Okay, Vault Hunters…today we debut a new column called A Beginner’s Guide To…
Here’s the premise: all of the writers here at the Vault are into a wide variety of music, not all of which do we get a chance to write about regularly (or ever). With the A Beginner’s Guide To… series, we’re going to try to get everybody else into it as well by compiling what we consider to be the perfect 45-minute playlist from a certain band, genre, or even record label. Some of those playlists might be metal, some of them might not, but the common thread running through them all is that they’re all things we think will appeal to our readers.
Why 45 minutes? Because I’m old enough to remember making mix tapes when I was in high school, trying (usually unsuccessfully) to impress attractive females with my impeccable taste in music. 45 minutes = one side of a 90-minute cassette = the perfect amount of music to digest in one sitting.
So without any further ado, we bring you our first installment: A Beginner’s Guide To…Self Defense Family.
I love Self Defense Family, but they’re not the sort of band that makes it easy to do so. Originally formed under the name End of a Year (after the song of the same name by Ian MacKaye’s lesser known emo band Embrace), they released thee full-lengths and eleven 7” splits and EPs before changing their name first to End of a Year Self Defense Family for the “I Heard Crime Gets You Off” 7”, and now simply Self Defense Family. Under their new moniker, which is/was also the name of an all-black Texas prison gang known for warring with the Aryan Brotherhood in the 1980s, they’ve released two full-lengths, twenty-five 7” splits and EPs, and one cassette-only live album since 2011.
Calling them ‘prolific’ might be an understatement.
Anchored by vocalist Patrick Kindlon’s strangled yelp and the angular riffs of guitarist Andrew Duggan, SDF are less a traditional band than a loose collective of some fifteen or so musicians, which means that the lineup for each release is largely determined by whomever’s available at the time. As a result, there tends to be some stylistic variance from one release to the next, making them a difficult band to describe – broadly post-hardcore, but with an increasingly pronounced Krautrock influence, especially NEU! That also might explain why the only other SDF fans I know just so happen to be music writers as well.
But today we start to fix that. It wasn’t easy narrowing the options down to 45 minutes, but I believe that what follows is a pretty representative sampling of each facet of the band’s musical personality, and a nice starting point for anyone who wants to delve a little deeper into their intimidatingly vast discography.
A Beginner’s Guide To…Self Defense Family
1. “Tithe Pig” (Self Defense Family – Try Me – 2013)
Self Defense Family’s music has taken on a much moodier character than the more punk-influenced sound of their earlier recordings as End of a Year. The opening track from their first full-length as SDF is a good example of this, and a great way to kick off this playlist. Built around a minimalist riff and some inscrutably paranoid lyrics from Kindlon (“Confirm there’s nothing outside / Do your makeup and your exercise / Get made up for only my eyes / Toss your phone, it’s useless / Toss your computer, it’s useless”), it perfectly sets the tone for what might be the most consistent record in their catalog. Spoiler: it’s also the only one that appears on this playlist twice.
2. “Jeni Leigh” (End of a Year – You Are Beneath Me – 2010)
You Are Beneath Me was the band’s third full-length and first long-player (and second release overall, after their self-titled 7”) for venerable hardcore label Deathwish, which increased the band’s profile considerably. The songs on the record are a series of oblique character sketches largely based on familiar names like sci-fi author Philip Jose Farmer, Crazy Eddie Electronics proprietor Eddie Antar, and contemporary artist Marissa Wendolovske. I have no idea who Jeni Leigh is/was, though given the lengthy two-part interview with 90’s pornographic actress Jeanna Fine that was included on Try Me, it could conceivably be a misspelling of contemporary porn star Jeni Lee’s name. Whoever she is, her song, which at times sounds a bit like a punkish version of Fleetwood Mac, is easily the highlight of what most fans would call the band’s best record. There’s another version of this song with sometime collaborator Caroline Corrigan handling lead vocals that appears on Self Defense Family’s You Are Beneath Her 7” that’s worth seeking out as well.
3. “Dave Sim” (Self Defense Family – Heaven is Earth – 2015)
Heaven is Earth was SDF’s slightly lackluster follow-up to 2014’s stellar one-two punch of Try Me and Duets. Part of the issue might have been their approach to the recording process, which was to record two songs each with a series of four different producers. In the end, the record feels kind of disjointed, mixing more experimental tracks like “In My Defens Self Me Defend” and “Ditko” with more straightforward compositions. Of the latter set of songs, closer “Dave Sim” is the strongest. Named after a controversial Canadian cartoonist/illustrator with a reputation as a misogynist, it’s a welcome blast of aggression on a record that spends a little too much time contemplating its own navel. Also: I would have put money on this being one of the songs that Converge’s Kurt Ballou produced at God City, and I would have lost. It was produced by Jon Low, who is probably best know for working with either Kurt Vile or The National.
4. “Maybe You Could Explain it to Me” (Self Defense Family – Bastard Form 7” – 2017)
SDF’s more recent output sees the band stretching out and relying less and less on traditional song structures, with mixed, frequently meandering results. A lot of their post-Heaven is Earth material falls into that “fascinating mess” category – I still dig it, and I still buy everything they put out on every possible color variant, but I have to be in the right mood to throw one of those 7-inches on the turntable. They also don’t necessarily provide the best entry point for new listeners. “Maybe You Could Explain it to Me,” though, is an exception. A sparse track that’s carried primarily by the understated, melodic guitar interplay, it remains compelling throughout its five-minute run time despite not a whole lot actually happening.
5. “Gold Star Mother” (Meredith Hunter – Self Defense Family/Meredith Hunter Split 7” – 2014)
Meredith Hunter was the name of the 18-year-old African-American man stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels at the Rolling Stones’ notorious Altamont gig in 1969. It’s also another alias for Self Defense Family, thus far used only for this 7” split. So why would a band do a split with themselves under two different names? In all honesty, the two sides actually do sound appreciably different. The SDF contribution, “Russian History,” plays out like Can on codeine, which I don’t know if I mean as a compliment or not. The female-fronted (I don’t think it’s Caroline Corrigan, but as is SDF’s wont, there are no credits anywhere) “Gold Star Mother,” on the other hand, sounds like a lost Linda Rondstadt track from the late 70s – shimmery West Coast country/soft rock. It’s a total outlier in their discography, but an absolute gem nonetheless.
6. “I’m Going Through Some Shit” (Self Defense Family – “I’m Going Through Some Shit” 7” aka the Jamaica EP– 2011)
A slow-building burner of a track for its first half, at which point it takes a total left turn for it exhilarating, instrumental second half. Kindlon sounds like he legitimately blows out his voice on this one, which definitely adds to the overall effect.
7. “Turn the Fan On” (Self Defense Family – Try Me – 2013)
Easily my favorite SDF song, “Turn the Fan On” is one of the very few times in the band’s catalog where the lyrics carry the track. Relatively straightforward by Kindlon’s inscrutable standards, it seems to tell the story of an unhappily married middle-aged man having an affair with younger (possibly college-age) woman, who he ends up taking to have an abortion. Given that setup, he manages to pack a stunning amount of pathos into the lyrics. Consider the opening four lines:
A patchy beard and he’s slightly balding
His wife’s at home, she won’t stop calling
Places lips to nipple, he’s crying
Places tongue to clit, and he’s sobbing
By the time the song gets to the first chorus and it’s oblique assertion that “Someone talked through the best part / We’ll have to start again,” I usually want to cry, even though at that point I have no clue what he’s talking about. Meanwhile, the band wisely keeps the music relatively simple behind him, allowing the vocals and heartbreaking lyrics to come to the fore.
8. “Cancel Man” (Self Defense Family – Duets – 2014)
The Duets EP is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of duets between Kindlon and Corrigan, primarily dealing with deteriorating relationships. All except for the last track “Cancel Man,” where Corrigan is given a solo turn. Much like “Gold Star Mother,” the 70s AM rock influence here is strong, but with a much darker vibe overall that makes it feel a bit like a distant cousin of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon.” The chorus and outro, though, would have fit perfectly on Superchunk’s Foolish.
9. “Walter M. Miller Jr.” (End of a Year – End of a Year 7” – 2009)
End of a Year’s first 7” for Deathwish ended up being a writer-themed affair – its other two songs are named after Conan creator Robert E. Howard and Marvel comics illustrator/Man-Thing creator Gray Morrow. The most ebullient track on the EP, “Walter M. Miller Jr.” seems like it might be based on the plot of Miller’s post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s catchy main riff, though, provides a nice contrast to the heavier lyrical matter.
10. “Self-Immolation Family – BBC Live Version” (Self Defense Family – BBC Sessions (Live) – 2017)
I’m generally pretty lukewarm on live records, but this BBC Sessions (Live) EP that Deathwish released this year for Record Store Day is a welcome exception. This take on “Self-Immolation Family,” which originally appeared on a 7” single of the same name (aka, the Iceland EP) is really the definitive version of the song. sSightly tempering the fiery nature of the studio version, it instead focuses more on the melodic interplay between the guitars and shorter, more controlled bursts of combustible energy. The versions of “Tithe Pig” and “Turn the Fan On” on the EP are pretty damn great, too.