PREMIERE: Brooklyn Supergroup Rhinestone Mine Campy But Heartfelt Country Aesthetic on Debut EP

Photo Credit: Elizabeth LoPiccolo

René Kladzyk says she’s always been drawn to melodrama – but some of the songs she found herself writing were almost “too embarrassing” to record, at least for her more esoteric, conceptually-driven musical project Ziemba. As she developed a taste for the oft-maligned country and western genre – particularly outlaw country courtesy of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, or the folk-adjacent Americana of Bobbie Gentry and Townes Van Zandt – she realized that its heart-on-your-sleeve lyricism lent itself perfectly to sitting with those uncomfortable emotions. The only problem was, she was living in Brooklyn, where the prospect of finding like-minded musicians to start up a country band seemed a bit like finding needles in a haystack.

While this pitiful position could’ve inspired another lonesome country-tinged tune, Kladzyk didn’t wallow; she turned to Facebook. “[My post] was like, ‘Who wants to join my weirdo country band?!’ and all these people reached out – none of whom I actually knew, we all just had mutual friends,” she remembers. From the first practice it was clear that the sort of people who would immediately respond to a post like that – and actually follow through – did so for the sheer love of playing music, and though the lineup changed slightly from those first practices, it solidified around an unlikely group of dedicated musicians, well-known in the Brooklyn scene for their involvement in rather disparate projects. These included: Baby Birds Don’t Drink Milk alum Oscar Allen; Death By Audio’s Jay Heiselmann, who’s played in Grooms and Roya; and documentary photographer Samuel Budin. The EP also features John Bohannon (Torres, Ancient Ocean) on pedal steel, Casey Kreher on drums, and backing vocals from Jess Healy, the newest official band member.

Though Brooklyn might seem an unwelcoming place for a country band to flourish, the eclectic crew had a built-in audience. “Between our collective members, we already had kind of a musical following, so it was never as hard for us to bring out a crowd as it was for me when I was starting out with Ziemba,” says Kladzyk. “Because we have members with other active projects we’ve never played a ton. We’ve only played outside of Brooklyn once I think. We’ve never done a full tour. But within Brooklyn we’ve been able to play a lot of really cool shows over the years with really great bands. We’ve been lucky to have really great crowds who dance a lot, have fun, and rage.”

Rhinestone, in many ways, represents the growing appeal of country music well outside the genre’s typical demographic – whether that’s Kacey Musgraves’ critical acclaim, Orville Peck’s anonymous rise to indie stardom, the revelation of gender-flipping songwriting ensemble The Highwomen, crossover stars like Colbie Caillat making forays into country… the list goes on. Like Kladzyk, the members of Rhinestone were relatively late to the party, but they took that fateful Facebook post as a literal invitation.

“I had less than no interest in country music for most of my life. Right before I started high school, my family moved to Missouri, where I quickly fell in with a narrow vesica piscis of Nirvana obsessives, Lilith Fair attendees, and Toad the Wet Sprocket fans. My teenage filter regarded the slick insincerity of the exaggerated redneck accents leaking from passing pickups as a tool of the enemy,” admits guitarist Oscar Allen, who wrote the EP’s second track, “Maze of Love” and takes lead vocals on it. “Over time I realized that my beloved Roy Orbison, Breeders, and Leadbelly records hinted at an alternate history and deeper peeks behind that curtain revealed songs by Gillian Welch, Townes Van Zandt, and Neko Case more powerful than my prejudice against the label. Still, I went into that first Rhinestone practice with a bit of bemusement – I had to move to New York to finally be in a country band?!”

Healy came to classic country in the early 2000s via alt-country artists like Clem Snide. “I don’t think I would have sought out a country band to join prior to Rhinestone because I don’t identify with the idea I have of the culture of country being like, white dudes in cowboy hats kicking the tires of their Trump-stickered pickup, chewing snuff, and whining. I am not a huge fan of the shiny new country radiosound,” she says. “But Rhinestone feels more like campy traditional country – we put on costumes and personas and sing the shit out of the songs and it’s a joyful rollicking good time with some heartbreak thrown in. Rhinestone’s songs seem to extract the elements of country I like – the soulfulness and universality of heartbreak, straightforward melodies – while bringing in just enough Brooklyn weirdness to turn me on.”

Named for a film that sees Dolly Parton attempting to turn NYC cabbie Sylvester Stallone into Nashville’s next big star, the campy aesthetic is certainly integral to Rhinestone’s identity. Partly, it’s about world-building, creating an immersive experience. But beyond that, it’s pointing out an interesting irony specific to a genre that “often inhabits that space where it’s simultaneously really showy and flamboyant and campy but it’s also totally earnest and heartfelt,” Kladzyk says. “And that’s something that I really like about it. Some people think if you’re wearing sparkly or shimmery clothing then you can’t be sincere. I would be so angry at myself if I didn’t take advantage of this fashion opportunity. It’s like, why not go all the way there?”

“Very early on, René laid down a clear earnestness-over-irony mission statement and that, more than anything else, made me go all in,” Allen says. “It’s been fascinating to discover how this deceptively simple genre, with song forms older than Grimm’s Fairy Tales, holds a strange resonant complexity. You’re not solely bound to tropes and cosplay, but certain chord changes, word choices, guitar phrasing, and production moves will instantly announce themselves as unworthy.”

The four-track EP came out of an upstate recording session where the band set an album and a half’s worth of material to tape, on a machine they bought with licensing fees from a Sophie Tucker cover they recorded for FUSION TV’s Shade: Queens of NYC. “Among the songs we recorded, there’s four different songwriters and four different lead vocalists,” Kladzyk says. “Mixing and mastering the songs has been kind of a drawn out process but right now we have a whole additional album done. As Rhinestone releases more music, there’s a lot of different styles that we play even though we’re kind of framing it as country – country is a term that means a million things to different people.” Allen, for his part, refers to it as “David Lynch country.”

With an extensive playlist of references, Rhinestone hopes that their homage to music’s most misunderstood format might lead people down a rabbit hole of discovery. “If, through this project, that older-and-weirder world becomes even slightly more visible to people with the same preconceptions I used to carry, I’ll feel lucky and grateful,” says Allen. Budin, the band’s bassist, adds, “It’s solid pop music, and always has been. I hope [the EP] will inspire people to delve into the rich history of country music, which, among other things, is an integral part of the story of the American recording industry.”

Kladzyk says it’s also a transgressive history, despite its current-day association with a more conservative viewpoint. She points out that a lot of country music, particularly alt and outlaw country, was “responding to corporatized, highly commercial music and feeling resistant to that, so there’s a counterculture element that’s like, almost punk. There’s no straight lines and there’s no ideas that exist in silos. It’s all interconnected.”

“I guess I hope that Rhinestone can show others, as it has shown me, that there’s a flavor of country for everyone, and that beyond the stereotype are some deep roots to draw on and be inspired by,” says Healy, who credits joining the band with opening up her guitar-playing.

“If somebody likes Rhinestone, they should keep digging,” Kladzyk agrees. “I hope that if somebody listens to what we’ve made and likes it, that they feel motivated to deepen their relationship with the music in their life, cause it’s really fun. It’s like, a really nice way to live.”

Rhinestone’s debut EP is out tomorrow, 6/30. 100% of sales from the first week of the EP release (plus pre-sales) will be split 50/50 between Movement for Black Lives and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. Follow Rhinestone on Instagram for ongoing updates.

SUO’s Saara Untracht-Oakner on Juggling Hats and Raising Pups

SUO photo by Monika Oliver.

Saara Untracht-Oakner is a woman who wears many hats on the Brooklyn scene: musician, visual artist, booker, DJ, and model. Perhaps best known as guitarist in BOYTOY (co-founded and c0-fronted with college buddy Glenn Van Dyke), she has also made guest appearances in other bands, like Roya and Habibi. Her latest project SUO showcases her solo work.

Saara has tour all over the United States, Europe and the UK, booked countless bands at The Broadway, slung drinks all over Brooklyn, and DJed around the borough. She has created visual art through illustration, painting, photograph collaging, and more, while still finding time to surf. She does this all while rocking the dog mom hat with style too; she is parent to a precious Puerto Rican pup named Pachi. Hear about Pachi, Saara’s history with music, art, animals, and her plans for the new decade below!

Pachi and Saara (Photo Credit: Juliet Wolf).

AF: Please introduce us to your current furbaby.

SUO: Pachi is my current fur baby. He’s a Puerto Rican street dog mix. 32lbs and 18”x18” (I had to measure him once for an airline).

Precious Pachi (all photo credit to Saara Untracht-Oakner unless otherwise noted).

AF: How did you and your pup pal meet?

SUO: My roommate was going to Puerto Rico for vacation, actually a week before hurricane Maria. I had taken home a Puerto Rican dog a few years before; sadly he was hit by a car six months after being in NY. He was extremely special and his name was Rico. I have his name tattooed on my arm. So knowing I loved Puerto Rican mutts (they’re called Satos), and knowing I had some time off in between BOYTOY tours, I asked my roommate to keep an eye out for some street puppies. She texted me about two days before the hurricane and said she wouldn’t have time to go to a shelter because they were trying to get off the island ASAP. An hour later she sent me a picture of baby Pachi (three months old) in the back seat of her car. She pulled over to look at a map in the middle of nowhere and he ran out from the bushes, chewing on a T-shirt. A vet check up and rabies shot later and he was on a plane to NY and escaped the hurricane. We’ve been in love ever since.

Pint-sized Puppy Pachi

AF: Did you have pets growing up? If so, what species?

SUO: Growing up I had a few pets. I really just wanted a dog but my parents weren’t convinced so they got me turtle named Nikki that only ate ground beef, then a guinea pig named Ginger who died while we were on vacation, and then they finally caved and got me a dog. She was a chocolate standard poodle and she loved to hug but definitely thought she was above me in the pack. I had a gerbil I got from school named cinnamon, and of course goldfish every now and then. I had sea monkies three times but every time they got spilled.

AF: When did you first know you wanted to be a musician? Was there a particular moment, icon, or song that you can recall?

SUO: I was always singing and sitting at the piano and messing around. There’s a video of me when I was four and I got a microphone toy for my birthday. I was going to a pre-school where we put on plays and so I sang the whole medley front to back and got mad when my dad interrupted me. I loved performing. I remember sitting at the piano and making up songs with melodies. Melody was always something that stuck out to me. I would sing all the songs from Disney movies, especially The Lion King, and have contests with friends of who could sound the most like Simba. I was also obsessed with Raffi. I would know the track order when listening to his tapes before the next song started.

Saara during a SUO performance (Photo Credit: Remy Holwick).

AF: What was the first instrument you learned to play?

SUO: I think it was piano. I took lessons in Kindergarten because my parents thought I was interested since I always sat down to play. I was interested, just not in learning scales and chords. I wanted to make up my own stuff. I played cello from 3rd-5th grade, trumpet from 4th-12th and sang in chorus. One summer I brought home a clarinet and taught myself how to play from a book. I was in plays at summer camp a lot too.

AF: What was your first favorite song?

SUO: When I first started talking I used to go around saying “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” So probably that. I still love reggae.

AF: Tell us about SUO. How did the band form and what is your writing process like?

SUO: SUO is my solo project I created with a handful of songs – some that were meant for BOYTOY but didn’t make the cut, some older personal songs, and some new ones. I recorded with Kyle Mullarky who made the last BOYTOY record Night Leaf with us. We brought Nick Murray into the Topanga studio to track drums and then Kyle and I formed the songs from the scratch tracks to what they are on the record. I knew I wanted a full band to cover all the parts from the album and have lots of harmonies, so I sent out some feelers to some other NY musicians and curated a supergroup. Everyone in the live band now currently fronts or has fronted other bands or has multiple projects.

AF: What about BOYTOY?

SUO: BOYTOY started when Me and Glenn’s previous projects ended and I moved back to NY. The writing process was a collaboration. Sometimes songs would come from jams we made together or something was part of a song that one person would bring to the group or a whole skeleton that the other members would then add their parts to.

BOYTOY Reunion Show at Market Hotel 11/21/19 (Photo Credit: Natalie Kirch).

AF: Have you ever written a song about a (non-human) animal?

SUO: One of my first songs I can remember writing was about animals. I was with my parents and my dad’s mom in LA and we took a trip to Joshua Tree. My grandma and I wrote a song a capella in the backseat that went:
“Cats and dogs run free in Joshua Tree
Cats and dogs run free in Joshua Tree
They eat lots of plants
They eat lots of bugs
They eat whatever they find
Cats and dogs run free
clap clap clap
In Joshua True “

I still remember the melody.

AF: Favorite song about (non-human) animal(s)?

SUO: “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by Iggy Pop. I was actually just thinking about this song as I was snuggling Pachi the other night. I read in an interview with Iggy that this song is about seeing women with their dogs, how they love them and cuddle and kiss them, how the dogs have the most intimate relationship with their owners, and how he wants to be treated like that by a woman. It’s hard to not kiss Pachi tbh.

Saara Getting Some Smooches from Pachi.

AF: What is your favorite country to tour in?

SUO: Australia was really amazing. It’s so beautiful and the crowds are so nice and rowdy! We got to surf. Spain and France are also really fun. The food is incredible and the crowds are the best.

Flyer for BOYTOY Australian Tour (Photo Credit: David Evanko).

AF: Favorite US city or state to tour in?

SUO: Miami and Chicago have really fun crowds and people really come out. LA is fun cause I get to see so many friends and play with bands I love. These are my favorite for partying. Then there’s the little random small towns that have the best hospitality and nicest crowds because everyone is just so excited that something is happening that isn’t a cover band.

AF: What do you miss the most about your pup when you’re on the road?

SUO: I miss sleeping with him and just having him around. He’s comforting. And he’s a good excuse to take a walk, although you do that on tour anyway to kill time.

Sweet Pachi.

AF: What non-human animal do you think reflects your personality the most?

SUO: I think I’m probably some kind of large cat.

AF: What is your favorite mythological creature?

SUO: God.

AF: You are also a visual artist. What is your favorite medium?

SUO: I realized I don’t really have definite favorites with anything. What I’m into always changes. But it’s mostly painting/drawing, building and photos.

AF: Have you ever created any visual art inspired by (non-human) animals?

SUO: I made this painting awhile ago and kept trying to paint a fox. It wasn’t working out right so I painted a snake instead. The painting ended up being unintentionally really political and prophetic (this was before Trump’s election). I believe there is a divine touch in creating art beyond human reasoning. I also painted a cartoon cat for my sister-in-law which now resides in my niece’s bedroom.

AF: If your pup could have a human career, what field do you think he would be in?

SUO: He’s very passionate and strong and fun and also a bit anxious. He loves being near people and always wants to make sure everyone is safe. Maybe a volunteer fire fighter or something.

AF: If he were in a band, what instrument would he play and what genre of music would he write?

SUO: He’d probably be the singer and write songs like Ricky Martin.

Pachi Living La Vida Loca.

AF: If he were a visual artist, do you think he would be more of an illustrator, painter, or sculptor?

SUO: Maybe an illustrator. He’s very clean and thoughtful.

AF: How did you transition into the booking field?

SUO: It kind of fell into my lap. A mutual friend of the owners of The Broadway told me his friends were opening a spot and if I knew any talent buyers. I was in LA at the time and didn’t have a job lined up for when I got back. I figured with my ten years of touring, booking my own gigs, all the bands I knew, and the knowledge of what makes good clubs good, that I could do the job well.

AF: Any big plans for the new decade?

SUO: I’m going on tour in Europe with SUO in February and will probably spend a couple weeks in LA in January and play a show out there. It’s about to be the roaring ‘20s!

Photo Credit: Babak.

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