“You used to want to be alone and now you are.” These eerie words drift out of my speakers as Little Death’s self-titled album spins on the turntable. “Sad but true,” sing Willy Gantrim and Sedef “Switch” Seren together in harmony. These past few months have been a lonesome time for most folks. Little Death released their debut album during an especially turbulent period for the local music community. If 2020 was anything like a normal year, Little Death would have likely celebrated their album (put out by local label Strange Daisy) with an impassioned performance at one of the city’s many beloved small venues. Instead, members have stayed at home, unable to even practice together due to concerns related to COVID-19. It sharply contrasts last summer’s recording sessions, when members crammed into a tiny, spare-room studio in the home shared by PEARS vocalist Zach Quinn and his grandmother, otherwise known as Memaw’s house. Quinn and longstanding audio engineer James Whitten produced intimate sessions filled with sweat, cigarette smoke, and friendship.
Guitarists / vocalists Gantrim and Seren share the group with drummer Defne “Dizzy” Incirlioglu and bassist Harlan Chancey, who replaced original bassist Bob Ayo shortly after last year’s recording sessions. They individually made their ways to New Orleans and came together to form the group after lengthy tutelages in far-flung street performer communities. In New Orleans, Little Death’s members have worked with a diverse array of projects, including raucous punks Gland, traditional outfit Shake ‘Em Up Jazz Band, and streetside stalwarts Yes Ma’am. The group’s firm foundation anchors Gantrim’s tender yet bleak songwriting, which has already graced a small but mighty collection of solo releases over the past decade. Gantrim has come a long way from his early days of poorly organized cross-country tours alongside Hurray For The Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra. “Watching his progression as an artist, it feels like he’s really making rock’n’roll and has the education of coming from the blues. It just feels like it all comes together,” says Segarra. United together, Little Death pays homage to ‘60s girl groups, rock‘n’roll, and doo-wop. Gathering in their respective homes over a mixture of phones and tablets, 3/4ths of the band opened up about busking school, smoke-filled recording sessions, and the fine line between representation and tokenization.
Left to Right: Seren, Chancey, Incirlioglu, Gantrim
It’s so strange to do this over Zoom. Have y’all gotten used to doing stuff long distance yet?
Sedef “Switch” Seren: I, fortunately, have a huge leg up because I’m a complete and total nerd. I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons with one of my best friends over Skype for years. I routinely spend a few hours a week doing social stuff on Zoom anyways. Now, it’s really easy to integrate.
Defne “Dizzy” Incirlioglu: I joined this weekly anarchist jazz musician reading group discussion thing that a buddy put together. There were a lot of people I didn’t know in it. It would be readings of really dense, intense text and then trying to discuss them. There were random people on Zoom and it was my first experience with it. It was a really weird format to have a discussion because everyone was always muting and unmuting themselves.
SS: It sounds convoluted!
DI: We had a birthday party for Switch on Zoom!
SS: It was really cute.
Gland’s reunion at Banks Street Bar felt like the last big hurrah before the entire city shutdown. Switch, how does it feel to suddenly revisit that band and then have the whole world collapse?
SS: Honestly, I think I weirdly have put it out of mind and haven’t done a ton of processing about it. The way that that band fell apart was really difficult but also important. I’ve always said that ultimately we split up because of professional differences. I feel like we made the right decision. I knew that it would always be really emotionally overwhelming to try to get the band actually back together but it’s so much fun to play in that band. I wanted to be able to have fun, party, celebrate Rand [Owens, Banks Street Bar’s owner who died unexpectedly on February 29], and do a nice thing. I never really unpacked it, but I think that might be the last time I played live. Did we play a show in early March?
Willy Gantrim: I don’t do dates. [laughs]
SS: You’d think these events and dates would be more poignant. It’s just one of the things that we’ve learned to compartmentalize over the past few months: “Just let it go, it isn’t going to happen anytime soon.”
Time is a total illusion right now.
WG: Maybe subconsciously I have been like “Alright, forget it. Don’t look back nostalgically. Just keep pushing forward.” I don’t remember when our last show was.
You released Little Death’s debut album in June. How does it feel to release this in the midst of COVID?
WG: It sucks!!! [laughs]
SS: It’s so fucking awesome that it happened and in the way that it happened too. It was something that we were preparing for and trying to wrap our brains around. Willy and I had a conversation about how we wanted to reach out to DIY or local labels; maybe someone could give us some help and co-release it. We could partially self-release it or whatever. Within less than a week, Strange Daisy reached out to us and gave us such an incredible offer.
WG: It was nuts.
SS: Given the current context, I couldn’t possibly be anymore thrilled.
DI: It feels so huge to have the record, hold the record, this tangible thing. It still doesn’t even feel real to me, probably because we haven’t played a release show or even [been able to] get together and practice. We haven’t figured out a way for everyone in the band to feel safe and comfortable with getting together to practice and play together. I was just looking at my calendar and our last practice was on March 10.
WG: Wow. What is it today? [laughs]
DI: There’s a weirdness about not playing together routinely or consistently after having weekly or bi-weekly practices for a couple of years. At some point, we’re going to play, tour, and promote this. We’ll be doing all that again, but it’s really weird to have this tangible product, which we haven’t had before, but then not have every other aspect of being a band that we have had, but not at the same time. Another big thing: the announcements and release dates overlapped precisely with the George Floyd protests. We were not announcing things and we were not promoting ourselves or our output. It wasn’t the time for that.
SS: Yeah. I think the first announcement was within a few days of George Floyd’s murder. I remember reaching out to Willy and Patrick [Bailey of Strange Daisy] to see if there was any way to hit the pause button. It made me noxious to think about asking people to pay attention to us at that moment.
WG: I still feel weird about it to this day.
Because of current circumstances, you’re not getting the same kind of response you would usually get when you release an album. Does it feel like you’re releasing an album out into a void?
WG: We’ve gotten a few messages, which are nice. People have posted a few videos of their records playing. That was really nice, but having the record physically and not being able to hand it to people at a show is really weird. Also, sometimes people buy records at shows just because they saw the band play and not because they knew who the band was beforehand.
DI: I honestly don’t know what it feels like to release an album like this of an original band. The songs are Willy’s, but the arrangements were a very mutual process. Switch really did tons of stuff in terms of vocal harmonies. I play drums. I’ve never felt like I’m helping arrange stuff before. Our process of getting the songs together was so comfortably mutual and collective.
SS: Super collaborative.
DI: All of my previous recording experience has been playing in traditional jazz bands, like “Oh! We’re going on tour! We’re going to go play festivals for jazz fans so we’ll record something to sell to people.” It’s something that you’re happy with or proud of, but it’s not like “here’s a record release!” [On traditional jazz band albums,] these are one-hundred-year-old songs that are going to make us more money on tour. I feel really humbled and proud of this whole experience, having something that feels like there’s a part of me in it and a part of people I love. But I still don’t know what it’s like to release that because of how things are now!
Willy has had some of these songs for a decade. How did you go about deciding what material felt right for this project as opposed to your solo output?
WG: I think I just tried to get as many that I hadn’t recorded before and pick the ones that didn’t sound quite so folky. [laughs] I really wanted it to be a rock‘n’roll band.
DI: I played “Look Out!” with you over a decade ago.
WG: Yeah! On washboard! [laughs]
DI: In a super folky, busking in the subway in New York kind of way.
Willy, you’re from New York. Do you and Dizzy have a history there?
WG: Yeah! That’s where we met!
DI: I went to college in New York so I didn’t actually live there for that long, but it was very formative. I went to middle school and high school in Turkey, then moved to New York when I was 18. I immediately became super close with Willy and another group of folk dorks. You know how when you first leave home and you have these really codependent intense friendships that you won’t have later in life because you learn how to have boundaries and be an adult? Those people are like your family. We were really close in 2005.
WG: That’s when I moved to New York. That winter.
DI: Willy moved to New Orleans before I did, but then came back to New York and lived in Europe for a while. I finished school and immediately came to New Orleans.
It’s a really small world.
DI: Yeah. Sedef and I’s parents have known each other since the ‘70s, so we have known each other our whole lives. I did the math and I’ve collectively known the members of the band for 50 years or something. [laughs]
SS: That’s so cute! [laughs] I think the first time we met we were around four, so we’ve been friends for almost 30 years now. Dizzy’s the reason I’m in New Orleans. She has historically always been full of good ideas. I just take pages out of her book from time to time. Coming to New Orleans was definitely one of those. Willy, I don’t remember the first time that you and I actually met.
WG: If I’m not mistaken, it might’ve been at a party.
SS: It might’ve been at a Gland show in a backyard.
WG: Was it on Art Street across from a church? There was lots of beer.
SS: We may have even met in New York at the Jalopy [Tavern] or something years prior. The first time that you came up to me and intentionally were like, “Hey! We have these mutual friends! Let’s be friends!” was—
WG: I did that? Wow! [laughs] I’m impressed with myself!
SS: I was impressed too! [laughs]
Gantrim at Cafe Istanbul (January 2020)
Another thing you all share in common beyond personal bonds is coming from a background of busking and playing on the streets. How do you feel that shaped your musical approach?
WG: I went to busking school in New York, so I learned how to be really loud. It really helped me develop—not that I have much of a voice—but what voice I do have. Also, when you’re out busking, you meet a lot of other buskers. I don’t know if it had to do with being young, but you soak up all this musical knowledge. It really is busking school in a sense because I learned a lot of chords and old songs through the folk process.
DI: I just wanted to be involved, which is why I started playing the washboard. I took lessons, played piano, and was in high school band, but I didn’t really have a sense of musical agency. I met Willy and others in this roots music scene. I was so into the music and so into what they were doing. I wanted to do something, but I feel like I showed up with the mindset of just being an accompanist, trying to have good rhythm and contribute in some small supporting way. [There was] over a decade of busking as my only or primary source of income, getting into different kinds of old jazz and roots and folk music. Busking was, overall, a way to not worry about fucking up in front of people because they can just keep moving. It’s scarier to play on a stage where people are there, and they’re there to see you, versus if you capture someone’s attention when they’re walking down the street. It’s a different thing. It took me a long time to let go of that self-consciousness, learning to play on the street and learning to play in front of people.
SS: It’s a really interesting opportunity to learn what people both do and don’t respond to musically, and what is a hit, what makes you money. Plus, also that you can’t even rely on that and to not give a fuck. For me, I was really sick in my teens and then I had a life-saving surgery in my 20s. I recovered and then I met a punk boy who was like, “Come ride the freight trains with me! Oh my god! You have a violin in your closet and you don’t play it? Let’s go!” Suddenly, it was like, “Oh cool. This is what I’m doing with my time. This is how I’m making a living. Some people respond to these things, some people don’t.”
WG: I don’t know if it is superstitious, but I do feel like, looking back, the days that I made the most money busking were when I was just having the most fun. I feel that people are attracted to the energy.
You all come from a folk background, and I’ve seen people call this a folk or country band, but Little Death is really a rock’n’roll band. How do you feel about people trying to label this as a folk or country band?
WG: I want to pull my hair! [laughs] No, it’s not that bad. It is frustrating for me because I very specifically had the vision for it to not be that. It makes me feel like saying, “Did you even listen to the music?”
DI: A lot of people in that busking circuit came to blues and roots music from some punk. Because of the similar feelings expressed of disenfranchisement, or not feeling represented, or not liking the commodity of pop, they arrived at folk from there. For me, it feels like a bigger jump to get from playing 1930s music to getting here [with Little Death]. But for someone who is thinking of way louder and less melodic bands, we still have a lot of old music and harmonies that inform what we do, even though it feels so much harder for me than the shit that we’ve played before.
WG: But I feel like the terms that I’ve seen describing us are—What was that one? I think they called us folk country twee pop or something like that.
SS: That was Bryan Funck. [laughs]
WG: I do feel like we are influenced by older music but, if anything, it would be ‘60s girl groups or doo-wop… nothing country or folk.
SS: Yeah. I was in a band called the Bang Bangs a few years ago. It was all ‘50s and ‘60s R&B, mostly written by Southern artists. It was mostly covers. To me, this feels like the very next iteration of that kind of music, like have you ever heard Fats Domino? Why do you think we’re country? [laughs] I don’t think that we sound like Fats Domino, but there’s way more Chuck Berry than there is Hank Williams.
I talked to Alynda a couple days ago. She said it reminded her of the Pixies. She said that, coming from her, that’s a huge compliment.
SS: Hell yeah.
WG: I love the Pixies.
You recorded this album in Zach Quinn’s bedroom during the middle of the hot, sticky summer last year. What was that like?
DI: It was in his grandma’s spare room in the same house that his bedroom is in.
SS: Yeah. He’s a chainsmoker, bless his heart. I think Memaw still smokes a pack a day too. We had to keep turning off the window unit during takes.
WG: It was very dark. It was always very dark. [laughs]
SS: Totally. Just muted light coming through one window with a shabby curtain on it.
WG: It kind of felt like you were walking into a serial killer’s house. [laughs]
SS: Dizzy and I have spent a lot of time over there because we’ve known Zach for a while. I feel very fondly about the place.
WG: Can you edit out what I said? [laughs]
SS: I feel like he would find it funny. The thing that stands out the most in my mind is me trying to do a bunch of vocal harmonies that I had only heard in my head and never actually attempted in real life. I was gasping for air to hit these high harmonies in a room full of cigarette smoke with Zach. He’s great at what he does and he’s obviously a great vocalist too. It was super worth gasping for air in a smoky room to have his help and direction.
DI: As a friend, it’s really valuable to work with someone who you trust a lot but you can also tell no. He’s so excited, so enthusiastic, and made the whole process feel really fun and undaunting. I got there a day early to set up my drums. He was like, “Oh, we’re going to need to make a hole in the bass drum.” I had recorded drums a little bit before, but my drumhead doesn’t have a hole in it. He was like, “I’ve got this!” He went to the kitchen, got a can of SpaghettiOs, laid it down, and just stabbed around it with a boxcutter for the mic in the bass drum.
SS: Him and his dad are just crafty like that when it comes to getting the right sounds.
DI: It was a really lucky and productive combination of someone who we felt familiar and comfortable with. Also, [it was good] to be in an environment that felt cozy and not like a studio, being like “We can’t afford this! What are we doing?”
WG: Yeah. There was always a couch guy. It made it feel very laid back.
Speaking of familiarity, Willy, you’ve known Alynda for a long time. You two have shared bills for over a decade. How did you get to know her and what role do you feel she played in getting you to New Orleans?
WG: That’s kind of a long story. [laughs] I’ve known Alynda almost as long as I’ve known Dizzy. I think I really got to know her more in 2009 when Dizzy and I were on this tour with our friends from New York. Alynda was on the tour with our mutual friend. We really didn’t get along at that point. We were at each other’s throats on the tour.
DI: Also, it was four people in a Toyota pickup truck.
WG: When I say tour it was more like a little—
SS: Suicide mission?
WG: Yeah, basically. [laughs] Alynda and I really became friends when I felt desperate to get out of New York and she invited me to live with her in Nashville. We were miserably stuck in Nashville for a year together. It really felt like we escaped from there. We had plans to come to New Orleans, but a week early, we were just like, “What the fuck are we still doing in Nashville? Let’s get the fuck out of here!” We started driving as soon as we said that. We just took off and came here. I think that was 2017. I forgot what the question is but I love Alynda.
She said part of the decision to flee Nashville was the 2016 election and, the way she put it, the “Trumpers.” What was that like?
SS: Didn’t you have a crazy racist neighbor?
WG: That was never confirmed, but she did say some weird stuff to Alynda. If I’m going to be completely honest… The Trump thing was definitely—how do I put this? There were just too many white people. I don’t know. [laughs] I don’t know if they were “Trumpers” or not, but I had been spoiled living in New York, which is so diverse racially and every other way. Nashville was not for me.
Has New Orleans been a better environment for you in that regard?
WG: For the most part. Not necessarily the music scene, but now it doesn’t really matter. I don’t see anybody! [laughs] I could be in space on Mars right now!
SS: We’ve talked about how, despite being genreless, the people we’re connected to… it is a predominantly white music scene. Willy and I have talked about that a lot, how we’re here and in this city, but it still feels very divided. We’re still mostly surrounded by a white community.
WG: Most cities in America are segregated. I think American culture is very segregated, so it’s weird being brown people and playing in a rock‘n’roll band. I don’t want to speak for everybody else. It’s not weird because I love rock ‘n’ roll music. I don’t know. I’ve never really felt like part of a scene for that reason.
One thing Alynda mentioned was how powerful it felt to see Willy as a Mexican-American having this band with brown women. How important is that element of this group for y’all?
DI: I feel like the band is a family… it makes me feel really comfortable to be able to be open with each other about whatever insecurities or uncertainties we’re facing. Obviously, there’s a lot of overlap in terms of being underrepresented in music scenes, either as brown people or as women. [For instance,] having a similar background of sometimes well-intentioned but belittling stupid things that people say to you outside of shows. It helps a lot to play with people who kind of know what that feels like.
SS: We arrived at this dynamic, but it’s something that we blissfully don’t have to think about inside of the dynamic, which is the appeal. It doesn’t feel intrinsically tied to the identity of the band. I think we have strong ties between us. That said, I’ve always felt that visibility is a trap but representation is still important. That was something that rocked my fucking world with Gland. We would go on tour and the way that younger people would respond to us, particularly younger queers, non-binary folks, and just the freaks in general who were young, they wanted to see us. They saw us for who we were and it made them feel like they were allowed and they were invited and they were important. I can’t not bring that to the attention that I want for this band.
WG: Yeah. When I zoom out to the bigger picture, the representation thing is really important. It’s really important if people can see themselves doing things and other people doing things that generally society hasn’t deemed them allowed to do. But there’s a fine line between being represented and being tokenized. I think I was telling Switch before that when we’re playing, my biggest thing is just that I want to be in a really good band. If, just by looking at the way we look, we become some sort of representative then that’s fine. In the end, the really important thing is to make good music.
SS: And have fun, which we do!
WG: “If your revolution doesn’t have dancing, I don’t want any part of it,” something like that. [laughs] I forget who said that.
I really hope that one of these days I actually get to see the band play. I fell into that classic New Orleans mentality where you tell yourself, “Oh, I’ll see them next week” because there’s always a next week—until there’s not.
SS: Yeah. I think there always is next week. I get a lot of opportunities to perform and we all do in whatever band or capacity we’re playing in. Some people are like, “Ah! I really have to come see you guys play sometime!” I don’t care! [laughs] Our friendship isn’t contingent on whether or not you support my band. [laughs] This is a thing that I do. It would hurt my feelings if you told me you thought it was stupid, but I’m very happy to live in a city where, before the pandemic, a regular part of life was being a performing musician, doing it frequently, and having the option to go or not go while not feeling like you’re missing out.
DI: It’s hard right now. If a lot of the social things that are happening now were happening outside of the context of a pandemic (even though I think they’re happening in part because of the pandemic)… It’s just hard wanting to channel the thing that we do towards raising money. New Orleans is really good at partying for a cause. There has been so much inspiring community organizing and things happening with the internet as a platform. I’m really hopeful that will translate in terms of real life with a better ability to have benefits. I’m also looking forward to appreciating shows because we were all like “Oh yeah! Next week! I’ll go to the other show!” I feel like the first show that I get to go to, whenever that is, I’m just going to cry.
It was a bit strange to do this over Zoom, but I also feel like it still worked out well. [laughs]
SS: I definitely have a leg up but I also feel like this is part of the ease of the dynamic that we have. I want to just mention that again because I’m fucking proud of us and I’m really proud of the friendships that we have. The closeness that I have to the people in this is really fucking getting me through some shit.
DI: I’m crying! [starts tearing up]
WG: Let it out!
SS: It feels like baby steps at the beginning of a career path and not just a job. I’ve gotten to the point in my life, where despite being a DIY musician who barely gets paid anything if ever, it can feel like a job, even if it is my activism and playing benefits. But this band makes me feel like I like work.
That’s important, especially when you’re DIY, because you don’t get paid enough to do things you don’t like.
DI: It better be fulfilling.
WG: This is definitely the first and only band I’ve ever been in where I feel like this is my dream band. I had seen other bands around me that were just made of friends that just happened organically. I always was a little jealous, because I felt like I was in bands of mercenaries. Little Death just happened.
Additional thanks to Alynda Segarra
photos by Adrienne Battistella