Nora Singh, the Hit Bargain frontwoman and self-described “Gallagher of noise rock”, is ready to move on from “queening,” or trampling men’s faces, during the band’s live shows.
Her reasons for this decision are partly practical: It’s more difficult to find face-standing fetishists now that Craigslist’s Casual Encounters has been shut down. But they’re also political. Over the phone with AdHoc last month, she questioned the subversive potential of stepping on male fetishists’ faces. “Can you really say you’re smashing the patriarchy by playing into a man’s fantasy?”
If you’re the kind of person who actively tries to incite collisions between the expected and the unexpected in your art, you also tend to be the kind of person who resists being put in a box, which is exactly the kind of person Nora Singh is.
“In terms of the creative direction of (Hit Bargain), we’re entering into another phase,” Singh explained over the phone. This new phase is inspired by a series of changes that occurred in Singh’s life and in the world since Hit Bargain released its self-titled EP in 2016. For one, the American people elected a man to the highest office in the nation who, at best, has a notorious reputation when it comes to his treatment of women.
“We have a known sexual assaulter, a misogynist, someone who’s disrespectful of not only women, but trans people, people of color.”
Also, Singh gave birth to a child last fall, which Singhs says is “the most punk rock thing” she could do, simply because it’s such a curveball to what people expect from her.
But becoming a parent hasn’t blunted the kinetic political energy of Hit Bargain, whose new album Potential Maximizer, which was released May 11 on Buzz Records, features strident takedowns of xenophobia, sexism, and capitalism over taut electric guitar riffs. Singh spoke with AdHoc about the #MeToo moment, identifying as a New Yorker while living in LA, and what the media tends to get wrong about queer and non-binary people ahead of Hit Bargain’s show with PILL and Yvette at Alphaville on June 21.
AdHoc: What were you doing before you formed Hit Bargain?
Nora Singh: I used to be in a band called These Are Powers when I was in New York. We disbanded around 2010, 2011 or so. I moved to France in 2011. I had lived in New York from 2001 until 2011. I moved to France to marry our European tour manager, as you do. So I was in France until about 2014. Basically, I went for love and I stayed for the food.
We split, and I didn’t want to repeat myself, so I moved to LA in 2014 on April Fool’s Day. I lived in a house full of ex-New Yorkers and incidentally met [guitarist and vocalist] Mike [Barron], who had also just moved from New York. The whole band has, at one point or another, lived in New York. With the exception of Sean [Monaghan], our bass player, none of us knew one another before starting the band.
Once Mina Caputo gets going, she admits, it’s hard for her to stop.
“There are no simple answers,” Caputo tells us over the phone, her thick Brooklyn accent softening to a whisper for a moment.
Caputo is apologizing for digressing from a question, but her apology could also function as a maxim for the 44-year-old musician’s personal journey.
Caputo is best known for fronting Life of Agony, a heavy metal band she started with bassist Alan Robert and guitarist Joey Z in the summer of 1989. The group distinguished itself from its contemporaries by combining aggro, distorted guitar rock with Caputo’s vulnerable lyricism, which clashed with the hyper-masculine frontmen of the era.
And while the band developed a cult following and garnered modest chart success, Caputo struggled with substance abuse and feelings of gender dysphoria. She quit Life of Agony in 1997, pursuing a solo career and making a demo with the short-lived pop group Absolute Bloom. Following the release of a Life of Agony comeback album in 2005, Caputo's difficulties worsened, ultimately prompting her to seek medical care and begin gender-affirming treatment. Caputo came out as transgender to friends and certain family members in 2009 before coming out publicly in 2011. In 2014, she played her first official gig with Life of Agony as Mina.
As she finishes her seventh solo studio album, and prepares to record another record with Life of Agony, Caputo chatted with AdHoc about her tough upbringing, her songwriting process (or lack thereof), and why she doesn’t want to waste time convincing you to like her.
AdHoc: How do you think your upbringing influenced your art?
Mina Caputo: My childhood was a mess. I never really had a chance to be a child. I had a very destructive family. I think it prepared me for life’s punches and curveballs and tragedies, and inspired me to believe in things like the art of letting go and surrendering. You know, I’m not planning to go to my grave looking like Beyoncé, all fresh and new and gorgeous and beautiful.
This earthly time and life is about wearing and tearing, and getting into it and getting into the muck and getting dirty. Everyone’s fixing their life, fixing up a pretty picture to get in their grave, you know what I mean? The cars, the picket fences, the dogs, the kids, every gadget, every phone—every fuckin’ this and that. Everyone’s putting that much more energy into the fakeness of life. And I think my childhood, or childless childhood, prepared me to really come at life swinging and protect myself.
The tragedies—this whole life, which feels like a completely different life altogether—have definitely prepared me to be strong. To focus on the good, to believe in joy, believe in humanity, believe in myself, believe in my negativity, believe in contrast, believe in all the dualities of life. I literally just adhere to my own energy, vibration, and frequencies. I have to. The conversation with what’s going on in the world today—you get quickly derailed from your own human nature. I try my best to stay away from that whole kind of life.
In the new video for Saint Marilyn’s “Burn Burn Burn,” two lovers embark on a serene, sensual forest drive, but something darker lurks beneath the surface.
"'Burn Burn Burn' is a song about how desire can easily turn into anger,” Che Houston, who represents one-half of the Brooklyn duo alongside Kevin Marksson, told AdHoc via email. “As the song’s co-writer and the video director, I wanted to expand on that theme through the music video.”
Houston intersperses striking aerial shots of fall foliage with lustful gazes and bodies intertwining. The imagery complements the song's thundering percussion, enveloping synths, and impassioned vocals.
“Our main character is inspired by the fiery wilderness around her—she feels powerful and sensual," Houston said. "When her gaze turns toward her partner, and he callously rejects it, it pushes her over that very thin line dividing affection and rage. Suddenly, her heightened energy is focused into anger and retaliation."
When the world is falling apart, have a dance party.
That maxim seems to encapsulate Shopping’s approach to modern life on their new LP, The Official Body, which was produced by Orange Juice legend Edwyn Collins. Though its ten songs abound with references to groupthink and alienation, the album’s skittery drums, jagged guitar riffs, and chunky bass lines just might convince you to quit worrying and start moving your feet.
Billy Easter (bass guitar and vocals), Rachel Aggs (guitar and vocals), and Andrew Milk (drums and vocals) met through the London DIY scene and formed Shopping in 2012, out of their previous band, Cover Girl. They released their hard-charging 2013 debut, Consumer Complaints, on Easter and Milk’s label Milk Records before signing to FatCat and releasing the angular Why Choose in 2015.
Shopping toured that second record amidst the turmoil of Brexit and Trumpmania, twin phenomena that seem to have inspired some music journalists to read post-punk trio’s antics as “political.” While the label is by no means disingenuous (their songs have tackled issues like capitalism and identity politics), the group bristles slightly at being boxed in by the classification.
“I think it would be really easy to be like, ‘We have a platform, what are we going to say?’ and put loads of pressure on ourselves as if our music can change anything,” Aggs said over Google Hangout. “I know that sounds a bit depressing, but it kind of can’t. The most it can do is be cathartic for us and our friends and our fans.”
If there is a label that sticks to Shopping, let it be one of self-reliance and tenacity.
“We haven’t had a completely easy, breezy, beautiful time where we’ve been basking in the release of our last album for the last two years,” Easter said. “But we haven’t let it get us down. We’re still here and we’ve got another album.”
In 2018, artists face an unspoken mandate to “connect” with their fans, feverishly reminding us of their existence via social media and near-constant press coverage. With non-stop access, the distance between us, the consumers, and them, the artist, narrows. But the closer we get to the artist, the less focus we seem to put on the art itself. It’s the disavowal of these games that makes a band like Royal Trux so refreshing.
Royal Trux began as a creative and romantic partnership between Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty in Washington, D.C. in 1987. From the get-go, sonic accessibility was never a Truxian priority. Their earliest records, like their self-titled debut or ambitious sophomore double-LP, Twin Infinitives, can make for a challenging listen, mostly due to Royal Trux’s penchant for atonal noise rock and extended, lo-fi jams. Later records would expose the band’s deconstructionist tendencies as they toyed with ’60s rock on Thank You, ’70s rock on Sweet Sixteen, and ’80s rock on Accelerator. These records add up to a body of work defined not just by Hagerty’s guitar fuzz and Herrema’s snarling lead vocals, but by a guarantee of unpredictability.
You won’t get to know and love Royal Trux by subscribing to their email newsletter or syncing their songs on Spotify—they don’t have a newsletter, and their music is conspicuously absent from the streaming giant. And judging from their behavior onstage and in interviews, they don’t seem particularly interested in being understood.
In advance of Royal Trux’s upcoming appearances at Market Hotel in Brooklyn on January 19 and January 20, we spoke to Herrema about the band’s preference for letting the art speak for itself. They’re not going to micromanage the listener’s experiences with superfluous context and direction. To get a sense of what they’re about, you have to commit yourself to digging. But even if you do, Royal Trux doesn’t really give a fuck.
If brevity is the soul of wit, Juan Zaballa is one clever fellow. As Tall Juan, the Argentinian rocker emulates garage rock heroes like the Ramones with sprint-to-the-finish-line songs that rarely stretch beyond two minutes. His new EP, Joya Nedo, begins with a sample from a boxing match, as the ringside bell dings three times and an announcer says, “And here we go, round one!” With that, it’s off to the races for “Nine To Fight,” which gingerly gallops forward for one minute before the drums kick into overdrive. As quickly as it comes, the screaming crowd from the boxing match fades back in and the song is over, but the fight of the album is ever present. The title itself stems from a larger sense of fighting that stretches beyond its allusions to boxing. According to Tall Juan, "Joya Nedo is an expression me and some people use from where I was born [in San Antonio de Padua] when something is ok, or cool. On this EP, I wanted to talk about transvestism, this area in Jackson Heights called Vaseline Alley, where with friends we used to go at night just to check it out. Or about getting mad by not being free to immigrate or emigrate somewhere. About fights or when people don't know what they want and they try to make you unsecure."
While Joya Nedo retains the lo-fi energy of Tall Juan’s debut LP from May, Olden Goldies, the production is a little cleaner and offers a more balanced mix. It's easy to pigeonhole Tall Juan as a Ramones worshipper, but the Far Rockaway transplant’s guitar chord progressions outmatch the Forest Hills band’s in terms of complexity, even if it’s only by a little bit. The strongest of the four tracks also happens to be the EP’s longest. Clocking in at 2:12, “Out Of Town” allows Zaballa a little more space to immerse the listener into the rockabilly song’s slacker love story. “With nothing else to do, I guess I will follow you,” Zaballa sings, embodying a head-bopping Mac Demarco.
This article appears in AdHoc Issue 22. Download a PDF of the zine at this link, and look out for physical copies both at our shows and at record stores, bookstores, coffee shops, and community centers throughout the city. If you happen to live outside of New York, you may order a copy as well.
Nick Corbo apologizes that he’s the only member of LVL UP on the phone. “We typically try to get at least two people on, because everybody’s opinions want to be heard,” Corbo says. “So I can’t speak for everybody, but I can at least speak for myself.”
When we chat, Corbo is just coming off a few weeks of relative solitude, describing it as “an opportunity to get back to normal” after tour. But his reluctance to speak on behalf of bandmates Mike Caridi, Dave Benton, and Greg Rutkin is testament to their close bond, as musical co-conspirators and friends.
Thanks in part to the fact that Corbo, Caridi, and Benton all write and sing in equal amount, LVL UP is much more than the sum of its parts. There is no de-facto frontman or leader calling the shots. They’re a team.
LVL UP formed at SUNY Purchase and dropped their 2011 debut, Space Brothers, on Double Double Whammy, the label that Caridi and Benton launched their sophomore year. That album was originally intended to be a split cassette between the band—then featuring Caridi, Benton, and former drummer Ben Smith—and Corbo’s solo material, but instead they released it as one band. Rutkin would join the group slightly later, for LVL UP’s first show.
Though there may be a lot of cooks in the kitchen, LVL UP’s music—especially their 2016 LP, Return to Love, on Sub Pop—highlights the members’ common ground. Heavy, distorted guitars and reverb-soaked vocals reign supreme on Return to Love, with occasional nods to ‘90s lo-fi rock heroes like Built to Spill and Guided by Voices. But whether it’s Corbo’s slow-burning grunge-mumbler “Naked in the River With the Creator,” Caridi’s bruised-yet-buoyant “Pain,” or Benton’s Neutral Milk Hotel-adjacent Biblical meditation “Hidden Driver,” it still all sounds like LVL UP.
Gearing up to reunite with the band for a short fall tour, Corbo spoke to AdHoc about what happens when a rock band grows up—and what happens when you grow up in a rock band.
LVL UP plays Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn on October 6, with Yowler and Slight, and October 7, with Long Beard and Yucky Duster.
For IAN SWEET’s Jilian Medford, touring is a form of therapy.
“I feel like I have to tour and play these songs constantly and live with them in order to be meditative and be able to process my mental health issues,” Medford tells AdHoc over the phone.
After playing solo shows in Boston’s DIY scene as IAN (a throwback to her high school skateboarding nickname), Medford teamed up with drummer Tim Cheney and bassist Damien Scalise to form IAN SWEET.
The band’s debut album, Shapeshifter, which dropped in September 2016 via Hardly Art, sees Medford processing and pondering those issues—anxiety, depression, panic attacks — on lo-fi, guitar-driven anthems referencing Nickelodeon and Michael Jordan. While Medford’s plaintive, reverb-drenched vocals anchor the record, Shapeshifter is enriched by the trio’s sheer musical chemistry, transforming complex arrangements into undeniably hooky garage-pop.
“It’s IAN when I’m on my own, but they add the SWEET,” Medford says, pausing for a second before cracking herself up.
Jilian Medford: Some of my heroes were people my parents were listening to, like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. They’ve always been heroes of mine as far as music goes, and they’ve shaped the way that I approach and think about music—a more “freaky” way [laughs]. Also, the way they involve theatrics, but not in an over-the-top way, was really influential.
Also, a big hero of mine that comes up in a lot of our music and art that we make is Michael Jordan. My dad was a basketball referee while I was growing up and was always taking me to games and involving me in that world.
The jump from Peter Gabriel to Michael Jordan is pretty funny.
With its blend of dissonant guitar clashes, raging synth chords, and frontman Jamie Stewart’s morbid imagination, Xiu Xiu is daring in a literal sense: it dares listeners to keep their headphones on and endure—rather than necessarily enjoy—what Xiu Xiu has to offer.
But it’s that challenge—the masochistic exercise of listening to a Xiu Xiu record, paired with moments of undeniable beauty—that makes their music all the more alluring.
“Wondering” features Stewart’s signature, trembling vocals imploring listeners to “swallow defeat” as a pulsing, club-ready beat chugs toward something of a rarity in Xiu Xiu’s catalog: a bonafide pop chorus.
But groovier tunes don’t necessarily mean Stewart is beginning to lighten up. At its core, FORGET is ultimately an exploration of frailty and loneliness, ending on a poem read by the drag artist Vaginal Davis. The poem closes with lines that are peak-Stewart: “It doesn't matter what you think/ Do anything you like/ Because I was born dead/ And I was born to die.”
Over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Stewart seems reluctant to explore the roots of his fascination with darker topics, less because he's scared and more because he's worried it could ruin his creative process.
“A lot of ‘whys’ in music I think fuck music up,” he says
Some people write songs because they like to write songs, but James Jackson Toth writes them because he needs to.
“If I didn’t have to write songs, I wouldn’t,” he told AdHoc over the phone from his home in Richmond, VA. “If they didn’t pester me the way they do, I’d just do something else."
Since the mid-2000s, Toth has released a near-perpetual stream of music under the moniker Wooden Wand. The sheer volume of his output has freed him to dabble with a wide variety of scenes and sounds—freak folk, outlaw country, free jazz and psych rock, to name a few—without ever coming across as an artistic tourist. What ties that work together is Toth’s idiosyncratic lyrical stylings, and his refusal to linger for too long in the same sonic space.
Creative freedom doesn’t necessarily yield financial freedom, and Toth is no stranger to the necessity of side hustle. He explores the concept on “Mexican Coke,” a song off his most recent LP, Clipper Ship, singing, "Where there's a will, there are ways."
Although Toth admits he once viewed the side hustle as a somewhat romantic notion—doing something menial in service of pursuing your passion—he now believes it's assumed a darker significance in the age of the sharing economy. It’s a question that we kept coming back to during our interview: just how much hustling can one soul take?
James Jackson Toth: I guess I feel compelled to do it. I think it’s a misunderstanding that a lot of us enjoy doing it. I mean, it’s definitely satisfying to write songs. But it’s certainly not something I set out to do. I just started really young and kept on doing it. If I didn’t have to write songs, I wouldn’t. If they didn’t pester me the way they do, I’d just do something else. I’d probably sleep a lot better.