As the old adage goes, when it rains it pours. Everything happens at once—death and rebirth; rejuvenation, finding direction and going for it. It can often be the impetus for living the life you want, and not necessarily one that is dictated to you.
San Francisco’s creative class continues to face a series of well-documented obstacles, most notably being the limited supply of affordable housing. It’s a city bursting with a growing populous that tends to have taste in pricier things. The solution for some is to simply move away, while others stick it out. And for a few, rather than let creativity run dry, it’s the perfect opportunity to seize the reins.
For Jordan Morrison and Mario Armando Ruiz’ band, All Your Sisters (an ambiguously-named San Francisco duo lumped into the noisy, post-punk, and industrial vein), calling 2014 a watershed year would understate how they’ve overcome insurmountable odds. The last year alone saw the release of their debut album, Modern Failures, and two West Coast tours interspersed with personal tribulations, including the back to back deaths of key figures from one of the member’s lives, and even a marriage by year’s end. Be it fate, luck or some other inexplicable force, their momentum is chaotic, but it’s clear when it comes to music, they have a thirst for more.
The band’s last show of the year happened to fall on the evening of the so-called “Storm of the Decade”. The local news hyped the weather days in advance, promising hurricane-force winds, but mostly warned of much-needed rain for California’s drought, one of the most severe on record. With an umbrella in hand, I walked several blocks to Oakland’s Night Light from a BART train. The unrelenting deluge that claimed most of the day did cause some flooding, but by nightfall it had calmed to a sprinkle and there was hardly any wind. The walk was actually pleasant.
When I arrived the bar was basically empty. The storm’s hype had probably taken its toll, but I wanted to make sure I was early to see All Your Sisters, who would be playing first. Flashes of Morrison, 30, adorned with asymmetrical hair (the kind that covers only one eye) burst through strobe lighting as he sang in his deep voice while shredding on a Fender Telecaster to his own programmed drum-machine beats.
An equally busy Ruiz, 29, could be seen through the shroud of fog, with tattoos covering the backs of his hands, crawling up his arms and neck before reaching his temple, near the edge of his forehead. He multitasked, switching from playing bass to synthesizer while seamlessly clicking a Wal-Mart purchased foot switch that controlled dramatic red lights. By the set’s end I noticed the bar had filled up quite a bit.
“We’re both into working hard,” says Morrison. “I don’t think that’ll ever change. You gotta sound good.”
A few days earlier, All Your Sisters obliged my request of sitting in with them during practice at Secret Studios. Similar to most DIY-type band spaces, they joked there are a lot of “dad bands” who practice in the building, effectively meaning older dudes with lots of gear that never gig.
They pride themselves on their sound and as painful as it may be, they lug their own PA equipment to each show. “It’s on us if we don’t bring gear, if it sounds like garbage,” says Ruiz.
Nowadays they complement one another creatively, but the admiration of each other’s music wasn’t always soundly intact. They met in 2011 when Morrison lived in Reno. Ruiz was on tour with his band at the time, Teenage Sweater, which he unabashedly describes as “chillwave”.
“I thought his band was god awful,” Ruiz admitted about Morrison’s earlier project. But by 2012 Morrison created a solo version of All Your Sisters and moved to San Francisco. Ruiz’ chillwave band shed its extra member and the two future collaborators did a solo tour together.
“I had just got laid off,” Ruiz said about his job working in medical records at an oncologist’s office when he moved to Northern California from San Bernardino County. “I basically bonded with him on the fact that we were having a shitty time.”
The album the duo eventually made together, Modern Failures, comes across like a thick cathartic flow, benefitting from slick, polished and somehow familiar sounding production. It’s currently out as a cassette on Young Cubs, and will be issued on vinyl January 15 via Weyrd Son Records.
By the first week of 2015, I had seen All Your Sisters play live a few times and had their cassette on repeat. When I listen, I can hear an emergence or transformation coming from their sound. I convinced them to meet for a sit-down interview at a way-too-brightly lit pizza shop. The desolate conditions were perfect for some soul baring.
I noticed early on that Modern Failures is laden with religious imagery, mentions of parishes, faith, angels, morals, prayers.
“I grew up in kind of a strange thing where since I was five… being in this evangelical church in a small town,” Morrison explains. “This was in Tahoe, the Nevada side, but it was very cult like. Everything in that church was pretty extreme. The prophetic stuff, speaking in tongues, laying on of hands [a religious ritual used in healing services]. Wild stuff. It was a show every Sunday. It was like a big-time event,” he adds, always having stoicism in his voice.
He described the “fringe band “congregation of only about 30 to 40 people and a pastor who wasn’t exactly likable. “It was a big part of my life for almost 15 years. When I look back I think it’s insane.”
As he got older, definitely by 14, he said he started questioning things a lot more. “They’re really driven by blind faith. If you didn’t have that there’s something kind of wrong with you.”
I basically bonded with him on the fact that we were having a shitty time.
He explained that the overly-involved pastor muscled his way into problems his mom and stepdad were having and that ultimatums were given, which led to his parents’ eventual split.
“My stepdad was banished from the church, which seems strange because churches are inclusive. When you’re older you can think and reflect, ‘Wow that was a lot weirder than I actually realized.’”
In “Come Feel” he writes about grief, despair and forgetting to feel— a trait so dehumanizing and numbing it conjures images of addiction, social degeneration or the end of a significant relationship.
Eventually Morrison did leave the church behind, but it was his work as an EMT and ambulance driver for about five years in Las Vegas when he was in his early 20s, where he profoundly transformed and ultimately lost any idea of faith.
“I would say I’m not at all affiliated with anything spiritual or religious,” he says. “I don’t have any gods. Having people’s lives in your hands, but also just seeing the dark side of life on a daily basis and how bad things are… There are a lot of things behind closed doors that no one really sees, the way people live and I think it’s pretty awful. I definitely kind of lose hope. I didn’t really get the sense that I could help people at all. I almost thought I was going crazy from doing that. It was extremely demanding and I felt like I was going nuts. It’s just constant death in your face.”
From one past life to another, he’d have to move on. The music and its industrial elements do a remarkable job of reflecting bleakness from those periods in his life and can be Gothic by nature. “A lot of the music I listened to growing up deals with darker material.” He did grow up in a musical family. Before he was born, his mom and biological dad were in a ‘70s lounge jazz band that would play standards. Morrison spoke about his mom’s influence on his singing style.
“I grew up with my mom in the house,” he says. “She was a singer, but she’d always sing in the house to Patsy Cline. Dolly Parton was in the house every day for sure. Elvis, Sinatra, definitely some crooners. She’s got a lower voice. She sounds different from a lot of female singers I think. I think my voice sounds like my mothers, maybe a bit lower. I’ve always sounded like this, stuck in the lower range. I don’t try to sound like anybody.”
As negative as much of those early experiences may seem, the album is full of paradoxes that add to depth of character. Contradictions are explored throughout, even with song placement. If “Come Feel” is detached in tone and subject to hell, the next and final song, “Good Clean Men” is the heavenly glimmer of hope that finds relief in its “We can dream” refrain.
“The way that we perform that song and the way that it comes across to me is a lot more cheerful than some of the other songs,” says Ruiz. “The lyrics, ‘We can dream’, it’s like, everything you’ve gone through. You can still just have your hopes and dreams.”
Ruiz, hit his own recent rough patch with the back-to-back losses of both his grandparents in the span of about six months. “They passed in succession of each other. My grandma passed away first then my grandfather.”
It just so happened that the two times that they went on tour this past year, was when his grandparents were ill and in the hospital. He went on to explain that growing up, his mom was single until she married his stepdad, who he didn’t have a good relationship with, when he was about seven or eight.
“My whole life I was always at my grandparents. That was my safe haven from whatever chaos was happening in my life as a kid, from arguments and things like that.” He said he actually moved in with his grandparents the day after graduating high school when he was 17. “It’s been a little rough with them being gone.”
Even if it was a very different line of work, the same ethic was handed down a few generations. “I always struggled with them supporting me doing music as a full-time thing. They just come from really traditional backgrounds. They come from working hard, having a job, things you’re supposed to do. Go to high school, get a high school sweetheart, get married, and have children. That’s the life that they know. I was always the one in my family that gave the vibe that that’s not what I was going to do.”
To them, he said they thought of his music as a hobby. “Like ‘Oh, you play with some guys? That’s cool.’ Ultimately I realized after a lot of self reflection and reflection on my relationship with them, they completely did support me.”
Both of the tours were with fellow San Francisco band, Chasms. Sounding dark and shoegazy, he married the band’s songwriter Jess Labrador in a whirlwind that November, shortly after his grandfather passed. “I’m more at peace mentally than I ever have been with my own life and everything. I’m actually feeling okay.”
Both Morrison and Ruiz agree there is a strong, but small sense of community among like-minded bands in the Bay Area (as if marriage weren’t testament enough) and that they go to each other’s shows.
“It’s changed to some degree… Three or three and a half years ago there was more garage stuff,” Morrison said hinting at the end of a trend or an ebbing wave.
“When we were coming around and starting out we were always like, ‘How do you get on these big bills [with] some of these bands we like, like Wax Idols, or Soft Moon?’,” said Ruiz. “Trying to work our way up, we would basically play any show that was offered to us. [We] thought, ‘I don’t want to play with four shitty bands that don’t sound like us.’ But we’d do it because we wanted to play a show.’”
In February, it all comes full circle when they play the two-year anniversary of Disorder, a post-punk night that will also serve as their record release show with support from SoftKill and Underpass. They have the distinction of being the only band to have played the night twice. This will be their third appearance.
“They understood our vibe. It was a post-punk night. It was like, ‘It finally makes sense. Why didn’t we try this a long time ago?’” said Ruiz.
With a clean slate ahead of them, the plan for the rest of the year is to start working on a new record and plenty more touring. “We have quite a bit of new songs,” Ruiz assures. In May they’ll be headed for Europe, when Weyrd Son puts on a mini-festival showcase in Brussels, Belgium followed by their own yet to be confirmed European tour dates. “We really like touring a lot.” Morrison emphasizes.
They haven’t gone cross country yet, but that would mean taking the old van, which has seen better days. Apparently the transmission had just blown, leaving it leaking fluids and scheduled to be towed the following day. Completely in character and as if on cue, Morrison quipped despondently, “I feel like the city destroys people and vehicles.” But he manages to crack a smile and is obviously telling a joke. Keeping it real, Ruiz simply says, “Nothing lasts forever.”