Entertainment & Arts

Muna interview: Defiant pop from LA rising stars

LA pop trio Muna have been singled out as one of the most exciting new bands of 2016, mixing 80s pop melodies with a uniquely powerful message. They talk to the BBC about their origins and taking a millennial approach to girl power.

Image copyright Catie Laffoon
Image caption Muna (L-R): Josette Maskin, Katie Gavin, Naomi McPherson

For a band who specialise in dark pop, Muna are surprisingly chatty.

On a conference call from Los Angeles, singer Katie Gavin and guitarists Naomi McPherson and Josette Maskin are all talking at once, stumbling over each other's words until the conversation grinds to a halt and someone has to be nominated to finish the answer.

As an interview, it is utter chaos - but the band's camaraderie is infectious.

It all stems from their origins at the University of Southern California. The trio lived in the same apartment building, discovering their musical and mutual chemistry at a late night party.

"We just got together and jammed," says McPherson, "and we kind of just wrote our first song as soon as we did that."

"We wrote three parts - a verse, chorus and bridge," continues Maskin. "Katie took it away and the next day she came back with a melody and we were like, 'Oh God, this is a pop song!'

It was something of a shock for the guitarists, who had previously been playing progressive rock and ska.

"But Katie just said, 'I'm pop, deal with it,' and walked away. It was very funny."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The band write, play and produce all of their own songs

The ice duly broken, the band continued to refine their sound - a spiky-but-polished take on 1980s soft rock. Imagine a goth version of Haim and you'll be half-way there.

Their songs are instantly relatable, discussing heartbreak, rejection, self-worth and female identity without shying away from the complexities of those topics.

Early single So Special, for example, is a percolating synth-pop confessional with a devastating lyric about a girl who is judged for her sex life.

"There's a few bad things I've done, that nobody made me do," sings Gavin. "Most just to get myself off, and the rest to get over you".

The band describe the song as a "drunken reckoning of oneself" but, more importantly, "an anthem for the slut-shamed girls of the world who have to assert their own value".

Revolution

Strength in the face of adversity and ridicule emerges as a theme in their music, And nowhere is that more true than on Loudspeaker, the lead track of the band's recent EP.

At first glance, it seems like a standard issue break-up song, but Gavin says it emerged from a much darker episode in her life.

"I was really, really drunk at a party and somebody had sex with me in a way that I didn't want to happen, that I didn't give consent for," she explains.

"And then my group of friends at the time - they didn't know any better but they all made fun of me because there was someone else at the party that they thought I should have been with - and instead I was with this other person.

"It was just this giant [disaster] where something bad happened to me and then, on top of it, I was made to feel like a bad person. And I just took it and dealt with it privately and minimised it."

The song came out years later, when Gavin realised the assault had "had a deeper emotional effect on me than I was allowing myself to feel".

"That happens a lot in situations like that. When you're taken advantage of, it's never as clear as it would be on TV. So a lot of times, with women, we don't even identify that we've been sexually violated. So it can be months, it can years after the fact.

"That song was the start of a difference. It's about making a commitment to talk about the stuff that I'm going through. I'm not going to behave in a way where I feel ashamed."

One line in particular - "every time I don't shut up, it's a revolution" - has stuck a chord with fans, says Gavin.

"People will make art and that's the line they'll take out and use. That really warms my heart."

Image copyright Jacqueline De Milia
Image caption The group have been compared to Haim and Fleetwood Mac - but they call themselves a "punk Wilson Phillips"

Her willingness to address thorny issues is what earns Muna their "dark pop" epithet - but that's not to say their music is hard work. The rippling, radio-friendly harmonies and fizzing production will have you dancing long before the lyrics engage your brain. And that's partly the point.

"When I talk to a taxi driver and they ask me what kind of music my band makes, I just say 'pop'," says Gavin. "But when you consider the multiple meanings of our music - it's just dark. The things that drive us to write songs can sometimes be really heavy."

If you search for Muna online, you will quickly find them described as a "queer band", a label which, bizarrely, focuses on their sexuality above their music.

The three members all identify as queer - a broader, more fluid term that resists categorisations like straight or gay - but they resist the idea that it should affect the perception of their music, while allowing that other queer or marginalised people might relate to the lyrics on a different level.

As if to prove it, the song that provoked the biggest response from fans is Winter Break - a familiar tale about two exes who find themselves irresistibly pulled back into each other's orbit.

"It's about a high-school relationship - but then you go to college and, even though it's been a year, there's still something there and it's totally misleading," says Gavin, who deliberately avoided using personal pronouns like "he" or "she" in the lyrics.

"We've had people get really emotional about it."

The strength of people's reactions to Muna's self-produced EP piqued the interest of record labels, and Sony offshoot Columbia eventually signed the trio. This summer, they've been hard at work on their debut album which, as of August, is in the bag.

Image copyright Columbia Records
Image caption "I'd never been in a pop band before this," says Josette

The highlight, they say, is a new song called I Know A Place.

"It's just kind of a banger," says McPherson. "We've played it live a lot and it's kind of the turning point in the set. If people aren't sure if they like us or not, they usually come to the dark side after that track."

British fans will get a chance to hear it in full when the band play their first UK headline show at London's Notting Hill Arts Club on Wednesday night.

"I've heard it's a good venue," says Gavin, questioningly. "Is there a stage, or are you right in there with the crowd?"

Reassured that there is, in fact, a small platform for the band to stand on, McPherson seems relieved.

"We started playing at parties so we like when people are close. But two or three feet off the ground is just enough to have a bit of mystery!"

Most of all, though, the trio are excited to be sharing their success with each other.

"We're very close and we get emotional a lot over it," says Gavin.

"It's one thing for you to feel that you're doing well - but it's another thing to turn around and see two of your best friends in the entire world, and we're doing it all together. It's very special to us."

Muna's Loudspeaker EP is out now. They play the Notting Hill Arts Club on Wednesday, 28 September and support Grouplove on their US and European tour for the rest of the year.

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