By: Tim LaVoie
This April, from Austin, Texas, the experimental electronic hardcore duo Street Sects made their Pittsburgh debut at the Roboto Project in Garfield. They gave a performance as intense and impassioned as the work on their jarring first record, End Position (The Flenser - 2016). An amalgam of razor sharp industrial beats, samples, and buzzsaw vocals, fired upon the listener at a relentless barrage of fury, Street Sects exhaust the listener in a challenging, but endlessly satisfying way. The unique abrasiveness of their sounds has not kept fans or critics away, as Street Sects found themselves one of Rolling Stone’s “10 Bands to Watch” in 2016, and are now into their third national tour.
BOLD spoke to multi-instrumentalist Shaun Ringsmuth and vocalist Leo Ashline before their hypnotic, blissfully punishing set at Roboto.
Concerning what the band set out to accomplish with its first full length, Ringsmuth said, “Genre or musical direction aside, all we set out to do was make a cohesive set of ten songs. The mystery was in the mixing of it, because we had no idea if what we made would translate well to another person mixing it. Essentially, because the music is created with computer software, I'm already mixing it, with extreme preferences when it comes to tone or collage-style soundscapes. It was all a learning experience, for sure. Machines did a great job. If anything, I hear parts where I know I stopped working as hard as I could, for whatever reason--the mental energy just running out and never returning for revision. I have a hard time listening to the recorded versions now, because that particular canvas has been painted, so to speak. Moving forward, the aim is to make songs with the statement complete, a force of will that overcomes the bad day, the money problems, the relationship quarrels, whatever might get in the way of that day's work. I don't want to hear those secret failures in our next recordings.”
End Position is a record that every time it’s played, the listener can pick something new and hear vastly diverse influences. Within each track, the industrial cracks of Aphex Twin, early Nine Inch Nails, and various Mike Patton projects, violently collide with hardcore blasts of Converge to create something distinctly Street Sects. Ringsmuth acknowledged it was their goal from the band’s inception to bridge that gap. “It was always the goal to bridge electronic music with hardcore and punk elements. Many years ago, Leo and I made completely different sounding music, much of it guitar driven, down the path of Sonic Youth. Street Sects was intentional. The references you mention are fantastic. Aphex Twin's Windowlicker, Converge's Jane Doe and All We Love We Leave Behind, the first two Tomahawk records--incredible, mind-bending music. They play their part.” Leo added, “It was very deliberate, but at the same time we have always wanted to leave room for a transformation, or even a total reinvention of our sound. Certain influences get ingrained into you as a musician, but I think it’s important to try and sidestep what’s comfortable, and to avoid relying on familiar approach.”
Leo Ashline’s personal struggles with substance abuse are not hidden on the record or the press accompanying it. That Ashline is clean and healthy now was even put front and center in the presser for the current tour. Asked how comfortable it is to have such personal battles spoken about so publicly, Ashline responded with the positivity of a changed man. “I’m comfortable with it. I think that addiction is something that touches almost everyone’s life at some point, whether directly or indirectly. I think one of the hardest things about struggling with it is the fear of confronting your own weakness and admitting to yourself that you need help. No one wants admit that they no longer have control over their own lives. I knew for a long time that I needed help, but it took me years to come to terms with that realization, and even longer to act on it.”
Ashline’s willingness to share details of his struggle reflect the in-your-face honesty and barbarism of the band’s work. He revealed that “reading about other people who had overcome their addiction helped give me the strength and courage to seek help myself. It’s important to know that you aren’t alone, and that being an addict is nothing to be ashamed of. Going to rehab, talking to counselors, living in a halfway house…those things literally saved my life. Most people never want to admit that they are the kind of person who needs that kind of help, so they keep trying to beat it on their own, and their suffering just gets worse. It doesn’t cost me anything to put my story out there, and who knows, maybe it could help someone. You mentioned honesty in art. There is certainly no way for me to express myself honestly in this project without that story being a part of it. For better or worse, it’s a huge part of who
I am, what this project means to me, and why I wanted to start it in the first place.”
Street Sect’s live show is a multisensory animal all its own. As Ringsmuth began laying foundational beats behind a yellow light and pulsing strobes, Ashline roamed in front of the stage wielding a fog machine that disbursed a new plume every few seconds. Five minutes in, and all that could be seen was the yellow light. Ten minutes in, that reference point faded into obscurity behind the fog. (Hence no pictures from the show). As the intensity of the music and fog ratcheted up, no attendee could even see their own hand in front of their face, let alone another person. All this created the aura of being in an intense haunted house built only for your enjoyment - or terror.
This type of fully immersive live show presents a different set of challenges for the band each night. Leo explained, “We view touring and shows in general as work, part of the job, so our only hope is that we go out there do the best work we possibly can. Hopefully in doing that we give people a show that will stick with them. We tour with our own sound and light rig, so our setup time is pretty lengthy, and can be a drag sometimes when set times are back to back with other bands. There’s also the never-ending battle with the fog. Most venues hate it - at the level we use it - but it’s an important part the atmosphere we try to create, so we fight for it. When everything goes the way it’s supposed to, it’s worth it.”
With a growing notoriety and a sound rooted in two different musical realms, Street Sects find themselves at an artistic crossroads - a unique position to bend their sound further into either, or both worlds just at the time everyone is listening. About how the band will evolve, Shaun explained, “The band's sound, as obvious as this seems, will have to build on what we've done and will require tough choices about where to go next. Nothing is engraved. There's no path to follow or reputation to live up to. The next record could be different in structure and tone, as long as it's exactly what we want, and therefore honest.”
Leo added, “I think there are musical clues buried throughout End Position as to what we are curious about, and I hope that in time we have the opportunity to pull on each of those threads and explore them more fully. We have an EP coming out later this year that’s a bit of an intentional detour from what the logical or more obvious trajectory of our sound might be.” While their future sound is yet to be determined, Street Sects have an ambitious immediate future. Ringsmuth divulged, “The next year for Street Sects involves new songs, new conversations. I've already started demos for the second album, and Leo has described to me potential themes and images for the artwork. Aside from that, more life (not to quote Drake here)! I want to meet more people, play more shows, take this music to the far ends of the earth, and find people along the way that want to contribute to the vision.” Ashline concluded with even more positivity - not something necessarily expected after a few listens to End Position. “We’ve got a few smaller releases planned, but the majority of the next year will be spent on the proper follow up to End Position. We know what we want it to be, and it’s going to take a lot of work to get it there. That’s the fun part, though. Working together to make something out of nothing.”