The Dallas duo's new album 'Midnight in the Garden of Chaotic Neutral' is perfect synth music for all times—but especially right now.
Every band ever is political. A band can sing about exclusively about elven sex and refuse to variate from the song structure template laid down by AC/DC, but as long as it drives to rehearsal on taxpayer supported roads and interacts with any other living person in any way, it's political. Because that's what politics is; building roads and navigating the world of other humans. "The personal is political" can feel trite and be used as an excuse to substitute yoga for agitation, but it's an unavoidable truth. Not "now more than ever"—always.
So now that we got that out of the way, and nobody is suggesting you burn your Nashville Pussy hoodie in shame, we can talk about Little Beards, the excellent Dallas Texas minimal synth band that doesn't sing obviously about politics but is, like all of us, steeped in it.
Little Beards is Sean Kirkpatrick, former piano player of The Paper Chase and concurrently in Nervous Curtains, and Nan Kirkpatrick (of the on-hiatus but still together "gothgaze" band Frauen). The couple have been married for six years (Sean says, "We met socially through other avenues. Music was irrelevant to our relationship for a long time."). But, spurred on by a one-off art show that bore results worth pursuing, they have just recently become a musical duo. Their potent debut album, Midnight in the Garden of Chaotic Neutral, premiering below, is seven songs of understated dread and gender politics, recorded using classic Roland TR808 drum machine, real tape mellotron, Roland space echo, Korg Mono/Poly, ARP Solina String Synthesizer, and "some 70s German bass amp that I can't recall the name of." With sounds of various waves of the last 40 years, it's perfect for coolly upraising the waters rapidly rising around us.
Little Beards are from a burgeoning Dallas synth scene that Sean describes as "different aesthetic takes that work together… electronics, somewhat abstract, but not totally improvised" that encompasses other great, underappreciated bands like Triangulum, They Say The Wind Makes Them Crazy, and Fort Worth's doom synth darlings Pinkish Black. Though many (including this author) can fall into the trap of thinking of artistic Texas as "Austin… and the wasteland," Nan is eager to push back against that false narrative.
"Austin has its own problems," she says. "It's becoming less and less a diverse community. Dallas has a string progressive community and a lot of people doing amazing work. And Houston and El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley doing a lot of important work to improve our state." It's a point well taken, especially when both sides of the cultural divide are prone to pretend that pointillist secession would solve all our nation's ails.
The noise/electronics scene in Dallas faces the same debates found worldwide, though, and Little Beards have found themselves at the center of the discussion that arises wherever asymmetrical haircuts and high-fades coexist: Who's a fascist and what do we do with them? The band are vocal about their distaste, for example, of UK neo-folk act Death in June, which uses Nazi imagery and whose distributor Soleilmoon Recordings was recently flagged as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And when problematic bore and rape apologist Boyd Rice recently came to Dallas, Little Beards found themselves accused of that weakest of pejorative, Social Justice Warrior, for questioning the booking—which was eventually canceled due to popular outcry.
"It was never our intention to shut down the show," Sean says. "It was more stating 'if you're going to go to this show you should be aware of what this band has said and done.' And by making people aware of that it made the venue aware of it and they decided they didn't want to be involved with it so they pulled the show and all of a sudden every noise goth person in town hates us and there's people trying to organize boycotts of us and everything we're associated with and it became a stupid dramatic thing that lasted…a couple weeks."
"I believe that you can't separate your politics from your personal actions. Sometimes you have to take a stand even if it's uncomfortable."
"I did post some things on Facebook," Nan adds. "People are free to book what they want to book. A venue has its own freedom of speech in regards to who it wants to book or not book, and I have to say I was really proud of my friends. When they found about this guy and things he'd said and done, they did pull the show. If they hadn't… I don't know. I may not have had the same feelings for them. I believe that you can't separate your politics from your personal actions. Sometimes you have to take a stand even if it's uncomfortable. In the end I don't think it hurt the venue. It caused some people to have real breakdowns on the internet and call Sean my 'wife of a husband,' which, if you know me at all, I think is awesome and Sean finds funny."
"Yeah, questioning my masculinity is not going to upset me in the least," Sean laughs.
Often when musicians take a stand on any issue that could be considered a niche concern, people trot out the accusatory question of, "well, what do you do?" In Little Beards' case, the answer is: a lot. Nan is executive director at the Texas Equal Access Fund, the abortion fund that serves North Texas, helping low income people pay for the abortions when they can't afford it. Nan's political awakening came in her late 20s. "I was middle management in a for-profit job and realizing that if I wanted to climb the ladder I would have to exploit other workers," she says. "And realizing that even as a woman, moving forward by my own force of will, the fact that I'd have to exploit others to do so meant I wasn't really liberated. My liberation had to bound up with other people's. And that was a real turning point in my politics, recognizing that." The couple have become steadily more and more involved in Texas politics in recent years, beginning with the rise of the Tea Party and Ted Cruz.
"I have to say for Sean though, two days after the [Trump] election, he was in the front yard, spray-painting 'Fuck White Supremacy' signs for all the protests we knew were coming," Nan says.
In a world free of strife, perhaps Little Beards would not be a political band. They talk as easily about Nan spending her 20s "dancing at the Goth clubs" and their shared love of Sisters of Mercy as they do the heavy stuff. While unashamedly discussing the gender issues inherent in some of the songs, the band also describe the samples they play between as "all about death and the meaninglessness of life"—normal gothic concerns, outside a Trump dynasty. Little Beards walk the line between activism and the pleasures of creating in a community of two. They finish each other's sentences and talk about the joys of working as a couple. Nan, less focused on notes, plays intuitively by ear in contrast to Sean's classical training.
"It's one of the things I like about us playing together: It stretches us both," Nan says. "Often times I'm bumping against his growing edge, and I know he's forcing me to grow as a musician. I mess with his type A approach to music and it can lead to some explosive interactions. But I think that's how people grow. We write in the room together."
Midnight in the Garden of Chaotic Neutral will be available digitally and on cassette from Pour Le Corps on March 3.
Photo by Alan Masters, courtesy of Little Beards
Zachary Lipez is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.