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,
"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
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
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
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
with songs I love,
so i hope to make music that people want to sing along to."
Jenny Tatone [Monday, Oct. 7, 2002]