When Amara Steinkraus gives me a brief tour of Misses Bitches’ rehearsal space at Howl Studios in Trumansburg, I’m particularly struck by all of the upside-down American flags. One of them is adorned with a zine that begins by excerpting U.S. Flag Code: “The flag should never be displayed with union down except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property. We are poisoning the water. We are poisoning our children, we are poisoning our food, we are poisoning our forests, we are poisoning our animals, we are killing ourselves. Emergency!” In tiny handwritten script at the corner of the page is a URL to the Onondaga Nation website.

Misses Bitches is a band that occupies an interesting space in the Ithaca music scene. Upon first listening to their powerful three-part vocal harmonies and twangy rhythm guitars, they may appear to be following in a long tradition of Ithaca folk and Americana bands. Having particularly taken root within the DIY scene fostered by Ithaca Underground, however, they look just as comfortable supporting a basement line-up of punk, alternative hip hop, or noise rock artists as they might, for example, on stage at Grassroots.

Friday, July 22 will mark the band’s first performance at the Grassroots festival. I spoke to the band about Grassroots, their thoughts on the local music scene, and their personal histories as musicians and music fans before being treated to a rehearsal for their upcoming performance.

Present were lead vocalists and multi-instrumentalists Amara Steinkraus, Alyssa Duerksen, and April West, bassist Mike Amadeo, saxophonist Erik Johnson, and drummer Tony DeVivo. (Buzzard Brains, one of the band’s guitarists, was playing nearby in the other room.)

Misses Bitches practices at Howl Studios in Trumansburg. Photo by Benjamin Torrey / The Ithaca Voice

“Do you want to be Bruce Springsteen?” Being an independent musician in Ithaca

Ithaca Voice: What do you think of this area’s music scene, as opposed to other places you’ve seen or played music? Did you all grow up around music?

West: I grew up in Austin, but I went to high school here, then moved away and came back. Looking back, I didn’t realize how important growing up in Austin was. When you’re there and you’re little you don’t realize how special the music scene is. I was very fortunate to have the parents that I did. I was going to shows from a very young age and not really understanding how awesome a lot of it was. I think I saw Santana and Jeff Beck when I was like, six. You don’t get it, but you know it’s awesome! Music was always huge in my life. I grew up playing piano and my dad and my brother are good at piano. I sang in choirs for a long time, but this is my first “band” experience, other than some music when I was in college. This is my first non-“sheet music” thing.

Steinkraus: I’m from here, I grew up here. Specifically Newfield, right on the other side of Ithaca. I’ve been singing for as far back as I can remember. My family’s pretty musical. We all sing and play music together. I took piano lessons from a young age, but I hated practicing because I always wanted to be outside. But then I played in band throughout high school and middle school. And I took voice lessons all through school, so my background is kind of classical, but my mom was also a folk singer and classical guitar player. Growing up I had a pretty nontraditional childhood—people were coming and going all the time when I was growing up and living on the property where I was. A lot of people brought different music and art. Growing up in Ithaca, having parents that have been here since the ‘70s, linked into the older-music scene of this area… Going to parties when I was young… The Horse Flies was my favorite band when I was little. I would go crazy dancing for them, I loved them so much. I have this love-hate relationship with a lot of the music in this area. Music does speak to you on a very visceral level. A lot of these bands that have been here for 20 years have been here for my developmental years, so their music is linked to very specific memories in my life. So even though I might get kind of tired that they seem to be playing the same festivals every single year, there’s a nostalgic joy involved.

DeVivo: I’m also from Newfield, moved to Trumansburg, then moved to Ithaca. I started playing when I was probably twelve years old. I come from a family of musicians. My dad’s brothers are musicians, my dad’s a musician, my sister’s a musician. It’s a highly-saturated thing in my house. My sister’s named after a song. Some of my favorite songs are things I heard when I was a baby.

Johnson: I grew up just north of Detroit and I moved out here to go to Ithaca College for clarinet. It’s interesting seeing the underground hip hop scene around here, and it’s really cool connecting with Ithaca Underground. I have a lot of respect for all of the very individual voices that are growing out of there. But coming to the music scene here and trying to break into it was really tricky. There are so many older, already established musicians that have a following. There’s a whole local collective. I would try to get a decent-paying gig, and it was really hard to do that. People have their own jobs and they want to play music with their friends on the weekend, and they take a low cut. It’s interesting.

Left: Amara Steinkraus. Right: Alyssa Duerksen. Photo by Benjamin Torrey / The Ithaca Voice

Duerksen: I grew up in a tiny town. The bigger the city is, the more opportunity there is for different outlets. Ithaca’s a Big Town/Small Town thing. It doesn’t really get that big, but everyone’s really good at music here, and it’s a really saturated place for that. I came from Kansas and coming here was a really great experience. I came for college initially and I learned to be a musician here based on the musicians that I met. I think the scene is transforming in some ways, and I think that there is a younger generation of people that really want to see it change.

Johnson: It’s also interesting seeing the world culture that is here. Seeing like, a Guinean musician play at The Dock, then going to see the Cornell middle eastern ensembles, and seeing all this various jazz and Johnny Dowd… there are some very eclectic things happening in town if you look for them.

Amadeo: I’m from right outside Manhattan—a very saturated place culturally, obviously. Three-quarters of my graduating class in high school moved to Brooklyn. That was in 2006, so that was when the whole Brooklyn scene—everyone was just flocking there in mass numbers. What I like about Ithaca is there is a lot of music here, a lot of musicians, but it’s not so big that you immediately get swallowed up. I was lucky because I started in the music scene probably like a year or two after Bubba (Crumrine) took over Ithaca Underground, so it was starting to build a little bit more. Between being a fan of reggae and funk and other stuff you’re more likely to see, but also punk and noise and stuff like that, it was a really cool place for me to come to that wasn’t also this big monster that just swallowed people. I know lots of musicians who have moved from here to the city and it’s really tough. People struggle with how many hours you have to work to pay rent in New York City, then how many other musicians you’re competing for attention with. That struggle’s somewhat true here, but way less so than in New York City. I felt like there was a more accessible community to join here.

Left: April West. Right: Mike Amadeo. Photo by Benjamin Torrey / The Ithaca Voice

Ithaca Voice: How do you feel about the work/music balance: having to work to pay rent in addition to being a band? Do you feel like this area’s opportunities are conducive to having the time to play music?

Duerksen: No. No way. No one gets paid enough in their normal jobs, for the most part. At least in my friend bracket. It’s so rough to try to make enough to survive, especially if you’re paying off something like student loans or whatever. And then, we all spend so much time doing music. Every musician that really works to hone their craft knows that they will spend that time doing it. I have bones about it sometimes, but it’s a hard balance to find.

Ithaca Voice: Do you ever think about wanting to be a musician elsewhere?

Duerksen: It’s tough. I’m older so I’m kind of feeling more settled. I like being here. I think that there is always opportunity to go, but I feel really grounded here and I do love this area for so many reasons. So that feels really good for someone who likes to fly around all the time. I’ve lived in other cities, it’s a grind there too. You’re paying more in New York or Chicago, everyone’s doing everything all the time—it’s all completely pro-bono art slaves. I’m like a performer-slave for the people.

Amadeo: And that’s how artists and musicians become gentrifiers. We move to poorer areas because the rent is low, and it becomes “cool”, and then all these other people come in and end up pushing out the residents who are living there already. I think that struggling to be an artist is a characteristic of capitalism in a lot of ways. Capitalism doesn’t value the arts as something that’s necessary for society, so you’re always going to be struggling. If you really want to make money doing lots of different kinds of art, you have to appeal to the people who have the money to spend on your art.

Duerksen: And like, do you want to be Bruce Springsteen? Like on that level?

West: (Laughs) Didn’t see that question coming at all!

Duerksen: I would love to be Bruce Springsteen, but I saw a famous country star play in Syracuse—the dude had like TEN semi-trailers. Just for his crap. What the hell is that saying? You’re using so much fossil fuel to move that? We don’t really live in a time when that makes any sense. I have so many friends that travel for art all over the country. They’re not doing seven semi’s worth of traveling, but it’s so weird to me: the concept of how to get really huge to make the money. But what’s the cost?

DeVivo: Especially in this day and age when you can get famous from, like—

West: YouTube!

DeVivo: —Yeah, YouTube, and making things in your basement, and you go to sleep and you wake up and—what do you know—you’re the next big thing and you can leave your basement. I think it is more possible to be a hometown superstar than it ever was. Not to say that’s really what I want or what any of us are going for.

West: “The Next Big YouTube Hit: Tony DeVivo!”

Tony DeVivo (“The Next Big YouTube Hit”). Photo by Benjamin Torrey / The Ithaca Voice

Grassroots: Joyful nostalgia vs. disillusionment

Ithaca Voice: So, it’s your first time as this particular band playing at Grassroots. It’s a big deal in this area, it’s had a changing reputation in recent years, and it’s its own insular thing—

Duerksen: I think a huge concept about capitalism that doesn’t make sense is exponential growth. And at a certain point, weird stuff starts happening. Honestly, I think Grassroots started as something different and evolved over time into a completely different thing. It seems like a business—they’re trying to accumulate enough income to make it work for everyone that’s working there and trying to feel valued. And sometimes, you know, the sound equipment is not as good as it used to be. And there’s a lot of weird stuff that happens there that’s not so family-friendly, and it can be an intense scene. But it’s also really amazing the kind of music that you get to experience all in one place. And yeah, there’s a ton of happy great people there that are just trying to have a “Great Grassroots Time”. (Laughs)

Ithaca Voice: Are there interesting past Grassroots experiences you’d like to share?

(Everyone erupts in laughter)

Duerksen: Well! One time, I had a lot of mango papaya…

West: Stayed up past midnight!

Amadeo: One time this hooligan named Amara offered me ecstasy at Grassroots…

(More laughter)

Steinkraus: Hey, you know, those of us that grew up in this town and went to Grassroots from a very young age have a very different relationship with the festival than other people have coming into it!

Amadeo: Can you elaborate on that?

West: Yeah, what was Grassroots like at the age of four!

Steinkraus: I started going there when I was like a baby. My parents traded fruit to the people that did food for the performers, so we got in as a family. It was relatively small. I feel like it’s not necessarily any more “wild” than it used to be—people were having “fun times” in all kinds of ways 20 years ago that they’re having in the same fun ways now. But it’s been interesting for me going through the process of being around the music scene for a long time and being exposed to a lot of different music. It’s been a blessing in a lot of ways. But you kind of lose sight of that part when you’re a teenager and you’re going through whatever you’re going through. So I kind of became disillusioned with the whole music scene in this area. Part of that for me happened through Grassroots, and transitioning from being a kid to being an adult. It’s interesting getting an opportunity to play at this festival after having stepped back from the Ithaca music scene as a whole. Especially after embracing the Ithaca Underground music scene, which is a very different vibe from the overall music scene in Ithaca. I really like how Ithaca Underground is open to all ages and how it’s really not centered around drugs and alcohol—those things might be happening also, but those people are showing up because they want to hear cool, interesting music. That’s reenergized my connection with the music scene in this area. It’ll be interesting going into this festival with that change in my mindset and seeing what that brings in terms of reconnecting with the more mainstream music scene in this area.

Erik Johnson. Photo by Benjamin Torrey / The Ithaca Voice

Ithaca Voice: How do you feel experiencing music has changed since you’ve gotten older? Do you think the way kids connect to music has changed? Do you think they’re making the same connections you did?

Amadeo: I don’t think the way that people connect to music can ever wane in a big broad way. Music is universal. It’s ancient. It’s going to be something that reaches into your soul and tugs at it. Obviously the landscape changes, genres shift, the way we consume has shifted, and I think the way that we’re consuming music now is beneficial because it’s more accessible with the Internet and everything. I can only hope that that will be an outlet toward people finding music that’s more interesting and weirder and also allowing musicians to put stuff out there that other people may not have heard. You can just throw stuff up on Soundcloud or whatever, and there’s all this music out there. On the one hand, in a capitalist sense if you’re trying to build a market for yourself it’s harder, because there’s more out there to compete with. But on the other hand, as a musician and an artist, I enjoy it because I feel like people are getting exposed to more things that they wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to. And that’s why I’m glad we’re playing Grassroots. As much as I like a lot of the bands that play there, it does end up getting a little repetitive. There are certain bands that play every year, and I like the idea of being able to play there and do a style that’s going to surprise people. I think we’re probably going to be one of the more punk and psych influenced bands that are going to be there. I’m hoping people will take notice for that reason.

Johnson: I teach a lot of kids, and I’ve been giving more and more workshops, and I’ve been having more and more opportunities to get direct feedback over long periods of time. And I see it happening with Misses Bitches and other projects I’ve played in around town. What’s changed for me is that I used to be a lot more introverted about what I was doing with music. I was much more anxiety-ridden and had to play everything perfect—it was this more classical mentality bred into me. Now I’m very interested in the whole community. I’m interested in that spark I felt when I first started going out to basement shows when I was in high school. And I feel that when doing shows like over at your house, at the Tweehouse—the energy in that small space of everyone being so into what was happening right then. It definitely happens. It’s always there, it’s always available. It changes from place to place to place.

Ithaca Voice: I think Ithaca Underground has a lot to do with enabling those kinds of experiences. I know I wouldn’t have been putting on house shows at Tweehouse if I didn’t know a bunch of people through IU. I’m wondering if people ever feel those kinds of connections to artists at festivals like Grassroots or at larger shows in general. How did playing at Grassroots come about?

Duerksen: I mean, I know somebody. Wha-bam. That’s how you get in. Thanks Nana! (Note: Nana Monaco is one of the festival’s organizers.)

Amadeo: I will say that playing at Grassroots is not accessible.

West: There’s no application.

Duerksen: I guess it’s just about bringing good enough music and a good enough following to be enjoyable for the festival? I have no idea how they go through picking music.

Amadeo: This will be the second time I’ve played at Grassroots, and both times were a result of personal relationships between someone in the band and someone involved in booking at Grassroots.

Ithaca Voice: Do you think there’s something to be said for that process as a way to foster a genuine community of friends? Or does it feel exclusive?

Duerksen: I had a bigger conversation with Nana about this idea of allowing Ithaca Underground to somehow be connected with this festival. Everyone in Misses Bitches have all grown through Ithaca Underground a lot, and they’ve supported us completely. I’ve never known such an altruistic way of getting everyone to stop caring about just themselves and what they’re doing. That’s where it starts: every artist has this insatiable crazy thing that has to get out, and it’s really hard to consider that so many other people also have that drive. It’s great for everyone to express it, and Ithaca Underground really supports that. And that’s a phenomenal transition. So Nana and I had a conversation about potentially linking that somehow. I thought it was important to mention that there’s this whole other style of music that doesn’t really ever go to this festival. And there are a lot of people that are really into that. And she’s like “Well, we can’t get Ithaca Underground in this year. I brought it up to everybody, but we’d really love to have Misses Bitches play because you do kind of offer a different style.” And that was cool, so I can honor that.

Buzzard Brains. Photo by Benjamin Torrey / The Ithaca Voice

Ithaca Voice: This is kind of a dopey question, but wrapping things up: is there anything specific you hope to accomplish at Grassroots? Or with the band in general?

Duerksen: (Demon voice:) WE WANT PEOPLE’S FACES TO SHRED AT GRASSROOTS.

Johnson: WE WANT PEOPLE TO MELT.

Amadeo: I hope people run screaming from the Cabaret.

Johnson: Screaming naked!

West: All of those goals apply to the longer-term, general answer as well.

Duerksen: Yeah, that’s what our future looks like.

West: Naked screaming.

Amadeo: I hope someone is in there tripping super hard and has an epiphany. That’s what I really hope. I hope someone wanders in and says “OH MY GOD”.

Steinkraus: I hope we can be impactful, and I hope we can share a space with each other and what we’re creating, and that it transcends to the people that are there. Whether it’s two people, twenty people, or a hundred people. At our core, I think we all have a desire to push the envelope. In terms of expressing things through music, but also tying-in the bigger world and what is happening in not just Ithaca. Things are pretty crazy. It’s special that we’re blessed enough to get to play a festival and spend time playing music and are not worried about losing our houses or being shot or getting a bomb dropped on us.

Ithaca Voice: Do you feel people have been pretty responsive to the band so far?

Duerksen: People like it!

Johnson: My mom loves it.

Duerksen: Old people like it, little people like it! There’s this four-year-old that’s really into it.

West: We’ve been super fortunate. We’ve had to very little work for a lot of benefit.

Amadeo: Yeah, this is the easiest booking I’ve ever done. We rarely have to set up a show where we contact the venue ourselves and do that sort of thing. I’m happy that for Ithaca we’re like a “crossover” band. We’ve been playing across different scenes, and that’s been really cool. I’m happy that we can appeal to people who like folk and are into the vocal harmonies, and I like that we can play at Ithaca Underground shows where people are into the weirder, heavier stuff we do. I think that’s been a big accomplishment of ours.

Duerksen: That’s the best part. We’ve been able to play with some really awesome people. For me, as a musician, I get to go to shows all the time—

Amadeo: For free! Like, opening for Screaming Females? Oh my god.

Duerksen: That was incredible. Bow down to the mistress.

Misses Bitches closes out the Cabaret stage at Grassroots, Friday night at 1AM. They released their first EP, Self Preservation, last April.

Photo by Benjamin Torrey / The Ithaca Voice
Photo by Benjamin Torrey / The Ithaca Voice
Photo by Benjamin Torrey / The Ithaca Voice
Photo by Benjamin Torrey / The Ithaca Voice
Photo by Benjamin Torrey / The Ithaca Voice

Benjamin Torrey

Benjamin Torrey is a videographer and photographer for the Ithaca Voice. He produces video spots for the businesses that underwrite the Voice, and is the creator of the Bedhead...