A Queerer Picture? Accurate Mirrors?: The Songs of Leor Miller

This story first appeared in Bandcamp Daily on October 31, 2016

Leor Miller. Photo by Micah Miller.

Leor Miller. Photo by Micah Miller.

The inspiration for songs strikes Leor Miller whenever, wherever. In art history class, the seeds of a song might appear in notes Miller makes in the margins of papers, in little drawings and jotted words. Sometimes, something another student says, or a bit of prose from a Richard Wright story, triggers a snippet of a lyric.

Miller hasn’t always worked this way—but since leaving the Midwest for Bard College to study photography, they’ve become an impossibly prolific songwriter. When they released riding out the big anxiety in March of this year, they stood back for a moment and realized it was the sixth album of some sort they had written, recorded, and published since leaving Illinois. At this writing, in the past year, they’ve put out 10 albums or EPs, writing 56 individual songs in the process.

Miller’s transgender identity shapes how they interact with the world. Since coming out, Miller has felt alienated from some notion of “normal,” but they take solace in their perceived strangeness. So in song, Miller treats the normal both as unfamiliar, and as completely fine—even idyllic. “There are some songs like: ‘Damn, I feel really separate from everything that exists.’ And there are other songs where it’s like: ‘That’s really chill,’” Miller says.

Their bedroom pop, alternately melancholy and twinkling, requires no band and no collaboration; any further refinement would add unnecessary shine to the lo-fi patina of their work. They’ve got everything they need in the clutter of their dorm room: two guitars, two amps, a computer, a kit of software, and ample material from which to extract inspiration.

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Eddie Moore and KC’s Young Jazz Musicians Want A New Space To Create

Eddie Moore and the Outer Circle hit blue notes at the Tank Room last Friday.Eddie Moore and the Outer Circle hit blue notes at the Tank Room last Friday.PHOTO BY ZACH BAUMAN

This story first appeared in The Pitch Weekly on 28 September, 2016

Eddie Moore is looking for a home.

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Actually, it’s probably better if the place is a little rough here and there — not big, not formal. Moore, the jazz pianist who leads Eddie Moore and and the Outer Circle, knows Kansas City boasts some really beautiful places, old and venerable joints, coat-and-tie rooms.

That’s not really his thing.

In one of the cradles of this most American sound, he’s looking for a stage set for youth, for boldness, for discovery. Moore says he and other musicians of his generation sometimes struggle to break in here, to join the capital-J-Jazz community of people who have dedicated their time and energy to the art — and to do it without propping up jazz as an antique or a tribute to something bygone, a seance for 18th and Vine.

“We’re just trying to find a home for the jazz of now in KC,” Moore says. “People are still stuck on making money from the classic Kansas City jazz. When do we stop talking about Charlie Parker and start talking about now?”

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Talking Charlie Parker with Jeff Robinson

First appeared in The Pitch Weekly on September 6, 2016

When Jeff Robinson becomes Charlie Parker onstage, as he did in August at the Green Lady Lounge downtown, the transformation startles. The performer, middle-aged, with two sons and a wife in Boston, disappeared. In his place was Bird, slumped in a chair at a small table, his double-breasted suit unbuttoned and askew, the booze helping him brag and name-drop and angle to get paid ahead of the gig, the better to score later.

This was Robinson, doing his one man show, Live Bird — part theater, part live music performance, part historical re-enactment — as part of KC Jazz Live’s third annual celebration of Parker’s life and legacy. The show has evolved over the 20-plus years since Robinson first wrote it, but its essence has been constant: Parker’s music.

The rest Robinson has created out of whole cloth, he says. The other characters — invisible, composites or long-gone real people — change from performance to performance. He mentally dresses them in different clothes, he told me, mostly to ground his concentration in the perceived details of Parker’s imaginary audience. A reporter visible to the Bird who showed up at Green Lady, for instance, wore a ratty orange suit, Robinson said. He slurs and lets himself grow flustered as the show’s hour ticks on, yelling during a strained phone call between the saxophonist and his mother. He appears to be, much as Parker must have, a man losing a struggle.

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Mikey Wheeler leaves his mark on Mercy Seat – and the Crossroads


[This first appeared in The Pitch Weekly, July 2016]

On a recent Friday in the Crossroads, Mikey Wheeler executed his usual high-wire act. Performing with his band, Coward, he switched between two not particularly similar instruments, drums and guitar. In close-knit DIY music scenes, it’s not uncommon to see one musician switch instruments between sets — playing bass in one band and drums in another, for example. Rare, though, is the player who trades duties in the same band, from one song to the next.

For Wheeler, it’s all part of the job. He wears a lot of hats — both in the band and outside it.

Coward is a talented bunch. With the frequent absence of guitar, the all-instrumental quartet traffics in waves of heavy dual drumming from Wheeler and Cody Mains, who punish their interconnected kits with astonishing synchronization, anchored by Paul Baughman’s driving bass. Woven into this heavy racket are Nathan Driskil’s keyboards, emphasizing an airy electronic organ sound that lets Coward pivot wildly between gazey melodies and heavy, punk-tinged prog in which Baughman clearly owns the top of the mix.

Yet Wheeler says Coward aims to be accessible — catchy, even. “There’s some math in there,” he says. “But it’s supposed to be fun to listen to.” By and large, Coward succeeds at this.

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International Noise Conference points to tomorrow’s avant-garde


[This first appeared in The Pitch Weekly, June 2016]

Piper Harrow is busy enough without having to deal with this damn generator.

Outside, a dozen or so punks have arrived early at the Hidden Temple, the forlorn warehouse off Southwest Boulevard where Harrow books below-the-radar shows — including this June 22 Kansas City tour stop of the International Noise Conference. The punks kick at gravel outside and smoke cigarettes, waiting to hear noise. But the generator won’t start, so the speakers sit silent.

The International Noise Conference, a touring magnet for a city’s loudest, weirdest acts, has come to the Hidden Temple because Harrow and others heeded a call from a man named Frank Falestra. Better known as Rat Bastard, Falestra is, at 55, one of the world’s best-known purveyors of shattering, screaming noise. Every February for the past 15 years or so, he has hosted the conference a couple of miles from his Miami home, at a place called Churchill’s, a monstrous pub in Little Haiti so impossibly shabby it makes most Kansas City dives seem like your grandmother’s house. Dozens of acts spend a weekend playing cacophonous 15-minute sets; there are proper guitar-and-drums bands playing grindcore and speed metal, and there is electronic experimentation, and there is circuit bending. (Falestra himself opts for instruments — electric guitar and violin, mostly.) The medium barely matters. What matters is creating the unexpected. What matters are decibels.

Then, in the summer, Falestra takes his show on the road. Harrow is from Florida and has witnessed some wild nights at Churchill’s, so when Falestra was looking for a show in Kansas City, word got back to Harrow, whose Hidden Temple has been a sanctuary for events too late or too loud for other venues. This Wednesday night, then, represents an opportunity for the city’s blooming noise and experimental-music scene to show off its varied artists. This Is My Condition, the avant-garde hardcore project of Kansas City musician Craig Comstock, headlines the local roster, which also includes subdued ambient and drone alongside the chaotic clamor that dominates the 11-act road show.

But only if that generator starts.

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Interview: SOMNIA

[This first appeared in Spark Mag, July 2016]

David Combs and Erica Freas have been close for years. They’ve bonded through their myriad musical projects, including their respective punk bands – Erica sings and plays guitar in RVIVR, while Combs does the same in The Max Levine Ensemble – and their extensive work as solo artists. They’ve toured together, performed together, written together.

Then, they tried dreaming together.

Fascinated by the prospect of writing songs while deep inside a particularly lucid dream, Freas and Combs embarked on a mental mining expedition through their individual and – they hoped – collective unconsciouses in the hopes of emerging into waking life with new, sleep-composed songs in hand. They didn’t quite get there, but their months-long efforts did net them a new band and a preposterously good pop punk record.

The Moon Shines On The Shit, the debut album from SOMNIA – in which Freas and Combs play alongside fellow RVIVR guitarist and vocalist Mattie Joe Canino and drummer Josef Bellucci – employs big, hooky pop-punk songs to chronicle two artists’ quest to plumb the depths of their dream states, and make those dreaming lives connect on the other side. Somnia is the Latin word for dreams and visions, and each song on the record seems to weave between this hazy, dream state and our tangible, conscious lives. “Double Life,” the album’s opening track, is an admittance that this dumb waking world so often leaves us grasping for something more, reaching for the the extended possibilities of the sleep realm and the “astral plane.” The record pivots from the hopeful to the dark, perhaps dwelling on death too much, as we all do. “Death blows in like a cold breeze, wrapped in the cloak of night, it occupies my mind,” Combs sings on “Death Blows.” That’s the reality of probing one’s deepest dreams for the stuff of songs: the light and the dark all come out, and you can’t really choose which one you get.

For Combs and Freas, such psychic questioning unfolds as mastercraft. Freas has written songs based on dreams before – the subject matter of “Spider Song,” which she’s recorded both solo and with RVIVR, came to her in her sleep. But together with Combs, The Moon Shines On The Shit documents a mental journey few songwriters have embarked upon. The resulting songs are fascinating and urgent – both as ways to delve deeper into one’s own consciousness, and to escape what’s often a trash pile of a waking world.

Combs and Freas talked to us about SOMNIA, writing about dreams, making a living as a DIY artist and the fight to deliver their music while fending off search engine algorithms and corporate music power.

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Review: The Black Sparks’ debut LP


[This first appeared in Impose Magazine, June 2016]

The first few steps into The Black Sparks’ new self-titled full length reveal something of a false floor. The Washington, DC post-punks open the album slowly, with a handful of measures bathed in sludgy guitars and crashing cymbals, but that’s all a ruse. From there, the album’s first song, “Corporate Shuffle”, blasts off, with twitchy drums and singer Andrew Salfi’s desperate screams. The band takes no rest from there.

The 10-track album, out tomorrow on Fredericksburg, Virginia label Tape Modulator, captures the evolution of what has long been one of Washington, DC’s most promising punk bands. The five-piece’s earlier work – particularly 2014’s three-song demo, recorded in Salfi’s basement at some point that winter – hinted at an expanding music repertoire. Two songs on the demo appear on the new record, including “Corporate Shuffle”, and the band’s shifting approach to their punk mission, from the guitar work of Jonah Antonelli and Sam Grove, to Ray Brown’s romping bass and Nathaniel Salfi’s manic drumming, pushed promise through the low-fi tracks.

Now, that basement fuzz has been replaced with masterful clarity and depth. Recorded at legendary DC punk mainstay Inner Ear Studios, The Black Sparks captures the band’s admirable range and depth, which extends beyond what the less adventurous among us would be willing to consider. The record churns, it screams, it’s punk in most every way, but the band’s disparate musical influences and interests shine throughout. Where another band might stick to punk backbeats and wrap things up in a couple of minutes, The Black Sparks injects dub influences, jagged rhythms and whatever other fixings they care to add. The sonic cornucopia is uniquely theirs.

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John Stabb, 1961-2016

[This story, co-written with Matt Cohen, appeared in the Washington City Paper on May 12, 2016]

It wasn’t John Stabb’s idea. The decorations strewn about his room at Holy Cross Hospital, the photographer, and the minister. Less than a month earlier, doctors had diagnosed Stabb—the wiry, iconic lead singer of seminal D.C. hardcore band Government Issue—with an aggressive form of stomach cancer from which few recover. As part of his treatment, Jaya Vijayan, the medical director in charge of Stabb’s care, asked him what he felt compelled to make happen, what he most wanted to get done. It’s the kind of question intended to help a patient set goals and remain motivated while fighting an aggressive disease. Stabb told her he wanted two things: to get his book published, and to get married. Thus the minister.

Stabb first told others of his stomach pains a few days before playing a Jan. 19 show with his band History Repeated at Comet Ping Pong. By the day of the show, the pain was severe, the result of what Stabb thought was a bad case of appendicitis. “I was deeply concerned about his health,” says Derrick Baranowsky, Stabb’s best friend and History Repeated bandmate. “I showed up thinking it was just a regular night and he said ‘Oh, by the way, I don’t know if you heard, but I might have to go to the E.R. after this show. I might have appendicitis.”

Baranowsky urged Stabb not to perform, but he insisted. “No, no, I’ll be fine,” he recalls Stabb saying. The band played, and Stabb performed in his trademark way—thrashing about the stage and into the crowd while belting out his band’s songs—as best he could. “He did the show and he was still John, but he was clearly a little less animated,” Baranowsky says.

After the set, Stabb went to the E.R. He was released after a couple days, but he wouldn’t be home for long: A week later, Mina Devadas, Stabb’s partner, rushed him to Holy Cross Hospital, his pain now far worse. He needed emergency surgery. Doctors removed multiple tumors from his stomach, and they delivered his cancer diagnosis soon after.

In the hospital, Devadas reminded him that the two had never really talked about marriage before, other than to agree that it wasn’t for them. Both had been married before, and Devadas says they decided early in their relationship that they didn’t need a piece of paper to be happy together. “We could just date each other for the rest of our lives, and that would be pretty cool,” Devadas says. “But going through this illness, we wanted some permanency. There was a feeling of wanting to hold on and cement something.”

So Vijayan called on her team to arrange the ceremony, and on March 17—St. Patrick’s Day—Devadas and Stabb were wed. It was a private ceremony, just the two of them and the group the hospital had assembled. Stabb wore his straight edge hoodie; Devadas wore a hoodie of her own. They exchanged dog tags with their names on them Devadas made at a local pet store. “It was a really fun, really happy day for both of us,” she says.

The doctors had agreed to let Stabb delay his chemotherapy for a day so he’d feel good at his wedding. That night, Stabb began a chemo regimen that would last for 21 consecutive days. The treatment left him weak but did little to stop the cancer.

“Our honeymoon was in a hospital bed that we made into a double bed by pushing a cot together with the hospital bed,” Devadas says. “And I spent every night of those 112 days with John in the hospital, because he asked me to, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”

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The State of D.C. Hardcore

Rob Watson, pictured here fronting Pure Disgust, organized the La Casa showcase to help introduce a newer crop of D.C. hardcore acts to the scene. Robin Zeijlon is on drums.

[Originally appeared on NPR.org in March 2016]

Rob Watson was ready for something new.

At 9 p.m. on a Friday in February, Watson was standing outside of La Casa, a micro-church and community center — whose main chapel is the size of your parents’ spacious living room — nestled next to a tienda in Washington, D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Inside, a hardcore punk band called Unknown Threat had just taken the stage.

Of course, there was no actual stage. There was just the floor where the band set up at one end of the room, and the dozens of fans in attendance who stood everywhere the band wasn’t and this is more or less what punk looks like. Once Unknown Threat hit its stride a few songs into its set, those standing closest to the band churned into motion, ricocheting off of one another and swinging arms wildly, seemingly unconcerned whether friend or foe caught a fist to the face.

But to Watson, who has performed in bands and booked shows in D.C. for years, the city’s punk scene, at this moment, feels complacent. He says he has watched the scene he helped build lose urgency, at least at home.

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Maracuyeah Collective: DC’s Rabble-Rousing DJ Collective Is Creating A New Kind Of Party

Show featuring Mexico:Argentian Kumbia Queers co organized by Maracuyeah and Anthology of Booty Photo by Daniel Martinez via Kesta DC Warmed

[Originally appeared in The Spark Mag in March 2016]

They call it “Maracuyeah.”

It’s a little joke – an emphatic twist of the Spanish word for passion fruit, “maracuyá.” And that’s just it. Washington, D.C.’s Maracuyeah Collective is about passion. For the past five years, the collective has organized and hosted sweaty, throbbing parties, soundtracked by Latin music from across countries and generations and attended by a similarly diverse swath of the city’s Latin community. They make their parties welcome to people across the spectrum of cultural and gender identities, queer and straight. While there have been other Latin dance events in D.C. over the years, none have provided the space for the DJs and party-goers to which Maracuyeah caters.

The collective’s pioneering members found one another through the deep underground broadcasting scene in D.C. In those early days, Kristy Chavez-Fernandez – known locally asKristy La Rat – and collective co-founder Maria Fernandez Escobar – who performs as DJ Mafe – operated in the same circles around music, underground radio, Latin beats and their shared culture and community.

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