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How a word game and a world shutdown led to Momma’s breakthrough

Momma’s throwback 1990s sound immediately takes its listeners to the Clinton era, when albums like The Breeders’ Last Splash, Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, Belly’s Star, Veruca Salt’s American Thighs and Nirvana’s In Utero were all over alternative radio.

Household Name — the band’s new (and third full-length) album — gleefully explores the themes of rock stars who sell out and if that’s really all so bad, as well as the delicate balance between angst and vulnerability. It’s all punched up with all the sonic hallmarks of ’90s rock sounds: big drums, fuzz pedals and laconic earworm harmonies.

Etta Friedman and Allegra Weingarten (guitarists, vocalists) met in California while still in high school and reunited in New York to build on that early bond. It was a foundation of ’zines, graphic novels, grunge bands, network television and sleepover staples — snacks and Boggle.

Weingarten and Friedman caught up with me before their visit to Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Ballroom at 8 p.m. this Friday, Sept. 2, when they’ll share the stage with Snail Mail and Hotline TNT. Tickets are available now online and two hours prior to show time at the Turner Hall Ballroom box office.

You can find their new record on all streaming services and order it from the Polyvinyl Records website.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Most musicians grow up in musical households. Did you play musical instruments growing up? Or was there at least music playing in the background?

Allegra Weingarten: My dad was a music journalist while I was growing up. So he had literally thousands and thousands of CDs in our garage. He played me everything I've ever known basically as a child, but when I was getting into discovering music on my own, I would just go through all of his CDs and pick out stuff. That's how I found a lot of the bands that ended up being super formative for me. He also played guitar and made a point to put me in guitar lessons pretty early on So, lots of music in the Weingarten household, for sure.

Etta Friedman: My brothers played music all the time — piano and guitar. They're the type of people who can pick up any instrument and just make it sound really good. My mom kinda raised me on ’70s glam rock stuff — Elton John, David Bowie, all that. Then, once my brother started showing me music, I started getting into No Doubt and Green Day. Weezer was huge. When I got a little bit older, I decided I really wanted to learn how to play guitar, so I asked my brother for one of his guitars and just kind of started doing it and finding music on my own that way.

You started Momma when you were both still in high school in California. What were those days like when you were just starting to write together? Describe a day in the life of Momma as a “baby band.”

AW: We would go to my house — we'd always have sleepovers at my house — probably smoke a little, turn on some sort of reality show or like some sort of true-crime show, and then we’d just sit in my room and write basically the entire time we were hanging out.

EF: We'd also have “spread nights” where we’d go grocery shopping and get good food, and then we'd make that in between writing — and, like, watching TV and stuff like that, too.

AW: We did that three or four times a week, I feel like.

EF: Boggle was a big part of that, too.

AW: Yeah, we played a lot of Boggle.

EF: We should’ve brought it on tour.

Pro tip — when you're writing songs, play Boggle .

Fast-forward to now. You’re on Polyvinyl Records, and this is your third official full length. What made writing and recording Household Name stand apart from working on your previous records?

EF: Well, for this one, we went to an actual studio, which was awesome. And we had a lot of time to flesh out demos before we were actually able to get into the studio. So the pandemic was great for that reason, where we were just pretty much unemployed. We were able to go to Aron , who’s our producer and our bass player. We’d go to his house every day, demo, work on songs, re-flesh them out — to the point where it was maybe a little too much? Then we got studio days, and we were able to make it in the studio for a month, maybe over a month, and really get good gear and do the whole thing. It sounds how we've always wanted to sound, so that feels good.

As musicians, there's always that ideal sound you have in your minds, and once it finally happens, it’s gotta be so gratifying. What were you listening to, reading and watching that might have worked its influence into this new record?

AW: Oh, man. I literally don't even remember.

EF: I mean, obviously the Nirvana stuff.

AW: Yeah. A lot of Nirvana. I was reading Heavier Than Heaven, which is the Kurt Cobain biography.

EF: I remember what I was listening to and reading during recording, but songs had already been done. I was reading Liz Phair’s memoir, and I was reading this awesome graphic novel called Fun Home. It's really, really good.

AW: Oh, I remember! I was watching Friday Night Lights. I watched the entirety of Friday Night Lights and Gilmore Girls over the whole demo-ing process.  

I can feel those influences in the record.

AW: Yeah. Like “small town” vibes.

I feel like since we’re talking a little bit about the ’90s and Nirvana, I've gotta ask the '90s question because it's so crucial to your sound and identity. What does that era represent for you artistically? Is it an era you'd want to go back to and live through? Are you cool just viewing it from afar as an admirer?

AW: I think, for me, it's probably the last era where you could kind of make it big as a guitar-rock band, but I don't think it's much deeper than that. I feel that the bands that we both are obsessed with from the ’90s — like The Breeders and Pavement and all that — just happened to be what we were listening to as teenagers. So it became really formative music for us, which obviously makes you have a greater attachment to it. But I don't know. People always ask us about the ’90s, and it's not like I have a clear answer about what it represents for me. I just think that it happened to be a good time with lots of good media. Not just music, but shows and movies, too.

EF: Totally. It's funny. I was talking to Lindsey yesterday, and she was just like, “Dude, if like we were in the ’90s, you’d be millionaires at this point.” I was like, “That's actually so effed, because it's so true, and we're so broke.” It's hilarious.

Speaking of rewinding time, something that caught my eye in your video for “Speeding 72” was that you drive this really cool old car, and I get the impression that you all like driving cars and being on the road. Do you both own cars? And if so, what has been your favorite vehicle that you’ve driven up to this point?

AW: Well, we both used to have little cars. I used to have a Beetle, and Etta used to have a MINI Cooper, and that was pretty funny when we would roll up to school right behind each other in our tiny cars . But we don't have them anymore.

EF: Yeah. My parents got rid of that car as soon as I moved away. It was also, like, the worst car I've ever had. Technically, it was a horrible car. But it was so adorable. It was a red MINI, and it was adorable.

I was obsessed with Fiats for a little bit, too, but once you drive them, you're like, “Oh, this is terrible.”

AW: Yeah. My mom had a Fiat. That's the car that I learned to drive with.

They’re so loud . But who’s the best driver in the band? May I ask that question?

EF: Not me. I have a horrible track record. 

AW: I've never gotten in an accident, so I'll say me. I think Aron's a pretty good driver, too, but I'll say me.

OK, it's on the record now .

So you play The Majestic in Madison on Aug. 31 and then Turner Hall Ballroom here in Milwaukee on Sept. 2. What are you gonna do with your free day in between? Do you have any Wisconsin adventures planned?

AW: We might be making a little side quest over to Minneapolis, which will be cool because that's actually where my parents lived for a couple years, and that's where my older sister was born.

EF: Yeah, you should give us some recommendations, though: places to eat, all that good stuff.

We’ll do that off the record. To start, though, just Google “House On the Rock.” That is something that every person should try to see once in their life because it’s definitely weird. If you have time to kill, that’s a good place to go.

EF: Sounds good.

Is there anything else you'd like to share with us before we go, like what songs you’re listening to right now?

AW: What have we been listening to? Oh! We've been doing the early 2000s indie stuff, like the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs, TV On The Radio, Sleigh Bells, Justice. We've been revisiting those bands, which is kind of fun. So, yeah, that’s on our playlist right now.