Interview: Survival Guide

 photo: Andy Kuno

photo: Andy Kuno

Will Shenton

As the front-woman and driving creative force behind Survival Guide (often stylized as srvvlgd, partly because it’s cool and partly to facilitate Googling), Petaluma, California’s Emily Whitehurst has propelled herself onto the Bay Area scene with a uniquely dark, explosive brand of electro-pop.

I got a chance to sit down with her before a show in San Francisco and talk about her upcoming album release, the weirdness of writing songs about herself in the third person, the days of yore when she really wanted to join Green Day.

ThrdCoast: What’s your musical background, and how did you get started with Survival Guide?

Emily Whitehurst: My roots are definitely in punk and pop-punk, that’s what first got me into music. I was obsessed with Green Day [laughs], and I wanted to be in a pop-punk band just like that. So I did that for a long time, and my last band before Survival Guide was kind of a poppy, synth four-piece. After a while, I felt like punk was kind of restrictive. I loved it, and it was super fun, but there was more that I wanted to do, especially with keyboards. So I transitioned to that other band, called The Action Design, and then from there I found that I wanted even more freedom. I wanted to be able to use whatever sounds I wanted for the percussion and whatever weird electronic stuff I could do. So Jason – the guitar player from that band – and I formed Survival Guide together.

TC: Do you have any formal training, or are you self-taught?

EW: I took some piano lessons for, like, six months when I was in second grade [laughs]. That’s about it. I think when you’re really excited about music and you love doing it, you just naturally end up doing it all the time. And practice makes you that much better. My first recordings are terrible, but I love them.

TC: Walk me through your songwriting process. When you decide you want to work on a new project, how do you start?

EW: The way we’ve written all of the Survival Guide stuff is to start with any sort of musical idea that comes to us. A drum beat or sound that we can build off of, or sometimes it’s inspired by building a melody around a particular keyboard sound. I have written songs that started with vocals, but I tend not to. I generally write the music first and then add the vocals later. It’s kind of a fun challenge.

TC: Do you find yourself coming back to any particular sources of lyrical inspiration, or any particular stories you like to tell?

EW: I tell stories based on everyone that I know. So if anyone has anything interesting going on in their life, there’s a chance it might end up as a song [laughs]. I like to switch up the pronouns, too. For example, I have a song written from the perspective of my friend’s ex-boyfriend, and it’s my impression of what he was thinking during their relationship. But you wouldn’t know it if you just read the lyrics.

TC: So you try to tell other people’s stories from their point of view.

EW: Sometimes. Sometimes I write in the third person about someone, or, sometimes I write in the third person about myself.

TC: Any examples?

EW: Not off the top of my head. I try not to do it too much, because it feels very strange. I don’t always want to publicize my true feelings, which I guess is something I should try to get over. I tend to only do it when I have something really important to say.

TC: Who would you say are your biggest influences?

EW: I’m usually influenced the most by whatever I’m listening to at the time. I feel like the basis of my vocal style goes all the way back to when I was obsessed with Green Day, and I think what I appreciated most about his vocals was the way he structured his melodies. Then sometimes I’ll throw in a bit of whatever I’m listening to a lot while I’m writing. It might be Metric, The Smiths – they’re another one of my absolute favorite bands, I love Morrissey – I’ve also been listening to a lot of Oh Land, she’s a Danish pop star who’s awesome. Her self-titled album is just, like, perfect pop. I’m also really into some older jazz music, like Django Reinhardt and Astrud Gilberto.

TC: So what’s been on your iPod recently?

EW: I’ve been listening to that HAIM record a lot, I was kind of late to the game on that one. Also the new Lana del Rey album, which I didn’t really like at first, but I’ve gotten into it lately.

TC: What can you tell me about the new album?

EW: It’s called Way To Go, it’s got ten songs, and it’s being pressed to vinyl right now, which is why I don’t know the exact release date. I guess vinyl production is kind of backed up at the moment. We recorded a lot of the music in Jason’s basement in Sacramento, and I recorded most of the vocals at a studio in Petaluma. It’s coming out on a San Francisco label called Side With Us. There isn’t really one, overarching theme, but I guess I tend to write darkly. Even if the music sounds happy, there are always some darker undertones.

TC: Are you planning any sort of tour to support it?

EW: I want to. I’d really like to take the whole band and go on some kind of west coast tour, because we’ve never done that together, but I’m not sure how long we’d be able to stay out since we all have day jobs [laughs]. In a few weeks I’m going to SXSW for a few unofficial showcases, and I’m going to try to play some shows on the way there and back.

You can catch Survival Guide at Elbo Room in SF tonight with Vela Eyes, Scissors For Lefty, and The Greening.