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Coup Sauvage on art, punk, parenting
and Heirs To Nothing/ by Katy Otto

On June 16, Coup Sauvage & the Snips played their last show after 6 years as a band. But before they sadly disbanded, Katy Otto interviewed two members the disco and Motown inspired group, Kristina Sauvage and Elizabeth Sauvage, about their history, inspirations, and final full-length, Heirs to Nothing, released in February on Sister Polygon Records.

Katy Otto: I was blown away the first time I saw you all play. It was powerful, commanding and a breath of fresh air. How did you all first conceive of this band and get together? In what ways is and isn’t it informed by your relationships and history in punk traditions?

Kristina: We were all friends before the band or had worked together on other creative projects in the past. Jason had put out Elizabeth’s band Mess Up The Mess on his label, Paroxysm, and they had played in Troll Tax before Coup Sauvage. Maegan and Kristina DJed together and had co-founded the First Ladies DJ Collective years ago. Some of us had met working together on Girls Rock! DC and way before that, Ladyfest DC.

But Elizabeth gets the credit for bringing everyone together. She first reached out to Kristina, Jason and Maegan in 2011. Pretty soon after that, we knew we needed to include background singers and dancers. Crystal and then Rain Sauvage joined and that’s when we knew were on to something. Initially, what brought us together was our mutual love of 90s dance music and soul. We’re obsessed with Stax and Motown, but also Jellybean Benitez and CeCe Peniston.

And of course, we share a deep reverence for disco. We knew wanted to do something that would bring those worlds together and also play with the idea of theatricality and performativity. We wanted to be pretty high-concept and created this over-the-top stage persona that reflected all these different influences and things we love or wanted to pay homage to.

The band has always been informed by punk and our relationship with and to DIY communities. But we knew early on dance music would be the medium we work in, and that would give us space to bring in all these other sounds and influences. We also wanted to challenge what an indie band or even a “dance-punk” band could look or sound like.

We’re not beholden to DC’s punk past. It’s there, we acknowledge it. Some of the band was part of it. But punk can be unwelcoming and alienating for a lot of people. We want to create dance floors where there’s space for everybody. Make punk fit us, not the other way around.

I love that!!! And I think that’s what we need more of, and what you all deserve. Maybe what we all do. I am interested in this question as a mom myself: what role has becoming a parent played for members? And how has having a parenting band member impacted others? Curious to have conversations about creating space for making art with kids, so I wanted to ask.

Kristina: I’m so new to parenting that I’m still trying to wrap my head around this now and how being a mom will impact my creative life. Honestly, it’s been really been hard at times to be in a band with a young infant. But it’s hard doing most things with a baby! Our culture is just not set up to support families and mothers. And the labor of mothers and other caregivers, especially that of women of color, is not valued or legitimized.

There are lot of things I have to consider now that don’t always fit easily into band life. Like figuring out how long a video shoot is so I don’t become engorged or trying to arrange shows around child care. Even when I was pregnant and doing shows, I had to switch up things and pull back because we are moving nonstop onstage and I just didn’t have the energy or even lung capacity to perform like I had been doing. So there are parts that are difficult, but I also recognize the privilege that exists to even be in a band because it requires having a support system and resources in place that not every mom has - including a supportive spouse, family who can babysit, enough of an economic safety net that I have free time to put toward making art.

On a broader scale, I want my kid to know that my identity doesn’t stop and start at being a mom. There’s still this false narrative that says women can either choose motherhood or a creative life. We need more examples of what this can look like, but also real talk about how to make it work.

Elizabeth: My daughter is almost three now and we have a member with a teenager about to head to college, so I’m sure we’d have very different answers, but here’s mine. When I became pregnant I had a very good, very feminist friend (with kids) say, “Well that’s it for music then!” I became enraged! Not really at her, but at the fact that that’s even a normalized thought. No one would ever say that to a dude. I can’t imagine it. I’m extremely lucky to have a supportive spouse who shares all aspects of child-rearing, so I never even for a second considered stopping. Creativity and art is what brings my life meaning. Why would I strip my life of that meaning just because I was going to become a mother? My identity was about to take a big hit, and I knew it, so I was determined to hold onto that part of me.

So while I wasn’t trying to hear it from anyone who thought I would have to give up music once I became a mom, I also had another reaction that kind of surprised me. Around the same time I had a lot of friends having kids who would post on social media things like, “Off to my first band practice after the birth of baby J!” or “Playing my first show as a momma! Momma’s rock!” And I’d get really bent out of shape at all the likes and thumbs up and the “you go girls!” I felt this intense need not to draw attention to myself as a mom in a band because I felt the need to “radically normalize” it. If that make sense. I was refusing to acknowledge it was a thing, because (aside from logistics) it shouldn’t be a damn thing! I’m not saying this response was rational or reasonable or that these friends didn’t have a reason to be proud of bucking convention. But I was just furious at the existence of the convention and I wanted to see just one new dad post like that. I’m still waiting.

It’s impacted me in that there are all those logistics -- can’t hang out after, gotta pump/get to bathtime, etc. The band also became very important for me as a way to get out of the house on my own, have my me time, interact with other adults and hold onto that identity I had before the birth. As for how it’s impacted my bandmates, well, they had to carry my amp a lot after my C-section!

All of this resonates with me so much! I had a lot of people say it would mean a big red light to music for me too and thankfully that hasn’t been the case. Appreciate you all offering these ideas. I really like what you’ve said about making punk fit for you rather than the other way around, because punk can be so exclusionary in a host of ways. To that end, do you think punk has a role to play or value in 2017? Is it different from what it was in the past?

Kristina: I get excited these days about bands like Downtown Boys and Shopping. To me they represent the potential of punk to be wider and more inclusive, and not just the domain of straight white dudes. It was never just the domain of straight white dudes but there’s been a history of erasure in punk of people of color, women, queer folks. I really don’t know what role punk has to play currently. I think it’s one of many avenues we have creatively to resist and agitate right now in our current political climate. But I also worry about punk being seen as the default for protest music or for countercultural anything. One of the things that we connected over in the band was the idea that disco is way more transgressive than people acknowledge. I’m way more interested in the role dance music or soul music can play right now as this force for weirdness, community, and cultural organizing. And how punk can be combined with all these other influences and identities.

Elizabeth: I’m scandalizing my 20-year-old riot grrrl self, but she’s not here so who cares? The thing is, I’m just not really interested in “punk” anymore. I’ve spent years being on the margins of whatever city’s scene I was in, being made to feel invisible for not being a dude, or not being pretty or not dressing the right way. These were all attitudes I thought punk was supposed to reject. Punk rock did offer a bit of that promise of belonging/community, especially for me through riot grrrl, but in the end that process of erasure Kristina mentioned is powerful force -- even in communities that would consider themselves political and inclusive. Musically, punk is a catch-all term for a lot of different sounds from twee to crust, but we never seem to get labeled punk. Nine times out of ten when we get written up we’re called neo-soul, despite the fact that, as one of the songwriters, my influences range from The Equals to Contrepotere (and obviously with a ton of disco thrown in). It’s disappointing. But in terms of how it’s different now, I do think the value of punk as home of the counterculture has been eroded by the hyper-compartmentalization of the internet. But whether or not that’s a bad thing is open to debate -- just not by me because I don’t care about punk rock anymore. (Wait does that make me the punkest I’ve ever been? Woah.)

Not caring about punk may in fact be the most punk thing you could say. I also think you’re nailing it in terms of erasure and in terms of who gets to be seen as the most urgent and “important” voices in punk, historically. One of the most important punk shows I ever went to was a Los Crudos show years ago, where Martin had just begun coming out to audiences. It was phenomenal. The songs were also delivered in both Spanish and English. I felt as if so much was possible in that space. It made me want to stay involved. I wish there were more spaces in punk that gave me the same feeling.

Could you talk a little about the process for recording this new album, Heirs to Nothing? I also would love to hear you talk about the artwork - it hit me on a gut level when I first saw it, and I jumped to some of my own thoughts about what it might mean, but curious if you have anything to say about it.

Kristina: We started recording the album at least two to three years ago. We have a very collaborative and consensus-driven songwriting process, which means all of us are represented in every song. But it also means things take a while. We’re also so focused on our live show that our songs get performed and perfected tons of times before we’re ready to commit to recording. But we’ve been pulling these songs together since we started the band.

I love that the artwork resonated with you! We worked with an amazing designer, Harmond Ponder, that Rain Sauvage knew. We’ve had so many challenges over the years working with designers to really translate our aesthetic. People always want to go straight to very obvious feminine imagery. Or very obvious “political” imagery, but in a way that’s mad racialized. Like pictures of afros and black power fists. What people would come to us with was so heavy-handed and reductive. We’re more than just polemicists in sequin dresses! Sometimes we wear jumpsuits too. We loved that Harmond came through with an idea that was so far from what people would expect. We like to zig when you think we’ll zag. We also liked that we saw it and thought, “Hmmm….that kind of looks like a breast. That’s interesting.” There’s a lot of ways to read into it!

Ah, wow! That’s very different from what it brought up for me, which honestly might have had to do with the fact that I recently became a mom too -- I thought it might be pregnancy-related imagery. I love that it can be all those things. (Sidenote: I smiled so hard at polemicists in sequin dresses.)

Could you talk about the role of videos for your band? So much of what you create and share is visual and performance based, so I wondered what role film and video played for you all in this album and its delivery to the public.

Kristina: I can definitely see the artwork giving off a pregnancy vibe. That may have subconsciously been in my head since I was pretty pregnant when we were working on the cover. I love that you can look at the artwork in so many different ways!

As for videos, we’re a very visual band. We really love the idea of bringing a spectacle to music. Our “look” is as important as our lyrics, harmonies, dance moves, everything. It’s all part of putting on a show. For me, I’m also really interested in the idea of wielding glamour like a weapon. I’m inspired by women like Diahann Carroll, Lola Falana, and The Supremes who used their elegance and style as a way to assert their humanity and challenge notions of black womanhood as savage, undesirable, and unsophisticated. I think being so visual is also a response to this idea in indie music that the less you care about image, the more authentic you are. But I think that’s total b.s. The moment any of us hit the stage we are performing a version of ourselves. Even in everyday life we’re all performing race, gender, sexuality, and parts of our identity. You might as well look fierce while you’re doing it. That just extends to us wanting make videos and put more visuals to our songs. And also try to capture some of the live show for people who haven’t seen us in-person.

What is next for you all as a band with the release of this album? What plans do you have coming up?

Elizabeth: We are planning to play shows up and down the East Coast for this album, including a another edition of our Anti-gentrification storytelling night. We will to continue to engage the community in dialogue, or if you’re part of the problem, we might skip the dialogue and just continue to implicate you. Look out for more videos and content from the Haus, but beyond that we don’t release our battle plans prior to attack!

Listen to Heirs To Nothing here. Catch Jason from Coup Sauvage playing in Gauche, Flamers, and Cool People.

Katy Otto is a musician and writer living in Philadelphia. She does nonprofit work for a living, and runs the record label Exotic Fever Records. She plays in the bands Trophy Wife and Callowhill, and is learning how to balance it all as a new parent.

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