Earlier this year, Youth Code's 2014 music video for their song "Consuming Guilt" was suddenly pulled from YouTube. A graphic statement about animal testing, the clip — which was somehow underwritten by Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art — depicts vocalist Sara Taylor strapped to a gurney as tubes are shoved up her nose and down her throat while some sort of irritant is shot into her eyes and a doctor — played by George Clarke of Deafheaven — looks on. It's difficult to watch, and even more so when Taylor explains that she wasn't acting. She had all that brutal shit done to her for real so the video would have maximum impact. It appeared on YouTube for four years, complete with viewer discretion warning, until it suddenly didn't.
"I did some sleuthing around, so I know exactly what happened," Taylor says. "When you have a warning at the beginning that says it contains imagery that might be harsh to deal with, it doesn't [encourage] ads or people wanting to put money into it. So I think MOCA couldn't generate commercial stuff. There's no nudity, no profanity, [so that wasn't the problem]. The fact that people look at realities like that and are so shocked that they need to take it down — that's what bummed me out."
As someone more than willing to suffer for her art, Taylor hardly ranks commercial concerns at the top of her list of priorities. The tough-as-nails frontwoman of Youth Code — the Los Angeles–based industrial duo she co-founded with programmer, beat-maker and erstwhile straightedge hardcore kid Ryan George — is used to putting it all on the line in the name of creative expression.
Onstage, she's a force of nature: thrashing, headbanging and unleashing torrents of vitriol while George lays down mechanized slabs of synth and neck-snapping beats. Over the course of six years, Youth Code's visceral performances and recordings have earned them praise from both industrial OGs such as Genesis P-Orridge (who released the duo's first 7-inch) and Skinny Puppy (who took Youth Code on tour multiple times) and metal tastemakers including Deftones' Chino Moreno and Lamb of God's Randy Blythe. Everyone from goth punks AFI and doomy songstress Chelsea Wolfe to cutting-edge rock and metal bands like Baroness and Deafheaven have handpicked the duo to open for them.
When Youth Code started out in 2012, industrial music had yet to enter its current renaissance. Today, a wave of industrial duos led by Hide, Street Sects and Boy Harsher are rising to prominence even as bands like Harm's Way, the Body and Full of Hell incorporate industrial noises and textures into their music. Taylor doesn't necessarily think Youth Code are responsible for the genre's rejuvenation, but they've certainly been at the front lines. "When we were starting the band, everyone in L.A. was into minimal synth and synthwave," she says, referencing two less pugnacious, more melodic styles of electronic music. "But I think that Ryan and I couldn't be those type of people to save our lives. We wanted to do something aggressive."
Long before she was ever in a band, Taylor forsook the relative security and stability of a more conventional career to live a life immersed in music, hitting the road to sling merch for clients as disparate as Polish black-metal masters Behemoth and septuagenarian songwriter Boz Scaggs. In fact, she just got back into town after another run with Behemoth, who were doing some dates on Slayer's final world tour. "I've known them for about 15 years," she says of Behemoth. "They're like my brothers. I'm pretty sure they're gonna be the only band I keep doing merch for, for however long I keep doing merch. I've toured with other metal bands, but I don't wanna deal with how women get treated on metal tours."
When asked for an example, Taylor recalls an unwanted tour bus encounter with another band: "I'm not going to name the artist, but somebody, at five o'clock in the morning, was very inebriated and decided to stick their hands in my bunk and proclaim how sexy I was. So I jumped out of bed and told him I was gonna fight him and take all of his money. But because I'm a good person and it's not technically his money — it's the merch company's money — I just went back to bed. The next morning, he was still inebriated and didn't know what he had done. When someone told him, he came up to me crying."
After the incident, she FaceTimed Behemoth frontman Adam "Nergal" Darski. "I said, 'I just did this tour with this person, and I'll never tour with another metal band except you guys.' The only other tour you might catch me on is some adult-contemporary thing, where it's super-plush and I get my own hotel room every night."
As Youth Code becomes more popular, Taylor has become more recognizable — she's been touring as a "merch girl" since she was 17, but her days of selling T-shirts anonymously are clearly over. "When people come up to me at the merch booth wanting to get a photo or wanting to talk about the band, it's almost like I have two separate identities," she says. "One is the person who goes out and works. The other identity is with the band. When they mesh — because I'm working in live music no matter what — it's kind of weird. I'm of course appreciative. I noticed it a lot on the Slayer tour. People would come and talk to me, or I'd be walking around and I'd see six or seven Youth Code shirts — at a Slayer show. I'd be like, 'Whoa — weird!'"
Among the admirers that approach her are always some female fans, with whom Taylor shares a special bond. "I don't know if 'role model' would be the exact term, but there are things that I'm stoked that I can be a leading example for with women," she says. "One of the things I like is that I don't have to sexualize myself to get any recognition. A lot of women come up to me and want to talk about the positive impact they feel I make because they can just be themselves. That, to me, is so awesome. So I don't know that I'm a role model for anyone, but I do enjoy knowing that I can make a positive impact on people's lives."
Taylor's progression from teenage T-shirt peddler to industrial vocalist began in the Nineties right here in Los Angeles, where she grew up. After her parents divorced, Taylor would go to her dad's place and raid his CD racks. She found herself drawn to the eye-catching artwork of Nine Inch Nails' Broken and Marilyn Manson's Portrait of an American Family. "When my dad would go to bed, I'd pull out Broken and just stare," she recalls. "The cover was on fire, with this lower case 'n,' and I just thought it was wild. I wondered what it sounded like. It was the same thing with Portrait of an American Family. That cover scared the shit out of me. I was like, nine, years old, looking at this weird, fucked-up Claymation family. Everything about it was so eerie and gross. I had to find out about it."
Meanwhile, her dad turned her on to Eighties synthpop hit-makers Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. By the time Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral and Manson's Antichrist Superstar penetrated the world's fragile psyche in the mid-Nineties, Taylor was hooked on dark, electronically enhanced rock. "I got super into Manson and Nine Inch Nails, and from there I just couldn't quench my thirst for it," she says. "Around the same time, I started seeing kids at school wearing all black. I thought the music and the look was cool as fuck, so that's what I gravitated toward."
Fast forward to a few years later: Taylor is working at L.A.'s Vacation Vinyl between merch tours. She meets Ryan George, former vocalist for Carry On, a straight-edge hardcore outfit that also featured future Nails main man Todd Jones on guitar. George had started collecting synths and dabbling in electronic music. "When Ryan and I met, we started talking about our love of Depeche Mode and bands like that, and he made me this three-part mix CD that had Nitzer Ebb and stuff like that on it," she recalls. "He came over to the house one day and I had a bunch of Skinny Puppy on my hard drive, so we sat around listening to industrial."
Taylor and George soon became a couple. A year later, they formed Youth Code. "Which is crazy, because you don't even really know the person a year in," she says. "You're still in that, 'We're gonna try to have sex in the Walmart bathroom' phase. But Ryan is the one who wanted me to be the vocalist in the band. Through our relationship, he's encouraged me to grow as a human being in an avenue that isn't a typical one. He put this project in front of me and told me that he knew that I could do this. It's something that I will eternally thank him for."
Youth Code's first show was in 2012 as part of a Vacation Vinyl employee showcase at Pehrspace, a DIY venue and art gallery. "I'd never been in a band before, so I was terrified," Taylor recalls. "It was the most nerve-wracking thing I've ever done in my life. I still get nervous sometimes, but one of the coolest things about this band is just seeing the evolution of how confident and comfortable I feel — how much stronger I feel having a sense of purpose other than, 'I sell T-shirts' or 'I work at a record store.' Youth Code has really helped me shed a lot of problems I've had in my life as far as confidence issues and self-esteem issues. I don't think anyone ever flees those problems a hundred percent, but it has definitely helped me not feel like, 'What am I doing with my life?'"
Along the way, she and George have had to learn how to balance Youth Code with their personal relationship. "I've tried really hard to make them two separate things, because it can really fuck up a relationship if you are constantly being creative with each other as well as in business with each other and living with each other," Taylor explains. "Nothing can fuck up a relationship more than money or having an opinion about creativity that goes against theirs. You're in this vulnerable position, like, 'I made this thing and you don't like it. Does that mean you don't like me?' It can make things challenging."
Still, she says she doesn't think they'd be able to do the band if she and George weren't a couple. "Our relationship is a really big part of Youth Code, but I also enjoy the band without thinking of us as a couple," she says. "Then again, every anniversary of ours, we've been onstage."
Of course, music isn't the only thing Taylor and George have in common. They've also both been vegan since they were teenagers. "Veganism isn't important to the band itself, but to Ryan and I as human beings, it's very important," she explains. "To me, it's a personal choice. If I can help people go in that direction, cool." Though the lifestyle clearly influenced Youth Code's "Consuming Guilt" video, she adds, "We don't sing about veganism."
Taylor plans to continue putting her and George's personal relationship to the creative test for the foreseeable future — and to keep living much of her life on the road. Youth Code are busy writing their next album, which they hope to finish this year and release in 2019. Meanwhile, Taylor is working on an as-yet-unnamed side project with Suicide Silence drummer Alex Lopez, Rob Zombie bassist Piggy D. (on guitar) and former Marilyn Manson bassist Fred Sablan. "It's a shit-kicker punk band," she explains. "We have like three recorded demos with vocals so far. It's super fun and we just write ass-beater riffs. It would be cool to have two projects I'm really psyched on that could travel. I'd never be home!"