By Tony Porreco
As if you weren’t already aware, Hometown Sounds and Showlist DC have come together to host a stacked show this evening at Tropicalia (14th & U), featuring Tereu Tereu, The Jet Age, and Heavy Breathing. In anticipation for the event, Hometown Sounds reporter Tony Porreco sat down with Heavy Breathing’s Amanda Kleinman (Keyboards) and Erick Jackson (Guitar) for a wide ranging discussion including the inspiration behind the creepiness of the band’s live show and the importance of a band’s perceived edginess, the origin story of Kleinman’s signature ski mask look, and their recent reunion to record as their previous musical incarnation, The Apes.
Tell me about the origin of Heavy Breathing’s twisted visual aesthetic.
Erick Jackson: I think that’s what we’re always drawn to in part? We don’t see it as twisted.
Amanda Kleinman: All three of us are very visual people. So color schemes, all of the cinema from our childhood, the teen culture, the weird eras of kidnappings and bomb scares and Vietnam movies. All the imagery we were watching when we were kids, like New York City.
EJ: Yeah, like basement culture.
AK: All of that, it becomes a part of your neural wiring, and weird childhood experiences expose you to darkness.
EJ: Yeah, we grew up in a time where we were influenced by certain aesthetics like comics and then violent movies and then rock n’ roll and then memories of burnouts and siblings, just stories that you experience.
AK: Music should mean danger, music should be something edgy.
EJ: And I always remembered being drawn to music because I was a little scared of things, where I was like, “Is this good, or is this trouble?” Like, especially going to shows, like, “Am I going to get beat up at this show or am I going to get mugged? Where is this show even at? Is it dangerous? Who’s going to go with us?” There was a sense of adventure. And danger was a big part of it.
AK: And I think even now, our imagery has sexuality: Neither one of us are super sexual people, but we feel like there needs to be some kind of edge.
EJ: Well, I think music should be sexual.
AK: A lot of the newer, younger bands –
EJ: You look around, they’re not very sexual.
AK: I don’t get any vibe from people.
EJ: Everything’s neutered, and not visceral.
AK: Neutered and soft and friendly. I have a hard time connecting with it simply because of how we grew up.
I actually get spooked when I see you perform. In an era when there’s a general devaluation of music on account of its availability and ease of dissemination, do you think that the use of “fear” or “shock value” is one of the few tactics remaining to bands to get attention?
AK: I think we’re just getting off. I don’t care what anyone thinks, and honestly, what everyone’s perception is, I’m not interested.
EJ: That’s true. I don’t even think we think of things as, “Oh, this is shocking.”
So the way you present the band (e.g. costumes, projectors, fog) is less about you trying to stand out from the pack, and more of keeping things interesting for yourselves?
AK: There is no agenda. There’s no reward.
EJ: Well, it keeps you busy.
AK: Yeah, I’m busy. But there’s no big offers, there’s no tour bus. We just have to keep getting excited.
EJ: Well, it’s going to entertain you. And then you worry about entertaining somebody. Half of the things we’ve done, I don’t think it’s shock value. It’s more like, “Well, that’d be fun.” or “That’d be interesting.” or “Have we tried doing this? Let’s see what happens.” Because the process of playing shows a lot of times becomes like a job where you know what’s going to happen: You get there, soundcheck. So you’ve always got to think of things that keep it fresh for yourself and you try to do it through the music, but also if you want to have fun, and you want to get loose, because I mean, I think we all play music in the band because we want to get loose.
So oddly enough, your live act is more about you guys having fun and creating an experience for yourselves rather than for the audience?
AK: But I do want to put on a great show. When we started this band, I’d always felt a deficit with Apes. I felt like the visual things that I could conjure in my head could never happen because I didn’t have the resources and I had so many other things to worry about between the van, the sounds, navigating personality disorders in the band… It’s not just about us. I want that shit to look good. And the only time I ever have a diva temper tantrum is when the fog machines aren’t working, or [the booker] says, “No [to the visuals]”, and then I’m like, “I don’t want to play”, because I need that visual component. Or if someone doesn’t do their laser timing right, like, “I did my job! I practiced 8000 times!”
It sounds like you’re fairly selective about the shows you play.
EJ: Well, I think a big thing is we could just do more shows where it’s just like, “Oh, we’re just going to set up and play.” And that’s cool, but we’ve done that a lot, and there’s so many shows where it’s like a four band bill and I always feel like the music’s an afterthought, like, “Oh shit, we’re running out of time, oh shit, can you get your shit on stage really fast?”, and it’s this whole thing where you’re wondering, “Why are there four bands on this bill?” And it becomes this thing where you’re fighting against the environment. “Oh, we don’t have enough outlets for you.” Or the P.A.’s broken.
And so I think with Heavy Breathing it’s definitely a thing where we want to be able to enjoy playing rather than just be like, “Oh, we got here and then it’s a mess and oh shit, we’ve got to get our stuff on stage. Well that happened, I think that was good, right? Was it good?” And then you’re just like, “Well, people seemed to like it.” But there’s no time to actually think about the music or enjoy the music and playing it.
Amanda, what’s with the mask?
AK: The mask started because Apes toured constantly, and I loved all of our singers, but we always felt like there was a missing human element. We wanted the singers to have more of a banter, more of an ease. And there were also so many nights where you’re in Epsilon, Michigan on a Tuesday night, and it’s pouring, and the only person in the bar is the barmaid… So it’s like this game with yourself: What am I going to do to make myself laugh and feel comfortable before I get on stage? And that ski mask started because I put it on and I stood at a mirror, and I was making scary faces to crack myself up to chill out.
There were situations in the early years where no one knew that I was a little short girl. I had dudes in Cincinnati respond to that [deep, effect-manipulated] voice saying, “I’ll take you out in the parking lot and kick your ass, fucker.” I love that part of the show, I really do.
Talk to me about your robot vocalist, The Rhythm Machine. What’s the source material for the pre-recorded vocals you use?
EJ: There’s all sorts of weirdos, just people blogging that do a cappella, so they sing a bunch of shit and they post it for people to use. They’ll just cover songs and we just take them. But then we take just words —
AK: Or just one syllable.
EJ: Usually just half a word, like “Uh”, “Ah”, and now because of Autotune you can figure out notes that you want to play and then you just keep looping them. You start hearing things, and you go, “Ohhhhh I think they’re saying this.” And then what’s nice is then we’re jamming, and then we can press a button and that voice keeps happening and then we can build around it, whereas a lot times you keep telling a singer, “Can you do that again? Can you do that again?” And they’d be like, “Uh, no.”
AK: Or they can’t remember what they did.
Erick, is it you who rocks the overalls on stage?
EJ: Yes it is.
Where’d you get those from?
AK: One of our friends.
EJ: Sometimes people give us stuff. They’re like, “You’d look funny in this.” Or they’ll give it to you. We just trade stuff.
AK: Yeah, we trade things.
Do you think overalls are sexy?
EJ: I think they say something. They’re creepy.
I read in the Washington City Paper about The Apes’ getting back together to record some new tracks. Is it kind of a one off, or are you playing it by ear?
EJ: Just playing it by ear. It was just so random. Travis [Jackson, Windian Records] was just like, “Hey. Would you do an EP for us?” And we were like, “Yeah, if Paul [Weil] wanted to, our first singer.” And then he came down and we just worked on stuff. We hadn’t played together since 2006?
AK: No, 2005!
EJ: Oh my god. And it was good to play again. It was fun.
AK: And everyone’s so much more comfortable with themselves.
EJ: Yeah, we used to just fight and fight and fight. We were just horrible dicks.
AK: All of us though.
EJ: We were all bad. We were all just rats and just like, “Fuck you, fuck you!” But it was nice to hang out again.
AK: We’ve always stayed friends. He always came to all of our shows, we’d go to his shows. There was always genuine affection.
EJ: I mean, it’s just gross being in a van, and everyone starts growing up. He was married and then had a kid and was trying to both at the same time when there was no money in it. There was a lot of stress and especially because he was living in New York, so it was crazy.
We thought, “Should we do a[n Apes] show?”, Yeah, if time permits I’m sure we would. It’s never been like, “We will never, ever do this again.” It’s more like, “What are you doing Wednesday?”
AK: I have a really old romantic love of Apes: Apes music, Apes stories, and if I think back to the whole time, they were dark times. So I don’t know why, but it’s like the first boyfriend… So would we play a show again? Maybe. It’s not going to be some magic “Fifty years after the couple first broke up they finally got married”. It would be an Apes show.
The music never matured. So it’s like, we can still be dumb, and I’ll still get off a little on getting stupid. But no, I’d be open to it. It would take energy; I really like working on Heavy Breathing stuff.
In both Heavy Breathing and Apes, you play big beat electro rock. Could you ever see yourselves getting tired of that and thinking, “We need just do something entirely different now.”
EJ: Sometimes we do more soundtrack-y stuff for ourselves, but when it comes to live, we have more of a sports kind of mentality where, to us, it’s a sport, and we want to get our rocks off. It’s like a game. We want to get sweaty… I feel like for us, at least, if anything, we’ll get energy out, and we’ll be like, “Well, now I’m tired.” And it’ll be our therapy of sorts.
EJ: And volume and noise –
AK: And you feel something.
I enjoy a wide range of live music, and I’ve seen singer-songwriter people, the best of the best, and I’m like, “Wow. That was awesome. Do we want to incorporate things like that?” At one point we maybe had one song that was more chill, and I was embarrassed. I was waiting for the room to be empty.
Where is Heavy Breathing right now? What are you working on for the next few months?
EJ: Probably a new record, because Amanda has a friend in Portland who has a new label.
What’s it’s called?
AK: Eolian Empire.
And it was casual, he asked, “Do you want to do a record?” And we said, “Yeah.” We’ll either do that or make another record and put it out ourselves. We’re at that stage where we have enough to do another record.
Heavy Breathing headlines our show this evening at Tropicalia. Doors @ 7:00, Show @ 8:30.