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An Interview with Greta Kline

[Musician]
by Morgan Troper
April 3rd, 2019

“I Broke DIY”

Number of times “DIY” is mentioned in this interview: 28
Number of times “punk” is mentioned: 11
Number of times “Chet Hanks” is mentioned: 1

Ten years ago, Greta Kline began writing and recording music, and she hasn’t been able to stop since. In the early 2010s, the songwriter released an endless stream of scruffy, intimate songs on digital platforms under nearly as many pseudonyms: Ingrid Superstar, Little Bear, The Ingrates, etc. Eventually, Kline settled on the name Frankie Cosmos.

Now, Frankie Cosmos—at once a band and the alter ego of Kline—is a Sub-Pop recording artist. Superficially, there’s a world of difference between her newest record, Vessel, and her older releases, such as the 2011 mini-LP, Collaborative Farting (featuring a first track titled “Wagner Vs. Star Wars,” that consists of Kline humming the Star Wars theme and “Ride of the Valkyries” simultaneously, in stereo, for eighteen seconds of relentless aural sadism).

Spiritually, however, Frankie Cosmos’ music is still very much the same; despite the increased production values, one gets the sense that Kline is still writing music primarily for her own edification. Frankie Cosmos’ songs are secret handshakes, and it’s that quality, gleaned from the tenets of early-aughts Tumblr-emo and twee’s innocuous cliquishness, that has made Kline something of a bellwether of contemporary indie rock.

Frankie Cosmos’ detractors like to insinuate that Kline’s parentage—she’s the daughter of hyper-successful actors Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline—is disqualifying, that she’s a Jakob Dylan-esque hanger-on who bought her way to blog-fame. (I remember someone wondering aloud on a music message board if Kline’s bassist had to “buy his own strings.”) Although I’ve never been that cynical, I had my own questions along this line of thinking: How can the heiress to a Hollywood fortune identify as a “punk” or “indie” artist with a straight face? Does Frankie Cosmos’ bassist have to buy his own bass strings?

My suspicions were quelled after five minutes; in reality, Kline is one of the most candid and thoughtful musicians I’ve ever spoken to. And I have, unfortunately, spoken to a lot of musicians.

—Morgan Troper

I. “Health is Cool Now”

THE BELIEVER: I heard this story about something that happened at a Frankie Cosmos show in Portland, and I have to ask about it. Somebody offered you coke and you declined their offer.

GRETA KLINE: Wow. I don’t remember that at all. Was it the person who offered it to me who told you this story?

BLVR: Yeah, they played the show with you.

GK: That’s so funny.

BLVR: I’ve read that you don’t drink or do drugs, which resonates with me. Being fucked up seems like an integral part of the DIY “experience.”

GK: Yeah.

BLVR: There’s been a push to make DIY shows safer and more inclusive, but it still seems like people with influence are hesitant to discuss the role that substances play in facilitating unsafe behavior. Why have you chosen to be sober?

GK: Health is cool now. I’m happy about that. Doing drugs is suddenly not considered “cool” anymore. I think that’s great, and I hope it continues. I used to feel really uncomfortable being the only sober person in the room, and now nobody even notices when I’m not drinking, because lots of people don’t drink. I’ve never tried coke or any serious drug.

A big reason why I stopped smoking pot and drinking—the only things I ever tried—was because I was afraid of not being in full control of my experience. Especially as a young woman hanging out around older men. It benefitted me to be like, “I’m going to be really, really sober all the time, and not have anything happen to me that I can’t stop from happening.”

That’s always the big flaw of an all-ages scene, because young people should have access to music, but there are always those older people. I’m not one of them. There are these old people around, are they going to give you alcohol? Are they going to try and date you? There’s a danger to mixing age groups [that can make things] complicated. But it’s also great.

BLVR: It’s interesting to hear you say that health has become cool. I wonder if that’s a geographical thing, because I feel like in Portland you are still treated like this weird teetotaler if you aren’t drinking at a show. But the beer thing is such a large part of Portland’s cultural identity anyway. So I wonder if it’s just like, “You’re an adult—what are you doing not drinking?”

GK: I can never tell when something like that is a larger cultural phenomenon or if it’s just [something that applies to] the people I’m around or the people I interact with. There’s a bubble element to growing up in a scene. I just think, “Oh yeah, all the shows are diverse, and there are always women playing.”

I assume that, and then I go to other cities and realize it’s not the case for everyone. I’ll see young people in other cities who are like, “You’re the first female singer I got into,” and I’m like, really? It’s 2019. How? But it’s just because I’m in my little bubble. So maybe I’m wrong—maybe health isn’t ubiquitously becoming a hip thing, but I do think it is becoming kind of the cool thing to be sober.

BLVR: In the same interview where you talked about being sober, you mentioned that you wrote songs in lieu of going to therapy. Are you still not going to therapy?

GK: It’s actually my New Year’s resolution to finally do it. I do think I should go. I just haven’t done it because when you look for a therapist, all their headshots just creep me out. I don’t want to pick one. Like, you go on the website, and it’s all these peoples’ faces—it freaks me out. It’s been years that I’ve been wanting to find someone and I just keep putting it off. But this is the year that I go back.

BLVR: Do you think writing songs or making art in general is a suitable substitute for therapy, beyond just being therapeutic?

GK: No, I don’t agree with [what I said in that interview]. I do not think it’s a suitable substitute. I think it’s a great compliment to the effects of therapy. I keep hearing people say, “Everyone should go to therapy.” There’s only so much songwriting can do.

In the years I have not been going [to therapy], songwriting has really helped me organize my thoughts and feelings and understand myself more. It definitely has changed who I am in a huge way, but I think it can’t be the only thing. Some lucky therapist out there is going to get my call this year.

BLVR: I think your songwriting does have a compulsive quality. I can imagine you writing a song every time there’s something very specific you need to process, in the same way that some people find list-making therapeutic.

GK: That’s so funny.

BLVR: Do you experience immediate relief when you write a song?

GK: I don’t get immediate relief. There are two ways it can work for me in a therapeutic way. Sometimes I’ll just sit and play guitar and make stuff up as I’m playing and singing. I think that brings out some subconscious stuff. [That’s] the same thing as stream-of-consciousness writing in your notebook or whatever. Sometimes you write something, and you don’t know that you think it until it’s just coming out of you. That is really cool, and that is more of an immediate thing.

But also, a huge thing I experience with songwriting, is that I sometimes write something and when I write it I don’t understand what it means—but then like a year later, it makes sense to me. And that’s really mind-blowing. But it’s funny that you call it compulsive, because it is compulsive for me. It’s funny that you can tell.

BLVR: I feel like I have some compulsions.

GK: Yeah, I’m right there with you.

II. “You’re Not Punk if You’re in a Monogamous Relationship”

BLVR: How old were you when you started going to shows?

GK: I think I had just turned 14. I had an older brother who was two years older than me, so I feel like I kind of just “hopped on” his scene a little bit. It was mostly kids my brother’s age. There was this small community of 16- to 18-year-olds who were throwing shows at the couple of all-ages venues that would let them, or at peoples’ parents’ houses in the basement. Just kind of wherever—empty lots and stuff. I just wanted to see music all the time.

BLVR: This is in New York, right?

GK: Yeah.

BLVR: Is this in the city or outside of the city?

GK: A lot of it was Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan, where there used to be a lot of all-ages venues. I also volunteered for this publication that was a free piece newspaper that had all the all-ages show listings for the tristate area.

BLVR: You say there used to be a lot of all-ages venues in the city. It does seem like there’s this trend nationally of older punks waxing nostalgic about the “good old days” when more all-ages venues existed. With regards to an all-ages scene in New York, how does what you experienced as a kid compare to what exists now?

GK: It’s so bad now. There is basically nothing left. Every single all-ages venue has disappeared. I’m sure stuff exists that I don’t know about, because I’m no longer really involved in the “scene” here, since I’m almost never in New York now. At least every venue I grew up going to is gone. And when we try to book shows, we always try and have them be all-ages. When I started touring is when I noticed that there are towns that don’t have all-ages venues, and some don’t even have the capability to host a show that could be all-ages. There are some towns where there isn’t even a place that’s music-specific—it’s just like a bar or whatever.

The closest thing to an all-ages show that we’re gonna have [in New York]—unless it’s some kind of outdoor, daytime event—is going to be a show at Bowery Ballroom that’s 16+. It’s great, but it doesn’t feel as inclusive, you know? I always wish there could be more young people there.

BLVR: That’s very noble, because once most artists age out of all-ages music, or once they achieve a certain level of success, they stop caring.

GK: I mean, there are moments when I forget. There were moments after I turned 21, when I was like, “oh my gosh, it’s been so long since I’ve thought about having to sneak in,” or whatever. I think I went out somewhere with my little cousin, who was 19, and I totally forgot. I take it for granted now.

Also, we have a lot of people listening to our music who are under 21. I want them to be able to come to the show. I mean, our shows are not going to be as fun if half the people that like our band in that city can’t come. It’s also a selfish thing.

BLVR: In Portland, there was definitely a period when DIY shows were synonymous with hardcore shows. Sometimes a quieter or poppier band would play on a hardcore bill, but people would still find a way to be pushy, and it was still this “bros to the front” mentality. Was that something that you experienced at all in New York, or was there a pretty big divide between those two words?

GK: I don’t think I’ve played a show where I’m the only female performer in years. I haven’t even been to a show where it’s all men. I think I just take that for granted. I can’t even remember when it [didn’t feel] like that. But it definitely [used to be] a lot of boys when I was a kid. And there definitely was a punk vibe—it wasn’t hardcore music, but there was a lot of experimental music that I would go see that was noisy, and there was moshing and stuff. But I think maybe just because I was a young and naive, I never felt unsafe.

BLVR: Some people would argue that an artist can’t identify as “DIY” if they benefit from the infrastructure that was established by major labels. By infrastructure, I guess I’m referring to PR and management, specifically.

GK: Yeah.

BLVR: You came up in a DIY scene, and still identify with it in a lot of ways, but you know, a publicist did arrange this call. How do you reconcile those two worlds?

GK: I don’t identify as DIY. I’m very quick to admit that I’m not a part of the DIY scene in New York anymore, and I actually do feel totally uncomfortable when I do go to DIY shows now, because there is this feeling of, “They think I’m lame.”

It’s mostly probably just me thinking that I suck because I “sold out” or whatever. But because I came up in DIY and didn’t just jump into any of the accoutrements of success, I think that I have a lot of DIY skills. We still don’t have a manager and we keep our team really, really tight. Our PR person just works for Sub-Pop, which is our label. I know that Sub-Pop is a big label but they feel very cozy and family-like. It feels really chill still. It’s more like we add people as we need them.

As music becomes your job, there just is so much more stuff to be on top of. Because we manage ourselves, we were like, “Okay, we do need someone to help us take care of the PR stuff,” or, “We do need a label to [physically make] the album and sell it for us,” or, “We need to have a merch company that sells our merch for us online.” That was huge this year for us, because I’ve been wearing myself out sending out all of our orders by hand. We’re really slow to accept that stuff.

I think the biggest effect DIY has had on me is that I’m just really bad at delegating, and I have to force myself to delegate. And I think that’s good! My bandmates and I are a part of every decision, and I think that’s something that comes from starting in DIY.

BLVR: I can see that.

GK: We’re probably the only band at our level that talks to our booking agent as much as we do, and really discusses how we feel about hand-picking each town we go to and stuff. Just being really kind of compulsive is probably what I’ve gotten from DIY.

BLVR: You mention feeling like if you were to go to DIY shows, you would feel a little bit self-conscious.

GK: Yeah, I do experience that.

BLVR: Do you feel like there’s a misconception that exists that Frankie Cosmos isn’t a “real” DIY band?

GK: Honestly, we’re just not a real DIY band anymore, and that’s fine. I don’t know if I’m just imagining this, but what I feel a lot of in New York is people who act like they really love DIY, but you can tell that they actually just really want to be successful—like capital “S” successful. It kind of bums me out, because even though I am capital “S” successful, I also feel like I really just never wanted that and still don’t care about it.

We like to make music. And we all feel really self-conscious, and we’re just not interested in having our photo taken. And we do it because we have to do it, because every year or so there’s an announcement and we need to have a new press photo for it. So it’s just something we’ve accepted as a part of our jobs. But I see bands who are way newer and younger than us who are getting fancy press photos taken before they’ve even toured or whatever. And it’s like, you don’t need to have that, you’re just doing it because you think it’s a part of this weird “success plan.”

It seems like people think that DIY is a stepping stone. And it’s easy for me to say, because for me it was kind of was a stepping stone, but I didn’t view it that way, and I think the fact that I didn’t view it that way is a big part of why people like Frankie Cosmos. Because it’s not music made by someone who is trying to succeed. I think I’m really just turned off by [that attitude], though it’s also easy for me to say, because I just got lucky.

BLVR: Maybe what you’re alluding to is the idea that “DIY” has become this era’s equivalent to “indie” or “punk” in the sense that it once had these idealogical implications but now it just sort of refers to an aesthetic.

GK: Yeah, it’s sad! And I partially feel responsible! I feel like I ruined DIY.

BLVR: I don’t know if that’s true.

GK: It scares me. Maybe I’m making myself seem bigger than I actually I am. But I do kind of get freaked out that I broke DIY. There’s the headline!

BLVR: It’s weird that the popularity of that term is at odds with the reality of DIY not thriving as much. It seems like that’s kind of what you’re describing with New York.

GK: The whole point of punk or DIY is that there are no rules and that you can be who you are and I think there’s this weird thing where once it becomes a scene you have to follow the rules. You have to dress a certain way, you have to make music that sounds a certain way. Or, “you’re not punk if you’re in a monogamous relationship.” But that attitude isn’t punk. The whole point of punk is that you can do what you want. You shouldn’t have to force yourself to follow some rules because they’re the punk rules.

III. ‘We All Have Rich Parents’

BLVR: What are your thoughts on rock music? Currently, I feel like there’s a huge chasm separating a mainstream rock band like Greta Van Fleet from rock bands that are actually interesting or who have something important to say.

GK: I’ve always kind of thought that, in terms of commercial success, the basic person listens to the radio because they don’t want to feel something. Or they don’t want to dig really deep. I do feel like there has to be a certain amount of braindead-ness to the songwriting to have commercial success. I don’t know if something that is super earnest is ever going to have that kind of success. But at the same time, I think that it can happen. When I think of commercial success, I think of Taylor Swift. The sheer amount of people [who like Taylor Swift] is so unimaginable to me; I can’t even begin to comprehend how all of us relate to her song in a different way. Every person who hears it on the radio is going, “Oh, this is so cool.” In a weird way, I kind of think that with really special music—like Frankie Cosmos, for example—people know that they’re a part of a small group of people who “get it,” and knowing that makes them special in a way. And I think they’re special, too, for getting it. I really love everyone in the audience because they’re special to me, and they’re not just this really dumb, basic consumer-type person. That sounds really self-absorbed.

BLVR: No, I actually love that.

GK: You know what I mean? It’s the same way you feel when you’re at a punk show—you know that you’re surrounding yourself with, to some extent, likeminded people. And you know that there’s this thing that [you’re all feeling that separates you] from the average person who just listens to the radio and likes Ed Sheeran.

BLVR: Are there ever moments where you look at the audience or meet somebody after a show who you can’t relate to in that way?

GK: Yes, that happens. And actually, I feel like there was a moment when we were really buzzy, and there were a lot of people [at the shows] who I don’t feel like “got it.” There were a lot of times when I looked out and was just like, “these people just came because they read about [Frankie Cosmos] on Pitchfork.” I didn’t really like playing to them, because I felt like they didn’t really care about it enough.

I actually feel really glad that it isn’t that way anymore, because that type of buzz died down, and now it really does just feel like people who really get it. I usually meet a lot of people in the audience, because I’m often standing by the merch table. And it’s usually people I relate to in some way, and that makes sense, because that’s why they relate to the music. Once in awhile, it’s just some random bro, and that’s cool, too. Good for you! It charms me. Sometimes there’s just some kid that [looks like a frat bro], and they’re singing along to Frankie Cosmos, and I’m thinking, “wow, there must be some really sweet part of you that is making you connect to this.” I respect that. I think that’s beautiful.

But then there are people who just go to the show and want to get drunk, and they’re screaming or talking. And they just want to say that they were “at the Frankie Cosmos show.” And that is the type of audience member that I don’t think shows up anymore for the most part, and I’m really happy about it.

BLVR: I have to ask. There is a disclaimer at the bottom of the email your publicist sent me that I didn’t notice at first. It says that you’re not interested in discussing your family or your relationships. I don’t think I’m really interested in your relationships, but…

GK: Cool! I can tell you’re cool.

BLVR: I do want to ask you about your family. I imagine you’re tired of talking about it. Do you feel like it’s just completely irrelevant to your identity as an artist?

GK: I’m never going to fully live it down. It’s just a fun fact that people like. The main thing is that I just don’t like people who ask me about my childhood in this really leading way. Like, “Wasn’t your childhood ‘special?’” They’re basically just asking me what it’s like having rich parents. Honestly, no offense, but ask everyone in DIY—we all have rich parents to a certain extent.

BLVR: Sure. That’s the secret of DIY.

GK: Yeah, the little DIY secret is that, if you’re privileged enough to be making DIY music, you did have some kind of support. You probably grew up with a laptop, so you’re rich, too. I think those are the types of questions I don’t like. But I do think I have a really keen advantage because, as opposed to having parents who are bankers or something, my parents are both artists. And they don’t think that art is a stupid job to pursue. So that’s cool. And I love my parents—we’re not estranged, which is why I don’t mind people asking about them. But sometimes the questions get kind of weird—like, “what was it like? Did you go to movie sets?” And I’m like, “no, I didn’t”! I was at home living a normal life while my dad was at work, like every other kid.

BLVR: Yeah, you probably ate pizza sometimes. Maybe you watched TV.

GK: Yeah, exactly. Like, if anything, I probably spent more time at my mom’s job, and my mom has a store. So I grew up working at a store, you know? The weirdest question is when people want to know why I didn’t pursue acting. And I just want to be, like, “What do your parents do? Why didn’t you pursue that?” You know? It’s such a weird question. I don’t mind being known as their kid. But if I really wanted to be famous there is a way I could have gone about [pursuing a music career] through their connections, and I think that would look really different from what Frankie Cosmos’ career looks like. I’m really glad that I’m [as much of a purist] as I am, and that I’m not just doing some weird Chet Hanks-type rap career or whatever.

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