By Liz Tracy
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Welcome to Beezlebub's Cave, the downtown Miami practice space of grrrlcentric, sludge-metal trio Shroud Eater. Found at the end of an unlit driveway where hazy figures congregate along a chainlink fence, the unadorned venue/warehouse is the kind of inconspicuous spot where you'd hide from zombies. But within, the eerie stillness transforms with the manic decibelage of the dirtiest, darkest sludge this side of Port Everglades.
"Three dollars!" squeals bubbly Janette Valentine to a showgoer walking up on a Thursday night in February. Currently favoring bright-red hair, the red-lipped, 36-year-old Shroud Eater bassist shoots the guy a disarming smile and hands him a cup for the keg of Budweiser. The front room is small, filled mostly with men. She is luminous and imposing — even with her diminutive five-foot-two frame covered with a black wife beater, tight black pants, and Chuck Taylors.
She glances back through black-rimmed glasses at opening band Consular. The vocalist is hitting the bass drum with his microphone, and the last crowd surfer has exasperated the scattered crowd. Shroud Eater is next.
The brainchild of vocalist/guitarist Jeannie Saiz and Valentine, Shroud Eater is performing the first night of its four-date Florida tour that takes it from Beezlebub's Cave to Orlando, Jacksonville, and Gainesville. The tour coincides with the promotion of the band's recently released debut album, ThunderNoise, which was three years in the making. Its heavy sound — full of doomy riffing, aggro rasps, and slow moody tempos — has received praise across the blogosphere.
A crowd of flanneled types and a sizable number of women — including drummer Beatriz Monteavaro (Floor, Beings) — gathers as Shroud sets up. The trio walks amid a tangle of wires with the Melvins' cover of Kiss' "Goin' Blind" playing in the background.
Lanterns glow behind drummer Felipe Torres as he sits at his kit, its double bass drums decorated as bloodshot eyes. Skeletons hang from the ceiling in little jail cells, and the walls feature Led Zeppelin, Pelican, and Boris posters as well as the Frank Zappa quote "A drug is neither moral nor immoral — it's a chemical compound."
Pot smoke fills the air as the crowd prepares for an onslaught of estrogen-fused sludge, a fuzzed-out punk-metal hybrid, à la Buzzov•en or stoner-metal legends High on Fire. The band begins with ThunderNoise's first song, "High John the Conqueror." Some stand around eyes shut, slowly banging their heads in unison, taking in Saiz's gravelly larynx. Others don't move. One man dances front and center, arms waving in the air, as if Beezlebub's is now the happiest place on Earth. When the set is done, a bunch of dudes yell "One more set!"
"My personal hope is that people forget we're women and look past that and just vibe with the music," says Valentine from her home in Miami on a Saturday afternoon. "What we get a lot after shows from people is like, 'Oh wow, I stayed and watched your entire set. I actually really do like your music. I didn't know what to expect when you got onstage. You weren't what I expected.' And I'm always like, 'What does that mean?' "
She's just returned from a hectic trip to Orlando, where some of her professional gigs as a pinup photographer fell through.
Her phone manner is infectious. She laughs a lot, even when she's serious, and curses in the best way: humorous without an attitude or ego. She's comfortable talking about sexist stereotypes and about striking a balance between the übergirly world of animal-print outfits that define her career as a photographer and the touring life of her band. Playing music "with a bunch of dudes, sleeping on floors," sometimes with no toilet paper, is decidedly unglamorous — especially if you get your period.
"I definitely need the balance of being in a band," Valentine says. "I love my job; I do what I do. But there's a part in me that wants to do something a little darker. I'm surrounded by a bunch of fluff all day. It's all very pink and girly. That's not 100 percent me."
Valentine and Saiz, who are a couple and have played music together for almost a decade, were formerly known as the Righteous Devices, a short-lived, all-female, stoner-rock quartet that was a favorite of the Churchill's set in Miami. They met through Saiz's cousin, who was also a longtime friend of Valentine's, when Saiz was 20 and Valentine was 28.
Saiz brought her guitar over, and they learned how to play Hole songs together. Valentine credits their musical partnership as a major part of her development as a bassist. The relationship eventually turned romantic and led to a number of bands. Drummers came and went, and vocalists never really worked out. Wanting to take the band in a more complex musical direction than the scruffy rock 'n' roll they'd been playing, the pair put an ad on Craigslist for a drummer. Torres answered, Saiz took over vocals, and Shroud Eater was born.
"[She and I] totally hit it off," says Valentine of her first meeting with Saiz. "I was like, 'Where have you been all my life? We're going to be best friends.' And then I convinced her that we were."
The two are an interesting contrast to each other. The stunningly beautiful Saiz's makeup-free look differs from Valentine's more feminine, vixeny appearance. Where Saiz is tall and laid-back, Valentine is smaller and has an explosive personality. Neither conforms to the metal world's dated female stereotypes of sexed-up suicide girl or androgynous tomboy.
These stereotypes dissolved in the '90s for the most part — those pesky "sexiest women in metal" lists that still pop up notwithstanding — and they are especially not a major problem historically within Shroud Eater's doom/sludge/stoner musical style of choice. For instance, genre notables Boris, Electric Wizard, and the Melvins all featured women at one point.
But this more welcoming environment doesn't mean Shroud Eater doesn't deal with harassment. A recent tourmate reportedly asked Valentine and Saiz if they "scissor," and during the show in Orlando, a persistent heckler made Valentine so uncomfortable that she turned her back to the crowd. In a happy moment of XX solidarity, a female audience member got into said sexist heckler's face, which resulted in his removal from the venue.
"Yeah, she got in his face and flicked his cap off. It was awesome," Valentine recalls, laughing.
"I don't think [being a woman] is a hindrance," she continues, her tone taking a more sober turn. "But part of us, deep down inside, definitely push it more. You know, can we make it sound stronger or better. Because you really don't want to be a chump. We don't want someone to be able to say, 'These girls can't write a fucking song.' So yeah, we have to really take it to the next level where we are really thoroughly satisfied with what we put out. Nothing is worse than 'Not bad for a girl.' "