Written by Rachel Hunt / Photos by Jarrod Berger /This article is also published on www.britewinter.com.
Any band that names themselves after the carefree, drunken consumption of an entire box of Girl Scout cookies, we can get behind. Partner the hilarious true story with Alisha Stahnke’s transfixing vocal performance as the lead in this dynamic four-piece and you have a group that turns heads with their showmanship, as well as the intense lyrical content on their newest release Hag in the Night.
In 2015, after the demise of a previous band and marriage, Stahnke channeled her energy into a solo project, playing open mics at The Highland Tavern and Venice Cafe in Akron during the week. “When I sang at open mics I would pull my heart out of my chest, throw it on the ground, and stomp it out. I started doing things I never had before, like howling, yelling, and pushing my voice until it was hoarse. I could feel a power in my music that I wanted to build on,” says Stahnke of some stylistic choices that still remain prominently in Punch Drunk Tagalongs’ songs.
“I wanted to make it bigger, so I asked Caleb Lemmo [guitar] and Alex Wright [bass] to be in a band with me,” Stahnke reflects back to their original line-up. At the beginning of 2016, they added Ryan Hunter to the roster replacing a previous drummer. “A lot of times Caleb is the one who is there with me when I am writing, or the first person to hear [a song],” she reveals of her partner and band mate. “He knows what all the songs are about, so he’ll do these awesome textural guitar parts or melodic leads that really help the song to convey emotion.”
This evening we’re at band practice in the basement of a double in Old Brooklyn with clothespins affixed to cords hanging overhead. While most people use the domestic mainstays for laundry, Punch Drunk Tagalongs created a makeshift sound booth to isolate drums for their new record here. In fact, most of it was recorded at home in closets or set up in the living room soon after Stahnke’s relocation to Cleveland from Akron. You can hear coins dropping on the hardwood floors from the neighbors above tonight, leaving me to wonder whether or not any happy accidents made it onto the finished product.
A truly terrifying bought of sleep paralysis was the inspiration behind the title for Hag in the Night, mixed by Carl Shahan with artwork by Cade Buckus released in November of last year. “I had experienced it for the first time in my apartment in Highland Square,” Stahnke says before describing how one night she partially awoke and saw a dark figure sitting in the corner of her room, staring right at her. She wasn’t able to move or speak, and once she completely woke, it disappeared.
“I went to work the next day super distraught. My co-worker Jake picked up on my mood and asked me what was wrong. I told him what I had saw and he simply answered that it was the hag in the night. I kind of laughed at the doominess of the name but did some research and found out that it was sleep paralysis. The ‘hag in the night’ is something that is documented across multiple countries and cultures,” she says. At their live shows, the song strikes a cord with audience members who have experienced the phenomenon for themselves.
Taking every day experiences and spinning them into the patchwork of songs utilizing smart, nuanced lyrics is Stahnke’s strong suit. The musical accompaniment helps her message to not become too heavy-handed. Their technique also stands out, twisting simple refrains into exercises in dynamic delivery instead of steady repetition. They have a harder indie rock edge, mixing equal parts grunge and psych influence. Inspired by reading about the riot grrrl movement, Stahnke channels her own frustration with social and political events into song.
Take for instance, “Alice” which discusses the physical and emotional side effects of prolonged social media use or a new song, which Stahnke dedicates to Trump at shows. Unsurprisingly, it’s not a flattering homage but a stiff criticism of the President elect. “I have seen so many more benefit shows popping up, and actually am planning and playing one with The Village Bicycle. It’s really great to be able to rally behind something. I think the outcome of the election is only going to strengthen the voices of the women in the Cleveland music scene,” she says hopefully of their benefit for Planned Parenthood at The Five O’Clock Lounge this evening.
“Sometimes you might be swaying back and forth with a lighter in hand and the next second jumping around with a big cheesy grin on your face. We are normally predictably unpredictable,” Stahnke laughs, thinking about the fun they’ll have playing at Brite.