Iowa bedroom-pop band Karen Meat made gentle waves with their 2015 full-length Karen Meat & The Computer and 2016 EP On the Couch. Both juxtapose the heart-on-sleeve lyrical duality of Arin Eaton and Brad Turk with omnichord-driven ditties that explore the highs and lows of a twenty-something life: the odes to “Pizza and Beer.” The crushing thoughts of “Who Cares?” And the playfulness of a song like “On the Couch,” which mixes loving references to Turk’s basketball-playing little sister with Eaton’s lament that her man “ain’t no good at hanging out.”
But Karen Meat’s most recent material–the six-song EP She’s Drunk Like the Rest of Us and the holiday single “Part of the Party,” both released at the end of 2016–veers in two different directions. There’s the full band version of the band, with Eaton, Turk, Phil Young and John Huffman, and the duo version containing Eaton and Dana Telsrow, who are currently out on tour. “The two versions aren’t much different but are also very different,” Eaton laughs during a phone interview with Folio Weekly conducted while the band was on the road to Omaha, Nebraska. “With the full band, I do most of the writing, then bring the song in. Brad fills out the words or melodies I don’t have, or he’ll rewrite it completely if he doesn’t like it. With the duo, I write all the words and arrangements and Dana writes the music.”
Eaton says she’s always embraced the “power of rejection and depression” in her music, injecting uptempo songs with underlying layers of sharp sarcasm, devastating anxiety and hard-earned wisdom. In that sense, She’s Drunk Like the Rest of Us, which Eaton and Telsrow will focus on when they visit Northeast Florida next week, is the strongest Karen Meat release to date, with ruminations on near-constant intoxication, debilitating unhappiness and mental instability backed by bubblegum girl-group chants, suave sax solos and skittering, loopy beats.
“It’s way more personal,” Eaton says of the duo material, performed by Arin and Dana, resplendent in matching sequined outfits. “I’ve always written about life experiences and things that I’ve dwelled on for too long. Karen Meat started as me venting, but Brad lived upstairs so I asked him to write some omnichord lines for some songs. The full band kind of formed itself. Nothing I’ve ever done has ever been as fun as what I do with Brad and John. With Dana, it’s more serious and not as playful.” When asked whether she prefers one end of the songwriting spectrum or the other, Eaton laughs: “I guess I’d rather have fun than be serious all the time.
There are a lot of people out there doing the whole serious thing. When Brad and I bring a song to each other, my take will be a life story that Brad will then make into a really funny joke.”
Karen Meat currently operates in such a dichotomous way for one simple reason: Arin decided that 2017 would be her year to travel and focus on music, while Dana Telsrow’s job with the University of Iowa allows him to work remotely. Back in Des Moines, Brad Turk works at 3E, an electrical engineering and equipment company, and John Huffman delivers beer for Confluence Brewing Company. “They have full-time jobs and lives,” Eaton laughs, “where I told myself last winter, ‘Oh, well–I’m just going to do this and see the world.”
Eaton says she’s excited to get back to Northeast Florida, where she and Karen Meat last played in January. “We went down for a little winter vacation tour to visit our good friend Rob Horn, who runs Hornski’s Vinyl Lounge in St. Augustine,” Eaton remembers. “I’d say it was probably our best show of the tour.”
After this run of summer duo dates, Eaton says she hopes to finish two full-lengths–one with the Karen Meat full band and one with Dana. “We’re trying to release more music but in a smarter way,” she says. “In the past, we’d do it quickly just to keep putting stuff out; Red Nude Tapes helped us release our first album, while Sump Pump Records helped with the On the Couch 7-inch. I self-released She’s Drunk Like the Rest of Us, and we keep doing EPs like that, hoping somebody will grab on to it. But we’re happy doing what we do, just to get our music out in the world.”
Coming from Des Moines, she has a legitimate concern. Eaton says the local music scene there is thriving, with new and established venues, up-and-coming bands, the popular 80/35 Music Festival, and plenty of local support. And though Karen Meat might seem like the perfect blend of quirky, eccentric DIYers emerging from an unlikely source of forward-thinking artistic progression, she says her desire to write music is rooted in tradition. “I love listening to country music and always have, since I was a kid,” she laughs. “And then I’m really inspired by the really cheesy stuff in pop music. I love Taylor Swift–I think her music is so ridiculous. The background vocals or the rappers doing the ‘Yeah!’ part in the chorus? When I hear that, I tell Dana or Brad, ‘Put that in the next song!’ And they say, ‘Don’t you think you’re going a little over the top with that?’”