Much like the Sex Pistols, Nice as Fuck began in a clothing boutique. Jenny Lewis and Au Revoir Simone’s Erika Forster met through mutual friend Tennessee Thomas, the British-expat owner of East Village shop the Deep End Club and daughter of Attractions drummer Pete Thomas. The three convened at the store and started writing songs inspired by their shared left-wing beliefs. A jokey name, with an abbreviation that riffs on the English slang term “naff,” completed the picture. “It was completely freeform and off the cuff,” Lewis told Rolling Stone of how the group came together.
Politics are a key part of the band’s ethos (NAF’s first show was at a Bernie Sanders rally), but friendship, feminism and NYC dating blunders also inspire their songs. “I’ve been ghosted three times this week if that means anything,” Thomas tells RS. “It’s a reality.”
The band’s new debut, Nice as F*#k, offers a compellingly stripped-down sound, often featuring nothing more than Forster’s minimal bass lines, Thomas’ driving drums and Lewis’ soulful vocals. “It captures a moment in time,” Lewis says. The trio spoke to RS about how the Occupy movement inspired them, their love of playing on venue floors and the advantages of being an all-female band.
How long have you guys known each other?
Forster: Tennessee and I actually met at SXSW when we were both in really young bands. When she moved to New York is when we actually knew each other.
Thomas: Erika was in a three-piece East Coast girl band and I was in a three-piece West Coast girl band [The Like]. We just both connected.
Forster: We both look like Laura Dern.
Thomas: I knew Jenny when the Like opened for Rilo Kiley. Jenny was always our hero and always so sweet and kind. I played drums with her over the years, but had never really done a project with her. When she came to New York, met Erika and loved Erika, we figured we might as well play some music for God’s sake. There’s something nice about starting a new project with your friends. It was a low-stress environment – we felt free to mess around.
Tennessee, your store, the Deep End Club, grew out of the Occupy movement and NAF grew out of the store. How did politics inform the band?
Thomas: I moved to New York five years ago and at that time, that’s when the Occupy movement was happening. I had lived in L.A. before so I hadn’t been exposed to anything like that. I was so inspired to see my peers raising their voices and creating a space in Zuccotti Park to talk about these important issues that we’d all been feeling separately concerned about. Erika and our group of friends hosted some teach-ins, think tanks and started building a community around those ideas. When Occupy ended, I thought it would be really fun to have a space to continue the conversation and for that community I just met in New York to have a spot to meet up. Then Jenny came to town and was hanging out in there. Erika is always there too – they’re the best friends. Jenny got this vibe, arrived to New York and then was like, “I can write some songs about it too.” So the band was formed in the window [of the store].
Jenny, what made you want to be in an all-female band at this point in your career?
Lewis: This wasn’t planned. We didn’t make a decision to start a band; we really just started playing together because I moved to New York in September part-time. I was very far from home and I really just wanted to play some music. Ending the last bit of touring for The Voyager, I wanted to play without any intentions. Pete Thomas, who’s Tennessee’s father, played on Acid Tongue. Tennessee has been one of my best friends for over 10 years, and [her father and I] conspired to get her back behind the drums. Her father sent her this flat drum kit basically because a full kit wouldn’t fit in her shop. Then Tennessee and I started talking about another woman to jam with on bass. We had been hanging out with Erika and so we just got together to play music; there was no intention.
Within the first two days, we had written all of these songs. They were pulled from the feeling of Tennessee’s shop. Musically, the freedom for me vocally singing over drums and bass really opened up a whole, new melodic world where I wasn’t competing with the guitar. … It really gave me the opportunity to open up a bit.
“Within the first two days, we had written all of these songs. They were pulled from the feeling of Tennessee’s shop” – Jenny Lewis
Jenny, how is the approach you took with NAF different from the approaches you took with Rilo Kiley and your solo work?
Lewis: Well, there was no plan. Usually you start a band, you write songs, you make a record, put it out and go on tour. This was completely unplanned. Erika had played a little bass before, but writing with someone who’s learning an instrument is really liberating. I was writing over her learning. It was completely freeform and off the cuff. We had no intentions to tour or do anything – we were just playing in the shop. We basically recorded the record live. We mixed and mastered it and put it out in, like, five or six weeks. It’s been great to just make a record and put it out. My friend M. Ward asked us to go out on his tour, so we had to finish arranging the songs before going on tour. Really all of our friends have guided us to this band.
Tell me about your live performance. At Webster Hall you ditched the stage and played on the floor.
Thomas: I know Jenny and I both saw the band Lightning Bolt play a while back at a club, but they would always set up on the floor. There’s something a bit different about it. By the nature of our equipment being quite small because it’s what we were using in the shop, it was a busking setup. It freed us up to be able to set up on the floor really easily. We did it for the first show and managed to convince every venue to let us do that. It puts you in the middle of things in a similar way to the shop. There’s something nice about removing this kind of separation. It’s what Occupy did in a lot of ways. We get stuck in it together instead of separating ourselves.
So your first performance was for a Bernie Sanders benefit. Would you play a Hillary Clinton benefit?
Thomas: Obviously we’re going to stay political, and we need a democrat to win, so we’ll encourage young people to get involved, stay involved and vote. I think Bernie’s policies really line up with ours in the Occupy way. Hillary obviously does take corporate money and does things that aren’t ideal, but we’re going to vote for her. I don’t think we’ll endorse her. Bernie Sanders [was] a lot more grassroots and punk.
Do you consider politics to be the main theme of the album?
Forster: The transition from [Jenny leaving] L.A. and having this new adventure in New York resonating with the excitement and enthusiasm we were all feeling when we were making the songs was a big part of it. Play, nostalgia and being girls together really came through [on the record].
Thomas: The bands Erika and I have been in have been all-female. There is something still quite rare and important about women talking about things, like the song “Cookie Lips,” for example, deals with the reality of being a woman in 2016 … being ghosted. [The record] also includes finding strength in female friendships, community, the greater good and kids. I think a lot of women get stressed out if they don’t have a boyfriend or a husband. Jenny obviously addresses that in “Just One of the Guys.” It’s nice to be able to make songs about that, that are honest and aren’t pretending.
Lewis: It wasn’t a purely political album. I think we were channeling the feeling of the neighbourhood and the community Tennessee is immersed in. With a song like “Guns,” that’s a song I started writing in my apartment months ago – kind of about Sandy Hook. At the very last minute we put it together and it happened to coincide with the Orlando shootings. Again, it’s all in the ether. We’re channeling those feelings.
Regarding gun control, what do you think is the answer to this epidemic?
Lewis: I think we have to start with ourselves. I always bring it back to me and what I’m doing in my life. I want the songs to speak for themselves.
Going back to “Cookie Lips,” care to share any dating horror stories?
Thomas: I mean I’ve been ghosted three times this week if that means anything. It’s a reality. Boys don’t feel like they have to be held accountable. I’m probably bad at communicating too, but I don’t know. Communication is complicated. It’s hard to find people who are going to meet you halfway. It’s hard to find someone that wants the same things and is in the same place.
Lewis: I’m sure we’ve all had some horrifying dating experiences. I’m fortunate that I haven’t experienced online dating. It’s that feeling like you want the whole cookie, but all you’re getting is crumbs. You can’t live on crumbs.
Jenny, last time we spoke you weren’t sure if you would be in a band again. At this point, do you see this band taking the lead in your career?
Lewis: I don’t really think that way about my creative life. I just do it in the moment. I let the inspiration guide me. I let the songs guide me. If you had told me a year ago that I’d have a record out with a new band right now I probably wouldn’t have believed you. It’s not something I planned, and I’m so grateful that the songs came through the shop, but I have no plans for the future. I’m a total runaway: I’m living in New York in my friend’s apartment. I don’t know where I’m going to be next week let alone six months from now. It’s really reinvigorated my love for indie rock and the fans of that kind of music. People were singing along at the first show and they had never heard the songs before.
Is NAF’s debut a one-off record?
Forster: We’re along for the ride just like everybody else. The whole thing came into our lives spontaneously. So we’ll see.