Punk couple make synth-pop about robots and romance
Kesha is partly responsible. She had something to do, tangentially, with the formation of keytar-wielding duo Sext Message. The pop singer was playing Charlotte in 2011. After the gig, Kesha and her entourage, which included a couple of tour buses full of party people, were ready to throw down. They rolled up to the world-famous Milestone Club, a venerable punk venue that is literally covered in graffiti and stickers and scratched-out markings from what’s now over 50 years of rowdy rock shows and boozy nights. As it happened, behind the bar at the Milestone that night, as on most nights, was Jonathan Hughes. This is a man who, over the years, has cracked open more cans of PBR than he can even begin to fathom. When Kesha and her crew settled the tab at the end of the night, there was a significant amount of cash involved, and Hughes ended up with a very nice tip. That bit of gratuity gave Hughes the cash to buy something he’d been thinking about for a while: a keytar.
Hughes, a big tattooed punk rocker, isn’t necessarily the kind of guy you’d expect to be saving up for one of those semi-ridiculous (yet totally rad) strap-on, new-wave keyboard-guitar hybrids. The idea had been brewing for a little while. Hughes had been running the Milestone with his wife Stephanie, also a musician. The two had each played in bands separately for years, and they’d been considering starting a project together for the first time. The keytar was for Stephanie. At first, Jonathan thought he’d be playing guitar, and there would be drums, a standard rock-band scenario. But the band, Sext Message, ended up springing into life unexpectedly. Sext Message play Winston-Salem’s Monstercade on March 25 with Crunk Witch, from Maine.
As the pair tell it, they had a friend who was organizing a comedy show and looking for a musical act that would fit on the bill. Hughes said he had just the thing and it was called Sext Message. It was something he and Stephanie had been putting together. The only problem was that Hughes was sort of full of it.
“I literally just made the whole fucking thing up,” Hughes said. “I don’t even know what popped into my head. We hadn’t even written a song yet.”
Many bands have been launched with less than a decent name and a date for a loose first gig. Sext Message had a name, and they had a show penciled in. And, most importantly, they had a keytar. They cranked out some songs and played that first show with one keytar and a keyboard (mostly for piped-in applause sounds, in case people thought they sucked). So they got busy with the project.
Hughes had started tinkering with his wife’s new weird keyboard-ax toy, working on some song ideas and got a little carried away.
“I played that keytar for like an hour, and I was like ‘This is awesome!’ so I just bought myself another one,” he said. “I just couldn’t help it. It was so much fun.”
A single keytar is one thing. But two keytars is a totally different beast.
The dual-keytar aesthetic is sort of a visual cue for prospective crowds. It lets people know that Sext Message means business. They’re committed to their party attitude, their get-on-the-dancefloor-no-matter-what agenda, and their synth-pop pulse. The beats may be ricocheting and bubbling, and the synthesizers might generate fizzy oscillations and robotic arpeggiations, but the pair sees a connection between their dance-pop and all the other leather-clad bands they’ve been in.
If dance music is about letting the body rule the mind and finding release on the dancefloor, punk is about not caring about rules or norms and traditions, and doing what you want. The band’s song “Dance Dance Resolution” is sort of their mission statement about the imperative to overcome inhibitions. But sometimes even the most defiant punks need help letting go, to cut loose in the service of pleasure over angst.
“Dance music isn’t necessarily what a lot of punk rockers are really into,” Hughes said. Sext Message have bridged that gap by being plugged into the punk scene, running the Milestone and just embracing the two keytars as a suitable musical corollary to Doc Martins and mohawks.
“I look at the band like it’s just a digital punk band,” he said. “To me, our band is just as punk as any band I’ve ever been in, as far as just not caring what people think.”
Stephanie writes the majority of the lyrics, and she’s touched on themes of technology and alienation, romance and even political outrage. “Rogue Won,” off of Sext Message’s 2017 release Brace Yourself, is a post-election lament. “It’s a thinly veiled political song that also incorporates our love for Star Wars,” she said.
Sext Message might bring to mind a bunch of varied computer-friendly and analog acts: Robyn, Neil Young’s Trans, Best Coast, and even Pat Benatar. But beneath the chips, circuitry and punk-android vibe, Sext Message has also uncovered their romantic side, using the music as a way to explore and express the most it’s-so-unpunk-that-it’s-punk sentiment of all: love. If their first record was more of a goof on technology, the newer one had a beating heart underneath.
“We just instinctively started writing songs about how we felt about each other,” he said. “It’s almost like we were using the band to communicate emotionally between each other.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Sext Message with Crunk Witch and Mama at Monstercade, 204 W. Acadia Ave., Winston-Salem, on Sunday, March 25.