With the release of its debut full-length album, Remain, in 2015 on Dais Records, Them Are Us Too became an underground sensation for its darkly lush melodies and soaring vocals that recalled the likes of Cocteau Twins and Switchblade Symphony. The band formed in 2013, when Kennedy Ashlyn and Cash Askew were students at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
“We met in the context of a lot of mutual friends who were involved not just in art, but also autonomous organizing, DIY shit generally, and just being critical thinkers and developing our critiques of the world around us, from feminist/anti-capitalist/anti-racist perspectives,” says Askew. “I think at that time, we were both learning and changing a lot in all of those respects, but we are always talking about that stuff and have been on that path together from the get-go.”
Prior to attending college, Askew spent most of her formative years in San Francisco and played in a couple of bands, but she spent most of her time making music alone at home, where her parents — one a talented guitarist — supported her creative pursuits. Ashlyn grew up in Davis, California, where, though she wasn't a direct participant, an active music scene was happening, and a college radio station put together shows accessible to the local community.
Before meeting Ashlyn at UCSC, Askew had reached the limits of her development as a solo artist, but in Ashlyn she found a creative partner with complementary talents. Together they created the kind of music that didn't exist much in their immediate environment. The band stood out, playing punk shows at places like anarchist cafe SubRosa in Oakland.
Although it had found a supportive community in Santa Cruz, Them Are Us Too didn't necessarily fit in, and the band moved to other parts of California and discovered an ever-increasing circle of like-minded friends and creative acquaintances. Bands like the Los Angeles-based Wax Idols and Pale Dian from Austin championed the outfit well outside of its home state.
By 2014, the New York-based imprint Dais had contacted TAUT about putting out its debut record. At that time, there was a developing national underground network for dark atmospheric music that TAUT could tap into. Groups like Curse from Baltimore, Beastial Mouths from Los Angeles, The Funeral and The Twilight from Minneapolis, All Your Sisters in San Francisco, Echo Beds in Denver and the now-defunct Human Traffic from Kansas City were links in an informal association of musicians that understood TAUT and appreciated what it was about. Though a hip label put out its record and a loose community was spreading the word of the group's virtues, the reality of touring took its toll. After completing a tour in fall 2015, Ashlyn moved to Denton, Texas, and the duo considered bringing TAUT to an end.
“Going into that tour, we were already in a very unstable position,” says Askew. “Neither of us had had our own place for months, and we didn't know where we would end up. We had pushed ourselves really hard to get our music out, partly ’cause we had nothing else going on. But by that point, we were super burned out.”
“We definitely overextended ourselves to the point that TAUT was beginning to lose the joie [de vivre],” says Ashlyn. “Taking a break and some space was/will continue to be super-necessary as we recover from the whirlwind that was the past [three] years, establish some personal roots, and find new ways of growing this project. Working on new material from a distance is fun and exciting, and there have definitely been moments where I feared I wouldn’t feel that way again. Any challenges that have arisen due to distance are worthwhile for the sake of maintaining our well-being.”
Though the group has a goth following and is referred to in shorthand as darkwave, synth-pop or dream pop, Them Are Us Too defies pat categories because part of its aesthetic is informed by those early discussions in radical politics, the nature of identity and being true to those ideals. In its Facebook bio, TAUT has a thoughtful explication of the kind of music and art it strives to make, steeped in what Gayatri Spivak called “radical vulnerability” as a means to transform human relations and our conceptions of self. One identity that the band states explicitly is that of being queer femmes.
“The reason for stating those identities up front is partly practical,” says Askew. “It's exhausting being constantly misread, especially when you're already making yourself vulnerable. I guess it's part of trying to make our identities visible on our own terms. It contextualizes our art, and it lets people who identify similarly know that we share something.”
“Identifying as queer femmes publicly also helps us connect with other queer femme musicians, which is a priority for us,” says Ashlyn.
If that perspective resonates with the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s, it certainly shares a similar spirit of self-possession in the face of a challenging cultural climate, as well as a sense of a greater, like-minded community that Ashlyn and Askew can connect to the way it has with its music.
Them Are Us Too performs with Product Lust, Scolded and Echo Beds, on Friday, July 22, at Leisure Gallery, 555 Santa Fe Drive, 8 p.m. doors, all ages.
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