Get to know the band with a heavy sound, and even heavier themes.
Taarkus is an ascending doom metal band from the L.A. area consisting of Stephanie Sallee (vocals, flute), Emma Maatman (organ, backup vocals), Zak Esparza (lead guitar), Greg Howell (guitar), Anthony Tetrow (bass), and Ricky Mendoza (drums). The sextet uses the haunting conduit of sludgy, psychedelic metal to delve into Native themes and realities as lived by their enthralling front-woman. Not only does every member of the band masterfully shred, Taarkus also touches on concepts of Native spirituality in the form of channeling enlightenment through one’s ancestry and remaining steadfast in the face of contemporary colonization. Unlike too many people who burn out quickly in times of social turmoil or are silent amidst social unrest, the philanthropic footprint of the spirit behind Taarkus extends beyond the music.
Stephanie: Anthony had the idea [to start a band] a while ago, so we just started jamming. We found Zak and our first drummer, Geoff, about 3 years ago. Zak and Geoff are in a band called Trapped in Burning Machinery together, so we started practicing at Jeff’s house in Moreno Valley. We didn’t have a solid practice spot yet. I was playing organ and flute at first, but I realized it was a little too much for me to take on alone. That’s when Anthony suggested that Emma should join.
Emma: I went to a few practices and quickly realized that I couldn’t drive out to Moreno Valley anymore! I was in Long Beach at the time, which is a three hour drive. I kind of dipped out for a while, and would pop in whenever they found a practice spot that was a little more central.
Stephanie: We found a practice space in Santa Fe Springs. Jeff stepped out, and then Rick came in. We wanted a second guitarist, so that’s when Greg joined us. We’re lucky Zak and Greg could join us, because they [were] both driving from pretty far away.
Anthony and I listen to a lot of the same music. My dad’s favorite band was Deep Purple. I grew up with all that heavy stuff. I love playing piano in minor chords—- that’s what I always lean towards. Heavy dark stuff. When I talked to Anthony about writing lyrics for the band, I told him I only wanted to write about stuff I care about. I asked if it was okay that I sang about my Native heritage. I even asked people in my community and my family if they thought it was exploitative to sing about these things. I’m not trying to do it to romanticize anything; it’s because these motifs really match the genre. I think often times, heavy music is about witchcraft, or Satan…
Emma: Stuff that people might consider cheesy, in a way… like, ‘you’re not really Satanists?’
Stephanie: But reality is dark. History is dark. It all comes together in that way.
Taarkus quickly gained traction among peers and strangers after the release of their first 7” single, which was released in 2016 on Rise Above Records . They graced the reputable #4 spot on Metal Assault’s list of ‘Best Emerging Bands of 2016’. Recently, the band was invited to play alongside heavy hitters such as The Casualties at Show Your Scars Dia de los Metaleros event at the Regent (LA).
Rick: I didn’t know how it was going to go over, since the show was kind of a death metal show. For people to stay for our set and pack it in for us was really awesome to see.
Stephanie: People came up to us after the show to say wonderful things. It was good.
Rick: Overall it was great. Plus, I got free beer, so….it was tight.
LSPMAG: On the subject of shows..it took a while for Taarkus to play your first show. How long did you wait to perform live as a unit?
Rick: About two years. We were waiting for the single to come out.
LSPMAG: How did you think it went, after all that build up?
Zak: Me and Greg were thinking the same thing: as long as we get through the first intro, the rest of the show would be good.
Stephanie: Yes, the first show was great. There were definitely some challenges.. we’re a heavy band, but we have a lot of melodic vocals— we have to be in tune, but we couldn’t hear each other. The energy was the most powerful thing of it all.
LSPMAG: I remember seeing Emma outside before the show. She had mentioned Stephanie forgot her flute.
Stephanie: Ugh, I did!
Emma: Luckily, she went home to get it and got back to the venue right in time.
Rick: That’s the highlight of our band… the flute! At the second show, I kept reminding her to bring the flute. ‘You sure you got the fuckin’ flute?’
Emma: It was a lesson learned. She has not forgotten since.
LSPMAG: Are you recording any new music?
Stephanie: We just finished the final mix of our full length. There’s a few songs we’re working on, but they’re not on the LP.
Emma: We basically have a whole ‘nother LP worth of songs written. We started recording our most recent LP almost a year ago. It’s insane.
LSPMAG: What other shows do you have coming?
Stephanie: On April 8th, [we had] the One Mind, One Heart tribal conference at the San Manuel Indian Reservation in San Bernardino. On May 6th, we’re playing with Ides of Gemini at the Complex. We aim for one show per month.
Aside from being a band so full of talent and integrity, Taarkus is built on a foundation of activism. The indigenous roots that shaped the band into what it is run deep— on and off the stage.
LSPMAG: I love that you [Stephanie] use your voice to speak for indigenous women. I’m assuming that’s what a lot of your songs are about— I’m curious to see how you feel about the indigenous women’s representation in society today.
Stephanie: That’s a huge reason why I knew it was important for me to front this band. We’re all very busy and it’s a lot to maintain everything, but it’s important because you don’t see a lot of women in general represented in heavy music. It was obvious to me, from going to hardcore shows with Anthony for eight years and just being around that music scene, it’s all just a bunch of white dudes. I definitely knew representing as a woman was super important, and also representing as an indigenous woman was even more important to me. Growing up, people might have seen me a certain way; people tend to either think I’m black or Mexican. But within myself, I didn’t see people I felt a connection with represented in music or the media. I just thought I was very different.
LSPMAG: Aside from your music, how do you aim to represent and help your community?
Stephanie: Well, I’m a mental health therapist at an American Indian counseling center. Everything I do is all about my Native heritage. I’m half Native [Washoe], and I’m half Filipino—I’m trying to find that balance. With my activism in Standing Rock, NODAPL, and Oak Flat, I’ve actually met a lot of Filipino people who are trying to represent their community’s voices in these movements. I’ve met people who are anti-imperialist activists. I started organizing for NODAPL, Oak Flat, and missing or murdered indigenous women, and other causes like that. I started a new activist group called the Red Earth Defense with three other people, and organized with American Indian Movement Socal and other environmental groups. It all fits together.
I pray when I’m singing these songs. A lot of these songs are prayers, so it’s all very spiritual for me. I go to ceremonies when I can. That is power that gives to the music, too.
Myself and other people in my community have done multiple Standing Rock benefits. Our first benefit was in August. I helped to organize and find speakers, band, performers, food—people that will do things for free. I’ve been asked to speak a lot, which is always an honor, but that’s all new for me too.
A lot of the people I’ve met are actually Bernie organizers— Bernie or Bust, California for Progress. These groups are very supportive of indigenous people getting pushed to the forefront. Even if they’ve started planning the event, they let us jump on and do the agenda. We have a lot of support from that space. I’ve been a part of organizing a lot of different marches, but primarily NODAPL and NOKXL marches.
There was also a lot of drama around the Women’s March. I was part of a group of indigenous women who essentially had our own march because there was a Tongva elder that was supposed to speak, as we were on Tongva land. The organizers in Los Angeles disrespected the elder. We were trying to meet up with the elder and support her while she spoke and did a prayer, but after she was disrespected, we just walked the opposite way. We were in gridlock, but we did our own march all day long. We were going have our own separate indigenous women’s march because there was one in DC. But it was agreed that our coalition of Indigenous women from Red Earth Defense, Indigenous Women Rise & Unite, American Indian Movement So Cal, and Mujeres de Miaz would lead the International Women’s Day march.
LSPMAG: Looking forward, what are the steps to keep the movement active during the Trump presidency, especially when everything sounds so awful?
Rick: I think we need more songs from Stephanie. I think that will help.
Stephanie: We do have one song that is about Trump. It’s called “2016”—
“It may seem like a mystery / something out of fantasy
the truth is that we’ve come to this / after years of being amiss”
Some people were shocked after the election. But this had to happen! It had to be that polarized. It had to be the complete opposite of what people expected to happen for people to really wake up. I think a lot of people are waking up, whether it’s because of the Dakota Access pipeline or Trump, it’s all related. It’s all connected, the way things are going. It’s not sustainable. We have to change. Some people argue that being on the streets isn’t productive, but I think it does influence change. People have been complacent on their couches for forever. Just get out of your house, see what’s around you.
Emma: We have at least 4 more years of this stuff, probably much longer considering how many Republicans are in the House and the Senate, so people need to stay vocal. Stay angry.
Rick: We need to stay mad!
Stephanie: Educate yourself, because the American education system is perpetuating lies. They’re not going to teach us what we need to learn, and that’s why we’re in this mess.
Catch Taarkus on May 6th at the Complex. Plus, keep an eye out for their new LP— to be released Fall 2017. Trust, this one is worth the wait.
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