Feminist Rockers Kitten Forever On The Marriage Of Pop, Punk, And Politics

"I never talked about liking pop music"

Imagining Beyoncé on a small, darkly lit stage in an underground rock club in Minneapolis seems pretty absurd. Pop stars are like mythic figures presiding in a world that few of us ever experience, so to think of a larger-than-life entertainer slinging gear from one venue to the next, trading drink tickets for cans of PBR, and waiting to play their set, is, in short, ridiculous. But for Kitten Forever, a three-piece feminist punk band from Minneapolis, whose past gigs include opening for Babes in Toyland and Jack Off Jill, they broke that divide between pop and punk when they played a Beyoncé cover set in 2015, translating Queen Bey’s Top 40 hits into savage punk rock ditties.

“When we did the cover fest,” Liz Elton, one-third of the trio, explains, “we were trying to do things that we haven’t done before, and that led us to play different ways that we wouldn’t normally play. But we pretty much always listen to pop music on tour and that’s hard to erase from your mind.”

With pop music as the catalyst for inspiration, Kitten Forever’s decade-long evolution as a pop and Riot Grrrl-inspired band has yielded their third LP, 7 Hearts, via Atlas Chair. Clocking in at just under 30 minutes, the album, featuring the brash, frenetic energy from musicians Laura Larson, Corrie Harrigan, and Elton—who only utilize a bass and drums, which they share and pass around between them (watch it here on this PBS doc)—condenses 15 tracks about feminism, friendship, and growth into one glittery batch of female empowerment, with plenty of nods to their pop star heroes. To get to know these Twin City natives better, we recently spoke with the band about 7 Hearts, discovering punk, and their undying love of pop. 

How do you feel your own personal politics play into Kitten Forever?
Laura Larson: We’ve always identified as feminists and we are a feminist band. I think we use that lens to work together collaboratively and also with the lyrics that we write—we all write lyrics individually for each song that we sing. Another thing about the band is that switch off with each instrument, so a third of the album is written by each of us individually, and all the songs that each of us writes have feminist undertones.

How about pop culture. How does that influence your songwriting?
Corrie Harrigan: I think as a band we’ve always had pop undertones in our music. I’m personally fascinated with pop culture and pop music as a cultural lens, or a cultural reflector, and I think people write off pop music because it’s something of interest to young women. It’s seen as something that’s vapid and shallow, not necessarily because of the art itself, but because of who listens to it, and I think that’s a very interesting and a very fucked up response to pop music.

I was watching the PBS documentary the other day, and I think it was Liz who said that when you started listening to music, you listened to Mariah Carey and Hanson. I’m curious as to whether you denied liking pop music once you discovered punk.
Liz Elton: Oh, for sure. I was in a weird spot where I had another friend who was getting into punk and we were both into pop originally, so we kind of faked it together. It’s easier to make it look real when there’s two of you doing it. Then when I immersed myself in the local punk scene and tricked everyone into thinking I was cool, or punk, I never talked about liking pop music. Then there was a point when I realized I can only deny that I liked it for so long before it just wasn’t worth it.

What are your thoughts on how pop and punk connect?
LL: I feel like the kind of punk music that I’d always been attracted to was always super melodic. With Nirvana, they wrote harmonic melodies in their songs, and it was that kind of thing where it had an edge to it but it still had a good pop quality. I think a really good written song is going to be something that, if it’s punk, it’s got to have a part you can sing along with. That’s what I like in a punk song. I also think that people draw really extreme lines between those two genres because it either sounds like it can be on the radio or it doesn’t. The Ramones were using the same chords that you can still hear now in a Justin Bieber song. When you break down pop hits on the radio, it's still the same major four chords over and over again; they’re just arranged slightly differently which was always happening in early punk music.

How did you guys get into punk? 
CH: I think all of us had that natural progression thing that most people do when you’re into music you hear on the radio. You get exposed to some mildly alternative music, like Green Day, and then through Green Day you get into Nirvana, and then you get into Hole, then you get into Bikini Kill, and then you go down the rabbit hole from there. Laura and I grew up in the suburbs, and I didn’t have cable or the Internet, so we were basically getting exposed to music through a couple of weird, alternative radio stations in Minneapolis. 

Let’s talk about the origin story of Kitten Forever. Liz, I read somewhere that you were approached by Corrie and Laura to join the band. What was that first exchange like?
LE: It was creepy. I was at a show and I think they were standing in front of me, and they kept turning around and looking at me. Eventually, they said hello, and I asked what was going on, and they were like, "We want to start an all-girl punk band and we want you to be in it. It’s going to be like L7 and it’s gonna be fucked up and gross." Then we tried to have band practice that same week and we wrote a song about ice cream that was not like L7. I was very excited, though, because I wanted to be in a band and I wanted to sing in a band, which I’d never done before.
CH: Laura and I wanted to be friends with Liz. We thought she was cool and we were kind of intimidated by her. We were from the suburbs and we weren’t quite sure how to make friends with people. But we were in a band together at the time that Liz really liked, and she came to see our band a few times. Even though she was living with a friend of ours at the time, I was still intimidated by her and didn’t know how to broach my own individual friendship with her. 

Liz, you just mentioned that you had never been in a band before joining Kitten Forever. Did you know how to play an instrument?
LE: I didn’t know how to play anything at the time. I’d taken guitar lessons a few times, but I wasn’t a guitar player. 

So you kind of learned how to play and sing as the band evolved?
LE: Initially, in the first very long portion of Kitten Forever, we didn’t switch instruments, so I just sang in the band. Then about three years ago we started switching, and by that point, I’d been in two other bands where I played bass and felt a little more comfortable. It wasn’t because I was ready, but because we needed a change.

Was the idea of switching instruments a way of breaking down the traditional structure of bands, where you have the singer up front and the drummer hidden away in the back?
LE: I think it was more for our own sanity because I felt like we were hitting a wall. It felt kind of stale, but now I feel like it’s cool to switch and change that up, and have everyone have equal representation in the band because I’ve never considered myself a front person. I don’t have that attitude. I don’t want to be the person that's in the middle of the stage looking at people. 

Watching your videos online, it always seems like you’re having fun. How do you strike the balance between having fun and singing a message? 
LL: We talked about this is an old interview, years ago, where people perceive us as a political band, which we are, but we aren’t overtly singing about that onstage, and we aren't ever overtly talking about that onstage. I think that has a lot to do with visibly being all girls in a band, or visibly being not traditionally thin, normal beauty standard women. I’m not sure why people perceive us that way. I mean, I’m not upset that they do, because that’s accurate, but I’m interested as to why that is because we’re never on stage being very overtly political. 

You mentioned back in 2013, when you were making 7 Hearts, you weren’t sure which direction the album was going in. What was going on at the moment that made you question that?
CH: Part of the reason was that 7 Hearts was written over a long period of time, and our last album, Pressure, was written in a short period of time. It was the first album we wrote where we were switching instruments. Then there was a long gap between Pressure and 7 Hearts, and a lot of the songs were written almost immediately after Pressure came out, so it was weird for us to have half of the album written long before the other half was. When we finally sat down and got serious about the second half of the album, we got a little stressed about whether or not the two halves of the album were going to be cohesive. We got that feeling when you work on something long enough and you get kind of lost in it, and you're not sure if what you were expecting to project is what the final product is going to be. But the first time I heard all of the songs recorded, I was like, "Yeah, this makes sense."
LE: We had no plans for it coming out. We didn’t know who would put it out, or how it would come out. And then in July of 2015, after recording the album in March, we talked to JD Samson about putting it out.

Now that the album is out, what is the significance of 7 Hearts to you? 
LE: What it means to me are all the formations that you go through in relationships and how they’re a different version of yourself. Not that you change yourself to be involved with someone else, but that you're affected by a person in a way that irreparably changes you.
LL: There’s a lot of themes that we all touch on that run throughout the entire album, and one of those themes that we’ve been talking about is personal empowerment and pumping yourself up and feeling a sense of self-encouragement when maybe you’re not feeling that way; feeling like you can be a fan of your own work, your own self-esteem, and being a fan of yourself. 
CH: I feel like the album is about change and growth, and trying to come out on the other side of things that have happened to you that might not necessarily be positive. I think it’s about how you can break apart and still become a new whole thing.