Leah Gage of BRNDA on Salt, Snacks, and Breaking Out of Rigid Band Roles

With multiple voices in one band, you’ve naturally got access to more perspectives, but D.C. art punks BRNDA take it to another level on their new record, Do You Like Salt?, volleying between the mundane and the magical realist. “The Avocado,” delivered by guitarist Dave Lesser, takes the viewpoint of one indignant green-fleshed berry that, after learning its fate is to be poached and served cold, makes a daring kitchen escape, gathering momentum as the rhythm section starts to snowball with it. On “Wrong Taco,” drummer/vocalist Leah Gage does her best impression of an unruly restaurant patron who berates the waitstaff over the authenticity of their toppings–comically shrill and snotty over driving bass and aggrieved prickles of guitar.

Lesser and Gage are the band’s two consistent members; on this outing, they’re a trio joined by Torrey Sanders on additional guitar and vocals, with bass duties split in the studio between Christian Whittle and Nick Stavely. They’ve gone through a number of permutations in their decade as a band, and while Lesser has typically handled lead vocals, Do You Like Salt? divvies things up more evenly. Rather than a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, it results in an inspired depth of flavor. Under three head chefs, the songs are snappier and spicier, but at times–as with the Sanders-sung “Aunt Linda c. 1989”–sweeter and smoother all the same.

Do You Like Salt? is an album I put on in the background while I was making avocado toast before my Zoom call with Leah Gage, and one I was still chewing over weeks later on the night before posting our conversation, scraping old leftovers into the compost bin. Before the album release, we talked about BRNDA’s upcoming 10th birthday, the record’s themes of consumption, and her love of auxiliary percussion instruments.

Last month you played an outdoor show at Rhizome. What has it been like getting back into live performances?

Well, we hadn’t played in, like, 16 or 17 months, and it was so much fun, but there was a nervousness there that we hadn’t experienced playing a show in a very long time, you know? We showed up and we were like, “Oh my god, we’re gonna have to get back on a stage,” but it was great. It feeds the soul, and I can’t wait to do it more. We have our next shows actually next weekend in Pittsburgh, and then the day after in Philly.

I know you had performed some of these songs before the lockdowns. What was it like bringing them back out?

It was great because we had been able to really sit with them for a while and finish working on them. We really wrapped recording just as the lockdown was starting, and then it was just making sure they were mixed and mastered as we wanted them, so they took better shape. Bringing them out was a lot more fun. You know, the second time around, they felt like much more complete songs, and songs that we felt a lot more comfortable with.

Your last release was Thanks For Playing in 2018. When did this group of songs first start to cohere?

Probably actually around the time that that was released in 2018. May, I think. As the year was kind of ending, we finished that cycle, and we had already sort of started–so many of these songs start out as just jams. At the time, three of us were living together, so in 2018 and 2019, we were still all living together, and they really started to be recorded in 2019. But so much of it, yeah, I would say they started to take shape in the 2018 time period. That so often happens–you’re completing a record, you’re finally putting it out into the world, but you’re already moved on in a lot of ways to writing new stuff.

That trio–is that the current trio of the band?

Sort of. Torrey and Dave and I, we are the group that kind of put these songs together. She now lives in Charleston and probably will continue to live there, whereas Dave and I both live in D.C. But what’s interesting, we’ve been a band for so long, and we have other members in the band who’ve kind of come in and out. So the next couple shows we’ll be performing will be with Torrey and with other members, but a lot of the songs we’ve been writing since the lockdown have just been me and Dave and other members–Christian and Mark, who used to be in the band.

So there’s been kind of a reunion, then?

Totally, yeah. It’s weird how COVID created these funny opportunities that can be good things in the long run.

How did Torrey end up joining the band?

Well, Torrey was a pal of ours, and we met her because she was at GW radio–they fostered a lot of music community in D.C. at that time. We had performed on the radio and got to know her, and then once she had graduated, she was going to shows, and we really became friends. Then as other members were kind of transitioning out–you know, sometimes people just decide they don’t wanna be musicians anymore. They decide to go a more professional route, and therefore they can’t really tour and write with us in the same way, so Torrey came on then. She was playing guitar and it was the right timing for us to become friends, and so often that gels into writing music, creating things together.

As I’ve kind of gone back over past interviews, it seems like the arc of this band is towards more and more collaborative songwriting. Thanks For Playing was the first time you sang lead vocals, with the song “I Like Your Birds.” This album is a lot more split between the three of you. What was it like dividing things up that way?

It felt great. It just happened so naturally. I think when we started out as a band, we were really inexperienced, you know? I had played in bands before. Dave had never played in bands before, but this was our first time really taking a band seriously and thinking about, “Okay, how do we want to share this music beyond just our small circle?”

We just sort of fell naturally into rigid roles; I was the drummer and he was kind of the lead singer and guitarist. As you get more comfortable with each other–you know, I too then started playing in other projects where I was more of a songwriter and also kinda did my own solo thing, so I became more comfortable writing songs. Torrey came in really wanting to be part of that, and I think that just happens as you get more comfortable. You know, you spend a lot of time with each other, you want to naturally break out of rigid roles and explore other parts of the songwriting process.

So if I can ask you to break it down a little bit, which songs on this record were started by you, or ideas that you brought to the table?

Musically, I feel like we start together a lot of times. Like, “Perfect World” is a song that Christian, who was playing bass on a lot of this record, and Dave were just sort of sitting around writing together, but they didn’t really know what to do with it, so I was like, “Well, actually, I hear a melody in there, so can I just sort of play with that?” And then naturally, it just sort of fit and it worked. I’m usually on drums, and that makes it kind of hard to contribute vocals or melodic elements when you’re writing songs through jams, but that often will come later in the process when we’re all sitting down together.

“Perfect World” is this very interesting concept where you talk about a game show where you bid on an imagined future. Tell me about how that concept crystallized.

[laughs] As I mentioned, we had some band members decide to take a different route with their lives, and that made prioritizing BRNDA and music-playing not always top of mind. And then just sort of generally, as I get older, I watch people let go of pieces of their lives, or decide, “Well, this is really my identity now, so I’m just gonna–oh, I used to do that thing, but now I really am all in,” and that’s something I have such a hard time relating to. I’ve always been in a million different pots at the same time, and I really enjoy that. I’m not great at coming up with just one persona of who I am. I kind of exist in a more fluid identity.

I was probably a little bit annoyed as I started writing the song, being like, “Man, why can’t you stay in the band?” But over time, I started thinking about, “Okay, well, what if you had the choice? You walk into a game show and here are your options. You have to pick now.”

Something else you’ve talked about is that if BRNDA were a different band, this might have been a much longer song. Can you tell me about writing to the kind of songs that BRNDA writes, and why that structure exists?

That’s a good question because again, I think as a drummer, you can shape songs in a lot of ways, but maybe not always the structure of a song. A lot of times, the structure really falls into what Dave and our bass player at the time is playing, and they’re just naturally always people who like really short punk songs. Something that is concise and isn’t, you know, anything approaching a folk song or anything like that. I think that’s just sort of the taste, and that’s always been how BRNDA’s communicated our ideas. It has to be pretty concise, and that’s a fun challenge, you know? As a songwriter myself, I’d never really done that–gotten handed a song and say, “Okay, now I can write lyrics or a melody to this.”

Something I hear a lot of post-punky bands do, is there’s almost like a vamp from one chord to the other, and doing a lot within that space, but setting that very clear, like, “Here’s the harmonic world we’re in, and we’re gonna kind of oscillate there.”

[laughs] Definitely, and maybe more of the creativity comes from how the lyrics are presented, or what the lyrics are, or the drums, or using space, you know? When you have less space, maybe you have to use it more creatively.

There’s a lot on that song specifically. There’s the saxophone outro, there’s–is that the one with the vibraslap?


How did the arrangement of that song form?

A lot of that happened in the studio. We worked with Justin Moyer to engineer this record. Justin’s kind of a hero of ours who’s become a friend, and working with him to record was such an amazing experience because I felt like he just really understood BRNDA from the moment that we started. 

We just really wanted him to be on it, and we know that he plays saxophone. We’re trying to figure out, “What do we do with this outro?” and we just made Justin try all these different things, so it’s actually two tracks of him. One is, he’s doing circular breathing, and he was like, “Let me just see if I can do this.” He totally nailed it, and it’s just one long note the whole time. And then the other is kind of that jazz thing that he’s doing.

But the vibraslap–I have all these cool percussion instruments. The vibraslap’s out in the practice space, so it’s not there now, but we just needed something, I felt like, to kind of punch that, and I’ve always wanted to add more auxiliary percussion. Like, I love tambourine. I think it can really add to a song, and so I was able to push that a little bit more on this recording. I think it’s been a really good outcome.

I have to ask as an aside–underneath the tambourine on that wall, is that an Otamatone?

This thing? Yeah. [laughs]

Oh my gosh. I love those.

Its batteries are dead, otherwise I would totally squeeze it. But yeah, those things are so fun.

You mentioned working with Justin, who is such a D.C. fixture, and I know that on Thanks For Playing–he did the mixing, I think. What was it like working with him at White Oak Studio again?

Oh, it was great. Like I said, he just understood how our process is. Justin’s really great at just setting up the room to make it feel comfortable and ready for you to go in, and then he just sort of sits on the side and lets you do take after take. As you said, he’s been such a fixture in D.C. punk and things that we really love that his treatment and his touch is right for us. The way he recorded the drums on this record was just so good. I really am grateful for having worked with him.

Is there a particular drum moment on this record that stands out to you?

I love the drums on “Service Loser.” Also “Beverage of Choice,” that was really simple. I only played hi-hat, kick drum, and snare on that, and that was a total homage to a band that Justin’s been in, Puff Pieces. Amanda Huron is the drummer in that band. She has such a simple kit, and I just think that is so cool, so I was really trying to channel that. You know, using different parts of the snare, like the rim, to make different sounds–I think that song in particular sounds really cool with the drums.

You also mentioned “Service Loser,” which is a cool song for a lot of reasons. I read a tweet where you said that the lyrics are in French but transliterated into English. How was that song written?

The words were written in a very nonsensical way. Initially, we were trying to write a song that mimicked a tennis game, and the scoring in tennis is, you start at zero, and then you go to 15, then you go to 30, then you go to 40, and it kind of makes no sense. We tried at first to have something that was 15 bars, then 30, then 40, but that just went on and on, so we messed with the numbers. I think it ended up being, like, eight, eight, 15, 20, eight or something. 

That was why the timing ended up weird, ’cause we really wanted it to feel like a ball going back and forth across a net. Then because we were being stupid and we wanted it to sound like a tennis game, we were like, “Well, it has to be in French,” you know? Torrey just started messing around one day, and we ended up with words that–like, “Okay, that one sounds really good there. This one sounds good there.” And that’s how she ended up recording it. [laughs]

Food is such a recurring theme on this record, as a way of talking about all kinds of things like environmentalism and, you know, culture and pluralism. The title of the record is Do You Like Salt?, so I’m curious, how did this recurring theme arise, and how did that become the name of this batch of songs?

I wish Dave was here to help answer that, because he had just read that book, which is called Salt [by Mark Kurlansky]. Basically, he was interested in the fact that salt is really–I mean, it’s true, as you learn more about it. It is such an important component of the world, of our bodies. It’s one of the spices that we actually need to survive. A lot of roads apparently were created simply because there were animals following salt tracks that would then eventually turn into trails that were eventually turned into roads.

And I think that food is a universal theme for BRNDA. It’s always a universal theme. I think we’re interested in consumption. I work for a vegan organization, and that’s something that comes in and out of our songs sometimes, is veganism and thinking about the impact of what we consume. Do You Like Salt? was front of mind because he’d just read that book, but then the song “Diner” is kind of an imagined app that can control your life–you don’t really need to think anymore about what decision you’re making because this algorithm is calibrated for exactly who you are and what you need. “Do you like salt?” was one of these questions that kept coming up that we thought was funny, and it just felt like it needed to be the album title.

“Diner” is an interesting song. Where did that midnight diner setting come from?

I think “You’re all alone again at the midnight diner,” that line just sort of flowed. I know when Dave wrote that, he said, like, “That’s just sort of where it started.” A lot of it was–it’s such a ubiquitous thing it’s almost boring to talk about how much we’re obsessed with our phones [laughs] but I think that’s always something that we’re thinking about, and this person sitting at a booth thinking about what their next choice is gonna be based on what this app is gonna tell them–I think it just flowed from the image that he had, and it really influenced the cover art as well.

Right, [laughs] the big piles of salt.

Exactly. That was painted by a good friend of mine who’s a painter in New York, and she made a big version of it that now is our album cover.

Are all of you in the band vegan?

Dave’s vegan as well, but no. Justin’s vegan. That was something we knew later. Veganism and punk culture coincide sometimes, but no, we’re not all vegan, and it’s certainly not a requirement. [laughs]

There’s sort of an intersection with straight-edge, in the way that a lot of people do adopt those kinds of codes in punk.

Definitely, and especially in that D.C. culture.

I have to ask about “Wrong Taco,” which feels like such a standout, centerpiece song from this record.

[laughs] I mean, the bass line again, it came out of a jam where we were all writing together in the living room, and then the lyrics–you know, it’s an idea I’ve thought about a lot. I used to work and live abroad and in developing countries. I used to live in Togo in West Africa, and I used to live in Ukraine, and just a lot of places where people don’t typically go. You run into a lot of people–and I think I struggled with this myself, and it’s why I no longer do that kind of work, but people who want to take on a culture, really get that authenticity, but it’s almost like they just want to consume it and then leave it. The idea that, “Well, I only want to consume parts of it because I’m uncomfortable with other parts of it.” All of that’s okay, and I’m not necessarily taking one side or another, but I guess I was trying to take on the idea of this person who really was interested in getting the right taco, but had no interest in actually engaging with the experience they wanted to get out of having the right taco, if that makes sense.

Like an imagined experience, but one that’s also familiar and palatable. Being able to do something that will enrich you, but not have to be out of your comfort zone to get that.

Exactly. I like writing a song from the perspective of someone that I am kind of negging, or have a little bit of disdain for. It helps me try to empathize, but also it’s usually just how I end up thinking about it. I sort of take on their personality.

It sounds like it was a fun vocal to record.

Yeah, when I went in there to do that, I just went all by myself, and I had been practicing it, but they hadn’t really heard what I had planned to do. When I did, at the very end, “Because these tacos are definitely wro-ong!” and I came out, everybody was, like, on the floor. [laughs] They were not expecting me to do that, so it was really fun.

What has it been like doing a song like that live for people?

Really hard because I’m playing drums at the same time. [laughs] It’s a lot of breath practice, but it’s so much fun to perform live. That one and “Year of the Hotdog.”

“Aunt Linda c. 1989” stands out for the opposite reason of “Wrong Taco.” It’s notably chill for this track list. How did that song take form?

Well, again, we were writing together, and this was actually after one of the band members who inspired “Perfect World” left. We were then finishing up writing with this other bass player, Nick Stavely, who’s on a couple of the tracks on bass, and he’s much more of a melodic player, so the conversation between the bass and the guitar–something happened, and we were like, “Whoa, that was really beautiful. We have to recreate that.” That’s kinda how the structure of the song came about. You know, as much as we like to play hard, fast, choppy music, we also really like a pretty song, and some of the songs are kind of pretty.

Torrey and I sat down in the living room many sessions working on the lyrics for this. Dave also contributed lyrics to that first verse. It was a very collaborative writing process, but I think inspired a lot by domesticity, ideas of lifestyle, which is a theme throughout this whole record.

When you do something like that, can you look back now and pick out, “Oh, that was a  Torrey line,” or, “Oh, that was a Dave line,” or is it all just a BRNDA lyric now?

Yeah, “Vanilla, Aunt Linda, and suburban TV,” I think that was more my line. Torrey really wanted the word “potpourri” in there, so we put that in. The first–“I’ve been workin’ on my feet all day / I’ve been waiting on the midnight train,” that was a very Dave line. [laughs]

I know this is an album that you put on hold until live performance would be more viable. How has your relationship to this set of songs changed in that time?

One thing that’s changed is that I’m not gonna be playing drums on all of the songs live, I think, which is a very first for BRNDA. A former band member, now current band member, Mark, who toured with us years ago and was an important supporter, member of the band, he’s now coming on and playing these songs. He’s gonna play drums on “Perfect World” for sure, and hopefully some other songs as well, so that’ll be new and fun.

Who sings the songs has been moving around a little bit. I think “Aunt Linda” is going to be more of a collaboration song. Torrey really sang that, and for the shows that she’s able to play, she’ll be playing with us, but that’s all kind of up in the air right now.

So what has it been like writing with another different iteration of BRNDA?

It has been really fun. I think a lot of it started in lockdown, so the individual ideas were able to come out more ’cause people were alone and writing stuff, and then we were able to come together like, “Well, hey, I have this thing.” We kind of went back to the original writing style of BRNDA, where someone, typically Dave, would come with an idea that was written at home and then try to shape it with the band. As a result of COVID, that’s been how some of these songs have taken shape.

It’s harder to write in a jam session, I guess, under lockdown.

[laughs] Yeah, it was. Eventually, we sort of podded up, but it took time to figure out what was safe.

This is an album, sound-wise, that strikes me as reaching so many different ways, especially the way it ends with “Red Iguana,” the acoustic and the clarinet and everything. Do you sense a direction yet for what’s next?

I suspect that whatever we release next will be a lot more rock and roll influenced. I think that’s the vibe that came out of being stuck inside and then coming together finally. It was like, “Yo, let’s just rock for a bit!” That’s how I think the jams took shape, and some of these songs are coming out now. Not that it’s aggressive, just, it’s less kraut-y than some of the stuff that is on here, but we’ll see. That’s always kind of where we end up anyway in BRNDA.

Next year marks a decade since the band was founded. Are there any plans for BRNDA’s 10th birthday? 

[laughs] I hope so! I’ve been reluctant to plan anything. We’re thinking about the fall and what shows we’re gonna play, but yes, I definitely think BRNDA needs a 10th birthday. I hope we’re able to do something.

What’s your vision for the next 10 years of BRNDA?

I would love to go more places and have more people hear BRNDA. I think this record, I’m excited that more people are hearing it than our past records. We’ve always done DIY touring, and I love it, and will do it forever, probably, if I have to, but I’d love to–you know, working with Connor [Murray, Crafted Sounds label manager] has just been so wonderful. We worked with Banana Tapes on our last release, and they are amazing, and I love them dearly, and I think that now, working with Crafted Sounds is an even newer level of engagement and connection to other people who want to hear music, you know? Who want to share music with other people. I’ve been so happy with working with him, and I’m hopeful that that partnership will continue. And if someone wants to add BRNDA to their tour as an opening act, we would love to join you. [laughs]

Last question–do you like salt?

Yes, categorically. I mean, BRNDA loves snacks, and it’s just a huge part–at practice, there’s always, like, making sure people are eating, in addition to imbibing whatever. Having food and that community is important.

Is there an official snack of the band? What’s everybody’s collective favorite?

Lately it’s been these amazing plantain chips from this bodega up the corner that we’re constantly buying. [laughs] But no, there’s no set snack.

Oh, I can’t believe I almost whiffed on this. What’s your favorite taco place?

That’s so hard because I’m trying to think of a really good vegan taco. Well, okay, Jackie Lee’s, which is really close to where I live up here in Brightwood Park, they do Tuesday night tacos, and they have a really good vegan taco. I may be heading across the street to consume that later.

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