The one time I saw Des Ark, singer Aimée Argote broke the ice with the audience by suggesting they move closer. "We probably smell weird," she said, "but this is a punk show, so you probably don't mind."
Most of Des Ark's music is marked by this kind of frankness, maybe less about punk must and more about insecurities, traumas, hopes, and desires, all set against music that oscillates liberally between minimal, singer/songwriter quaintness to loud and obtuse movements that sound like they continue the legacy of a lot of the weird and innovative trends in punk and hardcore that characterized the '90s D.I.Y. scene in America.
Up on the Sun talked to Argote recently about the band's current activities and her approach to songwriting.
Up on the Sun: So you are working on a new record. What has the process been like on that? Aimée Argote: I will say, first of all, that it's taken less time than any other Des Ark record. But, I started at the beginning of the year trying to record it in North Carolina, where I live, with my friend Brian Paulson who is an old-time recording engineer who works out of his house. I wanted to make this the way I had made quiet songs in the past, which is just start with that little-stringed tenor guitar and then build piece by piece on top of that. And in the past (the band is sort of split between being a loud punk band and being really quiet), for the records, I usually did three songs, tops, like that. The rock band would usually be half of it and fewer songs would be assembled that way. So I started doing this with Brian thinking, "Let's just do this whole record this way, it will be great!" and realized I was completely over my head, and doing nine songs that way and going into it doing all those songs at once was completely insane and my brain just couldn't function. It was like giving birth to nine kids all at once, and they're all growing at different speeds, and I was just trying to keep up with all of them.
So I was talking with him and he said, "Why don't you go to Austin? I've got some friends who have a home recording studio, and it's really just one piece of recording equipment and a couple of microphones. It's just a house full of people who play music." So I just said, "Yeah, screw it," and went down there for a week and made a record with people who live down there. But it still wasn't all the way done. We didn't have the capabilities of a full drum set, and I didn't end up doing vocals and things like that, so now I'm in the process of trying to finish that up in Richmond, [Virginia,] with a friend, but he has two kids and I work a million jobs, so we're only able to get together like once every couple of months. He also plays drums. His name is Jonathan Fuller, he played drums in Sleepytime Trio and guitar in Engine Down. He is one of my favorite musicians and he has mixed previous recordings. So now I'm just trying to wrap it up in Richmond and also do some home recording, but it's still just a really slow process.
Do you have any kind of perfectionist attitude towards writing songs, or are you more willing to close the book on something once it's done?
Oh yeah, I'm really bad about that. I think some people get in the studio and they work work work and it's never right and they keep re-taking it. I get in there and it's never right, but instead of retaking it, I kind of like to just do one or two takes, and then I get really bummed out and I disappear off the face of the Earth for three months. Then I come back and I'm like "I figured out what's wrong!" and then I do it in one take and then we're done.
So I think my process takes a long time not because I'm a perfectionist, like I'm trying to get the best thing ever. I don't really care about that. It's that I know that something is missing and I don't know what it is, and I can't just make it up. It's got to knock on the door and be like "I'm here." And then once it arrives, I put it down and I'm done with it. I just feel like a lot of times I can't force that and I get bummed out if it's not happening and take long breaks between things.
I'm focused on music. I really care about it in that I've toured so much since I was 15 years old and I'm 32 now, but I really, really care about my family and about building a life for the people I love; to emotionally be there. And there have been some things, both of my parents had cancer in the last few years, for instance, where my first priority was to be grounded at home and to be with my family. I turn music off and it takes a backseat to whatever I think may be more important for me to spend my time doing. As I get older, I see less purpose in missing out on things to maybe be more popular or be consistent.
I wanted to talk about your songwriting on the lyrical level. I think that you do a lot of stuff lyrically that I really like, in the sense that you talk about love and interpersonal relationships in a way that has a lot of grit and addresses a lot of emotional vulnerability. It feels a lot more realistic than, like, usual pop music. There's a lot of sad things, grittiness, awkwardness, but also some good things too. I was wondering, when you write songs like that that have that kind of emotional texture to them, that kind of go into some really dark areas, is it hard for you to put that out there?
No, it's not hard. It's really nice. It's my way of processing through that stuff. I don't feel like I live in the pain. I feel like I write the songs, so I cannot live in the pain. I create a space for that pain to exist, and I go through it and I put the pain into another thing and let it go.
I think, because of that, some things I'm able to write about right in that moment when they are happening, but a lot of times it takes a couple of years for me to write about something, because it's not until I'm ready to really let it go that I can give it away to the world, or to the universe or whatever, like put it in a song and set it free.
I don't run away from things. I don't move around a lot. I think that the idea of being able to live through suffering is really beautiful and it exists all around us at all times and I think that so much of the pain comes from being scared to go through it. I've found that just going through it, it goes by a lot faster, and I think a lot of the lyrical stuff is just facing things that scare me or have hurt me or the people that I love. I find it more rewarding as someone who tours, who talks to people a lot, is around people, to have people come up to me and not talk to me about how much they like my song about my pedicure, that they are relating to a song I wrote about cancer because someone they know is going through that. It just feels much more meaningful, and it helps propel me into a place where I feel like I want to keep playing music, because a lot of times I feel like I question the purpose of art or my art or the validity of it and I often feel like it's not worth it and it's not very good, and I think putting those real painful experiences out there and having people respond to that in a really personal way is exactly the thing I need to make me feel like there's a reason for me to do it.
In a lot of ways, I've always viewed your way of songwriting as political, not in some mass movement/protest kind of way, but more so in the way that you talk about personal issues often through the lens of gender and sexuality that people relate with. I know you write music for cathartic reasons, but do you get a political vibe as well?
Sure. We've always operated as a grassroots, D.I.Y. punk band, and in terms of how to structure a band or how to create sustainable movements and communities, I find that the D.I.Y. tends to support bands better than, you know, the classic "get a manager! Get a booking agent!" kind of thing, where you just end up hollow and have nothing to stand on. In a really specific way, the band is very political in how it deals with institutions and stuff like that. In a personal way, I think it's political because -- I think about it a lot -- I think it's a political statement to be who you are and not be afraid of it. Not everybody has that privilege, and I think when you have that privilege, you have a right or a responsibility to get in front of a microphone and make it public: that you are queer, that you are a woman, you're a survivor of sexual assault and you're not going away.
I don't know, I have the privilege of being able to be in spaces that allow me to say that out loud, and I think it's so important that I do that, and I do think that's a political thing.
We were talking about D.I.Y. and I wanted to ask you, on a lighter note, because you wrote something funny on the Internet like a year ago about getting a booking agent and it seemed almost preemptive. Like, you just wanted to put it out there before the punk police came after you or something. It seemed really funny to me because I don't think having a booking agent is a huge deal, but it seemed like you just wanted to put it all out there. I'm curious, could you go into how you are still punk even though you have a booking agent. I mean, I still think you're punk, but I just want to know.
The problem I have with the punk scene, which is what I go into in the post, is that they expect the artist to do everything. And the only people who can do that are trust-fund kids. Like, all the people who can do that are the people who really don't need support in that way. So, I felt like it was really important to talk about how that idea is completely impossible and it destroys bands. It destroys their creative spirit, it destroys their ability to make music and create art because they are trying to do everything all at once.
I called Merrick [Jarmulowicz, currently with Ground Control Touring] because I was looking around, wondering "is he cool? What's his deal?" I did a background check on him basically and he passed. So I called him and asked him "Why are you a booking agent? Why would you become this thing?" and he said "Listen, it's in my best interests as a music man to become a booking agent. Every band I love broke up because they couldn't figure out to do everything they were trying to do. I figured, 'Hey, let me take the biggest stress off of you. Or one of them'"
Also, any band you consider, there's always a couple active people, a couple lazy people; it usually ends up being one person, or one to two people, who are doing most of the work. So, I think it's such a great thing. For so long, I would think of us as a punk band, but it was crushing me to do all that work all that time. And I don't have the brains for it. I have art brains. I'm constantly talking myself out of being in a band, and so when you're also trying to do business stuff, you're just putting all this energy into something that's taking time away from making art. And I told him that there's gonna be people that you call that if you say "hi, I'm a booking agent!" they are going to hang up the phone and set it on fire and never talk to us again.
So, here's the deal. I'm gonna book some of the shows because there are some places where I have great friends who I want to call. I don't want some stranger calling them. And he was totally fine with that. He's a great guy and was completely willing to work with us, but he's also like "you gotta get a record out for me to really help you much, because right now you are touring on air," but it's interesting to talk to him. He understands how it works. He totally understands D.I.Y.; that's where he came from and he's still got his feet in that.
I guess I don't really care if people think I'm not punk. I just think that's ridiculous to put expectations on people to do it all, unless you are a trust-fund kid, which I am the opposite of. I could also be wrong.
I was curious about your involvement with the Richmond/DC/kind of East Coast scene. I am mostly basing this on your involvement with Lovitt records and touring with Pygmy Lush. What's that community like? How does it work?
Well, the East Coast is awesome. It's super tight-knit. You can get to a billion cities. You can make a two-week tour with two-hour drives and be totally stoked. I think for us, there was always such a strong D.I.Y. and political scene in D.C., and it really shaped the way we did stuff. It just made sense. It was a family, it wasn't about being a hip person, it was about doing things and believing what you are doing and including people who, for whatever reason, aren't included in other things. So, we got involved with Lovitt records in 2006, and Brian [Lowit] who runs that label also manages Dischord, so I guess the connection kind of keeps happening through that. But the people in that scene are incredible, and they have an incredible faith and they've built so much for people to stand on now and they continue. Everyone I know who is a part of that scene or was part of that scene back in the day is still involved, still playing music, still recording music. It's awesome.
Some people are really looking for the hippest label, the one that's like "we've got 7 million Twitter followers!" That's never been important to me. The people we've met in that scene will be releasing each others' records until they are defecating in adult diapers. It's like they're connected to each other for life and support each other in all their endeavors. It's just really beautiful to see.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.