Noir is a stylistic signifier most often applied to film. The stylish 1940s and ’50s gave us loads from directors like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Orson Welles. Noir put a fatalistic French spin on Hollywood detective films, punctuated by pessimism and darkness. So it makes perfect sense that “noir” is a word often associated with Street Sects’ abrasive industrial punk rock. For this duo from Austin, darkness reigns, no matter which way you look.
Leo Ashline and Shaun Ringsmuth may not dress in the same slick three-piece suits as their film noir progenitors, but their three releases—End Position (2016), Rat Jacket (’17) and The Kicking Mule (’18)—are shrouded in a similar sense of terror. So it’s hard to believe that Ashline and Ringsmuth both moved to Austin a few years ago from sunny Fort Myers, where they’d cut their teeth in hardcore bands like The Failsafe and A Soft Perversion.
Since then, they’ve inched deeper and deeper into a sort of black hole of musical terror, flexing their brutally loud instrumentation and strained, often-screamed lyrics. But as Ashline tells Folio Weekly, The Kicking Mule represents a more nuanced step for the band.
“On our first Street Sects album, we were trying to build our own sound with our own tools,” he says. “We [threw] everything out and seeing what stuck. With Rat Jacket, we tried to refine the melodies; on The Kicking Mule, we tried to focus on writing the best music we could—thought-out, well-structured songs.”
Yes, they’re still loud and, yes, they still address some of their struggles with the world. But some of those songs pull more from post-punk angularity and conventional hardcore frameworks: pounding bass lines, intricate guitar work, propulsive drumming and the cleanest vocals Ashline has ever recorded.
Still, Street Sects maintain creative standard operating procedure. Ringsmuth writes musical snippets, then gives them to Ashline, who listens to them while driving, first singing nonsense syllables, then building lyrics out of the resultant flow.
“The only difference is, someone broke into my van and stole my stereo,” Ashline laughs. “So now I drive around with a pair of headphones, pulling them out of my ears to try to hear myself. Probably not safe at all when you’re driving.”
Ashline’s perspective has also transitioned, from autobiographical examinations of his fight against the twin demons of addiction and recovery to more character-driven neo-noir storytelling. (He actually got sober at Gateway Community Services in Jacksonville; his mother still lives here.)
The Kicking Mule even comes with a short story that ties in to some of the songs.
“With any kind of writing, it’s all personal,” he says. “Some of the songs on this record are straight autobiography, but even the ones with characters and fictional pieces are still representative of something I went through.”
The cover art also fits Street Sects’ aesthetic. Past releases featured work by artists AJ Garcés Bohmer and Huseyin Ozkan, who collaborated closely with Ashline and Ringsmuth to get the right vibe. For The Kicking Mule, they handed over the reins to Francesco Francavilla, an Italian comic book artist famous for his work on The Black Beetle, Black Panther and Zorro.
“He’s probably one of the best modern illustrators who does noir stuff,” Ashline says. “The only thing is, he doesn’t want to work from somebody else’s concepts, which I respect. I sent him our other covers and knew he’d capture that noir theme, though. Still, it was a little nerve-wracking.”
Nerve-wracking is an atmosphere Street Sects know well, though. Their live shows are revered for heavy fog effects, ear-shattering volume and body-punishing physical histrionics, all of which enhance the music’s violent nature. Ashline says he and Ringsmuth developed strategies to cope with the toll such performances take on their bodies over the course of, say, a 45-day tour with few days off.
“We embrace the exhaustion,” he says. “If you focus on how tired you are, it’s going to suck. If you focus on the highlight of playing a show every night in a different city to different people, it’s really exciting. We’re fortunate to be able to go out and do this, and the last thing we want is to let people walk out of the venue feeling underwhelmed—even if it’s only for a handful of people who give a sh*t enough to come out.”
On this tour, Street Sects adds a third member for the first time, to round out their infamous live show. But Ashline emphasizes that their success still hangs by a thread.
“We’re beyond grateful that anyone listens to our music, and a lot more people listen to our music than we ever thought possible,” he says. “That said, we’re still broke; we’re not making any money; we’re not cashing royalty checks; and when we tour, we go into the red. But this band means everything to us, and we’ve built our lives to cater to it. We’d love get to a point where we could sustain ourselves financially through our art, but if that doesn’t happen, it’s not like we’re going to quit. We’re totally happy doing Street Sects the way we do it.”