Bitch’s brew

Pub date August 1, 2006
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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San Francisco is full of a bunch of pussies. I’m sorry, it’s not that I want to say these things. I feel strongly that a woman’s vagina should never be used to describe something weak or negative. In fact I tend to correct people who use that word in such a way, being that I am shamelessly p.c. San Francisco is the only city in the world where I would have to spend more time defending the use of a single word in a single sentence than the overall meaning of that sentence.
But seriously, San Francisco is made up of a bunch of pussies and nothing could exemplify that more than its long and flamboyant rock history. If you held up the Bay’s rock résumé next to your average Midwestern state’s — Ohio’s, for example — you’d start to get the picture. No one is going to argue that San Francisco doesn’t deliver the goods when it comes to art-damaged, high-concept, performance-focused freak music, made by freaks for freaks, but let’s ask anyone who’s ever heard the Pagans, the Dead Boys, or Rocket from the Tombs if Californians can deliver the kind of ugly-faced raw violence that litters any Ohio rock comp. No, we can’t. Not counting Blue Cheer or Death Angel.
I’m not trying to start a turf war here or even a debate over whether Midwestern ugly rock is better than West Coast weirdo jams, but I am trying to help you understand why an unknown band from Columbus, Ohio, is the most exciting thing to happen to the local music underbelly in a long while. Would a trio of educated and liberated women from Berkeley call their band 16 Bitch Pile-Up? Or would any band from the Yay Area list a cache of instruments that includes a “PVC pipe,” a homemade “vile in,” “television feedback,” “a bag of beer bottles with a mic thrown in,” and “your face”? There is a reason why bands like Comets on Fire, XBXRX, and other non-noise locals are itching to gig with this band. Frankly, the Pile-Up is a needed shock to the system, bringing the kind of attitude, fierceness, and work ethic that grow in places where the rivers are flammable and national elections are stolen in plain sight.
16BPU achieved a bit of cult status well before descending on the Bay. For the last four years they made Columbus a choice destination on any tour, running the art and music space BLD and offering floor space for all manner of riffraff. What began as studio spaces for fellow art schoolers, dropouts, and friends fast became an epicenter of East-meets-Midwest noise happenings. Yet in spite of their notoriety and a Wolf Eyes–style mile-long discography, there is little recorded evidence of their work readily available — although the long-out-of-print BFF (Gameboy, 2003) and Come Here, Sandy (Gameboy/Cephia’s Treat, 2004), their split 12-inch with brothers in cave-stomp Sword Heaven, are worth seeking out. It was their powerful live performances that engendered such reverence. Early on, one witnessed rituals of unique intuition and deep communal spirit — a group of women truly listening to one another and at the same time losing themselves in the fuck-it-all physicality of harsh electronic mayhem.
The Pile-Up is a satisfyingly lean Moirae-like triad, made up of Parkside sound person Sarah Bernat, Sarah Cathers, and Shannon Walters. The group — which previously existed as a five-piece in Columbus and as a four-piece featuring Angela Edwards of Tarantism for a brief and brutal West Coast tour — has never quite achieved its titular namesake’s size to form what Walters envisioned as a “symphony of terror.” Instead, the women have honed in and formed a unique power trio, capable of pulling off creepy junkyard jams à la the aforementioned Wolf Eyes, subtle vocal exhortations, and beautiful walls of searing white noise.
“It’s alchemy. In our case, the girls and I spend so many living minutes together,” explains Walters over coffee only minutes after having our guts reorganized by Damion Romero at a recent Noise Pancake performance. “We take care of each other. We often want to murder each other. We share virtually all aspects of our lives and with that comes a very developed sense of communication.”
Bernat elaborates, “We share a slightly twisted sense of humor that is fundamental to almost all of what we do and make.” Which is one way to understand a band that has released an album titled Make Like a Fetus and Abort.
When asked over e-mail how she’d respond to an easily offended West Coaster like me, Cathers offers, “I welcome any conversation on the use of language. It is one of my great joys — as I look for sounds that will make the greatest impact, that will send a chill up the collective spine and put your flesh and your psyche in the same presence. I love words that have that impact as well.”
What makes 16BPU fascinating is that beneath the intellectual muscle and blue-collar brawn is a group that is deeply sensitive, passionate, and emotional in their playing. Beyond the obvious (tough) love that they share with each other as friends, there is a seriousness to their music that stares right in the face of pain, anger, and fear with an absolute solidarity of purpose.
“I think what I try to convey through playing can only be expressed as a feeling of mortality,” says Walters. “Being very close to death and vitality simultaneously.”
“I can say we have seen a lot of nasty shit in our lives that can either make you want to leave the planet or create your own utopia out of dysfunction,” Cathers writes.
“All those themes are present,” Bernat concludes, “but they are present alongside equally positive feelings about strength, love, and perceptions of beauty.”
All of which makes me think that perhaps they fit into the Golden State after all. SFBG
With Hogotogisu and Skaters
Aug. 12, 9:30 p.m.
Hemlock Tavern
1131 Polk, SF
(415) 923-0923
With Comets on Fire and Kid 606 and Friends
Aug. 16, 9 p.m.
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
(415) 885-0750
Gabriel Mindel is in Yellow Swans.