THE PRETTY RECKLESS – “There Was A Lot Of Emotional, Technical And Physical Hurdles To Overcome”

February 9, 2021, 3 years ago

By Aaron Small

feature hard rock the pretty reckless

THE PRETTY RECKLESS – “There Was A Lot Of Emotional, Technical And Physical Hurdles To Overcome”

“This album is a rebirth for not only me, but the band in general,” begins Taylor Momsen, vocalist for The Pretty Reckless. The album she’s talking about is Death By Rock And Roll, the group’s fourth studio effort, available February 12. “It feels like the first album again in so many ways. In the sense that I didn’t really have to try to write this album. If anything, I was almost resistant to writing it. When I finally put pen to paper and allowed everything to flow out of me and pour out of me that I had been bottling up, it was very cathartic. It was certainly the first step of me starting to heal.”

That healing was necessitated by unparalleled loss. The Pretty Reckless went through a lot, both personally and professionally, to get to where they are today, including the death of two very dear friends, namely Soundgarden / Audioslave vocalist Chris Cornell and long-time producer Kato Khandwala. The passing of Cornell undoubtedly led to the guest appearances on Death By Rock And Roll, those being Soundgarden’s drummer and guitarist, Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil on “Only Love Can Save Me Now”, as well as Audioslave / Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello on “And So It Went”.

“You kind of summed it up there, we went through a lot,” agrees Momsen. “A lot of loss in The Pretty Reckless family, starting with Chris Cornell. We were opening for Soundgarden on that tour (in 2017). It was the highest of highs for me! I don’t even know how to put that into words, it was so exciting! The Beatles and Soundgarden are my favorite bands of all time, my two desert island bands. To be on that tour, I couldn’t believe it, it was amazing. Then to have it end so tragically… we were there that night in Detroit. We played the show and I said goodbye to Chris, gave him a big hug, and he got in his car and left. We ended up hanging out in the parking lot the rest of the night until bus call with Matt and Kim and the rest of our band; it was a great time. To wake up the next morning with the bus rolling, to the news that Chris had passed… devastating doesn’t cover it. It was crushing in a way I don’t know how to put into words.” 

“To make a long story short, I came to the realization that I was not in the best head space to be public at the time; I was not okay. And we were in the middle of touring Who You Selling For. I cancelled the rest of the tour. We played a few shows after that, but they were shit. I went home, I needed time to regroup and process what had happened, get my feet back on the ground,” recalls Taylor. “As soon as I started to do that, I’d written a couple of songs, I was calling Kato – we’ve got to move forward man. Let’s get in the studio and start recording. I don’t know what it’s for, if it’s for a record or what. As soon as we started to put those plans in motion, I got the phone call that Kato died in a motorcycle accident. That was really the nail in the fuckin’ coffin for me, for lack of a better term. I spiraled very downward, very quickly, into a very dark hole of depression and substance abuse; everything that comes along with trauma and loss. I didn’t know how to get out of it. I didn’t know if I wanted to. I didn’t care, I kind of gave up on life. Everything I love is dead – what’s the fucking point?” 

“It was music that really pulled me put of it and saved my life. As cliché as that may sound, rock ‘n’ roll saved my life. The writing of this album and the creation of this album was the thing that really brought me back to life. It’s the reason I’m still here today. That said – sorry, I just went off on a whole tangent. That’s kind of the summary of this record. To get into working with Matt and Kim, I had written a song, ‘Only Love Can Save Me Now’. It was one of the last songs we recorded for the album. I demoed it and I sent it to them; we had become very close by this point. I asked if it was something they’d want to play on, lend their magic to? Cause in reality, if Matt and Kim didn’t play on it, it’ll sound like we’re ripping them off. Dare I say it, this song has a very Soundgarden-esque feel to it. They heard it and said, ‘Absolutely, we’d love to.’ It was one of the coolest experiences of my life. We recorded it in Seattle. We flew there and did it at London Bridge Studios which is where Soundgarden recorded Louder Than Love, and Pearl Jam recorded Ten, and Alice In Chains made Dirt – so many iconic records are made in that space. To walk into that studio, I could feel the energy bleeding out of the walls. I’m a firm believer that places are like people and they hold memories and energy. I could feel that vibe as soon as I walked into the place. To not only be there, but be there with Matt and Kim, creating something new together after all this loss and trauma and sadness, for me – I don’t want to speak for them – but for me, it felt like a very, very full circle moment that was extraordinarily beautiful. That song in particular is certainly one of my favorites on the record.  To hear it come to life, the first time Matt hit his snare, and the first note that Kim played; the whole song just electrified into life. It was the coolest fucking thing in the world! And I’m forever grateful that they’re part of it.” 

“Then the second part of your question, is Tom Morello. I’m a very firm believer that collaborations have to come about organically. If they’re forced in any way, they might be successful, but if they’re not coming from an organic place, then I don’t really see their point. I think that collaborations can, especially now in today’s modern paradigm, they can be used as a marketing tool, not necessarily from an artistic standpoint. I’m not a big fan of that. So, when it came around, I’d known Tom for many years at that point, but we really reconnected at the I Am The Highway Chris Cornell tribute show in Los Angeles (in 2019). We were both playing on the song ‘Loud Love’, so that’s where we rebounded. Shortly after that, we were starting to record the album, and I had the song ‘And So It Went’. Kind of a similar story… due to the lyrical content and overall vibe and feel of the song, for the life of me I couldn’t hear it without Tom coming in and ripping a fucking solo and doing what Tom Morello does. He has such a unique voice with his guitar, I say a voice because it almost sounds like a human voice. You’re not going to hear a Tom Morello solo and mistake it for anyone else. I just thought he would contribute so much to it. So, I sent him a demo and was like, ‘Hey man, would you want to play on this?’ He listened to it and said, ‘Totally.’ When he sent his tracks back and we put it all together, it did exactly what I thought it was going to do. It just explodes into Tom Morello madness and greatness. It’s fuckin’ awesome, so thanks Tom!”

Death By Rock And Roll is full of great songs, and one of the strongest, catchiest tracks is “Witches Burn”. “That was actually, probably one of the most fun songs on the record, for lack of a better term,” admits Taylor. “It’s a little sarcastic, even though it deals with some very dark topics. It’s almost done with a slight tinge of sarcasm throughout the whole thing. That song came about… it was written towards the beginning of the Me Too movement, the way women were coming out and telling their stories, then persecution; it was getting very dramatized in the press. I’ve certainly had my fair share of dealing with uncomfortable sexual situations. I think that song was kind of a nod at that.”

The Beatles, who Momsen spoke about briefly, earlier in this interview, are name-checked in “Rock And Roll Heaven”, which is a beautiful song. Yet it also sends shivers down the spine when Taylor sings, “Got to make it to 27 before I die,” as she’s currently 27 years old. There’s an obvious reference to The 27 Club there, with Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all passing away at the age of 27. And more recently, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse both died at 27. “I started writing that when I was 24, turning 25, and I was in a very dark head space,” reveals Taylor. “I wasn’t necessarily sure which path, which direction my life was going to turn in. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d make it to 27. I was not well. Mentally, I was very unhealthy. The lore around The 27 Club – I don’t even like the phrase The 27 Club. We’ve lost so many amazing artists at that age, even if I was in a great space, that’s ingrained in the back of your head. It’s something you’ve heard your whole life. It was certainly something I had to reference, but I’m really glad that I made it to 27. I now realize I have to make it to 28, technically the lyrics should be 28,” laughs Momsen. “But I wasn’t thinking that far ahead at the time.”

It took well over a year in the studio to finish Death By Rock And Roll. That’s a long time. Did a lot of material end up on the cutting room floor? “Not so much that stuff was scrapped, it was more… after losing Kato, we’d never made a record without Kato before. He was much more than just a producer… The Pretty Reckless wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Kato. He’s essentially the fifth member of the band, he just didn’t tour with us. After I’d written the album, it was then this whole process of how the fuck do we go about actually recording this record without him? There was a lot of emotional, technical and physical hurdles to overcome. And I like to take my time in the studio because an album lasts forever. A show, as great as it is, a show is one night, it’s very fleeting. An album, that’s your legacy. That’s the thing you’re going to leave behind when you’re no longer here. So, the recording to me, is the most important thing.”

“When I finish writing a song, I’ve always battled with the struggle of finding the right partners. That’s why I’ve always wanted to be in a band, and I’m very fortunate that I have great musicians and people around me who understand and see my vision. When I’ve finished writing a song, I hear the whole thing. I can hear the song in my head. I hear the production, I hear where it should lift, I know where the strings should come in. I hear where it should come down, I hear the harmonies; I hear all of it. So then, the challenge becomes, how do I make what I’m hearing in my head come out the other end in the speakers? Really, the only answer to that is you try everything. It’s a lot of trial and error, and trial and error, until you come to that magic moment where, yeah – that’s what I’ve been hearing for months and months! Now I can actually hit play and play it back for anyone to listen. It’s a lot of emotional ups and downs of rebuilding and doing this without our long-time partner for the first time. There was certainly days and weeks where it was just tortuous. And then there were days and weeks where it was glorious. It was just a natural… there was no other way to do it. We had to take our time with it and make it as great as possible. I’m really, really proud of how it turned out. We really poured all we had left into this record – blood, sweat, tears… emotionally, mentally, I left everything right there in the microphone and in the songs.”

The album was done, and the band endured all these personal difficulties before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the world, and the music industry. “Yeah, the record was technically finished before lockdown started. Crazy fucking times! The record was scheduled to come out, then the pandemic hit, and everything was halted. I’ve been sitting on this album for a year now. I’ve listened to it ad nauseum; I’m still not sick of it. But god damn, it’s going to feel good to finally share it with the rest of the world.”

It’s really a nice touch that Kato is the bookends of this album. You hear his footsteps before the first note of music is played, and “Harley Darling”, the last song on the album, is written about his motorcycle accident, a classy tribute to the band’s departed friend. “Thank you for noticing. There’s no way to… I don’t think I really thought this through while making the album. I don’t think about the outside world when making music. I simply make music for myself; it’s the thing that allows me to find my center and keep my balance in life. I didn’t think about having to do interviews on this record, talking about it over and over, reopening wounds constantly. I didn’t think of that, which I don’t regret by any means, but I certainly have days where it’s like, god damn it. Sometimes it’s just like scratching at a scab, and sometimes it feels like I’m bleeding all over the floor again; it depends on the moment. But this record is very much an homage to Kato, and not just him, but every idol and every person that we’ve lost throughout history, and throughout my own life. There were also some other losses that I don’t speak about publicly in The Pretty Reckless family, just cause it’s not my place to. We lost quite a few people back to back. A lot of fucking 1 – 2 punches. I thought bad things were supposed to happen in threes, by the time we got to five, it was like, what the fuck is going on? But it’s very poetic, and the tracklisting is very important on this album. If you do give it the grace to listen to it front to back, it does very much encapsulate a time period in my life, and in our lives. It’s a very full circle story, like you said, starting with Kato’s footsteps and ending with ‘Harley Darling’ which is actually our love song to him.”

(Photos by Indira Cesarine)

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