According To What refines its sweetly bruising power-pop
The Madison band plays a May 11 show at Communication behind the new EP "Punk Songs To Hold Hands To." (Photo: Clockwise from top left, According To What are Luis Perez, Tessa Echeverria, Maggie Denman, and Etan Heller. Photo by Caroline Hughes and Luis Perez.)
It takes a certain balance to pull off an upbeat guitar-pop song with lyrics like "I felt trapped inside a tomb with no light there to be my guide." Guitarists/vocalists Luis Perez and Maggie Denman of Madison band According To What invest this line with both sincerity and a bit of winking self-pity, in a doubled-up lead vocal on "Truisms," the third track from the new EP Punk Songs To Hold Hands To. Along with Tessa Echeverria on bass Etan Heller on drums, they've spent the past couple of years writing songs that pair the gentle melodies of twee-pop with bright distortion, and the kind of caustic lyrics Perez wrote for his previous bands, including Exploration Team and Jonesies. (Full disclosure: Echeverria and Denman are both heavily involved at Communication, Tone Madison's non-profit partner organization.)
"When it comes to lyrics and vocals, I tend to feel little removed from whatever emotion I'm drawing on," Perez says. "I haven't found myself feeling lovelorn in many many years. I still tend to write on it, though, probably because I'm surrounded by teenagers all day at work, and they're a great combination of an emotional rawness and a miscalculated sense of maturity. It makes me reflect on events or moments in my personal life from high school or college, that at the time seemed important, but either retroactively make me cringe or reveals undercurrents of pettiness or jealousy."
On the new EP, which follows a two-track demo released in 2018, According To What dials in a bit more clearly on Denman and Perez's guitar tones—always sharp, but never sludgy—and fleshes out its vocal dynamic. Denman (who also plays bass in Proud Parents and the hardcore band No Question, has a solo project called Margerat Dryer, and played with Perez in another of his twee-pop projects, Automatically Yours) takes on a much more prominent role on vocals here, singing lead on "Backseat Dodge" and just generally creating a clear melodic and emotional counterpoint to Perez. Perez wrote all the songs on Punk Songs To Hold Hands To, but the lyrics come across very differently depending on who's delivering them. Perez sings them in a plainspoken, petulant gulp—and with that air he mentioned of looking back with embarrassment on a more dramatic past self—Denman's voice treats the characters in these songs with a bit more generosity, inhabiting their emotions with both vulnerability and hard-bitten acceptance.
"Luis has written some newer songs that have a bit more punch vocally and with our guitar sound than the earlier ones," Denman says. "But he still manages to write songs that are cohesive but have different feelings/emotions behind them, like 'Backseat Dodge.' As the band is more seasoned, our vocals have evolved a bit by trading back and forth, singing together, and having me sing lead for specific tracks."
Both Denman and Perez say they've been surprised at how punk-informed According To What has ended up sounding, especially on "Endless Column" and "Challenging Mud," perhaps the band's catchiest and toughest songs yet. "[Denman] has a distinctly different guitar style from other guitarists I've worked with, more punk/emo informed, which is fun to lean into," Perez says.
According To What will be playing this Saturday, May 11 at Communication as part of Madison FemFest, a local counterpart to Milwaukee's Riverwest FemFest. As the band works on new material to follow up the EP, Perez anticipates that the writing process will become a little more complex and collaborative.
"I feel better about being more ambitious with some of the writing in terms of structure, that we can build to a hook or a guitar line and have it hit with some impact," Perez says.