The fearlessness of Sloppy Jane
Haley Dahl’s punk orchestra brings the energy onstage and off
Blending performance art and music is always a risk. For notorious shock rockers such as GG Allin, concerts were more of an unruly theater for confrontational stage antics than an outlet for music. With her ambitious punk orchestra Sloppy Jane, founder and frontwoman Haley Dahl masters this balance, using the power of live performance and fearless songwriting to leave audiences spellbound.
Since the group’s inception in 2010, striking photos from Sloppy Jane’s live shows have circulated throughout music blogs, building underground notoriety. Typically, photos feature Dahl fully nude, prowling over audiences while spewing imitation blue vomit onto a rabid crowd. Yet the NSFW pictures are more than gimmicks to mask mediocre music, as proven by the band’s recent debut album, Willow. The 10-song LP rewrites the boundaries of punk by sewing together poetry, Captain Beefheart-esque dissonance, and unconventional arrangements to bring Dahl’s vivid, and often nauseating, vision to life.
“Sometimes you have a really bad stomachache and you wish you could give it to someone else for a second so they would know how much your stomach hurts,” Dahl says. “The school nurse is telling you you’re not sick when you are about to throw up, and you wish you could make her throw up. That’s all I want to convey with music.”
Since she was a teenager, Dahl knew she wanted live performances to be central to her music. Iconoclasts known for their anarchic behavior such as Frank Zappa, Marilyn Manson, and Courtney Love, inspired her to explore the possibilities for performance.
“When I was a teenager, something being big, brave, and interesting just meant having a punk band, but that idea has grown a lot,” Dahl says. “The goal is always to make something that’s highly conceptual and massive.”
Her behavior onstage is magnified by her live band, which features up to 12 musicians, playing everything from saxophones to kazoos. Every member is an essential part of the mix, necessary to recreate Willow’s erratic atmosphere. On opening number “King Hazy Lady,” Dahl establishes the album’s mercurial mood with a bouncy melody that turns manic as laughter morphs into washes of distorted guitars while she menacingly chants, “It’s heaven all the time.”
The effect produces a sort of musical psychosis, as your brain races to catch up with the dizzying array of instruments and ideas. Yet with every aspect of the band, Dahl is always intentional about the chaos she creates. Willow is structured around a single, cohesive narrative about a woman in a Los Angeles strip club who runs away and ultimately burns herself alive.
For Dahl, the importance of audiences consuming the record as an unbroken story is so crucial that she’s re-recording a version of Willow to incorporate instrumental passages between songs that the band performs live.
“I first made Willow with my bandmate Sara Cath, and it was really just the two of us working and playing on it, and it was done with overdubs, and all of the vocals are mine,” Dahl says. “I wanted to capture how it sounds with the live band, where you have these weird instrumentals tying everything together, and you have different people screaming things, and everyone has different pitch control.”
Her unrestrained approach to live performances is similarly employed to convey the emotional energy of the recorded material to audiences. It’s also a survival strategy to build momentum and controversy, cutting through the endless sea of bands accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
“People can hear records at any time for free, so having an engaging live show is more important now than ever,” Dahl says. “By doing what I’m doing, I know people will pay attention and that the photos will be noticed afterward.”
As Sloppy Jane moves away from DIY spaces and house shows, Dahl brings her vulnerable performances to larger crowds who might be more attracted to the spectacle of seeing someone perform naked than the actual music. This realization doesn’t faze her in the slightest. Dahl is just as fearless in her personality as she is in her songwriting.
“If I was to walk around the world with a fear of anyone doing something like that, I would never get to do anything at all,” she says. “You can be hurt in your own home by someone you know, so whatever, it’s all the same. It doesn’t matter.”
That spirit of fearlessness courses throughout Sloppy Jane’s aesthetic, connecting the chaos of the group’s live performances with the unbridled ambition of the music. As a result, the band transcends the lazy taboo-breaking of shock rockers and banal provocateurs. Dahl channels a creative energy she’s maintained since the beginning — an aesthetic bravery that makes her one of the most innovative and exciting artists of her kind.