by Anna Holshouser-Belden
art by Eva Sturm-Gross
[originally published February 2022]
After a long Winter Term/Omicron hiatus from live music, Spring Semester at the ‘Sco started off with a bang on Friday, February 18th with a show featuring two of Oberlin’s own student musicians: Goddessmen and $quib a.k.a Penina and Brock! Both TIMARA majors and practicing musicians of many talents with a focus in the electro-acoustic realm, the two artists let us know their thoughts on their recent show at the Oberlin ‘Sco, their ambitions and inspirations, and what’s coming up for them on–and–off campus.
Goddessmen, also known as Penina, is a first-year TIMARA major here at Oberlin and a long-time musician from Berkeley, California. Penina works primarily in what she describes as “experimental electro-acoustic freak-folk.” In high school, Penina started writing and producing her own songs under the names Goddessmen and Penina BG, while at the same time playing in a folk duo called Mac and Penny consisting of banjo, guitar, and vocals. She says that neither her band or solo work done in high school was super “official” nor performed live, but that she was always around music in her day-to-day life. Music under Goddessmen, Penina BG, and Mac and Penny can still be found on Soundcloud, although Penina states she has shifted to the more experimental sound of her newer music since her highschool years.
The performance at the ‘Sco was advertised under the name Goddessmen, but wasn’t just a solo performance by Penina. She sang lead vocals and played guitar while a band made up of Dylan Hamburger on lead guitar, Xander Cox on bass, and Brock Bierly on drums played five of the six songs on the setlist. On the last song, Penina sang and Milah Brown played viola. It was the group’s first time performing together after having met for just a few rehearsals before the day of the show. The set list went as follows: “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” by The Chiffons, “Congratulations” by The Chantels, “Black is the Color” by Luciano Berio, “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water” by Stonewall Jackson, “Silver Dagger” by Joan Baez, with Olivia Rodrigo’s hit “good 4 u” closing out the set strong.
Their show was composed entirely of covers. Penina explained that she doesn’t often perform her original music live, since the set-up of an electronic show takes a lot of prep time, and because she views her music as something deeply personal. As someone who works best producing her music alone, her music tends to reflect hard times in her life. The songs on the February 18th set list are mostly ones she was introduced to by her father during her childhood, especially “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” and “Congratulations.” One of her proudest accomplishments with this show was this dedication to her father and to the songs that he used to sing to her, and that she is still very much attached to the music of her childhood. Her cover of “Black is the Color,” an Appalachian folk song rearranged by Berio, which she first heard done by Patty Waters as a free jazz rendition and is another song that she holds close to her childhood.
Penina released an album on Spotify under Goddessmen titled Invitation to the Spirit House in 2021, which she wrote and self-produced during her gap year. She’s produced music for friends as well, and likes to collaborate on the production process. Her favorite music she’s released is “Back to the Car” from her album, “Crawl” and “Look in the Mirror,” which are available on Soundcloud, her work with Penny and Mac, and the music she has yet to release.
In terms of inspiration, aside from her father’s taste, Penina credits PJ Harvey and Karen Dalton as her main musical idols. Penina is also feeling very inspired by Oberlin’s renaissance and medieval chorus, Collegium Musicum, and a class on the history of gregorian chant. She spent her winter term working on an album that uses recordings of the choir, cello, vintage synths from the TIMARA basement, and people talking, along with vocals, which she says will be out soon to stream. Penina credits her friends for being so interested and accommodating of her music, and the TIMARA program for supplying so many useful resources.
The second performer of the night was $quib, a ‘band’ consisting of second-year TIMARA major Brock Bierly and a fictional character named Fish/Krotida Satyra. Brock’s thinking behind the fabricated figure of Fish/Krotida Satyra centers around the ideas of modern communication and the self. During our interview, Brock mentioned a problem that all aspiring artists, musicians, etc. are all too familiar with: there’s no one way to learn how to make art, but the reality is that in order to learn what you want to do, you just have to start doing it. Artists just starting out are often intimidated by the prospect of making mistakes, constantly being compared to peers. Brock describes his history with music as dating back pretty far into his childhood: playing around on Garageband in elementary and middle school. At seventeen he started releasing music under the first of many pseudonyms, $quib, and wanted to come up with a way to address the way artists communicate with their listeners. He decided to come up with this fictional band member as a way to comment on anonymity and lessen the “emotional stakes.” Brock was able to write “L’Hôspital”, a song he has described as his “Creep”, which he wrote in just two days. The song speaks on his relationship with a “fake” band member through the lens of the transactional professions of landlords and art buyers.
Discussing the decision to perform under the name $quib, Brock offered me several explanations behind the name. Mainly inspired by an octopus–like character named Squib in the cartoon Baman Piderman, Brock also draws from two separate definitions of the word squib. The first of which can mean “short satirical piece of writing” or “small explosive.” The second being a dollar sign in place of the “s,” which can only be credited to there being another artist under the name Squibs, and wanting some distinction. Brock describes $quib’s style as “tongue-in-cheek,” including prosaic lyrics on friendships, social anxiety, and modern communication’s involvement with the internet. With $quib’s layer of anonymity, Brock was able to relax on what he describes as the “neurotic” side of music production, and more easily give into creativity. $quib’s first mix came out on soundcloud in 2018 with a song called “Bullet,” who’s guitar chords Brock took from the song “Mass Appeal” by Dean Blunt. Under $quib, Brock has released an EP entitled $quib along with two singles, “Righty” and “Crown”.
The $quib setlist at the ‘Sco just a few Fridays ago consisted of all the songs off his EP: “L’Hôspital”, “Le Wedding”, “Tetragram for Duties”, and “Bullet”; along with his singles “Righty” and “Crown”, a new song called “UN”, and a cover of the song “Experimental Film” by They Might Be Giants. Two of the songs were slightly remixed, including “L’Hôspital.” Brock described the show as a “karaoke set,” with all his mixes pre-recorded aside from the vocals which he added live onstage. He described feeling like a member of the audience at his own show due to the aspect of not creating his mixes live. He enjoyed “galunking around” onstage, listening to his music through louder speakers than usual without feeling too high-stakes. One nerve-wracking moment from Brock was the debut of his newest song, “UN,” which he has been working on for nearly a year, a starkly different production timeline to his two-day writing process on “L’Hôspital.” The name for “UN” is after the United Nations, but coincidentally fits into the theme of French-language articles used in “L’Hospital” and “Le Wedding”. He described it as having a “through-composed” and “layered” sound with a very “$quib-like” lyrical content, though having a more controlled, meticulous production process uncharacteristic of his previous work under the pseudonym.
In late 2020, he released a second EP under another one of his pseudonyms, Homechild, called Love Is Worth in The Heart the Planet of Start Planet Earth. The EP contains four songs, and contains an even greater degree of anonymity than $quib. Brock says it was more of a one-off project very tied to a nostalgia for his childhood, making it less of a public project in some ways. He also created an album with a friend under the name Bucket of Ohms, titled 83. It contains nine songs and was released in 2021. Additionally, Brock has been involved with a band/project called The Carloses since 2017, a group of ten people from the US and UK that forged their collaborative relationship online. For his winter term project, Brock worked on an album with The Carloses that is expected to be released on streaming platforms in April or May.
When asked why he uses so many pseudonyms instead of releasing music under his own name, Brock replied that his pseudonyms are a way of categorizing his music into different “boxes” with different feelings or sounds, each reminding him of a unique time and place. He compares his collection of names to “Pinterest-board-like” categories that help him identify these different periods in his life. When talking about his newest song, “UN,” which has yet to be released, Brock says he isn’t quite sure where to place it within those categorial boxes. He likens the lyrics to his previous lyrical work, but feels his production process and referenced experience have changed dramatically since his work under $quib.
He describes his time at Oberlin as inflaming certain insecurities and patterns of thinking that affect how and what he makes. His newest approach to creating art is doing it in a way that isn’t “trying to be corny,” or a sort of performance for others’ reactions, but instead as more genuine to himself. Brock isn’t sure about the future of $quib, and may be shedding the fake band mate for real ones, pointing to his group projects with The Carloses and Goddessmen as the inspiration for this shift. In terms of what he’s most proud of, Brock highlights $quib as an extremely important milestone, and an experience that he looks back on fondly, though he calls his upcoming “UN” the “best thing [he’s] ever written.” Keep an eye out for new music from Brock and/or one of his many pseudonyms!