interview + album stream: The Lopez
On May 11, The Lopez will release their new album, Heart Punch. Ahead of the album’s release and a celebratory show, being held in Pittsburgh at Spirit on May 11th, we’re honored to bring you a premiere stream of the album.
Along with an entire stream of the record below, we’re equally as thrilled to bring you an interview conducted by Madeleine Campbell (recorded and mixed Heart Punch) with Steph Wolf of the band. The two talk recording, their new album, and remember Jessie Flati, a member of the Lopez who unfortunately passed away. Enjoy the interview, album stream, and some photos from recording below.
interview by Madeleine Campbell
If you’ve played a DIY show in Pittsburgh, Pa. in recent years, there’s a strong chance Steph and Jesse Flati of The Lopez were somehow involved. During their nearly 10-year reign as one of Pittsburgh’s most active bands, they played and booked countless shows and festivals, self-released numerous records, toured nationally, designed show flyers, held resident DJ gigs all over the city, and opened their home to musicians passing through town. Their music is loud, noisy ,and raw and their partnership as a band, a married couple, and parents to their five cats is undeniable. The Pittsburgh music community was devastated when Jesse passed away unexpectedly from cardiac arrest on October 26th, 2018 shortly before completing their upcoming LP Heart Punch. Steph and I finished the album in November and it will be released on May 11th, Jesse’s 41st birthday.
How did The Lopez start? And at what point did it become the current iteration of you and Jesse?
We were living in Philly. It was 2006 or 2007. My friend Michelle was booking a show and needed another band. We had been messing around making music with our friend Jaison, who’s now Michelle’s husband. She suggested we open the show and it gave us the motivation to finalize those songs. Our very first show was at the Mill Creek Tavern in Philly. We had maybe five songs or so. I was the singer and ran the drum machine. Jesse played guitar and Jason played bass. That was the band. After that, we didn’t play another show for almost a year, I think.
And it was still just the three of you?
It was still the three of us. Somewhere along the line, our friend Dave, who Jesse had known for a long time, was like, “I can’t watch you guys play with a drum machine again. I want to drum for you.” He joined the band and we were a four-piece for a while. Dave eventually got married, had a kid and moved to Jersey. Jaison didn’t really want to tour and wasn’t too into going back to playing with the drum machine. It was a marriage of convenience. We told ourselves, “If we want to keep doing this we just have to fucking do it ourselves.” It was towards the end of our time in Philly that we became a two-piece. That’s also when I started playing synth. We had all this sonic room to fill now that we only had guitar, drum machine and vocals. We needed more noise, more texture, more bass parts.
I have so much admiration for you as the powerful front person. It’s something that I hope to have the courage to do someday. I find it really empowering to watch, like I’m vicariously living through you. What draws you to fulfilling that role?
It’s funny because I’m not a person who thrives on being the center of attention. I definitely came a long way. I have this very vivid memory of us practicing in our kitchen before one of our first shows in Philly. I didn’t know what I was doing. Jesse was like, “Steph, just scream from your gut! Come on! Go for it!” One time we got into a big fight before a practice because I broke a piece off my microphone clip. Jesse was pissed we had to order another one. We were just generally really annoyed with each other. It ended up being a great practice. I was channeling that agitation I was feeling, whatever was going on, and took it into performance. I listen to vocal takes now and can hear such a difference from where I started on our first couple records. In my mind, it’s like night and day. I’ve figured out how to channel more energy into my vocals.
I’ve heard a lot of The Lopez recordings and to me, there’s a well developed sound - slightly industrial, raw, and loud but also high energy and poppy. There’s kind of an unrelenting noisiness. How did that sound develop over all the years you played and grew together as a unit?
I think the thing that’s been constant from start to finish is Jesse’s guitar tone and feedback. I hear that sound and it’s him. Listening to that test lacquer, I was a mess. That’s why I was texting you like, “I can’t do this by myself.” You see people with pedalboards that have five, ten or fifteen pedals on them and they don’t even really have a sound you can put your finger on. Jesse had one pedal.
That fuzz pedal!
It’s handmade. It’s called the Freaktone Fuzz.
And it has one button.
Yup. I hear that fuzzy guitar sound and it’s like he’s there in the room with me. That’s always been there. I think the sound of the synthesizer is really important, too. The irony is that I was basically just trying to make some noise whereas he was doing much more complicated stuff.
I always appreciated that everything Jesse did as a musician was intentional. There’s a reason he used a single pedal. He was confident in that sound.
Absolutely. He didn’t always necessarily know how to get there but he knew what sounds he wanted to make.
Same with that little Brian May Vox combo amp. When he brought that into my studio for the first time, I looked at him like he had three heads. He said, “Just listen to it. You’re gonna dig it” and he plugged his guitar in and he was right. It’s such a great sound. It’s all over the albums we made together. Remember we recorded your vocals through it, too?
Oh yeah! It had that gnarly distorted sound.
So at what point did you move back to Pittsburgh from Philly?
We came back in 2011.
Was it an easy transition to come to the Pittsburgh music scene after being in Philly?
It wasn’t hard, but it’s a very different scene with a different vibe.
Our experience in Philly was with people who were really open to having mixed bills. People seemed a little more willing to take a chance on seeing something they weren’t already listening to. Sometimes Pittsburgh feels more clearly cut and divided. You don’t always see people from all different parts of the scene at a show.
What do you like about the Pittsburgh music scene? How would you describe it to someone who isn’t from here?
I think there’s a positive side to it being small. There’s one or two degrees of separation from everyone in a way I’ve come to appreciate. People are generally really up to help with stuff here, whether it’s printing a poster, screen printing patches, booking a show. The smallness of Pittsburgh does help foster a sense of community.
You and Jesse played a lot of shows.
If I was Weird Paul [Petroskey], I’d know exactly how many shows we played!
Ha! What particular shows stick out as really special?
That’s a hard question. The very last local show we played was October 21st at Howler’s with Big Eyes, who we really love and had played with before, and locals The Early Thirties, who we just met that night.
Just a few days before Jesse died.
Yeah. I had such a good, warm feeling at the end of that show. It was so much fun. All the bands hung out and talked for a long time afterwards and made these wonderful connections. It wasn’t the biggest crowd but that didn’t matter. Everyone was just so awesome.
Playing with Kelley Deal and Mike Montgomery’s band R. Ring was magical, too. Kelley Deal is such a hero to us. I mean, she’s fucking Kelley Deal. She watched our whole set from right in front of the stage. At one point on stage I apologized for how long the song “Trouble” is because we hadn’t played it live before and I felt self-conscious about it. At the end of the set she came up to me and said, “Don’t ever apologize for how long your songs are!” It was a nice affirmation.
In addition to you two playing a ton of shows, people active in Pittsburgh’s DIY music scene know that you and Jesse booked a lot of shows, too, especially for DIY touring bands. You really went out of your way to make sure people had a good experience. I want to hear about Ladyfest Pittsburgh, which you continue to bring to life each year even though that’s a really fucking hard thing to do.
Well, I want to be clear that I didn’t start Ladyfest Pittsburgh. It was started by Athena from the band Brazilian Wax. It was originally a one-day, one-night event. The second year was when The Lopez played for the first time. In the next year or two, I got more involved in the organization side of things, just doing little things here and there to help her out. I think it was the year after that when her husband passed away right before Ladyfest.
Oh my god, I didn’t know that.
Yeah. I think that was 2014. She’s incredible and still wanted the event to happen so I took over a lot of day-of responsibilities. Since then it’s been a small crew of people working together to make it happen each year, but it’s hard. It’s a lot of work, time, effort and energy. We don’t pay ourselves. Leading up to it, I always tell myself that I need to step down the next year, but then I see all of the incredible moments happen throughout the festival weekend that remind me why I do it. People who I know and love meeting for the first time and hitting it off. People making connections and growing and hearing music they didn’t know before. Alice Bag was our headliner last year and a lot of people who came weren’t familiar with her yet. They were freaking out! It was so cool.
You’re also raising money for the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.
Yeah, which is another reason to keep moving forward with it. I think I want to keep it small this year. Three shows of mostly local bands with one or two touring bands. I can’t get too caught up in trying to get sponsorships so there’s beer and pizza and what not. Those things are great but that’s not what it’s about for me. I just want to focus on the music and making sure bands have a great time.
Your new album Heart Punch comes out on May 11th, which is Jesse’s 41st birthday. I’m not sure if you know this but I was looking back at my notes and we started recording it together in your attic on November 11, 2016 and finished it in my studio on November 11, 2018.
What?! No, I didn’t realize that! Two years to the day. That’s interesting.
What’s one thing you want people to know about this album leading up to its release?
Hmm. Well, I don’t want to give anything away but there will be a lot of surprises inside the actual record packaging itself. As an avid record collector, Jesse would always get so excited when he was at Jerry’s or wherever and he’d find a record that said “cool poster!” or something like that written across the front in Jerry’s handwriting. He really loved those specialized parts of it - the sticker, the poster, the liner notes. That kind of stuff.
How do you feel like this album sonically compares to your previous releases?
I think both the sound and the subject matter of this one is a little darker and a little heavier. There are definitely themes of death and angst. After finishing “No Fun” Jesse said, “Oh god, we just wrote a depression song.” The song “Gremlin” is making fun of shitty bosses. The lyrics are pretty goofy but it comes from a real place. There’s a lot of resentment towards the world and our politics. There’s a lot of calling out people’s bullshit.
Was that an intentional shift in direction? I guess I’m wondering if you felt a responsibility to address these things as an artist?
Yeah, I do. Punk is about calling out bullshit whether it’s within your friend group or your school or among your elected officials or the world in general. I think our songs have always been like that, but we’re just bringing it more to the forefront with this one. I remember a long time ago we got a review in the Philadelphia Weekly saying we were “irreverent” and I wish I could remember the exact quote they used but they were basically saying our songs featured a lot of bitching about daily life. We always kinda laughed about that. One of the main things that made us want to write songs was feeling pissed off about something and needing an outlet to get it out of our system.
I think that encapsulates Jesse pretty succinctly - always calling out bullshit.
His mom even said that when she spoke at his funeral. I think she actually said those words. He would call out bullshit when he saw it. It didn’t sit well with a lot of people and he definitely made some people uncomfortable.
And he was so unwavering and consistent in that. He wasn’t a chameleon. He didn’t care who you were. He was authentically himself through and through and wasn’t trying to impress anyone.
100%. Jesse was never gonna kiss anyone’s ass. He could see through bullshit and never really cared what people thought of him. I love that about him.
Another thing you two are known around town for is your DJ sets. All vinyl always.
And no repeats! No repeat bands either. Jesse was adamant about that. We’d never play the same band twice in a set unless it was like, an all Prince night. Even in that particular situation, we played a five-hour all-Prince set with no repeat songs.
I’ve been to your house and seen that there are piles on top of piles of records. I appreciate that Jesse listened to and loved so many different styles of music. He turned me on to a lot of bands I had previously ignored. I think this is reflected in The Lopez’s sound. I distinctly remember him telling me when we were demoing “Gremlin” that it was a Yo La Tengo guitar tone with a Three 6 Mafia drum machine.
Ha! That sounds about right.
At first I said, “Jesse, what the hell are you talking about?” It made a lot more sense when I heard it.
If you look at our Instagram account, you can see we made posts of ourselves holding up two records asking something like, “Does UGK fit into the same set as They Might Be Giants?” Our motto was always “Nothing is off limits! Everything is in play!” He was really good at finding connections among different genres and different sounds that I wasn’t necessarily tuned into yet.
It seems like continuing to curate these really intentional, thoughtful DJ sets is a beautiful way to honor Jesse.
Absolutely. Even when I’m exhausted or uninspired or have to wake up so early for work, I have to do it. It helps me feel so connected to him. It’s a little overwhelming to go it alone because he had so much vinyl and I only know about 50% of it. I’ve been doing this thing where I pull one of his records that I’ve never heard before and find it on Apple Music. This way I can listen in the car or in the shower or wherever and familiarize myself. I just pulled one called The Best Party Ever from the band The Boy Least Likely To. I had never listened to them before and it’s awesome. I have a lot of learning to do. Even though I can’t DJ as well as he could, I’m excited to try and get better.
Oh, that’s exciting! There’s so much left for you to tap into.