Self Defense Family Based Their Album on the Life of an 80s Pornstar
It's a spring day in 2011 and Self Defense Family is at the Bob Marley-founded Tuff Gong Studio in Kingston, Jamaica. On the same day, over 1500 miles north, Self Defense Family is also playing a bar show somewhere in Connecticut.
To understand this, you need to know a few things about a collective of musicians that most likely only exists under a moniker out of respect for the labels that release its music. By following this band in recent years, it's apparent they're one of the last remaining thorns in the side of an ordinarily obstinate punk/hardcore community, and one who've successfully garnered a dedicated cult following. It's unusual for a band with its feet so firmly planted in the hardcore scene to flourish beyond the often low glass ceiling of the genre. It's even reductive and offensive to suggest that their music resembles the majority of what's getting played in today's basements. But since joining Deathwish Inc. in 2010 and shortly after releasing their third LP, You Are Beneath Me, they made it obvious that the only rules they were willing to play by were ones they'd set themselves. The previous album even opens up with a manifesto of sorts, giving advice on how to best enjoy the following content. Tips include "sit four to eight feet from quality speakers," "work part-time," and "understand people have the right to be tasteless."
If the band has one creative constant, it's Patrick Kindlon. The sometimes vocalist, sometimes Ghostface Killah-collaborating comic book writer, and sometimes social network-life-coach might have an online following equal to that of his band's. A quick read through their Kindlon-run Twitter and you'll maybe pick up on the polarizing attitudes and opinions that have made SDF such an interesting group to follow. Well-spoken and never short on opinions, his stage banter might sell more tickets than their music. This was taken to an extreme at one of the band's shows without Kindlon, where the present vocalist requested that he pre-record observations for between songs.
With little promotion or fanfare, the band tweeted, mid-day in late November that a new record would be available for pre-order and immediate digital download at midnight. The announcement was abrupt for the label whose recent releases include heavy-hitters like Deafheaven's Sunbather and Touché Amoré's Is Survived By, but not out of character for an unpredictable band who's gained their following over the course of almost 30 releases in less than a decade. Relentless creativity is part of the Family's appeal and helps keep anticipation high when expecting new material. Their fourth and latest LP, Try Me, breaks the glass ceiling of whatever basement most bands get stuck in with a style that's now closer to "Built to Spill covering Killing Joke" than their earlier golden-age-of-Dischord sound. On this record though, there's a deeper story running beneath it than on any of their previous full lengths or countless splits and seven-inches.
Fast forward dozens of months and thousands of miles from the warm yellows and blues that grace the resulting seven-inch recorded in Jamaica to a below freezing, late-December afternoon in New York City where I meet up with Patrick. Returning from a month-long European tour with label-mates Touché Amoré, he's stationed in the back of a busy chain-café eating soup, with bags and gear cases spread out around him. He looks less unkempt than someone fresh off flights from another continent after a month of touring. His hair, almost shoulder length, is parted in the middle, and due to a propensity for selfies, is documented almost weekly on the "band's" Instagram. We talked about how the shows went, what it was like to record at BBC, and if anyone ever claimed their nightly guest list spot reserved for "Racist Todd" (no one did).
Finally, we got to Angelique.
"She's just an interesting person. She has an amazing personal history and you don't need an interest in pornography to find her story compelling. You just need an interest in human beings."
Try Me is split down the middle between 40 minutes of music, and an almost equal amount of time devoted to a recorded conversation between Kindlon and 90s porn star Angelique Bernstein, better known by her industry name, Jeanne Fine. The content in those segments — two tracks appropriately titled "Angelique One" and "Angelique Two" — details Bernstein's early life before entering a profession she would later dominate. The story told in "Angelique One" goes from a fatherless, bullied, sexually confused childhood, to living on couches and in doorways, to an abusive relationship, told in disturbing detail, in which she essentially becomes a prisoner. After the first half of the conversation, which is equally taxing in its subject matter as it is in its delivery, there are still 17 more minutes to get through.
Even though the stories take place over decades, the second interview track ends abruptly just as Bernstein begins to make her way into pornography. The original recording is reportedly over three hours long and involves almost her entire life story up to that point. The band opted out of using the segments regarding her adult film career to ensure interests wouldn't be misconstrued. Taken from a single session held by Kindlon and guitarist/sound engineer Andrew Duggan in a roadside motel, somewhere in upstate New York. Kindlon believes that while the segments used are enlightening, her story is one too complex and difficult for single instances to be labeled as "formative."
"If you just wanted to view her as a celebrity, her partying with Motörhead is what you'd want to hear about. Now that the LP is out in the world, I'd feel more comfortable putting the rest out, so maybe we'll do that someday. And it's all equally interesting. There's just as much human interest involved as what's on the record, but it's also got the sexy facts, the glam facts, and the drug facts. Things people could get lost in. They hear 'cocaine' or 'I was blowing this guy and this guy' and they get excited and forget there's a human in there."
He claims that she's a natural interview, which I trust fully, due to his own tendency to go off on tangents for long periods of time. Whether between songs on stage or across the table from you. "Most of what you hear is how she talks exactly, without interruption. I edited out my questions but there were few of them. In the interview, we basically put a microphone in front of her face and said 'tell us about your life.' There wasn't too much steering that ship."
On the inside of the upcoming LP, Kindlon briefly details his experience getting in touch with Bernstein, which involved hiring someone to find her whereabouts. Tracking down an aging porn star for the sake of compulsion could be considered a bit creepy, and whichever way you spin it, definitely eccentric. But when asked about where the idea came from, the explanation behind his obsession with figures from his adolescence seems obvious and, in Self Defense Family tradition, uncomfortably relatable. He believes a reoccurring theme to their music is based in his memory of things versus their reality.
"I remember my vision of this woman from my youth, and I'm the kind of person who, when I see a commercial or something, my first thought is 'I wonder where this person is now.' They had a moment and you probably never saw them again as an actor. Maybe they went on to be a truck driver or work at the post office. Who knows? But I become immediately interested. For Angelique, that impulse was particularly powerful. I imprinted on her as being, sexually, what's motivated me for the rest of my life. The way she looked in particular films, is what I actually enjoy in women to this day. And that got me thinking about a lot of different things. So it seemed on five different levels that this was the woman to talk to."
While Angelique Bernstein's life story is on a severely different level of extremes, drawing parallels between Patrick's appreciation of her experiences and the band's interests isn't such a difficult task. Even some of the tracks loosely follow the personality of her story. The opening song "Tithe Pig" confronts the unnatural selfishness which exists beneath so many relationships, using direct imagery from Angelique's story from being an older man's "prisoner." As someone who claims to not believe in trigger warnings, saying that it's "anti-art" and "foolish," it makes sense that he'd choose some of the most confrontational subjects imaginable to get a point across, which is illustrated effectively on the most obvious place possible — the album's title and artwork.
"She was dancing for a couple years on a feature circuit in strip clubs, balancing a heroin addiction with a speed addiction with a heroin addiction with a speed addiction, and so on. That period for her was a blur. And that's why on the cover, you see her as an impossibly thin woman. I got in touch with some friends who've had some similar drug experiences, who had been through heroin addictions, and they all said the same thing. Which is 'This is a tough woman.' The double entendre seemed fitting since we're dealing with a lot of sex here. But really, Try Me strikes me as something a very tough person would say."
This isn't an easy band to follow or a comfortable record to listen to. Its repetitive nature goes from grating to hypnotic, and strikes every cramped, suppressed chord in between. Given recent years where it seems like underground music is getting safer as it gets more accessible, or vice versa, the humanity is beginning to disappear. New York hardcore bands are using nude vocalists as gimmicks. California punk bands are signing deals with street wear brands. What's more human than the band who's not afraid to dedicate a record to the disturbing life story of an adolescent obsession? How many of us, if we really accessed our fixations and tapped into what makes us most uncomfortable would end up with something we'd be happy to share with our peers? Wouldn't you rather listen to music with frighteningly truthful subject matter as opposed to the group who used a "V" instead of a "U" in their band name for double-takes? Try Me is an homage to a woman's unbreakable will, and it's wordplay. But more importantly, it's this band's statement begging for something worthwhile in a scene overrun with safety in exchange for feeling.
Before he headed out to catch another mode of public transportation heading towards whichever destination he was off to next, I asked Patrick if he was worried about listeners not paying attention to the interview tracks, or skipping them entirely. He stuffed some napkins into an empty soup cup and responded.
"Delete the songs you don't like. That's what I do with my life."
Lukas Hodge watched a lot of Spice Channel in the 90s. Follow him on Twitter - @lukashodge