MEAN MUSINGS: An interview with Pinkshift’s Ashrita Kumar

MEAN MUSINGS: An interview with Pinkshift’s Ashrita Kumar
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Photo credit: Maria Grimmett

If Pinkshift aren’t your new favourite find of 2020, you’ve not listened hard enough. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, their music hit the internet like an astroid, taking the online world by storm. The Baltimore-based punk rock quartet consists of Ashrita Kumar (vocals), Paul Vallejo (guitar), Myron Houngbedji (drums), and Erich Weinroth (bass). 

Infectious lyricism and show-ready hooks aside, what makes the ensemble truly unique is the blend of genres at play in their work to date. With only two official singles under their belt so far, the group embodies the best of 90s grunge and early 2000s pop punk, arriving in answer to all our “I was born in the wrong generation!” cries.

Following the release of their latest single “i’m gonna tell my therapist on you” last week, and the debut of their first ever music video today, I caught up with frontwoman, Ashrita, on the inspiration behind the song, the first time she saw someone in music who looked like her, and how we basically owe the band’s conception to Britney Spears.

With “i’m gonna tell my therapist on you” rallying up so much support from the get-go, it’s clear that the band had no inkling of its success to come. Enquiring as to whether they expected this level of reaction, Ashrita confirms, “not at all! We kind of just make music to do it, and the fact that so many people are so into it is something we’re still trying to process. It’s amazing to see all the love that’s been outpoured towards us by complete strangers who’ve never met us – it really means a lot. We didn’t expect it at all.

One aspect of the song that seems to resonate with listeners most is its detailing of the shortcomings of mental health facilities, and the failures of the system. “I’ve had personal experiences, I guess, of dealing with mental health and being channelled through [the system]. You say you have a problem, you get channeled through a therapist. The therapist looks for buzzwords, and then once you say the buzzwords, they channel you through the psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist only looks for buzzwords.” Based on this account, it’s not hard to see where the emotional-rollercoaster nature of the song came from: “A lot of the inspiration for the song came from my own experiences of just feeling a little snuffed out in the process of that. Like, I did want help. And I did want to be able to talk to someone, but I felt like in that whole process, I never really talked to anyone about what was actually bothering me, or I never was really given a chance. And I feel like after talking to friends who’ve been through something similar, it’s just it seems like such a widespread experience, like a lot of people end up feeling that way after going to specialists.” 

This also explains the intention behind the music video, which perfectly mirrors the overwhelming sense of chaos conveyed in the instrumentals: “you don’t always have to be composed. And like, that’s okay. I feel like we always see human beings as smiles or scowls. And there’s a lot more than that, I guess.

The video itself is an ode to the DIY aspect of punk, reminiscent of the best of the homemade-do-what-you-want-and-the-more-imperfect-the-better grunge era. So when it came to planning out the video itself? Well, there were no plans at all. “We didn’t plan to film a music video. I feel like nothing we do is planned. But actually our friend Hansel (the song’s producer), he recommended it. He’s just like, you know, “the song has like so much energy and stuff, have you guys considered it?” 

And that was that. Armed with an old 2006 Sony camcorder from Ashrita’s parents’ basement, Paul’s GoPro, and incorporating iPhone footage where necessary to plug the gaps, the band convened in Baltimore to shoot the video in one day, bypassing challenges around social distancing by filming in separate rooms and sporting surgical masks as an honest depiction of the times we live in. “The morning of we’re like, “okay, this is what we’re doing. Let’s do it. Let’s go.” Myron brought his drum set. Erich and Paul bought their instruments, and we just went to a friend’s house and just did it. It was really fun.

Now if you paid close enough attention to the subtitles in the video, you’ll now know where the band gets its name from, but even more interestingly and perhaps more unconventionally, is the story of how the band itself came about: “Paul reached out to me and he said that he had written a Britney Spears cover, like a heavy rock version of ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’. And he’s like, “do you want to sing on it?” And I was like, “okay!” she recounts amusingly.

And so the summer of 2018 consisted of writing demos in dorm rooms. But as we all know, the backbone of any good band is the drummer: “So we put up fliers all over campus. We put it up a flyer in the apartment building Myron was living in, and apparently he had seen it and made the conscious decision to not reach out because, I think, in the flyer it might have been a little intense. We were like, “okay, must be able to play loud and fast”. And at that point he was really new to drumming in general. So he was just still learning and didn’t feel super confident I guess with reaching out to us.

What entails, however, is yet another example of the good My Chemical Romance brings to the world: “we had a drum practice room on our campus. And me and Paul would just sit outside the drum practice room for like, hours, whenever we weren’t in class, and just listen to see if there was anybody playing hard and fast, and we heard Myron playing Helena by MCR (My Chemical Romance)

So, drummer secured, the band started playing shows using bass tracks, only to realise it was no replacement for a real bassist. Having created Tinder profiles to scout potential new talent to join the team, the trio eventually landed on Erich, who swiped right, and…well, the rest is history. Maybe fairytale endings do exist after all.

In terms of the band’s musical inspirations, there’s a lot of variety going on behind the scenes which helps shape the Pinkshift sound. “I think it’s definitely one of the things that makes our our music better, because we all have our own ideas of what good music is, and we’re able to really constructively talk about that and put it together. I think it’s one of the things that I really like. And I’ve gotten to learn so much more about just like other types of music and genres and stuff. So it’s been really cool.”

Having cited her own personal inspiration as a combination of grunge and the riot grrrl influence of bands like Babes in Toyland, I was interested to understand when the first time Ashrita herself, as a Desi artist, had seen someone who looked like her in music: “that’s an interesting question. Um, I don’t know. I mean, I know artists that I loved, but didn’t look anything like me. Like I loved No Doubt growing up, I LOVED No Doubt, like 90s ‘Tragic Kingdom’ No Doubt – that was my shit. But I know Gwen Stefani is like a white blonde bombshell, she has like red like bright red lipstick; she’s just so so different…In terms of Indian women, or even just people I would identify with, I just don’t think I saw anything like that growing up. I mean, obviously, you see artists who are in Bollywood and stuff, but nothing really, I didn’t really see anything. I don’t know if it was because of where I was. I was in the Midwest growing up, so everybody around me was white.”

And finally, no interview would be complete without asking an artist who they listen to. After all, don’t you want to know who inspires the music that inspires you? “I’ve actually gotten introduced to so much more music in the past couple months I lose track. I started listening a lot more to small DIY bands, so this is probably gonna be a plug for my friends. I really like a lot of their music, but I’ve been listening to Riverby a lot – I genuinely love their music.”

And I really like Air Devi. She’s also a DIY artist, but she released a song called ‘Move Without Place’ and it’s so cool because it switches between being indie and then to being Indian, like there’s like a tabla in there and stuff. So that’s really cool. And oh, I’ve really been getting into Daisy and the Scouts. They have literally one album and I really, really like loved it. Dazey and the Scouts – listen to Daisy and the Scouts!

After listening to “i’m gonna tell my therapist on you” on a loop since its debut, it’s difficult not to have high expectations of what’s to come for Pinkshift, marking them as a key player to watch in the comings months. So, what can you expect from the band in the future? “We do have plans for a potential EP that’s in the works right now. We also have something new and special coming in the fall, which is super exciting. Um, and yeah, I guess that’s what you can expect from us, and then whatever shows come back, y’all can expect a lot – we’re gonna go hard.

…See you in the pit.

Keep up with Pinkshift on Spotify, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and BandCamp.

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Lucinda