Them Are Us Too In Conversation With Hether Fortune

Every now and then, a new band comes along that knocks the wind right out of me. That’s what happened the first time I saw Santa Cruz exports Them Are Us Too perform. Between the shimmering, lush fury of guitarist Cash Askew’s anti-shredding shredding and the breathtaking vocal range of singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Kennedy Ashlyn, Them Are Us Too create a blissfully macabre energy vortex on stage and on record that is as powerful as it is delicate. I decided to take them on tour with my band Wax Idols this fall as a part of my therapy regime (I cry every time I see them) and because they are currently promoting their debut LP Remain, which was released earlier this year via Dais Records. They are a vital new force in music that demands space and recognition — something that became even more apparent to me during the course of this in-depth interview where we discuss everything from goth moms to asserting queer identities within an overwhelmingly hetero music scene.

 

So, TAUT is one of those ultra-special rare bands that seemingly appears out of nowhere, fully formed. This gives you a level of perceived authenticity that many artists struggle to achieve for years, having entered the public eye before they were fully “realized”, so to speak. But what I want to know is: what did it take to get you to where you are now as artists, even at the young ages of 21? What phases did you pass through as children and in your teens?

KennedyIn a way I sort of feel like I became myself through the process of making this record. I started working on some of this material when I was 18, and at the time didn’t have a clear aesthetic direction. I only knew that I had not heard quite what I was wanting to hear in the music I listened to at the time, so creating it myself seemed like the only option. I still don’t approach songwriting with specific intention of what the end result will be. It’s a very personal and emotional process. I don’t approach this project under any kind of false pretenses. I’m just extremely emotional and we both resonate deeply with sound.

As far as phases I went through growing up, my mom’s favorite band is Cocteau Twins, so I mostly remember hearing a lot of them and The Sundays and Dead Can Dance as a toddler. My first favorite band was the B-52’s when I was around 5, and then I didn’t actively pursue listening to music very much until I was about 10 and got into emo, a phase which lasted about 3 years. By late middle school I was actively telling people that my favorite genre was post-punk revival because I was “that kid.” In high school I mostly listened to “indie”/electropop. I pretty much lived off the Kitsune Maison compilations and also read Altered Zones religiously.  When I got to college, I came full circle and started listening to Cocteau/Sundays/DCD again. TAUT started as a lo-fi bedroom noise pop solo project when I was in high school.

There was also a period, I think mostly during middle school, where I openly and adamantly did not like/respect female musicians. Looking back I realize that I was projecting internalized sexism in order to seem legitimate to my male peers. I think this also served as a coping mechanism in a way, because I had this secret desire to make music that I refused to take seriously because of the subliminal messages I was constantly receiving about what was possible/legitimate for me to do. Espousing this message myself, instead of it always only coming from the outside, was my way of trying to gain control over forces that felt intensely prohibitive and demoralizing. Luckily, I one day had a sudden switch, and made it a priority to seek out and only listen music made by women.

I completely identify with that experience of internalized sexism and having it effect the music I was willing to take seriously, Kennedy. We have to talk more about that sometime. Cash?

Cash: Well growing up, as a little kid, I was surrounded by a lot of music that I still love. I was lucky enough to have really cool parents. So I was hearing a lot of obvious influences like the Smiths, The Cure, Depeche Mode and that stuff has always resonated with me and shaped the way I relate to music. There was also a lot of Britpop and David Bowie, who was possibly my first serious musical obsession. He was my idol for years, probably as much for his gender-bending as his songwriting. So I had all this swimming around in my head all the time. I first really got into making music when I was about 12 and I discovered Garageband on my dad’s computer. I was obsessively making songs out of the loops that came with the program. Eventually I started making the loops myself, playing with softsynths, finding samples and sequencing them. For years I was making pretty unlistenable shit that sounded like video game music even though I never really played video games.

Synthpop was my main love as a kid, and actually what I took inspiration from for years. It was kind of the seed of my eternal love for electronic music. I think I started off being dazzled by the glamour and futurism, but gradually grew deeply infatuated with the sonic possibilities of electronics. I was also in a punk band from about 13-16, which was really fun but ultimately didn’t fulfill me musically. It was more of a way to get dressed up, shake about and shout a lot. By the time I graduated high school the stuff I was making had matured and gotten a lot more emotional. In my later teens, I was getting pretty depressed and really delving into slow, sad music. That’s is when I found my love for bands like Slowdive and Low. The song “Children of a Lesser God” by Tropic of Cancer pretty much got me through my first year of college. Around this same time I kind of stumbled into making noise music by playing around with guitar pedals, and that has been my main passion in the past few years. And that’s the context in which me and Kennedy met. It seemed like a good chance to continue working with these ideas in a new form. That’s when I took up guitar in earnest — I had dabbled many times as a kid but it never really stuck until we started playing together. That really opened up a whole new avenue of experimentation for me, and I’m still very much getting comfortable with the instrument and finding my way.

One of the first things about your band that grabbed my attention was the name. Was the use of gender neutral pronouns an intentional decision, or was it just a cool sounding name that you thought of randomly?

Kennedy: The use of gender neutral pronouns was not intentional, actually. I thought of the phrase while talking to my mom as a teenager about the housing crisis, and about which homeless people were getting attention and support and which were not. I was frustrated that those who were perceived and constructed by the media as one of “us” (those who lost their homes recently to the economic collapse, lived otherwise “normal” lives, had just “fallen on hard times,” etc.) were getting so much support whereas people who had been homeless for a long time or for different reasons, who did not fit this particular narrative of need, were not justified in receiving aid or sympathy. It was pitched basically that the “new homeless” were not like “them” and thus deserved resources. It was very upsetting/confusing/frustrating for me to process the lack of care for the constructed other, but I did not yet have the language to think or talk about the process of constructing otherness… so the phrase kept popping into my head and it stuck.

Wow. It makes sense to me that you’re incredibly empathic because it translates so intensely through your music. Watching you perform live, I cannot help but be overwhelmed emotionally. You both play with such massive amounts of intensity and passion, not to mention how technically gifted both of you are as musicians. Can you each give me some kind of description — surreal, literal, poetic, whatever — of what it feels like for you when you are on stage expressing yourselves?

Kennedy: Like I said before, I pretty much became myself through the creation of this material (and continue to do so through continuing to engage it). Also music/sound is pretty much the only way I feel comfortable expressing myself. So even though the material is pretty old it’s still very alive for me, probably in a more real way than anything else I do. When we perform I just try to stay very present in that feeling. I kind of try to forget that there’s a separation between me and the sound and just fill the room.

Cash: For me, performing is kind of an exercise in focusing my energy. I have a very chaotic, anxious mind, and in order to perform as well as I can I need to corral all the thoughts and feelings I’m having and direct my full energy into playing. When I can get it right, it’s very therapeutic. It helps that we are only a duo, so both of us have to be in control of many sounds at once and really on top of our shit to make sure we pull it off. The necessity of focusing so hard helps me get really deep into the creation of sound. I’m such a perfectionist; I’m constantly in a feedback loop with the sounds I’m making, trying to get them exactly where I want them. Nothing’s stable, I’m constantly tending it. That’s the truly blissful part — the moments where I become fully immersed in the feedback between my own movements and the sound that comes out and washes over me. Everything else disappears and it’s just me and noise, and we are the same thing, and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more beautiful feeling than that.

Yes. I understand that feeling 100%, Cash. Particularly the focusing of energy in order to soothe a chaotic mind. Let’s try to create sonic Xanax every night on tour, haha.  

Ok next question. After growing up in California, where things are pretty nice and “groovy” or whatever compared to the rest of the country, what was it like touring the rest of the US extensively for the first time? I grew up in the midwest so I’m always curious about the level of culture shock that born and raised coastal babies experience when they get out there. Coming to California for the first time for me was like entering the Emerald City. Did you have any bizarre or uncomfortable encounters? Beautiful ones? Feel free to talk about whatever you want regarding touring here.

Kennedy: We actually had far fewer scary/intense experiences than I expected. I think we both kind of built up in our heads what traveling across the country as queer femmes was going to be like…

Cash: I was for sure pretty worried at the outset about feeling unsafe. I got us both pepper spray before leaving. But in that respect it actually didn’t feel much different than it would be anywhere else on the West Coast. All we ever got was a lot of looks, which is pretty standard for both of us I think, even when we’re in our home territories. I was pleasantly surprised that there were very few moments on the road where I actually felt threatened.

Kennedy: At least not more than I ever feel in California. I’ve never been to a city where I get harassed on the street as much as I do in Santa Cruz, which is supposedly pretty “groovy” and progressive or whatever.

Cash: The standout for me was actually how overwhelmingly welcoming, enthusiastic and respectful most of the people hosting us were. There were certainly exceptions, but it was pretty heartwarming how well we were treated most of the time by complete strangers.

That’s great!  It did seem like both of you were feeling pretty worn down after tour though, according to some Facebook posts I saw. Getting to tour is a huge privilege but it can also be really grueling and exhausting, particularly for more sensitive types of people, which artists tend to be. Wanna talk about that at all?

Cash: It was definitely draining. As someone who is really invested in having a stable sense of space that is my own in order to stay grounded, being in a different city every day means that I’m constantly expending energy to keep myself together and there’s really no rest. I do actually love being on the road — there’s a great feeling of potential when you get to pass through so many spaces and meet so many people. It’s just that past a certain point my reserves are beyond empty and I start to dissociate from the experience, everything starts to feel quite distant and unreal. I even got used to that, and it was kind of a relief because I didn’t care about anything and was able to carry on performing and be absorbed in that. But needless to say it wasn’t exactly healthy.

Kennedy: There’s this Camus quote I once heard (that I’m probably taking totally out of context) that says “nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” I can’t really speak to “normal” but I am pretty much entirely consumed by making sure I am going to be able to function on any given day. It’s a very delicate (and not always consistent) cocktail of self-care routines that make it possible for me to do simple things like grocery shop (or leave the house at all). It was really challenging for me to figure out how to do this on the road with virtually no privacy/personal space, on very little sleep, with a tight food budget, away from friends and family, and being expected to perform with intensity and passion every night. I think by the end we got better at keeping up the momentum of self-preservation, but the whole experience definitely shook me up and I’m still recovering. Nothing quite feels like “real life” yet, if that even exists.

First albums, when released, often feel to the artist like the culmination of everything they’ve been trying to achieve their entire lives up until that moment. What happens next is that they grow tired of the material very quickly, as they’ve usually been sitting on various aspects of it for years and years. Are you already working on album number 2? Do you want to light your first album on fire yet? Lol

Cash: I get tired of everything on that album at times, but we’re always reworking the arrangements and I think that helps us stay engaged with the material. When we made the record, I think the way it came out represented a significant step forward in our sound. But now after continuing to grapple with that material and rethink it I think we’ve already honed everything in much further with the way we play those songs live. So in that respect it is a little difficult already to listen to the recordings, just because no matter how well that record came out I feel like if we went back now we could have made it so much better. But I’ll always feel that way about anything we do I think.

Kennedy: I’m only tired of this material to the extent that the time/energy we still out into performing it is time/energy that we can’t put into the creation of new material. This album is very dear to my heart and likely always will be, it I’m definitely ready to shift my focus and “become myself” all over again. We have some newer material ready to record, some stuff in progress, and a lot of ideas.

Cash: The new stuff is exciting for me because we’ve been writing more collaboratively and it feels like things are getting deeper. Our intentions as artists and as people have developed a lot since we started playing together and I think that this newer material is reflecting that growth. We’re shooting for another release in some form next year.

image03-2

Are you sick of being compared to Cocteau Twins already (lol), or do you welcome the comparison as a compliment? And either way, please get real with me about your deepest, truest inspirations here, apart from the obvious stuff that most people will lazily point out (like what I just did). Hahaha.

Kennedy: The Cocteau comparison is in some ways a huge honor, but frustrating because I don’t want the record/band to be boiled down to hero worship. I understand the similarities and why people are inclined to jump there, but we aren’t Cocteau Twins and aren’t trying to be the new Cocteau Twins or pick up where they left off or anything like that.

Cash:  It’s kind of been a running joke at every show we play that someone will inevitably bring them up. It does get really frustrating that apparently no one can talk about us without drawing that comparison. I honestly have never thought we sounded much like them. People hear a super talented soprano voice and a bunch of shimmery shit and that’s their first point of reference, but when they belabor that point it makes me concerned that they’re not actually listening that closely. Melodically, harmonically, timbrally, I feel that our approach is actually very different. The only song on which I feel their influence distinctly is “The Problem With Redheads,” but to me it’s an outlier. If I we’re gonna play that game, I’d say Slowdive are actually much closer to my heart. That’s probably an obvious pick as well, but “Machine Gun” is easily my favorite piece of recorded music ever, and “Avalyn” is right up there with it.

Kennedy: As far as aesthetic inspiration goes… I like and relate to a lot of different music, but I don’t know if I feel particularly inspired by it per se. I’m mostly inspired by people in my own life who work fucking hard and create amazing art, or who overcome different kinds of barriers (and are continually overcoming), and who are just strong as fuck and survive beautifully, almost against all odds. Also I get inspired by certain sounds in the city, the sound of sirens in the distance that call the volunteer firefighters in the remote forest in which my mom lives, the crashing and scraping at the recycling center, the moment when a group of people speaking in unison say the letter ‘s’…things like that. Also, I deeply look up to The Knife, not only for their music but for the way they occupied the space of artists in the public eye, how they talk about their politics, and how the project became something bigger than just a “cool band.”

Cash: Yeah, I think influences are really hard to pinpoint. I listen to so much different music all the time it’s hard to tell what connects what. I’ve always been really moved by the sounds BART makes when you go under the bay between SF and Oakland and I’ve been consciously taking direct inspiration from that in some of our new material. If I were to pick some specific musicians, my two big guitar inspirations since I was a kid have been Andy Gill and Rowland S. Howard. Seeing Gang of Four perform “Anthrax” when I was about 14 or 15 was a seminal moment for me. Also Cindytalk has been very inspiring to me lately with the incredible snowflake-like textures in her recent output, and also as a transgender role model making fiercely beautiful noise.

Andy Gill and Rowland S. Howard are two of my favorite guitarists too! Severely underrated, if you ask me. Absolute masters of noise control and minimalism. I can totally see the influence on you (Cash) from those artists and I see a little Daniel Ash in you as well. Anyway: Your bio and description on Facebook describes you as queer femmes who place a heavy emphasis on interacting with and supporting like-minded artists and spaces. Have you found the music community to be inclusive so far and respectful of things like pronoun usage, or has it been a struggle? Or both? Let’s talk about it. I’m really interested in what you have to say about this, as we all know that for all of the liberal posing that goes on in the underground, there are actually a lot of very intolerant asshole people floating around.

Kennedy: Because of our diverse interests/transience, we kind of find ourselves involved in many different music communities. Some are definitely more comfortable than others and some, although people are often sweet and well-intentioned and generally accepting, well it just kind of feels like our queer identities are erased in those spaces in a way. Not acknowledged, not important. I think we both feel most comfortable in queer spaces and definitely do not enjoy being in predominately male or male-dominated zones. It’s not that those situations are always super fucked up, but it’s the little things that add up. I distinctly remember a show we played where all of the performers besides us were men, all of the people working the show (door and bartenders) were women, and the audience was probably 70 percent men. After the show, it was only dudes who stuck around besides Cash and I, and they were all just dude-ing out about this and that with each other which is to me kind of gross and at best, it’s just annoying. The dudes didn’t seem that interested in interacting with us, at least not with me. As I was packing up I look over and there is a wall mostly covered in a collage of naked women posing for the camera/viewer. It just felt so odd and marginalizing. How are we supposed to be made to feel in situations like that? Then I think “maybe I was just being ‘overly sensitive’ to it because before the show a stranger on the street offered to give Cash drugs in exchange for me…” But of course I’m used to being objectified on the street, I just always check myself against the narrative of being overly sensitive because that’s the fucking narrative. I guess it’s just nice to be around people that you don’t have to constantly prove your identity to, and who might share some of your lived experiences, or at least have greater awareness of and sensitivity to challenges that only affect certain bodies/identities.

Cash: It seems like that stuff has actually gotten harder since making the record. For the first year that we were together, we were playing within small DIY circles in which people are actively working to make space for marginalized groups. On our first two tours we mostly played for friends of friends and it was very comfortable. We were very lucky to find amazing people making music in the Bay Area who have worked really hard to support queer artists, and that community has been crucial for us starting to find ourselves as individuals and as musicians.

Having the support of a label now, we have access to bigger shows and expanded networks of musicians and promoters across the country, but it doesn’t come with the same baseline understandings or sense of community that we could expect before. So many well-meaning but ignorant men, and so many complete jerk-offs as well. I often feel on guard in social situations within the music world because I can pretty much guarantee that I will be misgendered and misunderstood without anyone thinking twice. It also seems clear to me that in these scenarios I’m given respect and attention to the extent that I am perceived as male, which is quite often. That’s a really gross feeling. There’s a clear difference in the way people interact with me vs Kennedy: people talk to me about the technical shit, and they often seem to assume I’m pretty much in control.

I’ve never been a very assertive person, so I have a hard time confronting people on at level of this, whether its the blatant sexism or the misgendering. Breaking down the constant conditioning enveloping anyone who is not cisgender/able-bodied/white/male — that you are not entitled to space, or to be heard — can be really difficult. As a trans person, I’m constantly doubting myself and afraid that people will like me less or take me less seriously if I make a point of who I am. But I’m working on being more assertive, especially because I have the privilege of having a record out and suddenly getting a lot more attention and praise. I feel some responsibility to claim space, to be vocal and visible. I hope that in doing so I can help these spaces feel more comfortable for other queer folks and femmes who are constantly being silenced, ignored and manipulated in music. I want to take advantage of my position even if it just means one kid at our show feeling a little safer or prouder. But in advocating visibility as we try to make a living off our music, I also need to be really careful not to slip towards some assimilationist bullshit of incorporating relatively radical queer identities into a violent and oppressive mainstream culture. I don’t want my identity or anyone else’s to be tokenized for liberals to pat themselves on the back for being so progressive while ignoring myriad other injustices, and I don’t want our identities to be commodified and sold back to us for the benefit of people who already have power.

Wax Idols // Them Are Us Too U.S. Tour dates

Oct. 18th – San Francisco, CA – Bottom of the Hill (w/ Screature & DJs Justin Anastasi and Omar)

Oct. 20th – Portland, OR – TBA

Oct. 21st – Seattle, WA – The Highline (w/ Charms & Dead Spells)

Oct. 24th – Lincoln, NE – Knickerbockers

Oct. 27th – Chicago, IL – The Empty Bottle

Oct. 28th – Detroit, MI – Marble Bar (w/ Blood Stone)

Oct. 31st – Brooklyn, NY – St. Vitus (w/ Azar Swan & DJ Becka Diamond)

Nov. 2nd – Atlanta, GA – The Earl

Nov. 4th – Austin, TX – Mohawk

Nov. 5th – San Antonio, TX – Paper Tigers

Nov. 7th – Phoenix, AZ – The Rebel Lounge (w/ Body of Light & Ascetic House DJs)

Nov, 8th – Los Angeles, CA – Complex (w/ Pleasures & DJ Shannon Cornett)

Photo credit: Nick Marshall