Record of the Week: Gustaf’s ‘Package Pt. 2’

Seemingly every article about New York City band Gustaf includes “punk” and “DIY.” And so I think it’s fun to note that when I spoke to singer/sneerer Lydia Gammill about the group’s sophomore record, Package Pt. 2, this “DIY punk” artist referenced:

  • “RuPaul’s Drag Race” as inspiration for the wigs in Gustaf’s “Here Hair/Hard Hair” video
  • Paul Rudd’s character’s tantrum in the cult classic film “Wet Hot American Summer”
  • Her dad flying from Boston to Northern Ireland to see the band
  • The poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman (source material for the song “Produce”)
  • The specific, shining virtues of each of her bandmates

My interview with Gammill reminded me that punk rock is, at its best, expressive of a range of emotions – it need not anchor to only discontentment to be taken seriously lyrically, nor appreciated musically. 

This batch of tunes on Package Pt. 2 is a sensible and satisfying building upon the punch-packing 2021 debut record, Audio Drag for Ego Slobs. This Brooklyn-based five-piece is a tight group of multi-instrumentalists that Gammill likens to “action figures…five Power Rangers,” where nobody has the biggest helmet or cape, they’re all contributing equally. 

Learn directly from Gammill about the band’s history and individual songs from WNXP’s Record of the Week Package Pt. 2 when you stream the podcast of our full conversation. Having recently returned from Europe where they opened for pals Yard Act, Gustaf is headlining an American tour this spring that stops in Nashville for a WNXP Presents show at drkmttr on May 17.

The Gustaf origin story

Gammill told me the band’s line-up — she and Tine Hill (bass), Melissa Lucciola (drums), Tarra Thiessen (percussion) and Vram Kherlopian (guitar) — converged leading up to Austin’s SXSW festival years ago, when friends in other bands already scheduled for showcases sought additional drivers and/or company on the road trip from New York to Texas. They literally formed a band in order to hang out, and began playing immediately.

“We had a couple of shows booked randomly before we had a name,” said Gammill. “And since we didn’t really have that much time to practice, I feel like it was always just like focusing on working with very simple formulas and then kind of developing and expanding them on stage. But my joke back then was, ‘There are no mistakes, only new arrangements.’ And so we definitely started by the seat of our pants and kept that mantra up.”

She said later, “We’ve all played in a lot of bands over the years. And I think also what’s sort of been the lasting formula is that we all just want to do it. We want to tour and we all want to play as much as possible. So that’s really helped keep some gas in our tank and keep going and having a nice time.”

On channeling “angry principal,” buffoon-like rage on stage

I asked Gammill if she idolized any singers or frontpeople when she was coming up through the scene, people she wanted to emulate. “Yes, for sure, but this is a little negative, too,” she added. “I would see people who would go on and have such an air about them, but in a weird way, it felt kind of empty to me, you know?…Some people are just so cool. I’m kind of like, ‘Because you’re too cool, you’ve lost me a little bit.'”

Instead of acting cool, Gammill said, “I wanted to try my hand at kind of playing a caricature and have fun with that and try to connect in different ways to it. Sometimes it’s trying to show a sincere underpinning, and other times it’s going full freak. I think about movies… and anger is just very funny sometimes on other people. Like it feels very intense and frustrating for you. But if you think about comedies like, you know, the angry principal whose face gets all red and stuff like that. We’re not scared of that person. I’m more like, ‘Oh, wow, look at you acting a fool.’ And so in my mind, I’m kind of acting like an angry fool sometimes…Sometimes I’ll be a ‘hurt person’ but only just to expose the fact that angry people are just probably scared and sad.”

On the unlikely pairing “Here Hair” and “Hard Hair”

Gammill said that after mostly being a live band in New York, gigging incessantly but only recording in fits and starts, they decided to dedicate some time to laying down multiple tunes in a studio session. “[Much of] Package Pt. 2 came from that session where we all just came together and we’re like, ‘OK, where is this going?’ And I think actually one of the songs is ‘Here Hair’-slash-‘Hard Hair,’ our groovy little track that was actually cut from the first record and kind of came back around…We were playing with Nation of Language and there was talk of doing a 7″ [record] or something. And our managers are like, ‘Do you have a song you could use for this?’ And this is when we’re still finishing the recordings for the second record and I send it to them and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is great. That should go on the record. So, we ended up finishing out with our producer, Erin Tonkin.”

I remarked that I love how they squished the very different sounding songs together for the music video (which Gammill directed) but they’re separate tracks on Package Pt. 2. She laughed: “Oh man, that was a conversation. And in the end, I think it was right to break them up. I feel like sometimes I like to make the wrong — well, not the wrong choice, but like the less palatable option. And I’m like, ‘Why can’t I just let the people have a nice time and have their separate songs?’ ‘Hard Hair’ was actually Tine our bassist’s idea because ‘Here Hair’ is sort of slow, [then] it’s fast. It’s more of an ‘experimental,’ or at least for our band, track. And I think it was just very funny for us to have an aggressive 180 button on that. Originally our label was like, ‘Oh, you know what would be a great single? “Hard Hair!”‘ And I was like, ‘No, you don’t get just the punk song.'”

“Close” but no cigar: finally finishing this single

Whereas Gustaf’s first record, Audio Drag for Ego Slobs, was finished fairly quickly in demand for this touring band that made a name for itself pre-pandemic, the sophomore LP got a little more massaging by enlisting producer Erin Tonklin. Gammill said she’s surprised how long it took for a fairly simple song, lyrically, like “Close” to be considered finished and ready for the record.

“I think [‘Close’] was one of the first ones that we had something for, but we sort of went in circles about what the right arrangement was. And I was very aggressive about, towards the end, there’s kind of a bridge where there’s a bass solo that I have been calling the Autobahn, because in my mind it’s just like that feeling of two cars almost passing each other — you’re driving at night, chaotic Autobahn or whatever. I was like, ‘It’s very important we have this long bass-only section in the song!'”

After initial writing and recording for LP2, then their 2022 American tour, Gammill said Gustaf “dusted off the hard drive” and obsessed a little more over “Close.” She still marvels at the journey that was getting it just right: “There’s not a lot happening lyrically in that song, but still, for some reason, it was so hard to figure out truly what I wanted the narrative flow to be. And I think what’s fun about this song is that it’s kind of like, ‘Do you want the delayed gratification?’ I think it’s about this sort of push and pull tension and figuring out how to capture that musically and lyrically — not saying too much, but also saying just enough.” The cruel irony here, Gammill pointed out about the long-time-coming completion of “Close,” is that this song’s concept is basically “not really knowing where you stand, or being close and [yet] very far away from someone and wanting to grasp at something that’s like not letting you hold it.”

GUSTAF · Package Pt. 2