Sunday, June 26, 2022

MUNA: “Queer or not, we make music that’s smoking hot”

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ONe-third of MUNA is late. “We’ll do what we can without her,” jokes Naomi McPherson to fellow guitarist Josette Maskin. “And when Katie gets here, she’ll have something clever to say.” As if on cue, lead singer Katie Gavin saunters in, a red-haired supernova — on her fifth day of dry shampoo, she later tells me — smothered in the dimly lit hotel lobby of The Hoxton is hard to miss. The three beam at each other: a look of love that’s more reminiscent of long-lost pals than friends who’ve spent the better part of the last 10 years being together on the hip, making hit albums and selling out shows play the world.

MUNA never get tired of each other. And if their growing popularity is to be believed, listeners don’t either. In the years since the release of 2017’s shimmering synth-pop debut About you, MUNA have become a benchmark for queer music, pop music and just plain music. Their sound – bubbly, prickly and smooth at the same time – is reminiscent of Robyn in the way he conjures affairs of the heart onto the dance floor. Often a sapphic energy wraps around a MUNA trail like a pink feather boa, pulling you closer. That certainly applies to their biggest song to date, “Silk Chiffon”. Last year’s hit collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers is the closest thing MUNA has to infiltrating the mainstream. Tours alongside Harry Styles, Kacey Musgraves and King Princess are also close at hand. Now the group is preparing for the release MUNAtheir third full-length album and first since they were dropped from their label and subsequently signed to Bridger’s indie imprint Saddest Factory Records.

Granted, it’s not a good time to be dropped from your label, but in the midst of the pandemic feels particularly brutal. In early 2021, MUNA were released from RCA Records, home of Britney Spears and Alicia Keys. Today, while enjoying a Mexican feast (“Sorry, your take will literally be as we shove ourselves into the holes”), the band explains how they’ve handled the news differently. “I think I have the most amazing girl in me,” says Gavin. “I want to make people proud, so being dropped was like, ‘Oh, I must not have done my job well enough.’ For McPherson and Maskin, it only fueled their ambitions. It gave the group a rare moment to sit still. They checked each other in – as well as themselves – and asked if music was still something they wanted to pursue; if they still wanted be MUNA. “It was like renewing our vows,” Maskin recalls. “The thing is, MUNA is that guiding force outside of the three of us.” Realizing how New Age she sounds, Maskin jumps at the opportunity for a joke, adopting the voice of a creepy cult leader: “Whatever happen must, MUNA will lead the way.” McPherson intervenes without hesitation. “MUNA is actually a god that we made up. We pray to him and make sacrifices.” Next up is Gavin. “It’s an exclusive secret society that we’re just watching The notebook and kiss.” They resolve into a three-part hysterical harmony.

Conversation with MUNA often follows this path. Conversations regularly turn to a dry quip from a bandmate off the street, prompting the other two to pile on with heaps of inside jokes and laughter. Timing and telepathy is an art form the trio have been perfecting since they met in college in California when they were about 20 years old. “When you’re going through bad things with your best friends, you can laugh about it,” says Gavin. “We want to have fun!”

They have a lot of that on their new album. The songs follow the ethos of “Silk Chiffon” – euphoric but vulnerable, freewheeling but flawlessly constructed. It’s MUNA in its safest form. And maybe her happiest? “I think so…” ventures Maskin, who asks her bandmates for confirmation. The truth is, they’re still working on it. “We let the songs dictate the flow and then we figure out what that means. That’s life, isn’t it?” adds McPherson. But long-time fans have already taken this latest release as MUNA’s happy era. They’re happy to comply.

On “What I Want,” Gavin’s voice floats in: “I want to dance in the middle of a gay bar / There’s nothing wrong with what I want.” It’s bold and uncompromising, as we’ve come to expect from MUNA. “It’s been a long and bumpy road with my sexuality. I was raised Irish Catholic and I think it also has to do with being a woman and passing which really confused me for a long time,” says Gavin, the band’s principal songwriter. “This song is very much a coming of age. I’m like, ‘I’m really gay and I’m pretty horny too.’” Another track, “No Idea” — co-written with Mitski, with whom Gavin now texts about gardening — exudes lust in its electric guitar riffs and out Dizzying come-ons with extraordinary cheekiness.

Being queer is political, even if you don’t want to be – a fact MUNA had to reckon with before the start of their career. “Jo and I didn’t want to be labeled as a queer pop band at first,” McPherson recalls. “Even if so, ultimately we are very gay. I mean, look at us,” they laugh, pointing at Maskin, who is wearing chic baggy clothes that resemble their own. “I remember you both were concerned that people wouldn’t pay attention to the music,” says Gavin, to which McPherson replies, “Yeah, I wanted us to be taken seriously. Even now the headline about us is sometimes like “queer pop band”…we’ll be posted for Pride in June a lot of.” An eye roll surfs around the table like a Mexican wave. “And queer or not, we make music that’s like… smoking hot.” Maskin and Gavin break out over their choice of words. “Naomi is obviously not the lyricist of MUNA.”

Commercializing their identities is something MUNA have given a lot of thought to. “People now see collaborating with queer artists as a business advantage, and yes, sure, it’s commercial, but at the same time…” they struggle to find the words. McPherson taps out and Gavin taps in, “It’s commercial practice, but not to our advantage. It’s benefiting someone else — a white cis guy running a business.” More recently, McPherson announced they’d stick to she/them pronouns, an experience that led to a panic attack in the middle of the Abba Museum in Stockholm . “It’s pretty gnarly,” they say. “It’s like you get devalued a hundred times a day and that sucks. You have to have a thick skin. But it can lead to this hyper-vigilant paranoia on the outside that ruins my mood, so I really try not to think about it too much.”

Don’t get them wrong, MUNA of all people know how life-affirming visibility and representation is. That’s why they’re glad they decided to perform as a band. “It would have been life changing for me to see a band like us grow up,” says McPherson. “But we have to be honest about what that visibility actually is, apart from the image and the text underneath. We cannot hide from this nuance.”

The fact that Gavin, McPherson, and Maskin are all queer remains a cornerstone of their friendship. “As with any marginalized identity, it’s easier to be with people who share a common experience. Your work or ideas are less likely to be overlooked. I love the fact that we take each other so seriously and that we all think of each other as—” Gavin stops abruptly and looks up as McPherson and Maskin have started cackling about something unfamiliar. Maskin gives us a maniacal smile, a black bean paste smacking on her gums and teeth. Gavin turns back to me, “Well, me was I would say we all think we are geniuses!”

Later that evening, MUNA play to an enthusiastic crowd at Rough Trade East. Even in a small venue, fans make room for each other to dance, sing and hug. The lyrics are shouted and matched word for word. It’s sometimes easy to forget how radical it still is to be a part of this pure queer joy. A MUNA gig is a good memory.

MUNA will be released on Friday June 24th by Saddest Factory Records

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