Statistics indicate that humans should fear vending machines more than sharks, but science makes stronger arguments than death counts: Bull sharks bite with nearly 1,350 pounds-force, enough to split sea turtles. Many species come into the world as trained carnivores thanks to oophagy, or the process of hatching in the womb and eating one's kin. Great whites are tough enough to withstand one of the highest tissue mercury concentrations for any species.
It's a brutal existence on both ends of the bite.
Neither Sharkmuffin nor Desert Sharks—two New York acts listed among New Music Seminar's "Artist on The Verge" performers this year— had intended on suggesting aggression with their respective monikers. The members of Desert Sharks could only agree on one combination from a list of appealing source words. Vocalist/guitarist Tarra Thiessen assembled "Sharkmuffin" from her previous two bands (Slutmuffin and Pool Sharks).
Nor, they claim, do they find sharks particularly representative of the female gender. Right before inundating Music Times with statements suggesting otherwise.
"It's like a vagina with teeth," explains Thiessen, referencing one of the more curious sexual connotations not invented by Shakespeare. Desert Sharks guitarist Sunny Veniero gleefully cites a diagram illustrating the uncanny anatomical similarities between a shark's brain and certain female regions.
The relation between the subclass elasmobranchii and female rock musicians is more relevant than you might think. Sharks are one of many animal groupings where the so-called "fairer sex" tends to outgrow males and display higher levels of aggression as well. So perhaps the title animal in both bands' names is telling.
Then again, female-dominated rock groups suffer the same stereotyping as a certain class of large fish. Women with guitars find themselves lumped into sex-oriented classifications such as "riot grrrl," which imply that gender and genre aren't mutually exclusive. Sharkmuffin and Desert Sharks prefer to believe that aggression stems from personal taste versus the biological mandate exemplified by their mutual namesake.
"Whether we're women, men or ducks doesn't really make a difference," says Natalie Kirch, bassist of Sharkmuffin, taking the animal imagery in a different direction. "It's about the music that we like to play and the music that we're making. That's ultimately what it comes down to."
Although both acts negate the correlation between their titles and the music they create, the shark bands display forcefulness rarely affiliated by groups employing other popular animal hybrid names ("deer," "horse," "bear" et al).
Turn up the amps and give The Chantays some edge and you'll have Desert Sharks: twin guitars gliding along the rhythmic surf rock groove of drummer Rebecca Rose. Bassist Stephanie Gunther has no qualms about about revisiting the '60s pop themes frequented by surf rock revivalists, including tracks such as "I Know What I Want" and "Come Home" from the band's 2013 Sister Cousins EP. On the same token, "Feel Bad" details arson and spite without breaking stride from the band's thematic approach.
Even if the band's music strikes you as overly sugary, the members could deflect wuss accusations based on image alone. Much like actual sharks, Desert Sharks emphasize their bad reputations by looking like badasses. The quartet dons black leather jackets for many a promotional photo (and rolled into an East Village bar looking like The Greasers for this interview). The album art for its self-titled LP borrows from a '60s trend vastly different than surf rock: B-movie horror flicks. It features a shark-woman hybrid with a genre-matching typeface.
Sharkmuffin more actively avoids definition. Thiessen has gone on the record labeling the band everything from "female-fronted shredwave pop" to simple "punk" (her choice when interviewed by Music Times). An overexcited writer from The VPME described the group as "the collective DNA of Bikini Kill, The Slits, The Cramps, The White Stripes, The Ramones and Sleater Kinney," all rolled into one.
Challenged to humble themselves after such a glowing review and choose just two of those comparison points, both Thiessen and Kirch settled on Bikini Kill and The White Stripes (still a challenging standard to live up to). The former comes out in the band's short songs, where Thiessen's vocals jump the rails between ariose and abrasive, representing feminism not by rejecting men but asserting their wills upon them ("Quarter Machine" features the title mechanism serving a similar purpose to the surfboard from Beyoncé's "Drunk In Love"). Thiessen, like Jack White, feels no shame in shredding, as exemplified during the more heavy metal "Soft Landing."
Sharkmuffin revels in nautical horror as well, notably during the single "Mermaid Sex Slave." Sharks aren't the only scary things beneath the waves, it would seem.
The two bands play styles as disparate as the shape of mako and tiger shark teeth. Anatomical differences aside, both will draw blood, and New Music Seminar organizers foresee listeners and labels going into a feeding frenzy over the acts.
"When I was thinking of bands to nominate for NMS Artist on the Verge, I thought of Sharkmuffin instantly," says Kirsten Myers, a committee member for New Music Seminar. "I've also seen them getting so much press, growing their fan base and playing a lot over this past year which certainly makes them look good on paper. But no matter how you look on paper, it's about the music and they have such a cool and unique sound that I thought they would be perfect for AOV."
Desert Sharks was personally recommended by Peter Schwinge, general manager for the seminar. Regardless of who finds the bands involved, all undergo a rigorous shakedown from analytic and taste-making angles. A band's social media presence, physical outreach (touring) and activity (idle bands die quickly, just as their shark counterparts do when they stop swimming) are all thrown into a musical version of sabermetrics, which deems the potential for a group's success in the future.
Accordingly, neither Sharkmuffin nor Desert Sharks have taken their successes so far for granted. The former aims to release its first full-length during late 2014 and will comb the East Coast on tour before heading to the Midwest. The latter will coincidentally terrorize the same waters this summer while on tour, and will drop another EP, titled "Template Hair."
"We based the title on a comment on some rock blog," explains Stefania Rovera, guitarist for Desert Sharks. "They said something like 'could they be any more template? Look at their hair' and we thought that was hilarious."
The "template" snidely referenced by the blogger again demonstrates the difficulties of being a female in rock music, regardless of personal creativity. Realistically, Sharkmuffin and Desert Sharks only fit into two templates, based on listening: "band names featuring sharks" and "bands good enough to earn slots at the New Music Seminar."
Sharks based out of New York City could use all the good news they can get. Hurricane Sandy had a devastating impact on the New York Aquarium, which is located along the iconic Coney Island Boardwalk. Flooding damaged electrical output at the facility during 2012, and the loss of aeration and heating mechanisms caused the deaths of hundreds of animals, including sharks. That tragedy lingers in the minds of zoological workers as the aquarium strives to bounce back, but things are looking up for our sandpaper-skinned friends. Oceans Alive: Sharks!, a new exhibit planned to open during Spring of 2016, will feature more than 40 sharks representing seven species, all based around a 500,000 gallon central exhibit.
Other sharks have continued to make an impact on the culture of New York. The New York Sharks women's football team recently notched its 100th franchise victory, and Winslow Homer's iconic "The Gulf Stream" still stands prominently within the American Wing of the Metropolitan Art Museum, waves and sharks tearing at the bit before a forlorn ship.
Given an ounce of luck to match their oceans of skill, either Desert Sharks or Sharkmuffin could be the next sharks to rise to prominence in New York.
Desert Sharks will perform at 8:15 p.m. on June 10 at Cake Shop as part of the New Music Seminar showcase. Sharkmuffin will follow them at Cake Shop with a 9:00 set.