Interview: Tarra Thiessen of Brooklyn-based band Sharkmuffin

This is a caption --Image via "Mermaid Sex Slave" music video
Guitarist Tarra Thiessen and bassist Natalie Kirch of Sharkmuffin play during a music video shoot —Video still via “Mermaid Sex Slave”

I had the pleasure of chatting with guitarist Tarra Thiessen of the Brooklyn-based band Sharkmuffin in before their show at Gabe’s on August 17, which happened to be drummer Sharif Mekawy’s birthday. (“He’s turning 30 in Iowa!” Thiessen said.) When we spoke, she was “on a farm in the middle of nowhere” and I was in my Brooklyn, NY home. I’m a musician and business-owner, born and raised Iowan and have been based of NYC for close to 10 years, so it’s always refreshing and heart-warming to get outsiders’ take on Iowa when I’m far from home. Sharkmuffin last played Iowa City in March, 2015. “We were the only band and it was like a Tuesday or something ,” Thiessen said. “A lot of people came out and we had a really great time. I’m excited to be back.”

Iowa City should be excited, too. Sharkmuffin is a force to be reckoned with. In a world of bleep-bloops and insta-boppers, Thiessen’s band makes me believe in guitars again. They write in a way that commands attention and seethes contagious confidence. It’s music that makes its listeners feel tough. Or cool. Or tough and cool. Sharkmuffin’s upcoming album is called Chartreuse, and it’s out August 7. In this correstpondent’s humble opinion, it’s one of the best records to come out in 2015 so far.

Thiessen and I talked about guitars, other bands and Sharkmuffin’s song-writing process among other things. Here’s what we didn’t talk about: what it’s like to be a female human person who knows how to play instruments, because fuck that tired shit.

Sharkmuffin seems like the soundbaby of several great bands. And while I can definitely hear the influence of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Breeders and Hole, a crap-ton of Zeppelin, White Stripes, big Replacements reverb and surf rock also comes through their music. Don’t you agree, Tarra?

I love the White Stripes, and Led Zeppelin, surf rock bands like the Ventures and Dick Dale and Link Ray. I actually had a Ventures CD stuck in the Jeep Wrangler I was driving for a year or so, so it was either the Ventures or the radio. I was constantly singing along to guitar solos in the car, which was actually really good for me! And I remember when I first started the band, I just wanted to be able to sing like Kim Deal. I love the Breeders.

That follows! Where are you based? I see you met Natalie (her co-writer and main collaborator in the band) on the Jersey shore.

The drummer and I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and our bassist lives in Chelsea.

Sharkmuffin’s tone is awesome. What kind of guitars and amps do you play? Are you a pedal person or more into the amps doing the work?

I love Death By Audio pedals. Oliver, Matt and Travis build the pedals there and they sound great. I also use Fender 1966 Pro Reverb, and have been touring with my Fender Jaguar and I have a Danelectro 12-string which sounds really awesome. But I have, like, 9 guitars. When we recorded our new record, I mainly used the Jaguar and then a lot of other random stuff that was lying around. But I love my Jag. It’s my favorite for sure.

How do you write songs? Does one person write a song and bring it to the band or do you kind of freedom jam songs into existence?

A lot of times I bring something in and then Natalie [Kirch] writes something to it, or Natalie comes up with something and I write something over the bass line. On other songs I was just, like, brutally pissed at some dude and [Natalie] and [Sharif] were playing and I was in the other room, and I just came in and started yelling. Then “Ten Times” — which was on our last record and was a weird hard core jam — was just like a joke because we asked what time it was and our drummer just started doing some blast beats and we happened to be recording. Sometimes I’ll even have just a melody and we’ll write something along to that too.

You guys play like a collaborative band, not like a front person with a backing band.

Yeah, we’ve had a lot of different drummers and I think that’s what’s kept it fresh: to get friends to sub in and get all these different drummers’ takes on our songs.

Do you tour pretty extensively?

Our bass player was a pre-K teacher and this is the first years she’s taking off. She’s taking a one-year sabbatical so we can tour a lot more. But, before that, [her] spring break would always line up with SXSW, so for the past three years we would go down to Austin, and because she had summers off we toured then, too. We did a tour with Dubstar and we did some Warped tour dates. We’re hopefully going to tour more. We’re releasing the record August 7 and then we’re going out again until the 27th. We might go to Canada, and then we’ll try to write more and maybe go to Europe.

Kathryn Musilek was born and raised in Iowa and received her BA in Cinema and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and fronts the band Nevada Nevada. This article originally appeared in Little Village Issue 182.

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