Des Ark Did It First

Sam Goblin (Mister Goblin) pays tribute to Don’t Rock the Boat, Sink the Fucker on its 10th anniversary.

There’s a line in an Indyweek article detailing the reasons that Aimée Argote chose to leave music that really sticks out, and that is, “I found ceramics and, you know, it doesn’t require sadness.” Argote exited the music world a few years back after 2015’s excellent Everything Dies, citing exhaustion, poverty, and a general sense of betrayal at a community that did nothing to come to her aid in a time of crucial need. Understandably, she took up pottery as a less disappointing, less draining means of expression. 

When I read this article, my first reaction was to imagine Des Ark songs fashioned into clay jars and ceramic bowls. What would they look like? Could the courageous shivers in these songs be channeled into functional receptacles, candle holders, soup bowls? If I slurped clam chowder out of such a thing, would it suddenly barb in my throat? Would the broth leak through lesions in the ceramic? Obviously not the most apt comparison, but all this to say: if Argote’s music is any indicator, I’m sure these pots are dope as fuck, or whatever the pot enthusiast people say about pots.

In the case of Great Music Can be Born of a Range of Experience v. The State of Good Music Requires Pain, Don’t Rock the Boat, Sink the Fucker — which prepares to celebrate its first double digit birthday this year — might be good evidence for the defense. These songs hurt. The album is kind of a Trojan horse in that way: The vocals are mixed low enough that they’re hard to make out sometimes, the arrangements are lush and inviting, and the song titles are hilarious, so the album might just creep by you until “Ashley’s Song” rolls around and you realize you’ve been overtaken and it’s too late. If ever there was a song with the potential to make one ugly cry just by thinking about it, this is it (not that I’VE ever done such a thing). It’s a crushing tune: A lurching, brutal waltz that details horrifying trauma while also proceeding to totally kick ass. No easy task, that.

I first heard this album as a 19-year-old boy/man/dude, and as ignorant (both willfully and earnestly) as I was about so very many things at that time, I was at least sharp enough to get the indication that I wasn’t exactly the target audience for this stuff. As Argote herself said in an AfterEllen interview, “I don’t really feel like I need to cultivate a male audience.” Des Ark shows (and other shows in this scene at the time) were the first places I ever heard the word “queer” being used non-pejoratively, and my first introduction to the concept of intersectionality as well as the spectrum of gender. Argote was one of the first artists I was aware of who would go out of their way to cater to the people that felt most impacted by harm or abuse (even likely at the expense of her career), whether that be by just not playing with certain bands, or booking two shows a night just for people who feel uncomfortable at certain venues. These types of practices and conversations have by now wormed their way into the mainstream consciousness — not so in 2010, in my experience. In fact, several years later, as demands for scene accountability mounted in the proto-#metoo movement days, I remember thinking dimly, “Oh, right, this is what Des Ark was talking about,” and then of course revisiting this record.

The opener, “My Saddle Is Waitin’ (C’mon Jump On It)” draws you in with Argote’s fingerpicking that sounds like about 12 guitarists playing at once, expands into a full-on singalong complete with handclaps and foot stomping, and then contracts back into a whisper. To my point earlier about the Trojan horse thing, consider the juxtaposition of the song title, cribbed of course from the Ginuwine classic, and the lines, “I know I’m dying alone/I know that my drinking makes this hospice feel like a home.” Woof. “Girls Get Ruff” takes this tactic to the next level with a sweet, groovy instrumental that sneaks some of Argote’s most devastating lyrics past the goalie (“When will you understand, as embarrassed as I am/When I look at the body of a man/What I see is a stockpiling of weaponry.”) Double (triple?) woof.

Though I was a little slow on the uptake as far as the political function of this music and this scene, there was one thing I could not deny about this record in particular: it ripped! I mean, holy shit, listen to it! It was this fact that kept me coming back in the years to come, and as I did, the messaging gradually sank in. This is part of what makes this record remarkable to me: The pathos is so strong that seemingly without trying, it reaches beyond its intended audience.

There are moments that cut the tension of the (musically and thematically) heavier tunes, like the joyful “FTW Y’all!!!” a strangely hopeful breakup song, and then my personal favorite, “Howard’s Hour of Shower,” a weird, beautiful little ballad that moves like a lopsided-yet-determined slinky. I remember being refreshed that Sink the Fucker was able to channel the spirit of the punk music I loved into tunes that I could feasibly play in the car with my mom, provided the volume wasn’t too loud.

It’s hard not to look back on this album and wonder how it might fare if it were released now. Maybe more to the point, it’s difficult to listen to a lot of music that is popular now and see shadows of this album, to hear watered-down, less incisive, more elevator-ready versions of this music, and to feel a little cheated on Argote’s behalf. 

“Des Ark did it first, did it better, to far less commercial acclaim!” I want to righteously declare. But when I get bogged down in this line of thinking, I realize that I’m imposing my own will on a record that doesn’t need me. Maybe as fans, the best we can do is be grateful that this music exists, and to wish its maker well in whatever urn sets they choose to pursue. Maybe that’s a lesson this album could help us learn. 

Sam Goblin currently lives in Tallahassee, FL and plays music with Mister Goblin and Deady. He hopes to never, ever, ever become a music writer.