An interview with postpunk band Guilty Strangers
by Oliver Sheppard
Often compared to “Queen of Siam” or “13.13”-era Lydia Lunch, San Antonio, Texas’s Guilty Strangers appeared on CVLTNation’s “Deathrock 2013 Mixtape, Part 2” earlier this year. Their 2012 “Oracle” LP evinced a mix of no-wave, deathrock, and postpunk along the lines of bands like Lung Overcoat, Executive Slacks, 45 Grave, and even Lene Lovich.
They will be playing a rare free show this Friday, December 20th, in Austin, TX at Funeral Parade, which is Austin’s only monthly deathrock event. (Show info at that link.)
Musically, Guilty Strangers’ approach is one of attacking the dark side of rock by taking the course that bands like the (early) Sisters of Mercy and Killing Joke did: They employ a traditional 4 piece outfit — that is, a live drummer and live guitarists — but come at the music by oblique and unexpected angles: Slashing, trebly guitars meet tribal drum patterns and strange, Sex Gang Children-esque basslines, all brought to the fore via singer Christine Terry’s classic deathrock-sounding vocals — which, again, recall very much the early 80s material of Lydia Lunch and even Dinah Cancer. Their covers of Killing Joke and Christian Death are only partly an homage to the tradition to which they belong.
I recently interviewed Guilty Strangers, below.
Oliver: Okay, first thing’s first: When did Guilty Strangers form, who was in that lineup, and who is in the lineup now?
Shawn: Christine and I started recording under that name in 2008. The first live line-up from 2009 was Christine Terry – vocals, Shawn Terry- guitar, Julian Garcia- bass and Chris Ruptive on drums. Kenneth Fiedler joined us as an additional guitarist in 2011. The live line-up is in a state of flux at the moment.
Oliver: Where does the name “Guilty Strangers” come from, who chose it, and why did you choose it?
Christine: I was toying around with names and going back and forth with Shawn, we wanted something that sounded a bit noir-ish, or like the title to an old 60’s detective novel. I recall coming across a Lydia Lunch quote that I always really liked, and that gave me the idea for the “guilty” part. It was “No names have been changed to protect the innocent, they’re all fucking guilty.” A bunch of guilty bystanders. Everyone is guilty of something, me especially. So I liked it…
Oliver: I’ve seen your band called a lot of things — for example, on Tumblr someone had tagged you all as “no wave,” and you all also have a deathrock and classic goth influence. Where do you see yourselves fitting in musically, in the big scheme of things?
Shawn: We don’t fit in. Ha ha. I think we’ve used elements from all of those musical movements and more. My favorite descriptions are the creative ones like “post-everything gloom rock” or, as one DJ in California described our collaboration with Madame B ” no-fi lo-wave witch rock.” When people we meet inevitably ask us what kind of music we play, I usually say post-punk. Then, if they stare blankly I tell them that we’re kinda “gothy” but kinda “punk-ish.” Then I get that Donny & Marie song stuck in my head.”I’m a little bit country…”
Christine: I am definitely influenced by No-Wave, but I don’t directly try to emulate it. I really hate it when bands take one influence and try to copy it exactly, it becomes so one dimensional. The reason so many bands we love sound unique is because they combined what they knew with what they loved. I think our sound has a lot to do with where Shawn and I have similar influences, as well as where we differ. I know I regurgitate a lot of my personal neurosis into our music!
Oliver: One of the things I like about your band is that every song seems different and, to me, conjures up a different set of influences and bands. The first song on your LP has a traditional gothic rock feel to me, with deathrock overtones. Other songs have a more Lydia Lunch or no-wave sound. Is this something you all try to consciously do when writing songs, or does it just come out that way?
Shawn: They just come out that way. I’m glad you like that aspect. I think sometimes it’s been a hindrance. We don’t fit neatly into one niche, and it seems like people are more into labeling things and dividing them up than ever. Maybe that’s changing with the all the “Goth-Punk” bands coming out, and the electronic-based groups who aren’t just doing stuff to dance to. The song you mentioned (“Romulus” from the album Oracle) – Kenneth Fiedler was in the band when we did that album and he came up with a guitar part that had a very classic goth-rock feel, with that chorusey, watery thing. When Christine and I started adding our parts it started sounding a little more deathrock. She did the vocal a bit smoother and more melodic than usual, because it suited that particular song. The noisier songs – well, really we just like kicking up a racket. We love The Birthday Party, and that more visceral kind of thing. I also have just always loved spiky, noisey guitarists like Pat Place, early Daniel Ash, Rowland S. Howard,as well as guys like Robert Quine and Ivan Julian, who learned all the rules and then broke them.
Christine: Rowland S. Howard! Yes. We love sneaky, discordant, noisy, moody… the songs definitely just come out that way, as Shawn said. Sometimes he might have one direction, and then I just go stomp all over it…as far as the Lydia Lunch sound, I think I have a natural tendency to berate the listener, and also have listened to her since I was a teenager. It translates. Sometimes I try to be smoother vocally, but it just doesnt work.
Oliver: When you all played with Lost Tribe last year, some of the members of that band said you reminded them of LA-style goth/deathrock. (They meant it as a compliment!) Who are your main musical influences as a band, and why….?
Shawn: That’s cool. It was great to get to play a show with those guys. Yeah – definitely when we were recording the first EP we were playing our Christian Death and Super Heroines records. Lydia Lunch, The Gun Club, The Birthday Party, Bauhaus, Xmal Deutschland, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Siouxsie and the Banshees, early Death In June, Sex Gang Children, Malaria!, Bush Tetras, Southern Death Cult, Kim Salmon and the Surrealists, Sixth Comm, X, Crispy Ambulance, Savage Republic, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Roxy Music – the list goes on and on. Some influences might be more obvious than others, but it’s all there in the stew. I think when we started we probably wore our influences on our sleeve(s) – but I think we have our own particular energy and feel now, and a unique sound as well.
Oliver: You all got to meet Lydia Lunch recently, on a very poorly-promoted appearance in Texas (which I didn’t find out about til a couple of days beforehand). have you all met her before? What was it like talking with her?
Shawn: Amazing. We were walking around dazed for a few days afterwards. We were both nervous about meeting her. We’ve both been way into her work since we were teenagers. She walked straight up to us and hugged us. She called us family. She licked Christine’s tattoo! She told us that people like us are the reason she is still out there performing. Lydia is a mesmerizing and intense individual with an electricity all her own. Yes, we are both in love with her- ha ha.
Christine: I never thought I would get to meet her, since she always tours overseas. It was amazing, she was even more intense live than on her records, and my brain pretty well turned to mush. I read her book Paradoxia when I was sixteen, and listened to her music since before that. She has this vivid way of wording things, and she is so unapolagetic. Her frankness was a big inspiration to me, and still is. I love her guts. I love how unique she is. I especially love how she owns her sexuality.
Oliver: Guilty Strangers does live covers of Killing Joke’s “Kings and Queens” and Christian Death’s “Dogs.” Do you all do any other covers, and why did you choose those two songs? Shawn, I know you have some personal experience with Rozz Williams (correspondence IIRC?) — can you let readers know about that?
Shawn: We’ve covered “Is It My Body” by Alice Cooper, “Gloria” by Them – but closer to the Patti Smith version, “United” by Throbbing Gristle, a minimal, slow version of Lou Reed’s “Vicious” and one time we did a whole set of X songs under the name X-tine and the Blue Sparks. It’s just fun to throw a cover in to change things up for the band and surprise the audience. We rarely do a cover for more than one or two shows- and usually we don’t play any covers. “Kings and Queens” we did because everyone in the band loves Killing Joke. We kind of fell into that song jamming at practice and thought it sounded pretty good. We did “Dogs” at a couple of shows in 2009, just because I really like that song.
I exchanged several letters with Rozz Williams around the time of Shadow Project. I interviewed him, via mail, for a zine I did back then called Communion. He sent me a really cool art/poetry zine that he and Eva did together too. I was a pretty obsessed fan in my younger years. I remember buying the “Only Theatre of Pain” record from Hogwild Records in San Antonio. I had already gotten into the Banshees, Bauhaus and the Sisters – but this was something different. I must have played the whole record 8 times in a row as soon as I got it home.
Oliver: What’s the story behind “Madame B meets Guilty Strangers”? I notice it’s a page on Facebook that one can click “Like” on….
Shawn: We discovered Madame B around the time we were finishing up the recording of our “Walking The Wire” album. We were really taken with her lo-fi DIY electronic sound and aesthetic, as well as her lovely voice and the anger and passion she expresses in her songs. We started exchanging emails and the idea of a collaboration came up. The funny thing is, we both wanted to sound more like the other – I wanted the project to be more electronic, and Madame B asked me to please do some more rock-type things closer to the Guilty Strangers sound. There are a couple of songs we did together that wouldn’t have fit with either of our seperate projects. We did a limited edition of 66 cds – 33 for the States and 33 for Europe. We also put it out through Zorch Factory for free download. That project actually found a whole different audience. I saw radio playlists that sandwiched a MB meets GS song between two modern classical/avant-garde pieces, and we got played on some shows next to minimal techno tracks and noise stuff. I did another one on Zorch with her called Operations – which is all electronics and sound manipulation. We both hope to work with her again in the future.
Oliver: Are there any current bands out there you like, and who are they? What do you think about the Texas dark music scene? There are a lot of good DJ nights, but actual live bands making new dark music, let alone deathrock, seem to be few and far between (with some notable exceptions!). What bands do you like nationally, and who do you like that’s local to Texas?
Shawn: I like Belgrado, Dekoder, La Peste Negra, Phosphor, Mushy, Winter Severity Index, and I love Ferox – the new band from the Internal Autonomy people. If you think we jump around genres – they do it a few times within one song! I’m addicted to their music. It’s filled with twists and surprises. The Texas scene- yeah you hit the nail on the head. The DJ nights are better than ever. On a good night 1313 is better than any club night I went to in California. It’s cool that the San Antonio people have really gotten into the deathrock/post-punk/punk aspects over the stompy dance shit. It’s been a gradual progression. 6 years ago you would have heard Depeche Mode, EBM and 80’s pop at a goth night here. Now, if you go on the right night, it’s all deathrock, goth rock and dark punk. Newer US bands? Lost Tribe. In Texas, Bipolar Gentleman- who are kind of noise rock with industrial touches. Pinkish Black is good. Most of the Texas bands I like are not “dark” type bands. Murdered Out is great. They’re like Black Flag meets Jesus Lizard.
Christine: I agree with all that, and I also like Deadfly Ensemble. I am sure we are forgetting some, and it will come to me later. I thought the San Francisco scene would be a lot cooler, but actually the Texas dark music scene is great. I’d definitely like to check out some venues in other Texas cities.
Oliver: Is there a primary songwriter for Guilty Strangers and if so, who is it? Is there a certain way songs come to fruition? If you can, describe the typical songwriting process for Guilty Strangers (if there is one!).
Shawn: Generally I write the music and Christine writes the lyrics. Most of the songs seem to start with a bassline. One musical idea sparks another, and the lyrics are usually written after the music is pretty well formed. There are exceptions in all these cases. Some of our songs are traditionally structured, and some are more experimental and pretty much improvised over a pre-determined rhythmic base.
Oliver: What are some of your favorite live shows from the past and what makes those shows stand out? Any interesting anecdotes about people in the crowd or what other bands did?
Shawn: Our first ever show at The Prestige was pretty special. It was packed, and people were into it. No one had seen or heard us before. Opening for Peter Murphy was cool. Then there was that night when some drunk guys started a pit. Ha ha. There have also been a couple of nights when the audience is feeling no pain, and we actually get a room full of people dancing. You don’t see that too often and I have to admit it’s pretty fun. Maybe we should write more disco-ey songs. Ha.
Christine: The shows just get better and better lately, and I think we have really started to have a solid live sound. It’s more cohesive since we quit rotating members (crosses fingers) and Ive been enjoying performing more than ever. It gets better from here, though the first shows will always be memorable…from what I can remember…
Oliver: Shawn, you mentioned you got a zine from Rozz Williams and Eva O. What was it called and what was it about?
Shawn: The Heretic’s Forked Toungue -Book 1. It’s mostly poetry, drawings and collages by Rozz and Eva. It’s also got some flyers reprinted and a brief history of Shadow Project up to that time. There are some SP pics, including an early line-up that included Johann Schumann on bass and David Glass on Drums.
Oliver: Do you feel like you’re carrying on in the San Antonio postpunk tradition of bands like Lung Overcoat?
Christine: I honestly never thought of it that way.
Shawn: Ha ha. I’m good friends with Christopher Smart from Lung Overcoat. I was even in a band with him at one point. Lung Overcoat had a much cleaner guitar sound than we do. I don’t know that we’re carrying on in their tradition, but I guess we ARE a gloomy, bass driven band from San Antonio. Someone’s gotta do it! I’d love for them to do a reunion tour someday and let us open the shows! I also can’t believe noone has re-issued their music yet. It’s great stuff!
Oliver: What are the websites you’d refer people to who want to buy your music and keep track of what you’re up to?
Christine: We have some stuff available at guiltystrangers.bandcamp.com and a few albums at zorchfactoryrecords.com . You can still download the first EP at Amazon. The physical copies are long gone on everything, but we hope to press up a collection of old tracks and a new album in the near future.
Oliver: Thanks so much guys and gals!
Shawn and Christine: Thank YOU Oliver!
GUILTY STRANGERS have a Facebook page here.