The Serfs’ Midwestern prophecies

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The Serfs interview

Ohio has a long history of yielding great music, from Devo’s emergence in Akron 50 years ago to Guided by Voices and The Breeders putting the music of Dayton on the map. But when I ask the members of The Serfs about Cincinnati, they confess that their home city’s legacy is a fairly limited one. The Isley Brothers began in Lincoln Heights, and the band cites minimal wave pioneer John Bender as one of their favorite musicians from Cincinnati. But singer/multi-instrumentalist Dylan McCartney confesses, “Most of the good stuff from the ‘60s and ‘70s is from Cleveland.”

Over a Zoom call from a balcony in front of a row of brick buildings, the members of The Serfs discuss living by factories and train yards, and how Cincinnati’s music scene is a fairly small community that tends not to draw much in the way of media attention. Which can make it more challenging as an independent band working to be heard.

“It’s a sentiment I associate with the midwest more than Cincinnati specifically—you sort of have a chip on your shoulder because you have to stand up for yourself more,” says Dakota Carlyle. “It’s harder to get attention here. There aren’t any big festivals. You don’t have any of that stuff that props up people in other cities.”

As representatives of Cincinnati, however, The Serfs—along with their related projects The Drin and Crime of Passing—are more than doing their part to flesh out the archive. The band’s third album Half Eaten by Dogs, just released by Trouble in Mind, is an eclectic and energized set of post-punk with moments of atmospheric noir and club-driven Hacienda pulse. They’re evolving and growing at an accelerated rate, showcasing a unique talent that’s drawing more attention to their local community, and more specifically this prolific and endlessly creative trio of musicians.

We spoke to Carlyle, McCartney and Andie Luman about their new album Half Eaten by Dogs, their evolution in just a few short years, and accidental prophecies.

Half Eaten by Dogs feels it has more club or dance-oriented elements to it. Were you seeking to make something more beat-driven?

Dakota Carlyle: I don’t know if I’d say if it was that intentional. We got better over the years at programming electronics.

Andie Luman: I think maybe subconsciously we also realized that those were the songs that were generally the most fun to play. At least I feel that way. Those songs brought us the most joy to create and show everyone. 

Do you feel that you’ve grown as musicians over the past three years?

AL: Personally, yeah. I do. I think I’m newer to music and every year I feel more confident in making music and growing more as a musician. I’m still in my start of things, really. At least how I see it.

DC: I’ve been at it for a long time, and sometimes I think I’m better than ever or sometimes I think I get worse every day. I don’t really know.

What kind of lyrical themes were you seeking to explore on this batch of songs?

Dylan McCartney: A couple of them were kind of sentiments about interactions with people and some feelings of bitterness, I suppose. Not to be too specific, because we don’t really do specific. But with other songs like the first song (“Order Imposing Sentence”), I think I accidentally predicted a trainwreck in Ohio. It’s about like humans defying nature, as ever, but I was reading about petrochemicals, and after I wrote the words and we recorded the songs—I don’t know if you heard about the train accident that happened in Ohio that poisoned the water supply for a while. 

Yeah, in East Palestine.

DM: Right. So it was just a weird coincidence. But setting out from the get-go with a theme, we’ve always somewhat reveled in things being prophetic after the fact.

Between this project, Crime of Passing and The Drin, it seems like you’re a fairly prolific bunch. Are you working on music nonstop at this stage?

DC: Yeah, we try to, every day if possible.

AL: We go through periods that are much more obsessive, but I’d say throughout the month, we’re always coming up with something, new ideas.

DC: The Drin stuff Dylan does mostly at home by himself and then I’ll come over on a Friday night and try to work stuff out as I’m hearing it. The Crime of Passing stuff we work on in waves. But for whatever reason, that project for me personally takes a really long time to finish. And then this band, whenever I start fiddling around with electronics, I’ll get a basis for something and just start trying to work out as much as we can. And once we feel like it’s time and something is there and we feel like we can finish it, we’ll get really obsessive and work on it everyday, bounce it 100 times, and then you’ll notice something where the tape starts to wobble, so you bounce it again. But yeah, it’s a form of escapism, I guess. Having something to do all the time. I don’t sit still really well. 

DM: Yeah, me either.

AL: I do. (Laughs)

It seems like there’s been a fairly quick progression since your debut in 2020. What’s been the most significant change?

DC: Playing live. Initially there was no idea of that happening. We just made the whole record without playing.

DM: We thought we’d be like Chrome, where they never played until they ended up doing some show in Italy. That’s what we wanted to do. It almost happened. We were supposed to go to Europe before we even were really a band. It’s probably for the best.

DC: Yeah, we would have blown it. With the new record there’s more of the subconscious thing of playing it live or how we could, or how we played the other songs. Maybe it was subconsciously there. Andie wasn’t in the band, so when she joined the band got a lot better.

I think we’ve also opened up to what we can make and what it can sound like. With the first record we had more of a minimal synth, coldwave kind of idea. We already did that so we don’t need to continue doing that to appease anyone. 

What’s the most positive thing that playing music gives you?

DM: We’re all pretty mental people, but it distracts you from that in the purest way. When I’m actually playing music is the one time where there’s a parting in the clouds and you can truly transcend. 

AL: It teaches you to listen to yourself too. 

DC: Anytime you can hypnotize yourself for a half-hour is a pretty sacred thing. 

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