Year in Pop: 2016

Sjimon Gompers

Proudly presenting some select highlights and standouts from this year's Week in Pop: 2016 features with our annual Year in Pop review edition; photograph by Sjimon Gompers.

Stronger Sex

Washington D.C. denizens Stronger Sex.

Washington D.C. denizens Stronger Sex.

D.C.’s counter culture pop denizens Blight. Records continue on their self-blazed progressive paths with their Blight. Makes Right compilation available now, and we bring you a listen with the premiere of their band Stronger Sex’s single “K in a Sunbeam”. A group lead by Johnny Fantastic who built audio outfit as a statement that there truly is no stronger sex, creating a sound that pushes past conventions of gender and genre along with fellow local like-minded talents Leah Gage, Austin Gallas and Erik Sleight.

Featuring production from Ben Schurr, the band’s brooding and pensive nature is featured through woodwinds, beats, separate sections and song suites where questions of “how’re you gonna keep your cool in hell” summons the sensation of being stuck in a dimension that feels as if the underworld has been frozen over. From here one imagines battles between the gods, where the surrounding swam of synths and ominous tones tell tales of conflicts heard like sparring binary codes at war with each other. Like Eno’s second side of Bowie’s Low; the adventure and journey reaches those ineffable places where relayed descriptions and signifiers on their own cannot suffice nor begin to express what is actually at work here. Stronger Sex discover a kind of heavy narcotic essence in the rays of light that descend their incandescence from the sky on “K In A Sunbeam”. We caught up with Stronger Sex’s Johnny Fantastic in the following interview:

Describe how the project Stronger Sex first began as a solo project and later expanded into a quartet.

You know how Einstein discovered relativity while working at a patent office? Well, I discovered my sound while working at a secret army compound. We worked mostly with satellite technology so my workday was soundtracked with all sorts of beeps and blips and buzzes. During pockets of free time I would sneak around and record a lot of those sounds. Eventually I met Ben Schurr who was playing a sampler in the band Eskimeaux. I showed him my sounds and in no time he was teaching me to use samplers. We eventually wrote the album bluebirds bluebirds bluebirds together which turned out to be the musical manifesto for what would eventually become Stronger Sex. Overtime different people came in and out of the group, each leaving their mark on the sound. Now we have a group of four distinct individuals who all contribute to creating what you hear at our shows.

Tell us how you chose the moniker Stronger Sex, and what sorts of post-gender/non-gender/post-structuralist items were taken into consideration?

I had a fight with my partner at the time and I was writing lyrics about how I felt dominated by her. In a moment of poetic inspiration, I muttered the words, ‘I wish I knew what it was like to be part of the stronger sex.’ I had never really felt like the stronger sex, despite the fact that this ugly term is an identifier for biological males. I often feel weak in the masculine realm, unable to hold my own in sports conversations or when gawking at females. At the same time, I look at the females in my life, most of whom have accomplishments that dwarf any of mine, and find it impossible to categorize them as the weaker sex. So I thought, why not perform under this term, and see if it could be broken of its original meaning and re-contextualized as a criticism of the patriarchy. There’s a natural fluidity to the term as well that doesn’t tie us to only addressing gender issues. Some people think we are talking about having better intercourse. A band name, like a band, should stretch and morph and grow and mature and I think this name allows us to explore many realms of possibility as the band moves into the future.

Take us through the evolutions of Love is a Herring, your self-titled to the most recent single “K in a Sunbeam”.

It’s really impossible to connect the two in terms of linear progression. Love is a herring was written in a car with Erik making a beat on his iPad, me singing, and Sarah beating her legs with her hands like drums. It was very road-trippy, and the song that came out was uptempo and peppy. “K in a Sunbeam” was a very deliberate studio project done with Ben Schurr producing. I think the two songs represent two different moods of the band. Love is a Herring represents our triumphant, moving spirit whereas “K” shows our brooding and pensive nature. I very much consumed music in that way. I listen to “A Little Respect” by Erasure to pump me up and make me feel bigger than the world and I listen to Vulnicura by Bjork to help revisit and re-experience deep emotions. I feel like both modes are pivotal to the experience of a Stronger Sex show.

Leah & Johnny bringing the Stronger Sex sound live through the frames.

Leah & Johnny bringing the Stronger Sex sound live through the frames.

What else are you all recording and listening to right now?

I’m working on new songs with the band Dais, which is a joint project together with Adriana Cotes. We’ll be releasing something most likely in the spring. I’ve been primarily listening to Boredoms, Ween, Akvarium, Jenny Hval, Nautilus Pompilius, and Depeche Mode. I’ve been working on this kind of dance party from the 80s spoken word performance art piece that I’ll be performing at the commune on February 26th. It’s a completely original show and it’s very weird in all the ways you’ve come to expect from Johnny Fantastic.

Thoughts about the latest and greatest happening in the DC scenes right now?

I’m become an enthusiastic patron of stand up comedy in the district lately. There are a lot of amazing comics operating out of DC, many of whom are making headway in LA and New York city. Those people work very hard and deal with some of the most apathetic and sometimes volatile audiences I could ever imagine. I often find when I go to music shows in DC that the bands I watch look like they haven’t experienced much rejection; not nearly as much as stand-ups. And stand-up culture in DC is better for it. They have to be the best or face the boos. Musicians here hold back a lot and I wish they wouldn’t. Maybe a little more rejection would be healthy medicine. That’s why I play acoustic covers in loud bars. Well, that plus they pay me and give me free drinks.

Stronger Sex’s single “K In a Sunbeam” can be found on the Blight. Records compilation Blight. Makes Right available now.

Witching Waves

The witching world of Witching Waves; photographed by David Garcia.

The witching world of Witching Waves; photographed by David Garcia.

Introducing Emma Wigham, Mark Jasper, and Ed Shellard who together are London’s Witching Waves who present the world premiere of their rocking nu-jangle/post-goth glory of “Pitiless” that lambastes the inequity of those without pity. With their debut album Crystal Cafe available February 26 from Happy Happy Birthday To Me (HHBTM) Records / Soft Power Records, the DIY trio stem from Jasper’s work at Sound Savers studio in London where they create their own world that disregards the apocalyptic-ish signs of the times and the sorry states of the global unions during the winter of our collective discontent.

“Pitiless” takes the art of the classic put-down track and spins it in the C86 fashion of mid-80s rebellion that takes aim at the clueless and heedless sheeple who bury their heads and consciousness in the proverbial sands. The chorus of “you don’t even know what’s going on” finds Emma, Ed, & Mark raging against the machines of the outside the world as bouncing rhythm guitars roll into the scuzz heaps of pure distorted turbulence and melodic dissonance. Emma fires out lyrics targeted to the wretches that smear the band’s good name about town, as the band rails against the privilege classes who don’t know what they got and can’t see beyond their own selfish wants and needs of greed. The titular chorus refrain & rebuke of “you’re pitiless” is repeated in excess toward the song’s climactic finale to drive the point has any signs of twee and exploded into a surf-dirge meltdown that should certainly grab the attention of the Reid brothers and their “Kill Surf City” sentiments. Stay with us now for an epic roundtable interview sessions with Emma, Ed, & Mark.

Give us the story on how you all met, and whether or not you all took your moniker from the old Coney Island ride.

Emma: WW started off as a way for me to learn the drums and just with Mark and I messing around making music as we had access to a practice space. This was in the Spring of 2013. We started with some covers which never saw the light of day. I think ‘Heart of Gold’ by Neil Young and ‘Dive’ by Nirvana were two of the first things we tried to play. We didn’t
really know what we wanted to do or sound like and we both swapped between playing guitar and drums but we always both sang.

After a while, we started playing a bit at local gigs with friends and we went on tour with another band called Shudder Pulps in the December. We were still very much in the figuring-it-out phase but we practiced a lot and things started to feel more concrete. We’d been playing together for about a year when we went on tour with As Ondas. Our friend, Ed, was
driving us and ended up playing bass on a few songs during the tour. After that, we decided we preferred the way it sounded with bass and that was that.

I can’t remember exactly how I came across the name, Witching Waves, but it does refer to the old fairground ride that started out in Coney Island at the beginning of the twentieth century and later moved to Blackpool in England and a few other places. Mark grew up near Blackpool and I like the sort of images the name conjures up in my mind.

Up & about with Witching Waves; photographed by David Garcia.

Up & about with Witching Waves; photographed by David Garcia.

Mark: Emma and I originally met when I recorded her previous band Weird Menace. Unfortunately, that band split up while when WW was starting out. At the time Witching Waves was just a way for us to have fun, and for Emma to learn the drums.

I think we had five songs that were all totally different, and when we played our first gig we played three of them and then got rid of one of them, we had two songs! Ha. But one of those songs was Barber which we still play now.

Describe how the London circuits and scenes inspire you all, and other locals we should be listening to right now.

Emma: We absolutely wouldn’t be here now as a band or maybe even playing music if it wasn’t for the DIY community here in London. It has given me the confidence to get up in front of people and play knowing that I’m in a safe and supportive environment. We’re also lucky to have seen so many inspirational, amazing bands. To name a few: Joey Fourr, Frau, Sauna Youth, Woolf, Shopping, Trash Kit, Roseanne Barr, Charla Fantasma, Flemmings, Primitive Parts, Ethical Debating Society, Giant Burger…could go on for much longer!

Saying that, due to rising rents, licensing issues and changes happening in the city, it can be difficult to find the space to be a band. Sadly, we lost Power Lunches at the end of last year which was a really significant space in the scene. It was cheap and easy to put shows on there and it was a genuinely welcoming DIY space full of good people. We played there in different bands so many times. But, there are still lots of exciting things
happening: New River Studios in Manor House and DIY Space for London near Peckham are two.

Mark: I agree with Emma, that there is still a lot of exciting things happening here, but with Power Lunches closing this is going to be an interesting time. As a recording engineer, I have an unusual perspective, as I am working with bands all the time. It’s been really great to learn how people work, and to find out how much people can achieve. I think
Witching Waves is in a way a product of that, seeing what can be done and having a go ourselves.

Nature hikes with Witching Waves; photographed by David Garcia.

Nature hikes with Witching Waves; photographed by David Garcia.

Take us through the making of Crystal Cafe, and what are some of your favorite London cafes that you all frequent and adore.

Emma: We made Crystal Café at Sound Savers Recording Studio in Homerton which is the studio that Mark runs with his friends, Henry and Alex. It’s very close to where we live and also to the real Crystal Café. The album felt very centered around the physical and mental space we were literally in at that time and the way we felt about it.

This is our second album and, this time, we tried to write a collection of songs that fit together rather than just putting everything we had on one record which is basically what we did before.

We’re all big fans of Black Cat café in Clapton, home to our favorite breakfast and an amazing selection of vegan cakes.

Mark: As Emma said, we really worked on a batch of songs for this. It was about putting together a complete album, something that would have a shared identity, but we also wanted each song to be able to stand-alone. I don’t think we’d ever worked on individual songs for so long.

The recording process was done over a few months, and we would often re-record whole songs if they didn’t sound right. We used different methods for each song, some of the songs have one guitar and others have seven! Some of it was recorded live, and some track-by-track. Some of it was almost completely analogue and other bits were not. On one song there are
two drum kits.

Witching Waves, standing tall; photographed by David Garcia.

Witching Waves, standing tall; photographed by David Garcia.

What is the preferred methods of songwriting and development that you all
employ?

Emma: We like to write collaboratively and I think that’s really important to us. Sometimes someone will have an idea that they’ll bring to practice and we’ll work around that. I tend to add lyrics slightly later and sing about things that I’ve been thinking about or things that have been bothering me.

We usually practice on the same night every week and switch between writing new stuff or practicing the set depending on where we’re at.

Mark: Yeah, we’ve tried it a few different ways but the best results seem to come from us all playing together and figuring out what works. When you bring pre-prepared songs to practice you often find that you already have expectations on how you think they should be played and how they’re going to sound. It’s good to have a fresh idea that you are all excited about. We throw a lot of songs and ideas away, but I think that’s all part of the
process.

Sometimes we’ll think a song isn’t working so we’ll get rid of it, and then pick it up again in a few weeks and start working on it again. That’s happened with a couple of things on this album. It’s good to give yourself enough time to come back to things, and also to kick ideas around and see what might come out of them.

Give us insights about the angst and pity behind the making of “Pitiless”.

Emma: This song was based around a fictional figure who is cynical and un-emotional. Now when we play it the character acts as a conduit for whatever my angst is at the time! There are a lot of different things in there. It’s about a system, rather than one individual really.

Mark: I think Emma did most of the lyrics first on this one, I remember we had a bit of discussion about it. I was really uncomfortable about being directly angry at someone. I’m usually critical of myself in songs, rather than directing it outward. I tried to use my bit of the lyrics to make the character more human.

Advice and wisdom from the Witching Waves camp?

Mark: The most important thing is to be happy with the band itself, and to enjoy doing it. That way it won’t matter what response you get to it. Don’t worry about what other people think or like, just do it the way you want to do it.

Witching Waves’ album Crystal Cafe is available now from Happy Happy Birthday To Me (HHBTM) Records / Soft Power Records.

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