Interview: Gillian McGhee of Turnspit talks influences, new album, the Chicago music scene and more

Formed in 2014, Turnspit is a Chicago-based pop-punk outfit that recently released their LP Desire Paths on February 16 via Dodgeball Records.

I recently had a chance to speak with Gillian McGhee (singer/guitarist) from the band. We discussed the band in general, their influences, the meaning behind some of the songs on the album and what drives her personally.

Read the interview below.

When and how did the band originally get together?

We started loosely jamming in the late fall of 2014. Jason (Swearingen) was watching Samiam at Riot Fest that year and got inspired to put a new band together. They and I had played a solo acoustic show earlier that year and we really enjoyed each other’s songwriting. Jason asked me to start a band and we put a few other people together who are no longer in the band and Turnspit was born! Our drummer Dan was a friend of mine and had said if we ever needed a fill-in, he’d love to do it and we were in the process of needing a new drummer, so it worked out perfectly. And Brad joined about a year later after watching us at Do Division Street Fest in Chicago when we were in need of a bassist.

Is there any sort of story behind the band’s name?

Yes, this was all Jason, but I think it’s a super neat story. Turnspit is short for turnspit dogs — they were a breed of dog that were used for labor, not as pets. Before the Industrial Revolution, the dogs were used to turn the spit to cook meat. They were shoved in big hamster-wheels and had hot coals thrown at them to keep them running. Pretty horrible. Once the Industrial Revolution happened and machines could replace them, the dogs went extinct because no one wanted them as pets because they were perceived as dirty labor dogs. It’s a really interesting story and Jason suggested it when we were looking for a name. It’s kind of a commentary on our society — what we choose to discard, what we value. Plus, one of the last turnspit dogs was taxidermied and his name was Whiskey… And you know, we’re also a band that likes to party, so it seemed like a perfect fit.

Were there any bands or artists inspired you to play music? That is, was there one (or two) band(s) or artist(s) that you saw that made you say to yourself “this is what I want to do”?

Speaking for STRICTLY for myself (I am the youngest member of the band by 10+ years), Avril Lavigne was hugely influential for me. To see a teenage girl who had enormous mainstream success that didn’t fit the pop star mold and could play the guitar and wore boy clothes like me was like… that was it. I can do this. I learned how to sing and play guitar at the same time to her first album (which, I think still holds up). I was of course inspired by the other popular punk bands of that time (Good Charlotte, Green Day, Sum 41, Simple Plan, etc.), but Avril was the representation of myself that I needed to see. Close second goes to Tatiana DeMaria of TAT — I stumbled across them at Warped Tour one year and she was such an amazing performer, sexy and played a solo behind her head. Mind blown. I had never seen a woman in punk rock do that before and it gave me another push to feel confident on stage.

When Turnspit is writing songs do the lyrics comes before the music or vice versa? 

For the most part, Jason and I come with independent songs that we write on our own. However, a couple of the songs on Desire Paths didn’t follow that model and I think they are some of the most dynamic on the record. Brad had the music written for “Apologies, I Have So, So Many” and “Home is Run No More.” Jason took the lead on writing the lyrics for “Home,” and laid out the concept for “Apologies.” I wrote the verse I sing and the bridge of that song. And then “Walk Away” started just as a single chord progression and one line of lyrics, and we kind of built that song from the ground together while I worked on lyrics for my parts and Jason on theirs for the backing. I really love when bands with two lead vocalists like RVIVR, The Lawrence Arms and The Menzingers have songs that have both singers are taking turns on. It creates this really palpable energy and makes the songs more dynamic. I’d like Turnspit to grow in that area by the time the next release rolls around.

Was the songwriting process for Desire Paths a different process from the process for, say, the 2015 EP I Wonder If They’re Happy?

Completely. I Wonder If They’re Happy was comprised of songs that were written either before Turnspit was a band or right after we formed. We were still very much trying to discover our sound and when we landed an opening spot for The Lawrence Arms’ first War on Christmas in 2015, we realized we needed a physical release and threw that together in a little over a month.

Can you explain the meaning behind the opening track “Irish Name”?

“Irish Name” started out just as me looking back on an old relationship and thinking about the highs and lows, what went wrong and what went right. It also had a lot to do with reality versus expectations in how the relationship actually was and what I wanted it to be. That’s a trap I often fall into and it’s something I’m definitely working on now. The second verse kind of became a dialogue with myself about how I tend to put so much of myself into things that don’t fulfill me — something else I’m working on. It served as a kind of message to myself that I needed to hear through the lens of an old relationship, but I didn’t really accept I was doing it AGAIN at the time of writing it. “Irish Name” is one of my favorite songs to play live and I love the energy everyone else in the band brings to it.

Is the song “Skin” based on actual personal experience?  Did you feel compelled to tell your story because of the #MeToo movement or was this something you had planned before that effort began?

Yes, it is based on personal experience. And I wrote “Skin” two years ago. Our record was finished before the #MeToo movement started, but it made me feel really proud to see other women coming forward and talking about their experiences, because that wasn’t there when I wrote “Skin” and it felt really terrifying to play it in front of people. I had done it solo a few times and choked back tears every time. The first time we played it as a full band in front of people was the day Trump’s “Grab her by the pussy” tapes came out, and that gave me the rage and confidence I needed to play that song that night. I never set out to write a song like “Skin” or talk about those experiences with my music, it just kind of poured out of me one night. I think “Skin” is important not just because it details sexual coercion and abuse, but it really dives into the emotional side of what that means for a person who has lived it and dealt with it to varying degrees since childhood, and what that means for developing a sense of self. I also think men and boys have been inadequately educated on what constitutes consent and “Skin” calls for a change of the culture — not simply saying sexual assault is bad, don’t do it. It’s a lot more complex than that. We all have a lot of work to do to be better supporters to survivors and be more mindful sexual partners to one another.

How did Turnspit get involved with the split with SteveO & The Crippling Addictions (released in April 2016)?

Steveo’s partner Jen Brannon is a good friend of mine and she was a very avid supporter of our band and we got to talking one day about doing a split and there you have it!

How did you get involved with Dodgeball Records?

When we were looking for a record label, I saw that Mike Felumlee was a part of a new venture called Dodgeball Records. He was an early supporter of our band and we’ve played with his band The Bigger Empty a few times, and was just a music dude who I felt like we could trust with our record. I checked out some of the bands on the label — all newer, punk bands with rad tunes and it seemed like we would fit in with their roster. So I hit up Mike and Chris Messer with a link to the record, and a month later, Chris wrote back saying he wanted to talk over the phone to get to know us a little better and obviously that went well! I got to see our labelmates Attic Salt at FEST this year and met a few other people who were a part of the label and it felt really nice to hang out and support them in that environment.

There are a ton of great bands that have come out of the Chicago area.  Can you tell me what your personal impressions of the Chicago music scene?

Chicago has an amazing music scene — no matter what genre you’re talking about. We have so many small and larger clubs that allow bands who’ve had one or two practices play their first show in a welcoming environment. The Chicago punk scene is so vast, it’s kind of overwhelming. You’ve got southside street punk like Nightcap and The Ridgelands, hardcore bands like La Armada and Still Alive, folky acoustic punk like Davey Dynamite and Grammaw, more twangy punk rock like American Standard and Blind Adam & the Federal League, more melodic punk like Two Houses or Airstream Futures, or the emo-tinged rock like The Flips and Lights Over Bridgeport. And everything else in between. But each of those pockets has a support system and a lot of it overflows into other subgenres. I try hard to support my friends making music because that’s what gives me life. If I can make a new fan from sharing new music or retweeting something, that’s what it’s all about. We all do this because we love it and want to share it with others. My favorites right now are Blood People, Lights Over Bridgeport, All the Wine, Retirement Party and Kali Masi.

Are you planning to tour in support of Desire Paths? If so, where will that tour take you?/span>

Yes! We’re hoping to do a Midwest/East Coast run in July and hopefully hit up the West Coast for a few dates before the summer’s out. We’re just getting that figured out now, but we’re excited to finally be able to hit the road! Coming up, we’re playing Reggies in Chicago on April, 11; making our Grand Rapids debut on April 21; play The House Cafe in DeKalb, IL on May 11; and hitting up Brauerhouse in Lombard, IL on May 19. June is gonna be fun, too. We’re playing Midwest Punkfest in Bloomington, IL and have some pretty stellar show announcements coming soon! Stay tuned!

What bands or albums are you currently listening to?

Other than the locals I just listed, I’ve been delving back into Sundowner and Chris Wollard’s solo stuff lately. Music that gives me a sense of clarity, makes me feel inspired to write my own stuff. The new Red City Radio EP SkyTigers is a fucking ripper, and the new Brian Fallon record has been on heavy rotation, as well.

Here’s a question not related to music. What is your favorite movie and book?

Favorite movie is Titanic — I’ve had an idea for a thigh tattoo of Madame Bijou for years. She’s one of Jack’s drawing subjects: the old toady-looking woman who sits alone in a bar wearing her best jewels every night, waiting for the love of her life to walk through the door… I’m a romantic, man, that shit just gets me good!
And favorite book is hard. Either Grendel by John Gardner or Hocus Pocus or Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Their writing styles are short, biting, dark and beautiful. Lots of universal truths spelled out in 4-word sentences. I’ve got tattoos from both Grendel and Slaughterhouse-Five on my arm. I just read Tranny by Laura Jane Grace and I Wanna Be Well by Miguel Chen and those ruled. I also love anything Rupi Kaur does. Her poetry helped me get through my most recent breakup.

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