When Sensitivity is an Act of Resistance: A Conversation with Puppy Angst

When I reached the tail end of my senior year of high school, I became obsessed with an EP called We Have No Future, We’re All Doomed by a newly-minted dream pop outfit called Kississippi. Kississippi was my gateway into the classic slacker indie rock staples like Pavement, Built to Spill, and Yo La Tengo. That band also exemplifies the exceptional creative seeds that indie artists are sowing in Philadelphia. Philadelphia gave us Mannequin Pussy, Spirit of the Beehive, Hop Along, Empath… the list goes on. 

Flash forward five years, and I find myself logging onto a zoom meeting with a former touring member of Kississippi, Alyssa Milman (they/them), to discuss their latest project Puppy Angst. Talk about full circle. 

Puppy Angst is a moody indie dream pop quartet that Milman formed alongside Eric Naroden (drums), Dan Leinweber (guitar, vocals), and John Heywood (bass), who also plays bass in Alex G. Puppy Angst’s forthcoming debut album Scorpio Season paints a raw portrait of the emotional journeys Milman has traversed throughout various periods of their life, from onset adulthood to the mid-twenties quarter-life crisis, to the present-day foggy post-quarantine haze. One of the album’s singles, “In Sensitivity,” shows Milman coming to terms with uncertainty, and learning to look at their sensitivity as a gift rather than a hindrance (“I’ve cried every day this week/I’ve decided that sensitivity is my biggest strength”). Set against a backdrop of shimmering surf guitar and jangly pop melodies, their diary-like lyrics are soft-hearted and tender, without shying away from the darker underbelly of emotional unavailability, personal struggles, and mental anguish. 

It’s impossible to narrow Puppy Angst’s sound down to a single reference. Their work calls to mind the washed-out guitar technique of My Bloody Valentine, as well as the melodic sweetness and razor-sharp grit of recent noise pop outfits like Wednesday, topped off with a twee childlike aura that harks back to the quintessential Sarah Records sound. “I’ve been toying with labels like “shoepop” and “bummergaze” for a while,” Milman tells me before continuing, “I’m not so sure which I prefer yet!” 

But what stands out the most is the gumption and defiance in their songwriting. They clearly recognize the fact that in a world that profits and sustains power through their oppression and subjugation, holding onto hope is a direct act of resistance. And it’s all the more beautiful to see these character strengths mirrored in their writing.

Milman sat down with A Grrrl’s Two Sound Cents to discuss their progression from playing the piano as a child to shredding with Puppy Angst, how songwriting has helped them bridge the gaps in the five stages of grief, and the importance of using your privilege to move the needle forward in the fight for liberation.  

Can you tell me a little about yourself, your background, and how you started making music?

Alyssa Milman: I actually started playing piano as a child. Those Russian immigrant parents love sitting their kids at the piano! My mom was classically trained as a kid. You’d think my piano playing would be better than it is, but my instructor let a lot of my bad habits slide, so my technique isn’t as good as it could be. I also hated it. I would always cry before lessons and never enjoyed it. So that was the first time I started playing music, but I didn’t really start enjoying playing music until I picked up guitar and bass in eighth grade. I went to school and got a degree in music theory, which I don’t really use. I did use it to write backing vocals for the record though!

You and the rest of the band have other projects that have done quite well in indie circles. What does this particular band provide for you that you couldn’t find anywhere else? 

Milman: I actually started this project as a solo effort a few years ago. One of the first bands I was a founding member of was Past Life. And then I was in another band called Blushed, which was a three-piece at the time. My partner and I had just met when that project started, and then I started playing solo sets as Puppy Angst while those projects were still going. I was juggling these three projects for a while, and eventually, my partner joined the other band because we needed a guitarist. I’d been trying to make Puppy Angst into a band for a long time, but that didn’t happen until 2018. I did my first tour when I played guitar in Kississippi in December 2019. And then the pandemic hit, and after things re-opened I did a few more shows with Kississippi and now Puppy Angst is my main project. Eric, my drummer, was one of the original members I brought on in Summer 2018. Then I added Dylan on guitar, and our original bassist Ky, who ended up leaving. I posted on Facebook that I was looking for a bassist to replace them, and John was the first person to answer within minutes of me posting. While we were working on our album, Dylan moved to work on their own stuff, so I brought on my partner Dan to do guitar parts. 

“A lot of these songs are about things I’ve already processed, so it’s funny to record and play them because by that time I’ve already moved on. I don’t think I’ve ever been this vulnerable or honest before on a project.”

– Alyssa Milman

How would you classify your sound as a band?

Milman: What I’ve put on our bandcamp is pretty fitting: “Like puppy love, but a little more sad.” That’s the silly one-liner I’ve always used since I started the project. Another one is “Kind of fun, kind of a bummer.” I would describe a lot of our stuff as pretty moody but also fun. I definitely infuse the music with pop sounds, because I love hyperpop and I grew up with ABBA playing in the house, so I love a lot of dancey fun stuff. But most of the lyrics amount to “woe is me, I’m so sad.” I love playing with that contrast. It’s also gazey, noisy dream pop. 

I definitely hear that in most of the songs. Especially “Yellow Paint,” which I loved a lot. 

Milman: Thank you! I’m really proud of that one. It was my first guitar solo. It’s kind of silly that I have a degree in music theory and I almost never use it. John will always ask me what chords I wrote, and I never think about that. I always write based on vibes and pressing my fingers down and noodling around. I love watching reality TV, so I’ll often put on Real Housewives in the background to help shut my brain off, which is how a lot of song ideas come to me. I wrote “Yellow Paint” in the fall of 2020 and I work in food service, so I couldn’t really meet up with the band because social distancing was still a policy in public spaces and the vaccines hadn’t come out yet. We were doing a virtual demo process where I worked on the songs and sent them to the band, which was a very new process. With “Yellow Paint,” I knew I wanted a guitar solo. I was listening to a ton of Bully at the time. So that song is very Bully and Mannequin Pussy-inspired. Then I finished demoing the song and found out that I had food poisoning. So I guess I exorcised some demons with that guitar solo! 

I’m a big fan of the beachy guitar tones in your songs. Are those coming from a Jazzmaster or Mustang, by any chance?   

Milman: Bingo! It’s a Mustang. I try to use the Mustang as much as Johanna [our producer] would allow me to while we recorded the album. But it’s a very gnarly, bright tone that doesn’t always work for everything, so we used some telecaster and jazzmaster in the studio. We recorded pretty much every single guitar tone through a JC120 amp. I think we used a strat as well. We were at the headroom, so there was access to many, many guitars. 

What are your thoughts on the controversial Spotify-coined term “bubblegrunge?” I’m still not sure how to feel about it.

Milman: Let’s be real. When people use genre tags like “bubblegrunge,” or “pink fuzz,” they just mean songs by women or femme-presenting people who don’t even sound the same. And I don’t love it, because I don’t view myself as a woman. But it doesn’t bother me as much anymore. If this were three years ago, it definitely would have gotten under my skin more if someone referred to me as “she/her” in an article or if my band got added to a “girls/girls/girls” playlist. And I had to sort of force myself to stop letting that sort of thing bother me so much, at least when it’s coming from people who don’t know me, because I know who I am. I’m happy with how I present and identify, but I also realize I have a lot of privilege there. As long as the people I care about respect my identity, I’m happy. I care more about fighting for liberation for all queer people. That’s the end goal.

We all have sentimental/nostalgic records that feel like a warm hug or a favorite blanket. What is your go-to comfort album to listen to? 

Milman: I have to say Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. It’s just a perfect album. It opened my eyes to a lot of different sounds, and now it’s basically my whole personality. I have a really great memory of that album too. One of the first times Dan and I hung out, we got breakfast, got coffee, smoked some weed, and then listened to Loveless before I drove him home. 

How does lyric writing affect your cognitive-emotional state?  

Milman: It definitely helps me process a lot of things. A lot of the songs on this album are about a toxic relationship I was in when I was eighteen. I tend to take my sweet time processing these experiences that weren’t the best for me. One of the songs is about my dad’s passing, which happened when I was still in college. A lot of these songs are about things I’ve already processed, so it’s funny to record and play them because by that time I’ve already moved on. I don’t think I’ve ever been this vulnerable or honest before on a project. The songs always help me process stuff. “Yellow Paint” was so cathartic to write because it really felt like I had properly shut that chapter of being traumatized by that relationship. I was lied to and severely manipulated. It was horrible. It affected so much of my life for the next couple of years and how I interacted with others and with myself. There are two other songs specifically about that relationship on the album as well, so it feels like three stages of overcoming and processing everything. I’m really hoping that people won’t hear some of these songs and decide to message me “Are you okay? You sound like you’re really going through it!” 

I think the fact that you’ve processed it in a song should already be their confirmation that you’re fine.  

Milman: Exactly! The song is not a cry for help. The cry for help was happening before I wrote it. It’s a sign that I’ve already moved past that stage. 

“I’m happy with how I present and identify, but I also realize I have a lot of privilege there. As long as the people I care about respect my identity, I’m happy. I care more about fighting for liberation for ALL queer people. That’s the end goal.”

– Alyssa Milman

Another song of yours I really love is “In Sensitivity.” Could you tell me a little bit about it? 

Milman: Yeah. That one was another hook I had in my head for a really long time. When I first wrote it, I struggled with getting past the first verse and chorus and almost needed to ask for help with the lyrics, but one day it just hit me and the song was suddenly done. It was finished before lockdown but we didn’t really get a chance to work on it until after we started our virtual demos. I feel like that song really came together in the production stages, especially the synth hooks and the vocal processing. I’m really proud of that song. Our third single, “Perpetual” is a lot darker and moodier. “In Sensitivity,” wasn’t originally going to be the second single, but I thought the beachy surf rock sound was perfect for the end of the summer. “Savage Good Boy,” by Japanese Breakfast was one of the mixing references I brought to the studio for that song because I love the pop vocal processing on it. The lyrics are about crying, but it still feels like a good time with friends (a publication called Queerty described it this way). It’s a really sparkly song about acknowledging how hard it is to be happy, but still remaining hopeful about working towards a level of happiness. 

What is your favorite part of the music community in Philly? 

Milman: How much good music there is. I’m not familiar with every music scene in the country, but there are so many great bands coming out of Philly. There’s definitely a great DIY scene and all of my friends are people who play music. There’s such a wide range of stuff coming out too, and a million different genres to discover here. Where are you based, by the way? 

That’s amazing. I’m in New York and it’s pretty much the same here. There are so many pockets and niches that it’s hard to keep track of sometimes.  

Milman: Oh nice! We were just in New York recently for Bikes, Bands, and BBQ! Our friends in Television Overdose helped put it together. We played two dates with them in July and have been obsessed with their music and live shows ever since. They are so good! I have to shout them out. They’re so fun to see and they’re great people. 

Indeed. TVOD have quite the reputation here. What are some of your favorite local DIY venues in your area? 

Milman: We’ve played twice at the Palace, which is a wonderful space. We filmed parts of the “Yellow Paint” video there. They put so much effort into their shows as well. There are often themes where everybody dresses up, and they do official photo roundups on their Instagram. They definitely want to make the whole experience super immersive. The house is also wild. I think an NFL player used to live there in the ‘80s or something. I love it there. I also liked playing the Crawlspace, which is a house venue in North Philly. PhilaMOCA is more of a venue venue, but it’s another great one. Hush House and Planet Earth are some other cool spots. 

What does the rest of the year have in store for Puppy Angst? 

Milman: Only a few more big things. We’re playing with two really great shoegaze bands, Blushing & Lucid Express, for the Philly date of their tour on October 22nd at Kung Fu Necktie; we’re closing out the show and Queasy is opening it. Then we’re releasing our album, Scorpio Season, on October 24th. I directed the music video for the last single  “Perpetual,” which just came out on September 29th, so if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it. And then our last big thing is our LP release show at PhilaMOCA on December 10th with So Totally and a mystery third band!




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