DIY mainstays discuss creating and understanding their third LP
Photo by Deidre Schoo
“The weak can overcome the strong if the weak persist,” realizes Lauren Olamina, the protagonist in Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower: “persisting isn’t always safe, but it’s often necessary.” Lauren lives inside Butler’s post-apocalyptic America where resources are scant and violence is an inevitability. It’s there Lauren experiences the degeneration of her known world as she loses her entire family to the throes of violent outsiders. Determined to survive and realize herself in a society that allows no space for her, she continues to write and document her experiences. She persists even when the most basic needs are hard to satiate, when it’s almost impossible to envision a future for herself.
Future-projecting and grit can mean hope and survival to those on the margins. The persistence of New York band Aye Nako is a case in point. “Just write,” says the band’s vocalist/guitarist, Mars Ganito, “even if only you see it.”
As long as I’ve known Aye Nako, which is many years now, they’ve been touring, consistently releasing music, and participating in communities based on resistance. They are relentless in putting themselves out there time and time again. “I think visibility is certainly important when it comes to participating in and building these cultures we talk about,” explains bassist Joe McCann.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the margins, how maybe the folks I know who consider themselves fringe-dwellers are in fact more insiders of their own inventions, more visible than previously assumed. Within this binarized idea of fringe and non-fringe lies the urgency to redefine the word “culture” and the desire to know this new definition’s influence on how we can imagine our futures as queer folks, non-binary folks and people of color.
Aye Nako has been a band for fives years, and all of its members have been involved with music communities far beyond this project’s lifespan. The band has experienced what most folks involved in current punk/indie/DIY bands would: rotating members, long tour stints, hours of labor that often goes unpaid, a supportive network of familiar musicians across the nation, multiple full-length releases, and a determination to not compromise their ideals. Perhaps what lies below the surface is something only other independent creators would immediately relate to: an uncertainty of how to self-sustain in a medium so polarized by money. “We hate capitalism,” guitarist and vocalist, Jade Payne, states bluntly, “It’s super important for us to support other bands in the DIY music scene. We really try to make it happen when possible. But sadly we end up turning down a lot of rad gigs…sometimes it’s just not feasible if we can’t cover the actual cost it takes for us to play a show.”
Many independent musicians compromise comfort, and sometimes safety, to pursue this blending of ideology and art, to remain integral to their roots. We can invest in each other but this economy of reciprocity is fragile. It leaves me thinking of those words again: “persisting isn’t always safe, but it’s often necessary.” It also leaves me thinking of how redefining culture can help us survive.
Today, Aye Nako releases their third full-length record, Silver Haze, on Don Giovanni Records. The band was gracious enough to talk with me about the process behind their new album, the gear they use, their recent touring, shifts in band dynamic over the years and music culture as it exists in relation to them.
BEAN KALONI TUPOU: How long was the process of conceiving and recording Silver Haze?
Joe McCann: Not sure what it was like in anybody’s head, but in real life I think it was all made in different blocks over a year and a half period from early 2015 to late summer 2016.
Mars Ganito: We were playing a few of the songs shortly after The Blackest Eye came out, I think. There were also newer songs we’d never even played live before we recorded them. I guess it was about two years?
For me, it was kind of tough due to self-doubt weaving in and out of my life. I spend so much time comparing my art to others and never feel like I’m good enough. It’s super easy for me to slip into thinking that I suck at music and I get so low that I don’t even want to write. Like I can’t even mine those depressing feelings and spin it into art sometimes. But then parts of me are like, “No one else has anything more interesting to say than you! Just write even if only you see it.”
Jade Payne: I would [also] say it almost took two years. Going through the voice memos on my phone, I was able to find the early remnants of [album track] “Half Dome” dating back to November 2014. We finished the record in October 2016. “Half Dome” is the first song I ever wrote for Aye Nako and the earliest-written song that ended up on this album.
[At first] I don’t think we even had a solid game plan for making a record. Over the last couple years, we’ve gotten a lot more organized & better at time management, especially since it became clear that the addition of Sheena, who lives ten hours away, was very important to us. It must have been in the beginning of 2016 when we really mobilized with a system of “long-distance” songwriting for the sake of getting this record done by that summer.
Joe: For me, the hard part was going through a transitional period of finding a new drummer and being sort of uncertain on the future of the band about halfway through writing the songs that would end up being on this record. After five years it was sort of overwhelming to try and reimagine what the project and creative process might look like.
What was the creation process for Silver Haze compared to previous Aye Nako records?
Joe: The previous albums were a bit more collaborative in the sense that we spent most of the songwriting process physically together. Since half of this album was recorded long distance, there was a necessity for it to be a lot more of Mars or Jade just writing and arranging the bulk of a song alone and presenting it to us all that way. I think about half the songs on this album we all played together for the first time about one week before recording them. A big difference also this time is that the songs are pretty split up in that half of them Jade sings and wrote, which is new to this album.
Mars: This the first time we have Jade’s songs on a record. Sometimes Jade would have parts for bass and rhythm guitar she wanted us to play or we’d come up with something on our own in some sections.
Jade: I joined the band shortly after Unleash Yourself was released, so I didn’t write on it. While writing guitar parts for The Blackest Eye, I feel like I was still trying to find out where I musically fit into the band. I ended up writing very lead-heavy parts because I wasn’t really doing a ton of singing and lead guitar has always been my comfort zone.
The main reason why I joined was because Mars had recorded a bunch of lead parts on Unleash Yourself and the band wanted to be able to recreate them live. Eventually everyone had started putting it out there that I was more than welcome to share songwriting responsibilities. At first I felt too humble – I didn’t want to mess with the sound that the band had already established.
Some songs on Silver Haze were collaborative, but most of them started as ideas from me and Mars. We wrote most of the record in the six months leading up to its finish. I always think of how much we could’ve gotten done in the last two years, but sometimes it just takes certain circumstances for you to get yourself into gear.
Personally, I tend to write my songs in isolation, stitch my ideas together, and then present it to the band as a near-finished thing. At this point, this is pretty much the only way we can work. I think Mars prefers to work on his ideas with everyone in the room, but I don’t have enough patience. It’s easier for me to lay everything out & direct everyone towards what I’m going for with each part. I really miss being able to just have practice in a low-stakes way and mess around with everyone’s random ideas, or come up with things on the spot that end up becoming great songs.
Sheena McGrath: Since I can’t compare the process to previous records, I’ll just say that I work out my parts mostly by jamming on what song Mars or Jade has brought to everybody during practice. Most of the transitions and fills I make aren’t strictly written but improvised around a texture I’ve identified and want to highlight there. Since we been long distance, I listened to home recorded demos sent my Jade or Mars to start internalizing the movements in the song so I wasn’t exactly starting at square one by the time we got ourselves together at the practice space in Brooklyn, or my basement in Columbus.
How did having a long-distance member contribute to the album writing process and alter the way you operate as a band?
Jade: In the Fall of 2015, Sheena ended up last-minute playing drums with us for our tour with Joanna Gruesome. Later that winter, she filled in for our tour with Speedy Ortiz. When we officially parted ways with Angie, we didn’t really know if it could work, having Sheena as a permanent member. But we were super lucky because she loved the band and had been long-time friends of Joe and Mars.
Sheena: When I joined the band in October, 2015, about half the album was already written, and the rest was written over the next about 9 months. It was a little arduous because I live about 600 miles from Brooklyn in Columbus, Ohio. We were only able to compose the songs over the internet or in brief spurts while we were all together either preparing for a tour or the record itself.
That said, for joining a band and writing parts for songs long-distance, we have a natural chemistry that keeps the gears rotating in a satisfying way.
Joe: It can be sort of surreal to spend like three weeks together traveling around and then not all be in the same room again for another 4 months. Combined with everything else that can be hard about trying to make art and put it out into the world for people to take in. It very often leaves me in a state of struggling and thinking, “is any of this real?”
On the other side of it, Sheena was a large reason why we were able to tour more in the past year. We got to go on a few tours with other bands and I think that ended up being a huge source inspiration and motivation for having a deadline to record an album, writing new songs, and just having more specific goals in general.
Jade: We came up with a system that entailed me and Mars writing and composing ideas through Garageband, sharing them via Dropbox.
Mars: [We’d] send Sheena a copy with drums and one without so she could practice her drum parts back in Columbus. Then we had maybe 5 days to practice with her in person before going into the studio. Recording went a lot smoother than I thought it would have.
Jade: We would plan ahead weeks and chunks of days when we could rehearse, either in Columbus or Brooklyn, and usually leading up to a show or a tour. We’d work on new material that way, knowing that we had to make the most of the time.
Money hasn’t made it easier, either. It’s not cheap to drive twenty hours total and take time off work. We get asked to play a lot of cool shows, a lot of them are DIY shows with bands we really love. But sometimes it’s just not feasible, if we can’t cover the actual cost it takes for us to play a show. That aspect of it is hard because it conflicts with our politics.
How do you see your work in terms of creating resistance and visibility?
Joe: We’ve been very lucky to do this for enough years now that many people have told me our band was a large inspiration for them playing music or booking shows and participating in a world they otherwise might have felt pushed out of. Obviously, the “our band could be your life“ idea is very much rooted in a certain kind of visibility and the idea that people can see themselves in these roles as well which in turn makes it all feel more accessible.
Mars: A lot of what I do creatively is to help heal my inner child. I’ve been in EMDR therapy for a bit, which involves recalling traumatic events and imagining my current adult self confronting her abusers, pulling her out of those situations and bringing her to her safe place.
I’m trying to be the adult in her life that she needed. She didn’t have any sort of heroes that looked like her or adults in her life that truly understood her. Stone Cold Steve Austin, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Buffy weren’t saving sad, nerdy black girls no matter how much I looked up to them.
Jade: At first I felt pretty self-conscious (still kind of do) about my face being on the cover of the new record. But when we were talking about cover-art ideas, Mars said that he wanted other black punk weirdos to not only see us, but hopefully see themselves too. So we scrapped the original idea, which was an arty looking landscape of a forest, to a stark photo of me and Mars on our rooftop at night. I grew up going to shows alone and feeling like I didn’t belong. I’d be watching Rilo Kiley opening for Bright Eyes and feel like some kind of phony, amidst a sea of hip-looking white kids. So POC visibility is very important to us in what we do. Mars has set a great example by talking about his songs to the audience before we play them, even when the subject matter is deeply personal and difficult to hear.
It definitely matters to the other trans kids in the audience or the other black kids. Our last show of the tour was at Everybody Hits [in Philadelphia] and I talked a little about one of my songs before we played it. After the show someone actually thanked me for not only saying what I said, but also for giving a content warning. Sometimes you never know what kind of impact you have on your audience. I always remember when Katie Crutchfield said in some article, “If you have a pedestal, use it.” It can be scary, but it’s important to use music and art to give visibility and voice to other marginalized people.
Sheena: As far as what I hope to reflect in playing music from an anomalous or marginalized position, I hope to encourage Fellow Anomalies to feel driven by their own ideas and feelings. It is difficult to feel confident acting in your own body and mind when they have been conditioned within territories so unfamiliar to members of a privileged and empowered demographic. Within Aye Nako, I feel we cultivate a sound between ourselves that demonstrates the magical cohesive phenomenon that occurs between autonomous, anomalous intuitions working together. Hopefully like an anti-program.
Can you tell us a bit about the gear you’ve been using?
Joe: I always use a Peavey Mark IV bass head that is very trusty! Not really sure what they are up to now but in the past I really bought into the story of Peavey as this super working class music company from central Mississippi that always made affordable pricing a priority.
Mars: The oldest pedal on my board is the Little Big Muff, which I used for our previous albums. I only use it on one song this time around. My two newest pedals are a Boss Super Chorus (I was playing a lot of Heart-shaped Box during this Nirvana obsession I was having for several months so I had to get one, but before anyone freaks out, I know he used the Small Clone) and DigiTech’s Obscura Altered Delay pedal. I’m still trying to figure it out, but it pretty much rules. It has reverse and tape delay options. I like kicking it on in between songs to quell any awkward silences when we’re not bantering. Years ago, Joe bought me a MXR Carbon Copy but I didn’t start using it til writing the songs for Silver Haze.
Jade: We used so many cool pedals! We were lucky to get to record with Joe Rogers, who owns Room 17 studio in Bushwick. He had a sick collection of pedals & he co-produced the album with us. It was one of the best creative processes I’d ever embarked on because Joe knew exactly what pedals to pull for me, based on sonic elements things I would describe in a somewhat abstract sonic way. The ProCo RAT, Zvex Fuzz Factory, Zvex Box of Rock, & the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man (orginal) were super integral to the sounds on Silver Haze – I’d never used any of them before. We actually ran my vocals live through the RAT pedal in tandem with a Tascam Portastudio analog 4-track recorder, to create a warm and slightly distorted preamp stage. My favorite pedal throughout my involvement in Aye Nako has been the Fulltone OCD pedal – it checks off pretty much every box in the realm of tone and distortion for me.
You’ve already tour a lot this year, including a run to SXSW?
Joe: Whenever anybody asks if I’ve seen anything cool or inspiring I always have to mention Moor Mother first – [Camae] works so hard and usually not a month goes by where I don’t get to see her perform somewhere so it’s always recent and relevant. In the past few weeks I’d say Sammus, Sneaks (I love Sneaks), Post Pink, Ursula, and Pinkish were also other bands I saw in the past week or two that felt inspiring all in different ways.
[Tour] gets harder as time goes on. Like everything else, it costs much more but we probably still make the same (or less money) doing it. It is also much harder on my mind and body, which sort of requires a different understanding of how to take care of myself and operate while traveling.
A large part of touring in the past was having this escape or break from everyday life. Now the escape is less desirable, the places or experiences aren’t necessarily new, and a large part of what’s left is the 30 minutes you get each night to perform in front of people and hope somebody cares about it enough to make everything else feel worthwhile.
We’ve all spent the better part of the last several years growing personally and trying to build healthy and sustainable environments and relationships in our everyday lives and uprooting to go on tour for a month can sometimes come into conflict with those things. I do feel very blessed to get to travel with people I love and get along with and 100% believe for better or worse that touring can only be as fun as the people you’re with (and I probably couldn’t do this otherwise).
A nice aspect of touring is that it’s probably the only time I get to see any real proof that anybody cares or is interested in what we are doing. Since we don’t live in the same place almost all the shows we play happen as part of a tour and usually in other cities as well away from our friends. It can be a very nice reminder that what we do is real or has some sort of reach outside our own world.
Mars: We played a gig at SXSW at TOMS, where I felt totally out of place, but the person who booked us loved what we were doing and told us to never stop. Also at SXSW I got to finally see Cakes da Killa and Fat Tony – both of which I’ve been wanting to see for years. This band called Eisley, who I was obsessed with back in high school played a beautiful set at this church. I took some video while ~walking down the aisle~ to the pew right in front of the stage. Haha! I feel pretty good about this tour though. At most of the shows we’ve played, it seems like what we’re doing is resonating with people.
Jade: Our first show was in DC & we played with TK Echo at the Bathtub Republic. TK Echo is the newish project of Chris Richards, from Q & Not U. Q & Not U were one of my favorite bands in high school so it was really cool to share a bill with him. And it was actually their first show ever! So look out for them.
I also loved seeing Cakes da Killa and Eisley in the same night at SXSW. Eisley played in a church to about 20 people at 1AM – it was very special for Mars and I, we have been longtime fans and we got to sit right up front and watch them from a church pew.
Sheena: I’m really looking forward to our tour in April and May. Our tour to SXSW and back was fun but a little weird cuz so much of it was spent at SXSW, which was a completely new experience for me that made me feel like Jonah in the whale. It was way more satisfying playing shows booked for us and congregating with people we’d hang with by our own volition anyway. I’m looking forward to more of that on our upcoming trip.
You’ve been in music for so long, what do you think needs to be changed about the industry?
Joe: Get out of it. I’d personally be more interested in creating and participating in alternatives that exist outside of what might be considered the music industry. I don’t have all that much energy and that really isn’t a place I want to spend it as it never seems to give me much back in return. I’ve seen and been inspired by real alternatives to music and art industry but they can feel pretty limited or temporary and building those realities can take years or generations and rely on all sorts of collective wealth and access that lots of us don’t have.
I’m more interested in real solutions and alternatives to basic housing, income, etc. then I am trying to figure out how to commodify the type of music or art we’re all making within an industry context. Not holding my breath for either of those things happening anytime soon though and just trying to do what we can to get out there and get by in a way that feels OK while I’ve still got the energy for it.
Jade: I wish the music industry didn’t hinge on capitalist ideals. I wish it were more viable to sustainably live as a musician without money being such a driving force. Also, there are fewer & fewer all-ages DIY spaces, because venues prioritize selling alcohol to stay afloat. We should be supporting these spaces that have still survived, because its becoming increasingly harder for younger generations to share their art with the world.
Sheena: Maybe I am too biased a certain way to answer this fairly, but I feel like I have no stake in changing the music industry. I hope the leviathan crumbles, but I have no ideas besides trying to exploit it over letting it exploit me.
Jade, you participated in a panel about safer spaces at SXSW. How did it go, and how does the idea of “safer spaces” resonate for you?
Jade: The panel was called “Safe Space to Rock: Combating Harassment in Music” and it was organized by FemChord, a DC-based radio show and website dedicated to featuring women & non-binary folks in music. Although panels always make me nervous, I’m really glad I was able to do it.
[During the tour to and from SXSW] I had a chance to talk to a lot of my QTPOC peers, not only from NYC, but in different regions of the country about the topic of safer spaces. It was important to me to echo their sentiments and not just speak from my own experience. Sadie Dupuis was also on the panel & so it was nice to have a friend up there whom I’d been on multiple tours with/have a lot of scene overlap with.
We were all able to have a good conversation about the importance of safer spaces as an ideal. Since the panel happened, a few people from the audience have reached out to me with gratitude and wanting to continue the conversation in their own communities, so that’s a good feeling. Honestly, what hit closest to home to me, was my conversation with you, Bean, about how the meaning of the word “safe” really depends on who is saying it and who is hearing it. If we’re trying to create a safer space for everyone, we need to prioritize the voices of those who normally don’t get a say in how things are done. We need to especially be listening to trans folks and black folks and asking how we can best support them.
Sheena: Not sure if this is only addressed to Jade, but as far as safer spaces methodologies go, I get concerned when we begin enumerating acceptable or unacceptable behaviors for the sole reason that manipulative and abusive people are hardwired to exploit any algorithm in the same way economists manipulate mathematics and statistics to justify deleterious and violent market trends and strategies.
I understand the necessity at times of enumeration in that Ten Commandments style. It’s an efficient way to draw lines, and honestly, some people just want to be told what to do, which can be legit. My two cents is just to encourage people to be wary of patterns in people and talk to your friends about them to help establish a more secure reality.
What’s your favorite track on Silver Haze?
Joe: Maybe this is kind of a cop out but I really like the mostly electronic instrumental introduction track with some older recordings over it. I remember pushing hard for it to be the track to start the album because I thought it did a good job of bringing people into this very personal world and space that all the other songs live in.
Mars: I think mine is the opening track, “We’re Different Now.”
As a kid, I was really into walking around with a borrowed TalkBoy or my little C-battery operated tape player and recording myself playing with my little brother and/or other kids, making up songs, or performing a skit where aliens were coming to kill off the human race. I was 7 when I made the first tape, a collaboration with my childhood best friend.
On the track, it’s just clips of him and I talking. At the end, I say, “we’re different now,” and it echoes and fades out. I can’t recall what I was referring to, but I think that sentence stuck out to me like a beacon because little did I know then we’d become such different people.
Our friendship ended a few years ago and it still kind of hurts. And then the music is something I just wrote while messing around in GarageBand.
Jade: I don’t really have a favorite song, but I like how “Arrow Island” is the one song I wrote that doesn’t have any references to bad romance. It’s about growing up queer and depressed in a repressive, religious environment. It’s sort of a “letter of reassurance” I wrote to my younger self, that my life actually has meaning and potential, that i’ll be accepted, & that my feelings are valid.
Sheena: My favorite track off the album is “Maybe She’s Bored with It.” I think it has a cool, relaxed and bouncy feel, but it’s still smooth. Plus the synth that echoes the really cool guitar line Jade wrote. I really enjoyed developing the beat in the verse. Plus, I like songs about labor.