As part of the media coverage for Out of Earshot’s inaugural festival on the weekend of August 23-25, 2018, not your boys club will be showcasing some of the truly wonderful people organizing, playing, and performing at the festival in the weeks leading up to it.
For the third interview in this series, I spoke with Rachel (she/her) from Rabies (vocals/guitar) and Surveillance (vocals/bass). Originally from rural Ontario, where she grew up on her family’s farm, she is now living in K’jipuktuk (Halifax, NS).
Photo by herself
I’m curious about your initial introduction to playing and writing music. What inspired you to start making music?
Both my dad and brother are talented bluegrass guitar players and many of my family members are musicians or music fans, so music has always been a big part of my life. As a teen, I went to a lot of shows and always wanted to perform and play in a band, but I had no idea how to get started. I played acoustic guitar a little bit (my brother and dad had helped me learn some chords) but I was mostly playing Tegan and Sara covers secretly in my room, and playing in a band seemed impossible. I thought it was an impenetrable world to me and I was too embarrassed to admit that I wanted to participate.
When I got a little older, I continued to go to shows and my desire to play didn’t fade away. I spent a lot of time talking about this with my partner Dave (guitar in Surveillance/drums in Rabies), who had been playing music since we were teenagers. Together we worked through a lot of the complex feelings and emotions we had around playing music and everything that was holding us back from being creative.
He supported me, and helped me push through my fears, and together we started the band Surveillance when I was in my mid twenties. He really wanted me to have a bass because I could play it just one note at a time so he got one for me for about $80 on Kijiji. Dave had a few songs already written that he had imagined playing in a band, so I learned those songs on the bass and we practiced them together in our apartment.
We have a broken “Fender Jam” amp with a really distorted setting and I loved playing my bass through it – the distortion covered up my mistakes, and it just sounded big and bad in a way that I really liked. I’d practice the songs that he’d written, and we’d also have “Free Jams” where we would encourage one another to stop worrying and just play.
Dave and I did work on some songs together in our early days, but I don’t exactly remember how I started writing songs on my own. I was practicing alone pretty often and I would just hear combinations of notes that I liked, and sing over it. Sometimes because singing and playing at the same time was too hard, I’d open GarageBand on my computer and record the bass line, and then sing over the recording. I added different tracks, and would just experiment by making demos. I think the first song I ever wrote for Surveillance on my own was, “Bud” and I remember playing the demo I’d made for Dave when he got home from work. He was just so excited – he has always been my biggest fan. The encouragement really motivated me and eventually I figured out on my own that I love writing songs, but it was really hard not to feel self-conscious. Over time I became used to the idea that I was a songwriter, but I am still working on building my confidence as an artist.
I eventually started playing guitar through the same distorted “Fender Jam” amp, and I picked up my guitar everyday single day for a really long time – practice has always been really important to me. I still don’t have a lot of technical knowledge and I think that is my next step – learning the names of the chords and notes that I’ve been playing for years. Doing it kind of backwards has really worked for me.
So, now that you’ve broken through a world you once felt was impenetrable, what would you say to youth that feel the same way that you did when you were a teen?
I think for anyone who wants to play music – whether they’re young or old – the best thing you can do is just try. Get your hands on some cheap gear and get started. It used to drive me bonkers when people said this to me, because I felt so vulnerable and confused, and starting from scratch is extremely hard. It’s so easy to feel embarrassed. When I found a way to practice that felt okay, and found some like minded people who made me feel empowered, I was able to actually visualise myself playing in a band. If you can’t find those people in real life, look to musicians and bands that you love. Explore the world of musicians and their history – there are a lot of inspirational stories out there.
It’s also really important to find a way to enjoy playing because there is no way around it – you have to practice. So experiment, and find a way that works for you – whether it’s learning covers, trying to play along to songs you love, taking lessons, jamming with friends, writing serious or silly songs, or just slamming on your instrument to make noise – just find something that feels right and keep it up.
And remember that anyone who tells you, or implies to you, that you’re not good enough, they’re wrong!
I read on the tumblr page that Rabies started as solo project, and later developed into a band – can you tell me a little bit about the formation of Rabies?
I can barely remember how Rabies started, even though it was only about three years ago. At the time in my life (my early/mid twenties) I was feeling pretty down. I tend to having really strong feelings about things in general, but I really only like sharing that side of myself with people that I trust. I’ve always been very private. I felt that through music I could express some of those feelings in a theatrical, kind of overblown way.
My songs aren’t typically overtly political, but they are usually written about my general confusion about the world, and informed by my feminist perspective. And you know, over time my feelings have grown and changed so sometimes some of the things I wrote about in the past are not necessarily things I feel now. Some of those feelings I wrote about are still very important to me (For example, the song “Rabid” is about being a settler living on indigenous land), and others were written about certain feelings or circumstances that have since changed (For example, the song “Celtic Frost” was written when I was feeling very insular).
For most of these songs, I just wanted a different feel than we had in Surveillance, and I had written a lot of them – enough to start another project. I knew I wanted the songs to have synth so I asked one of my dearest friends and favourite people, Jeremy Costello (of Aquakultre / Glenn Copeland / Special Costello). We played as a three piece for a while and decided to add bass. We didn’t want to ask just anyone to play bass, we wanted someone who would align with our approach and asked one of our close friends whether he knew anyone that played, or wanted to play bass that could join the fold. He recommended Bria Cherise Miller, who had never played bass before, but through our practice together she has became a close friend, an incredible musician, and a very important person in our lives.
As part of the Halifax music community, do you feel like it’s been an inclusive and supportive experience? Are there ways in which you feel like it could improve or be safer?
I can’t speak for the Halifax music community as a whole. I have witnessed and experienced various levels of inclusion and support, and over time an awareness of inequality and prejudice in the scene has been revealed – but this has certainly not been resolved. The scene continues to be divided, and at times deeply confusing and disheartening.
With that said, I have found, and continue to find many musicians, artists and organizations here who have helped raise myself and others up to feel included and capable (special shout out to members of the band Century Egg for being especially supportive). There is still much work to be done.
I personally believe that the best course of action to build a stronger, safer community is through direct support. Send messages of support to people who you think are doing good work, help new musicians book shows and access gear, break down the “skill” illusion, act as a mentor to people who are learning, encourage people to open their minds to different genres of music and experimentation, talk and learn about the history of imperialism, racism and sexism in music, question the sketchy bands and dudes and people, and try to create show line-ups that are actually good – not just based on who your friends are.
Outside of music, are there any other community involvements you participate in that empowers marginalized or vulnerable people (whether intentional or not)?
Over the years I have worked and volunteered for a number of community driven initiatives and organizations aiming to support marginalized communities, however I feel that the most impactful work that I’ve done has been in my personal education, and in the relationships and friendships I choose to foster and grow.