We expect a lot from artists; sometimes, everything. We expect them to be vulnerable on command, to mine their discomfort for our comfort. We expect them to keep going.
One morning in 2016, the musician Aimée Argote woke up and said to herself, “I’m done.” She’d been touring on and off since she was in her mid-teens and Des Ark, the beloved Southern punk outfit that she has fronted for twenty years, had attained something like cult status.
“I had a tour booked, I had things in the works,” Argote says, one bright day in September at the Durham farm where she lives with her partner, the musician Taylor Holenbeck. “I sat up and was like, it’s gone. It’s gone. It’s gone. That thing that you have inside of you that says, go to work, make music, do your thing. There’s nothing there.”
Then she began to cry.
After finishing her tour for Des Ark’s last album, 2015’s Everything Dies, Argote went off the radar, maintaining a strong community presence—particularly on Twitter, where she reliably calls out music-scene misogyny in no uncertain terms—but not performing. People told her that she was just burnt out, that time heals all wounds, that someday, she would feel the desire to give music a second chance.
Three years later, Argote is setting out on a short goodbye tour of the East Coast alongside queercore rock legends Team Dresch. Lest this stoke rumors about an ongoing Des Ark reunion, though, she says that it’s a “one-time, one-off tour thing.” Quitting doesn’t mean taking a break: Aside from this tour, she says she’s really finished.
When we pause at the doorway of a spare room filled with a piano, pottery, and merch for the upcoming tour, I ask if this is where she practices. She cocks her head.
“No,” she says. “I quit music.”
It took her three years to feel ready to publicly talk about the reasons why. In July, Argote posted a statement on Instagram. “i left music because i felt unsafe, exhausted, poor as shit, and my body was super fucking broken,” the post began, going on to outline her frustration with a DIY music industry that requires relentless sacrifice—not to mention the burden of policing other people’s bad behavior—from women, queer people, and people of color; an industry that discourages taking care of basic needs or planning for the future.”
Argote also detailed an abusive living experience with an unnamed person in the music scene who told her that he wanted to kill her, and who made continued threatening gestures toward her life. She says that she went to his bosses and his friends. Most of them laughed her off.
“I thought they valued me as an artist and as a woman and a person, and I was just wrong,” she says, noting that the response shook her faith in the DIY community. She didn’t leave music immediately, but wrote that “there wasn’t much I could do to make music feel safe or productive anymore.”
Fighting abuse is at the heart of Des Ark: Many songs deal with trauma, and at shows, Argote has always made it a point to talk openly about the content of those songs, as well as about her experience as a survivor of sexual assault.
“There are so many rapists in the scene, and people don’t hold them accountable,” she says.
She also made it a point to never share a stage with an abuser, even though that meant losing opportunities. “I would get a call—hey, this band you’re playing with tonight, the drummer raped me. I’m like, ‘cool, we’re not playing, fuck that.’ And we would cancel,” she says. “We didn’t play so many shows for that reason. My gut reaction was always: There is no show more important than you.”
As a pick for a final tourmate, Team Dresch is not just any band. Formed in Portland in 1994, the band’s wailing guitars and anthemic songs about queer desire and inclusivity are backed by a compassionate, boots-on-the-ground approach to community. They have known Argote since the very beginning of her career.
As Argote recalls, she and a couple of high school friends tried to sneak into a Team Dresch show at a lesbian bar in the Triangle, during one of the band’s stops in the late nineties. The underage fans were quickly kicked out and migrated to the parking lot, waiting for the show to end. When Team Dresch’s Kaia Wilson walked out, one of the friends shouted that Argote’s band was going to play its first show the next night at Captured Live Studios in downtown Durham. When Argote looked out from the stage, that night, she says she saw Wilson standing in the crowd—and that she’d brought Kathleen Hanna and Ad-Rock (of Bikini Kill and the Beastie Boys, respectively) with her.
From then on, Team Dresch were mentors to Argote and the other members of her band, Rubéo, helping put out the band’s first seven-inch record and plan their first tour. (Hanna even made the flyer for Rubéo’s second show; Argote recalls “High school singing sensations!” being scrawled at the top, which mortified her.) When it came time to tour, Argote’s parents were terrified—this was a pre-cellphone era and the band was barely old enough to drive, let alone pilot a shitty tour van up the East Coast—but relented when Argote showed them a binder filled with detailed information about each tour stop. The teenagers drove to Portland, Maine and back.
Soon after that encounter, Team Dresch disbanded, only touring sporadically in the years since. As for Argote, she graduated early from high school, pinballing between different bands until the formation of Des Ark in 2001. Initially, the band was a two-piece, but after a few years of shifting configurations, Argote realized that the project was primarily hers. Over the years, she estimates that something like seventy people have been involved.
Aimée Collet Argote is an only child; her parents are from New Orleans and had her in Arkansas. When she was six, the family moved to France for Argote’s mother’s Fulbright Fellowship, a period that she credits for instilling her with fearlessness and a certain bent for songwriting; family lore has it that during that year in France, Argote wrote thousands of songs.
After the Fulbright, the family settled in North Carolina. Argote’s mother is an academic, and her dad has moved between jobs over the years, usually holding down several at once (according to Argote, at one point he was the Southeastern poker champion of the United States). Economic precarity was a through-line for the family, and this caused Argote’s father, at one point, to voice concern over her career.
“He said, ‘I wish you would stop and go to college because look at my life, you don’t want this life,’” Argote says. “It was hard for me to hear because my dad is such a hero to me, [but] I know that he meant, ‘I never get a break.’ I went to the mailbox the next day and I had gotten a letter from somebody who said, ‘I was going to kill myself’—I think that they had been assaulted—and they said, ‘I put it on your record and realized I wasn’t alone, so I’m gonna stick it out.’ I showed him that letter and was like, ‘I can’t quit.’”
Extremity defines Des Ark. The polarities of Argote’s lyrics—rage and reprieve, French fries and motherfuckers, shelter and the will to fight back—are reflected in the sonic range. All four albums shift between distorted maximalism, dynamic instrumentation, and stripped-down acoustics. Des Ark’s sound can be a bit hard to summarize because it bridges the heaviest punk and the most gossamer folk. In the middle, you’ll find performances that range from thrashing purgation to hushed reverence and tender, rough-and-tumble anthems about queer desire, nature, and growing up in the Carolinas alongside raw songs about grief and sexual assault.
Often, deceptively frivolous text-speak frames serious material in a way that almost feels incongruous. On “FTW, y’all!!!!” a beautiful instrumental build drops like a rollercoaster into a howl about addiction and broken romance: “Too much time spent in Chapel Hill those years / ‘Cause when that town starts talking / It’s a whisper but it’s all you hear / She’s a queer and he’s a junkie with a thirst / I can hear them betting horses / On which one of us is gonna break first.”
Maybe incongruity is the point, though. The early 2000s, when Des Ark got its start, was rife with pop-culture irony but Des Ark has always seemed less interested in putting distance between feelings than in articulating the ways we actually cope with pain. If younger generations use surplus exclamation points to say, “I don’t really mean what I say,” then Argote’s use of them seems to signal, “I really fucking mean what I say.”
Over the years, this sincerity has collapsed boundaries between audience and performer, making even the most crowded, noisy show feel intimate, like a love song performed in a storm drain. Once, a friend described Argote’s artistic practice to her this way: “You walk into a cage with a lion, lock yourself in, and throw the fucking key away.”
For the first decade or so, Des Ark toured exclusively in the underground queer scene, but Argote became disenchanted with “preaching to the fucking choir.” In 2011, after years of handling all of the band logistics, she hired a booking agent. This caused pushback from some people in the punk scene who saw this as selling out, but Argote felt that, in order to reach more diverse audiences and not burn out, it was necessary.
“If people aren’t mad at you, you’re probably not talking up enough,” she says. “I need to go to places where I feel a little uncomfortable.”
Sitting at her kitchen table discussing these discomforts, Argote, now thirty-seven, is cheerful but straightforward. Over the years, in interviews sprinkled across zines, she’s always managed to be warm and honest about her work without resorting to self-deprecation or minimizing what her music means to people. Today, she’s not minimizing the physical and emotional toll that life on the road can take. She suffers from chronic health issues and, between 2008 and 2012, nursed both of her parents back from bouts with cancer, a period she describes as a “black hole.”
Hiring a booking agent had helped with burnout, but the increased industry pressure also caused some of the magic to recede. She began to question the idea that artists must necessarily suffer to make good art.
For the past three years, she’s barely touched a guitar. “When I looked at [a guitar], it looked like something I had never seen before in my life,” she says. She stopped going to concerts, and doesn’t listen to anything resembling indie rock, instead preferring the New Orleans jazz she grew up with, or breezy Top 40, which she describes as “really fun to vacuum to.” She became a potter: “I found ceramics and, you know, it doesn’t require sadness.”
We don’t have much of a cultural vocabulary around quitting. It doesn’t jibe with either capitalism’s Horatio Alger showmanship or the not-unrelated mythology around artistic vision which says that if you’re blessed with talent, you’re obligated to see it through. Of course, those narratives don’t have much to do with a punk culture in which neither winning nor ego is the goal. As with most things, there’s a Patti Smith quote for that: “To me, punk rock is the freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful.” Argote echoed that sentiment in her Instagram post when she wrote that “quitters never win, but winning’s not the fucking point.”
While her break with the industry may have been extreme, these days, Argote seems hopeful.
“There are so many amazing people who are making really tough and beautiful and true music,” she says. “I’m so excited for how many barriers I see getting crushed, constantly, how many young people, young women, and non-binary folks, are fucking shredders.”
The tour with Team Dresch represents a different side of the industry: an opportunity to perform in a safe, queer environment with an end date; an opportunity to put the key in the lock and say goodbye to the lion.
“It feels wonderful,” she says. “I realized, if I [went on] tour with my favorite band of all time, the shows are going to be so queer. Every Team Dresch show I’ve ever seen is just people hugging, crying—the spectrum of emotions, but from a place of pure love, like the queer scene was and has been for me. This is the ultimate experience. I think this is it. I’m gonna open it, do this, and close the book.”
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