After queer Chicago punk band 8 Inch Betsy wrapped up a 30-day U.S. tour in 2010, many things appeared uncertain for the members. Their original drummer Stephanie Levi had left the band, and the transition from life on the road to everyday life left the remaining members Meghan Galbraith (guitar, vocals) and Eli Burke (bass) feeling downtrodden. Galbraith was up every night working as a bartender, then would wake up to “alone days of nothing after just coming off the high of tour and traveling all over the country,” as Burke puts it. This situation spawned the band’s latest album, The Mean Days, a meditation on life’s difficult experiences.
As Galbraith and Burke worked on the album, recording it with drummer Melissa Thomas, Galbraith became ill, so the two of them put their music on pause. Burke moved to Tucson to focus on making and studying art; he’s currently a PhD student in Art and Visual Culture Education at the University of Arizona. As Galbraith’s health declined, she asked Burke to release the album, which was mainly written by her, on her behalf.
Then, somewhat unexpectedly, Galbraith passed away at age 35 in 2015, leaving her bandmate heartbroken and eager to commemorate her in music. Burke released a physical version of the album in late 2015 but, preoccupied with grieving his friend’s death and undergoing a gender transition, has not been able to release it digitally until this year, on August 13.
“I felt a really deep sense of urgency to get it out there and release it in a way that was going to do it justice. I just want her music to be heard,” says Burke. “[Initially] we didn’t release it digitally [so] not a lot of people had access… That’s why I’m doing this now to get it digitally out there.”
The Mean Days might as well be a reference to the grunge heyday of ’90s; the band cites Hole and PJ Harvey as influences, but you’ll also hear hints of pop punk bands like Blink 182, Yellowcard, and MXPX. The songs open with strong guitar riffs and progress to catchy, emotive choruses, exploring relationships, transitional periods, and growing pains. On the title track, Galbraith sings of “slipping further through the cracks” as “the days turn to mean,” while “Water” tells a poetic story of renewal: “Yesterday I crawled out of the sea/Salt in my eyes and sand on my feet… wash me out inside.”
Burke describes The Mean Days as more mature than 8 Inch Betsy’s first album, 2008’s This Time Last Time Every Time. “Not only is it more mature in terms of we were all getting older, I think we were growing together and having musical experiences together. For me, it has more personal meaning because I know what the songs are about. I still love that first album — it has a real rawness to it that I really like — and so does this one.”
Even though Galbraith wrote the lyrics, songs like “Uh Oh” and “So Dark” touched Burke deeply when he first heard them. “She didn’t tell me this, but a lot of the lyrics are things I was going through, and I don’t know if she wrote them for me, but I just really resonated with the lyrics.” “True North” appeared to be drawn from conversations they’d had about leaving Chicago, and “I Will Never Go Home” references the band’s experiences on tour.
Currently busy with his PhD program, Burke is unsure where the band is headed in the absence of its lead singer. For now, his main goal is to continue Galbraith’s legacy, which also includes a not-yet-released solo album.
As part of an all-queer band, Galbraith and Burke found belonging in the punk scene, although most of their music is not explicitly political. “A lot of our songs are not overtly queer, but when I listen back to them, I think, ‘Wow, these are really queer songs,'” says Burke, who believes much of the band’s impact on the queer community came simply from connecting with queer fans.
“I think being queer, we were just able to connect with people who didn’t see themselves reflected in music during that time,” he explains. “I think we’re always looking outside for reflections of ourselves in the world, so I think when you can find that, it’s special and you want to hang onto that. I’m grateful a lot of the fans we have, I still talk to, so I think just having the support of the queer community meant a lot to us. I think it’s OK not to be overtly political and connect with people socially. That’s something that’s important.”
Indeed, that kind of connection and support is something that outlasts the life of an artist gone too soon.
Follow 8 Inch Betsy on Facebook for ongoing updates.
Before Team Dresch performs their 1995 anthem “Hate the Christian Right” at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer last week, singer and guitarist Jody Bleyle pulls a longtime fan from the crowd on stage.
As the queercore legends get ready to rip into the next song on their long-awaited reunion tour, the fan – Marlene – yells into the microphone, breathless: “I want you all to know… Dreams do come true.” Seconds later, she’s dancing on stage, playing air guitar back-to-back with Kaia Wilson, screaming the decades-old (yet still relevant) anti-authoritarian lyrics: “You never wanted to care/You kill, you kill, you kill!”
Reunion is in the air these days – there was Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill, and now, Team Dresch. As someone who spent the Riot Grrrl movement in diapers, I sometimes feel like the significance of these “triumphant returns” is lost on me. In the crowd, I listen to queer punks wax poetic about how it felt to discover Team Dresch – an all-lesbian punk band – in the ’90s, and how surreal it is to see them perform so many years later (only this time, they had to pay for babysitters). Whether you’re an old fan or a newbie, Team Dresch shreds – but now, a week after the show, I’m most affected by how it felt to watch Marlene’s “dream” come true – to see someone derive so much pure joy from the love of music.
I find myself feeling jaded these days, which is worrisome, because I’m only as old as Team Dresch’s second record, Captain My Captain (1996). I work at an art museum – something I’ve dreamed of for all of my life – yet, something feels off when I listen to my coworker tell me about her exciting visit to another gallery last weekend.
“Do you ever get tired of going to museums?” I ask her. “Since, you know, we spend so much time in one?”
“Oh, god no,” she says.
It’s not that I’ve lost my passion (just recently, a Bruce Naumann sculpture made me openly weep). It’s just that the older I get, I find myself less excited about the things that I love so fiercely. I’m terrified. I used to line up outside of concert venues hours early, yet now, going to shows can feel like a chore, no matter how much I still do – and always will – love music.
This is on my mind when Des Ark opens the show, reluctantly coming out of a sort-of-retirement as an homage to Team Dresch, a band that frontperson Aimée Argote credits with “saving [her] life.”
After years of touring – pushing through the physical and mental toll of being a full-time punk musician – Argote woke up one day in 2016 and realized she was burnt out. She tells IndyWeek, “I sat up and was like, it’s gone. It’s gone. It’s gone. That thing that you have inside of you that says, go to work, make music, do your thing. There’s nothing there.” Despite leaving the precarious, unrewarding lifestyle of punk rock behind, Argote’s appreciation for her longtime idols was still enough to get back on stage for one last mini-tour before she quits music for good.
What must it be like to achieve “the dream” – to “make it” in music, develop a fan base, and perform night after night – only to discover that in this dream, something indiscernible feels wrong, and it’s kind of a relief to wake up in the morning? What does it mean that, for Marlene, the dream is to get on stage just once, yet for Aimée, living the same dream night after night isn’t as glorious as it seems? Is our collective dream – of spending day after day surrounded by our passions – one that deteriorates as you approach it, like when you get to the best part of your dream, only to wake up suddenly?
During Des Ark’s set, Aimée Argote takes a moment to preface “Ashley’s Song,” a song about processing a sexual assault. The crowd is silent as Argote explains the pain of telling people what happened. Then, a voice shouts from the back of the room: “We believe you.”
What’s so special about the bands who played that night – Team Dresch, Screaming Females, and Des Ark – is that, if you’re a fan, you’re probably not an asshole. So, if you showed up to their gig, you’re probably not an asshole. And maybe “the dream” isn’t so much about the music itself, but rather, the dream is to spend as much time as we can with people who aren’t assholes.
Jody Bleyle says: “Every night I feel like I get more inspiration to just continue… being alive, but also just doing the work of being a person in the world that is on the left, and a freak, and fighting fascism, and having to live in this world that we’re living in right now, going into the streets, fighting climate change… All the shit we have to do day to day when you’re not at a show.”
It’s tempting to view Des Ark’s farewell and Team Dresch’s reunion in contrast with one another, but they aren’t. Maybe the dream, like any progress, is not linear, nor is it static – I sympathize with Argote’s decision to leave music, especially given the misogyny that still infects even the most “alternative” of spaces. Even Bleyle openly admits: “Mental health issues drove me away from full-time rock.” Yet at the same time, even decades after their emergence, I feel immensely relieved to have a band like Team Dresch back on the road and recording a new album. We need more bands like Team Dresch (and Screaming Females, and Des Ark) in our lives to remind us of why we fell in love with music in the first place, and why every once in a while – even if you’re exhausted from the 9-to-5 grind – it’s worth it to get yourself out to a show.
When Marlene tells us, her fellow fans, that dreams come true, maybe she doesn’t mean that all of us will one day get to perform on stage with our favorite bands. Maybe the dream is more simple: to merely surround ourselves with the right people. And thank god that some bands have a knack for bringing the right people together.
Find the rest of Audiofemme’s chat with Jody Bleyle and Donna Dresch below:
AF: What was your dream when Team Dresch began, and how has that changed after deciding to record another album after 23 years?
JB: I feel like, to me, the dream is similar to what it was when we started the band when we were younger, which was just… the need to find similar people, the need to find dykes to play music with, and not just any music, but the kind of music that I love. I think we all felt like we needed to find people that really, we could relate to, in terms of loving the same bands, in the way that you have that burning desire, but also dykes. It really felt like life or death. Like, “I don’t know how I’m going to move forward into life if I don’t find this.” And it doesn’t feel like that anymore, but it feels like the dream is the same in terms of just wanting to be with these people – wanting to play music with these people, having that be such a big part of being able to be happy, and feel good about yourself in the world. It’s definitely not about anything more than just wanting to connect with people, and being able to play shows, and being able to connect with everybody who comes to the show.
AF: Each band on the lineup – Team Dresch, Screaming Females, and Des Ark – really did seem to have a knack for connecting with the audience. It was such an emotional moment when Des Ark introduced “Ashley’s Song,” and she was talking about coming to terms with an assault, and someone shouted, “We believe you.”
JB: Let’s assume that most people in that room have people at this point in our lives who believe us, but to have that next level where you’re in a room with some people that you know, but mostly strangers, who you can have that same feeling of intimacy and connection with – it’s just so deeply powerful and comforting. I don’t know, every night I feel like I get more inspiration to just continue… being alive, but also just doing the work of being a person in the world that is on the left, and a freak, and fighting fascism, and having to live in this world that we’re living in right now, going into the streets, fighting climate change… All the shit we have to do day to day when you’re not at a show. It’s hard! It’s crazy!
AF: It’s tempting to say that all these bands from the Riot Grrrl era are reuniting because of who is President now, but I think they would have reunited either way, because there is always something to fight for.
JB: It’s all the same river, and we’re all in it together. It never ends. Sometimes, people will talk to us and be like, “Can you believe that we’re still fighting the Christian right?” but you know, it never ends – the struggles to be seen, and help other people… It’s been going on for thousands of years, and it will keep going on. It’s in the river.
AF: Is it weird to go between a day job and punk rock?
DD: I like my day job! I go there every day!
JB: I like my day job too. I don’t mind the balance, like… your life might not be exactly as you planned that it would be or whatever, I don’t know. As I got older, I personally started to really feel like I really needed and appreciated having balance in my life, of different things. It’s always a question of figuring out how much I need at a minimum of which different things, and to just kind of keep it all in balance, you know? Like, I don’t have to play music with Team Dresch every day of the year, but if I didn’t play at all, I’d be really sad. But I like having my day job too, because, I don’t know, when I was only playing rock, it drove me over the edge. I’d already had two surgeries from rock music by the time I was 26, and I was like, “Whoa, I’m not going to make it!” And I have kids, and I really appreciate being home with them. I think it would be really hard. Even in my other job, I don’t choose to travel, so I feel like I have a good balance going, and I think a lot of people as they get older appreciate that balance, because there’s always going to be more than one thing in your life. Although, at that age, I do remember being like… You just give your life to music and nothing else matters. Your health doesn’t matter, your girlfriend doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter whether you have kids… It doesn’t matter if you die by the time you’re 29. Nothing matters but writing the next song. But then you’re like, you know what else is fun? Buying a down comforter and having a really cozy bed.
AF: Full-time rock is hard!
JB: Mental health issues drove me away from full-time rock.
AF: Was it difficult to bring the band back together?
DD: We hang out all the time anyway. This is my family. If I need to talk to my best friend, I call Jody. We get together, like, one of us has an idea like, “I want to play in Brazil,” and once a year, every other year, we learn the songs again and play them.
AF: Now that you’re recording a new album, what have you learned since the last record you released?
JB: We learned a lot of things that you just learn as you get older. We have to be patient with each other, we have to practice with each other and understand who we are and respect each other. We have to be better with our communicating, we have to be better with our boundaries, and we have to learn things that lucky people learn when they’re 14, but we learn when we’re in our mid-to-late 30s, possibly 40s. Of course, taking a break, you appreciate it more – because we don’t play full time, we don’t take it for granted. It’s so special to get to play these shows with people. It’s so incredible to hear people sing songs you wrote, to have people give you the love they say you’ve given them… It’s incredible. We’re really lucky.
CUT AND PASTE is a new column that celebrates proto-blog culture by delving into the world of self-published print media – colloquially referred to as zines – which cover a wide scope of the personal and political lives of its authors and their various cultural obsessions. The column will be a mix of zine reviews, profiles and interviews with zinesters, highlights of zine archives and libraries, and coverage of zine events in today’s still-thriving culture. For our first installment, Rebecca Kunin, who teaches a course she designed at Indiana University called “Punk, Zines, and D.I.Y. Politics,” gives us a brief rundown of zine history.
Zines are handmade and self-published print media. With relatively limited amounts of copies in circulation – both a practical constraint and ideological decision – they critique for-profit mass production. Zines often draw from the personal perspectives. As such, they tend to cover niche topics and come in many different shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and formats.
While the term was first utilized in 1930s/40s sci-fi fandoms, zines were embraced by punks in the 1970s as a counterattack to elitism in mainstream music journalism and the music industry. When punk music exploded onto local scenes, it upended mainstream notions of popular music. The core methodology of this critique was a D.I.Y. ethos. D.I.Y. suggests that one creates something – a show, song, zine, etc. – using the resources at their disposal. It suggests that an authentic message is one that is unfiltered by gatekeepers, who are swayed by corporate interests and the need to market and sell to mass audiences. A “rough around the edges” aesthetic, as it follows, is gladly embraced as evidence of human ingenuity in the face of an increasingly corporate and elitist artistic marketplace. This aesthetic (or ideal) manifested in punk music, fashion, political organizing, and print media, i.e. zines.
Zines became an important form of insider communication in punk scenes. One could turn to a local fanzine for a show review, interview, scene report, and pretty much anything else related to punk or otherwise. Beyond local contexts, zines traveled via touring bands and snail mail, spreading information and drawing connections across regional, national, and international D.I.Y. networks.
Because punks directed their rage towards corporate elitism and promulgated an ethos of inclusivity, it is easy to romanticize their outreach. While punk critiques capitalism, sexism, homophobia, and racism, for instance, it also exists within a world that is capitalist, sexist, homophobic and racist. Far from an egalitarian utopia, queer and femme punks and punks of color have had to exist within what scholar and zinester Mimi Thi Nugyen describes as “whitestraightboy hegemony.” Zines, however, became important sites for such critiques within punk spaces. Because of their participatory nature, more punk subcultures formed along these lines of critique.
One of these subcultures was queercore, a critique of homophobia within punk and conservatism within mainstream gay and lesbian movements. In the 1980s, Toronto-based multi-media collaborators Bruce LaBruce and G.B. Jones published J.D.s and helped to pioneer a local queercore scene. While there are many more titles than can be listed here, some of the most circulated Toronto-based zines included Bimbox and SCAB (Society for the Complete Annihilation of Breeding), Double Bill (Caroline Azar, Jena Von Brucker, G.B. Jones, Johnny Noxzema, Rex Roy), and Jane Gets a Divorce (Jena Von Brucker). Queercore, however, was not only based out of Toronto. Participants collaborated across geographic distances to other cities. Out of Southern California, Vaginal Davis published The Fertile Latoyah Jackson in the early 1980s. Up the coast in San Francisco, Homocore (by Tom Jennings and Deke Nihilson) and Outpunk (by Matt Wobensmith) were circulating widely. Out of Portland, Team Dresch bandmember Donna Dresch published Chainsaw, a homocore and riot grrrl zine. Many of the above-mentioned zines (and more) can be read in digitized formats on the Queer Zine Archive Project’s website. Although centered on zines, queercore was a multimedia punk subculture that created music, films, and social networks. Outpunk and Chainsaw, for instance, doubled as record labels. By fusing art and activism, queercore reclaimed punk’s queer roots and created networks for queer individuals.
In the early 1990s, riot grrrl grew from local scenes in Olympia, Washington and Washington D.C. into an international movement with local chapters across North America, Europe, and Asia. This activist art scene developed from feminist punks who were tired of the white boy mentality that dominated punk spaces. Riot grrrls used zines to discuss their personal experiences with sexism. Many members of this scene also performed in punk bands and advocated for feminist values and safe spaces at their shows. Famously, Kathleen Hanna of punk band Bikini Kill would call all the girls to the front at the beginning of their set. While it would be impossible to list all of the riot grrrl zines that were produced, some of the germinal ones include Jigsaw (Tobi Vail), Bikini Kill (Tobi Vail, Kathleen Hanna), Girl Germs (Molly Neuman, Allison Wolfe), Riot Grrrl (Molly Neuman, Allison Wolfe, Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail), and Gunk (Ramdasha Bikceem). These, and thousand more zines, connected femme punks across local, national, and international D.I.Y networks.
While riot grrrl opened a lot of spaces for women in punk, it is not without its critiques. Riot grrrl was mostly (although not exclusively) white, and many of its participants were middle class. Punks of color and non-white riot grrrls critiqued riot grrrl for failing to address structures of racism and their own privilege within those structures on more than a superficial level. This critique of the whitewashing of feminist punk echoed a critique of race and racism in punk across many local scenes. In the 1990s, Race Riot emerged within this discussion. Mimi Thi Nguyen and Helen Luu published Evolution of Race Riot/Race Riot 2 and How to Stage a Coup, respectively, which are compilation zines that brought together punks of color to discuss racism in punk spaces and larger societal institutions. Bianca Ortiz (Mamasita), Sabrina Margarita Alcantara-Tan (Bamboo Girl), Miriam Bastani (Maximum RocknRoll), Osa Atoe (Shotgun Seamstress), and Anna Vo (Fix My Head) are some of the central zinesters who have contributed to this discussion. Many of these zines can be read in digital formats via the People of Color Zine Project, founded by Daniela Capistrano.
By the 2000s, early social media websites and blogging platforms such as WordPress, Tumblr, Myspace, Live Journal, Bebo, and early Facebook introduced a new way for young people to interact with each other in an unfiltered format across greater geographical distances and at higher and faster rates. E-zines and blogs took zines from print to digital format.
Amidst all this, zine culture in its print form has remained alive and well. Zines can be found in cities and towns across North America (and around the world) at record stores, bookstores, comic book stores, zinefests, community centers, libraries and elsewhere. A handful of stores, such as Quimby’s (NYC and Chicago) specialize in zines. Rather than a replacement for zine culture, the internet has become a tool for zinesters to access a wider audience.
Now, when I go to a zinefest, I see zines on a number of different topics. I see zines about everything ranging from music, film, animals, feminism, and racism, to food and more. It is hard to ignore that a significant proportion of zines that I’ve encountered lately relate to themes of health and wellness – a trend that I suspect might be influenced by the inaccessibility of healthcare in the US and the stigmatization of mental illness and trauma. Another widespread theme in contemporary zine publishing is prisoner rights. Ranging from political essays by scholars and activists outside of prison to poems, essays, and illustrations from people who are incarcerated, these zines critique the prison industrial complex from an intersectional lens, exploring racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia. Tenacious, for instance is a zine written by incarcerated women and compiled by activist Victoria Law.
A lot of people in zine culture that I’ve chatted with mention a first zine that drew them in completely. For me, it happened when I was a 23-year-old ethnomusicology graduate student. I was at Bluestockings, a radical feminist co-op in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and I saw a brightly colored, glossy zine that stood out and immediately drew me in. The front cover was embossed in sections with glitter tape and a metallic noise maker was attached to the binding. It was called They Make Noise by Lou Bank and it featured portraits and bios of underground queer musicians. I remember being stricken by the fact that the zine was not just words on the paper, but a carefully thought out piece of art that someone spent a lot of time and care to assemble.
I became quickly consumed by zines and before I knew it, I was collecting them for my own bedroom archive. I made my first zine a couple of months later – my roommate Emmie Pappa Eddy and I collaborated and collectively created a fanzine about Friday the 13th. After that initial step I began to make more zines and after a couple of years, I built up my nerves to table at Bloomington’s Zine Fest. In graduate school, I have begun to work with zines in classroom settings as a creative alternative to elitist (and stodgy) academic formats. My goal with this column is an extension of this research: to introduce more people to zine culture. As zine culture is fundamentally participatory, I also humbly hope to prompt more people to grab a piece of paper and make a zine.
Recommended Further Reading
Queercore: Nault, Curran. Queercore: Queer Punk Media Subculture. Routledge: New York, 2018.
Riot Grrrl: Marcus, Sara. Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. Harper Perennial: New York, 2010.
Race Riot: Duncombe, Stephen and Tremblay, Maxwell. (editors). White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race. Verso: London, 2011.
Zines: Duncombe, Stephen. Notes From The Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. Microcosm: Bloomington, 2001.
Jay Som has had a big year. Since Polyvinyl picked up the project – conceived and led by Oakland’s Melina Duterte – in 2016, Duterte has released a second full-length album (Everybody Works), toured nationally, played a tiny desk concert at NPR, and received extensive coverage by major media outlets. In other words, Jay Som has outgrown Duterte’s Bay Area bedroom.
At the Ace of Cups last Sunday, Jay Som played a set which drew from both the old (“I Think You’re Alright,” an enduring hit for the band, was first released in 2015) and the new (a video for “The Bus Song,” directed by Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner, was only released a few weeks ago). It’s probable that I’ve seen the band play live more times than anybody else in Sunday night’s crowd. And it was interesting to encounter Jay Som in Columbus, especially because this might be the last time I hear Duterte play for a while – she and her bandmates are moving to LA in a few weeks, and I’m staying in Columbus for the next few years.
Much has been made of Jay Som’s success in regards to the Bay Area music scene. Duterte is young, Philipinx, gay, and hard-working. She stands within the intersections of identities which are often pushed out of the music industry. But it’s these identities which should, frankly, be populating the Bay Area’s stages more often – POC, especially black folks, make up far more of the East Bay’s demographic than is represented within artistic spaces. As is the case everywhere, DIY and other music spaces in San Francisco and Oakland often prioritize white artists on their bills, making room for loud, cis, white punk boys before creating space for queer folks, women, and people of color.
So it’s encouraging to see Duterte carving a place for herself in the music industry. Encouraging too is seeing artists like her blow up: Kehlani, Xiomara, and Spelling, to name a few, have all made waves far beyond Oakland and San Francisco in the past few years. And Duterte has certainly earned her success. Both Turn Intoand Everybody Worksare carefully considered, lushly arranged albums. Duterte’s vocals, attention to lyricism, and weaving melodies are remarkable in their precision and vitality.
When performing, Duterte and her band – the bulk of which she grew up with in Brentwood, CA – animate the songs with long diversions into musical riffs. They’ve all known each other a long time, and it shows in their comfort onstage. But that comfort comes with the potential cost of excluding listeners. “There’s nothing I like less than seeing white men jam onstage,” a friend told me during the show, referring to Duterte’s bandmates. That frustration seems to be tension with Jay Som’s success as a Bay Area band. If we are to understand Jay Som as Duterte’s project – and Duterte certainly crafts her records alone – how should we evaluate the musicians that accompany her on tour? Does the backing presence of white, cis men not make an impact on the audience, just as Duterte does?
Jay Som was joined on Sunday by didi, another band intrinsically rooted within its musical community. At this point in their career, didi is a Columbus staple, regularly playing shows with other locals, as well as opening for queercore favorites like Aye Nako and Sad13. The band’s self-titled album, which was released in 2015, is dynamic and well-considered, weighing squealing guitars and sleepy vocals against steady melodies and bass lines.
Like Duterte, didi is vocal about making space for themselves where they can, and are open about the struggles POC and trans folks face booking shows in DIY communities. As well as being accomplished musicians, they’re significant advocates for themselves and others in Columbus.
It’s important to evaluate music within the context of its community. But how do we gain enough access to musicians to make those value judgements? In other words, am I, a recent Ohio transplant, truly able to place a band like didi within the historical and social contexts of the Columbus music scene in the same way I can with Jay Som? How does that change my approach to seeing either band live?
At the end of the show on Sunday, I watched as crowd members lined up to talk to Duterte. Some posed for a picture. Others milled about, finishing drinks or buying merch. It’s striking how much trust we each must have, in each other, and in the musicians onstage, to fill a music venue. To enter any space of entertainment is to re-negotiate the safety of your body in a crowd. That negotiation has higher stakes for some than others, just as being visible onstage is riskier for systematically marginalized folks than it is for those in power. We all take up space in different ways.
To get you as pumped as we are for our CMJ 2013 showcases, we’re introducing each band to you by asking them five unique questions. Kings is playing Sidewalk Cafe, 94 Ave. A in Manhattan on Wednesday, October 16th at 10PM. You can RSVP onfacebookorDoNYC.
Kings are a three-piece country band composed of Brooklynites Emily Bielagus, Steph Bishop, and Robert Maril. Together, their exquisite harmonies, pedal steel and bright banjo weave together stories along the lines of traditional country, bluegrass, and folk, but the band has a deeper agenda, too. As activists in the queer community, they’ve made their music a reflection of that identity, composing narratives around the LGBQT experience.
AF: You describe Kings as queercore alt-county and perform with a very powerful mission in mind – in your own words, “to open up a space for queer people inside traditional country music”. What’s been the most difficult part of fulfilling that mission, and what’s been your most triumphant moment?
KINGS: We know that we’ll never be on Top-40 Country Radio, and that’s OK with us. Really, our goal is to reach some queer kid living in Bumblefuck, Oklahoma/New Hampshire/Poughkeepsie who loves country music, but is currently stuck listening to mainstream heteronormative bullshit music about drinking beers out of red solo cups and riding dirtbikes. Don’t get us wrong, those things are fun, but we want that kid to know that they can enjoy country music AND still feel queer pride. It’s been hard to accomplish that yet because we’re still so unknown outside the Brooklyn music scene. But hopefully not for long?? One of our best moments so far was when a music writer mentioned Chely Wright in one of our music reviews. We were like, “Yes, EXACTLY.” That’s exactly the movement we’re championing.
AF: Though Kings’ music evokes the sensibilities of the Western plains and other wide-open rural spaces, you’re based in Brooklyn. Is it ever difficult to cultivate and maintain a country sound in such a huge, urban city?
KINGS: Nice Dixie Chicks reference! [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][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”][Eds. Note: It actually wasn’t, but having grown up on country music I guess it seeped in to me a bit, too.] No, it’s been easy. It’s the kind of music we all listen to on the regular, and it’s a timeless sound. Americana/Folk/Country music is having its trendy moment these days (it’s also maybe a part of this somewhat insufferable trend – the Brooklyn handmade knit-bomb moustache homebrew ball jar suspenders thing) but I’m glad people are into it. The three of us grew up in rural places, and it’s the music that’s just a part of who we are. It’s almost like we cling to it and create it because we live here – we maintain this sound for our big-city survival.
AF: How do you collaborate when writing songs? We’re dying to know how you develop those breath-taking harmonies!
KINGS: We generally come in to rehearsal with a few songs already written, or a few song “nuggets” that we flesh out together. The songs that stick around are the songs that lend themselves to our 3-part harmony and, honestly? That harmony just kind of happens. It’s sort of magical, and it’s how we first realized we were on to something when we first got together. We sang a couple lines of harmony and we were like “oh shit! That sounds good.”
AF: You just finished recording your gorgeous debut EP, Bones. Do you like recording or playing live shows better?
KINGS: Yikes – that’s like a choice between the best and the other best! Oh man, being in the studio is the best best best, though. We joke that we could spend all day every day in the studio, but actually, it’s not really a joke. We loved our Bones studio days and we can’t wait to go back and record more. However, we’re theater-kid performance-junkies at heart, so the live shows keep us going. They also inform our songs. You can write a song and rehearse a song for hours but you don’t really know what the song’s personality is until you sing it live.
AF: If you could hear any classic country singer cover a Kings song, which one would you want to hear and who would you want to sing it?
KINGS: I think all three of us would lay down and die if Dolly Parton covered “Western Sky.” I would absolutely never recover.