Laurie Spector Shares "Rocco," Talks D.C. Gentrification and the Iconic Union Arts Building
Laurie Spector – aka Hothead – is her own electromagnetic field. On any given day, she’s giving her all to support her fellow musicians, writing a new pop song, absorbing countless new records, and making it to at least one show. Coming out of the D.C. and Baltimore area, Hothead represents of a new wave of power in music and a new way of breaking the area’s historic narratives of DIY and punk legend. Within and beyond her parameters as a singer, song writer, and space curator, she clearly calls upon fighting for a decolonized music history and future. She calls upon Al Green as well as Kate Bush. She knows we al have to our heads far hotter.
VICTORIA RUIZ: Your tape seems to bring in a lot of quotes and references. What are your main musical and cultural influences on the tape?
LAURIE SPECTOR: It’s hard for me to pinpoint all the influences because I think a lot of them came in subconsciously, but I was definitely thinking a lot about happiness and well-being. I think I’ve only just recently realized how hard it’s been for me to communicate my feelings and thoughts in more conventional ways throughout my life, so there are many parts of me I’ve never found appropriate expression for that found their voice on the tape. It makes perfect sense to me that music, and other arts, are languages of emotion more effective and efficient and intuitive than other languages we use like English. So I’m sorry to be so abstract but I truly feel that the influences on the tape are everything that have influenced me in real life, from the way I’m loved and the way I love to the way I understand what goes on in my head in the course of a day. To be more specific, I was mostly interested in creating pop songs that might inspire a sense of peace and well-being in the listener – myself included – because I think in many ways that’s what life has been about for me – searching for a sense of peace. Pop music was where I found that peace at the time I was making the tape. Listening to The Chills, The Feelies, The Clean, Bill Direen, Eleanor Friedberger, Robyn Hitchcock, Al Green, Kate Bush, Fleetwood Mac. All of those artists were on my mind.
I first met you through various bands in Washington D.C. What is your experience as an artist and musician in the city?
I just moved to Baltimore a few weeks ago, but until then I had only ever made music living in the D.C. area. But it’s hard to say because I mostly have not lived in the city itself, except for a few months at a time here and there. I participate in the D.C. music community but I’ve lived mostly in the suburbs, Arlington and Bethesda. It’s hard to generalize about the “community” because it’s made up of individuals who are all different but I’ve had success finding people there that really inspire me and who I feel really close to, which is so important when you’re making stuff and you’re kind of scared or unsure about it. My personal experience has been positive. But I didn’t want to have to work as much as would have been required of me to afford living on my own in the city so I moved to Baltimore. Rent is cheaper here and I feel like I can make a lifestyle work here where I’m happy, making art and not getting too stressed out about money. I also grew up in the D.C. area and it’s really nice, when you’re trying to rediscover and solidify a sense of self, to start over in a fresh environment and create a home around yourself instead of trying to get comfortable in the home you’ve been given.
The song Rocco seems to have so many parallel layers moving at once, the vocals, rhythms, and instruments. What is the song about to you?
Lyrically, Rocco is the least cohesive song on the tape. It’s about a lot of different stuff. It’s named for a character, Johnny Rocco, from the film Key Largo. He’s a gangster and he’s holding this hotel hostage, so the hero asks him what he wants, and he says he “wants more.” My dad told me when he was a kid and saw the movie, it became an in-joke with his friend whenever someone at a store, for example, would ask “what do you want?” they would yell “more!” I think about that story and that scene all the time and the concept of wanting “more” above all else, in and of itself. The purgatory of that mindset.
What’s behind the name Hothead?
It’s the name of a Captain Beefheart song I love. I like the name and the song and just made a note that I wanted to use it one day for some kind of project. It just felt right. Also because I’m learning about my emotions, how to be both passionate and responsible with the potential volatility of that passion. The name seemed fitting.
You released your latest tape on Sister Polygon Records. What has working with them been like?
I try to be professional to whatever appropriate extent but Sister Polygon is composed of some of my absolute best friends, so mostly it just feels like working with my friends. With creative stuff it’s important to feel safe so I couldn’t really ask for more than that. Such an amazing privilege to be friends with those who inspire and also support you. I’ve known these guys for a long time but being promoted by the label has also helped me further appreciate the reach of their impact on people all over the world, and that’s been lovely to see. I’ve had people discover my songs just cause Katie tweeted about it and someone across the country or in New Zealand would check it out and like it. Getting to really see that network in action is really cool, really nice.
I had the chance to play a concert with you and your other band, Gauche, at Union Arts in D.C. I have been reading about how Union Arts is being redeveloped into a luxury hotel and only some of the artists get to stay? What’s happening?
It’s disgusting. As it stands, Union Arts is this big warehouse building in NE D.C. where different artists rent out space for very cheap. One of my bands used to have a practice space there. I can’t wrap my head around the concept of this hotel, apparently they plan to rent out studio space to artists in rooms with windows where patrons of the hotel can come watch them work. And I find that absolutely repulsive because the studio space will be so much more expensive than the current studio spaces in the Union Arts building. I also think there’s a strange, disconnected relationship between the wealthy and the creative class and the idea of setting up an environment where these people can ogle artists behind glass makes me sick, maybe because it further enhances the perceived separation between “normal people” and “artists,” with the artist being treated like a caged freak, or an “other.” It seems like the artists are being set up to provide entertainment to those for whom art is apparently such a foreign and amusing concept that they’d stay in a themed hotel in order to gain some sort of access to it. It’s like artist tourism.
I never felt comfortable enough until recently to just identify myself as an “artist” because our culture manages to belittle and deride those who dedicate themselves to the pursuit of anything other than accumulating material wealth and personal prestige. If any of the people involved had any real concern for artists and their work they would let them use the existing space as it is. Instead they want to use the few artists with enough money to rent that space as bait to bring in customers for a goddamn hotel. In this country you have to commodify your art to survive, and that can be so dangerous to the art itself. It’d be bad enough if they wanted to tear down the building and build another business to make themselves more money but pretending this is a compromise or doing any kind of service to the arts community by providing the studio space within the hotel is really what makes me so livid. Every time a corporation wants to exploit artists and make money off them, they try to legitimize it by somehow arguing that it’s better for the artist. “Do this or that for free, it’ll get you exposure!” Or the hypocrisy of VICE destroying part of an actual living arts community in NYC in order to provide arts entertainment to the masses. It’s never better to be exploited. It is never good to be exploited. Often I feel like we’re moving closer to a point where the only value people will see in art is its potential to make someone rich or famous.
Anyway, Union Arts was and is my favorite place to play or see a show in D.C., hands down, no contest. It felt like a home to a lot of different people. This is a huge loss for the city.