Mutt is a scrappy animal. Look closely and you can see traces of punk, riot grrrl, grunge and more, but no other dog can bark like this. Formed in 2015, Mutt is an Oakland-based trio, currently featuring singer and guitarist May Black, drummer Chris Maneri, and bassist Juli Sherry. Mutt’s first album, Creature, just came out in March. May and Juli recently answered a few of my questions from the road during a northwest record release tour.
Elka Weber: What are your influences?
May Black: We are constantly introducing each other to new music. I grew up listening to a lot of country music, soft rock, and Broadway musical soundtracks gleefully provided to me by my folks but I also had a brother and sister a decade older… I did not start realizing I wanted to actually be a musician until I heard Cat Power’s album Myra Lee. After that the doors were blown open. I think whenever I approach a song I am still trying to capture that sort of edgy vulnerability.
Juli Sherry: I also grew up with a lot of soft rock adult contemporary. If you ask my dad what kind of music he likes, he will say sports radio. I was the oldest kid in my family so it was my job to go out and find cool music to show my younger brother. And I think I did it too well because he ended up being way cooler than me now.
I went on a weird path through 90s alt rock, Benny Goodman… (I think I was trying to move past my parents not having any particular musical tastes, so I asked my grandparents and this is what they gave me.) Then I found punk and ska.
EW: Where did you get the idea to start off “The American” like that?
MB: Homage… In writing this album we really tried to take [an existing] song and sort of tear it apart or punch a hole in it and that is certainly one of the songs where that process worked out well. The original bridge in that song had a sort of old-timey march and the words were reflecting on the battles that so many people went through to allow me the freedom to dink all my money away and make myself sick and depressed for the sake of “fun.”
When we got together and really started digging into the song, the music changed a whole lot but I still sort of wanted the original feel behind it. We were in the studio and I asked Austin if he knew how to play the national anthem or Amazing Grace and what you hear [on the track] is actually him picking up the guitar and just playing it and figuring it out on the spot. I am not sure he even knew we were recording.
EW: Tell me a good tour story.
MB: We got to listen to two people writing an R&B song all night in the hotel next to us last night. Literally: all night. They were still working out some harmonies, and loudly discussing copyright infringement and ringtone distribution when we were checking out in the morning. We wish them the best of luck. We also found a tire in a creek when we were hiking and threw rocks into it for a few hours.
JS: When we were headed to our first show of the tour in Sacramento, we were behind this car that had a dog in the back seat. And the dog was crazy excited about being in the car. So much so that he couldn’t decide which window was better to look out of, so [he] just kept going quickly between the two for at least the 30 minutes we were behind them. It was amazing and joyful to watch.
EW: Do you ever write songs on the road?
MB: I do get a lot of song ideas when I am driving. I actually write and finish a lot of lyrics behind the wheel. Especially if I am stuck on something, going for a long drive usually helps work it out.
EW: Where did you record Creature? How long did it take? Are you a band of many takes?
MB: A big part of the album’s name has to do with the recording process because it was such a shit show and the album really felt like we were creating this thing out of so many different parts. We started it at our own studio in Berkeley in September 2015. We got the basic tracks done for 5 of our songs before the building we were recording in caught on fire (not while we were in it) and the place was condemned.
We ended up buying an old, portable Soundcraft mixing board and doing the rest of the album in random places all over the Bay Area. We tracked guitars in a friend’s basement and did vocals in a podcast studio at Stanford University. We ended up doing “Blood and Bone” and “The Tides” at Santos Studio in West Oakland – that was a blessing. The rest of the album was really put together all over the place. Once we had all the tracks we loaded all the equipment into my apartment and mixed everything there using all types of weird-ass processors and old speakers. We learned a lot. I think the struggle of it all added a certain edge and eagerness that comes across in the music.
All in all, the album took about 6 months from start to finish. We are not a band of many takes mainly because we do all our own mixing and don’t want to deal with 76 different tacks to go through. I say we average about 3 to 4 takes.
EW: What about Riot Grrrl and its specific influences on Mutt’s music, attitude or approach?
MB: This is a hard question to answer because Riot Grrrl does not feel like a lens or a thought process so much as it is just part of who I am as a musician and an artist. I have my vantage point and my observations as a woman and I am lucky enough to have a platform and the creative energy to discuss issues and voice my opinions with the world at large. Having the freedom to do so is a path that was forged for me far before I ever picked up a guitar and is a path I continue to help carve and mold for the generations to follow. While there are a lot of influences that go into our music I would say for this project in particular I defiantly tapped back into the Riot Grrrl scene for a few reasons: one because I was starting over and it was the music that really first inspired me to pick up a guitar and open my mouth in the first place, but also because I wanted to become a stronger more confident guitar player.
I was listening to a lot of Babes in Toyland while writing these songs and literally tore apart Sleater-Kinney’s catalog for about a year studying the nuances in their tones and Corin Tucker’s lyrics and vocal inflections.
The aim of the band in general has always been to make music that goes somewhere and has a message. While there are a few “love” songs on the album the underlying theme throughout most the album is a battle against some form of an oppressor whether it be man, woman, government, ourselves.
When we started writing for this album I was feeling hindered by a lot of things in my life and I was learning a lot of life lessons and these songs were sort of my battle cry. “Fight Song” for example is sort of pep talk in the mirror to go and get what you want. I was thinking a lot about my journey and struggles to get where I am and thinking about my 11 year old niece and the shit she is going to have to go through and I wanted her to have a sort of anthem. “Blood and Bone” and is about realizing and breaking through the confines you were raised to, or in some cases just believed to be, true. “The American” is about consumerism and problems we as a society have created (I am not excluding myself from the problem, the narrative is first person) and the lackadaisical attitude many of us have towards consuming. The fact that diet pills exist as pretty much a recreational drug makes me fucking sick on so many levels. “Ad Nauseum” is about unconditional love, no matter how destructive it may be, but also pointing out the issues with it and owning it. That is such a fun one to play live. It is so cathartic for all of us to play because we really like to push that one and usually open with it. Screaming “take” until I almost pass out to a room full of people at the beginning of a show feels like I am demanding it of them, kind of like “Hey, we are going to be up here for the next 40 minutes playing music and laying out our souls and YOU WILL PAY ATTENTION AND YOU WILL TAKE WHAT WE ARE GIVING YOU!” It is very empowering.
Bottom line is that we also really like the music and it is the music that continues to drive us to do what we do. Our first show ever as a band was last Halloween and we dressed up as Bikini Kill with sharpie scrawls on our bodies to play a biker bar on the outskirts of the Bay Area. Getting to play and sing “Rebel Girl” with your brand new band and “SLUT” scrawled across your stomach to a room full of confused dudes and some pretty excited women was a dream come true. I can’t think of a better way to have started this project.
To learn more about Mutt, check out their Bandcamp page HERE.
Elka Weber is a writer and artist based in Oakland, California.