Terror Trax: Stagefright

Stagefright is the first band I’ve ever heard of to blend musical genres such as Ska / reggae with Goth and hip-hop with darkwave. How did this come about? Is it something that evolved over time or was combining these different genres an idea that you pursued?

We started out with the concept of a crossover gothic band that incorporated African American styles such as R&B and hip-hop with gothic and darkwave. However, as we evolved, it quickly shifted towards reggae and ska because of the line-up. Don Geron and Pruda Bass, our long-time drummer and bass player, were both in popular local ska bands in the 80s as well as gospel and R&B bands. Our rhythm guitarist at the time, Don Schrieber, came from a rock band, and my brother Scott Saulson and our mother Carolyn Saulson and I were all from a punk/goth background. I’d been in a punk band called Poetic Justice in Hawaii in the 80s. I think Don Schrieber was the only white person in the band at that time – my brother and I are biracial, but we’re black identified. Everyone else in the band was black.

How has your unconventional blending of styles been received?

We have been warmly received on the local fair and festival circuit, playing in a lot of shows like Soupstock, National Homeless Day at Dome Village, Juneteenth, The California Blues Festival, and other community and Afrocentric circles. We had the same sort of following as bands like Spearhead then, and probably appealed to punk and ska fans more than the Goth community; however, we’re very active on the Goth scene and have played with a lot of Goth bands, particularly Protea, Galaxxy Chamber, and Apocalypse Theater.

What is Stagefright’s connection to the horror community?

I (Sumiko) am a horror writer, and a horror blogger, best known for my horror blog series on black women who write horror. I put together 60 Black Women in Horror, and then 100+ Black Women in Horror, reference guides based upon the blogs. They contain biographies of and interviews with black women in horror. And HorrorAddicts blogger David Watson wrote an article for it on LA Banks and Octavia Butler. We also have had a public access television program called Stagefright on and off since 1993. It often showcases horror films and horror directors. We used to put on the San Francisco Black Independent Film Festival, also known as the Iconoclast Black Film Festival. We received a lot of great independent Afrocentric horror works which we aired in theaters like ATA and the Koret as well as on public access.

How important, if at all, is horror, or, dark material –books, music, film, etc- to the creation of music within Stagefright?

Given that horror music is intrinsically connected with the gothic aesthetic and gothic music. I would say very important. Even when I was in a punk band horror was important, and I had songs about The Evil Dead and we tended towards horrorcore and horrorbilly like the Cramps. My brother, my mom, and I were all from the old school Death Rock eighties foundation for Goth, and gravitated towards darkwave when that became a thing. My brother loves Skinny Puppy. My mom loves The Cure. I love Switchblade Symphony. All of those bands have songs about horror. Heck, even Kate Bush writes about horror. I think Kate Bush was the first alternative act I fell in love with. My mom was listening to her when I was 9.

What kind of role do you see dark music playing within our society?

People have to process their anger, fear, grief and other raw emotions in some way. Dark music helps people to get in touch with, process, and get on the other side of things that they might otherwise unhealthily repress. The blues and country music also help people deal with grief. Repressed and at-risk populations often have a deep affinity for music that relays their struggle. Gothic and darkwave music resonates a lot with people who have mental health struggles, letting us know that we aren’t alone and that other people have and do experience depression, grief, and anxiety and that it is okay to feel and face these things. Otherwise, people get very apathetic and numb and quash it all down. I think sometimes we have to face those emotions head on.

Being a multi-cultural group, have you had to deal with any prejudice within the scene?

Somewhat, as we can’t really get airplay in Goth clubs or and are not perceived as gothic by people who don’t see interviewing African Diaspora and African American influences into gothic music as valid. We have gotten a lot of support from general alternative rock stations like KUSF used to play us, for example. Goths let us play in Goth clubs but they never seem to want to actually play our music, because it is too ethnic. My rants and railing against the Eurocentric white skin and pallor obsession within the gothic community are well known. Back in the 80s it wasn’t like that but, then something people call “traditional” Goth emerged later on, which involves wearing white clown make-up. Most African Americans have a negative association with skin bleaching.

Sumiko, as a musician, author, and visual artist, could you please tell us how these three expressions play off, influence, and support one another.

I’ve become quite popular lately as a cartoonist, and ironically, my multiethnic, kinky, poly, queer anthropomorphic mouse cartoon Mauskaveli seems to be getting a lot of airplay on the Goth scene and very little anti-black or anti-multicultural flashback. I think that’s because it is kink centered, and has a lot of queer characters. Multiculturalism is a lot more evident in kinky, queer corners of the Goth scene, and honestly, queer gay folks aren’t terrified of being spotted wearing some color that isn’t black at all. My band often plays at book readings. I think my friend, Serena Toxicat, one of my best friends and oldest friends, best epitomizes this. She’s in Protea now, but she used to be in Apocalypse Theater. We have been supporting each other as artists, authors, and musicians for 25 years now. We both turned 50 this year. After a while, you start to make your friendships circle around your creative interests and vice versa.

Sumiko, do you ever incorporate your written works into a Stagefright performance?

I have been reading my books at Stagefright performances, and recently I did a show with Serena called Kat and Maus. We had two different fashion shows. The first one, my models wore Mauskaveli mouse themed fashions I created, and danced, modeled, and posed to Protea’s Catwave music. At the second one, her cat-themed clothing was worn by her models and she played Stagefright. It was this sort of perfect cultural exchange. Her clothing was modeled by a very, very queer but predominately white crowd, while my clothing was modeled by a multiethnic, body-positive crowd that was not as obviously queer as hers. She did something for the first day of Pride that embraced Trans* identity, it was great! But at the end, she talked about my involvement in the black community. I think us working together is more interesting, frankly.

What is the Stagefright origin story? Is there any particular inspiration behind the band?

The band name actually came from a band I was in when I was in Kerista Commune. It was a punk band, can’t remember if we actually named it Stagefright or if that was my name suggestion but Dune and Revery were the other band members and we only had one song, Ned Was A Nipple Head.  My mom loved that name, so when we started our band she adopted it. She had really bad Stagefright and strongly identified with Jim Morrison, who was so introverted he sang with his back facing the audience at early Doors performances. She did that at first as well.

Stagefright has performed in settings as varied as L.A.’s renowned Whisky A Go-Go, to street fairs, to bookstores. Do you have a preferred type of venue? Is there anywhere you wouldn’t play?

We’re kind of great at street fairs, and sometimes our political content gets a strong crowd reaction. One time we were doing a show at the African American Art and Culture Complex for a Unity in the Community event that had a very large African immigrant population in the audience. A man became offended and started to get angry, even jumped on the stage and grabbed the microphone because he thought our songs were too feminist and a challenge to him. Specifically, we were covering Feels Blind by Bikini Kill. So we impromptu talked back to him. I can rap, and my mom can jazz improvise so we both ripped him in two different very African music styles. Then we started covering Cursed Female by Porno for Pyros. When we were done, every single woman in the audience stood up and applauded, while most of the men were sitting in the audience with their hands folded, glowering and pouting. To me, that’s what we are all about – empowerment for black women.  My mom and I are the lead singers. We usually perform duets. Sometimes, Scott sings. But this is us! Once my brother got mad at me and mom and called us The Violent Femmes.  So yeah, that’s us.

What makes for the ideal Stagefright show?

Some sort of political cause we believe in, like uplifting the African diaspora, elevating black women, narrowing the generation gap, helping prisoners, showing a thug some love, assisting those with disabilities, and raising money for the homeless and marginally housed. We are essentially a very political act.

What are some fun activities that one can do while listening to Stagefright?

Playing Dragon Age 2. Slam dancing, aerobics, twerking, and the gothic spiderweb removing wavy hand dance, political protest rallies, and long road trips on I-5.

Poison cupcakes or very, very sharp knives?

Very, very sharp knives…

If you were booked to play the apocalypse, what would be some highlights of your set?

A large sheet spread in the background with a projector airing artsy horror films, Taaka Vodka, Faygo and Four Loco Jell-O Shots, Chucky, Bride of Chucky, and Seed of Chucky cosplays, and Warhol Starlet Ivy Nicholson.

If I’m going to San Francisco and I don’t want to wear a flower in my hair, what could I do instead?

Write bad poetry in an independently owned and operated coffee house.

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