Female President are:
Dréa Atkins (guitars and vocals)
Johnny Moss (bass)
Jasper Cunningham (drums)
Female President released their impressive EP “Our Time to Grieve” in September 2022, including the rather wonderful “Bring Back the Ghosts” that we all loved here at the magazine; it has this big, anthem style sound. Also check out the drum and rhythm section on that one, solidly executed!
A family trio from North Carolina, they just popped back on our radar with the new single, and anti-war number called “Enflamed in Effigy.” With all the troubles in the world right now it seemed a great time to chat to the guys and find out what we can about this new ‘ish’ band, formed in the flames of 2020’s lockdown.
We were joined in conversation by Dréa Atkins and Jasper Cunningham, navigating storms and time differences.
Starting off with a random question, as Brits we are all fascinated with US politics as it plays out on our social media and television. It’s a great band name, Female President, but why is it that the US has never had a female president yet? It seems mad really. Over here we have had three female Prime Ministers and the Queen as Head of State was there for decades! What’s going on over there? Just speaking to an American, we suddenly would like to know!
Dréa: I wish I could give you a definitive answer. I have long had that same frustrated question. I think it comes down to the American duality where they saw the woman as a President like a ‘mam’ President! But we have seen things change a bit, in St. Paul, Minneapolis, elected an all female council, the first ever in US history. But US politics is still very conservative and some are uncomfortable with a female.
Well, you do have a female vice-president, so perhaps when Biden nods off she takes over! But onto the music. As a family trio, they were all in other bands, but (presumably) all decided to get together and create this band as a unit.
Dréa: We have all been in other bands, some of us were in bands that were well established. Johnny was in a band that was around for sixteen years, but he was in multiple bands. I was in a band for about five years and we were going quite strong. Jasper has been in bands since he was nine with School of Rock and when the pandemic hit, all of the bands went on hiatus, nobody could practice. That time apart from bands made us realise that we can do our own thing and it became so much better!
We loved that swaggering commercial rock sound that came with “Bring Back the Ghosts,” it had a great sound, full of confidence and a massive nod to the drum section on that! The new single has gone a lot more grungy. Is that a general move toward a more grungy sound, or was it just that it suited this single better? Or are you still finding out as a band where you musically want to be?
Dréa: I think it’s more of the second. When I’m writing the genre just comes from whatever it is I’m feeling. We wish in some ways we slotted better into one sound, but there are so many influences we talk of surfing the song, what is best to make it come to life.
And that drum sound?
Jasper: I use a Gretsch Catalina drum kit and a lot of the cymbals were customised from different kits, it’s very reverberant with the white heads and it brings more of a club sound.
Mark’s son loves the drums, he’s doing great things on an electronic kit at the moment (bought as the neighbours would otherwise complain!).
Jasper: They are a bit limited due to their size, as they are a bit tiny if you are trying to do something fast. Also the synthetic heads can’t be hit as hard. But it is easier to manipulate and for those neighbours it really helps!
The new single is a political track. Although we really try to avoid politics in the magazine, we are aware of the close connection music does have with politics and conflict. Music is much more than “I love you” or “I done my woman wrong” – look at the anti-war movement with Vietnam and so forth.
Dréa: I agree, and dating myself a bit, I was a child when ‘Live Aid’ was on and that left a huge impression on me. As you said, music is so much more than – I love Madonna and can get in that groove- but it has a purpose too as a platform for social change. I am very involved with social change and justice. When I was writing the lyrics of this song, I actually wrote them five different times as every time I wrote them there would be another crisis in the world. So every verse tackles a crisis we face right now. Rob does the mixing for us, as we do our own recording in the home basement studio. Rob had the idea to put the word “now” that I sing over and over in the bridge, as he felt this was not from the past, this was happening now in real time. That is why we went for a grungier feel on the track, to make people pay attention.
Absolutely. There is a track called “Saints of Heartache” from 2022 that is a kind of harder, roughed up Bon Jovi, but the new one has more angst and is dirtier for sure. So where are the band now, what are the plans for 2024? Is there a build up of original material being done to take out on the road?
Dréa: The route forward is to create a repertoire of around 15 songs that are fully original before we set out to do any form of touring. Right now we have about 10. So we are working on three EPs of five originals and so we are almost complete with ‘The Healing Ritual’, we have one song left. And that will be released in March. It is 100% different from “Enflamed in Effigy,” it’s more like a funky lullaby! The previous EP reflected on my dad’s passing, it was the grieving process along with the bad news of the world, all wrapped up in my dads long drawn out death. That EP contained those five songs on that theme, songs like “Elegy for my Father.” The new EP is more about us recovering from all that as a family and being upset that people are not more appreciative of the time we have. That is why the whole anti-war thing is there, because life is precious, we are here for too short a time. So that is the movement. The next EP we are working on with a projection toward the Summer. It is about the time that you wasted as a teenager! Don’t get hung up on the small stuff, live life.
Songwriting is very therapeutic, as is poetry. Writing we find can help us through difficult times.And anti-war songs can really hit the mark. A favourite here at the magazine is Sting’s “Russians” with those lines,
“There is no monopoly on common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology, regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too” (Lyrics by Sting)
Dréa: I remember as a kid “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (U2) being a song that I felt was one of the best I have heard. I do love the bands that explore the theme, I love Sting’s delicate way of putting it. It is a message that can’t have sunk in yet unfortunately.
We moved to a discussion on the general state of rock music in both the US and UK, and noted the sales reliance on the older established bands. We wondered if the conservative line taken by record stores in what they were stocking was a pattern in the US as much as it is here.
Dréa: For the US, rock is still really prevalent here. There are a lot of bands coming through that are heavily influenced by grunge and nu metal, that is still a huge element of music here. But hip-hop is a massive genre here and then there are new pop artists all the time. Go into a record store now and there will be a couple of niche record stores that will stock only newer bands. There is one in Charlotte that has a whole section for break-out artists. But we consume so much here.
We have had an upswing in Americana and country rock at the moment.
Jasper: I’m listening to a lot of alternative rock right now and nu metal. I am making stuff related to that. But I also like classic rock and that influences me in my drumming.
And how does the songwriting divide up in the band?
Jasper: It’s mostly mam! I do everything percussion wise and Johnny plays bass lines. But she provides the main ideas, the guitar parts and the vocals. So she definitely gets things started and then we pitch in, adding on.
Dréa: I wrote mostly on bass in the past, and I found it was easier. Now, I will write everything on acoustic guitar first and I will play it for them. If they think there is something in it, then I will start exploring it and Johnny is a lyric filter, he is a sounding board for lyrics.
For the independent artist immersed in their own work in the basement studio, it can be easy to get lost within your own work. Outside producers are expensive, so how are the quality control brakes applied internally? Do you bash it around and chuck a few out?
Dréa: I think the word ‘bash’ sums it up! We know each other so well, so we don’t pull punches. If they don’t like something then they tell me. If I’m stuck then I absolutely ask for help from Jasper, as he plays guitar. I think we have a good give-and-take relationship with songs. I may bring a song but it’s never ‘this is my idea and this is how we do it’ – it is more collaborative once we flesh it out. When we released “Bring Back the Ghosts” we released it as a mix that I tried out myself and it was terrible, but it was a full moon, so out it went! But then the comments began to come in from producers saying they liked the song and would love to mix it. They said how bad it was, and they knew they could fix it. So we heard from a few and landed with a local producer in Charlotte, a lovely guy and he has a phenomenal ear. When we are ready we have an exchange of ideas. So there is outside professional help.
We are being introduced to music in new ways too. Radio has declined in importance a bit as streaming platforms have taken a lead in getting new music out to the masses.
Jasper: I know it’s about Spotify streams, but radio seems to still matter.
Dréa: Jasper is no fan of social media! I do a lot of the actual social media posting, but it’s Johnny who does the artwork, he’s really creative with the reels. We are putting more emphasis this year on doing social media, it matters for bands. I think we have resisted long enough. I’m not a big fan of social media either really, but I have to do it for the band; and for something I don’t really enjoy I seem to spend a lot of time doing it! But it is effective to reach people. We otherwise would never have met people.
It does work, it was Stevie from the magazine who heard the new single on Instagram and she passed it down the line! As a closer, what was the last album you listened to from beginning to end, and did you enjoy it?
Jasper: I’m always listening to albums back-to-back. Last one was Gojira “The Way of All Flesh” (2008). I thought it was really good. I like Gojira, I feel they have a unique metal sound, and I always enjoy metal. I listen to so many albums.
Dréa: I listened to “Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits” yesterday. Johnny is a huge music fan, we have a record player in the dining room and we listen to records all day long, as long as he’s home.
And last question, which musician that you have never seen live, alive or dead, would you most like to see? And at what time of their career?
Dréa: I’m still looking to see PJ Harvey live, I’ve been a huge fan for so long. I think she is coming to the US soon and I am holding out to see her!
Jasper: I want to see Korn! I’ve seen Slipknot and a few others, but I want to see Korn!
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By Lorraine Foley
Mark C Chambers