Fighting The Good Fight With Antigone Rising
After four and half years of hard work, Antigone Rising is starting to take off. The all female band from New York City has been generating quite a buzz. Along the way, Antigone Rising has been fighting to destroy two hard-core misconceptions about popular music. One, that women cannot play as hard or as loud as men, and two, that rock (especially classic rock) is dead. To help forge the fight for their part of the rock and roll landscape, the band has enlisted a wide array of soldiers including moe., and Rob Thomas from Matchbox Twenty, to go along with their legions of loyal fans. While their fight is far from over, they are clearly beginning to make some major in roads into the landscape they aim at conquering.
Antigone Rising simply want to be viewed as a rock band. Their straight up classic rock vibe should make this wish seem easy, but as with most aspects of the band it gets more complicated. Antigone Rising is certainly not afraid to be who they are. They are not trying to break any new ground musically, just revive the art of hard full throttle classic rock. Their bombast is propelled by the guitar pyrotechnics of sisters Kristen and Cathy Henderson, while Dena Tauriello and Jen Zielenbach provide an aggressive rhythm section, and they are fronted by a dynamic ball of energy named Cassidy (no last name needed) who is like Janis Joplin, Robert Plant, and Mick Jagger all rolled in to one.
Being an all girl band raises many complications for Antigone Rising. "It's definitely an obstacle at best," says Kristen Henderson, "We've had to prove ourselves over and over and over again." Clearly the myth that that women simply cannot play as hard as men is firmly ingrained in the popular music conscious. "You are clearly viewed as a novelty act. You get the same stigma as cover bands, people just assume that you stink." Not only do most people naturally assume female acts are subpar musically, but they also seem to believe that female acts must have some sort of agenda. Henderson admits the name of the band has not helped debunk that myth. "I think we kind of overthought the name. We wanted to come up with a name that would identify us as an all girl group without demeaning us as women." The band was trying to duck the trend of girl groups who give themselves girly, kitschy names such as Kitty, the Bangles, and the Go-Go's. "We thought it would be great to name the band after a Greek heroine, a strong female character but it turns out that a) nobody knows what the heck we're talking about and end up pronouncing it wrong (prompting the title of their 2002 album Say IT! An-TIG-uh-nee). Or, b) that we have this agenda that's really feminist and really outspoken politically." Which Henderson further admits, "We kind of are, but not musically. I think personally we are, but for us, we're a band, we're a rock band. We just want to go out there and play and have a good time."
Antigone Rising's number one weapon in fighting these myths has been to just go out there and play, letting who they are come across as is, thus letting people make up their own minds. The band has also let these misconceptions work to its benefit, as they tend to exceed people's diminished expectations. "It's funny," quips Henderson, "After people see us, they are taking a back because they don't expect girls to rock as hard the guys do. It's great when we're on a bill with guys, because even if we're just as good as they are, and deliver a similar set we are the ones people remember, because we're girls who play really hard, and people don't expect that, and that's what they walk away talking about. So in that respect it has definitely helped us."
Playing live is what the band loves most. For the past three years they have averaged far more than 220 shows annually. It is while criss-crossing the country that they have picked up allies to support their cause. The first notable alliance that helped propel the band was joining forces with moe., and their Top Artist management (as well as the Lion's Den's Howie Schnee). It was word of mouth that brought them together. "Albany N.Y. had become a really hot market for our band. We had gotten great festival and opening slots there. A promoter in that area named Greg Bell, is an old friend of (moe. manager) Topper, and he knew that Topper was looking to take on another band. Greg spent six months selling us to Topper, who eventually saw us at place called Maxwell's in Hoboken N.J. and immediately approached us about management."
Henderson explains, "What attracted us about Topper was his indie grassroots ethic. What moe., and Topper were able to do together to build moe. into this huge independent commodity, to us was really exciting. Especially at that point in our career, we wanted him to do the same for us, get us on the road, have us play, and grow that way." Topper immediately put Antigone Rising on a bunch of moe. dates. "That really turned around our career just to be able to play with moe., and spend time talking with them backstage, or sitting on the side of the stage and watching what they do. It changed our whole game. They make us a better band period. Every time we play with moe. we're better because of it."
One of the lessons the band has learned from moe. is how to incorporate jamming into their live shows. Henderson freely admits, "We're not a traditional jamband. We're a band that because we tour so much we figured out how to jam and got into it. Having played shows with moe., Robert Randolph, and North Mississippi Allstars, it has influenced our style, and now we fit into this area that we never thought we belonged in and we fucking love it." As their high energy shows continue to develop the jam aesthetic, they have become fixtures on the jamband scene, playing the moe.down, the Great Bamboozle festival (in New Jersey), and Bonnaroo all in the past year. "Learning how to jam makes it very exciting for both us and our fans," says Henderson, who still credits moe. as their jam professors. "Every time I see moe. I just watch (guitarist) Al (Schnier), and I'm in awe, but I pick up so much from him, every time." Their set at last year's moe.down was memorable, because the stage lost power just a couple of songs into the set. This did not deter the girls who gallantly performed most of the set acoustic with Cassidy singing at the top of her lungs, earning them many new admirers.
A common thread between Antigone Rising and the jamband world is a strong connection and relationship with their fans. They are fortunate enough to have as deep a fan base as any touring band. "We really sweat all the stuff our fans say" says Henderson Their fans will not only travel great lengths to see them, but show up with food, gas cards, and other necessities for life on the road. Not to mention the tradition of throwing crumpled dollar bills onstage during the set.
The band works hard at maintaining this relationship. Following their performance at Bonnaroo, I watched Kristen mingle with many fans treating them all like old friends. She seemed unfazed as both girls and guys came up to hug her and heap praise on her and the band. She seems like a natural for the job, as she is quite approachable and friendly to mere strangers. As she explains, "We made a conscious decision when the band went full time in 1999, to not give a shit about the music industry. We weren't interested in a record deal, we wanted to get in a van and tour, but we needed help, but we weren't going to get it from a record label. What we did have was a small group (I'd say only a handful) of dedicated fans and we reached out to them and made them our priority. Henderson feels a strong fan foundation is a must for any indie band. "As an indie artist you need to have good business sense or you won't make it, it's that simple. Part of the business is knowing the people who are supporting you. We're lucky that the people supporting us are great people, and from there it just grew."
Antigone Rising has displayed fearlessness to explore different areas of music, but what is more impressive is that their fans have shown the same sort of zeal and have embraced wherever the band has led them. "By nature our songs are very straight ahead rock songs with a pop ethic. The people who first came to see us came to hear four minute pop-rock songs, and we have evolved and they have evolved with us," explains Henderson. What is most important to the band is that, "They (the fans) don't just tolerate our changes they embrace them. They are fans of our band and whatever we choose to do. At every turn I'm shocked," admits Henderson.
While their goal live is to play as hard a show as possible and convert new believers, their sights in the studio are on a different prize. Their goal is to revive the classic rock sound of the 60's and 70's and force it back into the forefront mainstream music. As music continues to evolve, the phrase classic rock is becoming synonymous with old. Antigone Rising is trying to take sounds that have been done before and make them sound fresh and vibrant, to a generation of listeners who are has accustomed to hearing computers and synthesizers instead of instruments. Henderson seems optimistic about the revitalization of classic rock. "I think it's coming back. People are embracing it again, they want a melody with guitar solos, and maybe some harmonies." She also admits that it is growing harder to recapture that sound today. "The thing that is most frustrating to me, is in this day and age with Pro Tools and things, you almost have to work twice as hard to sound as good as those old bands, to sound more organic. People want you to sound like everything else on the radio, which uses technology and Pro Tools to make things sound perfect. This makes it harder to go back and show people what it is. I think bands like Matchbox Twenty and the Counting Crows, those bands are trying to sound classic in a sense, but because with this technology everything is shrunk up and cleaned up, it is hard to sound classic, it just is."
I asked Henderson if she feels classic has become some sort of dirty word. "On the radio, yes. I think it's starting to change though. Jet is being played, then you have all the the bands' (such as the White Stripes, The Darkness, and the Strokes), and it's working and it's exciting. I think our record, when it comes out has overcome the obstacle of Pro Tools, and getting lost in the computer world."
The album Henderson referred to will be the band's first on Lava records, marking a new transition for the band as they join the major label ranks. In this new campaign they have enlisted multiple Grammy winner and Matchbox Twenty front man Rob Thomas to co-write and produce two new songs "Don't Look Back" and "Precious Thing." The collaboration came about when Lava president Jason Flom was meeting with Thomas to discuss Matchbox Twenty. Flom wanted to get Thomas' opinion on the newly signed Antigone Rising. According to Henderson, "Rob said that this reminds me of a side of myself that I can't explore with my band, I'd love to be able to write with them.' He had an immediate connection with Cassidy, and what she was doing vocally." Of the experience working with the superstar Henderson says, "Working with Rob was a riot. Cassidy and I met Rob and within minutes were like, Lets write some songs,' and in four hours we wrote two songs from start to finish. It was so natural and totally painless. He's a soul-mate of ours for sure." Henderson is quick to heap praise on her new collaborator. "Rob's a genius, he's an underrated true genius. He's a melodic sponge who is definitely touched by angels. It's almost like his fame has cost him some credibility, which is sad, because he is one of our generations greatest songwriters, and we're lucky to learn from him."
Luck seems to be on Antigone Rising's side. With that and their talent, they have been able to tap-dance through the mind field that is today's music scene. There seems to be no place for them to go but up. They continue to make great strides. But will they be able to convert male audiences who might be initially turned off by a strong female rock band? This is hard to say. Will they be able (along with other bands) to push classic rock back to the forefront of mainstream music, and make it a viable option? This is unclear. Indeed, tough tasks lay ahead for the band. Some of the answers might come with the release of their Lava debut this Fall. One thing is for sure, Antigone Rising has yet to back down from a fight, and I do not see it happening any time soon.