In a world of disappearing all-female bands, the Bay Area's Erase Errata turn in their strongest recording to date
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The Greek deities might throw lightning bolts and issue stormy protests, but when I first saw Erase Errata in November 2001, they seemed less a fledgling local all-girl band than scruffy goddesses sprung full grown from the temple of ... Mark E. Smith. The year-and-a-half-old foursome opened for the newly reenergized, near-surfabilly Fall and they were staggering — seeming grrrlish prodigies who picked up the sharp, jagged tools discarded by Smith with a confidence that seemed Olympian (as in Washington State and Zeus's heavenly homestead). On their way to All Tomorrow's Parties in LA, vocalist–trumpet player Jenny Hoyston, guitarist Sara Jaffe, bassist Ellie Erickson, and drummer Bianca Sparta were poised to speak in primal feminist riddles while constructing their own dissonant wing to the Fall's aural complex, one comprising driving, weirdo time signatures; raw, textural guitar; and atonal washes.
It was not the type of performance you might expect from Hoyston, 32, who grew up stranded in a singular God's country in the "dry," extremely Christian, and very un–rock ’n' roll town of Freeport, Texas, where she was once more likely to be Bible thumping instead of guitar thrumming. "I was a born-again Christian, Republican. I was engaged," says Hoyston today, gazing out on the concrete beer garden of el Rio where she regularly does sound and books shows. "I thought my life had to be this one way."
So what turned her toward the path of big-daddy demon rock?
"Uh, LSD," she says drily.
Actually it was the empty feeling that engulfed her despite all the church-related activities she threw herself into — that and the life-changing spectacle of SF dyke punk unit Tribe 8 playing her college town of Lansing, Mich. "I was just really impressed by how free those crazy people seemed. It just seemed really beautiful," she explains. "And I didn't necessarily come out here to meet them and hang out with them. Straight-up punk is not really my kind of music. But I think they are just so powerful. They came to town and made all the queers feel like they were going to go to this place, maybe even with their boyfriend and hold their hands and not get beat up. I wanted to get that empowered."
There are still more than a few remnants of that sweet, shy Texas back-roads girl that Hoyston once was: She speaks gently and looks completely nondescript in her black T-shirt and specs, padding around el Rio as the petal-soft air of an SF summer afternoon burns into the deep velvet pelt of night. Some might mistake her watchful awkwardness for holier- or hipper-than-thou aloofness. But here at her dive, waiting for Tank Attack and Fox Pause to materialize for the first Wednesday show she books, she's in her element, playing Bee Gees tracks and disco hits between the bands, running the PA, and busying herself by distributing flyers for an upcoming Pam Grier movie night.
"I'm excited about tonight's show because it's not a big heavy-drinking crowd," Hoyston offers sincerely.
Erase Errata's vocalist and now guitarist is far from an archetypal star, even as her band has become more than a little well-known in indie, underground, and experimental music circles. The seniors in a small smart class of all-female groups in the Bay Area — including conceptual metal-noise supergroup T.I.T.S. and experimental noise Midwestern transplants 16 Bitch Pileup — they share with those bands an embrace of threatening, cacophonous sonics and edge-rockin', artful yet intuitive tendencies that inevitably meet the approval of those persnickety noise boys, an approach Hoyston is now fully conscious of.
"I think had our music been slightly less confrontational, we would have been dismissed a lot quicker," she says. "I think people thought we had cred because we were being hard, y'know."
Weasel Walter — who first lived in Hoyston's former Club Hott warehouse in Oakland upon moving from Chicago — can validate that perspective. His band, Flying Luttenbachers, played nightly with Erase Errata, Lightning Bolt, Locust, and Arab on Radar as part of the Oops! Tour in 2002. "Every night I got to watch them play intense, energetic versions of songs from their entire catalog and also began to understand what a complex organism the band was, musically and personally," he e-mails. "Bianca and Ellie are a fantastic rhythm section, and Jenny is an LSD poetess and standup comedienne without peer!"
Erase Errata's new, third album, Nightlife (Kill Rock Stars), is the latest sign of untrammeled spirit and uncontainable life in the band — and in the all-woman band form. Hoyston may personally favor a more low-key version of nightlife — not so with her art and lyrics.
Now a threesome after the departure of Jaffe in 2004 for grad school and a temporary stint by A Tension's Archie McKay on token-male vocals, the band has become both more directly melodic and more pointedly politicized. The echoing, droning, rotating police copter blades of the title track demonstrate that they are far from detached from their boundary-testing inclinations, but otherwise — while other bands of their turn-of-the-century generation have quieted down, folked up, or simply folded — Erase Errata wind up for an energizing, wake-up kick in the ball sac with Nightlife, aimed at those who claim that the underground has been far too escapist, evasive, or simply mute when it comes to polemics and art punk.
Borrowing American Indian powwow rhythms ("Take You") and sandblasted rockabilly beats ("Rider"), along with their more archetypal ragged textures ("Dust"), the band skates between the urgency of midperiod Sleater-Kinney and the honking dissonance of DNA, as Hoyston coos, "While you're too broke to not commit a crime/ Your federal government knows that this is true/ More prisons/ More people have to die" on "Another Genius Idea from Our Government." The group lets its anger and outrage drive the songs — allowing a Gang of Four–style frenetic punk funk to propel "Tax Dollar" ("American bastard, murderous bitch/ Traitor to humans/ So rebel! Get on the run") — but not consume them. They stop to study the world around them — be it the well-armed paranoid desert rats of "Rider" (which finds Hoyston turning the phrase "Where everybody has a gun/ Everybody has a knife" into a wildly western horror show of a hook) or the street-level violence that bleeds into the gender wars on "He Wants What's Mine" ("Hey Beautiful!/ Take it into the night, I'll walk beside you and steal/ Your life like a carving knife").
Hoyston attributes the tone of the album to her move from Oakland to San Francisco. "In general, I started to notice things around my city that kind of woke me up to national situations, when I think I'd been a little bit dormant on that front as well. So I got really inspired," she says. "I think At Crystal Palace [Troubleman, 2003] isn't as political a record as Other Animals  was. I think it was more us being artistic and more me lyrically just existing in a purely artistic realm and not really thinking about, well, yeah, I am political. I have feelings and I can express them in art and they can actually reach a wide audience. I think I just rerealized the power of the tool of having a voice."
The band never had any intention of making their music a career: In fact, Erase Errata began as an outright joke played on Hoyston's Club Hott housemate Luis Illades of Pansy Division. Hoyston moved to the Bay Area in the late ’90s, where she began working in the Guardian's accounting department; formed California Lightning with her best friend, Bianca Sparta; and met Ellie Erickson (who was in Nebraska all-girl teen band XY and also later worked at the Guardian) and through her, Sara Jaffe.
"When Sara and I met each other, it was, like, 'OK, are we going to go out or are we going to start a band together? Why don't we do something more long-term and start a band together?'” recalls Hoyston. "You know when you meet somebody and you have so much in common with them and they're actually queer? It's a really powerful thing."
Even now, the once painfully timid Hoyston marvels, "I seriously can't believe I'm a front person for a band. It was seriously a joke that I was going to sing for this band because I considered myself an accomplished guitar player — not a front person, by any means. I think front people are really pretty or cute or sexy and all the kind of things that I don't see myself as. We were just making up songs and people would hear and say, 'Omigod, what was that? Will you guys play with us?’”
That dirty word for this noncareerist group — momentum — came into play, and Erase Errata discovered themselves on tour with Sonic Youth and Numbers, as, Hoyston says, she challenged herself "with, like, can I get in front of all these people and act like a fool and try to sing weird and sing good and get confident and maybe even feel aggressive, the way my bandmates were challenging each other with instruments? It's something that eventually kind of came easier and easier over time. And now I can sit down and talk to you."
The key to Nightlife's success lies, perhaps, in the fact that the band is still pushing itself, musically and artistically. "I think it's women's music," ponders Hoyston. "There's still something odd about some of the music we're making. It's still atonal at times, some parts might be a little awkward, some parts might go on too long. Here and there, things are like that intentionally. We still try to keep things a little bit difficult for ourselves to pull off live. So I think it's made for people who might appreciate an interesting take on pop punk, maybe."
Pop punk! Nightlife is still not exactly Vans Warped Tour material, though one punk godfather might approve. Sort of, according to Hoyston, who conjures her most memorable encounter with Fall guy Mark E. Smith: "I was a smoker back then, and Mark E. Smith walked right up to me and took my cigarette right out of my hand as I was putting it up to my lips and smoked it all the way down to the filter and then flicked it at me and said, 'See ya, kid.' In a really mean, mean, mean way! Then he went out onstage and did the encore. And I was just, like, 'He stole my cigarette! That's great!’ Because he's like an ... icon to me.
"I don't like him necessarily. I don't think he's a nice person.... He's a real jerk in general. But I love the Fall."
The gods can be merciless — and forgiving — though Hoyston would be the first to debunk any of that vaporous junk. Amid Erase Errata's achievements and her own multiple solo incarnations such as Paradise Island, it's clear she's no goddess. She's simply very human and just trying to stay active. "I'm just really into demystifying things for myself," she says. "I mean, if I wanted to be mystified, I'd still be in church." SFBG
Guardian Best of the Bay party
Aug. 2, 9 p.m.
60 Sixth St., SF
CD release party with T.I.T.S.
Aug. 4, 7 p.m.
3158 Mission, SF