Tune Up : North Dakota

By Zachary Schepis

Photo courtesy of North Dakota.

Make no mistake; the all-girl rock trio North Dakota don’t operate under false pretenses. The formula is simple: take nothing too seriously, and never fear forays into uncharted territory. When they’re not switching instruments midset, the Arizona-based band finds fun and inspiration in a variety of ways – from art itself to music played with strangers from the street. They’re experimental and have a great sense of humor to boot. Pat Waggy, their first full-length album, was well received when it debuted in March. However, one of the members – Michelle Blades – moved to Paris soon after the band gained momentum. They were forced into hiatus, but not forgotten. Strong support for the band allowed them to fly Michelle back to record Pat Waggy, press it on vinyl, and briefly tour. Now the three are even more anxious to get back together; time apart hasn’t stifled any sparks – if anything it has only fueled the fire. BTR catches up with drummer/multi-instrumentalist Mo Neuharth on her happy hour to discuss the dynamics of North Dakota.

Tell me a little bit about your musical backgrounds. Where does North Dakota hail from?

We started pretty much through Michelle – she was making her own music at the time that was kind of folky. She played ukulele and Emily and I were part of her backing band, where I was playing synth for her and Emily was playing percussion. One night we got sick of playing like that and we wanted to do something a little harder, wanted to switch the instruments, and so we just kind of started fucking around. But then we realized it worked really really well, so we started it from there.

Your Facebook describes your sound as “cupcakes meets doom metal meets Rothko meets a cat named Memu.” How did you come to find this sound, and what’s Memu like?

Well, Memu is just my cat. It’s not very important (laughs). But yeah, I don’t know where to begin with the sound. I really mean it when I say it was experimental; we were all playing different instruments every time. We started making new sounds because everyone plays differently, and I didn’t even know how to play the drums at all. The two of them taught me.

We all have our own backgrounds in music. Emily is much more into stuff like The Cramps, while Michelle was the one who brought the metal sounds and started doing things that were really outside of our element. It would surprise people too, because they were used to her doing such soft folk. I’m really into minimalism, something simpler, and I think all of those elements kind of come through.

What about some of your biggest creative influences, musical or otherwise?

It’s like kind of different for everyone, but after listening to the review you did of us on BTR it was crazy because I thought that you really touched upon a lot of the things that we’re influenced by. I was really surprised. You know like Kleenex, The Kinks, some of the more independent girl groups… but then again, we don’t really like to be defined by that. A lot of times people from our town in Phoenix would be throwing all-girl events with only girl artists and girl performances the whole night, and we just didn’t want to be a part of that. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it’s just sort of weird because you wouldn’t do that for men. I don’t know, I mean it makes sense in some regards since it seems like there are less women doing it, so in a way we’re definitely influenced by them. We’re not really feminists though.

It just so happened that you are all girls and ended up playing together?

Exactly. It wasn’t like, “let’s start a girl group,” it just happened that way. It wasn’t intentional at all; everything just kind of fell into place.

Another thing that brought us together and influenced our sound was art. I have a background in the arts, and Michelle also. We’re all very into the arts, which I guess is where that stupid Rothko reference comes from (laughs). We’ve been really interested in contemporary art, but have realized that in a sense  it’s all bullshit. I don’t really like the art world – I really love art but at the same time that world is so corrupt, so how do you do it, you know? I feel like a lot of our lyrics are about that; very simple, and a sort of rejection.

Do the three of you make art in your free time?

Michelle likes to read about art and study theory. I graduated with a degree in art, so while we were doing this I was making art. To be honest I never saw myself as a musician really. They both [Emily and Michelle] enabled me to play music, and I don’t think without them I would be doing it right now. I’m pretty much making music full time – it’s really crazy how things change so quickly.

How does that kind of creative expression change for you going from art to music, do you feel like there’s a bridge of some sort?

I mean it’s still some sort of creative affirmation, but I think music is way more reachable to other people. I like that about it. I think that it’s more of an instant gratification and you can see results faster: you can play a lot of shows, you can record music, you can go on tour, meet people, and in no time at all it’s part of you. I think it’s just what I need to be doing right now. When I was making art it was so, “who’s going to like this?” and “who can I impress or get to buy this?” Music is way more fun and way more satisfying, and at the same time I don’t feel like I’m missing out on something either.

What is your songwriting process like? Does everyone play an equal part?

We’re not the kind of people that spend a month writing a song. Our songs are written in 20 minutes and then we’ll play them that same day. Obviously they’re going to change a lot, and I think that’s where our sound mostly comes from, just because we’re not really looking to perfect something right away. I know a lot of people, like my boyfriend’s band, that can take a month or more to write a song because they’re doing all this crazy shit: they all have to have such complicated parts and everyone has to function as skilled instrumentalists. They have to get together and really rehearse material before they can showcase it. For us jumping right into playing live is what helped.

As far as equal parts go; there wasn’t necessarily any leaders so to speak. Nothing could have been done without the three of us together. It wasn’t like one person comes in with a cool riff for an idea; they’re all made when we’re together. It’s crazy because I’ve played in another band since then, and it’s something I miss. It was so cool; I didn’t really realize that a lot of bands don’t make music that way. It also made for a really cool live experience since we would all really connect, bond and kind of shut out everything else. It was nice.

Do you do anything unusual to get inspired?

We haven’t been playing for a while now, so I’m actually really happy to reflect into the past right now. Sometimes stuff flows so freely and sometimes we have to do really crazy things, like wear crazy outfits or drink a lot or go run around (laughs). I remember we were recording once and we went outside my apartment complex and got random people off the street to come and record a part with us. We didn’t end up using any of it (laughs). We just didn’t like the way things were sounding, so we thought maybe if we just have a huge group of people playing with us. That’s just one example of the kinds of the dumb things we would do.

The three of you switch instruments between songs. Did it take a lot of practice to get good at, or was it something that came naturally?

That’s how we wrote the songs, so I mean there really wasn’t any other way to do it. If, say, we were writing a song and someone came up with something cool, and we were like, “yeah let’s work on that,” but I was playing the drums and nothing was really working… then Emily and I would switch. She would get on the drums and I would play the guitar and then something would happen. Since we’re open in that way it wasn’t hard to play, but it did take a while to make those transitions more fluid. You can’t write sets that have you constantly switching back and forth because it takes up a lot of time and people don’t like standing around watching you tune a guitar after every single song.

So why the name North Dakota?

There was this really stupid video of us jamming for the first time; we were doing it for fun ( include link to original video ) . We would always make videos of the stuff we did so that we could refer back to it and remember what we had done that night. So we were just kind of doing that not in any serious way, and at the very end of the song Michelle screamed, “North Dakota!” for absolutely no reason at all (laughs). But then every time we made plans to meet up we’d call it “North Dakota” practice.

It was just for fun, but then it started getting really popular so finally we decided to play a show one day. So many people showed up… I think it was also because there was free beer at the place we were playing.

That always helps.

Yeah, so I don’t want to take all the credit, because there was free alcohol involved but it was just instantly really clicking with people – really quickly. We were waiting for the perfect something, and we just threw something out there without much practice or anything. We had no idea it would turn out so great.

That was the moment when you realized you really had something.

Easily, that night was absolutely crazy. There were probably over 100 people, which isn’t that many people, but a lot for a first show and I don’t think there were any other bands playing.

What was recording Pat Waggy like?

Michelle had already left Phoenix when we started recording, so we put together some money and flew her back for like a week and recorded the whole thing in three days. A friend of mine came over and set up all of his recording equipment in my studio apartment and we just spent days on end cutting it. Michelle and I were sleeping on a couch together, all of the gear was set up around us and we couldn’t take it down, you know, because we had to start really early that day. We were just crammed together in my little apartment (laughs). But it was smooth sailing, and definitely a lot of fun.

There was a little bit of stress with the time limit, and I’m sure if we had more time things would have been done a lot differently: even if we had an extra day I’m sure there would’ve been an extra two songs on there something. But we just wanted to get something solid done before Michelle moved to Paris, before who knows what… so I’m happy with how it turned out. I wouldn’t want it any other way, because with taking a long time you start second guessing things, and then you look in two months and you say, “I don’t like the song anymore,” and you end up just landing yourself in a hole.

Can you tell me something interesting that listeners might not know about North Dakota?

I don’t know how many people know this, but Pat Waggy is named after a woman we met when we were driving through New Mexico. We played a show nearby and were passing through to check out the White Sands National Monument. We made a stop on our way out and the woman working the toll booth was a park ranger named Pat Waggy. We were all really hyper and really excited so we made this little song out of her name that we sang for the whole car ride. I mean we were in the car for so long and really bored. Michelle was calling this Christian hotline that was on a billboard and telling the nuns that she couldn’t stop listening to Black Sabbath and she didn’t know what to do (laughs). So we couldn’t stop using this rhyme, we were doing it for so long but it never made it into a song or anything. Then then like a year later we’re trying to think of something to name the album and somehow it comes back up again.

Emily and I went back there recently to play a show with our new band. We brought a vinyl copy of the album and we were looking for Pat Waggy (laughs). We asked the woman working the toll if she knew Pat and she said yes. When we asked if she would be around today the woman said no, that Pat had a stroke and that she hadn’t really been working a lot. It was terrible, because it’s not like we met her and that she was so important to us. We just gave her money, she gave us a ticket, and then we went. But for some reason her name was so important to us that it was almost heartbreaking to hear that. It was crazy at the same time. I was like, “well we’re going to give you this album to give to her,” so we gave it to her and she was basically like “yeah, what the fuck” (laughs). I don’t know if Pat ever got it or not. She probably won’t understand it, but then again neither did we.

To hear more from North Dakota head to their Bandcamp,  their official Facebook page, or BTR’s very own Music Digest and In the Den.