Street Sects Emerge from the Smoke with Renewed Ambition (Interview)
At the height of Street Sects' creative productivity, you could barely open Bandcamp without being directed towards a new single or split release of theirs. A hiatus from touring coupled with a global Pandemic noticeably jammed pause on this, but summer saw the band return to stages on a huge tour with HEALTH, indoctrinating new listeners in their noxious mix of digital hardcore and post punk, in addition to surprise dropping the clattering single "X Amount."
We spoke with Shaun Ringsmuth and Leo Ashline to reflect on playing larger stages than ever, writing album number three, and what a Street Sects comic would look like. The conversation begins, as many good conversations do, with a chat about Bryan Ferry.
Shaun Ringsmuth (SR): We saw Roxy Music the other night and it was amazing. I think the following day Bryan Ferry turned 77–for his age he crushed it, Leo and I had seen him on his solo tour and it was roughly the same set. I guess I expected this to be a bit more rock and roll this time, and there were a couple of songs that he weirdly didn't play but he basically had the same backing band, still with some original members. The only other original member I really know is Brian Eno who was not there. There was a young saxophonist and multi instrumentalist who were also on the solo tour and they ripped..
Leo Ashline (LA): That guy who they kept showing playing the leads on the screen.
SR: Yeah, that guy was mining the leads (laughs).
Street Sects are skilled at switching up style and tone, but nevertheless there’s always been a recognisable Street Sects sound. (new single) “X Amount” has been out a few weeks now and with this song, there is definitely something that sounds different and invigorated: I'm interested to hear about how you approached this song.
SR: Thank you. We worked with a new engineer on this one, David Gnozzi out of LA. And because we send all of our stuff to an engineer with only so much of my skills on the front end, the person working on it will always have their stamp on it. And his approach is completely different to Machines With Magnets who did a lot of our other stuff, just a completely different sound altogether. As for the style of it, I wanted to dig into something that had more rhythm than the hardcore influences that we had on on previous tracks, like you hear on End Position. I mean, we've come from a hardcore tradition, making music with lots of stops and starts - and with this track I just just wanted to keep the head nodding as you're moving through it without the jerky stops. Those elements remain artful and interesting and I still love collage work and stuff - but I wanted to keep it within the rhythm from start to finish this time. I tried my best to model this after a Rob Zombie track (laughs). I don't think I succeeded but that's at the centre of it, it was just a funny, interesting check to make while I was writing it.
So taking the song fresh out on tour did you see that experiment - keeping the heads nodding - work out with audiences?
LA: We didn't have time to rehearse it before the tour, unfortunately, we literally finished it and sent it off to be mixed the day we left for tour. So we didn't quite have the song done in time to rehearse it.
SR: Yeah, it was a last minute thing. I pushed Leo to do it, we don't usually work with constraints like that - or try to work that fast but I thought it would be a really encouraging thing, to drop it in the middle of the tour, no big announcement, nothing to attach it to, like any kind of concept or record or anything, just a single - just put it out there. I thought the sound of it was cool, and then especially when I heard what Leo did to it on the vocals, I just couldn't wait. It was gonna be real fun just to see it out there.
Two of your other strengths are in the visual collaborators that you work with, and the stories that you create through their art & your lyrics. I remember buying a copy of Rat Jacket and there being a written insert with a short story on it that fleshed out the world of the characters in the songs and thinking that was very cool. What do you want to do next with those elements of the band?
LA: The ideas I've had on this for future records involve just trying to get it bigger. I messed around with the idea with one of the artists that we work with, of maybe doing a comic book. What I would like to do is a longer story for the next full length, but with an illustration for each song, and that you kind of flip through. And then each track has an accompanying illustration that also kind of fits into a scene of the story. I think that would be really cool. So the record itself would become a soundtrack to the story or vice versa, now whether or not we have the resources is yet to be seen, because something like that would obviously be pretty expensive to package and get together, but that's that's the dream that I have for the next record. And then way down the road, animation is something we've always wanted to do with our videos, or even if not animation, some really good short films that tell stories. So far we've made music videos, and I personally am not a big fan of any of them. Because I've never really wanted us to be the band that was in the music videos, but everybody that we've worked with so far has insisted on it 'Oh, we got to get you guys in the video' and so we're like okay, fine. But I feel like there's so much more you can do with the visual medium, it's a waste of a storytelling opportunity just to have another - oh here's the band, and another shot of the band lip synching or whatever they're doing - we'd love to do more story based stuff.
It's very easy to picture all these characters from your songs as they do their dreadful things, or, find themselves in unfortunate circumstances. You can imagine these things taking place one street across from each other, or on the same block in a different building.
LA: That's exactly it, it's almost like you have this city and lots of things that are happening simultaneously, but we can explore how they're also connected.
You recently completed the Gentrification five part serial album. Given the nature of that experiment, and having various breaks between the writing, recording, and releasing the component parts; how did wrapping up that project align with your plans at the outset?
LA: Not the way we thought it would. We originally wanted to have that be the first thing we 1finished, and then move on to recording an album. But you know, we did the first two on our own self released, and then we got the offer from The Flenser and they really didn't want to do that - they wanted a full length, so we kind of had to abandon it, and then we didn't really have the time or the opportunity to come back to it until after Rat Jacket. Then when we did, we approached the final three by trying to write the remainder of the music at the same time. And then I didn't get around to finishing the vocals until right when we began our hiatus, so the production is kind of all over the place. We've talked about wanting to do another serial album, but what we'd like to do the next time is to write and record everything at once before we release anything, and then be able to put it out in instalments. So that way, when it's done, it does sound like an actual record.
With the stop start nature of those writing periods, were there ever decisions to make like - is this a Kicking Mule song? Is this a Gentrification song? Or is this a separate single?
LA: No, we took hard breaks from it for the records.
SR: Yeah, I think that we had a certain style of writing when we did the first two. Coming back to it a couple of years later you can try to say hey, let's make sure that we write in a style that resembles those first two; but it's nearly impossible. Because you're just not the same type of artists you were, if you're constantly working on art you change, and it's not like you can trick yourself into going back to whatever the impetus was for writing those initial pieces, you're going to improve on on certain aspects, and you're going to have a change in taste on some other things.
And how did your feelings change around the topic of gentrification itself, given it's something that basically never goes away and retains its topicality, your personal feelings must have evolved as time has gone on?
LA: The series, from a narrative standpoint, was never really about gentrification on a surface level. I saw some things happening in the city, and I was more interested in the emotional viewpoints of people that were within that type of change. And whether it be from one side or the other of that process, there is a cultural impact on lots of different people and so for me that was a framework to be able to dive in and tell the stories of different people on the ground floor of that, which proved to be pretty wide open for exploration.
You're fresh home from a major tour with HEALTH and Perturbator, a bill that could be very broadly described as heavy music with electronic components. Do promoters find it easier to get their heads around the show when there is that thread? Or would you equally jump on a tour with a kraut band or a death metal band, what kind of tours interest you?
LA: Like I said this is by far the best tour we've ever done, hands down, leaps and bounds. And I think a lot of that has to do with the overall package. The people on the tour were great personally, and I think it does make more sense to be touring with bands that have a like minded audience. We've done a lot of tours with hardcore and metal bands, being the opener on those shows, and the audience for those bands aren't necessarily receptive to what we're doing because as extreme and adventurous as heavy music is there is also this old fashioned 'where's the guitars' attitude in a lot of fans, so we would love to do more tours like this one.
SR: I feel the same. It was awesome to see people - many of whom hadn't even heard us prior - stick it out, get there and experience the whole show and just not want to leave, whereas on some of those previous tours we definitely saw people with arms crossed waiting for us to get off the stage.
And you have history with HEALTH as well, featuring on Disco 4: Part 2. How did that come about?
SR: John reached out to Leo first, sort of out of nowhere.
LA: I don't remember exactly how they did it. But we were in contact with them about something. We did play a show with them and Youth Code in Houston, we were added to that bill at the last minute. After that, they reached out and asked us if we wanted to work on something together. They asked us to send them a piece of music, and we had done this short story called “Cordero”, which was a story I wrote and then narrated and Shaun soundtracked it, then at the end of that story we had a piece of music that kicked in, an instrumental that Shaun wrote. We knew that the full story wasn't something that everybody was going to listen to, because it isn't music, and a lot of people don't want to sit through an hour long narration. But the piece of music was really good, and we thought it could be elaborated into a bigger song, so Shaun worked on it some more and I developed a chorus from the longer text and we sent it back to them, and it turned out they really liked it.
SR: When I sent John the stems, I added little suggestions in the email, saying make it a sort of insane Tears for Fears track… he didn't (laughs), he didn't really listen to that. I really thought it was gonna come out differently, but I'm really happy with that track. I've been a fan of HEALTH since like 2003, so I was happy to tell John and Benjamin in person how much it meant for us to be on the tour with them and to get to interact. They performed the song with Leo too, they didn't want me on the stage though (laughs) I don't even know what I would have done up there, maybe they could have handed me something to drum, I'd have been happy with that. But I was totally stoked to see it every night, we wrote that short story just as a one off in my bedroom, so to hear it come out on stage and to get to see Leo doing the vocals was awesome. I don't think you've ever done that before?
LA: No, I've got up on stage with another band as a guest, and like Shaun, I've been a fan of HEALTH for a long time, before Street Sects was ever a band, so it was pretty surreal to go up there with them. For the first few shows I was more nervous about that than I was about playing our set. Because you're stepping on stage with this established band that you've never really rehearsed with or anything like that, they have this huge audience and I'm like - I don't want to fuck this up!
For so many people their first experience of seeing Street Sects was in a club venue, with smoke machines billowing, strobes flashing, maybe the fire alarm going off - what tweaks are required to make that work on the larger stages that HEALTH booked?
SR: We weren't able to use fog at a lot of the shows. And then even at the ones we were.. these venues were huge, these are some of the biggest venues we've ever played. So even with two fog machines you're not going to smoke a room like that out. So we kind of leaned away from that, we don't really want to do the no visibility thing anymore, I feel like we've done that for a number of years. And you know, when you're at a DIY space it's cool to create that immersion. But if you're on a stage, and especially if people have paid a little bit more for a ticket, the people the back don't want to see just a bunch of fog and lights for for the entirety of your set, if that was me I would want to see a show on the stage, and so we kind of have to give that to them, you have to step into the role of a performer a little more and give them something to be entertained by, so we did that. When people talked about our shows, in the past, it was usually some kid who saw us in a Kansas City basement, and then went on to describe it as a psychedelic experience with the lights and the fog, really immersed in controlled, but in bigger venues it turns into staff running around getting upset, doors in the back getting opened or big giant, industrial fans coming on and blowing things away. It's not the same experience.
I remember seeing you play at Roadburn festival, standing there as the smoke machines came on, thinking there's no way the room would get filled, but it did! The effect worked really well.
SR: You know, despite what I just said, my memory of that is the same. I couldn't believe it, it was like: how did we get this much fog in here? It was interesting to get onto that stage, because the stairs were behind the stage and down. So Leo and I were one floor down, waiting to go on. And we waited long enough until we could see the smoke coming down - sometimes you knew it was overkill on the smoke when you'd see it funnelling out of doors and stuff - and then we took the winding stairs to the stage. I'd been at the back of the room just before and it was packed, people were all the way to the back of the room, but yeah I couldn't see anybody, I don't think they could see me (laughs).
Right at the top of the conversation you mentioned that the next thing is a break, then album three. What ideas are going into that album?
SR: All I know is we're going to put all of our energy into it, and we're very excited about writing again. This tour was just so inspiring, we were on the road between shows just talking about what we could create, where to put money into: the future of the band, reinvest in the live shows, but especially into a new album; just really dig into it. And in terms of the sound, we have some ideas but it'll unfold as we start to write. I always want to be as surprised as a listener would be when listening to a song for the first time. Even though “X Amount” came out recently, it may or may not be an indicator of things, I don't know necessarily if that's where we're heading, I want to be open to whatever comes up in the process.
LA: I think you said it perfectly. We've written a ton of material that was intended to go on this record, and we keep going back to square one, because it's not there just yet. We absolutely have enough to put out, if we went through all the demos we'd have enough to make two or three records now. But the record we want, it's still just not there. So until it is, we've got to keep working on it.
SR: Yeah, we want to try to do something new with this one, then there are moments of recreating certain sounds we've done in the past, and the demos we have sound like that. But we've had some of these demos since 2020; when lockdown happened I worked on music every day, and so a lot of it has piled up. But much of it sounds old to me now, sounds like old ideas. So we're gonna bounce some new ideas back and forth and get something that sounds fresh to our ears, which can be tough to do in music. If you keep combining genres, do you have something new?
If we consider that Street Sects have a fairly despondent view of humanity and what people are capable of. How as a band, do you feel about humanity at this point? How do you feel people have changed over the last few years?
SR: It's still bleak, but there is a pervasive optimism, I actually didn't think about what it would be like to see some of the fans and acquaintances, and people we knew from touring again, we didn't start playing shows again right after things opened up, so it had been a minute and I kept being taken aback at shows when people I hadn't seen in a long time showed up. There was a lot of love, and a lot of joy in seeing those faces. And now even here in Austin people are going out to shows, and some are still masking up and being cautious, but it's nice to see people out wanting to see others.
LA: As far as my outlook; the way I tend to write, even if it comes across as a despondent view on humanity - I'm not really good at writing about the world at large, I'm not really good at writing about topical subjects. I'm more interested in writing from what I know, and my experience in life and exploring fictional narratives within my experience, or telling things literally as they happened to me, but through the lens of a certain type of writing, not just saying that this happened or that happened, but taking something that's personal and turning it into something that I'm proud of as a piece of art. So, I know it can come across as well, Street Sects hates humanity, and is nihilistic, but that's never really the intention. That's just I guess what comes out in the stories.
Street Sects play LEVITATION festival this October. "X Amount" is available now.