Most nights, after working until bars close, Leo Ashline gets in his van and drives to the center of Austin, Texas. He parks by the 24-hour grocery store, grabs supplies he needs and waits for inspiration to hit. Since 2013, he has spent countless hours listening, and re-listening, to the punishing electronic stems of Street Sects songs in this fashion.
"The weather's cooled down at night and there's nobody out there, nobody bothers you," he says. "I'll sit there and listen to stuff on a loop. Put 'em on repeat and sing along."
The fragments he listens to are sometimes only 10 to 30 seconds long, produced and emailed over by bandmate Shaun Ringsmuth. Through feedback and revision, the bandmates shape these into full-fledged compositions, adding jagged structure, harsh textures and intense dynamic shifts — to be paired with Ashline's virulent lyrics and delivery.
Ashline's passion for extreme music dates back to his teenage years in South Florida's hardcore scene, including stints in the groups Failsafe and Kilborough. "Those shows never left my mind as being the most intense and the most fun shows I've ever played," he says. "When you're in a room with 100 hardcore kids and everyone's screaming — there's just something you can't really recapture with a softer kind of music."
Around that time, Ashline befriended Ringsmuth while working at a Barnes & Noble coffee shop in Fort Myers in the early aughts. "I was about 16, with a mohawk, and real full of energy," Ringsmuth recalls. Discussions about music led to them forming the experimental rock act A Soft Perversion. The band's shifting lineup moved to Massachusetts, back to Florida, and then Georgia, but never found a foothold. After the group broke up, Ashline and Ringsmuth — who both have struggled with addiction — eventually reunited and began dreaming up their next project.
"I started to stray away from music because of drugs and alcohol," says Ashline. "Then when I started getting clean, I had a wake-up call. Instead of burying all of your feelings with substances, you're forced to feel every fucking thing every day whether you like it or not. That kind of got me into wanting to play aggressive music again. I thought that was a lot closer to how I felt every day. Shaun and I started talking about that. If we're going to play extreme music, heavy music, how do we approach that from a way we haven't heard before?"
In 2014, Street Sects released their first 7-inch, Gentrification I: The Morning After the Night We Raped Death. Ashline and Ringsmuth pushed the vocals and sonics to their respective breaking points on its two songs. A debut full-length, End Position, followed in 2016. Crime novel–influenced lyrics are more discernible here, which does nothing to diminish the songs' ferocity — especially alongside the doomsday samples layered throughout Ringsmuth's rapid-fire productions. Along with the music, graphic imagery by Austin illustrator A.J. Garcés Böhmer adds to the noir-ish quality of each release.
Live, Ashline and Ringsmuth create an intense beast of strobing light and auditory boom. Usually their performances burn hot and fast. "Under 20 minutes, but 180 miles an hour the entire time," says Ashline, who has been known to wield an augmented chainsaw onstage. "Give somebody something that whether they liked it or they didn't, they were going to walk away remembering it. If it goes much longer than that, it can be kind of obnoxious."
The duo consciously strives to be more than just abrasive and confrontational. "One of the things we wanted to do from the beginning was write industrial-based aggressive music," Ashline says. "But we didn't want to get boxed into that industrial genre or that we're a sample-driven hardcore band. If we're going to do this, even in the most extreme songs, there's got to be some open windows that allow us to completely change or do something different where it feels organic, and it doesn't feel like changing the radio station in the middle of the song."
Street Sects take such a left turn with their new four-song EP, Rat Jacket, titled after a slang term for the police records kept for confidential informants. In addition to electronic instrumentation, Ringsmuth adds more goth guitar chords, and subtracts a bit — just a bit — of their previous material's hard edge. Rat Jacket takes Street Sects' aesthetic through an open window, perhaps a broken one, and slices open some new wounds on the way through.
"The whole EP seems very wintry to me," Ringsmuth says. "A little more color and tone than the caffeinated, beat-you-over-the head repetition of End Position." Lyrically, "the themes are things I think about every day," Ashline adds. "Loyalty, trust, betrayal and accepting things you're not proud of but you had to do to keep breathing."
Both men acknowledge they are proud of these four songs, but make it clear that Rat Jacket is a detour as opposed to a new artistic destination. There's excitement in their voices when the subject turns to preparations for the second Street Sects LP, tentatively slated for 2018. Two songs are ready, and they've committed to keep banging out more for future parking-lot listening sessions.
"Although our problems have been different, they've both been severe," says Ashline, nodding to his and Ringsmuth's struggles with addiction. "They've caused our lives to really fucking stall out and not go where we wanted them to go. That commitment to not letting ourselves fall the fuck apart, that is a big part of what this project's about. If I didn't have that, I'm not sure what would stop me from going back to drinking and doing drugs again. Love, relationships and jobs never stopped me from doing that stuff. Nothing else is more important than music to us. For better or worse, we're sticking it out together."