Jordan Hamel interviews Gussie Larkin from Mermaidens ahead of the release of their new album Look Me In The Eye.
Mermaidens have always been masters of subversion. Making music that challenges expectations of heavy rock, it jumps between genres to give listeners something as surprising as it is satisfying. Their legendary live shows can have the calm precision of a seance or the furious energy of a party during the end of the world, often both.
Childhood friends Gussie Larkin (guitar/co-lead vocals), Lily West (bass/co-lead vocals) and Abe Hollingsworth (drums) forming the relentless trinity. Their time together as Mermaidens has led to two critically acclaimed albums, being signed to iconic indie label Flying Nun Records, and supporting international acts like Sleater Kinney, Death Cab for Cutie, Lorde and Mac DeMarco.
Their 2018 Taite Music Prize-nominated album Perfect Body saw their circle of influence expand to a global audience with its progressive and cinematic stylings on angular post-punk and grunge. But now a new flame burns as the Wellington-based trio get set to release their eagerly awaited follow up Look Me In The Eye with Flying Nun.
At the heart of the record lies the thematic exploration of female voices as co-lead vocalists Larkin and West (with dynamic support from Hollingsworth) expose embedded motifs of exterior masks, human relationships and power dynamics with unflinching fervour. The voices and perspectives of both frontwomen give shape to the record with equal footing, creating a dialogue around female collaboration and friendship in an ode to the complexities of the human experience.
Ahead of the album’s release, Larkin was kind enough to enlighten us on why Look Me in the Eye is their best work yet, what needs to change in the NZ music scene and what’s next for the trio.
I’ve been listening to your new album today and I’m loving it so far. You’ve said it’s the sound you’ve always chased, why is that?
This album really feels like the work that we’re happiest with, it’s kind of the sound we’ve been striving for but maybe haven’t had the technical ability, studio experience and money to execute. There were a lot of changes for us in terms of the writing and recording process – we just had a lot more studio time. It’s a lot more detailed than any other recordings we’ve ever done and so it’s kind of created this new sound for us.
In terms of having the time and space and money to build on the previous two albums, do you see Look Me in the Eye as a natural progression or more of a departure?
We wanted to make something that was more danceable but still sort of unsettling. That comes with the uneven time signatures and everyone doing their own thing, it’s still pretty fucking weird.
We definitely wanted to make something that’s experimental but more accessible at the same time. I think we’ve achieved that with more sing along-able melodies and lots of really sparkly sounds and synths that pushes it to the shiny, slightly pop realm. Look Me in the Eye has a more cohesive sound when it comes to the production and that’s just [from] having more time, and now I’m a better guitarist with more pedals. It’s a lot more subdued and more confrontational.
The whole way through there’s that push and pull, at times it’s melodic and danceable and then it goes down psychedelic and dissonant paths. Even the album’s title is quite confronting. As Kiwis, we don’t really look people in the eye often, only if we want to fight them, pash them or tell them something quite serious.
It was really hard to find an album name and we had quite a few options, and it made me really anxious, we were debating over it for so long and kind of searching through the lyrics. ‘Look me in the eye’ is a lyric that actually comes from a song that isn’t even on the album. When we landed on that, it felt instantly right.
Is there anything in the New Zealand music scene that you’d like to see more or less of? Anything you’d like to change or improve?
I want to see more subversive, interesting heavy rock bands. There are a lot of heavy metal bands that blur into each other and they don’t intrigue me that much. It would be great to see more women playing real dirty, heavy music. Also more diversity in the technical side of things, that’s sort of what we were touching on with working with Emerald on the Moon Cycle Pedal, we need more female-identifying sound engineers and stagehands.
It makes me feel a lot more hopeful when I go to a venue and it’s not all dudes. In New Zealand, we see ourselves as doing things a bit differently and being forward-thinking, so we should really step up.
The conversation often seems to be about getting more diverse festival lineups in New Zealand, but it goes much further than that. Beyond the stage, people should be able to see themselves represented in all parts of the system or else it isn’t accessible.
Yeah, I think everybody talks about it and we all know we need more diversity on lineups so I don’t want to just repeat that. But the reality is that it makes other women and non-binary people feel more welcome when they see people like them working at venues, booking festivals etc.
In the industry side of things it’s very common for women to have PR jobs. Sometimes in management, but not as much. There are not that many making big decisions, like, booking these big festival lineups.
I guess a lot of the gatekeepers in this country are still male when it comes to festivals and things. If you were booking your own mini-festival – let’s call it Gussie’s Way – and you could book whatever New Zealand acts you wanted, who would you put on your lineup?
Well, I’m loving Troy Kingi at the moment. He’s just a lovely person as well so I’d book him. I’d [also] book an Auckland three-piece female doom band called Slum Bug. I want WOMB and Linen obviously. Then I’d get Big Flip the Massive. He’s a crazy jazz drummer, but he plays like hip hop, really technical stuff. That’s my lineup!
Lastly, in five years’ time, Mermaidens are…
Supporting Warpaint on a world tour.
Look Me in the Eye. The trio’s third full-length album is due out tomorrow on Flying Nun Records worldwide.
This piece was made with support from NZ on Air.