really cool. Just having this tour package I feel like it just makes sense. We were going through a few artists, a few projects, but I think finally locking in these two bands just really made sense sonically and also because we love them as people.
Paul: I knew as soon as we were asked to find support. Ashrita showed me the Punch Me! This Is A Nightmare! EP from Yasmin Nur and I was like, “I don’t care when we tour but when we tour Yasmin is going to come through” and that was before we played a show with them in Kansas City! So it was cool that we got to do a show together. We’re stoked. We’re glad that we got to meet them all first and now we’re just super confident in this tour and how awesome it’s going to be. I think if we were just walking into a tour like, “oh, what’s everyone going to be like? Hope shit’s cool”. But we know that everyone is fucking awesome.
That’s great! What are you most looking forward to about the tour?
Myron: I’m just really excited to see how many people know the new songs after the album’s out. [laughs]
Paul: Yeah, it’s so cool seeing the reaction to “Nothing (In My Head)” after we released it and even before “GET OUT” was released, people were singing along and getting so hyped at shows. So if that’s what people’s energy is prior to the release, I’m trying to fathom what it would be once it kinda gets to sit in people’s playlists for a minute. It sounds really cliche but I’m excited just to play music. I think the more I’ve been in Pinkshift and toured, the more I realize how important playing shows is to me as time goes on. Which is a plus and a con because now when I’m not playing shows I’m just kinda trying to live and exist in this limbo. But I’m very grateful that I get to play music.
Myron: We’re so used to opening slots so it’s gonna be really crazy to be on a full tour where we’re actually the headliner and we’re able to play longer and people know the lyrics and stuff. That’s just going to be so cool.
Paul: Yes! When we open Ashrita bears the brunt of doing the stage banter and getting people into it and really creating this little short experience that we have as openers, trying to show people who we are as Pinkshift. For the most part I think the people who will come to this full US headliner will probably already know Pinkshift and will probably be really excited to see us. There’s a totally different energy when you’re playing to a crowd of people who are very willingly there to see you. We all give one hundred and twenty five thousand percent when we play as openers but that energy is just different when everyone’s there to support you and share your music with you. So I’m really excited for that.
How would you describe the punk scene in Baltimore?
Paul: Growing. I mean, there was a lull when we were starting out in 2018-2019. We all met in college and started playing shows around our college but our college wasn’t exactly that ingrained in the DIY scene in Baltimore. I’m personally not living in Baltimore right now but I know Ashrita and Myron have been going to more DIY shows recently now that they’ve been off tour and met more people in Baltimore. So I guess I’ll let you take that one, Myron. [laughs]
Myron: Yeah, I mean there’s a good amount of shows going on. Ashrita will invite me to different shows here and there in Baltimore so it’s definitely been picking up. I think it’s pretty lively now especially because of how many bands are coming out of Baltimore and making themselves more known. Which is really, really awesome to see. Me and Ashrita recently went to a BLKVPR show on Saturday, which was really cool. It was also at a venue that I didn’t know was a venue until like two weeks ago which was really sick. We’re trying to do more shows like this, more local shows and really trying to meet more people in the scene because we didn’t get a chance to because of COVID and everything. Right as we were about to start playing more shows in Baltimore specifically, that’s when everything shut down. So we’re a little removed in that regard but we’re also trying to make it out there now that things are open again. Just really trying to fit into the culture.
What are you listening to now?
Paul: On repeat is a lot of My Chem but that’s skewed because of the upcoming concert. Honestly, I have a lot of concerts coming up. I'm going to see MCR and Pierce the Veil and Voxtrot, which is a band I’ve been into for a minute. They also came back from a hiatus. A lot of my listening has been like - it’s nerdy saying “prep work” but literally just me getting ready for these concerts. Other than that, I’ve been listening to - I don’t even know, when I work at my dayjob I just go on autopilot. Myron, what are you listening to?
Myron: I’m looking at my Spotify right now because I can never remember. Well I do, but it’s like choice paralysis where I’m thinking of so much and I’m like “oh, I can’t think of anything”.
Paul: One band that I’ve gotten into recently is Every Time I Die. I got into them after they broke up. I listened to them in middle school and then I just didn’t listen to them for years until they broke up then I was like, “oh let’s get into them again!” So it’s one of those.
Paul: The timing.
Myron: I’ve been listening to the new Demi album. I’ve been listening to it a lot actually. I really like some of the songs on it and I’m like, “oh this is cool, rock’s coming back”. I remember the new Panic! At The Disco album came out and that made me listen to Death of A Bachelor instead. I just didn’t listen to the new album.
Paul: I’ve heard takes on Twitter about it.
Myron: I literally just didn’t listen to it. [laughs] I just started listening to Death of A Bachelor again because it reminds me of high school. I mean, I listened to a few songs on the new album but I didn’t really like it, they weren’t super memorable to me so I just went back to what I liked. I’ve also been listening to Slipknot, interestingly. I’m getting more and more into Slipknot. Those are some of the things I’ve been listening to. There’s Lil Durk and the new Beyonce album too. Mat Kerekes of Citizen put out a solo album this summer and it’s really good. I really like it.
Paul: Mat Kerekes is awesome. I’m wearing a Citizen shirt right now.
What’s next for Pinkshift?
Paul: Without saying too much, we’re going to be touring some more in the spring. We actually have a few more songs that aren’t recorded yet but that we have to record for our album cycle. We don’t know what the timeline is but it’s on our to-do list, we have to record some pretty soon. But in the meantime, we’ve been practicing and developing these live shows. We’ve been putting all of our energy into the full US headlining tour because it’s our first time having full control of a tour and having full control of our show. So what’s next is us practicing a lot because we haven’t been practicing too much because we’re all in different spots but we have a lot of homework to do. [laughs]
Myron: Yeah, like Paul said, more shows next spring and summer hopefully. Things are starting to line up now and over the past few weeks and figuring out which songs we want to actually record. First we have to write them, we have a bunch of ideas right now. And once we choose from those and get them recorded and they’ll be out sometime. It’s exciting. Things are ramping up. We’re going to be more busy so hopefully we can share a lot of stuff with everyone soon.