IAN SWEET – the brainchild of Jilian Medford – is a heroine feeling out loud, willingly letting her guard down, and airing her vulnerably heavy laundry on Crush Crusher. On her sophomore full-length, we get more sonically spacious song structures and cleaner tones as Medford is coming clean, coming out of hiding, and being more open with us. From self-sabotaging relationships, to sex in parking lots, to creating an ideal world for herself, Medford demonstrates how much wit, wisdom, and weight she’s carrying and the tonnage of which she’s using to crush the bedroom rock game. KEXP phoned with Medford just after doing her literal laundry and right before going to a three-course dinner party serving only aphrodisiacs. She shed light on being back in LA, how she’s shifting shapes as a musician and human, how Björk played a role on Crush Crusher, and her go-to pizza toppings. You can catch her on tour now through Nov. 20. She’s playing in Seattle at The Sunset Tavern Wednesday, Oct. 24 and you can pick up her new record Crush Crusher (Hardly Art), which comes out on Friday, Oct. 26.
I know you’re gearing up for tour life and that’s its own lifestyle vibe, but what’s a more non-tour day in the life for you?
Well, I spend a lot of time slinging pizza at a pizza place when I’m home in LA. That’s a big part of my life because I eat a lot of pizza and see a lot of friends. During the day I like to do outdoorsy things. It’s really fun because a lot of my music friends get together and play tennis. I’m actually going to play tennis with my friend Courtney who plays in The Courtneys. We play pretty often together. Also, I’ve been practicing a lot for the tour.
Alright since you brought it up, I gotta ask you what your favorite pizza topping(s).
Okay! So the pizza place I work at is pretty unconventional. This is like turning into a plug for some reason now [laughs]. We cut the pizza with scissors then weigh it by the ounce. We recently had this fig pizza with mozzarella and greens that was amazing. If we’re just staying classic pizza, just keep it cheese and pineapple. No ham. The ham kind of throws me off. Funny story. This is awkward! So we have to wear a hat to work. And one day I was rushing to work and the only hat I had was an IAN SWEET hat. And I was like ‘Fuck,’ but then I thought no one is going to know IAN SWEET at work. Then, of course, this guy walks in and was all, ‘Are you wearing your own hat...?’ I was so thrown off. He said he was standing in line thinking about how someone would wear their own merch, and I was like ‘DUDE, this is the only hat I had around!’
Always happens like that. Okay. Now some actual questions. You’ve recently made some pivotal changes in your music career. You moved back to LA and you’re back to IAN SWEET being a solo project. Could you talk a little about some of the catalysts for those switches?
Towards the end of the full-band lineup, I was living in NY while my other bandmates were living in Boston. While I was living in NY I was exploring a lot of time alone and writing more on my own...feeling a lot more independent...connecting with that vibe a little more...being my own best friend and be able to find ways to feel comfortable with my own voice. It’s been about a year since I’ve moved back to LA and six years since I’ve been here. When I wanted to make the move to LA it totally felt like it had to be a solo endeavor again, which is how the band started. So when I started writing on my own I had some of the most confident and most insecure moments I’ve ever experienced. It’s really intense being the only person writing after having a lot of collaborative scenarios. Moving out to LA allowed me to have more space for myself and my thoughts. It’s not easy to be a solo writer in anything, but I really love it. I grew up in LA so it really feels good to be back here and close to my family. I didn’t really realize that I needed a lot of that to feel a sense of security. There was a lot of emotional stuff that I was greeted with, in general, that I don’t think I was quite ready to deal with. So, yeah, big changes have happened and they happened really quickly and I just had to roll with them and create positivity out of it.
Is there anything about East Coast living that you miss?
I was just back there playing some college shows. It’s really nice to go back and be overstimulated for a second and then quickly leave and never go back [laughs]. It’s nice to have sporadic feelings of NY and the East Coast. I get really triggered by smells. There are a lot of smells for me in NY that I quickly get thrown back into moments.
What kind of smells?
Like the smell of the man that makes roasted almonds on the streets, candied almonds. That’s a big one. Also, the smell of hot steam coming out of a one those street grate things. And, of course, subway smell and all the urine mixture. NY is overstimulating for every part of your body and I think it’s good to have that every once in a while, but I just had to step away from it for a while, too.
A lot of your music and videos are very imagery driven. Would you say there’s a connection there?
I think a lot of my day-to-day can be mundane. LA is a little more slower moving so when I make something visual it’s sorta chaotic cause that’s what’s going on in my brain a lot of the times even though my body is moving at a different pace.
You’ve released eidetic music videos for “Spit” and “Hiding” off of CRUSH CRUSHER. Could you talk a little bit about your inspiration and your role going into those?
Yeah, so both were visions of mine that I had. A lot of what this record is for me is about creating an ideal world for myself. It’s about objects, imagery, and emotions that I can create and put into a space for a moment and then walk away from. So for “Hiding” I had this idea of building a set that I could interact with and having visual effects represent three different sides of me. There’s the leader, there’s one that’s off and goofier, and one that’s timid and shy. They’re all interacting with each in this unrealistic space. I wanted to keep it simple, but I wanted it to feel like this isn’t real, like we built something. “Hiding” was really fun and I collaborated with this woman Alix Spence, who I collaborate with often. I came to her with this idea and we just ran with it. The imagery is about escapism. “Spit” is the same. It’s this dreamworld that I dreamt. I just got this idea of inflatable furniture in the desert. Then I just went on Amazon and found the weirdest inflatable chairs I could find. My friend Michael [Tyrone Delaney] directed that one. “Spit” is a song about a lot of premonitions...creating a scenario before it happens or sabotaging your relationship for no reason. The “Spit” video is me alone with my thoughts. There’s a lot of fast-paced head movements where I’m trying to escape that thought process. Just trying to let myself be in the moment not to get swallowed by the idea that something will go wrong, which is usually my move. I think songwriting as a form of prediction is kind of cool in this weird witchcraft-y kind of way...like casting a spell.
There’s definitely an evolution and more theatrical element to your visual aesthetic in your Crush Crusher album artwork and videos. What informed this new direction?
I’ve always really, really been inspired by Björk, Brian Eno, PJ Harvey, and those theatrics. I think it’s different in rock music...I don’t think it’s always received as having a theatrical element. I wanted the record, the album artwork, and the first single to be really cohesive and create that world I wanna live within. It’s for people who want to listen to IAN SWEET, but I also made it for myself. I really made it to make myself feel good and get to a healthy place and feel confident. I’m really trying to see myself in a new way through this record.
That kind of bleeds into my next questions. Do you feel like you’ve shifted shapes as a musician – or even just a person – since your last record?
Yeah, I’ve done a lot of growing up. A lot of the last record [Shapeshifter] was sugarcoating a lot of things, using a lot of metaphors for traumatic situations, whereas, this record is a bit more head-on in confronting things in a much more real way, shedding light on the uneasiness of being a human. I’ve definitely learned to reflect on my feeling in a different way. My anxiety isn’t as detrimental, it’s more driving. I think I’ve really helped myself by writing this record by trusting myself.
Aside from parts like the ending of “Ugly/Bored,” Crush Crusher sounds less distortion-concerned and stronger on the clean and dreamy vibes. Even your vocals seem less warped and more unfiltered in the forefront. That said, when you were making Crush Crusher did you have certain things that you wanted to change?
The more clean vocal aesthetic is a big part of...Gabe Wax’s thing. He really pushed me on that and I was like, ‘I don’t know...I don’t know! Drown them! Drown them!’ After a lot of back-and-forth, I realized I wanted the vocals to stand out. I don’t want to hide anything on this record. I want to be real with myself and other people. I want people to know what I sound like. I feel like this record is really heavy but pretty clear. There’s distortion, lots of heaviness, and lots of guitars happening, but you can still hear all the bits and pieces of each thing. Working with Gabe was really interesting for me. I’d never worked with a producer before.
You recorded at Rare Book Room Studios where titans like Björk, Dirty Projectors, and Deerhunter have recorded. Did you get a sense that their creative energy was in the room?
Yeah, big time! It felt like a space I wanted to live up to and grow in. I had a lot of demos going into that space, but I wasn’t attached to anything sonically or how the guitars or synth sounded. I wanted to do what felt right in that studio and conjure up all the spirits of my past inspiration and be like...Oh, maybe Björk touched this keyboard and be transformed. A lot of exploration was done in the studio. You’ve gotta give yourself time and you have to fuck up and make some of the biggest mistakes to make things sound good.
That’s a nice segue into what’s your approach when making a new record? Are the songs already pretty fleshed out or do you go into the studio more like a kid at a toy store who wants to test out all the toys?
I had two other players on the record and we live tracked it in two days. Gabe and I had seven or eight days to do all the other sounds and instruments. We really grew together and hammered the ins and outs of the record. We removed pieces, added pieces, destroyed pieces. I didn’t feel afraid at all to ask questions or get into something weird.
Can you tell us a little more about how you connected with Gabe Wax to produce the record? And what was it like working with bassist Simon Hanes and drummer Max Almario for this record? Had you played with them before?
I’ve known both of them [Simon and Max] for a long time. I used to live with Simon in Boston. He was one of the original members of Guerilla Toss, who are amazing. Simon’s bass playing is so absurd – in the best way. I had sent the demos to them and we practiced a week before we went in. When it came time to record Simon was just playing all the notes that he could think of. I had to tell him nicely if he could play...less notes. We had this big conversation about how he was able to let go of his ego and respect what I wanted out of it and that meant a lot to me. I get really nervous about telling...it’s a new thing for me to be a bandleader. I want everyone to feel comfort and feel they have a voice, but obviously I needed to respect myself. They were so respectful in helping me create my own space and honoring the music that was written. They were great. There were certain parts where they put their vibes on it and was why I chose them.
Is there anyone you look up to for being a leader in a band and how they go about doing that?
Frankie Cosmos, aka Greta Kline, is my ultimate band leader hero. Someone like Björk, who seems like anyone who comes in contact with is changed. I’ve been a huge fan of Built to Spill for years. I think that Doug Martsch is a very special human. He really just holds the reins and makes everyone feel very honored in their roles. I look up to people who respect their players and fans and people working for them. I think it’s important to constantly be thanking people. When I see that in other bands I get pretty excited to know it exists.
Your title tracks from Shapeshifter and Crush Crusher are track six on both 10-song albums. Also, both are pretty sonically and structurally different from the other nine tracks. Just curious, intentional or coincidental?
Oh, I didn’t even notice that! You know why... it’s because they’re like the outcast of the record so we decided to have them on the start of side B. It was intentional by someone, but it wasn’t me. I think that a big part of me connects with the outcast and I want to highlight that.
When you were writing the title tracks did you want them to be the outcast of the album?
No. I didn’t know that either record would be called that. I didn’t know Crush Crusher was going to be called ‘Crush Crusher’ until five seconds before someone’s like ‘what are we calling this record?! We have a deadline!’ [laughs] “Shapeshifter” was written a couple months after the [Shapeshifter] record had seemingly been finished. I wrote it after tracking the record when I came out to LA and started mixing. I wrote this new song and recorded it with the guy mixing the record and just threw it on there and it ended up being the one I connected with the most and feeling the most emotional about. It felt like putting the lid on it. “Crush Crusher” – Gabe and I worked on that drumbeat together. The song was originally called “Drivers Ed.” I wrote this song about a relationship I was in where my partner didn’t have a license but grew up in LA and I was their chauffeur so I had to drive them around to driving classes and shit. I had all the chords written and it was kind of this droney song with the same chords then Gabe and I put this drum beat over it and it became the wacko of the group. When writing this one I sort of knew that it was going to be the one that I connected with really harshly. The song “Crush Crusher” has a lot to do with how I handle my life. The crush isn’t supposed to be an ‘oh, I have a crush on someone.’ It’s supposed to be a metaphor for something that feels exciting and then not letting myself fully get there and always creating a boundary for myself. So that song is about how I’m constantly creating boundaries and wishing I could let go. A bit before the record got announced I got my tarot read and I told her I was a musician and working on a new album. The tarot card lady said ‘Something about this card is telling me that you can’t fully get excited about it. What’s stopping you? Is there a new direction you’re going in? Is there something that you’re feeling insecure about?’ And I was like ‘Wouuuh!!!’ It was so REAL. Yeah, all these things about being super anxious about letting go and about me and taking control. The potential of getting fully amped on something is hard for me. So I thought that was pretty interesting right before the record got announced. But I AM really excited! [laughs].
In Crush Crusher you definitely don’t stray away from your introspective vulnerability of that we witnessed on Shapeshifter and EP. Do you feel your new album incorporates a similar or different intimate headspace that you’re sharing with the world?
Dude, yeah. I think there’s a combo of old and new. I’ve always tried to be vulnerable and can’t help it. I think this record is approaching that in a different way where I wasn’t as afraid to tell the truth. Writing music in a new space changes everything. You’re looking at different things. You’re meeting different people and having different conversations. Your whole world starts to change, but I still think about all the things that affected me from the last record. I carry them into new relationships, too. I’m always carrying. Not necessarily baggage, but things I’m learning from. I carry a previous idea with me into a new space and create it and fuck with it with the tools that I have now.
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