- Press photo
Most bands don't write their song lyrics as ready-made taglines, but there's a mission statement lodged halfway through Bruiser Queen's third full-length, Heavy High. "Have fun before you die," Morgan Nusbaum sings. "Anything else is a waste of time."
That's not to suggest that the band's output is puerile or childish; the type of fun the band advocates, both in sound and presentation, is fatalistic, sweaty, loud, candy-coated and over in a flash. Singer/guitarist Nusbaum and drummer Jason Potter have been refining Bruiser Queens's neon-tinted brand of whiplash garage-pop for about eight years at this point, and Heavy High distills the duo's quick-hit precision while leaving room for flashes of elastic dream-pop that give glimpses of Nusbaum's range as a vocalist and songwriter.
Heavy High was released on CD in mid-November (a dark-blue vinyl edition is due out after Thanksgiving), and Bruiser Queen played a flurry of local shows to promote the release after a six-week, 30-odd show tour. Over iced tea at MoKaBe's, Nusbaum illuminates the stages of adjusting to life on the road.
"The first week or so, you're still thinking, 'I have stuff to do at home but I can't do it; where am I? What is happening?'" Nusbaum says of the band's tour alongside Chicana punk band Fea. "Then after the first week you're like, 'This is my life. I'm this wandering person now.' Being out that long is weird; this was the first time I've ever gotten in the habit of different things — you gotta get in the van and drive for five hours, and then as soon as we get to town we're gonna find food, because you know there's not gonna be food at the club."
Potter and Nusbaum have toured a fair amount — traveling light is one of the many benefits of playing in a two-person band — but this stint, the longest of their career, took them to both coasts. "Our New York City show was really good — we played at a place called Berlin, a tiny little basement club. San Angelo, Texas was surprisingly good; it was this crazy, packed place," she says. "And we played the Viper Room in West Hollywood on Halloween night, which was a blast. They still have an 'R.I.P River Phoenix' on their sign."
Bruiser Queen's set was studded with songs from its three LPs and numerous seven-inch releases, and it gave the band a chance to work through the Heavy High material before its official release.
The album's final two tracks show two sides of the same Bruiser Queen coin. Both "Tonight We Dream" and "Wanderlust" channel big-eyed romantic readiness; the former professes desire through crunchy, switchblade chords, while the latter takes it into the ether with a dreamy sway. "Wanderlust' borrows a little from Santo & Johnny's guitar tones and Phil Spector's signature drum beat, but it's Nusbaum's vocals that change the atmosphere, moving from a whisper to an (eventual) scream.
"Recording vocals is always really hard," she says. "I'm so loud when I'm singing, so it's really hard to capture it without just overpowering everything. Whereas before I would get super amped-up and stand back from the mic and just scream into it, this time I wanted more chill vibes for the vocals. It's still there, still present, but not like pushing in the red."
Nusbaum says that while most of the band's songs start with a live, loud dynamic in mind, the evolution of its LPs veers toward a more developed, pop-centric sound.
"The first one [Swears], we wanted to record the way we sound live, so we didn't want to do many overdubs. When it came to [2014's] Sweet Static, we had a sound in mind, but I always feel like those songs are kind of hodge-podge. It took us forever to find the right sequence, so we added keyboard, we added bass, we added a couple more elements to fill it out, sound-wise. I think the new record is the next step up — we recorded it in the same spot where we did Sweet Static [Memphis' Five and Dime Studio] but we had a different person mix it. It just really polished it up — it's less of that dirty garage sound and more, for lack of a better term, radio-ready."
Bruiser Queen's cleaned-up sheen has, in fact, already hit the local airwaves; alternative station the Point (105.7 FM) played two back-to-back tracks this past weekend, a benchmark for a band that has been well-loved among south city show-goers and is gaining traction to larger audiences at home and abroad. That level of accessibility is a tightrope walk for the band, who initially shopped the new record around to various labels but ended up self-releasing
"I think we're slightly hard to categorize," Nusbaum says. "We're not like a little meow-meow indie band, and we're not super punk or pop-punk. I don't think people know what to do with us all the time."