Chastity Belt: The Hardest Smirking Band in Show Business
Chastity Belt are a real band. But before they were a real band, they were a chant, a scribble—a joke taking wry ownership of an almost unbelievable concept. The lore of the literal chastity belt seems to begin at the Crusades, when people assumed husbands kept their wives locked up in metal underwear to assure fidelity while they were away fighting dragons for Jesus. Though the internet claims the devices didn't actually come into physical existence until much later (only the metaphorical concept was there, in medieval poetry I never want to read), the idea is no less horrifying, or hilarious. I'm glad we can all laugh about it now.
Which brings us to the other, much better Chastity Belt, a local four-piece whose songs of male ponytails and nip slips are delivered with swoony, intricate guitar and subdued/raw vocals. The band is Julia Shapiro on guitar and vocals, Annie Truscott on bass, Lydia Lund on guitar, and Gretchen Grimm behind the drums. I met up with Shapiro and Truscott to learn about how they got started, what the fuck they thought they were doing (young lady), and how they got so good at it.
It started freshman year at Whitman College in Walla Walla (a place Shapiro and Truscott tell me is "filled with wheat fields—the thing to do was buy a bottle of wine and sit in a wheat field"). "Annie, Gretchen, and I played in this band called Combo Pack," Shapiro begins. "We strictly did covers of songs like 'Kiss Me Through the Phone' and 'Buy You a Drank.' We found this chord progression that matched every pop song ever, we just had to change the key." The following school year, "Lydia and I came up with just the name Chastity Belt—we would go to frat parties and flip over tables, like 'We're punks, chastity belt!' We'd start chastity belt chants, break bottles," Shapiro says. "But then feel bad and sweep it up," adds Truscott.
The first instance of the band Chastity Belt came when the four entered a fraternity-sponsored battle of the bands. "We wrote one song, and it was like five minutes long, maybe longer. Maybe like six or seven," Shapiro recalls, "and the chorus was: Take your chastity belt off/And surrender/To the god of punk!, and we had all these lines about eyeliner, hair dye, and stealing cigarettes from your mom." Truscott adds: "And we wore shirts that had our name on them, written in a tag that Lydia made up—she'd rented out library books on graffiti and made a Chastity Belt tag. It had little quotes around it—she noticed a lot of tags in the book had quotes around them for some reason, so Chastity Belt was in quotes." The band kept with it and started "actually playing some songs" during their junior and senior years in school (2010/2011). "We had a lot of different songs back then," Shapiro says. "'Teenage Hooligan' was our biggest one, and there was another one with a really good line: I wanted to hold his hand, but his dick was too big/It got in the way. We also had one song about this guy who went to our school, Mark Glasionov, who had a 15-piece drum kit and never stopped jamming—Andrew from Dude York was touched by that one, and he wants us to bring it back."
At this point in the interview, I've been laughing so loud, I know I'm disrupting the sensitive ecosystem of the coffee shop we're in, but I could listen to these stories all day—I'm positively in awe of anyone who had the ability to take stereotypical shitty college experiences and flip them into pure, fun satire while they were still in college.
In 2012, after graduation, the band moved to Seattle, where they fit right in, playing shows alongside bands like Pony Time, Stickers, Wimps, and fellow Walla Walla–ers Dude York. Having witnessed one of their debut performances at the Josephine, I've watched them progress from that sillier "who-gives-a-shit" band to a more confident, stage-owning "we-still-don't-give-a-shit-but-now-we're-really-good" one. For one, they're less nervous. "For a while when we were first playing shows, we thought that you just had to get really wasted in order to do them," says Truscott. "But then we realized it was so much easier if we weren't drunk—like, 'Oh that's where that cord goes.'"
Chastity Belt's adventures have culminated in the release of their first full-length, the cleverly titled No Regerts (out last month on new Seattle label Help Yourself). The album took less than three days to record with José Diaz at Heartland. "He was really encouraging," says Truscott. "We'd have a recording where we'd say, 'I guess we're pretty happy with this,' but he'd say, 'No, we're gonna try this again.'"
The work paid off. No Regerts has Chastity Belt sounding their absolute best—clean, minor-chord-driven guitar lines balance the summery laid-back rhythm. Even the older songs have a fresh new feel I didn't expect—like sandblasting an already beautiful building to reveal a better color you didn't realize was underneath. The smart and lightly shocking lyrics are delivered in Shapiro's distinctive wail, which can sound rather serious if you're not paying attention to what she's saying. In "Seattle Party," Shapiro moans sarcastically about the deep tattoos and rough lives of austere partygoers; in "James Dean," she screams, "You're a slut, I'm a whore/We've fucked everyone before," and casually laments how she feels like a prostitute.
But faced with such a solid album containing absolutely NSFW (if your WFSux) songs, more "mainstream" folks seem to be confused as to how to address Chastity Belt's brash humor. Using their fantastic band photo (a slyly dramatic shot taken by local photographer Sarah Creighton, in which we see the band standing stoically in dour 1950s-style dresses, with Shapiro in front, lifting her skirt to expose a steak covering her crotch, held in place with a lock and chain), eye-rolly click-bait site Buzzfeed put Chastity Belt in the number-one slot on their "21 Painfully Awkward Band Photos" list. The caption reads, "No chastity belt is required—thanks, ladies. This is plain terrifying." (The snark is lazy and doesn't land, especially since the other 20 photos are mostly kitschy album covers from the past.)
"The same time the Buzzfeed thing happened, we also got on NPR and Pitchfork, but Buzzfeed was the biggest, which is funny," Shapiro says. "The list was so stupid, but I'm not complaining—a lot of people found out about us that way." Fair enough. And really, judging from comments on the list and real-life conversations, the idiots seem to separate themselves rather cleanly from the people who know the other people are idiots. With a solid 7.5 from Pitchfork (though they named every member in the band except Truscott—to make up for that, I would like to say this: Annie Truscott, Annie Truscott, Annie Truscott) and largely positive response to the new record, Chastity Belt's momentum has them leaving for a three-week tour next month with Pony Time. The ladies even recently took a weekend retreat and wrote five or six new songs for no other reason than they didn't want to get sick of their current songs on the upcoming tour.
New Chastity Belt songs might see more of the members singing and different approaches to song structure. "People told us that we sound like Electrelane—I looked them up and really liked them," Shapiro says. "They have a lot of songs that kind of jam at the end or have a weird guitar solo that doesn't sound like a bro-y guitar solo. It's more like someone trying to figure out how to solo, but it sounds really cool—one of our new songs has something like that." But rest assured, they won't be losing the smirk anytime soon. "I think we have a new song called 'I Don't Care,'" says Shapiro. "You have to let go at a certain point; if you control it too much, you're ruining it."