Gustaf: New York’s mischievous dance-punks “enjoy being skilfully inconsistent”
Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’ll see opening the bill for your favourite act. Get to know Gustaf, whose raunchy, sardonic new wave-tinged tunes were turning heads before they’d even thought of a band name
Sometimes it’s worth trying your luck. When Lydia Gammill heard that her friends were playing at taste-making music festival SXSW in Austin, Texas back in early 2018 and needed a hand driving the van down from New York City, she saw an opportunity.
“Tarra [Thiesson, vocals and percussion] and Tine [Hill, bass] were playing in this band called Ex-Girlfriends and they had a tour starting after SXSW in 2018,” Gammill says from her home in New York. “Tarra was supposed to drive her van down with another band but then they decided not to play that tour. And so she asked me if I wanted to help her drive the van down and I said, ‘Yes – can I play shows?’, and she said, ‘Sure. Do you have a band?’ And I replied: ‘Not really.’”
They weren’t about to let that stop them. “We were kind of brainstorming. Angela, our original drummer, and Tine were both in Ex-Girlfriends and they were down for this new band. And Vram [Kherlopian], our guitarist, was going to SXSW that year, but his band also decided not to go, so we threw him into the mix.” And off they went.
This hybrid band, the proto-Gustaf, immediately started playing shows, picking up the bookings that had fallen through for the members’ other projects around SXSW and working out what they wanted to do in real time. “We played shows before we had a name, and we could just explore that environment for a while,” says Gammill. “Once we got that momentum going, we could start to build up the technical stuff.”
“I remember playing the first show,” says Hill, “and people loved it. I think everyone was kind of nervous – I was for sure – but it was super positive. People dancing, and being like’ I never heard anything like that before!’”
It’s easy to hear why. Gustaf boast a strikingly lean sound, anchored by a rock-solid rhythm section that gives Gammill ample room for her larger-than-life delivery, a drawled not-quite-sprechgesang vivid with smart one-liners and sardonic wit. The post-punk heritage of their home city is clearly audible, with shades of Talking Heads, ESG and Television woven through the band’s death-disco beats and nagging guitar lines. But there’s also a keen ear for the contemporary which prevents Gustaf from ever spilling over into outright NYC pastiche; tracks like ‘Mine’ and ‘Best Behaviour’ are as danceable as they are funny, a combination that recurs throughout the band’s forthcoming debut album, ‘Audio Drag For Ego Slobs’.
“A lot of kids are doing the post-punk thing and I like that stuff,” says Gammill. “ESG, The Fall, Can, Wire. I like the minimal simplicity of it, and trying to find cathartic moments within that. I had tried to have bands that I was the lead singer in for years before but nothing really stuck. But with Gustaf, it was great because we couldn’t really think: we were forced to play shows, to book a tour with no music and no following. You get it together pretty quickly in that situation.”
Those tumultuous first sets, filling in the gaps left by other bands and booking their own shows while travelling across the country, provided a steep learning curve. “At our first show, there was a blizzard,” recalls Gammill. “But we managed to get a lot of people into this venue. This was back in the day when I was thinking about Andy Kaufman a lot because Jim Carrey did that documentary and I was having fun thinking about feisty antics. I had Vram drag me out of the bathroom to start the set, and that was a fun bonding moment for me and him.”
At this point Thiesson chips in: “Remember that one time you were in the bathroom and we started, and…”
“Oh my gosh!” says Gammill. “It was in downtown Brooklyn. There was a little bathroom right off the stage, and I was in there, and the toilet was clogged. And they thought I was just doing the bit, and I wasn’t. They started the song, and I’m really trying to plunge down all the toilet paper and I hear them starting; I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding’.
“But it was one of those moments where I was in the bathroom being like, ‘This will be funny in the future’, and then we had an amazing set – we crushed it! So I think that was my karmic toll for a great show: you know, you put the little coin in the slot, and then you get a treat.”
This kind of frankness and self-deprecation is key to Gustaf’s charm, and it’s what drives a debut album that they’re already excited to move on from. “It’s fun now that we’ve got a record deal” beams Gammill, speaking of their signing to Royal Mountain Records. “I like to be a fluid, and… skilfully inconsistent performer, and I enjoy taking a different path. Now that we’ve finished the last record we can look back and think ‘When in doubt, we can revert to this’, but we can leave room to do other things.” It’s a tantalising prospect, whatever those other things might be.
Gustaf’s debut album ‘Audio Drag For Ego Slobs’ is released October 1 via Royal Mountain Records