The Black Sites
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The Black Sites

Newport, Kentucky, United States

Newport, Kentucky, United States
Band Pop Alternative

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The Talker
by Sarah A. Strickley


When my sister Ness and I formed a band about a year ago, it felt like a culmination of things that began in our childhood. I'd say it all started when I came upon her singing deranged '80s pop into a doll's head. She was in the bathroom and I surprised her, standing and watching until she noticed me behind her in the mirror. It's not as though I invaded a patently private moment. She'd left the door flung wide open and was singing at a considerable volume, one that suggested an awareness, if not an expectation, of an audience. Her movements were plastic and staged, her vocal preambulations suggestive of the melisma so popular at the time. I remember thinking she was serious about what she was doing.

She startled when she saw me, but recovered with skill. "I was just singing," she said, as though to say it was as ordinary as breathing air. We both remember this now as a seminal moment. She says she came to know shame, my face in the mirror conveying the pallor of judgment over her entire life. She was like Eve realizing her nakedness—she'd never perform without the burden of self-knowledge again—but we both knew even then that shame wasn't going to keep her from singing into things. And, further, that I'd probably be standing quietly somewhere nearby while she did it.

I always talked about being in a band. You come into contact with a sense of your own possibilities and it excites you, makes you feel grand. Talking about being a writer isn't the same. You feel foolish and exposed while you're doing it and everyone feels sorry for you as the words sag out. When you want to talk about being in a band, it helps to be around people who know what they're talking about, and so for a long time I hung around with men who were in bands. While they rehearsed, I thought about what I'd do with the song if I were doing it, something I'd imagine a lot of assholes do.

I wrote terrible poems about this experience, many of them exploring the pertinent binaries of inclusion and exclusion. Thinking and doing. Occasionally, I'd bang out a tune on the piano and write it down, but only because I was afraid of regret. I wasn't the kind to initiate, though I did participate in hippie music experiences, sitting with circles that smoked out 72-hour-long songs near an old railroad depot. I performed covers in dive bars when there were girl parts the boys didn't want to do, I learned two chords I could strum when challenged, and I had many obscure records in my possession, but I was never in a band.

Meanwhile, my sister was performing the National Anthem at sporting events in which she also participated. She played college ball as a center and guitar at events that celebrated women and their rights. She once regaled an entire bar of lesbians in a command performance, though she doesn't lean that way herself. She's what people in the family call a go-getter. She wrote and self-recorded a solo album of Brit-pop inspired ballads entitled Grey. On the album cover, she seems to search through thick gauzed fog to find us—she knows we're watching, but she's not sure where we are. I don't know how many of those CD's she sold, but she was able to finance some new equipment on her paltry stipend somehow. Ness has a talent for piecing together complex things on guitar that are at once opaque and magnetic, and her voice is the kind people cry into their beers over. Nonetheless, she was never in a band either.

Whenever I talked to her about wanting to be in a band, she'd ask the logical questions: Can you play anything? Do you know anyone who wants to be in a band with you? And I'd wonder why I told her anything. Eventually, I realized there were others like me: writers who talk about being in bands. There must be thousands of us, millions. I think our prevalence may be related to the writer's envy of the musician's experience of immediacy. That instantaneous buzz of expression. Or maybe it's as simple as the writer's fatigue with writing. The solitary, sedentary, silence of writing. One thing I know for certain is that writers who talk about being in bands enjoy speculating about this. We're drawn to each other by our need to hash it all out and there is no limit to the number of times we'll have the same conversation. We often talk about writers who really are in bands: David Berman of the Silver Jews is a favorite, an idol of sorts, though Stephen King also comes up. People make fun of Jewel.

I guess it's inevitable that some writers who talk about being in bands will form writer-bands, that some of us will finally do the thing we've talked all our lives about doing, but I think we were all a little surprised and scared when it actually happened to us. In 2002, four writers came together to form LaVerne——a band named after my grandmother and, incidentally, the bass player's little red car——on the premise that since we were writers, we'd at least have good lyrics. We were also an organic bulk food co-op and an informal poetry critique group.

LaVerne the band started out with a child's drum set purchased at Wal-Mart, a black bass repaired with a halved wooden dowel, a headless Steinberger electric in the style of 80s heroes, an Ibanez acoustic packaged with a useless instructional video, about a dozen pedals and effects, four duct-taped microphones, and a Casio SK-5. We fed our rehearsals through a home stereo instead of using amps or a mixing board. This made it easy to record our weekly sessions, which we did without fail. We were not very good at remembering the songs we wrote and there was alcohol involved in our creative process, which made the tapes an imperative, though listening to them was not always a pleasant experience. More than once, we spent nearly the entire rehearsal listening to the tape of the previous rehearsal in search of the breakthrough we all remembered, but could not locate. When people asked us what we sounded like, we told them that we were more of an aesthetic than a band. We almost came to blows over the plans for our concept album. It was called Reverse Moth and nobody understood it.

When I called Ness and told her I was in a real band, she went the route of logic again. "What are you playing?" she said. I was offended. "I have a Casio SK-5 with some sounds programmed in," I said, as though to say, What do you think I'm playing, my ass? She seemed excited for me, though. She was interested in hearing how rehearsals went and how we wrote songs and how we made decisions. I told her we were loud. "There's some screaming involved," I said. "I'm not sure you'd like it." I told her about the tantrums and the neighborhood kids who shot up our rehearsal space with paint guns and the unfortunate little number we had written called "Jihad." She agreed to come to our first big show, if we ever got around to having it.

Things really came together for LaVerne once we found someone with an adult-sized drum set. We'd been practicing twice a week for more than a year when this happened and everyone agreed it took our songs up a notch. We talked about feeling the sound-—the bodily experience of it—and one or two of us wrote poems about it, which went over pretty well in critique. The new drummer was talented in a way that should have intimidated us, but we felt we were better writers than him and so there was none of the expected tension. Everybody had something to learn. We were gaining a fair bit of notoriety in the small town where we all lived, though we'd never performed at any of the local venues, and people were showing up at our rehearsals to hear what we were doing. We worked a few covers into our set and decided it was time to get serious.

When LaVerne finally got a gig—an English department graduate student prom—we decided we should all wear white shirts and ties. There was only one band member who showed up at the prom in a white shirt and a tie and that was the drummer. He looked nice, professional. We encouraged him to tie his tie around his head and wear giant sunglasses and a wig in order to restore balance to the band. My sister stood right in front while we played all the LaVerne hits, the songs everyone we knew had been singing back to us for years.

We played all of our songs very quickly, at a lunatic pace, and our set was over in twenty minutes. Out of panic, I announced we were taking a break and we'd be back later. No one seemed upset by this. The graduate students and the faculty writers went back into their drinks and cigarettes. The problem was that we could only come back later and play the same songs we'd already played, which we did two hours later, drunk in a significant way, and pissed off because no one was listening this time. Near the end of the second set, a graduate student spun into the room and spit red wine on us. My sister captured all of this on film. I was pretty sure she'd realized we were all morons, but when we watched the tape later, she could be heard singing along to every song, both sets. Even "Jihad."

LaVerne's first gig was also its last. People moved to other places and people were tired of pretending to know how to play things. But from the ruins of LaVerne rose The Arch, my sister's first band and the first band we've played in together. I am happy to say that this was my idea. I talked this band into existence. We took Grant, the lead guitar player, and a few of LaVerne's songs, but the rest was all my sister. The Arch was a new band with a new energy. As far as I could tell, I was the only member without actual talent or ability. Rehearsals were structured, direct, and sober. There were plans to gig within the first few months.

My role in The Arch was ambiguous. In many instances, I merely stood near the bongos. I often stood near or behind a microphone and made sounds I knew were too quiet for the rest of the band to hear. When it was recommended that I pick up the tambourine, I saw what was happening. "I'm not your dancing bear, The Arch," I said. I found out I was no longer in the band when I ran into two of the other members at the bar. They assumed that Ness, the unofficial boss, had already talked to me about this—she hadn't, but I'd known something was coming—and spoke with a casual air about replacing me with a bass player.

I've still never spoken to my sister about this. We talk about how rehearsal is going and we talk about amp shopping and recording. We talk about The Arch's myspace page (they've recently changed their name to Black Sites) and gigs and the crime near the rehearsal space, but we don't talk about my silent exit.

It's understood I deserved to be ousted—I hadn't deigned to attend rehearsal in months—but it's also understood that without me, there might not be a band. I'm the talker. You need one of those. Fortunately, there are plenty of us around.

http://www.please-dont.com/old-nonfiction03.html - Please Don't


Discography

We are currently working on our first EP. Songs are posted at myspace.com/blacksitesmusic

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Bio

The Black Sites specialize in slightly menacing indie pop, with soaring vocals and minor chords grounded by melodic bass and fierce drum beats. The band was created on a cold night in 2007 at their rehearsal space in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati. They've since rocked venues like the Southgate House, the Northside Tavern, the Taste of Cincinnati, and the 2009 Fringe Music Festival.

The Black Sites navigate the gray area between indie and pop, crafting songs that range from loud and angry to contemplative and beautiful. The band has recently settled into a line-up that includes Steven Kapor on drums, J. Nemec on bass, and Vanessa Strickley on guitar and vocals. As Steven thunders away on his kit, J. creates harmonic bass grooves that define and ground the songs. Meanwhile, Vanessa's guitar favors minor guitar chords that bring an off-kilter feel to traditional pop songs; her extensive vocal range wraps around the melody and draws in the audience.

The Black Sites are constantly perfecting their special brand of music, searching for the song that will simultaneously break your heart and get your toes tapping. Influences include Radiohead, Metric, the Pixies, Jeff Buckley, Charlotte Hatherley, Morphine, and Pavement.

It's best to listen for yourself: www.myspace.com/blacksitesmusic. To reach the band, please email blacksitesmusic@gmail.com or call 917.583.1341. The Black Sites are always ready and willing to gig.