Thee AHs’ catchy melodies and punchy guitars mean that they are forever destined to be filed in the pop-rock section of record stores, but the local four-piece has a better term to describe its sound: black bubblegum. Guitarist Davina Shell observes that this tag perfectly captures the band’s paradoxical style.
“You have these sugary sweet songs,” she says, “but then when you actually listen to them, it’s pretty gnarly subject matter a lot of the time.”
And that’s to say nothing of the adventurous musical arrangements, which offset perky pop melodies with frantic structural shifts and artful abrasiveness.
Thee AHs began honing their signature sound while the members were classmates in high school, when Shell joined forces with singer Sarah Lowenbot and drummer Mareesa Holmes. They picked their moniker because of the phonetic similarity in their first names—they all end with an “ah” sound—and one of their first shows was at their own prom. “I didn’t bring drumsticks,” Holmes remembers of the gig. “I had to wait outside the kitchen and the chefs taped a bunch of chopsticks together.”
Since graduating, the group have issued 2011’s Thee AHs Nation and 2013’s Future Without Her, and long-time bassist Ridley Bishop was recently replaced by newcomer Dan On, who is affectionately referred to as “Dahn”. He came onboard as part of a Lana Del Rey tribute set last Halloween, and subsequently stayed on as a full member.
They’ve also released a handful of their own comics over the years. These were written and drawn by Lowenbot, who acts as Thee AHs’ in-house illustrator.
On this sunny spring afternoon, the four 22-year-old friends are gathered in a nook of Our Town Café in Mount Pleasant to discuss their latest album, Corey’s Coathangers. The nine-song collection is another sonically diverse foray into the group’s black bubblegum style.
Title cut “Corey’s Coathangers” begins with punky, angular chords and beautifully soaring pop hooks before spiralling off into passages of faux-orchestral lushness and lullabylike balladry. Even more inven-tive, the jarring “Love Sleep” careens between atmospheric arpeggios and punishing blasts of distortion before morphing into a tuneful pop ditty.
Shell, who is the group’s principal songwriter, explains the meaning of “Love Sleep” like this: “Don’t fall in love with people, just have sex with them. Don’t spend the night, that’s when you’ll get hurt. I had this rule where I wasn’t allowed to have sleepovers. It’s weird how cuddling, to me, was more intimate than just fucking.”
Much of Corey’s Coathangers is about relationships and heartbreak, but things take a particularly dark turn on the urgently bass-driven “Does It Still Count?”. The song divvies up its sinister vocals three ways, with former member Bishop delivering many of the key lines. “I felt like, as a woman, it was my duty to at least write one song about rape,” Shell says, noting that she left the song’s meaning somewhat veiled.
While the band’s past albums were DIY efforts, this one came out on CD through Seattle’s Jigsaw Records. A limited run of cassettes was recorded on Birdtapes, although these were so badly damaged during shipping that the band has been unable to sell any copies.
“I’ve never seen a box be so damaged,” Shell says of the cassette delivery. “It looked like someone shot it with a gun and then smashed it with a hammer to make sure it was dead.”
With CDs and digital copies available now, Thee AHs are in the process of finalizing dates on a summer tour of the United Kingdom. They’ve got a couple of festivals booked, and Holmes points out that some of the stops are being timed to coincide with gay-pride celebrations.
“Because we’re both gay,” Shell chimes in while pointing over to On, who laughs and adds, “We want to party with other gays.”
Once the tour is over, the band intends to get right to work on its fourth album, which will be called Names and is expected out within a year. Many of the songs are already written, and each one is named after a person.
“I’ve always really loved songs that are names of people,” explains On, who is contributing some of his own material to the project. “I think something about naming a song after someone is super romantic, especially if it’s a really nice name. We have a song called ‘Rosalind’, and I just think that’s such a beautiful name. It’s such a good name for a song.”
As Thee AHs press ahead and find a wider audience for their unique sound, Shell says that her approach to music isn’t as carefree as it was in the band’s early days, and admits to feeling insecure about how people will respond to her songs.
“It’s still fun and I love it as a hobby,” she reflects, “but there’s definitely an aspect of business responsibility, which wasn’t there before. And also a pressure, where I feel like there’s so much history. I can’t just walk away from this.”