February , 2013
By David Huff
Alive And Kicking
An Exclusive Interview With Emily Armstrong
Photos courtesy Dead Sara Facebook
It's understandable that Dead Sara's energetic lead singer, Emily Armstrong, expresses some dismay at feeling trapped in a virtual time warp. For this explosive vocalist, it seems like only yesterday that the band's self-titled debut album was released on the group's independent label, Pocket Kid Records. The fact of the matter is it's been an entire year since that event occurred. During the interim, the band has literally toured non-stop, from sea to shining sea, more times than they can remember. Their efforts were not in vain.
The heart of Dead Sara beats within its two most identifiable figures - Armstrong and guitarist Siouxsie Medley. The two musicians are a study in contrast when they hit the stage. Medley remains rooted in place as a solid, steady anchor for Armstrong's almost unhinged performances. A skilled vocalist, this L.A. native can handle any style of music with equal beauty. And to shake things up, she can scream like a banshee when the occasion calls for it. Dead Sara is exactly what you want from a young, hungry rock band - unpredictable, efficient and explosive.
Stints on the Warped Tour as well as slots opening for The Used, Bush, the Offspring and Chevelle served the band well. The exclamation point for all Dead Sara's hard work came to fruition in October of last year. Muse drummer Dominic Howard mentioned during a radio interview how much he liked the music of Dead Sara. Savvy management on the band's part picked up on this nugget of information and quickly sprung to action. Those efforts resulted in Dead Sara snagging the coveted opening position on the first leg of Muse's North American tour starting Feb. 22 in Sunrise, Florida.
This time out, Dead Sara is not facing the world alone. They have the marketing muscle of Epic Records solidly in their corner. Although the label won't officially be on board with their newest family member until their sophomore album is released next year, in an unprecedented move, the company decided to throw its full support behind the Dead Sara now. The group has just released their debut album overseas, and following their two-month trek with Muse across the U.S., they'll begin their own high energy headlining tour this the summer.
JAM: I had a musician tell me that finding the right combination of players to create music with was akin to winning the lottery because the percentages involved in actually finding that exact combination was quite high. Do you see some truth in that analogy?
Emily Armstrong - I see a lot of truth in that statement. I have been performing now for 14 years and I have gone through so many musicians, I can't even begin to tell you. The thing is, I had my eye on this vision and it took a long time to find the right parts that fit. Funny thing is, once I found them, I knew immediately the search was over. Instinctively, I just knew it. So did Siouxsie. Literally, from the day Chris (Null, bass) and Sean (Friday, drums) started playing with the two of us, it clicked. We both had the feeling that yeah, this was it. Your whole life, you envision the perfect chemistry of a band taking it to the next level. When it finally happened to us, it was an incredible feeling.
JAM: Chris and Sean felt right to you and Siouxsie, but how did you know it felt right to the guys?
It was timing more than anything else. They had been in a band that we were familiar with in Hollywood. That situation fell apart. I had always felt they were the best thing about their group. They were great performers on stage. Siouxsie and I both knew Sean because he had played with us before when we didn't have a drummer. In the early days the two of us often borrowed friends to play with us when we had dates. It really came down to the point where Siouxsie and I were ready to have a real band. The two of us were done with hiring people, having friends play, etc. We needed to find the right people to make Dead Sara a real band. Siouxsie said we should try Sean. I told her no, he's a part of this other thing. Well, he ended up coming out and jamming with us anyway. That situation naturally progressed from there. Chris is another story. He had never played bass before. He was a guitar player. He said he would help us out, so switched over and learned the bass. The first time the four of us played together, we wrote "Weatherman."
JAM: You have made a lot of reference to your "friends" in the business. Have the acquaintances you've met along the way helped move this group in the right direction?
We have had a lot of supportive people in the past make introductions for us that at the time they occurred, didn't seem a big deal. Looking back, it made a huge difference. People we know, and friends we made along the way, have just been really supportive. It's a small world out there for musicians if you really think about it. The biggest things that have happened for Dead Sara, like getting on big tours, has all happened from us knowing people that were in a position to help this band out.
JAM: Was your album producer, Noah Shain, one of those friends you met in your travels?
We have known him for a while. Noah was producing us when it was just me and Siouxsie in the studio. He is also from Los Angeles, so we would also play with groups he was producing in the studio that we were friends with. One day when we were in the studio, he looked over and said, "Okay, you two are ready." That's when Sean and Chris had just joined the band. He had a vision for us from all the times he had recorded Siouxsie and I in the past. When Noah heard all four us playing together, it clicked for him. He understood exactly what we were doing, and instinctively knew it was time to take us to the next level. It happened really fast, but was effortless at the same time. Sean and Chris had been the missing components of Dead Sara. Once they were on board, everything moved forward, as I said, very quickly. Noah had been in the mix of things for a long time.
JAM: When you and Siouxsie started performing together, you could have gone in the direction of say the Indigo Girls, Tegan & Sara or some kind of combination of folk-based female singer-songwriter duo. Was there a pivotal moment where you two looked at each other and said, "Let's rock it out!"
No, that's actually how we started, screaming our heads off. The two of us didn't start out singing and playing acoustic guitars. We had fun.
JAM: Emily, you have a beautiful voice. I just can't picture you screaming.
Well, thank you.
JAM: Dead Sara sprung to life in the middle of this wired world the music industry is still struggling to understand. Has the technological boom been a blessing in disguise for your band?
That's a tough question for me to answer. I actually don't think so. If I'm going to be honest with you, I'd say we were a band hanging on the outside of it. For pop acts, there's no doubt that Tweeting and Facebook have been really big deals for them. As for being a rock band, we shine the brightest in our live performances and on record. Most of the songs on our debut were recorded as though we were giving a live performance. A video isn't going to tell you who Dead Sara is. Now I'm not saying we aren't connected with our fans through social media sites, because we are. That aspect of the business is always going to be present. What I'm trying to say is this band didn't depend upon it to get the word out about who we are.
JAM: You appear to be someone who always saw the big picture when it came to where you saw your musical career going. What is you envisioned early on that kept your internal drive going and your vision squarely focused?
It's simple really. I love playing music and I had an intense, burning desire to do this for a living. There's nothing else I wanted to do. Now, in order to attain that goal, you just have to think big if you seriously want a career. It also depends upon what avenues you want to go down as far as musical direction. Do you want to become a sexy pop singer who gets a lot of attention and has people write songs for you? Do you want to be famous for just being famous? I wanted to be in rock and roll band. I was totally dedicated to taken this on the road for at least ten years until it hit. That's how committed I was to seeing this thing through. It takes certain levels of thinking to separate those who think they want it, and people who know they do.
JAM: Let me pose the question this way. You are going through rhythm section after rhythm section over the years trying to find the right combination that works. You certainly encountered a great deal of frustration along the way. Where there any points in the past where you thought about throwing your hands into the air and said, "That's it! I'm tired of this! I'm done!"
Well, I think everyone goes through times where you think to yourself, "What in the hell did I get myself in to?" I have rock and roll in my blood, so I never thought about quitting. From the moment I picked up a guitar and started learning to play at age 11, I was hooked. I didn't want to stop what I was doing. I also knew that the only way I could seriously continue on was to find like-minded individuals who saw the big picture the way I did. Luckily, Siouxsie and I met in our teens and shared the same vision. That really helped. Today, this musical addiction we all share has grown to the point where you wake up in the morning, it's all you think about. We eat, drink and sleep this band. I can't stop thinking about music even now. It has become everything to me and the desire to create it continues to grow inside. Once you accept that, it's interesting how everything else starts to fall into place. It may take some time, and it certainly did with me. But, but when things start moving in the right direction, it's the greatest feeling in the world to know you're finally becoming that person you had in your mind all those many years ago.
JAM: I've always felt that songwriting is one of the most difficult crafts in the world to master. When it comes to composing a song, if the verbal element of the puzzle doesn't fit, and isn't already alive before the music is added, it's going to be dead in the hearts of the listener. As a songwriter, do you feel you must create a living, breathing prose before it is presented to the rest of the band?
No I don't. This band writes music as a whole. Yes I write all the lyrics and the melody, but the main thing with our music is the feel. The lyrics, melody and music have to feel right to all of us, or we pass on what we're doing. Most our songs start off with a guitar, or bass, and everyone starts jamming. From that raw, organic beginning we start singing over it. Then we jam some more as we work out the various sections of the song. The thing with our music is it comes from a very free place within us. All we do is put structure into it so the song has a beginning and an end. The song then takes shape and we finish up the details in the studio. Creating music in Dead Sara is a very interesting process.
JAM: I'm a firm believer of rock bands starting with a small fan base and growing from there. Work as hard as you can and tour, tour, tour to increase audience awareness and hope that you weren't cursed with the massive success of that first record. When you reflect upon where Dead Sara is right now, does that comment make sense to you?
The goal from the beginning was to have our fans grow with us. That's what we've always wanted. It's the reason we toured so much this past year. We are trying to build a base of core fans that will be with this band for life. It's like we have made this grand bargain with our supporters. You always stick with us, we'll make sure to supply you the music. Little by little, tour after tour our bond with the audience is getting stronger as we slowly build that relationship. As long as we stay true to what we do, and don't quote unquote "sellout", our fans will be there forever.
JAM: Making music today puts all bands in a tough spot because no matter how you look at it, everyone is a mouse click away from being ignored if the music doesn't strike a chord immediately. When you go about selecting music that will become a permanent recording of Dead Sara music, is one of the key tests for a song whether or not it can translate into a live situation?
Oh, absolutely! The first thing we do with new material is test the music live to see if it works. Our main focus with all our songs is to see how the music comes across in a live situation. That's especially true for rock songs. When we're on stage, we can tell what moves people. We can get a feel for what parts of a song the fans like by the reaction it receives. There is a certain kind of energy to the music we perform on stage. If the audience isn't feeling it, then there's a problem and we have to fix it. We'll go back into rehearsals to fine tune the parts that weren't working, and present it again.
JAM: In the musical climate we live in today, when opportunity comes knocking to get your music out to the masses, you do what you got to do to make it happen. If that involves licensing your music for a commercial, then so be it. Fiat came to you. What was the initial reaction when you got a phone call from the advertising agency asking if you would mind if they licensed "Weatherman" for a Fiat commercial"
They told us it would be an online only commercial, so we said, "Sure, why not!" It was the first time anyone had ever approached us about using our music like that. In a way, we were kind of honored, especially since "Weatherman" was the first song we ever wrote together as a band.
JAM: Early on, you decided to keep the business side of Dead Sara very close to the vest. That meant creating your own Indie label to release your music, and a publishing company to control the rights to your songs. What was you're your reasoning behind those particular moves?
We were dead set on having creative control over our music. That's what it came down to. What had a vision for Dead Sara, and we were going to execute it the way we felt it should be done. We wanted to make sure we never did anything that we'd regret. The only way to do that was to retain control over our careers. A major label has the tendency to tell you who to be, what to be, who to sound like, what your marketing strategy is going to be, your target audience, etc., etc. They want to fill you with facts, figures and their view of what sounds best, who dresses in what way, and how you should look at your photo shoot. Going the independent route gave us the time and the space to find ourselves as a band and to develop at our own pace.
JAM: I am a little confused here on this point. I read where your debut album was released on the band's own Pocket Kid Records label through Fontana/Universal, yet Epic Records publicity department is contacting me about doing an interview with the band.
Our label is called Pocket Kid Records. For our first record only, we signed a distribution deal with Fontana / Universal. (Universal has since sold its minority stake in the company). On our next recording, we are signed with Epic Records and they will also handle all our distribution. Since we just released our first record overseas, and are getting ready to go on a major tour, Epic has decided to do a full blown promotion of our debut to help us out.
JAM: That is virtually unheard of, and a very classy move by Epic to do that. Ten years ago, a gesture of that nature would not have occurred.
Yes, I know that.
JAM: That's the new world musicians live in now. Instead of contention, there's a spirit of cooperation between artists and labels. It's almost like bands are not tied down to one team any more. They are literally free agents after every album.
The Internet has leveled the playing field between artists and labels. That is probably the biggest benefit of the wired world you refer to. We have retained our independence without sacrificing our souls. We have taken Dead Sara to a certain place now. A label like Epic can push our band to the next level. In order for us to reach a broader spectrum of people, we need a label with the experience to take us there. Epic has been beyond supportive of this band.
JAM: You mentioned earlier you picked up the guitar at age 11. You started writing music with Siouxsie a few years later. My question is this. None of this occurs without some sort of family support system in place. I'm assuming you have an amazing set of parents who recognized your talent early on and nurtured you along the way instead of discouraging you.
You're right. My mom was amazing when I first showed interest in music. When I told her I was interested in playing the guitar she said, "Well, your aunt plays really good guitar. I'll ask her to help you." That's exactly what happened. My aunt helped me select a guitar, then showed me chords to learn, and basically got me started. She is an amazing guitar player by the way.
JAM: Did you ever consider auditioning for American Idol as a test to see if you had the chops?
JAM: What do you think of programs like that?
It is reality television, that's all.
JAM: I've always thought that rock musicians were born with a sort gypsy gene present in their DNA. If you think about it, artists are literally wed to the road. They have to be in order to make it in this business. Do you get a sense of freedom when travelling the highways and bi-ways of this country?
It's like time stands still for us when we're on the road. You literally enter another dimension. When you travel across the country to perform, it's like you have entered an entirely different world. It's hard to explain to someone who has never been on the road. For example, our first tour with Bush, felt like five years ago. No kidding. It's the weirdest thing when you're on the road. It's as though time has completely fallen off its tracks and you can't picture what goes where. You basically stop thinking about hours, days and months. It's like the movie Jump.
JAM: Emily, you just don't go 30 miles outside of El Paso, Texas to record an album in a studio surrounded by pecan groves. On second thought, you did.
We spent a month in Los Angeles doing preproduction. The Sonic Ranch studios outside of El Paso, was a place that Noah did all his recording. So, we jumped in a car and just drove out there. We got away from Los Angeles for eleven days, had no distractions, and recorded the songs for our debut.
JAM: I was surprised to find out Dead Sara honed its chops in clubs on Sunset Strip. I thought the area was dead and buried when Grunge hit the scene in 1990 and virtually wiped out the whole aura of the Strip. Is there some kind of revival going on there?
Well, I wouldn't call it a revival. There are some places that are dead, and we wouldn't play there. Then there are other venues that sound good, so we performed there. Depending on the promoters, and which one of them is smart, there are a few hot spots at the moment on the Strip. That's the way I see it.
JAM: What is the Dead Sara story that director Jared Sagel is hoping to capture on film?
What I'm hoping he does is capture the beginning, to chronicle what happens, the mystery.
JAM: Have you even thought about your second album yet?
JAM: Are you still riding the waves of what you created last year?
We just released the album in other countries around the world the first of the year, so basically we are still working our first album. We started writing music, don't get me wrong, and after the Muse tour we will probably sit down and write a lot. Just for now, we're settling for the here and now.
JAM: Will you jump on any tour, or does it have to make sense to you?
Right now it has to make sense.
JAM: Does Muse make sense to you?
Absolutely it does. Listen, this tour gives us a chance to play in front of an audience that probably doesn't know who we are. Muse is going to be one of the best bands we ever played with as a support act. We are going to learn a lot about this aspect of the touring business by watching how Muse conducts their business. There are a lot of aspects to this business beyond just the music side of things. When an opportunity like this presents itself, literally it's a dream come true for us. We have to step up our game every single night because we only have thirty minutes to make an impression.
JAM: You are right about having to step up your game. Every night the pressure is going to be on.
JAM: I remember Sammy Hagar telling me, during his days with Van Halen, that the band was always careful not to take an opening act out with them that could potentially blow them off stage. That said, the goal of every opening act is to do just that. You have to put the pressure on the headliners with your live performance to make sure the crowd doesn't forget them.
Going on tour with Muse, you know you won't blow them off the stage. Our job is to create our own identity and for it to shine through. That's what we are doing right now. We are rehearsing our set list to make sure certain songs shine through. We have to make sure our music leaves the biggest impression in the time we have allotted.
JAM: Certain bands have an aura about them that the public, and even musicians themselves, pick up on. I have a photographer in Houston that has been raving about your band for months.
Well, I appreciate support like that. When you're not trying hard to make it happen, and the rock and roll we play is coming naturally, people pick up on those things. I don't attach the word pressure do anything we're doing right now. We are a very relaxed band. The four of us don't think hard about what we're doing. Since day one, what you see on that stage is what this band has all about. We don't go into rehearsal studios to practice stage presence. Our philosophy is simple. Go out on and have fun with the music.
JAM: Are you glad your first album didn't blow out of the gate with a massive hit single?
Actually, I am happy we didn't have a massive hit single on our first album. It's been the kiss of death for a lot of bands because they were unable to follow up on that success. In fact, our whole vision of the first album was to make sure it had at least three strong singles. Don't get me wrong, having something like a huge radio hit would have been great. The thing is our first album is building a foundation for Dead Sara to grow from. Every day is a learning process with this band.
JAM: As a songwriter, does it bother you that consumers can just pull up one of your tracks on YouTube and instantly decide whether or not they like it? What kind of pressures does that put on your band, especially when it comes to creating that crucial second album?
Well, this goes to your previous question. Had our first album had a massive hit single on it you heard everywhere, then obviously we would have been facing some internal pressure on our second record. From where we are right now, we are confident, not pressured, moving forward on the next album. The songs we write will be a reflection of that attitude.
JAM: Your first album didn't set a precedent, but became a pleasant surprise to discover. That was probably the greatest reward you could have asked for.
Exactly! This is the time for Dead Sara to hit it out of the park. This band has the right team behind it and a clear vision of what lies ahead. We are going to do it too.