Erase Errata challenges listeners to think outside the lines of dance, noise and rock
Looking at it from the vantage point of Chicago, where I live, the Bay Area scene has long fed artists into an underground noise network that ranges from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast to all points in between. Whether it's Ipecac Records, Sonic Youth, or various pockets splattered in my neck of the woods, there's usually a Bay Area connection in the mix. But when Weasel Walter packed it up for California about a year ago and news of his activities there first brought me to the name Erase Errata, I never imagined I would become so infatuated with the band's obtuse style -- or end up interviewing them (for a New York-based magazine no less, which only goes to show the Power of the Network).
During the course of the past year, as I became more acquainted with Erase Errata's music, a natural list of questions developed in my mind. However, because of several recent interviews I had read, I was forced to re-evaluate some of my questions, so as not to rehash what was probably already available in several different places. When I finally sat down with the members of Erase Errata -- Sara Jaffee, Bianca Sparta, Jenny Hoyston and Ellie Erickson -- before the group's heavily attended Chicago performance in September, I started by asking them the same questions I ask anyone, musician or nonmusician, I meet for the first time.
"Name, instrument, one recent movie you liked and one album you hold dear." Simple enough questions, but revealing.
"I play guitar and I like the Beach Boys, Smile and the movie The Mystery Train," responded Jaffee.
Sparta was next: "Drums, and I work in a video store so I see a lot of movies. As far as albums ..." She then proceeded to refer to a phenomenon known loosely as "the music store curse," which happens when those of us who listen to a lot of music find ourselves inevitably drawing a blank when confronted with rows of CDs.
"I sing and play cornet in the band and my favorite movie is Ghostbusters -- I love that movie," answered Hoyston. "Right now, the LP I keep playing over and over is by Johnny Osbourne. It's like reggae; no, it's like rock 'n' roll from Jamaica."
The sharing of creative influences always helps in the interpretation of answers to questions, and so Erickson's influences were important to note as well.
"I play bass in the band," she said. "I liked The Two Towers, the "Lord of the Rings" movie, and for music, ah, Can, I guess. A lot of Can's stuff."
The need arises almost instantly after the small talk to find out exactly where the group gets its sound -- a jagged, often beautifully grotesque guitar sound that's solely the product of the author's mind, much like the haunting vocal delivery and non-Euclidean approach to rhythm. Surprisingly, the band employs a standard tuning to achieve its results, which just as easily makes you feel like you're experiencing audio cerebral palsy as it makes you want to dance the night away. According to Sparta: "We just mess around a lot and what sticks gets worked into songs."
Lyrically, the process is much the same.
"I'd say as far as the new album goes, about half of the songs were written at the practice space and we would tape them on a jam box and I take the tape home and then tend to be like, 'OK, this is what I'm hearing over it,' " Hoyston says. "But then with other stuff I come up with my parts the way you would with an instrument. It varies."
As I listen to them explain their creative processes, the nuts and bolts of their M.O. become clearer. One of the truly amazing things about Erase Errata's music is, as referenced earlier, the unique juxtaposition of scratchy, David Byrne-on-meth melodies on top, stabbing and swirling with a very danceable, feel-good bounciness.
This blend of styles is par for the course in the Bay Area, where, according to the band, "There is a lot more of a crossover between electronic music and rock bands than a lot of other places, even if it's just sometimes with the deejays spinning between the bands, as opposed to the sound guy popping on a CD or something. We've played with dancier bands; we've played with people who are trying to do a more 'out-there' kind of hip-hop. Everyone's pretty open-minded musically [in the Bay Area] as opposed to some places where we've been, where there seems to be a big line between everything, and it's like, 'Here's the metal kids, here's the ravers, here's this and you know we don't mix.' "
This uninhibited creative exchange naturally led to the recent Dancing Machine EP, which features remixes of four of Erase Errata's songs by Kid 606, Matmos, Adult and Kevin Blechdom. These are not conventional dance remixes by any means, as all of them to some degree express as much influence from the unconventional approach of bands like Erase Errata in their textures as they do from the traditional elements of the electronic genre (don't think house music, think house-of-mirrors music). As the band says, the goal was to exploit the dance connection: "People caught that our sound was pretty danceable, and [said], 'Oh, that would be such a good idea to have a remix, you know, to take that element and make it even more obvious.' "
While the Dancing Machine EP and the scene in Erase Errata's hometown highlight and explain the rhythmic ideas behind the band, what about the top layer, with those beautifully insectoid quasi-melodies of the guitar?
"I took lessons for about a year but then quit because it got boring. My teacher was just trying to show off his hot licks," Jaffee said. "I definitely feel like I've been influenced by a really wide range of things ... One of my major influences is Andy Ex, who's in The Ex. When I heard a lot of that sort of no wave stuff and the like; there's a lot of stuff that came out of Europe and England in the late '70s/early '80s that influences me. Later stuff, too."
Though Europe has proven inspirational for Erase Errata, it is just beginning to open its doors for the band's own music. The band's first deals with European labels and distributors resulted in few records being released, but a new deal with Mute Records (home of bands such as Add N to X, the Warlocks, and Nick Cave) finds both the band's older and newer albums getting a much-deserved push. For a continent with a long history of ground-breaking arts, the biggest challenge, surprisingly, is gender-based.
"A lot more audiences over there seem to react to our band as four women who play music," Hoyston said. "That is more of a novelty in some places over there, so we get a lot of attention just for being women. For some reason, even though some of the best all-girl bands are from Europe, it's like everyone forgot about that band that is from their country. But then a lot of shows are just the same as they are over here."
"Just the same as they are over here" has a lot to do with how people approach Erase Errata's music. As Hoyston says, "I always feel that for people to follow what we're doing, you can follow it to some degree given your background information and things you might have listened to before, but if you come at Erase Errata blindly you might think about it in a different way. If you haven't listened to some of the stuff we might have listened to when we were younger ..."
She trails off, as if to say Erase Errata makes the music it makes because of the individual influences each member brings to the group. Throughout the entire interview (which took place in a very noisy pub), I was impressed at the very casual, personable manner of the girls, as if they're saying they don't really care or understand why anyone wants to know what makes them tick, they just do this because that is who and what they are. In light of this, I eventually moved the interview in a direction I felt might sharpen the human, nonmusician view of their lives and personalities. When asked what they read out loud to one another in the van, they named a book called The Tipping Point.
"It's kind of like a sociological data analysis," Hoyston says. "It kind of scientifically breaks down fads and such. When we were reading that out loud to each other, that was the happiest I've been in the car in a long time. You want to stay mentally stimulated, because we're all pretty active at home and the hours in the car just seem like a waste."
As the interview winds down, the other girls are quick to bring up the fact that Jaffee is a published author. Most of her material is released through her own imprint/record label, Inconvenient Press (which also released the group's very first seven-inch).
"They're handmade, usually really small editions of like 11 and then I run out of them," Jaffee says of her books. "Right now they're all sold out or out of print, but I'm thinking about putting everything back in print. But that'll take a while."
Talk meanders for a while and I glean some random facts: Erickson designed the band's Web site and handles much of the legal and managerial responsibilities, Jaffee is having some of her work published through a coffeehouse that hosts a monthly open-mic night in San Francisco; and all of the girls have developed a kind of collegial relationship with Sonic Youth after the older band attended one of Erase Errata's shows in Northhampton, Mass. and "bought a bunch of stuff from our merch-table."
And of course, Hoyston seems to have a great view on the human/dinosaur relationship: "I think everyone likes dinosaurs because they can see themselves in the position of humans taking over the world the way dinosaurs did and then becoming extinct."
Maybe that statement illustrates this band the best -- constant evolution of creative freedom while saddled in an age of imagination's continued extinction.