Text and Interview: Andy Fenwick
Photo: Shawncee Schneider
On their new album The Envoy, Berkeley, CA-based duo Street Eaters go all-in on their enthusiasm for Ursula K Le Guin, specifically Le Guin’s speculative science fiction novels Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, works including full-scale reinventions of gender norms via wholly-created, fictional worlds. Back in the real world, in a United States where cis white Christian men overtly seek to extinguish civil rights for anyone they don’t see in their churches or mirrors, focusing an entire album on Le Guin stands as an act of resistance.
But Street Eaters have always spoken to power; if you needed clarification, see their 2012 cover of Mission of Burma’s 1982 classic “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate.” Live, they’ve never feared making pre-song statements, and their touring style, their recording style, and their ownership of their music all evoke that same DIY ethos that burnished Dischord Records into one of the few truly independent labels of the 80s and 90s. (One might even say Street Eaters bring to mind the Warmers, a 90s era duo on Dischord, and long overdue for reissue. If you want to go further down the duo comparison hole: an angry Quasi; a Lightning Bolt, or USA is a Monster, if not prog-drunk)
They’ve also referred to their as music “truewave.” In a word, that’s true, although Street Eaters don’t need a movement, because: goals are being met all over The Envoy. Drummer Megan March has one of those voices that can do anything: a Kim Gordon-like, guttural holler (“Means”) Debbie Harry’s snide menace, a quick shout in time with a break, a rationed, powerful scream maybe built upon agit-pop timing and dynamics. Of course, it all amounts to an inimitable self. On “Witch,” a track sprung from a speech by Le Guin about patriarchy destruction, March puts on a vocal clinic. On “Paralyzed,” March provides measured vocals as counterpoint to bassist John No’s howl … until she doesn’t, and lets loose. As a drummer, she’s powerful with a notion of subtlety and dynamics that makes it once again impressive she sings so well atop challenging stick-work.
Bassist John No sings a tad less on The Envoy than on previous efforts, but his strings invents freedom from restraint. “To the Menace” evokes Wipers in chunky, propulsive chords, like a spring winding tight to breaking; on “Left Hand,” a beast of a track, No’s bass roars and cuts like sea-borne monster. It’s amazing to learn that a track like “Take What I Don’t Need,” a wonderful slab of outer-space sludge-rock, the sound of an asteroid field looming, as if the fearsome low-rock of the long-lost A-Frames smoked dust with Scrawl, was never played live before recording. At the same time, two-year old-tracks like “Paralyzed” make it into the studio for the first time and lose nothing.
Which all leaves The Street Eaters not simply in-your-face, complex, and satisfying, but also sounding like a duo that’s onto something. Like most exciting albums, The Envoy leaves a listener (and maybe the band) happily wondering: what next?
Did making a concept album spur new musical decisions? (or vice versa?) What did you find yourselves working on, most, while recording?
Most definitely. Though it would seem on the surface to be a purposeful limitation, the whole approach of a concept record opens up all kinds of new ideas – especially when it comes to the actual sound and musical direction(s) of the record. Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing is very nuanced and deceptively complex, and she covers a variety of moods, big ideas, and emotional explorations, and these facets provided a very fulfilling challenge to evoke via the songs and overall sonic composition. There are some instrumental tracks as well as segues, lots of saturation and layering, intense dynamic shifts. All of the songs can stand on their own, but we really wanted to create a record that would be listened to from beginning to end, telling a story.
The new album seems to signal more complex work overall, the singing, the drumming, the guitar effects & arrangements, and they’re all wonderful – especially on “Take What I Don’t Need.” What guitar equipment did you use on that track? Can this be replicated live?
For “Take What I Don’t Need,” as with most of the record, there are a few layers of bass guitar (we don’t have a six-string guitar on the record at all) going on at once, with delay in the spacey parts, as well as a very overdrive-saturated vocal line, and we got pretty creative with the mixing as well. Interestingly, however, the basic takes for that song are more skeletal, in terms of layering of tracks, than much of the rest of the record – especially songs like “Means,” where there were eight or ten layers of bass and wild oscillating space noise going on at the same time to really create an atmosphere. Still, “Take What I Don’t Need” was never played live before we recorded it, so we weren’t sure how it would translate. As it turned out, the song sounds super-full, live, with our two-amp setup (plus a killer delay pedal, ha-ha) and a brooding vocal, and it is actually one of the most fun and intense ones to play from the new album.
What is that ghostly whistle/soprano sound in “Means?”
A lot of the noisy texture on “Means” is tonal feedback generated via the bass going through a modded karaoke box then amplified through an old Music Man amp (cranked with high gain) then recorded onto disk through a hard redlined tube preamp – a preamp that we ran just about everything through and which made it through the whole recording with a dying tube, which only blew after the last song was finished and gave everything an extra-crackly, saturated quality. The karaoke box (modded by my friend Adam) has a few different knobs that do some beautiful, weird, and unpredictable stuff when you twiddle them in exactly the right way, sounding like anything from crashing waves to satellite pulses/beeps to submodal low bass frequency explosions – to, well, a ghostly whistle. I think everybody will probably hear it differently. There might have been a bluebeard fuzz pedal involved too, ha-ha … lots of stuff going on.
Did this album take a while? (“Paralyzed” is two-years-old, I think) Why?
It did take a while, because we really wanted to do it right. The earliest songs we wrote for it (“Paralyzed,” “Davenant 1,” and “Sentries”) were inspired by characters and situations/scenarios in the Ursula K. Le Guin books The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness (from the Hainish Cycle), and also by what we saw happening in our communities and the world at large: racial injustice and police oppression and how they relate to deeper power disparity; surveillance and callous voyeuristic paranoia attached to the digital disconnect; commodification and sanitization of genuine resistance; changing or removing systems entirely rather than adaption/modification/assimilation with existing ones; questions of what happens if/when we do “get what we want.” It soon became obvious to be more explicit about the connectivity to the books and even to adapt lyrics directly from them. But executing all these ideas was going to take a very different process from a typical three-days-in-a-studio situation, so we decided to build out our own basic home studio and really go deep into creating a new world – after all, that’s what Ursula does, right? She creates worlds.
Having the space and time to record ourselves, we were able to take a lot more risks and experiment with recording techniques which we wouldn’t have done if we were paying for studio time like we’ve done in the past. I like the quick and efficient style of a studio too, but this album really called for a different approach, and I’m really glad we were patient enough to follow that. The Envoy wouldn’t be what it is without having gone through that process.
We ended up with a lot of material in the end, with many extra textural/instrumental tracks – some of which may end up on a special companion release sometime in the near future.
Talk about the “Witch” video – who made it?
We made the video for “Witch” ourselves. Slightly different from the rest of the record, which was drawn mainly from two books, “Witch” is inspired by a commencement speech Le Guin made at a women’s college where she described women as volcanoes. Rather than simply trying to assimilate into a patriarchal system that is implicitly stacked against non-males, women should realize they are unstoppable forces of nature that can totally blast everything away and restructure the landscape/system itself.
The video was visualized as a radical femme sendup of the Peter Gabriel video for “Sledgehammer” (which was made before I was born I think? Ha ha [editors: 1986]. Even though the lyrics for “Sledgehammer” are totally 80’s, corny, boring cis/hetero male sex stuff etc., I think the visual ideas are really interesting – the idea of a human face being the focus of stop-motion animation. We slowed the song down to 1/10th speed and I lip-synched to that while we shot one frame per second on a DSLR and did the actions live.
How closely do the songs hew toward Le Guin’s works? Do they springboard from, or stick to?
Much of the album’s lyrics are directly drawn from Le Guin’s words; sometimes re-contextualizing it with my own perspective, or trying to keep it close to the story line but maybe with a different lens. Ironically, using the foundation of the books’ concepts allowed me to get more personal with the lyrical content, and it was really satisfying to find that space for expression. Some of the earlier songs (as described in the questions above) springboard from Le Guin’s works a bit more broadly, but were still inspired pretty directly by her writing. We deliberately structured the flow of the record, including instrumental interludes, to create a journey directly evocative of those described by the main characters of The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness. Both were outside envoys to societies that were not their own, neocolonial/neoliberal and/or revolutionary/seditious, totally disruptive and only half-aware of their impact. Lots of fascinating questions and contradictions, and lots of very layered critique.
Was this concept brewing for some time, or did you recently read Le Guin?
I got into reading Ursula K Le Guin a few years ago through Arwen Curry, who is currently working on a documentary about the author (I did an interview with Arwen about the documentary in MaximumRockNRoll issue #400). Arwen lent me a few books and I was hooked. The two books I really fell for, The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness, carry a lot of the same themes that we’ve have been writing about since the beginning, so while reading the books I started envisioning the parallels and the idea of the concept record started to take shape.
Did you read Le Guin’s recent essay about identifying as male all her life? What did you think?
Yeah, it’s a really interesting piece. Her voice is deceptively fierce for such a tongue-in-cheek essay. Not to point out the obvious, but what I read into it was her critique of the male gaze; how “woman” hasn’t even been invented, because the whole world is created for men. While I totally agree, and think this world is built for the success and comfort of cis white males, I have hope because I know there are people, who might not even identify as “women” or “men,” or who were born with what society would classify as female or male body parts which don’t match their gender identity, have broken down gender barriers in their own communities and are fighting to do the same in the greater world. I don’t want to speak for Le Guin, but that essay feels like a continuation of a lot of the same ideas from the speech she gave that we wrote “Witch” around. This essay really focuses on the absurdity of how “woman” is defined and the concept of gender in general– which is really mind blowing to think about.
The Oakland Ghost Ship fire broke my heart. How is the community healing, if it is at all, yet?
There is a lot of pain, we lost some friends, many other friends of ours lost much closer friends and many more of them. We don’t talk about this much because it is literally an open wound for a lot of people, but here’s what we had to say about the community at large in our recent MRR interview:
The bay has so many dynamic, driven people who have put incredible amounts of energy and time into creating viable spaces, often within their homes, and there were a ton of them. Everyone is just still wrecked and grieving from what happened in December, and a lot of things have changed in a lot of ways. Many of those dynamic people who put so much of themselves into creating and maintaining these spaces are dead, and many others are so scared of losing their homes that they are busy just trying to keep a low-profile.
Neo-fascist, chickenshit internet trolls have called cops and fire marshals on DIY spaces all over the country in the name of crushing radicals, while reactionary city governments have been happily encouraged to bring the hammer down by luxury condo developers waiting to swoop in and engage in vulture/disaster capitalism. Worst of all is that this is not isolated or “new”, but is just the latest chapter in a very long-running process that has already displaced incredible numbers of marginalized people, especially POC, from their homes and communities for years. The ways the U.S. value system is grounded in private property over human rights is really fucked up and backwards, vicious, colonialist. But there is a lot of resistance, always, and even (especially?) when times are darkest, in times when people who are far apart in some ways but are victimized by the same forces might finally strike out together on that common ground and change some things. I hope.
The inevitable duo question: By design? By subtraction? Never gave it a thought?
By design, absolutely. We’ve had a lot of friends ask to join, but it wouldn’t be the same band any other way. The first day we ever practiced it was as a two-piece band with loud and fast but dynamic drums, ugly cranked-gain overdrive from bass played mainly in power+barre chords through early ‘80s solid state amps (especially Peavey TNT), and intense dual vocals, and we decided to keep those elements pretty much the same. Street Eaters has always been philosophically a hardcore band; we have a negative/dark/angry lyrical outlook, a traditional early ‘80s-style punk ethic with regard to intensive touring and high-energy shows (i.e. even in Europe we book and drive ourselves and don’t take days off), and some weird self-imposed basic musical rules we don’t break.
The interesting thing we have discovered is that in spite of — or maybe because of — those self-imposed instrumental and tonal limitations, we have been able to more-freely explore a wide range of songwriting and textural ideas and themes; trying to get as much noise and texture as possible out of our idiosyncratic minimalist setup. I mean, it’s like this for every 3- or 4-piece band too, to some extent, but it is a worthwhile challenge to fill the necessary sonic space and keep things propulsive/powerful/weird with a total of four strings, two vocals, and a basic 5-piece drum kit. As it turns out, by pushing our imaginations within this box we end up with things like a heavy, wild concept record based on the works of a neo-anarchist speculative fiction author. I’m sure the next thing will be totally different, too.
May 9 Brooklyn @Silent Barn
May 10 New Brunswick @ In The West
May 11 Philly @ Glitter Galaxy
May 12 D.C. @ Tilden
May 13 Raleigh @ Ruby Deluxe
May 14 Chattanooga@ Sluggo’s North
May 15 Athens @ Go Bar
May 16 Gainesville @ The Atlantic
May 17 Pensacola @ Chizuko
May 18 New Orleans @ Saturn Bar
May 19 Austin @ Hotel Vegas (matinee)
May 20 Denton @ TBA
May 21 OKC@ Warehouse B
May 22 Albuquerque@ Winning Coffee Company
May 23 Flagstaff @ Flagstaff Brewing Co.
May 24 L.A. @TBA
May 25 Oakland @ Octopus Literary Salon (record release)