by Andrew Norman
Prolific, pavement-pounding Lincoln rock band Once a Pawn drops its third record in four years tonight at Knickerbockers, 901 O St., with Dope Pope and Lincoln legends Domestica. (The 9 p.m. show costs $5.) In This House is the now-trio's second release on San Francisco's Queer Control Records, and it's another socially conscious rocker that further establishes Once a Pawn as one of Nebraska music's most powerful voices.
Hear Nebraska spoke with Catherine Balta (drummer, vocals), Eric Scrivens (guitar) and Mike Flowers (bass) about fine-tuning their sound, challenging gender roles in a socially conservative state and evolving spirit.
Hear Nebraska: Tell me about In This House.
Eric Scrivens: It's all homemade again. I think it's great, honestly. You shouldn't be so proud of your own work, but I'm really really proud of this record. I think it's a good evolution. It's kind of where we wanted to be, I think.
HN: What do you mean by that?
ES: It's the record we've always wanted to do but we've never done. We've just kind of come together ... the ceiling just kind of slides in. Not that it didn't happen with the previous records, but I think this one is a little more coherent. And I think it just sounds better. We took our time. You learn a little each record and you do it better the next time. Plus, we got a bass player which has allowed me to jump outside the box.
HN: Is that something that has felt kind of limiting to you in the past?
ES: Absolutely. And I don't want to say it's limited the music, but I'm always, even when I'm playing, I'm always writing things, like what I could do with this if we had a bass player or a guitar player. I'm always a musician just trying to feel out what could be.
HN: Where did the songs come from, Catherine? Where were you at, mentally, when you were writing them?
Catherine Balta: I was going through a variety of different points in my life. The title track was written kind of in the fall … when it gets dark early and your mood might be a little more down.
Mike Flowers: It's Seasonal Affective Disorder ― also known as SAD. Melancholy was in the air.
CB: Yeah that.
“FHU” is about animals and how they're mistreated and how humans are so callous, I guess to the treatment of animals, and don't seem to think about how much we kind of take them for granted, and also how much we depend on animals for love and friendship and everything else they give us. My mom is very involved in animal rights and all three of us have pets and love animals as well.
“Choice” is about being pro-choice. My girlfriend works with a company that partnered with Planned Parenthood, so I'm very passionate about that and about some of the things people who work at Planned Parenthood have to experience from other people, as far as their views are concerned. And just the kind of harassment that goes on. ... and my personal fear with some people who have done awkward things around our house.
HN: What do you mean by awkward things?
CB: Oh, Just a couple awkward things happened. Some guy drove by in front of our house and slowed down. I opened the door to take my dog out and as I opened the door, somebody on Van Dorn ― which is a fairly busy street ― slowed down in front of our house and snapped a picture of me and drove off. It was just really weird. And then a couple days later a guy pulled up in our driveway, inquiring about our band and wondering if he could come by and watch us practice. And at this point my girlfriend had been telling me about some odd stories that other people at Planned Parenthood had been going through, because people will follow them home after work. People will do research and use scare tactics on them. So it just worried me. It frightened me.
HN: Tell me what Once a Pawn fans are going to think about the sound or the record.
ES: I just think this is a good feeling record. It's got its ups. It's got its downs, and it's just real.
MF: I think they're going to notice that the bass is more prominent because we can duplicate that sound live now. Eric, who produced the album totally DIY an everything, played the bass on the last three albums, but because he couldn't produce that live he just kept that simple and buried it in the mix., so you don't know it's there, but subconsciously you know it's there. It sounds right. You know there's low-end. This one is more complicated. The bass is doing some stuff other than just root notes. So I think just from a listening standpoint, you'll notice that.
CB: I this album is a little more rockin'. It has more of a rock element to it. Eric and I had a few songs that we'd already written when Mike joined the band a little over a year ago and the rest of them we wrote together. I think our sound just kind of fine-tunes and progresses as we play.
Eric an I are very excited about the sound that is becoming Once a Pawn. And we're excited about having Mike in the band. It's pretty cool because with a bass there Eric's able to expand his creativity more. He can elaborate with his song. He can focus on lead parts rather than trying to hold down rhythm and lead and everything.
I'd say this this album sounds like Once a Pawn but maybe just a progression of it. I feel like we have songs that represent songs from the last album, just in a different version.
CB: We think it's better. The more we play, we feel like we get more confident and better as musicians and at fine-tuning the sound we want to create.
HN: Have the band's sights shifted at all since signing to Queer Control Records? It seems like you're progressing ― you're playing bigger shows and you're touring more. What has it meant for your hopes for this album compared to prior records?
CB: The label definitely has helped us gain recognition. They got us on iTunes, which is awesome, and they distribute all of our stuff. They're kind of at a point where they're not doing much work for resident artists, so we're just pretty much doing distribution through them. But they've definitely helped get us recognition on the coasts and throughout the country and all over the world, to people who pay attention to Queer Control.
As far as locally, I mean, more and more people find out about us. And touring, I've gotten more contacts along the way, but in general we're not becoming huge superstars by any means. Local shows pick up a little bit, but they're not packed houses.
HN: Why did you ask Domestica to play on the bill?
MF: Because they fucking rock.
CB: Yeah, they're an awesome band. They're so tight and they have a great sound. I love that there's a female in the band that rocks the fuck out. They're definitely local heroes. And we just really appreciate their style. They've been doing what they do for so long and it's a style of music you don't hear around here a lot.
MF: It's mid-late '90s rock 'n' roll. But it's got elements of grunge and even some of that pre-grunge sound.
CB: As far as our sound is concerned I wouldn't say we're totally '90s rock, but I feel like we're fairly close to it. There's not a lot of bands that are just like rock 'n' roll that much anymore. There's a lot of indie, experimental, hardcore or folky … there's a lot of like hipster sounds going on right now. And there's not a lot of straight-up rock 'n' roll music. They're totally the epitome of that. That's why they were on the top of our list to be on the show.
Going back to the touring question, I guess. We're going out to the East Coast next week for like a week and a half. And we met some really cool people who found out about us through the Can't Figure You Out music video, through Queer Control Records when they had a music video showdown. They helped us out with a show last year when we went out there. And this year they helped us set up all our shows from Providence to New York. They've set up some really good shows wit hbands and they're promoting us. They've helped us get our name out there.
With the price of gas and the music scene kind of in the shitter right now, and the recession, we're probably not going to be touring quite as much until we feel more comfortable with funding.
Hopefully the van doesn't shit on us.
HN: What other Lincoln bands do you look up to?
MF: Growing up, I remember JVA being the band, when they started Sucker Punch. You looked up to those guys. I'm not into that pop-punk thing as much anymore as they used to be. But I really liked that.
CB: Bright Calm Brue is a pretty well-respected band I listened to via the early internet when I was in high school.
MF: Even Prairie Psycho. That's totally out of left field. But I like those guys.
CB: Her Flyaway Manner and the bands Brendan's been in have always been awesome and they've been around for a long time.
HN: Catherine, when did you realize there were bands that had identities based on being queer or being gender-neutral?
CB: I would say probably when I met my first girlfriend. She introduced me to a lot of Modest Mouse, Sleater Kinney, The Cure, all that kind of stuff. That was kind of my first introduction into alternative, kind of underground stuff. Probably one of the first bands I heard her talk about was, well, Sleater Kinney isn't technically queer, but I think one of the members is bi … but an all female band at least. I really didn't know of a lot of queer bands. And honestly there aren't a ton of them that I really like.
One of the first queer bands that I started really liking a lot was The Gossip. Tegan and Sarah I've always liked because it's catchy pop that you can't deny. But that's hard because there weren't a bunch of queer bands that I really liked.
HN: You're (Catherine) extremely active in GLBT culture, curating the Open Drag Night and putting on other shows at the Q. Why do you stay in Lincoln, doing this cultural work here, rather than making music from one of the coasts?
CB: First, it's hard to move my mom and my bandmates with me, because I would have to do that. Also, money. And especially when I was younger, I didn't want to leave here because I feel like Lincoln needs somebody like me to do this kind of stuff. Because I would have appreciated someone that I could have seen out in public doing things that would acknowledge something that I would have been into, or a culture that I related to when I was younger. Especially when I was younger and had more spirit to me, I really wanted to be a change in Lincoln for people who don't fit into the norm.
And I guess I've grown a slight attachment to Lincoln of some sort. We'll see what happens.
HN: So you feel like you've lost some of that spirit? Is that due to growing older?
CB: I think I still have that spirit about me and I'm still getting more and more involved. My girlfriend and I put together all the entertainment for Star City Pride last year. And now I work at UNL at the LGBT Resource Center. I guess my approach to it is a little different now. And I just have a lot more going on in my life than just living at my mom's house and working a part-time job with my band. Now I'm kind of in my real life. But I'm still really involved, just with a different approach. But it's probably a more effective approach than what I was doing.
HN: Why does Lincoln make for a good home base for a band?
MF: I really like it here. I've lived here my whole life. People are friendly. I've been all over the world … it feels good to come back here. … I think what I like most of it is the simplicity. You don't have to have a lot of money and you can have your space and you don't have to, I guess, try so hard.
CB: I would agree that you can live here comfortably as far as, your rent isn't super high. You have space. You can turn in a circle and not touch anybody. Everything's fairly close. It's comfortable because you have your bubble of people you know and you know them around at the grocery store or whatever. It's a good base.
As I said, my mom is here and she's so involved in the community for animal rights and for GLBT rights that we've made a base here. I would say though it is difficult being someone like me … I'm not alone here as far as being androgynous, gender, not neutral, but being an atypical person living here. I'm not really understood by many and there's not a huge community of people that might be in a similar position. There's not really a queer music scene. There's not many things you would find in like Minneapolis, as far as different events, different types of people, progressive things that just aren't here because we are a smaller city. So that's one of the most difficult things, but it is a comfortable, cheap place with some nice people here.
HN: When you think of Nebraska music, what do you think?
ES: I just think of great music in general, we have great blues, we've got jazz, we've got indy music, rock, metal. I think just Nebraska has really good talent. And it's unfortunate that it can't get recognized nationally.
Clearly, we don't make records to make money, because we don't. It's just one of those things where we do it because we love it and we love the people that we play with. I see Nebraska as an underrated musical talent in general.
Andrew Norman is Hear Nebraska's editor. He loves the idea of a Once a Pawn-Domestica pairing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.