By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
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In 1995, punk was, once again, dead. What still lived in the hearts of the punk faithful who lived and made music in the nation's capitol, however, was eternal hope -- or maybe just a stubborn denial of the genre's passing. Washington, D.C., was all too desperately hanging on to the three-chord indie movement ushered in by the Dischord record label. Stumbling around in a post-Fugazi stupor, the city seemed to be oblivious to the fact that most of the nation had been jonesing for a new musical fix since Kurt Cobain, along with grunge, took the big dirt nap a year earlier.
This point was not lost on Jennifer Herbst and Brian Balestrieri, the creative core behind Sarina simoom. They knew that, according to the original definition of punk, there was no definition of what it could or should be. "D.C. birthed Dischord. They own it and they act like it," says Herbst. "It was still like that when I left. We were somewhat accepted in the scene but we could never fully integrate into the culture because we wouldn't change what we did to sound like everyone else. It was very homogenous."
"It was a stuck-up scene," recalls Balestrieri. "A lot of fronting, you know, 'I'm badass, I'm hardcore.' And I guess it's the same deal with any scene anywhere, but it was definitely an insider's group of better than and badder than. I mean what the hell is that all about? Fuck that." Balestrieri is a little less brash while remembering a point when this anti-elitist sentiment boiled over. "We were sixteen and we saw [Fugazi lead singer] Ian [Mackaye] at 7-Eleven. My friend was like, 'Yo, I'm going to mace Ian.' Supposedly it was an accident. I think he was just joking around, but he ended up spraying him -- not directly in his face, but in his general vicinity." And what happened after disabling the undisputed crowned prince of D.C. underground rock? "We ran."
Eventually, people who found themselves on the fringes of the D.C. scene started to find each other and make their own music. The common enemy of conformity united a small nucleus of bands, who began to gig together and play off of one another's diversity. The groupings, however, weren't always ideal.
"In my second band, when I was 17, the whole band lived together," says Herbst. "You didn't know disgusting until you saw this house. They had no trash can so there was just a pile in the kitchen. Once there was a huge box of corn flakes that I ate and later found out were four years old. The dog would shit on the floor and no one would clean it up, ever. It would just get ground into the carpet."
In January of 1995, at the age of 20, Herbst was ready for creative control. She began Sarina simoom by putting together a recording project of seven tunes that she entitled Sarina Won, on which she handled guitar, violin and vocal duties, and recruited a drummer and a bassist to bring her vision to life. The production was purposely unrefined and had a more urgent edge compared with the band's later recordings. Herbst utilized her lower vocal register and made a P.J. Harvey influence apparent. The trio was so pleased with the result that they decided to make it a permanent arrangement. Balestrieri joined the new band shortly afterwards, bringing his chiming, pretty guitar hooks to a sound that contrasted drastically with the capital city's far grittier vibe.
Yet despite Sarina simoom's refusal to adapt its music to the hipper-than-thou parameters of the D.C. scene, some temptations proved to be more difficult to resist, like substance abuse. Many of the city's young musicians were naively surrendering to the so-called revived chic and sensuality of heroin, and Balestrieri and Herbst were no exception.
"It wasn't the grunge thing that was going on back then that made it appealing to me," says Balestrieri. "I was reading the Miles Davis autobiography. I was right at the beginning of the book when he was doing it and it was cool. It was when bebop was starting to hit and [I was reading] about the fact that even though he was black, he was getting recognition from the mainstream. White people were starting to accept not just the good music that he was playing, but almost him as a person. That was the stage of the book that I was in when I first tried it. I hadn't gotten to the point where he was getting sick and pimping his women and going to the pawn shop."
While Balestrieri's romanticized notions of Davis led him to experiment with opiates, Herbst, still a teenager, began drinking heavily as a result of her nostalgia for another troubled performer. "I read Janis Joplin's biography when I was 17," she says. "In my earlier band I would buy a bottle of Southern Comfort for all of our shows because that was her favorite alcohol. I would drink that bottle and be fucked up all over the place where I couldn't even see. The band, who were also using, would get pissed off at me, because I sucked."