Interview: heckdang’s Magda Criswell shares their latest EP, “Fine, Just Thinking”

Posted: by The Editor

heckdang is honing their songwriting style on Fine, Just Thinking, but the EP might be truly showcasing their mastery. With walls of sound that match the mood of emotional build-ups, heckdang has crafted three tracks that give a glimpse into the kind of exploration we could see in a full-length LP. Between the personal, inflected lyrics and heavy builds inspired by Deafheaven, heckdang is crafting songs that are both meaningful and aurally staggering.

Songwriter Magda Criswell spoke with the Alternative about practicing and staying positive, caring for those who aren’t ready for it, and heckdang’s next sound evolution. Stream Fine, Just Thinking and check out the conversation below:

The Alternative: Hi Magda, thanks for taking the time to chat with me! How are you doing, taking care of yourself lately?

Magda Criswell: It’s definitely been challenging. We made the agreement that we’d do whatever we needed to stay in each other’s social circle, because we knew for our own sanity that we’d still need to be able to practice together, to still be involved in some way. I know it’s a lot easier for us than it has been for other bands. Phillip and I are partners and we live together, so it was just including Cole in that social circle. That was really important for all of us.

For me personally, it’s been really hard to stay motivated and stay writing. I’ve had through quarantine been taking lessons online in guitar. I’m a primary bass player and I’ve been wanting to get better at guitar. So I’ve been taking songwriting lessons to improve my lyricism and writing that way. I’ve been doing the Pool Kids 30 Day Challenge and honestly, I never practiced this much in my life. It’s been amazing. I think it can be really scary to post things publicly when you’re learning. I know it can be really intimidating for me and I’m sure for other people. At least for me, giving that public motivation, has really helped. Even if the first few videos that I post are pretty rough and not great and I’m figuring stuff out, I have the continued motivation to keep posting so that people can see how I get better, even just day by day.

Wow, that’s incredible and I’m so glad you’re staying positive and doing this for yourself.

Yeah, you have to try to stay positive. I know we write sad songs and stuff, that’s just how it goes. But it is very much and outlet and an opportunity for catharsis. Or group catharsis. But that’s not how I try to keep my mindset. I write those songs so that I don’t have those negative thoughts and feelings sitting in my head. Ideally, best case scenario. That doesn’t always happen, but I try to keep that so the rest of the time I can be at least trying to feel better and to be better.

Tell me about how Fine, Just Thinking came together?

We had been wanting to record another EP this year and put out another EP before approaching a full length, just to kind of solidify the writing process. These three songs, we kind of wrote with the idea that we’d be placing them all together. Usually our writing process starts with our guitarist, Phillip, comes up with a guitar to us and we start working on it with the full band arrangement. Usually while we’re doing, especially after we get a solid recording, I start building lyrics around it. I have a constant songwriting journal going, so I always have a starting point to pull from that I can then adjust to the song, depending on what the vibe of the guitar part is. That’s usually how we start and we work from there.

All of these songs are songs that we had written for a while that we’ve been playing live locally. Playing some of them on tour last year. One of them we’ve had long enough that we’ve played last year. So yeah, we’ve been working on them since then and then we recorded them at the start of the year.

How do you feel your songwriting compares to your previous EP, Never Left Home? What lessons did you bring in from that EP that you used in Fine, Just Thinking?

I think there was a lot more confidence. The very first EP we did was before we had a solidified lineup. It was myself and Phillip still playing it. Everyone else has changed and I was still playing guitar on that one. The EP we put out before this, Never Left Home, was the first where we had the three solid, where we have now. We did a lot of experimentation with that: figuring out how we wanted to write, figuring out how we wanted to record. We just built a lot of confidence from that. We had a better sense of directions we wanted to go with that, and we were able to apply that to go into this release.

One of the coolest things about this release for us is that we actually recorded it in studio at Old House Studio with Daniel Hodges, which was an incredible experience. Everything else we had recorded before then had been self-recorded. So that was like the coolest experience.

I can imagine so. A lot of artists start to feel like they’re leveling-up when they’re in the studio space with an engineer, going through the detailed aspect of the experience.

Definitely! Some of the guitars on here are just cool guitars they had in the studio. Phillip was like, “I have to record one of the parts with this.” We tried really hard to get the in-studio glockenspiel on something, we just didn’t have time. It was definitely a great experience. We all love auxiliary instruments, so I’m sure the album will have a bunch of weird, random stuff.

You have a really thick, robust sound, so I’m really stoked to hear how this continues to shape your songwriting. Tell me about what inspired your new EP, Fine Just Thinking.

We really wanted to continue to just solidify our songwriting, building up to the album. I think there are a lot of leftover ideas and pieces from Never Left Home that we were continuing to explore in this EP. Not just sonically, but for myself, lyrically. There are a lot of ideas I feel I was starting to work with in the song “Your #1 Tourist” from our last EP, I put into our lead single, “Fear of Moving On, Part I.” There are songs that kind of flow together.

I love when releases start to flow together. You can really feel like you understand the narrative a songwriter has and their style. Let’s talk about some of the songs. Tell me about “Fear of Moving On Part I” and “Fear of Moving On Part II.” How did those songs come together?

Sonically, they came together quite literally because we just are suckers of Part I & II songs. We were all obsessed with Cosmic Thrill Seekers (Prince Daddy & the Hyena) when it came out last year. Phillip and I both love Arcade Fire, and Funeral is all Part 1, 2, 3, 4. So we were like, “We really want to do that! Let’s have a song tie into the other, that’s going to be so sick!” We wrote Part I first and then we were like, we’ve got this idea for Part II, what if we take that and find a way to tie them together.

Lyrically, they’re a little more separate in specific inspiration. But the similarities to me are that they’re both about caring for people who don’t want to be cared for, who are too sick to understand in whatever way. Someone trying to help them. Personally, that’s been a big struggle in my life and that shows up in a lot of different ways in a lot of different relationships. The songs come from two different examples of that but it always felt like the root of it, one of the root distressing things of it was wanting to care for someone who wasn’t wanting to accept help.

When you mention that, I think about how the opening in Part I, you have this concept of an emotional hospital. That’s amazing because people sometimes treat each other like mental emergency rooms.

I can’t take full credit for it in all honesty. The idea came from years and years ago, from my friend who is a writer poet. We were in high school, and I was talking about wanting to care for people who didn’t want it. And he said something to me along the lines of, “You’re not a hospital. It’s not your job to take care of all of these people.” When he said that, it was really impactful in a positive way. I’m also a super obstinate person so my gut reaction was “Why do I do it so well? Why do I keep doing it?” So I held onto it and then turned it into the song.

Part I feels so sonically driven with how it builds into this wall of sound. Is that sonic build-up a metaphor for a personal build-up or the build-up you see in others?

I think it’s definitely more reflective of my own internal build-up. I’ve always felt like it’s reflected a lot that way where I’m able to talk a lot more people down. Definitely have done that a lot in my life. I’ve been able to bring them to a point of peace or calmness. But the build-up doesn’t really stop in me.

When we were writing that build in that song, which sonically started just because we all have varying influences, one of them being various punk bands. Our guitarist and drummer also being influenced by Deafheaven. We were just like, what if we did blast beats at the end???

But lyrically, the very last line of the song in that big build-up is “At least I tried.” For me, I think that one of the lyrics that I’ve written that’s resonated as the most honest with that huge emotional build-up with nowhere to put it. If you’re trying to care for someone who doesn’t want to accept that help, it’s frustrating, painful, and heart-breaking. But at least you tried.

I think that’s why Parts I & II hit. I can feel all of the emotions you were trying to share. I really liked “November 9, 5 A.M.” with how different it sounds from the other two songs. I loved the upbeat with the haunting, with concepts like “ghosts in the sheets.” Could you share more on this one?

That song in general is about in a lot ways, coming out from the other side of what Parts I & II are about. It’s about being that very vulnerable person, it’s about trying to have and maintain relationships, specifically romantic relationships, while struggling with mental illness. It’s about not feeling like you’re able to give everything to someone or be able to be there, all of those fears and insecurities that pop up with that. I wanted to have that haunting quality from a lyrical and vocal perspective. I think the guitar part especially mirrors that well.

That song in particular went through a lot of development and changes while we were writing it. The first draft was super shoegaze-y and then it evolved into what it is now.

What’s your favorite development that came while writing that song, that you feel really “made” it?

I think it’s the build from the verse into the chorus. We had that song for so long. Like I said, it started shoegaze-y and then it was like “What if we tried a dance beat with it?What would that sound like?” It kept going and kept developing. I spent so long on those lyrics. We were a couple weeks from recording and had a date set, and it still wasn’t quite where we wanted, it just wasn’t quite what we want it be yet. One of suggested putting a build there. The second we put it in, that was it and that was what was missing. This is what we needed to have.

What’s something you really want your listeners to get out of Fine Just Thinking?

I think I would like people to get the same thing I kind of want from everything I put out, which is just a feeling of being understood. If someone relates to one of these songs and it makes them feel a little less alone, that’s the best I can hope for. I’ve always used music that way.

Music has been so important for me for my entire life. A lot of the time, it’s been the thing that’s helped me feel more stable and feel not isolated, which is a really big deal right now. I’ve always thought if I can share that and create that feeling for someone else, even just one other person, that’s all that I want.

Fine, Just Thinking is now streaming everywhere. Check out heckdang’s EP Release Telethon Stream on August 14 on Twitch.

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Amanda Starling | @starlingaj

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