Haim's bass player Este on surviving lockdown, music's big issue with sexism and what it's like to faint on stage at Glastonbury.
They’re the sibling trio – made up of sisters Este, Alana and Danielle – responsible for some of the catchiest pop songs in recent years (think: Falling, If I Could Change Your Mind, Want You Back…the list goes on). Their third album, Women in Music Pt. III, was hailed as their most intimate and direct album yet – fitting, since it was released during lockdown which meant touring was completely off the cards. Here, bass player Este – who has just teamed up with Fender to launch the American Professional II – speaks to us from LA about the experience.
Este, how are you? It’s early there right?
It’s definitely early. And I started watching the Haunting of Blind Manor on Netflix and then just couldn’t fall asleep.
Why did you do it to yourself, it looks terrifying!
I know. Well all of October is dedicated to watching shit that scare the shit out of me, so I did that and then just stared at my ceiling for hours on end. So I didn’t get the best night’s sleep, but I’m here.
Thanks for showing up!
99% of what matters is showing up.
Very true, it’s all we can ask of anyone at the moment. Being part of a band that tours so much, this pandemic must be a very surreal time. Has that been challenging?
Yeah. I mean I feel like it’s hard to even put into words I guess. Touring is one of the only things, maybe the only thing that brings me pure joy. And so to not be able to do that is really heartbreaking. And for this particular record cycle, my sisters and I were so stoked to put this record out. We were so excited for people to hear the music and we worked so hard on it and we really put every ounce of our being in this body of work. Then to put it out and not go on tour right after, or even during – which is what we’re used to as a band…. As a musician your normal work schedule is you conceptualise something, write it, record it, put it out, tour. Lather, rinse, repeat. So for this it was just weird.
How did it feel?
You know, the record came out and we were all very stringently quarantining at the time. So I cheered to them [each other] over FaceTime which was weird and sad. You know in normal times we would be getting wasted and hugging each other and crying.
And in terms of feedback from fans, you have an element of that on social media. But there’s not that same immediacy you get from performing, you’d imagine?
Yeah. I’ve been living on the internet and trying to stay as involved as I possibly can with our incredible fan base. Everyone has been so cool and so nice, we tried doing these dance classes, but I fashioned myself as like a professional choreographer which I’m not! That was really fun.
For us that was such a great way – even though it was through a screen – to see the people that enjoy our music which is so cool and still so surreal. Like I said, we conceptualise and start jotting down ideas for songs in Danielle’s living room and all of a sudden everyone else has access to it and asking us about lyrics. It’s pretty surreal, but I love it.
We love it too. I don’t know whether you’ll remember this, but can you tell us about your first memory of picking up a guitar?
The first time I picked up the guitar was in my mother’s bedroom. So my mum has two guitars from her childhood, she has a Yamaha nylon string and a Guild steel string, both acoustic guitars. As a seven year old, playing a nylon string is exponentially easier than playing steel string, so my mum gave me this guitar and taught me how to pluck out three chords. And the beauty of guitar is, if you know two or three chords you also know like seven billion songs. So it’s fun as a kid. With piano I was plucking things out and I didn’t really like piano or really take to it because I wanted to be outside. But with guitar it was so cool because it was mobile. And I’d seen Jimi Hendrix on TV and was like, ‘Oh my God that guy is so cool’. And I saw him playing and I was like, ‘If I can be an ounce of his pinkie finger, if I could have just that much talent? I’d be happy’.
But I didn’t take to it like my younger, more talented sister Danielle took to it. Even like her at four or five years old, she was killing it. She was really, really good at it and I think my dad saw the despair that I felt that my younger, smaller sister was better at something than me. And I think I just got discouraged. I didn’t feel confident and I think my dad took it upon himself to cheer me up.
What did he do?
I think that he was really smart in that he got a VHS of Stop Making Sense and put it on for me. And I saw Tina Weymouth and I thought, ‘That girl’s cool’. She was cool! There was a girl on stage having so much fun and it was almost like it was coming out of the screen how much fun everyone on stage was having, but especially her. I had a Nintendo fascination too and I thought she looked like Princess Peach, and I thought that was cool. I wanted to be like her. My dad was like, ‘Oh she’s not playing guitar, she’s playing base and it’s not six strings, its four strings so it’s easier’. Looking back on it I think I wanted to be like ‘Dad that’s not true’, but in my seven or eight-year-old brain I was like, ‘Oh maybe it’ll be easier’. But no, it’s not easier, it’s just different. It serves a different purpose in the band.
But isn’t that a brilliant example of having to find what works for you – and that we can’t all be the same?
Totally! And guitar still to this day eludes me. I mean if I am writing songs I can like, I know a bunch of chords but can I solo like Danielle and Alana can? No, I can’t, I can barely, I also don’t play with a pick I play with my fingers so the idea of noodling around on a guitar with a pick is so foreign and not my shit. So I play with my fingers.
I was shocked by the stats on bass players and gender disparity in the music industry. Men make up the majority of bass players – in orchestras it’s something like 95%. I’d love to know your experience of that? As a female bass player, has that proved challenging?
Well Fender did a study a couple of years ago and found that 50% of new guitar owners were women. You know with that statistic, I was over the moon. That is incredible and so exciting. And I think growing up playing the bass, there were definitely times where playing the base gave me a ticket into hanging out with all the boys that were playing instruments. Because I was like, ‘I’m a bass player’ at like 10.
Wow, that’s young…
There weren’t a lot of 10 year-old-bass players just lying around. So when all the boys were learning how to play the guitar I was in the neighbourhood being like, ‘I’ll play in your band’. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t met with boys being like ‘Girls don’t play rock music, girls don’t play rock instruments’. Then that kind of followed me all through high school. I went to an arts high school, so there were really really talented musicians that went to my school and I was a theatre major. And I think part of the reason I didn’t do music at school was because I was met with a lot of negative feedback when it came to men telling me I didn’t necessarily have a place in the rock community.
So I was like ‘I don’t want to have to deal with that, I’m going to run around reciting Shakespeare soliloquies and just have a good time’. But yeah it definitely deterred me. And even when I would go to parties and there would be jam sessions and surprisingly I was able to play bass. A lot of the jazz guys were like, ‘Oh I didn’t know you played base’ and I was like, ‘Yeah because it’s my secret superpower’, trying to be really cool about it. And guys would be like, ‘It’s so weird because rock music is for guys’. Then I would get into the minutiae of being like, ‘Well what do you mean?’ And this was such a bad idea at the time, but I was maybe trying to be flirty. Who knows?
What would they say?
I would get into these talks with these guys and what they were saying would just be like ‘Who’s a better guitarist than Jimmy Page that’s a girl?’. Or ‘who’s a better guitarist than…’ and just like rattle off all these guitarists and drummers and bass players and singers. At the time I was just like, ‘This is so dumb’. It felt like we were measuring dicks in a weird way. It was like, ‘Why are we doing this?’. I can also rattle off a bunch of women who are amazing musicians and rock musicians specifically, but I just thought it felt like it was falling on deaf ears. They didn’t want to hear what I had to say.
How did things change?
So that was high school and then I think as I grew older it was almost like the more negative comments I got, the stronger I got in a weird way. I used it as fuel to protect myself and to stand up for myself. I wasn’t necessarily thinking I was standing up for women. At the time I was definitely like, ‘Fuck everyone! ’ll go toe-to-toe with anyone at any time – not that I have to prove myself to you, but if you really want to go down this road I’ll fucking go toe-to-toe with you any day of the week!’.
You’ve played so many amazing venues. Is there one that holds a special place in your heart?
Probably Glastonbury. Our first set playing at Glastonbury was incredible. To play the pyramid stage was unbelievable in 2013. We’d been touring outside the US only a year before that, so it was one of my first times in the UK. I’d really only spent a small amount of time in the UK and I’d heard folklore of what Glastonbury was like. And it sounded like this place of mythic worship. All these nooks and crannies and this magical farm.
Basically this other world.
Yeah a couple other worlds, many many worlds in one place. So that was pretty incredible, I felt like I was flying the whole time.
Is this the performance where you fainted?
Yes haha! Also memorable for that reason.
I mean, what an experience! You were OK afterwards though?
The highs and the lows of being a diabetic as a musician. Yeah, I think right before I passed out I said, ‘My life’s never going to get any better than this’ then I fainted. I mean you can’t write this stuff. Then I my eyes started fluttering at the back of my head and I went side stage and passed out. My sisters thought I had a wardrobe malfunction and that’s why. I mean if I had a wardrobe malfunction I probably would have just kept playing. There’s a movie called Cool Runnings, it’s one of my favourite movies. And at the end where they’re carrying the bobsled above their head, they just wanted to make it past the finish line. So when I came to, that’s all I was thinking about. ‘I just need to finish this gig!’. So they gave me this chair and I sat and I played the rest of the gig and everyone rose and was like ‘She overcame her low blood sugar!’.
You did it!
I did, I kicked diabetes in the ass that day! The thing about diabetes is that you kind of have to kick diabetes in the ass everyday. And the struggle continues.
Absolutely. Well I’m so glad you’re OK, what a trooper for actually finishing the set. That’s insane.
Yeah, I finished the set and then I didn’t think to call my parents until the next day. I was also at Glastonbury so I wanted to have fun. Then we did an interview right after and I told them what happened and I went off and got drunk. I drunk a bunch of cider and was running around Glastonbury. Then the next morning I wake up to like 700 missed calls from my parents because they had read the headline and I hadn’t called them.
They must have been worried?
They were scared. I still haven’t really heard the end of it and it’s seven years later. But my dad was like ‘I was going to get on a Red Eye to the UK’ and blah blah blah. Because I guess no-one was answering their phones and our tour manager wasn’t answering his phone.
But it’s Glastonbury, no-one has phone signal!
Exactly it’s Glastonbury! All I wanted to do was have a good time especially after a near-death experience. The thing about diabetes is once your blood sugar is normal then you’re fine. But it also sucks, like it’s so dangerous. But I was fine, I lived to tell the tale.
The Fender American Professional II – an evolution of its most trusted series played by more artists than any other – is available now from fender.com