Goth Disco: A Q&A With Chicago’s Own Pixel Grip

Pixel Grip. Left to Right: Tyler Ommen, Jonathon Freund, Rita Lukea. Photo by Emulsion Lab

I first discovered Pixel Grip back in the summer of 2017 when they performed live at The Sick Muse Issue 8 release party at Permanent Records in Ukrainian Village, a small record shop with an inhouse label, live shows, and an excellent and eclectic collection including a host of local releases, since closed and now replaced by a self-proclaimed “Boho-chic boutique”. Pixel Grip’s neon colored outfits and moody synth notes got the entire crowd dancing in what little space there was. I was taken with them and after the show approached them to fan out, comparing them to some of my beloved electronic favorites from the mid 2000’s. I continued to follow their growth as they wooed crowds around Chicago, and by the time they released their first LP Heavy Handed on Feeltrip Records in April 2019, I knew this group had star power. It was one of those albums that you could indulgently play over and over, and now, a year since the release of Heavy Handed, I thought it would be a good time to catch up with Rita, Jon, and Tyler of Pixel Grip, so I sent them some questions to see what led them to the success of Heavy Handed and where they see themselves heading in 2020 and beyond.

Dan Shukis: All three of you went to the same high school in Chicagoland before coming together as a band. What were some of your early collaborations like? When did Pixel Grip the band start to take shape?

Rita Lukea: Picture a few stoned high schoolers in a bedroom somewhere in the suburbs. Early collaborations were likely disorganized and drug fueled. While the three of us were naturally musical, it took us a while to figure out how to write and structure a song. Before that we were just recording weird jams. Once we had SONG songs, and enough for a set list, we decided we needed to embarrass ourselves on a stage somewhere. I think humiliation and spite are some of the best motivators. Once we experienced playing to an empty room, clearing a dancefloor, or being snubbed, we went back to the drawing board. How do we draw people? How do we make dance music? How do we make it so that no one can take their eyes off of us? These aren’t questions we asked ourselves in the beginning. Just: What is a chorus? How do you record midi? We were just kids.

Jonathon Freund: I was playing in a psych-rock band in high school, and I had this intuition that Rita and I could work well together. So we collaborated, at first independently, and later within a charmingly dysfunctional rock band. We both loved electronic music, so we decided to do our own project. For me, adding Tyler felt like an equally intuitive addition, which had a longer process to solidify. These two were talented people I knew that I HAD to play music with. Like it needed to be this way. I’m so glad it worked out!

Tyler Ommen: I was drumming in a few projects and teaching myself how to use Logic. I can’t remember who it was, but somebody passed me an early demo that Rita and Jon made and I was really impressed and secretly wanted to work with them.

Dan: What were some of the first pieces of gear you experimented with in the development of your style and sound?

Jon: I went out and bought a Microkorg and an Alesis drum machine the day I heard Aphex Twin for the first time. There’s some other pieces I acquired in the early days that I still use on stage and in the studio. An important philosophy for me and making electronic music is to just use what you have lying around, and expand later. Even if it means using a pirated copy of Ableton, or an iPod with a loop pedal! Every piece is unique and has something to offer.

Tyler: Roland TD3, an Alesis drum machine, M-Audio Keyrig 49…pretty standard entry level gear that I used with GarageBand and Logic.

Dan: You are coming up on the one year anniversary of your first full length album Heavy Handed put out by Feeltrip Records. What was your experience signing with Feeltrip? How did your band evolve?

Jon: I’m really thankful to have worked with Feeltrip, and am excited to continue working with them for the next LP. They really helped us make the release of Heavy Handed feel more like an event, like something special. It was a great learning opportunity to release through Feeltrip- now, I feel we can very quickly identify what’s needed to make PG2 more impactful, eccentric, and captivating than Heavy Handed. Plus, Dave and Diana have become really good friends, and that’s quite valuable in itself.

Dan: A few of your tracks have accompanying music videos with very different themes and aesthetics. What was it like to produce those videos and work with those directors? What was the origin story of the vision for these videos?

Rita: We worked with Director Todd Diedrich and in his words, the music video for “Soft Peaks” is “an electric film noir inspired by French crime films”. Digital information has been stolen from those in power and a chase ensues that is live streamed by the assailants and is championed by the people in a fractured dystopian society.” For “Plastic Enemies” we worked with a production company called New Trash, working with directors Connor Wiles and Nat Alder. The video was inspired by some home footage I stumbled upon of a man dancing in front of car headlights. In the video it is nighttime and there’s this feeling of freedom and nostalgia, like I was there in the car laughing with them. We capitalized on that feeling and hired the amazing dancer who goes by ORB BOX.

Dan: Your lyrics often seem to be addressing both love and angst, infatuation and frustration, with melodies that blend the light with the dark. Where do you draw inspiration from your lyrics? Are they drawn more from romantic relationships, or platonic ones?

Rita: There is a lot of anger in my lyrics and there is a lot of anger in me too. For some artists lyrics are a way to dedicate their love to someone, or rally a political party, or tell a story, but in Heavy Handed, lyrics are a form of catharsis. I start the album by telling you that I want to tell you off, that I want to “tell you how it is in the summertime night, open up the fridge in the summertime night”. I’m realizing now that there are a lot of songs surrounding the topic of love on Heavy Handed, but not in a conventional way. I guess it’s hard for me to go back a few years and think about who I was and why I wrote about those topics, because now I don’t feel so inadequate or heartbroken. Now I feel like a bad bitch, and you’re gonna get that confidence in PG2 (and more anger).

Jon: Rita takes care of the lyrics! She’s very good at writing them, too. Tyler and I may bounce back some ideas here and there, but ultimately we trust what she will come up with.

Dan: In previous interviews you have described your song writing process as “psychic.” Can you elaborate on your collaborative song writing methods? What are some of your techniques for getting into this collaborative “psychic” flow state?

Rita: It’s really hard to describe what happens but the best analogy I can think of is sex. After a while you just implicitly “know” what your lover wants and needs. Making music has a similar energy. You don’t really speak. When you’re fucking someone you don’t say “okay kiss me for 5 minutes, and then you’ll go down on me, and then we’ll try a variety of positions”. You feel it in the moment because your hearts are close and your brainwaves are syncing up. That might be some hippie shit and completely incorrect, but that’s how I feel with these guys. I feel like I can read their minds and I know when I’m doing something they like or don’t like.

Jon: Our collective songwriting process changes pretty often, which is a process all its own. Change brings with it an element of uncertainty, freshness, and mystery. I feel like going into songwriting with uncertainty and presence allows for surprise, which I love to experience when making music. That’s also why I love making music with these two; they bring along unexpected energy that’s really fun to work with and embrace.

Tyler: Reaching that “psychic” flow state is really dependent on submitting yourself to the energies in the room and letting go of any preconceived ideas of how a song should manifest. You’re required to listen very carefully and respond accordingly. Once you reach this zen-like state, you can tap into this intimate conversation, trading ideas back and forth, and maybe a song will happen.

Dan: How has the Chicago music scene and community shaped you all as artists? Do you consider Chicago to be a fertile environment for dance and electronic music?

Rita: Chicago is all I know, and there are really good acts here. If you want to compete in this arena, you need to step your pussy up. We’re around such incredible artists and DJs and parties night after night. It feels like we’re walking around an Ivy League campus like “oh fuck, these kids aren’t messing around”. You have to be not only just as good, but somehow better.

Jon: There’s lots of exciting avenues to explore electronic music in Chicago! There are so many subcultures and communities revolving around club music, DJs, performers, bands, and experimental musicians. I like to tap into as many as I can. Lately I have been particularly excited by club music and DJ culture. There’s a wealth of talented DJs and record shops to find and hear great music. I also sense that there’s a wider shift of interest toward electronic music in Chicago, which is really neat to experience.

Dan: Can you speak to the difference between making music in a studio setting versus a live performance setting? How is your approach to music different in these separate musical environments?

Rita: For me, live and studio are like two completely different media. In a studio setting, I have more breath control and power, I can stack vocals and harmonies and samples. I am focused on the song and the song’s identity. In a live setting, all I’m thinking about is the audience. How do I entertain you for 45 minutes? I am dancing and screaming with you and for you. The stage is my temple, the audience is my god.

Jon: The two environments are quite different, for reasons that I agree with Rita. I’d like to blur the lines between live and studio as much as possible. One of our biggest strengths as a band is our ability to improvise together, which typically happens when transitioning between songs. The studio is where I get to be an aesthetic queen about the sounds and grooves. Live, I just want people’s bodies to react as if they were channeling their ape ancestry.

Dan: How does queer identity fit into your songwriting and musical aesthetic? How has the LGBT community and underground scene of dance music informed your style and message?

Pixel Grip Songwriter & Vocalist Rita Lukea. Photo by Emulsion Lab

Rita: There’s a connection between underground music, subculture, and the queer community and it’s hard to qualify why but my analysis is that we’re on the fringe. We’re different. We’re freaks and weirdos. And we’re together. And if you have ever been in one of our audiences, it’s immediately apparent just taking a cursory glance at the crowd. It’s important for me that in our audience you feel safe to express yourself any way that you like. If you are wearing some outlandish shit, no one is going to fuck with you. If you are transgender and you don’t pass, no one is going to fuck with you. If you are a furry and someone is holding your leash, no one is going to fuck with you. We’re here and we’re queer and we want to sweat. Who the fuck cares what you look like? Unless you are wearing flip flops. Someone is going to step on those toes with their platform boots baby, what is you thinking!

Jon: Club music has always been gay! Even the aesthetic of excess found within classic queer dance genres- camp, hypersexuality, and absurdity, have found its way into our music. It’s all just really fun, to be honest. Even if our music can be dark and intense, it’s all meant to be evocative of dance music’s queer history.

Dan: Can you speak on the importance of progressing the general “dance” style of music in 2020? What can you say about the importance of making dance-specific music? Why is making danceable music important to you?

Jon: Dance music feels more collective, like it’s universal for us all as humans to just let our bodies move around, and that’s a satisfying feeling to tap into. Like I mentioned above, it’s really just fun music to make. I’m not quite sure how we’re progressing dance music- that might be up to someone else to decode! Right now we’re just focused on making it.

Dan: It sounds like you have been recording again in 2020. Has your approach to recording changed at all this time around after completing Heavy Handed?

Rita: We have been recording, and honestly, everything has changed. We’re not kids anymore. We’re not still figuring who we are and why we are here. I know exactly who I am and why I am on stage. When I was writing songs for Heavy Handed, I was thinking about me. I was alone in my bedroom, meditating on all the ways I’ve been hurt and I didn’t think anyone would hear them or that they would mean anything to anyone. Writing these new songs, I know I’m not alone. And when I’m writing these songs, I’m not thinking about myself. I’m thinking about you. How do I write a song that will make our audience dance and scream with us? How do I write lyrics that will empower you? What do our fans like, what do they want? What will surprise and delight them?

Dan: What are your plans for the future? Any news to share with fans?

Rita: PG2 is coming and there is going to be a big fat “parental advisory explicit content” sticker on the front.

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Cover Art by Alexa Viscius