BANGZZ: You Took My Body Long Ago and Now I Am Taking It Back | [Potluck Foundation; Aug. 13]
Halfway through the video for “Hell Is Other People,” BANGZZ’s headlong garage rock stops mid-avalanche, and Erika Kobayashi Libero picks up a drill. Mercifully, she will opt instead for a knife when she finally opens her cranium and starts pulling out Top Ramen. “Release the poison,” she sings with alarming vibrato, and “get it out of my head.” Bandmate Jess Caesar, who has logged on to watch this “DIY self-lobotomy” tutorial, reacts with something between fascination and disgust.
Food, its expulsion, comedy, and horror also swirl together in the local duo’s latest video, for “I’m Fine Thank You and You,” which came out last week alongside their debut full-length album, You Took My Body Long Ago and Now I Am Taking It Back.
Froot Loops bounce on Caesar’s snare drum as Libero cowers under bed sheets, wearing a covetable vintage MTV shirt and singing about hiding her depression on Facebook. That deceptively nutritious breakfast cereal is later consumed from a giant Saturday-morning bowl and then puked up behind The Cave in Chapel Hill, where so much puke has come before. But these are more than punk-rock gross-out gags.
“My partner pointed out that this is a lot of body horror,” Libero says, on a Zoom call alongside Caesar. “The videos came out that way because it’s me trying to reclaim my body by removing parts I don’t like. “I’m Fine Thank You and You” is about the kind of depression where you’re immobile, feeling like you’ve swallowed too much poison for too long about how to think about yourself and your body. It’s about purging that: noticing it’s there, noticing it’s hurting you, and wanting it out.”
Though the music is the furthest thing from immobile, these themes recur throughout, and the song titles leave little to doubt: “Your Boyfriend Is Really Bringing You Down,” “Your Asian Fetish Is Racist,” “Never Mistake Marriage for an Achievement.”
Featuring new recordings of several songs first heard on BANGZZ’s 2019 debut tape, Fresh Cut, with a greater number of completely new ones, the album has a desperate, defiant sound, shaken with anger and anxiety yet thick and complete, thanks to Libero’s bassy guitar attack and Caesar’s relentless, rock-solid time. The music summons fond thoughts of The Gossip, Bikini Kill, and, closer to home, Dirty Little Heaters: sleek, roaring garage bands with big-voiced, almost bluesy singers.
As it happens, Caesar is a Dirty Little Heaters alum who has also drummed for local punk bands like Pink Flag and The Dry Heathens. She grew up in Los Angeles, playing drums in church, school marching band, and a Mexican ska band in which she also sometimes played guitar and sang in Spanish.
In 2005, she moved to Durham, her mother’s hometown, and got into the punk scene by picking up an ad at Guitar Center. She and Libero, both 37, barely knew each other until they formed Bangzz in 2019. Caesar, a sneakerhead, instantly remembers the year, because she wrote it on her white Vans to commemorate the occasion.
“I tried playing these songs out with different configurations, but it just didn’t work,” Libero says. “I was like, well, Jess is the best drummer in Durham—punchy, purposeful, driving. There’s a power and steadiness at the same time that makes you feel really secure. I just cold-called her. We met that weekend, practiced twice, played a show, and just kept going.”
Recorded in home studios and mastered by the ubiquitous Nick Petersen—a local indie rite of passage—the record falls into a riot-grrl lineage that the duo embraces broadly, though they don’t really come from it. Caesar draws more of her aggressive inspiration from hip-hop, while Libero, who grew up abroad, discovered punk later in life.
“It’s riot grrl because more than half the songs were me trying to put words to misogyny, trying to punch through a wall of what people want me to be,” Libero says. “But I grew up in Japan, and we didn’t get riot grrl. I only got the Top 40 stuff I heard on armed-forces radio. When I learned who Kathleen Hanna was, I was 30, and I was like, why. Didn’t. Anyone. Give me this!”
Like Caesar, Libero was 18 when she moved to the area, in her case to attend Wake Forest University. The child of a “kind of absent” Japanese father and an American mother, Libero thought that college would be like the international school she attended in Japan. She thought she would live in a forest. She was in for the shock of her life.
“It’s a melting pot; that’s what it said in the brochure,” she remembers. “But I couldn’t drive anywhere, and everyone kept asking me why I could speak English. I was like, what is even happening here? I’m really bitter that I’m still paying for this American university experience where it was like ‘ching chong chang’ the whole time, and it made me smaller and smaller.”
Whenever she said she was from Japan, she felt that she was met with accents and random remarks instead of interest or questions. Soon, she began to internalize the belief that no one cared what she had to say.
“I realized just recently, I don’t talk about myself a lot because of it, because usually something stupid is said about it and I just shrink,” Libero says. But You Took My Body Long Ago and Now I Am Taking It Back is the clearest possible repudiation of that way of thinking—a searingly personal statement with a steadying drummer and a whole stabilizing community behind it.
Libero’s first job after graduating was at UNC-Chapel Hill, working in AIDS clinical research while also falling into the embrace of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro indie scene. She learned to record by working with Chris Wimberley at Nightsound Studios and to perform by playing in the prog-metal band Henbrain.
These days, she lives in Carrboro and works at Wall of Sound Music Center in Durham. But it was at that first UNC job where she met John Harrison, an approachable pillar of the scene who helps run Potluck Foundation, which is “releasing” BANGZZ’s album. The scare quotes are simply because Potluck is less of a normal label than a collective of collaborative, self-releasing indie artists, and to Libero, that’s the best part.
“It’s like a family thing; it’s not traditional, which is probably for the best because traditional labels steal your masters!” she says. “In 2006, I sent John the first demo I ever made—on [the software] Audacity, where there’s no lock-in-place and you’re hating life—and he was super sweet and encouraging. As someone who’s hidden their music for a very long time, even from partners, until late in my life, [it] was a big deal for me to share anything like that. This record brought my love for this town, this indie scene, full circle. I stayed here for a reason.”
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