Wife Patrol are “Too Prickly For This World:” Conversation with bassist Nicole O’Neal

Album artwork for Wife Patrol’s Too Prickly For This World (Photo by Clay Lomneth)

Releasing an album as an independent band requires months, or even years, of planning, songwriting, recording, and marketing — and in the case of Wife Patrol, it also took a rock-steady friendship among the band. Wife Patrol are a trio from Indianapolis made up of bassist and vocalist Nicole O’Neal, guitarist and vocalist Greg O’Neill, and drummer and vocalist Natasha O’Neill. Today (also Nicole’s birthday), Wife Patrol released their debut full-length album, Too Prickly For This World. The album combines a range of musical influences, from heavy rock to gospel, and shows off the band’s musical style that melds vocal harmonies with searing riffs.

I called up Nicole to talk about how a search for a Michael Jackson slot machine spurred the founding of Wife Patrol, the journey to releasing their debut album, and how the band’s tight-knit friendship fuels their energetic sound. Nicole also co-founded Indianapolis’s Woo Grl Festival, which launched in 2019 to highlight women and underrepresented artists in the local scene. Keep reading to learn more about Wife Patrol’s new album, Nicole’s musical inspirations, and how bands can use their platform to make space for others.

To get started do you want to introduce yourself? You can say your name, your pronouns and your role in Wife Patrol?

Nicole O’Neal: My name is Nicole. My pronouns are she/her, and I sing and play bass in Wife Patrol.

When did Wife Patrol start playing together and how did the band form?

We met through a mutual friend on New Year’s Eve between 2014 and 2015. We were in search of a Michael Jackson slot machine at a casino near Indianapolis. That was the preface — none of us had plans for New Year’s Eve, and we had heard about this Michael Jackson slot machine. We were like, “Ok, let’s go check it out!” I don’t think I had any money — I don’t do casinos or anything. But it was just one of those things, you just want to see it and have some fun. And that’s where I met my bandmates. 

We had had a lot of conversations after that, and always seemed to have musical things in common. We would talk a lot about Devo. I remember one time we were riding in the car together and I put on an album and they instantly were like, “Is this a live Devo album?” So we love Devo. We talked a lot about PJ Harvey. There were just a lot of bands that we had in common. So conversations just always gravitated towards music. 

Then Natasha started learning drums. I had started playing bass when I was in high school, but I had taken some time away because I didn’t feel like I had as much time. When I was in college, I let people know [that I played bass] — most of the people around me were guys, and they would be like, “Oh cool.” And didn’t really take it seriously. So I was more involved in the promoting side of music back then. And I really missed playing, so I bought a new bass. 

What started out as a joke ended up being real-life. Because I posted a picture of this new bass I bought on Facebook, and I think it was Greg, he commented, “New band?” and we were like, “Let’s play!” We went and had a day where we met up and tried jamming together, and it just was really, really fun, and we had really good chemistry together, so we just kept doing it. So that was 2015 — September, because I bought that bass right before my birthday. September 2015 we started playing together, and started playing shows in the spring of that next year.

I love that you just kind of spoke this band into existence — or I guess Greg did with that comment.

I was like, “This probably won’t happen.” It was an off-the-cuff fun comment, and it totally ended up living up to it.

What inspired you to start playing bass? Is there anything in particular that excites you about the instrument, or any bassists that you looked up to when you first started playing?

I first became aware of the bass in high school because we had a jazz band at our school. And I just thought it seemed like a really cool instrument. And then I went to this pre-college experience camp, where you stay on a campus for two weeks and take career prep classes or something. There was this guy there who had a bass, and I remember being in the elevator being like, “What is that? It doesn’t seem quite like a guitar” — it was longer and bigger. I was very curious. I would go visit his room and he was playing Blink-182 songs on his bass. I had this huge crush on him, but he was interested in my friend and not me. I was kind of jealous, but then I was like, “But I got to see this person playing bass. It’s got four strings — I could totally do that.”

So that got the bug of, “That would be something that would be cool to do. I’m really curious about this instrument.” And then the cherry on top was seeing the Josie and the Pussycats movie and seeing the character Valerie, who was played by Rosario Dawson — seeing a brown woman playing in a rock band was super inspiring. So it was kind of the combination of those three things that really alerted me to this instrument and opened that desire to play. 

I got my first bass — I think I was either 15 or 16 as a Christmas gift from my mom. And that was it. I got a bass, a small amp, and one of those learn-to-play bass books, and that was it for me. I was sold. I also got the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack, so I played a lot of those songs. The first song I learned was from the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack. I think I also got a Nirvana album, a Pearl Jam album, and a Foo Fighters album that year. So those were like my bible, that’s where I started learning how to play.

Wife Patrol has an album coming out, Too Prickly For This World. I know there’s a lot of musical influences on this album, there’s a lot of different themes. There’s up-tempo songs, there’s slower ones. If you had to describe the energy or the attitude of this album in a couple words, are there any words that stand out to describe how this album feels to you?

There’s a few moods on this album. One I would say is fierce. I think another word I would use is fun. And — the thing that’s coming to mind is the word contemplative. Just because there’s a lot of think-pieces buried in the lyrics and I like that about it. Even recently, we just released the video for “Girl Cactus.” A couple people reached out to me and thought, “Oh this is what the song means to me and I’m really gravitating towards this vibe.” And it’s really interesting to see things you write take on a life of their own to other people. Because they can mean so many different things.

When were the songs on this album written, and what was your songwriting process like?

It’s interesting because we’ve kind of looked at this album as the wrap-up of us together as a band. Some of these songs were the first songs we started playing together and writing together, and then some of them were songs that we were finishing up right before we went into the studio for this album. So a song like “Electric Blizzard” and “Starlight Sun” were some of the songs that we started playing with in 2016. And that’s not to say that they haven’t changed over time, but those were some of those early songs that we started together. And a song like “Valentine Citrus” would be one of the ones that were very, very new as we were getting ready to record this album. 

It’s interesting to think about — like I said, some of those songs changed over time. When we started playing together, I actually didn’t sing in the band, because I hadn’t been playing out for a long time and I was like, “I need to get my bearings and feel more comfortable playing again before I start singing.” So it was really a lot of my bandmates Greg and Natasha singing on songs. And then “Starlight Sun” was the first one where I was like, “You know what, maybe I will try a vocal idea that I’ve had. Let me see what you guys think about it.” It was the start of what became adding a lot of vocal harmonies to songs — that’s something that I always loved in the music that I listen to. 

So that’s a real testament to how we started to learn from each other and work together when we write our songs. It’s a very collaborative process. It’s something that we all work together on, and everybody brings something different to the table. 

That’s cool to hear you say that, because I think that’s one of the things that stood out to me when I was listening to these songs — the vocal harmonies. So I wouldn’t have guessed that that was something that came later, at least on your part. It’s cool to hear that as a band the three of you lift each other up and have learned a lot from working with each other.

Yeah. It’s interesting because sometimes when we talk to other bands, a lot of the time it is a chief, single person who is doing a lot of the songwriting. We just wouldn’t work that way. 

In our band, Natasha who plays drums also comes up with a lot of the lyrics. Greg comes up with a lot of the riffs. I’ll add the bass parts and do the arranger role, where I decide, “Maybe we should space this part out, maybe we should switch up the chorus a little bit, maybe we should add some harmonies here.” Kind of shaping the song into this more final piece. I think when people think about songwriting, often it’s solely lyrics. We don’t really think about all of those pieces that come together that are also writing a song.

I think when people think about songwriting, often it’s solely lyrics. We don’t really think about all of those pieces that come together that are also writing a song. As I started stepping into that arranger role first, I really didn’t know how to identify that as a songwriter. But those parts are equally as important to make the final project. So it’s really important that people understand that all of these are important — everything you contribute is significant.

I know that this album has a lot of different musical influences as well – there are a lot of heavy riffs, there are more chill songs, like “Valentine Citrus,” which kind of gives me Fleetwood Mac vibes with the vocal harmonies. Would you say that the three of you have similar tastes in music, or do your preferences go in a bunch of different directions?

That’s a great question. Obviously there is stuff that we have in common, and a lot of things that we like that are similar, but there are also things that are so completely different. But they all find their way into the music.

I’m not a super heavy rock kind of person, and some of my bandmates are really inspired by that. So that’s where you’ll see the sound of a song like “Electric Blizzard” or “Your Mother,” that is super heavy, very driving. And I still love those songs. But it was not my normal style of things that I would listen to. So that’s really interesting to me, that we can have both similar and — I wouldn’t say conflicting, but everybody’s got their styles and their things that they like or gravitate toward, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not room for that in this group. 

We were recently talking one time, and the topic of gospel music came up. I grew up listening to a lot of gospel music in my house. And I feel like that’s where my love of vocal harmonies, and growing a song from start to finish where by the end it’s this masterpiece of sound. My bandmates didn’t grow up listening to gospel music. So we talk about that sometimes and share songs with each other. 

And those end up being references for where we go in songs, or even just references for trying something different and seeing where it goes. A lot of songs have grown that way — we’re like, “That sounded cool, maybe we could do something like that and give it a shot.”

I know that releasing an album looks pretty different these days, since bands can’t play shows in person or tour, which are things that a lot of people would typically do with an album release. Is there anything that you’re looking forward to or planning with this album release?

Not at the time. Only because it’s so much work putting out an album in general, regardless of a pandemic going on. There’s so much time that goes into it. It would be great to be able to do an album release show like we traditionally would. It’s a bummer that we can’t this year, especially with it being our first full-length.

But this time has forced us to find other ways to connect with people, and that’s been a really great experience. Doing livestreams and playing for people that otherwise we probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to play for. We haven’t done a whole lot of extensive touring. For example, we did a livestream with Punk Black, were able to connect with other bands and people listening all over the country, who otherwise probably wouldn’t have ever heard our music. 

Not that these technologies didn’t exist before now, but it’s kind of put the spotlight on being creative and utilizing what we have to connect and reach out to people. It’s been a great way to find other bands who, hopefully when things get less travel-restrictive, we could play with. Even though we aren’t having our traditional album release, just the journey this year to this week putting out the album has been really great in terms of connecting with new people, doing Instagram live to chat with folks, and just really opening our doors and sharing our music with other people.

I think another thing that’s been really great has been the Bandcamp Fridays that started happening this year. That’s been a great opportunity to reach out and promote and just get people interested in supporting independent musicians again, and remembering that you can buy direct to artists and contribute to their work. So that’s been a great opportunity to have something to look forward to, and an opportunity to connect and talk about what you do and share your music.

Totally. I’ve really enjoyed the Bandcamp Fridays and all the excitement that it generates. I love scrolling through Twitter and seeing everyone making lists of everyone they should check out, getting a bunch of recommendations. I just bought a cassette player for the first time, so I feel like this time is making me really excited about physical music and using that as a way to connect with people, even though we can’t be together in person.

I think because so many of us now are so isolated in so many ways, we’re just striving for that connection. We’re reaching out to, whether it’s close friends we already have or connecting with people from afar. I just got tickets for Decolonise Fest, which is taking place in the UK, because I was like, this is a cool experience that’s particularly showcasing Black, brown, and queer artists, and I don’t want to miss this. Had it not been online this year, I probably would not have been able to participate in something like that. So I think it’s really opening doors across the world in terms of connecting people, and opening up those opportunities to share and learn about new music.

I know that you were also involved in organizing the Woo Grl Fest in Indiana. This year’s event isn’t taking place because of Covid, but do you want to talk about how that festival got started and what were some of the incentives to start that event?

Woo Grl Fest took place in April of 2019. It really came together from myself and my two co-founders, Kristin Newborn who is also a musician — her music moniker is KO — and Ariana Beedie, who is a journalist and community organizer here in Indianapolis. 

We had gotten together and had some conversations. I had had some conversations with other folks as well — I had been involved with Girls Rock in Indianapolis at the time, and just noticing how much our community still didn’t really recognize women in music, and non-male people in music. We’d see so many shows where the lineup would be all white male bands, even if the headliner was a touring act that had women in the band. It was just disapointing. 

Sometimes promoters would send me a message saying, “We’re trying to promote a show, we need some girl bands.” I just felt so tired with the way that people were talking about women in music. A band with men is not called a “boy band” — unless it’s NSYNC — you know? So does any band that doesn’t have men have to be a girl band? So that part really bugged me. And most of the bands who we’re talking about are over the age of 18, so why are you saying “girl band”? Not that that has to be a polarizing term. I know some people are totally cool with that, and that’s fine. Just for me, that was a stickler.

And just seeing so many shows happening where there was just no presence of non-male people on stage, very few present in the audience. I am a Black woman, and so many times I am the only Black person, let alone person of color, in a space. And I was just tired of it. And I was tired of promoters saying, “We want to do this, but we don’t know any bands — we only know one or two.” And I just kept coming to this conclusion of: if you are the person responsible for booking, and you’re able to do this until someone asks you to book someone who’s not white and male, you’re not doing your job if you don’t know who those people are. We shouldn’t be extra, we shouldn’t be outside. We should be included in local bands. If they don’t know that and see that, I’m not going to sit here and do the work for you every time. 

So talking with other musicians, talking with people in Girls Rock, and just having these conversations about what can we do to better our community? What can we do to make this world a better place — literally for the kids that we would teach at this camp, and say, “Here’s a guitar, here are drums, learn to write songs.” Then what happens in five to six years when they go out and start playing in town and still can’t find shows?

I remember talking with KO and Ari, and we decided we wanted to make it happen and make a festival, and showcase the talent in town. We want people to see women, non-binary performers, queer performers. We want there to be a space for this to happen, and for it to just be this great day of music.

I remember we had over 80 submissions when we opened up submissions for bands. That was just astounding to me. This many guys would come up and say, “Well I don’t know any bands. There’s only a couple, so-and-so is busy.” And we had over 80 bands submitting to this event. It’s like, then you’re not even looking. Because you can only come up with two or three. You’re literally not looking. 

So it was a really great day to show off that work and give that spotlight to these musicians and performers. We had different genres, different styles. We had spoken word artists. We had so much variety that day. And you saw that reflected in the audience and the people who came out to support it too. It was a really great event. There was even rain that day and people still came out. I would definitely count it as a success, and just a great way to take open the doors and say, “We’re here. We’ve always been here. Start paying attention. Write these names down. Don’t come back saying you didn’t know and you didn’t have the resources. Because all of this is right here and all you have to do is look for it.” 

I think that’s the thing that people forget, in terms of wanting change to happen, thinking that they can just keep going on doing the same things and it’s just going to find them. Even myself, I was tired of people saying, “You’re the only female Black bassist that I’ve ever seen.” And I’m not the only one. But at the time that I started playing, I didn’t know any either. And I had to actively look for that. I went and started searching Instagram for people, and seeing what other people were listening to, and finding artists like Nik West. Once you start looking, we’re everywhere. We’re all over the place. It’s not just the one or two. It’s just the fact that what we’ve been served so often is the norm, and that often does not include space for people who are not white and male.

And so when you actually go out and start finding those pieces, it’s really exciting. I just wish we didn’t have to work so hard to find it, because it should be a part of the conversation already. But that’s why we have to continue to have these conversations and chart those paths, and actually doing the work to recognize those artists, book those artists, pay attention, share that music with other people. I think all those things are equally important. Those were the things that inspired Woo Grl Fest, and the outcome of that was a great day of music.

We hear that narrative so many times, that “Oh there just aren’t women who want to play these festivals, and there aren’t women who play this kind of music.” We know that that’s not true. So I’m super glad that Woo Grl Fests exists, and that all these other spaces exist. That was a big influence for me to start Pass The Mic — I was sick of that same narrative in the media, of outlets constantly focusing on “What’s it like to be a woman in music?” Which is totally irrelevant. 

I think one of the important things that you pointed out is not just that women, people of color, or marginalized people don’t exist in these spaces, but that we need to have more people of different identities in positions of leadership. Is there anything else that you think is important about having women, people of color, or people of different identities curating these events? How does that make a difference in having different people represented and creating different types of spaces?

I think it definitely makes a difference, having that reflected in leadership. That’s the issue that we often run into and why we have to create our own spaces — the gatekeepers at the top often are not part of those marginalized identities, and have never had the responsibility to create space for anyone else. I stopped relying on expecting someone to do that for me. I learned that I have to just show up and also create space for other people. 

Something that we talk about a lot and put into practice in our band is, if we are asked to play a show and there is space for another band on the lineup, we will make a suggestion of a number of bands who we would love to play with. We try to make sure those are bands that are inclusive bands in terms of gender and identity, bands that maybe aren’t the ones who are playing shows around town all the time, because they need opportunities too. We’ve all had to start somewhere. Where would we be if someone didn’t ask us to play a show with them? Recognizing those opportunities to bring someone else in, and show people this is how this could work. It doesn’t have to be, “I’ll just call my dudes.” 

So often the next in line is another all-dude band, because so many opportunities go to them. So even if we aren’t able to play a show, we’ll try to send a list of, “Hey, here are a couple bands you should check out in the local scene if you’re still looking for another act for this.” And we try to make sure that we’re opening doors and opportunities for other bands, and really showcasing the diverse environment that we have in our community so that more people have those chances to play. It’s really a teamwork effort. 

On the other side of that, having those conversations and being very direct and clear about that educates other people. Because often they’re not looking for that or creating our space. We’ve had conversations that have gone really well, and conversations that we wished would have gone better. Where some people are like, “That’s a great idea, let’s do that.” And then we see them do that down the line and advocating as well. And sometimes you’re met with a kind of stubbornness, or people not being used to being asked that of them, and struggling with creating that space, or feeling like it’s giving something up. 

I think those are both equal opportunities for learning. If people have a problem with that, I would rather not bother playing with them again. We have that choice to be like, “Well, thats not the space that you want. I don’t want to be in that space either.” So there’s the opportunity to learn, and sometimes things are great and it opens doors, and sometimes it’s an opportunity to close a door. 

In that theme of giving opportunities and opening those doors, is there any music that has been inspiring you lately, or any artists or bands who you want to give a shout-out to?

Oh man. That’s a big question. I saw you recently put up an interview with Oceanator, and I know among our band we’re pretty obsessed with that new album. There’s a band called Fatty Cakes and the Puff Pastries. I have been listening to their album a lot over the past couple of weeks. I just love their style. They’ve really kind of come at it full-force in their songs and their messaging and I absolutely love their style.

Big Joanie is a band that I’ve been listening to a lot lately. They’re a UK band and they just released a single that was a cover of Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” that was super cool, kind of punk, sort of dark recreation. I’m a sucker for a good cover song, hence me loving the band Devo. I love when a band can take a song and just make it completely their own — the style, the sound. When it comes down to it you have to kind of second-guess because you think you know what you’re hearing. You’re singing along to the song but you’re like, “I’ve never heard this song before,” and then you realize it’s a cover. Those are my favorite kind of covers. So they put that release out, and the flip-side was a live version of their song “It’s You.” They’re also involved with putting on Decolonise Fest. I love those opportunities to see other people of color working in their community to speak representation into existence and create those spaces. That’s a really beautiful and awesome thing to witness. 

Is there anything else that you want to mention about Wife Patrol or Too Prickly For This World?

It’s a fun listen. Granted, I have a biased opinion obviously. I’m really excited to see this come out. We’ve worked so hard on it. Especially for this to happen now — we just had part one of Record Store Day over the past week. I think one of the things this pandemic has also brought to light is how much all of us are pulling it together. Literally every day. Pulling it together just to survive, just to get by, just to feel joy when there’s so much weighing us down in so many ways. Being able to work on this has definitely been a real opportunity to feel that joy. And also just recognizing the work of independent artists. The world may be in chaos, as it actually kind of always is. But we’re still going to keep putting in that work. And that support is so important.

You asked earlier, “You’re not having a release show, what is it like to put out an album right now?” And I think it’s so important for people to recognize, particularly for independent musicians, when we’re putting out music, we don’t have an advance or anything to pay for this. This is all our hard-earned money to pay for these things. And so support musicians who are in the hole trying to put music out — you’ve got to show up and support that. It’s so important to recognize that work and recognize the time that it takes to do these things and to show your support for independent musicians in your community.

For sure. I know we’re all trying to make it through 2020, and every day is a slog. But the music that independent musicians put out is so important, and really brightens all of our lives. So we need to be supporting those musicians, especially now when your streams of revenue like touring, playing live shows, a lot of those aren’t there right now. So it’s super important to show up in the ways that we can. Where can people find Wife Patrol and how can we support you online?

You can find our music at wifepatrol.bandcamp.com. The album comes out September 4th, which also happens to be my birthday, so it’s going to be a great day. I’m excited. We’re also on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @WifePatrol. We’ve got a website, wifepatrolband.com. So you can find us on all those places. We’re pretty active on Instagram, that’s a really fun space to communicate with people. We’re just really excited for this album to come out.

One of the best things about playing in this band is that the two people that I play with are also two of my closest friends. That’s so important to acknowledge and recognize. They’re great people. When this pandemic hit, we were all pretty strict about minding the guidelines. We didn’t see each other much, and that was hard too, to not only lose that regular coming together to make music, but just in general losing those connections. Even though we could still be a phone call or a video call away. It’s very different when you’re not with your people.

It forced us to find other ways to be creative, which is why we did our covers project earlier this year, where we did covers of three different songs. All of those were recorded remotely. I literally recorded my bass and vocal parts on my cell phone. Greg put those — he has a little mini studio set up in his basement. We ended up doing three covers and recording an original song [“How To Lose”] all remotely. It was just such a great way to continue working together while we were separated in so many ways. 

And we even did things outside of the music, like we had virtual movie nights where we would watch something on Netflix from our homes and do a Google hangouts chat, making commentaries on movies. Those things are so important, regardless of whether you’re in a band or not. Those connections are so important, and I hope that people are finding ways to remember and recognize the people who are close to them and help keep the glue together in times like these. It’s great to be able to not only make music with them, but to have such great friends in my life. 

That’s amazing. Those relationships are so important. I think that’s what’s getting all of us through this time of social distancing — finding ways to connect with people. We’re all not tech wizards like y’all and we all can’t put together amazing cover songs recorded virtually, but I think that’s something that we can all relate to.

Honestly I had never done any real recording before this. So if I can do it, you can do it. I was like, “I don’t know if this is going to happen.” But you get creative when you need to, and I started looking at resources and was able to pull it together. So if anybody has questions on how to record remotely and make it sound decent from your phone, send a message to Wife Patrol. We’ll set you up.

Amazing. Thank you so much, Nicole, for taking some time to chat with me.

Thank you, this has been great.

Wife Patrol’s album Too Prickly For This World is out today, Sept. 4. You can support the album on Bandcamp and find Wife Patrol on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and at wifepatrolband.com.

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