“We want to be approachable and not too stand-offish in the way that we write,” says Dylan Rozelle as he explains the concept behind Ersula, “Granted, I do want to spook the fuck out of people.” The dichotomy inherent in those statements sums up this new avant garde noise-punk project perfectly: obsessively fierce songwriting that remains engaging despite its fundamentally terrifying aspects. Combined with a live show that fully embraces uncomfortable performance art, this duo has quickly captured the attention of the underground music scene in southern Virginia. “We just want people to leave feeling something real,“ says Rhett Sanders, “Something different, something they don’t normally feel from a show.”
Dylan and Rhett began working together in January 2014 because they weren’t hearing what they wanted to hear in music. Though both had performed in several other bands, they lacked control over the direction of those projects and felt like Ersula could be their opportunity to sit in the driver’s seat for a change. “We spent the next eight months or so trying to find our sound,” Rhett tells me, “Trying to develop something that was big and powerful that we could use to make us sound like a full band.”
They achieved that big sound through the heavy use of electronics. Typically wearing nothing but a tattered vintage dress, Dylan will frantically pound keyboards, twist knobs, and crush samplers, stopping only to shriek out the occasional lyrical passage, while Rhett locks it all up at the drum set. Both are involved in the programming required to perform with such a setup. Rhett explains, “We spent a lot of time working with programs and figuring out what we could do to have smooth transitions between big pieces of music that involved digital aspects.” The gear makes up for the lack of other personnel, but they don’t like to dwell on the technical side of their production despite it being tightly orchestrated.
While the music stands alone, the costumes and theatrics are more than just spectacle. Ersula is the name of a character concept that informs their songwriting. “Life isn’t pretty or beautiful,” Dylan points out, “and Ersula is not the pretty girl she had always hoped she would be.” Channeling her pain, Dylan plays the part of a deranged little girl, howling manically while grappling audience members in a spastic fit. Rhett plays it cool in the back in his white lab coat – a mad doctor who’s either totally in control or completely unaware that the loonies are running the asylum, but honestly, it’s hard to tell if it matters to him either way. Ersula’s story is revealed over the course of the set through the dynamic between these two characters. The show is not for the squeamish nor those who value their personal space. “We wanted to make extreme music and an extreme show that reminded people why the fuck they came.”
Harnessing such a complicated concept in the studio was initially daunting. Despite their heavy use of electronics in their performances, they struggled with digital recording setups because they felt the product “didn’t have a lot of power and it just missed the point.” They instead decided to go with an all-analogue approach. With the same goal of having an impossibly large sound, Ersula would start with live recordings, then apply tape editing techniques and post-production effects to “glitch things up a lot.” The result is five-song self-titled EP that is only available as a physical release on a limited edition run of handmade cassette tapes.
To those who remember a time when tapes represented the pinnacle of stereo technology, the choice to return to that format may seem either nostalgic, ironic, or both, but not practical. However, there is something to be said for the aesthetic they represent in our world of omnipresent streaming services and algorithmically-controlled playlists. Because each copy of Ersula’s EP was dubbed by hand, it means that the band members had to listen to it in its entirety 100 times. Combined with the handmade labeling and packaging, what you end up with is a unique artifact that defies rampant duplication and distribution. SoundCloud pages may be easy to share online, but they certainly don’t feel personal. The blend of disjointed breakbeats, creepy lullabies, and pure noise contained within each cassette are yours to cherish individually, like a well-made mixtape from a new crush. Try getting that from an MP3 (of course, for those who do covet their digital music library, downloads are available, but the tracks are only listed as “Side A” and “Side B” – yet another jab at the infernal march of progress).
Looking at the future, Ersula is leaning towards a full-length album, though due to the scrupulous nature of their songwriting, they’re wary of committing to any kind of timeframe for its completion. In the meantime, they do intend to tour relentlessly and get those cassettes into as many hands as possible. Be sure to grab one if you’re lucky enough to see them live (even if you don’t have a tape player).