Part of Sass’ origin took place at a party in a Minneapolis apartment complex turned personal palace that has 35 rooms and seven bathrooms, all lavishly dedicated to the 1960s. (Really, it’s quite something.) It was in one of those rooms that Stephanie Murck met Willem Vander Ark. Murck had been involved with some other bands (Tony Peachka, Cherry Cola) and was in the process of forming one of her own. She asked Vander Ark to start making music with her—add to the equation high school friend and bass player Alex McCormick and his roommate, drummer Joey Hays, and Sass was officially born. The band’s name is inspired by Murck’s former band nickname Sassy Cola, and just like their namesake, Sass’ music is guileless yet filled with strawberry red boldness.
After being together for nearly two-and-a-half years, the band is more than ready to release their debut album, Chew Toy — it comes out later this month on local label Heavy Meadow Records. The album circles between quick-witted punk bursts and pockets of tender grunge. Chopped guitar bits are tossed amongst the roar of cymbals. Sass’ composure is like a slinky, with the ability to cohesively spill onto itself at its most malleable moments and then snap back together neatly.
The band members’ tastes vary across the board, but they agree that their cornerstone influences are Pixies and Speedy Ortiz. You can hear the former in their use of loud-quiet transitions, and the latter in Murck’s inclination toward single line lead guitar parts with boisterous vocals like that of Sadie Dupuis. Chew Toy isn’t a playful or plush project, but one that’s ragged and vulnerable. These songs are emotionally messy and complicated, paralleling the turmoil of youth.
During a song titled “Role Models,” Murck sings about her choice escape routes from depression and anxiety. “Stay up late watching nail art videos/ Stick ‘n’ poke tattoos cover my ankles/ Wasting my youth away, that’s what we all do anyway.” Murck wrote it while teaching at a girls’ rock camp, inspired by how her feelings of adulthood contradicted the young campers’ perception. “They’re like ‘oh you’re so cool, you really have your life together,’ and I’m like, well… That period of my life I was just spread really thin and drinking too much. You know how it is. Things are better now.”
“That’s this album: being an early 20-something and dealing with harsh realities and not knowing that you’ll overcome them yet, being unsure of how to be assertive in the world, knowing that you should, but not knowing the right way to do so,” she explains. “That song is about how, if anyone actually knew how I felt then they wouldn’t want anything to do with me.”
Amid the moments of doubt, painful memories, and overcoming the plague of being young, Chew Toy has its healing moments. Whether it’s a calming bath or diving into one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, Murck embraces water’s healing powers; she pays homage to its superpower a few times throughout the album. “Well, I’m a Pisces and I love water,” Murck laughs. “I feel like I’m drawn to being in water or being wet. In the winter, if I’m sad, I take a bath. In the summer, if I’m sad, I jump in the lake. I used it growing up or in general as a coping mechanism. ‘Freshwater Pearls’ is about how when I’m having a rough time I just want to go skinny dipping.”
Other tracks on Chew Toy offer more nuance. Lead single “Spoiled by Rotten” is about breaking out of the cage of isolation. The opening guitar riff is lopsided and groggy, staggering side to side; Murck’s vocals come in resolute and matter-of-fact. The chorus drowns itself in loud distortion and perky drums hits. It expresses the agitation and isolation that results from only interacting and communicating in a two-dimensional world. “Someone is better than nothing,” she confidently shouts towards the song’s end. It’s another rejection of the internet’s falsities — “It’s a game, faces/Which one I’ll make for impressions” — and a journey to safe space, or at least the physical world.
Sass’ music is resilient. Its most personal songs are a rescuing buoy for others with kindred grief. The album’s title track is one of these life-saving devices, reconciling the dissonant feelings towards an abuser. “He was my favorite boy/ I was his chew toy,” Murck sings on it, her voice on it both soft and fraying. She hesitates for a moment before talking about “Chew Toy,” as her bandmates offer her words of support in however she chooses to explain the song. They might all have matching strawberry tattoos, but this is the moment that most clearly captures the close bond between these four.
“It’s about being sexually assaulted as a kid and still having that person in your life, your entire life. The process of coming to terms with that and telling people about it, about having them say they’re on your side but not really. They just want to comfort you, which is real,” she begins, explaining its complexities. “And still loving that person even though they did things that were damaging to your psyche at a young age. A lot of people think it’s about like a boyfriend or a partner, which I think is their projection onto it to make it relatable.” It’s important for Murck to “create something that is pleasant or meaningful to someone else out of the hardships you’ve gone through. It makes you feel like there wasn’t just hell for nothing.”
In the beginning, it was difficult for her to share these songs. “But that’s the whole point of this for me: to make songs that are about vulnerable situations so people can relate to them, or see that you can still have strength going through them. I want people to know that’s why I’m saying these things. It’s hard to talk about, but that’s what makes it feel important.”
Chew Toy is out 5/31 via Heavy Meadow Records. Pre-order it here.