Band Practice with Pom Pom Squad
We joined Pom Pom Squad—front woman Mia Berrin, guitarist Alex Mercuri, bassist Maria Alejandra Dale Figeman, and drummer Shelby Keller—for their band practice in Bushwick at the tail end of summer. Surrounded by amps, instruments, and egg-carton insulation, the band members and close friends faced each other in an intimate circle as they played covers, new singles, and songs from their most recent album “Hate it Here” (2017) in preparation for an upcoming show at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
It seems like on any given week you can catch Pom Pom Squad playing a Brooklyn venue, whether it’s Alphaville, Sunnyvale, Trans Pecos, or Baby’s—and you would be all the better for it.
Berrin offered us bubblegum pink earplugs while ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me” played in the background, the band’s warm-ups punctuating the beginning of our conversation.
Alex Mercuri begins playing “Mamma Mia” chords.
Mia Berrin: Oh my god, I need you to stop immediately. Are you doing this on the spot, or have you learned all of these songs at some point in your life?
Maria Alejandra Dale Figeman: That sounds like on the spot.
Alex Mercuri: Umm, half and half. Its just a scale, man!
MB: Okay... I’ll go fuck myself (laughs). I remember when I was working on “Heavy Heavy” with you over the phone, and you pulled out all the crazy pedals. We’re working on an EP, and I text Alex whenever I’m like, “Music theory! I don’t know!” I’ll hum the notes, and he’ll tell me where they are. We have this shreddy guitar part in “Heavy Heavy” where I scream a bunch of times—
AM: It sounds really good, man.
MB: Why is there so much reverb on my mic? Hello? (echoes)
MADF: Where are we, in a fucking church?
AM: Either a church or a bathroom.
Alex starts playing and the rest of the band chimes in. They move into Jonathan Richman’s “Girlfriend,” Mia spelling out G-I-R-L-F-R-E-N and ending with a giggle.
AM: That’s the one where you go out into the audience and just accept love from everyone. Have you ever seen Morrissey’s version of “Moon River?” He has a version where people in the audience just keep running onstage and touching him.
MB: Oh, my. I like when he rips his shirt open and it says “marry me” on his chest. I feel like that’s something I would do.
The band plays their new song, “Lux Lisbon.”
MB: I feel like that was just a hair too slow.
MADF: I think it was because I had to put the pick down, I can’t keep it up at that speed right now. I’ve been playing too much.
MB: That’s okay!
The band continues to play “Protection Spells,” “He Never Shows,” “You/Him (Maybe),” “Cherry Candy,” and a cover of Weezer’s “Undone - The Sweater Song.”
MB: You want to hear something funny? I made Spencer (from The Ophelias) teach me part of her song.
(gasps) Which one?
MB: “Zero” (starts singing verse). I used to cover one of her songs at shows. I love her music—not because she is one of my best friends, just because it’s incredible.
The band takes a break, all change instruments.
AM: Jack White fucked his ring finger up—
MB: Fuck Jack White.
AM: He means so much to me. When I was eight years old Elephant came out and it changed how I felt music was conceived. I remember listening to that with my dad and being like, “Music can sound like this?” It really inspired me to pick up guitar. But... if he never opened his stupid fucking mouth about women or politics ever again, I’d be really happy.
Pom Pom Squad plays Thundercat’s “Them Changes,” Sex Pistols’ “Roadrunner,” The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,” Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl,” and “Heavy Heavy” from their new EP.
MADF: I can’t wait for that one to come out, I swear to God.
MB: Yeah, that’ll be much louder. I’m not going to scream into a delayed microphone pedal.
MADF: You recorded that in my kitchen! MB: Yeah, we’re really DIY in this house.
AM: I scared my cat with that one. It’s like twenty minutes of feedback.
MB: Well, tell your cat I said thank you.
AM: Yeah, just give Millie a special thanks in the liner notes.
MB: I feel like after every practice I’m covered in sweat and all my shoes are untied. Why don’t we take a break and go outside? You can ask us questions while we’re all tuckered out and vulnerable (laughs).
Thank you guys for letting us be flies on the wall. I feel really selfish and spoiled for being in your space. How did you all connect?
MB: I started Pom Pom Squad alone in my bedroom when I was eighteen, and did nothing with it until I came to college. I met a bunch of guys who were in the music program during my sophomore year and I started playing with them. Alex came to one of those shows with my old band.
AM: I was there to see one of my friend’s bands, and I had just missed Mia’s set. I came as she was packing up, and I noticed out of the corner of my eye that there was a really cute girl wearing a black cheerleader uniform that said “witch” on it. I turned to my friend and was like, “Hey, there is a girl dressed as a cheerleader...” and my friend said, “Yeah, she was in the first band.” I ran into the bathroom and looked up her Bandcamp because I was like, “If you’re willing to do that, I have to hear what you sound like.”
MB: And I was holding a dozen roses.
MADF: If you’ve been to the shows, you know the whole stage is littered with roses, which adds plus five to the aesthetic experience.
MB: I started bringing flowers to the shows because I was so nervous. The first time I played a show was at Bowery Electric—I walked there with my roommates at the time and my best friend from high school who had flown across the country to see me. I bought two dozen roses, I felt like I needed them onstage. I remember I walked to the venue and was like, “You’re not going to fall off the stage, you’re not going to die, you’re not going to drop your pick”—I was literally listing all the things I thought could go wrong. It was a helpful distraction to have the roses around. I ended up doing a cover set as Morrissey and started swinging them around and throwing them into the audience. It’s a fun way to interact with the crowd.
AM: I feel like so many times after a show, I’ve seen people post, “Got a rose at the gig.” Even if they didn’t come to see you, they’re like, “Here I am at the bar, with my rose.” You’re like Instagram fodder.
MB: Great, what else could I ask for? (laughs). When I met Shelby and Maria, I had stopped playing with my old band and played a bunch of solo shows. I had broken up with the person I was dating the night before, and was really freaked out. I got to the venue, and Shelby and Maria were so nice to me. I think I said something along the lines of, “Ah, I forgot everything and I’m a huge mess” and they were like, “...Stop” (laughs).
MADF: That’s the thing... that’s what you were feeling, but on the outside, you looked hella collected. You had your whole fucking aesthetic with you. We met in the green room, so by the time we actually started talking, you had your whole altar set up on the little table there—
MB: Oh my god... You introduced me to every single one of your friends, it was really sweet. I remember you got really drunk and came up to me after the show and were like, “I really want to be in your band. Can I be in your band?”
MADF: You know, post-stage, you get your cocktail...
MB: All four of us ended up at that show, actually.
What is the status of the new EP?
MB: It’s written—there is one song left that’s kind of plaguing me that I haven’t been able to finish, so it may or may not be on there. I ended up writing all of it around last year. I wrote a whole album and kind of let it sit because I changed my major to music. I learned how to record pretty recently and didn’t feel comfortable doing any of it myself. Now I feel I’m becoming competent and over the summer I spent all of this time in my room getting good at producing, which makes me feel super great about myself. People try to gatekeep a lot in music, and I feel like I was under this impression that all of it was impossibly hard and I would never be able to do it, so I just locked myself in a room and now—
MADF: She kicks ass at it.
MB: I sort of wrote it and started working with all of these dummies (smiles) in the middle of the writing process. I don’t know a lot of music theory, but I’m very lucky to have a good ear. So I can sing it and write the part, and Alex is really great at helping me with the technical stuff and executing the thing that I want. I want them all to be more involved in it. I want to produce it a little bit more fully, use a studio space, and finish writing it. It’s a concept EP, which is going to be fun and weird. It’s about depression and anxiety, stuff that no one can relate to but me, obviously (laughs).
How often do you come together to play?
MB: In the summer we were practicing once or twice a week.
MADF: It gelled really quickly—after that first show at Elsewhere, we rehearsed as a three-piece, and by the second time we practiced we were really tight. We know each others’ parts really well at this point.
MB: The thing I love about our practice and emotional space, is it’s very intimate, and I feel super comfortable coming in and being like, “I’m really anxious and I’m having a bad day.” I kind of give that to them when I play, and they give it back to me, and we all make it into what we’re doing. It becomes a very cathartic experience. I love them a lot. It’s really meaningful to me because music is a super emotional thing. Writing music is really hard. You’re letting people into your innermost thoughts—all of my insecurities, all of my breakups, and all of my weird shit that I think about. It’s so comforting to have three other people there with me that I know have my back.
MADF: There’s no bollocks to it. It’s just so fucking honest, and the actual material isn’t embellished. The thing is—coming to her band after the things she has written, we participate in it emotionally but at the end of the day it’s her body of work, which is why we want to get on the second EP. This first one is hers. As her band, we have to acknowledge that respect that people have for it. I try to stick to what is on the record.
MB: It still really surprises me that people can have a relationship to my music outside of my friends or people that I know. There was a girl who came to the last show who was like, “I really love your music. I listen to it in my car,” and that’s crazy to me. I got recognized at work once—I work at a makeup store—and this girl came in and she was sort of shaking. I was like, “Oh no, I’m making her uncomfortable,” so I stepped aside and told her to let me know if she needed help with anything, and then she asked me if I was Pom Pom Squad. I used to do live streams from my dorm, and she used to sit in on the live stream and ask me questions about how to get through high school.
How do you find the music community in New York? Clearly there is something that is right in the world if you found each other through playing together, or playing the same shows, or going to each other’s shows. Do you feel like this is almost an exception to a rule?
MB: I feel really, really fortunate to have found my people. In them, in Spencer, my friend Grace also makes amazing music. I want to be intimidated by my friends who are making music, and I really am. I had to make a list for my songwriting class of songs that I wish I had written, and half were songs that my friends had made, and that’s genuine. Through surrounding yourself with people that you love and care about versus chasing the clout of the New York scene—which I think is really easy to go after— you’re going to grow more as a person and as an artist. The people that are on the same wavelength as you are going to show up, just by surrounding yourself with people that you really admire.
AM: I’ve been pretty lucky, in that I’m in bands with people I like. Whenever I mention that to people they’re shocked. Another band I play in, Long Neck, went on a long tour and two weeks in we were talking to someone, and they asked, “You don’t hate each other yet?” And we were like, “No... sorry!” So many people buy into this idea that everyone has a fucking ego. I’m really into doing work and helping people make the music they want to make and I’m cool with dialing it back. I like working with people. It’s cool to be supportive, it’s cool to be nice, god damn it.
Shelby Keller: I hate it when people put each other down. Fuck all of that. People tend to glorify this tortured rockstar vibe, it’s infuriating.
MADF: It’s punk to be nice.
— Marissa Passi