Pinkshift weren’t supposed to be rockstars. Vocalist Ashrita Kumar, drummer Myron Houngbedji and guitarist Paul Vallejo were set to become two neurosurgeons and a chemical engineer respectively if they had followed the paths laid out for them by their university degrees and parents’ expectations.
But when their homemade music video for the explosive, emo nostalgia-tinged single ‘I’m Gonna Tell My Therapist On You’ blew up in a single day in August 2020, it changed everything. The trio hit the road all over the US and UK, touring with the likes of PUP, Mannequin Pussy and The Wonder Years as their plans for med school were well and truly put on hold.
The pop-punk trio formed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 2018 after Kumar and Vallejo overheard Houngbedji drumming along to My Chemical Romance in a college practice space. “Most of the kids that played drums at our school were classically trained and not into rock,” recalls Vallejo. “So when I heard the drums being played incredibly loud and fast I was like, ‘Oh, this is something else.’” The band then went about channelling emo legends like MCR and Paramore into their budding sound, while also embracing Kumar’s grunge favourites like Soundgarden and Hole. The result? A fun, hard-rocking and cathartic rock style that earned them a place in this year’s NME 100.
The trio’s debut album ‘Love Me Forever’, which saw them work with the prolific emo producer Will Yip (Turnstile, Title Fight), is now set for release later this month. Kumar’s lyrics across the album explore the visceral anxieties of facing adulthood in a social media-fed, pandemic-ravaged world, and the band’s sonics are wider-ranging and more exciting than ever.
NME caught up with Pinkshift to find out more about how they got here, and where they’re going to go next.
NME: You became one of the biggest breakout names on the pop-punk scene in 2020 with ‘I’m Gonna Tell My Therapist On You’. What did that feel like at the time?
Ashrita Kumar: “It was during the pandemic: Myron and I had just graduated, I think Paul had one semester left. We were looking into the big, big abyss of the job market, and everything was hopeless — places weren’t hiring any more, and we were all living at home with our parents. I was supposed to be applying to medical school, but I just didn’t feel it. I felt like the only thing I really cared about was music.
“With ‘I’m Gonna Tell My Therapist On You’ I was like, ‘I don’t really care about anything besides this song right now’. With school, I was really used to doing 10,000 things at the same time. But I was putting all of the effort that I would have put into all those 10,000 things just into [promoting the song]. The day it was released, our phones were blowing up. There were verified accounts that were discovering it, like Chris from Anti-Flag, Dan [Campbell] from The Wonder Years, Frank Iero. And then people started emailing us like, ‘Do you have management, do you have a label?’
“The video hit Reddit, and it was one of the biggest posts on r/listentothis that year. I don’t know what it was about [the song], but it really just hit for people. It was very, very overwhelming, but at the same time, it was a manifestation of a dream come true.”
What do you think it is about Pinkshift that speaks to so many people?
Kumar: “I feel we very much try to put our most genuine and vulnerable selves forward. Nowadays, it’s especially hard to be an artist because you have to get your music out to people, and the way to do that is to figure out the algorithms and figure out what people wanna see. I think in all of that it’s so easy to lose yourself and your identity. But I feel like we don’t do that. We’ll try to do stuff like an Instagram Live to actually talk to people, or we’ll be active in our Discord. Being there for our people and for our community, it’s like we all care about each other, and we all matter.”
How did it feel to then start work on ‘Love Me Forever’, knowing that you had a growing fanbase desperate to listen to it?
Vallejo: “I still don’t think I grasp how many people are gonna listen to it. Everything has moved incredibly quickly.”
Houngbedji: “I feel like in the studio I wasn’t really wondering, ‘Will anyone else like this?’ It was more like, ‘We fucking love these songs’. It’s just the excitement about sharing that with anyone else.”
Kumar: “If anything, it was easier to do whatever we wanted to do because [our fans] are so supportive. We see them at shows multiple times and they’re really down for us, and it feels like they’re down for who we are as people. I feel like that actually lifted a lot of pressure. That means a lot to us.”
“[Our breakthrough single] was a manifestation of a dream come true”
Before Pinkshift took off, you were all at university studying neuroscience and chemical engineering respectively. What interested you about those fields?
Houngbedji: “I took my first neuroscience class during my freshman fall, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I think it’s just insane how much goes on for literally the most basic human function. Being able to experience something in real life and then know what is happening in my head to make that happen, I thought was really cool.”
Kumar: “I really wanted to do medicine, but I thought I was too stupid to major in biology. But I took a neuro class my freshman fall, and I was just like, ‘Man, this shit’s way too cool’. I feel like the brain is such a beautiful thing. I always thought it worked like music: you have all these parts that work in synchronicity and they move among each other, and it’s perfect for some reason.”
Vallejo: “Damn, I wish my answer was going to be as passionate and eloquent as Myron and Ashrita’s! I did not like chemical engineering. I was like, ‘Man, this is really hard and it makes me feel stupid’. Throughout college, I honestly focused more on music than my actual academic career.”
What went into the decision to quit those paths and pursue Pinkshift full-time?
Kumar: “I think the biggest moment was when Myron declined his acceptance to med school to go on tour.”
Houngbedji: “It was a very scary time. I remember working with Will Yip and we did three demos in March 2021. At the end of that week, I got into med school and I was like, ‘What the fuck? This is all happening too fast and on top of each other’. That decision was hard, I was going back and forth a lot. It was also hard for my parents. But I don’t regret it: I knew that if I did the opposite, I would have a lot more regret.”
Kumar: “For me at least, academia in concept seemed really cool, but the culture [in medicine] is very cut-throat and it really turned me off. I think that’s one of the reasons why Pinkshift was such an outlet for me, because it was the only place that I felt like I was allowed to be who I was.”
Houngbedji: “It was difficult with immigrant parents. It took a lot of showing how much work was being put in [to the band] and how much support we had.”
Vallejo: “I made a PowerPoint to show my parents.”
Kumar: “You have to do what you can for yourself, but family is really important to all of us, too. So it’s a big balancing game of making sure that they’re OK and making sure that we’re also just being honest with ourselves.”
What’s your goal with the band from here?
Kumar: “It would just be really cool to be able to live off of this shit, for our parents to know that we’re OK, and to be able to create a world and a community around our art — and I think we’re already doing that. It’s demanding to make it sustainable, but it’s something that we’re down for and it’s something that we really wanna do. I don’t think any of us have ever felt as fulfilled in anything as we do when we’re with the band. If we could do this and only this, I think that would be really, really cool. That’s the dream.”
Pinkshift’s debut album ‘Love Me Forever’ is out on October 21 via Hopeless Records