Chloë Drallos Of Zilched Talks Finding Her Sound, Producing, And The Bomb-Dropping Stevie Nicks

[Cover photo credit to Julia Koza]

Chloë Drallos’ project Zilched released full album DOOMPOP in 2020 as a deep dive into the musical influences that made an impact on her teen years, from Nirvana to The Jesus and Mary Chain and was an exercise in working through things from that time for Drallos. Two new songs have recently been released as a double-act, the original single “A Valentine”, and a cover of Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back”, both with accompanying videos. There’s a relationship between the two songs for Drallos, teasing out the idea of having “strong conviction” and “sticking to your own guns” in times of adversity. The subtext for both is relationships where one’s identity or freedom are under fire and personal conviction becomes very important.

Zilched continues to be a project that finds its own way in terms of evolving sound, and while terms like “Grunge Pop” may help navigate those influences, the songs continue to be a fascinating exploration of heavier and softer elements creating unique combinations every time. Drallos recently came off the road from touring with Heaven Honey and we took the opportunity to talk with her about the new singles and videos as well as the development of the Zilched aesthetic so far.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I noticed that you played an “Unplugged” session last year with several songs. My initial thought was, “Wow, how does that sound?” Because electric guitars seem really important to Zilched music. Is that just a very stripped down approach to the songs?

Chloë Drallos: I only played acoustic for the first four or five years that I played guitar and I only started caring about electric when I was about 15 or 16 years old. Pretty much everything that I write is something that could just be sung and played on guitar and that’s important to me. So those songs were pretty much just the bedroom versions of those songs, for the most part. There is a lot of distortion and whatnot in the songs, but at their core, I feel all the songs really do play just like a Folk song would. I think that’s true of most Pop songs in general.

HMS: If they have the structure to stand up to a more basic approach, and hopefully they do. I think there’s an increasing temptation to get away from underlying structure in songs by adding layers and it might not survive that translation. I guess it’s a mark of good songwriting.

CD: I do like adding all the extra bullshit afterwards still, but so I feel “real” as a songwriter, I guess, I have to create a whole song first and I bring the band on afterwards.

HMS: Are you someone who is writing all the individual musical parts as well as the melody and lyrics? I noticed that Nick Russo is on some of the songs.

CD: Nick is my drummer and one of my best friends. I’m not a drummer. When we first started playing together, we had a lot of long car rides where we listened to so much music and he really understands what I like in drums, so I trust him. I always have a general idea and sometimes I do a demo. I always write the guitar and usually I’ll start off the bassline with a simplified idea. Then I’ll ask someone who is better at it to do it. I also just don’t own a bass! But aside from the guitar, I start things out and the band expands it. Also, just playing together expands it.

HMS: Do these songs all get played live before you record them? With DOOMPOP, that might have been difficult since it was a 2020 album.  

CD: Yes, I try to hold off though it depends on the song. Before, when I didn’t have that many songs out, about half the set was unreleased at first. Then, about half the songs on DOOMPOP had never been played live because I’d been saving them for touring the album since, ideally, I would have done that. That was interesting because the album came out, and then later, when the shows happened, the songs were already around and known.

HMS: If you had played them live first, are there things that might have changed based on the experience of playing them before recording?

CD: The more I play a song live, my enunciation or phrasing starts to change a little bit into the way that works best live. I know that the drums grow a lot and I don’t like to record right away. I think the live element is important to everyone moving together. So I think it is important either to play or practice in a live setting before going into a studio. I’m not a fan of writing in a studio.

HMS: Was DOOMPOP recorded by people going into a studio together?

CD: We played so much at the end of 2018 through the end of 2019. That’s when I was writing everything. So I would bring in a song to practice but not be played live so that everyone would know the songs and get comfortable with them. I also knew that would take the least amount of studio time.

Going into the studio, the drums and bass actually got done first, in two sessions, and then I just took the next six months, going in occasionally, to do the guitars and to sing. Then, Producing was the drawn out the process. I’m not a trained singer, and I really wanted to do harmonies, so my friend Ben [Collins], who Produced it with me, taught me a lot about that.

HMS: There does seem to be a little bit of an underground return to harmonies right now, though it’s so hard.

CD: It took learning certain things and multiple takes.

HMS: How long have you been working on Production? Is this the first time you did that?

CD: No, I had only done things on Garage Band, and the few songs I’d done in a studio was with a family friend. The first EP wasn’t very Produced at all. So when I met Ben Collins, who I did DOOMPOP and the new singles with, I told him that I really wanted to know how it all works. I can hear things in my head when I’m writing songs, so I really wanted to work with someone I could learn from.

HMS: I’ve spoken to a number of artists who have been getting more involved in Production, some of them even doing courses and qualifications, but the other route seems to be trying to find someone who you really get along with who you can learn from.

CD: I got ridiculously lucky, honestly, since he was one of the first people I talked to about working on the new album. I liked his music and I knew him through mutual friends. It works particularly, too, since he understands my taste and we have a lot of the same taste in things, which I think is really important. Then someone does not try to push their taste on you. I am very particular and was, at the time, a lot more limited in my understanding.

Working on the two new singles with him, in particular, “Stand Back”, was very collaborative. On my computer, I’d made dancier things, but I really know nothing about that type of Production. But I’d be able to say certain bands, and he’d show me what he’d do. He understood what I was talking about and knew more about it, so was able to give his own ideas. I wasn’t expecting it to end up being as dancy as it was, but I thought it would be cool if it could be. With a cover, too, I felt a lot more open to collaboration. There’s also a synth on it, and I’ve never had a synth on a song. For a while I was saying no synths on Zilched songs. But there’s the tiniest bass synth on the background of the chorus.

HMS: I noticed that you’d done some covers before, like “Material Girl”, which I really liked, so it’s not unknown territory for you, but some people release covers when they don’t have a lot of material of their own. I know that’s not the case here, so you had a lot of intention in doing this recording. But what made this song something you knew would work for Zilched?

CD: That’s kind of the basis of whatever I’ve created for Zilched, asking, “What do I love about other bands? What elements about them are special?” When I was first making Zilched, it was very intentional, asking, “What do I like but not hear enough of in other bands?” If there was a song on an album and I liked it but I didn’t like any of the others, I would wonder, “What would it be like if there was a whole album that sounded like this song?”

So when I’m listening to other music, I might think, “I like that song, but in my world of sounds, it would be like this…” That’s one of my favorite things, hearing how my favorite bands would cover people. That causes me to get more inspired if I’m in a creative dry spell. It’s almost more of a personal experience for me to cover a song.

HMS: It kind of reinforces that your sound is very specific and that you can explore it in certain ways. I was wondering how you feel that you developed your sound. To me, it’s clearly not something you took off the shelf as something in a package that already existed. How did you know that you were in the right zone in terms of sound for Zilched?

CD: There were a lot of really clear moments. In my junior year of high school, I really flipped my personality and really “found myself” to a degree. I heard so much new music that year that I had never heard before and that I related to in ways that I hadn’t before. I had been playing guitar for a long time at that point, but I still didn’t think of myself as a singer, even though I wanted to be. Listening to Riot Grrrl led me to listening to Grunge. That I felt I associated a little more with. From there, I ended up listening to The Jesus and Mary Chain. That was a big moment because I finally found Heavy music.

I’m not necessarily shy, but I’m not that loud of a person, so I wasn’t totally relating to Punk music. Also with Grunge, I associated with the writing and the chord progressions, but the voices didn’t feel like mine. Then I was listening to Cat Power and Sky Ferreira. They were people who I felt like had music that was Heavy, but their voices were more reserved, and kind of softer. It’s a certain type of softer voice. But it was truly mind-blowing when I heard that you could sing in a lower, more drawn out way, on top of these fuzzed out guitars. You could also talk about sensitive things, too, over these big drums. That spoke to me so much. That was the time when I thought, “I can and will be a singer.” I just went to town after that. The rest of high school was very much me plotting in my bedroom.

HMS: Once you have a vision for something, then you can do it. That’s awesome. The video for “Stand Back” is very serious in some ways, but in some ways really made me laugh because it speaks to the seriousness of where musicians stand in our personal pantheon. Stevie Nicks really does deserve and altar and candles, for instance, in my opinion. But what makes her worthy of such dark devotion in your book? Is she an icon for you?

CD: Yes, I think so. When she’s singing about herself to someone, like in this song, she’s very pointed. She seems so sure of everything. It’s a very powerful thing to me. She says some heartbreaking things in such brutal finger-pointing ways throughout her whole career. To me, that’s the biggest thing that stands out about her. I feel like she’s someone who can just drop a bomb and then walk away from it.

I also love how she lies about what songs are about. I think that’s funny. “Stand Back” is just supposed to be about the idea of an argument, but then you find out that it was written on her wedding day when she was marrying her best friend’s widower and Lindsey Buckingham wasn’t at the wedding. Then there was Prince’s involvement, too, writing the synth lines. That song is endlessly fascinating to me.

HMS: I agree that she has always seemed incredibly direct, and in a way that was never acceptable or normal, making her a divisive figure. I think that’s kind of important to see people like that in music. What made you decide to pair this song with “A Valentine?”

CD: I think with “A Valentine”, I was definitely trying to use that same conviction. The energy of these two songs just felt really natural. I didn’t think about it too much. I felt the single itself was strong enough not to get overshadowed by the cover.

HMS: The video was shot in an abandoned church and you did some of the directing on the video, too, right?

CD: Yes, I do the directing on all my videos, and my friend Sydney Ostrander really likes my work and just wanted to do something for fun. My roommate Julia Koza is a film student and also a co-director. I just trust those girls a lot, we all hang out and have similar taste. It was the first time I’ve been more collaborative with video. I’d send them stuff and they’d understand. It was super fun to do that with them.

HMS: Do you often play unconventional spaces, like this church?

CD: With the new album, and in my writing, there’s a lot more romantic imagery, probably because of what I’ve been reading. I think churches are very romantic. I was reading a lot of Henry Miller and Edgar Allen Poe, very romantic but dark things. For this release, I really wanted all the imagery to go along with that, like the flowers in the water. Sydney had actually worked in that church before and knew who to talk to for us to get in. I wish we played places like that more often.