[So] I keep getting further and further away from that pop-punk sound.”
“Spare Me,” a stand-out on the album, highlights the way that Aye Nako’s dissonant guitar works to move their songs forward. The song starts off with an even drum beat and bouncy guitar lick, as Dixon describes a domestic scene from their childhood. “Flipping through magazines,” they sing, “mom’s playing cards with her friends in the kitchen.” It could be an easy song, but Dixon’s vocal delivery, set slightly off-beat, suggests that it won’t be — and within seconds, the song crashes into a new musical direction, with fast and detailed drums and an angry guitar. “Spare me,” sings Dixon, “’cause I don’t want to hear it…I wanna see you suffer like me.”
This rocky, off-center musical delivery is disorienting — and also perfectly suited to the song, an aching anthem about cutting a friend out of one’s life. Throughout Silver Haze, old traumas and relationships are refreshed through their musical delivery. It’s a guitar-heavy album — Payne and Dixon both tell me that they spend long hours crafting the guitar sounds — but it still feels exploratory. “It was nice to be able to record and explore sounds and textures,” Payne tells me.
Some songs, like “Maybe She’s Bored With It,” were essentially finished during the studio recording. Payne describes the recording scene like a “laboratory,” and laughs. “I got to play the hook of [“Maybe She’s Bored With It”] through this 40-year-old Casio going through a Memory Man. It was fun.”
But though the pedals and keyboards on Silver Haze are new, examining traumatic experiences within their lyrics is not. Both 2013’s Unleash Yourself and 2015’s The Blackest Eye took on difficult topics: Race, anti-blackness, and dysphoria run throughout Aye Nako’s discography, as they run throughout the social structures of the United States.
“It’s kind of healing,” Payne tells me, “to be singing about things that are often difficult topics for us…I feel like the more I play the songs, the more comfortable I get. There is that feeling of — when you play the songs every night, you form an even deeper connection with them.”
On tour, Dixon tells me, they improvise a little bit each night, so that every performance feels new. “I have a tendency to sing songs differently once we’ve been playing them for a while, in small ways that maybe nobody else would notice, but [that] I notice,” Dixon says. The result is a performance with just as much power and precision as recorded material — Payne mentions loving the feeling of being “tour tight” — but which reads as raw and personable. “I really like that,” says Payne. “It’s always nice to have a little more grit, or a slightly different take on a song.”
Aye Nako booked this tour — which lands in San Francisco on Friday — themselves, calling upon DIY contacts throughout the country. It’s a remarkable feat, and one that is embedded within Aye Nako’s ethos — the songs they sing bring audiences who may not feel safe elsewhere, and Aye Nako strives to make their shows accessible to all. They’re well-connected within the DIY music scene, which Payne attributes partially to their online presence. “[It’s] because of the Internet,” she says, “you end up becoming part of something bigger whether you realize it or not.”
Part of that “bigger” something is Aye Nako’s connections with other bands — they’ve toured with Mal Blum, Screaming Females, Joanna Gruesome, and Speedy Ortiz, and Payne, a sound engineer as well as a musician, tours to do sound with bands often — but another part of it is the way that DIY artists communicate online. “I think it’s cool that now we’re seeing the DIY community take more control over mass media and the way that information is shared about each other — for example, Spark Mag — to work with outlets like that to get our stuff out there, it’s a lot better,” says Payne.
Their Bay Area shows, in particular, are special because Dixon and McCann used to live in West Oakland, and retain a large network of friends here. “Because of the Internet,” Dixon says, “I can get ahold of my friends, especially in the Bay Area, pretty easily. I feel like I’m regularly in contact with all sorts of people because of Instagram or Facebook…even if I never leave the house, I can still access my community through the Internet.”
Did you notice how much I talked about myself in the section above? The first two paragraphs of this article go without a quote from my subject. It’s impossible to write about anything — to use language, really — without leaving a trace of yourself; but when writing about something that I feel deeply, I find myself draping biographical experience over my subject. I search for myself in art all the time — it’s seductive to think I might find some part of myself pooled within the lyrics of an album or the strokes of a painting. But sometimes the personal veil reads more like a whitewash. Aye Nako write songs about being “queer, trans, and black,” but those songs are often internalized and changed by folks who are neither queer, trans, nor black.
In Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors, Rudine Sims Bishop theorizes that “books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.”
I learned about mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors as an educational theory during an anti-bias curriculum training. Before she read to us from Bishop’s work, the training facilitator showed us a quote from Gloria Ng’s Letter From a Young Queer Working-Class Woman of Color, and presented us with cartoon images of a window and a mirror. “Choose whether Gloria Ng’s text is a window or a mirror for you,” she instructed, and over 70% of the training group chose the mirror. I can tell you that 70% of my training group was not, in fact, made up of young, queer, working-class women of color.
In “Muck,” Dixon vocalizes their own experiences with anti-blackness, and the way that they’ve used anti-black sentiments as self-deprecating weapons. It’s a powerful song, and one with much to unpack — again, Aye Nako’s musical treatment covers and uncovers Dixon’s lyrics, so that listeners must go back again and again in an attempt to understand them. It’s dizzying, and by the time that Dixon appears to reach a sort of resolution [“circle back to what I need”], the drums and bass have been worked up into such a frenzy that that resolution doesn’t feel conclusive.
Dixon says that they don’t explain “Muck” onstage anymore, because responding to an uncomfortable crowd isn’t worth it. “Nobody wants to hear: ‘This song’s about you, and your white privilege,'” Dixon says. “That makes white people feel uncomfortable.” But that doesn’t mean they’re giving up: “I deserve to be respected. I deserve to be here too,” Dixon tells me, in response to an ill-worded question about the song. “I’m tired of having to justify my existence.”
SLIDING GLASS DOOR
I end my call with Payne and Dixon by asking Payne about crystals, which makes Dixon laugh. “That’s key,” they say. Payne started collecting crystals and stones after being gifted a chunk of quartz by a friend. “She saw me pick it up,” Payne tells me, “and was just like, you need to take that.”
Now, Payne tells me, she’s “the kind of person where there’s probably [a crystal] somewhere in one of [her] pockets [she doesn’t] even know about.” In fact, she finds one while we’re on the phone, and laughs. Crystals make their Aye Nako debut on “Tourmaline,” a breezy and melodic song that manages to make lyrics about depression sound casual.
“In the super-fundamentalist Christian religion I was in, things like crystals were very much frowned upon,” Payne says. “For me it felt like crystals were just this avenue to spirituality that I wanted to try out […] the tourmaline is symbolic of a lot of darkness and negativity that was in my life in regards to how I was being treated by other people.”
As I talk with Payne and Dixon, I consider the tulips hanging over my own crystal grid, which are just beginning to bloom. They look full and plump — more beautiful in their journey to development than they will be when they flower. Payne tells me about how relaxed she feels on the West Coast, and how it inspired many of her songs on Silver Haze. “It’s kind of funny,” she says, “here we are, driving through Minnesota, on our way to North Dakota, and I feel like I’m already finally starting to relax a little more, just knowing that we’re traveling out West.” I tell her that I feel the same way when I drive up and down California 1, and ask her if she has time to visit a beach I like in San Francisco. She does, and Dixon chimes in to talk about their experiences with the Bay Area’s beaches. It’s the most comfortable I’ve heard them all day.
“I think that a lot of my songs an over-arching theme is just picking apart these kind of demons but I can only do that when I’ve reached a physical distance,” Payne says. “I think that only then I can take a breather and figure all this stuff out.”
I wonder if Payne and Dixon can hear the eager, almost hungry edge in my voice, changed by my excitement about speaking to another trans artist. I wonder if they can feel how I feel — forced into trans-ness simply by having the burden of a body. I’ve waited paragraphs and hours to talk about trans-ness even though I know that’s the string that knots me so deeply to Aye Nako’s work, and the push that makes me want to open up their music.
The difference between sliding glass doors and windows is that you must work to open a sliding glass door. When closed, the door appears reflective — but that reflection warps the image beyond it, which can only be seen clearly by pulling the door open. Aye Nako’s music must be pulled open by the listener.
But we can never see art clearly. Every experience is shrouded in our own selves, and even when we intentionally push our biases back we can’t escape the physical constraints of our eyes, our brain. In some ways, Aye Nako makes difficult subjects accessible, just by virtue of sharing them. But it’s not easy to pull yourself back far enough to see the dense and detailed world they’ve created in their music.
“We’re different now,” a childhood Dixon repeats at the end of Silver Haze’s opening track. It’s a phrase taken directly from Dixon’s childhood recordings, but it rings true throughout the album. Aye Nako is different now, and every day, as are we all. And by writing through their growth, Aye Nako triumphs in it.
May 5, 2017
10pm, $10 (21+)