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December 2022 / January 2023

Pinkshift: "There is a lot of anger on the album, a lot of anguish"

PINKSHIFT‘s debut has arrived - but don’t call it pop-punk.
Published: 2:30 pm, October 26, 2022Words: Alex Bradley.
Pinkshift: "There is a lot of anger on the album, a lot of anguish"

This wasn't the plan when Ashrita Kumar's parents left India for the United States. Or as Paul Vallejo's family moved from Peru for better financial prospects in the US, while Myron Houngbedji's folks left Benin, a country sandwiched between Nigeria and Ghana, with similar dreams.

They each settled in Baltimore, their children met, and that old-fashioned "American Dream" continued to burn bright in the hearts of the immigrants who found themselves in the land of opportunity. Their children got their degrees, and the prospect of long-term stability felt very real.

But then they started a band. Then the pandemic happened. They had one song, 'I'm Gonna Tell My Therapist On You', that went viral during the lockdowns, and Pinkshift gained an overnight following that chose to stick around. The offers for shows started coming in; they came to the UK for Slam Dunk and blew everyone away with their in-your-face, vibrant, grungy style. Things started getting pretty real for Pinkshift.

Now, Pinkshift are here on the eve of the release of their debut album, 'Love Me Forever'. Medical school isn't happening anytime soon. Instead, they're here to tear up any pre-conceptions that they're just some one-hit-wonder, TikTok sensation, pop-punk band. Pinkshift are not a pop-punk band, for starters, and this album settles that score once and for all. In fact, Pinkshift are music without borders, crossing lines between genres, gender, sexuality, race and their own geographical backgrounds.

So, here are Pinkshift ready to light the fuse on their very first album.

What range of emotions are you feeling just weeks away from the release of your debut album?
I'm feeling incredibly excited. There is pressure, not from other people but this weird mental pressure. I'm feeling very excited for it to be out so I can just be annoying about it and just annoy people every day.
I've been going through a whirlwind of emotions. One thing I do feel a lot is really, really proud of us.
Ashrita: I'm excited but kind of nervous but also mostly excited. I'm excited to have "an album" out because this whole time, we've only had an EP, but now we are going to have "a thing".
I think it'll feel legitimatising because we were always like, "wow, a lot of people like this one EP and are listening to these five songs we put out over a year ago." It feels, not like imposter syndrome, but like "this is a lot of people for this small quantity of songs," so I think releasing this album will feel like we are a real band.

'Love Me Forever' is an interesting title for this album as there is a lot more anger and angst than there is love; how did you come to decide for that to be the title?
There is a lot of anger and angst, and sometimes anger is self-care. A lot of times, there are a lot of emotions you suppress because you're like, "Oh I'm not supposed to feel like this", or "I'm not supposed to express this because it makes other people upset", but it is a feeling you feel and suppressing that only makes it feel worse.
I feel like there is a lot of anger on the album, but more than anger, there is a lot of anguish. A lot of the album was written during the pandemic, and it was a really big time for self-reflection because you couldn't do anything else. You were stuck with yourself for a really long time. So, there is a lot of coming to terms with yourself and loving yourself and all those pieces of yourself. I think that going through all those emotions and making something beautiful out of it that is still ugly, but it's still whole; I still feel like it's a journey to loving myself.

Are you daunted by how much you expose yourself and your emotions in the way you write as, once this album is out, people will know you a lot better?
It can feel like a lot. We released 'In A Breath' this week, and I always knew I wasn't going to feel amazing about it, but I didn't know why. Everybody was like, "it's such a good song, and people are going to love it", and I was like, "I don't think the problem is that people are going to love it or not love it. The issue is being out there like that." It's really hard sometimes.

That song really goes behind the curtain on you as a person, and it sits right in the middle of the table too, so it's hard to avoid it.
Yeah. A lot of the beginning of the album is pure anger. A lot of it is deflecting and being upset at the world. Being upset with everyone. Being upset with people that are trying to help you. Being upset with people who are not trying to help you. And I feel like 'In A Breath' is just where you collapse because you are so tired of it.

So what specifically is making you so angry?
I don't know, you tell me. I don't mean that; I don't mean to put you on the spot. A lot of people are like, "why are you so mad?" and it's like, "why aren't you?"
It's a reflective kind of anger. It's like a mirror. You can be mad at yourself, but you can be mad at a lot of what is going on in the world, and I feel like the older we get and the more of the world we step into, the more it is aggravating, and it isn't fair, and you have to pay to stay alive, and all of that can really suck. There isn't a specific target but what it is like to be alive sometimes.

The anger is continued in the sound on the album, but you've been adopted by this label of "pop-punk" with the festival line-ups you've played and being mentioned in amongst this new wave of bands within that genre of music. Are you ready to tear up any pre-conceptions that you fit in with that crowd?
I am so excited. It's fine to be associated and acknowledge that there are elements of pop-punk or any genre, but I feel like it is reductive to slap the pop-punk label onto the band just because of one or two songs. Hopefully, the album clears that up. And already with 'In A Breath' people are like, "I wasn't expecting this", and it's like, well, you're gonna have a good time with the album then. It's a nice blend of our own growth and our influences of the last two years, and that really shows on the album. It's nice to exist organically in a lot of different spaces rather than just be put into one pot.
Yeah, that pop-punk label is something we are definitely excited and eager to add onto with the album. It didn't personally bother me at the beginning because almost everybody has had a pop-punk phase, whether they knew it or not. And if that's the first label people slapped on us, then it's like who wouldn't check it out?! It's not the worst thing to be labelled as, and it gives people the extra push to check it out. If we were called "hardcore" or something then that already limits the number of people that would want to check it out.
When the pop-punk thing happened at first, we just rode it out.
I was listening to 'Saccharine" for the first time in a very long time, and I was like, "I get it. I get why people called it pop-punk."

"If people say we are pop-punk, then we are about to change what pop-punk is" 
Ashrita Kumar

Sometimes people mislabel bands as "pop-punk" for any fun band that has a lot of vibrancy and energy.
I think we are excited about expanding the definition of pop-punk in 2022 because if people say we are pop-punk, then we are about to change what pop-punk is, and I think that is cool.

Was there any part of you following the viral success of 'I'm Gonna Tell My Therapist On You' that wanted to chase that success and try to recreate it?
Oh yeah, I think so. I think that's what we tried to do with the singles that came out after it. We were like, "Oh my God, people like 'Therapist'? 'Rainwalk' is an even better song, and it's going to be even bigger when we release this song." We thought about it, but we weren't disappointed about it when it didn't happen necessarily. I think the coolest part of 'Therapist' was that it jump-started this community around our music. We sold some shirts and were able to release 'Saccharine' independently.

So what would be the songs that you're most proud of on this album?
I'm gonna say 'Dreamer'; it's such a beautiful closer to the album, and it's one of those songs where I still have voice memos of us practising it as it's being written and just seeing it that come to fruition is really great. Two days ago, I was at the gym and listening to it, and I'm thinking of music video ideas for it and the ending part of it, and I started crying, but it didn't matter because I was sweating, so nobody could see. And I was deadlifting, so it was a great time.
Like Myron, I'm most excited for people to listen to the last song because I want to see them dance. It's dancy. But I'm most proud of 'BURN THE WITCH' because it went through so many stages of doubt. This song started as an idea, and then for a while, we hated it.
I hated the idea so much that I didn't want to do it. I refused.
It definitely sounded very different at its inception, but I think it's an example of our band just working through something. I personally thought it wasn't going to be on the album, but the fact that we worked on it hard enough to get it to a point where we are really proud is growth and something I've not done before.
I think, for me, it's 'Love Me Forever', the title track. I think one of my favourite moments is the bridge of that song. I think every time I'm in it, I feel like I'm in a storm or something and it's not going to end and I'm really proud of us for doing that because every time I listen to it I'm like "I can't believe this is our band".
Oh, and 'The Kids Aren't Alright' just because when we finished recording that, I wanted to release it immediately because it was so important. I was like, "these are the best lyrics I've ever written; this needs to be out now!"

Looking back over the album, is there any part of you that wishes for one or two more low / mid tempo songs to help you out when you go out and play this album live?
No way! The way that we tour is that we are quite low energy outside of the show. We wake up, talk a little bit, headphones in and charge up our social battery and then we go insane for 30 minutes to an hour and then go back. Those 30 minutes are literally all the energy we have, and I love that. I feel like people really feel it.
But, I have thought that if we have a longer set, then we should have some slower songs because those kids… I get worried about them.
We played a show in Connecticut, and it was the sweatiest show we have ever played. The whole stage was just puddles. It was a slip N slide. I had to take off my shoes because I wear these Crocs and I was just slipping. It was just this tiny room, and those kids were moshing to everything, and I took some water bottles and just sprayed them because I was like, "you guys have got to take care of yourselves. Nobody is passing out. Everyone is okay." That energy makes it an experience for sure.

Okay, we will revisit this question in 10 years when you're playing 90-minute sets every night.
We are going to have the same vibes as Arctic Monkeys: first two albums are pretty hype, and then just… 'Tranquility Base' or whatever. Just get really weird and slow eight-minute songs!

It gets a lot of attention that you're each the kids of immigrants to the US, which must make for an interesting dynamic with your parents as they moved countries for a better life, and then their children say they're gonna be in a band rather than go to medical school. That must have been a difficult conversation, right?
Yeah. Because our parents moved to this country for us, there is always a financial aspect to everything. One of the key reasons people emigrate from South America to the States is literally for better financial opportunity, so anything that I did was tied to "am I going to be financially sustainable for myself?" And obviously, music is not as cut and dry as engineering or medicine. When Pinkshift started getting opportunities to play tours, record an album or do more full-time music things, presenting that to my parents (and I'm an only child), I had to frame it… You can't really go with the excitement of, "I'm in a band. I'm going to do this." You have to go in with the financial aspects of it or here's why this makes sense. It is weird. When talking to my parents, I definitely have to put on businessman mode, which kinda sucks, but it's the only way they can see what this industry is and how it works. You want to say your parents support you no matter what, and they do, but there is that thing of "we need our children to be self-sufficient so that they can take care of themselves when we no longer can."
It's like they planted their little seed here to grow, and we are in a rock band now. And they're like, "Oh my God, you're going to fall into poverty. This is not why we came here!"
Like Paul said, I'm an only child, so I'm like the only shot they have of generational wealth in this country. I know now my parents are a lot more understanding about it, but at first, I had to make a decision between doing the band and going to medical school. Med school was the goal for a while and had always been in their head; it had always been in my head, it's what they tell their siblings and their older family, and so when it came down to that decision, it was like, "are you crazy? What are you doing?" A lot of immediate backlash, and that was understandable.
I feel like I have to prove to them and show them the prospects of this financially and why this is such a rare opportunity for things to be growing as exponentially as they have been. We did our first national tour a year ago, and since then, we've gone to the UK, and all this stuff doesn't happen that fast [usually]. And that's not a viral thing. I'd been a little concerned that it was a song that blew up on TikTok and all these streams from one TikTok, but it's organic, and we see it every day with people talking about us and telling their friends about us. It's building this huge network of people that are actually supporting us. We see that at shows, and with my parents coming to shows and seeing that people are actually excited to see us has eased my parents' fears. I know there are still tinges of anxiety over whether this can be sustainable or not. There is still the backup of having my degree. So it could still be a lot worse in their minds.
For me, it's very similar for me, but I have a little sister, so I'm allowed to fuck up a little bit now. I wasn't allowed to fuck up for the longest time because I was the oldest sibling. I'm the oldest sibling of all my cousins, too, so everyone was compared to me for the longest time. I got all A's. I got a Master's, and now I'm in this band, and now my family don't know what to do anymore. There is a lot of guilt. And the guilt is they came all the way over here, and that's so hard to do. To leave your parents and everyone you know and come here because you want to develop something in this country.
I was feeling really bad about it when we started the Mannequin Pussy tour - I felt so good about that tour - but when I came back, I was like "I think I'm going to do this now." And I remember talking to an Aunty at Diwali because she seemed chill, and she said, "even if your parents don't realise it right now, this is why your parents came here because you wouldn't be able to do that over there. This is why they came here, so you could do this. They're really proud of you for that, and even if they don't say it right now, they will be." I think it's just keeping that in mind and also the small business model and having that ready and being able to back up what we do and, for the most part, our parents trust us. They trust that we are not insane. For the most part…
It's just maintaining that two-way street that they know what's going on and that we still care about them and being financially stable. We are all family-orientated people, so it's important to us that everybody is okay, but there is still a lot of anxiety there.

So, do your parents like the new album?
I think so.
I played it for my parents, but I feel like they don't listen to music the way I do. They will like it, but it's either because I helped write it or because I'm attached to it or because they truly, truly like it. I appreciate their support in general. I know they don't listen to that music but whenever I play it they say they like it. My Mum does point out some specific parts where she is like "Oh I like that part" but she doesn't know how to say it.
My family, we were in Florida and (my Mum is really supportive of the music, I think my Dad doesn't get it as much) and my Mum was like, "let's put on your album in the car", and we sat in silence for 45 minutes listened to this all together in the car, and my Dad said, "this was nice. Why is it so loud?" I think that's the general vibe with my parents: "why is it so loud? I can barely hear your voice." Obviously, they're more concerned with my voice. They really liked 'In a Breath' because they could hear my voice, and then when it came out, and they were able to listen to it on their own, my Mum texted me ", The song is so beautiful, but it's so sad!" They're really supportive, and they don't listen to this music, and they really do try.
They came to the first show at Ottobar (which is in our hometown in Baltimore). We sold it out, it was our first headline show, and all of our mums and dads came to this show. They had special reserved seating because Ottobar has that for some reason, and they liked it, I think. It was funny because during 'Mars', they started throwing dollar bills. There are a lot of things traditionally that overlap between all three of us, and one of those is throwing money, but not in a stripper way, but in a good fortune way. We were playing the song, and we could see dollar bills flying down from the sky, and it was our parents - Myron's Mum and my Dad - so they're really supportive, and they want us to excel and it's really funny seeing them try. It's great. It's awesome.

It seems like you have a good network of support that not only comes from your family but the fans of Pinkshift. In terms of representation for people under-represented in rock music, the positivity radiates from everything associated with your band. Is that true of your experience, and have you been wholly accepted everywhere you play?
Our shows are the best environments I've ever been in and I'm really thankful that the people we attract and some of the best I've met.
We have been really fortunate in that almost everybody that we have met on a professional level, and everybody that has come out to our shows has genuinely been there for us, and they're good people. A lot of the time, I think as a band, you tend to attract what you put out, so we try to put out the best energy we can, and fortunately, we get that back a lot of the time. Honestly, it's a high, and it's so great to be in a space we can control.
Stepping out of that and opening for bands that don't necessarily have the same kind of audience, being at festivals, is so different, but the people who stick around for us are here for us, and we are here for them. We don't really care for anything else. If people don't like us because they're racist, then that's weird. That hasn't really happened, but for Reddit and YouTube comments, it's not even real because the spaces that we occupy and put ourselves in tend to be amazing.
I mean, if we were playing shows for assholes, then we wouldn't have gotten this far.

Taken from the November issue of Upset. Pinkshift's album 'Love Me Forever' is out 21st October.

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