In the Christian faith, there’s a healthy amount of debate about the significance of a weeping icon. The phenomenon, which occurred with striking regularity throughout North America in the 1980s, has been dismissed by skeptics as the result of coincidental water damage. However, many Orthodox Christians regard these events as divine, and perceive the weeping of an icon like Mary to either be a reaction to our humanity’s sins, or an outpouring of mercy and compassion during trying times.
For the New York City band Weeping Icon, their name represents a duality. “Our concept of the weeping icon is that it also doubles as an emoji,” says guitarist/co-vocalist Sara Fantry. “We’ve been using that as a concept of, like, the icon that cries for our generation. Something that represents the world between our online connected world and our real world.”
On their self-titled debut album, Fantry and her bandmates—drummer/vocalist Lani Combier-Kapel, bassist Sarah Reinold, and noise musician Sarah Lutkenhaus, who played on the album before parting ways to pursue her solo career—explored the conflation of brand identity and personal identity through their own experiences as self-sustaining artists in New York City. The members of the group have been active in the city’s experimental punk and noise scenes for over a decade. Prior to Weeping Icon, Fantry and Combier-Kapel played in a psychedelic post-punk band called ADVAETA; they’d often play gigs with any one of Reinold’s many past projects, which ranged from doom metal to punk to indie-electronica.
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When Fantry and Combier-Kapel decided they wanted to start a new band that was louder and more aggressive than ADVAETA, they enlisted Reinold—on the logic that she was the best bassist they knew. The band had no set goals, but it quickly became an outlet for their shared disillusionment with the world around them—specifically, the viability NYC’s underground arts scene.
“There are a lot of frustrating things that our generation is up against, and we’re trying to support ourselves while existing in a city where it’s almost impossible to support yourself while also pursuing art,” Fantry says. “In addition to that, there’s a dissolving political climate, and a generation that’s really obsessed with social media, and none of it is very sustainable in a healthy way.”
All of that exasperation is released in the form of sludgy punk that skillfully incorporates elements of krautrock, no wave, and stoner metal. Each song on Weeping Icon is preceded by a short, usually instrumental noise track that was either chopped from one long improvisational session and repurposed for the album, or specially designed to introduce the theme of the following song. The songs are similarly varied in approach; the rattling “Be Anti” is practically hooky compared to the creeping doom of “Natural Selection,” which is filled with gusts of harsh noise and menacing guitar strokes.
At times, their music can sound like three separate minds clawing and tugging at one another, ripping a song apart at the seams and stitching it into something new and unexpected. That dynamic is likely a result of their staunchly democratic creative process; all three members have equal say in the direction their music takes. “I think the purpose of doing it that way is that in New York, you see a lot of bands that are led by one person,” Fantry says. “When we were starting out as musicians it was usually led by one dude, and he’d boss everybody around, and that wasn’t our vision.”
Their non-hierarchical structure gives each of them room to flex their unique artistic muscles, but that kind of egalitarian process can be tricky to maintain. The band view that challenge as a cathartic form of artistic exercise.
“Does it create tension?” Combier-Kapel asks rhetorically. “Yes it does, because when you have an open working communication like that, people can feel—I keep saying the word ‘emotional,’ but it’s true. It’s really raw. Your creation comes from your gut. It’s like your other brain. It’s really, really sacred. And to just be in a room and allow other people to see in there is difficult.”
Their practices often dissolve into long, thoughtful conversations about their lives as artists and the way art is being presented and consumed around them. Social media’s tendency to isolate people from their actual identities and create a false sense of competition was a recurring talking point. And many of the lyrics on Weeping Icon comment on our generation’s infatuation with our digital selves. But the band’s criticisms are hyper-specific and full of nuance, side-stepping trite generalizations about phone addiction to deconstruct precise genres of online interaction.
For example, “Ripe For Consumption” is about the type of person who starts an organization (a venue, a club, etc.) but then disappears once they realize how much work it takes to preserve. But when the press begins to take notice of the space, they come back out of the woodwork to reap the recognition. “It happens all the time,” Combier-Kapel says. “You have people that just come out of the blue and they’re like, ‘Oh, yes, yes, I was a part of this, I was a part of that,’ just to get their name in the news, their name in the press, their name in Pitchfork—just getting social hierarchy through having your name written down physically on a piece of paper, or on the internet. Even though other people might have been better to speak [on the subject].”
“Like Envy” is about an Instagram influencer who completely loses their sense of self while commodifying their livelihood for “likes” and clicks. “You’ve got to curate your best you / If you want to stay relevant / Keep it fresh,” Fantry recites with a soulless, robotic inflection. As the song progresses, her voice becomes more frantic as the narrator has an existential breakdown in the liminal space between her two identities. “Does anybody like this? / Does anyone have confidence? / Does anyone know anything for sure?”
The next track, “(perfect the art),” is one of the non-improvisational interludes, during which Fantry says, in an eerie deadpan over jarring pulsations of harsh noise, “I’m really trying to perfect the art / Of screaming into a paper bag.” She’s speaking about artists who spend more time selling their “sexiness” and/or their “coolness” than their actual art. The track could serve as the thesis of the record: what is this all for?
“I just started thinking a lot about how everybody’s just screaming into a paper bag on social media,” Fantry says. “It’s going into nothing, it’s going into the void. When you take 1,000 pictures of yourself, nobody’s going to look at every single one. Where does it all go? That led to the next line, where I say, ‘In time nature will envelop this entire reality.’ It sounds very dramatic, but it’s kind of a good reminder to ask, ‘What are you doing this for?’ If you’re not doing this for a reason, then you should be reminded that this is all gonna be for nothing one day anyway. You might as well put your energy into something that means something, or [is] helping people.”
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Weeping Icon are quick to emphasize that they’re not trying to position themselves as holier-than-thou superiors. “We’re not trying to say that there’s something wrong with our generational compatriots, and they’re doing something wrong, and [that people should] listen to our analog-sounding music, and do it this way,” Fantry says. “I think we’re just talking about things we struggle with. We’ve all taken selfies, we’re on social media all the time. These are things that plague us as well.”
Ultimately, their message for anyone living their lives from behind a screen is to make sure they’re getting something out of it. Especially artists of their caliber, who literally cannot make enough money to survive from their art alone.
“I think that’s the real issue there,” Combier-Kapel says. “If you’re going to sell yourself, know your self-worth. Be like, “OK, this brand wants to use five seconds of this song I wrote? Gouge them for money.’ Seriously: gouge them for money and be like, ‘I need to eat.’ That’s where we’re at right now, that’s where a musician’s at. How else do we survive?”