Frames on Pop-Punk, Sex Work, and Their Debut Album 'Every Room' [Q&A]

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Richmond, Virginia’s very own Frames, have released their heartfelt and hard-hitting debut album Every Room. The record is a nostalgia-charged piece of art full of reflection and retribution, turbulence and tenacity. The band, comprised of Sarah Phung, Carter Wahl, Blake Layman, and Alex Wilson, joining on guitar, bass, and drums, respectively, comes alive with their intense and intimate emo drive and captivating passion.

Ones To Watch caught up with Phung to talk about the transition from being a solo artist to a band, the inspirations that fueled the album’s creation, and legitimizing sex work.

Ones To Watch: In an interview with Brooklyn Vegan, you talked about how you intentionally made the music video for “Table Top” compressed and pixelated, wanting to capture the nostalgia and energy we felt from music videos we grew up watching on TRL. Can you talk a bit more about this process and how you went about executing this idea?

Frames: So the video is done by my friend Gavin Stout; we go way back. We’ve been hometown friends there for a decade, and he’s excellent with video. We sat down to talk about treatment and plots, and we threw a lot out there, and I don’t know why it came to mind. I was like, "I think we should have some skateboarding B-roll," and he was asking me for ideas and references. I just couldn’t stop thinking about every single video I ever watched pre-2009, and I just really miss real MTV and Fuse, and I’m really bummed that that era is over, because I’ll probably never get to live that dream of mine. One of my biggest music-related dreams is being on one of those music video programs on TV, but that culture is over. So I was like, "Well, why don’t we bring back that visual of an afterschool music video show with this." So then the rest of the band all dropped in bits of the idea and formed it together. Gavin’s idea was to have the performance take place in his garage, and it has that very homey and throwback feel. We jokingly were like, "Oh, this needs to be shot at like 120p," and we talked about how it needs to be the lowest resolution possible.

That whole, recorded with a potato kind of vibe.

Exactly! Gavin went out thrifting to look for an old camcorder or something, and when he got back, he had some old hand video camera, and he goes, "Guys, I have bad news. This thing is like kind of good quality for an old camcorder." It was an old Sony flip-out camcorder, but it was still kind of nice. So he said he’ll do what he can to make it look the way we wanted. So it was kind of tricky, because he is good at what he does. I mean, he’s a corporate video editor and did commercials and stuff, so it was hard for him to intentionally make it bad quality. It was really funny to have to continuously remind each other that this has to look bad but not like bad because we suck and like we’re not good at what we’re doing. It has to look intentional, and that’s hard to do. We kept looking back to the video "Make Damn Sure" by Taking Back Sunday as inspiration. It’s just one of those weird performance videos where they’re in some room, and all of a sudden, there’s a car crash test zone type of room. So, we were looking at that video and asking ourselves how they did it because watching it now, you can tell that it’s not up to industry standard these days, but we can tell that it’s the best with what they had. So we figured out that it’s not in the resolution, but there are other ways to make the video look very professional and high quality, but this was made in 2004. So yeah, we were just really hyped and hyper-focused on making it look exactly like you’re coming home, you throw your bookbag on the floor, turn the TV on, and then hey, it’s us.

It feels like every detail is purposely made to capture the spirit and genuineness of the project, and that energy seeps through the whole record.

We try to be intentional in that way. I think you’re right. I hope you’re right. We try our best to, you know, being a smaller and not super established band with not a lot of known history, of course on the business side of things, we want to make the right moves so that we can get to a place where making art can sustain us, so we can dedicate more time to it. That’s every musician’s dilemma where they want to stay true to their craft but also need to make a living, so we have to juggle that a lot. Luckily, when it comes to the creative direction, most of the time, what we want, tends to be like, this is going to work because it has to. We’re not going to emulate anything out of thinking that it’s going to bring us success. We’re doing it purely because I like what we are. I miss the Ashlee Simpson, Avril Lavigne, Paramore, Hey Monday days. I wanted to be a part of that, but I didn’t get to be because I was young. But now, I’m going to start my own era of that. So hopefully, that works, and hopefully, it sticks, and people get what we’re doing.

Frames originally started as a solo project, but recently it’s now expanded into a four-piece. What made you want to make that transition, and how has that adjustment been for you?

Pretty much every aspect of the Frames origin story leads back to some early 2000s nostalgia. Pretty much everything leads back to me being 10 years old and loving Avril Lavigne and Paramore, who are pretty much the two greatest female pop-punk artists, and I just knew that I always wanted to have a full band to write with, to play with, to be friends with. I wanted everything that came with being in a band, musically but also personally and socially. I want to share the creative control, and for a while, I didn’t have a lot of music friends, and I wasn’t deep enough in being a musician to know how to work with the band, but I knew that I wanted to just start getting things out. So with the Frames EP, that was just me, and I already knew then that I would eventually find a full band. Frames is named after my best friend Framers, and I forgot why I thought of that, but I think it came down to picking a name. I hadn’t thought that hard on it, but I wanted it to be some sort of tribute to someone or something really important to me, and then I thought, well, he’s important to me and also important to my music, because he’s been my number one fan since day one. He’s always been pushing me to start putting things out because, at that point, he was the only person that would hear stuff that I was writing, and it was just phone demos. So I guess that the two core points of the Frames origin story are me living out my childhood dream of being a power-pop singer and naming my band after my best friend.

That sounds like a good friend right there.

He also introduced me to most of the musicians that end up being my influences.

Like who?

Daughter, Lucy Rose. It’s funny I don’t talk about Lucy Rose nearly enough, but she’s fantastic. Everyone knows Lucy Dacus, but this is my Lucy. She has a song called "Shiver," and I really liked it, so I learned to play it. It’s in an open tuning, so I learned that song in that tuning and that tuning and the general progression of the song is what I used to write last year on the EP and then this year on the album. So these songs are a direct product of listening to Lucy Rose.

How did you meet your current bandmates?

My guitarist Carter Wahl and I met six or seven years ago through mutual friends during Richmond’s house show glory days. So he was the first band member from very early on, like well before the rest of the band, because between him and the rest of the band, I had a lot of rotating friends for like, shows and weekend tours. So Carter’s a core part of Frames because he writes solid parts, although I write most of the material. And then, Alex. I was asking around, and there were a few drummers that I knew and liked, and I had known Alex through mutual friends, so I reached out to him and asked him if he wanted to play in my band. He is also in this other band called Twin Drugs, and they’re like a shoegaze band. At first, he said he didn’t have enough time to take on a new project, but after listening to some of our music, he decided he wanted to be in something much different than what he was in. He wanted to, in his words, “I just want to play 4/4.” He was like, “I just want to play a simple beat, and I want to be in a pop band,” and I was like, “Well, here’s a pop band.” So he came along, and then I asked if he knew any bassists, and he said he would ask his bassist from Twin Drugs, Blake Layman. I was a little skeptical and kept thinking that this needed to work because we would be spending so much time together, and we would be sharing so much control. This needs to be someone that everyone has to get along with, and it just worked out great. Blake is an actual angel, and we all get along really well.

Sounds like everyone in the band was made for each other.

Yeah, and it’s nice that we all have the same ideas, visions, goals, and styles pretty much. So I write my parts, and I give them my thoughts for what I want the song to come out sounding like loosely, but for the most part, they write their parts, and I don’t think that any of them have ever come up with anything that hasn’t matched exactly what it sounded like in my head. So that’s awesome.

What is your songwriting process like?

I’m definitely a very lyric-heavy person. When I was younger, poetry and lyrics were some of my biggest interests and the main focus of my music writing before I became a stronger guitarist and just a better overall composer. Now and then, I’ll just have lines or ideas that I’ll write down, so I stitch together the lyric scraps when I have music. Other times, I feel the writing rush, and if I have time for it, I’ll sit down and just start playing something or start babbling something, and usually, when I do that, I like to sit down to start a song, and I finish it. I don’t like to leave it and pick it up later.    

What story does Every Room tell? Is it a chapter in the life of Frames with a set beginning and end, or is it more of an anthology series where every song is a separate story?

It’s a little bit of an anthology, but with an underlying theme throughout all of them. A lot of my lyrics tend to be talk therapy for me. This collection of songs is from a very emotionally turbulent time but a different type of emotional turbulence than the one I would describe with the EP. The EP was like, pre this specific relationship, and then this album is like all of the emotions that came after that relationship that I was unprepared for, so a lot of it is anxiety. I haven’t gotten to talk about “Body Kicks” very much, but that entire song is about anxiety, and if you read the lyrics, you’ll know for certain. So a lot of these songs are about me processing a lot of things, not just talking about them. I’m breaking them down and figuring out why I’m feeling them, what I’m supposed to do with these feelings, if I need to just like sit with them and then let them go, or if I need to learn something from them and if I should even be having them, if it’s healthy to and how I can communicate them to other people. It’s hard enough knowing what you’re feeling, but then you’re like, well, what now? What do I do with it?  

I’m sure that’s a situation many people can relate to and find comfort knowing they aren’t the only ones who’ve experienced something like that.

I try consciously to write about aspects of relationships that aren’t sung about very much, or we’ve heard for the most. So we’ve heard all the heart-achy, gut-wrenching stuff, and we’ve heard all the butterflies infatuation songs, but there’s like something in between that doesn’t get explored. I think because maybe either writers don’t know how to write it, or they just don’t feel that it’s as glamorous of a topic to talk about. I think that’s where I naturally am most of the time in my head anyway, kind of in between the best and the worst feelings.

Are you describing the grey area of relationships where you’re sad but not heartbroken?

Yeah exactly. Sad but not heartbroken. So I’m like, "Well, if I’m not heartbroken, what am I sad about?"

Can we expect music in the future from Frames to dive more into themes like anxiety and relationships, or do you feel like, in the next album cycle you would want to change it up?

I don’t know if we’ll get to bring it up in this album cycle, but the sex worker part of me has been very briefly mentioned in relation to the band. I definitely want to explore that more as a facet of my musicianhood. I don’t know how I’m gonna write about working at a club, but they’re definitely connected in some way. So I’m gonna find how they’re connected.

How did you feel about the influx of people diving into the world of sex work on OnlyFans when the pandemic first hit?

Early on, when a bunch of previously non-sex-worker women were going to OnlyFans because of COVID, of course, I was like, “You’re not a real sex worker,” and I thought taking nudes wasn’t sex work. But now I’m like, “Who cares? Whatever.” I believe if you do sex work, you are a sex worker. If you perform any sort of sexuality in return for money, that’s sex work, and I do not want sex workers’ money to be messed with.

Right, because sex work is work and shouldn’t be delegitimized.

Right. I guess I don’t look like I would be a stripper. I don’t really show it, and it’s not that obvious to the music people around me, but I do talk about it a lot. I think that even people who mean well and believe that they’re allies, and are in support of sex workers and sex work, are not even aware of how much they have this idea of what a sex worker should look like, should sound like, or should act like. So I think that me being who I am and doing the things that I do, I like to be very open and transparent about sex work, because then it gives more exposure to the fact that we’re just ordinary people. I want to remind people that you never really know who you’re around. People love to say that they’re an ally or supportive of something when they’re not even aware of those people around them.

What would you tell your nine to fourteen-year-old self about the art you’re creating now?

Nine to fourteen-year-old me was what I envisioned for my music process, playing music, being a musician. But, unfortunately, I was focused more on the external factors and the whole “being a rock star” thing and not nearly as focused on my actual music writing. I knew how to write a song a little bit, but I was caught up being world-famous and filthy rich as a kid. So, I guess my answer would be don’t worry about the external things because they will come naturally. The fame and fortune part is just a Hollywood dream, and even if it could happen, it doesn’t always end up nearly as satisfying as just doing what you love to do.

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