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Capital Punishment

The dark side of simoom: (from top) Todd Bills, Jenna Herbst, Brian Balestrieri and Chris Pearson.

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."

Eventually, Herbst, too, acquired a taste for more daring drugs.

"I did [heroin] because I enjoyed not valuing my own life. I was deeply depressed, but I was also completely free," she says. "I had no sense of responsibility and I hated everything. I woke up one day and realized that I didn't have to do anything that anyone told me because I wasn't able to function in school. I questioned everything. I questioned my ability to function in society, period. I was ready to live on the street. My plan was to come to California. That was my high aspiration in life, to be a squatter. Drugs seemed really natural. I was snorting heroin and I definitely would have continued using if the band's drummer and my boyfriend at the time wouldn't have gotten so angry. Even though I didn't understand why he was being so dramatic about it, I was 18, and the thought of losing him was a big deal. So he saved my life in that way."

Balestrieri, meanwhile, realized the impact that drugs were having on his life when he found himself homeless for a short period. "I knew that for many years I had been walking around and I was mentally and spiritually dead. Physically I was going through the motions of life, but I was not alive. I realized that it's the mental and spiritual side that ultimately really matters." His insights were partly a result of the physical torment that comes with rehab, and his awareness that it is rare for any hardcore addict to live to see recovery from his addictions. "At times I am very amazed that I am alive. I've been held up with a gun to my head twice, and there were three or four other times when I was deliberately trying to overdose. With the constant situations that I was putting myself in, I was just throwing the dice. But that life has given me a compassion. I have more of a capacity to appreciate my life and the people around me now. With Jen and I our struggles have in some ways strengthened our relationship, because we can relate to each other."

"It's like we don't even have to speak," says Herbst. "We have a deep love for each other that I don't think can be damaged by anything."

That bond -- rooted in both music and shared, though separate, struggle -- continued to grow as the pair moved away from substances and into spirituality. Herbst, who had tussled through school, seen counselors, been medicated for depression and grown frustrated with the institutions of both therapy and academia, listened when a guidance counselor recommended that she drop out of high school and start college. She took half of the advice immediately and quit school at age 16. College eventually came -- four years later -- after she did time with a couple of bands, one of the noise-pop variety, one with a new-wave flavor. She finally settled into a studious life and will receive a diploma in May. She and Balestrieri also became interested in working with people with developmental disabilities, thanks in part to some of the sober company they had started keeping.

"When I was about 19, I got inspired by some spiritual people that I ran into who were into Eastern philosophy. I saw my ability to make people feel loved. It was the first valuable thing I had ever seen come out of me," says Herbst. "I was definitely an addict to many things, but when I chose to stop, I just stopped. I just figured, 'These are a waste of time. I have reality to seek and the drugs are a distraction.' I decided to cleanse my body of everything. I quit drinking caffeine. I went back to college. I'm an extremist."

Similarly extreme was Herbst's decision to leave D.C. for Colorado in 1997, a move motivated by a desire to quit music. "I wanted to focus on my spiritual path and I didn't know if that would include music. I thought perhaps music was an ego distraction." Soon after her arrival, though, Herbst met drummer Todd Bills in Boulder. "She played a couple of songs for me and I was just amazed," says Bills. "I think I did push her to do it. I do remember her saying that she didn't want to be in a band and yet somehow I had this idea that we would."

Bills, it turns out, was right. After Herbst convinced Balestrieri to move westward, the three began playing with Tim Eggert, a bass player from Boulder who was eventually replaced by Chris Pearson, a tireless Denver musician who also puts in substantial time with Jux County and with Velveteen Monster and the Czars, a band that's recently generated a buzz in the States as well as Europe. While not ignoring the possibility that his split loyalties may eventually force Pearson to simply become a one-band man, Herbst is confident in his dedication to Sarina simoom.

"I think that it's entirely up to him," she says. "I think it's okay because we were functioning strongly before he joined the band and were a unit with or without him. He's a wonderful addition, and he has expressed that he won't be quitting, so I take him at his word."

With the addition of Pearson and Bills, Sarina simoom is now capable of laying down the solid, yet free-flowing, rhythmic foundation that is necessary for the ethereal quality of its music. The players essentially act as spotters for Herbst's vocal highwire act, when her elastic range and operatic tendencies go from girlish and giddy to occasionally breathy and almost baritone. Her dramatic vocal swooning has led some to wonder if sheep aren't the only things being cloned these days: Since the band started playing locally with a June show at the Lion's Lair in 1998, listeners have invariably made comparisons between Sarina's singer and Kate Bush. Herbst doesn't attempt to deny that she is a fan: "I love what she does. She was an influence, but I actually started listening to her more after people told me that I sound like her. I have a deep respect for her because she was so creative, especially for her time."

While Herbst's voice can possess a sweet lullaby-like quality, the almost possessed nature of her onstage delivery could conceivably cause Junior to experience a few tosses and turns, if not nightmares. The music of Sarina simoom, though soothing at times, is largely inspired by a few of the age-old muses -- despair, suffering, reckoning, redemption. Yet the themes of pain are usually tempered with a sober acceptance. "Love of Grieving," a song on the band's new CD Thread Bone Bare, for example, was inspired by the famous Sufi poet Rumi, a teacher who spoke only in poetry as people flocked to him. He told a story of the role pain plays in one's life. "I think for so much of my life I would think 'Why do I feel all this pain?' I don't know where it comes from," says Herbst. "Now I think I have more of an idea. It was a necessary pain. The song is about tragedy bringing you insight."

Thread Bone Bare is a stark, melancholy work: mood music with a celestial quality. Its minimalist hooks quickly burrow their way into the subconscious. The tunes, while dedicated to the melody, have a cyclical flow that's a fitting vehicle for Herbst and Balestrieri's lyrical stream of consciousness. Bills and Pearson, meanwhile, keep the foundation fluid and give the disc its continuously cohesive feel.

Part of what makes Sarina simoom so fascinating to watch and listen to is the sense that you are witnessing an artist coming to terms with her talent. "I don't feel attached to my music as my music in particular. It's not mine. I didn't make it. It happened," Herbst says. "I've wanted to give up music so many times, just feeling that it wasn't enough of a contribution. Sometimes I want to be a Buddhist nun. It's only people coming to me and saying 'This makes me feel good' that makes me keep doing it. It's not that music is meaningless, it's just that it can't be judged as being more meaningful than anything else. So that's what Buddhism is to me. What punk rock wanted to be -- freedom from judgment."


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