Karen Meat’s musical circus

Dana T & Karen Meat Double Album Release Show with Ramona and the Sometimes, Mr. Jackson

Gabe’s — Saturday, May 12 at 9 p.m.

Iowa City’s own Karen Meat perform at the Englert Theatre as part of the Mission Creek Festival. Saturday, April 7, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

It’s a tale as old as time: Boy makes albums. Girl makes albums. Boy meets Girl. Boy and Girl make more albums. Boy and girl start touring together, performing in matching silver-lamé dresses.

Or maybe that’s a new story, or at least news. In advance of their joint album release party May 12 at Gabe’s, I sat down to chat with Dana Telsrow (Dana T) and Arin Eaton (Karen Meat) at the Sanctuary. They’re now a couple, both personally and professionally, but met through music: Telsrow played a show at Vaudeville Mews in Des Moines, where Eaton was working the door. Later, Eaton asked Telsrow to play a show in Milwaukee when her full band wasn’t available, and they’ve been performing together ever since.

For a man whose previous album was a concept album about life, the universe and everything (tiny mind MASSIVE soul), and a woman whose previous EP is about romantic betrayal and drunken nausea (She’s Drunk Like The Rest Of Us), the two of them seemed pretty normal, serious and polite.

Karen Meat and Dana T, Saturday, April 7, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

Telsrow has been working with Luke Tweedy at Flat Black Studios as an engineer, and that’s where their two new albums came together. Telsrow explained, “I wrote all my stuff and put it all together, then Arin wrote everything on her album and then we just worked together to arrange it.”

That is an oversimplification, given Telsrow’s propensity for elaborate arrangements, which he admits is heavily influenced by Brian Wilson’s experimental productions. “I heard Pet Sounds in college, and I had the same experience probably that every Beach Boys fan has, like ‘Holy shit! The Beach Boys did this crazy thing?’ And I can never write music the same again; I’ve got to find this new level of expression.”

Telsrow started playing guitar in bands as a teenager. After high school he studied at the University of Iowa’s School of Music. He had an ambivalent reaction to classical training.

“It was weird; I didn’t like classical music much, your typical Bach and Beethoven,” Telsrow said. “Then we got to 20th century music and at first we did serialism, and I totally didn’t get it at all. Then we got into John Cage and Ives and Stravinsky and I thought, ‘These people are using music in a way that makes me think of visual art,’ and that’s where those crazy moments of discord [in my music] come from.”

The new Dana T album, Harsh Forever, retains some of the intricate arrangements and free jazz freakouts of his previous work, but in a calmer, more focused framework. It’s part unhinged musical ambition, part kid in a candy store. He’s throwing a whole bunch of cool stuff at the listener, but he isn’t being a show off. It’s generous.

When asked about his songwriting method, he said “I’ve always been intrigued by weird harmony and harmonic progressions. At the same time I’m trying to find the balance — I like jazzy stuff, but if it’s too much jazz it sounds all the same; I like pop, but if it’s too basic, over and over, I get uninterested. I’m trying to fuse both those worlds, and hopefully the eccentric arrangement [of] things will point to something in the experience of being alive better than words.”

Eaton’s musical education is similar to Telsrow’s.

“I started playing music I was about 12; I was in a bunch of neighborhood bands. I was in bands with my brother. Then I went to Kansas City when I was 14 and thought I was awesome and recorded a CD and it wasn’t awesome. I went to school at South Carolina University and transferred to MTSU [Middle Tennessee State University] and finished there in music composition and film scoring.”

Her new album, You’re An Ugly Person, is more straightforward pop music than Harsh Forever, but you can still hear Telsrow’s production and arrangement flourishes. The overdubbed chorus of her own voice is uncomplicatedly sweet at times. Some songs, like “A is 4 Asshole” combine ’80s disco beats and funky synth basslines with deadpan monotone vocals about lying in bed drunk.

Of her performances, Eaton said, “I describe the Karen Meat live show as you are going to the circus,” Telsrow interjected, “Arin loved clowns as a child.”

Humor is a big component of her lyrics. Telsrow said of her songs, “half [of Eaton’s] songs we perform, she sings the first line, the crowd starts laughing. But by the time they get to the end of the song they say ‘Oh shit, OK I feel that, it’s not just a joke.’”

That humor doesn’t just have the effect of disarming the audience and giving them a way into serious emotions, but also reflects some of Eaton’s real-life ambivalence towards strong emotions.

“I laugh a lot when I’m uncomfortable,” she said. “Someone tells me something serious, and I just laugh at them for a long time. My friend Kelly posted on Facebook, ‘My dog Chewy went missing,’ and I just busted out laughing, and I thought ‘Oh no, this is the worst thing ever.’”

Telsrow added, “I looked at that post and felt incredibly sad,” to which Eaton replied, “I just laughed because I didn’t know how to act.”

True to form, our conversation was punctuated with Eaton’s infectious laugh, so much so that I wanted to put together an audio supercut just of her laughs. Even though they both take making music seriously, they’re never far from finding humor in a situation and injecting their music with a sense of fun. They feed off each other’s different but compatible musical impulses. As an example, You’re An Ugly Person is peppered with huge, verging on obnoxious, guitar licks from Telsrow, where on his own record his playing is more exact and restrained.

Their life alternates between working here in Iowa City — Telsrow at Flat Black and Eaton making knit goods she sells at White Rabbit and other stores — and long tours around the United States. But touring is hit or miss as a way to make money.

Karen Meat performs at the Englert Theatre for Mission Creek Festival, Saturday, April 7, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

Telsrow said, “My trajectory went up [financially] until the elections, and when Trump was elected, I feel like something happened and people didn’t want to buy merch any more.”

“People were too depressed,” Eaton interjected. “We go on this one tour and seem to make pretty good money; it’s to Florida and back.”

It seems strange that two such regular Iowa kids make music that’s infected with a touch of the deep crazy. Their performances in matching dresses and makeup, the Captain Beefheart digressions, Eaton’s crooked funhouse path to scary emotions in her lyrics, all seem to be part of a separate universe from their everyday demeanor off stage. Maybe their personas are the surreal kind of wacky the country needs now. Or maybe when the going gets weird, the weird turn normal.

Kent Williams lives and writes about music in Iowa City. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 242.

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