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Music More than just ‘the girl in the band’: an interview with The Ophelias

Dec. 18, 2018
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It’s an indisputable fact: 2018 is the year of the damn woman. This isn’t because women haven’t previously been prevalent in music—we’ve been here for centuries—rather, much like the blue wave of the midterm elections, the pink wave has arrived. Women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community are finally beginning to receive the recognition deserved for their work. And while some consumers are stuck mourning the relevancy of cis white dudes with guitars, most are looking ahead to a future defined by a truly progressive music community.

Cincinnati’s The Ophelias is one of the all-female outfits breaking through the patriarchy. Each member of the art rock quartet independently served as the “token girl” in male-fronted bands before joining forces in 2015. With backgrounds ranging from opera to surf rock, The Ophelias used their collective marginalized experiences to fuse their diverse genre leanings. The Ophelias’ latest album, "Almost," encapsulates this unique amalgamation with effervescent violin, sharp songwriting, and dynamic percussion. 

We spoke with Spencer Peppet (guitar, vocals, songwriting) and Grace Weir (bass) about carving out a space of their own in the Cincinnati DIY scene, producing an album, and getting distance from songwriting. 

Adolescent Content: How did your different musical backgrounds all come together when you formed The Ophelias?

Spencer Peppet: Grace and I met in opera, weirdly enough. At that point, we had both played a little bit in different bands. I started playing random instruments, and Grace was a cellist for a long time. We were in our first band together...ridiculous. But then The Ophelias formed senior year of high school, and we both kind of transitioned to electric instruments. I went to guitar, Grace moved to bass. And Micaela Adams [drums] had been a friend of ours, as well as Andrea Gutmann-Fuentes [violin, piano]. We met them through the Cincinnati high school DIY scene, if you can call it that. Andrea had been playing violin for years and years and years, and did orchestra and all kinds of really cool classical stuff. And then Micaela was playing jazz drums, and then was playing drums for pretty much every band in the Cincinnati scene at that point. And so we all kind of met up, and originally it was just going to be for one show... And then after our first practice, they were all so wonderful, I was like, “Wait, can we keep doing this? You guys are amazing. Can we continue, please?” And they said yes, and we get to keep doing it. 

Adolescent: How has the Cincinnati music scene shaped you and your musical perspective? 

Peppet: I do think it was very male-dominated. I think forming The Ophelias was kind of a refuge from that. We were all “the girl in the band,” because there were so few of us in the scene. So, we all kind of got to step away from that and do our own thing, and not be tokenized or talked down to, which was really different. 

Grace Weir: And to add to that, I think that there are some really strong female punk entities in Cincinnati. But, as far as the rock and the folk end of things, there weren’t really many of us, especially while we were in high school. There are so many cool, older [female] musicians in Cincinnati, but I was a pretty oblivious teenager. I wasn’t really paying attention to everything cool that was happening. You know what I mean? You’re wrapped up in your own thing… We idolize this one female punk girl in Cincinnati. Her name’s Bridget Battle [of trash pop trio Tweens]. I know, personally, when I first started playing bass, I was just playing in this guy’s band, and I felt very much like he just wanted me to be a girl playing his bass parts, if that makes sense. Being able to see [Bridget’s] shows made me really thirst for that kind of freedom of just like playing whatever music you felt like playing in that moment, and talking about whatever emotion you were feeling, regardless of whether it was cliché or not. I think for me, going to The Ophelias with that idea...really made me feel celebrated.

Adolescent: Which song from the new album, "Almost," resonates most with you?

Weir: For me, “O Command”... While we were mixing the album I was like, “This is going to be cool, like I’m really, really pumped about this.” So that one always has a special place in my heart.

Peppet: That one’s Andrea to the max. Andrea can do anything, and that one she pulled out all the stops. She’s so good… I think the one that resonates with me the most is “Moon Like Sour Candy.” Probably because we got to spend a full day on it. We did it later, after everything else had been recorded. We got to go in and do a day—like, I came back from school and we went in and spent however many hours tracking everything. I really felt like we were all focused and paying attention and really knew what the song needed. Everyone seemed very attuned to what was happening. We recorded with a different engineer originally, and then we got to work with both Yoni [Wolf of Cincinnati's "Why?"] and John Hoffman, who [are] wonderful… I’m pretty proud of how that song ended up coming together. So, I did that song on a solo EP ["Moon Like Sour Candy"] that I put out last summer, and the version that I have is just guitar and voice, and there’s no drop, there’s no build. It just feels like a level up, like a Pokémon evolution. 

Adolescent: And, similarly, you guys put out “Night Signs” as a single last year, and then recorded a different version for "Almost," right? 

Weir: Yeah, so, when we put “Night Signs” out last year, I think we had already sat on the album for about a year, and we were kind of antsy. We felt like we wanted to put a song that we really loved out into the world. We thought it was a strong song, but we wanted to add a little bit more, and we also just felt like it was so tied into all of the songs that we were going to put on this album. It was just our chance to revisit it and give it the love that we wanted to give it. And also get Yoni’s take on it, which I think was pretty important to tie everything together. I think it’s kind of cool to have a song and then re-release it as an evolved version of itself, kind of like “Moon Like Sour Candy.” I think, for me, that’s the big difference between the two versions. 

Peppet: We got to add more Andrea. 

Weir: Gave it some more life.

Adolescent: How did you guys get connected to Yoni Wolf, and what was that experience like?

Weir: We all initially met Yoni when we played a show across the street from his house in a park, but I now am dating him, so that’s how we ended up doing this record with him. He was very excited about the new music that we were writing, and I think we were collectively a little stumped about what to do next with the music after we had recorded it. We had been sitting on it for a year. So, he kind of had a vision of where we could take it, and how he could expand upon our ideas. And so I think that’s why we decided to have him as the producer and the mixer of the album.

Adolescent: And, Grace, you assisted with the production, right? Was that your first time having a hand in the production of an album?

Weir: Yeah, I did. So, I pretty much sat with [Yoni] as he mixed the entire album, and really got to learn the ropes of mixing more than I had previously, but also was able to strongly voice my opinion and make some decisions and stuff like that. That was pretty much what I think I did from the assistant-producing spectrum, as well as just made sure the rest of the band was cool with everything that was happening, and that we were all jamming to what Yoni was doing.

Adolescent: I feel like this record sounds more full. Was that something that you guys were setting out to do, or was that more a result of collaborating with a new producer?

Peppet: For the first record [2015’s "Creature Native"], we were really just working with what we had. We love DIY. I think it’s a really important movement. For ["Almost"], we got the opportunity to work with a producer, and work with nice equipment and in a studio, so that’s why it sounds different. We tried to keep elements of DIY… I’m really excited about being able to use these nicer things and make it sound fuller, deeper, and more intricate. I think Yoni has a real knack for giving things depth and just broadening a song. I think we wouldn’t have been able to do that without him. 

Weir: And to add to that, our last album we spent a month on, and this album we’ve spent almost two years on. Just having time to think through it, and also just having more resources—as we’ve all grown and experienced new things and gotten the knack for new instruments—I think that has also furthered the sound that we were able to make with this one.

Adolescent: Did you like spending more time with this record, as opposed to having a shorter period of time? What do you think the pros and cons are, now that you’ve done it both ways? 

Peppet: I think a pro is that you get distance from it, but a con is that you get distance from it. 

Weir: Yeah, I think that the pro, for me, was that since we had so much time, we weren’t worried about spending too much time. We had all already spent more time than we normally would on something. We were able to ask people advice and really ruminate on things more than we would have had we just DIY’d it in a month, you know, put out what we were feeling in that moment kind of thing. 

Peppet: We also recorded it, and then it kind of just sat for a while. And I know I didn’t listen to it for a while, so then coming back with Yoni—and with the band a year older, and with all of us another year older, another year wiser—they were different songs after that year. Speaking as a songwriter, things change so quickly. The oldest song on this album, “House,” I wrote [in] my senior year of high school. And so coming back to that this year as a junior in college, I’m like, “What? Who is that? What is happening here?” But just because the writing spans so much time, and now the album does too, it feels very much like a lot of experiences went into this and are encapsulated in it. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.