‘Rock and Roll Ain’t What It Used to Be’
And boygenius isn’t nostalgic about it.
Close your eyes and think about what rock and roll looks like. Do you see a gang of comrades wielding and/or destroying instruments onstage? Do you see Mick and Keef, or Buckingham and Nicks, or all of the Blink-182 boys acting simultaneously like friends, siblings, colleagues, and rivals? This image is, by some measures, old-fashioned—in rock and other genres, bands are no longer prime.
For example: If you scanned the highest reaches of Billboard’s Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart last week, you’d find many solo artists going by their birth name (Steve Lacy, Zach Bryan) or TikTok-friendly alias (d4vd, dazy). Not until spot No. 10 would you see an actual band (one whose heyday was long ago: Linkin Park). This week’s cross-genre Hot 100 chart is even starker—the highest placement by a band is at No. 50 (for a song that’s actually by two bands, Fuerza Regida and Grupo Frontera). Exceptions exist in many vibrant scenes, such as K-pop and the jam-band circuit. Yet even in indie rock, much of the buzz now goes to individuals.
The singer-songwriters Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus have all been recipients of such buzz. Over the past few years, each woman’s highly specific take on emotionally vulnerable guitar music has achieved fervent acclaim (plus moderate fame in the case of Bridgers, a Taylor Swift tourmate and a tabloid fascination). Together, they’ve formed a supergroup called boygenius—whose mission is, in part, to make a last stand for bands.
The cover of boygenius’s 2018 EP featured the trio posing like Crosby, Stills & Nash did for its debut. Recently, a Rolling Stone cover featured boygenius outfitted in the same way that Nirvana was for the magazine’s cover in 1994. Boygenius’s first full album, The Record, is out on Friday. Although Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus are known for solemn, often hushed, solo work, the album features rollicking passages that seem perfect for long drives and festival gigs. I interviewed the group with a question in mind: By harkening back to the archetype of the world-uniting rock band (which is often associated with men), are these three queer, 20-something women being nostalgic—or making a novel case for the glory of collaboration?
Sitting together on the quilt of a Los Angeles Airbnb’s four-poster bed, the trio flaunted their personalities in a kind of rowdy harmony. Baker, a Carhartt-clad multi-instrumentalist raised on punk rock, gave stream-of-consciousness speeches about capitalism. The slyly charismatic Bridgers cracked wise from within her NASA hoodie. Dacus—whose music has a sweeping, essayistic quality—murmured considerately, often while lying down. Interaction between the three was nonstop. At one point, Dacus asked if she could rest her head on Bridgers’s knee. Bridgers assented with a warning: “It’ll be bony!”
Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Spencer Kornhaber: The rollout for this album is giving a self-conscious, next-big-thing, alt-rock-band-from-the-’90s vibe. Is that what you’re going for?
Phoebe Bridgers: That’s deeply what it is: acting like we’re already a legacy. These days, people try to make it seem like you made your record in your bedroom and you had some dark backstory and you were discovered by the label. Nobody shows up and trashes a dressing room. (Don’t trash your dressing room. The people who you want to suffer from that are not suffering from it.) Rock used to be, like, a sin. Now when you think rock, you think Coors or the Super Bowl.
Julien Baker: Before, when big rock bands were a huge deal, everything was about the album as a body of work, because the record store was the gatekeeper of taste. And now there’s infinite splintering of taste. So it’s nice to be like, We want to be a big rock band and not the cool, obscure thing. Put the foot-on-the-monitor guitar solo in there, put the fun Americana lyric in there, because it makes people happy.
Kornhaber: Part of what you’re talking about is the power of a band, right? You three got your start as solo artists, and there’s a sense that bands in rock are less popular these days. Why do you think that is?
Lucy Dacus: My theory is that labels don’t want to sign more than one person, because it’s a liability if the band breaks up and jeopardizes the product.
Baker: This has always been the aim of capitalism: to make everybody into an individual. In a band, the identity is more than the sum of the individuals. Robert Plant and John Bonham and Jimmy Page all have their superpowers, but there’s still a Justice League of Led Zeppelin. This is going to get pull-quoted as me being like, “Rock and roll ain’t what it used to be.”
Bridgers: It ain’t!
Dacus: It’s not that it was better. Things change. All art movements are in response to a previous thing. I’m a nostalgic person, and I get annoyed by the nostalgia for ’70s rock.
Baker: Because people are like, “Guitar music is dead.” No, the guitar sounds different now. You don’t like the guitar music that you’re hearing.
Kornhaber: Does being in this band allow you to be more like yourself?
Baker: I’m more of an extreme caricature of myself, in a way. When someone engages with your music as your first name, last name, then you’re like, Okay, everything I do has to communicate the fullness of my personhood. But I can be a freak in this band. I can be the freaky guitar player in boygenius.
Dacus: Exactly. Did you hesitate, Phoebe?
Bridgers: Oh, I was just thinking, we are characters. There’s only such a small amount of us that can be shown. But I don’t think I’m acting a part.
Dacus: I don’t want our fans to think that they know us that well.
Bridgers: Insert Fiona Apple’s “This world is bullshit” speech.
Kornhaber: You were talking about wanting to move away from indie, obscure music. How did that play out in making this album?
Dacus: We’ve talked a lot about Julien wanting more sick riffs. It was fun having that barometer to be like, “This really hits and will be awesome at a festival.”
Baker: I do feel the impulse, when I’m with you all, to just do something that feels good. When I’m making my own music, I feel a bit self-conscious. The drum needs to be a complex meter. I was just thinking about [the new boygenius song] “Anti-Curse.” It’s just [makes crushing sound] the most simple-ass drum beat you can imagine.
Bridgers: That recording really scratches my brain.
Baker: Because what you want to happen happens when you want it to. You’re like, And this would be the part where there’s a dropout and a big part! And then there is a dropout and a big part.
Dacus: You’re satisfied, and you can tune in to the meaning in the lyrics better.
Kornhaber: One thing that comes up in your lyrics a lot are places like gas stations, cowboy bars—places that are in between, and nonurban places. Why are you writing about those places so often?
Dacus: We all love liminality.
Bridgers: In a monoculture, the places you notice that are existing as their own ecosystem are the most interesting to me.
Dacus: Creatively, I get a lot from spaces like that, because nothing is expected of me. I don’t have to be a specific version of myself. It’s a non-place, or a place where nobody is stagnant. People are in and out, so there’s this refreshed energy, and that’s helpful for me in order to hear my own thoughts.
Kornhaber: What do you make of liminal spaces being fetishized online?
Dacus: We all love them.
Bridgers: It makes me sad, though. It’s post-nostalgia to me. The classic empty arcade or whatever—those places feel like they don’t exist anymore. I just can smell a lot of those pictures. A lot of them smell like an indoor pool.
Dacus: I never thought about the smell of them. I take it as a new ontological thought experiment that a lot of people are engaging with. It’s artful to notice the intangible details of something and put them together. It really does something for me.
Kornhaber: That’s making me think about the album’s depiction of love. It always sounds like a telepathic thing: You know what another person’s thinking; you feel really known. Why do you all seem to agree on that portrayal of love in your songwriting?
Bridgers: I have this impulse to not look under the hood of why that is. There’s just this magical force that is our friendship.
Dacus: That’s the fourth boygenius. I’ve had people in my life who think that they can telepathically understand me, and it’s judgmental; they don’t take the time to actually find out from me who I am. So I do think that [telepathic love] exists, but a lot of people think they have it and are missing it.
Bridgers: And! We work on our relationship. We do therapy. It is hard work to have achieved the easy thing.
Baker: Luce, you were talking about how it’s messed up when people say, “No one knows you like I do.” It’s like, Yeah, because we have an individual relationship, no one will have our dynamic. Also, part of love is curiosity. When you love someone, you are signing up to learn how they change.
Kornhaber: You said you do therapy together. What does it mean to work on yourselves as friends?
Dacus: There’ve been a lot of conversations about identifying what’s worth protecting in our relationships and how to do it. Is it weird to talk about this? Is this a breach—?
Bridgers: I would have raised my hand if that were true, but I’m not scared of this conversation.
Baker: Yeah, therapy is not a punishment. Therapy isn’t a last-ditch effort. Therapy can be a prophylactic exercise.
Bridgers: We’re going to be in a lot of challenging situations this year. We just want to know there’s a shorthand for our communication skills when things are hard. Personally, I have a really hard time with that, but it’s the easiest with y’all already. It’s fun to protect something that is not yet in jeopardy.
Dacus: We’ll be good at it.
Kornhaber: A lot of the lyrics on the album sound like they’re about romance. But I know that the song “Leonard Cohen” is about a car trip that you all had together. Is friendship love and romantic love as different as our culture makes it seem?
[In unison]: No!
Dacus: I have tons of romantic friendships that I treasure. I had a conversation recently with a friend who really disagrees with that and thinks that hierarchically, friendship is the highest form of love—and romance is a demotion.
Bridgers: Yeah. Like the sexual tension between two cis hetero guys who never talk about their feelings. The yearning in both of those people, it’s so—
Baker: You mean between me and my bro-ass lesbian friends at the gym being like, “Whaddup.”
Bridgers: I just mean there are less boundaries to those relationships [than people think].
Dacus: I agree. People should get in touch with their instincts.
Bridgers: And their intentions. Sometimes competitiveness is just love, if you work on it.
Baker: I’ve been trying to recontextualize when I find myself envious of a person. What is it that they’ve got that I want to be?
Bridgers: I love that feeling so much. When I meet somebody or see a show and I’m like, I should have had that, it makes me feel alive.
Dacus: There’s so much less competition in this world than people think. Every person is their whole universe and can’t be repeated. Competition’s been prescribed to us for market purposes.
Kornhaber: Another variety of love is familial love—the subject of the first song, “Without You Without Them,” in which you pay tribute to a friend or lover’s ancestors. Some of you have complicated relationships with your parents. How did that influence the decision to open this album on that note of familial gratitude?
Bridgers: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Yes, I have a lot of sympathy for my inner child. But I wouldn’t trade my current life for anything I withstood. My ability to make chosen family, and the hard work that it took to be intimate with people, is now one of my greatest attributes.
Dacus: I have songs about how family doesn’t matter or, for instance, killing someone’s dad—that sort of thing. With “Without You Without Them,” I wanted to be super generous. Even if somebody really sucks, if they had to be there in order for you to be here, I have to love something about them. I have to be grateful, even if I hope they die.
Kornhaber: The last track on the album, “Letter to an Old Poet,” is a callback to what you’ve done before. Phoebe, you go from singing, “I want to be emaciated” on the 2018 song “Me & My Dog” to “I want to be happy” on this new song. Which was the harder thing to admit in lyrics?
Bridgers: Hard in a completely different way. I was having really disordered eating around the time I met y’all. The only way that I could write that “emaciated” lyric was by myself. And then this song, I could only write that with you guys. Lucy wrote it, but it’s true for me. You noticed it about me: I’m ready to be happy. So that is special.