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A Star on the Rise, Going for the Kill:
Emily Armstrong of Dead Sara
By Kara Kulpa
Rock music is no longer a blood sport in which only men can participate. Thanks to a long line of women rockers from decades past who lit the world on fire and blazed their own trails, it is now acceptable (though still somewhat uncommon) to see female fronted rock and metal bands. Those that are gutsy enough to venture out on to the stage are illuminated by spotlights and greeted by a sea of hungry fans. Yet the women that sing or play instruments of their choice are doing so much more than performing. They have picked up the ‘musical’ battle flag for their generation, and Dead Sara is one of the bands leading the charge.
Numerous bands have come out of Los Angeles, California. But very few have the uncompromising talent and the potential to change the face of music in the same way that Nirvana did with grunge in the early 90s. What sets Dead Sara apart from their contemporaries is their ability to seamlessly incorporate influences from the genres of classic rock, blues, folk, metal, punk, and gospel; fusing them all together to develop a brand new sound — somewhere in the vein of hard rock, but with an explosive kick!
Founding members, Emily Armstrong (lead vocals/rhythm guitar) and Siouxsie Medley (lead guitar/background vocals), have been friends since they were teens and have been playing together ever since. In addition, adding a spark of pure magic to the band, Chris Null (bass) and Sean Friday (drums) round out the four piece line-up with a rock solid rhythm section.
In the middle of taking the 2012 Sunset Strip Music Festival by storm and earning yet another milestone for the band, Dead Sara’s own Emily Armstrong slips in a phone call to CoolGrrrls where she discusses what it was like to perform with The Doors, the making of the band’s eponymous debut album, how fans can hear snippets of album number two, and what it means to be a women in rock.
Kara: Last night you performed “Soul Kitchen” with the remaining members of The Doors at this year’s Sunset Strip Music Festival launch party at the House of Blues. From your perspective, how did everything go?
Emily: Yeah, well we played a secret show right before (at The Troubadour) and so I literally had to change my clothes, jump in the car and drive over — all on four to five hours sleep the night before. I’m literally drained at this point. It was hard enough to get out to the show. (laughs) We got there, and I only ate lunch too. It was just a really busy day, and went by really fast. It kinda hit me after. I just started thinking about it and was like, “Wow that was a lot of fun.” It was definitely a different… You know, I’ve never done that before with any band…
Emily: Yeah, like learn a song and go on [stage] and just play with them…ever! I’ve always been in my own bands where we’ve written our own things, or we’ve taken the time to learn covers. But it’s always been in my own band. It was never like, learn the lyrics and you’re gonna play with this band that you’ve never played with before…. So, that was nerve-racking in its own right, and thank God there was a teleprompter! (laughs)
Kara: I suppose those things can always come in handy every now and then!
Emily: Yeah! I never had to use a freaking teleprompter — ever! It was definitely a time, it was just really cool. It was more than really cool — I can’t even describe it, I just don’t have the words for it yet.
Kara: It sounds like an amazing experience. If I wasn’t on the east coast, it’s a show that I would have definitely liked to have seen. I saw pictures of Linda Perry and a few other artists performing as well. It looked like everyone was having a great time!
Kara: How is Siouxsie feeling? I heard that the band had to pull out of Warped Tour because she bruised her ribs. Is she doing better?
Emily: Yeah. [She's] definitely getting better.
Kara: Good, glad to hear it.
Emily: We took it easy on rehearsals and stuff. She’s getting ready for these shows this weekend. We have the Sunset Strip Music Festival tomorrow. Thank God it’s a half hour only, but at the same time, I’d rather play for an hour…
Kara: I’m sure it has to be really hard for her to play when she’s in pain and not feeling 100%.
Kara: You’re a band that’s made your home on The Sunset Strip — what’s it feel like to be playing on the main stage at this year’s festival?
Emily: It’s still unrealistic. I’ve come down a few times, and I just wasn’t expecting it. None of us were expecting it. We played the parties once or twice, and that wasn’t even on the day of. So, going from that one year, and then the next year playing main stage, and opening main stage, it’s kinda like, “Wow!” we’ve worked this hard and have become this band in our home town. And, we’re being recognized as this band, and [we're gaining] more and more fans. It’s so exciting, and again…it’s still unrealistic to me, but I’ll go with it. (laughs)
Kara: Do you feel like you’ve had that moment, or the band has had that moment where you feel like, I’ve done it. I’ve finally made it in this industry?
Emily: It’s like what I tell everybody… It’s really made up of moments — not just one. It’s kind of like, you hit these certain plateaus in your career, or even just these few [last] years where everything has just been going right. There are these certain moments where you’re just like, “Woah.” You take it all in for a second; you take a step back; see the thing that’s happened, and then you just keep going. It’s hard to explain. But, there are these moments where you’re just like, “Wow!” And you have a moment with it, and then it just kind of is…and then you just continue. And, things happen again. It’s like these little prizes that we accumulate along the way. We’ve been very fortunate and we’ve worked really hard at the same time.
Kara: Who are your musical influences?
Emily: Oh too many! (laughs) As of right now, I’m listening to a lot of Buzzcocks and The Replacements — a lot from that era — Hüsker Dü. Sometimes I’ll just listen to [music from] the ’60s. It’s weird. I just kinda go in and outta things. It’s all over the place.
Kara: How did you come up with the name of your band? I heard it had something to do with a Fleetwood Mac song?
Emily: Yup. It’s from the Fleetwood Mac song, “Sara”. In it, there’s a part where she (Stevie Nicks) says “Said, Sara”. Siouxsie and I always thought it was cool, [to replace that part with] “Dead, Sara”. We were young, and that was the coolest part of the song. We would listen to it and play it back all the time, and it just kinda stuck.
Kara: Both of you have been friends since you were in your teens, but when did you meet Chris and Sean and what made them a good fit for the band?
Emily: We’ve known them for quite a while now. I’ve known Sean since high school, like maybe right after I finished high school we met. He was in another band with friends of mine. There was this click of a bunch of bands and we all played together. We would use certain musicians for certain shows. We were just trying to figure out everyone’s involvement.
Siouxsie and I have been through a lot of bass players and drummers. We’ve had people come and go, and one of them was Sean way back in the day. He helped out a couple of times. He and Chris were actually in about five bands together before us. So, when they weren’t in a band anymore, Siouxsie and I were like, “We really want Sean! We really want him as our drummer!” And Chris, he was a guitar player. We didn’t really ever think of him as a bass player, or an option. Then Chris was like, “If you guys ever need help, I’ll pick up the bass…. If you ever wanna just jam….” And, that’s basically what happened; it just kinda stuck — three and a half years ago!
Kara: That’s great! You all have a noticeable chemistry, and everything just really, really seems to work. So, that’s awesome!
Emily: Right? (laughs) Yeah, thanks.
Kara: That’s almost as important as the music itself, I suppose.
Emily: Right, yeah it really is. It really is as important, especially as we’ve been doing so many tours this year. [We're] coming out of it even closer and [we're] becoming an even better band. That’s a great find. We’re very, very fortunate to have found each other.
Kara: Can you talk about your musical process a little bit? For example, how do you go about crafting the lyrics into a song and composing the music? Has it become more of a group effort, or is it a solitary or duo process?
Emily: Solitary… I mean lyrics are my thing in the band. How a song comes about usually, I mean with the first record was….we were just kinda jammin’ in a room. We got a different feel for people coming up with certain guitar parts, bass parts, even the drummer. We all just kinda kept on [playing off] each other and we pressed record with two microphones hanging in the room. We’d play it back if we thought something was cool. Also, when we were jamming, lyrics will just flow. That’s my favorite way of doing it — get a melody going, and depending what kind of song it is, I might already have lyrics already tucked away in the back. I just pull them out and see what sounds good and if it fits, otherwise I’m just usually making up words on the spot. A lot of it is just spontaneous. When we listen to it back, we go, “This part was really cool, and this part was really cool.” We just kinda craft a song that way.
Kara: Wow, that’s impressive! It also sounds pretty organic for all of you. Just curious, have you started writing anything for album number two yet?
Emily: Yup, absolutely. We’re playing one — we usually play it live. [We] play one that is kind of semi-done, but we just love jamming it, so we’ll play it.
Kara: Awesome! Any chance we’ll ever get any of the covers you perform on the new album? Specifically Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name”?
Emily: (laughs) I dunno!
Kara: You’re kinda teasing everyone who hasn’t seen your live show yet! It’s such a good song and the band does such a great rendition if it!
Emily: It’s super, super fun to do as a cover — just as a live cover. You know, maybe there might be some time where we do it live; it sounds amazing and it’s recorded. In that way, maybe. Right now, I can’t see us going into the studio and covering it. It wouldn’t work without the live feel of it.
Kara: That’s fair. When and if you ever put out a live album, just keep in mind that fans totally want that one on it.
Emily: Ok! (laughs) That’s good to know!
Kara: When you made the record, you wanted to capture an accurate representation of your live shows. Did you use analog? How did you record?
Emily: We didn’t this time. As much as we really love that sound, I don’t think as a band we were ready for that yet. [At that time,] we’d only been together for about a year, so we still had to rely on certain aspects of the modern-day recording studio. But, as we get closer and closer as a band, and get more tight, I think in time we could just do a whole record live. I’ve love to get to that point. If we can do that, I’d definitely love to use analog.
Kara: I can definitely see you guys doing that in the future.
Emily: Yeah, absolutely! Me too, for sure.
Kara: Lets talk about “Weatherman” for a minute. I believe it was the first song that you all wrote together as band. Once you played it through a few times, what went through your mind? That song just exploded! Did you have any inclination that the song was going to be such a hit?
Emily: No…Well, hearing something in the beginning [that we've written] is always different than hearing it as a fan or the general public. But this time, when I heard how we were beginning that song, I was like, “Holy shit! That’s just a really good rock song, and it’s extremely to play!” That’s really what I was thinking, it wasn’t like, “Oh this could be a hit.” It just had a really good feeling to it, if that makes sense. It’s hard to explain…. I just remember going, “Fuckin’ A, that’s just a really good God-damn rock song!”
Kara: That totally makes sense. For a while there, you could almost hear the all the radios collectively turning off all across the country. Everything was just so mainstream and fit a specific template of music. It’s refreshing to have something new, and raw, and good to listen to again.
Emily: Oh, thank you.
Kara: I’ve heard that there were individuals in the industry that wanted you to take on a more poppy sound, to try and conform to that mainstream music template. Has that been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome thus far?
Emily: Yes and no. It definitely added to a lot. Before Sean and Chris were in the picture, Siouxsie and I didn’t really know exactly what it was that we wanted. So, it was kind of our problem because [music executives] would ask the hard questions, but we didn’t know. We were just like, “We wanna play music, you know?” But, getting into the business [side], we didn’t understand that there were other aspects to just playing music. So, they asked the hard questions like, “Where do you wanna be in ten years?” And we were just kinda like, “Playing music!” Once they saw that, they wanted to put their input in. It became more [of them saying], “This is the way I see it…” But, that was coming from about twenty other fucking people. So when you get all those different types of opinions from so many other people, it can just really make you really bitter. It just kinda gets to the point where you’re just like, “Why am I listening to…what? What?” And then you’re just literally all over the place in your head. We just took some time and backed off from it all. This wasn’t what Siouxsie and I got into music for. So, we really just had to take a step back and look at it [all] and go, “Oh, this is what we want, and this is the way we want to do it. We want to do it on our own.” There was a lot that we saw in the process, and there were things that we didn’t want to be a part of. We wanted to be strictly to be independent and we wanted to just go straight to our fans. There’s a lot more responsibility to that, and we’re willing to go that extra length.
Kara: That makes a lot of sense. If there’s a sound that you want to have, but you can’t quite explain it to someone else, I can see how frustrating that might be. Unfortunately, a lot of times with the business side of the industry, things tend to boil down to sales. I really love and respect that you didn’t compromise that integrity and creativity as an artist.
Emily: Yeah! Exactly, exactly.
Kara: In Rolling Stone magazine, it was mentioned that the band has been given the stamp of approval from rock legends like Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane) and Courtney Love (Hole). I know that you did some of the background vocals on Hole’s last album, which was awesome. Now, you and the band are not only working with these musical heavyweights, but you’re sharing the stage and touring with so many recognizable names. What’s it like to not only work with this caliber of artist, but also gain the respect of bands that you probably grew up listening to?
Emily: It’s extremely humbling. Man, it’s… hard… to…
Kara: Are there even any real words for it?
Emily: Again, just…fortunate that they recognize something that they inspired me for. And, it’s a special thing, it really is. Again, it’s those moments, where you go, “Wow, ok…it’s happening.”
Kara: To get that type of attention on a band’s debut album, which is almost unheard of is really great for you guys.
Emily: Yes, absolutely.
Kara: Vocally you’ve even been compared to Janis Joplin (Big Brother and the Holding Company) and Ann Wilson (Heart), amongst others. I know that this can be a bit of a double edged sword because you obviously have your own distinctive vocal style, and want to be recognized in your own right as a singer. Still, what’s your reaction to these comparisons?
Emily: These are legends, so if I can be recognized with any of these people, it’s very, very humbling. But, do I sound like them? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t try to. But, just being recognized in that category, just that alone, it’s like “Ok, wow.” It’s really, really, really cool.
Kara: Some of the screams you do have got to be rough on your pipes. Of course, it sounds great in songs, but how do you prevent from seriously damaging your vocal chords? Do you do anything specific to take care of your voice?
Emily: There’s ways to scream without totally damaging. The only time I ever feel like I’m damaging is when I’m really tired, and I’m not using my body to sing. You actually stress your throat out. There’s actually a technique to it that I’ve learned on my own throughout the years of performing. I’m self-taught, so I’m very in tune with my body and how [the sound] comes out. It’s more about passion when you sing. There’s all sorts of things about it that I’ve learned. If I keep up with my warm-ups and my cool-downs, and keep drinking my tea, I’m in good shape. I can tell that when I’m screaming on stage — there’s certain parts of the throat where you can get by without totally damaging it. But, this is after years of experience. (laughs) I didn’t learn this overnight. I did definitely go hoarse a lot of times. But now, you’ll never find me hoarse. The only time you’ll ever find me hoarse is when I’m sick.
Kara: That’s great to know. Fans wanna keep you around for a fourth, fifth, sixth album!
Emily: Absolutely! (laughs) Yeah, yeah, yeah!
Kara: Although women have made huge strides in the industry, rock and metal are still two strongly male dominated genres. Your music can be described as raw, aggressive, and unapologetic — as a female fronted band, and a band with such a heavy female presence do you feel any extra pressure not only to keep up with the boys, but also to carry the torch and serve as role models for young girls interested in music?
Emily: Yes and no. It’s really cool to see — when we started, we weren’t thinking [of] that.
Siouxsie and I both just love rock n’ roll so much! It’s what we love and absolutely what we want to do. When we got into it, we were just highly energetic people with a lot of passion. As we continued on and started getting a little bit more recognition, there were girls and women going, “Fuck yeah! This is great! We don’t have women like this anymore in the industry.” And that’s when I started thinking about it. It wasn’t like, I’m gonna do this because there is none. And then, when you just start thinking about it, you go, “Wow that is cool! That’s really cool” I’m glad to help bring that back, so to speak. You kind of start to realize that with just rock in general, that raw[ness] is kind of not there as well. It’s like what we were talking about earlier — if you put stuff on the radio, it’s very slick and over produced and stuff. I think it’s very…I don’t know how to explain myself. Does that make sense?
Kara: Oh yeah, I think everybody initially gets into the industry — whether it’s audio engineering, the business aspect, or even as a musician because of the sheer love for the music. Then once they’re in it, they kinda look around and see where they stand, so to speak. But I think for Dead Sara, especially watching both you and Siouxsie perform, it’s so empowering for a lot of women — especially those who wouldn’t necessarily think about playing or singing or getting involved.
Emily: Right! I’ve have people come up to me and actually say that! And that was like, “Woah! That’s Fucking awesome!” To have a voice for these people and say, “It’s alright. Go up there and fucking scream your ass off!” It’s not just for males. It is male dominated, but it doesn’t mean anything! It’s a great thing to be one of the only ones out there doing that!
Kara: What do you want fans to remember most about your music?
Emily: (long pause) Definitely the passion…and being realistic, and inspiring.
Music that is once again “passion[ate], realistic, and inspiring” is exactly what all hard-rockers have been waiting for — a band that finally cuts like a knife through all the corporate cookie cutter mediocrity that has been flooding the airwaves for the last few years! This band provides fans with one eargasmic experience after another. And as if that isn’t enough to get your attention, watching Armstrong leap from of the top of the band’s speakers on to the stage, in silent declaration that they are here to stay, definitely will. Dead Sara makes listeners want to brave the mosh pit with reckless abandon in order to become completely engulfed in the emotions and raw energy that their music puts forth.
Many consistently argue that punk is dead, and rock is on life support at best. However, thanks to this band and a few of their contemporaries, rock has finally received the shot of adrenaline it so desperately needed. To put it quite simply, Dead Sara is a straight up balls to the wall rock band that plays rock n’ roll the way it was meant to be played – honest, gritty, unapologetic, and LOUD! They are not just a band to be listened to; they are an experience to be had.
Check ‘em out for yourself at http://www.deadsara.com/. NOW on tour with Neon Trees and The Offspring!