“Everyone’s Looking For An Excuse to Do Something Cool”: a Conversation with Sloppy Jane and Weeping Icon

Sara Fantry and Lani Combier-Kapel talk to Haley Dahl about the importance of creating art on your own terms.

Weeping Icon was founded in New York City by guitarist Sara Fantry and drummer Lani Combier-Kapel; Sloppy Jane is the LA-bred, Brooklyn-based multi-media punk band orchestrated by Haley Dahl. In light of the release of Weeping Icon’s self-titled debut (released via Fire Talk Records), the three sat down to discuss band leadership, authenticity, and the importance of creating art on your own terms.
—Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Sara Fantry: September 22, 2019 — Sloppy Jane and Weeping Icon talking about the importance of creating art on our own terms. [Laughs.] Well, does anybody want to talk about this concept? 

Lani Combier-Kapel: Well, you came up with the concept, so why don’t you explain why? 

Sara: Well, something that we talk about all the time in our band is creating something genuine, something real, and the purpose behind it. I guess for me why it means something is, for a lot of years I thought to myself, why do I deserve to be an artist when other people have to take out the trash? I was sort of bothered when people would say, [snotty voice] “I’m an artist!” Well, anybody can create art, that’s just a reflection of their tastes. Over time, seeing how vapid art can be, or at least mainstream art, and seeing how few people [there are] with messages or who are trying to create something really genuine and naked and hold up a real mirror — there just isn’t enough of that. And so it made me feel like if you don’t see what you want in the world then you have to create it. 

And so one reason why we wanted to talk to you, Haley, is because we really feel like what you’re doing is super genuine, and definitely on your own terms. You seem to be somebody who really… you know, that you do your ideas and that you really bring them to fruition on your own terms, and that seemed really really cool and just felt like something important. 

Haley Dahl: Well, thank you. I think what helps me make something that’s honest is to remember how much the idea of being yourself is fake. Because you can’t not be yourself. You’re always yourself, you’re always in your skin, and anything you do, even if you’re trying to copy somebody or if you’re trying to do something to impress somebody or if you’re trying to do something to be commercially successful or not be commercially successful, is still genuine because it’s coming from your own genuine intention. I think that the fear of being inauthentic makes people inauthentic and. If you do what you want all the time, it is a muscle that you work just like everything else. It becomes easy not to question your ideas if you just keep doing them. 

Sara: Does purpose tie into what you do? Like, is your purpose very much for yourself or fulfilling the things that you crave to see, or do you think of other people when you’re creating art?

Haley: I definitely think about other people when I’m making stuff. which is like. I often make things with only one person in mind. Because, you know, the stuff that I make is spectacle-driven — it’s special and it’s its own, but if there wasn’t anybody watching it, it would be almost nothing at all, because so much of it has to do with interacting with the space that it’s in. So I do think a lot about the way that things are going to affect people, and when I do see that something hasn’t landed with an audience the way that I wanted to, I go back and make changes. It’s like a control freak thing, I think. I want everybody to feel exactly what I feel. 

Lani: So do you ever go into a place and you’re like, “This is actually really cool and I want to see how this sounds,” or is it more like, “I want to see if this will sit well with other people.” Obviously you’re enjoying what you’re doing, but is there ever that immediate curiosity of like, “What if I bang on this pot right now and no one hears me at all?” Are you still interested in that?

Haley: More so behind closed doors. I’m not like an improviser in a live music sense, or even at this point in recorded music sense — the album that I’m working on right now is very very planned, because it has to be. I’m always working really hard to make something where the idea is so, so crazy and is so, so chaotic and impossible, but in order for it to be done it has to be a militant operation. And those things fight with each other and it’s fun to watch them like push and pull. 

Sara: That’s interesting. We’re so improvisational. 

Lani: But I mean, I think part of what we’re trying to do right now is just like, how is intentionality, and really honing in on that now. Because we are really improvisational — we’ll get on stage and literally I have no idea that I’m going to get up and start screaming into a microphone at some point. Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t get up and walk around, maybe I will at some point.

Sara: I feel like that does have to do with interaction with the audience, reading the energy of the room. Whether it’s looking at people’s expressions on their face or not, it’s still like reading the mood of the room. 

Lani: Part of that also has to do with the show itself too. There’s energy in the other bands, there’s energy in the audience —

Sara: Or can you hear yourself in the damn monitors? [Laughs.]

Lani: Sometimes it’s worse if I can hear myself, because then I’m like, Oh, my god, I’m sounding like this right now? It’s almost better if I can’t hear anything and am, like, screaming into a void. 

Haley: Stuff that’s improvisational, I think, is so brave. It’s like one of those things where I look at it and I feel nervous about it. 

Lani: It’s interesting though, because when I see you play it seems improvisational to me. But it’s not. 

Haley: Not really. I mean, some of the performance stuff is based a little bit on spaces, but even when I climb stuff, I walk around and test all of the surfaces in the room during soundcheck to see what I could climb on. 

Lani: I feel like I did see you do that. [Laughs.]

Sara: We should think of things like that. [Laughs.]

Haley: I just like to know what my options are. I do it on tour too — I look up places before I go and I’m like, What’s the vibe? And try to micromanage remotely.

Sara: I liked when you said you need militant operations. Leading a band feels really brave to me, because we’ve always been this sort of communal atmosphere, always making sure that we’re not taking up too much space. I think that’s sort of why there’s room for improvisation, because what we’ve honed our craft in is constantly adjusting and being comfortable free falling. But I really respect how you confidently lead a group of people. Is it hard to get them on board?

Haley: Weirdly, no. I feel like I’m almost cursed with people’s enthusiasm. [Laughs.] People love to do crazy ideas — everyone’s looking for an excuse to do something cool, everyone wants to get in the bus and go and do something cool, you know what I mean? As soon as you start having the atmosphere of that, like you’re somebody who’s doing something crazy — I’ll very abstractly be like, “I have this idea of this crazy music thing that I want to do,” and then like 10 people are like, “Yup, I will do it, I’ll be there, I want to do it. When?” And then I’m like, Oh, now I have to do it. So I have to be careful about what I say out loud. I feel like it’s genie-wishing. 

But it took a long time to get there. I used to really have trouble getting people behind what I was doing, because I would try to explain it and if you can imagine me trying to explain what my band is now to somebody before it was done — me being like, “There’s going to be TVs and two girls are going to stand by the TVs and there’s going to be, like, 11 people; it’s gonna be kind of what we do right now, only with, like, chamber music…” And people just don’t really get it, but then when you do it everyone wants to be involved. But there is like a weird in-between stage where you’re trying to build a lot of stuff out of cardboard. We had a violin player who didn’t actually play violin, that kind of stuff. So people would see a photo of it and be like, “Oh, that band has violin. Let me know if you ever need a violinist!” It’s weird, it works out. It’s not very hard to get people to be involved with stuff, but obviously you organizing it can be tiring. 

I really admire, you guys have been working together for so long. I rotate people in and out a lot, and I think that I would struggle to have a super long collaboration. How do you guys keep it fresh? 

Lani: I mean, we have a lot of talks. [Laughs.] So much talking. 

Sara: It’s some shit most dudes wouldn’t be able to do. 

Lani: We get really, really deep with each other. I’ll be like, “That thing you said — did you mean this or did you mean that? It made me feel kinda this way…” We have a lot of conversations like that. At times it’s tough, but we’re here and we love each other. 

Sara: I think we’ve learned to speak really positively with each other, and always make sure that no matter what we’re feeling — if we’re feeling defensive after so many years collaborating — we’ve really learned how to prioritize one another’s feelings in the moment. 

Lani: We’re both very opinionated, so it’s hard. That’s the hardest part sometimes. But we actually both have similar ideas at the end of the day, and trust each other. I think that’s the biggest thing. 

Sara: A ton of trust and a ton of similar tastes. 

Lani: I know that even if she’s not making something that I truly love at the moment, I know that if I continue and I just let her have her way that will come out good. 

Haley: It’s important to trust somebody’s big picture vision, because only one person can see the end of what they’re making. Collaborating with people is trusting that you guys can see the end picture or that you just trust that it will be good. I feel like since you guys both are opinionated and are comfortable stating your opinions that that’s fine — to be opinion confrontational, I think, is good. I think that what makes a lot of dynamics get bad over time, is when people get quiet and don’t voice something, and then build a Fuck You city in their heads about a bunch of stuff. 

Sara: I was wondering if you like being the leader of a situation. I mean, I’m a bar manager now and I just hate confrontation in the sense of like… I’ll boss people around, tell them how things need to be done, how to bartend correctly, and sometimes I’ll just like ride their asses on things, but I hate every second of it. I hate making people feel discomfort or sadness. That’s what I find really, really hard about leadership situations, how uncomfortable it can feel to say something that hurts somebody’s feelings. I wonder if you ever have to have difficult conversations or tell people, “Well, this is my vision” if someone is overstepping the boundaries?

Haley: I think that’s something that overtime has kind of been rock tumbler-ed out. I started Sloppy Jane when I was 15, and it was just a punk band that I had in LA and I had different friends in it and stuff — it was always my thing, because I was the one who started it and I was always the person pushing it, but I really wanted it to be collaborative. I wanted it to be like a rock band with my friends, and like we’re all in it together, but no one was ever as committed to it as me. So like it ended up being that I was still the one that was super in charge. Then there would be weird hostility, because it was supposed to be equal, but other people weren’t pulling their weight so it ended up being that I was the one in charge, and that caused some weird ego stuff. 

When I moved to New York, I was very clear with new people that I started working with — I was just kind of like, “Hey, this is going to be really fun and we’re going to do this insane thing. I write all the parts, we’re doing my ideas; this is what’s going down, and if you have whatever, you can share them.” People having their own interpretations of music happens over time when you work [together]. Like the live band I have now, we’ve been playing the same set for a long time and the parts that I originally gave everyone have found their own textures in other people’s playing styles, but definitely everybody is very cool about it when I’m like, “Not that.” And I’m also comfortable saying, I don’t have a problem doing it. I’m just bossy. 

Sara: But you encourage that kind of freedom, of people being able to put their own stylistic stamp on the things that you give them, for the most part? 

Haley: Yeah. it kind of depends. Like the rock band, yes — I give people parts and if they change them around, I can be like, “Yes, cool,” or like, “No, keep it exactly what I wrote it as, I don’t want any variation here.” With this chamber music stuff, that’s all very notated. That stuff is just what it is. Once in a while, people will be like — you know, because I’m not trained or anything, and I taught myself how to notate, so sometimes there’s stuff that’s kind of weird and people will be, “Maybe if I played it this way, it would be more what you [want].” People sometimes try to help me find what I meant if something seems a little bit weird. But the string stuff is more non-changeable. 

Lani: Can you tell us a little bit more about this chamber music you’re doing? 

Haley: In the live band now, we have two violins and a cello, and that’s kind of where that started. But the record that I’m making now — I’m making this crazy record in a cave with a 10 piece string section and a four piece brass section, harp and percussion stuff. Some of it is just weird chamber music, and some of the songs are poppier and some of them are. We’re making it in this cave in West Virginia.

Lani: How’d you find the cave?

Sara: I was reading something and you said you went to a lot of different places. 

Haley: Yeah, me and our bass player Jack went on this two month trip all around America. We lived in a van and just went to all these different caves, and I had demo sessions that I did with local musicians that I found — I just hit people up all over the place and would go get to the town, and we’d have one rehearsal at night and then like the next day we would go and record demos in some cave, like the cave that was in that town. It was super crazy. We worked with somewhere between 50 and 100 musicians over the course of the trip, and I had to rearrange everything every single day because it was all volunteer-based, so I would be finding people and they would be dropping out as we went for sessions. We never had the same instrumentation for any sessions. I’d be in the car, and it was, like, negative degrees outside and I’d be feverishly trying to change everything in the scores. That was really when I learned to notate more because I had to be cranking out all these different versions of things all the time, and I was fucking up. I was eating shit, obviously, because it was crazy, but it was really cool and we found this spot by doing that thing.

Sara: I guess another reason why it made sense to speak to you is because we’re both kind of figuring out how to incorporate art in our music, and how we can do more than just be a band. 

Haley: It’s such an interesting thing that you say that. I feel like I run into this a lot where people come up to me and are like, “But your band is more like an art band,” and I’m like, music is art

Lani: It’s all the same thing. 

Haley: What are you talking about? Music is literally an art form. They’re like, “It’s more like performance art,” but not really. Music is performative art.

Sara: I think that kind of ties into what you were saying earlier about something trying to be devoid of ego makes you sort of more egotistical or ego-driven. I just think it’s really interesting the way that a lot of our contemporaries go about doing music as this thing that’s supposed to be separate from music, and then they think that stuff like their Instagram and their online presence is a form of advertising [as opposed to] art that they’re putting out. But it is, because they’re ultimately creative choices. When you post a selfie looking model-y, or your band just fuckin’ rippin’ up, you’re still selling something and that’s part of your artistic package. I think we have these sort of imaginary lines around [it].

Haley: Well, persona work has so much to deal with making something. All “iconic” stuff is pretty heavily drenched in persona-oriented stuff. It has a lot to do with — I don’t love the word “branding,” but the image meets the personality meets the story meets the music meets the time that it’s happening in — all those things work together to make something that’s all part of the same conversation. That’s why I kind of don’t believe that any art can truly be countercultural, because we’re all a part of the same conversation that just is the culture. 

Lani: I do think that with Spotify and how music is ingested these days, people aren’t really looking at the full image. Most people don’t even know what a band looks like; they’ll just see the one picture that’s on Spotify. They don’t know much more about this artist unless they’re like reading interviews. I think it’s interesting. I prefer to find out the whole picture of an artist that I really care about — I want to know like why they’re doing what they’re doing, and what else they do. Like Kim Gordon for example: I’m a fan of all her art stuff. Artists that I care about, I want to know everything about them and their art, because it’s not just the music that that’s interesting to me, it’s their whole personality and this whole persona. 

Haley: Totally. I mean, stuff that is iconic, that is long lasting, is all stuff that gives satisfaction to an obsessive mind. The need for music and the need for celebrities comes from the loneliness of the average person who’s looking for something to relate to and to live vicariously through. The more nutritious the product is — the more that you can dig through the entire thing and there’s just more and more to find, the better that’s going to hold up, because that’s what music fans want. 

Lani: There’s so many different ways to listen to music that I just like to think that the purpose of finding out about the full life of something is interesting. 

Sara: I guess that sort of ties back to the subject, like what is what is the importance of creating art on your own terms? I feel like maybe that’s sort of the whole thing: wanting to do something larger than just music or just the personalities that have packaged and sold to people so that they could be like, “OK, I like metal music so I’m a metal dude,” or like, “OK, I like pop music so I’m a…” or whatever. So maybe the purpose of creating it on your own terms is finding new ways to express. I guess that’s really just why art is valuable to begin with, because it shows us something specific, and it’s valuable when we can look at it and say, “Here’s what I like about it, here’s what I don’t,” and we can learn something about ourselves.

Art that doesn’t take a position teaches us nothing. It might make us feel a mood, but there’s already so much mood out there. I feel like the only valuable art really out there that can be new and worth creating and worth taking up the space of the people listening and looking is something that does something fresh. I think that has to be something intellectually stimulating or just something different that shows that people can feel something and learn about themselves. 

Haley: So and this is something that I — and sorry for talking about, like, boring opera shit right now — 

Sara: My mother was an opera singer and Lani was in the opera, so actually. [Laughs.]

Haley: [Laughs.] But, Wagner would always talk about the problem with modern opera at that time was that the intention of all the musicians was basically to make a piece of music, whereas he felt that the intention should be to create drama and to use music as the tool to create a drama. I think that’s still the problem; I think that’s something that we can look at today in music, the idea that people are trying to pump out all this content. The goal is to make a song, but the goal should be to make a feeling or to say this. The song is how you get there and then you can create with that intention. 

Sara: I had a question that I thought was maybe worth asking you: Do you feel like you can have a life outside of your art, or do you have to live your art at all times? like do you live like this project at all times or do you have like a separate. 

Haley: What I make is 100% of what I do. There’s nothing outside of it. I don’t think that’s the only way to do it, but I do think that’s the only way to do it right. [Laughs.]

Sara: Sometimes I feel like I compartmentalize my life a little bit, but when I think about who I really am at the end of the day, it’s just, like, wailing on guitar and doing what we do. I was a nanny for a long time and I work in a bar like. I feel like, wearing so many hats in this world, sometimes I’m almost like, am I really the same person in all those things? But I do think that underneath it all, at all times, I’m the person creating this art and feeling these things and that’s a reflection of that. So yeah 

Lani: I think I have a problem with that. Only because I do, like, eight hundred million different things and have a career outside of this that I enjoy. Which is the hardest thing in the world, because I want to give every ounce of my being to my creative self, because without creating I feel like an insane person; but without my job and that world, I also feel crazy.

Haley: I think a lot of ways, it goes back to like the first point: You are always the same person living in the same skin. Everything that you make comes from everything else that you do. Whether conscious or unconscious, everything that touches you changes you as you walk around through the world, and you put that into what you make always. Maybe what you make is special and what you love because you have something else you do, or sometimes you feel driven crazy by how little you get to work on your thing. That’s what makes it unique. 

Lani: It’s so true. Like when I’m helping an artist like Pioneer Works, I’m like, I wish I was that artist. It’s so weird, because I’m helping them organize their thoughts into creating something. And it’s like, the only reason I can do this right now is because I’ve done it with my band — I can figure out how you want to organize this thing because I figured out how to organize something very similar with my band. So it all kind of weirdly informs each other in this crazy way. And the only reason I ever got interested in any of that stuff is because I wanted to book my own shows, because that wasn’t satisfied with other people booking things. and be like I don’t like that band like I was a band. 

Sara: The importance of making sure what you want to see in the world is happening and not settling for anything less is maybe the real [point]. I like that point that you made originally about about it all being genuine at the end of the day. All impulses, whether it reads as something ingenuine, that’s still a real thing. 

Lani: Except for all those people who just try to make, like, Maroon 5 type music.

Haley: I mean, I think it’s bad and I don’t get it, but what if they think that what I do is bad and they don’t get it? [Laughs.]

(Photo Credit: right, John Swanson)

Sloppy Jane is an eight-to-11 piece music project led by Haley Dahl out of Brooklyn, NY (originating in Los Angeles). An ever-evolving lineup of players, friends, and collaborators. Elements of the live show include: laughter, choir vocals, xylophone, saxophone, kazoo, television, slide whistle, vomiting blue dye, a naked body, a rotting suit, guitar, bass, drums, tambourine, ruby red slippers, violent shifts in genre and speed, a make-believe maestro, and a set that does not stop moving once it has started.