Ride Your Heart, the 2013 debut record by Southern Californian band Bleached, is well-crafted indie-beach-pop, but it can seem timid. Strange, considering sisters Jessie and Jennifer Clavin had made a name for themselves in the unapologetically oddball punk group Mika Miko.
They wanted to be taken seriously with their new project, and when they met with producer Joe Chiccarelli (the White Stripes, Beck, the Strokes) to discuss working with them on their second album, Welcome The Worms, he had a very clear piece of advice for them for them: Make it scary.
That record, which he produced along with Carlos de la Garza (Paramore, YACHT), opens with the haunting, aggressive punk rock riff of “Keep On Keeping On,” a far cry from the sunny jangle-pop opener on Ride Your Heart. The rest of the album is explosive, moody and packed with much darker lyrics than the previous album. But it’s somehow still supremely catchy.
This newfound confidence was in no short supply at a recent show to a sold-out crowd at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. They opened with the heavy rocker “Trying to Lose Myself Again,” followed immediately by “Keep On Keeping On.” The rest of the evening was a combination of old and new tunes along with a few covers. Even those old surf-pop songs were punked-up with revitalized energy, lead singer Jennifer’s voice cracking like Kathleen Hanna circa Bikini Kill.
“It felt like I got back to my punk roots,” Jennifer said, sitting backstage with Jessie and bassist Micayla Grace, who were all trying to quickly get down some pre-show pasta and salad. Jennifer leaned back in the couch, chowing on her dinner between questions, offering answers that seemed carefully thought-out and uncencored at the same time. Of the three core members, she was the one doing the most talking. “I probably hid a little more with the first album. With Mika Miko, I felt like I was such a punk that I didn’t care what people thought. I feel like I don’t care again—like I will write dark lyrics if I want to.”
The new album, which arrived last month via Dead Oceans, is a 10-song, 37-minute punch, but it was the result of a lengthy process that saw the band churning out 30 demos. When the Clavin sisters and Grace first spoke with Chiccarelli, he wasn’t even their producer yet: He was out of their price range. But he loved the demos, and he was full of suggestions even if he wouldn’t be the one to implement them. Eventually, they worked out a deal, and he helped them whittle the 30 songs down to the perfect 10.
In contrast, Ride Your Heart was written and recorded on the quick. Bleached had just formed and Jessie and Jennifer were eager to legitimize themselves as a serious band. They put the album together with some studio musicians, then threw together a band to tour with. One of those touring musicians was Grace, who as of Welcome Your Worms became an official member of the band.
They admitted during the interview that most of the songs on Ride Your Heart probably should have been released on 7-inch EPs and not on their full-length debut. It was on Welcome the Worms that they finally came together and found their voice.
“I feel like I was my most comfortable during this record,“ Jennifer said. "I was able to express myself the way I wanted to. I’m a dark person inside. I was comfortable to be honest with my lyrics and be dark because that’s what I was feeling, and not be like, ‘Oh I have to pretend like I’m so happy.’ I feel like I did that with the past record.”
The darkness of the new record was inspired by more than just Jennifer’s temperament. After the first album, she went through personal tribulations that she described as “emotional abuse relationships, depression and questioning life itself.“ That turmoil is reflected clearly in the lyrics: “I can’t keep wasting my emotions on you/Getting high on the drug that I call you.” She doesn’t wallow in the problems so much as she punches them in the face. And it’s a complete 180 compared to the cryptic goofiness of her Mika Miko days, where the lyrical contortions could look like this: “I’m gonna be someone/Cretors [sic] tells me I’m gonna be someone/I want a turkey sandwich.”
The first Bleached record got lost in the shuffle in 2013, when several other indie bands released ultra-catchy melancholy beach-pop-surf records. It was an odd place for the sisters to be, considering where they’d just been. Mika Miko were: part art-rock, part SoCal hardcore, part slumber party noisemaking jamboree.
“I got to a point where I was a little embarrassed to still be writing punk music. With this album our punk roots came back, but also we’ve grown so much as musicians,” Jennifer said.
Welcome The Worms sounds nothing like Mika Miko, but it’s totally punk rock—just in a different way. There’s an undercurrent of pop and surf going that’s not immediately apparent, but it balances out the dark chords and hard-edged riffs. There’s elements of Sahara Hot Night, Best Coast and Joan Jett, but fuzzed out to the nth degree.
At their core, the members of Bleached are pop songwriters, which was precisely why Chiccarelli suggested they make it as scary as they could.
“He was saying don’t be afraid to make it sound heavier and darker because those melodies will stay there,” Grace recalled. “The melodies won’t change.”
It’s this balance of approachable beach pop melodies and scary punk rock execution that has set Bleached apart. They blend these elements perfectly, as though they always were supposed to go together. Indeed, judging by the impossibly full crowd of 20-somethings at the Bottom of the Hill show, who seem to be embracing both of these aspects by way of light moshing and cathartic, heartfelt sing-alongs, the members of Bleached are onto something.