An interview with Oakland deathrock/garage band Bitter Fruit
by Oliver Sheppard
The best description I’ve heard of Bitter Fruit’s sound is “Andi Sex Gang singing for early Christian Death.” The band’s own Facebook page describes them as “grungey deathrock,” which is not inaccurate, considering the garage-punk vibes given off by the band’s high energy 6-song demo, “It Gets Bitter.” Bitter Fruit claim influences from turn-of-the-century Bay Area deathrockers like The Phantom Limbs, Subtonix, and Black Ice — among some surprising others. (In fact, their demo was mixed by Skot Brown of the Phantom Limbs/Black Ice.) There is an infectious, distortion-drenched, garage punk spin put on this sound, however. Singer Jack Bradley’s sneering, creepy vocals make Bitter Fruit standout.
Oliver: What’s the story with you guys? I heard the demo the other day and was really taken pleasantly by surprise. Great vocals, and good production that works with the music. When did you all start, who is in the band, and what instruments do you all play?
David Montoya: I met Jack (Bradley, singer) very briefly at a show American Splits played. A little while after that he invited us on his radio show on 9thfloorradio. It was a little bit of an awkward experience and we even kinda had some heated discussions on air. But after that we went over to my bandmate Amelia’s house and did some more talking and found out we had a lot of things in common. We shared a lot of favorite bands and immediatedly bonded on the Bay Area goth/death rock scene of the late 90s & early 2000s, hate for everyone, and some riot grrl/all female bands, too. It was then that Jack started talking to me about his old band and then we agreed that we should jam.
Awhile after that he handed me a CD of some songs he had recorded solo; he had titled them “Happy Amputee.” It was really good, but I had a lot going on that time so it was a few months before we actually got to start jammin. Originally, I was playing drums. But I think Jack had different ideas. He had a vision. while courting me, he had also been talking to Jennique from one of his old favorite local bands, the shudders, about doing a project together. and since she played bass and had no interest in playing guitar but was interested in playing drums and since guitar is my first instrument we decided to jam on that. me, reluctantly, however. Over the years I had come to hate the sound of guitar and also saw it as this very masculine instrument with the whole guitar as a type of phallic symbol; this sorta thing really bothered me, as it began to symbolize the patriarchy that exists in the underground music scene as well as the rest of the world. Since moving to the Bay Area I had started to reexamine my gender issues and have come to a few conclusions and since I’m male-bodied, playing guitar, I thought, was in conflict with how I want to present, and what I want to represent in relation to my musical relationship. Playing in bands has always been more than just music for me. It’s a way I engage the world and combat the things I am against and I want it to reflect my intentions as best as possible. Hence the reason for this lengthy answer… I am still conflicted about playing guitar but I am learning to approach it in different ways. It’s been hard and awkward but I’m also beginning to see the fun in it again and I guess being more public about it might help. But I should also say it’s been a really good experience playin with Jack, and Jennique too. But Jack has become one of my best friends, so if the band blows I still win. Ha.
Jack: The radio show was awkward? Huh. Despite what Dave might think there really isn’t any deep motivation behind Jennique being on drums or him playing guitar… it’s just what we had to work with at the time. I just couldn’t get many people to seriously show up and actually work on the project. People are flakes and I have a love/hate relationship with a lot of the Bay Area music scene, so I wouldn’t want to play music with most of the people I know anyway.
I’ve been writing a lot of these songs in my head since I was a kid, the songs being about specific snap shots of my life. I want to take all the bad shit and make it into something good that justifies the things I experienced and maybe comforts other people who find themselves in a similar emotional place. As for David and his feelings about the guitar… what can I say? He makes great music when he’s being tortured, and I enjoy that very much. Him being tortured, that is.
Oliver: Were any of you involved in bands previously? If so, what were they?
David: I have been in close to 30 or so bands. I am currently in 3 – Bitter Fruit, American Splits, Centre (tribally goth – play drums). However, I consider anything I’m doing to be punk first. I put out some records with Hips and Lord Galvar prior. It’s kinda fun to list my bands: Defect (post punk), Stride (power pop), Los Santos (heavy kinda like Deftones), The Miamaids (weirdo/political/”extremist” punk), The Truckstop One-up-manship of Small Town Make Out Music (linear jam rock/indie/improv noise groove), Buena Suerte (bubble gum/twee pop), Ten Stabs to the Throat (screamo/hardcore), Mast and Transom (linear noise jams), Xeex (edge electronic), I Break Everything (screamo), Every Song is a Revolution (screamo/hardcore), Hips (post garage/surf dance punk), Popo Brute (everything goes/jam/psych/noise/sludge/groove), Dance and Disappear (melodic riotgrrl influenced punk), Tuggy (indie crash pop), Hands Across America (post punk), Lord Galvar (weirdo post hardcore/noise rock), Cougar Bait (dance jammers), Hate!Deviate (old school hardcore street/skate punk), That Summer Feeling (dance punk), Fucking Commercials (noise wave post punk), American Splits (post punk/minimal disco/no wave), Sunny Reaper (Neil Young-inspired mood rock), Centre (tribally death dance goth rock). And I’m starting more soon.
Jack: I was in a queer, electro-clash-y glam band called Wealthy Whore Entertainment where I played bass before I really knew how. It was fronted by Jamie Sharpe who wrote the vast majority of the material and did the drum machine sequencing, and Reverend Mother Paige Flash invoked Babylon on an electric cello. It was fun for a while. We’d sing about cocaine and children molesting children, and people would get naked and fist each other in the audience. Good times.
Oliver: To me, the “obvious” influence on you all is early Christian Death, when Rikk Agnew was in it, and the vocals are a little like Sex Gang Children. Do you all sit around listening to old LA deathrock all the time? What are the influences that you feel are most prominent in Bitter Fruit’s sound?
David: Nope, I don’t really listen to much music nowadays. I think most of the influences are non-musical – childhood experiences, contempt for the human race, being tied to wage labor/the slavery to money, etc. But also I should say what I feel I really am drawn to by music or, usually immediately, is the raw energy I can feel from it. I go to a lot of local shows and so I guess I’d have to say the regional live sounds might have more of a direct influence on me, at least subconsciously. It’s always exciting to see a good band live and to feel the music on your skin or just get transported or trance out. It’s what I know as real. And that’s what drives me, I guess.
Having said that, bands like Germs, The Screamers, Nine Inch Nails, Psychic TV/Throbbing Gristle, Reagan Youth, The Phantom Limbs, Placebo, Subtonix, This Blush, Chromatics, etc., have had an influence on some of the direction I take with Bitter Fruit, at least sonically. But it’s those early local bands I saw in Bakersfield that I feel still have the most influence on me overall in particular, the acid dark groove band Grasshouse, and this goth band called Eve Windle.
Jack: I definitely agree with Dave about the music being more inspired by the subject I’m writing about rather than a specific genre of music, and I enjoy total silence when I’m alone, ’cause that almost never happens. For me, my biggest influence is Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland. She changed my life because instead of just expressing hurt and loss, I also hear this total defiance in the face of devastation in her music…. It’s that feeling of not giving up, no matter what, that gave me solace through the darkest years of my late teens and early 20’s. Without that, I might not have survived, and it’s shaped a lot of my identity.
I definitely enjoy me some Theatre of Pain by Christian Death, but if I had to choose a band I’d REALLY like to sound like from that scene it would be the Super Heroines. I listen to them all the time these days… I really like S.F.’s Fright Wig too… other than that, 45 Grave, The Phantom Limbs, and Subtonix are big influences, as are Roxy Monoxide and Lulu Gammaray from The Floating Corpses and Moira Scar and Tracy Lords from The Deep Throats and Crime & Punishment… when I first moved to SF these ladies were creating the kind of dark queer music I had always dreamed of, and whether it comes across in the music or not, it had a huge impact on me aesthetically.
Oliver: What are your favorite bands, including some that folks might be surprised by?
David: I’ve listed some in my last response. But also I’d have to admit to – Mariah Carey, Faith No More, Digable Planets, Sebadoh, Public Enemy, Prince, Guided by Voices, Refused, Helium, Sleater Kinney, Belly, Arab on Radar, Sonic Youth, International Noise Conspiracy, Wu Tang Clan, Cocteau Twins, Marissa Magik, Pixies, Living Colour, Rage Against the Machine, Veruca Salt, The Sundays. and there are a ton more of course.
Jack: Yeah, Dave is mentioning a lot of the bands I like as well… everything Skot and Kevin Brown from The Phantom Limbs has made since then is fucking fantastic; Black Ice, Jackal Fleece, Red Voice Choir, Intermission… and Skot just Joined Alter De Fey so he’s got to be like the king of spooky bay area music now. Or at least he should be.
Then there’s also locals Swann Danger, Veronica Lipgloss and the Evil Eyes… I like New Collapse a lot and wish i’d gotten to see them play… and speaking of Rich Bitch, I love The Centimeters… Nora Keyes is fucking amazing… The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black is one of the best bands ever … I love Austin Texas’ The Fuckemos and Pain Teens, I like The Go-go’s and Richard Hell… I want to have Luigi from L.A.’s Punk Bunny to sit on my face, but that’ll never happen so I listen to his albums instead… um… I like Bomb…P.I.L … The Nuns…Cristina …… frustration? I can’t list every band I like, there’s just too many and lists are boring.
Oliver: Who chose the name Bitter Fruit, and why?
David: I defer to Jack, but I think it’s perfect.
Jack: It’s got multiple meanings… first being that yeah, I’m an angry, disgruntled faggot. Secondly, fruit has always been crazy symbolic in mythology… of course there’s Eve biting the apple of knowledge as well as Aphrodite’s Golden apple sewing discord and preying on vanity. And then there’s Persephone’s pomegranate… after she was dragged below the earth and raped, it was her eating the pomegranate that condemned her to preside over the dead. When fruit ferments it gets you drunk and that can lead to delirium, something i’m all too familiar with. I don’t know, it could mean almost anything I want it to, and I like that flexibility.
Oliver: There seems to be a new fascination and upsurge in bands from the punk scene exploring deathrock or goth-punk types of sounds. Around your parts there’s Alaric and Crimson Scarlet, and Altar de Fey from the 80s have gotten back together? Do you all feel like you’re a part of that Bay Area deathrock scene in any way? Or are you mostly playing with garage bands right now? How do you feel about the newer deathrock bands….?
David: You know, it’s an interesting question. The idea of a scene implies a sense of community. And I think it’s been a struggle for me to pick apart the death rock scene in particular. I don’t really care for metal nor do I like a lot of the punk bands I see in the Bay, either. Though there are some great death rock/goth bands here like Moira Scar, Altar de Fey, Swann Danger, Deep Teens, and Primary Colors – but I don’t really know if we all consider each other as part of a scene really. Or maybe I’m just not in it. It seems really competitive in one regard. which is good and driving, but also sorta perpetuates this mood of isolation and alienation. But I also gotta say it’s really nice to feel a camaraderie with some people I have a lot of respect for – Roxy and Lulu, Kevin and Skot Brown, Loto Ball, Bobby Ganush, etc. I really like Malditos which is an uber group. We played our first show with Moira Scar and they have been really great to us and welcoming. I’m a huge fan of what they do. I first saw them play in this warehouse as a two piece and they were probably the first Bay Area band I was actually interested in after having moved here about 3 or 4 years ago.
Another band that I really liked that I dont think are playing anymore is Diatric Puds and the Blobettes. I also really liked the solo performers that have moved away, Rind and Terror Apart, as well. A lot of our shows are pretty eclectic as far as tastes/types of music goes. Which can be weird, but also it reminds me of the Phantom Limbs shows I used to come up for. There’d be punks, goths, indie rockers, geeks and weirdos, and metal heads all there having a good time.
Jack: David hit the nail on the head. We’re not really all that connected, but it tickles me to see how one might think that considering we’re all within a few miles’ radius of each other. All the people he mentioned are really nice in person, but the Bay Area music scene in general makes me feel crazy paranoid and gross. I’m just so sick of walking into rooms filled with people you’ve known for years and you just stare each other down like you’re wiping shit across their faces with your eyes. You’re never cool enough for some people. It’s stupid, and I refuse to suck up to snobs with delusions of grandeur.
Luckily, as fate would have it, most of the people I’ve met who write the music I listen to aren’t like that… Ian Rogers and Crispy Pickles from High Anxiety are sweethearts and Melissa Dale Neal and Ian Spangler from Sweet Nothing are homies… Melissa is also in a band with Faith Gardner from Hooray for Everything called Dark Beach that i like a lot… these bands sound nothing like us, but i’d consider them more of my scene if anything.
Oliver: There’s an east coast deathrock band, Anasazi, that I’m into, who also sometimes remind me of “Only Theatre of Pain”-era Christian Death. You guys, however, definitely have a raw, Stooges sort of angle….
Jack: Thank you! I want my music to be dark, biting, energetic, danceable and fun all at the same time, something I think you could say about the Stooges. I haven’t heard Anasazi, but I’ll check them out!
Oliver: Your demo just came out in May. How long had you been working on it? Are there plans for an LP or another release yet?
David: We’re a pretty young band I guess. The process of recording wasn’t long at all. Skot Brown mixed it within a month. The art Jack worked on and I don’t know how long that took him. We’re definitely going to be releasing a full length by the end of the year. We’re working on some new songs and working with a new drummer, but it’s coming together quickly.
Jack: Yep, we have 6 songs written for the future album, and I’d like to write 3 more. I’d love to do a cover of The Wasp Women’s ‘Kill Me.’ How soon it takes us to do this has yet to be seen… I sling coffee and can’t afford new pants much less studio time, and then there’s also the inconveniences of schedule and other circumstances that always slows shit down. It’s important to me to try to leave behind something when I go, so it is a priority and it will happen.
Oliver: I noticed the imagery used for the demo is kind of a pastiche of gay fetish sailor art, almost tongue-in-cheek with the gore; and that “queer” is listed as a tag at your Bandcamp page to describe your music. Does gay identity form an important part of your music, and how so? How do you feel tis is reflected in your lyrics or in the band’s attitude?
David: A gay identity? It almost answers itself. Jack is gay and sings songs inspired from his personal experiences so it’s automatic. As far as the way we present, well I’m fine with gay identity, but something a little more inclusive might suit us best. The word “queercore” is interesting and seems to cover a wide array of types music. It also fits more accordingly with the general vibe of the band itself. I, myself, have only recently been able to consider myself queer because the term is so loosely used. But I also don’t totally identify with current definitions of queer or straight. I’m just doing my thing and I’m a wierdo and I have a psychological identity that doesn’t fit my biological make up, but I’m also not sexually attracted to men, so it’s a weird line to have to draw. But since that line is difficult, I think it’s more inclusive to go with a term like queer vs. not.
As I stated before, playing music is more than just music for me. I feel it helps to give a clearer image of intention by using labels that we provide for ourselves. These are our songs. This is our direction. This is our experience. And it seems, however disenfranchising that it may be, that it is important to fly a queer flag in our present time. To make sure our voices are heard and to challenge people’s thoughts of the human experience. I remember talking to a lot of my friends about having difficulty approaching people (and bands), that they are interested in because the uncertainty of the reaction. Shit, people are still killing themselves in America because of bullying over just being who they are. By calling ourselves out, it gives people a point of tangency. A reference. Perhaps a different perspective. And hopefully some comfort. It will also piss some people off or cause them to write us off. But that’s good, too. We get bombarded everyday with brands and adverts for shit none of us want or need. Why not use the same tools to propagate our own agenda? It’s time to draw the line. It’s time to draw the tides to our moon rising.
Jack: When I was a kid my pedo dad would call me a fag and throw away all my toys because the hypocrite thought they were effeminate. My uncle told me at my grandmother’s funeral that I was going to hell. Everyday at school I’d be harassed and threatened openly in front of teachers who would condone the violence by their apathy. One day in the 7th grade a kid even broke my fucking arm. The nonstop bullying led to me being hospitalized and it followed me everywhere, and when I started listening to punk music I didn’t find much acceptance among these would-be radicals that were dressing up their parents’ prejudices in leopard-print chucks down in Southern California. No matter what I did, or how I acted, my orientation was a huge barrier they kept me on the other side of. I still experience this kind of shit now as an adult.
Because of all of that, yeah, me being visibly out is an important stand I have to make or else risk perpetuating the social bias of thought that contributed to that abuse. That said, there’s more to the issue.
After all that shit I went through, I naively hoped to escape to San Francisco and find acceptance among other queers only to find gay culture itself poisonous and destructive. Every one is judging each other, taking advantage when they can and taking out their internalized self-hatred on their peers. Indeed, it does ‘get better’ — specifically, if you’re athletic, masculine, white, and wealthy. It’s like these men were just waiting for their opportunity to mimic their oppressors, and the bulk of the representation of gays in the media panders to straight society to accept them, be it as a flaming clown or homogenized upper middle class yuppie. Well, thats not representative of me, and I know it’s not for a lot of people. I want Bitter Fruit to be an antidote for that kind of assimilation.
Oliver: Have you all played out, outside the Bay Area yet? Any plans to?
David: we just got back from a little 2 show stint up in the northwest. it was a blast! Shaggy (aka Sunny Reaper) filled in on drums and did a solo set for the trip. We got to see the Queer Rock Camp showcase in Olympia. And Seattle totally ruled! Every band/performer on that bill totally killed. Talk about a scene! It seemed as though everyone was friends. It was a like a party. Big shout-out to Kook Teflon and the Witches Titties!! They were awesome death punk party times!! School Shootings were fucking awesome — great punk fuckin’ rock! Jackie Hell was a great MC drag performer! Though I didn’t care for the name and had unasked/unanswered questions about the imagery, Gaydolf Hitler and the Golden Showers put on a great show, too!! I think we all had a blast that night at the Josephine. We’ll be playing the upcoming Think and Die Thinking Fest in San Jose in couple weeks with Shaggy filling in on drums again, and I’m SUPER stoked on it. The festival’s intentions are totally in line with why I play/create music. I’m really proud that Bitter Fruit will be a part of it. We’ve also been talking about doing some shows further east and down south, too. Of course, my ultimate goal would be to go on an extensive tour to the East Coast and around the country. Hopefully we can make it happen.
Oliver: One of my favorite questions to ask: If you all had to take 3, and only 3, LPs to remote island, and were going to be stuck with those for the rest of your life, what 3 LPs would they be, and why?
David: The Sundays – either of the first 2. They’re beautiful records for isolation. A Best of Mariah Carey collection. I think I’d have to put it together, though. Why? She’s a goddess. Amazing. Inspiring. Beautiful. Makes me happy. Digable Planets – A New Refutation of Time and Space. Pure genius. I’d have to sneak Marissa Magik’s I Am Good tape with me, too. It’s an EP so it doesn’t qualify for a proper answer to the question, but it’s my favorite recording of the last few years or so.
Jack: Spanking Machine by Babes in Toyland. Good Bad Pretty by The Deep Throats. And Dirk Wears White Sox by Adam and The Ants.
Oliver: Thank you guys so much! I look forward to hearing more of your stuff sometime in the hopefully near future….
Jack: No, thank YOU sir, thank YOU! If anyone wants to follow us they should like our face book page at http://www.facebook.com/bitterfruitmusic … We’ll have a website at some point, but for right now that’s where you’ll be able to hear us and find out about upcoming shows. Thanks for your support!