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Empathy By Any Means Necessary: The Holy Ghost Tabernacle Choir
Why empathy is the only true motivator for radical change
In a torrent of religious fervor, The Holy Ghost Tabernacle Choir turned a small Gainesville clothing store at The Fest 20 into a sweaty sanctuary packed tight with bodies. With the same creed as almost every show the band has performed before and since, vocalist Nat Lacuna opens the show with an invitation to marginalized groups like POC, LGBTQ+, disabled and victims of abuse— validating them.
Though they carry themselves like a preacher in the pulpit, Nat is not proselytizing. The time for that is over. Lines are already drawn. A sanctum bellum, not based on a God but rather radical empathy leading one to zealously oppose bigotry, capitalism and apathy.
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Few bands like The Holy Ghost Tabernacle Choir (THGTC) can reach audiences outside of heavy music. However, in their fervent values and mission, they connect with like-minded people of various backgrounds. People feel their sincerity in a room of more than 100 like at Fest or 12 like at the Mudlark in New Orleans this past week.
Performing for mostly the bands they were touring with and nearly three weeks into their tour, TGHTC still maintained the same devotion. Their set and meeting with them marked a moment of clarity for me.
To be open, I have a personal connection in some ways clouding my objectivity with the band. Their bassist and co-lyricist in the band, Sleve was the second artist I ever interviewed. In the upside-down, post-election world that was 2017, I spoke to him about his emo project BiRDPERSON (unfortunately named after a Rick and Morty character) and his DIY House, the Birdhaus. Nearly six years ago today, I went to Hausfest, which would be my first real exposure to DIY music at the ripe age of 20 years old.
Not much has changed. I wrote that story for my shitty little blog as I do today. But for Sleve, the music he makes now with TGHTC seems entirely divorced from his past. In that post, I focused heavily on one song from Sleve’s old project called “The Michael Jordan of Baseball.” It’s a soft, twinkly ballad about feeling like the worst version of yourself, as hinted at in the surprisingly factual song title. Can you see where I’m going with this?
As it turns out, Sleve needed a little less mathy-emo and a little more mathy-noisecore; far less gentle harmony and far more screaming over blast beats. Now, he and the band are producing some of the most vital and potent music of their careers together. Their recent debut record, “Slow Murder” centers around the writings of artist David Wojnarowicz and tenderly encapsulates the righteous rage of modern leftists' efforts and the dread of existing as a societal outcast. Hell, the record even features vocals from Soul Glo and Gillian Carter, two of the best in the scene.
It’s not groundbreaking to write a piece of political music but TGHTC does it with such sincerity that it’s impossible not to feel. It’s not screamo to just be screamo. It’s screamo because there’s no other way to express the message authentically. Nat’s practically pleading for urgency. The band seethes. They care. My second time witnessing their platform struck me as much if not more than the first. I hope you find a similar poignancy in their music and in our conversation.
The following interview is edited for clarity. I jumped in towards the middle to cut out some of the pleasantries. A future live recording will be uploaded with the entire conversation later this week. See photos from the Mudlark set here.
So what have you guys thought of [New Orleans] from the limited parts of the city you've seen?
Tanner: Well, admittedly, we haven't seen a lot of the city. After we ate we all sort of passed out. We've been hitting the road pretty hard. We haven't had any off days. So we just decided, I think collectively without talking to each other, to just pass out for a few hours outside of the venue. Honestly, we kind of needed it.
Sleve: My whole thing with being here, especially out after being out of the South for so long on this run, I'm feeling just very like— the architecture style, there are a lot of similarities to how flat it is in Savannah. New Orleans has a lot in common with our home city. So being here has just got me excited to be back in my hometown. We all have different relationships with the city of Savannah and have been there for different amounts of time. But personally, I love our city. I'm really happy that one of the things we get to do on this tour is go around and represent our tiny town on the Atlantic where sometimes people are like, ‘Oh, you're from Georgia, so y'all are in an Atlanta band, right?’ And we get to be like, ‘No, we're from Savannah.’ And I'm proud to say that.
It seems like Savannah has always had a good art scene, but I feel like the music scene has kind of been in and out.
Tanner: Dude, the music scene in Savannah is popping off right now. So you have SCAD, which is bringing a ton of art and film into the town. And in proxy to that, there are all these new musicians that are being flooded into the local scene. There's a ton of talent, ton of unique style that's cultivating something really, really nice in Savannah. Savannah used to have a much stronger scene probably 10 or 15 years ago. There was a lot of stoner, sludge, doom stuff that came out of Savannah, Kylesa, Baroness, Black Tusk, that have all gone out and done incredible stuff. Not to say that I think it's returning to the glory days or anything but I actually think it's probably gonna be probably better than what that was or at least bigger. Maybe not better, but bigger.
Are there some bands or artists that y'all have on your radar right now?
Sleve: Who's our favorite Savannah band? Let’s make our friends mad.
Nat: My personal vote is for Cameron who goes by the project name of Nosebleeeeed. He just released a new song called ‘Flooded.’ He does this really cool style of electronic percussion where it shifts between like glitch and IDM and break beat with really cool ambient, funny meme samples and popular TikTok trend samples. And then he live drums and does vocals over them and they're fucking fantastic. I think he's my favorite to watch. Other than that, I think some cool bands in town right now are Long Way Down, Measurement, Lobstrosity.
Sleve: Really Klept. They're like multi-genre, just like fuckery, noisy, experimental, wacky wackadoo stuff. Boundary-pushing stuff.
Tanner: I was gonna say Klept too. That was gonna be my favorite by far. They're kind of like a Faith No More adjacent, Mr. Bungle-esque crazy, fucked-up shit.
My first DIY [house] show I ever went to was at the Birdhaus and so I wanted to kind of talk to you about that and how you kind of came from that emo world with your old sound in BiRDPERSON. So what brought you to Savannah and how have you grown musically since then?
Sleve: That's a fantastic question because a lot has changed from the days of BiRDPERSON. My wife and when we graduated [from college] when we had both finally finished school, the plan was to move to Atlanta and we just couldn't afford it. It's a little more expensive up there. We didn't have good enough jobs to swing it. And so we were your folks live in Savannah, I've got some friends out there already. I had been playing in a band called Heavy Books while I still lived in Statesboro. That's where I met Tanner. We went through like four drummers and he was the final one that we had and the longest one that we had. We were together in that band for a little more than a year. The thing about BiRDPERSON that was— the change in my music preference to the stuff that I like to play now coincided with a shift in my personal worldview where I kind of took a step back and I looked at everything BiRDPERSON had done and realized thematically it was all directed inward. It was all stuff about me and my problems and struggles and emotions or whatever. And I felt like it was a time, once that project kind of came to its natural conclusion and I was moving to a new place. I want to start a new band. It has to be directed outward and whatever it is it has to be inverted away from myself and thematically has to be concerning itself with actual shit that matters, not just me, one person. And that was really important to me. And I talked about that with Tanner when we first started. I was like, it has to be not just about us.
“Existence is mediated through the consumption of products and brands.
And the worst emo music is just wallowing in that.”
I feel like that's a big issue in general with punk music and emo music too, like being very inwardly focused. Whiny is the common criticism. Everybody has politics but they don't want to talk about it [in their music].
Sleve: Exactly. Well it's funny that you bring that up because we were talking about this yesterday. It's a really interesting article by my friend Jenkin Benson who has a lot of salient points on a lot of stuff. And he has this article talking about how Weed Emo and modern twinkle emo, frat emo, whatever you want to call it, is purely based around that consumerist late capitalist experience where you can only relate to yourself and other people through the lens of consumerism watching TV or movies. Mom Jeans literally has lyrics about like eating Cheetos and shit. Existence is mediated through the consumption of products and brands. And the worst emo music is just wallowing in that. The best emo music subverts that and works around it and addresses the malaise and alienation that comes from living in America under capitalism and ties it into the bigger picture. Bands like Cap’n Jazz or like Yaphet Kotto or something. I had that kind of subconscious realization as BiRDPERSON ended and it was time to look to what was next and that led to this.
Nat, how did you meet Sleve and how did the band call come together?
Nat: Facebook. So at that time I had just moved to Savannah. I moved in with a partner and went on tour for a month doing a solo project and then came back, we broke up and I lived on their couch for like a month. But then I found my own place and stayed in Savannah and I made a couple friends, one of whom was in the Savannah Metal Scene group, which I had no idea existed. One day, I think it was actually Sleve who posted, or someone posted, in that group and was like, ‘Looking for a vocalist for a band. Influences are Jesus Lizard, Dillinger Escape Plan, Mr. Bungle and a couple other artists. And my friend Temple sends this to me and goes, I don't know any of these bands, but they all sound like bands you would know. And I was like, ‘Oh, wow. I know literally all of them.’ And so I reached out and had an audition right before New Year's and came back for a second audition with everyone and we just started writing from there.
[I get Dillinger Escape Plan confused with Dillinger Four for a minute and they help me figure that out, v embarrassing]
Nat, I know you originally came from Florida up to Georgia. How did you get into the scene [in Florida] and then, I want to understand your connection between those two states and how those two places influence your work?
Nat: Florida is a lot of where I did my growing up. The scenes in Jacksonville mainly and then Orlando and Tampa and stuff like that. That's where I spent a lot of my time. So building those connections there and meeting the people I did and getting shown the music I was getting shown was really what tailored my tastes and really influenced me and what kind of band I wanted to be in. The shows that I saw down there and the type of crowd interaction there was. The level of people being really passionate down there. It was very cool to see that firsthand and then decide like, ‘Oh, this is something that I want to do with myself.’ And then like, playing in a couple bands down there. Even like, you know, I was the bassist in like a beatdown hardcore band for a little while and then I was the bassist in like a punk rock band. And then I was the first bassist for GILT a long time ago.
Nat: Tilly [former guitarist for GILT and current guitarist in Home Is Where] and Nico [current bassist in GILT] and I were roommates for a while. So we've known each other for a very long time and the punk band I was in before I played in GILT was actually also with Tyler from GILT and they were playing drums. Then our friend Hannah was on vocals and guitar and then I was just playing bass. It was just like silly fun, like super femme punk rock and it was cool. That was really what got me into playing music and getting involved in live music. I worked at a venue down there called Sarbez! and I helped them book shows for a while. And so just getting really familiar with the inside of the industry really tailored me to know the right way to go about things now, so whenever I join a band I will be able to do it well. I'll be able to figure it out. Then moving to Savannah and going into a scene that I felt much more connected with as an adult. Cause I was much more into that slower, more experimental, like heavy music rather than a lot of the emo and post-hardcore that I listened to when I was younger. It just felt like it was made much better for me to kind of sink into and go to where people were trying to make a little bit more of experimental stuff, which I thought was awesome.
I feel like there's an interesting intersection with y'all's band where you appeal to both a heavier crowd and the less heavier crowds. What are y'all's thoughts on kind of that intersection between those two crowds?
Tanner: It's funny because we all come from really, really different musical backgrounds. Nat is basically a library of influence all the way from R&B to experimental noise, anti-music and everywhere around there. Sleve has his past in a lot of punk and emo and honestly, I'm kind of the basic bitch of the band. One of my favorite bands is Deftones and Queens of the Stone Age and I'm a big stoner sludge fan. Aaron also has a ton of different influences [guitarist in TGHTC, he was busy at the start of recording]. I think one of his favorite bands is Meshuggah. So being able to cultivate what we are cultivating as a group, coming from so many different backgrounds, it doesn't surprise me that there's a lot of overlap in our fanbases.
Sleve: It's very important to us that we don't really try to get too bogged down in one subgenre or another and not think too hard about the subgenre of what we're doing. Not that we're not interested in it. I'm not one of these people who's like, ‘Why do you gotta put a label on things?’ I love talking about subgenres. I think it's really interesting but when it's time to create, it can be a roadblock. And so we are not trying to really overly think too hard about any one sound. We're just trying to serve whatever the composition needs to be in the moment. I think that kind of comes in handy for getting people who might not normally be into really weird experimental heavy music, to give it a chance and give it a listen. That's really important to me. [Sleve goes on a tangent about annoying gatekeepers in noise music] My goal and my job are to try and make this shit weird and still something that people wanna listen to. It needs to be both.
“Our values almost supersede our music a lot of the time.”
Nat: I've had conversations with a lot of people about this specific topic and so someone communicated it with me literally last night too. I've had multiple people come up to shows for us and be like, ‘I don't even listen to the type of music you guys make, but I really liked your set.’ And I'm like, ‘That's cool, but what do you mean the type of music that we make?’ We are a weird, heavy, chaotic band but we also do everything that we do with a lot of heart and a lot of sincerity. We use our stages as a platform always to talk about issues like different legislations being passed in different states. We talk about different charities that you can support on stage. We talk about ways to organize. We try to help distribute information. Everything at our merch table is donation based, so it's flexible and always sliding scale. That kind of stuff that we do is like, our values almost supersede our music a lot of the time. People identify with what we're doing and the things that we're communicating so heavily that it doesn't matter what kind of music we're making because they'll be into it no matter what. So I think that's part of the reason why we kind of bridge the gap for softer music and heavier music with a lot of people.
[Interview spins out into conversations about local charities and organizations before coming back to “the guy from Thou” aka Bryan Funck, knowing more about all that.]
Tanner: Did you already mention about how Bryan gave you that record at that show?
Sleve: Oh yeah. I'll never forget that.
Sleve: Heathens. I just walked up to the merch table at the show that we opened for them and I was like, ‘Hey, how much is this record?’ And he was like, you're playing tonight, right? And I said, yeah. He said, ‘Just take it.’ And I just thought when somebody does that, it shows you that they really care about music, especially if they're in a bigger band and they actually care about whatever rinky-dink local band is playing with them that night, you know? So that was really cool.
[Break off again as Aaron joins our conversation, we discuss band shirts everyone’s wearing which leads us to friend of the band, The Callous Daoboys]
Y'all's music has elements of The Callous Daoboys. They're obviously very funny but I feel like elements of humor bleeds through a lot of y'all's music too. Like specifically that song where at the end you're shouting, ‘Hang me from the ceiling fan and burn the office down,’ or however it goes. To me that's very real, but also very funny.
Nat: So I worked an office job, I worked multiple office jobs actually for a long time that really, bummed me out. I wrote that song specifically about one job that I worked where I had to wear scrubs. I was doing insurance adjustments for an eye surgery center. So it was consistently like having to bill people for shit they could not afford as they were losing their sight. I had to work in a cubicle in a hallway with no lights and no windows. It was like computer monitors. No music was allowed, you weren't allowed to have headphones in, so it was just like you only heard people typing or talking on the phone with people who couldn't afford payments. That was it. I wanted to die every single day. I want to kill myself and I want to set myself on fire in the middle of this office right now. That's exactly what that song is about.
[Conversation again, very unfortunately derailed, this time by the arrival of the guy from Thou, Bryan Funck]
I feel like that is, in it and of itself, an experience to radicalize yourself by but I think that for a lot of leftist people, there's an experience that points them in that direction. Is [how you were radicalized] something you'd be willing or wanting to talk about?
Nat: Something from my childhood that kinda shaped the way I think about banks and credit and the organization of money in the world was when I was nine years old, my parents had to declare bankruptcy and a house that my dad purchased the land for and literally built himself 23 years before. He had to give it to a bank for like a couple hundred dollars because of bankruptcy. And we had to move in with my uncle, who is a business owner. We had to move up to St. Augustine with him into a house that he owned that we had to renovate entirely. The entire time we were renovating it, he was upping our rent for the renovations we were making to the house. Then when my parents had finished making all of the renovations, they asked to buy it from him and he said, ‘No, but you can keep renting it.’ And from that moment on I realized that money is stupid and a lot of people who are obsessed with it should just die. So that was like a lot of what formulated my beliefs and then figuring out much more elegant and educated information about those same values really took off. I'm sure Sleve's story is more academic.
Sleve: Oh, it's a lot less academic actually. I got arrested when I was 21 years old. We were throwing a show at our house in Statesboro, Birdhaus. It was the first Birdhaus show, ill-fated. It was the first one and then we had like a large gap because of what happened. We were on stage and there were like a hundred people there and these cops showed up and raided the whole house. They kicked the door down, came in without a warrant and we were like, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You can't just come in here.’ [The cops said], ‘You shut the. You think you're so smart, you dumbass.’ And pointed shotguns in our faces and destroyed our house. Tore it apart, broke so much stuff. Then the process after that to actually get any form of justice so that we weren't gonna have to be charged with these crimes that we didn't commit, because every charge that they put on the three people that they arrested in the house that night, nothing ever stuck. Everything got dropped.
Sleve: We were lucky that these cops were really, really bad at their job. Just dumbass fascists who wanted to fuck around with some kids and fuck up some kid's situation for the evening. They kept us in jail without a phone call for like two days. It was just bad. Everything that happened in that situation led me to see these people aren't here to protect us. They're, they're clearly if they were, they wouldn't be doing stuff like that. You know, there wouldn't be so much time and energy and money dedicated to keeping people from playing music in their backyard, you know? We're fortunate enough at the time to be able to have all the three of our folks help us with lawyers and shit. We're lucky. Not everybody would have that in the situation. If we were other people, it could have gone a lot worse.
Sleve: So that kind of inspired me to start thinking in that direction. And then of course, just like with many people once Bernie ran, it kind of took a lot of feelings that people had been having and put a name and face to it. Of course there were plenty of people who stopped at Bernie, but there are many more who didn't. And for me, that led to, ‘You know what? It is fucked up that 1% of the population controls 99% of the money and you read more and you study and you go on from there and you start to realize that history from the beginning has been positioned to you incorrectly. And everyone you know, incorrectly. From the very beginning, it's all just falsehoods. That realization, getting arrested that one day by those cops is kind of the domino that fell. They dig their own graves by acting the way they act.
“The only thing that could really motivate someone is empathy for someone else. I don't think that there's room for anything but empathy.”
Both of those stories that y'all just told me, [make me feel] immeasurable amounts of rage which pours out of y'all's music very well. And I think to me answers the question of what was the evolution from Sleve in BiRDPERSON to Sleve now is that justified rage. But then I think it’s interesting your music has a lot of self-restraint. I guess I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about that and how you have that rage in your music but also have some kind of balance. Where is that line?
Nat: It's a balance of both. I don't think one can exist without the other, you know what I mean? I don't think that a better world can happen without violence. And I don't think that a better world can happen without rage. I feel like there is a very small amount of people in the world right now that are directly responsible for all of the terrible that continue happening to everyone else. And so I think that a necessary evil is the disposal and/or damage of those people, that small percentage of people. I feel like that's really the only way to achieve a better world. But the only way to make everyone in that larger population understand the dire need for things like that is through empathy, open communication and genuine understanding. The only thing that could really motivate someone is empathy for someone else. I don't think that there's room for anything but empathy. It's like the opening line in ‘Undone’ where it's like, ‘Through the righteous care for others that you begin to believe that certain people should not exist.’ Because I care so much about all of the people who just want to live their lives comfortably without having hoops to jump through, I think that there are people who directly prevent that, that should not be here. And so I feel like that's how I balance it. *sarcastically* Go out and vote!
Sleve: Yeah! Go out to the polls.
Nat: Together we can act like we're making change.
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