Updated: May 6, 2019
Written by Jose Benjamin Montaño
"Can we meet at 10:30am?"
So went the message from Erica Butts, the head song-writer of the New Jersey math-rock outfit, Rest Ashore, ahead of our interview last Saturday. It seemed early, but I agreed and decided to meet up with them at Cayuga Lodge — Cornell's independent co-operative house and frequent DIY show space where the bassist, Gabriel Bond, lives, and where the band had played the previous night. When I got there, he was the only one awake. Erica and Isabelle Baker, their drummer, slowly trickled into the kitchen about twenty minutes later, eyes still half-closed and a little forgetful as to what my name was or whom I was writing for. The after-party had run late. Unable to find coffee or enough breakfast, we decided to pile into somebody's empty bedroom to talk without having to hear the buzzing noise from the new downstairs carpet installation. We gathered around a tea-table cluttered with scarves and cigarette butts on a glass ashtray, where faux fur jackets littered the floor.
"Can we smoke in here, Gabe?", asked Erica. "Yes, I mean, but no, you really shouldn't." Nondescript in jeans, pullover sweaters, and glasses, the three of them could easily pass for nothing more than settled college students. But in the past four years, Rest Ashore has transformed from Erica's long-term solo project ("It's practically been my whole life"), into a tight, raucous, live band with two full-length records out and a few East Coast tours under their belts.
They've certainly come a long way. Ever since the release of The Human Error, Rest Ashore's first, fuzzy, but ambitious early 2016 release, their craft has only picked up steam with a cleaner production complementing their more recent song-writing efforts. Although they are not defiant of the "math-rock" tag, their growth has only made it more difficult to latch them onto any one particular category.
Intricately orchestrated, drilling, and frequently fast, their live instrumentation makes genre-defying hops that leaves audiences in limbo between dance moves, stuck on how to adapt to the technical tempo changes. Overall — despite it being "corny"to admit, according to Erica — it's clear that a wide range of influences converge in the Rest Ashore gimmick. Listening to their last album, Pornoviolence, makes the line easier to buy. One second they sound like Women, the next they're on odd-time beats, and by the end of it you swear the singer sounds a little like Paramore's Hayley Williams in the middle-school anthem Misery Business.
"I've thought about it a lot, many times. It's about exploitative violence, it's about the consumption of exploitative violence."
As we settled in the room, they responded eagerly to my questions, but by the time we were sitting comfortably, our conversation took a more serious tone as I probed into the intentions of their performance, both musically and lyrically for the band.
With a title like "Pornoviolence" it's impossible to deny that one is deliberately being provocative, or at the least, attention-seeking. But the inciting attitude was acknowledged as something deployed with the intention of initiating a broader dialogue on themes related to sexuality, consent, and our contemporary political landscape. Though Pornoviolence explicitly references current issues — "'Life in the Times of Tear Gas' is about Ferguson", said Erica — it's not the type of view that is necessarily force-fed to the audience. In this case, titles alone become points of reference for encouraging people to think about how acts of protest and mobilization might look in the listener's own context. The workings of their politics evolve in a constant polar dynamic that they reiterated a few times over the course of the morning: Rest Ashore wants to capture and direct your attention to specific topics, but they do not want to command you to think about an issue in any one particular way.
"I definitely try and put a lot of energy into the lyrics and they can be uncomfortable sometimes. But that is the purpose. That is [part of] the pornoviolence," she claimed. Presenting the extremes becomes a means for prompting a sense of initial discomfort that can then guide more careful introspection. In other words, their objective is in fact to provoke, but in a way that encourages extending the conversation beyond the first point of contact by the listener.
I wanted to understand this tension, and to judge whether it was truly different from just trying to be controversial. And by the end of our meeting I realized that the distinction was subtle. By some standard, their whole aesthetic mires in some contradiction, and it works. It does not make them incoherent — it confirms that there is deliberation on the choices the band pursues. I thought about their last album's artwork, plastered on with a bloody axe, a gasoline tank and a loaded revolver, all in soft, hazy tones on a square piece of translucent watercolor paper.
The same contrast broadly defines their music. Their song structures seem chaotic, even though from afar it is easy to imagine the smooth transitions of a programmed metronome. Their lyricism summons images of violence, sex, and confusion even when all you hear is a softly plucked acoustic guitar. You might see the words "bloody", "fist", "suck" and "blow"among track titles and feel turned off or intimidated, when really, all that Rest Ashore wants to do is hang out and talk.
Listen to some of our conversation, recorded in Ithaca, NY.