By Mike Shanley
When a band works in the studio with a producer, the members often find themselves pushed out of their comfort zone in the attempt to get a good recording. Former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson did that for Pittsburgh’s Murder for Girls, and he exerted his influence before the the band even arrived at Bipolar Bear Studios in Hudson, New York.
“When he showed up to the practice space the night before we left [for the studio], he unplugged all of our [guitar] pedals and said, ‘You’re leaving these at home. You’re not taking them with you,’” recalls guitarist/vocalist Stephanie Wallace. “It was like, what?! Everything I’ve written is using fuzz and distortion pedals in certain combinations. He said, ‘If the emergency calls for it, I’ve got a Rat pedal in the studio that you can use.”
Tammy Wallace, the band’s other guitarist (who isn’t related to her bandmate) didn’t have a problem using the studio’s amplifiers, but she thought she’d use her own Les Paul. “I plugged it into the amp that he suggested I use,” she says, “and [Stinson] said, ‘No, I don’t like that. Do you want to try this one?’” He handed her a vintage Les Paul from the ’50s.
While some musicians might push back against suggestions like these, the four members of Murder for Girls accepted Stinson’s ideas. “Just to go record with him and not do anything different would not be the point,” Tammy says. “We wanted to see what he would draw out of us.”
What he drew out of them gives Done In the Dark, their third album, a sound that maintains the raw feeling of their live performance. But with the cleaner guitars and a strong focus on the harmonies between the Wallaces and drummer Michelle Dunlap, there are more layers to the band’s sound. Songs like “Goth Girls” and “Patchouli” show a humorous side but others like “Star” and “Semiautomatic” play up the band’s hooks, casting them more like a hard rock version of the Shangri-Las. No wonder they never needed to borrow Stinson’s Rat pedal.
Murder for Girls evolved from the band Lullaby Engine, which included bassist Jonathan Bagamery. In 2013, he was looking for new bandmates and he had specific ideas about what to do. “I wanted to have a diverse lineup. I wanted to have women involved, and people of different backgrounds,” he says during a Zoom interview with his bandmates. “The other aspect was that it was going to be an equal partnership. It wasn’t going to be me hiring people and then dictating to them what was going to happen. We all were equal partners.”
He explained this all to Dunlap, after seeing her in a youtube video titled “Best Female Drummer in Pittsburgh.” Tammy, who played in the punk band Bunny Five Coat, came aboard after answering an ad. With Bagamery as the only original member of Lullaby Engine, a new name was in order. The current moniker came after seeing a website called “Band Names for Girls,” and substituting random nouns into that phrase. Stephanie caught the band during a brief period when they were a trio (fourth member Zoe Weslowski having departed) and joined soon after.
True to Bagamery’s idea, the band writes as a unit. The bassist is the only member that doesn’t sing, but his bandmates says he frequently introduces riffs which everyone helps to develop, with one of them eventually adding a melody and lyrics. As a result Murder for Girls has a cohesive sound where the guitars interact rather than taking on lead and rhythm duties, and the rhythm section gets heavy during aggressive songs like “Patchouli.”
Plans were already made for a May release of Done In the Dark before the pandemic put the kibosh on live shows. Nevertheless, the disc dropped last week and they promise a release party some time in the future. In the meantime, the album can be purchased on Bandcamp. Anyone wanting to see the group can get a glimpse in a video for “Goth Girls” which is posted on their youtube page.
While they’re not happy with the lack of a release show, it seems like the sessions with Stinson, which happened last fall, offer enough to keep them motivated. All his suggestions were for the best, and the time with him left them with plenty of stories. “We generally had the feeling that we were hanging out with a friend,” Bagamery says. “And every once in a while it would dawn on me — this is Tommy Stinson. This man has rock and roll history here. I would personally lose sight of that from working with him during those few days.”