In January, a quintet of politicized Oakland musicians operating under the moniker No Babies will take its no wave and free-jazz-inspired punk to Japan for a two-week tour. Without label backing, vogue booking agencies, or the support of phantom PR firms, No Babies will tour like it always has — using a network built in the underground, just the way the band prefers.
No Babies defies the notion that a band must conform to the standards of the music industry to be successful. Instead, the group releases its music on tiny record labels, performs more often in illicit warehouses than in proper venues, and maintains a reputation for volatile, high-energy shows that have drawn enough attention for it to be invited to Japan. All the while, No Babies maintains a staunch commitment to the tenets of the punk scene.
Drummer Sean Nieves and guitarist Ricky Martyr founded No Babies in Alabama in 2008. Moving to Oakland soon after, the duo expanded to function more as a collective, having featured at least fourteen different members, with revolving performers who might only play a single show. No Babies is currently composed of five full-fledged members who play brass instruments in addition to traditional rock instruments.
The newer members met one another through the local music scene, which they’re all deeply involved in. Whether performing in various groups of their own or setting up shows for out-of-town acts, the members of No Babies strive to cultivate the DIY network that they rely on when touring.
The influence of each member’s interest in punk and hardcore is evident in No Babies’ harsh instrumental tones, abrupt changes, fast tempos, and atonal vocals. Yet, while it draws inspiration from certain musical characteristics of punk, No Babies’ sound is largely differentiated by the presence of brass instruments. The band often delves into live improvisation free-jazz and no wave, a short-lived scene in New York in the early Eighties that members of No Babies frequently reference. Like No Babies, no wave artists combined punk’s immediacy and DIY ethic with esoteric experimentation, performance art, and various other genres and instrumentation.
One of No Babies’ mottos is “Like a mosh pit without the audience.” Live, the maxim makes sense. Members lurch and thrash about in a dizzying melee that encourages audience participation. The group insists on abstaining from reverb and delay — effects that No Babies asserts modern groups rely on to distance themselves emotionally from their own music.
“It’s an instance of being not psychedelic, present, and not feel-good,” Martyr explained. “We’re not this thing that you just watch or see or hear happen. It’s a live thing going on that you might be forced to participate in.”
More significant than No Babies’ adaptation of punk sounds is its insistence on operating within a punk ideology. Its first release was a CD-R of home recordings. That disc alone propelled the group’s earliest incarnation through several tours. Since then, No Babies has released cassettes, records, and CDs on a number of tiny record labels. Well into its fourth year of steady output and rigorous touring, the band hasn’t signed a contract with a record label. It doesn’t pander to taste-making media outlets. It avoids playing bars and traditional music venues. The band’s merchandise is sold for as little as possible. That’s the reason guitarist Martyr is fond of cassettes — they’re the cheapest physical format to sell an album’s worth of material. Significantly, the band hasn’t sought a booking agent either.
No Babies has toured the entire country at least five times since 2008, with several West Coast jaunts in between. Its national tours last one to three months, and the band prefers to book every show itself. Regarding most booking agencies, vocalist Jasmine Watson remarked, “Those people are out of touch. You end up at bar shows with bands that are irrelevant or inappropriate.”
For Martyr, DIY booking ensures the band maintains control over the setting of a performance. “DIY [touring] is about eliminating the sense of the audience just being a consumer base,” he said. “Being in a band has capitalist tendencies, but setting up shows yourself allows you to control the venue [and] create spaces that are respectful.” Nieves added: “It fosters the ethics you want to surround yourself with.”
Watson and Nieves decided to call their new album No Soy Como Tu — a sentiment that encapsulates their ascetic commitment to running a band on their own terms. In translation, the title means “I’m Not Like You.” “It’s a statement of resistance against normative culture,” Nieves said. Judging by the band’s imminent tour of Japan, those terms seem effective.