~Inaugural Feature Post~
Urith Myree is the bassist for the all-female metal band Dormitory Effect. I conducted this interview with her on May 17, 2010.
1) What drew you to metal?
I started off listening to Classic Rock. I was in grammar school and a classmate had a boom box that was playing "Black Dog" by Led Zeppelin. I had never heard that before but I totally loved it, and it just got heavier from there. Later on, I feel in love with Thrash Metal when a classmate in high school gave me a cassette tape (ha - dating myself here) that had early Metallica, Slayer, Venom and other Thrash bands. I was hooked by the raw power and speed.
2) And how did your family react to your decision to involve yourself in metal?
It ended up being a family meeting one afternoon! I didn't understand what the big deal was, especially since my family listened to everything inclusive of rock and fusion, but there is a big leap from Santana to Hendrix to Slayer and it was a bit much for them at first. But in the end I guess it's no different than any other family whose kid is listening to music they didn't understand. As I bought more of the records they got used to the sound and some of the music my mom and grandma actually ended up liking. They weren't always comfortable with some of the imagery (some album covers I could not leave out on display, such as Celtic Frost's "To MegaTherion" and Exodus' "Bonded By Blood"), but they came around, and I'd like to think that I broadened their musical palette just as they had broadened mine as I was growing up. They were very supportive of me when I began jamming with bands and gigging, and proud of the many things I have done over the years.
3) When did you start playing bass?
I was 7 years old. One of my uncles had a bunch of musical instruments and I wanted to actually play something, not just be a backup singer, which is what he was steering me towards. This uncle is an electrical whiz, and made a grid of different colored lights that he installed on our ceiling. He had it rigged so that different lights responded to different frequencies/instruments in the music, and I noticed that every time the deep purple lights would go on, everything in the house would shake. I said, "I want to do THAT." It turned out to be the bass. I had him tell me which instrument in his room was the bass, and when he wasn't around I would sneak into his room and try to teach myself how to play it. I was born left-handed, and taught myself to play that way. Since no one was around to tell me that it was right-handed bass and the strings were upside-down, I was unaware that it was wrong. By the time I did find out, I didn't want to change it up.
4) What other instruments do you play, and if any, when do you start them?
My first instrument was actually the organ, and I did not enjoy it. I began to use it as a piggy bank and would put pennies in between the keys. My Mom was not happy. Sadly, I have not tried to return to it even though I have a great keyboard at home now - I really would like formal lessons and see if I have any kind of knack for it. I learned how to play acoustic guitar probably around 11 years old. I was able to play a guitar regardless if it was left-handed or right-handed, and I had progressed enough to where I could play solos from classic songs on acoustic. It was at this point I realized that guitar was alright; but I actually found it kinda boring. I like the responsibilities and power of being a bassist. I do actually have a natural talent for drums. I have always been able to get behind a kit and play entire songs, even with some double-bass patterns, without ever actually owning a drumkit. I love to play drums when the occasion presents itself, and would love to get a complete kit, get some lessons and really develop those skills because I believe I could be a really good drummer.
5) How did you come to be a part of Dormitory Effect, and what can you tell me about your relationship with your bandmates?
My singer Susan and I used to be in a pretty popular local band called One Step Beyond. The band eventually broke up, but we stayed in touch. After a couple of years we decided: why not try and put together an all-female cover band? We figured it would be fun and we could make some extra money. We called drummer Gee, whose band Sympathetic Magic had just disbanded. We've known her for years; in fact, we had asked her to join One Step Beyond at one point, but she was still active with SM. We've known Meredith forever, too, and she was the guitarist for a short-lived project I was involved in after OSB, so I knew she could play and knew she'd be a fit personality-wise. We ended up playing originals, so the cover thing never really materialized, but I think from a musical standpoint it's more satisfying to play your own music anyway.
We all get along great. Susan and I had been spoiled because we and the guys from OSB were always super-tight and had an excellent presonal and working relationship. We never thought we'd find that again, but we have the same relationship with Gee and Mer. The key thing is respect. We have such a respect for each other as musicians and as people, it makes things easier to handle when things aren't going so great. A band's life ebbs and flows, and there are times when we're not communicating well, or maybe everyone isn't on the same page all the time. But as long as we treat each other with respect, we can always work things out. Plus, I think being a little older helps too, because you've gotten past the ego thing. You really do think in terms of what's better for the band as a whole than how your ego is being stroked. Also, we support each other. We've had to endure delays that are just borderline curse-like, and it's gets hard sometimes to cheerlead and keep up the enthusiasm when you feel like you're running in place. But we continue to do it because we believe in the music we make and each other. Lastly, we just happen to mesh well personality-wise. We have a Cancer, a Gemini, an Aquarian and a Taurus in the band. It happens to be a good balance because nothing we do is ever too intellectual or emotional, too loose or too rigid. We keep each other from taking things to seriously, nor too lightly. We're good buffers for each other when band members are cranky or having a tough time. Of course, we also bust on each other all the time, so everyone stays down to earth!
6) What hurdles have you faced in the music industry?
Being in New York. You get so much flak for being a New York band. People think that you're spoiled, have all this opportunity, have an attitude, etc. None of that is true - it's tougher to have any sort of success as an indie band in NY. There really isn't an NYC scene anymore. I had the opportunity to gig in NYC when the Hard Rock/Metal scene was as hot as it was going to get, and having to slog through what little is left of it now is a definitely a bummer. Hopefully things will improve, but it's happening in Brooklyn, NY not even in New York City. Also, back in the day it was a musician's goal to "get signed", but that doesn't have the same meaning it used to. My old band wasn't signed partially because we were a risk with two women in the band, and because we were too heavy for some labels and too light for others. We were in the middle sonically, so we were told we were very good and signable...just not by that particular label. We got the respect and the kudos but not the deal, and it was frustrating.
Now, with the music industry changing as it has, there is a lot of uncertainty with the labels; there just isn't the same security. Musicians are more savvy about the the deal itself these days, and it's great that you can pretty much guide your own path without being a slave to a label. But you still need the promotion, you still need the good tours and networking opportunities that a label can provide, and unless you're living off of someone, you have to hold down a full-time job to pay for the expenses of being a working musician in an active band. It's just a tougher road now. Before you got signed and everything ran like a machine. Now, being signed isn't a be-all-end-all, but the musicians are saddled with even more responsibilities in getting their name out there. It sucks because at least back in the day, you had to be a great musician and have the goods live in order to get a crowd and get noticed. Now, musicians like me that paid our dues and worked so hard to establish ourselves have to compete with bands that may not be nearly as good or experienced, but are computer-savvy and have Protools. Now there is this glut of music on the Internet, and any A&R rep, even with the best intentions, has to sort the wheat from the chaff, and it's just a monumental chore. So we have to work as hard as ever to stand out from all of this. DE has done well, but it's tiring, and we're still unsigned and broke.
Lastly, just being women playing heavy music is a challenge in itself. People blow you off, they don't want to give you a chance. They just want to assume that you suck and move on with their lives. Then, for those that give it whirl they get wrapped up in what we look like. Why aren't we taller? Skinnier? Why don't we show more skin? Why don't we dress more alike? Why don't we all look alike in general? Women are so often thought as ornamental, especially in music, there is this obsession about having to be 'hot', and that's a double-edged sword. When you don't look like a stripper you'll have to hear how fat and ugly you are, but if you're model-gorgeous you're accused of using your looks to get ahead, and people take you less seriously as a musician. Your skin needs to be very thick if you're a female musician trying to get ahead while reminding people that they hear with their ears, not their eyes. It's amazing to me that someone like Janis Joplin wouldn't be signed today because she would be considered 'too homely'! It's just absurd, and it can get to you sometimes, but that comes with it. You have to just be the best musician you can be, and be yourself. Once you lose sight of what it is you're trying to accomplish musically and begin chasing ideals and trends, you forget about what drew you to making music in the first place.
I want to commend DE for being so thick and talented. There are plenty of female rock & pseudo-rock musicians out today who shall remain nameless, and they suck. I think the women of DE are utterly gorgeous, and I’ll be honest with you: your looks caught my attention. Long before I ever heard your music (which is friggin’ awesome by the way; I’m a proud owner of your whole first album and “Bide My Time” is my favorite song and DAMN...Sue can sing!), long before I even knew what genre you ladies catered to, I was in sheer awe of your looks. I saw a woman as brown as me and I saw women shaped like the ones I see every day. That’s what drew me to your music. How ironic is that?
I think that's great! It's nice to be seen as attractive without having to look like a whore or a stripper, or some rendition of what "a rock chick" is "supposed" to look like. Metalheads come in all types, and I think the bands that are out now pretty much represent that. Regular looking chicks like us up onstage...not so much. So if we can bring that to the table and be respected and appreciated for that as well as our musical abilities, then that's awesome. And we totally appreciate the fact that you bought our CD. It's folks like you that have given that EP such an amazing shelf-life! And of course I appreciate you wanting to feature me. It was really very flattering, and a nice little birthday present since my b-day is tomorrow (I'm the Taurus LOL).
7) You’re also a really beautiful black woman; how has that factored into your work in metal music?
Awww, thank you. I guess it's made me more memorable. I became "that little Black chick with the upside-down bass", and that made me and my band more interesting. When Susan and I were in OSB, we went to a Conference that had Courtney Love as a speaker. She pulled out our CD while she was on a panel and announced to everyone in the packed room, "This is something that would make a band stand out - one Black chick and one White chick playing Metal. That is cool and people are going to remember that." I know a few Black women that play heavy music that are beautiful and ridiculously talented, and since it's still an anomaly, it's something else that makes a band stand out. A band needs every angle possible in order to get people's attention these days!
Courtney Love? Seriously???? Wow – I’ll admit I’m a fan. What a great compliment! I mean, you had Kurt Cobain’s widow talking about YOU. How awesome was that?
It was very cool. I will admit, I wasn't a total fan, but I do have respect for her. When she's straight, that woman is as smart as I whip, and she was that day. I gained a new respect for her, and to later have her point me and Susan out and give us props was cool, indeed. Someone actually took a picture of me and her; we were talking about the CD and someon snapped the pic and put in an edition of Rockrgrl. I have it somewhere; I'll see if I can find it.
8) How do fans usually respond to a beautiful black woman on stage at a metal concert?
Every now and then someone will ask me how I got involved in Metal, which is something I don't think they would ask my White bandmates. But generally, I get mistaken for Hispanic quite a lot and Dominican in particular, and since they're many Hispanics in Metal, that may not be considered as unusual. Only one time have I been heckled for being Black, and sadly that was recently - and in New York - at a bar I have played several times over the years, but fell under new ownership. They have decided to allow White Power jerks in, and some were there the night we played. It wasn't pleasant, and I had the crowd's and employees' support, but it's still like, 'Really?' Again - thick skin, people.
I’m a race blogger; unfortunately, I’m not surprised you got heckled this day in age by some White Power jerks; however, I’ve just got to ask: were those jerks thrown out or were they tolerated by the venue staff?
No, they weren't thrown out. But the staff made it clear they weren't happy about them being there. The barmaid even went as far to come out on stage and pour me a shot, saying the mic how she loved our band and we wished we could play all night. Maybe the staff felt as though they can't refuse service to people, or maybe the owner doesn't care who comes in the door as long as they're drinking and instructs the staff to serve them regardless. I don't know. They did have to pay to get in. Many of our friends and fans do not patronize that bar anymore, and it's kinda sad because as I said, I've played there before and I've had a lot of fun at that venue.
9) Has being a woman of color in the metal scene hindered you in any way?
I don't think in general it has been a hindrance; I've gotten more flak for having a vagina than for being Black. I have been told only twice that I wasn't wanted in a band because I was Black on top of being female. Back when I first tried to hook up with other musicians, there weren't many Blacks, and even less women in Metal. It was a risk, and some folks just did not have the balls to bring me onboard and that was the bottom line. I don't feel badly about it, because for the most part, those that passed on me have not had the success that I have had; success as in music released, radio airplay, shows I've played, experiences, etc. The singer of the band that Meredith and I was in wanted to throw me out because I didn't fit "the image" of what was being signed by labels. He went on about how I could be replaced by a skinny White guy from the suburbs with baggy pants, and bands replace people that don't fit the image in order to get the deal, etc. - and this was after I had brought him into the band, and spent many hours of my life I will never get back working with him to make him the best singer he could be and trying to make him sound good on the CD I was co-producing. Literally hours of work, and that's what I got as a 'thank you'. As much as that sucked, what ruled was that the rest of my bandmates, including Meredith, said that if I was out, they were all leaving with me. And that's when that band ended. It was great to have that support!
Your career basically started when you were about 21, and at the beginning of the 1990s, when bands were giving you “reasons” as to why you wouldn’t “fit”. Did ever you think you’d make it this far and that you’d someday be getting special thanks from fans of color?
Well, I'll say this. I've done more than most, and if I packed away my bass tomorrow I wouldn't have any regrets. But it's bittersweet that I can't make music for a living, and that was my ultimate goal. I didn't have to be a rock star, but I didn't want to work an office job either. So to myself, I've fallen short. But when I get the support and positive attention I have received from folks like you, it means that someone has noticed, and someone has been paying attention. So it really means a lot and it's very encouraging especially if anything I have done inspires someone to pursue their dream. It's easy to get discouraged, and it was inspiring for me to see strong female musicians and Black rockers like Fishbone and Bad Brains and 24-7 Spyz do their thing with all their heart. It's was nice to feel I wasn't alone in trying to succeed in a genre that was predominantly male and White. If I'm part of the next generation that can do that for someone else coming up behind than I'm honored and humbled.
10) What is the current status of DE and what can we expect from you in the near future?
We've been working on the full-length CD for what seems like forever now, but I think we should be done with it by late-summer. We've had some setbacks, and realistically the economy has been so bad, we figured what was the point in rushing it - folks are broke, not going out, not buying CDs and merch. Add to that various personal situations we've had to deal with individually that have not been easy, and you have a much-delayed record. Thankfully, I have a recording studio at my house so we can take our time. But, I will maintain that it will be worth the wait. It is heavier, more complex, it has more depth musically and lyrically, a lot of dynamics...it's the DE that everyone knows we can be. Just the rough tracks give me goosebumps. It's light years beyond our EP and I don't think it sounds like any other band. You can hear our influences, perhaps, but no one is going to hear it and say, 'hey, it sounds like so-and-so'. Since we can take our time, we can really craft things, and since I'm basically producing it with my husband co-producing and engineering, this isn't 'just another project' - it's our baby. I'm familiar with our sound, obviously, and I know what my bandmates are looking for and what they want. They trust my ears, and I respect their wishes. it's a win/win and I think the folks that dig us are going to be as thrilled with it as much we are when it's done.
Happy Early Birthday, Urith, and thanks again for doing this! Waiting for Dormitory Effect's next album with baited breath!