Erica Dunn is a Triple-Threat Rocker Fronting Palm Springs, Tropical Fuck Storm, MOD CON, and More

Erica Dunn with MOD CON

What’s more impressive than being the member of one of Melbourne’s most iconic rock ‘n’ roll bands? Being the member of several. Erica Dunn – of MOD CON, Tropical Fuck Storm, Harmony, and Palm Springs –  is a rarity.

The signs were all there early, though. Her school guitar lessons morphed her into a non-stop busker at the age of 13. She recalls taking the train into Melbourne’s city centre with a friend, then “playing the most horrific, full-on, original compositions,” she tells Audiofemme. “We were really serious about it!”

Somewhere along the line, she recalls, she got into punk and rock ’n’ roll bands and immersed herself in the British live music scene. She returned to Australia and began hosting her own radio show (Mixing Up The Medicine) in 2008 – which ended up running for 11 years on Melbourne’s community station PBS 106.7FM before her schedule with Tropical Fuck Storm, MOD CON and Harmony took precedence. “I had this show that was my special little pocket, and I only had to give it up because we were touring so much. I still miss it,” she says.

Before leaving the show, she also began solo project Palm Springs to exercise her acoustic persona. Back in 2017, Dunn applied and got a songwriting residency in upstate New York, where she felt duty-bound to write a record. Palm Springs & Friends came out of that time; the album was released in limited edition on cassette, and the gorgeous, pared-back sound is reminiscent of recorded-to-tape, ’90s lo-fi bands. That’s no accident – she tracked most of the album at NYHed Studio, which she describes as “this amazing underground 8-track tape analog place on the Lower East Side. It was a real dream.” It was mastered by prolific producer/engineer/musician Mikey Young. Soon, Poison City Records will put out a Palm Springs best-of collection on vinyl. “It’s amazing that anyone cares,” Dunn says. “It’s really nice to think that someone values it and wants it out on record. Mikey’s been on the blower today because it’s his job to master everything.”

Dunn inhabiting her Palm Springs persona

It is in Palm Springs that Dunn is at her most vulnerable, though her punk-rock soul meant she’d chafed at being boxed into the stereotype of a folk rock girl. “My relationship with just being a girl and a guitar, having that pigeonholed, I full on flipped and rebelled against that,” she explains. “It’s been interesting to get back, enjoy the depth of the craft, and just picking on a nylon string guitar, which is so terrifying and such a stretch of skills. There’s no distortion pedal, nothing to hide behind at all. I really love playing in that way.”

Around the time she started Palm Springs, she was living with Raquel Solier, who played drums on a few of the project’s early 7 inches. Along with bassist Sara Retallick, Palm Springs put out a tape called Flowers in a Vase as a three-piece, but their work together quickly mutated into the energetic, angular MOD CON. “When we began writing together,” Dunn remembers, “we saw that Palm Springs was one thing, but MOD CON is a whole other thing.” Their fabulous single from June, “Ammo,” is all-femme power-punk, with guitar sweeping over the atmosphere like a venomous tail. Ten days ago, they released a second single, “Learner in an Alpha;” both will appear on their forthcoming LP Modern Condition, out October 22 via Poison City.

“You start a little band and you never know the longevity of it or what’s going to happen… especially, three women. You play in punk bands in your 20s and then people have families, or they start to treat it as a hobby,” she points out. “Raquel became a mum, Sara does this high-level study, and I’m away all the time, but actually the three of us are like, ‘This is part of our identity, this is how we express ourselves.'” Dunn says it was “a great relief” that Solier and Retallick both opted to continue MOD CON.

But Dunn’s most well-known musical endeavor formed practically on a whim, and has endured, seemingly by happenstance, against all odds. She was on tour with dark pop project Harmony (“I Love You” on 2018’s Double Negative is both pleading and seemingly resigned, with its sad doo-wop harmonies, the thunk of a drum that sounds like it might just give up, and a sense of echoing loneliness around vocalist Tom Lyngcoln) supporting The Drones when she became fast friends with Gareth “Gaz” Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin. They’d just started a side project called Tropical Fuck Storm and were fleshing out the lineup, which would also come to include Lauren “Hammer” Hammel.

“We’d go up to their ramshackle place in the bush in the summer, hanging out. I’m not sure exactly when the conversation came about, but it took them a little bit of time to work out what they wanted TFS to be like,” Dunn recalls. “It was really exciting. There’s not that many people in Australia who can make music and live off that, and they spend most of their life touring. They’ve got big plans, always looking to make something out of nothing. One moment they’re like ‘Do you wanna jam?’ Then they’ve booked a tour to the States!” That’s exactly what Tropical Fuck Storm did, releasing debut LP A Laughing Death in Meatspace in May 2018, less than eight months after their first live shows.

“It was a crazy time, that initial year,” Dunn says. “It’s amazing working with people who are so gung-ho, who live, breathe and do. We made an album, then we were away playing hundreds of shows. It was intense, but then of course last year, we came to a total standstill.”

Tropical Fuck Storm / Photo Credit: Jamie Wdziekonski

Dunn was in Melbourne, but domestic partners Liddiard and Kitschin live in regional Victoria, which was off-limits during lockdowns. “Gaz and I were trying to send each other videos and audio but it was crap because we’re so bad with technology,” Dunn says. “When the ring-of-steel lifted in November, I went and lived with them for three months and we recorded up there. It was strange, getting back into it. We’d been in a van all together every day, and we wondered if that intuition would ever come back. When you think you’ll never do anything like that ever again, it was so exciting to play as a band together again. I plugged my guitar in and was like, ‘Can I even use this?’”

In fact, Dunn plays guitar and keys and shares some of the vocal duties on Tropical Fuck Storm’s latest release, Deep States, which arrived in August of this year via Joyful Noise Recordings. The album “absorbs and distils some of the madness of the time” they spent getting used to one another again. “It’s funny – we were trying to have days off but we’re used to being up in each other’s grilles in a way. It was like I’d missed my family for a year and the ridiculous sense of humour we have grown together with,” Dunn says. “We’d work hard, then have times of just going swimming. We’d be trying to make a barbecue, but discussing the bridge, the harmony, the lyrics. Three months is a long time. It was a hard slog; it was great.”

So too, does Deep States mine the current political and social climate for all its gory, disturbing and darkly humorous gold. Single “G.A.F.F.” is a cosmic journey of fuzzy, furious feedback, raw daggers of reality delivered by Liddiard’s snarling vocals, all riding upon a twangy bassline that treads a narrow brick wall, threatening to fall and crash any moment. And, in Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, the sentiment – “Give A Fuck Fatigue” – hits home. Elsewhere, “New Romeo Agent” is a melodic post-punk ballad delivered over the gentle handclap-style drums and jangle of keyboard chords.

With so many of her projects finally releasing material again, Erica Dunn is not likely to leave Melbourne’s musical radar this year. There are even tentative plans to record again with Harmony. Hailed as something of a cult hero, Dunn explains her wildly prolific output rather humbly. “It’s funny to have these different hats and different projects,” she says. “The different things that I’m inspired by seem to present a different trajectory in what I’m making and doing.”

Follow MOD CON, Tropical Fuck Storm, and Palm Springs on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Chicago Art-Punk Legends Joan of Arc Bid Fans Farewell on Final LP, Tim Melina Theo Bobby

Photo Credit: Chris Strong

In the early 2000s, serendipitous road trips to venues in church basements and abandoned warehouses were still considered priceless and precious moments. Kids with their ears tuned to the underground traveled far and wide off the beaten trail, and Chicago-based Joan of Arc reigned as a prolific genre defining staple, alongside related acts like Cap’n Jazz, American Football, Owls, and Owen, all tied together by one common thread: brothers Mike and Tim Kinsella, and their cousin Nate.

I’d been sneaking out on school nights to unmapped venues since the age of twelve to see the Kinsellas play in various formations, and distinctly remember an Owen show at Poughkeepsie’s Club Crannel in which a group of teenagers from the crowd began heckling Mike. “What ever happened to Cap n’ Jazz?” they shouted, followed by a repetitive and aggressive mantra: “We want Joan of Arc!” The lines have always blurred between these projects – but Joan of Arc stood out as the seminal art band of the bunch.

On December 4, Joan of Arc released their final album, Tim Melina Theo Bobby, via Joyful Noise Recordings. Over the past two decades the band has had a revolving cast of members, but the simplicity of the record’s title gets to the point: here are four friends, closing the final chapter on a prolific catalogue that spans more than twenty releases.

The album was collaboratively written and recorded by Melina Ausikaitis, Bobby Burg, Theo Katsaounis, and Tim Kinsella, with the support of frequent collaborators Jeremy Boyle, Jenny Pulse, Nate Kinsella, and Todd Mattei. The process of making the record started as a series of epic jam sessions that would eventually be pared down to create individual tracks. These jams were a hybrid mix of electronics and classic composition that marries analog synth with noise, weaving together sonic motifs within an indie rock framework.

“We basically had everything being recorded through one analog mixer, and had only two tracks going at the same time. It’s funny that we’re still a bit confused about who made what sound on the record,” Burg explains. “It was a process of chiseling out the parts. The sessions would range from 45 minutes to three hours. There are multiple songs on the album made out of the same jam.” The album’s spontaneity and experimentation across ten tracks makes it a more than fitting swan song.

Where there’s an end, there’s a beginning, and a fruitful and colorful history in between. Joan of Arc played their first live show in June 1996 at Autonomous Zone in Chicago, forming after the break-up of frontman Tim Kinsella’s high school punk band Cap’n Jazz in the summer of 1995. The band’s debut full-length, A Portable Model Of, was released on Jade Tree in June 1997. The record lives between art-rock, traditional folk, and math rock, ornamented with experimental sounds. Lyrically, tracks like “Anne Aviary” echo twisted nostalgia belted in an angst-ridden post rock yowl, juxtaposed with a reoccurring synthetic bird chirping flicker, held against a deep resonating lawn mower-like vibration. As a whole, the album established the Joan of Arc habit of using outside collaborators to support the core group’s songwriting – and launched an influential, if not polarizing, career.

With a fluctuating fanbase, the band went on to constantly reinvent themselves. Their anarchist approach resulted in albums that critics were unable to compartmentalize, predict, or even understand. The sound scape architecture, instrumentation, odd sounds, and sampling effects on the records created an improvisational template with an emphasis on the “studio as instrument.” The band would continually revisit this format on successive albums like 1998’s How Memory Works, Live in Chicago, 1999, 2001’s How Can Anything So Little Be Any More?, 2009’s Flowers, and so on.

Joan of Arc draws upon unique and unexpected influences; minimalist composers, early ’90s hip hop, and house music. You can hear it on “Feels Like the Very Second Time,” from 2015’s JOA99, its sparse analog beat gradually building within a formulaic house music framework. The beat moves off center towards the closing of the track, and bleeds into fuzz, descending into the ambient, mysterious “Hairspray for Babies.”

“When Tim got super into house, it definitely affected our live sound on a technical level,” Burg recalls. “Suddenly we thought it was critical to have actual subs in the club for our performances. Hip hop shows had a big impact on us, and how we wanted our music to sound at full volume and heavy frequency levels. You know – that heaviness you just feel in your chest.”

2018 brought the album 1984 and with it, the introduction of Melina Ausikaitis as lead vocalist. 1984 was almost entirely written by the newest member of the band, a visual artist who had played with the group for roughly five years. Aside from being a solo artist, Ausikaitis sang backup on the band’s previous LP, He’s Got The Whole Land This Land Is Your Land in His Hands. 1984 was characterized by her distinctive voice, while Kinsella, Katsaounis, Burg, and Jeremy Boyle accompanied the emotional soundscape with alternating melodies, drone hums, field recording samples, and empty space.

On Tim Melina Theo Bobby, Kinsella and Ausikaitis swap vocal duties track to track. The spacious and intimate songwriting feels conversational, with an effortless nonchalance. The record weaves and dips like the dynamic arc of a well scripted movie.

The fittingly-titled “Destiny Revision” opens with a soft, sentimental crooning accompanied by analog electronic instrumentation, leaning into the original sound Joan of Arc embodied in the mid-90s. But as the record progresses, it taps into the avant-garde, sample-driven experimental soundscapes that the band has embraced for the past decade. Ausikaitis’s earnest, lush vocal floats over a rough, vibrant almost synaesthetic jam on “Rising Horizon” – you can taste the tone, and visualize the brilliant color palette of the record. The moody tracks breathe life into the senses, and sonically soothes like an adult lullaby.

“Karma Repair Kit” feels like traveling back in time and re-experiencing the first album that got you through angst-ridden puberty (“I so envy/Your restraint/Scuttling up trees/And knee-high kicking across cold creeks/And your cheeks slashed with burnt cork war paint/We each agree our dreams define us”), then you snap out of it, realize you’re grown, and sink into the relief of adult autonomy.

“Destiny Revision” is essentially about winging it when your life fails to play out as you’d imagined, and the video features analog photos taken by Burg in various cities while on tour, prominently featuring the legendary Berghain in Berlin, where Joan of Arc played their last show. “I’ve been spending lockdown scanning and labeling negatives. I have it loosely organized starting around 2013, up until we flew home from Berlin,” he explains. “That last gig felt like the ultimate show. I remember the mirror ball on the side of the stage during our really fun sound check, and the fireplace next to the merch booth, and the crowd was just amazing.”

Ausikaitis adds, “We were so tight by then, playing together felt like nothing. That kind of effortless gel where you don’t have to concentrate so much, and you can actually look around at each other and feel present.”

Sung by Ausikaitis, “Something Kind” stands apart as a particularly provocative punk rock feminist anthem. It was written “at the height of the #metoo movement, when everything started coming out in the news, all of the inappropriate things gentlemen were doing to their female employees,” she explains.

Initially focused on a male friend who was being threatened with false accusations, at some point, the narrative shifted. “It became a song about just getting fucked by guys, and thinking about how men didn’t know what my experience had been like. I’m not sure exactly when it flipped from me being mad at this woman on a man’s behalf, or me being angry at the universal lack of empathy for the female experience,” she says. “I was really nervous to say the last line: ‘In the dawn of something kind/I’m the one taking you from behind/You get the tits and periods/And you’re the one who gets pregnant,’ because I’m a pretty modest person. I don’t generally write provocative lyrics, and Bobby didn’t know what was coming. It was actually hilarious because Bobby’s surprised reaction was in the recording, and we kept playing it on repeat.” 

With regards to this being the final body of work from Joan of Arc, Ausikaitis says, “We were just recording. We didn’t go into it with the idea of it being our last. Since the songs weren’t made with that intention, I didn’t have to write my goodbye anthem. Now that it’s become this thing, it feels super sentimental. It has certain triumphant parts that are really kind of heartbreaking, and can definitely define itself as the final album.” 

Burg responds, “Only the future can define that. You should think of every record as your last, because you never know if you’re going to make another one. For this to be the last record, we’d actually just have to wait, and not make another record.” He draws a parallel between the album and the movie Fargo, a film that led the audience to believe it was based on a true story due to a title card, but in reality was press tour spin. Joan of Arc have earned a reputation for being highly eccentric – is the band taking us for a spin? Like Burg implies, only time will tell.

As self-described “musicians with day jobs,” the lack of fiscal greed and societal pressures have allowed Joan of Arc to pursue music in its most organic expressive form. They create freely without the burden of people pleasing, and have dodged lucrative offers to do early-album-based nostalgia tours. We can look forward to hearing more of the band members’ exciting side projects: Ausikaitis and Burg’s brilliant, bizarre and intuitive pop jams as Aitis Band; and Good Fuck, Tim Kinsella and wife Jenny Pulse’s erotic exploration of experimental literary techniques and adventurous electronic beats. Tim Melina Theo Bobby signifies the end of an era, but it also carries on the legacy of a raw, provocative band that evolved (and sometimes intentionally devolved) a limitless sound – and nurtured a passionate underground music community in the process.

Visit Joan of Arc via their website for ongoing updates.

BAND OF THE MONTH: Sound of Ceres

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photo by Ben Tra

There aren’t many Brooklyn bands that can convince high-profile performance artists like Marina Abramović to brave Bushwick’s divey DIY scene, but Sound of Ceres did just that last August, during their month-long residency at Alphaville. Then again, Sound of Ceres stretches the boundaries of what it means to be a band, interacting with morphing, mesmerizing laser-light visuals throughout their live show. Currently on tour in support of their recently-released sophomore album The Twin (via Joyful Noise Recordings), the band’s constant evolution plays out not just in the show’s visuals, but on the newest album as well; so maybe it’s not so surprising that an artist like Abramović, whose work deals with human interaction and liminal selves, would find an act like Sound of Ceres compelling.

Sound of Ceres was formed in 2014 by partners Karen and Ryan Hover, from the remains of their shoegazey recording project Candy Claws. Alongside Kay Bertholf and a rotating cast of musicians, the Hovers released three albums under the moniker, each more conceptually dense than the last. Their final LP, Ceres & Calypso in the Deep Time, was built around the narrative of a girl (Calypso, Kay’s alter-ego) and her pet white seal Ceres (who represented Karen), traveling through a pre-historic sound collage known as the Deep Time (Ryan, naturally). With a completed narrative arc in the bag, the Hovers felt it was time to move on artistically (and physically – they relocated from Colorado to Brooklyn around the same time).

“We decided it was time to start something new, that a new story could be told,” Karen explains when we speak over the phone. “There were a lot of other members in Candy Claws over the years, and people had moved away, and it just seemed more natural to start something new with different people.” Whereas Candy Claws existed mainly within the confines of a recording studio, the Hovers wanted to tour behind their new project, although Karen would remain the voice behind it – hence the carryover of the name “Ceres.”

“We really wanted Sound of Ceres to expand a little bit,” she says. They tapped guitarist Derrick Bozich, Ben Phelan of Apples in Stereo, and Jacob Graham, formerly of The Drums, though his role in Sound of Ceres was more like that of an artistic director than musical contributor; he’s the one responsible for developing the mechanics behind the band’s innovative live light show. “Pooling all these different influences has created a unique sound that I don’t think we could’ve come up with on our own,” admits Karen. “Sound of Ceres is a lot more synth-heavy; all of the members that we work with now are very interested in analogue and modular synthesizers, so we’re getting a lot of sounds that we haven’t used before just ’cause we never totally went there with Candy Claws.”

The band released their first album, Nostalgia for Infinity, in 2016; around that time, Ryan picked up a copy of The Magic Mountain, the celebrated German novel written by German author Thomas Mann in 1924. It provided the conceptual seeds for The Twin. Karen says that Ryan is “a big reader, and really draws reference from books to make albums.” She adds, “I think it’s hard for him to sit down and make music if he doesn’t have this idea behind it that is kind of inspired from literature that he’s been reading.”

But The Twin also draws on references from modern writers. The band had longtime friend and sci-fi author Alastair Reynolds pen an accompanying narrative based on demos they’d send back and forth as they worked on the record. Reynolds’ story appears on the back cover of the album art, as well as in a specially-printed booklet included with the Limited Edition version of the oxblood-and-bone colored vinyl.

Many of the songs sent to Reynolds, it turns out, changed drastically once Sound of Ceres traveled to Iceland to put finishing touches on the record. Their reasons for doing so went beyond the inspiring setting – they planned to work with producer Alex Somers, whose notable collaborations include working with Jónsi of Sigur Ros, Julianna Barwick, Leif Vollebekk, and Briana Marela. “We’ve known Alex for a few years and have enjoyed each others’ musics,” says Karen. “We were very interested to see how he would apply his own kind of ethereal mystical presence to our record. And just the joy of going to another country and finishing our record in this place that seems so  isolated and very different from the rest of the world was very intriguing in itself.” Somers pushed Sound of Ceres well outside of their comfort zone, Karen says. “We’ve always been afraid in the past to have the vocals be very apparent and on top, [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][or use] many layers of vocals. He also had the take on percussion being more in the foreground, which we had not done before either. He added some sampling of his own and really brought the drums and vocals to the foreground.”

Of course, the biggest change was a move away from guitar sounds and into synth-laden territory, something that had already begun to happen with the band organically, but that Somers also encouraged. “Our guitar player Derrick has a Mellotron pedal for his guitar so live, he’s essentially playing the guitar but it sounds like a Mellotron,” says Karen with a laugh. “[We’re] trying to do different things with the instruments that we have to get new sounds.”

The payoff looms large in the otherworldly, expansive feeling of The Twin; Karen’s delicate singing floats in an effervescent wonderland of languorous synth modulations, punched up with textural percussion. Tracks like “Gemini Scenic” and “Humaniora” have positively glacial sparkle, while the title track’s glissandos, pensive riffs, and orchestral flourishes are the stuff of sci-fi cinema. Fans of Broadcast might have to catch their breath at the uncanny similarity; against a kindred background of heady dream-pop inflected electronica, Karen is a dead ringer for the late Trish Keenan. The Twin crackles with the icy isolation of space, but Karen’s plaintive intonations of Ryan’s humanistic lyrics have the spark of warm-blooded terrestrial life meditating on deeper meaning and reaching out for connection across the vastness of the universe.

It’s hard to imagine what that might’ve sounded like before the band’s trip to Iceland; these sweeping changes transformed the album into another work entirely. Karen says shadows of its former execution remained, like a mirror version of the same being, or a twin of itself – hence the record’s title. “The songs were already there, the melodies and lines were developed and such, but when we took it to Alex it really changed a lot,” Karen admits. “We’re very curious to maybe someday release what we had in the first place to see what people would think.”

For now, Karen, Ryan, and the rest of Sound of Ceres are content to let the material continue to mutate into whatever it may be. While on the road, Karen says that even their carefully choreographed laser show evolves from city to city. “Our August residency was the first time we really felt like this was the show we’ve always wanted to have,” she recalls. “As we’re on tour we think of new ideas in the car, like new ways to use the equipment we already have. We’re able to implement the changes pretty quickly, so every night it’s different.” Too many bands get lost in their own egos, but Sound of Ceres’ willingness to shapeshift – bending like a quick flash of laser light, blipping in and out like the faint transmission of a far off galaxy – is what makes them a force to be reckoned with.

The Twin is out now via Joyful Noise Recordings. Catch Sound of Ceres at one of their remaining tour dates below.

10/24 – St Louis, MO @ Foam
10/25 – Lexington, KY @ The Burl
11/11 – South Holland, MI @ Fireside Brew
11/12 – Chicago, IL @ Burlington Bar
11/13 – Indianapolis, IN @ Square Cat Vinyl
11/16 – Greenville, SC @ Cabin Floor Records
11/18 – Lynchburg, VA @ Riverviews Gallery
11/19 – Brooklyn, NY @ Silent Barn[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]