New Noise is based out of Berkeley, and as you may be aware, California has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. At almost 40,000 new cases per day, and over 3 million cases overall, it is one of the nation’s current hot spots for infectious disease.
However, the state had been struggling even before the current COVID crisis. With rent rising exponentially faster than the cost of living and public services inadequate to meet the growing need of the underemployed and unhoused, the state has become something of a perpetual disaster area. And that’s without mentioning the wildfires and general environmental degradation that have persisted for decades and become worse each year.
California is not in good shape, and we all know it. Thankfully, some are willing to speak up and let their discontent be known.
Urban Sprawl are an old-school, hardcore band out of San Francisco lead by Taylor Todd on vocals and Kwame Korkor on guitar, and Torsö are a crusty hardcore band whose membership spans both coasts, fronted by the savage vocalist Mae Toone. Both bands have seen the economic misery that has seized the Bay Area, and other urban centers around the nation, and have funneled their thoughts, feelings, and rebellious urges into music that is as fearsome as it is honest.
Both Urban Sprawl and Torsö have decided to release seven-inches this year through the legacy hardcore label Revelation Records. Urban Sprawl calls theirs Concrete Alter and Torso has christened their new release Home Wrecked. They’re both dropping on January 22. To mark the occasion of these dueling releases, we caught up with Taylor and Mae to learn about how the records came together and how they’ve been surviving through the pandemic. Despite the heavy subject matter, it is delightful conservation with plenty of levity that we hope you’ll enjoy.
Interview was conducted over Zoom on January 6. The following transcript has been edited for the sake of clarity and brevity.
One of the things I wanted to talk to you about was San Francisco. What is going on there? I’ve heard it’s one of the most expensive places to live in the country, now I’m being told that there is a mass exodus and things are changing quickly. Help me figure out what’s happening on the ground.
Taylor: Yeah, it’s been a trip. With the influx of wealth into the area due to tech entrepreneurs and the banks, a lot of people have been priced out. But with the pandemic, it’s pretty apparent that a lot of those folks in the tech and finance sector were not invested in being here. It was just the reality that they could come here and make a lot of money. So, now a lot of their companies are losing a ton of money by owning giant offices downtown with no one in them. Everyone is remote now. They all moved to an online platform. So a lot of them figured, for the amount of money they are making, they could buy a house somewhere and have so much more.
It happened fast too. It’s pretty crazy. There was a certain point where you literally could not get a moving truck! Like all moving trucks were sold out, because everybody was leaving. So as a result of that, the last time I checked it, rent has gone down about 30 percent. There are “for rent” signs in windows and landlords are like negotiating constantly to get people in their units. And so I guess, on the one hand, the pandemic has really taken a huge toll on a lot of people and a lot of businesses and a lot of people’s livelihood. And then, on the other hand, it’s creating a little more equity, you know, the scales are starting to tilt.
Yeah, that’s funny about the moving trucks. Before the pandemic, I heard a story about a moving truck actually being rented out as living space.
Mae: That sounds about right. It definitely sounds like some places that I was given as an option when I lived there. [Laughs] I definitely considered just getting an RV for a while.
Taylor: Even before the pandemic the inequities of wealth in the city were so clearly visible. No matter where you went. You could just look at one block, and there would be tent cities and homeless people while at the same time you’d have new businesses coming into vacant places and giant, high rises being built. There’s was a huge influx of wealth, but it’s all rising to the top.
That’s an interesting connection you just made, between inequality and skyscrapers being built all over. Literally, wealth rising and accumulating at the top while the immiseration at the street level becomes more and more severe. And even during the exit of some of that wealth, even a mass exodus, rent has only dropped 30%.
Taylor: Yeah, the rent is still extraordinarily high, even with the drop.
Mae: Yeah, exactly. It’s down from wherever it was before but it’s still not affordable. Especially because people that are actually losing work, are people in the music industry who weren’t making a ton of money anyway. So it’s not like those people now have better housing options or something, you know. There are probably now just more empty buildings while there are still tent cities under every overpass.
What do you think is going to happen with all those empty buildings? Do you think there will be a movement to open them up to the unhoused?
Mae: I hope, and I hope it’s a success. I mean, I think that it’s a possibility at least. And obviously, there was stuff that happened last year, with the Moms 4 Housing people. They were starting that up. And I do think there’s a lot more room for the movement to grow with so many big vacancies and so many people in the street. I’m sure those organizers are thinking ahead. Maybe it will be successful. Maybe not. It’s worth trying regardless.
Do you know what happened with the Moms 4 Housing? Last I heard, they were just about to get evicted, but at the last minute the cops backed off.
Mae: I don’t want to commit to saying something about it without having all the information. But I thought that there was something that involves them being able to acquire the house that they were occupying. Yeah, I believe that’s what I read. That they were successful in the end. They may be the best people there are at that sort of thing because they succeeded at something that seemed impossible.
Impossible is right. Especially with how much real estate is worth, just as a pure investment to a bank or some other entity. There’s no way a bank or anybody who bought that property, for the purpose of investment, is just going to give it up.
Taylor: Yeah, totally. And I think that is one of the biggest conundrums of it all. There are different schools of thought, like, should we build more housing? Because if we did, what incentive do developers have to create subsidized housing or affordable housing if they’re not going to be making money off of it? And something we’re experiencing in San Francisco, and definitely in Berkeley, is that even where there is affordable housing and restrictions on evictions, people find loopholes and get around them. There’s an organization that has, I believe, it’s like a 16 part plan, they’re called Casa Justa. They call it a Community Development Plan, where they have people in the communities making decisions with developers. That way it’s not just tech moguls or people who make tons of money-making decisions. It’s actually people having a say in their own neighborhood.
So you feel like there is a push for more tenant’s rights and assistance for the unhoused, but whether it will be enough to change the direction the city is headed is unclear.
Taylor: Yeah, I mean, I feel like there’s a lot of people who are putting in like, serious work to make it happen, and it makes me want to be hopeful. But, you know, there’s so much uncertainty during these times. Who knows…
Mae: There’s a possibility that it could go in a super dark, dystopian direction too. Like, even with community organizers involved, because, there aren’t a lot of rights people have to prevent them from being evicted. And if you don’t have a home, it can be hard to participate in the community and develop with people in the community. It’s very possible that something really good could come of the exit of tech people, but it’s also possible that landlords and banks could see this as an opportunity to evict even more people than they already are.
Right, because they could just sit on the real estate until the money comes back.
Mae: Yeah, exactly. Landlords can afford to do stuff like that.
Taylor: One of the least evil ways to evict somebody in San Francisco is if you have a family member moving into the building. So like, if my landlord was like, “Hey, I’m gonna have my daughter move in.” And then she could stay for X amount of years, and then the landlord can raise the rent up. I’m not sure how they keep track of that though, like, “Okay, your daughter lived here for five years, or you lived here for ten years. It’s ok to raise the rent now.” And then the landlord says to the other tenants, “Ok, I’m raising the rest, if you can’t afford it, then get out!” I’m not sure, but that’s one way they do it.
So it’s pretty easy to get around the rules is what you’re saying.
Taylor: Yeah, absolutely.
How are things on the East Coast, Mae? Are you experiencing the same sorts of dilemmas when it comes to affordable housing?
Mae: I mean, I do think there are a lot of those same issues in New York for sure. And since the pandemic started, in all of the richer neighborhoods, people have left so quickly that those rents are going down. But in neighborhoods where there’s actual people, that, you know, plan to stay in New York, or have lived here their whole life, they’re not going anywhere else, those rents are staying where they are at. In those neighborhoods, the prices haven’t really changed as much because those people aren’t going to leave if they can help it. So these landlords aren’t scrambling to get anybody else in the apartments, or houses, or whatever.
And there are eviction moratoriums in the city at the moment but there are also plenty of loopholes too. Even the landlord I have right now, there is another property that they own, that they are trying to illegally evict people from. But community organizers have gotten involved and said, “You can’t do that right now.”
But yeah, it’s just pretty similar, where rents are dropping in a place like Manhattan and even in the East Village. The other day I saw this sign that was just like “Rock Bottom Prices!,” “COVID Prices!” advertised on the buildings, you know. But in Brooklyn, where I actually live, it’s totally different. The prices haven’t changed because people aren’t going in and out as much. But in Williamsburg, the prices are changing a lot because all those people can afford to just leave because they’re all working from home now. So that is what I’ve noticed in New York.
Ok, so there’s not the same kind of mad scramble as there is in San Francisco, but you are still seeing some of the same trends.
Mae: There’s some scrambling, but it seems like only people of a certain class have been scrambling. And otherwise, it just… is still difficult, to like, be there. With the huge COVID spike we had at the beginning, it was really real and scary over here for a while, you know. It’s gotten less bad, but I think a lot of people did get scared and left and not even like, “I can work from home. Fuck it, I’ll move someplace cheap.” Like, I do think there was some real fear.
People just up and left for Idaho or something, huh?
Mae: Or they went home to their parents. Something like that. They just went to a safer place.
So what have both of your experiences of the pandemic been like?
Mae: I’ve been living in New York the whole time. It’s been chill, you know, I’ve been working. But I’ve worked way less than usual. I have been making music. It is kind of hard, though. I’m am in a band where I don’t live on the same side of the country as everyone else. And then our drummer actually had to go back to Italy halfway because of not being able to afford to stay in the States under these conditions.
Taylor: Wasn’t his visa for being a musician? He had to play to stay.
Mae: He had to play and you can’t play.
Taylor: He had to rock … for freedom.
Mae: Hopefully, he’ll come back, but I don’t know. We’ll see. But, you know, I’ve just been trying to start up new stuff. But you can’t really go to a band practice right now or any of that normal stuff.
It must have been hard, even before, COVID with everyone being on opposite coasts.
Mae: Yeah. I mean, it worked because I could just fly to California when I had to. It worked for a while. I’ve been on the East Coast for a few years now. So it is definitely like pandemic heavy, like, how much it’s not working out now. But yeah, we can’t do live streams, or things that other bands have been doing because of the logistics
Taylor, why didn’t you hire Torsö’s drummer to do some music classes for your students?
Taylor: I didn’t think about that. He could have come in and taught my class some drums and stuff. That’s a good question. Maybe I’ll talk to my director.
You could still salvage the situation. [Laughs]
Taylor: I’ll let my director know it’s for Torsö. [Laughs]
It’s to keep a family together, right?
Taylor: Yeah, exactly. [Laughs]
Mae: He might not do it, honestly.
Taylor: Yeah, but my experience with the pandemic has been… well, playing music has honestly been not that hard, because you just saw my roommate [Kwame Korkor], who also plays in Urban Sprawl. He plays guitar and I played drums, on the Demo. It was just him and I at first. So we’ve been jamming a lot, which has been cool. Just on little projects here and there.
It’s been interesting, my relationship to it, because I can’t really take a lot of risks at all. Like, I know, there are certain bands who are podding up or doing live streams, or whatever, or are still practicing and stuff like that. But since I’m teaching, and I’m teaching in person, I can’t really put myself at risk because I’ll be putting my kids, and the families at my school, at risk. So it’s been interesting navigating that. Still trying to find some time to play and not go crazy, and then, also, having this obligation to a bunch of young people.
How long have you been teaching in person?
Taylor: So it’s been about … I want to say since April. Or no, maybe March. Originally, we were doing it like an online platform, which was a nightmare. I teach preschool-aged kids. So, you know, they shouldn’t be using technology anyway, and they were getting way too good at it. So I would be reading a story or talking, and one kid got really good at unmuting himself, so he would just unmute himself and start yelling, “Dinosaur dinosaur dinosaur dinosaur dinosaur”! And it was just to fuck with me. [Laughs]
So, like, their tendency to want to just be kids would override the expectations of how they were supposed to be using the technology.
Taylor: Totally. But, you know, with all that being said, I am definitely in the luckier bracket where I still have an income, and I’m not being evicted out of my apartment, and I have rent control, and stuff like that. So all in all, like, there’s not too much that I can complain about… other than the general anxieties we’re all feeling around the pandemic.
So what has recording during the pandemic been like?
Mae: The stuff that Torsö is putting out was actually recorded a long time ago. So that’s how we were able to do it. After this, we’ll either have to do something where we record at a distance and put it together later, or something. But right now, we’re just using old recordings because we had a few songs that hadn’t been released yet. They were all written at the same time as “Repulsion.” We had a place for those songs, and a release date, but that kind of fell through. So we’re like, “Alright, well, here is something so you don’t forget we’re a band.” [Laughs]
Yeah, so we’re fucked after this. Hope you guys don’t want anything from us for, like, five more years, or however long it takes for us all to get vaccinated. [Laughs] This is it. Two original songs and a cover. I do think this record would have had more on it if we had more to give, but this is our offering. This is it.
It’s later material, right? It was is recorded last year?
Mae: It was recorded in March of 2018. And then most of that stuff was put on a seven-inch. And then Rev wanted to work with us again with this one. So that was cool. We were like, “Please, help us.” [Whimpers and then laughs]
Who’s doing the artwork for the record?
Mae: This man, I can’t remember his name. I have to look it up. Giacomo [Zatti] is definitely the person that asked for this guy. He’s as a brand new person, we usually work with [Jim] Kettner, who did the cover for our LP.
Taylor: His name is Banksy.
Mae: No, I think his name’s Johannes Stahl. He’s done work for a couple of other bands. It looks good. [Holds up her phone with an image of the artwork of the new album on it]
I usually like the artwork for your albums and that looks awesome
Taylor: Is that a chainsaw?
Mae: In your ass raw.
Taylor: Chainsaw is underrated. Some real backwoods shit.
Mae: It’s more like a skill saw.
Taylor: Is it attached to his arm?
Mae: What do you think, Taylor? Tell me your opinion.
Taylor: Okay. So I think it’s a skeleton with a skill saw attached to his arm.
Mae: Yeah, just rippin’ up the Bay.
Taylor: That’s sick as hell. I’m picking that up.
He’s slicing up the Bay like a big pizza pie. Everybody gets a slice!
Mae: Certain people get a slice.
So Taylor, you also have an album coming out. Is it all new material recorded in lockdown?
Taylor: Well, we recorded that record in October of 2019. And then by the time we got the ball rolling towards getting it out, that was when the pandemic hit. So then it got delayed, for a lot of reasons. You know, Rev wanted to wait, because there was a lot of uncertainty about … whether anyone was gonna buy a record during a time like this. [Laughs] And it’s funny, because a big part of the delay was also the dude who did our artwork, he did a painting, and he couldn’t scan it. It was too large. So he was gonna have someone come in and photograph it at his studio, but then it got shut down. So like, that was another delay. We’ve just had a lot of setbacks.
I think I may have seen this cover already. Does it have both you and Torsö on it?
Taylor: No, that was just a poster for both records, because they were coming out at the same time.
Mae: Yeah, we have our own album art, but Rev wanted to promote the albums together, which I do think is a really good idea. Mostly because I get to do things like this with Taylor. [Laughs] I’m like, “Oh, yeah? We get to have cool stuff like a poster? And I get to hangout with Taylor on a zoom call? That’s pretty sick.”
Taylor: The poster was based on one for the ’89 World Series. The Giants and the A’s played each other. There’s these two muscular baseball players and they’re fighting over the pennant in the middle of the Bay. I had that poster when I was in second grade, and I thought it was so sick!
Mae: It’s really cool! I remember it when I was a kid too. I think my grandpa has one. Probably in storage somewhere.
Taylor: Yeah, it’s super sick. And Mae’s a big Ace fan. I’m a big Giants fan. We’ve always talked about baseball and talked shit to each other about baseball.
Mae: Fun Shit.
Taylor: Yeah, we’re friendly. Friendly, friendly, friendly…
Mae: Friendly fire.
Taylor: And I wanted to make that poster into a flyer for years, and either people were just like, “No, not gonna do that.” Or, like, couldn’t pull it off. So if we’re releasing both of these records at the same time, I wanted to make it happen. And Rev was down!
Mae: Yeah, I feel like me and you talked about it separately before even presenting it to either of our bands. Like, “We should do this!”
Taylor: Just because I wanted it! [Laughs]
So the label backed you and they paid someone a good amount of money to make the poster for you. At least I hope they paid someone well…
Mae: We pay artists. Everyone, pay your artists! Put that in the article. That’s really important.
What are your plans for these releases? Are you going to do a live stream after they drop, or how are you going to be promoting your records?
Mae: I’m hoping Rev knows … [Laughs]
Taylor: It’s funny because right before the record was gonna come out we had a couple of shows planned with Gorilla Biscuits. And we’re like, “Alright, we’re gonna do an East Coast tour.” We were talking with some people about touring Mexico, too. And we’re like, “Alright, we’re gonna go go go!” And then we couldn’t do anything. And it’s funny because none of us in this band are big internet people, or know how to promote ourselves on the internet, so I was like, “Fuck, am I gonna have to get a Twitter? I don’t want to do that.”
Don’t be on Twitter. It’s bad.
Mae: Band Twitters are hard. It’s hard to not be corny.
Also, people just want to reply to everything. It can get out of hand quickly.
Mae: Taylor, you don’t want to reply guy.
Taylor: No, I don’t. I don’t even know what that means.
Mae: It’s a guy who replies.
Keep him innocent. He doesn’t need to know.
Mae: I think me and Taylor should do a joint live stream where we just talk to each other in front of other people.
Taylor: No one would buy the record then.
I was going to suggest a panel, but this is kind of that already. We’re doing a panel right now.
Mae: Me and Taylor should go out on the road with our “act.”
Taylor: We’ll do a spoken word tour.
Mae: Together we are like one Henry Rollins.
Do you have a favorite phase of Henry Rollins?
Mae: Noooooooooooooooo! Sorry. [Laughs] Please don’t read this, Henry Rollins. I did like you once. At one point in my life. I’m pretty sure.
Taylor: SOA. The SOA version of Henry Rollins. And long-haired Henry Rollins. But put some shoes on, dog. We don’t need to see your nasty toes. Or maybe he could just cover his toes. I’m not trying to kink shame, anyone, I’m just saying.
Mae: He’s probably got really buff toes. They’re probably so buff and each has their own Black Flag tattoo.
Taylor: And little spider tattoos.
Mae: Like, every single tattoo he has on the rest of his body he also has on his toes for a second time.
Do you think each of his toes has a separate take the news of the day?
Mae: Yeah, like a really dated take.
Taylor: And a poetry book. Toe-try.
Mae: I think we should print all of this and just accept that we’ll die by his hand someday.
All images courtesy of Revelation Records unless otherwise indicated.