Street Sects make nihilistic, abrasive experimental music filled with the pain and rage of attempting to walk away from decades of addiction. It can be frightening music at times, but it turns out that Leo Ashline and Shaun Ringsmuth are thoughtful and considerate artists. Carter Moon talked addiction and their musical process.
CM: I’m really curious how you write your songs. The lyrics are so confessional and the music is so unconventional, do you start from Leo’s lyrics or from Shaun’s compositions?
Shaun: I think for the longest time it started with the music, and for the most part we still do. It could only be a snippet, often it’ll be 30 seconds, maybe a minute… Often he doesn’t really get going on the lyrics until something is really in place, I know he’ll work on melodies… Drive around in the van, sing along, really get something going, give direction to me as to where the song should go. And then the only way it works from there is maybe conceptual artwork, if something was already put out in advance and then we get it back from AJ, maybe we’ll work from some concepts based on that, get some music ideas, but for the most part, it’s music first.
Leo: Yeah, with the full-length I think we actually started with the artwork and the title and some song titles, and that’ll either start first or around the same time that Shaun is working on song ideas… But I definitely don’t start on lyrics until we have the final song structure.
CM: Sure, that actually makes sense when I think about it. Your lyrics are so personal and confessional, I guess the thing I’m most curious about when I listen to music like yours is if there’s limits to what you will and will not talk about, or if anything that fits the emotions of the songs is fair game?
Leo: I mean it’s definitely fair game, the hardest thing is to follow through on a thought and to see it through until the end of a song and have it still be honest. Because, I mean, you could come up with lines all day and half could be bullshit, the trick is to actually make something meaningful.
CM: Because your music deals a lot with the pain of sobriety, do you get a lot of emails and questions from fans about the process of getting sober? What’s that like for you?
Leo: There’s been a few, not as many as actually may need help, but both of us know what that’s like, Shaun’s actually going through a lot of that stuff himself right now. I would say there’s been about half a dozen people who have reached out to me or maybe mentioned something at a show—you know, quickly, but as far as people actually asking about that process, not as many as you’d think. It’s a pretty personal thing, and I think it’s pretty hard for people to talk about.
CM: Did you find in your own process of trying to get sober that making this music made it easier, or was it almost more difficult to dwell on these things?
Leo: Well, I don’t know if it made it easier or harder. If I had to pick one of the two, it made it easier. I mean, it gives you something to focus on, if you’re reminding yourself of the reasons why you got to that place, then it’s hammering home your decision.
CM: I apologize if this is too intrusive or too personal to ask, but were you a part of a group like NA, and did they ever hear your music?
Leo: I mean when I got sober I went to rehab… at that point in time we hadn’t started Street Sects, I was working on some music by myself, Shaun was working on some music at that time. By the time we got Street Sects going into full swing, for me I had stopped going to meetings, for the most part. Shaun, do you want to add anything?
Shaun: I don’t know that I should, honestly, it’s not really something that the fellowship really encourages. But we’re definitely open to people speaking with us in person and reaching out. I second that from Leo, I’ve replied to a couple people online who’ve reached out to us. I’m totally amazed, actually, that people are looking into these things. You know, I start to wonder as a consumer of music, art, and culture if people are reading lyrics and listening to music or only getting blips of sound or only streaming half an album or whatever. But that they look deeply into our music at all, that they connect lyrics, imagery, and then the feel of the music, just to combine it all, and then they reach out to us based on personal hurt and suffering is incredible. It’s moving, it really is.
CM: When you guys tour, does it get exhausting to perform the way you do? Because it’s such extreme music that it seems like it would take a lot out of you at a certain point.
Shaun: I will say first that the music doesn’t exhaust me, I enjoy hearing it live… But our live show that we’ve done up until recently has been heavy fog and strobes, and that was taxing in certain places, to get it in basements and certain DIY spaces… Sometimes it was hard to load, and unload, and then just breathing it in, that was my experience of it… But Leo also had a whole experience too, there’s also a lot of stuff that he got to do in that environment that was really compelling, and also people would speak of it in ways where they were kind of taken to another place while watching.
Leo: Our shows at this point in time are still relatively short, because we try to go 180 miles per hour for pretty much the entire run. We’re kinda more worried about exhausting the audience with that kind of thing, with the lights and the fog and everything. We figure that too much of that can make people walk away from a show being like, “Alright, that was cool, but then they just kept going.” Right now it’s to the point where they leave still excited.
CM: Based on your lyrics and your decisions to get sober, I wonder how much you guys really believe in free will, individual choice, and how much they actually matter?
Leo: I sort of think some of the artwork we’ve devised, certain things we’ve drawn, have been indicative of certain kinds of free will. The characters in the lyrics, what you’ll see on the T-shirts, they’re boxed in by certain things that can’t be controlled, and there are other elements that you can. It gets to a point where you can choose at least to live or die. With those basic circumstances, you can look at what you have and try to work with that, in the meantime. For us, it turned into the project it has been to work on Street Sects and try to make the most that we can.
CM: Your lyrics seem to contradict a lot of the language around sobriety. Rather than being about hope and uplifting change, you guys seem to dwell on the darker thoughts that come along with the process of getting sober. Do you think those lyrics serve a purpose in acknowledging that darkness rather than ignoring it?
Leo: I’m not sure. I’m not sure if I’m doing myself any good by dwelling on that stuff, to be honest. I’ll say from personal experience that getting sober saved my life, and it certainly allowed me to have a life and to be able to things and accomplish things that I certainly would never have been able to do, but I feel like where I’m at still, you know, almost six years being sober, is that I still haven’t done a lot of the work that I probably need to do. I have a lot of problems with pessimism and trying to shoot myself in the foot, negative thought patterns, and I think a lot of that is reflected in the lyrics. I think if there was a way for me to get past that by writing more hopeful lyrics, I certainly would enjoy doing that.
CM: So in that case do you see Street Sects evolving the longer you stay sober?
Leo: I hope so. I mean, definitely the stuff on this next EP is a little more outward thinking lyrically, as opposed to dwelling in my own problems, which is what a lot of END POSITION was.
Shaun: I hope that it evolves as well. Musically, there’s still a lot that could be said, and our music is still going to be intense, no matter which way it starts to move as an emotion and mood, but it wouldn’t be interesting if we still continued on that same tone, unless there really is a new way to arrange things. I mean, we’re all getting older, and it has to be as compelling and entertaining to us as it is to someone else.
Leo: We could write all day long about how much we hate our fucking lives, but after awhile it’s just as dull as the last thing, and I’m sure for the listener too.
CM: To wrap things up, tell me about what people can look forward to on RAT JACKET.
Leo: I would describe that as sort of a transitional piece. The songs Shaun wrote pretty quickly after END POSITION, but it was kind of like ideas we were still coming up with, like he wanted to include more melody and there’s a lot guitar work. There’s a lot more traditional song structures—but they’re not like pop songs, by any means, but they’re not as challenging for the listener.
CM: Well this has been an enlightening conversation, thank you so much!