Interview: Mother Mother – The Canadian TikTok sensations discuss inclusivity, their surprising viral success, and new album Inside

TikTok may still be in its infancy, but the social media platform is swiftly becoming quite the tastemaker in music. One man got on his skateboard while swigging from a bottle of cranberry juice and suddenly the 1977 Fleetwood Mac song “Dreams” was re-entering the Billboard Hot 100 at number 21. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” only became the inescapable monstrosity that it is after going viral on TikTok.

Although most viral hits on the platform begin life as silly memes or dance challenges, one band found their revival in sweeter and more sincere fashion last year: songs by the Canadian indie rock band Mother Mother, now more than a decade old, were embraced by the non-binary and LGBT Gen-Z communities, seemingly out of nowhere. Videos containing their tracks like “Hayloft”, “Burning Pile”, and “Arms Tonite” started appearing in TikTok videos, featuring users discussing things like gender confusion and alternative fashion. The hashtag #mothermother now has over 400 million views and they’ve found themselves being interviewed by late night hosts like James Corden. For a band 15 years into their career, onto their eighth album, quietly trundling along, this newfound success probably felt a world away.

While the arrival of this new fanbase alludes to the innate interpretative quality of their songs, there were little signifiers in their music for people to find connection: “What defines a straight man’s straight?” frontman Ryan Guldemond asked in 2007’s “Verbatim”, a song that starts with him declaring that he’s wearing women’s underwear; “Oh Ana” from that same year was widely held to be about anorexia; Guldemond also usually performs in an androgonyous tone, blurring the binary lines within his singing.

Their new album, Inside, might seem like an attempt to capitalise on this TikTok success, but the band were already deep into recording it when they first went viral last year. Unsurprisingly given the title, it’s an honest reflection on the isolation and suffocation of being stuck indoors in the one place for so much of 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic. Inside sees them reuniting with producer Howard Redekopp for the first time since 2008’s O My Heart, but there is no cynicism to be found in the songs; it’s dark and serious, certainly, but this reflects more the conditions of quarantine.

The greatest indicators of their connection with the TikTok resurgence are only positive. Take the video for one of the songs on Inside, “I Got Love”: it features clips of fans, young and old, endearingly lip syncing along to the lyrics; cheesy, certainly, but everything about Mother Mother feels truthful and authentic.

Just before the release of Inside, I caught up with their lead singer Ryan Guldemond to discuss the new album, the power of TikTok, and just what their new fanbase means to them.

Where did the name for Inside come from?

The literal circumstances of being forced inside due to the pandemic moment. It was about seeing how that could maybe work as something a bit more introspective and emotional. The idea of going inside of yourself to tackle issues.

Did you record the whole thing during lockdown, quarantine then? Is it another pandemic record?

It’s a ‘pandemic record’ in a literal sense – it was written and recorded in 2020.

I read before that your songwriting was inspired a lot by travelling different places – that must have been hard to adjust to writing while stuck in the same place.

I mean, songwriting will always respond kindly if you show up! It doesn’t matter if you’re travelling or if you’re at home, if you show up and work for eight hours a day at it, the songs will come. I guess I did prefer venturing out and reacting to interesting experiences though. I’ve realised that it’s good to not have preferences and that’s it more about being curious and open and not fixed to any one method.

How has your sound evolved between Inside and between Dance and Cry?

Those two records I think are related sonically because they both fall under what you could call raw indie rock. I think the record before Dance and Cry, No Culture, was more polished and over-produced, so they were a reaction to that. We wanted to pay homage to our earlier organic recordings. So I think they’re kinfolk, definitely.

Kinfolk, I like that. What about the themes, have they changed at least?

It’s probably a continuation of the themes about healing and working on yourself. I think there was more heartbreak on Dance and Cry and it was about asking how we respond to the aftermath of heartache. Do we wallow or do we celebrate? Do we dance or do we cry? We’re still exploring that on Inside but in different ways.

I feel like that’s something people need just now during the pandemic, to be brought together in the wake of heartache.

Yeah, definitely. I think whenever things are challenging there’s always an opportunity to to work towards an antidote. The tough times are beautiful for that very reason, they really test you to see how you’re able to positively spin reality.

I’ve been curious as to who your musical inspirations are? Your music is obviously alternative rock but it’s very clearly your sound. It’s very hard to pinpoint any clear influences.

That’s a good thing! I think for the band, the Pixies is a big one. Talking Heads, Violent Femmes, Arcade Fire too. I think Mother Mother borrows from that eccentric, not overtly masculine form of rock. The type that’s quirky and relies on melody.

I also read that you’re a big fan of Charles Bukowski?

I am (laughs).

Is his influence noticeable in your music then?

I think past lyrics of ours were cynical and dark and akin to Bukowski. I’ve definitely flirted with the devil in my life like him so that has been a big part of the band’s writing, talking about recklessness and debauchery, self-abuse and self-sabotage.

Is your songwriting process collaborative?

I handle the songwriting mainly. There will be a song or two where someone else will add to the lyrics but for the most part I get the songs off the ground alone and then bring them to the band to flesh them out.

Do you have a favourite song on the new album?

I like the song “Weep”, it’s darker and heavier – I still have a huge soft spot for more sinister music. In fact I had been noticing that I was having a reaction to how positive our music had become. I wanted to get a bit nasty with some new songs for a change.

The nice part about getting a bit more healed as a person in the external world is you don’t need to indulge in darkness as much. You can keep that whole sphere of your life calm and happy, and then with your art you can safely indulge in things that are a bit more nasty.

Especially when there’s always this idea that you’ve got to be damaged, you’ve got to abuse yourself in some way, to make serious art.

Yeah. I think you need to feel alive and you need to feel present and drugs and alcohol are really effective at doing that. So I don’t think it’s a falsehood to say that drugs and alcohol create great art, they do create that passionate living experience; it’s just not sustainable. So to reach that state sober is a bit more challenging because you have to do things that are less immediately gratifying. It takes more time and it takes more courage to be alive all by yourself.

It’s like being naked, when you’re sober and putting yourself out like that.

It is but it’s a worthy pursuit because then you have a longer life filled with making great music and having strong relationships.

Tell me about the video for “I Got Love”.

We’ve been newly acquainted to TikTok and our new predominantly young fanbase there. It’s so beautiful because it’s just real: they’re just in their bedroom and you’re just seeing a really unfiltered celebration of how people respond to music and how people respond to things that they love. And I was like ‘that needs to be the video because that’s pure’. We then put out a call out to our fanbase and invited them to submit their own videos.

How many people submitted a video?

Four thousand.

That’s a lot! How did you decide who was going to be in the video then?

We just went through all the submissions. We honestly could have made ten amazing videos but we tried to make the one that served the different parts of the song. It was tough because we knew that a lot of people would be let down.

I’m sure they still enjoyed the video.

Yeah, it’s just part of the deal.

We’ve got to talk about TikTok of course. When did you first find out about your music trending there?

August of last year. I remember making my first TikTok video in the studio while recording Inside and feeling like ‘what am I doing? I don’t know what I’m doing on this app’ (laughs). It was a bit jarring but it’s crazy how quickly you get used to it.

It’s very addictive. You’ve got your own Mother Mother TikTok account now?

We do.

Enjoying that?

I go through waves of enjoying it and then feeling a bit oppressed by it. There’s so much pressure to keep up but social media is always like that though. Art is such a private and insular thing and in order for it to be any good I think you need to shut the world out and dig deep. Yet part of the modern musician’s career is to contrastingly be always connected, always active on social media.

It’s 24/7 isn’t it?

I don’t think I know one musician who doesn’t have a love/hate relationship with it. I’m certainly one of them. I try to reframe what’s going on through a positive lens though. It’s a blessing that this group of people on TikTok discovered and shared our music. I’m very lucky to be able to engage with that, and it’s my honour to humbly take part in this thing that I didn’t see coming that has kind of revived our career. I need to constantly remind myself of that.

Exactly. A lot of the time Spotify are gatekeepers, deciding what gets to be heard. That’s the positive aspect then, that you’ve found all these new fans through another freer medium.

You’re absolutely right, they’re in control.

When you were making Inside, were you ever consciously thinking about this new fanbase as you were recording?

No and I think that’s for the better because it would have been more contrived if we had focused on all those people digging our old music. Instead I think we just made the record that we had to make, in response to the grave circumstances in the world last year. That’s why I’m proud of the record because it’s an honest encapsulation of that time.

On TikTok it was the non-binary and LGBTQ community that really discovered your music. Yet I found an article from 2012 that said you were already a favourite with the queer indie crowd back then, which I thought was interesting. Have you always had this following in your fanbase?

Looking back I think our fanbase has been well populated by people that don’t fit into the mainstream, whatever that might look like. Our music has always been about the outlier, the outcast, looking for answers about who I am and where I belong in society. Most people are far more complex than any binary and are scattered across the spectrum of identity. It’s a pretty huge compliment that people who are on a journey to self-discovery, one that is often pushed back upon by society, are classifying our music as a suitable soundtrack for that. It means the world.

These new songs on Inside also feel similarly existential in a way.

Yeah, for sure. There’s not a day goes by that I’m not twisted up about being on this big ball in the sky (laughs). I find the whole idea of being alive intense and terrifying. It’s marked by both despair and excitement.

It’s an uneasy mix! There was a metaphor you used in the album that I liked: “The garden grows in frozen rain”. What did that mean to you?

I love that lyric too. That lyric really felt like it encapsulated the whole idea that a hibernating energy is still a productive energy. In 2020 I think a lot of people felt like their lives were on pause or that their identity was basically frozen, that it was an obsolete year. We’re still evolving when we’re frozen though, we need things to die and then regenerate, so that lyric pays respect to that.

There was another line I wanted to ask about. In “I Got Love” you say, “And I don’t got a body that feel like home”, and some fans think that’s about gender dysphoria.

I mean, it’s just related to my own relationship with body discomfort, with not feeling like the body is the most kind temple. I think whoever you are, you have some version of that.

That’s quite similar to your old song “Verbatim” then.

I think “Verbatim” was about challenging masculinity norms. It was saying that it’s fine to be a straight guy who is also effeminate, basically.

That’s interesting because I was going to ask how personal your song writing has always been?

It’s deeply personal and it’s not personal at all. I almost find it’s more personal when you don’t try to write about something specific.

One of the other older songs I wanted to ask about was “Hayloft”. It’s such a particular story about these two young lovers. What inspired it?

It was actually the guitar riff that started it. At my core I’m a guitar player, I never really thought I’d be a songwriter. I went to jazz school to study guitar and that dominated my life. Along the way I just started to write songs and it stuck. I wrote that riff for “Hayloft” without thinking about it becoming a song, and the words just came to me later. The riff really sounded like those words “my daddy’s got a gun”.

It’s quite menacing.

Yeah! It just had a mind of its own. Once I had that line “my daddy’s got a gun”, it felt like creative writing, trying to write a story that used that refrain as the hook. It has nothing to do with me or an experience, it’s just a concept.

That’s interesting because that line connected with a lot of people because it sounds very androgynous when you sing it.

I think the same could be said for our music as a whole. We don’t sound gender-specific at all. I’m not a very masculine singer by myself and then when you coat that with the female harmonies it does sound very androgynous. I’ve always liked androgynous vocals for some reason, my favourite male singers were guys that had a whiny effeminite bark.

Like a howl.

Yeah! Like they’re almost more alien than they are man or woman.

I wanted to ask you about live concerts as well – how much did you miss those?

Not too much to be honest. I like creating and recording as much as playing live.

And you’ve had a year to do that.

Then it’s like, “oh, now we can do this part!” I like it all.

You’re playing in the UK and Europe next year. Excited for that?

I’m a little nervous actually! We’ve got to get our sea legs back on.

When was the last time you were over there?

A couple of years ago but it’s a whole different ball game now. The last time we played London, we played a venue with about 150 people and we sold it out just in the nick of time. I remember that was such a celebratory moment. Now we’re playing a much bigger venue and it almost feels like we skipped a step or something (laughs).

Did you ever expect to sell out so many dates so early?

No! I never expect even five people to come to our shows.

It’s going to be fascinating to see the mix of the crowd, between your new fans and the older ones.

It’ll be a great mix, yeah. I can’t wait, I’m so intrigued.

This being your eight album, did you ever see yourself lasting this long? How many more albums have you got in you?

I think there’s probably going to be a lot more. I don’t really think of it in terms of albums, I think of it as doing what I like to do in life for as long as possible. I like to be creative, I like to make music, and I don’t know if that’s going to look like 100 albums or just a few more. I’m going to continue to do it because what else am I going to do? (laughs). Even if eventually I’m just doing it for myself, even if the career bottoms out, I’m still going to be making songs because that’s what I need to do for my own soul. Hopefully people continue to want to be a part of that.

Mother Mother’s new album Inside is out now on Warner. You can find the band on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.