Cheap Girls is a band that is steeped in the alternative rock tradition of 80s and 90s greats like the Smoking Popes, the Replacements, and Lemonheads with a focus on lyrics and a huge guitar sound on top. In our interview, singer and bassist Ian Graham explained the band’s less-is-more easygoing approach to their songwriting, talked about the therapeutic benefits of writing songs, and even explained how one of their best known songs was written as a joke.
We conducted the interview over the phone and I distilled our conversation down into the following Q&A. Thanks to Ian for taking the time to chat with me and make sure to check them out on their current tour and their new record, Famous Graves, out now on Xtra Mile Records.
SCOTT: I think you guys write really traditional style songs. I saw another interview where you talked about how previous bands you guys did had so much more effort put into it and you tried a lot harder. But Cheap Girls was more just straightforward, you “just let it happen,” and it’s worked better for you. Is that has become innate, or is it something you have to strive for?
IAN: For better or for worse I think I just write where my abilities are. It always just feels like as similar as some songs are, there’s really not any kind of formula that I remember when writing them. Every one kind of feels like I had never done this before.
I don’t really have a very continuous or very strict work ethic. And that’s not trying to say some big, beautiful “this song just appeared.” It’s nothing like that, but it’s more of like I don’t really have a schedule or anything like that, or keep a strict outline of when to write and how to write and deadlines and all that shit.
I guess if there’s a process at all, it’s typically over a period of time. A lot of it starts from having not necessarily like a song title, but having a few lines that I like, or just picking around on the guitar and realizing something. And with the other two guys in the band, there’ll be something that’s like guitar where it’s “oh, [guitarist] Adam [Aymor] would play that really well and make it sound really cool.” And just kind of go from there.
SCOTT: It’s interesting to hear your perspective on this, because I know my perspective and I recently interviewed Chris Martin from Hostage Calm, and for him, and me as well, it’s more of the opposite. Its work, effort and thought, and I think that’s what I like about your band. It just sounds comfortable all the time. It just flows.
IAN: Yeah, I was just going to say, fluency is kind of the #1 goal on my end. It’s just to have a song have a lot of fluency and just feel very natural or at ease.
SCOTT: Let’s talk about your lyrics. One thing I noticed that you do a lot that I don’t hear too many people do well is that you’ll often repeat one line as a refrain. I think it’s hard to do well and it’s something you are usually successful with. Where do you think that comes from and how do you decide when to do that?
IAN: Yeah, I guess I’m aware of it, but, to be honest, it’s not something I hugely conscious of when I do it. I think there’s been times where it’s just I’ll say a line once and then I’ll be searching for the next line, and that’s just kind of what fits best. And it can’t just be any line – obviously it’s usually a line I like. It’s nice to make sure of that when things are rough. I guess it gets very second nature to me. I don’t like to give it too much thought. I just feel like the songs aren’t that complicated and so I think my mind just naturally goes to doing what I like to do or how I like to hear a song.
SCOTT: What do you think is an influence on you from a lyric writing perspective?
IAN: An obvious one would be Paul Westerberg. I really like the play on words kind of stuff that he pulls off without sounding childish, which is really hard to do. I always thought Paul Westerberg was great at that. Also, when I first got into the band and writing songs I was definitely a huge, huge, huge Hold Steady fan. So that’s a pretty constant one, and I still just think the world of Craig Finn’s words.
Scott: Do you think it gets easier or hard to write as you get older?
IAN: I guess it was easier at the beginning because there’s no background. You haven’t done anything at all. It’s kind of a little more anything goes.
However, I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where you’ve written a song, felt great about it, and 20 minutes later realized that it’s some other song, whether or not you wrote it or somebody else wrote it. I feel like that’s a pretty common misfortune among songwriters.
SCOTT: I think there’s this mystique about the magic song that just comes out, and I think 9 times out of 10, when that happens, you ripped something off, and you realize it later. It’s kind of funny.
IAN: Yeah, it’s weird and has happened to me.
SCOTT: Let’s talk about one of my favorite songs by Cheap Girls, “Pure Hate,” which is ambiguous lyrically. What is that song about?
IAN: I wrote that after I literally hit a guardrail, and I think I wrote that song the next day. My favorite lyric in there, which I was reminded of the other day, is the “twenty dollars that says I’m full of shit” line, which is just a quote from the movie There’s Something About Mary. Other than that, it’s an anxious song. Out of all the songs, that was probably in the top five quickest, immediate, like “sat down and wrote it” songs we have.
I think “Pure Hate” was first written while we were recording our second album, and it was just more of we’d already done enough for the album where it wasn’t going to get added. I do remember I was just kind of going through – I guess I wasn’t going through a breakup, but I was going through a recently reopened old wound, so to speak. I was frustrated and anxious and just sat down and just really quickly wrote it. And I was watching a lot of There’s Something About Mary at the time – it’s still one of my all-time favorite movies.
So it’s one of those ones where I don’t really know what the song is about until I’m done writing it, and I think it’s because it’s something that’s kind of fueled by anxiety. I just felt really confused, really overwhelmed, and really anxious. So that’s a tough one. It’s one of my favorite songs to play. It’s one of my favorite songs we’ve ever done, but lyrically, it’s a little all over the place.
But, it is also the perfect example of, if I were to have a songwriting style, of that, where it’s just like a bad few days and sat down and just trying to jot down whatever the fuck sounded good and made sense to me in my mind.
The “only want to stare you down” line, I’m really not 100% sure where that came from, like why I chose those words rather than just like “I’d like to see you,” which is the underlying sentiment.
SCOTT: It’s kind of aggressive. It’s kind of contradictory to what it sounds like, which is cool.
IAN: Honestly, it’s not like a bunch of diary entries or anything, but there’s definitely a therapeutic side to writing the songs, and I’ve definitely felt a whole lot better after writing a song than I felt beforehand. There’s also times where there are things that are difficult to say, but over time they sting a little less.
I was actually listening to our second record the other day, because we’re trying to see what songs to play all summer because we have a shitload of shows. It’s so weird to think about what was going on at the time those songs were written versus what was going on during the last record, things like that. The new record, I don’t know how many goddamn times I say “knees” on it, but I’ve had like five or six knee surgeries between the last record and this record, so that pops up a lot more. That wasn’t conscious at all.
“Pure Hate” was definitely a one-day song. I think like at 11 a.m., I woke up, wrote that song, and the reason I can talk to you casually or gloat about that is because that fucking never happens! And if it does, it’s something stupid like “Her and Cigarettes” or something.
SCOTT: Wait, did you just say that “Her and Cigarettes” is stupid?
SCOTT: Why do you think that?
IAN: It’s a joke. We were at a party, on a $20 dare. I think I was just drunk and cocky at a party when I was 21 while I was writing our first record and had my bedroom full of friends. I had just started writing songs, so I thought it was just easy as fuck. “I can write a song in 15 minutes.” And then a good friend said “I’ll give you $20 if you write a song in 15 minutes.” And that’s what “Her and Cigarettes” was.
Cheap Girls is on tour now and just released their best record yet, Famous Graves. Check them out at any of the links below!
Cheap Girls Website
Cheap Girls Facebook
Cheap Girls at Xtra Mile Records