When you make plans to go out for the night they probably don’t involve wrestling your friends, throwing punches, and standing on guy’s faces. For Nora Singh, it’s just another night on tour. Singh is the frontperson for LA’s “queencore” art-punk band, Hit Bargain. They released their debut self-titled EP in 2016 and became known for their ferocious sound and unpredictable live shows. Their new full-length debut, Potential Maximizer, has more of their thrilling sound while providing commentary on the current political state. Singer Nora Singh spoke with Chicago Music while waiting for a flight to Canada about the new album, her love of Bruce Willis, and changing the way we think about live shows.
CM: Hit Bargain’s debut album Potential Maximizer came out last month and it’s one of the most exciting releases of the year. Congrats!
Nora Singh: Well, thank you! I’ll take it.
CM: What helped influence the material for the album?
NS: This album came together while we were all living in different places. I was splitting time between New York and Ohio where my partner’s from and the rest of the band was in LA. What inspired the material is the current political climate. We had our first rehearsal the night of the election. We were watching the returns come in at the bar. We were touring for a week and it was pretty much the worst tour ever, but as an artist what else are you gonna do in a time of crisis but your art? By the time we made it back to Brooklyn, it was like everyone had gone through all the stages of grief and we were ready to punch a hole in the sky. I was taking all of that, filtering it and processing everything that’s going on in the world and extracting all these themes like xenophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism. I hope the meaning comes through, but once it’s released into the world it becomes its own thing. People are gonna infuse it with whatever kind of meaning they want to it as they should. That’s what it’s for.
CM: Hit Bargain really started getting noticed in 2016 when you performed while standing on a guy. How did that concept come about and what was it like performing in that situation?
NS: So (laughs) it’s a pretty impactful image. It’s a visual joke and I really liked the idea of smashing the patriarchy by smashing a guy’s face with my feet. I found this trampling fetish named Matt on an online forum. I contacted him and we had a photo shoot with a good friend of mine from New York. It went really well and I felt comfortable around him. The first performance was at this bowling alley called All Star Lanes and I invited some friends of mine to stand on him with me and it was a really good time. The reactions of some of my other friends and the audience were just awesome. Their jaws were hanging on the ground. Meanwhile, I’m grinning ear to ear and bouncing on this guy. And he’s a huge guy; he can take it. He wants people to try to break his nose or leave marks on him; that’s how he gets his kicks, literally. It’s not something we do every show. I feel like we’re moving away from it because of how subversive it is to view this white cis male fantasy. We’re heading towards something where the dynamics are a bit different like its only femes or it’s just queer people, which we’ve done in San Francisco. We can continue to explore these themes that way.
I think the concept of Potential Maximizer is this sort of Ted Talk joke where it’s like Hit Bargain can help you maximize your potential. If you give us ten easy payments of 9.99 then we’ll help you maximize your potential. So, the stage show kind of revolves around that. Even our name Hit Bargain – we’re named for what used to be a 99 cent store in LA near where I worked. It’s the idea of making hits that eventually end up in the bargain bin. We’re making art but ultimately it becomes trash and we ourselves die and become garbage too. Everything’s temporary; that’s why you should laugh about it.
CM: Your shows sound exciting and more unique than what we think a rock concert should be. You’re leaving a lasting impression with the audience and in 2018 where you have access to everyone and anything at any time you want that feels pretty special.
NS: Yeah, you can gain access to anything online. Why should I actually go out and pay money for a show when I can just download the songs for free or I can watch music videos? But if you know we’re performing and it’s sort of performance art and physical comedy and it’s going to be different every night then that’s enough for you to come out, you know. I want to give people that experience.
At our first show, I wrestled a friend of mine. I thought I could pick him up as a tribute to Andy Kaufman, but he turned out to be heavier than I thought so we had to fake it. In the process of fake fighting, he started to really fight me back. It was the combination of aggressive music and me shoving him around and then he decided he was gonna fight me back. It was really great because it was authentic. It was a situation with all this tension and uncomfortableness where everyone involved wasn’t sure what to do, like is this okay?
People traditionally associate that sort of high energy with male performers, like Iggy Pop or Henry Rollins. Maybe their female counterparts are also high energy, but it’s a different sort of thing. Maybe they’re not as confrontational or as close to other people. Because I don’t always identify as female I give myself permission to take on this more traditionally masculine persona. Also, I think as a female-bodied person, I kind of get away with interacting or physically touching people more because they don’t expect it. They think I won’t actually fuck with them. Then they’re confused and surprised. Some people hate it.
CM: It sounds like fun! It seems like back in the day rock shows were supposed to be a place where anything could happen. Now it’s very calculated. Even the things that are supposed to be a surprise are part of the script.
NS: It is fun, but some spaces are limiting and it’s a drag. I feel like performing in a space where people expect certain things to happen is limiting. It’s like a format they’re expecting or this is the only way we do this thing in this space. That colors your relationship with the art. I think that some music benefits from not being in obvious limitations. People should give themselves permission to explore how they shouldn’t play. Let’s question it which artists should do. Let’s question the rules. That’s why we like to perform in spaces that are a bit off the beaten path, not necessarily just punk houses but other rock spaces. We’d like to do more of that, like get a generator and play a laundromat. We’re working on it.
CM: In a previous interview, you mentioned Hit Bargain is like a joke band and you compared yourself to an aging action hero, which seems like a weird way to describe yourselves. What about Hit Bargain makes you say you’re a joke band?
NS: Not like a joke band, but that we joke around a lot, kind of like Shellac. That’s my Chicago reference for ya. We make this really hard, punishing serious music but on stage the banter is ridiculous. We’re just a bunch of nerds hanging out. For me, I’m the oldest in the band, I’m a new parent and it takes a bit of a toll on me. I’ve lost my voice a few times which has never happened to me in 20 years. It’s one of those moments where you have to admit you’re human and it totally sucks, you know? I’m not invincible anymore! My knees are starting to hurt going up and down stairs from all those times I bounced on stage. I’m like Rocky and they’re calling me in for one last fight. They’re like no it’s fine. We’ll do a musical montage where you do three pushups. Even though you’re 60 you can totally outrun a train and jump out of an airplane without a scratch. But yeah, on this tour I’m packing a personal sinus steamer. I also spoke with my voice teacher before we left and she gave me some pointers. You gotta take care of yourself.
CM: Yeah, it’s a hard lesson you learn when you get older. It’s like you can’t stay up late, you can’t eat all this delicious junk that maybe you could –
NS: Yeah! I gotta cut out dairy! Things change, but it’s kind of like a pivot. I don’t want to get to the point where you become a caricature of yourself. You make youthful music, you try to be part of a youthful movement, but after a while, you gotta step down. Give somebody else the floor. You think you’re still relevant, but maybe your time is up. That’s not to say you have to stop making art or stop being a voice at a certain age, but I think you can change direction or put another spin on it. I’ve got a few more years in me yet. I’m not done.
CM: So, if you’re an action hero, which one are you?
NS: I would say John McClain. We have a personal affinity for Bruce Willis and Die Hard. Die Hard’s cool because he’s the first everyman action hero. He’s a normal beat cop who goes to LA at Christmastime to meet up with his estranged wife and they have kids. It’s also interesting because she’s this high-level career woman. It was almost unheard of to choose the career over family [at the time]. They’re getting together to see if they can make it work and he feels like a fish out of water. He ends up saving the day and getting tangled up with these terrorists.
CM: He seems to be a really popular choice. A lot of people love Bruce Willis; he is pretty cool.
NS: It’s kind of funny because in the past five years it’s become this Christmas movie. People are trying to use movies that aren’t exactly Christmas movies. It’s just a movie that happens to be set around Christmas; it’s not like A Christmas Story or Elf. I think it’s more relatable to people who didn’t have a Hollywood Christmas experience growing up. It’s a little ironic. People feel more comfortable with irony these days than actually being sincere. And that’s something that confuses people about our band. My stage performances are pretty in your face but in interviews, I’m not like that. If I was like how I am on stage all the time I’d be fucking annoying. Nobody wants that. I have the microphone, I have free range to be an asshole. That’s performance art. It’s a show. I’m not a musician; I’m a performer. Maybe we’d be a bigger band if I were able to keep the shtick up and just say a bunch of bullshit in interviews, but it’s nice to be nice.
CM: Yeah, especially now when more people should be nice to each other. And we see musicians who have a shtick and they keep it up in interviews and it’s tiring.
NS: It’s exhausting! We’re all working on intersectionality. We don’t need to be divisive right now. We need to come together. We have bigger fish to fry. We have to get a known rapist out of the White House. It’s like the U.S. is falling behind in terms of how we treat other humans in this world. I don’t think it’s gonna be any kind of benefit for me to be an asshole to the next writer from Chicago.
CM: Finally, Potential Maximizer is a great record, but there’s so much more to it. What do want people to walk away with after they listen to the album?
NS: It would be cool if they could see the album as a whole piece. I don’t think people really listen to music that way anymore. If not with this album then maybe for the next. If we could write a solid cohesive chunk of music that somebody will listen to from start to finish, I would really be proud about that. But it could be worse. I get to go to the East Coast and Canada with three people I like to spend time with and make music and perform for other freaks. Hopefully, those freaks will like the thing I do and buy a t-shirt so we can pay for gas to make it to the next town.