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Horsegirl's Dazzling Swarm of Distorted Garage Pop Conquers the Streets of Chicago

After releasing their debut 7" and signing with the prolific indie label Matador Records, we caught up with Horsegirl to discuss their sudden rise, their latest single, and Chicago's young arts scene.

Photo by Cheryl Dunn

Not long ago, Horsegirl guitarist-vocalist Nora Cheng and bassist-vocalist Penelope Lowenstein met in a music program after discovering they had a similar music taste. Soon after becoming close friends, the two attended local concerts together, with drummer Gigi Reece tagging along for a local warehouse show. The three friends fell in love discovering music together, sending each other songs and videos from now defunct underground bands, which even once led them forming a brief Sonic Youth cover band. This immediate collective vision that was developing would soon become the noisy rock trio Horsegirl.

Together for just over a year, the Chicago-based trio operate as a true unit even while all still attending high school. According to the trio, managing school along with making music together can be difficult, considering they have to work around school hours, but say the experience has been very important to them while in school.

"We feel really lucky to be able to do this at such a young age," Cheng said via email. "We started this band as underclassmen for fun, and we never imagined it would be heard by people outside of our city. It's fun for each of us to be known as 'the person in a band' at our separate schools. We had a large pool of people to rally to go to shows and a strong network of Chicago kids."

Chicago's underground music scene has always been lively especially with early post-rock bands that came out of the underground in the '90s like Tortoise and The Sea and Cake. However, the trio said they're more influenced by the shoegaze and post-punk sounds from the UK, along with a bit of the Dunedin sound of '80s Flying Nun bands. They say their main influences include My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and Stereolab, which you can certainly hear in their rippeling multi-layered soundscapes that blend shoegaze and noise rock with tinges of dream pop, immersing in a style that's both comforting and harsh. The band admitted they go through collective phases together, currently digging into Charlie Megira, Life Without Buildings and Gang of Four. Before high school, the trio would watch a lot of older kids form their own bands, which paved the way for this new generation of Chicago bands.

Photo by Carlos Lowenstein

"Over time, we developed a collective vision for the future of Horsegirl without ever explaining it to each other in words," Cheng said. "Going to youth shows and gradually discovering more and more music was very important to us. If we could have it our way, the coming years of independent music would be led by young, punk-minded bands."

Along with their contemporaries, Lifeguard, Friko and Dwaal Troupe, Horsegirl have been gaining a lot of attention in Chicago's underground scene. With their genre-fluid musical palette and socially aware edge, Horsegirl's daring and DIY musical approach is exclusive to their generation of musicians. On their recent EP, Ballroom Dance Scene et cetera (best of Horsegirl), along with their debut 7" single (which sold out within 24 hours), the trio meld dense shoegaze atmospherics into a wall of swirling guitars, propulsive rhythms and competing vocal melodies, bringing out a lush and hypnotic sound that's somewhere between the Raincoats and Galaxie 500. The trio recorded the track "Sea Life Sandwich Boy" in Lowenstein's basement, trying out guitar overdubs and expanding their recording experience amidst the pandemic.

"The first time we ever recorded outside of Penelope's basement was for 'Ballroom Dance Scene,' which we recorded in a different basement — Niko Kapetan's from Friko," Cheng said. "Aside from wearing masks the whole time, the recording process was very comfortable and rewarding. We were excited to work with people outside of the band and it was wonderful collaborating with others who understood our vision so well."

The trio have been playing shows since mid-2019, but obviously over the last year and a half, their live performances have drastically been on hold. Like most fellow musicians, Horsegirl have converted to livestreams, even performing one earlier this week. But like many of us, the trio expressed a longing for live music and social gatherings.

"There's a really wonderful community of youth artists here in Chicago who organize shows and events across the city before the COVID-19 pandemic and it was a great way to meet kids outside of your schools who were interested in music and art. There was something very special about entirely youth-run spaces and playing for kids our own age," Lowenstein said. "It was a very inspiring and supportive environment to come up in and we miss that. We've met a lot of our close friends at these shows, including the folks who recorded 'Ballroom Dance Scene' with us [Niko Kapetan and Jack Lickerman]."

Photo by Carlos Lowenstein

Aside from livestream concerts, Horsegirl has been finding other ways to bridge the gap between them and their audience. Back in February, they released the visual for "Ballroom Dance Scene," which was mostly shot in their hometown of Chicago using their phone and an old digital Canon camera.

"At the beginning of winter break we drove around the city in our aux-less 2004 Buick LeSabre, taking street shots of whatever we found interesting," Reece said. "While filming, we listened to music and drove in circles for hours. If you were to unmute the footage, you'd hear us singing along to CDs we burned for each other and bickering about what to play next."

With their recent signing to Matador Records, Horsegirl, who are now labelmates with Snail Mail, Car Seat Headrest and their heroes Yo La Tengo have a bright path to look forward, even despite the challenges ahead for the young band. And for a band who were already accomplished bedroom musicians with just three singles during a raging pandemic, their success is beyond belief. They didn't even give their EP a proper name since they didn't expect it to receive the attention that it did. The band is looking to record their full-length debut before 2/3 of their members leave for college next year — another ambitious plan for the young trio who are definitely a band to watch.

The band included in their statement after signing with Matador, "To the adults at the Yo La Tengo show who said we were too young to like good music (and made fun of Penelope for bringing her backpack): kids are going to bring punk-rock back."

"Ballroom Dance Scene" b/w "Sea Life Sandwich Boy" is out now on Sonic Cathedral.


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