Taleen Kali doesn’t make a distinction between the many things she does. Whether she’s publishing her fanzine Dum Dum Zine, taking part in the related new podcast Dum Dum Radio, writing a bimonthly column for Razorcake, snapping photographs, practicing yoga or singing and playing guitar with her eponymous riot-grrrl band, it is all inspired by the same creative impulse. Many of Kali’s artistic interests align and converge on Friday, March 1, when her group performs at downtown all-ages venue the Smell as part of a fundraiser and Kickstarter campaign for the next issue of Dum Dum Zine.
In addition to DJ sets from Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile, Ex-Stains), WASI and Dum Dum Zine music editor Julia Gibson, the musical lineup at the Smell includes Spare Parts for Broken Hearts, Suzie True, Nightgown and Slugs. “Spare Parts for Broken Hearts are my favorite power trio ever — they’re incredible,” Kali says.
“It’s a love letter to art as a catalyst for healing, the compulsion to make something,” Kali says by phone from her Lincoln Heights loft. She’s talking not only about the show but about the creative impetus behind Dum Dum Zine, which is both a fanzine and a literary collective. “How do we stay connected in our communities when we’re moving through these bullshit political events in the past few years?” she asks. “Art transcends [politics]. We’re encouraging people to come out to get inspired. … We’re interested in meeting with cool people in the community.
“Sometimes I feel like a writer,” Kali continues. “Sometimes I feel like a musician first. It all comes from the same place.”
Kali, a native of the San Fernando Valley who grew up in Burbank, Glendale and Chatsworth, started as a writer. “I was a music writer, always going to shows, and decided to also play shows,” she says. “It took a while. I had to read The Riot Grrrl Manifesto,” a set of principles and declarations of female empowerment that was first published in Bikini Kill Zine 2 in 1991. After spending time in New York and Chicago, where she studied design and photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, Kali began performing her spoken-word publicly with occasional musical backing.
Her first band was the L.A. quartet Tülips, which she co-fronted with singer-guitarist Angie Bloom, until the group broke up after a final show at the Regent Theater in 2015. “That was a really fun band,” Kali says. “A lot of people said we sounded like Bikini Kill with delay pedals. We would call ourselves a riot-gaze band. We loved Motown, shoegaze and goth.”
But Kali didn’t really come into her own until she started a band under her own name. She boldly announced her presence to the world when she released Who the Fuck Is Taleen Kali?, a 2017 cassette demo. That was followed by two 2018 singles, “Half Lie” and “Lost and Bound,” which were compiled the same year on the singer’s debut EP, Soul Songs, produced by Dum Dum Girls’ Kristin Kontrol and mixed by Medicine’s Brad Laner.
“I love Dum Dum Girls,” Kali says about Kontrol’s shadowy band. “Dum Dum Girls were a super active touring band around the time the zine started. A lot of people think we’re a Dum Dum Girls fanzine, but we’re really big fans. I already knew her,” she adds about Kontrol. “We were in each other’s creative orbits for a while. I really wanted to work with a female producer. We’re cut from the same cloth. We both came from garage rock, but I like the polished punk sound and the way she was embracing an electronic sound.”
Soul Songs is powered by a punk-rock drive, but such songs as “Miles Away” and “Half Lie” are elevated by Kali’s pop-minded hooks. The opening track, “Bluets,” replaces typical punk anger with a euphorically dreamy and mystical state of wonder. “Almost blooming every night/Almost seeing my own light,” Kali confides enigmatically in the intro before the swinging pendulum of her grungy chords kicks in against a backdrop of shimmering guitars.
“That song is inspired by Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets,” Kali says. “I was given that book by Dum Dum Zine managing editor Rosa Quezada. I was between bands. I had been asked to write a song inspired by a painting in this space, a beautiful blue painting, when Rosa gave me Bluets. It was a sign. The song is about so many things. It’s about wanting something more. It’s about coming out of depression and embracing a complete version of yourself. It’s about seeing everything through a blue haze, a blue lens … about trying to break free from self-imposed or externally imposed limitations. A lot of people think it’s a love song; I’m really happy that people have their own interpretations of it. It’s one of the first songs where I allowed the instrumentation to speak for itself. … It was the first time I tried to use a musical composition to drive a feeling and tell a story instead of using lyrics.”
That was a major shift in style, as much of Kali’s previous work was inspired by her background as a writer and artist. “Everything I do feel likes a marriage of visual art and writing,” she says, citing the impact of Beth Pickens’ artistic guidebook Your Art Will Save Your Life. “I love Patti Smith as a writer and as a musician. I love concrete poetry, poetry that challenges the pages and challenges the way you think about the world. I love John Donne’s ‘The Ecstasy,’ a poem about leaving your body. I wrote ‘Evil Eye II’ about that, two lovers communicating on this spiritual level,” she adds, referring to one of the key tracks on Soul Songs. “I really liked the transcendentalist writers when I grew up. They were so inspiring.”
When asked who are her influences on guitar, Kali replies, “All of them! I really love the guitars of classic rock — Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix. I like My Bloody Valentine, The Vaselines, Smashing Pumpkins, St. Vincent, Mary Timony — I love it all. Carrie Brownstein’s guitar playing really sends me to outer space.
“I’ve always been in either gender-neutral bands or super-queer bands,” she marvels. “During this crazy political time, I find myself in a band with dudes. That’s a testament to the band. They’re stand-up guys,” she says of her group, which includes bassist Miles Marsico, Nightgown guitarist Royce Hsu and drummer Ben Marazzi. Kali’s cousin Nara “Bahama” Avakian sometimes sits in with the group when she’s not studying in school. “Miles and I have worked together for so long," Kali says. "He and I were in Tülips together. When he came on board, this project felt like a family. Everything has felt really natural and organic with the band. Everyone has their own amazing projects, too.”
The group’s latest recording is a haunting cover of The Supremes’ “Baby Love,” which came out as a single earlier this month. While her version is faithful to the original, it’s also steeped in newfound electronic elements and coated in an avalanche of reverb as Kali coos endearingly until her and Avakian’s sparkling guitars weave and twist together before disappearing into a haze of echoes.
“‘Baby Love’ was one of the first songs I sang along to as a kid,” Kali explains. “Now being an adult, I wanted to put out something that challenged what the modern love song can be about, to take an old-school love song and see how would a riot grrrl sing this song? It starts out wispy with a feminine yearning and turns into an active drive near the end. I’m trying to subvert the old-school love song and take it to outer space with all the synths.”
In the past, Kali has covered such songs as Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” Madonna’s “Ray of Light” and The Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone.” “We’re doing a Led Zeppelin cover” at the Smell show, she says. “There are a lot of surprises happening on that stage Friday,” she adds, alluding to surprise guests. In the summer, she intends to release an all-acoustic version of Soul Songs that will feature “a secret cover” song.
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Even with all the recent buzz surrounding her band, Kali is just as excited about raising awareness and funds for the upcoming sixth issue of Dum Dum Zine at the show at the Smell on Friday night and through her Kickstarter campaign. “We change formats with every issue,” she says, noting that past issues have ranged from audiozines and broadsides posted on telephone poles to an issue that came in a box — “a literary Fluxus kit. I love dada and Fluxus, I’m really inspired by Italian futurism for the design of the zine. … The festival [at the Smell] is a way to bring all the bands in and a way for us to increase awareness about print. There’s always a big musical component to our events. With all the underground communities in Los Angeles, the Smell is the perfect place to embody it. The Smell was one of the first places to support us. We started from the same DIY ethic.”
With so much activity going on in her life, how does Kali stay focused and where does she get her energy? “Yoga helps me a lot as a performer,” she confides. “It helps me really stay present while I’m playing. We’re not really taught how to take care of ourselves as performers. Yoga helps me stay anchored to my body.”
Taleen Kali performs at the Smell, 247 S. Main St., downtown; Fri., March 1, 8 p.m.; $5. (213) 625-4325.