Philly trio Amanda X comes together for an album about falling apart

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From the August 7, 2014 edition

Songwriters Cat Park and Kat Bean came together in Amanda X just as things were coming unglued in both of their romantic lives.

Amnesia, the Philadelphia trio’s full-length debut, is littered with references to stumbling and relationships falling traumatically to pieces. “This house is rotting from the inside out,” the musicians howl on one tune while guitars and drums gnash, hammer and claw as though they’re trying to tear the corroded structure apart plank by plank.

“Cat and I were both going through breakups … so the two of us were in the same place mentally [during writing and recording], which is so strange,” said bassist Bean, reached alongside guitarist Park and drummer Tiff Yoon in the Philadelphia warehouse apartment that still serves as something of a creative incubator for the three musicians. “It was therapeutic for both of us, and it's something we wanted to share because it was like, ‘Hell, if this person in my band right next to me is feeling this, then there have to be other people going through the same thing.’

“Basically the whole record is us going through all this maintenance and all this emotional crap and trying to fight through it and handle it and then move really far away from it … and never look back.”

Of course, simply titling an album Amnesia isn’t enough to erase painful memories “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”-style, and Bean readily admitted the complex emotions that inspired the knotty, guitar-driven songs tend to come flooding back every time the band performs.

“We’ll be playing [a song like] ‘Parsnip’ or even ‘Nothing Wild,’ and I’ll be crying, so there are all these pictures of us where it's like: normal band member, normal band member and then just sheer sadness,” Bean said, and laughed. “I really try to be present when I'm playing for these people that came out to share a moment.”

Yoon and Park first met four years ago after the two moved into the same warehouse space in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia — an artist compound of sorts the two share with seven other free-spirited individuals (“Can you hear someone playing the bass below us?” Yoon asked midway into our late July interview). But it wasn’t until March 2012 that the two reached out to Bean through mutual friends, inviting her to play bass in the nascent trio.

“I got a text from [Park] one day and she said, ‘You're going to play bass in my band,’” Bean said. “I was like, ‘I don't know how to play bass.’ Then she was like, ‘But you're going to play bass in my band.’”

While Park had a comfort level on guitar, both Yoon and Bean were new to their respective instruments — though the classically trained Yoon had dreamed of playing drums from childhood (she was dissuaded by her mother, who deemed the instrument “not feminine enough” while pushing the youngster toward alto saxophone, of all things).

“We started playing these instruments together, and in that process we meshed, because we were all learning at the same pace and in the same way and in the same context,” Bean said. “We all seem to be on the same page making this music.”

Though the three have wildly divergent backgrounds and tastes — Bean said she tends toward “weirdo new wave,” while Yoon favors “fringe rock ’n’ roll” and Park is an aficionado of classic pop-punk — they share at least one aspect of their musical history in common: all three were members of the marching band in high school.

“It started in third or fourth grade, when you play something funny like the clarinet,” said Park, who got her first taste of the rock lifestyle touring with her high school screamo band (“We went down to Florida and back and it was like, ‘People can just do this?’” she said). “Then eventually you get to guitar or drums.”

While Park and Yoon joined marching band willingly — “I had to beg my parents [to let me join],” Yoon said — Bean was forced by her parents to join after being kicked out of public school and enrolling in a private institution.

“My mom signed me up to help me make friends, and it was like, ‘What the heck, mom?’” she said. “I was listening to the Smiths and all kind of weird, dark stuff, and I didn't want anything to do with anybody or any group activities … but somewhere in that I found my place.

“It felt similar when I picked up bass [for the first time with Amanda X]. I knew it felt right.”