It was the end of June 2009 and the two members of Tearist, Yasmine Kittles and William Strangeland-Menchaca, had picked up a gig at L.A.'s Medusa Lounge in between recording and mixing their first record, a self-titled EP. Kittles was apprehensive about the gig. At that time, student protests in Iran were dominating U.S. news and infiltrating small talk in L.A. For the impassioned vocalist of Tearist, though, this hit much closer to home than it did for most. Her mother is Iranian and Kittles had lived in the country for part of her childhood. The casual way that Iran was entering conversations didn't sit too well with her.
Kittles had asked her mother how to sing a prayer that she remembered hearing as a child.
"She said, 'You can't sing this, only men sing it,' " Kittles recalls. "I said, 'I have to sing it, you realize that?' She said, 'Yeah, I do.' "
At the gig, in the midst of a crowded room, Kittles broke into a melodic prayer that represents both her childhood and a current crisis.
"There was no one talking. No one losing focus," she says. "They were fully with me."
Then Kittles stopped singing because, she says, she didn't want to cry.
"My intention isn't to cry to you, and if I'm going to, I try to hold it in," she says. "I have to let it come out in another way."
Strangeland-Menchaca stopped playing momentarily as well.
"We went on with the set and no one at any point moved," Kittles recalls. "I mean, they moved around, but they didn't walk away or talk, and it was a full room. I heard someone's ice in their glass."
Both Kittles and Strangeland-Menchaca consider this night a pivotal point in their young careers as Tearist.
"Maybe this is actually a real thing that we're doing," Strangeland-Menchaca realized. "We're a band."
Tearist could very well be the most crucial musical project to come out of Los Angeles in recent years.
They are an electronic duo who proclaim a love for Dada, surrealism, the KLF and Sogo Ishii's Einstürzende Neubauten film 1/2 Mensch, but they go out of their way not to make obvious references.
"If we can reference another band, the song is done," Kittles says. "We throw it away."
Try to compare Tearist to any other electronic artists and you would be missing the point. They are an entity unto themselves, a group that, as their name implies, deconstructs what they know to create their own movement. But, like Einstürzende Neubauten in the scrap-metal and tool-wielding heyday of 1/2 Mensch, they are a band whose live reputation precedes them.
Much of the attention Tearist's gigs have received has been a result of Kittles' unusual and heart-wrenching performances. An actor who moved to L.A. in 2005 (when she began earning some buzz for a co-starring role in the indie film Gretchen), Kittles is the sort of immediately friendly person who appears to have no inhibitions or self-doubt. She met Strangeland-Menchaca when he was working at an ice cream shop and she pulled out a microcassette player to ask him how he made her soy shake.
Talk to her for a while and she might tell you stories about singing in a basement during the Iran-Iraq War or injuries sustained while showing off on the ice skating rink. Her outgoing personality, though, belies what is happening onstage.
"I'm sometimes afraid to sing certain songs because they are so extremely personal," she says. "I feel like it's the only place where I'm completely vulnerable. To me, that's really scary. I'm putting, literally, everything, my whole body in every single way out there."
A couple of weeks ago, Tearist opened for Warp recording artists PVT at the Echo. They had just returned from New York after playing a string of dates in the United States and Europe after SXSW. Kittles appeared in a leotard and oversized, cut-up T-shirt underneath a leather jacket and baseball cap that she quickly removed. She moved across the stage in jerky, almost convulsive motions. A fan, which is always set up on their stages to help Kittles maintain her endurance (she has suffered from lung problems), kept her hair blowing wildly as she maintained a strong yet strangely faraway gaze on the crowd.
Kittles admits that she can "completely zone out" when performing, but she doesn't miss everything.
"If someone walks away, I can pinpoint it," she says. "I will be, like, oh, my God, you haven't taken this? ... I've given you everything I can and that's not enough? It becomes this whole other thing in my head. And that may not even be what's going on."
But to those with open ears, Kittles' raw performance persona doesn't overshadow Strangeland-Menchaca's musical contribution. Formerly the frontman of Silver Daggers, he now stands behind a mountain of gear, exuding a quiet intensity. Both onstage and off, it's obvious that the two share a rich connection, that it is their symbiosis that creates this visceral sound and energy.
Tearist's new album, Living: 2009-Present (released this week), is the closest you can get to seeing the band without leaving your bedroom (though we most definitely encourage you to leave your bedroom and catch one of their gigs). Released by Thin Wrist Recordings, the album compiles nine tracks recorded live in the last couple of years at various locations across Los Angeles, from house shows to a gig at El Rey Theatre. Even without the visuals, you can hear the storm in Kittles' voice and sense the calm of Strangeland-Menchaca's presence in each recording.
"It's a document of us at this time," says Strangeland-Menchaca, noting how their songs "solidified" after they spent time in the studio between shows and how gear changed throughout the course of the gigs represented on the album.
"Now, we've come to a point," he adds. "This whole record is about that progress."
From the moment Tearist played their first show, at an Echo Park bar called the Gold Room, where Kittles found herself competing for the attention of a crowd that came to watch a basketball game, they have been a continuously evolving unit. Words and phrases that Kittles sang at that first show flowered into full songs. YouTube clips of their live sets on L.A. college radio station KXLU and at a slew of small venues have served almost like radio singles for a band whose increasingly rabid following is congregating online. At a recent concert in France, Kittles was shocked that fans knew words to songs that have yet to be recorded in a studio.
"The comments we were getting were so strong, literally 'how I felt when I was listening to music' or something, like how it would affect me," says Kittles.
At the Echo, we had encountered fans who spoke so passionately about Tearist that it was hard to believe we were at a local venue watching a local opener to an international act. Tearist have that power and, right now, they are poised to become a cult sensation.
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People have been noticing for a while that this band is special. "She's badass," wrote L.A. Weekly Music Editor Gustavo Turner about Kittles on the Weekly's West Coast Sound blog in November 2009. "She looks like the love child of 'Rehab'-era Amy Winehouse and Polly Jean Harvey (in a good way), digs good music (Throbbing Gristle, Can, the Red Crayola, the Ronettes), has absolutely zero shame onstage, and there's something in her intensity that reminds us of the young, hungry-for-the-world, prefame Madonna."
"I feel really successful," Kittles says. "Even at that first show, people would say how it made them feel, that it was giving them goose bumps. They went home and wrote or something."
She continues, "That's it. Why else are we here other than to make you feel or make you want to feel or allow you to think that that's OK? You can do that. You should do that."
Tearist play a record-release gig for Living: 2009-Present (Thin Wrist Recordings) on Sat., April 30, 7 p.m., at Vacation Vinyl in Silver Lake.