There’s an adage in publishing circles that goes “novelists are born at 40.” In music, however, most rock stars are dead at 40, or at least their best creative years are behind them. San Francisco Bay Area-based Static People, however, are writing their own rules and in their book, 40 is the new “shut-the-fuck-up-about-our-age-already.” It does beg the question, however, “why this band, why now?”
“I feel like I've been kicking off since I moved to San Francisco in 1992,” says Dmitra Smith, whose multi-octave range and keen sense of the dramatic bring a rousing energy to the act, which also features guitarist Pascal Faivre and drummer Ken Shelf as well as a coterie of auxiliary members, who are brought in as projects require. “I started dreaming the ‘self’ that I'm becoming now when I was 14, but I had a hard time hanging my ass in the wind in public.”
Smith’s reticence gave way in 2008 when she formed Static People as an act of personal survival. Five years later, her band took top honors as Best Punk/Post Punk Artist in 2013's Artists in Music Awards.
“When Static People started, it was at a time in my life when I had gone through a lot of hard shit and was pissed off, so I had stuff to say and didn't give a rat's ass what people thought about it. I just needed to roar into the mic, which is basically punk rock,” recalls Smith. “People see me as a very confident person but I am actually a super-geek and can easily feel like a shy alien around people,” she says, echoing the emotional candor she expresses in lyrics that span astute social commentary, politics and her own experiences of love and loss.
Smiths sighs as she lists the panoply of musical experience that preceded Static People, including formative years in Seattle of the late 80s and early 90s, stints in bands with “famous and less famous musicians,” playing flaming oil drums on tour with Lollapalooza and pressing colored vinyl of sundry four-track opuses. Static People, by comparison, is a more directed if not “mature” affair.
“I feel like I've mellowed out a bit but I still believe in that ethos,” says Smith, who adds with a laugh, “The short answer is that 40 is the new 20.”
Or to belabor the lead, rock stars can be born at 40. An advantage to launching a band at an age many in the industry may regard as past one’s “sell by” date are the depth and breadth of influences that can only be achieved with time.
“We are part 1981, part 1992 and part 2020. Or whatever year it is when people stop thinking it's weird for a brown girl to shred,” says Smith making a deserved jab at the cavemen who still find novelty in an African-American woman fronting a rock act.
For a performer who defies facile definition, Smith does boast a single defining feature – her voice, which she wields with virtuosic command across at least four octaves and with a natural warmth that adds a sultry dimension to the band’s challenging, punk-infused arrangements. A lesser performer would likely default into shrillness trying to replicate the ferocity with which Smith leads the Static People. Ever the “super-geek,” Smith is naturally demure about her voice.
“I hope to be virtuosic someday, although I don't think you can ever be satisfied by the level you're currently at. I am inspired by my heroes, and I feel like if the trailblazers could do it with no support through blood, sweat and tears, that we have to be total schmucks not to make a sincere effort to do the same,” she says. “I'm also constantly searching for that amazing feeling you get when you're a vessel for the work and it fills your entire being even just for a few seconds. It's very fleeting, but when you get a taste there is nothing more incredible and you got the monkey on your back. It's like a drug, and I'm an addict, so I'm crawling around on the carpet at 3 a.m. looking for more.”
Smith’s voice is one of those extraordinary instruments that's at once familiar and unique, which is showcased to great effect on The Late Projectionist, Static People’s new LP produced by longtime collaborator and veteran producer Jason Carmer. Her influences are as diverse as the range of her own expression.
“I think the first voice that actually gave me the chills was Leontyne Price,” says Smith, referring to the African American soprano who’s career trajectory began in the Deep South and continued to the Metropolitan Opera, accruing dozens of honors and critical plaudits along the way.
“It had a huge impact on me that she was not only a virtuosic opera singer of epic proportions, but that she was an African American in a traditionally European genre,” says Smith. Other “high priestesses” on her list include Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. “Then there's David Bowie, and Joe Strummer, Nina Hagen, Siouxsie Sioux, Betty Carter, Morrissey, Fela, Robert Smith, Peter Murphy, PJ Harvey and HR.”
While promoting The Late Projectionist, Static People has begun creating new projects that incorperate, among other notions, original film scores for forgotten French flicks, more studio work and live shows that redefine what a “show” is and perhaps even what “live” means.
“I've never tried to attract the attention of the industry because I don't really fit into any of the prefabricated categories that exist for women. And, particularly for women of color who rock, there is pretty much no category,” says Smith.
To that end, Smith is content to write her own chapter in the annals of Rock History – note by note, with little heed to the interests of the music industry.
“It's sad that this sounds like a cliche, but I really do it for the sake of the fucking art,” she says. “Make your music. Put it out there. Do it for the love of doing it. If you stick with it long enough and remain committed to evolving as an artist, the recognition will come. You just have to bitch-slap them and make sure it's on your own terms.
Dmitra Smith and Pascal Faivre perform as Half People, featuring "Acoustic Rants and Teenage Obsessions," at 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 1 at The Epicurean Connection, 122 West Napa St., Sonoma, CA.