Ahead of the Class: A Conversation with Stef w/ an F of City of the Weak

No disrespect to Taylor Momsen or Maria Brink, but City of the Weak vocalist Stef w/ an F wants no part in walking even an inch in their shadows. While she admires her fellow female front women’s work in The Pretty Reckless and In This Moment, respectively, that’s as far as it goes.

For Stef w/ an F, her journey begins and ends as her own entity. Always has, always will.

“I think it’s really awesome that there are a lot of powerful women fronting bands these days, like Maria or Taylor, but I don’t look at them and say I want to be the next one of them,” she said in a phone interview recently. “I don’t ever say that. I want to be the first Stef w/ an F.”

She and bandmates Brent Lindblad (guitars) and Cody Hoffman (bass) have been steadily grinding their brand of alt-rock to anyone who will listen in hopes of blazing their own musical lane since their formation in 2012, now more than 400 shows ago.

The Minneapolis-based band is currently in the midst of another run of live performances, this time a 26-date co-headlining tour with Echo Black in a run-up to the release of their first full-length album in June after previously releasing the EPs “White Fire Alarm” (2013) and “Disclosure” (2014), as well as the singles “Censor This” (2016) and “Ungrateful (2017).

The tour hits the Phoenix Lounge in Sioux Falls, South Dakota this Friday, followed by a stop in Iowa at Lifers in Algona on April 21.

ListenIowa caught up with Stef w/an F recently to discuss the tour, the new album, and her transition from classically-trained pianist to rock vocalist.

How is the rock scene in the Twin Cities these days?
It’s a great place to be a band. The big thing is that it helps to be where there are fans and consumers. Everybody wants to go to L.A., but everybody there is in the industry already. They aren’t buying anything. There are a lot of suburbs here (in Minneapolis) and consumers, so it’s a great place.

It seems like you’re a very hands-on band, doing a little bit of everything. How much are you involved in the business side of COTW?
I do pretty much all of the day-to-day things. Cody, he does the filming and designing and tech stuff. Brent does the writing and helps in various ways. We have our own roles and are very involved. We’ve toured extensively and have nailed it down on how to make it work and functional.

The band will see it’s first full-length album released in June. It’s been a long time in the works.
We’re excited about it. It’s produced by Craig Owen (Chiodos), which is really crazy, because he had a huge influence on me when I was forming the band. I’ve been a huge fan of Chiodos and have loved everything that Craig has done up this point and will continue to do so in whatever he does. I think we’ve expanded as artists, and I think it’s going to be a really big step for us.

Why wait five years after the band first formed to put out a full-length album?
We’re just waiting for the right time to put it out. If you put something out to early in your career, sometimes it doesn’t get the attention it deserves, so we wanted to make sure we have the team behind us, and the money and business aspects pulled together to get some traction.

You just released a video for “Pardon Me,” your cover of the Incubus song. Why that particular song and not a COTW original?
Every tour we go on, we pick a new cover, something that really means something to us, and is in a different genre that we can turn and make our own. We’ve been doing “Pardon Me” the last couple of tours and didn’t want to retire it, so originally we went into the studio with it as something to do, and from there it turned into this “thing,” which was awesome

How does the songwriting process work for your original work, then?
During the first two EPs, we were still in the process of forming as a band, so it was just like jam sessions, and whatever we liked, we would take into the studio. There was no rhyme or reason to it. But for this record, we sat down and demoed everything, went back and listened to every single piece to make sure things fit correctly and there weren’t going to be any clashing parts. Cody and Brent will do more of the music, and I’ll kind of act like a producer/editor, telling them what I like, what needs to be cut down. It’s works really, really well.

And lyrically, where is your comfort zone as a writer?
Our songs are all based on my experiences. Every song has a story and meaning behind it, and I can relate them to certain situations in my life where someone has screwed me over or said something that I want to fight back against. So you could say my lyrics kind of go toward the negative side of life, but they’re not meant to be depressing or “the world is a terrible place, so screw everybody.” Sometimes it is like that, because that’s how I feel, but other times it’s not, and it’s more uplifting. Our song “Mannerisms,” is based around child abuse. Nobody talks about it. Then there’s animal cruelty, and animal testing and just a lot of social issues that need to be talked about.

When did you know that this is what you want to do for a living?
I think I’ve known ever since I was 9 or 10. Even as a kid, I was very artistic. I was very smart when I was really young. In kindergarten, I tested out of it, so I was able to sit in my own little corner and write books. I would take the hole puncher and yarn and write and make bound books. My favorite part was illustrating them and bringing those stories and words to life. To me, they were art. As far as when I was older, it was when I had gone to UCLA, where I was going to be a piano major. I used to do competitions of Mozart and playing these crazy piano compositions. I went to UCLA and just wasn’t that thrilled about it. I was just bored. I went on Hollywood Boulevard one day and saw Musicians Institute (MIT) and, even though the reviews that I had read about it weren’t necessarily that good, I thought, “You know what? I’m just going to go in there, take a tour and whatever happens, happens.” I went in and was so inspired. I left there with all the pamphlets and wanting to go there. Everyone seemed like they wanted to be there, and it seemed exciting. So I went to the Boulevard, threw away my audition and said, “I want to be a fuckin’ rock star.” I’ve never looked back.

Do you use any of that classical training in City of the Weak?
I use tons of it. I think my training is what makes me stand out as an artist and helps differentiate me from other bands at our level. I’ve played trombone in touring jazz/swing bands when I was in college, did classical piano, accompanied choirs and have a performance degree where I studied a lot of ear training, theory and technique. I think training in anything only makes you better. A lot of rock musicians think you can do it without the training, and yes, you can, but when has training ever hurt anyone? I’ve found that it’s only helped me in every aspect, from business to writing, to helping me maintain my voice.

If I talk to you a year from now, where to you want City of the Weak to be, career-wise?
In a perfect world, we’d be selling out arenas and stadiums, but it’s more the era of the working musician and not the mega-star. We try to keep it realistic, but we can always dream big. We pushing for as much growth as possible, and I’d want to be doing the same thing as we are now, just on a bigger scale.