EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Dead Sara
Los Angeles quartet Dead Sara makes a very distinct noise fierce and urgent enough to even raise the eyebrows of the most jaded and easily unimpressed music fan. Emily Armstrong and Siouxsie Medley were the founding force; now rounded out by Chris Null and Sean Friday they are bending the genre rules and thrusting a fist in the face of those who doubt that women have the balls to rock just as hard, if not harder, on a stage predominantly owned by men, Dead Sara is that anomaly; a female-fronted band whose music skirts raw punk and melody, metallic blues and soul, indie angst and songcraft, and presents it via one of the most ferocious yet beautifully emotive voices to be heard in music today. That voice belongs Emily Armstrong. We sat, we ate, we chatted.
The Owl Mag: One of the things that I really like is that fact that, number one, you’re a rock band, but you’re a female fronted rock band. And it’s more about rock than it is about being pretty and cute and harmless. Your music is not harmless. Your music is extremely aggressive.
The Owl Mag: And is that intentional? Is that just natural? Where does that come from?
Emily: It’s purely natural. It’s not… we don’t put that up at all. It just is.
The Owl Mag: The four of you have very different musical influences. What’s one of your strongest musical influences?
Emily: Oh, man. You know, that’s always a hard question to – and it always – any time somebody asks me that it always goes back to whatever emotionally triggers me, like, emotionally, it hits me. And, like, what does that the most is folk music.
The Owl Mag: Really?
Emily: Oh, yeah, like, I listen to so much of that. Like, before Dead Sara, I was a folk singer. I just like the storytelling, mainly late ’60s, early ’70s, it just kills me. I don’t know what it is. Like feelings, emotions and anything. It’s not even like Janis [Joplin], you know what I mean? Which I’ve been compared to a lot. It’s not that. It’s just feelings and I feel like that’s the last good era of that.
The Owl Mag: And written music. I mean that was lyrically focused, lyrically it said something.
Emily: It definitely did. Definitely. I saw the problem with that with myself, but it has the most emotional impact. But then, again, I love the ’90s. Very melodic, yet, you know, very simple lyrics or very strange and I like that.
The Owl Mag: And you’re the primary lyricist, right? Is the writing natural for you or is it more work?
Emily: You know, both. We’ll start working on a song together, like, depending with the band or myself or just with Siouxsie [Medley]. I’ll find that some songs just flow a lot better, you know? Sometimes, I have a good outline and it’ll take me months to figure out the lyrics to fill in. And I just can’t for the fucking life of me fill in those fucking spaces. It drives me fucking insane and I fucking hate it. That’s the worst. That’s the work for me.
The Owl Mag: What’s one of the hardest songs for you to write?
Emily: “I Said You Were Lucky”.
The Owl Mag: Really?
Emily: On the record, yeah. It’s that one or “Lemon Scent” too. Actually, yeah, “Lemon Scent”. For some reason, I would go into glee writing it.
The Owl Mag: Go into glee?
Emily: Just sort of laughing –
The Owl Mag: I thought you meant the TV show!
Emily: No, no, no. I was just – and the producer was like, “What is wrong with you?” I don’t do drugs. It’s was really strange, that one, “Lemon Scent”. Huh, I don’t know what it was.
The Owl Mag: Now, you and Siouxsie have been together for how long?
Emily: Six, seven years.
The Owl Mag: And you’ve had various incarnations, various other drummers, other bassists?
Emily: Oh, yeah.
The Owl Mag: You officially locked down on Chris and Sean how long ago?
Emily: Less than two years ago. That’s when we took a little break and then we decided, okay, what are we doing? We got to do it right. Like, you know, we took a little bit of time off. We got our heads straight and now we know what we want. Now, let’s go get it and we’ve been together for – this is the longest we’ve ever had any line up and it’s been the easiest.
The Owl Mag: You’ve had rotating players as far as the bass and drums go and Sean and Chris look like they’re it. And when people think of Dead Sara, of course, they think of you two. They think it’s Emily and Siouxsie and the guys back there. It’s looking more like a cohesive band. Chris and Sean’s music parts are so strong. Is that what you were going for eventually?
Emily: Oh, yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I always loved the whole band. Like, when a whole band is jelling or, for lack of a better word, jelling – when everybody is just on the same fucking page, it is so great. It is so great. And that’s something I’ve looked forward to as a little girl. Like, when I would start bands when I was like 11, 12 in my school, I would be in bands all the time and start bands. So, from that point, with Dead Sara having so many players come in and out and hiring different people to play certain shows, it was too much effort and that didn’t seem natural to me. I wanted a band. Everybody was on the same page. Everybody knew what everybody was working toward and we were gonna suffer on up together and we’d have that support, you know? Everybody is like in it for the same fucking thing. And, you know, it’s –
The Owl Mag: It makes a difference.
Emily: It absolutely makes a difference and it’s tougher though. It really is.
The Owl Mag: How long have you been singing? You were talking about being in bands when you were 12. How long have you actually been singing? When did you actually know you were going sing?
Emily: Oh, man, that took a while to know that. Years. When I was 12, when I first picked up the guitar, I was like this is what I want. I’m gonna be a guitar player. I’m gonna be the fucking best guitar player I could be. I wasn’t ever like a singer when I was younger. You know, like these people that are just like these fucking kids that could just sing so well. I’m like, how?
The Owl Mag: See I would have thought that you were probably one of those kids who started singing when she was two.
Emily: No fucking way! But I always loved rock and roll when I was young, always. I’d throw myself on the floor when I’d hear stuff and tell me to do stuff, you know, I’d do it.
The Owl Mag: And when did you get it and know you were really a singer?
Emily: When I was like 15, I really sat down just with my songs, just by myself, an acoustic guitar and I learned to use vibrato for the first time. I was like a late bloomer singing. I remember the first time I did vibrato, it fucking scared the living crap out of me. It just came out of me.
The Owl Mag: Really?
Emily: Isn’t that weird?
The Owl Mag: Considering how prevalent it is in your voice, yeah.
Emily: Just playing guitar and all of a sudden – I was just really into it and my guitars weren’t shaking. I’m all, what the fuck was that? I was like, what is going on, what was that? Like, I didn’t know, was there an earthquake? Like, it was the weirdest thing. And then, a little bit later, it happened again and then I realized it was like my body is convulsing into a fucking vibrato. It was the strangest experience singing, yeah. And I felt so in it. Like, the body just moved. And then, I’m doing this folk singing and I didn’t have a band. I mean, because I moved schools, but I’m still – like, I didn’t know anybody, so I would just write, play and sing and sing and sing. I did a lot of fucking Joni Mitchell covers and I was fully immersed into folk rock. I played, like, in coffee shops and stuff like that and then I met Siouxsie, and she listened to punk rock, but I loved her. She was awesome. I was like, this girl is so rad!
Photo by: Frank Maddocks
The Owl Mag: How old were you two when you met?
Emily: She was 16, I was 17, I think, or I was 16, she was 15. Yeah, through mutual friends. And we were friends for a while and discovered a guitar in her room in back of a fucking dresser. I was like, what? And I’ve already known her like for years. I’m like, what the fuck is this? She’s like, oh, yeah, I used to play guitar. And me wanting to start a band and I always want to start bands with friends because I did at the time. And when she told me, it was just like, oh, my God. This has to be it.
The Owl Mag: Now, with your history, you met, you formed a band, how close were you to, I guess, actually, getting signed? And what was that whole experience like?
Emily: Fucking a mind field to be totally honest. I mean we definitely had, like, deals coming, like, through our lawyers. We got a lawyer, you know, to see if we could change certain things.
The Owl Mag: And one of the biggest problems was your sound or you didn’t have the sound they wanted?
Emily: We didn’t have a hit song. You know, they want to hear songs. They definitely did. And they wanted us to work with like big producers and stuff, which we did. You know, we met up with some. We met up with writers. We tried that whole thing. And certain labels wanted us to do that. We did that with big writers. I tried it. Didn’t want that.
The Owl Mag: I equate that with the Shania Twain syndrome. I don’t know if you know how she worked. She writes her own lyrics. She writes her own music. And when she first went to Nashville, they wanted her to do the sit here in this room with these writers and let them write the song and then you go sing it.
Emily: Yeah, for the most part. Because it was just Siouxsie and I at the time. We had a drummer and a bass player tentatively. They weren’t the band. So, Siouxsie and I would write with them, but it was just never like satisfying, you know?
The Owl Mag: The product?
Emily: Yeah. It’s just not as satisfying and that’s what Siouxsie and I wanted, but we didn’t realize what we wanted and that’s the thing, so we wasted people’s time. We wasted, you know, and I’m just saying our time. We’ve always figured these things out later and it happens for a reason, but it’s kind of like when we went through all that kind of stuff, it was – we realized like saying no to everything, we’re saying we don’t know about certain things. It just made it clear that we – just, like, what are we fucking doing? What do we want? What kind of deal do we want? We don’t know. We’ve only played a fucking handful of shows ever. We don’t know how the – like, that band that we always wanted, so there’s things that were not so cohesive or, like, things that weren’t so stable with us.
The Owl Mag: Because as a band, you weren’t ready.
Emily: No, not at all. Not at all. We didn’t know how to answer their questions. What do you want to be in ten years? We don’t fucking know. You know? Did we care at the time? No. You know, we wanted to be in a band. Of course, we wanted to be successful. Who doesn’t?
The Owl Mag: So, now, that’s a good question. What do you want to be in ten years?
Emily: In a band. I would love to, definitely, have the band established and still definitely doing music.
The Owl Mag: One question I have to ask before I forget is what’s Dead Sara? Where’d the name come from?
Emily: Oh, Fleetwood Mac. Stevie Nicks, “Sara”.
The Owl Mag: But why Dead Sara?
Emily: Well, in it, she said, “Said, ‘Sara, you’re the poet in my heart,’ “Never change” “Never stop”. Up near the end, “you know it’s gone.” Siouxsie and I always used to think it said dead Sara. We just kind of agreed on it. Dead Sara, it was like the only name that we could agree on and stuck in its ears.
The Owl Mag: What’s one of the worst names you came up with?
Emily: Oh, God. It has to be Masturbation Salvation.
The Owl Mag: No! Yeah, you’re not gonna get signed with that one.
Emily: Maybe to like a punk rock label.
See this amazeballs rock band at their upcoming show at the Bootleg Theateron June 23rd. After seeing them live I’ve no doubt that you will thank me, so in advance I say, you’re welcome.