[25 October 2011]
PopMatters Features Editor
Male/female duos have a proud tradition in pop music, going back as far as Les Paul & Mary Ford and represented in every conceivable genre and sub-genre imaginable. There’s something sweet and intimate about a good duo—even a loud, bombastic one—that seems to offer a glimpse into a private world, a peek through the keyhole into that most primal, yet somehow most mysterious, of human relationships.
In the last decade of rock, one duo ruled them all, leaving little but scorched earth in the wake of a catalog so fierce and expansive it intimidated the most innovative challengers and yet spawned legions of half-assed imitators. That duo was of course The White Stripes, a band that any present-day duo is obliged to contend with whether they like it or not.
Most wither in the comparison, but Berkeley rockers The Street Eaters have come up with a sound of their own that makes analogies to Jack and Meg meaningless. Over a rhythmic bedrock of fuzz-fried bass and tight, syncopated drums, The Street Eaters’ haunting and lilting harmonies evoke stone ruins, secret places and the quiet beauty of wastelands. With pop hooks propelled by punk beats, their live show is a sweaty mash of the sexy and cerebral, and it’s been flooring crowds across the country since John No and Megan March formed the band just over three years ago. With a DIY-on-overdrive approach, The Street Eaters have managed to carve out a niche all their own, and they show no sign of slowing down.
PopMatters caught up with Street Eaters on their return from a recent U.S. tour, which even a bad car wreck couldn’t derail. Their latest album, Rusty Eyes and Hydrocarbons, is out now on Bakery Outlet records.
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Let’s start with the usual: name and instrument, how long you’ve been around, how’d you meet up, other bands you’ve been in, etc.
Megan March: Drums and vocals. We’ve been a band for a little over 3 years. I’ve also played in Neverending Party, Master Volume, Before The Fall, Younger Lovers, and I still play in Wild Assumptions.
John No: Bass and vocals. I also played in Harbinger, Triclops!, and a bunch of other bands, and I still sing in Fleshies. Megan and I have been acquaintances for over 11 years (she was doing sound at 924 Gilman while I was helping with booking), friends for seven years, together for five, in a band for three, married for one. We try to keep our important milestones at prime number intervals.
You guys are all over the place touring, recording, making art, plus keeping your other projects going; you’ve got a ton of releases and it all seems very DIY. How are you so prolific?
John: We both grew up in DIY underground music culture making our own artwork, screening our own shirts, putting out our own records (and other peoples’ records), doing zines, videos, etc. ... it just makes sense to us to have a high level of creative output, plus we are both hyperactive and a bit OCD, so you combine that with a strong impetus to make interesting stuff and suddenly *POOF* there’s a bunch of releases.
Megan: We really like seeing projects happen! And keeping busy ... currently we have three 7"s, (a split with White Night, the “Ashby and Shattuck” picture disc 7”, and split with Severance Package), our 12” EP We See Monsters, and our brand spanking new full length, Rusty Eyes and Hydrocarbons. Personally, I get excited about doing the art for the releases, as well as the music.
Megan, you make the graphics for the band, right? And the videos?
Megan: Yes, I do a lot of the art for the band, including the record cover art and shirt designs. I’ve been really into silk screening from our house, making all of our shirts and posters by hand. It’s fun but I think it’s also empowering for DIY bands to know that they can make all their own band’s merch themselves without paying other “professionals” lots of money to do it for them. It’s also a handy skill—we found out that we weren’t going to get our new records in time for our month long tour this summer, so the day before we left, I hand screened 50 test press copies for us, so that we’d at least have something. Granted, many of them were smudged and kind of illegible, but people loved them cause they were hand done and all different. We sold all of them within four shows.
John does all the editing and work on the videos, I just help out with the artwork and some of the film footage. He’s got a great eye for video, and he’s better at figuring out computer video programs than I.
Your sound is wonderfully distinctive. Was it something you had to work toward or was it pretty much there from the beginning? Listening to some of your old stuff vs. new, it seems your harmonies have really come to the fore ...
Megan: I think our basic sound has always been there, we’ve just been able to focus it a bit more to make it as full and complicated as we envision. When we first started, I was still getting the hang of singing and playing drums at the same time, which can be hard. We’ve done a lot of touring and recording, and playing out in general since we released the first EP, so we’ve had a chance to hone in our sound.
John: Our self-imposed equipment limitations, which have remained basically the same since we started, have always left a certain amount of sonic space open. To fill it, we use things like cascading vocal harmonies, open bass strings, layered distortion, and melodic tom tom-centered drum parts. I’ve only played bass in one band before [Harbinger], and that was a long time ago, so since I really wasn’t much of a bass player before this band, my entire style has been developed in response to our particular sonics.
How is playing live in a duo different than in a more traditional rock configuration? I imagine it would feel a lot more vulnerable; do you feel like you have to work a lot harder in this band than in others you’ve been in?
Megan: It’s very interesting playing as a duo from the drummer’s perspective. In other bands, I’ve taken the backseat with the song writing, writing my own drum lines/beats to other people’s songs. In Street Eaters, I’ve co-written and co-fronted all the songs with John. It’s a rare instance when the drums take on some lead melodies, and dynamic/textures that go beyond the general role of drums. I’ve definitely been pushed to approach drums in a different manor in this band, also writing lines that can allow me to sing leads at the same time. I’ve never felt naked before, just awesome.
John: It can be intimidating at times, for sure. Usually if you miss a note or accidentally unplug a cable playing a guitar or bass in a three- or four-piece band, everyone keeps plugging on and you just pretend that you never made any mistake—it is likely that no one in the audience noticed it, anyway. With a two-piece, though, you are naked if something cuts out. Instantly. No pants, and not because you took your own pants off but because your belt broke and they just fell down around your ankles. So, yeah, we have to work to be as tight as possible, and really batten down the hatches as far as our equipment goes. Having a lot of distortion helps, too, especially with those occasional shaky notes.
How fun is touring for the band? I’m seeing you in some kind of station wagon rocking out to?
Megan: Touring is the best! It’s our favorite part of playing together. We travel around in our “lemon” of a Toyota pickup truck, which we renamed “Mad Maxine” this past tour.
John: We used to drive around in a 1991 Corolla, but Megan got bigger drums and I got a second bass cabinet so we had to get a pickup. Our pickup is called Mad Maxine because I decided to theft-proof her by bolting razor wire to the inside of the camper shell windows and put huge padlocks on the back gate to pretty much preempt any attempts at smash-and-grabbing our equipment. Of course, serious thieves will just steal the entire damn truck if they really want it, but you can’t get in by just using a brick. It’s great, and I’ve only sliced my hands and scalp open 10 or 20 times!
Mad Maxine, however, broke down in Mississippi in the last week of our month-long tour from June-July. We nearly bit the big one when the wheel broke off the axle at 80mph and we skidded to a halt on the three remaining ones. Death wasn’t scheduled in our tightly-booked itinerary, however, and there was just no way to fit him in, so we just had to survive. Unfortunately, since it was Fourth of July weekend, the combination of “The Lord’s Day” (Sunday the Third) and “America Day” (Monday the Fourth) created a giant, looming crucified bald eagle that screeched at us and made sure we couldn’t get any repair service or parts till Friday at the latest. So we left the truck at Marsh and Daphne from the Overnight Lows’ house, rented a gas-guzzling Penske truck, and finished the tour off in proper style.
As for what we listen to on the road, that would be books on tape these days. Autobiography of Malcolm X, Geronimo: His Own Story, Howard Zinn: Bringing Democracy Alive, John Reed: Insurgent Mexico ... hopefully next trip we’ll score some Gabriel Garcia-Marquez or Dorothy Allison.
Street Eaters has a few songs that, if they were paintings, they’d be landscapes—they tell stories, but the characters aren’t necessarily people. That wasn’t a question was it? How about this—how often do you contemplate a post-human world?
John: What you say is true. Non-human perspectives are pretty interesting to contemplate and write about, particularly when trying to envision the way those non-humans might perceive us. Of course, in this case we are humans who narrate from a human perspective, so we can’t really get away from that but trying to get out of one’s own head and see through the eyes of some other creature, of person, can end up reveling truths about oneself and the world we live in. Let’s take cockroaches, for instance. Obviously, an individual cockroach is not thinking about much except for eating, breeding, and avoiding the boot heel of an angry human or the venomous fangs of a spider. As a species, a phylum, however, cockroaches have a definite and powerfully-honed evolutionary trajectory that places them, as a species, firmly above humans on the self-preservation scale, and perhaps even exceeds our so-called “intelligence” as a species.
Cockroaches are superbly adaptable and have survived for hundreds of millions of years, a monumentally successful species, so dismissing them as simple insectoid automatons can really be seen as selling a possibly-superior species short. Here, maybe we are not thinking about a Post-Human World so much, at least not in the apocalyptic sense, but perhaps a world where we realize we are not so central and not quite so adaptable as we think we are. Maybe we are more akin to a form of white-tailed deer, you know, the ones that are invasively destroying the Eastern U.S.‘s forests, except heavily armed—killing off all predators, reproducing rapidly and consuming our entire environment in quests for individual fulfillment that ultimately limit our prospects for survival as a species. Maybe that will be the subject of our next song.