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Gang of Four 

Local all-girl outfit Erase Errata finds the common ground between noise and dance music

Wednesday, Jul 11 2001
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"The image of punk as portrayed in the media was a very negative one of foul-mouth yobs, spitting and getting drunk. In fact, it was a very creative time, politically aware and expressive."

-- T.V. Smith of the Adverts

"I wanna see some naked people! Who's gonna get naked?" shouts the organizer of "Gay Shame," a daylong reaction to the corporatization of the Gay Pride Parade. The woman holds up a box of condoms, dental dams, and sex toys, offering them to anyone who's willing to strip down and get dirty -- literally.

Two young, pierced, tattooed women step forward, shed their clothes, and begin to wrestle in the muck, as the exotically clad throng at Hunters Point's "Toxic Beach" cheers wildly. The police arrive, making a halfhearted effort to shut down the non-licensed event; instead, they succeed in chasing away only the PA owner. After they leave, a band led by a man in whiteface and leather plugs into a makeshift sound system and unleashes an intestine-twisting mix of goth sludge and operatic shrieking. Half the crowd begins to slam dance, while the rest wanders over to the free pie table.

Only a year ago, San Francisco's music scene seemed on the verge of extinction. Exorbitant rents, disappearing practice spaces, and a dearth of live venues forced many local musicians to leave town or give up music altogether. But suddenly, the tide seems to have turned. Events like "Gay Shame" and underground venues such as Club Hot and the 40th Street Warehouse are popping up faster than mud wrestlers can fling off their T-shirts; exciting new bands seem to be forming every nanosecond.

Take, for instance, Erase Errata, a band scheduled to play "Gay Shame" until equipment problems forced it to cancel. Though Erase Errata has released only one single so far, the all-women Oakland/San Francisco outfit has one of the biggest buzzes going. The quartet was handpicked to open for highly revered Dutch art-punks the Ex at a recent Great American Music Hall show; after a national tour, Erase Errata will play with Olympia's latest punk hopes, the Gossip, at the same venue. The band will also release its debut LP in the fall through Troubleman Unlimited, a New Jersey label that's increasingly influential in the post-hardcore world.

As for creating a scene, Erase Errata's singer/trumpeter Jenny Hoysten and drummer Bianca Sparta live at Club Hot, the all-ages warehouse space in Oakland that hosts bimonthly shows featuring nationally touring underground groups and local artists. Bassist Ellie Erickson lives next door with the label owners of ToYo Records, which releases punkish recordings by Pink & Brown and Baby Patrol.

But don't try lumping Erase Errata in with your average punk music.

"I tell my parents it's dance music," Hoysten says.

"Noisy, dance-y, punk rock music," guitarist Sara Jaffe affirms.


Erase Errata began as a lark, in December 1999, when Sparta and Hoysten's roommate at Club Hot moved away.

"Our first practice was in this room," Sparta says, indicating Hoysten's very small, very blue bedroom. "The guy who used to live in this room was out of town, so we took all of his furniture out and brought our stuff in."

Sparta and Hoysten, who grew up together in San Luis Obispo, had played in the guitar/drums duo California Lightening for several years. After moving into the Club Hot warehouse, they met their neighbor, Erickson (who went to college with Jaffe).

"[Bianca and I] wanted something that had more people in it, you know? To give us more freedom," recalls Hoysten. "We were all just hanging out so we thought [playing] would be a good idea."

According to Jaffe, during that first practice, "We just said, "OK, first song: Go!' And we just did that 15 times in the next 45 minutes. "OK, this one's done, next one.' And it totally worked."

"We didn't remember any of the songs though," Erickson laughs.

"We can just make songs up," Hoysten explains. "If we wanted to, we could do a complete set of made-up songs."

Whereas California Lightening (which still does shows) has a straightforward, noisy pop approach similar to Sleater-Kinney, Erase Errata has a far more angular, eclectic feel. Sparta's drumming moves from big disco-y beats to free jazz sprawl, while Erickson and Jaffe take turns sparring and sputtering in different directions. Hoysten's vocals have the authoritative feel of prime riot-grrl singers like Kathleen Hanna, but with an absurdist edge.

"All of us come from a different angle, and it all fits together so well that it becomes its own thing," Sparta says.

The band's first single, released on Jaffe's Inconvenient label in August 2000, shows just how unique the group is. On the first song, "Cat and Canary," Hoysten archly sings, "I'm the kind of guy/ That you really need in your life," as Jaffe delivers a string of short, sharp riffs and Sparta and Erickson lay out a thick groove.

To support the release, the quartet went on a six-week jaunt in September.

"We ate peas out of a can," Hoysten says, when pressed for tour highlights.

"We had the van broken into. We had a couple windows broken in in Baltimore -- in broad daylight," Sparta says.

"I got a letter from the mayor, saying, "Dear Jennifer: Please don't not come back to Baltimore. We're so sorry,'" Hoysten says. "I'm not going back till John Waters asks us to lunch."

"In a Missouri show, we played with an all-woman Christian gospel band playing on pots," Jaffe offers. "People went nuts for them, and liked us just the same."

After just five months, the single's initial pressing of 500 copies sold out. By April, Erase Errata was ready to record its debut LP, so the foursome decamped to the wilds of Owosso, Mich.

"These old friends of mine have one of the fanciest, totally analog studios in the country," Hoysten says. "It's in this crazy little town where everyone stared at us, and they didn't even want to sell us soda. They took down our driver's license when we bought liquor. But the studio is fantastic."

Recorded over three days, the resulting Other Animals album (available at shows on the present tour but not in stores until September) is quite striking. The sound is punk, certainly, but punk that extends over a wide palette. Songs such as "Other Animals Are #1" hint at the spastic noise/ funk of early '80s NYC no wave bands like 8 Eyed Spy and Y Pants, while tunes like "C. Rex" distill the succinct guitar flurries of SoCal punks the Minutemen. Trumpet-inflected numbers like "Marathon" recall the herky-jerky sonics of early '90s art collective Dog Faced Hermans (which Erickson's high school band once opened for), and "High Society" harbors a touch of Captain Beefheart's off-kilter '60s blues bastardizations.

Jaffe's guitar-playing is incredibly complex -- more in a visceral way than an eggheaded fashion. Much like Tom Waits sideman Marc Ribot, she condenses the past into her own mellifluous style, touching on high-speed flash one minute and droning clang the next. Meanwhile, Sparta and Erickson lay down rhythms designed to give even the most reticent listener a case of the coffee jitters.

Then there's the matter of Hoysten, who sings in a hyper tone vacillating between indignation, malice, and breathy hiccuping. Each of her songs tells a tale rife with details.

"I think it's neat how it's all sorts of people [in the songs]," Jaffe says. "It's coming from a lot of different perspectives, from a lot of different people."

On Other Animals Hoysten takes on numerous personas and odd characters, like the boy with attention deficit disorder who has power over everyone ("Billy Mummy"), the formerly happy child burdened by a newspaper career ("Delivery"), or the guy who walks around town in pantyhose ("High Society"). There are also sly social critiques in songs such as "Other Animals Are #1" and "Fault List."

While the album is thoroughly enjoyable, Erase Errata really shines in the live setting. Jaffe has possibly the best hair in the Bay Area music scene -- a towering cross between an Afro and a pompadour -- and Hoysten commands the stage with a mix of diffidence and performance art daring. With its combination of catchy, jerking guitar licks and thumping funky beats, the band often inspires audiences to get out on the dance floor.

"A lot of the kind of artier no wave bands from Chicago do this total performance that's kind of alienating. Like, "We're going to act super weird and totally shut off from the audience,'" Jaffe says. "We want people to be energized and dance, instead of sitting on the floor and staring at their shoes."

As the interview concludes, Hoysten picks up a ukulele and bursts into a traditional folk tune, singing, "This train is bound for glory, this train ...." Substitute "band" for "train," and truer words couldn't be sung.

About The Author

Dan Strachota

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