Unvarnished – an interview with screamo bands WHAT OF US / SUR L’EAU

WHAT OF US live by Spencer Chamberlain
WHAT OF US live by Spencer Chamberlain
Tapping into screamy chaotic hardcore and mathy, emoviolent post hardcore, New Jersey’s WHAT OF US (members of Capacities, Black Kites, In First Person, Weather Lore, Guidelines, Au Revoir) and Munich’s SUR L’EAU just dropped their new outstanding split release on Middle-Man Records and are gearing up to hit European roads next week!

We have teamed up with both bands to give you a proper teaser before the trek and reveal some of show you why it’s worth to drop byby of you’re near one of their stops (see the full itinerary below). Not only both bands did elaborate on their backgrounds, touring and the idea of their collaboration, but also shared interesting thoughts on their local independent music scenes, current political climate and the definition of punk.

The SUR L’EAU split marks the third collaborative effort from NJ chaotic screamo band WHAT OF US, a massive follow up to their debut split with COMA REGALIA (2016) and jaw-dropping co-release with HIVE MIND, which we premiered last year here on IDIOTEQ. The record extends SUR L’EAU’s debut duo of tracks released as the “Atemübung am Fenster” EP in April last year. Each track on this split contains nods to the greats of the genre, but its subtle inflections and their unbelievable execution make it an obvious, genuine artistic statement from both acts. Dive into it right here and read oour full interview below.

Hey guys! Thanks so much for joining us here on IDIOTEQ! Where are you at the moment? How are you?

WHAT OF US: Hello, this Tom from What Of Us. I am currently just outside of Albany, New York in the United States. I’m doing well today, though the temperature is very cold here.

SUR L’EAU: Hey! I’m Felix from sur l’eau. I’m just sharing the bed with my cats in Munich being a little bit tired. And yep, it’s also cold here.

Awesome! Here in Warsaw, we haven’t had a proper winter in years! Funnily, I believe you’ll be able to experience it first hand and there’s pretty good chance we meet up at one of the shows of your upcoming European trek, right? You’ll be sharing a venue with my friends from BARABBAS, DU FÖRTAPPADE on March 18th! Tell us about this tour, how you have teamed up for this endeavor and who helped you out with the booking.

WHAT OF US: I had gone to Europe on tour with my past bands and met Jos from Fiducia. Jos later came to the United States on holiday and stayed with me for about a week. We remained in touch and last year he asked me if What Of Us would want to come and play Fiducia Fest. Setting up the tour has had ups and downs, we had two bands cancel on us to start with. Sur L’eau came to our rescue though, and we will be touring with them. I’m very excited to meet them and spend time on the road with them.

SUR L’EAU: Yeah, I’d love to meet and share some beers while that great band is playing.

We can’t tell a lot, we had just luck that we got asked by a friend from Fiducia shows to support What Of Us because there was another band that had to cancel. But we’re fucking happy to participate and looking forward to have a great time with WOU.

What are your expectations for the tour?

WHAT OF US: I try to go into every situation with no expectations. A lot of times a situation can only be as good as our mentality allows, so we try to approach things with a positive mentality. As a band we have a pretty balanced view of tour. The shows make up about 25% of your time, the other 75% is spending time together as people. Both aspects deserve equal importance, so we probably put as much emphasis on seeing the sights, eating interesting food and talking as we do playing the shows.

SUR L’EAU: We hope to come around and nothing bad happens. I’m also quite excited about sharing this tour with this bunch of American guys, I never met before. At least it feels also a little but adventurous since it is the first time for everyone in Sur l’eau to play abroad. I twice played in Swiss with my other band and in Czech Republic also, but this time it seems more thrilling with some strangers that might become friends in a shared van, my own animus for alcohol abuse and all that uncommon shit that will happen during a tour.

Both musically and in general, what are your first associations with Europe?

WHAT OF US: Having toured Europe before, when I think of Europe from a musical perspective I think of how much more “professional” DIY hardcore and punk is done in Europe. A typical show in Europe is at a venue with a sound system, food for bands, and places to sleep are arranged in advance. In the United States touring is not like this. Granted, there’s pros and cons to both. In the United States it’s not common for DIY hardcore and punk bands to play at places that have sound systems and stages. We’re typically playing shows in basements, art galleries, etc, and there is a certain raw quality to that approach that I find preferable. However, in the United States it is often expensive to tour because of the food and lodging expenses that you can incur. In the United States, it is uncommon for a band to play longer than 20 minutes at the DIY hardcore and punk shows that I attend, whereas in Europe I noticed that bands play much longer and even are asked to do encores.

WHAT OF US live by Jake Cunningham

WHAT OF US live by Jake Cunningham

Musically I was listening to bands from Europe in the 90’s like Acme, Abbinanda, Refused, Jasmine, Yage, etc and then in the early 00’s bands like Raein, La Quiete, Amanda Woodward, Republic of Dreams, etc. Recently I really love Drei Affen, Pettersson and Organa. Many of these bands never make it to the United States to tour, so it is bittersweet to hear some of these bands knowing that I may never get to see them. However, I’ve been lucky enough to see some of them between touring in the US and Europe.

My general association with Europe after having been there twice in my life is that people live more simply and efficiently. There seems to be more emphasis on walking/biking and less automobile culture. This may just be my interpretation as someone who has toured to urban centers. Perhaps the suburbs in Europe are different? I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Europe is filled with history that surpasses the United States in terms of age. Much of Europe is so interesting to me due to it’s tangible aspects of history.

Ok, so given you’re both relatively new bands, let’s go back to day one, learn about your background and how your band got together. How did you approach putting this band together?

WHAT OF US: What of Us played our first show in July of 2015, so we’ve been playing together for about 3 years. In the United States this is considered older because many bands break up after a year or two. At the time that What Of Us came together Eric Mauro and I were playing in a band called Capacites that had just gone on a hiatus. Ross Hamilton was playing in a band called Gifts that also went on hiatus at the same time. The three of us started writing songs together. After a few months we asked Eric Annicchiarico to play second guitar. He also plays in a band called Au Revoir. Ross’s drum style opened a lot of possibilities for doing more with blast beats, technicality and double bass. I think Eric and I wanted to incorporate these aspects into the song writing and do something that was a little more aggressive than Capacities while still retaining some of the melody.

Lyrically I took a completely political approach to the band. I wanted to do something that was more focused on an attempt to confront my own privilege, dissect the current political climate and get those thoughts on paper in some coherent way. 2 years ago I moved up to Albany, New York which is about a 2 hour drive from the rest of the band. It’s hard for us to write songs and rehearse now, but we still manage to pull it off somehow.

SUR L’EAU: Yeah, Vicky, Lukas and Marco wrote some stuff without me first and then asked me to sing there. I heard „screamo“ and could fulfill my long time wish to be in a band in that genre. So we started to be sur l’eau last year in March I guess. We also know each other for shorter or longer times through our other bands.

How would you compare your local music scene with other places you’ve visitied so far How thriving and prolific is the alt punk and DIY hardcore community in your area?

WHAT OF US: I spent most of my life going to hardcore and punk shows in New Jersey (about one hour outside of New York City). The scene there, over the 25 years or so that I’ve been going to shows, has ups and downs. Right now it’s going very well. Because New Jersey’s scene isn’t concentrated into one city, but rather spread out among several different towns, it differs from the close by scenes in New York City and Philadelphia which is more of a concentrated urban environment. Some aspects of the scene are based in university towns where the occupants change every 4 years, so those basements or spaces are generally short lived. Other spaces are more long term and have investment from the “older” crowd. Where we live it’s not very common for people over 30 to be in involved in punk and hardcore, so when I refer to “older” folks, it really just means people who have stuck with it past their college years. For a long time shows were very homogeneous in terms of genre; 4 emo bands playing the same show or 4 sludge bands playing the same show…but now things are starting to get more varied by virtue of the fact that friendships span across genres. It reminds me more of the 90’s when I would see a show with Rainer Maria and Converge on the same bill. New Jersey is conveniently located a short drive from so many other great scenes like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, Brooklyn, Providence and Boston. So geographically bands from here can cover a lot of ground by just doing short weekend trips. I think the scene in NJ also has some strong representation on the part of LGBT, femme, and POC folks who are doing some really awesome bands. I live in Albany, New York now, but don’t participate in the scene here very much at all. I drive down to New Jersey 2 -3 times a month to play shows, attend shows, have band practice, etc.



SUR L’EAU: Other places than Munich are able to use alternative infrastructure like occupied locations. I think this is one of the most important points of a growing DIY community. Shows and beer can be cheap and nearly every venue of that kind that I have seen seems to be really alive. Especially in Bavaria your are faced with fascist-like politics, an authoritarian mentality and the fucking cops. I think Munich area is better than its reputation. There are lots of good bands with lots of good people. Most of the venues are really expansive for bookers and organizers and so is the entry for most shows, but there are many people who try to make shit happen against all odds and repression.

Would you recommend some new projects, labels, bands, or venues worth checking out while we’re there?

WHAT OF US: Venues are spread throughout New Jersey. There are a number of houses in New Brunswick, New Jersey that do shows due to the college population. It’s always interesting to go to shows there and see how each house differs slightly. The Meatlocker in Montclair, New Jersey is a DIY venue that’s been around for a quite a while. It’s a mainstay for shows in New Jersey as it’s faced down city opposition successfully. There’s also a vegan cafe upstairs run by one of the volunteers and it’s quite delicious. There’s a small shows space called Boontunes in Boonton, New Jersey. It’s probably about 100 person venue and it has a consistent calendar of shows ranging different genres each month. Flemington, New Jersey has a town funded art space called Flemington DIY that promotes arts, music, community organization and more. It’s completely volunteer run and is in a building that use to be an old savings bank.

New Jersey is going pretty strong on bands right now and it would be tough for me to name them all. I’ll point out some of my favorites.

  • ENTIA: interesting post rock has varied time signatures and impressive musicianship
  • PERMANENT TENSION: This is the guitar player from Entia’s other band. Very chaotic, but also melodic and interesting.
  • IDES: Intense fast hardcore that is politically and emotionally powerful
  • SUNROT: Sludge/doom done really well, featuring some noise effects
  • SUSPECT: Melodic punk that’s really well put together and executed perfectly
  • MASA NERRA: screamo that gives me a Raein/La Quiete feeling
  • WOODLAND TOMB: political hardcore that reminds me of His Hero is Gone mixed with Converge
  • A FILM IN COLOR: Instrumental ambient songs that sound like a very emotional film score.

One of the most impressive projects is a yearly fest done by a collective called Not Just A Boys Club. They do a fest every year that highlights femme identifying bands, raise money for a number of local charities and I’m told that they may soon expand into a label as well.

SUR L’EAU: I want to give a really big shoutout to the lovely people in and around GÆS, a powerviolence band from KREFELD. Sur l’eau loves you!

As mentioned above, these are the great projects, people and bands in Munich: Kafe Marat, Kafe Kult, Black Rat Collective, GRAM., Munich Punk Shop, STRICK, Zombie Session and so on. Feel greeted! There are also non-Munich bands and projects which you definitely should keep in mind: KNARRE from Berlin, Køndør from Regensburg and Trouble In Paradise, a great feminist electronic arts and music collective from Nuremberg.

Ok, so can we expect some new stuff from you guys this year?

WHAT OF US: We just released a split tape cassette tape with Sur L’eau on Middleman Records. It has of our new songs. We’re very happy with how it came out.

SUR L’EAU: Besides the split with What of Us, we’re planning different things. So there is nothing clear know. We have material and we will release it.

Tell me more about this new release. Where do you guys draw the most influence from when composing new music and writing lyrics? How strong are various social or political influences in your work?

WHAT OF US: The release was the idea of our friend Jos who is helping book the tour in Europe for us. For our band to write new music can be slow because I live pretty far away from the rest of the band. So having the new release gave us a goal to really get the songs done.

I think we stuck to our original influences of bands like Union of Uranus, Reversal of Man, etc but added some heavier parts that were probably more on the Botch/Breather Resist side of things.

Lyrically we all focus on the political and social climate in the United States right now. The Black Lives Matter movement, The MeToo Movement, Immigration, and just a general resistance to what the current administration’s agenda is putting forth. It’s all done in recognition of our status as white males living in the United States and writing/ discussing these lyrics gives us a good opportunity to reflect on what that means.

SUR L’EAU: As our name would suggest, our texts are not really political – in first sight, I think. One could definitely interpret our texts in this way. My personal influences are being fucked up by anxiety and depression from time to time. I’m facing my feelings in this music and try to cope with all the shit. As I do really believe that these and other psychological disorders are also caused by social conditions, I also bring that up in my texts. But I don’t think that DIY-bands are the best thing to discuss several political topics. It’s more important to go to a nice show, meet nice people and listen to nice music. To enjoy this social happenings while you don’t need to care about assholes like nazis, machos, homophobics and all that.

What so you think led to the rise of Trump and how do you see the current situation go later down the year?

SURE L’EAU: I dunno if that questions is just for WOU. I think I know too less about this subject to formulate an answer which is worthy haha. But in Germany there are current right-wing movements which reach big success. Fuck those guys. I hope this political climate will change.

WHAT OF US: I believe that the Obama administration was far from perfect However, during that administration we saw progressive strides in the social arena (DACA, Gay Marriage, substantial emergence of renewable energy, etc). These strides helped create an environment in which political and social issues could again become a potential for change. We were seeing a mounting support toward LGBT and POC rights, probably the most in my lifetime. At the same time, the conservative population felt the sting of this, they felt insecure and interpreted this as some affront towards them. They were sold this fictitious notion that giving other people rights or recognizing systems of oppression and correcting them would somehow compromise their own rights. I think that Trump tapped into the pulse of this insecure white population and tried to frame himself as their hero. At the same time he was also garnering support from the business community, NRA, the fossil fuel industry and other lobbying interests.

The centrist Democratic party, as you may have read, shot themselves in the foot by ignoring a viable candidate who would had more of a chance in the election. Instead they promoted a candidate who was out of touch with many of the priorities of the progressive left. This left a “lesser of two evils” vote for some, though it was pretty obvious who the lesser was. I voted for the Democratic candidate not because I thought she was an ideal candidate, but because she was definitely more rational and intelligent than our current president.

Every day in the United States something unusual happens with the current administration. Staff leave or are fired from his employ every other day, creating no real stability. Every day something more outlandish is said or done by the president or someone in the administration. The rights of women, LGBT and POC folks are constantly under attack. Environmental regulations are being stripped away daily. Large corporations are seeing gains while working classes wages traditionally fall below living costs. I honestly don’t know what the rest of the year will bring. It’s not going to be very good though, I can be sure of that.

How do you think this current political climate has impacted artists’ voices and their work? Have you seen a lot of groundbreaking, inspiring records that were created in direct response to what’s happening in the States?

SUR L’EAU: As I mentioned the actual situation in Germany, I will answer this question in this direction. And yeah, I feel something is changing. When I began to get used to punk, metal and diy-culture those scenes were less political than today. There is a lot of discussion about politics, women, queerness and other emancipatory topics now. And obviously the common metal scene and “old” punks seem to be more conservative than I thought when I was a kiddo. Those guys defend nazism, fascism and misogyny where ever it occurres.

WHAT OF US: In terms of music, I remember when Trump was elected there were all these late 30’s ex-punks saying things like “punk is going to get good again” or “looks like I’m going to have to start a new band”. None of those ex-punks started new bands. The people that held the notion that punk and hardcore bands weren’t challenging conservative values before this administration were extremely misguided and must not have been paying attention to great bands like War on Women, Soul Glo, Amygdala, Gouge Away, etc. Those bands have been challenging conservative values since the day they started and they’re amazing. Those bands didn’t need a changing of administration to inspire them because they’re pointing out the systemic oppression that remains in place regardless of who’s in office. Sure, it’s good to have a figurehead to point your anger at, but smarter punk bands don’t wait for that.

What I think has been one of the inspiring and “punk” things to happen as a result of the administration here is the MeToo movement. Men who have been abusing their power in multiple industries and perpetrating sexual harassment/assault for years are now being held accountable. Brave women have stepped up and disregarded threats, physical harm or negative consequences to their careers or personal lives in hopes of confronting and tearing down an extremely sexist notion within American culture. It’s incredible, though we still have a president who has openly admitted to sexually assaulting there’s still work for all of us to do.

What is the musician and the writer’s role in protecting freedom of speech? Must punk be political?

WHAT OF US: Every artist, musician, writer, etc will have a different interpretation on how their work protects or enables free speech. The free speech argument comes up in the United States a lot lately, particularly in the context of punk. There is a contingent of people who are stuck in an old fashion, archaic definition of punk rock that embraces being offensive or shocking for the sake of being offensive or shocking. This approach doesn’t really communicate any idea other than the face that the provocateur wants attention. While I think it’s well with their right to be shocking or offensive, it’s also well within the right of people who run show spaces to not book those bands or for any of us to support them.

I don’t think punk has to be lyrically political. When I think of punk I think of the approach and ethos behind why or how a band does something. I think there are instrumental bands that very punk in this sense of the definition.

SUR L’EAU: Punk is dead. Haha. But really it is needless to say that this kind of counter culture or subculture or however you want to name it is one big important thing. People who have to be silent in their usual social life can be loud, as loud as possible to share what they have to say. Today everything seems to be political and it is. As long as we have the freedom to work for assholes to be free to waste our money on shitty commodities we have to look for the real subversion. It is not punk, definitely. But it feels a little bit better than common life.

Ok guys, so to conclude, can you tell us a bit more about your plans for the rest of the year and possibly some records, shows and other stuff you’re eagerly looking forward to?

WHAT OF US: I try not to plan to far in advance on anything, this is probably linked to the philosophy of not having expectations. When we get back from tour we have some local shows planned that we’re excited about.

SUR L’EAU: I am so fucking stunned for the next Respire album!! And for their tour in Europe. And for the fluff fest.

Awesome, thanks so much for your time. Feel free to add your final words and take care! Good luck on the road!

SUR L’EAU: Thank you for this!

WHAT OF US: Thank you so much!

WHAT OF US Euro trek

15. Liberec/CZ – Azyl Pivni Bar
16. Hamburg/GER – FS115
18. Warsaw/POL – Studio Wieloślad w/ Barabbas Du Förtappade & We Watch Clouds
19. Krakow/POL – Warsztat
20. Prague/CZ – Eternia Smichov
21. Graz/AUS – SUB w/Mulham Abordan
22. Erlangen/GER – Zentrum Wiesengrund
23. Frankfurt/GER – Klapperfeld
24. Mülheim/GER – AZ “Fiducia Fest VI” w/ Drei Affen, Weak Ties and more

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