Back in 2019—the Before Times—Milwaukee dance-pop mainstays Lauryl Sulfate & Her Ladies Of Leisure unleashed Dance Music Saves Lives, a love letter to the dance music of their youth and the people in society’s margins who threw down the beats. After a solid and productive year of positive feedback and loads of well-received shows, The LOL ran smack dab into the same pandemic that brought the rest of the music world to a screeching halt, driving Sulfate and her songwriting partner and bandmate, Mark Zbikowski, into the world of Zoom and file sharing.
The fruits of those video chat band practices and .wav swaps make up the just-unleashed LOL follow-up The Afterparty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the album finds the band tapping into anxiety, ruminating on death and the beyond, and touching on most of the typical dark thoughts that crossed a lot of minds during that persnickety little pandemic. Before the album release party Saturday, November 11 at Landmark Lanes’ Moon Room, Sulfate and Zbikowski caught up with Milwaukee Record to talk about the darker nature of their second album, pondering one’s own mortality, and re-emerging in Milwaukee’s music scene an older band—but one still determined to make some noise.
Milwaukee Record: The new album is all about the fear of mortality, isolation, all the dark stuff, while the debut album was very posi and about the salvation of dance music. Since this one’s much darker, I just want to ask: what possibly could have happened since 2019 that affected your outlook?
Lauryl Sulfate: [laughs] Um, I mean, just some stuff, just some stuff and things in the world…it almost feels corny at this point to be like, “the pandemic really informed this album,” but it really did in a lot of ways. But not just that for me, though—or for Mark, I don’t think. Even before the pandemic, we both had some losses, and I think that processing those losses…one thing the pandemic did give me was a lot of time to process things I maybe hadn’t had time to before. Before the pandemic, I didn’t realize how busy I was before it happened, you know? Then all of a sudden you have all this time to sit and think and process losses. And that was coming out in the songwriting, I think.
Mark Zbikowski: For sure. And even though I don’t write most of the lyrics, I definitely was interpreting them that way.
LS: We both each separately had losses at the same time, and they were similar kinds of losses, and so I was writing these lyrics and I feel like you [Mark] were really vibing with them, like you were going through a lot of the same stuff. And also sonically, it’s darker, but we’ve always had that influence and we’d just never expressed it musically in public before.
MZ: Right, we may have left some things off the first album. [laughs]
LS: Well, the first album was so directive, like “we’re gonna make a disco album, we’re gonna make it like this,” like we really had a thesis and a point we were trying to make with that album. But I think one thing you and I have in common is we’ve both always really been into dark new wave and stuff like that.
MR: I want to hear more about how it informed the music side of things too, along with the lyrics, because the thing that sticks out about this record is that musically, compared to the first album, it does feel like the music—not to do a disservice to the first album, but it is darker, richer, more “mature.” Was that a purposeful choice to do that with the music?
LS: I think it’s a combo deal, right?
MZ: I mean, is anything purposeful all the time? I mean, because we’re always pulling from what we’re feeling at the time.
LS: But I do think as you’re working on stuff and practicing and getting better at things, I do think we’ve progressed as songwriters. Which is not to dis anything we did on the first album, which I’m still happy with and proud of. One of the things the pandemic did, not to go back there, but for the first year of working on this album we were solo. Working together, but we were isolated from each other. We would meet via Zoom every single week like clockwork, which was one of the good things I had to hold onto during that time. But we weren’t practicing together in a room; we were bouncing the tracks back and forth. So I feel like we were really able to go crazy pursuing whatever flights of fancy we had on the tracks, you know, and trying a whole bunch of different things. But I think really early on we came to the conclusion that we wanted the record to sound more like this.
MZ: A few songs in, I think we started to recognize where things were turning. Even the most upbeat songs on the record are…you know, the most disco-y are like “Six Feet Under The Dance Floor” and “Girls Cry All The Time!” [laughs]
LS: For me though, I’ve always had sort of a fantasy of writing a bunch of upbeat dance songs about mortality and death and dying, and the shortness of life and all that. I mean, some of my favorite dance songs are like that. “1999” is one of the greatest dance songs of all time, and the theme of the whole song is like, “we’re only here for a really short period of time, so you should really party while you can, ’cause we’re all going to die.” Which is sort of depressing on its surface but is also kind of freeing? It’s like “nothing matters; ergo, everything matters.”
MR: The last record was called Dance Music Saves Lives, but this album, by exorcising all these anxieties, is sort of doing the same thing in a different way.
LS: Yes! Yes it is! And thank you for noticing that, I appreciate that! The title of the album is even a reference to the original album, in a way, because that album was a party album, and this one is called The Afterparty, and it’s really about me thinking about what happens when you die, right? Like, “the afterparty,” not to be corny, but it’s sort of a metaphor for the afterlife and what comes after this.
MR: Hence the album art…
LS: Hence the album art, and I just want to make sure everyone knows that it’s my actual hand coming out of the real dirt. [laughs] I did that. I did that for y’all. I mean, I hope when people listen to it that they’re relating to the honesty of it, you know? And I feel like I’m probably not alone in being a person like…there’s been many times in my life where I’m on a dance floor and I’m having a wonderful time. I’m having a great night, but it’s really crowded on the dance floor, and I get a little bit like, “oh, it’s very crowded, like, I could get trampled.” And maybe the club is in kind of a janky space and the floor is going up and down, and your brain goes to this space, like, “what if the floor crashed down underneath me right now, like, what if we all died at this dance party?” And the way I calm myself down from that is that I think, “well, if I’m going to die eventually, I suppose this is the best way to die, because I’m doing what I love?” [laughs] So I don’t know, I don’t wanna be like, making the music palatable for people…like, I’m not trying to feed anybody a pill or anything…
MZ: Well, it’s delivering something to your psyche. In our writing process, we generally follow our emotions, so when something is working once we’re feeling something emotional about it, when it touches us, that’s when we know we’re on the right track. I feel like naturally growing up, both of us, on post-punk, new wave, goth music, all of that, there’s so much of that that’s very emotional for us, and has that emotional weight, and also is connected with events in our lives, so I feel like we’re tapping into that on this record more so than on the previous one.
LS: I agree, and I think we went into it thinking that we wanted to do that. And I feel like if I think about when I was younger, when I was thinking “if I had a band, what would I want it to sound like?” I feel like this is what I would have wanted it to sound like.
MR: Not to bring this back to the interviewer, but if there’s one thing that dealing with COVID during one’s late 40s did, the amount of time I have spent mulling my mortality in the last four years has been off the charts.
LS: Yeah! Yeah! I think I’m probably the youngest person at this table and yet I also felt that way. I feel like I lost three crucial years of my life. I’m almost like, “was I a young person when I went into COVID and now I’m not anymore? Oh, that was cool. That was cool to just miss that.”
MZ: Yeah, I basically had the same thing. I had lofty goals, like, by the time I hit 50, I’m gonna have these things done. And then all of a sudden it is like, well, that’s passed, and I don’t have time to do that anymore.
LS: It was really rough for the band too, in that in 2019 I felt like we were on a roll. We were playing out a lot, we had just played a bunch of really nice big shows, and we were scheduled to play a bunch more nice big shows that summer. I felt like “we’re on a roll, we’re doing it, we’re goin’ forward, YEAH!” And then it was like hitting a brick wall and then sliding down it, which, every band had that experience. And a lot of bands did clever things during the pandemic, and had live shows on the internet and all that stuff, but I think for us, the way forward was to just buckle down and do a lot of songwriting.
MR: How was it coming out of it for you both? Was it weird getting back into playing live again? Did you jump headfirst back in as soon as you had a shot to?
LS: Yeah, that first summer where it was safe to go back out, we made a pact to say yes to every show we were offered, which we’d never done before. We just said “what would happen if we just say yes to every show we’re offered?” And there were some real high highs and some real low lows and some real crummy shows, and I feel like not everyone was back out, so I feel like attendance was often poor at those shows. And it was kind of hard on my self-esteem. I don’t want to make it sound like I judge my shows by how many people come to them, but it does, when you’re working your hardest and five people come to a show and you know it’s not you personally, but you’re like, “what if it’s me personally? I had it and now COVID happened and now I lost it, and it’s over. It’s over.”
MZ: I try and remain optimistic about that, because you keep seeing artists getting older and older, and sometimes you see some of your favorite artists are still producing really good work, or remaining popular, or whatever.
MR: How does that translate into a local music scene that is so youth and bar-centric? That’s kind of how most people get their shows around here.
LS: It’s kind of frustrating, I think. I mean, it’s frustrating on a number of levels, but for me it’s frustrating because I think there’s a certain amount of ageism in the music industry, which is ridiculous and short-sighted and doesn’t actually reflect art or musicianship or even what people’s personal experiences are. There’s this received wisdom about what pop music is for and who pop music is for, and all of this stuff, and we’re just regurgitating it to ourselves without actually considering it or processing it on a personal level. I work with a lot of people who are much younger than me; I’m probably the oldest person at my job. And sometimes I hear about their worries about getting older, and they’re worried about being, like, thirty. And the thing is, it’s going to happen to you. I know you can’t see it yet, but you’re going to be thirty, and when you’re thirty, you’re not going to feel appreciably different than you do now when you’re twenty-one. I mean, some people will, but I don’t—I feel like permanently twenty years old. So you’re not actually gonna feel that different and you’re not gonna feel less relevant to yourself. And you’re not gonna stop doing things because you hit a certain age. You’re going to do what you’re going to do no matter what age you are. And I feel like rock and roll music and pop music started so recently in our past. It started as young people music in the ’50s. So back then it made sense that it was a young person’s game because there hadn’t been anybody who had a chance to grow up or grow old in pop music…and now you have the Rolling Stones, who are 80 years old. And they’re still doing what they do, and they’re having a good time, and like…why shouldn’t they? I dunno, this is like a dumb thing. It’s a dumb thing to put pressure on yourself to be a certain age for the rest of your life, because it’s not going to happen. Every day you wake up and you’re a day older, so you may as well just roll with it. [laughs]
MZ: Yeah, and it’s self-limiting for a lot of people. I think a lot of people put restrictions on themselves on some level because they think they’re too old for something. I’m hoping that artists do it a little bit less, but I dunno. Plus, I kinda got started late…
LS: Same! Same!
MZ: I’ve got a lot more that I wanna do!
MR: There’s something to be said for maintaining at a certain level, where your expectations are pretty realistic, like who’s gonna come out to your shows, how much attention you’re going to get. Do you feel that it kind of frees you up to just put your attention on the music, and do what you wanna do?
LS: Yeah. It’s freeing because you let go of certain worries, I guess, like about how you’re perceived.
MZ: Yeah, it’s best to make the music for you, to satisfy whatever whims you have, or goals that you have with your music. If you’re doing it for yourself, you’re doing it right. If you’re trying to satisfy anyone else’s wishes, that’s almost an impossible thing.
LS: I think it’s almost always a dead end to try to figure out what people are going to like. There’s no point in that.
MZ: Yeah, so while it feels good to have a lot of people come to your show, to have a good review, or whatever it is…I think the music industry barely sustains itself as it is! When someone writes up a good review of a record or something, it’s like…even for the reviewer, how many people are gonna read that review, you know? [laughs] It may be important, but I feel a lot of times, it’s important in retrospect. Like, once there’s a mass appeal of some sort, that’s when people look back on the body of work or at the old interviews or whatever, and there’s an attempt to elevate that when maybe you know that they were playing to empty bars.
LS: Think of how many bands you know of that you think, “oh my god, this band is amazing, and they’re legends or whatever,” and they played probably to as many empty bars as you have. Or during their time they were unappreciated…like, look at The Slits. Now, we think of them as this foundational femme-punk band…no one was going to fucking Slits shows! Nobody liked them! I think I read that Bob Marley walked out on one of their shows. He was offended that they were women playing music, which is a thing about Bob Marley I’m just going to throw out there because everybody loves him because he was always so “peace and love,” but also a little sexist, soooo….but yeah, now retroactively we’re like “they’re legends! They’re queens!” but back then they didn’t feel like legends or queens. They felt like nobody was giving a shit about them because nobody did.
MZ: But if they were making music for some other goal, like some record producer that wanted to bill them in a way that wasn’t them, or for the public that didn’t recognize what they were doing, then they wouldn’t exist, you know?
LS: Yeah, and we wouldn’t be reading about them or listening to them now.
Social media has a role in all of this stuff now, and people putting importance on perception versus what’s actually happening. Like, I’ve had that experience where you post a photo of a band playing, and you’re like, I want to make sure it looks like there’s a lot of people in the audience, for them, you know? And you’ll see bands post like that on social media…it gives you a perception because you’re not in that band that every other band is pulling mad people all the time. But that’s actually not true, and bands that I think are actually great quality that I think are some of the best bands in Milwaukee…my perception is that everybody must come to their shows.
MZ: And meanwhile they’re sitting there going, “should we…quit?” [everyone laughs]
LS: It’s the same thing as that perception idea, about people posting stuff on social media that’s not quite real? But it’s also this idea that bands have where if the perception is that my band is not popular, then no one will come see my band, you know? There’s a real pressure there, I think.
MR: So let’s talk about the release show coming up.
LS: We put this show together through Jim Rice at Last Rites. I had kind of this loose-y goose-y, hippie spiritual idea when we were going into planning the show that everything was going to fall into place the way it was supposed to, but I didn’t know which way that was going to be. So, the album’s called The Afterparty, it’s about me dealing with death, so then I reached out to a few places and didn’t hear anything, and then I contacted a bar called Last Rites, and Jim was like “I don’t have anything for you that night at Last Rites, but I’m doing stuff at this place called the Moon Room, and it’s underground,” and I was like, this is where we’re supposed to be. [laughs]
MR: It’s going to be a good excuse for me to get out of the house and go to the Landmark for the first time in forever…
LS: (laughs) A lot of people have been saying that! Like, “oh, you’re playing at the Landmark? Awesome!”
MR: Did either of you have a Landmark period in your youth?
LS/MZ: Oh yeah, yeah!
MR: Well then you know. I remember when I first moved down here, their Monday nights were two dollar Long Island nights…
MZ: Oh yeah. I made a lot of mistakes there.
MR: Who hasn’t? So, what last words do you have about why people should come to the show?
LS: Because it’s my birthday! (laughs)
MR: You’re celebrating death on your birthday!
LS: I always wanted to throw a funeral on my birthday, so this is great. This is my dream.