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The Rise of Locomotive Punk

NighTraiN is leaving the station. And taking you with it.

Somewhere unseen, like a dream accreting substance through the dreaming, a locomotive charges at the darkness. Only those aboard know its destination. A symphony of hot, heavy machinery meeting cold steel rail meeting indifferent earth; the thunder of proud, dangerous speed. The sound will not be stopped. Louder and louder and louder until…

At first NighTraiN wasn’t a band. NighTraiN was about a band.

They came together for a casting call at Re-Bar, four African-American women of varying ages and artistic temperaments chosen out of dozens by a fledgling fringe theater group called Dirty Girl Productions. These four were to play the part of a band. Or rather, they were to play four ambitious women without any musical knowhow who decide, for reasons personal and political, to form a band. A punk band, naturally, because these four don’t know how to play or sing or write songs, and punk thrives on blissful ignorance and energy. That black female punk band and the musical written around it would be called Hot Grits. The year was 2007.

Over the next nine months, each woman learned her respective instrument through a few lessons and many more jam sessions. The group wrote songs together. They rehearsed their lines and they rehearsed their songs. They got better at their instruments. One of the women dropped out after a dispute with the producers, ostensibly about playing bass with a pick but really about ownership of the music they were making. The producers found a replacement bassist. The show went on.

Hot Grits, starring Hot Grits, played for two weeks at Re-Bar in late 2008. Reviews were mixed. (“Unlike so many other fictional bands, Hot Grits would be worth paying to see in a club,” raved The Stranger. “Ordinarily I couldn’t care less about swearing in a play, but when a show has nothing to tell me, I would rather be told gently,” ranted Seattle Weekly.) The band was supposed to dissolve afterward. The actors/musicians were to return to their regular lives. Normalcy was to return to Seattle.

That didn’t happen.

Instead they brought back their original bassist, rechristened themselves NighTraiN, and continued wrecking stages around Seattle. Earlier this year—six years after first coming together—they released Mating Call, their first serious statement as a band. It’s miles from their previous recordings—a professional effort, though hardly polished, raw and determined and crackling with garage-punk aggression. Each song plays like a mission statement, self-aware but not self-serious. In “Girl Band,” they own the titular designation, so often applied by lazy observers. “Reply” incorporates spiteful comments about the band scooped from social media. There’s a lot to love.

On a rainy March evening, the four women of NighTraiN sit at a giant wooden dining table at a bustling, candlelit bar: Rachael Ferguson, singer, small and animated with spring-tight curly hair; Selena Whitaker-Paquiet, bassist, a grandmother with a ready laugh who looks decades younger than her 52 years; Nicole Peoples, guitarist, tall and endearingly goofy; and Taryn Dorsey, drummer, with knowing eyes beaming beneath a sheaf of bangs. They’re eating and drinking and talking, sometimes to a journalist, but more often to each other.

Journalist: How much of NighTraiN is theatre and how much is rock ’n’ roll?

Rachel: It’s all subjective isn’t it? Any time you put some kind of frame around something, you can call it performance art or a happening or an event. That’s an art-criticism take on it. Structuralism, if you wanna get into it. But we’re not that deep.

Selena: It’s all about the rock ’n’ roll. The performance comes in when we’re onstage, but we’re truly all about the music. I think the background helps us have a stage presence and provide a more visceral and entertaining show.

Taryn (to Selena and Rachel): You two are natural performers anyway.

Nicole (to Rachel): You’re the perfect frontperson. Your stage presence is out of control.

Selena (to Rachel): Mostly because you have a strong theatre background. You went to Cornish. I had a career as a stand-up comic for 17 years.

Journalist: How did you get Erik Blood to produce the new album?

Rachel: He came to us! We played a gig together in 2013 and that’s how we crossed paths. He approached us and was like, ‘I like you guys and wanna produce you.’

Nicole: I was like, who’s Erik Blood?

Rachel: She did ask that. But Erik’s a Zen master. He brought out the genuine sound of NighTraiN. It’s exactly what we needed. The last thing I wanted was some person putting their dick all over our shit.

Journalist: The word had been about your live show, but this new record, Mating Call, is dialed in.

Taryn: I agree with that. And we’ve been musicians now for six years, starting from just picking up our instruments.

Journalist: Where do you guys see yourselves fitting into the music scene of Seattle?

Rachel: The band has been accepted by so many other bands, but people don’t know what to do with us. They see boobs and they see black skin and they see people carrying instruments and they get weirded out.

Taryn: People of color doing rock music shouldn’t be a novelty.

Nicole: As black women we have to work harder in every aspect of our lives, so we bring that to the band. We’re like, this is how we wanna be respected outside the band, so it’s how we wanna be respected in the band. I hope in the future it isn’t a novelty, but at this point we know it is. We need to take that extra step. We need to work more.

Serena: Actually ladies, at this point in my life, I’m trying to get by with hardly working.

(Laughter)

On a lost highway somewhere in West Texas, a passenger van slices through the darkness, its wheels tether it to the asphalt, barely keeping it from ascending into the stars. NighTraiN is inside the van, exhausted and exhilarated from the relentless regimen of a three-week tour. After tonight’s show in Santa Fe, they’ll point their ride north. Treefort Music Fest in Boise lies ahead, and they have many miles to cover before they get there.

Photo by Alex Crick

 

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