Controlled Chaos

March 2, 2009

by Rachel Shine

The following is the last chapter of Cinderella’s Big Score, a smart and well-written history of women in the punk and indie underground.  I think Erase Errata is particularly notable because they’re trained or practiced musicians, they’re outrageous, they’re smart and well-spoken, they’re self-propelled, and that gumbo still doesn’t make a lot of sense to pop culture.  Maybe because they’re not militant feminists.  Plus they totally kick and you can still catch their shows.

cindarellas-big-score

Controlled Chaos

Guitarist Sara Jaffe, drummer Bianca Sparta, lead singer Jenny Hoyston, and bassist Ellie Erickson combine what seems like the whole history of experimental noise with infectious rhythms, sporadic trumpet, and searing, abrupt vocals infused with obscure lyrical intelligence, creating the phenomenon that is Erase Errata.  More than one listener has compared them to Captain Beefheart, but no matter what influences the girls draw from, they have a distinctly off-kilter, danceable sound and lovable intensity.  A host of the band’s musical roots collide at the outset of each song—drums echo with funk rhythm backing speedy, stark guitar riffs combined with garage-rock vocals doused with glam inflection, and finished off with improvised jazz trumpet.
The amount of virtuosity flooding Erase Errata’s sound points to the fact that all its members learned their instruments from an early age, all have played in other bands, and three have been formally trained in some aspect of music.  Jaffe and Erickson were also co-music directors of their Connecticut college radio station, WESU.
Once Erickson and Jaffe separately moved to San Francisco in 1999, they hooked up with neighbors Hoyston and Sparta and started playing live in 2000.  Jaffe recounts, “Our first show was at a warehouse by Oakland’s Embarcadero that felt like the New Orleans bayou, lots of flimsy shacks and mean-looking dogs wandering around. . . . We played four or six songs.  It was mostly our friends; they were nice, but they probably would have been anyway.  Our first club show was at Kimo’s in San Francisco in spring 2000, where a lot of people we didn’t know came up to us and told us they were into what we were doing and would like to hear more.”
Jaffe released their first single on her own Inconvenient label in August of that year, selling out of its initial pressing of five hundred copies.  Erase Errata then signed to Troubleman Unlimited and recorded their first album, Other Animals, in a short two and a half days.  The band quickly captivated audiences across the country, and released a series of spit singles, including one with Sonic Youth in 2003.  For the Sonic Youth split single both bands performed songs based on a theme: Mariah Carey.  (Erase Errata’s was “Shimmer on Into the Night”; Sonic Youth’s was “Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream,” later released on their Sonic Nurse album and retitled “Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream.”)  Jaffe officially announced her departure from the band after their second full-length effort, At Crystal Palace, was released in 2003.  After a brief hiatus, the band performed a number of shows with Jaffe in the spring of 2004.
Their energetic spontaneity is spurred on by the songwriting itself.  Although it’s impossible to believe while picking your way through their highly strung and tightly wound songs, Erase Errata improvises as they write, something they’ve described as a “ready, set, go!” process.  “We all have the technicalities down, and so we’re all pretty comfortable just starting out like that,” Hoyston once commented.
“There is definitely the danger of never getting anything set permanently, when you never know where something’s going,” Jaffe says.  “I think I’m the one who’s most likely to say, ‘Okay, that’s a part, let’s get it down and then move on to the next one.”  She later admits, “There are times when it’s hard. . . . I think it has mostly to do with a person’s mood or state of mind at the practice.  It you’re not feeling freed up and enthusiastic, it’s really hard to come up with exciting, spontaneous ideas.”  Hoyston writes most of the band’s disjointed slightly obscure lyrics: “Most of the lyrics are improv [that come] during practice.  Normally, I’ve got a theme in my head of something I’m thinking about, and it just build from there.”
Just because Erase Errata are female and their lyrics are sociopolitically based doesn’t mean their work is steeped in a feminist dialogue.  Hoyston told art and music journal Swingset, “From a lyrical standpoint, I’ve tried to stray from lyrical content that I would perceive as purely emotive or clichéd relationships or sex analysis, and focus more on ideas and stories involving paradigms, historical injustice, . . . class issues.”  This is particularly clear on Other Animals, which contains the song “Other Animals are #1,” an analysis of the way technology is at odds with humanity and society.  The urgency of their sound makes Erase Errata’s catalogue feel like an expulsion of the overwhelming stimuli we ingest daily.  The result, though, has a sweatier beat, making it way more fun than just processing Orwellian advertising.
Despite their intentions, Erase Errata aren’t immune from being pigeonholed with directly feminist bands. Jaffe says, “I think we’ve seen it most in the way journalists write about our band—assuming we must sound like or feel kinship with Le Tigre or Sleater-Kinney just because we’re all girls, or assuming that we necessarily have a defined feminist agenda, or that that’s the most salient aspect of our band.  Of course, you can’t divorce the fact that we’re women from the music we play, but that’s only one of many factors that comprise both our personal and musical identities.  There’s this sort of reductionist outlook that that assumes there’s only one way to be a woman, or a woman musician.”  Hoyston once explained: “There’s a certain element of empowerment that can’t be denied in our music and performance.  We’re strong women and creative women.  It would be hard to narrow that down o how feminism or any movement has helped us evolve.  For one thing, we’re all at different ages and stages in our lives, and we’re not necessarily ‘evolving’ in any really traceable way as far as politics in relation to our music.  I’ve been playing in all-female punk bands for a decade and I’ve come a long way, artistically, beyond the basic acknowledgement of my feminist and queer background, but I wouldn’t seek to escape that influence.”
Embracing feminism, of course, isn’t the only way to be political, as Jaffe told Punk Planet: “We’re eschewing those [pop] channels and the frameworks that are laid out in order to do something different.  But I also do think our band is ‘pop,’ and I think that calling the music we make pop is political, because it speaks to the fact that different things are catchy to different people.”
In addition to their obvious virtuosity, the real charm of Erase Errata comes from the irresistible rush of adrenaline that audiences experience from hearing just the band’s first few opening notes.  Erase Errata have an unassuming onstage presence, too, preferring the music to speak for them.  There’s no false showmanship in their spontaneous and uninhibited performances.  They occasionally wear homemade costumes, but avoid makeup and upstaging.  Indie music’s modern-day propensity for apathetic pretension is picked clean by the band’s accessible beats.  As Jaffe once remarked, “We have never once thought about shaping our image, or our sound, to please anyone other than ourselves.”  The studied way in which they perform is the antithesis of their music’s propensity for chaos: Jaffe and Erickson calmly peer at their instruments while racing through riffs and bass lines that match Sparta’s fierce beat, and Hoyston expels stuttering vocals that culminate with a controlled wail or shriek, forcing her voice through the barrage of sound.  Somehow, they manage to convey the spontaneity of their songwriting, a truly collaborative experiment in improvisation, in taut live shows.  Through it all, Erase Errata make impressive art and hyperactive fun out of chaos.

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