When I arrived at Pinhook for the Party Illegal show this past Saturday, I found a parking spot directly in front of the venue. Never once has this happened to me, so I knew this was going to be a special night. The karma was a-glowin’, y’all. Upon entering the venue at precisely 10PM, I was surprised to see a scant space nearly devoid of humans. I found Durham Beat photographer, DJ, adjusting the settings on his camera to the green laser lights and smoke machine. From the ceiling hung strings of green leaves decorated with tiny green glow sticks. The verdant aura painted a spritely scene of Spring, even though it was a brisk 38 degrees outside. Puckishly, I strolled over to the bar where I saw Patrick (Treee City) wandering about, ordering a mezcal before the start of his set. Hugs followed. And moments later he took the stage, easing into his set with some deep droney noise.
While Patrick’s set moved from drone to ambient, with a touch of house, I clutched my Guinness tallboy, crossed the empty dance floor, and nestled into a wallflower pose, watching the humans slowly trickle into the show and start dancing. It didn’t take long for the room to fill up and for me to mosey over to the bar for another beer. For an hour, the sounds of Treee City bombarded the venue space with massive waves of bass. As the night went on, the bass would only get heavier, the sound waves more aggressive, the rumble of the floor making me my heart seemingly beat to the rhythm of the music.
With no interlude between sets, DJ Jules took over from Patrick for the second set, one of the loudest of the night. Between flipping through various vinyl and singing and talking to the audience with the lone microphone, DJ Jules’s set was absolute fire. Heavily rooted in percussion and bass, this set made the doors in the bathroom shake, the bucket ashtrays out back vibrate on the picnic tables. By the midpoint of her set, the show had become a dance party, so much so, that a young woman climbed up onto the stage into the artist’s performance space to dance, seemingly in a drug-induced rapture, until someone escorted her off when it became apparent that she was distracting the artist. Not long after she would make a second attempt to dance on the stage, but would be quickly removed. At the start of Oliver Long’s set, Photographer DJ and I saw her and her companion with coats on, drinking water by the front door, perhaps waiting for an Uber or Lyft, but we’ll never really know.
As Oliver Long began his set, the third of the evening, Patrick found me in the crowd swaying with the dangling greenly-lit leaves and invited me downstairs into the green room for some heady discourse. Trandle, who had come to the show, joined us as we conversed in the cozy artist hangout while Pulp Fiction played on the Roku-powered TV. Moments later the door to the green room opened and Sinistarr, the night’s headliner, came in and joined our little circle. After a round of introductions, we fell into conversation, touching upon a number of topics, from cold, snowy places to trolley bars to the new Detroit. The common thread in the ensuing conversation was the development and changescape of cities. Sinistarr spoke a great deal about the new development of Detroit and how even in just a few years since the city began its turnaround from industrial wasteland, it has become a new city filled with new people with new value systems and new money. “It’s called #NewDetroit,” he said. The obvious parallels to the development of Durham and the Triangle as a whole were easily apparent to all of us.
As the clock neared 1AM, Sinistarr started prepping for his set, while Patrick, Randy, and I headed back into the showroom for the much-anticipated headliner. Author of several groundbreaking releases and a veteran of Detroit’s music scene, Sinistarr’s set was a poignant display of the many nuances inside ever-evolving world of electronic music. Watching him interact with his instruments on stage, his precision and simultaneous comfortability were reminiscent of the necessary skill and exactitude required in movement of fingers and hands upon piano keys. I felt distinctly like I was in the presence of a master.
Head over to our Instagram to see the two photo series from the show by Durham Beat Photographer DJ.
The Mineral Girls guitarist talks about growing up in upstate New York, her new solo project, and being filled with utter and total despair.
This profile is a collaboration with the Trans Music Podcast. Stream the interview below:
So there’s this guy at my job who is really jaded and kind of emo. You can tell he hates his boss, and whenever something goes wrong he says the following quote:
“Man plans. God laughs.”
There is no venue where that is truer than the world of interviewing. In my short tenure interviewing musicians for the Trans Music Podcast and this publication, I have been reminded of that quote a whole lot. But I think that’s the fun of interviewing. It’s not like writing. I have no control, I’m just along for the ride, trying my best to be earnest, curious, kind and maybe a little critical if I feel like it.
You know who else is really jaded and literally emo?
Today’s guest. Audrey Ayers.
Audrey used to play lead guitar for the Charlotte area emo rock band the Mineral Girls, and has a new solo project called Problem Addict. I got to talk with her recently when I was in Charlotte visiting my dad.
If you thought last week’s spiraling conversation about cultural appropriation got a little dark, wait until you hear what we talked about. Well, I guess I should probably warn you. We talk about drug addiction and really rough mental health issues, and the way power manifests itself. And you know, like, guitar pedals.
The thing I liked most about this interview is that her whole deal as both an artist and person is facing your mistakes and your power head on. And not in a cheesy, pay-lip-service-to-your-privileges kind of way. Her band name is literally a play on the word “problematic,” which as we all know was the Social Justice Buzzword of the Year in 2016.
(If you’re curious, the Social Justice Buzzword of the Year in 2018 was “accountability.”)
Yeah, and they’re different. With Mineral Girls I only played guitar. I did some harmonies, but I didn’t have anything to do with the vocals or anything like that, writing wise. So I got very used to viewing the guitar as a melodic instrument, a lead instrument, and kind of drifted away from song writing.
So I didn’t write songs, for the most part, when I was in Mineral Girls, of my own. It used to be all I did. I never had a band. I grew up in a small town, so no one was really playing music, and those that did didn’t really play the type of music I wanted to play. I mean, I used to write my songs on a computer program called Guitar Pro, which allowed me to MIDI out every single instrument. That’s how I used to write my songs.
So I used to be my own band basically, and it was completely new to me when I was in Mineral Girls to be in a collaboration type of environment with people. So this project, Problem Addict, to tie this together, is me getting back to that. I wrote my first song in almost two years called “Staying in Bed All Weekend,” and I put that out in October, and I’m just working on writing an album. So, yeah.
Was it hard to learn to collaborate with people if you were the mistress of your own design up until that point?
For sure because, like I said, I was so picky. Whenever I tried to get a band together, I was always trying to teach people parts, and I think it got in the way for some people because it’s like, “Well, I’m not having any creative input,” which I totally get. I have a lot more sympathy for it now, being in a collaboration. But with Mineral Girls it was hard at first because I really wanted to impose ideas that I knew I didn’t have the place to when it came to songwriting and melody writing and stuff with Brett when I first joined-
Brett’s the singer?
Yeah, and he for “Cozy Body,” he wrote pretty much all of the album, like in terms of the album was musically written almost entirely before I joined. Then I came, and I pretty much threw lead lines over the songs that already existed. Then once I was more of an established member, particularly with the last album that we ended up putting out, “this is the last time every time,” I wrote some of those songs. I would say, in terms of the structure guitar wise, I brought 90% finished songs to the band for them to write over. So it was like the process changed while I was in the band, too. So that was pretty cool.
You were able to kind of put more of your influence in.
Right. Yeah. There are songs in there that just straight up could not have been written if I wasn’t in the band, so that was cool. It felt good being more of an integrated part of that. It very much went from me being completely out of my element, in terms of writing… and that was really cool. I actually am very glad I have that experience because I would love to do that again because it’s very different from being your own band.
You had to learn to play with others.
Right. My thing is I don’t want to lose sight of being my own band, too. I want to be able to do both at the same time. I feel like when I was in Mineral Girls, I let songwriting fall by the wayside because my brain just rewired itself almost.
It’s kind of funny because in the two minutes we’ve been talking, you kind of painted a picture of yourself as talkative and bossy. But I feel like when meeting you, you don’t come across that way.
No. I’m very introverted and unsure of myself. It’s just I feel like I can snap into these modes. Any other time, like when it’s less organized maybe conversations, I feel like the thoughts in my head are going at 1,000 miles an hour, and I can’t pull them away enough to form a coherent sentence out of them.
Do you feel like that’s why music appeals to you, because you have time to get a thought out?
Yeah. I feel like it brings some organization because I sit down with a guitar, and I’m like, okay. Sometimes I have an idea of what I’m going to do when I sit down with a guitar, and usually when that happens I don’t write a song. [Riley laughs] But the funny thing is when I’m not thinking, I’m just like, oh, a song comes out. It’s weird because it feels like when I do write a song, it feels like it’s been stored in there, and it was just waiting to be willed into the world, in a way, because all my songs usually get written within an hour. I don’t do a lot of editing. It’s a really bizarre thing that I don’t know how to explain, but it’s like its own language, you know? I don’t know if that made any sense.
Like it kind of flows out?
Yeah. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like I know when it’s going to happen, too, because I’ll be sitting, and a melody will just come to me. Then from there, if I just keep singing that melody, lyrics will come. I could write a million songs in a year probably if it were easier for me to write lyrics just because the music part comes so easily for me. The actual language, the… English language, the…. words. Words! That part is hard. The music is like a different language, and it’s much more fluid for me.
So your song writing process is just sort of like wait until it appears kind of and then write it down as quickly as possible?
You record things yourself, too, right, for your solo project?
I have. I don’t intend to when it comes to the record. I actually have a very, very particular vision for the record.
That’s so surprising, given everything else you’ve told me about your process.
No, I’m just kidding.
[Both laugh] No, I had an epiphany. No, so as of right now, anything that I’ve put out under my own name or under Problem Addict is recorded on my iPhone with the GarageBand app, and I don’t use anything other than my iPhone. I have a pair of headphones that don’t have a mic so that I can use the mic that’s built into the iPhone. Very particular process, but I’ve been doing it for years, so I know how to do it so that it sounds halfway convincing. That’s why my songs don’t sound perfect or great even, but they don’t sound like they were recorded with a phone.
You know what I mean?
They definitely … I’m surprised to hear that.
Yeah. They’re self-produced entirely, but they were done with my iPhone, and the EP, in particular, was recorded in the master bedroom’s bathroom.
So, for those listening, right now we’re in Audrey’s apartment that she shares with a couple of other people. Her bed’s in the living room right now, and we’re sitting on her couches, and there’s a fake fire. There’s a fake fireplace, but it’s not a fake gas fireplace. It almost looks like some shadow puppetry, some orange shadow puppetry.
Yeah, like one of those fires you’d see in a stage play.
Right. Yeah. I’ll put a picture on the website if that’s cool with you.
Yeah, it’s important. Do a little short video clip if you can.
Yeah. I’ll do a GIF of the fake fireplace.
There’s a giant-
We’re going to fight over the pronunciation of that [GIF] today.
Oh, are we?
No, I’m not going to make that part of the interview. Just a joke.
I care so little about how to pronounce it. I really do.
I don’t care as much as I used to. I used to be very pedantic as a person. I’m not anymore.
[Both laugh] What changed?
Understanding that pedantry is probably partly rooted to white supremacy.
If you think about it hard enough.
If you really unravel that thread enough. I grew up in a very small mostly white town in upstate New York, population of a couple thousand maybe at most, two hours away from any big city or anything like Buffalo or Rochester. I don’t think people realize it, but New York is so vast and different than just the city. So I was in a cultural bubble of just utter bigotry and racism and stuff. People don’t even realize how racist they are there, and I had a lot of unpacking to do when I came here. I think not being an obnoxious pedant or whatever, it comes from unraveling some of my prejudices. I went back and visited and saw more Confederate flags there than I do here.
Yeah. That’s … yeah.
So how old were you when you moved to Charlotte?
I moved here when I was 20.
Okay. So from a tiny town in upstate New York to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Mm-hmm, and that place has a way of stunting your growth as a human being because there’s no opportunities, so there’s no room for economic or personal growth in various areas. A lot of people are unemployed there because there’s five major places to work there that will pay you decently. They’re not hiring because there’s so many people already there. But anyway, moving here I’ve had a lot of growing up to do. I’m almost 26, so I’ve been here for almost six years. A lot of growing has happened. I was just having the thought the other day, like if I had stayed there, how long if ever would it have taken me to realize I am trans, you know?
Yeah. So you don’t know any trans people from your hometown?
It’s not to say that necessarily, but they were younger than me by a lot. The one I did know who I went to school with passed away of a heroin overdose, but I didn’t know they were trans when I grew up there.
That really sucks. I’m sorry to hear that.
Yeah, that’s okay. That’s another thing. In that area a lot of people I know who are LGBT there are struggling with hard drugs like that. It’s just not a great place to live in that regard. It’s where I came from, and so it’s been a very tumultuous six years here, not in a necessarily exclusively bad way. It’s been a lot of good.
Charlotte’s a interesting place. I grew up here. I don’t know if you knew that.
I didn’t know that. Not a lot of people have at this point.
Yeah. Not a lot of people grew up in Charlotte. But yeah, I grew up in Charlotte, and… I would not call it a progressive place obviously, but there are a lot of different kinds of people here.
That’s the different thing though. That’s the crazy thing to me is because to me this is progressive compared to where I came from.
Charlotte’s messed up in a really different way.
Mm-hmm. I wouldn’t say it’s progressive, but I was able to progress here.
When you moved here, how did you end up joining Mineral Girls? How did you end up finding a musical community?
Okay, yeah. So when I first moved here, I didn’t know anyone besides my family. My family moved here first. I followed them.
Your mom and stuff?
Yeah. I knew I wanted to move so I wasn’t stuck, but I didn’t have a safety net outside of here because all of my family is just in this area now. Again, I didn’t have any economic security there. I didn’t get paid more than $100 a paycheck there. I didn’t have the ability to even save money there, and I spent almost all of my money on weed, to be honest, because at the end of my time there, I was so fucking depressed.
When I first moved here, I spent two months really lonely and not knowing anybody. So I didn’t have a job, and I was browsing Craigslist for jobs. I was like, “Oh, let me look at the music ads.” I saw this ad for, we’re looking to form this emo/post-hardcore band for fans of Thursday and this and that. I went to go meet them, and one of the people that I met was Dylan, who played bass in Mineral Girls eventually, but this was 2013, early 2013, that we met. We tried to form a project, but it just kept not working out. We would keep trying to collaborate together, but Dylan ended up joining Mineral Girls in 2014.
I ended up, when I came to the conclusion that I was trans, or the realization or whatever, it was in summer of 2014, so a year-and-a-half of living here. I remember posting an Against Me! song called “The Ocean” or something, I think is the name. I’m really bad with song titles, but it’s the most explicit song that Laura had written about being trans before she came out as trans. The second verse is like, “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman.” Brett commented on my video share, and he quoted that line, and I was like, “same.” He was like, “Yeah, me, too.”
So we connected through that interaction, and I recorded an EP with him that never got released, or I have recorded an EP with him that never got released. Then the reason it never got finished is because he had to take a pause because they were starting to write “Cozy Body.” I was there-
That’s one of their albums, right?
Yeah, it’s the 2015 Mineral Girls album. So I was there hanging out, and I would be at their band practices and stuff. I just was at a practice one day, and they were writing a song. I was like, “Let me play guitar on this song.” They were like, “Whatever. You can try it.” And at the end of that practice. They were like, “Yeah, you can be in the band now. That’s cool.” Once I joined it was like January of 2015. So, it took me almost two years to be in a band, and music is my absolute thing that I know I want to try and do in life, and pursue, and I’m always going to do that, and it still took me two years to find a band, just because how it is sometimes, but … yeah.
I think it’s better to wait to find a band, than to find a band, and then stick with it too long, that doesn’t work, that doesn’t fit.
Right, and I honestly always expected myself … whenever I had a band, I expected myself to be a vocalist, to be at last like a co-vocalist. I did not expect to fill the role that I did in Mineral Girls because when I joined Mineral Girls … and I really feel like I can hear this on Cozy Body… I was not a lead guitarist, like I did not know what I was doing as a lead guitarist. I didn’t even know … I never played with an electric guitar in a live capacity, or even really in a recording capacity. I had one, but I never really utilized it. So, I didn’t know how to get guitar tones, I did know how to do this or that, I was very much fumbling my way through it. Those growing pains are some of the things that I hear in Cozy Body, that I think some other people don’t. So, when other people are like, “Cozy Body is like my favorite Mineral Girls record,” I’m like, “Can’t relate … just can’t relate.”
So, you didn’t know how to like use pedals and stuff?
No. I had two pedals on that record. I didn’t know how to get the sounds that I heard in my head, so it all just sounds very confused to me. If you hear some of those songs live, they’re a lot more muscular, and they’re a lot more like… We did like a live album of our last show, and if you were to watch those videos or listen to the live album, the Cozy Body songs are totally way more like rock band than dream pop band like they turned out on that record. It’s just a weird… I love that record in some ways, and then in other ways I’m… it’s like looking at baby pictures in a way, or like adolescence pictures, which is even worse, like puberty pictures.
It was very much a fake it ’til you make it thing with me in that band.
What are you working on learning right now, like in your musical practice? What’s your next skill goal that you want?
Okay. This ties into want I want to do with the record sonically. I had this weird revelation that a lot of my most favorite songs in the world are 90s singer-songwriter pop songs, like Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” by Paula Cole is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard in my life, a bunch of Sheryl Crow songs. You know what I’m talking about, like what I’m signaling into.
I’m studying those songs, basically. I’m listening to them a lot, and I’m going to pretty much exclusively cover those songs, because I want that to bleed into my music, because I really want… I really want this record to be like that, like I want it to have that spirit.
The songs are all pretty much exclusively about my struggles with mental health and gender dysphoria. I don’t know, it’s almost like reimagining that era of songwriting, because those songs are very much love songs, but they’re like forlorn love songs, or they’re like breakup songs, and stuff. “Torn” is like unrequited love almost. “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” is like, “Why do men suck?” honestly if you really think about it, it’s like… it’s definitely critical of like patriarchal gender roles. I used to think it was celebratory of them, and I didn’t… I was like embarrassed to like that song for a long time, and then I realized, no, it’s like critical of the patriarchal gender roles that we have.
It’s instead of those themes… It’s like those songs, but written about blunt experiences with mental health. I’m not in the business with these songs of writing about mental health and my struggles with it in flowery coded wording. One of the songs I wrote recently is basically me taking my suicidal ideations and treating them like a character.
You sent me a song recently. You were like, “Oh, I wrote a new song. You want to hear it?” I was like, “Yeah.” Then you sent it to me, and it was like the darkest, saddest-
It’s probably that one. Yeah.
I was like, “Whoo, man.” It just… It was-
It’s that one. Yeah, it’s definitely that one. It could’ve only been that or Stayed In Bed All Weekend, because-
I think Stayed In Bed All Weekend is also extremely fucking sad, but I think that’s partly because when I wrote it… I mean, it’s very autobiographical, it was at the end of like a four-day streak of me just spending most of the day in bed.
That one I think it was sad, but it was sad in like a relatable today, like in a, “Oh, man. All I ate was Cheerios today,” kind of way. But the one… What did you say it was called? The-
That was sad in like a… Whoo, boy.
Yeah. That’s going to probably be one of the saddest on the record. I don’t plan on getting it that much darker.
I don’t know how much further you could go.
But if I’m being real, because I really think that it’s important to be honest about mental health, because I think that it de-stigmatizes it in a way, and it’s not a ploy for attention or anything, but to be perfectly honest, I wrote that song after I stole a pack or razor blades from the grocery store.
It wasn’t that I definitely planned on killing myself, it’s that I wanted the option. But I threw them out. I don’t have them anymore.
I’m glad you threw them out.
That song was… it came from a real struggle in myself. I was like… because the song is me talking to whatever it is me that makes me feel suicidal. I’m not going to… We’re talking about a song that’s probably only going to come out on the record eventually, but… because I’m sending that song to friends, but I’m not planning on releasing it. There’s a glimmer of hope in it, but it’s very faint. It’s very uncertain. It’s a song that I really had to write, and I’m really, really proud of.
I hope so. I hope it doesn’t seem like sophomoric. I’m always worried that my lyrics come off sophomoric, because I’m very-
I don’t even know what that means.
It’s like pretentious or juvenile-
In the context that I’m using it.
So, exactly how I was at 15.
Right. Yeah, exactly. I just… I’m very worried about my lyrics coming across like that, because the things I’m talking about are very serious, and very personal to me, but I’m bad at… I feel like I’m bad at expressing them sometimes.
Like I said, the written word is hard for me.
I mean, maybe it just takes practice to find the right tone. But you’re an emo musician, right?
I don’t want to be.
You don’t want to be?
I don’t even like emo music anymore. I’ve had my trust dismantled by emo and DIY. That’s not even going into the fact that I grew up on that music, and so I feel like anything I hear today that sticks to that sound is going to be worse, or just not new, than what I grew up on. Because I’ve heard it all. I’ve heard any variation of emo you can throw at me. I’ve heard all of your twinkly fucking guitar parts. I’m sorry, I have. I’ve heard them all. Y’all are using the same fucking tunings. I’m sorry. I’m going to be real with you. I don’t care about emo music. Not to deride you, because in a sense, yeah, I am an emo musician, I am striving for more than that.
Yeah. What’s next after emo, right?
Right, it’s hard to make that transition. Very few bands have done it gracefully. I think my problem with DIY is it pretends to be an alternative to the music industry, this toxic wasteland that is the music industry, which it is. DIY is no better, because all we can seem to fucking do as human beings when we connect on a social level, is replicate the ills that we have experienced through other systems. So, really what’s happening in DIY is just a microcosm. It’s the same shit that the music industry at large is doing, just on a much less regulated scale.
No corporate HR for the punk house.
Right! No, not at all. How many of these places could kill people that we play in in DIY spaces, if we’re really honest? How many people could die at a show? That’s not me saying I want DIY venues shut down, because I was very… When all that stuff was happening with like 4chan trolls outing DIY venues back in like 2016 or some shit, I was like livid. But there’s truth to that. There’s truth to the fact that we claim that we have safe spaces, but these places are fucking fire hazards. It’s ludicrous.
And social capital is a very real thing I hope people get clued into soon when it comes to like the dynamic of how capitalism is restructuring itself in these small communities. That’s the best… like it’s… I feel like I’m giving you a piece of a puzzle, rather than trying to tell you what the image the puzzle makes is. Think about social capital, like really think about it.
Freaks me out.
It is. It’s freaky, and it’s hard because often people who are in activist communities, music communities, a lot of antiestablisment organizational work, whether that’s like fun art stuff, or political stuff, or whatever, people accumulate power for different reasons. I don’t know that that’s necessarily bad? I mean, I don’t know. I think sometimes the only way to get something done is if you know a lot of people… but it does give people power over other people that isn’t as straightforward as this is my boss, or this is someone with more money than me, or something. Those are more straightforward, but having someone who 35 people in your small town like a lot… is still power.
Yeah, and that power can be used, and often is used, in bad ways, is what I think I’m trying to get at. Those people use their social status to not be accountable for their own shit, because everyone has something to be accountable for. I promise you.
Everybody hurts people. But when you’re like the pillar of a scene, the way that you hurt people, like the weapons you have are bigger.
What’s a better way of organizing things?
[Audrey sighs] I think that’s what freaks me out is, anything I could think of is corruptible. Because all I can think… This is funny to say given what we’re saying, but… but it does feel like we as human beings only know how to do versions of what we’ve already done.
In a way.
I mean, you’ve got to start somewhere.
Yeah. I feel like a hypocrite because I know something needs to be done, but I don’t have any solutions to offer. I can just point out… because I’ve seen… I think a lot of people don’t see it. I really do think a lot of people don’t see it, but there is… something’s wrong. [Both laugh] I mean, I’m down to brainstorm and collaborate with people if people want to reach out to me and be like… as a group, and just be like, “Hey, let’s brainstorm ways that we can…”, but there’s not a single person I trust enough.
Maybe it’s not about trusting individuals, it’s more about trusting systems?
Yeah, but even that’s-
But they better be right.
That’s the thing, and that’s… We… Because I don’t trust the systems in our government right now. I don’t trust the checks and balances in our government right now. I think that they’re very corruptible. They are corrupted. I’m just… I struggle with people. Because it starts with the individual, and none of us are perfect. We’re all corruptible.
But I also think that… We’re all corruptible, but violence isn’t final. Like we are all also capable of growth and positive change.
I agree with that. We have to be honest with ourselves and others about the wrongs that we’ve done, and I don’t think a lot of people are ready to.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s true.
How many people do you think are hiding something about themselves because they’re afraid of being ostracized right now?
I mean, I think everyone has stuff like that.
Mm-hmm. I… I’m really all in my head.
Yeah, I can tell.
You know what I mean? Like I think most of the day away.
What do you do-
I really should be medicated for it, and I am trying to get that, but it’s expensive to see the doctor-
It is very expensive to see the doctor.
…with the consistency that I need to. I was on some antidepressants that we’re making me feel worse, so I have to find some new ones. I think that what will stop this record from coming out next year, if it doesn’t come out next year, is prioritizing my mental and physical health.
Yeah. I want that. I want to be like that.
I’m excited for your new record. I think it’s going to be amazing. I would much prefer it if you were in good mental health, like-
I’ll give up… as much as I want to hear this Problem Addict record, I will make that sacrifice for you.
I appreciate that. I mean, I think that if anything this interview could be used to hold me accountable for that, because I have a lot to do to get better. And I really want this record to come out as soon as it can, because music has always been my thing. It’s important to me. I want to be better so that people can see like that it’s possible, you know what I mean?
Because it is, it’s just really fucking hard.
It’s so hard.
But it’s nothing that’s worth doing isn’t.
Yeah. What I’m feeling with you right now is like… when was the last time you had a two-hour conversation about your feelings with somebody?
Yeah, I don’t have a… I’m sorry is this like a therapy session for you, because I don’t have a therapist. I need a therapist. I just haven’t been able to afford it.
It’s not bad, like I don’t mind or anything, but it does kind of feel like you’re like, “Oh, my god… someone to talk to.”
Somebody to talk to. No, absolutely.
It’s just like, it’s also being recorded.
It sucks. I’m probably never going to be able to read this interview, to be honest, but I’m glad it exists because this is evidence to me that I need help. Again, that’s not a ploy for attention. I need to get my shit together. This interview is proof.
Yeah. To be quite honest, yeah. Yeah.
On that much more positive note, this interview has been… Oh, my god… an hour and 14 minutes.
I’m so sorry, y’all. I’m really sorry.
No, you’re fine!
I wanted this to be really good, and-
It was good!
It was good, but not in the way that I wanted it to be.
You know what, you don’t get to decide how conversations go.
That’s something I’m learning as an interviewer. I can have all the questions I want, I have no idea where they’re going to go, and they’re usually going to go opposite of the direction I’m trying to steer it, and that’s okay. It’s not my car, you know?
It’s your car. It’s a self-driving car. I’m just sitting there.
But thank you for talking to me.
Yeah. Thanks for talking with me, and … yeah. That’s all I’m going to say, because this needs to end.
Note: Audrey did end up hearing this interview before publication. I just wanted to make sure everything was okay to put on the internet. She’s still working on that album, and I’m still excited for it.
When you go to as many local shows as I do, you start to notice the regulars. The drummer who splits his time between seven metal bands. The keyboard player who also plays saxophone and also also works sound at your favorite cafe. Sinclair Palmer is one of those people. They are a grad student in musicology at UNC Chapel Hill, a violin and bass teacher, and they play electric bass for two awesome local bands: The Muslims, a radical punk band, and Caique Vidal and Batuque, an orchestra-sized samba reggae group. (They’re also a Durham Beat contributing writer.)
I went to visit Sinclair at their little cabin by a creek in Hillsborough, North Carolina. We talked about their bands, their post-graduation plans, and then got really, really deep into a conversation about cultural appropriation in music.
This profile is a collaboration with the Trans Music Podcast. Stream the interview below:
Riley: So how much of your time is dedicated to each band individually? You must be in practice constantly, right?
Sinclair: Yeah, yeah. I am. It’s weird because I wasn’t a permanent member of any band until I was 21 or 22.
You were just a hired gun?
Yeah. All the time, just constantly subbing for people in bands. And trying to just make money, make money all the time. So then when, let’s see, Batuque started first… Well, Batuque was already going and then they decided that they wanted to expand the instrumentation a little bit, and so they were like, “All right, we’re going to get a bass player and a horn section and all this stuff.” And they held auditions and everything. And they picked me that night which was really cool, and it’s been probably close to three years now, or something.
There’s a lot of people in that band.
Yeah, there are like 12 people in that band. And so that band rehearses once a week. And then The Muslims, we don’t rehearse as much, but it’s whenever we can. We’re trying to rehearse more. We used to rehearse a lot more. But otherwise, I have to rehearse a lot for the freelance gigs too. Kind of especially the freelance gigs. I’ve played with Kate Rhudy recently, who’s kind of an Americana-country artist in the area. I actually went to middle school with her and then we both became gigging musicians. But she’s toured the country and stuff and I’m just trying to make my money in North Carolina, just sticking around here and not doing anything particularly important.
Hey, hang on a minute now.
I mean, it’s important but nobody knows unless they’re from here and know me, or something.
Right now, to paint the picture, we’re at Sinclair’s small cabin in the woods.
It’s nice. It’s not like a log cabin, but it’s-
It’s got central air which I’m thankful for.
It’s beautiful. They’re looking over the Eno River, there’s instruments everywhere, there’s a wood stove, there’s a little sign on the fridge that says, “Do these things daily: Eat food, take your meds, workout, drink water, practice mindfulness.”
Which I love.
Yeah, taking my meds is one that I really have to remember. I think I’ve been on meds for four years and I can never remember to take them.
Your house is very cute.
Thank you. It’s been in my family … there’s a long story as to why and how it was built, but it was built in the 80s and has just been here ever since. Just like a guesthouse, storage place, but I definitely love living here.
Is this your art on the walls?
Most of it are those made by different family members actually. So my aunt Leah Palmer-Preiss is a local artist who lives in Raleigh and there’s a lot of art in here that she did when she was a teenager. That’s how she makes her living now. She did that in high school I think like a lot of this other stuff. A lot of is also my great-grandmother’s art, like that over the fireplace is my great-grandmother’s
Oh, wow. So you have a very artistic family?
Yeah, most of them have been artists, visual artists, painters in particular. My grandmother also made a lot of this art too. It took like two and a half hours to hang all of it.
And it’s not a huge house.
It’s not a huge house. Every inch of space that I could’ve possibly hung art on, there’s art without it looking too trashy. It already looks kind of trashy.
There is. Did your family get you into music or was it something that you wanted to do?
Well, my dad’s a musician and he’s a bass player.
Oh okay, so right from your dad?
Yeah, but I didn’t grow up living with my dad. I didn’t live with him and didn’t see him a ton, not because he didn’t want to see me, we had a great relationship and everything. So I lived with my mom and she got a degree in theater so she was an actor. She is an actor. She didn’t die, she’s still alive. But she got a degree in theater and I lived with her, and I grew up with her, and she signed me up for my first music class. Which was in the third grade for elementary school orchestra in Raleigh.
Yeah. So my first instrument was a violin actually. And then in middle school in Raleigh I started playing the viola and the bass. And you know, went into high school and did both viola and bass all the time. It was so crazy doing all of these orchestra things and playing viola a lot for money in high school, and then also playing bass in school but not really having it be a very, I don’t know, supervised activity I guess? Playing in school but not doing any extracurriculars but just gigging in high school. Going to places that I wasn’t supposed to be in and making money there, hoping that nobody would question me.
Like jazz clubs?
Yeah. I played at C. Grace a lot when I was in high school, which is this little like speak-easy type bar in-
On the viola?
No, playing jazz bass.
Oh, with a band?
Yeah. Yeah, so that was when my freelancing started, which was in high school, gig, playing jazz. With my dad a lot too.
So did you have lessons too or did you just taught yourself?
I taught myself in high school on the bass.
Oh, my God. Wow.
Yeah, but I was getting lessons on viola but not bass. I had this really strict viola teacher who used to be the principal of the North Carolina Symphony and his name is Hugh Partridge. He’s still around too but he would be like, “You have to practice, you can’t do anything else.” I was in marching band and stuff in the beginning of high school, playing on the drum line and doing all those crazy … I was doing everything. He was like, “You have to quit the drum line! I would stop playing bass because viola’s what’s going to make you money,” and all the stuff. And here I am, not hardly playing viola anymore, which is funny.
But yeah, viola was a big part of my life. And then college is where you have to pick a major. You can’t major in two instruments. They won’t let you do that.
That sucks. They should.
I know. Well, actually it kind puts things into perspective too. Because if you really want to get good, most people just have to narrow their focus.
Just to be able to use energy efficiently.
Mental energy, physical energy and train your body to do one thing and harness everything you’ve got and put it into that thing.
And for people who don’t know the barrier of entry into professional classical music is super, super high. You have to be a true master.
Oh yeah. Yeah, and I was… in the West in United States in a world that’s been really shaped by western supremacy and white supremacy… I was thinking, “Well, I can’t play jazz. I have to play viola. I have to get an orchestra job. That will prove that I’m like a real musician,” and everything. You know? That will prove that I have the best musical training and I’m trained in the most “advanced” kind of music that was like classical music. And so I chose viola and I was a viola major in my first semester of college.
As soon as I got there and met the jazz majors and started connecting with them, and making friends, and going to jam sessions in Greensboro at UNCG which is where I went to college, I realized that I had made a horrible mistake and that jazz is actually a very, very advanced level of thinking. Playing jazz, and thinking, and writing, and all of the other-
And improvising and all of the other gerunds that you can possibly think of-
Making jazz music.
Making jazz and recreating jazz in other mediums, it’s fucking hard to do that stuff. So it’s incredibly respectable.
But then again, if respectability politics are the thing that are propelling you in your music career, then you’re probably doing it for the wrong reasons. I know this is a super long rant right now.
No, no, no, you’re good. I know, I did classical music. I was a violist too, so I did classical music all my entire childhood. I mostly do fiddle now because I think it’s fun.
I think I’ve seen you play fiddle. Forget where, was it like … oh, it was at Manifest.
Yeah, you played at Manifest in Jesse’s band?
I thought so. Didn’t you guys play a gig at The Pinhook two weeks ago?
I was supposed to play on that.
Yeah, you were supposed to play on that.
And I was talking to Jesse about it and I was like, “Yeah, cool.” And they were like, “Here’s the music,” and…
They said you ghosted them.
I did not ghost them!! There was like three days where we didn’t talk because I was in school all day, and then three or four days before the gig I was like, “Hey Jessie, I haven’t heard from you in a minute. What do you want to rehearse?” And they were like, “Oh, I got someone else. I didn’t know what was going on.” And I was just like, Oh, okay.” I was so sad. I was just like, “Fuck!” Did I… Did I ghost them?
Yeah, Jessie was like, “I was really excited about playing with Sinclair, but they totally ghosted me. I guess they don’t want to do it anymore.” So we got this other guy. He was great, but-
What? Oh man, that sucks! I was so excited.
Hey, we still need a bassist, we don’t have a bassist.
Yeah, well I want to do it. I mean I’m super busy until May, basically when I’m not at school. But when I’m out of school I’m trying to fucking play a lot.
Yeah well, you should be the Severed Fingers bassist.
That would be dope.
Well, we practice one once a week.
Yeah. What day?
That’s pretty good. I can do Thursdays. That sucks that Jessie thinks that I ghosted them. I totally didn’t mean to. I have-
I’ll make them listen to this podcast.
Okay. I felt really bad because I was actually excited and I was listening to the music and-
Well you’re a graduate student. And you have like 17 side jobs.
So sometimes text messages don’t work out.
Sometimes it just doesn’t, yeah. And so I mean I also live here and there’s no service. I don’t have wifi or cell service here.
You don’t even have wifi?
I don’t even have wifi. I have nothing.
That must be great for your mental health.
It’s fucking amazing. It’s amazing. Just having a TV feels like an infection.
You have musical and painting supplies.
Painting supplies and I read a lot.
Is that your violin right there?
That’s my violin. It was my aunts. It’s a Stradivarius copy. I have no idea who made it but strings suck on it right now. But I teach a couple of violin lessons.
Yeah, are you going to teach more lessons do you think?
Fuck yeah! Yeah, lessons will make you bank, especially if you have two degrees.
I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that parents cared about masters degrees.
Yeah! Are you kidding me? They’re like, “Oh, you have degrees. You must be the person to go to,” but it doesn’t really matter. You know it doesn’t matter how many degrees you have. But if you’re putting up flyers, or Craigslist ads, or whatever and you’re like, “I have a degree in music performance and musicology.” And they’ll be like, “Okay, yeah.”
That’s fair. If I had to pick between somebody who had a bachelors and masters in the instrument or even one of them in the instrument versus someone who didn’t, I guess I would probably pick that person.
So do you ever compose? Do you ever write music?
Yeah. I usually don’t have time, because writing music takes a lot for me. I’m a really self-conscious person about the art that I make, particularly the music. It’s hard for me to make something and then put it out there. And then that way having degrees kind of sucks because some people are like, “Well, what did you do when you were studying music in school?” I don’t know, I get really caught up about that and I’m like, “I shouldn’t write music and perform it,” because then it’s like 100% mine. I’m not just contributing a bassline, like one piece or something.
And people don’t pay attention to bass players, so it’s easy to kind of hide behind. You’re not playing a lead instrument or anything, so I mean it gives you some freedom too.
So you kind of get in your own head about being the front person? I guess that’s right. Bass, viola, electric bass-
Yeah, it makes sense, right?
They’re all support roles.
Well, yeah. Historically and typically they’re all support roles. And it’s really fun to manifest that space. It’s really fun to be that person and know to yourself that you’re doing something really important. But not having to perform as much, I mean not like perform on stage, but not having to … I don’t know.
You’re never the face.You’re like the left arm.
Well, do you think that eventually you’ll come to your own and start composing stuff or are you just that kind of person who just feels really good being a stellar backing person?
Yeah. I feel someday, well, I hope that someday I will be able to find peace with or be at peace with the idea of being the center person. I do write music and I almost released an EP at the end of last summer and I think it’s kind of hard. It took so much time that by the end of the process where it was like, “Okay, you can release it into the world now,” I was a little exhausted by it and didn’t feel like … I just couldn’t get around to doing the final steps that put it out into the world. I was just like, “I don’t like this music that I wrote anymore,” which is I’m sure how people feel about albums that they released years ago. They’re like, “I don’t like that album. I just released it then, it’s here now and marks a place in my life where something was finished.”
But I felt by the time I can get around to putting it out, I was like, “This should’ve been released so long ago that I don’t even want to do it anymore.”
Yeah, that’s tough. Because in the “music industry,” corporate music industry, that’s how it is. They write songs then it gets released like two years later when the company decides that. And I wonder how that feels for them, because I’ve done the exact same thing. I have a 95%-done album and I wanted to release it before the end of the year. But now I’m like, “Meh.”
You don’t think it’s going to happen. You get all caught up and all the other stuff that you have to do and you’re like, “I’ll get around to it later.” And then by the time you’re like, “I should really do this,” you don’t want to do it anymore. That last 5% you’re like, “Fuck it! I’m cool where I am, nevermind. Nevermind, I don’t want to do that anymore.”
Or you’ve gotten better and then now you’re like, “Well, do I redo this or,”-
Oh yeah, totally.
“Or do I just put it out knowing that I can do it way better now?” That’s just perfectionism.
Yeah, that’s probably what it is. I’m being a perfectionist about this EP.
Well, now that you’re in a punk band shouldn’t that kind of wear away a little bit? It’s cool to be not perfect.
Perfectionism. Yeah, I mean, you know, sometimes … I don’t know what is perfect. I think that’s where I’m struggling.
That’s really philosophical.
That’s yeah, it is a little philosophical.
It’s a great way to not do something is to say, “Ooh, what is perfect? “What should I use as a determining factor to determine whether I release this or not?”
Oh my God, this is like how I… Oh, man.
This is the beginning of a spiral. I can feel it.
It already is…
I can smell it.
You don’t understand, this is why, not why I’m getting out of grad school, but the last few papers that I’ve written have all been like, “Well, how are we defining this thing that we’re holding to this thing, that we’re saying is the standard,” and I mean, I need to stop doing that. My brain goes in that direction and it just goes into a bottomless pit of like, “I guess this paper will never be finished if I keep rambling,” and it’s like swimming through.
Oh man, this is a very fruitful interview for me. You’re right, you’re right. You’re totally right.
What’s your support system like? Do you have people who are like, “No, do that EP baby! It sounds so good! Put that music out like that cool thing you did. People will love it!”
People who are like that specifically, like, “Put out the EP.” Well, everyone that was on it is like, “What the fuck!”
Oh, there was more people?
There were more people on it, dude!
Oh, you recorded with a whole band?
Yes, there’s like… there’s… shit. The notation software came out and everything like… I was just-
Oh, you wrote the entire-
I fucking did it.
You orchestrated it, gave the people, they showed up to the studio-
They showed up to the studio and spent a whole day with me and I paid them. And I paid for studio time and all of the stuff. And all I have to do… there’s a lot of work to do. I have to recorded a couple of tracks, because some of it…
Because you’re better now?
Yeah, really. Bottom line, that’s the thing. If I put my bass playing on there, on the line, I just wouldn’t want to. So yeah, I would want to rerecord for me for sure.
That’s a pretty big deal and I don’t really care about the means by which I record. I would set up a single microphone in the middle of this room and put everyone around it and record like that.
You don’t care about the fidelity, you care about the musicianship?
Oh yeah, 100%. As long as everyone is heard. They just have to be heard.
I mean you could just record your bass parts back at the same place, right? Just get a couple of hours, record it over?
I mean, I just don’t want to.
Yeah? Well, that’s cool too.
I just want to do it all again.
You just want to completely pretend it never happened.
Yeah, kind of. Not that it never happened but…
So like is it jazz?
I mean, no.
Are you singing or…?
No, no. It’s pretty appropriative actually, but if you want to hear more about what I think about cultural appropriation you’ll have to read my thesis. Well, we all cultural appropriate all the time, constantly. Everything that we do. I couldn’t even count the number of times that I’d be culturally appropriating something just in the room that we’re in right now.
So this is what your thesis is about? Okay, this is going to sound really silly. When you say cultural appropriation you mean like sort of the theft version or like anytime someone kind of takes a cool thing from someone else’s culture and uses it?
That’s the thing isn’t it? What’s the difference that we’re giving those two things when we use one word?
See, well okay, I’ll tell you how I… and I’m obviously not an expert on the definition of cultural appropriation-
I’m not either.
When I hear it I usually think about like… Urban Outfitters making like ‘Navaho’ T-shirts and stuff.
Yeah, that’s cultural appropriation.
Yeah, or fake Buddhist stuff getting sold at tchotchke shops.
Also cultural appropriation.
I think it’s stuff that’s like… there’s sort of a loss to a community because their culture is being consumed but not… through them.
Right. That’s cultural appropriation.
But I think that there’s a lot of stuff that’s just like… cultural sharing.
If I make a friend and that person is from a certain culture, and then I spend a lot of time with them, and then we do something together, and then I do it myself and it’s cool.
Like what kind of thing?
Not like a religious thing, but making a food or…
That’s also cultural appropriation.
Do you think of that as a bad thing?
That’s interesting because when I hear appropriation, I think of it as a negative thing.
Well yeah, that’s exactly what my thesis is about. We’re using one single word to describe the morality of such a broad spectrum of actions. Culture is really… you can’t draw a line between cultures, really. Honestly. If you look at any culture, we’ve all been appropriating from each other to some degree since the beginning of our existence.
Is appropriating the right word to use for that though?
Yeah, I mean my thesis is trying to figure out what’s happening beyond cultural appropriation. It’s not trying to say that all of these actions are not culturally appropriative because they are. It’s just the word cultural appropriation is so vague I think. Because appropriating is just like taking something and using it.
Yeah, but even though “appropriation” means that, when people use the term I think they mean a little bit more with specific things.
Right, but what do they mean? So let’s use those words instead. They’re saying like, “Okay, the Redskins is cultural appropriation.”
I think the Redskins is worse. Redskins is just like straight up awful.
Yeah, I mean it’s violence. It’s violence, right? It’s violence, so let’s call it violence instead of just cultural appropriation. Because we’re also calling cultural appropriation like six-year-olds wearing kimonos at their tea parties and stuff. Like six-year-olds, we’re calling an action that is taken by a six-year-old, violence. Like wearing a kimono because they think it’s cool.
I see what you’re saying. Yeah, I see what you’re saying.
You know what I mean? That six-year-old doesn’t know what they’re doing, but these people that are creating the Redskins and like…
And making millions of dollars off of it.
And making so much money, right? That’s violence. That’s a big thing. There are all of these routes of power that we’re not separating from each other by just calling them all appropriation. Yeah, they’re all appropriation, but let’s like… you know, this is violence, this is ignorance, or it’s violence via ignorance, or it’s appreciation. How can we measure what’s being gained? Bruno Mars isn’t Black, he’s not. He doesn’t identify as Black and he’s making music that’s being voted number one all across the Soul Train Awards.
And are we okay with that? Who’s allowed to say whether, or not their people are okay with that? No single person can speak for their entire community, which makes things even more complicated. So given all of this, we’re just calling all of this, regardless of all of these ambiguities, just it’s all cultural appropriation and that’s where we’re stopping. Why? Let’s fucking get down to it.
Like abandon the term, redefine the term, come up with new terms for different ways that it manifests itself?
Different terms for new ways that it manifests itself. It’s not necessarily new ways though. It’s all been happening for forever, but I think we need to be more specific when we talk about cultural appropriation.
If we were just going to say like, “This is culturally appropriative, this is culturally appropriative,’ you would have to fucking stop doing everything that you’re doing. Who designs short-sleeved shirts? And clothes? And your haircut or the tools that were used to cut your hair, or make your food? Or where did you eat lunch today, where did you do this, and what are you wearing, what are you doing?
But I kind of feel like it would be a way better use of time instead of freaking out about a six-year-old to be talking about like, I don’t know, the real economic conditions and what we can do to be more equal and what we can do to not steal financially from each other, and what we can do to teach kids to respect other peoples’ heritages and stuff? Sometimes when people do call-outs… I feel they don’t go that final step.
Right, oh yeah. Absolutely.
What can we do to keep harm from happening? Maybe that doesn’t make sense.
Or like who’s being harmed and what are we calling harm? Do you have to know that you’re being harmed?
I don’t think that you have to know that you’re being harmed for something to be fucked up.
I think that the way that all the different types of oppression work is through miseducation and misdirection.
When you’re making musical choices, does this just get in your head all the time where you’re like, “Oh, I’m appropriating.”
Well, I think about it and I guess I know that I’m appropriating because I don’t really know what culture I am a part of. I know different cultures that I’m a part of. I’m mixed race, so I’m Black and I have no idea what kinds of influences I’ve gotten being a Black person and a white person. I play like Brazilian music, right? Caique would probably not say that I’m culturally appropriating by playing in this band. But I think I am and I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or not, because he wants me to be there. You know?
And it’s also because when I write music and everything that I’ve learned from playing Brazilian music I use everywhere.
Just like punk music or like studying James Jamerson or something. I use that everywhere I play, no matter what the genre. All of that influences me whether I know it or not. I have no idea what I’m using that is specific to where. You have some idea if it’s really specific, but you pick up a lot of stuff subconsciously and you recreate it, you use it subconsciously in the things that you do.
But that’s such an awesome thing.
Well, yeah. But I still think, where are we drawing the line in cultural appropriation? There’s so many legal court cases where all of this shit like copyright law. Where all of this shit is tracked and documented. Where are they drawing the line?
Like where do this riff come from?
Where do this riff come from? Like musical copyright cases, if you look at the evidence that’s presented it’s like, if you can apply the contour of this melody here then why wouldn’t you apply it in these other two songs? Or this bassline? What counts as a melody? All of the philosophical stuff is really put to the test.
Which I think is deeply silly. It’s so, so silly.
Well, that’s the problem, because with music there’s so much…
I mean, I know there’s a lot of money involved, but…
It’s all copying, all of it is copying. And musicians will say this, especially jazz musicians, you are taking something that you like and you’re recreating it with your own addition.
Yeah, and that’s how you’re supposed to do it.
You’re taught in school to do it a certain way.
Yeah, and not just in school but anywhere that you learn jazz or any improvisational music. It’s all copying and it’s pretty agreed upon. We’re told to transcribe and we do it and we learn by doing that and-
And you listen to other people who are better than you and you work on your art.
Use their shit and use them as inspiration.
I mean that’s the way everything works in the world. I work in a factory, the only reasons that… Each factory in the world is not its own thing. I mean trade law is trying to make it that way or trade secret’s trying to making it that way. It’ll be like, one place learns something, one has to do something better, or more efficiently, or cleaner, or higher quality. And other people figure it out. There’s a lot of academic conferences about it. And there are for music too. That’s the way that progress gets made. Is sharing information, and sharing skills, and sharing tools.
Absolutely, for sure. So how do we integrate that, the whole sharing aspect, and how important it is to share?
And how positive it is and mutually beneficial.
And how positive it is and usually mutually beneficial. Usually, if there’s really good intention behind an action, it usually has positive results. How do we integrate those ideas with these negative views of cultural appropriation in its entirety? How do we stop using appropriation to encompass this huge spectrum of results and intentions?
…so how is your thesis going?
Oh man, well, this is the most I’ve talked about it ever probably.
Yeah. I’m confusing myself more and more by the minute. I wrote a paper about cultural appropriation trying to define it at the end of last semester and it’s kind of like releasing the album. The further I get away from it the more imperfect it seems.
Yeah, I’m feeling that as we keep talking about it. We’re talking about it but it’s sort of like… and not in a bad way, but it’s kind of a silly thing to talk about.
It’s related to a way that we’re talking about things that kind of talk about material conditions.
Yeah, but that’s the problem with academia though, I think. Music academia in particular is what I can speak for. But with music academia and specifically writing about art, writing about any kind of art, you’re going to run into these problems constantly.
Because you’re writing about something that’s not physical. Well, it’s physical but it’s conceptual too. You’re writing about a concept.
You’re writing about a concept, you’re spending all of this time and energy talking about something that like … I mean not all the time. A lot of people are writing about really important things that are happening, but a lot of the time when you read academic prose about art it’s concerning all of these things that don’t really seem to matter very much.
Or they’re not real.
Or they’re not real or they’re really outdated.
Because it’s the exact thing you’re saying. We have this term that we throw around a lot that is just kind of bullshit or it’s way more complicated than we’re giving it credit for.
It’s way more complicated than we’re giving it credit for.
Obviously like, you know, an apple is more complicated than the word apple, but it’s still really running up short and it’s keeping us and distracting us from having the important conversations.
Yeah, for sure.
And so what do we do about that? I think it’s good to talk about, because I think in the way it affects your real life is you have a six-year-old getting harassed on the Internet. Or you have people who are doing total bullshit stuff and nothing’s happening because people don’t know how to talk about what they’re doing.
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And the really horrible shit, the really horrible levels of violence like intellectual violence and cyber violence that happens, isn’t being called out properly. It just sucks when you have an entire society turned into a mascot or turned into a Halloween costume. It’s really horrible and of course it has absolutely horrible…
Real world effects.
Real world, yeah. Exactly it is. It inspires a lot of really horrible shit, so I’m going to write about it I guess. I don’t know anymore now that we’ve had this conversation. [Riley laughs] I don’t know, change my thesis topic. Well, now I’m just thinking I’m getting all paranoid. I’m like, “Did one of my professors send this person to talk about this with me?” Like, who do you know?
No here’s the thing. I show up to peoples’ houses, I get out my microphone, I say hello to their cats or their partners or whoever. And then I’m like, “Tell me about the way that you recorded your last album. Tell me about that music video you made.”
And they’re just, “Life is a lie! Life is a lie!”
They’re like, “Let me just start telling you about how my dad was murdered.”
And then I’m just like, “I asked about your piano!” and they’re like, “Well, but you can’t start there.”
“You have to start here.”
I’m like, “Why do you like metal music?” “Well, after my mom abandoned us,” it goes so deep so quickly. And I don’t know if it’s because I’m mostly talking to people who are not used to microphones, because I think that when you get use to being in press stuff, you’ll learn how to sort of mentally wrap-up your thoughts in a cleaner way, or say things you’re not going to regret, or even just talk about stuff that doesn’t matter that much. But the people I’m talking to are a lot of the time no one has been like…
Really, because I have a ton of friends who like my music or know I write music but they’re never going to ask me my philosophy on like, “Well, isn’t punk music cultural appropriation?” And you’re never going to be like, “Well, what’s your philosophy on that?” It’s like calling out your friends… They’re like, “Oh, great show babe! Good job!” They’re never going to be like, “Oh, I noticed in the third stanza of your last record you mention your gender identity. Let’s talk about that.”
“Ugh! What? Oh, fuck!” Clutch the pearls!
But yeah, I just realized we’ve gotten on this long tangent on cultural appropriation, but the way that it started was I asked what kind of music your EP is.
So what kind of music is it? Besides full of cultural appropriation, as we have just determined is everywhere and completely unavoidable in music especially?
But what, just in layman’s terms?
Okay. Well, it’s inspired by a lot of the stuff that we play in Batuque. I don’t know specifically but I definitely know that Brazilian music was used as an inspiration. Otherwise-
Is it like dance music?
I mean sort of. It’s got a lot of the same… it’s not through-composed, so there’s improvisation happening. People are taking solos.
Through-composed means you didn’t write every note is what you’re saying?
I didn’t write every note but there’s a lot of writing. It’s definitely jazz-inspired. There are Afrobeat elements. It’s weird, I’m writing about cultural appropriation, but I have no idea what it’s inspired by.
You don’t always know where your influences area.
I mean, you know, I listen to like Fela Kuti and a lot of Pagoji and Samba music.
So is the bass sort of the spotlighted instrument?
No, no. Not at all.
So even in your own EP you’re in the background?
Oh, yeah. Totally.
In like the… I don’t know what band name… Did you come up with a band name or is it just The Sinclair Palmer EP? You are not the center of attention?
That’s incredible. That’s really interesting to me.
Yeah. Well, it’s still my EP because it’s still like I wrote all the shit.
You composed it.
Yeah, so I guess I was trying to showcase more my composition skills and my knowledge of harmony and stuff. So it was more of a theoretical album, yeah.
What’s the album art going to be like?
Oh man! Well, I was hoping it would be like a picture of me lying on like a pool floaty in a bathing suit wearing sunglasses. I really wanted it to be that.
I volunteer to be the photographer for that.
Sweet, I don’t know how you’re going to float above a pool, but-
Or diving boards.
Ohhhhhhhh, my God!
Just lay on a diving board and be really careful.
Well, just in transmusic.org exclusive, I’m going to be the photographer for the Sinclair Palmer EP.
Yeah. Yeah, if it ever comes out, I’ll call you.
If it ever comes out. Or maybe it will just get so in your head about the definition of cultural appropriation that you’ll just never make any art again.
Yeah, I’ll just die.
I mean you’ve got to pay rent, right? Look, we all have to pay rent. We all have to.
I’ll just be like I’m not… I’ll just live naked in the woods. Never wear clothes or cut my hair.
But then someone will be like, “Well, what are you doing there?” Someone will have a problem with it. We all have to pay rent, we all have to eat food. You still have your list of things you have to do every day.
Like take your meds, eat food, exercise. No matter what the academics have to say you have to do those things.
Yeah. This is very true. Well, maybe I’ll just write a thesis and hope that it gets approved and then they’ll just give me my master’s degree and I can go shove coffee in peoples’ faces someday and not ever think about any of this ever again.
Yeah, sounds good. Sounds good.
All right. Well, this podcast will be like a time capsule. We’ll delete it once you have your master’s.
It will just never be on the Internet again.
That’s not a promise.
I appropriated in this interview.
No, I appropriated this interview.
We both did.
We both did. This is a very violent conversation.
Yeah, I feel so icky right now. I feel so icky right now. It’s okay.
Let’s talk about something happy.
Let’s talk about how much the guitarist in my band has a crush on the guitarist in your band.
So Shante, I’m calling you out, you have the worlds’ biggest crush on the singer for The Muslims. I don’t know what that persons’ name is.
Yeah, Laila. Okay, so Shante’s in love.
Oh, my God.
So I had seen you all, I had come to your last album release, which also, can we talk about the fact that you had an album released like two months ago and you’re releasing one in the beginning of the year? But that’s a different question. That’s very fast and I’m very impressed, but yeah, Shante’s in love. Like what can we do to make like… you know.
Laila’s straight-up married. This sucks, I hate that I have to be the person to relay this information.
Because I had seen you all and I also have met you around, so I was just like, “Oh yeah, what an awesome band. I really like this. Oh, Shante, you’re going to like this band.” We go and we see you guys at Manifest and her eyes were the size of dinner plates. She’s like, “Riley, I’m in love.”
She’s not the first person.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s like… sex appeal is a 100% part of the reason, but everyone gets excited at your shows. Because you are all such beautiful people, you’re jumping around, you hug each other on stage, you’re just so freaking positive and you’re singing about really real shit. You’re singing about stuff that’s really important, so it’s obvious that you’re all leftists or at least somewhere around there. And you’re also super attractive and then you’re also good friends and you seem like you’re all a good time. And so I just think that, yeah I just think that unfortunately your audience is probably all in love with you.
And I don’t know if anyone’s told you this before, but that’s probably what’s happening. And I get that that’s how the entire music industry works. That’s how Justin Bieber works or whatever.
You’re like Justin Bieber for the radical queers. That’s what you all are unfortunately.
[Sinclair is dying of laughter]
I just really felt the need to bring that up, because I thought we were going to talk about The Muslims this whole time. I had no idea … I feel like I don’t know why, but you seem like the kind of person who would be like, “Don’t ask me about my thesis. Let’s just talk about cool stuff.” I don’t know.
Oh, man. I just try to live in all the things that I do.
There all great. So I thought we were going to talk about like, you know … But no, this has been great. I’m really excited that we had this conversation.
Well, nobody ever interviews me. It will be like The Muslims have an interview or like Caique has an interview and I’m just like, “Just give me a paycheck.” But you know, I just like to sit on my couch and practice all the time.
Well, I really liked interviewing you. Maybe after this people will interview you more.
I like raw food. When I was young growing up in Massachusetts, my parents took me to an oyster bar somewhere in Boston. I was probably about 7 years old. The time had come for my first New England culinary rite of passage: eating a raw oyster. I still remember looking at the slimey, gooey thing in the half-shell that had been put in front of me, trying to decide if I was going to be “brave” and eat it. I remember the fellas behind the oyster bar taking bets on whether I would do it. Only one of the guys thought I would. And I did. He won the bet and I discovered a whole new world of culinary delight. It was a pretty good day for both of us, I think. Later that year, my parents would unveil the world of sushi to me and for the following decade, my family and I would go for a big sushi dinner every year on my birthday, right up until I left for college anyway. It’s been more than a decade since then now, and a big sushi dinner on my birthday is still kind of a thing.
Following a bold 12-hour adventure to attend an album release show in Boston the night before my birthday this year, I returned to my Durham home at 9AM on the day of my birthday and slept for several hours. My daytime power nap left me feeling awfully hungry, as the last thing I had eaten was a sad breakfast sandwich from Dunkin at Logan Airport sometime around 4AM. I changed into my esteemed birthday attire and headed to Raleigh to one of my favorite restaurants in the Triangle: Ajisai.
Located in Cameron Village, Ajisai is an “Japanese Fusion” restaurant with a tremendous sushi bar. A consistently high-quality and often decadent dining experience, I began my wholly exquisite birthday meal with two of their infamous oyster shots. The $8 savory shot features a raw kumamoto oyster, a splash of house sake, a splash of ponzu sauce, a sprinkling of ikura (salmon roe), a sliver of uni (sea urchin), a dash of tobiko (flying fish roe), all topped with a raw quail egg and a bit of chopped scallion. The flavor combination is–as you might imagine–outrageous. Briney, certainly, with a touch of sweetness, and the subtle suggestion of sake, this shot is a layered and robust way to stimulate your taste buds at the start of a meal.
After the oyster shots, I mulled over the sake selection before finally settling on the 300ml bottle of Sho Chiku Bai Nigori, a cold, unfiltered sake, easy to drink, and definitely not overly sweet (I don’t like sweet drinks), and priced at $15 for the bottle. One of the most bang-for-buck options on the sake menu, this bottle has never disappointed me since I was first introduced to it last year by a certain local fashion artist many of you know and adore.
While enjoying the first few sips of the Nigori, I spent some time examining the specials board. Ajisai specializes in sashimi and their specials board often features very unique dishes, like their Aji (Japanese Horse Mackerel) Special. This dish makes use of the whole fish. The chef will sashimi the entire fish, then batter and fry the entire skeleton into an edible garnish. If like me you tend to be a bit daring in your culinary pursuits, then I highly recommend giving this dish a whirl. The Aji has been so popular in fact, that it is now a fixture on their regular menu.
For my next course, I elected to partake in their live scallop special. Like the Aji, this dish uses the whole fish, from the familiar meaty center to the fleshy outer scraps. The chef slices the scallop while it’s still attached to its shell, then in one smooth cutting gesture, removes it, and serves it as several pieces, each one separated by a sliver of lime. The outer scraps of the scallop are chopped and added a ponzu sauce sprinkled with tobiko and served on the side along with a little pile of fresh wasabi. In raw form, scallops have an even more buttery taste. Combined with the hint of lime and the ponzu-tobiko sauce, each bite is a balanced blend of savory and citrus. Easily one of my favorite dishes, the live scallop alone is reason enough to visit Ajisai for any sashimi lover.
Continuing on my daring trend, I ordered a piece of the California Uni (sea urchin) from the specials board. Uni is not exactly the prettiest looking fish. Mustard-colored and a little odorous, uni can sometimes be off-putting to a more reserved sushi patron. But if you can overcome its ugly duckling appearance, then you will discover the true taste and texture of lusciousness in the world of seafood. A soft texture, so much so that it quite literally melts on your tongue, uni is a smooth, savory-intense burst of flavor. Finding myself in a state of immediate withdrawal after eating the last bite, I ordered another one and eagerly partook as soon as the sparkly blue-lighted dish it was served on was placed in front of me.
The time had now come for the culminating moment of my oh-so-delightful birthday meal. I ordered a small selection of sashimi (baby yellowtail and mackerel), a single serving of ikura (salmon roe), and another oyster shot… because, you know, birthday. In a slightly unusual step for me, I also ordered one of their specialty rolls, the Tomo. In all these years of dining on raw things, I don’t often spring for the rolls, as I trend heavily toward the simplicity of just the fish. But, I had been drinking sake all evening and knew I would need something carby to carry me through the rest of the night. With great effort and determined to eat everything I had paid for, I finished everything I had ordered, even the sake.
Knowing that it was my birthday, the head chef shared a few shots of sake with me, seemingly delaying my departure on purpose. Then I realized why. From the kitchen emerged the woman who had taken care of me all night as I blissfully consumed my solo birthday dinner at the sushi bar. She was carrying a plate and I discerned a candle. Tempura-fried birthday cheesecake. They even sang to me, “Happy birthday sweetie!” After making a wish and blowing out the candle, I attempted to eat what was the first birthday cake I’d had since being a teenager. Stuffed to the gills already with what had been a perfectly timed, totally delicious, and (considering it was a birthday splurge dinner) very reasonably priced meal, I made my best effort to consume as much of the cake as possible. Afterwards, I gleefully moseyed back to my car and headed back to Durham for a late night end-of-birthday hang with a good friend and creative partner of mine. It was a quiet end to a whirlwind 36-hour birthday adventure, from the 12-hour trip to Boston, to the glamorous and delectable birthday dinner.
Even if you’re not celebrating anything, the experience of dining at Ajisai is well worth it. Whether you choose to partake in their amazing $12 lunch special (3 rolls for $12 + soup and salad), or if you decide to do the dinner thing, this restaurant will not disappoint.
Head over to our Instagram to see the full photo series from The Editor’s birthday dinner.
Asa Coaxum is a dancer and rapper who lives in Durham, North Carolina. I interviewed her recently and we talked about her new album, how she got her start in the local dance scene, and how Azaelia Banks introduced her to Santeria.
Riley: Hey, I’m Riley for transmusic.org and the Durham Beat, and today I’m here with Asa Coaxum, a local Durham dancer and artist. She just came out with her first EP, Transformations, which I really like. What genre would you call that?
Asa Coaxum: I’d pretty much just put it under alternative, just for the fact that it’s just all around. There’s some very progressive hip-hop tracks on there, like Izwe Lethu, and then there’s some dance tracks, like In the Rings, so alternative just becomes… I really don’t have a bubble yet for it, so I feel like we’re just gonna put it in that category.
Asa’s song Izwe Lethu from her first album, Transformation
Kinda like, a little bit experimental, witchy, dance-y hip-hop.
Yeah, ’cause a lot of it’s experimental, and a lot of the sounds are just experimental sounds that I was just in the studio with the producer Max, Maxville, and he was like, “What kinda sound you want?” And one day I was just like, “Yeah, I want dark, Njongo, mermaid music,” and then he was like, “I got you.” And then, yeah, it was just like, you know.
Where did most of those sounds come from? The sounds that were used in the beats?
The beats, Maxville, who’s a local producer who’s really bomb, actually. He did all the productions for it from scratch, and it was just a process of me being there and saying what kind of sound I wanted that day or how I was feeling that day, and then he would just go at it. And it would take him maybe 15, 30 minutes to make a beat. And then he’ll be like, “How ’bout this?” And I’ll say either yea or nay, and then from there, you know, then I’ll just add some lyrics to it.
Yeah, they’re very unique. And I think that they fit your sound really well; you can tell that they weren’t taken off some random beat website. They’re very cool.
Thank you! I’m gonna tell Max that. Max would appreciate that.
Asa’s In the Rings, produced by Maxville
So this is your first real musical project, but you’ve been an entertainer and dancer for a long time, right? How’d you get into that?
The music or the dancing?
The dancing. I guess entertainment in general.
Yeah, dancing started for me… high school. High school I started dancing and modern dance, and I went to school in Cary, actually, and by the end of high school, I had no training really besides that. But it took to my body so naturally, I was just like “oh shit.” And so by the end of high school, I’d decided I wanted to dance professionally, and so I made a deal with my mom, ’cause my mom originally wanted me to just go to college after school, or try to get into college. But she was like, “Hey, if you can find work within the first two months of school being out, then yeah, go for it. But if not, then you’re gonna have to try to get into school.” Luckily for me, I ended up finding, through my sister, a woman in Durham, actually. She owns a dance studio over by Northgate Mall, and gave me free training in any style that I wanted. And I joined her dance company, and that’s how I started dance professionally.
Wow. So you just became friends with her, and then she was like…
Yeah, my sister was working out of a hair salon in Durham at the time, and she ultimately… Ms. Penn at the time had came in, and they had been talking about Ms. Penn; she used to be an Alvin Ailey dancer. So I guess my sister and her started talking, and then she was like, “Yeah, my sibling, they dance,” this, that, and the other, and then she was just like, “Well, give them my number.” And then from there, she and I got into contact, and then I went to a studio.
Oh my god! So that’s like your family sticking up for you.
Yeah, my sister stuck up for me at that moment in time. It was real. And Ms. Penn actually also teaches at the school of the arts in Winston-Salem, so she was doing that, and also had the studio. So that’s how I started doing my first gigs, and I was doing, like… I did one in the Durham Nutcracker, and then at Lynchburg Dance Theatre, which is a cool dance theatre there.
So this is mostly ballet?
Yeah, so it was mostly modern, contemporary, when I was doing those stage shows like that. But then, I also was trained in hip-hop dance, but I always grew up just naturally being in hip-hop culture, you know, whatever. And I’m from New York, so I just grew up naturally freestyling and doing hip-hop. So I’ve been trained in hip-hop, contemporary, ballet. I’ve done some Bollywood and Capoeira. Some jazz, too; jazz was another one I was really into.
Do you still take lessons?
I haven’t taken a class or a workshop in a year or so, honestly. And there’s actually some dope dance workshop that happens in this area. My second dance mentor, Bernadine Fields, she teaches at Southern High School in Durham, but she also runs a dance workshop called NC Underground. Pretty much, they get choreographers from different areas locally, and from L.A. and stuff, to come out and teach dance workshops to where dancers can come in, and you pay maybe 15, 20 bucks, then you take all three classes from these choreographers. And you’re getting training, professional training, which is really cool, because there’s not a lot of places for adults to go to to get training like that.
Usually you have to start really young.
Bingo, right. So the fact that she has this space and created this space to do that has been awesome. So that’s gonna be one of those workshops that I actually go to soon, ’cause I’m like, I’m ready to get my… With me just doing shows of just backup dancing, and doing my own music, I haven’t made time to actually get back to my craft, and you know…
Grow as an artist?
Yeah, just keep freshening up the skills, because for a dancer, there’s always work that could be done.
So let me get this straight: You go to an arts high school, you’re 18, you’re like, “Mom, I don’t wanna go to college; I wanna be a dancer.” She’s like, “Alright, you have two months.” You managed to find an Alvin Ailey dancer who’s willing to give you free lessons, and then you just immediately hop into it, and you’ve been doing it professionally ever since. That’s a pretty amazing story. Like, we’re not in New York; we’re in Durham, North Carolina right now.
But for a while, I feel like it was kinda hard, actually. Especially as far as there being enough jobs for everybody, you know? Like, finding gigs, consistent gigs, that’s always a struggle, I feel like no matter where you are, is just finding consistent gigs. But the dance scene here is pretty good. Once you get into the network of the dance scene here, then things start to flow, and then you meet people who, you know, they do this or they do that, and they’re like, “Oh hey, you wanna be part of this or that?” So yeah, it was pretty good. But then I ended up teaching, too, ’cause I ended up stopping and doing more so teaching. I did maybe four years professionally, two or three years teaching, and then from there I was just doing other random stuff in between there, yeah. Just kind of finding my way.
That’s so cool. That just made me think of, you know, I’m a photographer, and I know that models here… There’s way more models than there are jobs. There just really are. I mean, dancing has a little bit of a higher barrier of entry, like usually people have put more years into it, so they I guess get filtered out a little bit more, but yeah. That’s what I hear from models, is there’s just a lot of…
Oh yeah. I feel like that’s always the case, because it’s just like… I feel like the arts in Durham is an area to where, when you’re doing it professionally, everyone’s going for the same jobs; there’s not enough of the jobs, so it’s like, it can be very cutthroat. And then it also just can be very daunting, too, ’cause you’re just like, “Okay, well, can I do this? Because I’m not booking.” And there’s only so many jobs, so.
Yeah. But if you network, then that’s also a way in right there. I feel like a lot of dancers, also nowadays, it’s always been who you know, but even more so now it’s who you know.
Yeah. And I feel like that’s true everywhere.
So then were you able to turn those dancing networks into music networks? ‘Cause you’ve been playing out a lot; I’ve noticed on your Instagram and stuff.
Oh, yeah. The music stuff, transitioning to that, all really started when I met Zensofly, pretty much. So I’m part of a drag house scenario, or performance arts house, called the House of Coxx, who does a lot of stuff in the area, Vivica C. Coxx being the mother of the house. And I remember there being one show that they were doing at The Bar in Durham, and Zen happened to be at that show, and I remember her coming up to me and being like, “Oh, I like your outfit. You’re really cute, what do you do?” You know, I was just like, “Oh yeah, I’m a dancer.” And then she was like, “Oh shit!” She was like, “Well I’m an artist,” and then we just started kiki-ing and talking, and then she was like, “Well I’m doing this music video; would you like to join it and dance in it?” And I didn’t know who Zen was at the time, to be honest, ’cause I was just like, “Oh, okay.”
Random person, walks into the bar…
Yeah, a random person. You know, I hadn’t heard her music yet, or anything like that, so I was just like, “Okay, cool, I’m down to collab.” ‘Cause I’m that type of person. I like collabing with different people, and just making stuff, so she asked me and I was like, “Yeah.” And then she asked me if I wanted a shot. And I was like, “Yeah,” so I’m thinking we’re going to the bar to take a shot, and she pulls out jello shots out of her pocket. So from then, we became friends and I did that music video, and from me doing the music video onward, I started backup dancing with her and doing shows, and from there, I ended up meeting her friend and producer Max, Maxville. And that’s pretty much how I got into it, because Max was like, “Yeah, you know, Asa seems cool. Do they do anything, like, do they do music stuff or anything?” ‘Cause I think they had saw me joking around, doing some little raps on Instagram, being cute, and then we ended up getting together, and that’s how it all started.
Zensofly’s “Getting Started” music video
So that one night at The Bar, you must have just been dancing your ass off!
You know what, the funny thing: I hadn’t even been dancing yet, to be honest.
Just a cute outfit? You got all that out of a cute outfit?
Yeah, I just had a cute outfit on, and I had been hanging around the house a few times. I was still kind of new to hanging around the House of Coxx and whatnot. I wasn’t part of the house yet, at the time, but I was friends with Mercury Waters and Stormy Day, and that’s… like, being around them, I would just go to the events, but I was still kinda new into the scene. So yeah, she found me that way.
So I remember, I went to a House of Coxx… it’s like a drag house in the traditional sense, kind of. Oh, and Vivica had said that you were the first person in the house who didn’t have to be a money person first.
Oh, yeah. Yeah, I’m the only person that didn’t do pit crew, really. I didn’t have to go through that. I remember doing it at one point, but I wasn’t ever really a pit crew person.
So if y’all haven’t seen a House of Coxx drag show, they have beautiful boys – mostly boys, I don’t know if they’re all boys – walk around in just their underwear around the crowd with big jugs for tips. And I think it’s very effective. I think it’s very effective. But at the beginning of each show, Vivica has to be like, “Alright y’all, let’s talk about consent. Do not touch these boys anywhere. Just give them money and leave.”
But you didn’t have to do that, you were just part of the family, it kinda sounds like.
Yeah, it was weird, because it was like, being friends with Mercury Waters, and that was the first person I ever met, part of the house, I was hanging around with Mercury, and then finally later into our relationship, Mercury introduced me to Stormy, and was like “Oh, you should come to one of the shows sometime.” And around this time too, I also had just realized I was trans, so I was just coming out, and I was really going through a lot, and I had lost a grandpa; it was just a lot. So they had took me in as family, and so I would be at the shows, and I would be to the side, and people would be like, “Are you a part of the house?” I’d be like, “No, I just know them. These are like, my family.” And so from there in time on, as I was hanging out with them, I was like, “Yeah, I really like being around these people, and they are accepting me.” And I was like, “Oh, how do I be a part of the house?” And then they were like, “Well, you gotta kinda work to get in the house.” So I ended up doing the drag shows, and that’s ultimately how I got into the house, is I did my first amateur drag show. I came in second place, and then I did it again, and then I won first place. And then after that, like a month or so afterwards, I was asked into the house. And they were just like, “Yeah, we wanted to hold out and see what was going on, but yeah.”
That’s awesome. That’s really cool. How do you feel about… I mean drag is such a deep tradition. How do you feel about your place within that sort of history?
I like it. I like it, especially being a trans nonbinary person in drag, because there’s so much transphobia within the drag community from cis drag queens who feel like, “Oh, you have to be this to do drag, and drag is only for this certain type of person.” All this other bullshit that’s just really transphobic, and I’m just like, “Yeah, that’s some bullshit.” So, being a part of a house who actually has diversity within it, people who are cis, and people who are trans and nonbinary and whatnot, I think that’s really important to see. Especially being a black trans person in the house. You know, it’s just all these different layers that I find really important at this moment in time to be a part of a drag house. Even though I’m not necessarily a drag performer, I’m still experimenting within the house, I’m kinda like the wild card, because I do dance and because I’m still new to drag and doing drag makeup and all that, so.
Mhm. So you’re kinda figuring it out, figuring out what your place is there.
Yeah, figuring it out. But it’s home, and I definitely feel welcome, and there’s definitely solidarity there to where I feel safe, which is important to me nowadays, too.
Yeah. So let’s talk about the witch thing, if you don’t mind.
Oh yeah, absolutely.
So right now, we are in Asa’s apartment that they share with their boyfriend. You might’ve heard the boyfriend walking around earlier, and I think peeing.
[Both laugh] I love it.
Asa’s song “Hex Game”
And there’s altars, and there’s black candles, and there’s crystals and plants. A lot of plants; there’s a plant in the shower. And then I’ve just noticed that in your music, like, you have your song Hex Game, which is so catchy I had it stuck in my head for five or six days, and then you also just got featured on a song called Santería. So can you talk a little bit more about your relationship with witch culture and how you feel about it?
Yeah, I’ve been into witchcraft since really young, but I grew up in a really, super Christian household, and that was definitely a non-existent thing. Like, I wasn’t even allowed to read Harry Potter back in the day; my mom threatened to burn the books. But it wasn’t until after high school I ended up really just being like, “Okay, I’m gonna do what I want.” So considering I was into it, I just did my own kinda research into witchcraft, and pagan spirituality, all that sort of things. Wicca – wicca was one of those things when I was in high school where everyone was interested in. It was like “Oh yeah,” like if you were into witchcraft the majority of the time, people were like, “Oh, I’m Wiccan.”
I knew the Wiccan kids.
Yeah, you know the Wiccan kids! So you know, I was into Wicca for a little bit, and I end up meeting this woman who identified as a fag hag. She was from San Francisco, old 50-year-old woman who grew up Catholic and then became a witch later, and she kinda took me under her wing and was just like, “Oh, hey!” She also kinda clocked that I was queer. So she was like, “Oh, I got you, honey.”
So she got me into Wicca, and then I got into Druidism, ’cause her husband was a Druid. And then from there doing it, I was just like, “Mm, these things are, like…” Around this time, I became more conscious, also, just about colonialism and things like that. So I was like, “These things are just hella white for me.” And I felt like, I was just like, “I don’t feel like I can do things with this, but it doesn’t feel home. Homey.” So I started looking into African spirituality a little bit, and ultimately I end up running into this guy, or end up talking to this guy who was a makeup artist – a white guy, actually, too – and he was into Voodoo. Which is odd, right? When you think, considering the history of Voodoo, this white guy doing Voodoo. So he and I were talking one time, and he was like, “Yeah, I’m into Voodoo.” And my understanding, just because I just grew up in a Christian household, and even within pagan culture, African spirituality is kinda demonized. Especially things like Voodoo, Santería, and things like that.
I didn’t know that.
Yeah, very demonized, ’cause it’s black magic. Which, you know, people assume is all about destruction and all that, which, nothing really to do with that.
You would think that there’d be solidarity between the kind of witchy traditions.
Racism even reaches that area. So yeah, he ended up talking to me, and I was like, my knowledge, “Uh, that’s black magic,” and he was like, “No, actually that comes from the African slaves.” So the fact that this white person is now educating me about my own history is kinda annoying, but he ended up introducing me to the loa, who are the spirit of Haitian Voodoo, who are kinda like guardian angels, if you will. And so from there, I got into Voodoo. And around this time also, I was really into Azealia Banks, who’s a bomb artist too. And I followed her on Twitter, and she and I would talk on Twitter a lot. So she ended up introducing me to Santería, which is also coming from west Africa Yoruba tradition.
Pause. Pause. Azealia Banks introduced you to Santería.
Yeah. Just casually, though. Through Twitter, because in the Twittersphere, you know, celebrities talk to their fans, and I was a big-ass fan, too. I was always on her timeline and stuff, and she would talk to her fans really casually, which I really respect. I know she gets a bad rap from people, but actually she’s a really bomb and intelligent person who’s kind of misunderstood and demonized, I feel like. But yeah, she told me about it, and we would exchange information, ’cause I was really into loa and Voodoo and I hadn’t really known about Santería, even though it’s coming from the same areas of Africa. And so she introduced me to the Orishas, who are a different type of spirit in Santería, or Ocha, who are like African spirits, or guardian angels. Guardians of your conscious, which I think Orisha actually translates to guardians of your conscious. But yeah, I started getting into that, Hoodoo, like, all things related to African spirituality from there on out, I just kinda dove into. And that’s how I got into it, and try to reconnect with my ancestors, because I feel like growing up as a young black Christian person and not really knowing the history of where I came from besides slavery, ultimately, I found myself searching to be like, “Okay, I know there’s more to the story than just slavery.” And as I became more conscious and became more radical about my way of thinking and decolonizing myself, the more I was like, “Okay, actually, this history is there.” It’s just like, people have either thrown dirt on it, or there’s misinformation out there, but I ended up finding information for myself, and now I am where I am today. I pray to my ancestors a lot – not recently, which, my altar is not here. So actually, the altar that you see is actually my boyfriend’s. My altar is back at my mom’s place, and my altar actually has my ancestors on them, ’cause my witchcraft mostly has to do with ancestry worship, and dealing with my ancestors, and more so Hoodoo-ish, and working with the Orisha, so it’s kinda like it can be mixed into each other. So that’s what I mostly do, and I tend to my ancestors and make offerings to my ancestors, and make petitions for them to do work for me, or help me through things.
Does that feel more right and more homey to you?
Oh yeah, so much homey. Just because when you connect with your ancestors, when you have that tie there, you sort of feel like you have some backing. Like, you have the backup to do whatever. And you know, when it comes to African spiritualities, the ancestors are like… For any black person or African person who practices Santería, Voodoo, Hoodoo, or anything coming from there, they’ll tell you too, probably, that just the overall feeling of being filled with your ancestors or being in the presence of them is just such a strong feeling, and they’re so powerful.
So what’s next for you musically?
Well, I’m working on a track now called Sirens, that I’m gonna be… actually, it’s almost done. I actually just have to lay vocals on it and maybe extend it a little bit with the time on the track, but I’m working with that with Max also. That should be out soon. He’s been really busy doing projects with other people and stuff like that, and also doing his shows, and the scheduling’s just been off, but I’m gonna be in the studio soon, finishing it out. And then also, I am going to be collaborating with Sand Pact, which is… I opened up for Sand Pact for one of their shows recently, and they’re just really cool in general, but we’ve been in talks about just collabing and having fun. They’re so chill; they’re just like, “Yeah, we love you, whatever, let’s make time.” So that, I’m really excited about that, ’cause I’ve been wanting to work with them for a long time.
I was the first person to buy their latest tape; I was real proud of myself. Also Kaanchee from Sand Pact taught me how to run the NC State radio station!
Oh, listen. Kaanchee, like… they don’t fuck around. They’re gorgeous, strong, I’m about it. Alex is bomb also, just chill, in the cut.
Well I’m excited to hear it!
Yeah, I am too, ’cause I really am. I’m a big fan of theirs. Also, I just feel like the energy that we both have would just be monumental on that track.
I can see it. Alright, well thanks for talking to me.
It’s 2AM and I’m at Logan Airport in Boston. My flight leaves at 6AM and my 12-hour journey to visit my hometown will come to its end. Today is my birthday. I’m 31 years old. I can think of no better way to kick off this personal holiday of mine than by writing in an airport after the show I flew all the way up here to see. In a few hours, I will watch the sunrise from my window seat on my way back to my Durham home. This journey was my gift to myself for my little holiday. The show was the Maker Mixtape Album Release at Dorchester Art Project. The album is the creation of one of Boston’s brightest rising local stars, my friend Anjimile.
I first met Anjimile in 2013 at a show (big surprise)–a local showcase at the Middle East Upstairs, a long-alive and much-esteemed Cambridge venue. I had gone to the show in my capacity as Managing Editor at Quiet Lunch Magazine to support a band I had recently written about–We Avalanche, they were called. After their set, a young singer-songwriter named Anjimile took the stage with a drummer and bassist, and started playing guitar and singing. I remember the moment well because when I heard their voice, I was instantly floored, frozen in place, suspended in a timeless bubble of awe and delight. What a magnificent voice, I thought. After their set, I found them in the crowd and said, “I need to write about you.” From that moment on, Anjimile and I became friends and collaborators. More than that, they would unknowingly come to influence me and my own artistic path. The years that followed were tumultuous for both of us, but we continued working together right up until the moment when I left Boston.
Sitting in this airport right now, I inevitably ruminate on the complicated relationship I have with my choice to leave Boston. The truth is, I was displaced by economics. I was forced out of my home because I could no longer survive there. My city had changed. It had stopped being my city. It belongs now to the people who had come to replace me. Still–being here now, on this night, I can’t help but feel like a piece of the Boston I knew and loved still lives.
I had never been to or heard of Dorchester Art Project before this show. Following a bizarre and convoluted Uber ride from my beloved Mary Chung’s restaurant in Cambridge, using a service called “pool” (a terrible mistake on my part), I arrived at a street corner in Dorchester, unsure of where I was supposed to go. My dear friend, who had joined me from her cozy Watertown abode for the show, pointed to a green door recessed between two store fronts. Ah yes. A hidden door. Of course this show would be behind a hidden door. We opened the door and climbed a mountain of stairs to arrive at a labyrinthine art space, complete with a small stage, an art gallery, more than a dozen tiny shared artist studios, and the offices of Boston Hassle, a local arts & culture publication and collective.
Desperate to charge my phone, I navigated through the maze of hanging artworks and zine libraries until I found my way into the delightfully modest Boston Hassle office. Their publication had only just started getting off the ground when I left Boston, so to be sitting in their office, stashing my bag, charging my phone, mingling with a few of their youngins, and learning how they were thriving, this journalist right here was feeling both happy and sad. The mingling didn’t linger as my friend and I made our way into the venue space, whose hallways were loudly reminiscent of The Cave. The stage area, enclosed by exposed brick walls and host to more than a few awkwardly steep steps, was filled completely with a diverse collection of Boston’s current crop of young artists and their cohorts. A young singer-songwriter took the stage and eased into his set. An inexperienced guitar player with a powerful voice reminiscent of Thom Yorke, the crowd enthusiastically cheered him as he played and took swigs from a nip of Maker’s Mark between songs. While he seemed a bit nervous at the beginning of the set, by the end of it, he stepped off the stage with an air of confidence.
I found myself wandering through the art gallery for awhile, admiring the “Priority Made” exhibit on display. A collection of 228 pieces of graffiti art on free postal stickers and a few non-sticker city art-style works by artists from all over the country, the exhibit explores “the sticker as a catalyst and universal canvas,” according to their literature. It was during this session of admiration that a door behind me burst open and through it Anjimile appeared. We locked eyes and they walked over to me and we embraced each other as old friends. We spent a few precious minutes catching up while I bestowed upon them the gift of owlephant buttons and egg rolls from Mary Chung’s. Shortly thereafter, they would take the stage for the Maker Mixtape Album Release.
A 5-track EP recorded “analog, using a Fostec R8 reel-to-reel tape machine (circa 1990),” as Anji explained to me, is one of the strongest albums they have yet released, which in itself is a bold statement, since much of Anjimile’s discography so far is quite splendid. This record represents a certain kind of growth in Anjimile’s sound. An exploration of angst, complicated relationships, and self-exploration, Maker Mixtape ranges from eerie, ethereal acoustic, like the album’s namesake track, to pure pop, like the hit single “Sonia Smokes Me Out”.
The set opened with the second track from Maker Mixtape, “Pieces”, a wavy pop song that instantly invited the crowd into a deeply intimate and eclectic set. Interspersed between a selection of tracks from the EP, Anjimile and their two lovely accompanying vocalists, played a few favorites from their recent discography, including “To Meet You There” and “1978”. Then came a cover, a tremendous cover, of “Cry Me A River”. I have seen Anjimile play more than few covers over the years, but they really shined on this one. A few audience members, myself included, sang along, joining in the harmonious sound emanating from the stage. When Anjimile announced that they only had one more song, the crowd in emotional unison burst out, “AWWWWW,” which then made all of us giggle a little. After the set, the crowd, ebullient and desperate for more, made so much noise that Anji finally said, “Fuck it, I’ll play another song.” While a few in the crowd yelled for “Sonia Smokes Me Out,” Anjimile elected to play something else. Something quite unexpected, in fact. It was “Wolf Like Me” by TV On The Radio, a song which, coincidentally, I have been blasting into my own ears over these last few months as I have been navigating my own personal angst. Once again that feeling came over me, being suspended in a timeless bubble of awe and delight… I thought of our first meeting and how young we were then, how far we’ve come since, and how through all of it, we have each become more and more ourselves, finely-tuned humans living in a state of honed self-awareness.
By the end of the show, the clock had struck midnight and my birthday had arrived. After my dear old friend and I parted ways and she returned to her Watertown apartment, I found Anjimile outside the venue for those last moments of affectionate congratulations before I hopped in an Uber and headed to Logan Airport, where I am now composing this piece. I told Anji that I would probably be writing in the airport while I wait. “How romantic,” they said. I smiled and said, “Someone’s got to be.” “And that’s you,” they responded. Yes, how very true that turned out to be.
I close my eyes. The sun beams warm rays in diagonal lines across my face as I reach my arm out the open car window and press my hand against the breeze. I turn up ZenSoFly’s Sunflowers and nod my head along with the beat.
In reality, it’s winter and as I write this, snow coats the railroad tracks outside my apartment window. Only through Sunflowers have I been transported back to this warm little slice of summer.
If you read my inaugural piece for Durham Beat you may know that rap and hip-hop are, admittedly, my least explored genres. I like a good Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, or Post Malone radio bop just as much as the next millennial, but it’s rare that I would dive into this genre on my own.
As with all things of course, there are exceptions. There’s Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar, and Childish Gambino and Khalid, and as nerdy as it is, the soundtrack to Hamilton — all in my regularly scheduled Monday-Friday desk rotation. And now, there’s ZenSoFly.
I was introduced to Durham-based artist ZenSoFly at Pinhook’s 10th birthday celebration back in November. In the weeks following the show, I had her Sunflowers EP blasting through my headphones at work as I bopped my head along to the beat and blasted through emails.
Sunflowers is the perfect soundtrack to get.shit.done, but to limit my review to that one purpose would be an injustice to the many layers of this EP. Much like its namesake, Sunflowers is bright and intricate, a beautiful display of ZenSoFly’s talents. This artist can rap, sing, write, and from what I saw, she can put on one hell of a performance.
Depending on where you listen to it, you may have a different experience with Sunflowers. The SoundCloud version starts with “Drip”. However, on Spotify, it starts with “Life at a Funeral.” For the purpose of this review I’ll explore the Spotify version, as ZenSoFly’s team has confirmed that it the Spotify track order is the intended order.
On Spotify, Sunflowers begins with the chimes of an organ, indicating the start of “Life at a Funeral, a track that offers a great beat, but is honestly a bit of a sleeper compared to its successors.
ZenSoFly finds her groove on the second track, “Getting Started.” My second favorite on the EP, this track shows off Zen’s ability to write a catchy hit that will stick in your head for days. As she repeats the lyrics “and I’m just getting started” I can’t help but feel that this song is prophetic in a way. But it’s the soft instrumental ending of this track that makes me feel a certain kind of way I can’t quite articulate…
Immediately following the “Waves Interlude”, Zen offers what may be the catchiest song of the EP, “Drip”. The verses of this track give her the opportunity to show off her rapping ability on top of the appropriate background sounds of dripping. And then there’s the chorus, which I’ve found myself humming and singing over and over again. Drip drip drop, drip drip drip drop. It’s incredibly satisfying.
For the last two tracks “Culprit” and “Something Special”, Zen slows it down a bit. “Culprit” has a nice beat and some quick lyrics, but it’s the breakdown that queues up the final track in the last minute that’s the real show-stealer.
Sunflowers ends with my personal favorite, “Something Special”. The track opens with an unexpected guitar riff reminiscent of 80s stadium rock, followed by an intro verse that’s repeated throughout the chorus of the track. But it’s the lyrics of the first true verse, and the sweet, sultry way in which she delivers them that really capture me on this track. “You got that ice cream that sweet tea that chicken with the corn on the cob \\ you got that visine that make me see so clear when I’m in the dark.” The imagery she uses here is what places me right in the middle of the scene I described at the opening of this piece. When a song can transport you to another place, then it is truly something special.
When it comes to albums, especially in genres I don’t listen to often, I have to listen to them several times to really form an opinion. I often have an initial listen, sit on it for a day or so then come back for a second and maybe even third listen before I can truly say whether I like it.
After several weeks of listening to Sunflowers, I think it’s safe to say that I enjoy this EP. I’d even go as far as to say I can add ZenSoFly to the regular rotation of hip-hop artists I’d list as favorites. But in all honesty, it’s not fair to box her into one, or even two, genres. Sunflowers spans hip-hop, dance, pop, and even briefly dips into a bit of rock. Personally, I can’t wait to see where ZenSoFly ventures to next.
If you’ve been to any of the area’s queer venues, or a local punk show with more than two women in it, or any Girls Rock NC event in the last three years, you’ve probably come across Kae Diaz. Kae is a singer, a drummer, a ukulele player, a bartender, a photographer, and in general a pillar of the local queer DIY scene. They play the electric ukulele and drums in an indie rock project called Fruit Snack, and as it happens, we are actually currently both in a punk country band called Severed Fingers. I recently went to visit Kae in their beautiful old house in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. We talked about finding collaborators, what the music scene is like in the Mojave desert where they grew up, and the challenges of creating a space for the art you want to see.
Just a warning, we do mention alcohol and some other, mostly fun, adult topics.
Kae Diaz: Well, when I was really young, I always loved to sing. I’ve always been just singing, singing, singing, and my mom, when I was little, was like… so a little context is we grew up really poor, so the big American dream of becoming a famous singer and making a lot of money was a thing that my mom always put on me. But for me, I just loved to sing. So my mom was always like, “You need to go on American Idol! You gotta be famous and make us money, and blah blah blah,” and being younger, I was like, “Yeah, totally! I wanna do that! I wanna be on American Idol.” But later on, I’m like, no. So getting older, like in high school, I was like, “Okay, I’m ready. I wanna be in a band.” You know, band things were happening around me; boys were being in bands; I wanted to be in a band. And nobody would let me in their band. They were basically like, “Oh, you probably listen to Britney Spears. You’re not gonna be in our cool dude band.” [Riley laughs] Yeah, that was the boys club that I couldn’t get into, so I started playing the ukulele, just so I could play for my own self then, and try to write my own songs.
That sucks! That’s so mean.
Yeah. Actually, this person that I grew up with, my mom went to high school with his mom, he started playing music around the same time I did, and I was really excited. I was like, “Oh, we’re friends. Maybe we can start a band together; we grew up together.” And my mom saw him at Walmart and tried to put that idea out to him, and he was like, “Well, what kind of bands does that person listen to?” And my mom said all these bands that I would not have said to him, you know? Just things that were, like, girl pop bands and stuff like that. And he was like, “Oh, well I don’t know. We’re trying to play some different stuff than that…” And I was just like, “Ugh.” So yeah, it was very…
Oh, I hate that!
Yeah, right? I know. “I hate that guy!” [Both laugh]
Yeah, when I was 14, the guy who shared my bus stop with me in the mornings had four-foot-long hair and was in a Scottish folk metal band, and they needed a singer. And I kept dropping hints that I wanted to be the singer for this metal band, and he just was not interested in little dorky 14-year-old me being in his band. Which… joke’s on him, that would’ve been great.
Yeah, joke’s on him! Now you’re in two bands and badass. That’s how I feel about it. I’m like, “Pfft.” I’ve posted about my shows, ’cause we’re friends on Facebook, me and that guy. And he’s a DJ in L.A. now, and he reached a douche level that I didn’t even know was possible, basically. So I got to do what I want, and that guy’s doing what he wants, whatever.
Yeah. When you first moved to Raleigh, how did you feel about the music scene? ‘Cause I felt like it was very hard to find friends and break into.
Well, when I first first moved here, I didn’t know a lot about it, but once I got into Girls Rock, I feel like my knowledge of the people in the scene, and the venues, and the bands, and who was doing what just exploded. ‘Cause you know, everybody who does Girls Rock in some way is connected to that. So for me, it was this moment of “Whoa.” All these people who are like me are doing these things. And helping each other, booking each other for shows, sharing practice spaces, sharing instruments. I found Girls Rock, and the foundation of it was teaching young people to do these things, but at the same time it was people cultivating community to have that in a broader aspect around the area. So I didn’t feel like it was hard, but that’s because I had found Girls Rock, definitely.
If you had time and could just start any new band, what would it be like?
I would love to be just a frontperson. Just a singer with a microphone, dancing around like Beth Ditto, crazy – sorry, not crazy – wild movement, and dancing, and jumping off of speakers, and screaming, and… Yeah, that’s a dream of mine, definitely.
So Fruit Snack just needs a ukulele-slash-drum player?
Yeah! Well I’m trying to start a solo project right now, which right now includes me playing the ukulele. Because still, I don’t know how to start a band without that. I feel like if I’m gonna write the songs that I wanna write, I need to start there. But I’m trying to be in as many bands as possible, to be honest. I just wanna play music all the time.
It seems like you kinda do play music all the time. And when you don’t play music, you’re working at venues.
Yeah, doing music stuff.
You work at what, four different venues? Three different venues?
Yeah, I work at three: Ruby Deluxe, Wicked Witch Raleigh, and then the Night Rider. And they all do shows now. And then I bartend and book, but mostly bartend right now. But then on Mondays, when I bartend, I also host an open mic, so.
And you used to work at the Ritz. For those who don’t live here, these are all very hip, vaguely queer music venues/bars, and Kae is always behind the bar, looking cute, serving up beers.
I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m serving beer.
What do you think about the fact that all these queer spaces are so alcohol-focused?
It’s hard to think about sometimes, especially being a person who grew up around… I mean, growing up, underage drinking was a main focus for me, so sometimes I have to reel it back and be like, “Okay, do I need to be drinking right now? Do any of these people need to be drinking right now?” And I do think a lot about “God, how can we make spaces that are not focused on drinking or centered around drinking, or have events in those spaces that don’t have to be centered around drinking, you know?” But it sucks to think about, well, that’s how the doors stay open, you know? People buying drinks is how I pay my rent. So it’s not my favorite thing, but also it is a thing. If that makes sense, you know? I don’t feel the best about it, but I also feel like I’m in it.
Yeah, it’s what enables all that stuff to happen. And it sucks because there have been queer bookstores, or there’s the anarchist bookstore in Chapel Hill that closed, and there have been other spaces, but they haven’t lasted. So maybe we need another one.
I know, right? There’s whispers all the time of, “Oh, we’re gonna find a warehouse, a space…” The reason that I got this house was to try and create a space like that, but getting the right people in this space to do that has been the issue, you know?
Yeah, keeping rented, shared house roommates constant is an impossibility.
Yeah, and also roommates who are down for people being here all the time, or down for people using the space to play music loudly when the walls are so thin, you know? It’s… It’s hard.
I didn’t know that that’s what this house was intended for.
Yeah, I found it on Craigslist and I was like, “Yo, this is the space of our dreams.” It’s huge and there’s room to have just a music room, and there’s room to have an art studio. We could have events, we could have open mics, we could have shows. The sky’s the limit. And I’ve been trying to build it up that way, getting materials; I’ve got tables and chairs, and I bought the lights for outside, and the campfire, and all these things. But it’s also like, I’m just one person. That’s the dream, still, for me. And sometimes I feel like maybe it was a selfish thing that I thought everybody was on board in the same way I was moving in, and that’s why it’s been such a rocky road to get there. Because where I was like, “Hey, I have all these big ideas, what do y’all think?” And everybody else just saw this space and was like, “Yeah, it’s great, yeah.”
“Yeah, I wanna live in this cool house!” I could see moving in with someone and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I love music and I was thinking maybe we could have events here sometime,” and you move in and then you’re like, “Oh, you mean literally.” Like, “Oh, you mean literally have random people at my house all the time.” And how you might sign up for it by accident.
Yeah. And I think it’s also a thing where since I said it, everyone expected me to lead in that. And setting up all the things, and creating this space in that way, and planning these… It’s too much for me, so I get in this cycle of, Okay, well let me set this up, and do this thing, and try to make this work for this kind of event. And then fall behind with, okay, it happened, now I’m cleaning or fixing a thing, or planning another event, or promoting it…
You can’t do stuff like that with one person.
Yeah, it’s hard.
I was actually Skyping an old acquaintance of mine who started a tenants’ union in Vancouver, ’cause I’m working on all this stuff, and I wanted some advice on “How do you organize people? How do you make people do things?” And he had some really great advice, but one of the things he said was “You need five people. Get your core group; you need a core group of people.” Because one person can’t do everything. And one person isn’t gonna be good at everything. And he said for whatever reason, in all the organizing he’s done, it always ended up being four or five people who all were equally invested in it. And until you have that, things are gonna keep faltering; you’re gonna burn yourself out. Take it from the tenant union guy. Shout out to Vince!
Yep. Thanks Vince, solid advice.
He also said you need a book club. Which, I don’t know how I feel about that. But he said it was huge, that him and his five buddies all read books about organizing together. About movements and stuff. And then they talk about it and they all get hyped and educated.
I love that.
When you talk about organizing a space, or running events, what’s your organizational philosophy? How do you balance running events and not… having so much clout that you like, squash people in the DIY scene?
What do you mean by that?
I dunno, I think that something that I come up against sometimes is I’ll organize… even just parties. I’ll just have parties where I’m the person everyone knows, or my house is the venue in which things happen. I’ll find myself wanting to make communal decisions, but everyone is kinda like, “Well, it’s kinda Riley’s thing.” But I want everyone to have a say, and have an input, and feel empowered. And I feel kinda challenged by that. I don’t really know how to do that. I was wondering if you had a strategy.
I don’t know, I feel like I just do that by the seat of my pants, you know? [Both laugh] I feel like one of my strong things is listening to people, so when people tell me things like, “Oh, I would love to do that,” I’m like, “Well, you absolutely can! Let me tell you all the ways you can.” Just trying to help people do the things they wanna do. If somebody mentions that they are looking for a place to play music because they haven’t in a long time, I’m like, enters Facebook comment immediately: “You can practice at my house. What do you need? Lemme help you figure out a way.” Or if somebody’s like, “God, I would love to see this kind of event in the world,” I’m like, “Well, this space, and this space, and this space will let you do that. Do you have someone who’d make a flyer for you? What do you need to get that done? I can help you figure that out.”
You’re like a fairy godparent, but for DIY music, or art.
You know, there are certain people in my life who did that for me, and I feel like if I had never seen the things I have seen, or learned or saw or heard the things that those people showed me, that I wouldn’t be so confident in doing what I’m doing now. So I feel like if I’m not paying that back to others, or paying it forward to my community, then I’m just being selfish, you know? That’s just not gonna benefit anybody in a way that is good.
That’s so positive. That’s so positive! I love that.
I’m just so thankful, like I said, not having the chance to squeeze into places where I saw myself fitting growing up, that other people were like, “No, you’re a weirdo,” you know? I felt isolated, and getting out of that, and now seeing so many spaces where I could fit in, and fitting into so many different spaces, I can see people who feel like they don’t have a space, and I’m just like, “No, let me show you how to get to it.” Because it’s so important! It’s so important to have that.
You’re who I was missing when I moved to Raleigh. When I was like, “I wanna play shows, but I can’t make any friends for no reason!” It took me three years to find music people, ’cause it’s hard to know where to look. It’s a big place.
When I first got here I posted an ad on Craigslist to see if anybody wanted to play music.
Yeah, it was not fruitful. I made one really good friend. Yeah, Girls Rock was the big catalyst for me. If I didn’t find that, it would’ve been very different, I think.
I had to make an OkCupid to make friends.
No, for real. I made an OkCupid and I was like, “Hey guys, umm, I have a girlfriend in Canada. I know that sounds fake, but I do. Umm, does anyone wanna do photography with me?” And that’s how I made my first friend in Raleigh, but I had been here six months and I didn’t have any friends. And you know me! I’m charming as fuck.
Yeah, you are. That’s hard for me to believe that it took you that long.
So, speaking of confidence… and tell me if you’re not comfortable talking about this, but some of your Fruit Snack songs… I would have a hard time singing in public. I love them! They’re in my head all the time. But you talk about some adult topics, like, you know, sex. And BDSM. And I don’t think polyamory’s an adult topic, but I think some of the ways you talk about it are on the adult side. And then you have a song called “Puppies 911” about how much you love puppies. Where do you get the confidence to do that, and is there part of you that worries, I don’t know if you have a grandma, but that your grandma’s gonna hear it?
Oh yeah, my grandma. Just the other day, I was like, “Yeah, my band’s recording some songs,” and she was like, “Are you gonna put them on a CD so we can listen to them, and share them with your uncles, and your mom, and your stepdad?” I was like, “Uhh, I mean, I want you to hear it, but…” [Both laugh] Yeah. She can’t even use her flip phone, so I don’t think she’d ever… She doesn’t have internet either.
Oh, gosh! And does she live where you grew up?
You grew up in a pretty rural area, right?
Yeah, in the Mojave Desert.
In the Mojave Desert. Do you miss it?
No. I mean, I do miss the desert, in some sense, but I don’t miss the culture that was there. It’s poverty, and drugs, and violence, and sad, you know?
And no one wants to be in a band with you.
And no one wants to be in a band with me. Nobody even does shows anymore, it’s a very quiet town now. Which is a bummer. I don’t know where the confidence comes from to sing those songs, it’s just kinda like, that’s what I wanna talk about. Lyrics are a big thing for me, always. The lyrics being powerful in some way, even if the power is just saying a thing that maybe someone else wouldn’t wanna say in front of an audience.
Yeah! I think the best part about your songs is that even if they’re about slapping people in bed, they’re so catchy. They’re the catchiest like, pop songs.
Well, thanks for talking with me.
Oh my god, yes. Thanks for having me, I had so much fun!
Miira Cide is a death metal musician and producer originally from Wendell, North Carolina. If you’re wondering what the death metal scene is like in Wendell, North Carolina, it’s apparently so terrible that she had to teach herself every instrument in order to get a project going. Since 2012, she has released 19 albums and singles under her solo moniker Codex Obscura, screaming over tracks she produces all on her own.
Luckily, she moved to Raleigh last year and has been able to join other local metal projects like Birth the Wretched and Slipcast. Back in August, I visited her home in Raleigh to talk about her bands, her growth as an artist, and where all the anger comes from.
This profile is a collaboration with the Trans Music Podcast. Stream the interview below:
Riley: So what gave you the idea to make a solo death metal project?
Miira: [Laughs] Well, it’s…
Riley: It’s a little weird.
Miira: It started out as… I guess you would call it noise. It was sort of super hard grind. It didn’t have much structure to it, and it was just a lot of screaming and not really saying anything. Around 2008, 2009, I was living in an abusive household, and… all I really wanted to do was make music. I didn’t go to public school yet; I had not gone to public school up until high school. I was all homeschooled, so I didn’t know anybody. I moved to Louisburg from Wendell, which is where I grew up.
Riley: Louisburg, North Carolina?
Miira: Mm-hmm. So I didn’t know anybody there, I didn’t go to school, I didn’t have any friends, nothing. I was just kind of stuck in my room all day, and I was getting so frustrated. I was like, “Okay, I’m just gonna make stuff.” So I downloaded Audacity; my mom got me a guitar for my 15th, 16th birthday, and then I just clicked record. I played really fast on the guitar. I had an electronic drum set at the time, and then played really fast, and then I screamed a lot. And I was like, “that’s it.”
Like, there you go.
So I called that Intestinal Incubation; that was a Necrophagist song. I was like, “I have no creativity, I’ll just steal a song title.” Which, Codex Obscura is a song title I stole from a band called Adagio. It’s called Codex Oscura, which, I just added a “b.” That’s pretty creative, yeah. [Laughs] So Intestinal Incubation became Rage of Asura, and that became Kingdom of Serpents, and then it became Codex Obscura.
So these are all project titles. Like, you just renamed your band a lot.
Yeah. So about 2010, I settled on Codex Obscura, and that’s what it’s been ever since then. And I released a project called Abaddon; that is technically the first Codex album, but I don’t like to consider it, because it was all material for a different project. So I would really consider my first Codex album to be Holy Teachings of Self Defeat.
So at that point, when you put out the first album, you had been playing music for five years?
Something like that, yeah. I didn’t get any guitar lessons or anything, or drum lessons or vocal lessons. I was just sitting in my room, nothing else to do, just figuring out how to play music. And then once I got comfortable enough with that, I got up with the guy from Escape to Eden and just started really writing real music, rather than just noodling around on the guitar. So I learned for a few years first.
I feel like most people who start solo music projects as 15-year-olds in their bedrooms… it’s like… folk songs. Why death metal?
Just the anger of being isolated, being abused, having no friends, kind of hating myself because I didn’t wanna admit that I was trans, but I knew I was. I just knew. It was just something that I’ve always felt since I was a little kid, and I didn’t want to because, well, it sucks. And also, a heavy religious upbringing kind of put it in my head that… it’s not okay. Even when I abandoned religion when I was like 15 years old, I was still in my head like, “That’s not okay. That’s not what people do. You just don’t do that.” So I was kind of fighting that as well. Actually, one of my sister’s ex-boyfriends who I’m still friends with, when I was 10 years old he showed me my first metal band. It was an album called Jesus Christ Bobby, by an Icelandic band called Minus. He was just like, “You gotta hear this.” And I was like, “This is it.” My 10-year-old mind exploded and I was like, “This is exactly what I wanted this whole time.” So 15, 16, I was just like, “I need to capture that sound.” And they were sort of noisy noise rock. I was like, “I really wanna do that,” and it just felt more correct to what I was feeling at the time.
That catharsis and the anger. So you lost religion, or no longer became religious, at the same age that you started making music?
About a year before, I would say. So I guess 13 or 14. My dad died when I was 13, and that took a huge toll on the entire family and made them start really looking at religion, and what it is, and what it meant to them in their lives. Because we didn’t really tackle anything like that up to that point, you know? Nothing… I mean, my parents were poor, and my dad started a business; they were no longer poor. They were just like, “Yay, God does awesome things for us all the time, and we had a nice house, yay, God’s awesome.” Then he dies and they’re all just kinda like, “Well, maybe he’s not as cool as I thought.” So my entire family really started looking at their religion, and I just left it completely. I was just like, “I never really believed this. I now know in my head” – I’m not saying that this is true – but I just knew in my head, “Okay, he officially doesn’t exist. I’m done pretending.” So I just went off on my own thing and started figuring things out.
And you kind of used music to get through those feelings too?
Yeah. Music played a huge part in my life. My parents were musicians. My mom, who still exists – she lives here – she’s a musician. Both of my sisters are musicians; my cousins are musicians. I just grew up around art and music my entire life. Music was my only coping mechanism for pretty much anything. Computers as well; I was basically raised on computers. But… I was just using the computers to download music. [Both laugh] At one point, I just needed more and more and more. That’s why I have so many projects, so many different genres, whatever, ’cause I’m just so in love with music. That’s just the one thing I feel I have a connection to.
[A deep chime sounds from the grandfather clock behind where we are sitting, and we both laugh and lose our train of thought.]
I love that. So we’re in your mom’s house right now?
It’s sort of both of ours. We’re renting.
And we just heard a beautiful grandfather clock.
This was a gift to my mom from my dad when I was 5 or 6, so it’s been around for a long time.
That’s a nice gift!
We actually got it from Walmart, believe it or not; they used to sell grandfather clocks.
[Both laugh] That’s awesome. So you said that you didn’t really have any friends in Louisburg and that’s why you made a solo project. But your whole family is musical. Just, none of them were into the same music as you, maybe?
No, my oldest sister likes metal, but she plays piano. She doesn’t know anything about guitar or drums or whatever. And the other one plays guitar, but she’s more into indie, pop rock, folk kind of music. So I was just kind of like, “Guess I’m stuck here by myself, doing this by myself.”
So how’d you end up in Raleigh?
So we bounced around a little bit. After he died, we lost our house, our land, our cars, every single bit of our assets, personal bankruptcy, whatever. So we moved to Louisburg with a guy that she had met online, and we moved from there back to Wendell. And then we moved basically across the street with another guy that she met, ’cause we couldn’t support ourselves financially. Then we moved from there to here in Raleigh so that we were closer to both of our jobs. That was about five years ago. So I’ve only been here for about five years, I was in Wendell for most of my life. I grew up in Wendell, so Louisburg and Raleigh only probably take up like 2% of my life; the rest of it’s in Wendell. That little town is so boring.
So now you have a lot of collaborators; it seems like it anyway. You’re always putting out collaborations, singles you do with other people. How did you find those people if you’re in the middle of nowhere?
Basically, all of these connections I’ve made just started two years ago. This guy Aaron, who played with a local band called Lorelei, who’s not together anymore, friended me on Facebook last year, year before, and was like, “You make music; do you play live anywhere?” And I was like, “You know, I’ve played live a couple times, but it was one of those sell-your-own-tickets kind of things,” and he was like, “Well, we’re going on tour; do you wanna play in Greensboro?” And I was like, “Sure,” so we played Somewhere Else Tavern in 2016. And there I met JJ Polachek, who was in Ovid’s Withering. He’s in Nekroi Theoi, and Monotheist, and 7 Horns 7 Eyes right now. After I met him, he introduced me to a bunch of people, and then they introduced me to a bunch of people, and it sort of just spiderwebbed out over the last couple years. So now I know so many people in the local music scene because of those two guys, basically.
I really liked the JJ Polachek collaboration, the single you put out. Death of a Cynic, I really liked that one.
I’m glad, thank you.
So are these mostly guys you’re hanging out with?
Yeah, I don’t get along with girls that much.
Yeah… Of course, that’s not always the case, but we just don’t have a lot in common. I like very crude, crass humor, and YouTube videos and memes and stuff, and that just doesn’t seem to mesh well with a lot of girls that I hang out with.
Man, that’s weird, ’cause all the girls I hang out with, that’s all they wanna talk about. I just got a new roommate who’s starting a horror YouTube channel.
Oh that’s pretty cool.
Anyway, do you record everything live?
I do it one track at a time.
Right, ’cause there’s one of you.
Yeah, I record the drums, I do note-by-note MIDI programming in a piano roll, and then I record the left side guitar, the right side guitar, the lead guitar, bass, and then vocals. That’s usually the process of which gets recorded first. Drums are what I grew up playing; my dad always wanted me to be a drummer. He always had me playing drums for him; he was a blues bass player, and he always had me learning jazz and blues lines for him on the drums. So that’s where I come from when I’m writing Codex Obscura: it’s always the drum part first. And right there on the other side of this house, that’s where I record every single thing that you hear on Bandcamp and SoundCloud and everything.
So when do the vocals get written? Is it after you already have a riff?
Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a song, as far as the music goes. And then I’ll be like, “I think lyrics that covered this subject would be really good over this.” But most of the time I have an idea for something I wanna write about – the topic, or the mood, or the feeling, or whatever – and then I write lyrics, and then I write the accompanying music.
I was talking to you online and you’re in, like, five different projects that are all kind of in the metal family. Do you wanna talk briefly about what each of those looks like?
Codex Obscura is the number one, obviously. That’s where most of my art stuff goes, so that’s drawn art, poetry, music; everything falls under that pseudonym. And then there’s Boy Drowned, which has not quite gotten off the ground yet. We have, like, nine songs ready. A few of them don’t have vocals, but the rest of them have been done, so that’s probably gonna be out soon. And that is with two other people. Then there’s Birth the Wretched, which is not my band; it’s just one that I joined from Louisburg. I used to play guitar for them last year, and then I had to quit for personal reasons. Then their bassist and their vocalist left this year, and they were just like, “You do vocals; do you wanna join again?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.” There’s Slipcast, which doesn’t really have anything out yet; there’s some demos on SoundCloud, but that’s about it. That’s gonna be post-hardcore, more ambient; there’s another local band here called Youth League, and I’m pretty much copying them completely with this project. And that’s pretty much it. There’s a couple more that have been sort of retired, that are kind of on the back burner, like Soviet Ghosts, which is a progressive metal thing with no vocals. But there’s really nothing been done for that. That’s really the only last one worth mentioning.
So when you wanna experiment with your sound, do you just create a new project?
That’s how it was before, and now a lot of it’s just falling under Codex Obscura. ‘Cause I did the Orwellian Night Terrors, which was a downtempo beatdown, and then I released a grindcore album, and then a power violence album. And I was just like, “Codex is just whatever I feel like making,” at that point.
Note: Shortly after this interview, Miira was hired to compose music for a team that creates modpacks for the Fallout video game series. Her music will appear in Fallout: New Pittsburgh and Fallout: Cascadia.
From transmusic.org: Explore the art, work, lives and politics of your favorite transgender musicians. Don’t have a favorite trans musician? This is where you get one.
Riley the Photographer’s new interview and portrait series, the Trans Music Podcast, is premiering next week here on the Durham Beat. Learn about eight North Carolina-based trans musicians, hear their music, and see their studios and homes in Riley’s portraits.
Coming next week: A conversation with Miira Cide, a solo death metal one-woman band from Wendell, NC.