Ekko Astral: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features Ekko Astral
Ekko Astral: The Best of What’s Next

There’s a shift that occurs around halfway through pink balloons, the debut full-length album from Washington, D.C.’s “mascara moshpit” punks Ekko Astral. Released in April, the album kicks off with a four-track roller coaster: The blistering male gaze parody “head empty blues” slams right into “baethoven,” which then spins through “uwu type beat” with barely a moment to catch your breath before embracing the gleeful self-consumption of “on brand.” With “somewhere at the bottom of the river between l’enfant and eastern market,” though, the band returns to an anchoring poem by Ari Drennen (which first appears as a fragment at the beginning of the record) and most of the instruments fall away.

Instead, over the sounds of scraping dinner plates that sound like chains, lead vocalist and lyricist Jael Holzman begs to be heard while simultaneously apologizing for taking up space. “I didn’t used to be so serious,” she confesses on the track, her voice shaking. “Lots of us don’t make it home.” “I wanted people to listen to the first half of the album and fucking love it,” Holzman tells me about the sequencing choice from her rooftop, “and then suddenly get confronted.” It’s a windy day in Columbia Heights, ahead of Ekko Astral’s latest homecoming show: a live album taping at the Black Cat after a tour that included appearances at the Paste East Austin Block Party and anti-SXSW showcases in Austin.

Drennen’s poem “Out at Dinner” explores a particularly disorienting modern phenomenon—the moment the layers peel back after someone gets too real about the state of the world at a social event and the pleasantries turn sour. pink balloons demands you sit with that feeling, but it also invites you in first. The title “somewhere at the bottom of the river between l’enfant and eastern market” is a La Dispute reference, and on the whole, pink balloons is a very referential album. There are jokes about Arrested Development and Bon Iver, Torahic allusions, hallucinatory visions of toxic polycules and Carly Rae Jepsen. This is part of the record’s charm, luring the listener into a common cultural language that makes the pill a little easier to swallow. But it’s also part of its commentary—Holzman describes the record as “a meditation on existing as an individual marginalized by a toxic, noxious mixture of culture and politics fused together.” In answer to that, the band offers a pointed outcry and a bright pink gas mask. “We’re living in a very socially violent time,” as Pure Adult’s Jeremy Snyder, producer of pink balloons, puts it. To him, Ekko Astral embodies a “necessary, joyful violence” in response.

In the spirit of that joyful violence, Holzman has a practice of talking directly to the crowd during Ekko Astral’s live shows, reminding people to take care of each other and twirling a manicured finger to encourage a circle pit. She describes mosh pits as a potential site of transcendence; the band’s self-affixed “mascara moshpit” description has its roots in cultivating a sense of safety and community care to enable it. As a congressional climate reporter, she has a lot of practice getting people to think about the end of the world, but she also knows how to guide you through it while she does.

“She’s got endless notes and lyrics that aren’t necessarily tied to music yet,” guitarist Liam Hughes, Holzman’s longtime best friend who started the band with her, tells me backstage at the Black Cat. When they both moved to DC after graduating from the University of Vermont—Holzman to work on the Hill, Hughes to study audio technology at American University—they came together to create the 2022 EP QUARTZ, an explosive study in gender transition, for his graduate thesis. “I was like, ‘I’m actually a girl! Wanna make music about it?’” Holzman laughs at the memory.

Two years later, while putting together pink balloons, the band sat down together to consider what the world would look like on its release day and came up pretty dismal. Ekko Astral is helmed by three trans women, and Holzman, who notes the irony of watching your own rights erode as “researching your market for yourself,” says frankly that they “knew shit was about to hit the fan very hard.” They fell back on a core tenet of their artistic approach: using music as a tool to cross the divide, a means to strike empathy into people’s hearts. “What we’ve been trying to do is use culture as a weapon,” Holzman explains. “And not in a way that’s aggressive, but instead empathetic, and knowing, and intentional.” When audiences go to an Ekko Astral show, she adds, “they don’t hear anything political. They hear about the world as it is, which has become politicized.”

With this intention in mind, the band started to experiment with a sound to stitch into it. Hughes remembers toying with droning guitars and anchoring the sound in Miri Tyler’s drums and Guinivere Tully’s bass, an interplay that’s especially vivid on “baethoven.” Tyler recalls the phrase “unconventionally punk” being tossed around. The result is a McLuhanist thesis on using your medium, one that on pink balloons is wielded so well it seems effortless—and eventually started to feel that way in production. “I’m still kind of surprised by how fast we wrote everything for this record,” says guitarist Sam Elmore. The bulk of the timeline from writing to hitting the studio only took around two months.

Some songs on the record took longer to write, though. Holzman started writing “i90,” the album’s epic slowcore closer and in her words “the only song on the record that’s explicitly about being trans,” after driving from D.C. to Chicago for Pitchfork Festival with a friend in 2020. At the time, she had just started reporting on the rising tide of anti-trans legislation, and was facing institutional pushback. When they hit Indiana, she was too scared to get out of the car to go to the bathroom. “The situation really made me feel like there wasn’t a place for my own humanity in the world that I lived in,” she remembers.

“i90” explores that despair, that way that overwhelming fear can bubble up around something as ordinary as a road trip pit stop, but it still finds hope: in the divine, in community, in the very desert itself and the stories we tell from within it. “It’s getting rough out here, but it’s been tougher each day,” Holzman sings on the track. “I just want my say, and a piece of ancient scripture.” The version on pink balloons features Salt Lake City DIY artist Josaleigh Pollett, a poetic cross-country effort that Holzman calls a “twisted Hands Across America.” At the Black Cat, Ekko Astral performed it with guest vocals from Tyler’s fiancée Emelia Bleker, who performs with her in the dream-pop band Pretty Bitter. “Keep the rhythm, keep the rhythm,” they chanted with Holzman over the driving beat, the two of them literally holding each other up onstage.

It’s trite at this point to describe cities as characters in the works that are rooted in them, but Washington, D.C. is a breathing, twitching creature in Ekko Astral’s music. Most of the band grew up in the area, nurtured by its renowned DIY scene, and pink balloons examines and excoriates a duality that might be most explicit in the nation’s capital: where politics are both an intellectual exercise and a life-or-death coin flip. “Dear Washington D.C.: please stop them from killing us,” implores the music video for “on brand,” the simple plea cutting through the fog between distorted shots of metro stations and the Washington Monument a-la Fugazi’s In on the Kill Taker.

“buffaloed,” meanwhile, references now-famous photographs of Black Lives Matter protesters marching past brunchers in Adams Morgan in 2020. Holzman recalls growing up in Rockville and trying to come out to classmates in the Bush era, an experience that led her to suppress her feelings about gender for a decade. “Everyone in this city likes to define people really fast” by the political labels that inevitably surround them, she points out —which can be a pressure cooker while you’re trying to figure out who you are.

This is something I know all too well, having also grown up here, but I also know this scene, and I’m lucky enough to know its power to unite firsthand. Hanging with Ekko Astral reminds me of the D.C. shows that made me: the ritualistic passing-out of earplugs and cigarettes on venue curbs, the circles of queer and trans kids screaming into the void from their best friends’ arms. Elmore, who repped local bubblegrunge mainstays Flowerbomb at the Black Cat, remembers when he discovered that sense of music community. “I was always pining for it,” he says. “But it’s right here.”

And that’s the thing: Ekko Astral’s burgeoning popularity isn’t some kind of signal that the D.C. scene is back. Rather, it’s an in-your-face reminder that it’s always been here: a bastion of a subculture that persists and evolves in spite of the miasma, in spite of claims that it died with the new millennium. pink balloons might not have happened without it—Holzman and Hughes never intended to go beyond playing a few shows off of QUARTZ until the city embraced them so hard. “People think the punk bands from the ‘80s and ‘90s existed and now it doesn’t happen anymore,” Holzman notes. “Candidly, this city has some of the best underground music in the country, if not the world.”

At the Black Cat, which was founded by Dante Ferrando of Gray Matter, the band and I chat about beloved local spots like Electric Maid Community Exchange in Takoma Park. In February, they headlined another hometown set at Herndon Arts, a nonprofit gallery space by day and one of the many small venues that Tyler credits with shaping their sound. “Shoutout to Herndon, Virginia,” exclaims Tully. We also go over the things that brought them together, the cosmology of Ekko Astral: Holzman and Elmore’s time playing together in high school, finding Tyler and Tully through D.C.’s DIY network. “I was giving Miri a ride home, and saying ‘Wow, I’d love to play in a really angry trans punk band,’” Tully recalls. “And a couple weeks later, she asked if I wanted to play drums or bass in Ekko.”

But, as Tully cautions, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole Ekko Astral into something so limiting as gender or genre. Instead, just as pink balloons pushes for nuance and empathy, they dare you to see them complexly. In the immediate wake of “somewhere at the bottom of the river between l’enfant and eastern market,” the album takes another big shift with “make me young,” a track from Tully’s anti-folk project Rosslyn Station. Holzman cites Charli XCX and Kendrick Lamar as touchstones for her work, while Hughes puts it simply: “We’re not just a punk band.” “We’re a band that makes music,” echoes Tyler, “and this is what’s coming down right now.”

And what’s coming down next? “Our plan is to try and play as many places as possible that need music like this,” Holzman says. At the time I’m writing this, Ekko Astral have a southern run lined up with IDLES and a northeastern tour with Ted Leo in June. They also have new music on the way, which Holzman says they’ll let speak for itself. Their next full-length record, she hints, is a concept album about the Beltway.

Annie Parnell is a writer, radio host and audio producer based in Richmond, Virginia. Her writing has appeared in FLOOD Magazine, The Virginia Literary Review and elsewhere. Annie can be found online @avparnell and avparnell.com.

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