If you call up D.I.Y. punk veteran Aimée Argote on the telephone to ask about her music, it’s likely you’ll find yourself an hour in without having touched the subject. As a conversationalist, she’s light on her feet, and it’s all you can do to keep up as she weaves between gender, art, and modern living. Ask her how she “gets her sound” though, and she might lose interest. This may be surprising to those familiar with the formidable musical rap sheet accumulated in her 20 years as a queer, punk musician. Alternating between understated acoustics and balls-out noise rock for the better part of a decade, she’s been moving her sound through this spectrum of extremes as the leader of Des Ark, her loose collective of musical collaborators, culminating in Des Ark’s latest album, Everything Dies (out on Graveface Records). But she sees the songs as products of a larger process, and she’d rather talk inspiration than technique. Born in Arkansas and raised in North Carolina (after a family stint in France), Aimée’s roots are in the South, though her life has been given to vagabonding since she came of age touring the punk scene. Still, she credits her family with having more influence on her music than any band. If you’re looking to understand the music, Aimée will tell you it’s something you just have to feel for. If you want to know about the experiences which shaped it, then all you have to do is ask.
How old were you when you got your start?
Aimée Argote: I went on my first tour when I was 15, with an all-woman queer band, and we were plugged into pretty much every queer hub in the country. I hadn’t really left the state before for music. I remember my father being so worried about three teenage girls driving in an old van around the U.S., but I showed him that I had maps—before Google of course—and contact information for every stop. When he saw I had taken care of the logistics, he was like, all right, it’s possible she won’t die on this tour.
What is your least favorite question to be asked in an interview?
Ha! Great question. I’d say it’s: do you write the lyrics or the music first? I am always shocked how many people ask that question, like it’s in a what-to-ask-the-musician playbook. In reality the process is never so clear-cut.
What kinds of questions do you wish people asked more of ?
I wish people asked me more about safety on the road: the safety of being a queer person or a woman. I think when interviewers are familiar with the band, they touch on that. But most of the questions people ask about being a woman in a band are like sexism 101, which gets very boring.
So what does it mean to you to be safe on the road as a queer woman?
As a musician, so much time is spent on tour that being safe on the road is the only way you can really keep doing it. That’s as much a part of the music as writing the album. Safety is made up of a few different components. One of them is how you choose your bandmates. There have been anywhere from 30 to 40 people involved in the Des Ark live performances, and I have been really the only common thread throughout its changes. I came from the punk D.I.Y. scene, where there’s a strong consensus-oriented ethos. After a lot of trial and error, though, I ended up having to think about what I needed to keep making the music. I decided I needed band members who could stay sober, and at that point I realized I had to take control of the band. I have partied a lot in my life, but when I decided I had to reel in the alcohol intake on tour, that was a conversation I had to have with people when they joined us. You never know who you’ll be interacting with, what kind of sketchball will be hanging around the merch table. And to feel safe I have to have at least one person who is going to be sober every night. That was really hard for me to ask for, and I had to get rid of the consensus in order to bring that up. It’s really important that people feel taken care of, but it doesn’t mean that you have to open up the floor for whoever talks the loudest to get their way.
Do you feel like prioritizing your safety separates you from the punk D.I.Y. ethic?
Not really. In the end, I think the most essential part of the punk D.I.Y. ethos is to get as close to the source as you can, and do it as well as you can, with the least amount of bullshit in between. I only feel closer to that as time goes on.
How has being sober on the road affected your experience of touring ?
That is something I grapple with. What does being sober mean for how much fun I’m having on tour? It means I wake up earlier than everyone by at least two hours, and go on a run to see the town. I think I’m seeing more of America by not nursing a hangover from some dark club, all of which look the same after a while. It’s important to me to be checking in with nature while I’m on the road: I feel like I’m trading the partying for something more meaningful. I’ve toured the U.S. 300 times. I don’t need to see the inside of every bar, filled with people I’ll never see again. But this country has unlimited natural beauty to be a part of. I also don’t come home from tour and have to sleep for three weeks—I can get right back to work. I think on a larger scale what I’m doing is training myself to not burn out.
As someone who is so constantly on the move, how would you say place impacts your music?
I grew up in North Carolina, but my family is all from New Orleans, and it feels really important to me to root myself in the South. People give the South all this shit, but when I leave this place, I’m not doing the work anymore. At one point I moved to Philadelphia, which was big on the punk flight map, like the kind you see on the Southwest airline in-flight pamphlets, with the arrows criss-crossing the country towards these central hubs. I moved to Philly because I wanted to be around punks—I didn’t want it to be such a big deal anymore that I go on tour, which is really unusual where I live. But I didn’t write a single song in those years. The things I saw in Philadelphia were truly heartbreaking, but they weren’t what I grew up with, so I didn’t know if I really had a right to write those songs. I realized that the things I write about concern the South, and I need that community. It’s just what I understand. It felt so important to come back to the South, and keep plugging away at it. I think when you grow up in a place, and are aware of its roots, it’s good to take up some space there.
How do you think these roots have impacted the way you play?
I grew up listening to New Orleans music, which I feel transcends music. In New Orleans you learn to feel the music, not listen to it, and that changed the way I relate to influences—I’m not listening to what people are saying, I’m feeling it. That’s another question I really hate, by the way: what are your influences? Like, why is your sound like this, is it because you listen to Björk? Every time I answer I feel like I’m disappointing the interviewer.
Does it feel disruptive to be rooted in your community on one hand, and be traveling so much on the other?
It’s so hard to negotiate your contributions to your community, which I feel the need to stay in touch with, emotionally and politically. My day-to-day life is not in the punk scene. I have always been more interested in farming, food, and nature. I get my inspiration from being outside and talking to my family. But then it’s also about sharing my voice, to use the band as a loudspeaker for what’s going on. I just have to believe there is a way to balance it all out.
Let’s talk about your new album, Everything Dies. You definitely seem to be moving towards a different sound than your previous records, where your fans could expect an almost jarring mix of noise rock and hushed acoustics. How would you describe the new creative territory?
The basic gist of the record is that we’ve always sort of been on either side of volume extremes. Live, we’ve either been balls-to-the-wall amps on 15, or it’s been me by myself playing a broken half-strung acoustic guitar. For this record I wanted to do something harder, which would be to meet in the middle. For so long, playing live and loud didn’t make me practice. I didn’t have to be good, I just had to be a good performer. And when it was really quiet, it was the same— seeing someone on stage playing so quietly and sad made it easy to connect to. So my scariest place as a musician is in the middle: I feel the most vulnerable there, where the listener could really pay attention to how the music and the words connect to each other, and whether it is making sense.
At what point did you decide you wanted to push yourself to try something new?
You know that moment in Groundhog Day when Bill Murray keeps trying to kill himself but always wakes up to the same day, until he finally says “fuck it,” I may as well just do this day right? That’s what this album represents to me. Music has fucked up my life so many times in so many ways, and I’ve tried to get rid of it, but I keep coming back. I have nothing to lose, because I can’t quit. So to keep myself engaged I had to do the scariest and most exciting thing I could think of.
If you had to sum it up, what would you say is the single biggest contributing factor to the sound of the album?
Definitely the piecemeal way it was made. I left my label halfway through the recording process and so I didn’t really have a budget. A friend of mine had a roommate with a bunch of recording equipment in his bedroom, and they said just come here! So most of it was done in that tiny room with some of the people I knew from New Orleans who would come over to help. The bedroom was so small that we didn’t have enough room to set up a drum set, so we did one drum at a time. We kept a lot of that on the album, although eventually I did have to find someone with the entire set. To do the vocals, I traded a house-sitting job in the middle of the woods in exchange for their studio equipment. I was supposed to be looking after their dog while they were out of town, and it was all going great until one morning the dog had a stroke on the porch and died. The album had so many moments like those where I’d think, “Aimée, you just have to get your shit together and get it done.” And then I wake up in the morning and there’s a dead dog. I work well like that, though. I don’t think we’ve ever gone into a studio and knocked out a record. When you’re poor and a small-time artist, you have to have a lot of friends who are willing to take a chance on you. It’s kind of insane to record an album on favors. But without the money you just have to find a way to build something from pieces… With this album it was like okay, I want to make a good record, I admit it. I wanted success in the sense that I wanted to connect with people over what I was going through and writing about, and I started to understand that what’s radical is to talk about that, and to make the decision to do a good job.
After all that trial and error, it must be a relief to see the album getting rave reviews.
Definitely. I’m not someone who gives a shit about, let’s just say, media response. I just can’t spend time worrying about it. But in the case of this album, which I can’t listen to without hearing a thousand pieces, I was pretty nervous, and it’s been nice to see how it’s been received… This record was so hard to make because I was so terrified of failure, but that’s exactly why I went there. The artists I admire are not the ones that make consistently good work, it’s those that make consistently challenging work… Success in punk is tricky. At some point I had to step back and ask why I was always sabotaging myself, and I think in the punk community that was really encouraged. You get a scarlet letter on you if you’re successful. That was confusing to me, and is confusing to a lot of artists. For example, it’s not cool to talk about money. After a show everyone will shuffle around not wanting to seem greedy, but then there’s always the one fucking dude who takes care of himself, and he’s the one who walks away with the money.
Has it been hard to push yourself forward after so many years making music?
How to live a long time and make art, and make time for art, that’s a real question that people face, and it’s why everyone’s favorite bands have broken up. And I don’t want to break up because my band is just me. It’s a constant conversation and it’s getting a lot louder as I get older. The support systems for being a broke-ass 21-year-old are stronger because there are a lot more of them. After that it only gets harder and more complicated, and I’m seeing people dropping like flies to desk jobs. I can understand it. I would like to feel safe, I would like to be able to afford health care. Mostly, though, I want to know I saw what I wanted to see and did what I needed to do. When it comes down to it, I can’t control shit. As much as I can expand on that balancing wire, I’m going to do it. That control that people are looking for, that’s just a way of not facing the truth. We are all going to die, and I’d like to go out feeling like I did a good job. Doing a good job doesn’t feel like having a lot of money for me, it means finding that joy.
So what’s the next challenge for the music?
Part of what’s so fun about this record is that it’s impossible to play live, so the immediate question is how do we take up the space of this record on stage? That’s been fun and challenging to work on. I really have to practice. It’s wild! I think more than any other time in my life I’m excited about not quitting, not drowning in between steps. Right now my next challenge is the piano. I’ve been learning to play the Charlie Brown theme song. Being interested in a new instrument is scary because you wonder if you can learn new things when you get older. I try not to look too much into the future—for right now I’m just excited to go on the road. I realized that these songs mean a lot to me, but they don’t really get me until they get somebody else. I think there isn’t a point to writing songs that other people aren’t going to connect with. A lot them are about feeling alone, and so connecting with people over them refuels me. I don’t get what people feel when they’re alone with the record, but I get that live. I’m looking forward to what that back-and-forth makes me feel in public.
Des Ark will be at Gasa Gasa Wednesday, January 20th, with Saintseneca and New Holland. For more info, check out desark.org