August 17, 2009

Religious Girls: Reaching the Ethereal Through Tribe

Words by Chris Damien; Photos by Berta Daniels

In the lifespan of any band there is a point when decisions need to be made that dictate how seriously it is going to be taken by its members. Religious Girls made this decision upon forming. Believing that the music they wanted to make would be so central to their lives, they worked to reorganize their lives according to it, in a very extreme way. They found a cheap place in East Oakland, where the landlord is cool as long as he gets rent and isn’t hassled by the city, and turned it into headquarters.

Deep Space Nine is the house of Religious Girls, the epicenter of all their creative efforts from when they rise until they stagger to bed. They’ve held numerous shows here and have sound-proofed their garage to act as a practice and recording space. It’s here where they hand-screened all their merchandise and burned all their CDs for their current national tour.

I first saw Religious Girls play at Bottom of the Hill and was immediately intrigued by how they began to set up for their set on the floor, instead of the stage. When I got closer to investigate, I found that it was simply because they couldn’t fit all their gear on the stage. Four guys, three with drums, and each with their own table of live electronics, keyboards, samplers and tons of pedals. The next 30 minutes was a non-stop barrage of intense percussion, screamed tribal chants, paint splatters – just another show for Religious Girls. Main drummer Nick Cowman had an opportunity to speak with me over the phone recently about the group’s promising future.

Cowman explained that the decision to commit himself to living at Deep Space Nine was part of joining Religious Girls, and told of the interesting circumstances leading up to it. Dylan Resnick and Chris Danko originally started the band in 2005 as a two-piece under the name Destroy Tokyo, while attending high school together in Pleasanton, Calif. Playing dueling keyboards, in a sort of Blood Brothers-like cacophony, they slowly drifted toward adding dynamics to their sound and entertained the idea of adding friend Guy Culver, whom they had known in the Bay Area through his artist collective, Pretty Blue Presents. Culver, in turn, had known Cowman through Pretty Blue’s involvement in Sacramento, where he had been playing with his group Brother. Culver joined the group and suggested Cowman be asked to play drums.

Deep Space Nine was now complete and Religious Girls began laboriously developing their material and paint-splatter neon-geometrical-figure aesthetic. Through forcing themselves to be around each other all the time, everyone was held accountable to work as hard as they could to benefit the collective. Despite occasional tension, Religious Girls have found the capacity to unite under a common purpose of creation.

The band has quickly moved beyond house shows and late night recording sessions to impressively self-manufacture their first release,
Open Your Heart to Fantasy, to sell on their self-booked national tour currently in progress. Cowman and Danko booked a large majority of the dates along with help from tourmates, Our Brother the Native. “It takes a lot of time and effort, but if you can do this, you should because it’s all the more rewarding in the end,” says Cowman. “People have offered to help book or represent us, but we have always just tried it on our own because it cuts expenses and is a great opportunity to learn about more aspects of the music industry.”

Religious Girls, however, are more than just work ethic. Cowman says the band is “progressive,” in every sense: sound, methods and lifestyle.
Open Your Heart to Fantasy, which can be heard on their MySpace or purchased at their live shows, is a promising release that will interest anyone who likes experimental pop with a lot of noise influence and heavy percussion. Comprised of five songs totaling about 30 minutes, the album has a very liquid flow, ranging from hypnotizing chants and raucous percussion to fleeting, chaotic, digital glitches. And finally, the listener is delivered from riotous samples to a beautifully atmospheric, ethereal fuzz. The heartbeat of this album is strong, while its momentum lulls with its noisy serenity. The listener can’t help but heed the advice of the title and open their mind to something fantastical, whatever that may be.

One of the most interesting aspects of Religious Girls’ music is that it’s completely without lyrics. Questioning the very role of vocals in music, they prefer to collectively chant. The intention is to allow complete interpretive freedom for the listener, communicating not linguistically, but animalistically.

Cowman says this practice is a pun on the band’s name. “As far as beliefs, we are all very different,” he says. “None of us can agree on anything except the idea that music is the best form for worship.”

Listen to Religious Girls

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