Yasmine Kittles and William Menchaca are TEARIST. They come from California, but that's almost an incidental detail. They've carved out their own artistic location at the place where electronica and found-object percussion meet. Add Yasmine's primal caterwaul of a vocal, and the result is a raw, physical, music that picks up the attitude of punk, and kicks over preconceptions of how electronic music should be delivered.
So let's talk to William and Yasmine about TEARIST, technology, and the fine art of tearing up the plans...
When I first saw the name TEARIST I thought it was pronounced as in crying. But then I realised it's actually pronounced as in 'Rip it up'. But if you say it quickly it (almost) turns into 'Terrorist'. In fact if you put 'Tearist' into the search box on YouTube, it suggests 'Terrorist' as an alternative.
So there are three potential meanings in that one word, and none of them pins down what the band is all about. Or maybe they all do. What does TEARIST mean to you?
Yasmine: We decided on the name TEARIST because it was very specific to us. We are extremely influenced by artistic movements, and this was our own personal movement.
It represents, actually, everything we are about, as a band and as people. It is about our commitment to taking everything we know or have been taught as the 'right' way to do things. And destroying, ripping them up, shredding them, in order to create something that is the simulation of what we have learned and become as people, what we have taken from those things…to make us who we are.
William: It took us about three weeks to decide on a name for the band (we had made several lists over coffee), and as soon as we did, we booked our first show. That was in April of 2009. At the time we were talking a lot about artist movements from the past century. It's about creative destruction and deconstruction as creativity.
For our record release performance last year we destroyed a copy of the record while we played another copy on a turntable. The name is ambiguous, but if you mime ripping a page from a book while saying it, the point comes across. Not to be confused with terrorist (one who uses terror to intimidate); more similar in pronunciation to terraced (having raised flat areas on a slope). TEARIST: one who destroys.
|TEARIST perform 'A of N' - video by UptightSluts.|
It seems to me that there's an almost Blair Witch Project feel to your music - it's like the audio equivalent of a hand-held camera panning across a scene. It's grainy, it shifts around counter-intuitively, but the camera never stops moving and you know it'll get the shot. Do you make a point of keeping the rough edges in? Is that the Tearist aesthetic - to keep it grainy?
Yasmine: Hah! Blair Witch. That's a new one! Hilarious.
The things we do are not calculated decisions. We don't plan these things. We just allow them to occur. And aesthetically...we know what we are personally drawn to. We never give anything a label other than 'That's us', or 'That's it.' There is no box around what we like or what we are, because we are so many things. It would be impossible to try to do that.
The 'rough edges' or the graininess is there, I am assuming, because…it's real. And it's raw. We are not trying to be anything we are not…and we are pretty much baring our insides- fully becoming the most vulnerable we can be…and we allow you to watch it. There can be technical problems, there is the danger I often personally put myself in by working with large pieces of metal. I mean, it's very real…sometimes too real. But we wouldn't have it any other way.
William: We are both just being very honest and real about our performance and our production, not making a point of the rough edges, but not hiding them either. When we first started playing out a lot of people said we reminded them of Goblin. The faux-documentary horror film is a good analogy for us. It evokes the raw emotion and danger we bring to our audience.
It's so easy now to make smooth, polished electronica - I get it sent to me for review sometimes, and I just know it's someone in their bedroom cruising through some off-the-shelf software. But TEARIST's music isn't smooth and polished. It sounds more like it comes out of the garage. It's all bare concrete and bicycles, wires stapled to the wall, and a draught coming under the door blowing the dust around. Are you metaphorically (or perhaps literally) a garage band? Is there some sort of punk rock principle behind what you do?
Yasmine: Amazing. WOW! You, very very literally, just described our practice space/studio - the garage in Will's unbelievable punk house in Echo Park. Bicycles and all! I have a heater next to me because the draught is sometimes unbearable.
We are very much of the punk principles, I think probably because that's just what we come from. It's real. It is raw. It's honest. The practice space is perfect. We can practice whenever we want to, and for however long we want. I can bang on shit all day long and sing as loud as I can, and there is never a problem. It's really very freeing. There is no judgement or feeling of inhibition - we are there and it seems as though the world disappears.
At the same time, we have recordings that are extremely smooth and polished. I think we are not afraid if either...because it is, ultimately, still our sound. We are constantly evolving and our tastes are growing.
William: You are really spot on with this question (and all of these questions), because we are literally a garage band. We started off as a bedroom band and have since moved on to being a garage band. We almost never get to play in a proper studio. Our space is complete with cinder blocks, bicycles, cables everywhere, and a draught coming through the door. One of the main principles behind what we do is DIY. We are definitely influenced by punks like Suicide, Crass, and Einsturzende Neubauten.
|TEARIST do ambience. 'Ashes To Ashes' - David Bowie, deconstructed. Minimalist but strangely unsettling video by Skadden.|
I'm going to guess that early Yello are in your influence-mix, too - their first two albums, where you can more or less hear Boris Blank feeling his way along. And early Cabaret Voltaire, maybe, before they convinced themselves they'd invented house music. Chris And Cosey, who probably did invent synthpop. And Giorgio Moroder surely must be in there somewhere...
Yasmine: There are so many musicians that have inspired me to think 'Holy shit! I can do that? It can be like this?' My mind has been blown time and time again. I can't say it was one without the other. We started the band based on being heavily influenced by conceptual and performance artists. We created TEARIST as our own movement to break away - essentially tear - from all we knew.
I know where my influences stand in my life - my vocal heroes, my compositional heroes, my performance heroes, my literary heroes - Antonin Artaud, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Kate Bush, Jean Baudrillard, Blixa Bargeld...they all contributed to who I felt I was allowed to be, which was really just a limitless human being. But I did not want to emulate that. I only wanted to one day have the power to affect others in the way they had affected me. To inspire.
The moment I felt I didn't know how to describe our music is the moment I knew it was right. The moment I realized that I didn't care if anyone liked it but us was the moment I felt true freedom. It's so rare…and the feeling is indescribable.
When TEARIST play, all the music is played live, human fingers triggering sounds and pressing keys in real time...
In the early 80s The Human League put a reel-to-reel tape recorder centre stage, blatantly advertising that they were using pre-recorded tracks. That was downright subversive at the time. It overturned the whole concept of a live show. But now, it's totally accepted: an electronic band on stage will be miming to a backing track. I know one quite successful band that has a token keyboard on stage, but the sound is actually coming off the iPod Nano in the vocalist's pocket. So the whole situation has turned through 180 degrees - now, it's playing live that's subversive.
Are you aware that you're going against convention here? Did you ever contemplate putting everything on a backing track? What made you decide to do it the hard way?
Yasmine: A backing track was never an option. We work hard. I give my whole body when we play...and so does Will. I just think it's bullshit. Why would I want to watch a band throw a laptop on stage and sing over it? We are musicians. We make the music live, becausethat's what it is: live music. Will is unbelievable at what he does. Things change. We fuck up. We have to deal with it…and it's real. I'm not interested in watching a lazy band…and I don't think at this point we (as artists) should allow ourselves this level of laziness. Have some faith in yourselves. FUCK. So annoyed with bands right now. We didn't decide to do it the hard way. We just did it the only way.
William: My background in music visceral and physical. My favorite instruments to play were always bass and drums. When I started playing electronic music it was because I wanted something new, something with infinite possibilities. I had no intention of sitting in front of a computer to make music.
I'm kind of obsessed with certain eras of technology, such as the early 80s when digital technology was still in a state of experimentation. Back then digital components were being added onto analog equipment, creating the first hybrid synths. There are some really obscure machines from that time. Some were marketed as toys, others were popular studio items, and they are all more or less considered obsolete by current industry standards. I have a soft spot for the obsolete machines partly because they're from the same time as my childhood and I grew up alongside them, but more so because I have an artistic survival instinct to appropriate that which has been outmoded in order to create, while crushing the ideas of the status quo with subtlety.
One time, when I couldn't make it to a show, Yasmine and I were going to play the show via Skype, but my computer was falling apart at the time, so I made some backing tracks for her to use. She ended up inviting some friends to play with her on stage. Another time, when Yasmine couldn't make it to a show I linked up a bunch of synths and had a friend of mine screaming and making noise with me from the stage. I don't think either show could really be called a TEARIST show, but that was our only flirtation with backing tracks. It's simply not an area of performance that we've felt the need to explore.
|'Civilisation' - TEARIST live in the studio, from a KXLU 88.9 FM radio session in Los Angeles. Like a mash-up of Diamanda Galas and DAF, mixed by King Tubby.|
The other elements of the TEARIST sound, of course, are voice, percussion...and delay. The delay itself becomes an instrument - there's a song where Yasmine is basically playing the delay. The vocal and the percussion put in the signal, and then the effect takes over. It's a bit like the kind of live dub effects The Slits used to do, although in their case it was all done from the mixing desk. Is there a concept here - to blur the line between natural and unnatural sound? How much of it is planned and rehearsed, and how much just happens? Is it all meticulously controlled, or do you set sounds going without quite knowing where they'll end up?
Yasmine: The delay is used sparsely in order to enhance certain parts of the songs. In the song you are referring to in particular, the looseness very much has to do with what I am referring to, specifically, in the song. This is the loosest I will get with my effects…and it is very much dependent on my mood going into the song. If the song affects me in a particularly emotional way, I use the pedal to distort and reverse my vocals to great slowness.
All of this, however, is planned. In all other songs where I am using the delay - every moment of it is fully planned. I have no intention of overusing it and drowning out the natural moments of the song. It's main function is to enhance a line or a sound - to intensify the emotion/significance. It is all very controlled. It is chaos, yes. But it is a controlled chaos.
Do you find new objects to use as percussion at every show, or do you keep a favourite iron bar or what-not with you? If you use a found object more than once, does it stop being a found object? (Now there's a philosophical one!) When you come to Europe, will you be bringing your percussion items with you, or will you rely on finding new stuff along the way?
Yasmine: I use a set group of metal pieces at every show. There is a a pipe that has a very, very strong place in my heart (seriously), and a very strong place within the songs. This pipe has remained consistent.
My relationship to this pipe is almost psychotic. We were in NY playing a group of shows last spring, and I accidentally left this particular pipe in the back of a cab. I was destroyed! I dreamed about the pipe. I think I cried for days. I'm not even kidding. I was angry with everyone - blaming anyone I could for not having picked it up.
My boyfriend at the time saw how wrecked I was, and began days and days of searching every cab in the city - finding out who was driving at what time, which car services, license plates…I mean, It was out of control. And at our last show in the city he brought the pipe to me right before we played. He had located the car! I held it like it was my baby. I fucking cried.
So, yeah. None of that is healthy…but anyway. Yeah. I kinda have a favorite. I have since then incorporated a large rusted hollowed brick piece that has a very specific and necessary sound, which makes touring even more complicated.
I mean, how do you explain to customs that these large metal objects are your 'instruments' and you are in a band called TEARIST? But that's what our reality is.
Actually, I think it's hilarious. I love those moments we are met with of sheer confusion into horror into uncomfortable laughter at airport security. Priceless.
So, yeah, these two pieces will be coming with me. Other than those, I do like to find new things based on the new location.
I scope out the area around the venue and sometimes those get used…and sometimes they merely remain on the stage - representative of the newness and of things ever changing.
William: The pipe was found at a demolition site. I dug it out of the ground and cut it down to size. The other piece is from a pile of building materials found in the parking lot of the Southern California Institute of Architecture. I gave those to Yasmine and she guards them with her life. We have a surplus of other pieces we've found and we'll continue to add to the collection.
There is something special about those two pieces, and the way Yasmine uses them is beautiful, jarring, and transcendent at times. They're an essential part of our sound. As to the question of whether a found object can be used more than once and still be considered a found object - I would say yes. The idea of found objects in art is to remove their context. We do this when we bring a piece of scrap metal to a show, in the process we reappropriate it for our purposes. Isn't Duchamp's 'Fountain' still just a urinal nearly a hundred years after its debut.? Yes, and it's lovely!
I suppose this does rather beg the question - why use objects, instead of a drum or two?
Yasmine: Will does an amazing job creating powerful beats using the drum machine. My input is to add to that with the real. I accent when I feel it is necessary. The metal can be jarring and I often hurt myself, and there are elements of that that I think are important to the live show - as well as challenges I have to face - in dealing with the pieces themselves.
I am drawn to the natural percussion of everyday things. High heels on pavement, high heels on tile, pens clicking, the high pitched frequency telling you your neighbor is watching TV - I love that shit! And I think my personal excitement and attraction to those things rhythmically adds to what we are doing…which is exciting ourselves, challenging ourselves. Pushing ourselves to ask why these sounds of metal objects slamming and and banging and scrapping and scratching are so intimidating and yet so alluring. it's incredible.
William: I love the choices Yasmine makes with the percussion. She knows exactly what she is doing with the metal and with her body movements, it all comes together in such a way that I can watch audience members become entranced by it at every show. Sometimes it's scary when she's striking this rusty block on the ground and she starts bleeding, but we can't stop playing and when it's all over I rush to her to make sure she's OK, and she always is. The disadvantage of using the metal is basically that we need a first aid kit on stage, but if she were to use a real drum it would probably be destroyed after each show!
|'Break Bone' - another track from the KXLU 88.9 FM radio session.|
Where do you see TEARIST going eventually? Can you imagine one day having a big club hit? Is there, possibly, potentially, an 'I Feel Love' in the TEARIST repertoire?
Yasmine: TEARIST is going anywhere it wants to go. We have no control of what other people want. We only know what we want…and as long as we continue to try to make ourselves happy and be honest with ourselves, then, we've made it. A big club hit? Yeah. Sure. Whatever. Why would you not want to dance to it? I'm dancing like I'm crazy to the music, and that's really just because it makes me want to dance.
Nothing is off limits. Anything is possible. Everything is possible. But I promise you one thing- it will not be because we've said 'Hey, let's make a club hit.'
I mean, fuck, maybe we already have a club hit. They're all club hits to me.
TEARIST at SXSW photo by Madalyn Baldanzi of the New York Rockmarket blog.
[The 'geometry' photo of TEARIST is all over the web, but doesn't seem to have a credit. If it's yours, sing up and say so.]