Q&A: Rachel Trachtenburg's SUPERCUTE! on Boys, Beer (Or a Lack Thereof), and Opening for Kate Nash
SUPERCUTE! are, in fact, super cute
Don't let the glittery star stickers she wears on her temples fool you: 16-year-old Rachel Trachtenburg is a music industry veteran, and would like it if you treated her as one. At the ripe old age of six she was recruited to back her parents in The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, the East Village's premiere vaudeville-folk-performance art trio, and spent much of her adolescence drumming along as father Jason sang about the random photos he found at garage sales. (Her mother Tina handled the photo projector, and "Mountain Trip To Japan, 1959" holds up better than you might suspect.) Along the way, Rachel blossomed into biz-savvy performer, an outspoken political activist (she protested Mayor Bloomberg's third term alongside Anthony Weiner), and a Web-savvy entertainment entrepreneur. Her charmingly ram-shackle web-series Rachel Trachtenburg's Homemade World should sate your cravings for young adult post-modernism until The Adventures Of Pete And Pete's third season finally arrives on DVD.
And now, armed with her trusty ukulele and new best friends, she has her own hook-rich folk pop band to front. And a lot of work to do. When Sound Of The City met with SUPERCUTE! (which includes 13-year-old June Lei on vocals, keyboards and ukulele and 14-year-old Julia Cumming on vocals, guitar and Uke) at a family friend's East Village apartment, they were busy signing stacks of pink-and-yellow envelopes, which now encase the hand-painted and self-recorded demo EPs they're selling on their upcoming tour with Kate Nash. (The Trachtenburgs used to live in the building too until rising rents pushed them out to Bushwick.) Since forming last summer, SUPERCUTE! have already played the Cake Shop, the CMJ Music Marathon and 92Y, won Deli Magazine's band of the month competition (earning them a bit of free studio time), and backed blogger Emily Gould on a family-friendly rendition of one of the most sexually explicit songs ever written (Liz Phair's "Flower," and it took a bit of back and forth to get a version they could do in front of June's mom). Dressed in thrift store-chic flowery dresses with candy wrapper bows (Julia) and Syd Barrett buttons (Rachel) in their hair, SUPERCUTE! balanced their signing duties to discuss brushing off haters, music education and activism. They also talked about boys. Rachel's mom Tina, dressed in eye-searingly red pants and jacket that were perhaps borrowed from a Broadway production of The Super Mario Brothers Story, added color commentary.
So Rachel, you've been playing professionally as a musician since you were six. Is it strange to go from being the youngest member of a band to the grizzled veteran of the band? Do you have to teach these kids the ropes?
Rachel: [Laughs] Yeah, and I really enjoy it, because now it's my own project. Before it was my dad. I didn't really have much input. I came up with the beats, but besides that, it was his project. And my mom did the creative designing, the look of the band. This is completely different, it's my own thing. But it's great to have two people who are adding lots of stuff.
In addition to music, do you find yourself instructing them in the ways of the industry? Like, "Here's the thing about bookers."
Rachel: Yeah, here's a good example. We were at the CMJ show at the Living Room, and I whispered to June because there was a band onstage, "Okay, meet me down in the green room," and she was like, "What?" and I was like "Meet me down in the green room!" "What?" "green room!" and she was like, "Rachel, I know what you're saying! I don't know what it means!"
Rachel: Rider, green room, bio. It's all this stuff.
June: It's like, 'What?'
I was at that Living Room show. I remember you did "Happy Together." Afer you guys finished, a little bit later Margaret Cho came on. And her material was blue, as they say in the industry. Were you hustled out of there?
Julia: No. We even watched a bit, and were like, "This is weird," and just left.
Rachel: I've been around it for a while, and it's weird, especially with the girls' parents. We're always at shows where the person after us is like "Oh, we don't want to say this because SUPERCUTE!'s in the room."
Rachel: Then one comedian actually was like, "I want to say this because SUPERCUTE!'s in the room." And he just went for it.
Julia: Of course it was this weird, gross thing.
Rachel: This old, bald guy. And we're like "Oh Godddddd."
Julia: He was like, "This is something you have to know..."
Rachel: No [we don't], weird comedian.
Julia: It's hard with the parents.
Rachel: You don't want to watch a dirty movie with your mom and dad, so it's like [laughs].
You're probably more uncomfortable for them than they are.
Rachel: Yeah. I go to shows all the time with my parents, and you don't know what's going to come on.
Having more or less growing up in the industry, did you find that when you were seven or eight and playing in bands, did most of the musicians around you treat you like a kid, or did they treat you like an adult?
Rachel: I've been treated like an equal, completely. We were at this show not long ago and this woman in charge or whatever came in. And there were beers in the back, and she was like, "Keep an eye on the girls, because there's beers in the back!" And my mom was like, "Uh, they're not going to go drink." So she'd come back whenever we were backstage, and she would count the beers and then walk away. It was the funniest thing. My God, we're not Drew Barrymore. It's ridiculous. Different people treat you different ways.
When you guys talk about when you were younger, do you ever realize just how different your childhood was from hers, growing up on the road?
Rachel: They're surprisingly pretty similar, compared to the average, average teenage girl. June's dad is freelance photographer, and her mom is a painter. So they're artsy in their own form.
June: We're all very exposed to art, and we're not like, "Ew," like some people in my school.
Rachel: We get some very silly reactions.
June: Our music is geared more to college kids and up, rather than kids our own age. A lot of times [kids our age] don't get it. All they hear is that we're singing about candy.
Rachel: And hula hoops. They don't understand the message.
June: And they're like, "Ew." We get a lot of weird stuff at school, usually.
Rachel: One of the coolest kids at their school as far as niceness and smarts and all that stuff, he doesn't know who--
Julia: He didn't know Lou Reed or David Bowie or anyone and I was like "Oofff..."
Rachel: Or Joan Jett!
How old is this person?
Rachel: 13 or 14. And he doesn't know Joan Jett.
Is "Not To Write About Boys" a true story, or are you goofing on the idea that girls your age are supposed to be boy crazy?
Rachel: June will take it.
June: We did meet a boy...
Rachel: Wait, I want to add something. It's exactly likeCarly Simon, "You're So Vain." We will never, ever, ever, ever release who it's about. Even though our parents know.
Julia: [Who it was] inspired by.
Rachel: Most people know, but he doesn't.
[Rachel's mom] Tina: Wait, wait, I'm sorry, I have to pipe in.
Tina: You guys were on tour, and you said you were talking about how you were going to write a song called "I Want A Boyfriend."
Rachel: See, we go like this a lot with boys. We're like, [high, exasperated voice] "I want a boyfriend! I want a boyfriend!" and then the next minute it's "Boys suck, ew!" And then it's like, "Oh, he's cute." Julia flip-flops all the time and so do I. We all do. It's like, "Oh yeah, I guess it would be nice to have a boyfriend" and then "Ew, no, too busy, gross. There's no one interesting enough." It goes back and forth. So we were going to write a song on tour--Julia was on tour with the Family Band--and we were going to write a song called "I Want A Boyfriend." We had the harmonies down and it was a really fun song. And it got to the point where we were about to finish it, and we realized "We don't want boyfriends." So that song went down the drain.
June: And I heard it and I was like, "I don't like this song, guys."
Rachel: So tell the story.
June: We met this boy, and we all really liked him--he was very cute. We would joke around about it. So it was kind of inspired by a true story.
Tina: Where did you meet the boy? This is interesting too.
Rachel: Mom we can't say that!
June: Tina! Inapprops!
Tina: You can't say where you met the boy?
Rachel: He's going to know where we met him!
Tina: Okay, that's true.
Rachel: He plays music. We can say that.
June: He plays music, and we met him at a show.
Tina: Oh God.
Rachel: June, you can't say this!
Julia: We're ruining this. We're disgracing Carly Simon. She was a lot cooler about this.
June: We weren't actually clawing each other's eyes out about him, but it was inspired by him.
Rachel: We all liked him a lot. Past tense.
June: When we wrote this song we were going through this crazy phase about him and were like, "Ah! Boy!" So then we were like "Okay, we need to get this song out." So we wrote this song.
Julia: It was something we were feeling very passionate about. We were like "Wouldn't it be funny if we wrote this and we were fighting about this boy?"
Rachel: That's what all our songs are like. "We're just going to sing hulu hulu hulu hoop over and over again. Haha, that's so silly." And then we're like, "We're going to do it."
June: The first working title of the song was his name. The second working title was "Verbal Stage Abuse" because how Rachel and Julia yell at each other onstage. And now it's "Not To Write About Boys."
So he doesn't know the song is about him?
Rachel: No. Oh my goodness, off the record completely [Begins telling revealing anecdote about mysterious heartbreaker]
June: Be careful with this one.
It's off the record.
Rachel: It's off the record, June.
June: I don't know what that means.
It means I won't put it in the piece.
Tina: It doesn't mean they won't print it. We've learned from the past.
Hand to God. You know what? If it will make you feel better.... [Reaches across table and turns off recorder.]
[A few minutes of incriminating details later.]
So how did you guys come together to be SUPERCUTE!?
Julia: [Laughs, to Rachel] You go.
Rachel: [Laughs] Sorry. I had the title. I guess the whole band is the question? Our first name was the Oh My God Girls, which I had a band with a previous member, a friend who lived in Chicago, and then that didn't work out. I've always really wanted to have my own teen-girl band. Since I was nine it's been something I've wanted to do. It didn't work out with that friend, because she lives in Chicago, so I was at the point where I was like "I'm going to hold auditions, I'm going to put up flyers at music stores, in schools and try to find cool teen girls that are interested and have the same music taste." And then Julia was living at Florida at the time, and came to New York to one of my solo shows, and brought June.
Tina: Julia and Rachel were friends, previously.
Julia: My dad is Rachel's dad's bass player. They're in a band together, so we've kind of been hanging out since we were little. Except I moved to Florida and we kind of stopped talking.
Rachel: But before she lived in New York, and we would sell lemonade on the street outside this building, and hot chocolate and popcorn and chai. So then in the summer Julia was here visiting, and she brought June to a show of mine. And that's when I met June. And my mom was like, "You should hang out with June." Because at the time I had no friends my own age. Because I'm home-schooled, it's hard for me to find friends my own age that I find interesting, or kind of cool, and have good music taste. Most of my friends are older artist types. So I thought, "Okay, we'll try this out." And we hung out a couple of times, just June and I when Julia went home, and it worked really well. I really liked June. So June and I started hanging out as friends, and we went to the Hannah Montana movie, and had a picnic in the movie.
A picnic in the movie?
[To Julia] Where were you living in Florida?
Julia: I was living in Miami. So that's not good. It was just really stressful for us.
June: We would have band calls every night.
Rachel: Julia would be at the mall and we would be like "Julia, focus!" and she would be like, "Ah! I'm with my friends! Mall!" and then we'd have big fights over it. It'd be stressful, because we're trying to work hard and get this band rolling, then it finally got to the point where she was like "okay, I'll move back."
Julia: Because we had a CMJ show, and I was going to be in New York for one night, and I was in New York for three hours and then I was flying back to Florida.
June: She was just there for the show, it was really crazy. And then she said, "I can't do this anymore." So with a week's notice, she said bye to all her friends in Florida and then she flew down.
Your dad lives here and your mom lives in Florida?
Has she been supportive of you moving here to pursue your art?
Julia: It hasn't been easy. But things are good.
[To Rachel] You were saying earlier that because you're home-schooled, it's hard for you to find friends your own age. Is it tough for you to be around kids who are still listening to--
Rachel: Yeah. [For example] June's music taste has evolved. When I first started hanging out with her, she was obsessed with Justin Bieber. So we went to a Justin Bieber thing, and there was like 3,000 girls screaming, and I was like, "This is disgusting, but I'm having fun."
June: It was a lot of fun.
Rachel: You liked his music, and you thought he was cute. And now June likes the Velvet Underground and Blondie...
Wow. Hanging out with you is kind of like a grad school crash course in music.
Rachel: Yeah. And Julia has always known good classic-rock and oldies and stuff. But still, living around teenage kids you listen to Z100 and know all the rap songs and know all of the everything. So I'd be in the store and they'd be singing along, and I'd be like "I have no idea who this is, or what it is," and now I know Ke$ha, and all these other people.
Julia: We kind of work off each other.
So you changed your name from the Oh My God Girls?
Rachel: So we were the Oh My God Girls, and then we had to change the name because Little Wayne's daughter. Little Wayne?
Reporter, June And Julia: 'Lil
Rachel: 'Lil. (Faux British accent) Little Wayne. ' 'Lil Wayne's daughter has a band, a dance, r&b...it's a girl teen band. They basically sung to tracks that weren't written by them or anything like that. You could tell, it's just overproduced. So we found out about that, but it was the OMG Girlz with a 'z,' and we were the Oh My God Girls, spelled out.
Julia: We posted a video on YouTube called the OMG Girls.
Rachel: People would often call us the OMG Girls, because it was easier.
Julia: We posted a video saying "Sneak Preview," it was just us at our first show. A little clip. And we got like...
Rachel: All these awful comments, it's really hilarious. It's actually quite entertaining.
Julia: 75,000 views.
Rachel: So were like, "Okay, we have to change the name." It took us so long to change the name. We were Pinky Swear for a little while. We were The Whatevs. There were so many different names tossing around. Vanilla Frosting--
June: Buttercream Frosting.
Rachel: Just tons of fun, goofy stuff. Noting that we all felt strong about, and that we all liked. We ended up picking SUPERCUTE! because it was a song that was written for me by a friend of ours, and we all just stuck with it and all really liked it.
Tell me about recording the album.
Rachel: It's not quite an album, it's still a demo EP. Because once we get a record label, I think we'll have more of a budget to go into a studio and have proper time and everything like that to record it. But right now we've used Julia's bedroom and our friend's apartments and home studios. Except for "Candy City," which we are mixing tonight at a friend's house, but was recorded in a proper studio from the contest that we won. So for now, we're just taking it one step at a time until we have the proper production behind it. Because we have no management, no booking, nothing right now. We're doing it all ourselves. Obviously. So I think we're going to take it one step at a time and wait until we have some help behind it, and then we'll have a record out.
Are you guys just writing SUPERCUTE! on each of these envelopes?
I can help. My handwriting is really bad, though. [Proceeds to write SUPERCUTE! on envelopes for the rest of the interview.]
Rachel: [To the author] For the exclamation point, I like putting a heart instead of a dot.
Are you actively looking for a manager and a record label?
Rachel: We've gone through several management companies, actually. Either it's we just don't feel comfortable with them--
June: Or they don't like us.
What's been the problem? Have they tried to make you too glitzy and Disney-ready?
Julia: One. Big time.
Rachel: Oh my God. That was hilarious.
Julia: Let's not get negative.
Rachel: We've had everything from wanting to have us in Madison Square Garden opening for cheesy, bad [performers]. To one manager, I was like, "We want to be in Webster Hall in five months, opening for someone that's really big, and get a good crowd from that," and he's like "If that's your goal I'm not the manager for you." And we're like "Okay, good. Thanks for telling us that."
June: And now we're at Bowery Ballroom.
Rachel: Yeah, now we're playing the sold-out Bowery Ballroom, opening for Kate Nash, and it's like "ha-ha." So we've had all different things. We've gone through at least four managers in our couple of months. [To the author] Oh, and SUPERCUTE!, one word.
Rachel: That's okay.
As far as record labels go, would you want to be on a major and go for the big commercial push, or would you rather stay indie?
Rachel: I think indie-commercial. If that makes sense.
A bigger indie?
Rachel: Of course not, like, huge, but I think a small branch out of a big one would be good, but mostly something like Rough Trade or K Records.
June: I personally like K Records a lot.
But even without a manager, you're going on tour with Kate Nash. How'd that come about? And how nervous are you about your first nationwide tour?
Rachel: We're very nervous and excited. We're all having nervous breakdowns every other day. How that came along: The Trachtenburgs toured with Kate Nash two years ago in the summer. Right, Mom?
Rachel: So I became good friends with her. We've become pen pals, back and forth, about whatever is going on in our lives. I was starting the band and e-mailing about it, and she was like, "Oh my God I want to be in the band" and of course that didn't really work out, because she's a UK pop star. But I went back and forth with her when we trying to figure out a new name and everything like that.
June: She saw us play at the Bowery Poetry Club, and she loved us. She was like "When are you touring with us?" and we're like, "Anytime!"
Rachel: Her management people were there and were like "Okay, here are the dates." And we're like "Ah!!!! Oh my God!"
It starts in a few weeks. Are you going to be on summer break then? Or do you have to finish up off the road?
June: We've been trying to figure it out. Because Rachel is home-schooled and me and Julia go to normal school, uptown.
Julia: "Normal school."
Rachel: They go to real school.
June: Our teachers have been really supportive, and we've been really grateful for that. So yeah, we're talking to them about make-up homework and stuff.
Julia: Supposedly we're the first band in [East Side Middle School] history to go on tour.
There's video of you from a few years ago doing a song at City Hall about horses carriages.
Did you get a lot of response, positive or negative?
Rachel: Among our friends it was good, of course, because all of our friends are mostly politically active and Democrats and stuff. But of course there were some weird comments on YouTube, but that's of course from Bloomberg supporters.
Julia: Some of them are really funny. What did that one call you?
Rachel: Mrs Censorship. Because we took down some of the comments.
June [mocking voice]: "Her parents are telling her what to say."
Rachel: It got worse. We think it was people on Bloomberg's staff doing it, because it was right during the campaign for his re-election. [The Mayor's Office did not respond to a request for comment]
Tina: Yeah, "that little...she needs to shut her mouth and duh duh duh..."
Rachel: Yeah, it got dirty, and gross and just like, scary. But other than that, it's been fine. And I still do a lot of animal activism. And sometimes SUPERCUTE! performs "Carriage" and my song "Pigeon."
Does it get you down when people assume that you couldn't possible have any opinions of your own and you're just saying what your parents want you to say, like a puppet?
Rachel: It doesn't get me down, but I think it's kind of sad that kids aren't able to really express themselves as much. They're not taken seriously, I guess is what it is.
June: We definitely see that a lot, as a band. "Huh you guys are kids."
Rachel: Which can be sad and annoying, but I don't think it ever affects me actually getting out there and doing stuff.
One thing I've noticed that you've said a couple of times is that people will say mean things about you online and on YouTube videos, and it doesn't seem to hurt your feelings too much. Having grown up in show business, can you just brush it off?
Rachel: Yeah, I don't take it seriously. And we've never had anything that bad.
June: Me and Julia, we've learned that this is what we're doing and we're comfortable with, and if you don't like it go like somebody that you will like. You can have your own opinion, but that's not going to change us. Our friends are like "You should add drums." And we're like, "Go away."
Rachel: You either get it or you don't. You can't convince somebody to try to get it.
As far as your political views go, do you think you and your parents are exactly the same, or are there some issues where you think there are some differences?
Rachel: I think we're pretty much exactly the same.
And how about with the rest of the band? Are you all pretty much on the same page?
June: Rachel also knows more about politics than Julia and I, so she has stronger opinions.
Rachel: I know what's going on.
Julia: Rachel helps us understand...
Rachel: I'm talking about Anthony Weiner and stuff like that, and they're like "what?"
June: And we'll tell her how to solve seven in a linear equation.
Rachel: Exactly, I'm talking about the governor, and I have to explain the Green Party and all this political stuff and music, but then they're helping me with math. So I think we're very good for each other. We're learning a lot. But I had an idea for an animal rights song, and sometimes June's not feeling it or Julia's like, "That's not something that really makes me passionate" or whatever so we all have to work on it together. And if I get the girls into it, we'll all do it together, and otherwise it will be my own project.
Anything else you want to say?
Rachel: Uhm, I don't know.
Tina: Do you guys have a mission statement? You have platform now, to say whatever is you want to the people. Whatever it is, about being a teenager, whatever you want to say.
Rachel: You guys go first, and then I'll go.
June: I think SUPERCUTE! has taught me how to express myself better, and find myself rather than America's culture, and I think that's good. You can be an artist and do other things and it's a lot more fun.
Rachel: Even though it always sounds cheesy, I think SUPERCUTE! is about being yourself, and breaking rules, and art and music. We don't have to have drums if we don't want to have drums. We can have it the way we like and the way we envision it. Even with Kimya Dawson, or any of these artists, it's "She sings out of tune, she's not doing this," but she stayed with her art, and stayed true to what she wanted to do, and now she's able to live off of Juno for life, and be able to produce art she wants to do. So I feel we're not going to change to something some management wants--to sound polished, or whatever they want, or what they think is going to sell at this time. You have to stick to what you are, and be true to that. And I think SUPERCUTE! is also about being goofy and just having fun with fashion.
June: Our friends, they try to act older, and if we don't want to act older then we won't.
Julia: We're going to wear candy-wrapper bows in our hair. I always say that there is no age that tells you have to stop acting how you want to act, and you can't wear what you want to wear, like things like teddy bears and hearts. People think that's not allowed, but you have to do what you feel. And if you feel like hearts and teddybears, then you should go out and do it, and that's kinda what we do.
Rachel: Or if you want to wear a boring grey suit, and not be able to express yourself, then go for that.
Julia: But that works for some people, if they want to.
Rachel: They're killing themselves inside.
SUPERCUTE! is playing with Kate Nash at the Williamsburg Hall Of Music on Saturday. Say hello, but keep it clean, at myspace.com/supercute.
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