Despite being obsessed with music for almost the entirety of my half a century on this planet, I’ve found that the older I get, the less likely it is that I become genuinely excited about new bands. Don’t get me wrong, I still buy plenty of new records and anyone familiar with this site knows I shoot tons of bands, but the excitement I used to get from discovering new music and new bands seemed to be forever lost on me. I can give you plenty of examples of new records I think are very good, but after a couple weeks or so of somewhat regular rotation, they’ll end up in the vault and I’ll be onto the next thing or revisiting the music of my past. In conversations I’ve had about this with a few of my long-time friends, I discovered that this phenomenon is not unique to me. I was lamenting recently how disappointing it is to me that I lost that youthful enthusiasm for any new band in well over twenty years. No matter how good a band I discover is, it just doesn’t stick with me at all like it used to. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Street Sects came into my life.
I was shooting the annual Cold Waves festival this fall and it was the final night of the event. I had every intention of showing up later than I did in order to make less editing work for myself but when it was getting closer to show time something compelled me to get it together and get down to the club earlier than planned. When I arrived, Street Sects was minutes away from taking the stage. I had never heard of them before but that isn’t unusual for me. They played a fairly short set and I found their music really interesting. I was also intrigued by the fact that with all the fog and blinding strobe lights, this was the first band I ever shot that resulted in zero photos of them. I had no idea what they even looked like! All I could make out was faint shapes in the fog that lasted the blink of an eye. When their set ended, I went over to their merch table and bought their two full-length LPs and brought them home. I played them both the following night and fell in love with them.
Normally I’ll play a record once then file it away on the shelf and move onto the next one in my perpetually overflowing stack of recent acquisitions, but I played those Street Sects records over and over the rest of that evening. After a few spins, I really gravitated more towards the newer album, The Kicking Mule, and that album did not leave my turntable for weeks. I played it every night. Then I found myself playing it in the car, while working at my desk, and while waiting for planes in airports. I bought a couple of their other records I was missing and soon made a big playlist of all the Street Sects songs I liked. It is what I’ve been listening to about 99% of the time that I’m out of the house listening to music. Finally after well over two decades, here was a band that I was enamored with and couldn’t stop listening to. I wanted to know more about them and I wanted the world to know what a great band this is Then something else happened to me that never, ever happens, I wanted to meet and interview this band.
I retired from doing band interviews in the 1990s even before I stopped publishing my old zine, Spontaneous Combustion. I realized that even in the second half of that decade I wasn’t getting excited about bands enough to feel like I could ask any compelling questions, and just asking standard fare, generic questions wasn’t interesting to me. I did a few interviews again in the early 2000s, but those were with people from old punk rock bands and labels I grew up listening to, so asking questions was so easy that it felt like cheating. I hung up my interviewer boots for good and never looked back, constantly turning down solicitations I still get from publicists to interview various bands. Street Sects made me want to get back in the ring for one night only so I could find out more about this amazing band and share it with the world. What I found when I met with them were two incredibly nice, intelligent, humble, and talented gentlemen who are one of those rare musical tag-teams that really create something special together with their band. Hell, they were the only band in decades that got this middle-aged, jaded, obsessive music-fan/record collector to feel excited again about a newer band where I can’t get enough of listening to them.
This interview with conducted by Mike MXV Vinikour and Jon Cheuvront with Leo Ashline and Shaun Ringsmuth of Street Sects after their show at Subterranean in Chicago. It is a lengthy read, but well worth your time.
Leo: We met around 1999 or 2000 at a Starbucks Cafe inside of a Barnes and Noble in Fort Meyers, FL. I grew up in upstate New York and moved down to Florida towards the end of high school. I was a shift supervisor at this Starbucks and Shaun was an employee there. There was a bunch of musicians that worked at this place. Shaun and I didn’t really get along at first when we worked there together. Later on, maybe a year later, we needed a guitar player for this band I was in and Shaun auditioned and he had a really great attitude and we got along really well at that point and we kept working together after that.
MXV: What was the band you were in before this one.
Leo: That band at the time was kind of like a solo project I had at the time called Dreams Die First. It was kind of guitar driven singer/songwriter stuff. Acoustic post-hardcore I guess you might call it.
Shaun: I was 16 when we met and worked in that cafe. He was a lead, I was a young foolish kid with a mohawk. We didn’t start music right away, it took some time. It was probably after I had the job there I ended up trying out for the band he had going. I played guitar for a bit and then we started our own band after that called, A Soft Perversion. Guitar driven stuff, influenced by Sonic Youth and some albums by The Smiths. I really liked Johnny Marr’s guitar playing at that time. I’m primarily a guitarist. Electronic music is newish for us.
MXV: For lack of a better description, if I had to use one word to describe you guys I’d say industrial music. Shaun, you being so much younger than an old timer like me, what was your gateway into this electronic style of music?
Shaun: The gateway for me was purely electronic music in other genres. I was listening to Aphex Twin and Burial. Big influences on me. When Leo and I started talking, we were bringing in hardcore elements that were still guitar driven. Bands like Portraits of Past, some elements of Converge… I don’t think we talked that much about industrial bands really, they came in and out like Too Dark Park from Skinny Puppy is an all time favorite and a fantastic album, but when we were working on some of the early stuff we weren’t really combing thought those albums very much We were listening to all kinds of stuff. Leo started recommending Roxy Music and I hadn’t really dug into their records. Listening to Bowie and 70s music, just letting it kind of move through us. It may not make a lot of sense when you look back at it and go “well how did they arrive on the music they made” but it had its influence.
MXV: Starting primarily as a guitarist, what was the learning curve like for you to get into all these electronics and to learn how to use this technology?
Shaun: It was difficult. I had just gotten some pirated software and watched some YouTube videos, which sounds simple but you realize you have a lot of options with software or if you have analog gear. I was really impressed by the analog gear scene in Austin, there’s a bit of that going on and it has been flourishing awhile. I chose to go through software trying out Logic, Ableton, Reason, and the first stuff we made I thought was great but was really bad. It was so bad and it had all kinds of things in there that you would put in there if you were a newbie. All kinds of beats flying everywhere and wild fake string sounds jumping in, just whatever it was, it was pretty nuts. It took awhile to keep revising and learning more as I went along.
MXV: How long did it take before you felt like you found your sound?
Shaun: I still don’t think we found a sound really. We’re learning things along the way. With each release we’re trying to maintain a little bit of what we learned and try to move towards something that we’re ultimately very proud of that will last, that has complete meaning, real songs. A lot of our stuff, at least the early stuff, is a little niche for people. It’s got its own joy, that sort of blasted out crazy wild music and we love that too, but some of our favorite records are albums with songs that move you, that get you emotionally. You want to hear them now and you want to hear them in 20 years.
Leo: But if you mean how long did it take us from the conception of the project to when we are like “oh this is Street Sects and we can release this”. I would probably say six to eight months. We came up with the name, the logo, the idea, what we wanted the energy to be and the overall feel, but it probably took a half dozen demos of prototypes that were shit that was getting there but didn’t work yet. There was a bonus track on the first 7” called, “We Live” that was a digital only. That was the first song that we had that was, “this sounds like what we wanted”. It was really bizarre and really intense and had elements of those things he was talking about, but also some of that Whitehouse kind of abrasiveness in there and “Bliss” was the one right after that, so we kind of kept going with that.
MXV: Going back to the name, is one of the reasons you picked the name is because when you say it, it sounds like “Street Sex” ?
Leo: Yeah. It was initially s-e-x, but I thought that was maybe too in your face and over the top. The idea behind the name was, when I was still using drugs and drinking, a lot of the stuff I was addicted to wasn’t just the drugs and the alcohol, but it was the danger and thrill of going out and getting that stuff and being on the streets in places I didn’t have any right to be at. That thrill of “I could die at any time” was kind of its own addiction. I think there’s a lot of people that are caught up in that lifestyle that understand that. When the drug and alcohol withdrawals stop after rehab and such, you still kind of have these psychological withdrawals of “how do I get that thrill, how do I get that high?” That’s kind of what the Street Sex name was embodying. That feeling you only get when you are on that self destructive edge.
MXV: Knowing your past struggles with addiction, some of the lyrics, especially on The Kicking Mule such as “Before It Was Worn” seem to be autobiographical. Is that the case, and is it cathartic or a form of release to be writing about fairly dark subject matter?
Leo: I don’t know that it is a release because it is still happening and is something I’m not proud of. On one hand I think it is working against me to dwell on that stuff, but it was something that I had to pull from that I can put into art. It’s honest and comes from a real place. I think going forward, I want to kind of move away from that stuff because I don’t want to be writing about how miserable my life was ten years from now, I’d like to write about how good my life was.
MXV: The imagery you have is very unique with your t-shirt designs and the record covers. There’s a theme that looks to have been going on the entire time. Was this look and style planned from the start?
Leo: We knew from the beginning that we wanted to have the total aesthetic where everything from the sound, the visuals, the lyrics and stories that come with the record have a through line of that kind of gritty, noir honesty. As far as the graphic novel style of it, that wasn’t the initial idea. Initially when I conceptualized those first five covers for Gentrification, it was supposed to be photographs and it just proved too difficult to do those concepts as photographs in the daylight in the street. It wasn’t realistic with our budget. Then we had someone paint the first 7” cover and it was a good painting but wasn’t what we were looking for, then someone recommended A.J. Garces Bohmer, who is the guy who has illustrated the majority of our covers.
MXV: Does he do all the t-shirt art too?
Leo: Yeah. We have a few different artists that we work with and they have a similar style but he was the first one. When I saw his work I thought this was it. There’s a vintage ’50s quality to a lot of the work he does and I thought it really worked for that kind of noir, realism but surrealism at the same time.
MXV: Shaun, do you write all of the music yourself or do you guys work together to come up with the tunes.
Shaun: I’m the person that is hands on writing the music.
Leo: He writes it all. I just give feedback here and there.
MXV: So do you just finish a song and then hand it over to Leo and say “here, sing on this one”, or how does that work?
Shaun: Sometimes, but not often. Sometimes it’s pieces. It will be a few minutes worth of music. If it gets really tough or we are working on something conceptual, I want to know if I’m aiming in the right direction. Some one-off stuff that we’ve done it has been the case where I’ve been able to push through and maybe go back and revise certain elements. I’m always learning things about drums and bass because I feel weak in those areas. I feel stronger in sample collage work, it’s just some way my brain works I guess. I was listening to an interview with Roger Waters today that made me think of us, and this is in no way a comparison, but in the interview he was talking about how he would often get made fun of by the other members for not having the chops but he was largely the person who pushed the direction of the style. I feel like Leo and I have that dynamic where I sit down and I compose and work on these things but he has an ear that helps push along the original ideas. In speaking with him about these things, I arrive at new ideas for music so I return and I write them out and play them how I’m going to in that way. I wouldn’t be writing this music by myself. In that way that’s how we collaborate. He may not play the instruments but he’s integral to the writing of it, how I think about it and approach it.
MXV: Do you start normally with drums, or some sort of sample or loop? Do you have a method you typically use or does it vary by what inspired you? I’m fascinated by how you do that multi-layered type of music.
Shaun: It doesn’t start there, it really starts with sometimes a sample that’s interesting, I’ll pull some stuff from the internet or whatever and I’ll just listen through it and there will be a sound in there and I’ll be like, “that’s definitely staying” and I’ll work with that, drop in a beat that starts with that sound, or use that sound. It could be a voice or something and you can make it percussive. You can do so much with software, you can change things into whatever kind of instrument. We’re actually doing a track right now that I have to use samples from an iPhone and turn all this stuff into sounds. Bass, kick, and you have to EQ all that stuff.
Leo: It’s like an art project where we’ve been given rules.
Shaun: So I’m playing along with the rules, no cheating. It’s funny because it’s exactly what we do, though I take for granted that I’m able to drop in real bass sounds and real drum sounds. Rarely do I start with beats. I envy those who have a career doing that, just making beats. That must be very cool. Sometimes I’ll record pieces on keyboards. Recently we did a tour of Europe and I got a Dave Smith keyboard and it was amazing and I didn’t want it to go to waste, so when we had some time off I recorded some things but they sort of drift, they’re not in time or any particular scale or rhythm so I’ll just see how I can work those in, maybe just a snippet of those phrases, things like that. I don’t think that answered your question at all! (laughter).
MXV: No, it did but as a follow up, to ballpark it, how long does it take you to get a track to where you feel like “this is done”?
Shaun: I never feel like it’s done!
MXV: Well you said when you first started you’d throw everything but the kitchen sink in there, so now how do you know that this is just right?
Shaun: Never. Only when we sit down and start working on live mixes of things and I’m reworking drums and bass I start hearing it again in a new way and I’ll bring out stuff that I think expresses it in a really good live way, where sometimes in a studio, which is basically our shitty house, I’ll end up doing it in a way that’s good for headphones.
Leo: He never thinks it’s done. What happens is he will get distracted by working on another song, and then I’ll go in and finish the vocals for the one and then it will end up on the record and he’ll be like “oh I wasn’t done with that one yet”. (Laughter) That’s seriously what happens.
MXV: For your vocals and the lyrics, does the song inspire what you’re going to write, or do you have a catalog of stuff when you feel like writing you just let it all out and figure out how to make songs out of that?
Leo: No, I write to music. Shaun will give me snippets of the song before it’s done and we’ll figure out “is this a verse or something I can sing to” and it goes how many times and then once the song is done I write lyrics that are going to fit the mood of the song. One of the things that irritates me most about some music out there is sometimes a band will have great lyrics but the lyrics don’t match the way the song sounds, they just shoehorn these words into the song.
MXV: And it takes the emotion out of it.
Leo: Yeah. I feel like if there’s something he gives me where there’s a beat that goes “pop, pop!” And I’m going to accent that beat with a vocal part, I feel like those words should be the words that you want to jump out at the listener and not just “oh well that’s where I was at that line”, so I definitely write to the music and the music dictates what the lyrics are going to be. I like to spend, in a perfect world, a couple of months driving around, walking around, listening to the songs over and over again until they are second nature so I know exactly what all my phrasings are going to be and all the vocal sounds and everything before I write a single word.
MXV: Because my entry point to your band was seeing you live just a few months ago and then picking up all your records after that, I didn’t have the attachment of experiencing the progression of your sound in real time, in fact I played them the first time in reverse order. In listening to them in order though, I really felt as a listener that hearing the progression from End Position through The Kicking Mule to me it was a band that hinted at some melodic elements in songs like “Featherweight Hate” inside all that aggression, but you found on The Kicking Mule what I feel is a perfect mix of more melodic songs that still retain enough of that aggression to satisfy both needs. I felt these guys really nailed it with their sound here and I hope that’s where they keep going.
Leo: Thank you. I think like what Shaun said earlier, we still haven’t ever found it. When we started this we didn’t want to ever be static. We don’t want to sound like we’re changing radio stations, but let’s say ten years from now we want to make a record that’s all horns and brass, we want to feel like we can do that if that’s what we’re interested in at that point. The record that we’re working on now, for the third LP, it’s definitely in a different direction than The Kicking Mule but it’s not leaps and bounds away. We wouldn’t want to make that record again.
MXV: What was the long-term fan reaction going from the abrasiveness of End Position to the melodicism of The Kicking Mule? Was there less acceptance than you thought or more?
Leo: It was pretty divided I think. You’re always going to have those people that want more screaming and they want more hardcore. That’s the thing with a lot of heavier bands when they try to go more melodic, some fans just turn on them. We never were a hardcore band or a metal band, we’re kind of more experimental. We definitely have fans that have been listening to us since the beginning, or at least the first LP and they’re along for the ride and they are always excited about it, and there’s some people who like the newer stuff better like you guys, and then there’s definitely a lot of people who are like “End Position, that’s the record”. I get it, that record is very personal and it speaks to a lot of people with depression and suicidal thoughts and things like that.
Shaun: Genres and titles are good for marketing you know, and we’ve run into challenges with it when it comes to touring because obviously our live show, as heavy as we try to make it with subwoofers that we roll out, is still electronic. It’s still a little off. We’ve been paired with metal bands where fans come out for the riffs and we’re not giving it to them, so their arms are crossed in the front and it’s not really mashing up well. Which is why on this recent run of dates, Leo reached out to Fire-Toolz.
Leo: She’s been on the last five dates with us, her stuff is great. That’s the kind of stuff we feel more of a kinship to. It’s really hard to do something that hasn’t been done before in music, especially rock based music, but I feel like people should be trying their best to do their own thing, so that’s the stuff that excites us the most.
MXV: The first couple of records you put out yourself, how did you hook up with The Flenser after that?
Leo: We were booking house shows in Austin and some friends of ours needed a show so we did one and it did really well and this artist, Planning For Burial, was a Flenser artist, we didn’t know what The Flenser was at the time, but he needed a show and someone posted about it. It sounded interesting so we booked a show with him at our house and we played with him. He was really excited about the show we put on and we kept in touch. When we went on our very first tour with Street Sects, we went up the east coast and he helped us book a couple shows, one in NJ and one in NY, and we played a couple more shows together. I think he had already told the label about us but he wanted to see if it was a fluke. Sometimes you drink or something at a show and something is really great but it’s not great the next time. He thought it was still good apparently those next times and he kind of pushed Johnathan, who runs The Flenser, saying “you gotta sign these guys”. That tour was the worst tour, it was miserable. Plenty of shows were zero attendance, we were playing for the other bands and other shows were ten or less, I’d say 90% of the shows were that. It was brutal, it was cold, but the day we got back home we got an email from The Flenser saying they wanted to start talking to us. It wasn’t immediate but the conversation started. Something good came out of this.
MXV: How has the relationship been so far?
Leo: It’s been great. It’s mostly this guy, Johnathan, who runs the label and he’s been really supportive. He doesn’t tell us what to do. It’s creative freedom. He’s not a huge label so he doesn’t have a ton of money to dump into the artists but he’s helped us out. The first record did really well so he was happy with that and gave us a little bit more money advance for the next record. It’s been really good, really positive, he really cares and really likes the project.
MXV: He seems to put a lot of care into the packaging of the vinyl records. The stuff he did for you had fantastic packaging.
Leo: Yeah, I really wanted the gatefold and he said OK.
Shaun: In hindsight, I really appreciate that he didn’t push us in one way or another for End Position. We had already spoken with him, we knew we were making an album and we made three or four songs for it that we ended up cutting because they weren’t going in the right direction and there was some self-consciousness. We’re trying out new things, doing electronic music, trying to bring in new elements, and we tried to field it to him and he said “you guys just do it, make the best record you can and we’ll put it out”. And I’m like, “that’s all you got? We’re in trouble, we’re going to give you a reggae record now!” But I appreciate that he did that. In the long run he’s consistently been “you guys do your thing” and that’s really cool.
MXV: Ideally that’s why he took an interest in you in the first place. He was interested in you, this band, and wanted to give you a platform to make your art.
Leo: We had a few conversations on the phone before he ever sent us a contract or agreed to anything. He’s a recovering addict himself so when he found out that I was a recovering addict and Shaun was still struggling a little at the time himself and is since in recovery. I think that kind of made him take more of an interest. He even said that while we were working on End Position, like Shaun said, we had a lot of self-doubt. We had never completed a full length, we didn’t know if he wanted something that is more like the stuff on his label. We started the record and had four songs and we scrapped them all because it wasn’t the right stuff. Then he said to me at one point, “Stop stressing about it. I didn’t sign you guys because I liked your first two singles, I signed you because I like you as people and I believe you are really serious about what you are doing”. So went “OK, well let’s just make this record” A big help for that was Seth Manchester who runs Machines With Magnets, a studio in Providence, RI. He’s done tons of great records like Lightning Bolt, Daughters, The Body, Battles. He really helped us bring that record together and produced it in a way where it all sounded cohesive and singular.
MXV: Did you do both albums with him?
Leo: We’ve done pretty much everything with him except the first two self-released singles.
MXV: You did those first two at your house?
Leo: Yeah, that was self-mixed.
Shaun: And they sound it. (Laughter)
Leo: I wanted to include some micro-fiction or some small piece of literature with each release because I started playing music in the late 90s in hardcore bands before I met Shaun. That was what my first experience as a musician playing shows was. I was pretty obsessed with that culture during that time period. I remember you’d get the vinyl, and there would be the lyrics, and there’d be a zine, and a little story or essay. It was always jammed with all this extra shit and to me that was awesome because I’d get the record and all this other stuff I could flip through and read, and I loved that. I thought if we were going to do this it would be cool to bring some of that back. Maybe let’s do a little something extra. Lyrics are extremely important to me, but they’re also extremely restrictive in that to me, the way the vocals sound is the most important thing and then the lyrics have to match that. So there’s a lot of things I have to restrain myself from writing because they have to fit the song. To have that piece of fiction, or some of it is kind of autobiographical, to expand on whatever the themes are of that record or those songs, it helps to kind of, I guess puke more of those ideas out there to people and hopefully people enjoy it. I’m sure there’s some people who say “I’m not reading this crap, I just want to hear some loud music” but for the fans that are really interested, it’s there.
MXV: Do you think you’ll ever do a book outside of one that comes with the record?
Leo: I’d love to. I’m not the most prolific writer, I tend to write when we have a release coming up and I think in order to do that I’d have to set aside time and Street Sects would have to be on pause and I’d have to work on that, but I would love to. I love to write. Reading and writing have always been a passion of mine.
MXV: What’s it like touring as an up and coming band in today’s music climate?
MXV: Are you at the point yet where you are able to make a living off the band?
Shaun: No, we have day jobs when we get back. Well, Leo’s is a night job. I’ve been doing ride-sharing for quite awhile which isn’t glamorous but it frees me up to tour and do my own schedule when I want to work on music. If the day comes and I want to do a morning session, there I go. When we first started the band I was working in hotels, hospitality, and it was tough to get off for tours. We did a few and then ride sharing came into Austin around 2015 and my poor car, this is what’s going to happen until my wheels fall off.
Leo: We’re not paying our bills with the band. I think that’s a lot of people’s dream, to be able to sustain themselves on their creative passions, and it’s certainly our dream. I will say that I think we’re really lucky and really fortunate to have some fans out there that are pretty passionate about what we do. It’s not like a giant fanbase or anything, but the small number of fans we have will buy everything, and they’ll be at every show every time we come there. It means a lot. For a band at our level we’ve been doing pretty good. We finally have been starting to see some small royalties coming in, and to be able to be in the black at all at our level is rare, most bands never get out of the red. We’ll be back in the red as soon as we get another advance for the next record, but you know.
MXV: The fact you got out of the red on an indie level in today’s music climate where everyone steals or streams everything is a major accomplishment in itself.
Leo: We’re very fortunate for what we have and we don’t take it for granted.
MXV: Tonight’s show got shut down part way thought the set because your fog machine set off the fire alarm and the fire marshal came out. Was this the first time that’s happened or is this a regular occurrence when you play smaller clubs?
Leo: It’s gotta be somewhere between a dozen and two dozen times at this point. It’s a pretty common thing with the fog machines. We actually go a little less heavy now on the fog than we used to if you can picture that. We have the videos of the firemen walking in.
Leo: No, I’ve been the frontman for bands going back to when I was in high school so it’s not stage fright at all. At the beginning of this project, I wanted to do as much as we could to remove the ego and the vanity from the project and a lot of music comes down to your looks and the artist above the art. You’re promoting yourself and your own ego more than you’re promoting what it is you actually created. In the beginning I didn’t want any press photos, I only wanted the illustrations, or whatever the art was going to be and I wanted the live show to be an extension of that. I wanted people to come to the show and experience something and not just stand there and see a couple of dudes on stage rocking out and trying to be cool, because we’ve all seen that shit before. Every show is like a band on stage more or less trying to look cool and it’s kind of boring, especially if you’ve seen as many shows as you have and we have. So I wanted something that was not only different from that, but also forced people to either be there for that or get the fuck out of the room. If you’ve got the fog and the strobes, you can’t look at your phone really, you’re not going to talk to your neighbor because the music is so loud, and you’re not going to be self conscious about how you look at the show because a lot of people come to shows and it’s like a social gathering. They’re looking at the boy or girl across the room and they are distracted by a million different things. I wanted to try to create something that leveled all that and it was just the art. A lot of our shows we can accomplish that, some of them no. Some of them we can’t use fog machines and we’re also trying to transition into a different type of show gradually.
MXV: What’s the significance, if any, of you wearing a wig sometimes on stage?
Leo: There’s no deeper meaning to it really other than when we got on The Flenser we hadn’t done any press photos or anything like that because I told you we didn’t really want any, and he said we had to get press photos. I told him we don’t want press photos and he said we need to get something because if we don’t they’ll just find whatever shitty photos they can find online and just use those. So we went and did these press photos with a local photographer and it was the same shit where we’re standing in a room trying to pose and look cool for the photos. I just felt it was bullshit. I ordered the wig initially, it was a white wig that I had, because I thought it looked fucking ridiculous. So if we’re going to look like these cool rocker guys then let me put this cool rocker guy wig on. It was kind of an in-joke between he and I, and I don’t think anybody really got it because people would see it and no one wants to be that asshole in the comments, nobody was laughing. Finally, I remember there was a post on Flenser of our press photo and there was this one guy that got in there and said, “man, that guy’s hair looks fucking ridiculous” and I was like “there it is, that’s what I wanted!” (Laughter). Because it was ridiculous! And then doing it on stage became more of a theatrical thing, almost like a Norman Bates kind of thing, and it makes the show more dynamic. Some people think it’s my real hair because they’ve never seen us. It’s just trying to have fun with the boring old mechanics of the music industry shit.
MXV: Is this your first headlining tour?
Leo: I guess technically it is our first headlining club tour booked by and agent. I booked our first four or five tours and technically they were headlining tours because we played DIY spaces and didn’t have an opening band, but this is the first tour where we’re billed as the headliner and we have support bands.
MXV: How has it been going so far?
Leo: Well this is show number five. I’d say the first three shows were pretty grim.
MXV: How many of them were shut down by the fire marshal?
Leo: Oh, none of them. This was the first one on this tour. Last night in Minneapolis was awesome and then tonight was really cool. I still don’t think we’re a headlining band yet, but that’s just me.
MXV: For what it’s worth, coming from a jaded old music fan that’s been around forever, removing all the “legends” from the equation at the Cold Waves Festival, you guys were the absolute standout for me as being something really special and interesting and were easily the best “unknown to me” band that festival ever had.
Leo: Thank you.
Shaun: That’s quite a compliment, thank you!
Leo: When we left Cold Waves we were seeing all the negative shit online right as we were leaving, so I left with the impression that everyone there hated us so it is good to hear it left a good impression on someone .
MXV: I had no idea at the show that there was an issue with you guys, so it was news to me. I just thought “wow that band was really great and I got no pictures of them, I am going to go buy some records from them if they have any for sale”.
Shaun: We just thought we were playing a festival and didn’t really know (the history behind the Cold Waves fest) and got into a little bit of back and forth because of one of our shirts.
MXV: I read something about that after the fact but they didn’t say which band was but I thought it could have been you, which shirt was it?
Shaun: It was unfortunate, we really didn’t mean to cause a stir. It’s one with a person with a rope around its neck and it has the line “There’s No Shame In Letting Go”
Leo: The shirt is not promoting suicide. The shirt was, when Robin Williams committed suicide it was kind of like the first in a chain of celebrity suicides. When that happened, I saw some people saying he took the easy way out and that he’s a coward. That kind of bothered me because you can’t know what someone else is going through and so “There Is No Shame In Letting Go” was more like, it’s a choice. If you have one choice in life that should be the one choice you get, whether you live or not. There was an industrial artist, I can’t remember his name, Assemblage 23 I think, and he got all up in arms and kind of attacked us and his fans kind of rallied behind him and we just kind of walked away from it you know.
MXV: You mentioned working on material for a new album. Is there a timeline for releasing it, or it is just whenever it is done then it’s done?
Leo: Whenever it’s done, it’s done. Every release so far we’ve given ourselves deadlines so they can meet a release date for the label, but we don’t want to do that again. We feel like we rushed The Kicking Mule. I mean we’re proud of it and happy with it, but we do feel like we wished we had more time on it. We don’t want to feel that way on the next one. If it takes two years then it takes two years. We’d rather have something that’s exactly what we wanted and we won’t be “ohhhh” about it afterwords.
MXV: And they have no pressure, they just say, “give us a record whenever it’s ready”?
Leo: Yeah, he hasn’t pressured us at all. He says he’s got us slated for release in 2020, but in order to do that we have to turn it in by June and that’s just not going to happen. I’m sure he’d like for us to deliver a record but he’s not going to pressure us.
MXV: You have one single left to do for the Gentrification series. When you planned out the concept of it being five parts, did you plan out all of the songs at the beginning or have you been making it up as you go along?
Leo: We did all of the cover art, the names of the singles, and all of the song titles but the music was only written up to the first two and then we got signed to The Flenser and they said they didn’t want our singles, they wanted a full length so we had to switch gears. We then never found the time to get back to it until after The Kicking Mule and decided that we had to finish it now or it will just never happen.
Jon C: You mentioned it earlier, do you always look back at your records and wish you could do something different, or are you pretty happy with all your releases?
Shaun: I wish I could say something different and more encouraging, but I have been pretty hard on myself in terms of each release. It’s interesting of how we just gave the story of how we are finishing the Gentrification series because we did the detour doing End Position, Rat Jacket, and The Kicking Mule and then we return and that’s way behind now. I started some of those demos for the first two in like 2013 into 2014 and I learned a lot and was actually horrified going back into the original sessions for some of those songs just to see what I was up to. I also made some demos at the time for later ones but they didn’t become much so I checked them out and I just made all sorts of weird things. Weirdly labeled things, percussion all in one go, drums not separated in any way that’s logical, things not labeled. I was just so new to it all. Those are the things one has to go through.
Jon C: Do you pretty much produce everything at home before going into the studio then? You know everything that’s going to happen before you go in?
Leo: We never go to the studio.
Shaun: We do it remotely. We work with Seth, send all the stems and painstakingly have phone calls and send emails and revisions to him. We want to change some elements of that. We’ll probably have to retain it to have complete artistic control in terms of the music, I can sit and tinker on it, but we’re talking about having Leo go and do vocals in the studio and then for future records with guitar, going in with electric guitar and doing it in a studio to get a better sound out of heavy electric guitar.
MXV: You guys have had a third member on tour with you at times?
Shaun: We’ve brought guitarists out on tour.
Jon C: You play it all on the records?
Shaun: Yeah, I do.
Jon C: Leo spoke of his history in playing in hardcore bands but Shaun what was your background before Street Sects?
Shaun: I just had some music training growing up. I took piano lessons at eight, I started playing guitar at 12 or 13 taking lessons, playing with friends, playing to records, and I didn’t really join any bands seriously until I started working with Leo. He’s the only person I’ve written music with seriously. We’ve separated to go do separate things at various times but we’ve come back consistently to do music and never more seriously than Street Sects. When he came back sober in 2013 we just made it happen. The goal was make it happen even if nothing comes our way. No label, no encouragement, no money. So we self-released the first two 7”s. He came up with the whole idea of the five 7”s, the series. It’s totally improbable and ridiculous but every step of the way we made it happen. We got this giant P.A. system, the subs, 3-way speakers and two K12s, which is insanely expensive and took forever to pay it off. But we did that so that these bands with amps wouldn’t blow us down. We’d roll in there and just decimate and with the fog and strobes. Let’s just make it happen. At any point we could have said, “we can’t afford that, can’t do this, can’t do that…” Some venues really dislike it and some venues do have a proper sound system and then you’ll just be amazed where you’ll go to a place that’s highly recommended, they look like they have a sound system and it just isn’t hitting. We bring in our stuff and make sure every fan or person who is new to us gets that experience of a high velocity blast.
Jon C: Do you ever get clubs who say you can’t use your sound?
Leo: Oh yeah. The sound guys will be “what’s this all about”, and we call them our amps, these are just our amps.
Shaun: I call them our amps, that’s my cab, it’s called a subwoofer.
Leo: For me it had been bad for many years. He and I first bonded over alcohol and getting drunk. That was like my early 20s and you were still a teenager at that point.
Shaun: I was 16 for sure. It was 2000, 2001 we were doing that.
Leo: And it’s one of those things where you’re young and nobody tells you that you’re an alcoholic because you’re young and they just kind of expect you do to that. Then you hit your mid-twenties and people start looking at you funny because you drink all the time. By my late twenties my life was a mess. I had trouble keeping a job, certainly our bands never got anywhere. Then around the time I hit 30 I knew it had been a problem for years and I just couldn’t quit no matter how hard I tried. Then it turned to every time I got drunk I wanted crack or meth, alcohol wasn’t enough and my life was just garbage. I was lying to people, stealing, doing whatever I could do to feed my habits. I burned bridges with everyone I knew, including him. We moved to Austin in 2011 to be in a band and we had stopped playing music for a little while, he went back to school and I was on the phone with him saying we were going to do this music thing and he came and picked me up in Jacksonville and we went to Austin and I just drank and spent money on crack and everything else and we really didn’t get anything done. Then I left, I got some opportunity in Cincinnati to work with a guy who was on a major label, went up there and fucked that up. I then took a bus down to Florida to go stay with my mom because I had nowhere else to go and I got there and someone had given her a heads up and she said, “you can’t stay here until you get clean”. I had nowhere to go. You know they say you have to cut people off to get them to change. I was never going to change. I woke up every day wanting to die but I never had the balls to do it, so it was either I’m either going to kill myself now because I’m homeless and have nowhere to go, or I’m going to go to detox and go to rehab and that’s what I did. I went to detox and rehab for 45 days and then I did five to six months in a halfway house. I figured he was never going to talk to me again. I owed him money and I basically fucked him over and left him in Austin.
Shaun: That Austin experience was terrifying. We were in an apartment together and he was just sneaking out and drinking and doing drugs everyday. I was drinking too, but for me it was more of a party side, but I knew something was very off. Actually, he left because I had to have the uncomfortable conversation where I said this wasn’t working and I think he needs to go. That was a dark day.
Leo: I was out of control. I sent him some money to pay him back for some rent he had covered for me when I didn’t have a job and we just casually started talking again and within two conversations we started talking about music, and within a handful we were talking about making music together again. I said to him “Hey, if you ever do play in a band with me again, I’m not saying you would or would ever expect you to, but I give you my word that I will come back to Austin and I will work my ass off trying to get the project off the ground. I’m still trying to keep my word to that and this is the most traction we’ve ever gotten with a project.
MXV: Well I’m glad you (Shaun) gave him another chance because from my vantage point, you’ve made a lot of magic in the past five years.
Shaun: Thank you, it’s been good. We think about leaving Austin sometimes because it has changed significantly since we moved there in 2011. The big tech influence has moved in there, lots of people from San Francisco and that brings the high rents but we have seen several versions of it, especially in sobriety. I’m moving into three years in sobriety now. It definitely has its own struggles getting sober, you have to change your behavior and meet life in a new way. It has been amazing that we’ve continued to renew our friendship. Especially when it starts as something like you get drunk together and have those experiences, then when you put that away you find you may not want to hang out and get sentimental anymore. You have to find new ways to connect and we’ve had to take the time to do that, and with the band too. It’s not always a party, touring and writing records and facing just life, disappointments, occasionally not having money, those kinds of things. You have to work together to make sure you are pulling through.
MXV: Is it hard being on the road playing largely in venues where it’s full of people drinking and doing drugs?
Shaun: I don’t think so. I’ve never seen you (Leo) worry about it.
Leo: I work in a bar back home and worked at a music venue. It’s everywhere. You either have to get used to it or just hide in your house for the rest of your life. If you want to be a musician and be out there on the road doing it for real you have to get used to it.
Shaun: I’ve talked to fellow musicians in Austin, there’s a great community of sober people there, and they’ll ask me if that’s tough. That’s their big fear. It’s so entangled in the arts and entertainment industry, people just falling down drunk. In some venues it’s encouraged. We just did 17 dates in Europe and were in the green room with some of those bands and hats off to them, you look in the cooler it’s full of all kinds of stuff but I just couldn’t imagine bringing that on, especially with the way tour works. You’re exhausted, you have to drive, you have to get up, you put your sweat and body into the live show.
Leo: Touring at this level, calling it fun would be only a small part of the picture because the majority of it is not fun.
MXV: But when you are on the stage though, is it worth the grind of it all?
Leo: When the shows are what we want them to be then absolutely. Even if the shows suck but there’s like one kid who comes up and says “that was fucking amazing, that was my first time seeing you guys and it was awesome” then yeah, that’s worth it. That’s what we’re out there for.
Street Sects are currently on tour in the United States and will be on the road through late January. Check out the links below for more information.