Poliça’s UK tour kicks off this October — Channy Leaneagh spoke to TGA ahead of their string of gigs to reveal her favourite Poliça tracks, and to tell us why she gave up waxing bikini lines and why honesty is Poliça’s best policy
Poliça’s Channy Leaneagh is in Miami with her husband and baby. She’s currently battling against the blazing heat on set with Lil Internet, filming a music video for a Boys Noize track she sings on.
It’s her first time in the Floridian seaport city, and dressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans, the singer describes herself as “a vampire burning in the sun.”
Her husband is Poliça’s invisible fifth member and producer, Ryan Olson. The pair met in 2010 when Olson asked her to take some time out from her folk-rock project Roma Di Luna to sing with his Midwest soft-rock supergroup Gayngs. This was a line-up already boasting members of Solid Gold, Megafaunn, Happy Apple, P.O.S, Bon Iver, Doomtree and The Rosebuds.
Following the release of album Relayted in 2010 and the following year’s Remix EP Affilyated, both bands subsequently dissolved.
From this, Poliça were born, and Leaneagh and Olson recorded the bedroom-produced Give You The Ghost. While the release was met with acclaim, there was a focus on the extent to which Channy’s vocals were auto tuned, double-tracked and looped in on themselves — particularly marked when compared to her vocals in Roma Di Luna.
On 2012’s Shulamith, their sound was more immediate and the blend of subtle, emotional electronica was offset with flavours of avant-garde indie, trip-hop and alt R&B thanks to the addition of drummers Drew Christopherson and Ben Ivascu, and bassist Chris Bierden.
The album — named after feminist activist Shulamith Firestone — was a triumph and earned plaudits from critics and artists, including Jay-Z. But, as Channy admits, “the second record held some anxiety for me because it seems people are almost hoping for an artist to fuck up their sophomore release.”
It’s not a startling revelation to hear about the ‘difficult second album’ cliché, but to anyone who had charted Poliça’s ascent from the beginning, their breakthrough was a sensational coup. Of all the groups competing on the electro-scene, Poliça were the least likely contenders to cross the gulf into the mainstream.
Their music is dense with theory and their subject matter more intellectual than their contemporaries. Naming an album after a feminist, and writing stream-of-consciousness songs like Warrior Lord in a style akin to Virginia Wolfe are not popular reference points for most pop acts.
“I think Warrior Lord is still my favourite Poliça writing moment. I recorded the vocals to it while hearing it for the first time and it’s a very stream-of-consciousness conversation between me and Ryan,” says Channy. “I feel similarly about Berlin on our newest record; I like it when I write from places in my heart and mind I don’t quite understand until I re-sing the lyrics over and over on tour and then I start to understand what I meant and learn about myself.”
If Poliça were ever intrigued by the idea of pop stardom, there is no evidence in their assimilation of sounds. In the electronica microclimate, Channy carries herself with a very down-to-earth approach to making music.
“I seem to get bolder and more honest with each day,” she considers. “The albums are my diary for sure and a reflection of the world around me at the time. Musically, it’s a way to document our tastes as a band. After Shulamith I feel all the more confident to do whatever we want and make music for ourselves first and foremost. If we make music that we are excited about playing, then that love and sincerity should do the work for us.”
New album United Crushes leaves us in no doubt that Poliça know exactly what they are doing. As a series of slow soundscapes herald in opener Summer Please, Channy’s voice is pitch-shifted down into an ominous baritone register. She sings of a post-industrial urban landscape of poverty and violence. It is only mid-way through the track that we hear her own true voice, floatily juxtaposed against the dark bass undercurrent. It lifts the song giving it a booming new lease of life.
Like Shulamith before it, the band are working in the electronic strictures, but have chosen to subvert song themes beyond the realms of simple pop.
United Crushers focuses on America’s decline, the title taken from a tag Channy has seen spray painted on the sides of bridges, water towers and abandoned buildings around her hometown of Minneapolis.
The first song, Summer Please, is an appeal to the future. Waiting for the first warm day of the year when kids can go out and play brings with it a threat. In America, an aggressive, pro-gun society means an increase in gunshots and killings in the nice weather. The song is a plea to the future world; the album’s creation a stand against America’s slow urban decline.
The album developed at astonishing speed. Using Summer Please as the starting point, the rest of the album was written during the longest break from touring in the band’s history. It was a time when Channy and Ryan decided to have a second child and the album is littered with the thoughts, worries and concerns about the world their children are set to inherit.
No more apparent is this than in the video for single Wedding. Maintaining its musicality, the video seeks to address police brutality through the use of puppets, surrealistically representing the horror. Spliced with documentary footage, and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the band let their position on this struggle known.
Track Someway, is an outward-looking number that combines synthesisers with racing heartbeat percussion and melancholy notes to conjure up a tense, tragic atmosphere. The album mutates into a more unsettling blend of pop and electronics, the latter courtesy of an increasingly synth-preoccupied Channy.
“Melting Block is one of my favourite [songs on the album]: I like the imagery in the first line of a pack of cigarettes turning into an ice sculpture over the winter, then revealing itself in the spring,” she explains.
“It alludes to the way we put on airs and masks to get us to where we need to be; it’s a song about the sacrifices people make for fame and success. Kind also holds a special place in my heart as the words are very personal. The way a fight can erase your love for someone so easily. I don’t like that. I want to keep my mind and my memories of good times even when I’m hurt. I want to be able to ride the rough and steady waves with the one I love and not be so easily swept under.”
The ceaseless creative process is one that sees Poliça as inveterate storytellers, and Channy admits that she is sitting on dozens of unreleased songs; songs which do not make it past the band’s ruthless “chopping block” approach to putting together their albums.
“Yes, the chopping block is in full effect when we make a Poliça record,” she laughs. “Sometimes a song’s just not ready yet or doesn’t fit the flow of the record. Someday we’ll record them and get them out. I also re-write and re-write lyrics up until the final recording take.”
To flag up its divergence from the band’s usual field, they recorded the album in an interesting setting. TX’s “very secluded and isolated” Sonic Ranch studios.
“We had nothing to distract us from playing music,” says Channy. “We could see the fence dividing the US and Mexico and there was a really decrepit and magical looking carnival in the little town where the studio sits. We never saw anyone ride any of the rides though.”
Consequently, the seclusion of the studios afforded the band time to reflect on random observations.
“People would exercise by walking up and down the bridge to the highway under the inescapable sun,” recalls Channy. “It was a dust bowl of a place and I was interested in the way people were making it work as their home.”
United Crushers marks an important rite of passage for Channy. It was during the album’s recording that she considered the different path her life could have taken.
“I was signed up to go to aesthetician school right before Poliça got busy touring,” she smiles. “I would have been waxing bikini [lines] trying to get gigs doing makeup for theatre right now instead of music. I also started nursing school right after high school but left to go work in Cambodia instead. Basically I’ve been working full time since I was 17 but it wasn’t until Poliça that I had a job that seemed to be moving with me instead of against me.”
It has been a job that has seen the band survive the undulating swathe of electro-indie bands that have come and gone to become one of the most interesting and innovative acts around.
Accommodating and convivial, Poliça have an elusive gift for moving seamlessly between genres, and are as comfortable singing about feminism as they are urban decay.
They’re also as adept at doing it while being celebrated by casual music listeners who don’t even realise the full extent of the band’s intelligence. While Channy doesn’t have any “grand plans” for where the music will go next, the band have been keeping busy working on a project with German conductor André de Ridder and s t a r g a z e, which she admits will be sure “to influence our future music.”
As ever, we can’t wait to hear what comes next.
Catch Poliça this October at one of their UK dates:
Oct 14: Leeds, UK – Stylus
Oct 16: Glasgow, UK – SWG3
Oct 18: Bristol, UK – Anson Rooms
Oct 19: London, UK – Roundhouse
Oct 20: Birmingham, UK – Institute Library
Oct 21: Manchester, UK – The Ritz
Oct 23: Brighton, UK – Concorde 2