If you’ve been following music over the past year in New York City, then you’re likely familiar with Pom Pom Squad, a raucous quartet led by songwriter Mia Berrin that’s soaring to new heights with the release of their second EP, Ow.
Berrin, who typically sports a cheerleader outfit at live performances, has created a bit of a persona around the band’s namesake that stands out from the crowd – she even identifies herself as “head cheerleader” on their Bandcamp page.
But don’t let the veneer of a peppy cheerleader fool you. Catch a glimpse of the band’s live show or even a short snippet of their recently recorded output and you’ll soon realize that Pom Pom Squad has some serious depth, both sonically and thematically. Therein lies the complexity of the project, one that delves beyond surface-level experiences to explore the dearth of coming-of-age emotions through fuzzy, dark songs that’ll rattle you to your core.
Particularly, the songs on Ow are potent, dissecting the myriad of feelings that overwhelm through the life of a relationship. Berrin’s vocal delivery and heart-on-your-sleeve lyrical style are fraught with emotion, allowing her to connect and relate with her audience on an extremely personal level.
With lots happening in Pom Pom Squad world, I caught up with Berrin to chat about Ow, the history of the band, and what’s next.
I read that you come from a musical family. What were some of your early experiences playing music and how do they impact you today?
As musical as my family was, I was a late bloomer in the fact that I didn’t really take playing seriously until after I finished high school. When I was twelve or thirteen I went to summer camp and couldn’t find an elective that I wanted to do, so basically I bullied a grown man into teaching me how to play guitar for an hour every day during our elective time. When I came home at the end of the summer, I asked my parents to take me to get me an acoustic. I took a few lessons from a teacher who would come over either hours late, or not show up at all, so I started teaching myself by watching youtube videos. I also took drum lessons my Sophomore and Junior year of high school at a music store near Universal Studios in Orlando, FL, and my drum teacher was also a ride operator at Ripsaw Falls. I actually have the most beautiful drum kit that I’ve been trying to bring to New York for a few years.
What’s the story behind the name Pom Pom Squad and concept? How’d the project start and how has it evolved?
I was moved around a lot growing up– I was born on Long Island, moved to Detroit when I was maybe 5, and then lived in Orlando for most middle school and all four years of high school. In the time I was in Orlando alone, I was in public school, then homeschooled, then moved to a private prep school. It was a really uncomfortable time, because adolesence, complicated even further by the fact that I was a non-white person at a predominantly white school, and also a queer. It was my first real-life encounter with the picture-perfect heteronormative Americana teen experience that had been sold to me since I could absorb media.
I had a hard time assimilating and ultimately, just became very very depressed. For whatever reason, cheerleaders became this terrifying goalpost of young womanhood– this thing that I was supposed to live up to but didn’t or couldn’t. What helped, mostly, was meeting my best friend, Leka, sophomore year. Together we compiled this lexicon of movies, music, and magazines that painted an alternate picture of what high school could be and threw away all our copies of Seventeen magazine. I like to say we hated everything so much that we learned to love it.
I also became an obsessive journal-er, which taught me how to think succinctly and forced me to mold all my heightened teenage feelings into things I could understand and read back. When I graduated high school, I started making demos in my bedroom. I’m still a pretty solitary writer, but now Pom Pom Squad is a four-piece. In a lot of ways, the project has grown up with me– I think people maybe assume, because of the imagery or the name, is that it’s a project about girlhood, but mostly it’s a project about growing, and I think its evolution has reflected that. Me embodying the cheerleader image is mostly a way for me to fuck with my own perception of beauty, femininity, and power.
What was the recording process like for Ow? Did you do anything differently when compared with Hate It Here?
In between Hate It Here and Ow, I fell in love with playing live, so it was really important to me that we tracked Ow live. These songs came together in my practices with Shelby, Maria, and Alex (who swapped out with Ethan Sass in the live setup), and that energy felt integral to what the EP became.
We recorded in a really tiny, dusty practice space with our friend, Tommy Ordway, and we were all basically on top of each other the whole time. It was very personal and intimate. I also learned how to produce in the time between the two EPs– when I made Hate It Here I was in an acting conservatory and met my old collaborators by chance on a friend’s film shoot. At that point I knew pretty much nothing about making music on a technical level, and felt a little powerless in that process because I didn’t know how to ask for what I wanted. The next year, I transferred to music school to learn how to produce and engineer.
Pom Pom Squad is already known for their intense live performances. What do you like the most about performing live and what can people expect from the band’s live show?
I think, above all else, I consider myself a performer. Lately, performing as Pom Pom Squad feels less like a construction than the version of myself I am in my everyday life. I’m freer with myself, messier, more open. It’s where I feel most vulnerable and most present within myself. It teaches me a lot. I think people can expect an emotional rollercoaster, a lot of feedback, maybe me staring at my bandmates like a big dumb puppy because I love them, or me totally zoned out staring into the ether like a goblin or demon.
What’s the songwriting process like for you? Do you work with your bandmates or is it a solo effort?
I usually write by myself. Often, I’ll come into practice with a finished or mostly finished song, but anyone who says they dictate every beat/note/moment of a song to their band is a lying liar. My bandmates elevate everything I bring them, and think of things I never could have. “Honeysuckle” is a perfect example of that: It wasn’t sitting quite right until Alex came up with that lead part, then suddenly everything snapped into place.
How would you compare Ow to your first EP, Hate It Here?
I think of Ow and Hate It Here like sisters. They have a similar arc, but I think in a lot of ways, Ow feels like an actualization of Hate It Here like I said before, it was a process that I worked really hard to have more of a say in. I think Ow is more open, more unhinged, more joyful, angrier, it’s just “more” in a lot of ways.
There’s some violin sprinkled in the record. What inspired that?
Violin is a super emotional instrument. There’s something about strings that evoke that kind of heart-swelling thing. I think it was subliminally influenced by one of my best friends, Spencer’s band, The Ophelias. They put out a record last year on Joyful Noise called Almost, and I spent a lot of time listening to it around the time I was making Ow. They have a violin instead of a lead guitar which is very, very badass.
There’s a grunge-punk sound to the record, but a few of the songs like “Cherry Blossom” and “Again” are stripped down and driven by your voice and guitar. How’d those songs come together?
“Cherry Blossom” was the first song I wrote towards what I knew would be a record. It was actually Spencer who gave me the song title. When I was going through the depressive bout that Ow came out of, we were sending each other writing prompts to try to cheer each other up. We came up with 20 each and sent each other 10 at random. “Cherry Blossom” was the first one that evoked an image for me. I wrote it in pretty blunt reflection of something that was happening, and when I was trying to arrange it, it felt wrong to try to dress it up.
“Again” is a kind of mystical song for me. I used to sublet this shoebox of a room with my friend in Alphabet City, and every night when I would come home from work, I would record myself noodling around on guitar. A couple days later, I found “Again” fully written– lyrics and all– in a voice memo called “Vomit Song.” I don’t really think of that one as stripped-down, to be honest, it’s one of our more raucous ones live, and probably my favorite to play.
What’s next for Pom Pom Squad?
More music and hopefully a tour announcement soon.
What Brooklyn bands are you listening to that you’d recommend to Bushwick Daily readers?
Some of my favorite shows I’ve seen recently are Thick, eCOCOBOYS, and The Ophelias— although The Ophelias are ½ an Ohio band. Not from Brooklyn, but I’ll be at the IDLES show on October 17 at Terminal 5. I’m obsessed with them right now.
Don’t miss Pom Pom Squad performing live at Rough Trade NYC on Monday, October 14 with Miss June. Tickets are $12 if purchased in advance and $15 at the door. Doors open at 7 p.m.
All images courtesy of Pom Pom Squad. Cover photo by Kira Wilson.
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