Preening presently thrives as this wonderfully terse and honking punk act from Oakland, California. The band members—Alejandra Alcala (bass/vox), Sam Lefebvre (drums) and Max Nordile (sax/vox)—are all fixtures in various local punk and punk-adjacent communities, each playing in multiple bands, making art and actively assessing and reshaping things from the inside. Vibrant, great people, all three. Both as individuals and as a band, I’ve found their presence to be inescapable in recent years, startled by how naturally skillful and true their whole manner is. In my from-the-sidelines charting of their activities, both live and on record, I’ve seen them fully splinter from the referable framework from which they seemingly sprang. Preening’s most recent dispatch comes in the form of 2019’s Gang Laugher, their debut album released via Digital Regress, a very wise and fairly irresistible collection of songs and one of my very favorite records of this year.
The band and I gathered for a chat at my place one recent sunny early evening. Pizza and drinks were supplied as butter-up aids. Alejandra endured a root canal earlier in the day, but they allowed her to keep the remnants of a dead nerve they extracted. As the sun went down, some of us loaded said nerve into a pipe a smoked it, which I believe technically counts as cannibalism.
Above photo by Kevin Brown.
Max: These are nice succulents. Sam, did you check out this bowl?
Sam: We rock with some of this on our porch. What do they call it—Pork & Beans? Something like that. We got one of those. It’s spreading rapidly.
MRR: We stole the clippings for nearly all of those. I read an article this morning about how some French tourists stole sand off a beach and now they’re facing up to 6 years in jail.
Sam: Yeah, white sand from that one beach. Fourteen water bottles full.
MRR: That’s an excessive amount of sand-taking.
Sam: Yeah, they said it was a souvenir.
Alejandra: That’s a lot of sand.
Max: What are you gonna do with it?
Sam: People sell it.
Alejandra: Damn. Whole of bottles of it? Just fill up the bottom of your shoe with it. It’s already there anyways. Walk it out!
Sam: Yeah. Wear rain boots.
Max: Fill up some condoms of it. Then you can swallow it.
MRR: A sand mule.
Max: Yeah. And then you get ‘em later. I dunno. Kind of a no-brainer. You know what I’m talking about.
MRR: I’ve been listening to Gang Laughter a bunch over the last few days. It’s begins with “Dogtown Top Ranking.” When you look up Dogtown on this Oakland Wiki neighborhood thing online, there’s a picture that was taken right in front of this place, near that green fence across the street.
Max: Of that green fence?
Alejandra: Like of those flowers?
MRR: No, from the street, so you can see down this block. And Max and Sam live right around the corner from here. Alejandra, do you live in the neighborhood too?
Alejandra: I currently live in West Oakland. Just moved to West Oakland. But I’m from Oakland. I lived in East Oakland most of my life.
Sam: That song is one of few that I wrote the lyrics for. It’s about coming to Oakland along the 580. It references a mix of landmarks, but not popular landmarks. More like landmarks to Preening. The title of it is an allusion to the Althea & Donna song “Uptown Top Ranking” and some of the other lines are allusions too. There’s a line about windmills over Altamont, which is a reference to the Husalah song “Cuddie,” where he talks about “dumb windmillin’ like the hills of Livermore,” which is a super iconic line to my mind. There’s a line about OGP, meaning Oscar Grant Plaza. There’s a line about OMC, meaning Oakland Music Complex, where we used to rehearse. What other lines are there? I dunno. There’s like four lines… There were more, but Alejandra didn’t like them.
Alejandra: I don’t even remember them. Did I not like them?
MRR: Did you have veto power over them?
Alejandra: I was singing it. I think I just clipped them… I didn’t wanna memorize all of them.
Sam: You did veto about half the lines. It was a little painful, but I respect it.
Max: Compromise is pain.
MRR: Well, I could see my place on the internet, and it was all because of your song.
Max: Well, you’re a fellow Dogtown resident.
MRR: I do live here. [Conversation momentarily descends into Sam and Max’s seething suspicions about why they don’t ever encounter me at our neighborhood liquor store.]
Sam: Actually, I’d like to take this opportunity to plug Dogtown Sausage, a spin-off enterprise by the proprietors of the store we’re talking about.
MRR: Isn’t that in East Oakland though?
Max: Mitch knows already! I knew it!
Sam: At Seminary and International. So-named for where we are right now.
MRR: Your band started in 2016?
Alejandra: Yeah. It started in May 2016. I was asked to join in May, and we started practicing in June.
Max: You were asked to join the band within seconds of Sam being asked to join the band.
MRR: Max, you did all the asking?
Max: I just sent a text message to two people that I knew of.
Alejandra: No. You sent me a Facebook message asking if I wanted to jam with you. I was like “Oh my god, yeah!” Then I sent you my number.
Sam: Then our first show was in September.
Alejandra: At The Salt Lick.
Max: September 22nd.
Alejandra: With The World. And Nots.
Max: And that Doors cover band from Portland…What are they called? Sleeping Beauties.
MRR: Sam, was this when you lived there?
MRR: That was your first show? I was there. I spilled beer on your floor and then I apologized to you. And then we got thrown out.
Sam: I don’t remember any of that. I didn’t throw anyone out.
Max: Sam’s bike got stolen at that show.
Sam: I don’t remember if it was that show or another one.
MRR: Well, I spilled beer in your house and mopped it up with my sweatshirt.
Sam: You didn’t need to do that…There’s no insulation, so anything that spilled just drained into the bar downstairs (Merchants). One time, a weed operation there sprang a crazy leak and there were some people from Merchants knocking on the door. “Yeah, there’s just like…water… And it smells like weed! It’s spilling into the bar. Come take a look.”
MRR: Wait, someone from Merchants complained about a bad smell? That’s gotta be the first time that’s ever happened.
Sam: I had to go into Merchants and categorically deny that I knew anything about it. But it was awesome to live there when the band first started because of that huge common space that you saw, where we had gigs. That was also where we rehearsed and where we recorded our first demo. We got to be in this enormous light-filled room that sounded naturally fantastic.
Max: It was also helpful that the room was so big because we could take breaks. We’d practice a bunch and then stop to chill. That was where we came up with the band name and everything.
Sam: Yeah, I could get on my bike and ride in circles.
Alejandra: I miss practicing there! They had a great bagel shop that was right there nearby.
MRR: It’s gone now.
Alejandra: What?!?!? That’s sad.
Sam: The guys who ran it were jerks. I hope they went to hell. They were only mean to women.
MRR: Was the first demo done at The Salt Lick too? I listened to that demo today.
Max: I’m sorry. It’s pretty different, right?
MRR: Quite different.
Alejandra: That was a funny one. Max decided to use that thing for his sax that we had never even used before. What was it…a delay pedal?
Sam: Yeah. We fucked up.
Max: Yeah. I wanted to play sax through a delay pedal for some reason.
Sam: It was a last minute decision and we immediately regretted it.
Alejandra: We had just done the whole thing though, so we just said fuck it.
Sam: Ever since then, we’ve been insistent on having bone-dry everything.
Max: Yeah. No effects.
MRR: Your second tape is way different as well…But it doesn’t have “Bless My Haters” on it.
Max: Which is the very first song we ever wrote.
Alejandra: That is our first song!
Max: Written at our first practice.
MRR: That’s the one that stands out the most from the first demo.
Max: Thank you.
Sam: Yeah, that’s a pretty good song.
Max: It’s the only one we still play.
Sam: Didn’t you see a bumper sticker that said that on it?
Max: Yeah. I was riding my bike the day before we were gonna practice. I thought that I better show up with some lyrics because I think I’m gonna be singing. And then I saw a car with a bumper sticker that said, “Bless My Haters” and then the rest…happened.
MRR: Did you anticipate people hating it?
Alejandra: We didn’t really think about that at all.
Max: Yeah. Meanings come afterwards.
MRR: OK… You do the two demos in pretty rapid succession then?
Max: The second one we recorded on tour with Joey.
Alejandra: Is that right? In Shelton?
Max: Yeah. We went on our very first tour with a cassette tape as merchandise to sell and maybe thirteen songs total.
Alejandra: We had a shirt! We had buttons. We had a tape…
Max: It was our first tour. Fuck it.
Alejandra: We did fine though. It was good.
Sam: It was about a two week Pacific Northwest tour.
Max: It was memorable. We stopped in Shelton, WA, about twenty minutes west of Olympia and stayed with some of our friends out there.
Sam: We played a show in Olympia at The Flap House in a basement, which was awesome, with the great Scrivener. We drove to Shelton after the show.
Alejandra: And we all got tattoos.
Max: I don’t recall the order all this happened in… It checks out.
Sam: Shelton is out in unincorporated Washington. Dirt roads. These are some Olympia punks that live on this big piece of land. They have a garage that’s been converted into a recording studio. A big double-wide, some assorted structures, busses spread out all along this property.
Alejandra: A cool spot though. Lotsa land.
Max: Shout out to Shelton punks. Great people.
Sam: The morning after the show, we wake up and basically set up our gear and endeavor to record all the songs we had at the time.
Max: We recorded for eight hours straight. Tracking, overdubs, mixing. Then we loaded out, got in the van and drove to Portland to play a show.
Sam: It was a pretty frantic day, but it was cool.
Max: Under duress.
Sam: We did some pretty cool stuff on that recording.
Alejandra: We broke some bottles in a bucket with a brick.
Sam: I have a vivid memory of recording “Associated Press” and using this space heater that makes an alarm when you tilt it. That and the power drill. Turned out really well.
Max: Crucial overdubs. So, the sessions from that resulted in two 7″s and a tape of the things that didn’t quite fit in on either of them.
MRR: It seems like you guys skip town a lot. That seems like the way to do it.
Sam: We’ve toured quite a bit.
Alejandra: Yeah. It’s really nice.
Max: It seems like the best way to get used to the songs. I feel like I really get to know the songs, get acquainted with playing with everyone, in front of an audience, in the moment.
MRR: Or just not playing in front of the same audience…
Max: Or to no audience!
Sam: I feel totally energized by our songs when we’re in a week or two into tour. I feel like they start to transform. I feel kind of intoxicated by it in a way that I never do at a local show.
MRR: So, where does the Nice Dice come in? Is that from this same session as the album?
Sam: No. They’re recorded at the same place. For the Nice Dice 7″, we recorded with Zachary James Watkins at Santo, which was a total pleasure. He was super encouraging of some of our ideas for taking advantage of the studio space there. Notably going out on to the porch with a snare drum and playing dice on the snare, with a mic hanging over it and Zach making feedback over all that, which is what you hear on all the interludes throughout that record.
MRR: You’re playing dice almost every time I see you around. It figures pretty heavily in your band.
Alejandra: We’re a dice band, absolutely. We were selling packets of dice on tour.
Max: Oh, that was our other merch!
Alejandra: I worked at the East Bay Depot and we had this giant bucket of dice. So, I just took a bunch of them and sold packets of them.
Sam: Shout out to The Depot for inspiring Alejandra’s song “Work Policy.”
Alejandra: It’s true.
MRR: No other gambling beyond that?
Sam: I think I’m the only gambler.
Alejandra: Sam’s the gambler, for sure. He goes to Oaks. [Oaks Card Club, a card room just a few blocks away.]
MRR: But you do play dice for money?
Sam: We’re not monsters. You’ve gotta put some cash on the table. It’s a stupid game otherwise.
Alejandra: Yeah, we’re not doing this for fun.
Sam: But the dice—and this is not a super intentional idea—is an irreverent reference to chance operations and encouraging elements of indeterminacy in our music.
MRR: That leads me to your album. In terms things that are said or written about your band, there’s a lot of mention of no-wave. I don’t really think about that with the album. I think it’s a lot more intentionally musical.
Max: Well, we’re not a jam band.
MRR: That doesn’t come across either. But I saw something where Sam made loose mention of Gang Laughter being a concept record. Is there any truth to that?
Alejandra: Is it a concept record?
Sam: It’s not particularly a concept record. I think I said something to the effect of it being a concept record about us laughing at ourselves and laughing at the music industry, in sort of an off-the-cuff manner. I will say that is definitely what I was thinking about when I proposed the album title, but it was certainly not a guiding idea behind writing those songs.
MRR: It didn’t immediately present itself as a concept record or anything, but it did make me think that things seemed a lot more musical, at least in comparison to the singles. It’s a far less abrasive.
Max: Well, some of us learned to play our instruments a little better.
MRR: I didn’t want to insinuate that you didn’t know how to play prior, but it does seem there’s a lot of improvement in terms of the horn playing.
Sam: There are more intentional, melodic ideas with the saxophone than there are on our earlier records. It’s also the most cleanly produced record of ours, which I think we had misgivings about at first. I think we were a little surprised by how naked it sounded when we first heard it. But I don’t feel that way anymore.
MRR: I think it really works to your benefit.
Max: I agree. We also have very austere instrumentation. There’s only so much you can do with it, so I think at some point we realized there were limitations and we wanted to take one step beyond and see what would happen.
Sam: This band has been a band for longer than just about any other band I’ve been in and I’m personally challenging myself to justify the longevity of this band. I think when we were coming up with songs for the record that was present in my mind. I didn’t think it was a given that Preening needed to make another record at that point. I think we made a pretty worthwhile statement with what we already had and that we were at risk of diluting that statement. I really didn’t want that to happen.
MRR: Well, it’s clear you didn’t simply make your singles over again.
Sam: That was exactly the idea, yeah.
Max: I’m not trying to make every horn part that I play tuneless skronk…
MRR: That’s the main thing that I think about with your record. Alejandra and Sam—the rhythm performances all begin so compact and tight but really expand, even over the course of (generally) 90 seconds. Things eventually swell to a point and Max fills the rest of the space.
Sam: Leading up to that recording session, I spent three months practicing the egg shaker, just because I wanted it for about fifteen seconds on one song. It was important to me.
Alejandra: Well, you nailed it!
Sam: And to pick up on something you said earlier about no-wave…I think, to our credit, this album hasn’t prompted the comparisons to no-wave that our first tapes and 7″s did.
MRR: I don’t think it’s a very good comparison anyway. For the album, I think about stuff on ESP Disk, older things.
Sam: Thank you. But even with no-wave, that’s kind of how Max and I became friends.
Max: Wait, is it?
Sam: When we were working at 1-2-3-4-Go! Records, I think you respected me more once you noticed I was rocking a homemade DNA t-shirt.
Max: I didn’t know it was homemade at the time. Actually, no joke, when we started, I did think “Both Sam and Alejandra have DNA shirts. That’s not a bad thing!” At that point, none of us were tight. We knew who each other were and were friendly, but not friends the way we are now.
Alejandra: Exactly, yeah. Also, I had never been in a band…At least not since I was eighteen. Preening is the first “real” band that I’ve ever been in. I’d never played bass in a band before. Max heard from his roommate that I could play bass and had only learned of that the day before. It happened quickly.
Max: Yeah, shout-out to BAUS for that…Basically our sister band.
MRR: How do you feel about the perceptions of your band being particularly noisy, skronky or antagonistic? Is it bothersome to be labeled that way?
Max: I think that’s just lazy writing or reviewing. For me, it feels like we’re a punk band that has taken certain elements and sounds and tried to incorporate them together. No-Wave is a time & place sort of thing. Sure, we’re influenced by that, but we’re influenced by many other things too. We’re just a punk band that’s trying to expand our own ideas about what punk is. I mean, a lot of punk bands have guitars, so we don’t have to.
Sam: I’m ambivalent about most of the ways people describe Preening. Except when they call us ska. Then I’m psyched.
Alejandra: Someone told me that I played bass like Les Claypool, which was fun.
Max: The Watt comparisons rub you the right way though.
Alejandra: I do get Mike Watt sometimes.
Max: I thought this was interesting… We got a review recently that compared us to Mecca Normal and Impractical Cockpit, not sonically or aesthetically, but conceptually in that we’re trying to make punk that sounds like ourselves. To me, that’s the ultimate goal: to sound like the three of us.
Alejandra: Totally. We’re doing our own thing, for sure. I mean, when I got into this, I didn’t know how to write a song. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I would just come up with something and it became its own thing. It’s nice coming into this without having a background of being in a lot of bands because it gives me the freedom to do whatever I want. It’s working, so whatever.
Max: I’ve always thought that punk was freedom. I don’t understand why people get so worked up about pigeonholing bands with certain genre limitations. That’s never made sense to me. I feel free to play all different kinds of music with The Preenings.
MRR: I’d like to briefly discuss the live performances. It looks difficult to do.
Sam: [Laughter] So, we’re struggling up there?
Alejandra: [Also laughing] Are you talking about that show at The Make-Out Room? Because we couldn’t hear ourselves.
MRR: No, no…I mean it looks physically difficult to do, particularly for Max. I would think it’s physically hard to scream and play that. It doesn’t look easy.
Alejandra: Max uses a lot of energy. He puts a lot out there. He goes for it.
Sam: Pushing out a lot of air…
Max: It’s hard.
MRR: You’re about to leave on a US tour. What are your plans there and beyond?
Alejandra: Hmmm, that’s a good question…
Max: We just record four songs with Andy Human and Brett Eastman.
Sam: They did two remixes too, so we’re considering doing an EP with a dubby B-side. Not sure yet.
Max: Since then, we’ve written more songs. Not sure what’s going to happen.
Sam: We have more than 30 songs, all together.
Max: Since Spring 2016, we’ve accumulated 34 songs.
Sam: A full hour of music, almost.
MRR: Are you gonna go to Europe?
Alejandra: We were just discussing that the other day.
Max: Goddess willing.
Sam: People say we should go to Europe. I say we should tour Florida. I really want to play Stockton, CA.
Alejandra: Oh yeah, we should play Stockton.
Sam: Yeah. Europe or the Central Valley.
MRR: What distinctive about your approach in Preening versus the other bands you do?
Alejandra: Blues Lawyer is very different than Preening. The material that Blues Lawyer comes up with is not mine…I’m supporting them in their vision of the band. It’s really fun because of how different it is compared to Preening. They’re also good friends of mine. Another band I’m in, Naked Roommate, is also pretty different. That is more of a bedroom recording project. Preening is the only band where I’ve ever come up with my own material.
Max: I feel like Preening is inherently collaborative. No one writes a song and brings it to the band to learn. It’s always very collaborative. Once we made peace with that idea and realized that was the nature of the band, songs have gotten better. They’ve also taken longer to write.
Sam: Every Preening song starts with a germ of an idea that someone comes up with in the rehearsal studio and then we all try to turn the germ into a disease.
Max: Did you think of that before? Have you been practicing this?
Sam: No, just now. Germs, diseases, viruses…
PREENING is set to tour the country in mere moments. Please check them out.
Sat 9/21 – Oakland at The Dome
Sun 9/22 – Sacramento at Ella’s House
Mon 9/23 – Reno at Park Place
Tues 9/24 – Salt Lake City at Diabolical Records
Weds 9/25 – Boulder at Waffle House
Thurs 9/26 – Omaha at Midtown Art Supply
Fri 9/27 – Chicago at the Swamp
Sat 9/28 – Indianapolis at Freebase House
Sun 9/29 – Cleveland at Yellow House
Mon 9/30 – Reading PA at Gnome Hutch
Tues 10/1 – New Brunswick NJ at In the West
Weds 10/2 – Greenfield Mass at Root Cellar
Thurs 10/3 – Kingston at Tubbys
Fri 10/4 – NYC at Alphaville
Sat 10/5 – Philadelphia at Cousin Danny’s
Sun 10/6 – NYC at Windjammer
Mon 10/7 – Baltimore at The Copycat
Tues 10/8 – DC at Rhizome
Weds 10/9 – Columbus at Cafe Bourbon St
Thurs 10/10 – Louisville at Cano Social Club
Fri 10/11 – St Louis at Chill Dawg Cove
Sat 10/12 – KC
Sun 10/13 – Denver at Rhinoceropolis
Mon 10/14 – Las Vegas at Naked City
Tues 10/15 – LA at House of Tomothy
Sat 10/21 – Oakland at Crystal Cavern