Photography Zachary Hertzman

Beach Bunny are more than a viral TikTok hit, they're out of this world

Lili Trifilio tells us about 'Emotional Creature', tackling her personal struggles and the pressure of making new music after 'Prom Queen' blew up.

by Grant Rindner
29 July 2022, 4:26pm

Photography Zachary Hertzman

There’s a line delivery on “Weeds,” the best song on Beach Bunny’s second album Emotional Creature that epitomizes precisely what’s made them connect with countless pop stans, music critics and one 59-year-old TV star. “You can’t hold me down / I’m a bursting bottle rocket,” Lili Trifilio sings. It’s a word choice you can see coming — after all, not much rhymes with “locket” and “pocket” from the preceding bars — but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying or cathartic when the lyrics come hurtling out with a hard-earned confidence.

“‘Weeds’ was… almost like me trying to wake myself up from feeling sorry about myself, always victimizing myself, being in these toxic patterns,” the 25-year-old musician says. “I wrote it as if I was my own best friend having an intervention of sorts.”

Over the last half-decade, Beach Bunny has occupied that role of confidant and motivator through Lili’s willingness to put her own struggles to music. In 2018, she brought guitarist Matt Henkels, drummer Jon Alvarado and bassist Anthony Vaccaro into the fold after initially beginning Beach Bunny as a solo project. The band won fans around their hometown of Chicago, but vaulted to international prominence with the viral success of “Prom Queen,” a disarmingly candid song about the effects of unhealthy beauty standards.

The song established Beach Bunny’s M.O. While pill-in-the-peanut-butter pop songs have been around forever, the band doesn’t cloak diaristic lyrics about dysfunctional relationships, self-esteem and anxiety in bright melodies. The thunderous guitar chords and soaring choruses are there not to cut the potency, but to heighten it. Most of the songs on Emotional Creature would be excellent stripped to their bones and made acoustic, but they wouldn’t be undeniable, like the heat shimmer hooks of “Gone” and “Scream” are.

Lili and I meet on an overcast morning near her Bucktown apartment the Sunday before Beach Bunny’s latest album release. In person, she’s cheery and quick to laugh, but not overly gregarious. She’s contemplative, without seeming too calculated. After our conversation concludes, she’ll spend at least 45 minutes chatting with all of the local artists and designers selling their work at the coffee shop.

She’s frank about the pressure of increased expectations that came with the band’s skyrocketing visibility, and says she’s actually “grateful” Emotional Creature was pushed back a few times. That not only gave the band and its label, indie darling Mom + Pop, time to plan a thorough rollout and reshoot a few music videos, but also afforded Lili the chance to prepare herself to release a project this candid and revealing to the band’s widest audience yet.

“I had to realize that I was really obsessed with what people were thinking of things. With social media, we all have so much access to that, so I had to hard cut myself off and be like, ‘You wrote these songs for yourself, it doesn’t really matter what people think. You’re gonna put it out either way. Just relax,’” she says. “I don’t even think anyone was putting pressure on me, I was putting pressure on myself.”

The thematic heft of the record is balanced by a retro-futuristic aesthetic that encompasses the album cover, tour posters, as well as videos for “Weeds” and “Entropy,” which combine to tell the story of a daring spacecraft search-and-rescue. Recalling the first Star Wars trilogy, the videos are joyously homespun, but Lili says that the otherworldly sci-fi undercurrent connects to the anxiety and uncertainty that, well, you’d have to be an alien to have not felt these last few years.

“That was my form of escapism and a lot of the songs were written under that — wanting to escape what was happening on planet earth,” she explains.

Lili says she’s a fan of “era” artists who build a distinct look and feel around each body of work. It’s the kind of thing most commonly associated with major label acts with huge budgets to play with, but, in some ways, Beach Bunny is closer to that level of notoriety than you might think. The band’s top three songs on Spotify have done what can only be described as Post Malone numbers. The TikTok ubiquity of “Prom Queen” and “Cloud 9” certainly helped, and now their continued success coincides with the much-hyped emo/pop punk revival. But while a good deal of that music feels cynical and reverse engineered, Beach Bunny is endearingly earnest. The decision to write warmly-hued indie rock with a confessional edge isn’t made to court playlist placements or score comparisons to influential alternative acts.

beach bunny band posing in white and blue shirts in front of an orange background
​Photography Zachary Hertzman

“I was very embarrassed one time when an interviewer asked if I listened to Liz Phair and I hadn’t,” she recalls. “I really wasn’t very familiar, and then in the interview they just kind of roasted me that I didn’t know who Liz Phair was because, in her opinion, that had to be the only influence.”

In support of Emotional Creature, the band has a relentless touring schedule, including what will surely be a coronating performance at Lollapalooza and dates all across Europe. There’s a pressure that comes with those high-profile sets, but Lili says that getting back in front of audiences has been key to shifting her perspective about the band.

“When you’re playing the numbers game, which a lot of us musicians were during the pandemic, it’s hard to even fathom that amount of people and whether the comments are positive or negative,” she says. “I just don’t think it’s natural for human beings to experience that many opinions.”

That’s an understandable reaction, particularly with music as deeply personal as what she’s written here. The album encompasses a wide range of feelings, from frustration over romantic relapses to the giddy vulnerability of falling for someone new, which is captured on the last three tracks. The LP even nods at Lili’s pandemic hobby of making beats on her computer with the celestial instrumental interlude “Gravity.”

“It was an homage to that period of life I was singing about and – I feel like it didn’t perfectly do this – but I was trying to transition from the first part of the album that’s really in it emotionally, that’s the midpoint where I’m having some realizations, and then it has a happy ending,” she explains.

“Weeds,” the final single before Emotional Creature’s release, has been in the works since 2019, when Beach Bunny was just beginning to become what it is now. For Lili, it’s her favorite track on the album, in large part because its multi-year path to completion mirrors her own journey to become the person she is today.

“[When I wrote the song] I was like, ‘I hope I stop doing all this toxic stuff,’ and by the time it was recorded, I [felt] a sense of letting go, but I wasn’t all the way there,’” Lili says. “Now, with another year passing, I’m like, ‘Yes, I can take a deep breath and let it go.’”

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