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Interview with Lepra

SPACE Event Staffer A.C. Howard recently sat down with local heavy metal outfit Lepra in advance of their upcoming show with black metal auteurs Liturgy. Read the full interview below.

If you were traversing a network of catacombs guided only by a single, drippy candle and the gut feeling that your sister’s being held hostage down there by a group of sinister nuns, you would probably be listening to Lepra the whole time.

The Portland-based, “black velvet metal” band made up of Sarah Ruggiero on bass + vocals, Kate Istomania on keys + vocals, and Nyssa Ornitier on drums. Their songs play with femme rage, labor and bureacuracy, and Catholic imagery, drenched in dramatic keys and a pummeling rhythm section. The dueling vocalists on their 2019 EP, Wretched Creatures, fluctuate between an angry wail and a venomous hiss. Lepra deftly incorporate samples into their recorded work, like the eerie cough and fly-like churn of sewing machines on the EP’s first track, “Kiss of Death.” It makes them the the perfect soundtrack for dodging bats, wiping cobwebs out of your path, and shrieking when your eyes stumble upon the unseeable.

I shot the band a few questions about their sound, collaboration, and the metal community that they find themselves in leading up to their 12/16 set opening for Liturgy at SPACE. 

How did the three of you become a band? 

Sarah: Back in 2018, Nyssa and I were girlfriends, I suggested we start a project around some ideas I’d been tinkering away at. When I moved to Portland the fall prior there was a Hammond organ in my living room, and I had started writing eerie ditties on it with no particular intentions. But we started working on songs together, myself on bass and Nyssa on drums, both of us writing some key parts. We had a different keyboard player for a short while and were playing a few shows in town and in Boston, but when it didn’t work out with them, Nyssa and I started asking around and realized Kate– who was in the friend group but wasn’t someone I knew very well yet– sings and has been playing keys their whole life. So the full formation came together in 2019. 

Which type of metal are you? And could you explain what that means, as if you’re talking to a very eager, music nerdy 12-year-old who is just getting into metal. 

Sarah: Somewhere along the way someone, maybe one of us or maybe someone else, coined the descriptor “black velvet metal” to describe us. It’s got metal blended with post punk and deathrock. My reference points on the metal side of things would be Satyricon, Sigh, Bathory, and Ulver. But no guitars, obviously. Then there’s a Siouxsie and the Banshees influence along with stuff like New Order, Xmal Deutschland for the gothy and dancy mood. Sometimes I straddle the line of the two genres pretty literally while songwriting, as the main the bass riff will be played in a post-punk style for half of the song, then I’ll apply it with a metal cadence for the other half. Also classical organ music and religious hymns play a big role in shaping our sound.

Kate: Vocally, I grew up singing a lot of Russian folk music in a Russian choir which shaped how I sing and the timbre I possess. I think, while the music doesn’t necessarily match, the vocals can be compared to Florence and the Machine or Jex Thoth.

I’m really interested in gender, so I wonder what metal allows you to explore in your genders? On the flip side, what does your gender give you access to in metal? 

Nyssa: For me, metal head was an identity I had before I had ever considered gender at all. So, I don’t think metal really allowed me to explore anything in my gender. If anything, metal deterred me from exploring my gender growing up. Being a part of the metal scene ten years ago was a different experience because it was cis-male dominated and less queer and diverse than it is now. For me, when I didn’t have more of a sense of self, “metalhead” was an identity I could latch onto. As for what my gender gives me access to in metal, I don’t think it gives me anything. If anything, I feel like I have to work harder. As a trans woman, I don’t feel like I get taken as seriously. I don’t really think about gender and gender doesn’t really mean anything to me – it’s too abstract of a concept for me to really care about personally.

Kate: Growing up in the midwest metal and punk scene, I felt that being femme presenting actually pegged me as a target in a male dominated scene. For a long time, I had to walk away because I felt there was a predatory energy that made me feel unsafe in a scene that’s supposed to be all about acceptance and security. As I grew older and the punk scene evolved to be a more queer and femme dominated space, I found more of a place and power that I hadn’t felt I had earlier in my life. While things have improved, it’s important to note that femme presenting and queer people still have a harder time in the punk and metal scene which were for so long cis-male dominated and has a legacy of preaching to be inclusive but has a history that often shows otherwise. Becoming more comfortable in myself and finding a space where I feel safe has allowed me to explore my own gender identity. I feel that punk and metal should be a safe place for anyone to express themselves how they want, as that is what these scenes claim to represent.

Sarah: I don’t think too much or too deeply about gender, but I like to think that a person seeing us for the first time might have no clue what to expect by looking at us. Being a queer gal in metal and punk just gives me an opportunity to be as weird and authentic as I want to be. I can accept that people may not always take me seriously, and that’s fine because I don’t take myself super seriously either, and the people that get it will get it. I feel more comfortable playing and creating music with people I trust most importantly, but it’s also rad playing music exclusively with musicians who aren’t straight cis dudes– since they’re all forming new bands with each other exclusively anyway.

Thank you guys for answering that so frankly – I’ve been really lucky to experience the metal scene in Portland as a pretty queer and inclusive space, so it’s great to remember that it hasn’t always been that way, and that subcultures made for outsiders need to remember not to get too insular or exclusive. 

Keeping the train moving: Kate, there’s a super delicious and almost campy tone to your Keys. I’d love to hear about what draws you to that kind of sound? 

Kate: I think we all worked on creating the key sound together. The idea was to find a haunted house church organ that sounded distorted. We have an appreciation for somber mood setting and a soft spot for church organs. The keys aim to fill the sonic area that is often filled by a guitar and to carry an eerie character of its own. We basically repurposed Nyssa’s guitar pedal board using distortion and delay pedals and ran the keys through a bass cab and voila.

Big question – what do you think about God? 

Sarah: I grew up going to Catholic church for a few years, went to Catholic school for my last three years of high school, tried to talk to God a few times and didn’t feel anything, wasn’t connecting to it beyond being surrounded by it. The Catholic influence is something else entirely, it takes time and effort to shake off that sort of guilt-centered culture. The human implications of religion, as well as Catholic and religious icons and aesthetics, play a more significant role in shaping my songwriting and artwork for Lepra. 

Kate: I struggled to ever have a ‘relationship’ with God. While I was raised and baptized Russian Orthodox, and was often around Christian circles growing up, I never felt any connection to the idea of God. Going to church always confused me and made me feel out of place. I couldn’t get past the injustice and inequality evident in religious circles and stories. For me, what I always found most interesting was the establishment of religion itself – the relationship humans have with God and the impact of that relationship on the human experience. I feel one can be good and just without ever needing the approval or support of a higher power to be so. So, personally, I find the idea of God to be a distraction and a source of conflict over peace.

Nyssa: I don’t really think about god much. I can’t say whether I believe in god or not, as I tend to be pretty focused on what is happening in my own head and around me. I do find mythology and religion to be very useful and fascinating, and much like Kate, I am interested in the relationship of mythology to the society that it comes from, and what there is to learn about that society through the lens of mythology. I think using religious imagery and mythological themes gives me a way to express ideas and emotions in a non literal sense. I enjoy writing lyrics that are fantastical and esoteric on the surface, but have a more personal meaning beneath the myth and magic.

What have you found in the intersection between Catholic Imagery and Metal Music?

Sarah: Catholicism and metal are both the most severe genres of their respective realms. Luckily there is no shortage of gory, lurid, vengeful and punitive subject matter in religious texts and propaganda, and that’s a mine for writing lyrics from the point of view of a person who has been alienated or exiled. I like to indulge in the ornate extravagance of Catholicism when it comes to our sound and imagery. We’re always trying to make it sound like we’re playing inside of a huge cathedral. 

Where does the magic of Lepra happen – on stage, writing, recording, improvising? 

Sarah: We all had the same immediate reaction to this question: Definitely not improvising! For myself, the lyric writing process is where I feel myself wielding the most magic. Once we decide on a song’s theme, I go through a phase of obsessing over the subject matter, reading anything I can about it, and mulling over the ideas internally leading up to a hard deadline of sharing the lyrics with the group. There always comes a day when the words, lyrical structure, and maybe a harmony, finally fall into place, and it feels like sorcery once it comes together. Exploring witchcraft, folklore, different mythologies and personas through lyrics is a fun way to channel that power and magic. Also introducing flute to our set makes me feel like a bit of an impish Medieval ghoul. Lastly, making music with my best friends is pretty freaking magical in itself. 

Nyssa: For me it’s collaborating in the practice space and getting excited as each new piece of a song falls into place while we bounce ideas off of each other. Also there’s a certain magic in playing drums on stage where it’s one of the only times that I’m fully present in my body, and not obsessing over things I can’t control. 

Kate: What I love is that we are such a collaborative entity. No one just ‘does their part’ and moves on. No one is completely independent. While we trust each other’s skill sets and ability to do what sounds best, we also constantly bounce ideas off one another and provide suggestions on how we can all improve to create the sound we want. We’re a tight-knit group and I feel that we’ve finessed the process more the longer we’ve been together simply because we know one another and know the sound we want. There is a quintessential “Lepra” sound that we’ve developed and it’s made it all the more rewarding as we continue to tap into it. I agree with Nyssa, performing on stage as a group, feeding off that energy, and singing with every ounce of my being is such a release. The best part is that we have fun with it, which is the magic for me. 

Image Credit: K.I.

SPACE Reader

🕯️ This weekend only! The dance show of the summer is Scapegoat Garden’s Liturgy|Order|Bridge. The Hartford-based company calls upon Black church traditions and ideas of faith, nature, fashion, and experimentation in their limited performance run June 20-22. Tickets available now, presented by SPACE at Mechanics’ Hall. 🕯️