Trust and Love
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Sharp Ease
By Chris Ziegler
Photography by Molly Frances
Originally published in Arthur No. 24 (August 2006)
A slightly injured and slightly drunk Sunday afternoon with the Sharp Ease: singer Paloma Parfrey is tipsy with a beer and a bent trumpet and one sprained ankle, still limping after the part in last night’s show when she fell into a hole in the stage. But Sharp Ease write off injuries instantly. Two shows ago, Paloma had scribbled some broken glass all over her arm, and she was completely recovered within hours. That’s the resilience of the Los Angeles native—the same thing that keeps coyotes and deer poking around the edge of Echo Park also keeps the Sharp Ease alive and thriving. Early 45s like “T-Spin” and first album Going Modern (released last year on olFactory Records in cooperation with LA’s landmark all-ages space the Smell) outlined the Sharp Ease sound: Pixies and Slits with sax (by Anika Stephen) and keys (by Paloma’s brother Isaac) and cut-above lyrics by Paloma, who grew up in a commune and graduated into teenage rock ‘n’ roll band the Grown-Ups before she even graduated high school. Newest EP Remain Instant finds Sharp Ease recovering after a line-up shake-up (longtime producer/supporter Rod Cervera played guitar on this one, following original guitarist Sara Musser) for seven of their best new songs about life in still-unheard Los Angeles—the never-seen-on-TV co-ops and galleries and collectives that keep an out-of-breath outsider community breathing, where the Sharp Ease play their shows and sprain their ankles. Paloma and bassist Dana Barenfeld, drummer Christene Kings and new guitarist Aaron Friscia meet for beer and photographs at Paloma’s 1957 Airstream trailer.
Arthur: Paloma, exactly what kind of commune did you grow up in?
Paloma: My parents were both extremely politically active and they decided to join this commune after I was six months old to be able to protest regularly and feed the homeless. It was this thing in East LA—the Catholic Worker. It’s Christian-oriented, but not like hyper-Christian. Their work is to serve the hungry and protest nuclear weapons. So I’ve been protesting since I was six months old.
Christene: Paloma came out of the womb with a NO NUKES sign.
How did that affect who you are now?
P: It makes me feel selfish for living as poor as I am. I’m barely getting by, trying to follow my heart and my art, and sometimes when I see what people are doing on a political level—dedicating maybe as much as I do to art, even though every other show we do is a benefit, and even though we definitely have a lot of songs about social politics—it makes me feel guilty because I’m not living every day serving that purpose specifically. A lot of people call themselves radical but I’m not—I don’t bother saying it. I know what people do who are really in it, and I’m not it. I do as much as I can as an artist, but I’m definitely not protesting every day. I organize a little and I talk to people. I participate. I don’t run it.
C: But you totally support it.
P: But it makes me feel guilty—I’m a supporter and I participate and if I had money, I’d give it to them, but I’m not an organizer right now.
You don’t think the Sharp Ease fit into that?
P: We make people think—I don’t know if we make people do things. We are the first step. I just think it’s really hypocritical when all thse crazy punk bands say they’re hyper-political and they don’t do shit. So many bands say they do something and they don’t—it’s what all their songs are about and they don’t do it. We’re not gonna say, ‘We are the movement, man!’ We’re not the fucking movement! It needs everyone—every skill, every talent…
P: That’s the first step—acknowledgement. I’m just saying what it means.
In ‘Twist The Risk,’ you talk about ‘positive aggression.’ That seems to sum up some of the Sharp Ease.
P: It came from dealing with relationships that were really fragile. And the whole song is calling out to people. I felt passive in my own life about certain things—wanting and wishing that there was some way that people could own being aggressive without being negative.
C: Or violent.
P: A lot of people put ‘negative’ and ‘violent’ together with aggression, but it doesn’t have to go hand in hand.
C: It’s being assertive.
P: And passionate! It does sum up the band in some way. A lot of people have told me, ‘Oh, you have so much sensitivity and softness—why can’t you ever sing really sweet?’ Someone actually approached me: ‘Why are you so angry? You have such a beautiful voice.’ And all I could think was ‘Is my anger really that ugly?’ And when I play music with these amazing human beings—
C: ‘Amazing’—can you emphasize that?
P: —it empowers me so much. Why would you ever not be aggressive in that honesty? When we write songs together—even though we’ve tried to write pretty songs—we find beauty in our aggression. It’s totally not negative at all. We’re about hope. We’ve always been about hope.
You’re pragmatically political.
P: I felt more politics in Lou Reed than the Dead Kennedys—the Dead Kennedys are like, ‘Oh, that was the ‘80s.’ I like universalism.
C: I feel each one of us is political in our own way. It’s a given—of course anybody in this band has some sense of progressive politics. Not even a question.
P: We all have our struggle and we bring it!
Dana: I’m tired of hearing stupid songs about heartbreak.
C: And overwhelmingly male voices on the airwaves that have nothing to say for me and nothing to do with me.
D: We know what we like and we put out what we like.
C: We play what we want to hear on the radio. We create what we wanna hear because it’s lacking. The show we played last night was the quintessential Sharp Ease show. At an art gallery with two other very cool bands—one all queer—and it was a full house and they treated us very well. And we played a great set, which had a large part to do with the audience, so we made sure the audience had a good time, too. And then the messages are conveyed and they get it.
P: I love LA, and sometimes I’m tired and it’s a struggle, but I like the struggle, and where I live now, it’s not a struggle. People in LA are strong and I would never ever wanna be around people who are weak—when you’re in a strong army, you’re strong!
C: In this city, it’s mind over matter.
P: You can make this city whatever you want it!
What do you mean that people in LA are strong?
P: It’s really simple. Everything is super-difficult. You have to move further and be able to understand more cultures. And it’s hard to meet people in LA because people are a little bit difficult to get to know.
C: Everyone has walls up.
D: And they’re covered by smog.
P: But being strong means you let people know. You prove yourself. You’re fucking here—make it happen! It’s the people that last. People come here for a year and give up because they don’t get it. They don’t understand that you have to fucking battle! It’s a crazy-ass war out there. Mentally it’s a war, and if you aren’t down, you shouldn’t be here. But if you go anywhere else, you’re bored. Because everything is hand-fed to you: hand-fed politics, hand-fed clothes, hand-fed styles, hand-fed music. You gotta search for it in LA. You gotta KNOW! I still feel that way. I’m still constantly searching. I’ll never get bored here.
D: It’s interesting how we all met—we all live in different places in LA. I’m in Sherman Oaks, Christene is in Hollywood, Paloma is in Echo Park and Aaron is in Glendale, but places draw us together. There are certain little pockets that bring people together and that’s how things happen. There IS a lot of shit—the traffic sucks, but once you get where you’re going, you’re fine!
P: The misconception of LA as a dreamy Disneyland place is bullshit. In Echo Park, you see real families and real people struggling—artists on the brink of something—even lame-ass bookers doing better because the community demands it! Though I’ve seen five Hummers in Echo Park this year—I counted them. But I just went to an amazing punk show in Venice—kids in Venice still fuck shit up because of rent control. And the art scene in Culver City is rocking. Basically the only reason to go to Hollywood is Amoeba. One of the reasons I think the LA music scene is really cool—I see the same people at a folk show as I see at hip-hop shows or punk shows. It’s not like people feel they have to be tied to a scene. There’s just a love for good music—not tied down to a sound.
Do you connect to more LA bands now than you did in the past?
C: For sure now.
P: Music wasn’t as forward as it is now in LA. People were so stuck on whatever Coachella was playing. Not many people could play like Sonic Youth and we’re not really about that anyway. Me and Dana and Christene especially all come from the older LA scene. I started really young and Christene and Dana were totally into it. I think we weren’t into pigeonholing music, and you’d see a lot more like that when Jabberjaw was really flourishing. When the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs came out, I listened to it on tour, and then I got really bummed when we were in Texas because a writer came up to me—and I had been doing this since I was 12!—and she was like, ‘You’re really doing Karen O well.’ I’m not like her at all, but they see a strong woman and automatically think it’s the same person—same kind of music, yes, similar rock ‘n’ roll, but our voices are totally different and our stage presence is totally different.
C: You know why they compare you to her? There are very very few female rock ‘n’ rollers out in the mainstream.
One per year.
C: Paloma and Karen and Kathleen Hanna…
P: That’s why I know if we had a hit song, it’d be ‘LA Mist.’ The slow love song. Because they only let female singers have a love song as their first hit. They can’t hear the female voice angry.
C: What about Heart? Pat Benatar?
P: That wasn’t recently! Radio then was actually more cutting edge. The conglomerate Republican assholes hadn’t got a hold of that shit.
How do you feel about the new EP?
C: Definitely a lot more sophisticated than first release.
P: We’ve been playing together for four years—the three of us—and been recording with Rod for five years. The music came out more mature—it’s just math. He knew we weren’t trying to be a punk band and weren’t trying to be a pop band. We were just trying to make music that mattered to us.
C: It felt like Paloma kind of busted out lyrics I’d never heard before—like she was saving the really good stuff. In my opinion, Paloma is one of the best artists in LA right now.
D: Don’t give her a head!
C: She’s a jackass. But I still think she’s one of the better artists in LA right now.
P: My heart got fucking BROKE when the Grown-Ups broke up, and I had three years of lyrics I’d given them that they never used because they never put out the album. It was just as bad as losing a lover—it was HORRIBLE! So with the Sharp Ease, it was a slow process to get to the lyrics I’d been sitting on for like six years because I knew they were really awesome. Remain Instant is basically trust and love, like a band’s second album. I always think the second albums are the best ever because the bands trust each other. They don’t trust each other on the first and by the third they might hate each other, but the second is always brilliant. It’s like marriage—you get comfortable but the sex is so amazing. Our album is married five years with amazing sex.
Aaron: It’s kind of weird we’re still considered an all-girl band
C: You’re like a girl!
A: It functions the same as any other band I’ve ever been in. I think it kind of takes away from the actual artistic ability of the band to be considered an all-girl band.
P: Well, you’re not playing drums so it’s fine! Ari Up—I think one of her more famous quotes about why the Slits were all girls was that ‘We didn’t hear any girl rhythms—we didn’t hear the rhythm of women.’ And that’s what we always thought.
A: It’s weird being the new guitar player in a band that’s sort of established, but the fact that I have friendships with everyone individually and a longtime friendship with Dana—I’ve really embraced this band as being something amazing that’s gonna keep happening. The new songs are different but awesome. It took a year—it usually takes me about a year for me to be able to connect with people.
D: And he’s also a perfectionist.
A: I don’t know if I am.
P: Oh my god, you’re such a perfectionist!
A: I just want to make them play different time signatures.
What happened to Paloma’s ankle?
D: It’s not the first ankle incident.
A: She hurts herself once a month. And she’s a big pussy. I fall down all the time and I don’t care.
Did you just say ‘I fall down all the time and I don’t care’?
A: Yeah! It sucks when you get old—when you’re a kid and you fall down, who cares? Now it hurts for like three weeks.
D: Paloma scares me when she swings the mic—I’m afraid I’m gonna get it in the face.
A: I enjoy getting hit in the face. It makes me more apt to be physical on stage.
D: Remember the piñata? She scared people then. We were at a party and there was a piñata, and someone put a bat in Paloma’s hand and she just went for it.
She gets results.
D: There were people around and she didn’t fucking care. She was swinging like Jackie Robinson.