SBSM’s Real Magic

The trio sounds not so much inspired by as estranged from noise and hardcore. Its songs are among the most rivetingly unique to emerge from Oakland's underground.

SBSM’s songs deceive like funhouse architecture: grating textures turn out to be comforting, pretty ornaments become cruel punch lines, and, once you’re inside, it’s difficult to anticipate their end. Patterns emerge in their jumbled asymmetries until trapdoors induce vertigo, exploding your tentative grasp of the environment. SBSM’s songs, among the most rivetingly unique to emerge from Oakland’s underground, are like small boxes that contain whole worlds because their battered exteriors belie real magic.

The trio uses synths, samplers, drums, and voice in a way that sounds not so much inspired by as estranged from noise and hardcore, like they were separated at birth. Their music is so tempestuous in part because it’s unpredictable, with fluid, nonlinear song structures abiding by the group’s internal logic instead of discernible templates. “OK,” the minute-long opener of SBSM’s 2015 EP Joy/Rage, decelerates musically while it crescendos emotionally, devolving from blast-beat squall to serrated, voice-only chant: I’m okay/I’m okay/I’m okay. Leave Your Body, the band’s torrential new four-song EP, surges with clashing rhythms that refuse to resolve their tension, reflecting the “frustration” and “lack of clarity” that SBSM once identified at the core of its sound.

SBSM’s catalog, which dates back to 2013, is an infernal dispatch from the moldy basement they call “gay hell,” the bottom of a West Oakland home known as “ménage twat” where the longstanding trio of Rosie, Sep, and Rola, who prefer to be identified by first names, all lived when the group formed. They’ve called Ragana, the Oakland-via-Olympia doom-metal outfit, their sister band.

In a sector of the local punk scene that centers queer and trans people of color, their infrequent shows are anticipated events. But when I saw them open for The Body and Thou, two acts celebrated for probing the margins of metal, it seemed clear whose heaviness was stranger and further afield.

Sep, who does vocals and electronics in SBSM, also co-hosts the radio-show Scream Queens, which Berkeley Liberation Radio (104.1 FM) broadcasts live on Wednesday nights. The show, now numbering more than 200 episodes, focuses on noise, industrial, and post-punk of the past and present, with a keen ear for the stirring missives of brazenly unlearned outcasts. The banter is candid, often funny, and sometimes strikingly unguarded. SBSM, who declined to be interviewed by the Express, might collectively relate to Sep’s introduction to one show: “I’m overwhelmed with emotions. I don’t have time to put them together enough for public speaking — but thankfully there’s music.

“Also text me if my laugh is weird.”

SBSM’s one constant is the low, gurgling tone of a MicroKORG, which collides with a stuttering drumbeat on Leave Your Body‘s “Work” to produce an uneasily propulsive polyrhythm. “Invisible/Cyclical” heaves with tectonic might, while “Your World” evokes a monkey-wrenched machine, a comparison befitting the group’s anti-capitalist politics and its irreverence toward gear. Dry cymbal complements lashing shrieks like steel wool attacking rust on “Mothra,” a song name after the Japanese kaiju best known as the foe to Godzilla (the name of an earlier track). Like Mothra, a lumbering caterpillar-moth hybrid with colorful wings, SBSM is a destructive, slow-moving chimera. In the movies, two singing women usually accompany Mothra. Together, they’re like a band.

Live, SBSM’s members often record the sound of themselves playing and reincorporate it as a sample in real-time. It’s an appropriate gesture for artists who seem to inspire one another, exceeding the sum of their parts. Collectivity, as SBSM’s music and writing argues, is reciprocal summoning. “Rather than seeking coherence and clarity, we give each other room to be disjointed,” Rola reflected in the zine accompanying Joy/Rage. “We mostly don’t know what the other person is saying or doing but we know it feels OK, like speaking in different languages but communicating just fine, or communicating just what we need to. When nothing has ever felt right, maybe this is trust.”  

In interviews and writings related to the band, the members of SBSM often discuss the limits of language. For all three of them, English is a second language; they nearly called the band ESL. And they seem to deliberately leave the meaning of “SBSM” vague — is it an acronym, or a phrase chosen just for its incisive sibilance, and then assigned letters? “SBSM,” as a sound, seems like it’d be the hiss of the snake that’s barely perceptible on the black-on-black cover of Leave Your Body. Sep, in the Joy/Rage zine, referred to English as a “domineering tongue.” They know that biases and values come pre-baked into language, which can corrupt subversive sentences, or lyrics, before they’re even formed.

Music is language, too, with every genre and instrument prescribed an alphabet of gestures and tropes, and every song negotiating rules of grammar — conventions that SBSM, with its interrogation of language, must consider deeply suspicious. SBSM is Rosie’s first band. The gear explainer in the Joy/Rage zine emphasizes their idiosyncratic approach, and Sep, in an interview with New Noise Magazine, described instruments not as “devices I’m trying to master as much as … tools that create a platform for expression.” SBSM, in other words, doesn’t deconstruct, it creates anew. “Language may fail us but SBSM is the antithesis of silence,” they jointly wrote in the Joy/Rage zine. “We will always find a way to convey ourselves, no matter the opposition.”

Support the East Bay Express, local news, donate

Newsletter sign-up

eLert sign-up

few clouds
50.9 ° F
54 °
48 °
76 %
20 %
62 °
65 °
64 °
62 °
56 °