Hell to Be You Baby Is MNDR’s Ode to Our Information Age Dystopia
Her sophomore record was nearly a decade in the makingPhoto by Kevin Tachman Music Features MNDR
MNDR—aka one resourceful singer/songwriter/producer named Amanda Warner—proudly calls it “the big reveal.” And it comes at the very end of her VHS-flickering new video for the title track of her nine-years-in-the making sophomore album Hell to be You Baby. First, she sashays and shimmies in campy bell-bottoms and flower-power caftans through her native Los Angeles—including a muted stop in a bodega to search for gummy bears. But as the thumping backbeat abates alongside the chant-along chorus of “Down with the dark, darkness here we go / Must be hell to be you baby,” the final shot is the singer, sitting quietly on a chair, with an unusually sedate naked infant on her lap. And why is this kid so calm?
“Because that’s my baby! I had a baby at the beginning of the pandemic!” the artist exclaims, exuberantly. Born Feb. 5, 2020, right before lockdown kicked in, little Violet Petunia Rebel can handle just about anything now, including mom’s rubbery, effervescent synth-rock numbers, as well as any elaborate video-clip visuals she can dream up as accompaniment. The baby doesn’t look stunned or tired at the tail end of “Hell”—she seems genuinely amused, in a nonchalant, well-I-guess-this-is-just-what-my-mother-does way. But for a while there after her 2010 breakthrough on Mark Ronson & The Business’ hit single “Bang Bang Bang”—followed by her dazzling full-length debut Feed Me Diamonds in 2012—MNDR herself began to have aesthetic doubts, even though she’d built a profitable cottage industry collaborating with and/or remixing and producing other artists like Rita Ora, Tokimonsta, Sean Paul, Charli XCX and Kylie Minogue, to name just a few.
“I think I let the industry really freak me out about having a kid and being pregnant,” the 39-year-old now admits. “I worked on this album up until two days before Violet was born, and I was really scared that my career would die. And I don’t know if this is a big surprise to you, but the music industry isn’t really stoked on pregnant ladies, if you know what I mean.” She snorts derisively at the whole “Bro” aspect of it, she adds, but thanks “All the Gen-Z-ers, who really don’t put up with the indignities of anything, because all that shit is changing. Which is great, because being an artist is about having a life experience.”
And MNDR cites perfect previous examples like M.I.A., Santigold and Sinead O’Connor of motherhood meshing perfectly with incisive, cutting-edge music. “There are tons of moms, and that’s the life experience that I want to have, because it’s only made my music better,” she adds. “But with less sleep. Much less sleep.”
The work-when-baby-sleeps schematic is paying off. The slaphappy earworm hook on the “Hell” single is one of MNDR’s best, and the album only gets more memorable from there, often aided by helpful cameos, as on the R&B-punchy “Cult of Me” (with Girli), “Love in Reverse” (featuring Empress Of), “Save Me” (with Sheer Mag’s Tina Halladay), “Dove” (with Choir Boy) and the club-ready “Awake,” brought to life by PhoneWalletKeys. But MNDR is best when left to her own vulnerable, diary-honest devices, as in the lithe synth-meets-handclaps “Fragile.” And if Warner can’t exorcise all her spiritual demons in MNDR, she has another separate secret identity for catharsis: DeepKutz, her persona in the all-Halloween-music side combo LVCRFT, now readying its third spooky full-length. So far, fiendish guest stars have included Uffie, Bonnie McKee, Z Z Ward, Har Mar Superstar and even Sam Raimi’s go-to ghoul fighter, Bruce Campbell. Warner paused to catch her breath to explain herself while Violet napped.
Paste: The first, most crucial question—you got to sit in for Nick Rhodes on Duran Duran’s last tour?
MNDR: Yeah. I ended up meeting Duran Duran back in 2010—which was extremely surreal—because Mark Ronson was producing an album for them, and I was on his Record Collection album. So we met, and then were doing tons of gigs together, and they’re just like, really cool people, and we would just all hang out. And then I opened up for them on that tour as a solo artist. But then they called me, because Nick’s mother was sick, and they were in the middle of the Paper Gods tour. And literally, when they called me, I had to learn all the parts within 24 hours and fly to Chicago from L.A. I got a call, and I was on a plane three hours later, and learned everything, because they sent me the set list. But luckily, I knew the records really well. So I had all my notes, and off we went.
Paste: Were there some glaring mistakes you initially made, like, “Oh, my God! I’ve fucked up ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’!”?
MNDR: Probably. I think the biggest thing that was funny about it is, I’m like such a fan of theirs that I was mouthing the words while I was playing. And the producer of their show was like, “Uh, maybe you wanna just like maybe not mouth the words? And focus on playing the keyboard part?” And I was like, “Oh, my God! I didn’t even know I was doing that!” I just know all the words. So that was kind of funny—they were like, “Because, um, that’s not cool … ”
Paste: Did you get to hang out with them, get to be friends with Simon and everybody?
MNDR: Yeah, totally. They’d fly in by jet to their gigs, so the band is in the plane with them. We hung out all the time. I hung out with all of them, and I hang out with them when they’re in L.A. John Taylor lives here, and when Simon’s in L.A. we go out to eat. And when we’re in their cities, they’re always down to go out to eat or see a movie. They’re really cool. And Nick is really cool, too. He’s just awesome—iconic and amazing. I texted him after the first evening, saying, “I crammed on all of the keyboard work, and I hope I did it justice, but I think it went okay.” And then he wrote, “Jesus Christ! It took me 35 years to learn all those parts!” He was being very self-deprecating.
Paste: What did you learn from that excursion that you might have taken into your own work?
MNDR: I think for me, because I love keyboards and I love synth, so they’re really second nature to me. So I think Duran Duran’s influence on my music is just profound. And first off, full stop, I think the band has always been beloved, but I think they were marketed as this boy band. And knowing their music—and then learning it—you really realize that this band is way more than a boy band. And first of all, boy bands don’t write their music, and these guys wrote hit after hit after hit, and worked with these amazing producers, people that probably weren’t in the box for them to work with. Like, Nile Rodgers—that was a risk for them to work with Nile. And I think time has told us what an iconic, amazing band they are, and that they’ll be remembered as one of the greatest ever. And for me, they are the only band I’ve seen that just makes consistently amazing records. Seems like with other bands that have been around a long time, maybe they lost the love of it. But they truly don’t. I mean, John is at Amoeba every day, practically, record-digging—the guy knows everything that’s happening in music. And yes, Amoeba is open again, and they’re awesome—I just did a podcast for their 40th anniversary. They’re doing a big event, which I think they’d originally planned for last year. But then, of course, everything got postponed for a bit.
Paste: In 2016, you announced that your second album The Mainstream was finished. So then what happened?
MNDR: Ha! Yeah, and it wasn’t. But I was just curious what would happen if I announced that. And also, it was a joke title. At the time I was really entrenched as a writer in L.A.,and just being disillusioned by that process. And in fact, I still do that—not in a pandemic—but nearly every day. I produce and write for artists, which is also part of MNDR. So I think I was burnt out on that, and I just was being kind of a shitty punker, like I used to be, like, “What if I call my album Mainstream?” And I didn’t, but it was a journey to bring this album to completion. Especially with what I was trying to say with the album, so I’m happy that it came out the way that it did. Because it was a complex thing to talk about.
Paste: Go on … Explain.
MNDR: I will. So my sophomore album—which took me eight years to finish—is really about how the great algorithms of today in the digital realm are really like gods, and we’re all sort of like demi-gods under it. I sort of have the experience of being an artist and doing major campaigns, pre-streaming music, pre-social media, pre-Instagram. Like the second before Instagran—I had very bad social-media timing. So this is my ode to the dystopia of the Great Algorithm, the great A.I. controlling our lives. And to me, the sentiment is “It must be hell to be you, baby,” because it is actually hell. And then when you look at it from afar, there are much more intense things happening in the world, right? But I think they’re all connected to this dystopia of information. And it really started when I wrote the Hell title track—I was working with a lot of artists signed to major labels, and me coming from an outside punk/grindcore scene—those scenes were real-life experiences. I think if you’ve seen the Wax Trax documentary, that really was my experience of music, and even Bay Area music. It was about community, and it was about fostering this music within your community, and pushing each other to be better.
Paste: And you were living in a huge loft in Oakland with tons of other artists, right?
MNDR: Yeah. And when I was doing that it was the early aughts, so it was really crazy. It was pre-Ghost Ship, and it was nuts—it was fucking anarchy, it was crazy out there. I can’t believe I survived that—that was a crazy way to live. There were no rules, and you would just take over these buildings and do your own electrical wiring, It was just absolute mayhem. And it was a wild place with no rules, but it was also freeing and the art was great because of that.
Paste: Where did things go wrong for modern society? Is there a time and a place or a device that you can pinpoint?
MNDR: Well, I don’t ever look at pop culture and then write a song. I just think it’s like a zeitgeist, a cultural zeitgeist. So I don’t really preface it or frame it in my mind, like, “This is right and great, and this sucks.” Because there’s great things about everything now that sucked, pre-algorithm-driven life, A.I.-driven, machine-to-machine correspondence life. So let’s distill it down to music, for me. My experience in music is cultivating and growing within these communities, and that includes your style and what you look like, how you dress and the armor you wore. But now we’re in this era where your identity? You can sort and figure it out really quick. And that’s the idea of the cult of personality, right? That’s sort of an extension. And you can find your people, but it explodes and dies real quick to me, because it’s so democratized. Not that it’s right or wrong, but I just said it aloud in the room one day—It must be hell to be you, baby— because I realized what a privileged, ridiculous thought that was. But I also was thinking of the greater idea of this, in that now we’re all these propaganda machines, all of us who are on social media. Because it’s now all about building audiences that I don’t really own. On Instagram, for example, I have all these followers. But for me to reach them, I have to pay. I have to pay Instagram to reach them, and this is what this album is about. So where I think progress in America is really phallic, and sort of straight-line-up, like Elon Musk going, “Fuck this planet! Let’s just live on Mars!” Well, I don’t wanna live on fucking Mars, and I think Philip K. Dick was kinda right on all that stuff. And I think it’s great to dream and to aspire, but I don’t think progress is a phallic line up. Progress zig-zags and goes backwards, and there’s reflection, util I find myself building a server so I can access my community directly, without the meddling of an algorithm. That’s the way of the modern artist.
Paste: How do all these other artists find you? And what happens when you write with or produce them?
MNDR: So I’ve been in L.A. working as a writer/producer since 2013. And I have a publisher, so their job is to connect. And I know some A&R people, just through connections. So you’re just kind of put together in sessions or curated—artists come in and you work with them, and you write a song or make a demo. And it’s happening, all day long, working at that sort of level, in L.A., London, New York, Nashville, Atlanta, Miami. So that’s how I connect with them. But I wouldn’t say I connect through social media very often. And because I have a free-jazz, experimental background, I’m down for whatever—I’m like, “Okay, cool.” There’s no skill set that needs to be brought in that makes you better or worse, you know? But there are some people that you just don’t vibe with. There are some people that come in, and they are just open to working with you, for whatever reason—maybe they had a shit day. So if that happens, I usually just leave. Not because I don’t like them—I just figure, why waste anyone’s time? Let’s just go do something else.
Paste: Watching the video for “Hell,” it just reminded me of —and I go to this film all the time for what it magically captures—Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It just had that same bygone-era feel.
MNDR: Oh, man. I love that movie, too. It’s so good, and I loved seeing it in L.A., because I’ve always had a love affair with Los Angeles. It’s a very weird town, but I enjoy it. As much as I enjoy the Bay Area, as weird as it is. I mean, shit—that’s just my thing. So that warms my heart to know that that’s what you felt from that video, because this is my favorite video I’ve ever done. Culture is moving slower than I think the technology is moving—suddenly there’s a big divide in it. To be an artist that’s functioning in today’s climate, under the demands of your propaganda machine and trying to make music, the propaganda is now more important than the music. Which arguably could have always been the case, but then I think of a band like Duran Duran, and I don’t know if that’s true. I feel like those guys wanted to make fucking tight music—they just wanted to make great music, so they did. And I know that great music is being made every day, and the focus may not be about the music. But the ability to make music has never been more democratized, you know? Which is great—I’m all for that. Anyone can make music.
Paste: Everybody during the pandemic has been swearing by Bandcamp.
MNDR: Yes, Bandcamp, as an independent artist, is like a lifeline. And I did not approach this right. This record got so intense, it felt like my Rumours or something. It took an inordinate amount of time, starting with being on a record label and asking to be dropped, because you want to own this record. It was a lot. But I’m glad I waited, to be honest with you.
But I would say the most difficult of it was, I just irreverently didn’t give a fuck about—and I hate going back to this trope of ‘Social media as my only threat—but I don’t like telling people what I’m doing all day. Like, I loved when artist would make a record, then they toured, and then they’d go away for awhile. And then when they’d come back, you were so stoked, and you were like, “Oh, fuck—I can’t wait to listen to this! I can’t wait to touch it!” And especially with the concept I was tackling, I really had to hone what it was in order for it to get across. And that was the hardest part—all the songs were there, and the whole lyrical narrative was there, but honing the message to explain it to new fans was really difficult, because I had to lean into what I didn’t want to lean into. So I just had to realize that that’s culture right now, and I have to participate, but I can truly do it my way. And I think I’ve found a way where it doesn’t just make me feel like I’m literally in hell.
Paste: From “Open” to “Save Me” and definitely “Fragile,” you openly admit to vulnerability, something you don’t hear a lot of these days.
MNDR: Yeah. Thank you for hearing that. Because I feel like MNDR, that part of me, is extremely vulnerable. And I mean, art is 100% about connection with other people. And in order for me to do that, it just has to be unapologetically honest and vulnerable. That might sound so smug, and I’m so sorry if it does. But those are the records that matter. And I say this love, but I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and I just felt like a fucking weirdo. And the music that made me feel connected to anything was music that was extremely vulnerable. And maybe that was just the teenager in me, but I used to live and die by the lyrics of Morrissey. I used to listen to The Smiths all day, and I knew every moment. Cocteau Twins, all of 4AD—all of it. And I loved Siouxsie and the Banshees. I loved David Bowie. I loved Stereolab. And honestly, (Duran Duran’s) “Ordinary World” was one of the songs that made me feel connected, in a time when I just didn’t, where I just felt lost. I was a kid, and it was hard to find people that were interested in what I was interested in. It was just a lonely time.
Paste: It’s interesting to note that Disney had a policy where they would put videos back in the vault, then bring them out seven years later, because theoretically, a new generation was growing up. So a new generation of potential MNDR fans has come of age since your debut.
MNDR: Yes! And what I spent a lot of time doing was centralizing the project, because it was just an Internet mess, just a fucking mess on the Internet. And if you found this artist—if you found me— would you say, “What is happening here? What is this thing?” So I just went back to basics. And I’m also just like such a shitty, irreverent punker, and that’s what I come from and that’s the spirit of me, but I had to realize that I didn’t need to be pissed off every single time. I mean, it’s music. One of the greatest things that Simon Le Bon ever said to me—and he’s said a lot of amazing things to me—was, “You know, in my time, voices that were individual and really identifiable, were the ones that were successful, and they were the ones that we were looking for.” And now, when I look at music—and it’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just the cultural zeitgeist—the algorithm wants to make it all the same. And I know with MNDR, I have a real…well, I just sing the way I sing, it just sounds like that. But it certainly doesn’t sound like today’s vocal stylings, you know—it doesn’t follow a trend. And it’s a plus and a minus, though, and I find that interesting. Because sometimes the algorithm doesn’t like being a god that we have to worship. I dunno. There are all these Easter eggs on the album about followership, because I sat back one day and I realized how fucking crazy it is that we talk about “How many followers do you have? Or “Are you following anyone?” And what a religious term that is, you know? But in terms of social media, it’s the normal vernacular for how we discuss an audience. It really goes down a rabbit hole for me. Which I really like. It’s very religious to me, this era of music marketing, not so much music making.
Paste: I just logged onto the band The Vaccines’ website and finally saw a new single, “Headphones Baby,” had been posted. And it was so great, I just hit Repeat, Repeat, Repeat on the video clip. And that’s what incredible music can do—just change your day.
MNDR: Yeah! And I think my album is just my ode to how much I love music. It is indulgent, it is a concept record because I love concept records, it is political because that’s what I care about. And I write about what I care about, and I’m vulnerable, and I’m not interested in following production trends and these sorts of things. I’d rather go to bed knowing I tried to make a timeless record that they would re-listen to, rather than something that they would listen to just once. That’s my humble hope, every time I make music.