Groupie Break Down Every Song on Their Sludgy Debut LP, ‘Ephemeral’

Brooklyn’s self-described “very cool and good rock ‘n roll” outfit Groupie is, indeed, a very cool and good rock ‘n roll outfit, especially if you like your rock ‘n roll on the scrappier, sludgier side. The band has spent the last few years honing a nervy, surf-tinged approach to post-punk, driven by vocalist / bassist Ashley Kossakowski and vocalist / guitarist Johanna Healy’s raw songwriting and spunky deliveries. Today, Groupie finally drop their debut full-length, Ephemeral, initially slated for release last summer. It’s their most fleshed-out work to date, featuring a blend of new material and re-recorded versions of early efforts.

The record’s title, Ephemeral, is pulled from a lyric in the slow-burning, scuzzed out “Thick As Glue,” a track that finds Healy balancing disillusionment and nostalgia. “I love the contrast in dynamics and style between the verse and the chorus, a mixture of sweet and harsh that we embody in a lot of our music,” Kossakowski tells American Songwriter of the tune. “It’s also the inspiration behind the album name—I remember sitting in [engineer] Hunter [Davidsohn’s] studio after we had just finished recording vocals, brainstorming album name ideas with Johanna, and this song played as Hunter was starting to mix, and we both turned and were like, ‘Hmmmm… what about Ephemeral?’ And it stuck. I think it really does justice to distilling the album as a whole.”

We invited Groupie to break down all ten tracks on the album, which comes after 2018’s Validated EP and 2017’s Demos EP. In doing so, the quartet—currently rounded out by guitarist Eamon Lebow and drummer Aaron Silberstein—touch on everything from post-tour blues and “sexy creepy” whispering to finding inspiration in Patti Smith’s M Train and co-writing a song, in Polish, with Kossakowski’s mother. Check out their comments and listen to Ephemeral below.

“Half Wave”

Johanna Healy: In terms of song composition, this was a great process that morphed from Ashley’s rough outline, and became more fleshed out collaboratively during band practice. I think the noisy fade out at the end really added to the song. Our engineer Hunter Davidsohn suggested the slow degrading crunchy noise.

Ashley Kossakowski: Often when something bad happens, my friends and I say “we laugh and laugh and laugh” to kind of make fun of the situation. In the case of this song, we laugh and laugh because some dumbass who didn’t even know how to cook eggs before he met me cheated on me twice and made me feel pathetic. I wanted to channel some of that hurt into a Certified Banger© and write a song that hits hard and fast and then burns itself to the ground (much like this relationship). We asked Hunter to make the track do just that in our ridiculously repetitive outro, and he did—the song feels like it’s devolving into chaos at the end. This song is my little reminder to have some dating standards.

Eamon Lebow: I loved Hunter’s noisey contribution to the end of “Half Wave.” Phil Manzanera inspired my playing on this song both consciously and unconsciously.

Aaron Silberstein: I’m a sucker for a long repetitive passage. The first half of the song feels bright and pop-y, with major chords and driving rhythms. As we were orchestrating I imagined a pop song driving itself crazier and crazier with each repetition. Hunter’s mixing brings out the manic energy. It’s a happy kind of menacing. The chorus of the song is one of my favorite things we’ve written together.

“Waiting”

Johanna: I love the space in this song. The minimalism of it really gives it this haunting tone that builds toward the chorus and the volatile finale. All the instruments are each finding their unique space and letting Ashley’s vocals really shine during the verse. 

Ashley: I wrote this one while in the depths of a seven-month unemployment phase. I quit a job I hated to go on a few tours (including one with Oceanator, where I met our drummer Aaron). After I came back I sunk into the depths of uncertainty and depression. I was interviewing at places with no luck and was also trying out for a pretty big band, so I had no idea which way my life was going to go—back to an office job or sticking to music. It felt like I was waiting for things to happen to me, at me, subjected to the whims of the world. This was also the first song I wrote on guitar—I am primarily a bassist but when I was first learning guitar I kept playing the first chords over and over, super slow and sludgy, which is how my brain felt at the time.

Aaron: This song has so much weight. The versus pull you down, the vocals are ghostly, and the instruments sparse. Each chorus feels like a step up in energy from the last as we push each other out from underneath the weight of the versus and all of the pent up energy explodes during the bridge. This is one of the few songs in which we use meter changes and I love the effect of shifting from the sway of 6/8 to [the more] driving 4/4.

“Industry”

Ashley: My old job—the one I hated that I mentioned above—was right by Madison Square Garden. Anytime I was fed up or sad I would walk over to the Flower District, my favorite block in Manhattan, located on 28th between 6th and 7th Ave. I would just stroll around and look at plants, sometimes buying some to make me feel better. This song is about capitalism’s sneaky tricks, luring you to buy stuff as a band-aid solution to make yourself feel better.

“Thick as Glue”

Johanna: This song’s about looking back on your teenage idols and, as an adult, questioning what they truly meant to you. It’s also about the ephemerality of life, and youth in particular. There’s a sadness to recognizing your internal changing ideals, but there’s also a freedom in knowing that things are always evolving. In terms of tone, the push and pull between the darker verse and the shimmery chorus reflects that bittersweet feeling of nostalgia and growing older.

Ashley: I love the contrast in dynamics and style between the verse and the chorus, a mixture of sweet and harsh that we embody in a lot of our music. It’s also the inspiration behind the album name—I remember sitting in Hunter’s studio after we had just finished recording vocals, brainstorming album name ideas with Johanna, and this song played as Hunter was starting to mix, and we both turned and were like, “Hmmmm… what about Ephemeral?” And it stuck. I think it really does justice to distilling the album as a whole, and is a good example of Johanna’s awesome songwriting. This is also one of my favorite basslines to play on the album.

Aaron: I love how Ashley’s bass and my drums keep churning away as the contrasting guitar textures in the song shift from section to section. This relationship between the rhythm section and the guitars is one of my favorite elements of the band’s writing style, and it is on full display in this song. I feel a release everytime we play the chorus, like I can take a breath for the first time after being submerged in water. Sometimes playing live I actually notice myself breathing deep in those moments. Not entirely sure what it is about the song that does that for me but it does.

“Daleko”

Ashley: This song is really special to me. ‘Daleko’ means ‘far away’ in Polish. I wanted to write a song about the feelings of sadness and longing caused by immigration, from two perspectives: my mom, who immigrated from Poland with my dad in 1980, and me, their first generation daughter. I co-wrote the lyrics with my mom—while my verse is clunky, reviewed for grammar and spelling multiple times by my mom (much like all of my homework in Polish school—and even still, one grammatical error made its way into the vocal take), my mom’s verse flows smoothly, in a way that is the perfect metaphor for the immigrant/first-generation relationship to our home country. I wrote about this song more in-depth for Talkhouse. This song is dedicated to my grandfather Stanisław Czarniecki, who passed away in fall of 2019 in Warsaw. 

“Poor You”

Ashley: This was one of the first songs we ever wrote. We recorded a demo version back in 2016, and re-recorded it for this album. I wrote the lyrics for this song after being sexually harassed at my old job, at the same time when Brock Turner essentially walked free after assaulting an unconscious girl. The lyrics represent the unfortunately far-fetched fantasy that abusers actually get the punishment that they deserve. 

Johanna: We’ve been playing this song since the very beginning of our inception, so it feels great to have a polished final recording of “Poor You.” [The] demo recording was fun in its own right, but this version is honed and tweaked to be even better. And it has some great dynamic touches such as the background vocals that we added during the recording process.

“Lonely Dog”

Johanna: Another one we’ve been playing for a while, and has evolved over the years. I love how this song builds from laidback to intense. Eamon’s guitar part at the end is one of my favorite moments on this album.

Ashley: This is another classic Groupie song from the early days that we wanted to re-record. We often joke about leaning into something we call “sexy creepy” (literally cackled while writing that down)—whispering that seems kinda intimate but also a little menacing, as a way to create more dimensions to the song. I’m not sure where this inside joke came from and when I write it down it just sounds creepy, but we really leaned into it for this recording of the song. I wrote the lyrics for this one about feeling restless in a relationship, not wanting to stay in it if both people are just holding onto the comfort of not being alone. Also want to point out that Eamon’s solo frickin RIPS in this song—we told him to just go off and he did.

Eamon: The original version of this song was my favorite from the first Groupie EP (recorded well before I joined the band). I could probably trace a direct path from a Vexx show I saw in D.C. in 2015 to my guitar solo in this recording. Vexx totally blew me away and influenced my playing for a while. Respect to James Williamson and Neil Young as well. 

“Human Again”

Ashley: This is the second song on the album to reference dogs—can you tell I’m a little obsessed? This one is about getting back from tour and finding yourself in a rut of post-tour depression. Going back to your 9-5, plopping down at your desk, and being like, “Damn, I could be waking up on someone’s floor hungover in England right now.” The ultra-depressing chorus—“don’t wanna be awake”—teeters between sounding like awake and away, and the latter could not be more false. Post-tour depression always left me itching to get back on the road.

“Critic’s Eye”

Johanna: This song was initially inspired by not only the sounds of 90’s grunge, but also the history of Courtney Love and Cobain. I always thought she got a bad rap. Just awful, with fans and journalists accusing her of killing him. Right after her husband just died! They criticized her for being a woman that didn’t fit into that normal celebrity female image. A lot of people saw her as abrasive, but she was outspoken and fearless. Also, Hole still rocks.

The song can also be interpreted as a more general critique of media and publishing obsession with the dark side of humanity, and their willingness to go to twisted lengths to get more viewership.

“No Hands”

Johanna: This was a great collaborative songwriting process between me and Ashley. We are both heavily inspired by Patti Smith and had recently read [her 2015 memoir] M-Train. So this song pulls themes from that book, but also touches on the ideas of being careless and free. It ties back to the album theme of ephemerality. Recording this was fun because I got to use my 12-string guitar for the main riff. It’s hard to tell, but it gives it an extra dimension. Plus Eamon’s slide guitar at the end really brings it home. We have a lot of fun playing this song live!

Ashley: This song feels like the perfect example of Johanna and I’s connection. We are already collaborative in our songwriting, but this time it felt almost serendipitous. Johanna and I were sitting in our practice space. Johanna came up with an intro bassline and chord progression. We started thinking about lyrics, and we pulled out our notebooks to find that we had both written lyrics about the same exact passage in the same book—what we both agreed was the most thought-provoking chapter in Patti Smith’s M Train, one called “Clock with No Hands.” The chapter paints a picture of Patti and her late husband sitting at an old-timey diner next to an old railroad clock with no hands. Patti muses about the passing of time, how real time cannot be divided into sections like numbers on the face of a clock, how [she] and her husband would roam through life without regard for time, just living at the whim of their synchronized minds. In the song, Johanna and I sing our respective lyrics during the verses and come together on the chorus—“I can take my time for a little, got time to kill’ and “Following no hands, no hands of time.” We wanted the instrumentals to reflect this sort of trance-like meditative state, which is why the bassline is pretty repetitive and the lead guitar just rips one straight note in the outro. It seemed like the perfect song to end our album.

Eamon: This might be my favorite track on the album. The slide guitar I played at the end was mostly inspired by [Standley] Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” and [the metal band] Darkthrone.

Ephemeral is out now. You can order the record on vinyl via Handstand Records and on tape via Tapehead City, or download it here.

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