[Interview] Sarah and the Safe Word's Sarah Rose and Kienan Dietrich
Cover Photo: Tess Yaney
Atlanta's own Sarah and the Safe Word served up a spooky, scary, rollicking good time for the album release show at Smith's Ole Bar on April 28. I had the chance to chat with Sarah Rose and Kienan Dietrich at their sold-out show, latest album, Strange Doings In The Night, and getting booked to play at Vans Warped Tour, plus some Panic! At The Disco outtakes.
How did you guys initially get together to form Sarah and the Safe Word? Did you all already know each other before the band, or did you get to know each other better afterward?
Sarah Rose: Kienan and I actually knew each other for a long time. Kienan was in a band called Ravens and Wolves before he was in this band, and I was in a band called Go Robo Go, which Kienan is wearing a T-shirt of. But our bands played with each other for years and I knew Kienan through the music scene. When I moved away to D.C. for a while, I eventually came back home after a year of that. Decided I wanted to start a band again, and Kienan was the first person I thought of to play with. We connected with some other friends and we made a record.
Kienan Dietrich: This current incarnation of Sarah and the Safe Word is just kinda like, we just pick up stragglers as we go.
Sarah Rose: Anyone remotely goth or moody. We just put em’ in our band. No matter what they play.
KD: We wanted strings for the record. A friend of mine told me about Susy [Reyes]. We worked with her for about an hour and we were like, “You need to be in the band.”
SR: Yeah, the crazy thing about Susy joining the band was we brought her on originally to the do the strings for our latest record Strange Doings In The Night, and we just gelled with her so much, all of us were pretty much thinking we’ve gotta ask this girl to join the band.
You guys remind me of like a goth Electric Light Orchestra or goth Frank Zappa, assembling a ragtag team of misfits.
SR: (smiling) We are a vaudeville goth cabaret, Dave Matthews, Slipknot (Kiennan begins laughing), as we like to say.
KD: Very Angry Dave Matthews!
SR: A sad, angry morose, Dave Matthews Band.
That actually ties into my next question. On your Facebook page, you describe yourselves as cabaret rock. For the uninitiated, what exactly is that? How would you describe that sound?
SR: Well, we say that we are a cabaret, vaudeville, dark rock n’ roll band. And basically, it means that we borrow elements of cabaret, which is the sound of the 1930s, particularly of German theater. Vaudeville [also] from the '30s (a New York style, theatrical sort of brand of music) and theater. And we also have elements of Southern Gothicism, which is dark, Southern country, bluegrass kind of rock. We also borrow a lot from swing music. So, it’s a lot of different, more theatrical elements of music and we combine it with the rock n’ roll that we like.
KD: Cause vaudeville and cabaret were kinda the rock n’ roll of their time. They were the ones always pushing the envelope, always being risque.
SR: It was the original punk rock. I have a very big fascination with vaudeville and cabaret, the visuals of it. And I thought it’d be really cool to incorporate that in a 2017 rock band.
That actually comes out in your sound and your stage presence. Especially in your latest music video for “So Metropolitan." I'm getting this overall huge theatrical vibe. Was there anything that initially inspired you to want to go in this direction?
SR: I've always had a fascination with it. I was a theater major for a semester.
KD: And I’m a huge broadway fan.
SR: We liked when bands sort incorporated that sound into their music, but we didn’t find any band that really went full steam with it. I mean you could argue that Panic! At The Disco’s first record goes in that direction a little bit. It’s a great record. And to a certain extent, Dresden Dolls and [other] bands like that. There are a few nerd rock bands that go there. Marquis of Vaudeville and things like that.
Got to give it to new Panic! Turns out Brendon Urie sounds way better when he drops everyone else.
SR: (laughs) Yeah. yeah!
SR: Yeah, we like bands like that but we didn’t hear anyone, recently at least, going all in with it, so we thought, wouldn’t it be really interesting if we incorporated that sound, ya know? Just did that full steam, unapologetically.
KD: Just to see a lot of bands and getting up on stage (someone walks in) they get up on stage, they play their music, and it’s all nice. And they try to be active, and they try to get engaged with the audience, but they have the same tricks, they have the same kind of rock-and-roll playbook, but when you see broadway, just doing everything they can to engage the audience and we said why don’t we take from their book?
KD: Lots of luck and pain and scheduling.
SR: I think it’s safe to say that the recording process of Strange Doings In The Night was at times very grueling. It certainly was not the most pleasant experience making a record, no. But the most rewarding I would say. We sort of got lucky. We knew a lot of people [from] playing with them on the music scene over the years. We asked them and a lot of them played on the record out of the kindness of their heart.
We were friends with a band called Crabhammer, a ska band, and they played all the horns on the record. We knew Susy through a bunch of mutual friends and she knew how to play strings. There’s a band called Extraordinary Contraptions, a steampunk band that’s really popular around here, and David and Sharron [from the band] played upright bass and accordion,
KD: We just made a list of what we wanted and we pursued it
The recording process, how long did it take?
KD: The actual recording itself, like once we got into the studio and laid things down, we did it in about seven days.
SR: Seven days stretched out over a month. It was like two weekends and then we did a few more days. We actually booked a little more time to sort of clean everything up.
KD: There was a lot of prep time involved. The prep was probably about two months.
SR: Yeah, we made sure that when we went in there that we would know what we were doing.
Even two months for a prep time sounds amazing for what sounds like an intricate album.
SR: It’s pretty surreal. All of that within basically a week’s time. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to do that. (laughs)
KD: (laughing) Yeah, don’t ever do that.
Sarah, you recently were interviewed by NPR as a proponent of the move to paint the rainbow crosswalk on 10th and Piedmont. What is the significance of the rainbow crosswalk?
SR: The rainbow crosswalks were painted in 2015 to coincide with Pride [The Atlanta Gay Pride Festival] for that year. At the time it was supposed to be a permanent installation, which the city went back on that citing concerns with the Department of Transportation. A lot of people in the city were disappointed that it wasn’t a permanent fixture, followed by a movement to raise money and bring it back. It was not successful. Being in the LGBTQ community here since I was a teenager, I saw how much the crosswalk meant to the city and I wanted to contribute what I could to bring it back and keep it in the public consciousness. So, that was what I did and we put up a petition.
Would you, as a band, say that you find yourself taking public stances for the LGBT community?
SR: Well, I’m certainly proud of my status as a trans woman in a band. I don’t disregard that. I know that is something that is very prominent in our band and I am very proud that I am trans and I am out in the LGBT community. But I think we’ve all sort of said, I don’t want that to be the focal point. There’s certainly a lot more things interesting about me than the fact I am transgender. I certainly don’t want that to define our band, I think the interesting thing is that we do vaudeville cabaret, rock 'n' roll, but I’m more than happy to talk about LGBTQ issues during my professional life. I work for an organization and do LGBTQ advocacy for it, but as far as the band is concerned, we don’t sing about gender issues as prominently as like Against Me would. Mad respect for [Laura Jane] Grace in Against Me.
How excited were y’all when you found out you were playing the Vans Warped Tour this year in Atlanta? How did that happen?
KD: Do you want to hear the actual story?
SR: The crazy story was a fan of ours said, “I would love for you guys to play Warped tour.” And we said, “Yeah, okay whatever.”
And she said at the time, “I’m going to tweet Kevin Lyman [founder of Warped Tour]” and we said, “Alright, whatever, go ahead!” So she tweets Kevin, he responds to her and says, “I’d like to hear their music. Tell me more.”
So she tells us and I’m like “Holy shit!”
I email Kevin thinking ya know, he might listen to this or he might just be doing this to humor her or whatever. I send him two songs off the new record, “So Metropolitan” and “Strange Doings In The Night," and within about 45 minutes Kevin himself messages me back and says, “I like what I hear, would you like to play the Atlanta day of the Warped Tour?”
I called Kienan losing my goddamned mind. It was like 11:45 at night. “I think we’re playing Warped Tour!!” and it’s been that way ever since. We have our name on the poster!
KD: We’re on a playlist on Spotify, the official playlist [of Vans Warped Tour].
SR: It’s been crazy. Our song plays on Spotify has gone up so much and it’s been crazy and we’re very grateful.
SR: And we’re grateful for our fan, London for making the suggestion and reaching out. It was amazing.
KD: It’s crazy, the kind of news that gives you faith in the music business, the “anything is possible”.