“Loss of innocence is unfortunately inevitable, and it persists.”
SRSQ’s ethereal brand of darkwave-y music garnered positive attention late last year with the release of the Unreality LP, an Autumn offering from Dais. It made many year-end Top Ten lists, including the Best of 2018 list of the website you’re reading right now. And justly so: For one thing, Unreality marked an important milestone for Kennedy Ashlyn, the woman behind the melancholic and dream-like music of SRSQ. With that LP she was no longer merely “ex-Them Are Us Too,” but was now notable solo artist in her own right. “I think the most interesting thing now,” Kennedy explains in the interview below, “is I’m starting to meet fans who didn’t discover SRSQ through Them Are Us Too, and fans who don’t know my history, and it’s just a different relationship than when people basically only know you through your trauma.”
And many do know the trauma that colors SRSQ’s background: The Ghost Ship fire in Oakland in December, 2016 that resulted in the deaths of 36 people, many of them musicians and artists—one of whom was Cash Askew, Kennedy’s partner in the breakthrough act Them Are Us Too. Them Are Us Too released posthumous LP—the heartfelt and well-received Amends—after the Ghost Ship tragedy, and the completion of that material set the stage for Kennedy’s current SRSQ project. “There are some songs on SRSQ’s Unreality LP that I started writing in 2015, some songs that I originally wrote for Them Are Us Too,” Kennedy notes below, “songs that had been swirling around in my head for a long time but which never had a home.”
On a personal note, I had booked Them Are Us Too’s first Dallas show in 2015, and after the Ghost Ship fire the following year I went back through some of the emails Cash and I had exchanged when arranging that first show, a surreal feeling of disbelief overcoming me when I thought of the few times we had met and spoken in person. Since that time, Kennedy moved to Dallas and I shortly thereafter interviewed her for a local webzine. So, full disclosure: I have a personal bias towards liking SRSQ’s music—SRSQ is now based in my hometown, and I’ve worked with Them Are Us Too and SRSQ as a promoter before—but foremost among the reasons I like SRSQ is the simple fact that, through her projects, Kennedy Ashlyn produces some of the most compelling, dark postpunk music that exists today.
SRSQ recently announced a February-March tour, details of which are at the end of this post, and is at work on a single for release late this year (as well as an LP for 2020!). It seemed like a good time to catch up with Kennedy and see what else SRSQ is up to.
Kennedy of SRSQ was interviewed by Oliver for Post-punk.com in February, 2019.
Kennedy, I know you’ve been asked this countless times before, but for folks that may be reading about you first here, where does the name SRSQ come from—what does it mean?
Kennedy: SRSQ started as “srsQ,” my solo experimental project where I “remixed” pop songs beyond recognition or enjoyment, and it originally stood for “serious question.” It’s pronounced “seer-skew,” and the meaning has expanded to contain its phonetic components, “seer” and “skew”—so, like a warped seer, or a skewed vision.
One thing on display in SRSQ is your tremendous singing voice. I have to ask—have you ever had professional singing lessons or vocal coaching of any kind?
Kennedy: Yes, for most of my life. I was involved in years of choir and musical theater starting at age 5, and am trained in both jazz and opera. I even did a semester of opera in college, but found it too taxing to split my attention between the demands of the program and the demands of launching Them Are Us Too. But yeah, I’d say about 15 years worth of training in one way or another, and singing recreationally for an additional 8.
About Them Are Us Too: I remember booking you and Cash (Askew) back at the now-defunct Crown and Harp on Lower Greenville Avenue in Dallas (May of 2015), never imagining at that point you would become a local, North Texas musician! How did it come to be that you relocated into the North Texas area from Northern California? (And what city would you say SRSQ is based out of these days?)
Kennedy: After dropping out of school, I was kind of a floater for almost a year. After the 2015 Them Are Us Too US tour, my plan was to try to establish roots in LA, but I did that thing that everyone tells you NOT to do… I met a girl on tour and decided to move across the country to be with her after only having met her once. Many people older and wiser than myself tried to convince me not to make this rookie mistake. But it’s been 3 1/2 years and I’m still here, loving Texas, and loving my girlfriend (Leigh Violet of Psychic Killers/L. Violet/Visage Irregular.) We just got a cute place in old east Dallas and I fully identify as Dallas-based, though basically all of my “team” is in LA… so that’s kind of my home away from home.
When did you start working on SRSQ’s Unreality LP, and how long did it take to produce? Was it related in any way to the work you were doing with Them Are Us Too?
Kennedy: I started recording for Unreality in April of 2018, basically as soon as the second Them Are Us Too record, Amends, was finished, and by total coincidence we wrapped the mixing sessions on the one year anniversary of my first SRSQ show.
But there are some songs on Unreality that I started writing in 2015, some songs that I originally wrote for Them Are Us Too, songs that had been swirling around in my head for long time but never had a home. I was writing quite a bit after the Ghost Ship fire and my first show as SRSQ was in May of 2017…. which is odd looking back, because in my memory I was in bed for 6 months… but I guess that wasn’t exactly the case. The album started coming together conceptually that summer. I started digging up old songs, like “Permission” and “The Martyr,” and seeing how they fit into the arc of the record. There were even songs that only made sense in the context of Unreality, even though I had written them years before, oftentimes thinking, “What the fuck does that mean?”
Folks usually point out a comparison to Cocteau Twins with your vocals and some of the style of the music. But is that group an actual influence? What are some other bands that have inspired you to make music over the years?
Kennedy: Cocteau Twins are a band that I’ve listened to since literally day one, so they’re kind of in my blueprint as a person and artist. But I never started writing with an intention to sound like them, or like anyone else. I actually started because I hadn’t heard the thing that I wanted to hear, and I still don’t think I have. Slowdive and The Knife have always been major influences of mine and bands that I look up to. Lately I’ve been feeling inspired by Lingua Ignota and Daughters, both of whom put out incredible records last year. I doubt my next record will sound much like either of theirs, but I’m drawn to their passion, intensity, and unique execution.
I’ve seen that “Unreality” made it onto the “Best of 2018” lists of quite a few websites (including this one, post-punk.com). How does it feel to get that kind of recognition after SRSQ’s debut LP?
Kennedy: I felt deeply honored and humbled to be included among artists I personally admire and think are truly top notch. I think I also had a sense of relief seeing press that seemed to really “get” the record; I didn’t really read anything super off-base and I feel like people connected to the heart of what I was trying to say. That was extremely relieving, because I had so much fear and doubt being basically forced into a solo project after establishing myself as part of a duo. So I think the good press has helped me trust my artistic voice a little bit, but I also feel an immense amount of pressure for the next LP. Just trying not to overthink it and keep my nose down.
The influence of Cash Askew as a friend and in Them Are Us Too has to loom large over the music on Unreality. How did her life impact the music you’re making now?
Kennedy: I mean the arc of the record basically centers around Cash’s death, which for me “happens” on track 4 (Procession.) That song is written specifically to and about her, and it leads the listener into the much darker B side that’s meant to represent the “Unreality” I was thrust into after her passing. Technically speaking, there is so much I’ve learned from her about songwriting and arc and attention to detail that is built into my core now. But having just come out of making the second TAUT record and basically having to be the mouthpiece for both of our voices, constantly asking “what would Cash do/would Cash want it this way” is something I tried not to do while making the SRSQ LP. I really missed her in the studio… just her presence during the sessions, and as a sounding board, and our creative dynamic. It took a long time and felt like a huge leap of faith to let anyone else in… and I still don’t know that I fully trust anyone else as much as I trust her.
In 2016, when I interviewed you and Cash at my on-again, off-again Grave City webzine site, I had asked about the future of Them Are Us Too, “What do you think the future direction of your music is — what are you going for and what do you hope to achieve with it?” Cash had answered, “I think we’re digging more into the heavy shit. Like our first record has a lot of sadness, but this material is going deeper into the uncomfortable corners.” Do you feel this musical exploration was continued in your work with SRSQ?
Kennedy: Absolutely. I mean, as I mentioned, Unreality is primarily about grief and the nuanced way losing someone so close alters your world and very core. That is just conceptually more complex than the themes on the 2015 Them Are US Too LP Remain, which were mostly unrequited love, coming of age, and general malaise. I won’t speak for Cash, but while writing “Remain” I was still growing into the depths of my mental struggle and just straight up hadn’t been an adult long enough to experience the darkness, regret, guilt, and loathing that I would come to experience. These themes are much more present on the second Them Are Us Too release, Amends: The song “Grey Water” is about wanting to die but not having the will to do anything about it, “Could Deepen” is about co-dependency and losing yourself entirely, “Angelene” and “Floor” are about depression and inadequacy… and I think had Cash and I had the opportunity to flesh out that release, we would have explored these themes more deeply, as I hope to do on my next release. Loss of innocence is unfortunately inevitable, and it persists.
On Unreality, did you do all the instrumentation yourself? Live, I’ve seen that you do indeed handle everything yourself. Were others involved in making the music on Unreality in any way?
Kennedy: I worked with Matia Simovich of INHALT to produce this LP. It ended up being a perfect blend of collaboration and reverence for my original concepts. I went into our month-long session with very detailed demos that I had worked and re-worked endlessly, and very specific ideas for almost every moment of most songs. Matia has not only a fully stocked dream studio, but a wealth of experience, ideas, and just general know-how in terms of crafting songs and albums. So as we started building the songs, I quickly learned the extent to which working together would elevate the sound I had come in to make. We developed a great language for communicating sonic ideas, given that my descriptors are often less than technical, so that he could dial in my concepts. We took advantage of the endless gear in his studio, and used synths and pedals of mine for moments where I WAS married to a specific sound… basically whatever we needed to do in order to serve the song.
I would say most of the songs on Unreality sound like an elevated version of the demos, which is exactly what I wanted to achieve. The two songs where that is not the case are “No Reason” and “Permission.” I had never demo’d “No Reason,” and my ideas were kind of sonically amorphous even though I had basic structure and movement in mind. So we had a lot of fun with that one, experimenting with a new synth he had just got, the Modal 001. “Permission” is where you can see our collaboration the most. The demo I brought in was a gazy, noisy, syrupy sad song with no pulse. It was super washed out and I don’t think that that iteration really captured the emotional intensity present at the core of the song. One day Matia brought up the idea of making it a club track, which was so out of my comfort zone and felt like a major leap of faith. It ended up being such a fun track to make, because I was able to separate from my strict ideas of what the song needed to be. His dance music genius was really able to shine, and we could just experiment and have fun. The end result was a total climactic crux that the record really needed. I think we had a really ideal experience in many ways; I walked away feeling that the record is truly my voice, but one that could not have existed without our collaboration. (On a slightly different note…. you would be surprised how many people it takes to make a “solo” artist… I have a pretty decent-sized team of talented people working with me to make this project happen. Thaaaank you all!)
What kind of equipment or instruments are involved in the creation of SRSQ’s music?
Kennedy: My at-home writing and sound design setup was fairly minimal for Unreality. Almost everything was written on my Yamaha PSR-48 which I inherited from my great grandfather and is basically the core “Them Are Us Too sound,” and my Roland JX-3P which I inherited from Cash. I run my synths through pedals to create the “lead” tones… I have the DOD death metal distortion AND a Boss MT-2 Metal Zone, which I think is really funny… I also have several pedals from the Boss PS series and hope to collect more. Almost everything I own was inherited or given to me. I did just buy my first ever reverb pedal, a Strymon BlueSky…. not sure how I’ve survived for so long in my genre without one. Vocally I use the Roland VT-3. I like to keep things kind of haphazard and limited, it forces certain sounds and opens unexpected doors. Lately I’ve been starting to “play” guitar, but my guitar only has 2 strings… so we’ll see what comes of that.
Matia’s studio is another story. We used some truly legendary equipment, such as the Prophet 5, Roland Jupiter 8, and the Sequential Pro 1. In terms of drums, we built kits from the 808, 909, Lindrum, and a few more I’m not remembering. His studio is stocked. We recorded it into Protools but he did barely any production or mixing in that program… He’s all hardware. He mixes analog with a Focusrite / Audient 2802. And we used a lot of vintage Eventide and Lexicon gear for the effects. No autotune.
What sort of bands have you played with live since playing out on the release of Unreality? I associate you playing with Drab Majesty quite a bit. Any interesting experiences you can report on from going out and playing live in different cities?
Kennedy: I actually haven’t played with Drab in over a year, unfortunately. It’s funny because we work with a lot of the same people but it’s just hard to get those ducks in a row. Working on something with them for later this year, hopefully! Since the release of Unreality, I’ve done shows with Godflesh, Houses of Heaven, and Choir Boy… I also played Cloak and Dagger fest in LA which just had an insanely stacked lineup and was just an overwhelming, unreal experience all around. I also did a lot of touring before the release, with Drab Majesty and Choir Boy, and with True Widow, and my girlfiend’s band Psychic Killers. I think the most interesting thing now is I’m starting to meet fans who didn’t discover SRSQ through Them Are Us Too, and fans who don’t know my history, and it’s just a different relationship than when people basically only know you through your trauma. I’m feeling things start to lighten up again, which I appreciate.
Is there a specific songwriting process you go by ? Do you keep a notebook or journal for lyrics? Is there anything you do to “get in the zone” of writing music, or do melodies come to you, or…? What inspires you?
Kennedy: It’s different for every song, and kind of different for every record as well. These days, most of my stuff is melody driven. I record a lot on my phone, and keep track of lyrical ideas in my phone’s notes. I don’t have as much time to work on new material or to record demos as I would like, so I never find myself needing to “get in the zone..” usually I’m just trying to scramble and squeeze ideas in whenever I get the chance, and they build on each other rather quickly since they’ve been marinating in my head for so long. I find the thing that inspires me most is working. Being on the road, doing interviews and photoshoots and video shoots and playing shows. Just being fully immersed in the “SRSQ” world. Which is kind of a bummer, because that’s not when I can be actually working on music, and once I’m home all I want to do is fuck off and hang out. I think I want to get back into experimentation with recording techniques, and sound design in general… that used to be a core of my music making, but knowing that I’ll be taking everything to a studio has kind of made me sit on my laurels a bit in that regard.
Are you writing new material for an LP or EP or anything like that? What are you working on, and when might we see it released?
Kennedy: My problem is I’m already mentally 5 steps ahead of what I’m doing. Like I’m still touring on Unreality, and there are things I need to work on to make sure that these tours are successful, but I’m already mentally onto the next 3 things. I’m working on a single I’m hoping to release as early as later this year, and writing for an LP I’m hoping to release next year. And thinking about music videos for both of those projects. Cart-before-the-horse as fuck. Basically I’m working all the time, just a lot of the work is in my head. As far as a timeline goes, it all really depends on how fast I can write, when I can get in the studio in between tours, and when Dais can fit me into their release schedule (they are super busy and stacked and everything they do is phenomenal.)
What other projects or things do you have coming up that you feel like folks should know about?
Kennedy: Lots of touring (I’ll list my upcoming announced dates below.) But basically my head is in SRSQ almost 24/7, there’s really not much more room for anything else in my creative life at this point. Or my personal life, for that matter. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and I don’t have enough energy, to do the amount of things that I want to do as quickly as I want to do them…. my life is pretty consumed and driven by this project, which I’m grateful for. I don’t really know where I end and SRSQ begins… for better or for worse.
SRSQ 2019 Dates (more early March dates to be announced)
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