Features

Adria Stembridge – Tears for the Dying

I spoke with Adria Stembridge at the Tate Center at UGA on February 26, 2021. Being masked and distanced proved to be somewhat challenging as there were students scattered here and there, mostly masked. We found a good spot upstairs where it was nearly vacant and spoke for an hour-and -a-half, at which time they promptly kicked us out, as it was closing time (9 p.m.) Our conversation continued via Facebook Messenger and email.

Stembridge was born at Northside Hospital in Atlanta in 1969, but months after her parents moved to Athens. “I don’t remember my time as an infant in Atlanta. My earliest memories are of growing up in Athens. From baby up until I was in my late 30s when my mom was like like (in a squeaky little voice) ‘You need to go to Atlanta where all the computer jobs are! You will never amount to anything staying here with all these townies!’ Bad advice. I was raised in Athens, Georgia, and this is where I belong!

Adria Stembridge, Tate Center, UGA, February 26, 2021.

Her older brother had an acoustic and when she was old enough to hold it she’d strum it with no idea of what she was doing. She didn’t pick up a guitar again until she was around twenty-one years old. 

“A friend of mine working at the pizza place here in town figured out out that I wanted to learn how to play guitar ,” she says, “and he’s like, ‘Well, I’ve got this cheap Decca guitar. And I’ve got this really old amplifier.’ So he sold the amp and guitar, which was originally sold by Sears, way back when, for $100. The bridge-posts on the Decca were two threaded studs that protruded out a bit. At the time I didn’t know how to play the guitar and so oftentimes I’d wind-up coming out of practice with bloody fingers and hand from scraping my fingers across the studs. That ‘s when I first started playing music. I was still living at home when I was just starting to get into punk and guitar and playing in a band.”

Stembridge has played in a number of bands around Athens, Vomit Thrower, The Endless, The Girl Pool, Strange Dreams, all spoken of here, but has hit her stride as a song-writer/performer with Tears for the Dying.

She was recently featured in the Alternative Press article: 10 Trans Women Musicians Who Are Changing the World of Punk Rock, declaring that the band navigates “entrancing waters of goth-laced post-punk.”

Tears for the Dying is a deathrock band. Sit with that for a second, we’ll get to it. There are many subgenres and microgenres of underground music, darkwave, chillwave

Growing up and coming of age in Athens back in its goth, punk and post-punk days, Stembridge tells some good stories of things getting out of hand from those by-gone days . As well, she candidly reveals the deep, personal struggles with her identity, never stopping to move her life and music forward.

The future for Adria Stembridge is bright. A new record is in the works, the road to performing finally getting closer, both for her hometown fans, but eventually – as have so many great Athens’ bands – Tears for the Dying will soon-enough be taking a big old jet across the pond to perform for her European fans and slay them. – Mark Katzman

AthensUncharted: Your new record, Epitaph, was just released. How did it come about?

Adria Stembridge: We started talking with one of the owners of Bat-Cave Productions, via Facebook Messenger, almost a year ago. We were actually just getting ready to release our  single, “Go Die,” at the time and after listening to it privately, Bat-Cave Productions were interested in putting out a full record with us.

AU: What led you to take the route of releasing a compilation of previous albums and unreleased tracks?

AS: Shipping CDs from the US to Europe can be comparatively expensive, and we continued being asked to find a way to get our music overseas. So that guided our decision to release a compilation of most of our two most recent releases, Charon (2018) and Memories (2020), while adding several previously unreleased songs to the record. This gives fans in Europe access to most of our back catalog, and provides a few new tracks to enjoy as well.

Epitaph, Tears for the Dying, 2021.

AU: What’s behind the song, “Go Die”? You referred to it briefly in a message, associating it with “goth elitists.”

AS:  The lyrics actually addressed a very small minority of goths who were less culturally aware in the 1990’s (and perhaps a product of the 90s). “Go Die” came to me when recalling a particular visit to a goth club in Atlanta back in the mid-90s. At the time there wasn’t a proper goth club in Athens, so for full immersion we had to hop in our cars and drive to Spring St. in downtown Atlanta. Back in the 90s, in addition to being a “baby bat,” I was only starting to incorporate femme style into my presentation. Early on, I used actual clown white grease paint as foundation. I literally didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t that my makeup was horrible. I just didn’t have older sisters around to show me what to do or not do. Because of that, I experienced a lot of self-criticism, which led to feelings (usually unwarranted) of not feeling welcome or that I belonged.

Regrettably, a couple people at the goth club we visited one night, went out of their way to make me aware that my outfit and makeup were not very good. Their petty commentary caused me to feel very dysphoric and unwelcome at the club. I just wanted to enjoy the music, dance and learn and experience as much of goth subculture as I could get. I didn’t expect to pay the $7 cover only to be laughed at because my makeup or outfit wasn’t up to standards. That’s where the idea for “Go Die” came about. I was angry over how dysphoric I felt as a result of someone’s unsolicited feedback. It felt like I was going back to all the worst parts of high school that night. “Go Die” was a belated fuck you to the individuals who went out of their way to make this girl feel dysphoric, uncomfortable and unwelcome.

It’s important to point out that I haven’t had a similar experience since. Goths today are particularly more cognizant and accepting of gender expression among other things. Kids are smarter than ever and increasingly reject close-mindedness. The scene continues improving with time.

AU: Are you working on new material?

AS: Absolutely. I’m actively writing material for our next release and have a half dozen songs close to finalized. We performed two of these songs at the Save the Bat-Cave Festival in February 2021. .

AU: Where did the name, Tears for the Dying, come from?

AS: It speaks to the celebration of death and revealed mysteries of what’s to come for all of us. Confronting death may invoke feelings of sadness in some, whether from thinking about our own demise (and possible lingering regrets and missed opportunities we may feel), or the more tangible feelings of losing someone close to us. Sadness isn’t the only emotion experienced in thinking about death. Wrongful, unjust deaths, such as the tragic losses of Eric Garner, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, those deaths usher righteous, burning anger.

Death is inevitable, and healthy to ruminate about. Singing about dying is a therapeutic way for me to confront the deep-rooted anxieties I believe many of us feel about death. As I grow in age I think about death a lot more. Not being anymore feels strangely peaceful, and somewhat alluring. Though, to be honest, I’m not sure if this is a healthy take or just my lifelong struggle with depression speaking.

AU: Deathrock is an unusual designation.

AS: Deathrock is simply a subgenre of punk and post-punk music. The music has a direct line to the late 70s and early 80s Southern California punk scene where bands such as Super Heroines, 45 Grave and Christian Death recorded and performed dark, dirgy rock music while wearing ghastly makeup and black clothes. Further back in time, artists from the 1960s such as J. Frank Wilson and Jody Reynolds popularized rock songs about dead teenagers. Origins of deathrock could also be traced back to the 1950s with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who some consider a prototypical forefather to the genre.  Screamin’ Jay certainly had many visual trappings of deathrock as we know it today, with macabre theatrics, and spooky stage outfits.

While deathrock usually falls under the larger post-punk umbrella, today there are actually many subgenres of deathrock. Modern deathrock could sound like straight forward punk, have traditional 4-piece post-punk vibes, or even incorporate heavy electronic percussion, synths and severely affected vocals into the music.

Aria Stembridge, Oconee Hill Cemetery tunnel, 2004, photo by Dara Bishop.

Lyrics in deathrock often invoke the beauty of the macabre, rather than shocking listeners with the profane in order to get a reaction. Many of us in the goth scene cringed when Marilyn Manson grew popular in pop culture in the late 90s. Manson had certain aspects of the aesthetics of goth and deathrock, but his lyrics and approach were always a bit off to me. He seemed reactionary, even if his lyrics weren’t overtly political. We later learned about the controversies surrounding his treatment of women in particular, for example. As a subculture, goths and deathrockers skew pretty heavily to the left and mistreatment of women, BIPOC and LGBTQI individuals is absolutely not acceptable in our scenes.

Deathrock lyrics are less about shocking or offending listeners, and more about embracing the macabre as we reflect on individual or collective existential crises. I’m reminded of the imagery found in classic literature by authors like Mary Shelly, H.P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Allen Poe.

There’s always been a certain beauty in the ceremony of death. A leisurely stroll through Oconee Hill Cemetery paints a welcome picture of all that I love about the ceremony of death. Oconee Hill is simply gorgeous at any time of the year, with the aged and rain-stained marble headstones, and rusty and broken wrought iron fencing lining the hills and plots.

Deathrockers and goths simply appreciate the darker side of life, and embrace the beauty and romantic aspects of death. We’re not evil, we aren’t wanting others TO die really…. unless we’re singing about racists and Nazis, then all bets are off. (laughing)

Adria Stembridge and her Dad, 1974.

AU: I read on your being-revamped website that you considered the song, “Time,” as a defining moment in the change to a new direction. There are a lot of lyrics to that song.

AS: “Time” was originally written in 1997. The lyrics were pulled from a poem I wrote about my “coming-to-Jesus moment” with regard to gender. I struggled so much with accepting who I was through the 80s and into the 90s.

My family, and the churches we were taken to, taught me to believe in a narrowly defined, singular interpretation of the Christian bible. Willing deviation from the written Word of God guarantees an eternity in burning hellfire. It was scary stuff to have carefully explained by church leaders and family. When I was around fifteen I was taken to a Billy Mayo rock & roll revival literally held under a tent in the middle of a pasture a few miles outside of Winder, GA. Preacher Billy taught us about the demonic ways rock and popular music was actively perverting our minds. I mean this guy literally went off the rails about harmless bands like Hall and Oates. He found evil in literally every band anyone would ever want to listen to. It ended with a demonstration of backward masking and more hellfire and brimstone preaching, which led into a call for salvation. It was pretty crazy stuff. My older siblings burned all of their records as a result of that revival.

My family partly (and secretly) knew of my cross-dressing back in the 80s, but it was such a taboo subject for them, they wouldn’t actually ever ask me about it. Instead they’d leave evangelical pamphlets and chick tracts warning the dangers of being gay, or sometimes just a bible opened with scripture highlighted in yellow, stating that what I was doing was an abomination unto God.

To be honest, I didn’t understand who God was. I was taught to fear and obey, but I had no idea why I should even listen to any of it. God sounded like a total asshole. But, putting those thoughts aside, I wanted to be a good Christian because my family placed so much weight on that. I didn’t have much love in my life, and if I just followed their guidance maybe they would actually spend a little more time with me, maybe then they would truly love me.

Coming to terms with being a trans woman after a childhood of evangelical indoctrination was a lot like the old film footage of the two fast moving locomotives hitting head on. This was my own personal Armageddon. There was no avoiding the impact.

In adolescence, hair began appearing on my face and my voice dropped. I was so confused. I knew something was wrong with me, I just couldn’t express what I was feeling inside due to the guilt from evangelical poisoning. At an early age I’d already perfected the art of self-loathing.

By my mid 20s, I experienced severe depression and regrettably engaged in self-injury to try and take the sting off the pain I was feeling inside. This included routinely cutting my arms with razor blades, or the edges of scissors.

One night around 2 a.m., Athens-Clarke police picked me up literally in the middle of the Atlanta Hwy. I was walking home and had lost it, I was drunk, and sobbing uncontrollably. I walked into the road hoping a car would hit me. I asked to go to my mom’s house. I wasn’t living at home anymore, so I had to knock. When she opened the door and saw how distraught I was, she was confused and didn’t know what to do. While riding in the cop’s car to my mom’s house, I planned to tell her right then that I was a girl. Fear got the better of me, however. Mom was a holy Christian woman, and extremely conservative in every way imaginable. I made up a barely plausible story of why I was visited and woke her up in the middle of the night, and went to sleep on her guest bed, filled with regret.

It’s important to also note that I was treated differently by law enforcement that night because of my skin color. Had the the same event happened to a black person, they would have been carted off to jail at a minimum. This is a clear example of white privilege, as a result of what many consider to be an inherently racist law enforcement industry. I digress.

Sometimes I’d wake from night terrors in the middle of the night, questioning who I was, who God was, and where God even came from, where the universe came from. I was so confused about who I was, but I knew who I wasn’t the boy I’d been raised to be. I either needed to die, or not be that boy.

This was all really heavy stuff to me, and the best way I could vocalize this growing existential crisis was to write it down in metaphor. “Time” would be my very first Tears for the Dying song, which I later recorded as a demo in 2003.

“Time” Music/lyrics: Adria Stembridge, 1997
Look up tonight, see time dissolve. Cold and biting winds of change, pushing ever closer to the edge. Burning worlds collapse, holes black like a sun. Tell yourself “there’s no beginning,” and chase the fear of your dreaded end. One more heart the priest devours, sleep in sickness, nothing is ours! Tell yourself “there’s no beginning,” and chase the fear of your dreaded end. Constant pressure rip your ties, hold my hand while I remove your eyes.

There’s no end in sight, savored lies devolve. Nothing matters anymore, I felt the world and I want none. Stabbing madly on my chest, I want this life to end. What’s the use in burning ears, I’ll drag you through the gates of Hell. Revel in fatality, and leave behind your rotting shell. Tell yourself “there’s no beginning,” and chase the fear of your dreaded end. One more heart the dark devours, sleep in sickness, nothing is ours! Tell me how “there’s no beginning,” and tell me of your dreaded end! Gunshot echoes down the hall, splatter red madness sliding down the wall. But know they can never own you, hatred grows with tumorous swell. Rise above their ill intentions, sleeping men drink from poisoned wells.
Hear them now; screaming distant pleads. A thousand shards of looking glass, falling like the purest snow. On a cold December’s night, you fade into nothing. Sleeping now with tortured grimace, final words come to rest. A gentle smile takes their place, fading fast in a serpents nest! Fall prey to strange hypnosis; sickly odor fills the air. Gaze into your emptiness, into your lifeless shell. Fleeting thoughts drift away, you’re moving closer still. No question is left unanswered, bottomless wells are never filled! Tell yourself “there’s no beginning,” and chase the fear of your dreaded end. One more heart the priest devours, sleep in sickness, nothing is ours!
A thin line… Glistening crimson line… Reaching, for new understanding. Look up tonight! See time dissolve.

“Time,” Tears for the Dying, Lenny’s, Atlanta, 2005. Video by Moxy of Dead of Romance.

What were your early struggles with getting Tears for the Dying off the ground?

Truth be told, I am probably a little eccentric. Simple things that many neurotypical individuals take for granted, I find challenging. Such as basic socializing in ways that don’t seem off-putting or weird. Six years ago I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Like many neuro-divergent individuals, I avoid eye contact. My speech patterns may sound unusual sometimes. When I am faced with an over-abundance of stimulation, I am prone to experiencing autistic meltdowns. These can be confusing or even upsetting to people who aren’t on spectrum. It’s important to note that autistic brains are wired a little different, so it’s unreasonable (and inappropriate) to snap fingers and expect us to mask on command. A little understanding goes a long way.

Throughout my life, people near to me tell me that I have a golden heart. I just struggle with socializing and meeting new people. I also live with an abundance of anxiety. Fortunately, music is a healthy strategy for managing those anxious feelings.

Tears for the Dying started out as essentially a solo/bedroom project. Soon after I got the idea to start the band, I moved to a huge city that I didn’t know, where nobody knew me, and where I had zero connections anywhere. I was lost in unfamiliar surroundings.

Prior to Tears I played in a low-fi indie pop band from Athens called The Girl Pool. TGP broke up when the singer moved to NYC in 1998. I then took a few years off from music. I played in bands pretty steadily from 1991 through 1998, and needed a break.

By 2002 I got the itch to play again. I wanted to do a band like I’d never done before, which was to incorporate aspects of punk, goth, post-punk, and even pop. Using the previously mentioned songTime” as as springboard, I wrote a couple more songs and put together plans for my first demo.

In 2003 I contacted Chris Bishop at Radium Recording and scheduled a date to record two songs, “Time” and “Disease.” I wrote the beats on my Roland R-8 drum machine, so recording was pretty easy and chill. I tracked bass first, then guitar and finally vocals. I wasn’t sure exactly how I wanted the songs to sound back then, so the stringed instruments ended up sounding a dry and punchy. When it was finally time to listen to the mix-downs in the control room, I was completely blown away. I started to hear a lady singing through the monitors, and that lady was me. I felt a wave of gender euphoria pass over and couldn’t wait to share the songs with others.

I placed ads for collaborators and auditioned a few players, but nobody seemed to understand the sound I was reaching for. One player said that while he wasn’t into the genre, he said that the songs I’d written were actually very good and that I should keep it up. I was determined and continued writing songs.

AU: This was the first project where you were singing lead vocals, what was that like?

AS: Apart from singing an occasional song in earlier bands, I mostly wanted to focus on learning to play my instruments. Also, I sounded nothing like how I wanted to sing going forward. Back in the day I could pull off a pretty decent Andrew Eldritch (laughing) but that’s not who I was. I wanted to be seen (and heard) as a lady. I felt extremely dysphoric about how I sounded and knew that I needed to work on my voice.

So, I’d ride around in my car singing along to as many alto-range singers as I could, from Madonna to Pylon, and even Klaus Nomi! I sounded pretty shrill early on, but I kept at it. I also took voice lessons for a while, all of which helped tremendously.

AU: The internet and social media wasn’t widely adopted in 2003, how did you share your music? How did the first lineup come about?

In 2004 I recorded more demos, this time at home, on a Boss digital 8 track. I released this collection of songs as a home-made CDr titled To the Birds. As you mention, we didn’t have Instagram or Facebook yet but forums were pretty active at the time. Mark Splatter hosted the now defunct (but once popular) deathrock.com forums, and I posted there regularly. I managed to generate a little buzz about the project by offering free CDs to anyone who asked. I even paid the shipping costs. I ended up mailing out over 150 copies of To The Birds, with many being sent overseas.

People on the forums loved the demos, but I continued to struggle finding local players for many, many months. Exasperated, in 2005 I finally connected with bassist (Todd Caras) and guitar player (Max Alember) via an ad on Craigslist. Both of whom were into deathrock and post-punk. We initially rehearsed with a drum machine, but quickly realized that for live settings we wanted a human drummer to interact with. This led us through another string of auditions. Ultimately our bassist had a friend (Jeffrey Butzer) who joined us on drums for a series of shows. My good friend Dara Bishop joined to play keyboards. She was actively learning drums, as well. We played shows in 2005 and 2006 before finances got the best of us. All of us were poor, and the rehearsal space cost money that we often didn’t have. After several months of struggling to keep the rent paid, I made a decision to place the live band into hiatus. I continued writing and recording demos through 2017, when I restarted the band.

AU: Are you writing all the time? Do You keep journals?

AS: I used to keep notebooks with me at all times and write ideas, phrases, stray words, and full poems in them. By the late 90s I started writing lyrics on a really old Macintosh Classic. These days I jot notes down in a text app on my phone. When it’s time to piece together a song, I scan through my files and start stringing phrases and words together on my actual desktop computer, which is where I primarily work when actively writing the music and lyrics.

AU: What’s your approach to songwriting? How do you go from a blank slate to a completed song?

AS: Where most songwriters start with written words and add music later, I work backwards. I typically start with a riff on either bass guitar or electric guitar, then build that out in ways that sound and feel right to me. I’ll write an entire song, complete with choruses, bridges and breakdowns, without knowing what the vocal melody or words will be. That’s how I’ve almost always written my material.

One of The Girl Pool’s songs, “Veil,” was actually fully written on a Alesis HR-16 drum machine before I ever picked up an instrument or had a vocal melody. “Veil” is a rather long and somewhat complex song so starting with percussion wasn’t exactly easy. Only after the drum parts for verses, choruses, bridges and breaks were programmed in, did I finally pick up the bass to write the atmospheric scaler that became the main riff of the song. Later, our singer laid vocals down over the finalized structure and that was that! Switching up my environment and writing process from time to time helps keep my perspective fresh.

AU: Why do you choose to go with a drum machine opposed to acoustic drums?

AS: I simply enjoy the mechanical sound of perfectly timed beats. I also like being able to use kits that sound nothing like acoustic drums (though, I often end up with the latter). Growing up in the 80s listening to Kool Moe Dee, Human League and Eurythmics, I grew to have an appreciation for drum machines and have never truly outgrown my love for them. Eventually I’d like to bring acoustic drums back to the project. There is a lot I can do with programmed backtracks, but nothing beats the presence and power of a human drummer and acoustic kit on stage

AU: Who is attracted to your type of music?

AS: Anyone who loves good goth rock, punk, and post-punk music. Even if you don’t frequent those genres, we probably have songs an average listener will love.

One of the nice things about this project is we don’t feel chained to a single subgenre the whole time. Some of our songs, like “ACAB” and “Mortuary,” are straight-forward punk rock. Other songs, like “Entrails” and “Deadweight,” are atmospheric and moody post-punk. A few are just a dance step away from pop, such as “Flow.”

“Deadweight,” Tears for the Dying, Flicker Theatre & Bar, February 22, 2020. Video by Gregory Frederick / Athens GA Live Music.

Deadweight Lyrics: Evening coastline beckons me, weigh the confines of the seven seas/A final sleep, deface tomorrow./Wade to the deep, soften the deathblow/Saline air ambiance, descend in the dark/Solitude transience, herein disembark…/Insensible movements, black water burns/Erie obeisance, slow motion roil/Squalid memories, deepening blue/Release of agony, here waiting for you.

We have a lot of different styles within what we do. Depending on who you talk to, that can help you or hurt you, but being free to move around genres is also kind of  who I am as a woman. I have lots of different interests. I garden, work on motorcycles, operate heavy equipment, love watching anime, repair my guitar amplifiers, build kit pedals, and know how to wire a house to current NEC code. I do a lot of different stuff outside of music, and that diversity of interests manages to creep into my creative process as well.

AU: You’re first band was called, Vomit Thrower. How did that band, and memorable name, come about and what was the music focus of the band?

AS: Vomit Thrower was my very first band, but it didn’t start out as Vomit Thrower. In the late 80s and early 90s you could often find me hanging around The Grill and Barnett’s Newsstand, along with half a dozen or more other teenage kids with no money and nothing to do. Georgia Square had just opened up, and a lot of businesses left downtown. Downtown Athens had become a lonely little ghost town.

“Psychobabble,” Vomit Thrower, at Lunch Paper, 2004. Video by Dara Bishop.

While hanging out on College Square one night in 1991, I met another kid named Adam Onstott who played drums and wanted to start a band. Jason Fowler, who used to hang out downtown with us, volunteered to sing. We met up at Adam’s house the following Sunday to see how it went. Personally, I had no idea how to play guitar, but that wasn’t terribly important to me at the time. Jason knew a bassist named Phil, so that completed our very first lineup.

Truth be told, none of us in Vomit Thrower really knew how to play our instruments that well. We had no plan or focus or idea of what we were doing or wanted to become. I still have early song ideas on tape, and they’re pretty terrible. (laughing)

After a few months our Phil moved to Atlanta, which led to trying out a string of new bassists, including Tom Salmon (who helped us write our song “Nightmare on Will Hunter Road”). Tom was actually too good of a player for what we were doing (laughter), so we later brought in our friend Steve Tucker to play bass. Chuck Creasy joined us on vocals. That was the main lineup for the next 15 years or so.

We initially wanted to be called The Plague until we learned that another Athens band from the 80s had already taken that name. We practiced as The Jimmy Swaggart Experience early on, until an interesting thing happened in the news.

In January 1992, George Bush Sr. visited with Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa for a highly touted state dinner. Minutes after Bush sat to eat, he promptly threw up in front of all the dignitaries. As soon as the bile hit the table, we found our band name, only a month before our first public performance at 90.5’s Live in the Lobby. We would be known as Vomit Thrower.

We developed a reputation for being troublemakers, and that was occasionally  justified, but not always. (laughing) One summer afternoon in 1992, I was walking past The Downstairs when I noticed a guy walking down the sidewalk towards me. I noticed only because I caught him looking up at me just before his face turned bright red. His pace gradually increased as he walked up to me, forcefully grabbing my shirt collar and lifting me up and back against a nearby tree. He spits out, “This is my club!” and I glance down and see him holding some 40 Watt flyers. He goes on to accuse me of tearing down his flyers. I’m like, “What the fuck, dude? That didn’t happen!” I actually hadn’t done anything he accused me of. Later, I figured out that the man was Jared Bailey, then owner of the 40 Watt Club.  I thought his outburst was funny, more so that it was unwarranted.

So I did what any other self-respecting punk would do and made a beeline to the Athens-Clarke police station and filed a physical assault report. (laughing) A few days later I went back to the police station and quietly withdrew my report. Jared was just taking care of his club, no hard feelings, I just wanted him to feel a little discomfort for trying to rough me up that day. (laughing)

AU: Where did Vomit Thrower gig around town?

AS: Our very first show was at Club Fred on Baxter Street in February 1992.

Article on Vomit Thrower by Dan Matthews in the Athens Star newspaper, 1992.

Vomit Thrower, Club Fred, 1992.

Fred’s was in the basement of a pizza restaurant, and was a pretty popular spot for local and less known acts. For the first few songs of this first time being on stage, I had my back to the audience – I was terrified. (laughing) Fred’s would become our “home” as we played there many times. We played to a packed club in Savannah, GA in 1992. I couldn’t believe how many people were there to see us, a completely unknown band from Athens (who weren’t well received in local press either!)

Ant Farm Poster, 1995.

We also played shows at a DIY venue called the Ant Farm off Hawthorne and Old Epps Bridge Road. It was thus named due to the literal ant infestation in the old building. It was sometimes unsafe to sit on the ratty couches inside due to potentially being swarmed with fire ants. We played a couple shows there including a pretty sick punk festival in 1992 featuring bands from the west coast including The Dread and Capitalist Casualties. One of our more fun shows was at Hoyt Street North around 1993 or so. Our drummer played the entire set naked. Apparently several people in the audience started taking their clothes off, which led to the club owner freaking out and shutting the power off in the middle of our set. (laughing)

In 1994 we played an infamous show at the Atomic Music Hall (fka Uptown Lounge). Our usual lead singer Chuck Creasy was on hiatus so we asked Tim Sanchez to step in. Unknown to us at the time, Tim’s good friends (and band-mates in Uncle Messy) made arrangements to go into business with the then Atomic owners, and were ultimately cut out of the deal. Tim’s posse were quite pissed about how that situation was handled. The night of the gig, we all started drinking – a LOT – before making our way downtown. By the time we were set to play, all of us were shit-faced and unable to think straight, let alone play our instruments. When it was our turn to play, the  following twenty-five minutes was exquisite pain. Our guitars were completely out of tune, we weren’t playing in time with the beat, and songs were randomly stopped and restarted. Tim played most of the show naked, and both he and the rest of the Uncle Messy crew repeatedly lashed out at club staff between every song. Apparently, someone poured a full pitcher of beer in one of the drum monitors during our set. Shortly after we had our gear off the stage, the Atomic staff discovered the damaged monitor among other broken equipment. I remember someone grabbing me by the elbow and pulling me out into the street, and before we knew it everyone was running, so I joined in behind them. I was informed that some of the Atomic folks were gathering a posse to even up the score (ie. kick our asses). We ran down to the Grill and hung out there for a long while, to allow everyone’s tempers to cool.

At the time I was actively working at the Atomic Music Hall as a weekly DJ, so that show ended up being kind of awkward for me.  I stopped by the club a few days later and talked with Gabbi, and she was pretty chill about it all. Although she said Vomit Thrower probably wouldn’t be allowed to play there again. (laughing)

In 1995-96, Chuck returned on vocals. We booked several shows including Jeff Hannah’s inaugural Bad Band Expo. Around the same time we met a kind of strange guy named Deejay who opened a club on the square. The club was to be called DJ’sInfrared Ballroom and was located downstairs, just to the left of The Grill. The Ballroom was a 15×15 brick room with an unlevel concrete floor and a single red incandescent light bulb – it looked super-industrial and barren. He wanted us to play his opening night and wrote us a check for $100. The check bounced, and that’s when we began to hear of him writing bad checks for food and everything else around town. The show was actually one of our best as far as performance went. My guitar skills improved quite a bit by this time and the new songs we were writing were getting pretty good.

AU: How did The Endless come about?

AS: The Endless was an Athens goth band that existed in 1994-1995. It began as a pizza delivery! While driving for Gumby’s, I used to stop in at the Golden Pantry on Atlanta Highway in between runs. One night I entered the store and immediately heard an obscure Gary Numan song playing. There were a couple guys behind the counter, one kind of country-looking and jovial, the other was super thin with bleached white hair. On the desk behind them sat a portable turntable and a pile of albums, including the in-play Replicas LP by Tubeway Army.

“Mass Suicide,” The Endless, Atomic Music Hall, 1995

Gary Numan back then was like a huge part of my musical education. It was really awesome that they had Replicas playing right when I came in. So the three of us kind of hit it off and started talking. I’d see my new friends from time to time in the store, and we discovered we had a mutual interest in goth music and eventually discovered that we mutually wanted to start a new band. Thus began The Endless. We played for about a year and wrote two EPs. We ended somewhat prematurely because someone broke into our practice space and stole all of our equipment. (laughing) Honestly, The Endless wasn’t that different of a set-up from Tears. We used a drum machine, bass guitar and electric guitar. The singer for the Endless was Frank Sparti, Michael Midkiff played bass, and Anthony Lesink wrote out all the drum patterns. Ant was a former drum major for UGA, and I secretly wished he’d get an actual kit to play on – he was very good tapping live beats on the Boss DR-600, and helped us write a song using non-standard time signature. One of our shows at the 40 Watt drew over 75, which was pretty dang good for a goth band in Athens at the time. I remember looking out while we were playing and being like, where did all these people come from? (laughing)

AU: The Girl Pool came next, which you described as “Dark pop music, cabaret for sun-burned teenagers.”

Adria Stembridge, The Girl Pool, 40 Watt Club, 1996

AS: The Girl Pool played our first show in December 1995 at Quinn Hall by Memorial Park. The initial lineup included Steve Tucker on keyboards, Christian Engel on vocals, and myself on bass and drum machine. Our style of low-fi indie pop was a radical departure from Vomit Thrower, where Steve and I continued to play. Early on, The Girl Pool played on very shitty equipment we cobbled together from flea markets, yard sales and thrift stores. Christian was into britpop at the time and liked singing vocals through a complex array of guitar delay pedals and chorus pedals. There was a massive cacophony of feedback when the pedals were engaged. Steve and I wrote most of the music, which gave us a chance to experiment with a genre we’d never worked before.

AU: I really liked “Doris Day.”

AS: “Doris Day” was one of The Girl Pool’s first songs and ended up sounding a bit different from most of our other material. Christian wanted to play guitar on this song, so he ran his $50 electric guitar through lots of delay while plucking single notes on the low E. Whether the guitar was in tune or not was beside the point. Our approach to “Doris Day” was intentionally minimalist. A similar sparse, quirky sound could be found in most of our other songs as well.  By 1997, Steve Tucker wanted to focus on other things in life, so we brought in Winston Whitlock and Jason Pickerel on keyboards. We played with that lineup for a year or so before Christian moved to New York City and the band broke up.

The Girl Pool, Galaxy 500 Art Hall, Fall 1996.

AU: Can you tell me about the project Strange Dreams?

In 2015, Michael Collins announced plans for his (now slightly infamous) book, Athens Music History. Basically he petitioned for profiles of Athens bands from the early days of B52s and Pylon, through modern times. My band-mates from The Girl Pool thought it would be fun to submit an entry. While preparing our submission, everyone realized how much we missed playing together. We didn’t want to pick up The Girl Pool proper, so we decided to do a brand-new project called Strange Dreams, which was very Girl Poolesque in our minimalist approach to the music. Strange Dreams included Jacob Pickerel, Winston Whitlock and Steve Tucker on keyboards, and myself on bass, guitar, and drum machine.

Strange Dreams ended up being different from any project I’d worked in before. We had a rigid democracy; everybody had an equal voice in everything. We purposefully avoided having a band leader. We were all the band leader.

Strange Dreams, Flicker Bar & Theatre, 2015.

As we began writing music, the band originally suggested that I sing everything. Instead, I proposed that we do something very different, and that everyone takes turn on vocals. Bands just don’t do that as much anymore. Our 6-song EP, Monolith, ended up sounding relatively eclectic considering how synth heavy we were. Strange Dreams played shows around Athens and Atlanta through 2016, when we each decided to move on to other things in our lives.

AU: How were you received in Atlanta?

AS: Very well. Tears for the Dying played several shows around Atlanta in 2005, and more recently we surprisingly were asked to open for My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. We’ve also performed at Atlanta Roller Derby halftime shows. Crowds love us. My earlier bands Strange Dreams and The Girl Pool also played a couple of shows in Atlanta. There is wide crossover between Athens and Atlanta, and while I enjoy performing in the big city, nothing beats performing in my hometown.

AU: Would you ever consider setting a poem of yours to a different genre of music, or is that heresy to suggest?

AS: A while back, a fan of Tears for the Dying requested a special version of “Time,” but with only vocals and guitar. I actually worked it up for them, but never released the version. But more to your question, I am enthralled with the idea of taking an original creation and completely remaking in a different style altogether. 

At one of the Brain Aid Festivals a few years ago, we covered Vic Chesnutt’s song, “You are Never Alone.” Vic’s lyrics are deep and introspective, like a lot of goth music I love. I could absolutely see covering more of his work in more of our style. I also love when bands write super-upbeat music set to rather dark, depressing lyrics. I love the contrast. Rewriting an existing song in a completely different style sounds like a lot of fun really.

AU: Who are your main inspirations?

AS: Pylon were one of the first live bands I ever saw when I was in my late teens, and I continue to include them as one of my primary influences. I love how the music is not that far from jarring, glass shattering punk, yet is also accessible and quite danceable. In particular, I gravitated towards Michael Lachowski’s bass tone and style. His playing wasn’t similar to Bootsy or Clinton, but it was very tight and provided a rock solid foundation for Curtis, Randy and Vanessa. Pylon were the band that showed me that anyone with the heart and drive could write and perform songs that people absolutely loved.

I’d be a liar if I said that Peter Hook (Joy Division / New Order) wasn’t another huge inspiration on bass guitar. Rikk Agnew (Adolescents, D.I., Christian Death) was a huge influence on my guitar playing early on. The Go-Go’s were important to me because of the fact that they were all women and wrote super-catchy hit singles across multiple albums. It’s criminal that they still aren’t in the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame.

Perhaps I forfeit some of my goth points for saying this, but I especially like Bruce Springsteen. Nebraska is an amazing album, and rather dark. Bruce is one of the best storytellers alive today, and I appreciate his working class approach. 

If I could see any musician today (alive or dead), it would be Prince, at a small club with his full backing band, and a limited crowd of twenty-five people max. I’d literally die. A lot of folks play multiple instruments, but he mastered every instrument he played. He was amazing.

AU: What was it like growing up in Athens during the 70s and 80s?

Adria (front) and her 3 older brothers, 1977.

AS: In the 70s, we lived out on Camelot Drive off Tallassee Rd., near Whitehead Rd. Elementary, where I went to school. I was the youngest of four children. I had three older brothers, all several years older. They frequently did activities together, usually leaving me on my own. I spent a lot of time with my dad as he worked in the backyard vegetable garden during spring/summer months. Our family was not well-off and we grew a lot of what we ate in our own backyard. I followed him around as much as I could back then. I wasn’t old enough to be much help, but I have fond memories of watching him work.

I always wanted to be a teacher. My dad was a teacher. He worked in vocation education. He was actually teaching people how to teach Vocational training. How to teach carpentry, metal-working, and different things. Back in the 1970s he was hired by Barrow County to develop the Winder-Barrow High School Vocational Educational Program. He was a draftsman, so he drew up plans for the Vocational Wing. He drew up the curriculum for all the different classes and became the Vocational Director at some point. He was at that school for most of the 70s. Maybe it was from that, but I have a warm heart whenever I have an opportunity to teach somebody something. I love helping people learn.

Near the end of every summer my mom would drive us to town in our old Country Squire station wagon to buy school supplies. There were always lots of people walking around, and many of the stores had this olden-times, musty odor when you walked in. The highlight of any trip downtown was going to the five & dime. If we had behaved, mom would take us to the deli counter, where they had white chocolate that you could buy in bulk. They’d just weigh it out for you. The wooden floors creaked lightly as you walked down the aisles. 

In the late 70s, my older brothers decided to grow okra on our small farm, to sell to local grocers and restaurants. I remember going with them inside the El Dorado kitchen to offer our produce, where I may have met at least one of the B-52s who worked there at the time.

Behind our house on Camelot Dr., Colonial Pipeline began construction of a natural gas pipeline in 1978. This project lasted at least a year, and there were always huge earth-moving machines working just beyond our garden when we’d get home from school. The pipes they installed were enormous, enough that you could crawl through them easily on all fours. My older brothers rode their bikes up and down the pipeline right of way for miles at a time. I was too young to go that far. I still remember the strong odor of diesel from the machines, and the decaying smell of mud and muck at a nearby creek they traveled through. Those were exciting times!

When Georgia Square opened up, downtown Athens almost became a ghost town almost overnight. All the big chain stores moved to the mall, taking all that bustling activity with them. So where we used to visit downtown for fall school supplies, we’d now drive out to the mall. It was new and exciting to me, especially Time Out, the arcade. Later, when I was old enough to start working, I took several jobs around the mall, including Sbarros and the outside dollar theatre.

Downtown in the late 80s through mid 90s felt depressed and charmingly stale at times. Probably more so that I was under age and couldn’t legally get into clubs and bars yet. During my punk phase I tagged “Dead Athens” on several walls and buildings around town. One of those tags remained visible above the stairwell to The Downstairs for quite a while.

AU: Did you see any bands during the 80s?

I missed out on the early/mid 80s Athens club scene partly because I was too young to get into clubs, but also, I had a pretty sheltered home life. My first exposure to alternative music happened when I randomly tuned into this station called 90.5 WUOG one Tuesday night. There was a hip-hop show on air, and being that hip-hop was starting to have some crossover into pop music, I latched on and tuned in every week. I adored the beats, synthesizers, and the rhythmic lyrics.

Later, my older brother would introduce me to alternative rock music such as R.E.M., Fetchin Bones, Kate Bush, Indigo Girls and Widespread Panic. I wasn’t quite ready to dive into the genre yet, but I knew they were special and would revisit many of these bands a few years later.

Around 1989, when I was twenty or so, the same brother bought me a ticket to see Widespread Panic at the Georgia Theatre. He was good friends with Dave Schools and even brought me to meet Dave and the rest at their house off College Station road on the east side. I had no idea what to expect from Widespread Panic. With a name like that they had to be sick. I had just discovered punk rock, the Ramones and Sex Pistols, and immersed myself in studying the history and music.

So, I give the door person my ticket and walk in with spiky pink hair and leather punk jacket. There were a few people there when I arrived, it was dark, but I could make out what looked like hippies with flowy skirts and a few frat dudes in khakis. I hung out by the stage and waited for the band to start playing. By the second song I realized that, despite the band’s name, Widespread Panic weren’t actually a punk rock band. The music was intricate and pretty cool sounding, but they weren’t exactly my thing, so I left early. (laughing)

A few months later I went back to the Georgia Theatre to see Fetchin Bones. Unlike Panic, I knew Fetchin Bones’ music pretty well, and absolutely loved Hope and the rest of the band. They were hot fire on stage!

Some time later I returned yet again to the Georgia Theatre to see a band that would become hugely inspirational to me, Pylon. Until this show I’d actually never actually danced in public, I was so afraid of myself and how others perceived me. This night was special. Curtis built a pretty elaborate stage set for the band with a grid of fluorescent lighting in a geometric pattern as a backdrop. By the time Pylon began to play, there were a ton of people gathering by the stage. There was so much excitement in the air, and the band finally came out and began playing.

Within a few songs I started dancing for the first time in my life. Almost everyone around me danced as well, it was such an amazing party and I’m really glad I got to attend that show.

Pylon weren’t exactly punk (which is mostly all I listened to about this time), but they felt really close to it. Moreover, they showed me that playing music was attainable for anyone, and that music wasn’t reserved for players who lived, ate and breathed theory. Something special was happening on the stage right in front of me, it was the same Athens Georgia magic that many lived and felt 10 years earlier. Curtis’ ruthless and driving drumming was super energetic and almost robotic at times. Randy’s guitar sounded like glass bottles breaking against a brick wall. I loved Michael’s bass riffs and tone. Vanessa’s energetic, urgent vocals helped to pull all the pieces together. As I left the venue that night, I knew that I’d found my calling – I wanted to play in a band, too.

A few weeks later I bought my very first instrument, a baby blue bass guitar from a pawn shop out past GA Square Mall. I’d spend hours sitting on my bedroom floor learning bass lines from “Gyrate” and the Ramones first album, and frequently dreamed of one day playing in my first show.

My older brother used to tell me about some of the well-known characters around Athens such as Ort (who I met separately while working an overnight shift at the old Kroger on Atlanta Hwy) and Deonna Mann. He used to fawn over Deonna, and said she was like the Madonna of the Athens music scene.

Around this time I began wandering into other clubs. Rockfish Palace was still open, and I saw several Follow For Now shows there. The 40 Watt was still located on East Clayton in the late 80s, and I saw lots of shows there including Daisy, Bloodkin, Five-Eight and Roosevelt.

One of my most memorable shows at the old 40 Watt was a band I’d never heard of before called Nerve Clinic. They played in near pitch dark, with two old TV sets sitting precariously on top of the amps. The TV’s played different videos of (hopefully actors!) having their tongues “cut” out, and then people being “burned alive” on a pyre. Until then I’d never seen, or heard, anything like this in my life. I was enthralled, the dark music was incredibly loud with drum machines and distorted guitars. While Pylon first inspired me to be in a band, Nerve Clinic showed me that live music could be both macabre and absolutely brutal.

One of the last shows I attended at the old 40 Watt location was the 1991 New Years Show with Pylon. The club was packed that night. Pylon played at least an hour. Someone video recorded the show as it is now on YouTube. I also went to the Downstairs semi-regularly, where I saw Vic Chesnutt play one night.

By the early 90s I became more familiar with punk and goth music, so when the Cramps showed up on a 40 Watt flyer I was super excited. While attending the Cramps, I had a drink from Lux’s bottle of wine as he passed it around mid-set. A lady in the audience wore a leather jacket with actual razor blades attached to the arms, and I appreciated that. I also saw Nirvana at the 40 Watt, just before they broke big nationally.

“Shadows.” Tears for the Dying, 2019

AU: For gear-heads reading this (I admit to being one), what’s the current equipment in your set-up that you continue to use, such as pedals and drum machines, and what have you used in past groups?

AS: My primary instrument is an early 80s Aria Pro II Urchin U-60T guitar, with Seymour-Duncan pickups and a dressed neck. I sometimes play or record with another oddly-shaped guitar, a Mako XK-10. The XK-10 looks like a badass metal guitar, but came with single coil pickups and has a pretty nice twang to it. Some of my favorite pedals on my guitar board include a Soul Food drive, a couple Arion modulation pedals (flange and chorus), a Fender Marine Layer Reverb, and a Mr. Black Supermoon (probably my favorite pedal these days).

My main bass guitar is a BC Rich “Fernandez” Mockingbird, imported from Japan. I also play a Ibanez SDGR-800 active bass guitar. On my bass pedal board, I run a Boss ODB-3 distortion, CEB-3 chorus, and MXR bass chorus deluxe. I also have a $15 Aural Dream delay pedal that I use sometimes.

My primary guitar amp is a Peavey Classic-50 combo, which sits on top of a home-built 2×12 cab with Creambacks for a 4×12 system. I also enjoy playing out of a much smaller (and very purple) Fender Blues Jr. For bass I play out of an Ampeg PF-500 mini head into home built 1×15 and 2×12 cabs. I own a Kurzweil SP76 digital piano for composing, and also have a super old Kawai K-11 keyboard.

All of Tears for the Dying’s beats are digital and composed in Studio One 5. I still have the Alesis HR-16 from The Girl Pool, and the Roland R-8 I first used with Tears back in the early 00s. It’s just easier and faster to write percussion on-screen using a keyboard and mouse these days.

AU: What’s the story behind A Girl and her Tractor, which I discovered on Linked-In?

AS: A Girl and her Tractor is a side-business I started in the 00s. My friend Dara Bishop wanted to grow a garden in her backyard, so I borrowed my dad’s rototiller and prepared a plot in her backyard. She said, “You’re really good at this stuff you know, you should post on Craigslist and charge people money.” So, I put ads on Craigslist and started getting lots of calls. Customers would ask if I could help move piles of wood chips or spread dirt for them. This eventually led to my buying a compact farm tractor with a loader bucket, PTO-driven rototiller, and bush hog. The larger equipment led to more work and larger jobs.

Adria Stembridge, A Girl and Her Tractor.

By the early 2010’s a customer asked if I could help dig large pine stumps out his backyard, as part of a larger landscaping makeover. I contacted a local heavy equipment company, set up an account and rented a large hydraulic excavator to remove the stumps. I’m a quick learner, so within a few hours I’d dug out 16 of these huge stumps and neatly stacked them into roll-off containers. The customer couldn’t believe I’d never operated before, he said I looked like a pro. This, in turn, led to more jobs running heavy equipment, such as building a 200’ extension to a gravel driveway through virgin woods. I had to clear trees, bring in compactable fill, and grade before placing gravel. I’ve excavated house foundations, dredged ponds, cleared lots, you name it. If it has large metal tracks, I can probably operate it.

These days I generally only accept jobs that sound interesting. I don’t make much money doing this either, it’s something I do largely for fun.

AU: Did you pick up those skills from your father?

AS: Actually no. Nobody in my family operated heavy equipment that I knew of. We had a farm tractor, but that was it.  Seeing all the pipeline equipment destroy our backyard when I was a kid probably has something to do with my love of operating heavy equipment. Even today, I am infatuated with the loud, clangy, industrial-like percussion of the track rails rolling over the rollers and final drives. 

AU: When did your interest in DJ’ing happen?

AS: That started in 1993 while I was attending Valdosta State University one semester. I signed up for a DJ position at Valdosta State’s radio station, where I spun records for a goth show. When I came back to Athens for the next semester, I approached a couple of bars, and was eventually hired by Atomic Music Hall to spin their 80s alternative and goth night. I also spun at Colorbox on occasion. While I was in Atlanta I spun goth/deathrock events at the Armory and occasionally at the Masquerade and Spring Street.

AU: How does it feel to be a DJ?

AS: Overstimulating and exciting. While we aren’t creating songs, there is a personal flavor on selecting and mixing together songs from different bands and genres. Live DJ’ing is more stressful since we’re sometimes fielding requests and talking to people at the club between spinning records. I haven’t DJ’ed professionally in a while, though I occasionally spin at WUOG’s Seize the Airwaves events.

AU: Were you coming to terms with gender issues in the late 80s?

AS: Not overtly, because my family did not provide the kind of environment where it was safe to discuss gender issues. I just remember being very angry in the late 80s. My dad had divorced my mom, and both home-life and school was chaotic. I had autistic meltdowns where I’d punch holes into the sheet-rock of our house, just making a mess. I was out of control, and moreover, I hated who I was. I wanted to be a girl but had no way of verbalizing that, and was not raised in a welcoming home.

In the 80s and 90s we didn’t have bands like G.L.O.S.S. or Against Me!, the closest thing for us might have been stuff like the Eurythmics or Culture Club. No band spoke to the trans experience specifically, at least not in any realistic or helpful way.

When I discovered punk it was actually cathartic to hear people openly sing about depression. People were actually vocalizing some of what I was feeling inside, it made me feel a little better. Somebody gets me.

Some of the inward-directed anger I dealt with was from this constant sensation of feeling like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. I knew something was wrong with me. I just couldn’t write or vocalize what I was feeling, because I simply didn’t have words for it.

Adria Stembridge, Athens, 1991.

At one of those early Vomit Thrower shows, I bought a white lace mini-skirt from a thrift store. I didn’t like white, so I spray painted it black. (laughing) I wore the skirt with a 50s style country and western top, and my usual combat boots with sharpened screws around the toes. I was a fucking mess but a fun mess. That’s when I started to further explore gender in more public ways. By the mid-90s I slowly began putting the pieces together. I realized that I needed help in figuring out what gender meant to me, and sought counseling. Unfortunately, many therapists in the 90s just weren’t up to the task in providing good counsel to trans individuals.

When I thought I wouldn’t get caught I’d raid my mom’s closet every chance I got. I’d try on her shoes when she wasn’t around. I knew just enough that I couldn’t openly ask to wear dresses. 

When I was waiting for a haircut with my mom one day, I picked up a magazine showing different hair styles people could ask for, and said “Mom, I want that hairstyle.” It was a picture of a girl with long black hair. She said, condescendingly, “little boys don’t get haircuts like that.” That was the first experience of public shame I felt about being trans. I learned that I had to keep it a secret, and so I did for a long, long time.

AU: There will be a lot of folks interested in your transition. Did you find any support during that process?

AS: Transition looked very different for us in the 90s. The Internet wasn’t in widespread use, so we relied on usenet, or reading books, for access to information. The only books I found were lengthy accounts of Christine Jorgensen, or pseudo-academic (and super fucked-up) takes on trans issues.

During the 90s the Harry Benjamin Standards (HBS) were in widespread use by therapists in deciding whether and how to treat trans people, and they were pretty fucked-up. HBS, as interpreted by most mental health professionals back then, required that trans individuals live full-time for 2 years (the “Real Life Test”) before any hormones or surgeries would be permitted. Hormones are critical for trans individuals (whether they are trans masc or trans femme), because they help our bodies look more like who we are on the inside. The two year real life test was abusive and opened trans individuals up to a greater chance of being “clocked” and placed at increased risk of physical/sexual assault and even death.

Adria Stembridge, Athens, 2004.

We had to fabricate lies about who we were if we wanted to go on HRT or have surgery. You had to carefully explain to therapists that you were straight. If the therapist thought that we were anything but heterosexual (meaning, trans women only wanted to date men), we would be denied access to medical care. Harry Benjamin Standards did substantial harm to trans people in the 90s, however it’s important to know that HBS have been updated over time and are not quite as problematic as before.

Today we have a varied and rich lexicon of terms in queer culture. I would have identified as non-binary for a while, but used the term androgynous instead. By 1996 or so, I realized that my desire to live as more of a binary femme wasn’t going away.

Trans people had very little and often no community or social support in the 90s. We commonly heard that we should avoid being seen in public with another trans person, because the risk of being clocked. Clocked is a problematic word, as it implies ability to pass, so trans and queer folk generally frown on its usage. Being trans was not accepted socially in the 90s. Not by conservatives, and not even by liberals. We were considered sexual deviants, and this was unfortunately mirrored in how we were portrayed in movies, TV and news even up into the 2000’s. We were either the butt of someone’s joke, or openly demonized. Being outed as trans back then increased the likelihood of being physically attacked, so we avoided the very thing we needed most – each other.

Every year, on Trans Day of Remembrance, trans individuals solemnly acknowledge those of us who were lost due to murder. We gather and read names of lives lost in the previous year for no other crime than being trans. It’s always been dangerous for us and probably more so the further back in time you go. As we’ve grown more visible in recent years, so has the amount of hate and violence directed towards us. We are again living in dangerous times.

The added hardship for us who came out in the 90s and 00s, is that we often lived in almost total isolation from other trans people. 

There weren’t any support groups in Athens back then. I would eventually learn of a group in Atlanta called Atlanta Gender Explorations, however it was a long drive so I ended up only going to a handful of meetings. Each gathering was sparsely attended, and usually had an interesting mix of people. At one of these meetings I met trans activist, Monica Helms, who would later design the transgender flag. We always checked in with our names and where we were from. At one of these support meetings, an older trans lady, maybe in her 60s, shared how she was struggling with being trans. Her therapist was actively using electroconvulsive therapy to try and dissuade her from acting on a desire to live as a woman. She looked so tired and defeated, yet here she was at a trans support group, seeking community. It was hard to take in.

As I looked around the circle and listened to everyone’s stories and backgrounds, I realized how young I was compared to everyone. To be honest, I appeared nothing like the other people there. Most dressed somewhat normal (even in femme clothes). I was into punk and goth, and dressed that way. Many of the attendees self identified as cisgendered men who just crossdressed. Coming to group was a chance for them to “dress,” and they had no desire to transition. That wasn’t who I was or what I was about. It was frustrating being me, and not having anyone my age, or who looked and thought like I did.  

Sometimes, even to the day, I feel like I was born at least 20 years too soon.

AU: Was anyone around to really help you? Anyone to look up to?

AS: In 1996, Frank Sparti (singer for my earlier band The Endless) told me about a transgendered woman who just moved to Athens and was starting a new goth band. Her name was Caitlin Kiernan, and her band was called Death’s Little Sister. My band at the time, The Girl Pool, ended up booking several shows with DLS.

Caitlin was my height, and I remember being rather intimidated by her. She was a good bit older than I was at the time and had already transitioned. She was like a goddess to me, and I was afraid to talk with her because I hadn’t actually started properly transitioning yet. I was afraid she wouldn’t accept me. So, apart from chatting briefly at shows, we didn’t spend a whole lot of time together. Within a year, she was offered a writing contract for DC Comics, and wanted to leave Death’s Little Sister.

Surprisingly, she approached me and asked if I would be interested in stepping in as singer for DLS. She gave me a folder full of her lyrics and placed me in touch with the guitarist of the band, Barry Dillard. I was both excited and terrified, and also, very apprehensive about my singing voice. I recorded a few demo tracks with Barry, but remember playing them back and having this wave of crushing dysphoria wash over my body. I hated how my vocals sounded. I mean vehemently hated my voice. Death’s Little Sister ultimately disbanded without us playing any shows. Caitlin eventually moved out of Athens and focused her life on writing novels. Beyond an occasional reply on Livejournal, we fell out of touch.

AU: Were there any support groups?  Anywhere to get help?

Not really? I went to multiple dead-end therapists who knew absolutely nothing of trans issues. There weren’t any local support groups. We did not have safe spaces, nor did we have many allies.

But in late 1996 I saw my first proper gender therapist, Erin Swensen. Erin was a licensed counselor and practiced as a minister at a church in Atlanta. She also happened to be trans, so there was an immediate bond. Unfortunately, I didn’t have insurance and couldn’t afford to see her (even with sliding scale fees), also, she was also a long drive for me. After our initial session, I would return to local therapists who just didn’t understand trans issues the way Erin did. It was really frustrating.

After being denied a script for hormones by a therapist in Athens I was seeing at the time, I reached my breaking point. I was hurting and hated who I was and couldn’t get help. Every day that passed was another day of testosterone poisoning. There is a limited window of time when trans girl’s bodies can realistically change, and the tail end of that is mid twenties. If we aren’t on testosterone blockers before puberty, our bodies have a much harder time putting estrogen to work.

While browsing usenet’s alt.transgender group one day, I learned about a pharmacy overseas that did not require a script for hormones, and began illegally obtaining estrogen patches from them. It wasn’t until 2002 that I saw my first endocrinologist. It was kind of barbaric. They initially prescribed Premarin for estrogen. Premarin was basically horse piss in pill form, which was controversial and eventually phased out. In 2005 I began bi-weekly Estradiol injections (which are much safer and more effective than the pill and patch form), which I continue today. My body no longer produces measurable amounts of testosterone either, so I will be on HRT the rest of my life.

Coincidentally, after being on testosterone blockers a few years what little muscle mass I had vanished. I never played sports and other than dirt bikes I was pretty inactive to begin with.

My libido dropped to basically nothing, and I went almost 20 years before I ended up dated someone again. I was asexual, but not entirely by choice. Pre-op trans women aren’t exactly date material for most cis lesbians. For a long time, I knew it was pointless to even bother looking. Today, this as known as the cotton ceiling.

Being trans in the 1990s and 2000s was traumatic and painful.

Through the mid 00’s I continued taking an anti-androgen pill every day, but its long-term usage is not safe. I knew that I needed to have an orchiectomy, but a quick and stealthy check with my work’s insurance quickly told me what I already expected – trans related medical care was not covered, period.

I contacted a urology clinic in downtown Atlanta and asked if they were able to do the procedure. They said yes, providing I had letters from two licensed therapists stating the medical need. I got my paperwork and scheduled my date. Because I was paying out of pocket and did not make much money, I was given the option of local anesthetic instead of general anesthesia. The latter would increase the procedure cost by well over 100%. I had no choice but to pick local anesthetic. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived on the day of my procedure. I walked back into a small surgical room with the urologist and two techs. They made a few marks and did an initial injection of Novocaine, which stung a little but was tolerable. 30 minutes later she came back and began work. Every 10 or so minutes she’d inject a little more Novocaine into the work site.

When she reached the vas deferens the nightmare began. There are a lot of nerves along this cord, and even injecting anesthetic in it resulted in my screaming out loud for a brief moment. She began cutting and the pain skyrocketed. I was given a rag to bite on, and remember tightly clenching one of the tech’s hands as the urologist worked. I was seeing stars, the pain was unlike anything I’d ever felt in my life.

The entire procedure lasted about an hour. I was bed ridden for a week afterwards, and two weeks later was instructed to remove the packing on my own (I didn’t have money to pay the urologist to do this for me). A nurse acquaintance from Livejournal offered to talk me through unpacking on the phone. I soaked in the tub for half an hour then called my friend. Pulling the gauze out was again painful, but not as much as the procedure itself. I was instructed to let the wound close on its own.

Unfortunately, six months later, the wound had not healed correctly – fluid continued leaking from the incision site. I had to return to the urology clinic where I was again placed under local anesthetic, reopened, and had everything re-cauterized. It was just as painful as the initial procedure. All of this pain because insurance companies were not compelled to cover trans medical care in the 2000’s. Today, most employer’s insurance offers usually some basic coverage, but often with high deductibles and a lot of red tape.

After completing orchiectomy in 2005, I accepted that would be all I would ever be able to afford. So for the next 12 years, I put thoughts of any additional surgeries out of my mind.

Skipping ahead to 2018, my girlfriend encouraged me to look into insurance coverage for Gender Confirmation Surgery (GCS). This as a procedure I’d wanted for a long time but had ultimately written off – I had too much student loan debt to even think about saving 20-30k for GCS. She reassured me, saying times had changed since the 2000s and to just call. So I made the call and was elated to learn that my work insurance did offer gender-related medical care coverage, including GCS. 

A week later my hopes were dashed – I discovered that the plan included an exceedingly low maximum lifetime coverage amount. Such that if I needed a revision, I’d be on my own. Or if there were unforeseen complications with the procedure, I would potentially be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Life is a cruel joke, I thought…

Almost one year later, after pleading with the appropriate groups, my coverage language was updated to remove the maximum lifetime cap. I immediately booked a surgery date. In 2019, I finally had gender confirmation surgery, most of which was covered under insurance. And they let me do the procedure with general anesthesia! The procedure went well and I am fully healed today.

Even though we are now in the 2020s, access to medical care for trans people continues to be met with barriers. Many trans individuals do not have insurance, or work for organizations whose insurance plans specifically deny trans-related healthcare. Access to medical care for black trans women is of particular concern, since these individuals are often working low paying jobs with no or junk insurance.

AU: There was an infamous picture of a hand-written sign on Facebook in the rear window of your car ride on the way to your surgery that said: I Am Not Coming Back to Athens Without a Pussy. It was quite fantastic. How did that car ride feel?

AS: I think that pic was on my way up to North Carolina, where I was going to have GCS performed. In those months leading up to surgery I just wished it had already happened and that I was already recovering. I remember feeling really good on the drive up. I brought my roller skates so that me and a couple friends could skate the day before surgery.

Surgery went very smoothly and surprisingly, lasted only 3 hours. I woke to the sound of my girlfriend and a couple other close friends who were with me in recovery. I was barely conscious at the time but I’m told that the first things I said were, “Do I have a pussy now?” followed by, “Ow, my pussy hurts!” (laughing)

The first few days of in-hospital recovery were rough but I was released to a local AirBnB where I basically laid around watching Rick and Morty and Neon Genesis Evangelion all day. Each day I felt a little stronger and could walk for a little longer at a time. My surgeon released me to go home after two weeks and said everything looked great.

I was eager to get back to Georgia to continue recovery, and eventually lace up my roller skates again.

Just two months after surgery I put on my roller skates for the first time, and gingerly skated around the Atlanta Roller Derby practice warehouse. A few weeks later I was back up to speed and playing contact scrimmages. Three months later I played in my very first scrimmage here in Athens at the Classic City Quad Cup. A month later I played in my first official derby bout with Atlanta Roller Derby. I actually skated two games that day, one with the ARD’s C-Team, and one with my “home” team, called the Apocalypstix. I scored my very first points as a jammer in that bout.

The average age of a roller derby player is mid-twenties. So learning to play derby at age 49 is kind of incredible. In ARD, I would’ve been the oldest player, but there was another lady there, Atomic Mom, who’s just a little bit older than I am. Derby at our age is challenging. It takes us lot more work to get to the level of fitness needed to play derby. Looking back, I am astonished how quickly I came back from surgery to return to skating, especially at my age.

AU: Disclosure, a new documentary on Netflix, narrated by Laverne Cox, showing early, reprehensible TV and film depictions of black discrimination, cross-dressing and trans people, really opened my eyes to it all.

AS: Trans individuals have traditionally been portrayed in movies/TV in the most negative manners imaginable. It’s no wonder so many of us coming of age in the 80s, 90s, and 00’s have terrible self-confidence issues. We’re seen as either murderers, or are a crude punch line to someone’s idea of a bad joke. Until very recently, trans characters were always played by cis actors – even when suitable trans actors were available and could better portray those characters. Things are getting better, but only in the last few years really.

AU: Recently, John Waters went back to his old grade school in Baltimore and they asked him what can grade schools do today to help and support LGBTQI students. And his answer was, basically, talk about it. In his days, the 50s, you didn’t talk about anything. Kids are much savvier today.

Adria Stembridge, Tears For the Dying, Flicker Bar & Theatre, 2018.

AS: Absolutely. Each generation after mine gets smarter and wiser. Some of my friends lovingly call me an honorary millennial, because of shared interests and beliefs. I’m good with that. I’ve learned so much in recent years just spending more time with younger folx. We’re over hiding our feelings, emotions and identities just to make our parents feel less guilty about their own regrettable life choices.

I feel for anyone who grew up in the 50s/60s, and later came out as trans. Those people got fucked, but on the flip side they also had much easier and more affordable life than we in later generations ever did. So maybe it kind of equals out in the end.

AU: You steered me to GLADD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). What is its main purpose?

AS: It’s a great resource for people who are less informed about trans issues, especially parents, siblings and allies of trans individuals.

For example, the words typically used to describe one’s gender identity are transgendered or cisgendered. Cis simply means “the same side as,” so someone who is cisgendered identifies with the gender assigned to them at birth. Transgendered individuals do not identify with that assignment. That’s all those words mean.

Identifying as trans does not imply or reveal one’s sexuality. For example, I only date girls. Therefore, I am trans and lesbian (or gay as many women now use). Other trans people are straight. For example, a straight trans woman would only date men, or a straight trans guy would only date women.

Non-binary individuals express gender somewhere between the extreme gender binaries. Many (not all) non-binary identities use pronouns such as they/them. It’s appropriate (and appreciated) to ask for someone’s pronouns if you aren’t sure, or maybe haven’t interacted with the person in a while.

AU: Just a couple of weeks ago the House passed the Equality Act, which amended the 1964 Civil-Right’s Bill. The House passed it in 2019 but it certainly was a non-issue for the previous Administration. Representative David Cicilline – a co-sponsor of the act said, “Every American deserves respect and dignity and it’s important that the Equality Act become law because it will once and for all ensure that LGBTQ Americans can live lives free of discrimination.” Alphonso David, president of LGBTQ advocacy group, Human Rights Campaign, said it was, “The most wide-ranging executive order concerning sexual orientation and gender identity ever issued by a U.S. President. And now we have a trans woman as our new assistant Secretary of Health and Pete Buttigieg, who is openly in a gay marriage. So some momentum is happening.

AS: That’s great, but I don’t know how it’s going to affect bills being considered right now in Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia, where Houses in these conservative states are considering making it illegal for trans children to participate in High School sports, among other things.

Since the Right lost the battle over gay marriage, trans people (especially trans youth) are being used as the next political pawn to scare up votes for an aging conservative populace. The backlash against trans individuals only seems to be increasing with recent legislation passed banning health care for trans kids (AR), prohibiting trans kids from playing sports in high school (TN), and many similar bills are being considered in other states – including here in Georgia.

A few years ago I began playing sports for the first time in my adult life. A friend invited me to see her skate in a women’s roller derby bout in Atlanta in early 2018. The atmosphere was electric. Many skaters wore cool make-up, many had ripped fishnets and everyone looked like complete badasses. There were skaters of every size and ability on the track. Some were tiny and petite, others heavy and strong and some that were slender, tall and fast. All of them were amazing to watch and no matter their size or weight, everyone hit each other incredibly hard. I could almost feel some of the impacts. Even the smaller skaters would knock larger skaters off the track with ease. After each hit, everyone would get up and high five each other, with huge smiles on each other’s faces.

I didn’t realize how much I wanted to play derby myself until I saw my second game. Watching more closely, I began to see strategies employed by both teams. Derby is as much brain as it is brawn. The friend who invited me to see her skate actually discouraged me from actually playing, on account of my age. (laughter)  She said that I could support the sport by becoming a non-skating official. I’m not sure whether that helped spur me on or not, but the gears were turning inside of my brain.

AU: You decided to go for it.

AS: Yes. I started going to local skating rinks, rented skates and started to roller-skate all on my own. Some friends of mine in Athens saw selfies I posted at the rink, and suggested that I contact Classic City Roller Girls, since they were about to start a new skater boot camp. The doubts immediately creeped into my mind, “I’ve never skated in my life, I’m 49 years old, I’m and not sure I can do this.” Classic City Rollergirls said not to worry, they would teach me everything I needed to know, and it would be fun! 

The truth is that I was a little anxious because I am a trans lady, and I’m very tall and thin. I put all this side and agreed to come to CCRG’s Fall 2018 boot camp. When I arrived at Fun Galaxy in Athens for my first practice, a couple of skaters rolled over and made me feel right at home. I genuinely felt welcomed and that I belonged.

AU: How physical is it?

AS: Roller derby is extremely demanding. Early on we’re working on improving fitness by skating lots of laps, and doing drills where we lay down on the ground and stand up (on skates), over and over. It sounds easy, but is not. (laughter) Classic City Roller Girls has an amazing group of rookie coaches, and all of them are firm believers in making sure skaters are in tip-top shape before we advance and learn new skills. All skaters and refs are required to wear eight pieces of safety equipment at all times. This includes knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, a helmet and a mouth guard.

Regardless of how heavy or fast we think we are, this is roller derby. We’re literally rolling around a hard surface on four tiny wheels that slide real easily. It’s not that hard to knock anyone down, regardless of size or shape. Smaller skaters routinely hit out larger, stronger skaters. But there’s more to it than just size and knowing how to make good, hard and safe hits.

Over the next 6 months I completely immersed myself in derby. I often skated 3-4 times a week. When I wasn’t skating I’d watch bouts of top tier teams to learn more about the intricacies of game play. I worked hard and began to advance through our different skill rankings. By spring 2019, I became contact eligible, and a short while later, I was scrimmage eligible. Unfortunately, the night of my CCRG bout assessment, I injured my knee.

By the time I healed (Summer 2019), I transferred to Atlanta Roller Derby (ARD), since my girlfriend also skated there. ARD is a larger team with historical top-20 WFTDA ranking. While at ARD I practiced and scrimmaged with some of the best skaters in the world, and finally played in my first official home game just before the Covid shutdown started in 2020.

AU: How does it feel out there with the crowd going and you’re zipping around in a real battle?

AS: It feels amazing. Newer skaters (including myself) don’t always make a lot of splash plays and hits, but we are absolutely out there contributing and helping our teams. When we do land a solid legal hit, you can hear the crowd go “Oooohhhh!” At my first bout, I was asked to enter the game as jammer (kind of like a quarterback in football, jammer’s score the points) late in the period. I managed to “get out” (very roughly equivalent to throwing a long pass), and heard my derby name (Formaldebryde) called over the loudspeaker. I could hear the crowd cheering loudly. It was literally the best thing ever. My teammates were so proud of me that day.

Adria Stembridge, after Roller Derby practice, 2019.

Roller derby is one of the best things that’s happened in my life. I wish I had discovered derby earlier, but I’m glad I’m part of the community today. It’s such an empowering sport for all women and non-binary individuals to become involved with – regardless of age!

AU: There’s strategy.

AS: Roller derby is full contact chess. Just like in chess, different positions bring different advantages (and disadvantages) to play. In most sports, participants typically excel when they are an ideal size and shape. With roller derby, there aren’t any built-in advantages to being short or tall, heavy or thin. Every body type and shape brings a unique advantage to the game.

One of the key reasons for this is WFTDA’s ruleset. For example, skaters are not allowed to make contact with another skater below the knees or above the neck. We cannot use our feet, knees, elbows, hands or head to make contact with another skater. There are many other rules, all designed to keep us as safe as possible when playing hard hitting games. These rules help make derby more equitable between different body types, but more importantly it helps keep everyone safe and healthy.

Like chess and football, teams also employ various offensive and defensive plays. Everything in derby happens extremely fast, so split second thinking and well-honed skills are critical toward team success. Well-executed plays are poetry in motion.

It’s also important to note that roller derby continues to go through a lot of change. Game play and strategy from 2007 looks a LOT different from what we do today. The same fun loving spirit of the game hasn’t changed. Skaters usually have witty and creative names. My skater name and number is Formaldebryde #1313, though my teammates call me Bryde for short. I picked 1313 since my thirteenth birthday fell on a Friday the 13th.

Derby continues to change culturally as well. In 2011 WFTDA added protections for trans women. More recently, in 2015 WFTDA expanded protections to include non-binary skaters. Today’s derby community is generally a LOT more attentive to social justice issues including racial access and equity. Modern skaters want to ensure that roller derby continues to be a welcoming and safe space for all skaters, refs, and fans.

When we do eventually return to skating, getting back into shape will be tough but I’m ready. I’m excited that I am returning as part of Athens’ own Classic City Rollergirls in 2021, where I originally began skating in 2018.

AU: Are you yearning to get back to live shows?

AS: Yes, absolutely, but the band may look a bit different when we start playing live again. After living in Stone Mountain for the last 10 years I am finally moving back to Athens.

With the move comes an inevitable lineup change. Our most recent lineup was, at times, magical. When she first joined, Natalija, literally, was brand new to playing music; she’d never played an instrument although she produced vaporwave on her laptop. She originally started in Tears on keyboards, but eventually realized she wanted to play guitar. So, we worked almost a year, sometimes painstakingly, on helping learn how to form barre chords and effectively move around the fret-board. Through her devotion to learning, she’s a good guitar player today. I’m equally grateful for the time I got to know Debbie. With instruments in our hands, we had a remarkably easy time working together. More importantly, through knowing Debbie, I grew more as a queer woman in the last 3 years than I have in the past 20. The three of us together made this a very special lineup, and I will fondly remember the friendship and fun times we had together.

In spite of the title of our most recent release, Epitaph, the band is actually not being laid to rest. The first single off of the next record was just recorded. I’m hopeful the entire record will be wrapped up by end of year. My hope is to return to playing shows later this year as well.

AU: When do you think that will happen?

Adria Stembridge, Breman Race Park, 2006.

AS: At the rate folks are being vaccinated I expect clubs to gradually reopen for music by Fall. Unless something really, unexpectedly, bad happens we should be back to somewhat normal in 2022. All of us yearn for our old routines and pastimes. In addition to playing shows, I’m looking forward to returning to roller derby once case counts drop low enough.

I still ride motocross occasionally. A few weeks ago I went out to a local track on a nice sunny day, probably the first super nice day this year. I’d never seen so many people waiting in line to enter the track in all the years I’ve been going there. It was nuts. People have been holed up for the past year and are ready to live again.

AU: I caught that online. You were quite amazed. Everyone came out of the woodwork.

AS: It’s exactly what’s gonna happen when everything opens back up. I hope by October or November all of us will be back at the clubs, and coming out to see roller derby again.

“Dazzle the Sun,” Tears for the Dying, 2018.

Tears performed in a few Livestreams this past year, but those can be challenging for bands in a sense. There’s not an audience involved, and no energy to feed off of. So we have to basically conjure up a certain level of energy from within. There is a certain excitement knowing that we’re being filmed for a stream. Given the circumstances, that was  better than not having any performances at all.

AU: How did you get into riding motorcycles?

AS: When I was around thirteen one of the older siblings got a vintage Honda 65 motorbike. It looked like something out of WWII. It was so old! My dad actually said he did not want me on it until I was sixteen, for safety reasons. Of course I ignored that. (laughing) When he wasn’t around another of my siblings taught me how to ride one afternoon. I was instantly hooked. Later, my dad took a job in Saudi Arabia so he wasn’t around to dictate what I could or couldn’t do. I rode that old scooter almost every day. I eventually coaxed my mom into buying me a slightly newer Honda 100 dirt bike. I rode that little bike all around our farm property out in Winder, and started learning how to repair it when a chain or lever broke. When I’d outgrown the little 100, I bought a much taller Kawasaki KX125 motocross bike and started riding at practice tracks around Athens and north Georgia. In 1989 I entered my first motocross race and finished 14th out of 45 riders.

AU: Any memorable stories to share?

In the early 00’s people on web forums used to coordinate rides, so one day I joined a group of riders meeting at one of the designated Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) riding areas, for what sounded like a relaxed day of riding on gravel roads and single-track in the mountains. We met, topped off our gas tanks and started our trial ride. After a couple hours we’d explored everything in this particular OHV trail system. One of the riders said he happened to know of a pretty cool unmarked trail nearby we could try after lunch.

It didn’t take us long to find the secret trail entrance. Our friend said he’d never been on it, but heard the trail was fun. We set off and rode what felt like several miles deep into the wooded-mountainous area. The forest eventually opened up a little and I happened to catch something odd off to my right. There was a very old and rusty metal object 50ft off the side of the trail. I slowed to a stop and a couple of us walked over for a closer look, thinking maybe we’d found an old car or something.

The object was almost rusted completely away, but it was pretty evident that we were looking at a very old moonshine still. We hopped back on our dirt bikes and continued down the same trail until we came to a small creek crossing. It was passable, but the slope on either side was steep and treacherous. On the other side of the creek was a small clearing in the woods. Through the brush we could barely make out what looked like an old mattress and a newer tin object off to one side. One of the riders said he wanted to check it out, and before we knew he crossed the creek. We figured it would be fun to investigate, so everyone else followed him across and into the clearing for a closer look. The new object we’d spotted was also, in fact, a still. It looked like it hadn’t been used in a while, but appeared to be 100% functional.

At this point several of us were thinking it might be good to turn around and head back, leaving well enough alone. Just as we were starting to get our bikes turned around, one of the riders said he wanted to explore an old dirt road leading out of the clearing. Off he went, and begrudgingly, all of us followed along. The dirt road climbed a small hill and off to the right was a much larger opening revealing a large plot of corn. Incredibly, the same rider decided he wanted a closer look and rode off. This time without the rest of our crew in tow. A few minutes later we heard our riding buddy’s motorcycle engine turn off, followed by shouting and commotion down near the field. I froze, what the fuck was this guy thinking riding down into an active moonshine operation out in the literal middle of nowhere?!?  A couple minutes later we heard his motorcycle start and make its way back up the hill to where we gathered. By this time we’d already turned our bikes around facing the way we came.

The rider rode up to us, eyes wide open and panicked through his goggles. He said two old moonshiners sprung out of the trees, one holding a shotgun and the other holding a large hammer. The shotgun was leveled directly at our friend, while the man with the hammer walked over and prepared to hit the motorcycle’s engine case. The two men yelled,  “What the fuck do you think you are doing?  You are trespassing on private property! Why don’t we just break your motorcycle! Did you want to die today mister?!” Our friend said, no. “Then what the fuck are you doing here right now, you son of a bitch!! You are god damn trespassing!! We have every right to shoot trespassers!!” After more yelling, they they finally said, “Listen here you son of a bitch, we’re going to give you one minute for all ya’ll motherfuckers to get the fuck off our land!!” Our friend started his bike and made his way back to us, quickly conveying what he had been told. 

We started our bikes in unison and hauled-ass back down the rough and unkempt dirt road, and back across the steep creek crossing, and through the woods, and past the first rusted out still. Once we’d put a good mile between us and the moonshine operation, we all stopped in an open spot in the woods and exchanged our mutual surprise at what had just happened. Things could have ended a LOT worse for us.

Since that day, I made a point to avoid riding off of designated trails in the woods. Never know what or who you might run up on!

AU: Do you have hope for the future of the world?

AS: I do. I’m pessimistic at times and question my devotion to hope at others. But over time things do tend to get better – but only when we choose to become and remain involved, and fight for the marginalized.

AU: You mentioned Camp Kelly once, and the positive experiences there. Would you elaborate?

AS: Yeah, this is a fun memory. In the Summer of 1984 my mom registered me as a volunteer for summer camp at Camp Kelley off Mitchell Bridge Road. I was a confused and angry kid and helping at camp was probably a good thing for me at the time. When my mom dropped me off, the first person I met was this older kid with short hair on top and two super-long rat tails. He seemed pretty cool and introduced me to Newcleaus’ “Jam-On’s Revenge” which I loved. When camp was ongoing, we didn’t have a whole lot to do – the adults did most of the supervision and stuff. We mostly got to play with the kids and just have fun. One of our favorite things to do was to start up a game of Capture the Flag on the little island. We played for hours at a time. If I knew it was still there and could get easy access I’d love to go back today and play again. I miss being a kiddo.

We sometimes had weird jobs, like getting into a deep creek to clean out a valve or something – a few girls were there as leaders like me, and they hopped into the turgid, black water without any visible fear. I was impressed, they seemed so badass. They seemed to know who they were, and I was envious. Sometimes fun nature things happened – like finding a gigantic black snake by one of the cabins one morning. It was at least 8-feet-long and looked as big around as my arm. Mostly though, we were just bored out of our minds. I was one of the youngest leads there, so I didn’t hang too much with the rest of the leads and kept to myself.

It broke my heart when the area was developed for homes. That was a really cool camp especially being right next to the Middle Oconee River. I’d love to be able to go back and do something like that, but as an adult. The adults did most of the supervision and stuff. I feel I’d make an awesome camp counselor.

LINKS/RESOURCES

Tears for the Dying – BANDCAMP

Tears for the Dying – Flow (single from Epitaph, 2021)
https://open.spotify.com/track/75DgMOtFcQqiUKXGeAMN85?si=211cbcb95af249e1

Tears for the Dying – Deadweight (single from Memories, 2020)
https://open.spotify.com/track/0E5H42yADu1j1w6BJn0VOb?si=4f8a628df0884089

Tears for the Dying – Memories (single from Memories, 2020)
https://open.spotify.com/track/6Qj1rk3noqJj3S705k7tC7?si=fc7f5b5887524d4f

Strange Dreams – Fata Morgana (single from Monolith, 2016)
https://open.spotify.com/track/0UokflRp35UFk4No8S5238?si=58958b0fd5c04f5

The Girl Pool – BANDCAMP

Vomit Thrower – BANDCAMP

Vomit Thrower – Dying Breed (2003)https://vomitthrower.bandcamp.com/album/dialogue-dying-breed-single-2004
Vomit Thrower – Classic (1995)https://vomitthrower.bandcamp.com/album/1995-4-track-demos
Vomit Thrower – Psychobabble (1992, live in the lobby WUOG)
https://vomitthrower.bandcamp.com/album/live-in-the-lobby-1992-wuog-905-athens
Vomit Thrower – Fuck Peace (1991)
https://vomitthrower.bandcamp.com/album/jimmy-swaggart-experience-proto-vomit-thrower

Wikipedia

WEBSITE

INSTAGRAM

TWITTER

YOUTUBE CHANNEL

Flagpole

Classic City Rollergirls

Atlanta Roller Derby

GLAAD

Human Rights Campaign

Red & Black

Post-punk.com

Athens Banner Herald

Michael Nagy Interview with Adria Stembridge

Facebook:

Vomit Thrower 1991-2004 https://www.facebook.com/VomitThrower/

The Endless 1995-2004

The Girl Pool 1995-1998

Strange Dreams (basically The Girl Pool 2.0) 2015-2017

Tears for the Dying

Epitaph: All tracks produced, mixed and mastered by Tom Ashton at Subvon Studio in Athens, GA.

Special thanks to Tomasz Woodraf and Batcave Productions in Poland, Flicker Bar and WUOG 90.5 in Athens GA, 529 and Mosaic Art Supply in Atlanta GA, Classic City Rollergirls, Atlanta Roller Derby, and everyone else who supported and encouraged us along the way. We 🖤 you.

Black Lives Matter

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