words by sammy maine
photography by buggo vigor
On Plastic Cough, Great Grandpa’s debut album, Alex Menne acts as a tour guide of emotive exploration. From lethargic saunters to pleading, urgent swells, her ability to surrender her voice into the deepest crevices of anger, frustration, grief and despair is testament to the band’s ability in crafting a narrative that’s universal in its authenticity.
From the pleading “I can’t breathe” on Teen Challenge to the somber “all my friends are almost dead,” on All Things Must Behave, every note, every exhale is articulated with a fervent magnitude. It’s this candid approach that makes Plastic Cough feel so authoritative; by ripping open apart the camouflage of our everyday, Great Grandpa manage to liberate us from the mundanity of keeping our cool.
“I’ve always loved singing and I would always play around with different vocal styles when I was a little kid,” Menne tells me over the phone. “I had an opera voice that I sing in and it was… well, let’s just say that my family thought it was really funny so they would encourage me to sing in this opera voice. And then in 2nd to 4th Grade, I was really into doing talent shows and singing Etta James or Ella Fitzgerald, y’know, the classic heavy-hitter strong female vocals. And then in High School, I was in this pop band where I would still belt stuff.”
When it came to Great Grandpa though, Menne was able to explore further, revealing that she did an entire “Mostly Here” take in a Bob Dylan voice. “I don’t know why it didn’t make the cut, I was hoping it would!”
In terms of today though, she says she’s mostly “thinking about the metamorphosis and the trajectory of where my vocal style is going now.” “I’ve come into this screaming, squeaky vocal and have realised over the last couple of years that I love screaming. It’s very fun and very cathartic and it feels like a nice energy release so that’s always fun to do at shows,” she adds.
“I think there’s less of it on the recorded album than there is on the live performance. I would say that I’ve definitely been influenced by people around me, or bands and singers that I’ve admired over the last couple of years to just do weird shit – put some different inflections on it.”
The band are currently in their van (which sadly broke down a few days later), on their way to the last few dates of their tour and while the album has received huge praise and the shows have been busy, Menne says it still feels surreal to have the album out in the world and for people to even be talking about it. “It was such a big deal for a long time, like when is this thing going to come out?” she says.
“I feel some distance from it at this point which is weird because it only came out last month. A lot of these songs have been written over the last two or three years and so even though I – and I’m sure other members of Great Grandpa – still feel the same way as they did writing these songs and pouring the elements of themselves into writing these songs, it’s still an old skin and an old part of ourselves so I guess that’s probably why it feels so surreal.”
Members of the band were all involved with different projects before coming together in 2015 for their first EP Can Opener. Menne attributes their formation to guitarist Pat Goodwin – “I wouldn’t be in this project unless he had hit me up” – and explains how their writing process has developed from a one-man band to one big happy family. “Can Opener was so sudden after we had formed. We came together in August and then in November, we were recording and in the throws of getting that EP done so a lot of the writing, majority of the EP, is Pat. He brought some songs to the table and we just recorded them and added a little bit of our own personal flavour to it but those were all Pat’s songs.”
“Writing Plastic Cough was so different because there was a lot more diversity in the writing situation. There are some songs that are just one writer, one person had a part in it and then other songs Pat would bring a skeleton to the group and then we would build on top of that and put something of ourselves in the song.
“Carrie wrote the lyrics to ’28 Days Later’, Cam wrote ‘Grounded’ and I wrote a lot of the lyrics for other songs except for ‘Expert Eraser’ – that was something that Pat had written when he was in [his old band] Post Madonna and it’s honestly one of my favourite songs so it’s fun to perform live. ‘Faithful’, nobody in Great Grandpa wrote that song – that’s the secret sixth member of Great Grandpa – his name is Ryan and he wrote that song. We loved it a lot and wanted to be able to play it and so we did and he allowed us to do it.”
With so much collaboration on this record, I ask Menne whether it’s difficult to feel as invested in other people’s words as it is her own. “You lose your drive when you feel like you’re just sucking up what everybody else is telling you to do,” she says. “I think that’s how a lot of the writing ended up evolving from being single writer band to everybody collaborating and doing what they feel like they need to put out into the world because I just can’t sit back and be told the things that I need to do.
“For me personally, I have to be able to feel invested in it so I have to be able to tweak things and make sure that it works for me. Pat described his writing process as feeling out bits of songs into “creepy little chunks” and going in like a surgeon and sewing everything together so it makes sense which is kind of how it works in the group. It is thought out but it’s also, we have so many different little things to work from and it’s almost like a puzzle.”
Within this puzzle is a work that’s introspective, with themes circling around paranoia, death, anxiety and straight-up angst. Menne says she’s mostly aware of the emotions she’s feeling day-to-day and tries to “flip the bad ones around”. “How the people around me, how their moods translate and make me feel – I feel like that really affects me,” she adds. “Moods and emotions are definitely a big part of my day-to-day process.”
And with so many mentions of death on the record, it’s hard not to perceive the album as something almost existential. “I had this moment of ‘wow, we mention death a lot in our songs’. I hadn’t actually thought about that until we were playing this show in Alaska and I was like ‘fuck, the amount of times I’ve said dying or dead or death tonight is very very bleak’,” she says. “I’ve never really had somebody super close to me pass away but it’s definitely something that I think about; I think mortality in general is interesting but I also find it kind of a suffocating thought.”
Great Grandpa performance have become known for their energetic, emotive performances and with songs and subject matter that borders on the heavier side, Menne explains that it can be difficult to get in the right headspace for a show. “There have definitely been times where I am not feeling it and I feel emotionally void for whatever reason and that makes it so hard to feel like I’m doing something important when I’m singing about those things or just not connecting to the people that I’m actually singing it to,” she says.
“Then there have been some very powerful times where I’m almost in tears by the end of “All Things Must Behave” and just feeling it and not really worried about other people but still connecting with the audience in a way that is helpful and powerful.
“I’ve definitely noticed taking the time to sit for a second before going on stage definitely puts me in the right headspace to be emotionally vulnerable, that I feel what I’m saying is important and felt from a place of where it actually came from. “It does make it kind of exhausting because at a certain point, if you keep drumming up those old things to get an emotional rise out of yourself, you’re literally just in this infinite loop of thinking about this one thing constantly and you can still feel it very powerfully at times. So it can be draining and confusing in a way.”
One thing that does give Menne power is the colour red – in most of Great Grandpa’s press shots, she’s seen wearing the colour somewhere and has been known to tweet out about its empowering qualities. It all started in high school when she was in a band and “was more orientated around what we looked like and what was going on on that front” making sure she wore red, whether that be a small accessory or red lipstick.
“It’s just fun to wear monochrome because it’s definitely gives you some sort of power,” she explains. “It’s not really an attention thing but people do notice how you’re wearing all pink or red. As somebody who is standing in front of people, it’s nice to have that extra like ‘ok that makes me stand out in this way’ and I find the colours themselves to be comforting, like ‘I know that this is a part of me now.’”
As for Great Grandpa and the change that Menne has felt since joining the band and releasing the record, she says it’s definitely been a learning experience. “I feel like since the start of the writing process of this album, I’ve grown and changed. I’m not a totally different person but being a 19 or 20 year old child and then now being 22, still a child but I guess a little bit more mature in having dealt with more people and seeing more things,” she says.
“I think that I’ve definitely learned that these are my friends and these are the people that have my back, these are the people that are on my team and I don’t think that will change. I think this is a good relationship and a friendship that will last a long time.”
‘Plastic Cough’ is out now on Double Double Whammy
You can buy it here
Great Grandpa head out on tour with Citizen and Sorority Noise in October