Asheville’s Secret Shame comes out of the shadows

WORST-KEPT SECRET: “We can definitely be the loudest band on the bill,” says Lena, center, of Asheville-based post-punk group Secret Shame. “It’s always: Turn the reverb up, and everybody’s amps are cranked.” The band is releasing its new album, ‘Dark Synthetics,’ with an East Coast tour. Photo by Audrey Pierce

“We always say, ‘We’re too punk for Goth and too Goth for punk,’” says Lena (who goes by her first name only), vocalist of Asheville-based collective Secret Shame. “We don’t play any bills where we fit.”

But even if Asheville isn’t ready for post-punk, the duskily elegant and politically charged sound is finding fans in many other cities. Secret Shame will play a much-anticipated Friday the 13th show at The Broadway in Brooklyn as part of a tour in support of the band’s new album, Dark Synthetics. After that, the band performs a hometown record-release concert (a free event) at The Mothlight on Monday, Sept. 16.

Lush and layered, Dark Synthetics has garage-y attitude and crisp sonics. Each instrument is distinguishable, and Lena’s dynamic vocal — at turns a measured growl, a clarion wail and a display of luminous upper register — is front and center. Drums loom, dense and thunderous, in the background of each song. A chilly guitar line offers a countermelody on “Calm” before flowing into the melee of electric churn and pummel. The relentless, driving track deals, unflinchingly, with domestic abuse. “Dark,” the first single from the new album, opens with a torrent of strings and drums, a barely contained storm that invites the listener into a rich nocturnal landscape. It ends, brilliantly, on a dime, the sudden silence giving way to a door creaking open, then slamming shut.

The seven tracks of Dark Synthetics, Lena says, were recorded live and pretty much in the order they were written. Complications, including a personnel change, delayed the competition of the project, but “it won’t take us two years to put out our next album,” says Lena, who also creates the band’s art. New songs are already in the works.

In fact, Secret Shame only came together in 2016 with bassist Matthew and guitarist Ryynikki inviting Lena to sing with them. The current lineup includes drummer Nathan and guitarist/synth player Billie. Songwriting is “a big jumble,” Lena says. “Usually Nikki or Matthew will start playing something randomly, in the middle of a conversation, and everybody will start adding to it, slowly. … I went through my phone last night and found over 30 vocal recordings of those types of things.” It’s all very fluid, she adds, but it’s rare for the band to scrap a song.

Live, “We can definitely be the loudest band on the bill,” Lena says, “It’s always: Turn the reverb up, and everybody’s amps are cranked.” They create an atmosphere that stems from the music rather than onstage banter.

That aesthetic resonates: In May, Secret Shame opened for experimental act Xiu Xiu at The Mothlight. A listener mentioned Secret Shame’s set to a friend, who turned out to be a music publicist who had recently moved to Asheville from Brooklyn and was impressed with the local band — enough to help amplify Secret Shame’s new album.

“You can’t be on people’s radars if you’re just a local band from North Carolina,” Lena says of the struggle to get press releases into the hands of swamped music writers and bookers. A publicist with a track record helps, though clearly Secret Shame had made strides on its own efforts — including landing a coveted spot on the Hopscotch Music Festival lineup. The band played that Durham event (headlined by the likes of Sleater-Kinney, Jenny Lewis and Kurt Vile, and including Asheville groups such as Ahleuchatistas, MJ Lenderman, Tyler Ramsey, Nest Egg and Coconut Cake) earlier this month.

But even as Secret Shame gains wider recognition, this is a group of musicians who already know who they are. Two of the band members, for example, are trans and state their pronouns in their band bio. “We definitely want to reach out to queer communities and labels,” Lena says. “We don’t need to talk about it all the time, but it’s an important thing in the world right now.”

The main focus is the music, though. While Secret Shame has toured regionally, show dates for Dark Synthetics take the collective as far as New York. “And one of our members just got their passport,” Lena notes, “so I hope that could be something in the future.”

Too Goth for punk, maybe. Not too Goth for international travel.

WHAT: Secret Shame album release show
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Monday, Sept. 16, 9 p.m. Free

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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