Beach Bunny jump straight to the championship round | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Beach Bunny jump straight to the championship round 

Lili Trifilio and her indie-punk band have climbed from Chicago's DIY scene to stages most musicians never reach, and their first studio album, Honeymoon, comes out just this week.

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The current Beach Bunny lineup, from left to right: bassist Anthony Vaccaro, guitarist Matt Henkels, drummer Jon Alvarado, and singer, guitarist, and songwriter Lili Trifilio - BRANDON HOEG
  • The current Beach Bunny lineup, from left to right: bassist Anthony Vaccaro, guitarist Matt Henkels, drummer Jon Alvarado, and singer, guitarist, and songwriter Lili Trifilio
  • Brandon Hoeg

When Lili Trifilio shakes off the cold in a Wicker Park coffee shop in the middle of a January snowstorm, her asymmetrical pink hair feels beamed in from a sunnier dimension. Since Trifilio's band Beach Bunny evolved from a solo project into a regular group, their heartfelt, punky indie pop has built a devoted audience so quickly that they've barely been able to keep up.

Trifilio is the lyricist and lead singer, backed by guitarist Matt Henkels, bassist Anthony Vaccaro, and drummer Jonathan Alvarado. The first Beach Bunny lineup only started doing shows in suburban parking lots in summer 2017, but within two years Trifilio and the band have played Riot Fest and Lollapalooza and landed a song on the Billboard charts for 12 weeks. In April, they'll make their first appearance at Coachella. Even more impressive, they've done it all before releasing an album: Honeymoon, their full-length studio debut, arrives on Valentine's Day.

Trifilio, 23, grew up in Chicago and took guitar lessons in middle school, encouraged by her parents, who wanted her to try a variety of after-school activities. She sang in school choirs but didn't otherwise perform much, aside from playing cover songs at talent shows. Trifilio's interest in modern rock began when she was attending Resurrection College Prep in Edison Park and she and her friend Rachel Vogrich started looking up bands they saw on Lollapalooza lineups. In June 2015, the two of them went to see Hippo Campus at Lincoln Hall, knowing only a single song from their discography. "After we saw them, we were both like, 'Whoa, that was the best concert we've ever been to ever,'" Trifilio says. "I was like 'I'm ready to write music, let's do this.'"

Trifilio and Vogrich began writing together, forming the short-lived duo Fingers x Crossed. "A lot of our songs consisted of singing of heartbreak and loving guys that didn't love us back," Vogrich says. They played shows as a two-piece at Wire in Berwyn and at Bottom Lounge—both sang, and Trifilio played guitar. Vogrich recalls passing hand-burned CDs of their EP to Nashville group Coin at Lollapalooza in summer 2015, hoping that their band name's similarity to the Coin song title "Fingers Crossed" would catch their eye.

Beach Bunny began as an outlet for Trifilio's songs following the duo's dissolution in fall 2015. Though Honeymoon is the first Beach Bunny studio album, the band already has four EPs, a single, and a live Audiotree session—and the majority of those releases are basically Trifilio solo projects. She recorded her first two EPs, Animalism (December 2015) and Pool Party (August 2016), at home on acoustic guitar and ukulele, putting them out herself via Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and various streaming services. For Crybaby, which includes early live favorites "Boys" and "February," she had her friend Ryan Adams add drums. Around the same time that EP came out—in summer 2017—she put together the first Beach Bunny band.


Beach Bunny Honeymoon Eve Party
Listening party for Beach Bunny’s new album, Honeymoon, plus DJ sets from Beach Bunny, Chris Salty, and special guests. Thu 2/13, 8 PM, Sleeping Village, 3734 W. Belmont, free with reservation (required by Thu 2/6), 21+

Beach Bunny record-release celebration and performance
Fri 2/14, 6 PM, Reckless Records, 1379 N. Milwaukee, free, all-ages

Beach Bunny, Field Medic, Niiice
Sat 2/22, 7 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark, sold out, all-ages


Trifilio was already playing shows on her own, but she wanted to compete in a battle of the bands—a battle where one of the other groups included an ex-boyfriend, which she maintains was a coincidence. "It wasn't like a vengeance thing, and it wasn't to get back together with him or anything. I just wanted to compete," she says, laughing.

Trifilio knew Henkels and Alvarado through mutual friends and invited them aboard. (Alvarado was also in the ex's group.) "I think that we both adored Lili's songwriting from the start," Henkels says. "It's super memorable and charming."

  • Beach Bunny perform "February" at an Audiotree Live session in December 2018.

After the battle (which the ex's band won), Beach Bunny solidified their chemistry with steady practicing and gigging. By now, Trifilio can anticipate their instrumental parts as she writes songs. "Matt and I would butt heads sometimes, where my vocal melody and what he wanted to play on guitar would sometimes clash," she says. "But just by jamming over time, he knows how to complement my voice."

Her bandmates share the sentiment: "When Lili brings us a demo, we can quickly kind of piece it together into a full-band thing by writing our own instrumental parts and tweaking them where it's necessary," they explain, in an e-mail sent as a group.

Beach Bunny had added a bassist by August 2017, and they went through a few before finding Vaccaro—he came aboard in January 2019, so Honeymoon is his first recording with the band. Throughout 2017 and 2018, the members of Beach Bunny split their time between college classes (Trifilio and Henkels had started at DePaul in fall 2015) and driving out to the suburbs with friends, where they found a place for the band in the DIY scene—especially in Elgin, where Alvarado and Henkels had gone to South Elgin High. They learned about booking, songwriting, and gear from their peers.

"There was a ton of guidance that I don't think I would have had without having that DIY community," Trifilio says. Those connections helped the band smoothly transition into Chicago's scene, where they gigged frequently, playing DIY shows and ticketed concerts at clubs. "Everyone I've met through DIY has still stuck around over all the years," she says. "That's been really sweet, to still see people at bigger shows buying tickets, when I'm like, 'You've seen me enough, you don't need to do that, thank you.'"

Beach Bunny had their breakout hit in summer 2019, when the title track from the 2018 EP Prom Queen peaked at number 26 on the Billboard Hot Rock Songs chart—it's now closing in on 39 million Spotify plays, boosted by its popularity on video-streaming app TikTok (which had just helped propel Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" into orbit). The song confronts oppressive female beauty standards using the language of grade school toys and high school popularity contests, which make it an irresistible incitement to lip-synching or singing along: "I'm no Quick Curl Barbie / I was never cut out for prom queen."

Prom Queen and the stand-alone single that preceded it, "Sports," were recorded in part at Lubeck Studios in Mount Prospect with engineer Ray Ortiz, who'd worked with one of Alvarado's other groups, the recently disbanded Mt. Pocono. "With a band like Beach Bunny, there wasn't a need to be super experimental with the studio," he recalls. "They all knew what they wanted to hear, which was great."

"Prom Queen" departs from Trifilio's usual romantic themes because she wrote it for a friend who was struggling with an eating disorder. "I knew they were a big Beach Bunny fan," she says, "so it's like, 'All right, maybe this song can help in some way.'"

Trifilio's lyrics mostly reflect her own perspective, but they resonate easily with listeners going through their own rough patches. "I think Lili makes music that allows people to react in a way that's like, 'Oh shit, I'm not alone, and I'm not the only person out there that feels this way,'" Vogrich says.

Beach Bunny fan Jimmy Kemper, who lives in River North, describes the band's music as "powerfully simple, catchy songs that nail the universal angst of the teenage experience." Meagan Hughes, a fan from Wicker Park, elaborates: "The vulnerability and genuineness of their music is really what gets me. Lili's not afraid to be called naive or show how deeply she falls for someone. Their music is somehow never cheesy regardless of this, because it's so genuine," she says. "Also their live shows are dope, 'cause everyone knows all the words and it's a big community."

Trifilio doesn't take this kind of reaction for granted. "If I'm singing something sad, and someone listens to it and they feel some closure or comfort, that's amazing," she says. "There's a ton of younger girls who have come up to me after shows and been like, 'Hey, this helped me get through this, it was a wake-up call.' Anytime someone says something like that, I just start crying because I'm a sensitive person, so I'm like, 'Oh my God, I'm glad you're better!'"

Beach Bunny's Honeymoon is the kind of album best heard through the aux cord in a decades-old sedan packed full of sweaty friends on a sunny day. Though its nine songs are mostly about heartbreak, it's dressed up in vibrant colors—and the group ornament their straightforward guitar-bass-drums sound with overdubbed vocal harmonies and occasional keys. With grooves built from springy bass lines and tight drums, their emo rock is danceable enough for terrestrial radio and festival stages.

"Promises" opens the album with the drums and bass locked in like a syncopated heartbeat, and then the guitar drops in with straight eighth notes, boosting the song's metabolism like a shot of adrenaline. "Part of me still hates you—how could you love someone and leave?" Trifilio sings on the chorus. "When you're all alone in your bedroom, do you ever think of me?" She says it's her favorite song on the album because it's the "most honest."

"Ms. California," the second single from Honeymoon (it came out in early December, following October's "Dream Boy"), is the band's first to center envy. It introduces a third character, beyond the usual you and me, to talk about the pain of learning that an ex has found someone new (and being reminded of it constantly because "she's in all your pictures").

Beach Bunny originally intended "Rearview" to be a solo song, and it begins with just Trifilio's voice and guitar. But the group jammed on it enough to realize that it needed what Trifilio calls a big "head-bopping" ending. In its coda, the song abandons metaphor to convey the emotional vortex of a breakup in a few blunt phrases: "You love me, I love you / You don't love me anymore, I still do / I'm sorry, I'm trying / I hate it when you catch me crying."

"I have a pretty good habit of using music as a therapy session," says Trifilio, laughing.

The band recorded the majority of Honeymoon in May 2019 at Electrical Audio, scheduling the sessions over two weekends to leave time for final exams at DePaul during the week. (Trifilio was finishing a degree in journalism, Henkels in secondary education, and Vaccaro in photography.) Though they'd finished Prom Queen in about a month, Honeymoon had a gestation period of nine months—a process the band call "super exhausting and complicated but ultimately extremely rewarding."

Beach Bunny hired Joe Reinhart to produce. They liked the work he'd done for Remo Drive and Prince Daddy & the Hyena, both of whom they'd played shows with, and they were fans of his own bands Hop Along and Algernon Cadwallader. Reinhart focused on creating a comfortable environment for the group, so they could take full advantage of the studio.

Trifilio especially appreciated the salve of the producer's calm while she worked on recording vocal harmonies—because she hadn't planned out what she'd do before entering the studio, it was the most difficult part of the process for her. She workshopped her vocals over loops of the backing tracks, a frustrating process of trial and error. "Maybe I get the first two lines and then just yell 'fuck' because I mess up one note," she says. "And then Joe's like, 'It's OK, it's OK!'"

Trifilio also credits Reinhart with suggesting ways the band could flesh out their sound without fundamentally changing the songs. Her bandmates agree: "He'd push you, but not in a bad way," they say. "That recording process made all of us better musicians in the long run, thanks to him."

PHOTO BY BRANDON HOEG

  • Photo by Brandon Hoeg

Beach Bunny originally intended to self-release Honeymoon, like all their other music, and they'd set a date for themselves in the fall. But then this summer the band got multiple offers from record labels. Trifilio had graduated that spring and was already suffering from job-hunt anxiety, but this label interest did away with that. "It was like, 'Oh, I can just do music? For real? This is a thing that can actually happen?'" she says.

In August the band signed with New York indie Mom + Pop Music, joining a roster that includes Courtney Barnett, Cloud Nothings, Metric, and Sleater-Kinney. "Mom + Pop just had the best artist-friendly conditions," Trifilio says.

Beach Bunny's relationship with the label has already helped the band reach a new level of popularity. They'd already landed the Lollapalooza gig on their own, but since signing, they've benefited from a few new promotions. They're giving away tour tickets through a brand partnership with roller-skate company Moxi, and "Prom Queen" is playable on Rock Band. And the band's Coachella date will be followed by a set at Primavera Sound in Spain in June.

"Ultimately, we like to look at every show the same way, no matter the scale/importance or whatever," say Henkels, Alvarado, and Vaccaro, speaking collectively via e-mail. "We're getting on each stage and doing the same thing every night as any other stage we play, so we really just make sure that we're tight and ready to play."

Trifilio calls the band's set at last year's Lollapalooza a "teenage dream" come true. Her remaining goals include collaborating with and doing songwriting for other performers—and she'd also love to work with Marina, Hayley Williams, or any other "pop icons," she says. Beach Bunny's contract with Mom + Pop lives up to the label's artist-friendly reputation, allowing Trifilio to pursue outside work that doesn't interfere with the band's release dates. She's already released a four-song EP under her own name called Book Club, which came out in September 2019. In December she dropped a solo cover of Wham!'s "Last Christmas" (under the Beach Bunny name) as a fund-raiser for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, inspired by her father's work in cancer research and her younger brother's successful fight against leukemia a few years prior.

Earlier this month, Trifilio performed onstage with Hippo Campus—the band she'd seen with Vogrich almost five years earlier—at First Avenue in Minneapolis. She sang their song "Way It Goes" with the fervor of a fan who's belted along with its wordy verses countless times. "I am literally living in a dream," she tweeted the next day.

Trifilio is working on a batch of Beach Bunny songs to follow up Honeymoon, though she's unsure if they'll come out as singles, EPs, or another album. She's been making a conscious effort to address topics besides romance. "Less like 'This is my relationship with someone' and more like 'This is my relationship with something I've observed in the world,'" she says. "Growing up, self-love, feminism, something like that."

"We just want to keep making music that we're proud of and keep being best friends while doing it," say her bandmates. "If people keep liking the music, that's amazing!"

  • Beach Bunny perform "Boys" (with a lot of help from the crowd) at a DIY venue in January 2018.

Beach Bunny has gotten big enough fast enough that Trifilio worries about the reception Honeymoon will get, an anxiety she's never much felt with previous releases—for the first time, she has to deal with the pressure of expectations from a large fan base. "We've got the indie-pop kids, we've got these super punk emo kids that just want to thrash, and then the younger high school TikTok crowd," she says. "It's super strange seeing that combination at shows. It's interesting that all those groups can somehow relate."

To kick off a national album tour that's already mostly sold out, Beach Bunny play Saturday, February 22, at Metro, a venue they played most recently as openers on Death Cab for Cutie's Lollapalooza aftershow in August. Trifilio has been considering playing keyboards at the show—something she's only ever done in the studio.

The songs on Honeymoon, like most of what Trifilio has written so far, are about heartbreak, but by the time they're ready for the stage—to say nothing of recorded and released—the emotions don't weigh on her too heavily. "At this point, I'm mostly thinking, 'Is the crowd enjoying it? Is my voice OK?'" she says. "I'm yelling the word 'cry' with a smile, you know what I mean? I try not to get too sentimental about that kind of stuff."  v

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