Split Feet, “You’re a Ghost”

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When an artist or writer has really lived and breathed the experiences they are channeling into their work, it feels vital and alive. That is the feeling I get whenever I read a piece of writing by Jes Skolnik: every choice of word feels embedded with meaning, every sentence feels like a critical lens into another story amassed by years of involvement in punk and DIY.

I feel grabbed by a similar sentiment while listening to Shame Parade, the debut full-length by Split Feet, the Chicago punk band for which Skolnik sings and plays guitars. “Most of the themes addressed on Shame Parade are topics I’ve also written about in essay form,” says Skolnik. “Queer desires, the amber-preservation of punk nostalgia and how we historicize our lives, street harassment, how communities respond to sexual assault, eating disorders, pink-collar frustration and feminized work in general … I can’t make a direct argument as a lyricist but I can open an emotional window on a topic.” In Split Feet, Skolnik is joined by a power trio of Chicago scene staples: drummer Keara Shipe, guitarist Taylor Kelley (of Blizzard Babies), and bassist Christine Wolf (of Daylight Robbery).

Shame is out next month via Accidental Guest Recordings, following a three-song demo released in 2013. (The artwork, by Michael Conway, is above.) The first single, “You’re A Ghost”, is an apt introduction to the record’s dark-hued melodic punk, Skolnik’s monotone sing-shout criss-crossing with lighter harmonies over a cryptic drumbeat and a cycling, dissonant riff. Split Feet’s songs deal with feminist revenge in varied forms, some including storied call-outs, others layered with a more abstract type of rage. “You’re A Ghost” aims at a pointed target: the toxic nostalgia that stifles present punk productivity. “Whose saving you now?” the song asks. Stream it below, and read on for a conversation with Skolnik about the band, the record, and balancing writer-life with band-life.

For some background on the project, can you tell me about how Split Feet started? How did you all meet? What bands were you in previously, and what common ground made you all want to start a new band together?

Split Feet started at the very end of 2012; the founding lineup was myself, Keara [Shipe], Taylor [Kelley] and Melanie [Barrows]. Keara and I had been in a couple of riot grrrl cover bands (Huggy Bear and Slant 6) together, and I’d been bugging her to be in a “real band” with me. We’re old friends and she’s a really talented drummer who I really liked playing with. Melanie was another old friend who’d been in bands like Trixie Delicious and the Lot Lizards back east but hadn’t gotten to do much with music since she’d moved to Chicago. And Taylor, who is in Blizzard Babies, was a good friend of mine whose guitar playing I really loved and who was feeling like she wanted to start a new project. I was still in Population at the time but really missed singing (I played synth in that band) and I’d never actually played guitar in a band before, just messed around with it by myself, so I was really nervous about being up front with an instrument I wasn’t comfortable with. We agreed to hang out and see if we clicked as musicians and we totally did; we practiced together once, wrote the song that became “Double Blind,” and decided it was a match.

It’s a very comfortable band. None of us came into it wanting to go for a specific sound, which is a departure from all of the bands we’d been in before. Though our personal tastes vary (and overlap), we were all teens embedded in DIY punk and indie rock in the early-to-mid ’90s and there are enough shared references and ideas about sound and structure there that we could make something that feels old and comfortable but is also new in its way, if that makes any sense. Our experiences and perspectives being socialized female and rebelling in a variety of ways against traditional gendered ways of being also overlap in ways we can talk about and are comfortable with, and we all share a pretty dark, satirical sense of humor about things. The songs we write are intense but they’re also arch, written to be outright funny sometimes. (If you can’t find the humor in pain, survival strategies fail.)

We were worried when Melanie left in the spring this year that we wouldn’t find a bassist who fit so well with us, but Christine [Wolf] (from Daylight Robbery, who we played our very first show with) expressed interest and we had a practice together to see if that would work and it was just instantaneous. Christine’s style is pretty different than Melanie’s and I think our songwriting has gotten darker, heavier, faster and blurrier—less jangly and spacious—since she joined, which is neither better or worse, just different. Both of them are great people to work with and the new stuff we’ve been writing with Christine, none of which appears on this record since it’s so new, is really cool. I’m excited to play it out and record it.

Oh, and we’re all over 30. Age is a dubious thing but there’s something to experience and we’ve found that our experiences and wants are closer together than they might be if there were bigger age gaps there.

As someone who writes in multiple mediums (songs and also articles) how do you navigate deciding which sentiments specifically go into songs instead of zines or essays? How do the ideas you project through your personal writing also come out in Split Feet?

That’s a tough question. I feel like there are a lot of themes in my writing that carry through to my songwriting. Survival is probably the biggest one. I find songwriting to be better suited to personal emotional experiences that have political implications (of course, one of the first things I learned growing up in DC is that politics is the story of people’s actual lives written into law and social practice) because you have the added dimension of instrumentation to strike a particular mood and/or make connections that would be tougher to describe and/or loop together in linear essay-writing. I can play with poetics more as a lyricist. Most of the themes addressed on Shame Parade are topics I’ve also written about in essay form—queer desires, the amber-preservation of punk nostalgia and how we historicize our lives, street harassment, how communities respond to sexual assault, eating disorders, pink-collar frustration and feminized work in general. But they are in some ways distilled and in some ways grainier as songs. I can’t make a direct argument as a lyricist but I can open an emotional window on a topic.

You’ve mentioned before that this song “You’re A Ghost” deals with nostalgia in punk. Can you elaborate on what feelings prompted the song? Why was that something you wanted to write about?

Because punk is, at its core, youth culture, a lot of people who were our peers lose interest but still want to sit around and talk through all the shows we saw together because that’s common ground we still have. And those of us still involved do the same thing because we’re trying to figure out how to translate this thing we developed a foundational love for as teenagers into adulthood. We all craft narratives to make sense of our worlds. I’m part of conversations ALL THE TIME (especially with bands reuniting and people trying to figure out whether to go) where we look back at our teenage experiences together, and some of that nostalgia is useful—it helps solidify that there are and were so many different perspectives in punk all the time, and it’s bonding—and some of it is really self-indulgent navel gazing. Some of it is both, I guess. I wrote “You’re A Ghost” from that shared perspective, the perspective of an adult trying to find meaning in their life by looking to their teenage passions (because so much seems to narrow as you get older and start down a particular path, even though nothing is solid, and the world you know changes around you) and finding a hollowness in telling the same stories over and over again.

We’re trying to figure out how to translate this thing we developed a foundational love for as teenagers into adulthood. We all craft narratives to make sense of our worlds.

The name of the record is Shame Parade. What does it mean? What sorts of ideas are you exploring through it?

The name actually came from (this is mildly embarrassing?) one of those Facebook status generators that pulls together and snips apart different statuses you’ve posted over time to create phrases you might post. Some of them are so funny and so surreal. This is purely me speaking here and not the band, but I think a lot about how social media fucks with our lives and how we present ourselves and the kinds of things we let others see about us and, again, the narratives we craft, so using a surrealist phrase pulled from a non-intelligent Facebook status generator program is something in and of itself, and the phrase itself implies to me a lot of feelings I have burbling under my breastbone about being an essayist who has pulled a lot of personal traumatic experiences into my writing because I believe those experiences SHOULDN’T be shameful but still are to the larger world. I worry about being pigeonholed as That Person Who Writes About Trauma and I don’t want to be stuck there because it’s only one aspect of my life, but it’s an aspect that has informed so many other things—big shadows and all—and it’s something that is still so hard for all of us to talk about.

When, where and how was it recorded?

In the late fall by Dave Wolf, Christine’s husband and one of her bandmates in Daylight Robbery, at their home studio. It was the easiest and most straightforward recording session I’ve ever been a part of with any band I’ve ever been in and it was really a joy. Dave mixed it as well and he is just a joy to work with, he’s definitely on the same wavelength as all of us and he’s really good at what he does. Our friend Kris Poulin, who Christine and I have both recorded with before, mastered it. He has a new mastering business, and he was also great to work with. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention executive producer Pickle, Dave and Christine’s dog, who was totally in the middle of the recording session and who was snuggling with all of us (she’s a black-and-white pocket pit with the sweetest disposition).

You and your bandmates are constantly up to a bunch of stuff related to music and culture and  the general all-ages DIY cause. What other projects are you all working on right now?

Keara is a comedic writer, so she’s always working on a bunch of projects in that regard, and she’s looking to start another band. Taylor’s other band, Blizzard Babies, is about to put out their debut LP, which has been a long time in the making. Christine does film and video editing for a living and is working on new stuff with Daylight Robbery, and we’re hoping to do some weekend tours together at the very least. I’m working on a book proposal about synth pop’s roots in and expressions of gay culture, and I’m doing a lot of freelance writing work, and I’m in the process of getting Pure Joy, a sustainable aboveground Chicago DIY show space, off the ground. Christine is volunteering with us in an official capacity too and really all of the members of Split Feet have and will put work into Pure Joy.

Shame Parade is out via Accidental Guest on 2/6 digitally, and in March on a cassette.