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Local synth-pop group Pretty Bitter find themselves at an auspicious moment in their seven-year history, having played D.C.’s iconic 9:30 Club not once, but twice in 2022. On April 1, they took home two Wammie Awards, for Best Pop Album and Best Pop Song. Now they’re eyeing an August tour.
If they’re able to pull it off, the tour, which they are crowdfunding, would be their biggest ever, spanning the East Coast and Midwest. It also represents the success of Pretty Bitter’s polished sophomore album, which grew their fanbase outside the District.
Hinges was born of the pandemic, largely written and jammed out while the band was apart. The album dropped last June to messages from people—with whom the band’s wide-screen sound, and unspoken invitation to dance while you cry, resonated—asking Pretty Bitter to visit their cities.
“Singing and playing through our traumas,” bassist and vocalist Miri Tyler tells City Paper over pie with her bandmates at the (now-shuttered) Tastee Diner in Silver Spring. “What has happened is that there has sort of become that sense of community around it.” Tyler, who is trans and the band’s longest-running member, says Pretty Bitter have always been about healing for her, but have come to be about something more.
“The fuck you, I get to be happy in adulthood,” chimes in Em Bleker, the band’s other vocalist, and lyricist, who also identifies as queer. Tyler explains their music is, in part, a reclamation of their adolescence because neither she nor Bleker were able to celebrate their gender identities as they came of age.
That the cover of Hinges features Bleker’s grandmother is no coincidence; many of the songs are about the lyricist’s family. The same is true of the band’s January single, “What I Want!,” which deals with the complications of Bleker’s family, whom they love, also being the source of Bleker’s disordered eating. But to distance themself from the lyrics, Bleker styled Tyler for the single’s cover, reveling in the chance to play around with femininity while defying the expectations both bandmates faced while growing up.
Musically, the song is a power-pop banger, written in a day—while Bleker was spending the summer with family—and recorded in a garage to sound more live. The recording was then handed off to Zach Be, who not only plays multiple instruments in the band but also handles its production, mixing, and mastering.
“All of us enjoy, to a certain extent, when the lyrics to a song are one thing and the way that it hits you sonically is different,” Bleker says. “I can dance around to what I want, and I can feel energetic while I’m listening to it.”
Be, who Bleker describes as a “brilliant” composer, has worked at conjuring a hugeness to the band’s sound, and it’s evident on both Hinges and “What I Want!” Bleker’s voice envelops you on tracks such as “Final Girl” and “BDI/Lore,” whereas “The Damn Thing Is Cursed” (the song that won Best Pop Song at the Wammies) and the newest single blast you with the guitar and drums for a chorus you can’t help but jump to.
That’s the microcosm of a Pretty Bitter show, the next of which is Thursday, April 6, at Comet Ping Pong. “I play in a lot of bands,” Be says. “This is the one I have the most fun with.”
According to Bleker, the band has “the bones” of about five new songs. At least some of those will be released this year, but there’s a chance an entire third album could also come about before 2023 ends.
This time, Pretty Bitter are taking a hybrid approach to recording, having come to appreciate the efficiency of socially distanced collaboration during the pandemic. Sometimes it’s just Tyler, with her guitar, and Bleker in a room bouncing ideas around. Some get sent to drummer Jason Hayes, who’s been on the road with another band, to come up with the rhythms. Other times, Be composes full demos without vocals before sending them out for Bleker to handle the melody and Hayes to write and record drums.
A “compromise album,” where the entire band, which also includes guitarist Chris Smith, are in one room requires more on-the-spot agreement among members and, thus, takes longer to record. Be warns it also runs the risk of sounding “chaotic.”
“If you listen to the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Billy Corgan is just playing every instrument on the album and doing everything, but it’s still a band; that’s one way of doing it,” Be adds. “But it’s nice to have multiple people in the band who are all doing that for a song.”
Other items on the band’s 2023 to-do list include selecting an artist to design a logo and working with a booking agent to map out the tentative tour. Previously, Pretty Bitter have only embarked on one small tour in 2019, before Hayes joined. Fortunately, they know plenty of trans and queer folks booking gigs in the D.C. area and beyond. Bleker says these connections can offer advice on unwelcoming venues to avoid.
“It’s pretty quintessential to our band, not only for our own reasons, but it’s always been about safety and you’re not alone,” Tyler says about playing and making safe spaces for both the band members and their fans. “That’s always been our core message, and we need that to carry through at our shows, that feeling of: When you’re here and listening to Pretty Bitter, you can cry, and that’s fine because you’re surrounded by people that also feel the same way.”
Pretty Bitter play at 9 p.m. on April 6 at Comet Ping Pong with Texan darlings TC Superstar. cometpingpong.com. $18.54.
To support their August tour and LP No. 3, visit GoFundMe, gofundme.com.