FeaturesRed Handed Denial - Digital Dystopia

Red Handed Denial – Digital Dystopia

Returning triumphantly after 2022’s I’d Rather Be Asleep, Red Handed Denial are back with A Journey Through Virtual Dystopia, an album that makes the ‘hard to classify’ act even more of a challenge, in all the best ways. Expanding their sound in new directions without any inhibitions about the road ahead, Dystopia captures their strongest points and pulls them in exciting directions without losing their original sound and flavor. We were able to chat with vocalist Lauren Babic about the evolution of the band, how the band makes sure everyone is represented equally in the music, positives and negatives about the internet/social media and mental health, and even Babic’s solo work on YouTube, amongst other topics.

Dead Rhetoric: How did the recent tour with Unprocessed go?

Lauren Babic: The tour was incredible. It was our first tour back in a very long time, since COVID. We were kind of nervous but also really excited. It was a bit of a bittersweet tour, because our guitarist Chris [Mifsud] couldn’t come along, but he was there in spirit. We had Gerard Vachon fill in for him. So it made it a little bittersweet, but Chris was definitely there in spirit and we had him in mind at every show. But the tour went really well. Unprocessed is one of the nicest bands we have ever toured with. The comradery was incredible. It is always nice to have a very accommodating headliner.

Dead Rhetoric: Your new album, A Journey Through Virtual Dystopia is a concept album, or is it more of a common theme?

Babic: It definitely has a common theme. I think it became conceptual after the fact. We looked at the songs as a whole and realized that it was definitely a commentary on our feelings about the current landscape of social media and technology. So we rolled with that theme. I didn’t have that theme in mind prior to writing any of the lyrics. It just kind of happened, like a happy accident.

Dead Rhetoric: So it wasn’t this huge planned thing. It was more looking at the pieces afterwards.

Babic: Unlike Redeemer, where I had spreadsheets and storyboards – Redeemer was completely conceptual. This one was more like, “Oh, ok! This is happening!”

Dead Rhetoric: I feel like Red Handed Denial seems to enjoy shaking things up with songs and albums. How do you view the band’s evolution?

Babic: I think our primary goal with this band was to write exactly what we want. To make sure that every band member is represented in their inspirations. There’s an obvious evolution and sound change if you go through all our albums. We have been around for a hot minute – we have been doing this for over a decade. We have always wanted to put music first and not buy into any trends or any popular sounds. It was more about making sure we represent each person equally through our sound. With this album, Chris, for the first time had the co-producer role. He has stepped up his producing jobs. You can hear so much of his new skills represented in the album: a lot of industrial sounds, a lot of EDM, bits of lo-fi and future bass. He is really flexing his production skills.

You are going to hear a lot less of what I call “Nintendo music.” A lot of our old music is very Ninentendo-y, very tech-y, and math-inspired. We strayed a lot from that. Half of I’d Rather Be Asleep was very technical and like our old sound. But on this new album, you only get one Nintendo song [laughs], which is “Eat Glass.” This is us saying ‘fuck it.’ We want to do whatever the hell we want and exactly what we felt like in this moment. We didn’t want any preconceived rules or boxes to confine us.

Dead Rhetoric: As you were saying, you try to make sure everyone is represented equally. Do you do anything specific to ensure that? Or is it something that you feel comes naturally as a band at this point?

Babic: We have always been very diplomatic, and made sure that everyone signs off on every creative decision. Some things are vetoed if we feel it’s not a good idea. We always make sure everyone is happy and at the end of the day, there is no strong-arming any of the other members. The writing usually starts with Chris or myself, and then we build outwards. With this album, we did most of the songwriting in the studio, which we never do. We always go into the studio at like 99% prepared. I have my lyrics all done and my melodies written out. But for this album, I went in with absolutely nothing. I really wanted to challenge myself. We wanted to challenge ourselves to do an album front-to-back, and to make those decisions and really commit in those moments. So we went in very not-prepared. We just had a bunch of riffs, demos, and a couple vocal ideas. It was very scary, but I think that helped us work together in a very new way. It was very challenging but also rewarding in the end.

Dead Rhetoric: So was that more stressful?

Babic: Oh, it was so stressful [laughs]! We are a very over-thinking band, but I think doing it in this way allowed us to commit and not overthink. That resulted in I would say our best songs. We really focused on the songwriting this time. I think it was to our benefit.

Dead Rhetoric: So you said you are doing what you want to do, as a band, and not following trends. One thing that stands out to me as I go through comments on YouTube for Red Handed Denial is the number of times I see “why isn’t this band bigger?” I find myself asking the same question. You have a lot of very colorful instrumentation, your vocals are phenomenal. Do you feel its because you don’t go after those specific trends and stay more true to yourself that you, if I might say, are way less popular than you should be?

Babic: I think we have kind of proven ourselves – I think we are a good band. I think everyone knows that. I think it’s a loaded question in that it opens up questions about the music industry as a whole. More than ever now – it has always been about nepotism at the end of the day – and now more than ever, which I guess ties into the theme of the album, I do want to tell people that popularity isn’t what it seems. You will always get bands who have been signed for 15 years and have that foothold in the big time with major labels.

I will say, because our band has been DIY for 15 years. We are an independent band. We are on an indie label, but for all intents and purposes, we are an independent band. They aren’t throwing money at adverts, they aren’t throwing money at magazines. So it’s loaded because any major label is paying the press. It’s not like, ‘oh wow, why is this band getting so much exposure’ – it’s getting paid for. I do believe in organic growth, and I believe that some bands just blow up, virally. Look at Sleep Token. They went absolutely viral and I’m super happy for them. I think there are hundreds of thousands of bands that get lost in the ether, because of just how the industry is.

Unfortunately some bands just get chosen and some don’t. We have had an uphill battle for over 10 years. We have had many encounters with industry representatives and major labels, who tell us exactly who we should be and telling us that we need to do “X, Y, and Z to get big.” I think the one thing I am so proud of in Red Handed Denial is we have always stuck to our guns and never sacrificed who we are, or our artistic integrity to get ahead. At the end of the day, if I have to die on that hill I will [laughs]. There’s just so many stories and experiences that we have had with the industry that have been so negative and so corrupted, if that makes sense, that it is really not what it seems. It’s really sad, and I think our band is a testament to ‘we said no.’ We said no, we aren’t going to sacrifice who we are for any sort of fame. That’s the hill I will always die on [laughs]!

Dead Rhetoric: Yeah, I didn’t mean to make it quite as loaded as it came out. I didn’t hear it until after it came out of my mouth [laughs]. I usually try to avoid those…

Babic: Yeah, it was really loaded and it’s okay. I have talked about this in another interview. We have had labels ‘suggest’ that I wasn’t feminine enough or wasn’t dressing in a way that would be good for the band. We have had suggestions where labels have told us that we weren’t white enough, which is another whole issue, but it exists and it’s very cloak & dagger in this industry. I think, on so many levels, our band has an uphill battle. Our name is long – we have been told by labels that it is, and that we should change our name. We should dress a certain way, or that I need to stop screaming. Or that I need to dress like a goth princess. It is wild! It is absolutely wild! We just said no. We said no to all that. That’s just the truth [laughs].

Dead Rhetoric: Given the theme of the album, what are your thoughts on the positive and negative sides of the internet, technology, and mental health?

Babic: Oh my God! So I feel like during the pandemic, it shifted so much on so many levels. Everyone was home. I attest that period of time to my personal success on YouTube. I’m super grateful and blessed for that. But I think now that we are in the wake of the pandemic, it has kind of flipped the other way. I feel like social media has become kind of the opposite of what it intended. The landscape of how we consume media now is so different with the invention of the Infinite Scroll and Reels and TikTok. It has flipped everything on its head. I say this, without saying it, but I feel like it has killed art in a way. Now even down to the algorithms, it will only show people content in its rawest form.

You are seeing the decline of the music video. The whole concept of the music video – if you post a clip of a beautiful, high-budget music video, apps will only show it to a fraction of people. As opposed to those singers who pretend to sing at us in their kitchen while they make a coffee. It’s like, now it feels like the way to market yourself has to be indirect. You have to sell yourself but pretend to not sell yourself. Like, making a cool song and telling people about it isn’t enough anymore. It’s been flipped on its head. You are even seeing massive superstars, like Adam Lambert, for God’s sake, tweeting to the internet about ‘what do I need to do in order to get to you guys?’ I’m like, you’re Adam Lambert, you don’t need to be asking those questions! But the way in which social media has changed is causing so many mental imposter syndrome moments. Like, “Who am I and am I actually worth anything?” It’s so wild to me.

Now you are seeing so many young people saying that they want their career path to be an influencer or content creator. It’s like, “OK, that’s wild…but what do you do?” What skills can you bring? How will you make that monetizable? People just want to be a content creator to be a content creator. But what do you do? What will you make? What value will you bring? It used to be like, “I make cool songs, I should probably use social media to tell people about it.” But now it’s more like, “I want to be on social media to get followers but I don’t do anything.” It’s so opposite, and I think musicians now are struggling because we never intended to be this dancing monkey. It’s exhausting and so many of my peers just can’t keep up and feel like it’s too much. We are seeing so many people being burnt out.

Dead Rhetoric: I’m a high school teacher and I hear that all the time. You ask what they are do with their life, and you hear “I’m going to be an influencer!” But what you said is exactly what I say to them. What do you have to offer? 

Babic: Before I went full-time with music, I was a teacher too. I have my bachelors of education and everything. I always say that I can’t imagine going back into the classroom now. The last time I was in a classroom was 2019. I could not imagine going in post-pandemic.

Dead Rhetoric: What were you teaching?

Babic: I’m certified from kindergarten to grade 12, but I loved teaching high school. I did a lot of work in the special education department. I was working with kids on the spectrum. It was some of the most eye-opening and rewarding work I have ever done. I still think about those kids now. It’s been like 5 years since then, but yeah, I sometimes miss it.

Dead Rhetoric: So switching back to music, I wanted to talk specifically about “One More Night” because I absolutely adore it. It’s a phenomenal song and seems so different than other songs you have done before.

Babic: Thank you! “One More Night” was the second to last song that we wrote and recorded in the studio. We were kind of sitting there with Lee Albrecht, who is the main producer and engineer, and he mix/mastered everything. He said, “I feel like we don’t have that song yet” and I was like, “what do you mean?” He said that one radio-accessible single where everyone is singing along. So I decided we would write one. I had this melody in my head from our demos [hums a bit of the chorus] so we went with this chorus idea and built the song around the chorus. For whatever reason we were sitting there and trying to figure out how to start the song. So we thought about doing a Zedd-inspired EDM type intro. So I sat at the keyboard and messed around with different chord progressions and we came up with that intro. The song just kind of became itself.

After we were done, we thought it sounded so cool. It was totally out of left field. When we were trying to pick singles, we wondered if “One More Night” was a good or bad idea, and I really wanted it to be a single. I wanted it to have its time. It’s such a good song and so out of field for Red Handed Denial, but it’s just a good song. So we made it single #2, which is very ambitious for us but I don’t care, I think it’s a wonderful song and it’s my favorite song on the album. It’s so different and we really wanted to just make a good song.

Dead Rhetoric: You mentioned your time on YouTube. How do you continue to cultivate yourself as a vocalist outside of Red Handed Denial, and essentially a personality, on YouTube?

Babic: I hate being a personality. I just wanted to make cool songs. I didn’t want to have to be anybody, if that makes sense. But it sort of just became that. I’m super grateful for everyone, for whatever reason, chosen to follow me, but my favorite part is hearing people’s stories. How the music I have made has helped them. That’s the beacon that gets me through, having to make dumb videos like the ‘Sauce video’ or ‘Messing around with misplaced screams.’ I have a lot of fun with those, but I think those videos are a result of me having to remind people that I’m still doing it and I’m here.

At the end of the day, I want to make sure that I want to do it, and I’m doing things that bring me joy so that I don’t get burnt out. So I have a lot of fun doing misplaced screams, because I am a goofy person and I don’t take anything that serious. When I scream Nicki Minaj songs, I’m not doing it because I have to…I’m having a lot of fun [laughs]. I just want to bring people joy, and make sure I am still finding joy. That’s the most important part. I never want to do anything because it’s a chore or I have to. So finding those little things to keep myself grounded and finding joy is so important.

Dead Rhetoric: Who would you love to collaborate with, given the chance?

Babic: I would die to work with Rory [Rodriguez] from Dayseeker. I think, speaking of criminally underrated bands, I think Dayseeker should be the biggest band in the world. I think Rory’s voice is so special. He is absolutely incredible. I would love to also work with Periphery and Spencer Sotelo. I actually saw them play live last night and it really reignited why they are my favorite band. I was like, “Oh my God I love them so much!” They are so engrained in my story and my singing journey, so that would be a masterful full-circle moment for me if I could work with Spencer on a song. Those two singers are incredible in their own ways.

Dead Rhetoric: What are your plans for the rest of 2024?

Babic: This year is kind of like the original music year. The first half is the Red Handed Denial moment. But you can see original music from every one of my projects. CrazyEightyEight will have new music, which is very exciting. I’m also working on my own originals, so those will probably come out in the last quarter of this year. And Skylimit is working on new music as well! It’s going to be the year of original music. I will still do a few covers sprinkled in, but it’s new original music year, which is at the end of the day, what it is all about. Hopefully there will be more touring and more shows. We will see what opportunities arise, and hopefully we get one that is feasible for the band or myself. I hope there are some cool opportunities out there.

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