Mara Barenbaum (aka Group Rhoda) was initially drawn to electronic music for its boundless potential to connect. “While it easily permits something that can feel dissociative, it can also become immeasurable in its ability to communicate and transmit [and] to be more explorative and open to interpretation,” she says. “Then, of course, there is the environment and context, which has an influence on those who shape the work.”
For Barenbaum, that environment was her hometown of San Francisco and neighboring Oakland. “The Bay Area has an expansive and eclectic musical history and ethos, and it continues to ripple into the present moment,” she says. “I hold a great deal of respect for all the recessed pockets of the so-called underground scene, which carries a variety of styles of weirdness and types of energy.”
She began making her own music at home in San Francisco shortly after graduating from college on the East Coast. “I borrowed a friend’s Wurlitzer and was mesmerized by the sound,” she says. “So I practiced, and it allowed me to gradually build upon simplicity by adding in a push-button drum machine and tape echo. From there, it dawned on me that I could do separated basslines and got my Moog Rogue. It all piled up on top of the Wurlitzer—and that was a band.”
Although Barenbaum studied music theory, she learned more by instinct. “I was self-taught in terms of hearing something in my head and trying to translate it and to get enough notes down or repetition in so it does not entirely slip away,” she says. “Eventually, it was about understanding how I learn best, which is through a hands-on or embodied experience.”
She found her community amongst the Bay Area’s underground electronic music scene. “I started early on with organizing shows of all sorts at a warehouse I lived in called BayArea51. Because it wasn’t a club, there was more freedom to do whatever we wanted,” she recalls. “Then I really found my home with the Katabatik Collective [Katabatik was cofounded by Barenbaum’s husband, Michael Buchanan, who works under the name Identity Theft -ed.]. For someone who primarily works alone, it was nice to also feel like I was on a team,” she says.
Here is a collection of Barenbaum’s eclectic work.
Out Of Time, Out Of Touch
It took a lot of DIY experimentation for Barenbaum to create her 2012 debut album Out Of Time – Out Of Touch. Taking influences ranging from minimal wave and industrial to dub reggae and tropical exotica, her debut album also displayed Barenbaum’s interest in subverting pop. “There is something inherently mimetic about pop, but it’s also subject to individual ingenuity,” she says. “Although we normalize the composite sound, it’s not hard to go a few layers deeper into a pop song and realize that it’s a bit psychotic. Perhaps the subversion is about being aware of what pop is and being playful with the tropes.”
The title and theme of Out Of Time, Out Of Touch alluded to the vulnerability Barenbaum feels as an artist attempting to translate what is in her head at that particular time. “This one began the process of figuring out how I was supposed to technically translate ideas and do any of this beyond writing songs in a basement,” she says. “This sounds simple, but it’s not. Different friends became a resource to help me get it together. I was growing a working relationship with Brian Hock [Bronze, the Vanishing]. He had helped me with my first demos on tape. I felt lucky to have his help because of his skill as a musician and a producer.”
The atmosphere of the music was matched by the lyrical themes of isolation of the modern age, inspired by one of her favorite writers J.G. Ballard. “I still feel alienated by technology and by societal norms,” says Barenbaum. “Technology allows us to connect in wonderful ways, but along with it come all of these other systems set into motion like some kind of slime mold. I think people are exhausted and overwhelmed by so much of it, and it’s hard to decide how much buy-in or influence we want to allow this infiltration to have.”
Through connections made across the West Coast, in 2013 Mara joined forces with Amanda Kramer and Britt Brown’s Los Angeles label Not Not Fun Records. Moving from the chugging groove of “Day Ruiner” and soaring dub pop of “King” to the ominous sound collages of “Space Race” and “Blk Mtl,” 12th House took Mara’s electronic pop subversions in a more avant-garde direction while retaining those hypnotic hooks. On tracks like “Dust,” comparisons were naturally made with the original lo-fi cosmic pop pioneer The Space Lady who began performing on the streets around The Castro and Haight-Ashbury in the late ’70s. After discovering her music through Michael Kasparis at Night School Records, Mara got to open for The Space Lady at a show in San Francisco, leading to them becoming friends. “She’s incredibly sincere, her voice pure and it all comes from her heart,” says Barenbaum. “I’ve come to a more recent realization that her authenticity and belief is so powerful and consistent that it’s in reality a bit frightening simply because it’s so rare.”
Max & Mara
In the same year as her Not Not Fun Records album she signed to the Dark Entries label for a side project with Max Brotman from industrial duo Brotman and Short. “This was an important time for me because I was inexperienced with communication around collaboration,” says Barenbaum. “It’s quite funny trying to communicate around electronically generated sounds. You find yourself saying something like the swishy part or more like seaweed. Max helped me learn to lighten up and his complementary skills brought me to value details that I had previously underlooked.”
Listening to the cold wave meets electro-funk of Less Ness it would be easy to think Dark Entries had uncovered another of their lost synth albums. Raw yet soulful, bleak yet warm. It’s what a studio session between Das Ding and Antena might have sounded like had they met back in the 1980s.
Wilderness is Group Rhoda’s second release for Dark Entries. “I think this album further solidifies not comfortably sitting anywhere. It’s light and a bit shadowy, and at times dark and heavy,” says Barenbaum. “I also got more adept at doing my own production. Perhaps I even got a little too carried away with overdubs and added details.”
The atmosphere of Group Rhoda’s music is again matched by Barenbaum’s observational lyrics that explore societal and spiritual displacement. “Music can be storytelling; there is framing, plot, associations, subtle cues—all of these sonic elements help construct a scene or setting for a character,” she says. “Sound is also about mood and affecting emotion. I find that it’s a bit of an alchemical exploration and attempt to create something that we may struggle to put into words.”
Barenbaum’s third LP, and second under the name Group Rhoda, Passing Shades took its name from a passage by Japanese poet and author Yukio Mishima. “It speaks to the resonant reminder that expressions of nature, even in their volatile forms, are far more certain than anything within our control,” says Barenbaum. The album presents a more abstract sonic template that shifts from the jagged analog assault of “Beauty In the Waste” to the somber and menacing “Earthly Ark,” the latter of which was inspired by a Margaret Atwood poem.
After Passing Shades, Barenbaum took a break from music and discovered the healing power of martial arts. “Within that process, I started to better understand myself, my surroundings, and my relationship to others,” she says. Now living in the woods in Deming, a small logging town in Northern Washington state, she is stepping tentatively back into music. “I’m working towards my first show in a while this summer with Katabatik [and] I’d like to start to record again, collaborate, and eventually tour,“ she says. “I have no map of how to get there, and it’s possible that nothing will sonically translate, but I know it’s important that I remain adventurous, open to discovery, and not disconnected from a state of wonder.”