Ladies Is Trouble
Interview Ari Spool & Alaina Stamatis
Photography Maggie Lee
In Olympia, WA, there are punk houses scattered about town that are all painted black. They are all owned by a man who is known by the nickname “The Dark Dentist”, because he is a dentist by trade, and a somewhat shadowy figure, and because he has painted these houses this way on purpose. There are various theories as to why: he wants to lower the property values so he can continue to charge cheap rents as a patron of the residents, who are mostly artists and musicians; he likes keeping Olympia weird; he is simply goth. No one knows the real story, it seems, except the Dark Dentist. But there is another commonality to each of these homes: in each one, there are beautiful murals, or strange build-outs, or DIY architectural features, all specifically protected from future alteration in the tenant’s leases.
The reason I bring this up is because many people believe that the American deviant scene has nothing more to offer other than an impolite rehashing of ’60s garage, ’70s hard rock, or ’80s three-chord punk. But in a climate as consistently bizarre and blended as the American underground, shocking, surrealist innovation is bound to occur as layer upon layer of material sediment is protected and deified. Dog Leather certainly echo tradition, vaguely, but their reinterpretation and blending of screwed-up hip hop, lewd wit, and – of all things – abstract noise, is easily classified as insanity. To wit: a recent evaluation of Internet reactions to a show in Williamsburg has as many “This is the worst shit I’ve ever heard” tweets as “This is the best shit going right now” ones.
Dog Leather is a collaboration between Baltimore-based (and somewhat counfoundingly pseudonymed) DJ Dog Dick and a wanderer – both location- and genre-wise – who plays under the name Sewn Leather. Their actual names are Max Eisenberg and Griffin Pyn, respectively, and I met them in the heart of downtown Williamsburg right before the aforementioned show, which took place at a venue called Monster Island Basement. Max is more gregarious. He had streaks of fading yellow dye in his hair, and he was wearing ripped jeans and the same flannel button-up that I’d seen in most of his Facebook pictures. Griffin is much more reserved. He dressed in black from head-to-toe, and his hood was always up. Later, when he took off his sweatshirt during the show, you could see that both of his arms were covered in stick-and-poke tattoos, down to the tips of his fingers.
Both men, however, are extreme performers. Someone told me they thought it was like Insane Clown Posse, but good. They are playing electronics on tables, doing tape loops and other things I don’t understand, in the service of scratching out beats that sound like they are being played through a metal garbage can. Max frequently sings melody and raps with his whole body. Griffin is also screaming in the mic with a snottier attitude.
Griffin is also almost violently physical. During that show, he climbed what seemed like a sheer wall to hang upside-down off of a pipe by his legs, while shouting into the mic. He fell on his head and got up immediately, unfazed. I’ve seen him spend entire sets on top of crowds, literally, including one memorable show at the Silent Barn in Queens where at one point there was a gigantic figure-eight coffee table, two other people, and a chair all crowdsurfing with him while someone threw frozen chicken chunks at the crowd (yes, there is video). Max tends to stand his ground, but he is no less dynamic. At Monster Island Basement, during a bit of technical trouble, he bantered, “My phone is broken. If you’ve been trying to reach me, put your fingers to your temples, and imagine I’ve died and I’m in heaven, enjoying my existence…” He went on for a while, until the problem was fixed. Dog Leather win Best in Show at the End of the World Music Awards, every time you see them.
So, I took these guys out to pizza as a ploy to get an interview. I brought ’SUP contributor Alaina Stamatis along with me to help ask questions because, honestly, I was nervous that they wouldn’t be easy to talk to. Predictably, the interview was a little bizarre. We began to chat informally as we walked to the restaurant. Appropriately, there were dogs barking in the distance.
Alaina (Pointing at a bar across the street): One time I was there, and there was a roach on the bar and I said ‘There’s a roach on the bar, give me a free drink.’ And it worked.
Max: I worked at a really fancy restaurant in St. Louis, and their specialty was Sunday brunch. One day I served a cup of coffee that had a roach swimming in it.
Griffin: Whoa! You saw it, and then you served it?
Max: I saw it when it was on the table, and then the person that I served it to saw it and I was right there.
Alaina: So that means roaches have no problem with intense heat.
Griffin: They can survive anything.
Ari: Nuclear holocaust, right?
Alaina: How far away do they need to be?
Ari: I don’t know. I think they just need to not be crushed by anything, and then they survive.
Max: And then they evolve to be roach people.
Ari: What do those people look like?
Alaina: You and me.
Ari: Like, you and me, specifically?
Max: Yeah (laughing). I was actually trying to think of a celebrity.
Ari: Dan Aykroyd?
Max: Oh yeah.
Ari: Poor guy. He’s a roach person.
Griffin: I thought he was an alien.
Max: Yeah, he’s an alien.
Ari: Is he a conehead?
Max: No, he’s really obsessed with aliens, though. There’s this great YouTube video, it’s called “Dan Aykroyd – Unplugged on UFOs”. It’s just 40 minutes of him chain smoking Marlboro’s and drinking coffee and just talking about everything he knows about aliens and UFOs and government conspiracies.
(We turn the corner in silence.)
Max: Once, when I was in middle school, it was the end of the day, and right before all the kids were going to get let out this car burst into flames right in front of the school. Everyone just bum-rushed the front gates and all the faculty were desperately trying to contain the excitement of all the kids. They were trying to keep all the kids inside and the kids were like, ‘No way, school’s over, we’re leaving! We wanna see this frickin’ car!’ And the car is just billowing smoke and flames. Everyone was really going crazy. But the car went out, and then we went home.
Alaina: It didn’t explode.
Max: No, it didn’t. That’s what the faculty was really afraid of, that it would take some of us out with it.
(We arrive and get sorted with the pizza. Everyone but me orders a barbeque chicken slice, a commonality at weird Brooklyn pizza places. The place is lined with pinball machines. Except for one player, and the piazaiolis, we are the only people present.)
Max (Gesturing toward a themed pinball machine): My roommates all play this game all the time now, Texas Hold ‘em Poker.
Alaina: In real life?
Griffin: Yeah, they built a poker table.
Max: Yeah, they are so serious about it.
Griffin: I’ve been thinking about that today, the progression of [your roommate] just playing it all the time on his laptop in the kitchen, to them playing around the kitchen table, to them building the huge-ass poker table.
Max: Yeah, it’s kind of taken over the whole cultural environment of my house. There’s poker nights twice a week. When we have shows now they are just playing poker the whole time. I live in a place that has shows. I’m really trying to avoid getting fully into it.
Ari: Do they play for money?
Max: Yeah, they do.
Griffin: They just played for like 18 hours the other night, and [another roommate] won a hundred bucks.
Max: At my house they play a tournament, where you buy in for $5, and you get some chips. And you can keep buying in if you lose out. You don’t end up spending more than five or ten bucks, but one person wins the whole pot at the end.
Ari: I don’t know how to play it.
(We get our pizza from the counter.)
Max: I’ve never had barbeque chicken pizza.
Ari: It’s pretty good. So, what was the moment when you guys started to play together instead of just separately?
Griffin: It’s not instead of.
Ari: Oh, sorry, I know. In addition to, I mean.
Max: There was a big show in Baltimore that was coincidentally right after we were getting back after a European tour, and it worked out that we could have a set together, so we did it. And then this local cultural philanthropist guy, Stewart Mostofksy, he runs a label called Ehse, which is what our record is out on, said, ‘Oh, I’ve got to put out a record by you guys. A Dog Leather record.’ And we were like, ‘Alright, we’ll do it!’ And originally we’d intended that we’d just go into the studio and jam, it would be like a jam record, but once we started working on it—
Griffin: The night before we went into the studio, we got stoned and we jammed and we’re like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna make real songs!”
Max: Yeah, we started making real songs. And it turned into something more distinct than just DJ Dog Dick and Sewn Leather jamming together.
Ari: What do you think is distinct about it?
Max: The songs we make as Dog Leather, they’re similar to songs we would do on our own. And sometimes we’ll do a Dog Dick or a Sewn Leather song during our live set, but the songs we write as Dog Leather are just distinctly Dog Leather songs.
Alaina: They have their own flavor.
Max: Yeah, totally.
Alaina: How long have you guys known each other?
Max: Three years? Something like that.
Ari: Did you meet in Baltimore?
Max: No, I think we met in Chicago.
Griffin: We kinda met in Baltimore, I think.
Max: Oh yeah. I guess we met when you were, like, a teenager or something. But we didn’t really connect at that point. But pretty much right when we really met each other, we started going on tour together. So we got pretty, like, deep, you know? In our relationship. (Laughs)
Alaina: Do you finish each other’s sentences?
Max: Sometimes, maybe. Yeah, I’m sure that happens.
Alaina: Do you dream about each other?
Max: Sometimes, yeah. Griffin’s been in dreams of mine.
Alaina: What does he do?
Max: Nothing I can think of off the top of my head that’s different than just like your friends in your dreams. I haven’t had any all-telling mystical dreams—
Alaina: Like where Griffin tries to kill you?
Max: Yeah, or I see Griffin and then look in the mirror and all my teeth fall out.
Ari: Can you describe Baltimore?
Max: Well, Baltimore, aesthetically, on the outskirts of town where lots of people live, is really dilapidated. There are a lot of abandoned houses that are in rows together. There’s the Baltimore row house – that is how most of it is set up. A whole block is there, and all the houses are connected. It’s like townhouses but it’s more, I don’t know, linear, I guess. There’s open drug markets on the streets. It’s 80 per cent black people, but it’s really racially mixed-up. The poor neighborhoods have white and black people in them. I grew up in St. Louis and there’s a very distinct racial divide there. Where I live in Baltimore, it’s a gnarly ghetto, and I could not live in a neighborhood like that in St. Louis and survive.
Griffin: Oh, hell no!
Max: I’d just be killed or robbed instantly. But there’s an acceptance of all kinds of other people, I think, in Baltimore. It’s a jive town, you know?
Griffin: People seem interested in each other, you know?
Max: Everyone’s like, ‘Hey, what’s up!’
Ari: Do you think you could describe a texture of Baltimore? Does it have a textural feeling?
Max: Yeah. The texture of a landfill, or something. A lot of the houses that are abandoned, people will dump in them. They fill up with trash.
Ari: Like, to the ceiling?
Max: Yeah, totally. If you stand on my roof in West Baltimore and look out on the rooftops and the all the streets around it – we’re on a hill so you can see all over the place – it kind of looks like a third-world shanty town, in this way. There’s litter flying everywhere. A lot of the rooftops are kinda jerry-rigged, you know? There’s a lot of character. But that would be the texture. Just trash everywhere. Litter, soiled walls, peeling paint, wasted people. There’s people, like, totally wasted, walking around at all times.
Griffin: Nodding out.
Ari: Do you ever feel like you are being poisoned?
Max: I do, yeah. Like I said, I grew up in St. Louis, and when I moved to Baltimore I immediately started having regular respiratory problems. I got freaked out about it at first, but I sort of accept it now as a trade-off. It’s a really cool city to live in, for one. Two, you are kind of in the thick of things, culturally, in America, and it’s probably the cheapest. I pay very minimal rent compared to everyone I know. So it’s worth it.
Alaina: You guys live in the Bank, and that was an actual bank. When was it a bank?
Max: It closed down in the early ’90s. And when the bank moved out, it was abandoned, but I think some people were squatting there. But half of the roof had collapsed and it just turned into a rot pit. In the six years we’ve lived there, we’ve basically had to gut it out and rebuild it.
Alaina: There’s no marble?
Max: Naw. The bank façade was this retro ’60s veneer. It was so gross. There was carpet everywhere, and yellowing gray curtains. It was nasty, really nasty.
Ari: Do you think you might be writing poetry?
Max: Yeah, I definitely feel like I’m writing poetry. That’s kind of an excuse that I’ve used to keep being a rapper. As DJ Dog Dick, that’s the one way I’ve been able to keep from being like ‘What the fuck am I doing? I’m a white rapper, what the hell!’ and then I think, ‘No, I’m writing poetry!’ Hip-hop or rap is a good way, as a music performer, to be doing poetry.
Ari (To Griffin): What do you think about your words?
Griffin: I’m grateful when I come up with them.
Alaina: So ‘Ladies is trouble?’ (An allusion to a slightly infamous tattoo Griffin has on his hand)
Both: Yes (laughing).
Max: It’s cool when you are writing lyrics and stuff, you can build this narrative that’s not contrived. You’re not building it out of nothing, but you’re just interpreting your own life, and what you perceive around you, into your art. It’s one of the most direct ways of translating that. The words can be abstract, but you’re just relating.