Meet the New Face of Punk Rock
What Would Tilda Swinton Do doesn’t really care about genre and neither should you.
It’s a Monday night at Bowery Poetry Club and the evening lineup has consisted of break-up poems. The crowd is young and beautiful, college students and tourists who stumbled upon the space out of curiosity, others avid performers and active members of the community. Two women take the stage. They introduce themselves as What Would Tilda Swinton Do and the audience softly laughs. Only two of the four members are here tonight they explain before playing their first song, an acoustic version of a love letter dedicated to the drummer’s menstruation.
It’s clear there’s something electric in the air. People begin to put their phones down as chatter around the bar dissipates. The lead vocalist is breathy and intense — she holds eye contact and is careful to let certain words linger in the right spaces. The guitar is flirty and devious, a rhythm abandoning its formalities. “Give me something that I’m wishing for / Whenever I get it I don’t want it no more,” she starts to sing. The song’s called “Apple Tree” and it could easily play during a really steamy HBO sex scene.
What Would Tilda Swinton Do has been labeled as “lazy punk.” Their lead vocalist, Suzie Léger, says it’s a given name they’ve reluctantly accepted, and like most genre monikers, it’s more of an umbrella term. Their self-titled debut EP is a sample platter of punk rock à la Patti Smith and has all the parts of a fully-realized manifesto, one diligently fixated on female autonomy, power, and desire. The band shares one common goal: the desire to make music that doesn’t conform or adhere to any specific genre, sound, aesthetic, and era but is free to borrow from them all. They are like a remnant of music’s past repackaged in millennial pink…ironically, of course. Because at the end of the day, this is a punk band. Part of the shtick is kind of not giving a f***.
On stage WWTSD radiates a type of confidence seen in seasoned performers; they’re simply not afraid to be seen. Léger’s voice is fragile — her vulnerability is a choice. She’s bubbly but controlled and her lyrics mirror this duality. In the studio, the band’s art kid vibes come through full force. Lèger studied transmedia in Austria and WWTSD is a passion project she started after posting a call for band members on Craigslist.
Ironically, it was the lack of weirdos that discouraged Lèger — applicants were too formal and unwilling to experiment. “I just wanted people that are open for other things,” Suzie says of the listing, “because I’m not a musician. I’m not coming from music — I didn’t study it or anything, but I’m coming from art. And that’s how I met this guy.”
She points to Jason Smith who plays bass. He was doing a lot of music gigs while studying in Boston when he met Tom Fiset, who plays guitar and synths for the band. “I don’t like anything that’s like straight up R&B or straight up jazz or straight up rock. And with Suzie’s thing, it was interesting because I could tell…I think she mentioned somewhere that she wanted to do something with visuals and she specifically said experimental,” says Jason. “Because my biggest thing is I’ll play whatever, but whatever I play, I don’t want it to be typical.”
Songs like “Kill” and “Undressed” certainly radiate the devil-may-care charisma and amateur charm of Bikini Kill and Riot grrrl. They flirt with anarchy and rage but mostly travel the terrain of deconstructed love — what it’s like to want and be wanted, and what it’s like to watch that desire die. “Apple Tree,” a stunning highlight on the album, demonstrates just how well the band blends genres: The alien synths clash with the guitar riff during the chorus where Lèger disarms herself and asks to see her lover under the apple tree. It has the polished salability of a No Doubt song and lands on the ear as if mastered by Portishead.
When asked about some of their hip-hop and R&B influences, Jason’s clear about the band’s distinction: “I really love hip-hop, but it’s not punk. The aesthetic isn’t there in the same sense.”
Thanks to Fiset, some of the more familiar punk rock sensibilities on the album are given an emotional intensity. He knows how to compliment Lèger’s poetic cadences, accentuating the spaces in-between her words where there’s palpable tension. Out of all the members, he’s more pensive and selective with his words — he may actually be the first Gemini in human history to not want to talk to you. His music does it for him: He recounts a song he wrote in dedication to Felisa Hervey, a woman proficient in five languages who set out to break down language barriers between Afghan civilians and Americans.“She was living in Afghanistan for awhile trying to bridge the gap between the military and the people through language, and she ended up having a stroke and she could no longer communicate.”
His solo work hasn’t taken a backseat to the band’s, but he does point out that Lègers lyrics and visual concepts drew him in. “I could tell that Suzie has a very electric personality and the songwriting was there — like it just needed more. It was very of the aesthetic that I’m interested in, like the DIY scene here in New York. I wanted to kind of get into that somehow. It seemed like the perfect way.”
Their drummer, Tania Kass, is originally from Italy and studied acting before turning to music. “They were actually looking for a guitarist because they temporarily had a drummer, but then the drummer dropped out.” Kass also provides supporting vocals and coaches Lèger. Naturally, the topic arises that drummers are mostly celebrated when they are men. “I’m actually proud to represent something in this case,” Tania says, “not that I ever thought about, ‘Oh, I’m going to play the drums because, you know…’ I do many other things. I play guitar and I sing which is much more feminine or expected. You know, if you see a female singer-songwriter, you wouldn’t think anything strange. But when you see a female drummer it’s like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so cool.’”
Of course, female drummers should be celebrated — the condescending surprise to see one, however, is something the band can do without. It’s this same feminist thread that’s woven into the narrative of the album, one that dares to ask what female autonomy sounds and looks like in 2018. “Bikerbraut” is a bonafide feminist anthem and seems to answer this question head-on. Its accompanying music video is a reminder of just how important the band’s visuals are, rallying its diverse range of talent to marry both mediums. They actively think of ways to heighten their live performances — in person they are interactive and generous with the audience. It’s equally an act of community and a spectacle of youthful rage. “Bikerbraut” is like an Andy Warhol painting with the narrative arc of a John Hughes film.
“Well, so I’m the art creator here in the band. So you have to ask the band how they feel it about when I put it over them,” Suzie laughs. She’s responsible for most of the album artwork and band promo, but the band is quick to note that it’s a collaborative process.
“It’s more so like, is this going to go with some kind of general aesthetic purpose we want the band to go into? If it doesn’t go in that direction, then you’d say something. But Susie has a very strong vision of how things should look visually, for the most part, we really do trust her in that vision,” says Jason.
The band nods in agreement and he continues, “One reason I feel this works so well…I think we’re very much a group of passionate individuals so we each have a very strong sense of how we want certain things to go within the band and we each have our specialties. We each have a thing that we know we are naturally good at, and you would expect it to kind of like clash, and very rarely it does…And that’s kind of how we collaborate. It’s like a person will have a theme they want to do and then the other three people will support them however they can.”
“Unless it’s a shitty idea, then we’ll say no,” Tania says.
“A lot of trust falls,” Jason adds.
It seems for now, however, the band has it figured out. They are stronger in number and stronger as artists when collaborating, and What Would Tilda Swinton Do is a culmination of their shared strengths.
“When we fight, we have good fights,” Lèger says.
And what’s more punk than a bunch of friends arguing their way through creation?