Music Features

Tears for the Dying’s Adria Stembridge Reflects on the History of Goth in Athens

Tears for the Dying performing live at Cine on Apr. 19, 2022.

In celebration of World Goth Day on Sunday, May 22, throw on some black lipstick, take a stroll around Oconee Hill Cemetery and then cozy up in a candle lit corner to learn about the history of goth music and culture in Athens from Adria Stembridge of Tears for the Dying

Flagpole: Many people may recognize you today as the frontwoman of local deathrock act Tears for the Dying, but Athens is your hometown, and you’ve been performing here since the early ‘90s. For the unfamiliar, can you give us a quick rundown of some of your previous bands, like Vomit Thrower, The Endless and The Girl Pool? 

Adria Stembridge: Absolutely. An older sibling was a club photog in the early to mid-‘80s in Athens, and he first introduced me to alternative music and WUOG. By the late ‘80s, I started going to shows for the first time in my life, where I saw bands such as Fetchin Bones, Roosevelt and Pylon. I fell in love with Pylon’s music, which prompted me to learn to play an instrument myself.

Not long after, I helped form my first punk band, Vomit Thrower, in 1991. We were abysmal. None of us knew how to play our mis-tuned instruments, but we were full of piss and vinegar. 

By the mid-‘90s, I’d outgrown VT and started a goth/deathrock band called The Endless. We played a handful of shows in 1995 before our practice space was burglarized and we lost all of our gear. I helped form The Girl Pool in 1995 with a former member of VT. We began as a quirky, dark indie pop project but gradually drifted to a traditional goth sound. The singer of TGP moved to NYC in 1998, and we broke up.

I began writing music and lyrics for Tears for the Dying in 1998, but due to personal issues didn’t record until some time later. Our first single “Time/Disease” was tracked by Chris Bishop at Radium Recordings in 2003. About this time, I relocated to Decatur for several years, and Tears went on a repose until the mid 2010s.

Members of The Girl Pool reunited in 2015 under a new band name, Strange Dreams. We recorded a six-song EP called Monolith, and played a number of shows around Athens before Tears for the Dying re-emerged in 2017, playing at a Brain Aid festival that fall.

FP: Do you have any early memories of when you first started seeing goth music or fashion emerge in Athens?

AS: One of the early shows I saw (around ‘89) at the previous 40 Watt on Clayton was a band called Nerve Clinic. They played in almost complete darkness, with only a drum machine, programmed synth bass and guitar to back them up. They were deafeningly loud, and the music was otherworldly, mechanical and horrific. I loved every aspect of their performance. This was my first exposure to dark music, although I wouldn’t be properly introduced to goth/deathrock until a few years later.

In the early ‘90s, DJ Ritchie D spun at Hoyt Street North on Tuesdays (industrial/dance) and Thursdays (retro ‘80s). A handful of goths regularly attended one or both nights.

The Endless’ first show at the 40 Watt in 1995 was attended by 50 or more goths. I was surprised how many of us were actually in town, being how we didn’t see that many goths out in public back then. To the best of my knowledge/research, The Endless and Rated R were the first two Athens bands who took on both musical and openly fashion stylings of goth/death rock.

In 1996, we learned of a newcomer to town who put together a goth rock band called Death’s Little Sister. Caitlin R. Keirnan was the vocalist for the project, and she played shows around Athens for a year before accepting a writing position with DC Comics, and stepped away from music (and Athens) to focus on her blossoming career as an author. She left a lasting impression on many of us. 

By the mid/late ‘90s, Athens had a burgeoning scene of goth, deathrock and industrial projects including The Girl Pool, Rated R, Radio:Tahiti, Autoscope, Leanan Sidhe and Demiurge. In the ’00s, we saw the beginnings of bands like Entertainment, Tears for the Dying, Vincas and S.I.D.S.

A little before my time, and throughout the 1980s, there was a pretty strong industrial/noise scene here with bands like Boat Of, Damage Report, Jarvik 8, F.M. Bolding and Sky City. From what I’ve been able to glean, this scene wasn’t readily identifiable as goth/industrial on the surface, but the music was certainly familiar. Music by The Plague and Pylon (especially songs like “Danger”) are more closely goth-adjacent and deserve mention.

FP: How do you feel your bands, and similar artists you shared shows with, were perceived by the rest of the music community and by the overall public during the ‘90s? 

AS: We lovingly referred to ourselves as the Athens Underground. Someone spray painted “Dead Athens” above the stairs to the Downstairs in the early ‘90s. Athens was a ghost town back then. Townies owned downtown. Everyone went to the mall to shop, and there were so many empty and unused storefronts downtown. We had free rein for several years. In spite of the (then) cheap rent, Athens lacked a dedicated goth/industrial club, so we were content lurking around the shadows. 

The greater music scene was generally supportive of the goth and industrial scene here in the ‘90s, though we may have been misunderstood. The decade of the ‘90s was a particularly strange period in Athens, between the time when appearing goth or punk in public could result in being physically assaulted and when goth and punk fashion was routinely adopted by the mainstream. Then, like today, goths were just another flavor of townie, so we blended pretty well when not in full club wear.

FP: It seems as though the goth, death rock and dark post-punk genres have generally become woven into the fabric of today’s local scene, with bands like Tears for the Dying, Vision Video, Vincas, Coma Therapy and Pale Pose having an active role. Members of Entertainment and Feather Trade have relocated, but continue to maintain a presence here as well. What do you think has contributed to the acceptance, curiosity or popularity of these genres in Athens over time?

AS: It simply has to do with why Athens became popular in the late ‘70s into the early ‘80s to begin with. Artists and musicians may have a lovingly complicated relationship with UGA (vis-a-vis the infamous Khaki Line), but the fact is the school’s proximity to downtown and our music venues continues to bring new people to our city year after year. Everyone wants to experience a little of what made Athens so special in its heyday. And that is simply going out to hear new music and bands that we’ve never experienced before—going with open minds and ears, and allowing those bands to influence us along the way. Some decide to begin making music of their own. Some end up staying, weaving their own thread into the fabric of Athens music and arts history.

FP: Have there ever been any local venues or DIY spots over the years that you feel have played a significant role in supporting or shaping the goth scene? 

AS: Absolutely. During the ‘90s, clubs like The Atomic and 40 Watt were super good about giving relatively lesser known goth/industrial bands shows on weeknights. Back then, club bookers would pick bands for you to play with if you didn’t have a bill already lined up. Sometimes the bills were unexpectedly eclectic as a result. New and unknown bands never had to worry about not finding somewhere to perform. 

Hoyt St. North, before its ultimate inferno and demise, was a favorite hangout for many of us. I personally miss Hoyt St. more than I probably should. There was magic in those old wooden floors. 

Before Junkman’s moved to the end of E Clayton in the early ‘90s, it had a small storefront in the middle of town, also on Clayton near the Downstairs. In the back, you could buy goth clothes, accessories and funky colored hair dye. The selection of goth items decreased quite a bit when Junkman’s moved to their next location and focused more on fraternity students. 

More recently, venues like Flicker Bar, Caledonia, Go Bar and World Famous have been super supportive of new and upcoming bands. Flicker feels like home to me every time I visit. The Lab at Ciné is starting to host live music more regularly. Buvez on N Chase hosts semi-regular Goth Karaoke nights, which are super fun. Macabre Athens throws well-attended goth dance parties a few times a year. We’re due for another sometime soon.

We sorely miss having a dedicated goth bar here. If money were freely available, I’d have already opened a dingy dive bar that caters specifically to goths and queers, somewhere very near to downtown. It’s a dream of mine, but everyone is struggling today with things as they are. It’s especially difficult to start a new bar, and probably impossible to do downtown. 

FP: Tears for the Dying will be featured on two different compilations that will be released on World Goth Day: Psychic Eye Record’s Altar of Shadows, which will celebrate the last 40 years of deathrock, and Broken Sound Tapes’ UNEARTH’D Volume II, which aims to spotlight artists from the Southeast. Can you tell us a little more about these compilations, and what it means to you to be included? Are there any other special ways you plan to celebrate World Goth Day?

AS: Yes, we are super stoked about both comps, for different reasons. Our first brand new single in almost a year will appear on the UNEARTH’D Volume II compilation. Last year, several other local goth/post-punk bands appeared on UNEARTH’D Volume I, including Vincas and Vision Video. Psychic Eye Record’s Altar of Shadows is a particular honor to us because of the incredible lineup and caliber of global goth/deathrock bands we are appearing alongside, including Rubella Ballet, Alter de Fey, Nox Novacula, †13th Moon† and Gitane Demone Quartet. This compilation also benefits LGBTQ survivors of domestic abuse, a cause we heartedly support. Both compilation tracks were recorded last year with local producer/musician Tom Ashton and Subvon Studio.

We are recording a video for another yet unreleased song this month and are hoping to debut in June. Also next month, we set out for a brief four-date mini Southeast tour, which will take us to New Orleans and back. We are actively writing and recording tracks for our next full-length release, which does not have a release date set, but are hoping for fall of this year.