Chastity Belt Learns How to Say ‘No’

Frontwoman Julia Shapiro talks protest music, frat parties, and mall goths.

Chastity Belt was not supposed to be a real band.

“When we started out we were just fucking around,” frontwoman Julia Shapiro says. “We all secretly wanted to be in a band, so we were like, ‘We’ll just start a fake band. That’s easier than trying to seem legit.’ ”

So Chastity Belt – then a two-piece comprised of founding members Shapiro and guitarist Lydia Lund (who came up with the band name in Shapiro’s dorm room) – went around telling their peers that they were in band. They didn’t have a single song to prove it, but that didn’t bother them in the slightest. They weren’t in it to write songs, after all. They were in it to go around to the local frat houses and wreak havoc. And then feel bad about it.

“We would break bottles and shit like that all the time. Then we’d feel bad so we’d sweep it up,” Shapiro says of the band’s early frat house days. “We would wait until after another band had played a show and then we’d take over the stage and play their instruments and pretend we had a song to play.”

Bassist Annie Truscott and drummer Gretchen Grimm joined in the madness shortly thereafter. All undergraduate students at Whitman College in Washington, they discovered that being a fake band suited them just fine.

But, in an unexpected twist and after several months of joke-playing booze-drenched frat parties, legitimacy snuck in. The band booked a few shows in Seattle – the closest major city to Walla Walla – and were genuinely shocked to discover they attracted a crowd who took their music seriously.

Guided by a textbook-case of twenty-something rudderlessness and a desire to take get more familiar with the musical community, the foursome moved to Seattle following senior year. They worked their way up through the DIY scene, gradually drawing bigger crowds while making friends with other members of the burgeoning Pacific Northwest pop-punk scene, namely Tacocat, So Pitted, and Lisa Prank.

Chastity Belt’s own sound, however, was something closer to post-punk, first explored on their 2013 debut, No Regerts. “Looking back on that, I’m like, ‘Wow, we had no idea what we were doing,’ ” Shapiro says. Things presumably improved with sophomore album Time to Go Home, which was lauded by critics and fans alike for its cynical humor, sharp take on post-college millennial angst, and taut surf-rock-meets-post-punk melodies.

These days, Time to Go Home is old news to Shapiro. She’s now gearing up for South by Southwest, a full spring tour schedule, and the release of the band’s forthcoming third album. As she tells it, that fast-approaching record is the four-piece’s least openly humorous yet. She hasn’t abandoned the dry humor that shone on previous albums altogether – “Cool Slut” from Time to Go Home features the couplet “We just want to have some fun / Try to bone everyone” – but there’s a newfound earnestness throughout.

“We still have a sense of humor, but we’re not hiding behind it anymore,” she says.

Nor is she trying to apply said sense of humor to the current political climate.

“It’s fucked up. It’s like a joke, a really not funny joke,” she says when the ongoing horror of the Trump administration inevitably enters the conversation. It’s a multi-faceted issue for Chastity Belt, whose positioning as women playing punk in the Pacific Northwest automatically conjures Riot Grrrl associations, however non-Sleater-Kinney-inspired their music may be. As a rule, they resist veering toward the overtly political with their music, and Shapiro is quick to cite the escapist power of music.

“We didn’t write any protest songs,” she says of the record, written in its entirety prior to January 20. “None of the songs are obviously political, but that doesn’t mean we’re not political people and against all that. Sometimes music is nice as an escape to not think about that shit.”

It’s an escape Shapiro has used for years. Although her first concert experience featured none other than Jimmy Buffett – her parents’ favorite – she was jamming to the likes of Blink-182 and Linkin Park by the age of 12. There was a brief mall goth phase, outfitted entirely by the Hot Topic closest to her hometown of Palo Alto. Eighth grade marked the twilight of that mall goth era, and a high school obsession with Elliot Smith followed. Despite having taken guitar lessons for years, Chastity Belt was her first-ever band.

In fact, none of the members of Chastity Belt played in any kind of musical project prior to their current one. As Shaprio tells it, there’s been quite a bit of making it up as they go along. And among the most important lessons learned on the fly was how to stop relinquishing creative control. Or, more simply, how to say ‘no.’

“In the past, we’ve held back our own ideas. It goes along with not having as much confidence and experience to be like, ‘No, we don’t want that,’ ” she says. “Now I love saying ‘no.’ I got a little addicted to saying ‘no’ for a minute there. It feels good to know that you don’t have to do things.”

Translation: Chastity Belt calls the shots when it comes to Chastity Belt. And that’s how it’s going to stay.

Chastity Belt plays at 8 p.m., Thursday, March 9, at Rickshaw Stop. More info here

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