Artist of the Month Beach Bunny on Led Zeppelin, TikTok Stardom, and the Chicago Music Scene

on February 13, 2020, 2:09pm
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When it appeared in the rotation of Chicago’s independent radio stations in the fall of 2017, “February” by Beach Bunny was an easy, effective introduction into frontwoman (and then-DePaul undergrad) Lili Trifilio’s brand of heart-on-the-sleeve power-pop. I was certainly still humming it three Februarys later as I prepared to meet the band on a gray afternoon 10 days before the Valentine’s Day release of their debut full-length, Honeymoon.

Three Februarys later, that song remains catchy; it’s everything else that’s changed. In those ensuing years, Trifilio and her bandmates (Matt Henkels, Jon Alvarado, and Anthony Vaccaro) graduated from Logan Square house shows to sold-out headlining spots at Metro and Thalia Hall to attention-grabbing appearances at festivals including Riot Fest and Lollapalooza. Along the way, their community of catharsis-seeking power-pop fans also grew accordingly, helped along by the viral success of their 2018 song “Prom Queen” on TikTok. Now, after conquering Chicago and mastering the concentrated punchiness of the EP, the band are ready for their biggest year yet.


Although they’re on the cusp of wider recognition (in addition to the new record, 2020 also includes an appearance at Coachella and a first-ever European tour), the mood is low-key as we gather at Alvarado’s new apartment, which still sports a stray Christmas decoration or two. Mostly, we’re all just wishing that the weather outside was as sunny and expansive as the music the four make together.

Read on for thoughts from Beach Bunny on the making of Honeymoon, the generosity of producer Steve Albini, and the worst questions that most music journalists (other than me) ask during interviews.

(Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Beach Bunny Shows)


On Musical Upbringings

Beach Bunny Ms California stream music video Brandon Hoeg

Beach Bunny, photo by Brandon Hoeg

Lili Trifilio: I mostly listened to what my dad listened to, which was a lot of classic rock: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. Then I took guitar lessons in fifth grade and stopped, but then in high school picked it up again.

Jon Alvarado: I grew up with a lot of Chicago house and juke music, gangster rap, and then like, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu-type neo soul. Then I picked up drums in middle school and changed it all up.

Anthony Vaccaro: My whole family kind of has a musical background. My grandfather taught music. He was an accordion teacher. My father was a drummer and was more on the punk side of stuff; he was raised on all the old SST and Discord stuff. I played cello in high school and had a jazz background and a rock background, but I can’t play jazz music.

Matt Henkels: I’m similar to Lili. My parents just played a lot of classic rock around the house. My mom listened to a lot of Simon & Garfunkel and stuff. I took guitar lessons from an early age, probably like six or something, but then stopped and took drum lessons and then picked guitar back up once Beach Bunny started.


On Going from EP to LP

Beach Bunny Honeymoon album artwork cover debut

Trifilio: In terms of songwriting, I feel like [Honeymoon] was written over the course of a year instead of a really short amount of time. It’s like a compilation of songs.

Vaccaro: I’ve played in other bands, and I’ve done records and stuff in the past, but this is the first time I was with a project and instead of recording in my parents’ basement, I went to an actual studio. I would say the difference between an EP and a record is just like, you’re doing the same thing but twice as much, and it’s twice as hard.

Trifilio: It was kind of weird because the “Prom Queen” stuff was blowing up right before we went into recording, even though it was prior project. As far as actually writing the songs, I don’t think the audience was like in my head while writing it. It’s just writing from experience.

Alvarado: I think we all definitely went into recording the album being like, we’re gonna try our best and make sure it sounds good, and we’re going to be happy with it. We’re doing a lot of videos and press stuff like this to hype it up. I think it’ll do well. I’m not really too nervous.

Trifilio: I’m feeling a little bit of pressure, but it’s fine.


On Their TikTok Success

Trifilio: Someone DM’d us on Twitter, I think, “Oh, did you know that there’s this number of videos out using the song?” And we were like, “Oh, that’s cool.” And then, over the next day, it kept growing exponentially, and then that reflected in the Spotify numbers, too.

Vaccaro: TikTok’s a little goofy sometimes. It took me a while to understand how it works. It wasn’t very straightforward. I felt like an older person trying to understand how to Facebook. Like I was commenting on my daughter’s posts instead of messaging her.


On Rejecting the Labels “Sad Girl Pop” and “Female-Fronted”

Beach Bunny at Lollapalooza 2019, photo by Nick Langlois

Beach Bunny at Lollapalooza 2019, photo by Nick Langlois

Trifilio: “Female-fronted” as a term gets kind of annoying because there are so many female artists out there that it’s not really capturing a genre to begin with. It’s even more annoying when people are like, “You sound like so-and-so” and it doesn’t sound anything alike apart from the fact there’s a female vocal. Like, for a little while, when I had blonde hair and Snail Mail had blonde hair, people would make that comparison a lot. She’s super cool, but her music definitely has a different vibe than Beach Bunny, especially in a live setting. So, that gets annoying, but it’s not like a big deal. I was probably just drunk tweeting, to be honest. (laughs) Just trying to be funny.


On Repetitive Interview Questions

Beach Bunny

Beach Bunny, photo by Brandon Hoeg

Henkels: I feel like all of the general questions about making the record and stuff are just like questions everyone asks. It’s hard to avoid those questions because you need to know them, but…

Trifilio: It’s just annoying when people like, don’t do any research at all, or when like the basic questions could already be established and you could like delve into it more. Like, “Oh, you have previous EPs … what’s this one like?” instead of having no context at all. When there’s several days of that in a row, you notice patterns.

Vaccaro: So, you say your lines. It’s like you’re in a movie.

Trifilio: It’s like, “Oh, do I say it differently this time?”

Vaccaro: “Are my other bandmates gonna notice I changed it?”


On Poetry vs. Lyrics

Trifilio: I feel like writing a poem versus writing a song does use two different parts of my brain. If I’m sitting down and I’m going to write something, I do consciously decide what form I’d want to write in, but sometimes there’ll be a theme in a poem where I’m like, “Oh, I want to write a song about the same theme!” But it’s never like, “Oh, this [poem] would be good lyrics.” I think it’s just good to practice writing consistently. Whether it’s journalism or creative or whatever. I think any type of writing probably helps songwriting.


On Recording at Electrical Audio

Electric Audio Chicago, photo courtesy of Electric Audio

Electric Audio Chicago, photo courtesy of Electric Audio

Henkels: We didn’t work with [Steve Albini], but he walked in on me playing Wii Sports bowling. He gave me a head nod, then immediately walked out of the room.

Trifilio: It was an iconic moment.

Vaccaro: We got lucky because we’d booked studio B, but then they put us in A the next time because the guys from Shellac were tracking or something. A’s usually more expensive, but we got upgraded for free. Thanks, Steve.


On the Best Way to Listen to Honeymoon

Trifilio: Definitely listen to it in order, because it ends on a happy note. So maybe if you’re feeling depressed on Valentine’s Day, it’ll lift your spirits up a little. Treat yourself if you’re single. Maybe take yourself out and listen to it in the restaurant on your AirPods.


On Honeymoon’s Live Potential

Chicago Music Scene Beach Bunny Dream Boy Origins Honeymoon

Chicago Music Scene, photo via Beach Bunny

Vaccaro: Going into tracking, we wanted to make a record where 95% could be replicated live. I remember us talking about this, that you don’t want to have this overproduction where live, it just doesn’t come across. And I mean like, yeah, we can’t have four guitars playing live at once or a shaker and a tambourine and a handclap all at once. We can’t do that, but there’s also not a ton of that on the record.

It almost fits in with the Electrical aesthetic where the band lays down this live tracking thing (even though we overdubbed it) and that’s what it is when you see it. I don’t know if that’s maybe a Midwestern thing, this blue-collar background of like, “Let’s make this real and not fake everybody out.”

Trifilio: Generally, we always want the shows to be as hype as possible. So that might mean playing way louder or projecting more than we did on the record. Especially with the old EPs, the difference between the quality of those and how we play them live is vastly different. Way more rockin’ live.


On Chicago House Shows

Henkels: There was a garage we played in, like, the dead of winter, and people were swinging from the rafters. There’s a video on YouTube.

Vaccaro: I was talking to my friend about that show, because that was before I was in the band. He was working the door, and he said it was nuts. Now we don’t do that stuff as much, so we’re less in touch with it. I played a house show a couple of days ago with another band, and it’s … it’s not like it’s dying, but kids don’t seem as excited as two years ago or a year ago. But maybe that’s just because we’re all getting older.

Trifilio: Oh no!


On Lollapalooza

Trifilio: Lollapalooza was, like, my end goal from the very beginning, like the pinnacle of my career that I wanted to hit. So, playing it was so surreal. It was better than I even thought it could be. The whole weekend was wonderful.

Vaccaro: The hometown crowd was phenomenal. Our parents got to go and our close friends. The really cool part, which sounds kind of dumb, was that we just got to drive there from our houses. Now, with touring and knowing how that stuff works, I’m just like: man, that was awesome. Just got to drive up!


On Chicago Bands to Watch

Trifilio: Anthony, plug all your bands! (laughs) Check out Gal Gun. Gal Gun’s so good. Lettering’s so good.

Henkels: Dehd.

Vaccaro: My best friend’s band’s called Rookie. I don’t know if they really need help. They’re currently on tour with Cheap Trick.

Alvarado: Better Love! Better Love’s awesome.

Vaccaro: I don’t want to forget anybody, because if they read this, they’ll be pissed!

Beach Bunny’s first full-length will be out 2/14 via Mom + Pop Music.

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