“We have this thing in us that we need to excavate and work on together” Mannequin Pussy on embracing positivity together in a bleak world

Missy Dabice on her love of Nash guitars, learning to share guitar duties with new bandmate Maxine Steen, and knowing when to press the ‘fuck it’ button in the studio…

Mannequin Pussy, photo by Millicent Hailes

Mannequin Pussy. Image: Millicent Hailes

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In late December, cutting through a swathe of new releases on US radio, a distorted, grungy guitar snarled out of the speakers with an undeniable ferocity of riffage. The track, I Don’t Know You, was an early indication of what to expect from Philadelphia band Mannequin Pussy’s fourth album, I Got Heaven. Together with veteran producer John Congleton, the band have crafted – arguably – their finest collection of roiling, grungy pop-rock to date.

I Got Heaven comes with no shortage of expectation – following up 2019’s Patience which released to rave reviews and spots in various year-end best ofs, but it more than lives up to the hype.

Over 10 relentlessly energetic, lush guitar-based tracks, the four-piece showcase a timeless, snarly punk attitude while remaining melodic and radio-friendly, and even weaving some 90s pop-punk nostalgia into their sound. In their choice of Grammy-winner Congleton as producer, they’ve succeeded in shining the spotlight on their guitar finesse like never before. Punk and snarling, distorted guitars are central to vocalist and guitarist Marisa “Missy” Dabice’s sonic DNA, instilled from childhood.

“I discovered the Stooges and MC5 on TV at three in the morning when I was a kid,” she recalls. “MTV and VH1 would have these late night documentaries on music from the 60s, 70s and 80s. So, the Stooges and MC5 were really formative for me, and later the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Strokes. Pixies were massive for me. I’m just so enamoured with that kind of really grungy, aggressive catharsis that has that little sprinkle of pop on top of it.”

Mannequin Pussy, photo by Millicent Hailes
Mannequin Pussy. Image: Millicent Hailes

Heaven Sent

That description sums up I Got Heaven in a nutshell, with the pop being sprinkled far more liberally than previous Mannequin Pussy releases, but already the approach has won high profile fans. When Kristen Stewart told media in mid-February that she was “obsessed” with the band, she went on to describe why with such poeticism that it defies argument: “They’ve got a really sultry and positive growl that is just like shoving our faces in the bush of being a woman.”

The band’s first two albums were bursting with explosive, blistering punk rock, which surely went some way to explaining why they signed with iconic punk label Epitaph Records for the release of Patience. But, that third album peeled back a curtain on what the band were really capable of when they stretched their sound into poppier, more romantic territory.

Dabice wields a sweet, nostalgic croon that is heartbreakingly earnest (sounding not unlike Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval on tracks like I Don’t Know You and Nothing Like). She is joined by Maxine Steen on guitar and synths, Colins “Bear” Regisford on bass, and Kaleen Reading on drums.

For a song that sounds so signature Mannequin Pussy, I Don’t Know You required some tweaking.

Dabice explains, “That was my demo, which was originally written in a different tuning; in standard with the same chord progression. I was drawn to the chords, but it was feeling a little basic, not fitting in my register comfortably. During the writing session in December, I went ‘fuck it!’ and put my guitar into D standard, changed my tunings, played exactly the same chord progression and that’s how I Don’t Know You was born. Maxine immediately started the synths, Bear was on guitar, and Kayleen picked up her brushes.”

I Got Heaven lands at a time when the news is relentlessly bleak – but in its shameless beauty, unapologetic and lusty desire, and dreamy restlessness, it is a rebellious stance against hopelessness. Like Smashing Pumpkin’s buoyant teenage anthem 1979, Mannequin Pussy’s Sometimes rides some tidal power chords to slam home the pure, adrenal fury of being young, reckless and excited by freedom. Elsewhere, OK? OK! OK? OK! is a driving, headbanging two minutes of frenzied hardcore punk, riffing like a maniac with a chainsaw. It is chased up with a softly rocking contrast, the comparably tame Tell Me Softly.

Dabice says, “I think tracklisting is one of the most important aspects of making a record. I mean, obviously every single part of what goes into crafting an album has its importance, but to me a tracklisting and a sequence is really the journey that you bring people on. I’m not really thinking about the audience at all when we are writing and recording a record, which is something that is very intentionally for us [as a band].

“We have this thing in us that we need to excavate and work on together, but it’s in the listening experience when I really start to consider what it would be like to kind of dive in to a record from someone else’s perspective and see how that story needs to be crafted and delivered in a way that feels exciting, and where you don’t know exactly where it’s gonna go next.”

She adds, “What’s really important in sequencing is to consider what’s the first thing that’s going to be said on the record and what’s the last thing that’s going to be said on a record? What’s the last thing that you’re left with?”

Mannequin Pussy, photo by CJ Harvey
Mannequin Pussy. Image: CJ Harvey

New Terrain

Within 10 tracks, then, there is a whole world of genre-traipsing, exploratory terrain that the band wrote with Congleton in Los Angeles in a collaborative process that was new for the band, and Dabice in particular, who had been accustomed to writing in solitary nature at home. Also new for the band was Maxine Steen being an official member of Mannequin Pussy. Steen had been touring with the band since 2021 and making music with Dabice in their side project Rosie Thorne, but joining the writing process was a levelling up for the newly official Mannequin guitarist.

“Maxine is one of the few people in this world who I have this intense creative connection with,” explains Dabice. “I’m so inspired by her ideas and vice versa. She and I have been friends for 8 years and since the very first day we met we’ve been sitting around making music together. At first just for us, just for the fun creative practice of it and now it’s so lovely that our creative collaboration gets a real documentation.

“When the band experienced its switch up in 2020, Maxine was really the first person I thought of. The role of a lead guitar player is so vital in a band dynamic. It requires someone to also write songs with me, to share ideas and riffs and really pour their creative energy into the project alongside myself, Kaleen and Bear. Maxine is also a great hang, and someone who is easy to be on the road with for months at a time.”

The album is a study in contrasts; it resists building to a climax then coming down softly, which might be too predictable. Instead, it draws you in with a melodic air, then pummels you with a savage punk thrasher, before lulling you into another lush serenade and on and on in this switch-up style. That sense of complacency and numbness that becomes a thickened skin against the relentlessly grim news cycle demands a combination of high emotion, heavy riffs, and a heartbreakingly lovely voice to break through to the core of a modern listener. Mannequin Pussy can sing about the poison, while delivering the remedy.

“This was, by far, the fastest we’ve ever written a record,” Dabice says. “About this time last year, we were getting ready to record after we’d had two writing sessions.”

The band had begun writing in August 2022, but illness curtailed their efforts, so another was organised later that year in December.

“We got back together in the studio with John [Congleton] and it was the five of us in this little writing shack in Los Angeles where we just wrote every day for four days straight and we came out of that session with 17 songs.”

The band was sent off to decipher which of the songs they wanted to keep for the album.

“That was actually very easy for us. As individuals, we went over our favorite songs and we pulled out 12 that we felt the most strongly about. That was in January 2023. Because John is such an in-demand producer, his schedule was either to record in the first two weeks of March or the last two weeks of August. So, we were like, ‘oh, fuck, we just wrote these!’ And we gave ourselves basically two months to prepare, so we dug into it as much as we possibly could to figure it out.”

Mannequin Pussy, photo by CJ Harvey
Mannequin Pussy. Image: CJ Harvey

Dabice confesses, “I am not a lone wolf creator. It really took the effort of all of us to be so captivated by our own ideas and our own collaborations and that pressure felt lessened in a way because we were all putting in that creative work together. That’s why I just love being in a band so much, because it is this collaborative energetic exchange. I think inviting other people and other people’s talents and perspectives into something is how you really make something the best that it can be.”

That fierce energetic exchange lured Congleton. A fan of the band, he’d called Brett Gurewitz (owner of Epitaph Records) to offer his services for the next Mannequin Pussy album. Dabice had loved his production on Angel Olsen’s 2014 album Burn Your Fire for No Witness, and was keen to have him on board.

“John did not want us to ever do more than three or four takes of something. I found his immensely relaxed approach to music disarming, although it sometimes was like, ‘does this guy give a shit?’ But, really, he’s operating on the level that he trusts you as an artist to get out what you need in those takes. So, if you don’t get it in three or four, maybe it’s not there and you should be searching for a different idea or another mode to transport that idea.”

She adds, “I love his tones. I love his ear for things, but I also love that John’s not about the perfection. He’s about the raw energy and that’s definitely the philosophy from which I come from as well.”

Strat’s Entertainment

Dabice had been a solid fan of the Fender Strat until discovering the very different charms of a Reverend guitar while touring in 2020. Missy had broken a string on her Strat and with no spare guitar on hand, ended up borrowing the Reverend from the opening act. Inspired, Dabice bought a Jetstream 390, and it ended up being one of the few models she rocked out on for this album.

“I used my custom-made Nash Wayfarer that I had made for me in 2021 for this record, and I do still play a Fender Strat live but my favourite two guitars in the world right now are my Fender American Strat and my Reverend 390,” she explains. “Both of them scratch very different sonic itches for me, which is what I’m driven by. I love the cleanness of the Strat, but the Reverend feels like a beefier, musclier sound. I feel like the veins are popping in my arms when I use it! The tone of it sounds so good to me. But ultimately I have no allegiance, I’m just chasing the sound.”

On Steen’s side, she also turned to one of Bill Nash’s Fender-derived creations, in her case a JM63 – it’s clear there’s a lot of love for the boutique maker in the band.

“I absolutely adore Nash guitars in the studio,” Dabice explains. “There was also a 1950s Gibson SG floating around, and an American Stratocaster, plus a Tacoma Acoustic guitar that made a few appearances, but on every track we used our Nash guitars.”

The end result is, like the band itself, a creative fusion that should be chaotic with such varied elements but is instead, pure and raw in its powerful delivery. Perhaps, to wrangle Dabice’s lyrics, we know a lot of things about Mannequin Pussy, but we don’t truly know them. Maybe that’s their magic, and it makes I Got Heaven all the richer for its ability to let listeners work it out themselves.

I Got Heaven is out 1 March on Epitaph

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