Oakland duo in conversation about their new Ursula K. Le Guin Inspired LP
Photo by Shawnecee Schneider
Street Eaters is a duo from Oakland, California that brings more sounds, thoughts, hopes, and ideas than bands with more people than van seats. Their new release, The Envoy, comes out May 12 and is a concept album based on the writing and ideas of radical sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin. I have seen the band play live everywhere from warehouse spaces, to after hour shows at diners, to SXSW showcases, and they always deliver the same intense energy and emotion. Megan March, the band’s vocalist and drummer, brings everything from inside of her out. It feels as if the stage inhales and exhales via her performance. John No plays a bass but splits it through a bass and a guitar amp, creating a strikingly full and dynamic sonic wall.
Street Eaters’ live show is hard to meet with a recording, but The Envoy achieves just that. The album’s sounds and words bring the listener deep into a narrative built around so much pain that is simultaneously personal and private – like mental health, sexism, economic injustice, and misogyny – and how that agony is shaped by structures and institutions. Throughout listening I returned to these lines from Le Guin’s most famous work, The Dispossessed: “We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.”
I spoke with the band about their new album, and specifically about the song “Means,” which unpacks the ninety degree hill of going through time with mental health trials and how to cope.
VICTORIA RUIZ: These new tracks are so powerful musically and conceptually, while also being nuanced in their recording and sound quality. What was the process of making the tracks? How did you decide on the themes and lyrics to use?
MEGAN MARCH: When we first started writing for this record, I was reading a lot of Le Guin’s work, and early on realized how many parallels there were between what I wanted to say and her books, specifically The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness. From there, I found a lot of freedom to write lyrics around her texts, sometimes recontextualizing it with my own perspective, or trying to keep it close to the story line but maybe with a different lens. Ironically, using the foundation of the books’ concepts allowed me to get more personal with the lyrical content, and it was really satisfying to find that space for expression.
The themes are sequenced in a way that echoes the progression of the books and, as with Le Guin’s writing, tie strongly into the world we all live in and share. Some themes that consistently emerge are alienation/isolation/loss/death, the supernatural/alien, dystopian hellscapes, the destructive and exclusionary nature of capitalism (including impacts on mental health), control and power, society’s oppressive take on gender and sexuality, reckoning/revolution for oppression and injustice, combating the male gaze, change/changing the system itself rather than just patching/adapting it, the concept of love as consumption and emotional ownership of people and resistance to this notion in a search for something more meaningful (sans judgment), not taking things just because you can – lots of things that dovetail together.
JOHN NO: We started writing the new material that would become The Envoy soon after we finished four plus months of touring on our last album Blood::Muscles::Bones, and we made the decision very early on that this was going to be a concept record – any trad “punk” resistance to the whole idea of concept records notwithstanding, haha. Megan wrote/adapted the lyrics, and the concept opened up a lot of new musical ideas for both of us as we did our best to capture the feel of the books through sound – wide open spaces, alien noisescapes, ideological and emotional fury in a constant push/pull with resignation and melancholy. Going on the full journey, you know? There are actually several instrumental tracks, both as thematic/textural segues and standalone songs, and more that didn’t even make it onto the album – they might be released as a companion tape. We recorded the album ourselves over the course of several months in our soundproofed garage, which gave us a lot of leeway to really explore, revise, and refine different ideas. We also did a lot of wild noisy layering with drums/percussion, ultra-distorted bass, vocals, comets and planetary oscillations, glaciers cracking, saturated/abrasive feedback and delay loops, etc. Megan has a degree in music – including recording – from Mills college and studied under beautiful avant-wingnuts like Maggie Payne and Fred Frith, and that background, plus having the space and time to really dig into new ideas/directions, led to a different approach this time around – but as weird and noisy as the album gets, it was really important to us to make sure the songs are still very much at the core of it.
“Means” is such a forceful concept. It can take on a different significance depending on whether you’re thinking about means as a process or as resources. What do it mean here?
MEGAN: “Means” starts off with a few lines from The Dispossessed, talking about how people end up being owned by their material possessions in a capitalist society. I took that idea in a parallel direction to think about the mental states that society puts us into, questioning if these sicknesses are self-contained, mental illnesses, or if the real sickness is being imposed on us. The way I see it, the outside sicknesses are forces of oppression like capitalism, patriarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, white supremacy, you get the idea. These can result in personal illnesses we try so hard to cope with or cure, and often get shamed for, like depression and drug addiction. I think those benefiting from the societal sicknesses would like us to believe it’s our fault, and that their systems of oppression should be accepted as a given, like the natural law of gravity.
JOHN: Means isn’t about anybody specifically, other than our own experiences and the contexts of the characters in the books—particularly Shevek’s experiences and observations on Urras in The Dispossessed, as when he makes an incendiary speech about how capitalism affects people’s mental states. There are a few close friends of ours who we lost to suicide and overdose this year. There is a real stigma to people dealing with mental illness and I think talking about it is important.
What is the album’s cover art image in reference to?
JOHN: The cover artist was our good friend Miriam Klein Stahl, an art teacher at Berkeley High, where I do some of my teaching and sub teaching work. She has done a lot of amazing work, most recently illustrating the Rad American Women A-Z and Rad Women Worldwide books. We feel really honored that she was down to do the artwork for us.
You all tour a lot and have such amazing records as well as your label. How are you able to both focus on your live set and your documentation of your music? How connected are they? Do you see them as separate outlets for your work?
MEGAN: I think it’s safe to say everything is connected, though logistically it is sometimes really hard to make the space to play for the sake of music when we have so many irons in the fire, and there’s just two of us. That is part of the reason why we had to take a year off from touring – we needed to make the space to really dive into the writing and recording process, allowing us to create our own world and make the record a journey and experience to listen to rather than just a collection of songs.
The label carries a lot of the oeuvre of our music, and that can be loosely interpreted, too. Combined artistic aesthetic and music are very important to us, and we are definitely attracted to intensity. I’m hesitant to say it’s femme, though so far most of the bands have had a powerful femme identity. I’d also like to keep that interpretation loose, as some people I admire find that identity limiting.
Do you feel like your new songs are in response to anything in particular?
JOHN: In the bigger picture, a lot of things – some of which have now come to a head. We live in the Berkeley/Oakland area, and as of late we have had to deal with a lot of shitty white supremacists and assorted far-right/neo-fascist pigs showing up literally every other week for “Trump Rallies,” starting fights with antifa and any unsuspecting liberals who wander by, and generally escalating already-tense situations into extreme, lopsided violence in order to train themselves into full-blown paramilitaries. This is, unsurprisingly, with the tacit endorsement of the cops, who have disarmed antifa at every opportunity while allowing fascists to keep their weapons in the name of defending their “freedom of speech” – ie. open calls for genocide and increased state oppression followed by physical street attacks on any POC, open queers, women, “leftists,” and other favored targets of theirs who are nearby. Window displays of civil rights figures and memorials (e.g. Oscar Grant) have been repeatedly shot out – KKK kinda shit. Meanwhile, liberals take 1000 pictures of a burning trash can, declare that “both sides are the same,” then bury their heads in the sand and repeat the mantra that if you ignore fascists they will go away. None of this stuff is new, and while its visibility has increased dramatically as of late it – and its underlying causes – were certainly on the rise while we worked on the record and impacted our ideas and thinking.
MEGAN: A lot of Le Guin’s themes deal with conflicts, radical identities, the nature of power (political/social and otherwise), and questions of intersectionality, and these ideas hit awfully close to home in the current fucked-up human landscape that we all must navigate in one way or another. Something I really love about her writing, though, is that it often asks more questions than it answers, and I tried to capture that in the lyrics – for instance, what happens if we actually get what we are fighting for? What is violence, and what is the nature of violence? What is the end result of defining others by exclusion?
What is it like being such active and political people on tour in our current status quo?
MEGAN: We’ve been touring as a political band for the past 9 years – we started during Bush – and I remember then people were looking for a mellow outlet to escape the stress, so party time/mellow/boring music was around a lot. During Obama, maybe because people were inspired for change, music got more aggressive, and people allowed themselves to get angry and fight. Now with Trump, I’m really hoping people continue to fight, rather than tuck themselves into a soothing panacea of music, ignoring the current state of things. I’m a little bored of surfy reverb guitars aiming to induce hibernation.
JOHN: People love burying their heads in the sand when things heat up. It’s not gonna change what we do.
When did you start making music? Have you two always lived in Oakland?
MEGAN: I started making music when I was living with my older sister in a SF punk house when I was 12. She was active in the SF Queercore scene and that was a huge influence on me. I’d mostly grown up in Oakland, but crashing with my sister opened up a whole world of independence and that’s when I really got into radical-political ideas and punk. She’d dragged me to lots of shows since I was really little and she was my babysitter, but around 12 is when I started going to shows solo and volunteering at Gilman St. in Berkeley. I played in my first band with my sister around this time, and later started my own band when I was 14. So other than my year or two of crashing with my sister in SF, I lived in Oakland my whole life till I was 22 and my dad died and my siblings had to sell his house. I then got an internship in Berkeley doing sound engineering, which luckily provided housing, and since then I managed to find a really stable housing situation which allowed me to stay. So I can’t really say I’ve always lived in Oakland, but I have always lived in the same 2 mile radius cause Oakland and Berkeley basically bleed into each other.
JOHN: I was born in Oakland but grew up in a former industrial suburb of Richmond called El Sobrante; it was really diverse but there was lots of unemployment, meth, and oppressive redneck bullshit around that really drove an urge to get the fuck out of there. I started playing in bands there while in high school and tried to make some changes and build a scene since cost of living was cheap but I ultimately ended up moving to Oakland as soon as I could. Met Megan when she was dating my roommate Julia. Megan was doing sound at shows and was beating the shit out of the drums with her teenage band Before The Fall, who played locally with my band Fleshies a lot in places, like Mission Records, Gilman, Long Haul Infoshop, etc. She and I always talked about playing music together but didn’t actually make it happen till 2008, shortly after we moved to our spot in Berkeley, and we haven’t stopped since. It just feels right and makes sense.