Take It Or Leave It: A Conversation With The Aces

"It became this place for us to feel like we could be ourselves..."

Backstage at the iconic London live music venue, KOKO, indie-pop quartet The Aces are excited to play their biggest headline show to date- a tour they have sold out, although are no strangers to playing larger venues as they did support The Vamps on their ‘Greatest Hits’ tour last year, too. 

The Aces released their third studio album ‘I’ve Loved You for So Long’ in June and have been touring it across the UK. ‘I’ve Loved You for So Long’ brings together themes of self-love and is a searingly honest, super personal look into processing a painful youth. 

Alisa Ramirez (drums) tells us, on the night: “We’re so excited. It’s a big accomplishment to come and sell out KOKO. London’s really been a city that has supported us, really, wholeheartedly – from the time we started putting out music.”

The band hail from Utah, so playing to thousands of people in London feels like a world away and also has special meaning to the four young women. Alisa adds: “I feel like we’re having a ‘We’ve made it!’ moment, to be so far away and to be doing this tonight. We walked into the venue and we were like, ‘Woah, this is going to be packed.’”

The band no longer live in Utah and currently reside in LA. They were all raised as Mormons (but have since left the religion) and describe their hometown as “conservative”. However, these are not things that define the band, nor would they want them to. They feel that their music and what their music, more importantly, represents is universal and applies to anyone that has ever felt like an outsider or made to feel unwelcome in any way.

McKenna Petty (bass) describes how they have been playing together for many years. “We started the band when we were ten [and] eight, so we grew up playing and, huge part of it, because of the religion, we were able to play all venues when we were young. Because there’s no alcohol, it’s ‘all ages’ so it was a cool place for us to grow up and really cut our teeth doing the band. And play a lot of shows from a very young age.”

Three of the four members of The Aces (Alisa, Cristal and Katie) identify as queer. This is obviously an important part of their band’s identity, but they made a deliberate decision not to use gendered pronouns in their debut album, ‘When My Heart Felt Volcanic’. This really resonated with their non-binary listeners. Alisa says: “We would pretty much stick to saying things like ‘baby’ or ‘you’ or ‘they’ – we actually kept that entire record free of any female or male pronouns at all and then the second record was all ‘she’ pronouns.”

Cristal [Ramirez, lead vocals and guitars] adds: “But we would still have trans and non-binary fans being like, ‘I love listening to your music, because there are no pronouns.’ They would still bind us through our queerness…It just became this thing where the energy of what we created together was transcending past us and starting to become that for other people…”

The band have become each other’s ‘safe space’. Cristal says: “It was really, really hard to feel so different growing up and to feel like you didn’t fit in and when we were on stage together, none of that really mattered. And we got to be these larger than life versions of ourselves; the best versions of ourselves. You got to turn off all the anxiety and all the questions about who you were and what the future looked like. You got to just be in that moment and I think that that’s why we all became so… almost addicted to it, because it became this place for us to feel like we could be ourselves.”

She adds: “And, as we started doing that and playing shows, and it expanded out of our home town, we started getting that same feeback from fans. They would just tell us stuff like, ‘Your shows are the only place I feel like I can be myself or the only place I can hold my girlfriend’s hand. It’s the only place that I can identify the way that I want to identify, or whatever it was.”

McKenna appreciates seeing their music bring solace to their fans. “I think whether you’re queer or whether you’re a woman that grew up in a super misogynist place or whether you had to leave your community in any type of way or you emigrated to a place where you don’t feel like you belong, a lot of people can relate to just feeling like they don’t fit in and wanting to find community in that way.”

Despite knowing each other since they were in school and dealing with their queer identities and religion around the same time, their individual experiences were very different. Alisa says: “Even as kids, there was this intrinsically…this energy of otherness that drew us to each other and I think we’re finding that all over the world now, is the crazy part, you know when we play places like London and we have these kids [at] this VIP Meet and Greet, basically telling us that they’re dealing with the same thing as a result fo their queerness being in a small town or it’s something else that makes them feel disenfranchised or disconnected. That energy is found all over the world.”

Katie [Henderson, guitars] adds that this is why fans can relate to songs like ‘Suburban Blues’. “I feel like everyone can relate in their own way, which is really beautiful even though your personal experience can be so different. It’s really cool to still have that core part of everyone that can relate to the same thing in a really cool way, it can bring us together.

Alisa describes how looking back and processing a painful past can leave one, ultimately, feeling hopeful. She says: “I fully accept and love who I am today, which is why we chose to end the record like ‘Younger’…We opened the record with a song [[like] ‘I’ve Loved You For So Long’, which is a grand love song [about] someone you’ve loved for a really long time, but for us, we really interpret it as our relationship to each other and this band.“

The coronavirus pandemic prevented them from touring their then-newly released album, ‘Under My Influence’ but, rather than admit defeat, they changed things up and headed back to the studio to work on ‘I’ve Loved You for So Long’ which is heavily nostalgic in terms of both sound and the stories they tell. Alisa says: “This was hugely about our teen years and about our adolescence so it was huge for us to go back to when we were back to when we were at high school and middle school and really reminisce on that time.”

For Cristal, it meant confronting her chronic anxiety and making certain decisions about what the band stood for; their mission. “It was a really scary, vulnerable process to talk about where we come from and growing up in the religion we grew up…. And we had a lot of shame around that and where we came from and not wanting it to bleed into what we were doing as a band. Not wanting to be niched down into a queer, ex-Mormon band. We didn’t want those buzz words. 

“We just wanted to show up and show up and show who we were outside of those labels. There was some real reconciling with that on this record. Do we want to talk about our religious trauma and past? And is that something we want to be asked about in interviews? And, ultimately, what it came down to was like this story, our story of who we are, is not fully being told. It’s powerful and important and it’s really not near as niche as we think it is. The amount of people who have the exact same feelings we feel through religion, through whatever the circumstance, are out there and we’re seeing that every single day at shows and so, I think it was scary. Also, talking about my anxiety and my panic attacks and my shame around that was really difficult, for me, at first, but as we started doing it. It started to, for me, at least…started becoming really liberating, because it started to feel like, ‘OK, everything’s out on the table now’. Every type of buzz word or whatever could be used, right? But our story is fully out in its entirety and like, ‘Take it or leave it.’”

The Aces are touring North America, Australia and Japan next and hope to return to the UK next year.

Words: Narzra Ahmed
Photography: Julian Burgueño

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