Car rides from New Jersey down to Florida aren’t fun. It’s cool passing through Baltimore and D.C., but once you get past Richmond, Virginia, you’re in for about 10 more hours of driving, with endless trees and flat landscapes that last for hundreds and hundreds of miles until you see palm trees and signs for Jacksonville.
You need something to break up the monotony. For me, it’s counting the amount of tacky South of the Border signs in the Carolinas. For Mia Berrin, lead singer and guitarist for indie-rock band Pom Pom Squad, who took the drive from New York to the Sunshine State many times growing up, it was listening to music.
“I was exposed to a lot of music on those drives,” says Berrin on the phone from Maryland. “I would stay up late because I knew my parents would listen to the non-kid-appropriate music at night. That was the first time I heard Prince and The Smiths.”
Berrin acclimated to traveling at a young age. She was born in New York, and later moved to Michigan, and then she spent her teenage years in Orlando, Florida, where things weren’t always so smooth for Berrin.
“It was kind of a shell shock coming from New York and Michigan,” says Berrin. “I started in public school in Florida, and that education wasn’t fantastic ,and I got bullied to the point where I was homeschooled. I was homeschooled for two years and wanted to go to high school and get the standard teenage experience.”
The high school that Berrin would later attend was a christian private school in Central Florida, an experience that Berrin calls “isolating.”
“I was one of two people of color at my school, which was a very isolating feeling,” she says. “I went to a private christian school, and I wasn’t Christian. It was a lot of very white affluent families, and was different then what I’m used to. The best word to describe it is isolating. I was very aware of how different I was.”
To cope with the isolation in Florida, Berrin turned to consuming media and spending time consuming media.
“I spent a lot of time online, and on Tumblr,” says Berrin. “I would watch a lot of Netflix shows and movies because I didn’t have a lot of friends. I spent a lot of time consuming media about high school, and that taught me how to like it. “
In her teenage years, Berrin found music, getting her first guitar at 14 years old. Berrin,and her mom would often go to shows at venues like the House of Blues, and the Beacham in Orlando. The problem? Even though Orlando has a music scene that isn’t all Radio Disney, there isn’t exactly a strong indie rock scene.
“Orlando has more of a hardcore scene than anything else,” says Berrin. “So I didn’t really start playing in bands until college.”
Berrin eventually started Pom Pom Squad while in New York, a city that she’d always wanted to go back to; a place she envisioned herself growing into a music career while stuck in high school in Orlando.
“When I was a sophomore in high school, Instagram became more of a thing, and by having an Instagram I could see what NYC DIY venues were popular and who were playing there, and what the scene was like,” Berrin says. “And if people tagged anyone in the pictures, and I would follow them. Suddenly I was aware of the NYC DIY social circle.”
Since moving to New York for college and launching Pom Pop Squad there, the band has released two EPs—Hate it Here and Ow—and a full album, Death of a Cheerleader.
“I started to form my live band in a way that I felt confident in,” Berrin says. “At the time we were playing two to three shows a week, and then one show a month, and then one show every couple months just because there was more demand and it allowed us to be pickier about what we played. I really cut my teeth playing shows.”
It was playing those shows that gave Berrin the vision for the first EP, Ow. “I was focused on making something that would sound good live, and that EP really came together during band practices and on stage. We got to try out songs in front of audiences ,and it was really exciting.”
But it was a different process when it came time to make Pom Pom Squad’s first full album Death of a Cheerleader, released on June 25.
“With Death of a Cheerleader, the process was really different,” says Berrin. “For the most part I demoed it and wrote it during quarantine. There wasn’t any real way to test it out in front of people like I did with the Ow EP.”
But overall the process for recording Death of a Cheerleader was one that gave Berrin more room to experiment, and it shows on the album.
“It was very freeing,” says Berrin about the recording process for Death of a Cheerleader. “I wasn’t so focused on what I would sound like live, which allowed me to incorporate instruments that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I was playing around with programming strings, synths, and I was listening to different music. With Ow I was playing shows and surrounded by a lot of indie rock, and with Death of a Cheerleader I was listening to a lot of ’50s and ’60s pop, which kind of has this eerie quality that is uncentered in reality. I wanted to create something that sounded like it’s own story, and not so much something that is concentrated on live shows.”
Death of a Cheerleader also is an album that tells of the tale of Berrin coming into her own and accepting who she is in life. “Death of a Cheerleader is about processing my queer awakening, and coming into my own, and learning how to live with my individual self as opposed to what I’m perceived to be by society,” says Berrin.
For Berrin, the cheerleader aesthetics that run through the band’s stage presence, album titles and covers, and even the band’s name, has deep symbolism.
“I started to watch movies about high school with my best friend, and we would pretend that everything was a movie, and everything had an archetype. The cheerleaders were on the top of the social hierarchy. They were pretty, strong and sociable. They were all the things that I couldn’t be as a young woman.
“I think there’s a funny dichotomy to the cheerleaders’ aesthetic,” Berrin continues, “which is that they are treated as this frivolous figure like being the first person to die in horror movies, and this bimbo type of figure, when in reality they are really strong and capable athletes. It’s kind of like ballet how you see the finished project, which is the ballerina being pretty and spinning, but it’s like a lot of broken feet, broken ankles and blood. It’s not really the prettiest thing when you are going through the process. I love expanding the definition of what femininity is and to incorporate all the ugly, interesting and not stereotypical things that women can be.”
Berrin saw the dichotomy in action when playing live shows with Pom Pom Squad. “What if I dressed up as a cheerleader and started a punk band,” Berrin remembers. “It was interesting to see what people took from that, and most of the time when I started playing shows, people came up to me and said they expected me to be boring, frivolous or bitchy. People would put these descriptors on me that had nothing to do with what I was doing or saying, and mostly had everything to do with what I was wearing. I think it’s a really interesting thing to fuck with and confuse people with.”
People can see the dichotomy in person when Pom Pom Squad plays at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City on Nov. 19, opening up for Nada Surf. The tour with Nada Surf checks off a lot of firsts for Berrin: first time playing in New Jersey, first time being on tour with a band like Nada Surf and first time getting to play songs from Death of a Cheerleader live.
Fans at White Eagle Hall are in for a treat, as Death of a Cheerleader combines Berrin’s pandemic listening habits of Motown and ’50s and ’60s pop with Pom Pom Squad’s traditional indie rock and riotgrrrrl genres.
“The album combines two poles,” says Berrin. “One pole is pop-inspired stuff and ’50s and ’60s Motown stuff, and the other side of the record is punk, grunge kind of stuff.”
One of the songs that fans will hear live at White Eagle Hall is “Crying,” which incorporates the sound that Berrin was trying to go for in Death of a Cheerleader. “I wanted to have a song early on in the album that was a mix of both poles. And ‘Crying’ became that song because it has a really lush string section, and then it collapses into a grunge song. Later on in the song, it becomes a mix of both. You have these twangy and pedal steel sounding guitars, and then these really messy ugly strings. It felt like a really nice part of the story, and it feels like a sister song to ‘Heavy Heavy’ on the Ow EP.
Pom Pom Squad will be playing in Jersey City on Nov. 19 opening up for Nada Surf at White Eagle Hall. Ticket information can be found here.