Going Off the Rails But Knowing Where to Land: ESSi and the Art of Noise Rock
After more than three years together, Brooklyn duo ESSi finally released their first full-length album. PopMatters caught up with them before a show to discuss their effects-laden punk sound, New York's vibrant DIY music scene, and how Craigslist saved them more than once.
4 October 2019
Take an experimental guitarist with a jazz background, a drummer steeped in New York's noise-rock scene, add some effects, inventive songwriting, minor stretches of improvisation, and you've got ESSi. The unique duo released their first full-length album, Vital Creatures earlier this month, and anyone who's seen this band playing various gigs in the Brooklyn area and beyond won't be disappointed to hear how their sound translates to the studio. Their brand of avant-garde noise, infused with vocals that teeter between menacing punk and ethereal dream-pop, is a wonder to behold in a small, sweaty venue, but it's just as rewarding in your living room or cranked up on a good pair of headphones.
The band, which consists of Jessica Ackerley on guitar and vocals and Rick Daniel on drums, formed in 2016 after Ackerley, who was looking to play in a post-punk, no-wave band with an experimental bent, posted an ad for a drummer. "I had just quit a band," explains Ackerley, "and Rick had been out of his previous band for a couple of years, so we linked up through a Craigslist ad I posted." After corresponding via email for about a month, they began rehearsals in earnest. "Even then, rehearsals were just us talking about what we wanted to do with music," Ackerley said. "We didn't really play much for the first three months. We just got together and talked."
With Ackerley, Daniel saw a kindred spirit with whom he shared the same musical goals. "With Jessica, I think it was her experimentation, and her desire to do her own stuff," he says. "Everyone else has a genre in mind, and her willingness to experiment was the biggest draw for me." He added that the spirit of collaboration was also an important factor in the band. "We wanted a really democratic collaboration, and with a duo, that's not hard to do."
Although both band members have been in New York for some time and find the scene there perfect for their music, it's a far cry from where they both grew up. Ackerley was born and raised in the town of Airdrie, in Alberta, Canada. She didn't have much opportunity to express her love for music, but she made the most of it. "Calgary would have some good shows at the hockey stadium, which is a very Canadian thing," she says. "My parents would drive me there to see shows. But in Airdrie, we'd have local punk shows at the Legion, with about four punk bands, get mickeys of vodka and throw crazy parties there. That would happen about four times a year. But outside of that, there wasn't really any live music (in Airdrie)."
Ackerley took up guitar at the age of 15. Largely self-taught ("the internet was my music teacher"), she eventually studied guitar at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, and St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, earning a Bachelor's Degree in Jazz Guitar Performance. Ackerley's studies were what eventually led her to New York, as she enrolled in nearby Rutgers University and earned a Master's Degree. "The whole game plan since I was a teenager was to move to New York," she said. "Every little step was to go and be a musician in New York."
Daniel grew up in the small Indiana town of Vincennes and would eventually catch shows in nearby Bloomington, a college town known as a tour stop for many artists. Daniel would absorb a lot of the punk bands coming to Bloomington from New York, and after his brother moved to New York, he did the same in 2007. But it wasn't as a drummer.
"My father's a drummer, but I came to New York as a guitarist," he said. "It didn't matter to me. I was all about noise and punk, and I was running everything through pedals, so I didn't want it to sound like a guitar anyway." One of the first projects he was involved in didn't have a drummer, so he made a natural transition to the drums. "I was using old contact mics into pedals. I didn't really care about the particular instrument; I was just interested in creating color and texture." Daniel formed the well-received noise-rock duo Yvette, which was also the result of a Craigslist ad. "I'm batting a thousand with Craigslist," he admitted. Then multiple projects caused him to burn out, and he settled into a more domestic life with his new marriage. Once Daniel decided to get back into music, it wasn't long before he met Ackerley and ESSi was off and running.
Eventually, Ackerley and Daniel found themselves recording with legendary producer Martin Bisi (known for his work with Brian Eno, Swans, Sonic Youth, John Zorn, and others) at his BC Studios in Brooklyn, releasing two singles in early 2018. Later that year, Ackerley met Jake Saunders, a publicist with his own record label, Ramp Local. It was a great fit for the band, who by then had already written, tracked, recorded, and mastered an album's worth of material with Jonathan Schenke at Brooklyn's Thump Studios. "We really liked Jake, and Ramp Local is the perfect oddball record label for a band like us." Still, it was almost a year between the meeting with Saunders and the 4 October release of Vital Creatures. According to Ackerley, it's all standard procedure. "The industry's a bit behind, so pitching to labels and trying to be a new band getting on a label's roster, it can be hard to land a spot. It's all about chance and circumstance and timing."
The sound on Vital Creatures – much like the band's sound at a show - is thick with distortion, layers of effects, haunting vocals, and the muscular thump of Daniel's drumming. The noise they create is heavy on the influences of bands like This Heat, Liars, and Sightings. "Sightings, in particular, were a big influence on me," says Daniel. "I once shared a practice space with them, and (Sightings drummer) Jon Lockie had these individual drum pads, and I asked, 'what are those?' So they were a big influence on me evolving, noise-wise, with the drums."
Ackerley's guitar influences include a lot of avant-garde jazz musicians, like Nels Cline, Marc Ribot, and recent MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Mary Halvorson. "Not only has Mary influenced me as a guitar player," she says, "I'm also eternally grateful to her because she's carving this pathway for me and the next generation of women guitar players." Daniel admits that his knowledge of the jazz world is minimal, but it certainly doesn't work against the band dynamics. "I know none of that world," he says." The way that I write is very visceral. A good riff or a good beat, and that's it. And there's not much intellect behind it. But it works well with what Jessica brings to the table." He added that even though the music can come off as chaotic, the chemistry between the two of them allows for the right amount of control over the sound. "We can go off the rails, but we always understand where to land," he says.
Listening to Vital Creatures, it can seem baffling that only two musicians are playing on the album. But the two of them make up for that in a variety of ways. No bass player? No problem. Ackerley has a bass string on her guitar – a Japanese model purchased through, you guessed it, Craigslist - tuned down to bass. "The way we tracked it is that I went through my guitar amp, and we split it stereo into a bass amp as a separate track," she explained. "So, two guitar tracks are happening with the same recorded guitar part." She also uses a variety of pedals, but not as many as you would think: "I have two loop pedals, two overdrive pedals, a delay, and vocal pedal," she says. "It's a very small pedalboard compared to other guitarists." Daniel's drum kit is augmented with a pedalboard and a Roland SPD-SX sampling pad.
"It took us a year to get our sounds sussed out," Ackerley explains. "Between getting the right amplifiers and the right pedals and figuring out what worked and what didn't work. The first year we probably wrote six songs just so we could have a set together, but we were also sussing out the sonic realms and trying to fill out the space as a duo."
Vital Creatures contains a total of 14 songs, and they range from the lumbering crunch of "Other Side" to the single "Pines and Cones", which alternates between speedy thrash and reverb-soaked apocalyptic soundscapes. The sonic nightmare of "Pads", with its fusillade of electronic waves, lives comfortably alongside the almost Beefheart-like atonal noise fest of "Fly By". But among those tracks are short interlude pieces that dot the album and give it not only more of an experimental feel, but also create something of a spine for the album.
"The idea of the interludes was to create a connection between the songs," Ackerley says, adding that sometimes they were created without the band even realizing it. "'13-13-13' was just Rick playing his pads, and then Jonny (Schenke) just hit record because he thought it sounded cool."
"The interludes are in the spirit of how we write and perform," Daniel added. "They just happen right there. Jessica hears something I'm doing, or I hear something she's doing, and then we can't help ourselves and start to noodle. That's how many of our tracks arise."
While both members of ESSi are fiercely dedicated to the band, they still find time to work on other projects. Daniel plays in a noise-rock band called Chat Logs, and Ackerley keeps her jazz chops busy and released her second solo album, A New Kind of Water – an avant-jazz quartet recording – back in August. But thanks to the fertile atmosphere of Brooklyn's DIY music scene, ESSi can continue to thrive indefinitely. "There's such a dedicated audience in Brooklyn that comes out to shows, and that would be difficult to rally in smaller places with not as dense of a population," Ackerley says. "People have moved to New York to be a part of it, to witness it, to participate in it. If we did this anywhere else, we wouldn't be doing it all the time. When you're in Brooklyn, you're living it."