Without really knowing the girl — except through the aching emotional realm of her music — I feel safe in saying Annie Hardy is very socially awkward. When she talks, her delivery is a wobbly, weirdly defensive, yet completely hilarious pseudotough-girl deadpan. Like a good standup comedian, she just doesn’t seem right with the world. And why should she? She’s from Orange County. She’s smart. And she’s a songwriter. That alone is a recipe for a lifetime’s worth of fucked-upness and, in her case, artistry.
The 24-year-old Giant Drag frontwoman is sitting this late afternoon outside a Burbank Starbucks with a pumpkin spice latte and a cigarette, ruminating on life, music and the baggage that comes with hailing from a place that’s become mythological in American minds.
“When I say that I’m from Orange County, people think of The O.C., or the other show — Laguna Beach: The Real O.C.— and think I’m a rich kid,” she says. “San Clemente [where I grew up] is a beach town, but it’s a lot more middle class and lower middle class. My dad has always worked at a gas station, and my mom has always done... I don’t know what. She’s a playwright, but she’s always been an assistant secretary or something. We’ve never been rich.”
Still, it seems likely that, eventually, the wonder twins of Giant Drag — Hardy and her best friend, Micah Calabrese — will end up performing on The O.C. (And, no, that’s not an insult. The O.C.rules.) Maybe they’ll even replace Death Cab for Cutie as Seth Cohen’s favorite band. I mean, these kids are smart, funny and photogenic, and on their debut album, Hearts and Unicorns (Kickball Records), they make grand rock that combines lush harmonies, fuzzy guitars, girlie vocals and triumphantly heartbroken, cynical/romantic lyrics. Shit, Hardy’s real name is even Annie-Summer — which is, clearly, very The O.C.Her parents were “kind of” hippies, she says. “I think they mostly liked the music.” Lucky break: Hardy grew up listening to the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses.
So yeah, the beach-ghetto vibe is there, for those who suss it; no surprise, one of the band’s best early efforts was a homemade rendition of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” (available on their Web site). In fact, the layering of sounds and distortion on Hearts and Unicorns is so thick, it almost sounds as if there’s a wind blowing beneath the tracks.
Hardy, who now lives in Echo Park (the non-hipster, non-yuppie, all-Mexican part, she points out) — formed Giant Drag a few years ago with Calabrese after both had done stints in other bands. Local impresario Scott Sterling of the Fold gave them a monthlong residency at the Silverlake Lounge after he saw their third live gig — ever. Having witnessed one of those shaky first shows, I gotta give that guy credit for stellar ears and brass balls. Giant Drag had something indelible, even then, for sure — but they also had a long way to go. As Hardy puts it, “We sucked.”
A Spaceland residency followed, and since then it’s been a pretty steady ascent for Giant Drag professionally and creatively. In fact, compared to the band’s humble beginnings, Hearts and Unicorns — which they helped to produce — is so beautiful and bold and fully realized, it’s kind of a shock. (To be honest, my initial — horrible and sexist — reaction to hearing the record was, Wow, this doesn’t suck!) And that wall of sound provides a formidable backdrop for the small/huge voice, and peculiar POV, of Annie Hardy.
When Hardy’s mom was pregnant with her, she started writing thematic plays — about cats, AIDS and suicide. “Apparently, God spoke to her at a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert,” Hardy explains, “and told her what the name of the suicide play [Heavens North of Here] should be.” The cat play, which will be performed at the Stella Adler theater in the Valley this holiday season, is called Kitty Claws and the Magic of Dreaming. Hardy has always loved cats — she sings an entire chorus in “meows” on album opener “Kevin Is Gay” — and takes credit for inspiring the play. And the cat costumes featured in the “Kevin Is Gay” video? Yep — borrowed from mom.
Clearly born to play the guitar, Hardy found formal guitar lessons impossible as a child. “I just couldn’t understand it,” she says. “I learned how to play the riff from ‘Jeremy’ by Pearl Jam and was like, ‘What do I do with this?’” (She also upset her teacher by claiming she was God.)
Though formal musical training didn’t work, Hardy had already discovered the magic of a tape recorder as early as third grade. “I was always obsessed with toilet humor, and I’d take popular songs and sing into a tape recorder — like, ‘I’ve been around the world and I-yay-yay/I can’t find my toilet...’ I’d play them for my babysitting group. Eventually I got in trouble and had to stop.” Later, she improvised a multitracking system using a karaoke machine.
More or less an only child (she has a half sister 13 years her senior), Hardy went to four high schools and almost as many colleges. Her parents split up not long after she started high school, and her mom moved to the Valley. In a stroke of good fortune, during a 10th-grade stint at an Ojai boarding school, Hardy met a girl whose father was teaching her to play guitar. With a partner in crime and a proxy teacher, Hardy began to learn the guitar in earnest, finding in it the friend she had always needed: She spent the remainder of high school largely playing guitar in her bedroom. And then, in 11th grade, at yet another school (this time in Agoura Hills), a therapist diagnosed her with “school phobia” — “which is definitely the coolest disease I’ve ever had,” Hardy jokes.
Hah, hah. But, as Hardy explains it, high school was death: “I had no friends. I was so depressed. I managed to get out of there ’cause I refused to go to school.” She moved back in with her dad in San Clemente to finish out 12th grade.
As difficult as it must have been, perhaps, in artistic terms, Hardy’s teenage social awkwardness was a blessing in disguise: In its aural landscape, Hearts and Unicorns represents a complete sonic world where a girl like her doesn’t just fit in; she’s the queen. Maybe that’s why the record, paradoxically, feels so expansive and claustrophobic at the same time. Here, Hardy gets to sing about drugs, boys, love, hope, loss, sex, need and the unspeakable longing of youth. And waves. And secrets. Giant Drag’s lyrics are obscure and poetic — featuring guns, numbers, fists and dreams — and yet, somehow, the entire package of this glittering Pandora’s box of an album conveys the kind of sadness that nothing in the world but music or true love could ever heal. So far, it sounds like she’s got the music, anyway.
But what most people — journalists, especially — seem to notice first about Hardy is her sense of humor, which is intelligently juvenile and undeniably poop-based. (She talks about poop even when she’s not joking. It’s a favorite hammer in her toolbox of metaphors.) She’s also known for her onstage banter, which plays like comedy. And yet Hardy balks, ingenuously or not, at the attention.
“[People go], ‘You’re so funny! You’re so funny!’” she protests. “This two-page thing just came out in NME about us, and I don’t remember them even talking about the music. The big caption-quote they used was, ‘I used to draw pictures of wieners and slip them under the door while my mom was taking a shit.’ Why would anybody care about that? We talked for a long time — uh, didn’t think that would end up in there.”
But Hardy’s black sense of humor — stabbing herself in the thigh on the cover of her album, and titling songs “My Dick Sux” and “YFLMD” (short for “you fuck like my dad”) — is more than cool accessorizing. It’s a pressure valve keeping the whole thing from turning morose. Because, at heart, this is sad fucking music. And Hardy wants it that way. After all, Fiona Apple was one of her first big inspirations.
What this means is that Giant Drag are standing on a bit of an island right now in the indie-rock swirl. They’re a cool band, all right, but they’re not “cool” like Fraud Ferdinand and that crowd — the ones who move jerkily and make sounds Hardy refers to as “this new post-punk disco bullshit.” The Season of the Twitch has been a trying time for Hardy: “I hate [disco-punk]! It’s the worst!” she says. “It feels so void of any emotion to me. They’re all talking about [fey accent] discos. But there’s just been this giant diarrhea squirt of it all over L.A. and New York and London, I guess.”
(See? The poop.)
Hardy says she couldn’t jump a fadwagon if she wanted to, simply because she doesn’t have the technical ability. “I’m not one of those people who can choose what genre of music to play. I went back and listened to some of my old music — it’s like, I’ve been writing the same style stuff my whole life. Because I’m not that great a musician — which I’m kinda happy about, ’cause if I was able to rip stuff off, maybe I would do it.” Plus, with only one other person in her band, drummer/keyboardist Calabrese, creative options are limited. In short, as has happened throughout pop history, prior constraint and raw talent have resulted in musical originality.
“I always compare songwriting to taking a dump,” she adds. “They just come out; I don’t have much control. When you gotta go, you gotta go.”
Giant Drag will be leaving this week for a tour with L.A.’s all-girl wünderkinds The Like, who also came up playing in the Silver Lake club scene, and perhaps represent a privileged, Westside counterpoint to Hardy’s street-smart kind of girl power. Both bands are part of a surge of female-driven indie-rock bands here and just about everywhere (including The Kills, The Raveonettes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Metric, The Distillers, Rilo Kiley, The Donnas et al.).
I’m curious, though: For all her bravado and undeniable talent, does Hardy ever feel patronized as a girl — even today? “Yeah, a lot of the times I do,” she admits. “Being a girl, you just have to understand that people are gonna think the worst of you. When people see you setting up onstage, they’re gonna go, Oh, a chick band. I even have preconceptions when I see a girl up there. There’s nothing you can do about that until you start playing. Maybe change some of their minds, maybe not.”
She doesn’t take any shit, that’s for sure; and her comedic flair comes in especially handy against sexist retards. “On our last tour [in the U.K.] guys would yell out, ‘Show us your tits.’ But the good thing is that I usually have something to say that shuts them up. The second time I heard that, I was like, ‘I’m not gonna be responsible for showing you your first pair of tits. So keep it in your pants, buddy.’ And the whole crowd just started laughing and applauding.