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Young People's Beautiful Noise

On their powerful self-titled debut, released last summer on Kill Rock Stars' experimental label, 5RC, Young People take the traditional blues "Death Don't Have No Mercy" and make it their own. Their version of the song, popularized by the Rev. Gary Davis in the early '60s, grounds their music in the past, even as they make something new of it.

"Death Don't Have No Mercy" came together, like much of the Young People story, by chance and with no grand plan. Singer/writer/violinist Katie Eastburn was searching the library for a simple composition to aid her in learning to play guitar. "I started browsing through the music books, basically looking for anything that was simple enough for me to be able to follow the guitar chords," Eastburn said during a recent phone interview from her parents' Colorado home. "And the Rev. Gary Davis [book] was randomly on the shelf, and I picked it up. It was a combination songbook and biography, with pictures and everything. It blew me away. The songs were amazing."

Back home, she settled on "Death Don't Have No Mercy" because it was "one of the simplest" of the songs in the book. "I couldn't read the melody," she said. "I could only read the chords, so I started playing the chords and then made up the melody. I hadn't heard the song. I think it's pretty different than [my] melody — yeah, it's different.

"That melody came out and I really liked it," she continued. "When I sang it to the boys [guitarist Jeff Rosenberg and drummer Jarrett Silberman], obviously Jeff took over on guitar. He created this really beautiful, minimal, bluesy line and Jarrett, in his typical fashion, made a very simple drum thing, and that's how it happened."

"Death Don't Have No Mercy" is led by Eastburn's up-close, beautiful singing; her voice rises, breaks and returns to a melancholy tone, as her bandmates deliver a single marching beat and a delicate, wavering guitar line. "Death don't have no mercy," she sings. "In this land/ Come to your house/ And it won't stay long/ Look in the bed/ And somebody be gone/ Death give no time to get ready/ In this land."

"I love that song," Eastburn wrote in an email to Neumu's Michael Goldberg. Explaining what the song means to her, she went on: "Live like you're ready to die, because there's no time to get ready."

The L.A.-based trio's debut, Young People, presents the world with an amazingly inventive, otherworldly sound. With the raw minimalism of folk and country and the jagged screeching and dissonance of arty post-punk, Young People create an intensely moving sound that meanders among both the lighthearted and airy and also the dark, sorrowful and heavy — both emotionally and sonically. The guitar riffs scream and punish, the drums pound with the importance of a heartbeat, and lead vocals wail and resonate with the power and passion of a lost lover begging you to stay. If their music is reminiscent of anyone, it's the John Cale-era Velvet Underground, if the VU had had an emotional female vocalist fronting the band.

Eastburn is currently juggling her varied interests, which in addition to Young People include performing with an NYC-based theatre group and coordinating an eccentric, touring dance company out of L.A.

"Right now, everything is balanced and I haven't made a choice to really focus on any of them wholeheartedly," Eastburn said. "I actually refuse to choose one 'cause they each are so different and just allow for a completely different experience. And none of them have, so far, really stepped up and been like, 'this really needs all of your attention now.' It tends to go in phases. So, at the level that everything is at right now, it balances out nicely."

The Nashville native said, "I grew up in the South, so that's where my influences come from — religious music and country music and show tunes is where it's coming from. And classic rock."

She met Rosenberg in San Francisco. They had both attended Brown University in Providence, R.I., but never met. After moving to Los Angeles, they hooked up with drummer Jarrett Silberman, whom Rosenberg had found on the Internet on "some like geeky music listserv," Eastburn said, laughing. Both Rosenberg and Silberman had previously been in punk bands.

At first the idea was to form a country group. "The music I was writing kinda sounded that way," she said. "Jarrett was like, 'Yeah, I'll play drums in your country band.' But then as soon as we got into the practice space that's not what happened; it wasn't country at all."

The Young People formed in January 2001. Once Eastburn's "Amazing Grace"-like laments and rootsy melodies were wedded to Rosenberg's harsh punk guitar and Silberman's noisy avant-garde approach to percussion, a sound all its own was born. "I write the vocal melodies in a vacuum — like when I'm hiking or walking or driving, wherever," she said. "Then I'll just sing it to the boys and they create instrumentation around itŠ. I have been a theatre and dance person my whole life, and sang in church and stuff like that. The music I write tends to be very theatrical."

Eastburn had been involved with music over the years through the theatre (besides performing in the theatre group, she coordinates a touring dance company out of LA. Still, her role as the lead singer of a punk-inspired, noisy, yet dreamy and melancholy outfit who take their name from the title of a 1940 Shirley Temple movie came as a pleasant surprise. "It's the last thing I ever thought I would be doing," Eastburn said. "I was in San Francisco; I had been training a lot in modern dance and came to a point where I was choreographing my first solo. I had done this workshop where it was very San Francisco. It was a dance workshop where you have a partner and you're singing a lullaby to your partner, it's very touchy-feely. But, in that moment, I was thinking of an aunt of mine and wrote this lullaby that really stuck. It ended up being that song 'Stay Sweet' on the record. That was the first song I really ever wrote.

"When I was choreographing this solo, I realized that I wanted to use the song that I had written," she continued. "And by then I knew Jeff, and so I just went to him and sang. It was terrifying and awful, but it was the first time I'd ever.... I had been writing awful poetry and stuff like that, but never trusted the tunes. I think I always had tunes in my head and just never realized that that's what's happening. And once that happened, once that one song came out, I was like, 'right on' [and] just kept singing."

Young People are a perfect example of the whole being not only greater than the sum of its parts, but very much unlike its components. What came of the three getting together feels like its own entity — a sound none of the people who created it planned for, but that they nonetheless now cherish. The Young People's dark, screeching yet intensely impassioned music has taken on a life of its own. "A lot of the songs on the first record just sort of happened," Eastburn said. "I went in and sang to them and they picked up and made the song."

The group began work on their debut album last year. In November 2001, they recorded most of the album on an eight-track "in this tiny, tiny space, which is why the first 10 songs sound really up-front and I sound pretty warbly at times," Eastburn said.

Following the low-budget, two-weekend-long sessions, the band took the songs on a mini West Coast tour. There they met Kill Rock Stars/5RC owner Slim Moon, who offered to put out their album. "But we wanted to make it longer, so in February of 2002, we went to our friend Dawn's house in L.A.; she lives on this compound that's the old Catholic cathedral, the rectory and the nunnery," Eastburn explained. "The compound was damaged in the earthquake and the Catholics abandoned it. Her boss is this big land developer, so she's one of the people that get to live there.

"The nunnery has this huge almost basement cafeteria room or some weird big gathering room," she continued. "So, it's this big, big room; really echoey, and it has a couple of confessionals at each end, and the bizarre paddle room, this like tiled roomŠ. It really seemed like that's where they beat kids in. So we used that room for a reverb chamber. So, the last three songs on the album are from that big space. We actually really fell in love with that, and that's where we wanna do the next record, 'cause it's awesome — it's awesome in there."

Eastburn draws on her own experiences for some of her lyrics. She based "Rich Bitch" on a godawful experience working "at a horrible market research firm" in West Los Angeles. "Just this den of Satan," she said. "I was working at this horrible place. The good part about it, the reason I worked there, was because two friends of mine [worked there]. This guy Quinn and this guy Rich, who have been around L.A. for a long time in the music scene. Rich's punk name used to be 'Rich Bitch.' I basically wrote the song one night coming home from a particularly bad day at work."

She said some of that song's lyrics were borrowed. "Actually, there's some lines form that song that I stole from a book I have of Zora Neale Hurston's fieldwork during the Depression," Eastburn said. "A lot of artists got paid by the government to do anthropology work, chronicling things and recording things. She went down South and recorded a lot of folk stuff, children's jump-rope songs and songs that people sang wherever. There's a couple lines in 'Rich Bitch' that I stole from that that were about death.

"How did you know I was here all alone?" sings Eastburn. "I thought you had gone long ago/ ... Have you ever been down/ Down so low?/ Weep like a willow/ Mourn like a dove/ Fly to the mountain/ When you see me come/ ... Shut the door/ Can't see no more/ Weep like a willow/ Mourn like a dove/ 'Till the angel comes." The song's wiry guitar and grim feedback provide the perfect, slightly disturbed setting.

Eastburn spent the summer in New York with her theatre group, where she also devoted time to songwriting. Departing Colorado the day following our interview, she sounded anxious to return to L.A. to share her new tunes with the band. Young People are currently arranging a fall tour that will include Midwest and, potentially, West Coast dates. "We are planning on doing a big national tour in the spring," Eastburn said. "But we're gonna record a second album in December, so for the fall we don't wanna be out on the road too much. We want to be able to buckle down a bit."

The day after we spoke, Eastburn sent me an email. It arrived, whether intentionally or not, laid out poetically and with as much power to move as Young People's music.

"while packing today an answer to the question that really stumped me
yesterday came up:
you asked about performing, what I intend, what it feels like...
I said it's fun, we do it for fun, we hope the audience has fun, and that's
and that it feels really honest and good to perform this music, and that's
but I remembered why I started singing at all and it was from
singing along
with songs I love,
so i hope to make music that people want to sing along to." — Jenny Tatone [Monday, Oct. 7, 2002]

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