Oh My Goth: KEXP DJ Sharlese Metcalf on What Goth Means to Her

Larry Mizell, Jr.

On August 17, KEXP celebrates World Goth Day Extended as our DJs play goth favorites, old and new, from around the world, all day from 7 am to 7 pm PT. As we all embrace the darkness for this summer holiday, Director of Editorial/Afternoon Show host Larry Mizell Jr. talks with our DJ Sharlese Metcalf – host of Mechanical Breakdown (Mondays at 1 am PT) and our resident goth icon – about what being "goth" means to her. Beyond the stereotypes of dark clothes and brooding make-up, Metcalf offers an inclusive vision of gothdom and the suggestion that anyone can be goth. 

Read their conversation or listen below.


Larry Mizell Jr: Tell me about what goth culture, music, everything means to you.

Sharlese Metcalf: Well, goth culture, goth music, what it means to me is... It's kind of a cheesy term to me. I don't really completely vibe with it, I kind of find it to be tongue in cheek. But it's kind of like I ride along with it because it does represent a part of culture that I like. But, in a way, I think as I've always just thought of it and adopted it into my life, it's something that I would never look like... it's not something that I would look like on the outside, it's something that I've always felt on the inside. For example, like the music that I listen to and places that I like to go to, I would say fit into that vibe, but my skin is not white. My hair is black, but it's not long. I don't wear a lot of makeup.

And I think that that kind of gels into capitalism a little bit, how people... I don't know, like here's an example. When I was in San Francisco recently, I was walking down the street and I was going to a club and I looked at this store and it was just like pride everything. Pride shirts, pride totes, pride blankets and towels. And I was just like, "When did pride become something that we needed to pay for. Isn't it something that you feel inside of you?" Because you've worked really hard to get to where you're at. So I feel that way about myself and I feel that way even about, I guess, goth culture. I've worked really hard to just fit into spaces everywhere that I've ever gone to, to just not prove/prove myself to people that may not even care and it's all just inside of me.

That totally makes sense. And we've talked a little bit about this before, but you just spoke on that kind of the idea that even in so-called goth culture or in goth settings, you feel like an outsider because of the color of your skin for one, first and foremost. Why is that and how is that been for you?

I also I want to clarify that I've always felt like an outsider. I felt like an outsider when I was going to rock shows. I still feel like an outsider when I'm at techno shows or house shows. I definitely just feel like an outsider. I felt like an outsider when I was in middle school or going to school.

All of these things are founded on outsider identity, right? All the angst and alienation. But a lot of times it's full of and serves exclusively, generally, people who, by dint of the skin and socioeconomic background they come from, are not necessarily alienated from the mainstream of society. They're trying to kind of find that identity. You've got that just by being born in the body you're in. So what has been your experience moving in these spaces as a Black woman?

I would say the experience is people being surprised and always feeling like I need to prove myself and people just not expecting it. I feel in a way like that's a blessing because I'm constantly working, I'm constantly listening, I'm constantly digging. And I think that as I've gotten older, I really just don't care. What's most important to me is that I'm representing something to a young person that, you know, that a young person may find out about and just be inspired. And that's my motivation now in my life. I don't care about anyone else around me proving anything else, like I know that I'm inspiring youth, young people. Because I don't that I had someone like me when I was young to look up to or someone like you, because you understand where I'm coming from because you experienced the exact same things in high school. We've talked about it. We bonded on it before.

To this day, you know what I mean.

There are things that you loved in high school that I was like, "oh my gosh, that's why we're friends. We're going to be BFFs forever." Because you knew parts of punk and rock music that like it's so impressive on your show nowadays that as you do the afternoon show now that we couldn't even live up to in school because... I don't know. One of the things that happened to me in school was I would have like kids come up to me and say, "you act white.".

Oh, yeah. All day.

And I would be like, "OK, I don't really know what that means. I'm acting like me." And I took that with me and I still have that with me because I don't know what that means.

Well, yeah, of course. And of course, you're going to have white friends, acquaintances are going to tell you that they're "Blacker than you." And they're going to reinforce that, too. And, you know, that's the age where all the nasty junk that we trade in our society really gets drummed into you, right? That seems to be more of what that age and that level of schooling is about more than any kind of retention of information or anything. And yeah, to this day, I mean, beyond high school, you go to a rock show and yeah, I know a ton of people, they're going to say, what's up? But there's also going to be a ton of people looking at me like, "What are you doing here?" And it's a little bit less and certainly a lot less since the protests of recent years. And everybody's like being "such a good ally," you know. But once upon a time, it was definitely like, "what is this guy doing here?" kind of vibe. Especially if you're not like even dressing the part, if you're just kind of coming from where you're coming from, but you're there and that's what it is, I guess.

Have you ever heard the saying or seen the T-shirts "I'm so goth. I was born Black?"

Wow. I have not. That's a thing?

That is a thing. And I think about that because I'm like, OK, I guess that is a way of retaliation, you know. It doesn't work for me. Because feeling goth is inside of me. And I definitely am not black inside, in terms of what that could mean. I definitely always try to have a positive light. And the music that I really enjoy brings joy to me. Sometimes I laugh at the way some of the lyrics, you know, how they're dark. I enjoy doing Mechanical Breakdown and I really enjoy some of the songs that I come across. One of the songs that I am looking forward to playing again is called "Frozen Mountain." I forgot who it's by, but I can't get it out of my head – the way that the guy sings it, and it's so cold and... it's got this vibe. I enjoy that part of it all. I enjoy the tongue-in-cheek part of it all.

But to me, whatever goth means or whatever goth culture is, it's something that is inside of you and a characteristic that you want to draw outside of yourself. Hopefully, in some way or another, it brings you joy, it's not bringing you down. I mean, I will always love the characters on South Park. They're the best. The little Goth kids on South Park, they're the best for sure. Then again, I think that they're making fun of it in a way as well.

Gothy affectation has been something that's certainly been made fun of. Is that something that you ever got ridiculed for? Beyond that, "you're acting white" thing?

I mean, I think I was just always different. I still am different. I don't know what it is, I'm just Sharlese.

Absolutely, that's right. And you know, when I think of what Goth music is, Goth culture, I think it always felt very European to me. And that's kind of what it presents, right? I think of like Factory [Records] and I think of the U.K. and I think of kind of like European religious artifacts, you know what I mean, that sort of thing. But you told me something the other day that you saw in a documentary about the sonic origins of Goth music that blew me away. Do you tell me about it?

I do. So I was watching this documentary ['Before Bauhaus: How Goth Became Goth']. It launches into this song by Screamin' Jay Hawkins and he did a cover of Nina Simone's "I Put a Spell on You." What made it so gothy and what the presenter was saying about how the sounds became the origin of it was how he recorded it and what he sounded like. Supposedly they ate some good food and they got really drunk. And then they recorded this song. And there's just this big epic performance from this song. And, like, it just blew me away because I was like, wow, never what I have thought that Goth sounds would have been drawn back to a Black performer. A Black artist.

Absolutely. Have you ever heard anybody draw that line before?

Never. Never. And I'm not over it now. And I just found this out this week.

Yeah, and it makes total sense. You look at Screamin' Jay and it's like, he's carrying a skull. He's got a skull on the end of his cane that smokes a cigarette. He's getting out of a coffin. Now, these are like kind of cartoonish things that I know you don't love being associated with gothicness, that kind of like campy horror thing. But he's absolutely probably the first performer I can think of in the musical idiom that is bringing any of that kind of imagery to his presence. That's pretty crazy. And it's a trip that I've never associated that with Gothic music tradition. And I love that somebody actually said that.

Yeah, I love that too. And I needed that as just a form of inspiration to give me perspective on something that I really like. It just made me feel, I don't know, just made me feel a little secure. It made me feel really good. And it was just like a piece of knowledge that I'm so happy to know.

Absolutely. I love it because there is always a movement, especially with the music that is guitar-based to – a lot of times – erase the roots of where that music came from, you know what I mean? Kind of scrub out the people who first made these types of sounds, so I think it's important to make these associations and challenge the narratives. And it's a lot like just your presence being in these spaces yourself. Being a person who's done their homework, knows more about this stuff than probably a lot of people in the room because of your outsider status. Because you want to know what you're talking about, because even if you don't have anything to prove to anybody, you've got to prove to yourself that you know what you're doing, you know? 

Yeah. I just really like it, and it's been a journey for me. I never, ever thought that I would be doing Mechanical Breakdown at KEXP.

It's a fantastic show. People are super passionate about it.

It's a lot of work. But like, every time I'm recording it, I feel this burst of joy where I'm like, "Oh my gosh, this is so cool. Oh my gosh, THIS is so cool. Oh, I just discovered this! Oh, my gosh, I've never heard this song. Oh my gosh, I never put two and two together in this way." And I think that the beauty, of doing a radio show – and maybe you'll agree – is that you're always learning, you're always finding out something new and you're being able to revisit something that makes you feel happy.

Absolutely. I love how you have a global perspective on the musical bag that you dove into from Mechanical Breakdown in particular. And I think for what you're doing on Goth Day, am I right?

Yeah. It's important to represent the world. World Goth Day, whatever that is, even if it is a Hallmark holiday and it sounds like one, representing what's happening around the world is so much fun to me. And I try to do that every week on Mechanical Breakdown, but it's going to be really cool on Tuesday, August 17th, because I really want the world to know what is happening around the world. There are artists from Italy, Argentina, Miami, Chicago, L.A., Russia. I mean, I can't even get into all of it. You just have to hear it. But I am so excited by the connections that I'm making around the world and that I'm able to bring them to KEXP.

It's going to be something that is just necessary to have. KEXP has really been trying to work on bringing other voices and bringing all types of music to the station. Like even with having an Afrobeat show, you know. Even with playing more jazz during the day. Gabriel's show and how he dips into like parts of Africa and playing really cool stuff from there. It's like if I can just play like a couple of bands from all these different places... I'm just so excited that people get to hear him. And, you know, of course, Seattle. Always got to keep it local, too.

And speaking of, growing up as a young person in West Seattle, what was the first goth stuff you came across and what got you into it?

Honestly, I don't think that I actually really got into the music until probably seven, eight years ago. Could be longer, but my brain, it's not working [laughs]. Maybe longer, maybe shorter. I don't know if anyone out there remembers a DJ that we had here at the station named Masa. He was one of the original DJs on Expansions. I mean, you know this about me, like, if I want something or I like something, I will go and hang out with you and ask for it. So I used to hang out with Masa all the time. He's kind of a quiet person, but I was always like, "Hey, I know you have tons of music knowledge and I want your music knowledge." Anyway, he turned me on to a compilation called The Minimal Wave Tapes that was put out by Stones Throw. And he gave me those to listen to and I just became really obsessed. I was super obsessed. To note, I was already in this Witch House phase too...

I remember this.

Remember my witch house phase?

Yes, I do [laughs].

I was in this witch house phase and I'm just like going back and forth between listening to all these witch house bands and then also listening to these Minimal Wave Tapes and just being like, oh my gosh, I need more. And pretty much one of my favorite songs on there was "Flying Turns" by Crash Course in Science. And I was just so obsessed with how it sounded. It was just like this minimal sound of like these beats. And it just was so, like, funky to me. And I was like, this is so cool, I just don't even know what to do with it. [It] made me feel like craziness, I was just like, "I love this music!" And I just kept diving into that stuff and Masa would give me more music to listen to and he would talk to me about like different people that were involved. And I was still going through the witch house stuff, too, and discovering all of those bands.

And it just became this conglomerate of me knowing how to research music and I just kept researching stuff and it's gone haywire from there. I've been able to like put together mixes and DJ and I was doing all that stuff. I was like deejaying in clubs and like deejaying in other places before and throwing shows in Seattle. Deejaying in Vancouver, they booked me the most – and Portland booked me the most. Then I got my show and I just kept like researching and digging and making mixes. There's so much more to discover!

Yes, there is. What do you want people to take away from Goth Day Extended on KEXP?

I want people to enjoy themselves, number one. And I also really want people to discover something new because discovering new music is really fun. And I also want people to take away that goth isn't what you look like, it's how you feel. I don't mean it like "feeling black." I mean if you feel like this is making you feel good then your goth. It's not about the clothes that you buy. It's not about the makeup you wear. It's not about the shoes that you wear – there are some pretty gothy shoes out there...

You've got some on right now.

I do. [laughs] The reason why I say it this way is because... So we're celebrating World Got Day on August 17th, which is also a national celebration of black cats day. World Goth Day was in May and on my Instagram, I would see a lot of people like throwing up pictures of themselves when they were younger, looking all gothed out and stuff, and that was never me. I always just looked like me and I still look like me. So I don't know if it's goth that I feel like, but I definitely feel like a lover of the music. And there's parts of the culture that I like as well. I'm going to Pittsburgh soon and supposedly on a public housing place there's a big picture of Edgar Allan Poe that I would like to see and maybe take a picture in front of.

This is very goth of you right now.

I think so, too. Yeah. So, you know, of course, there are some things that I find enjoyable, but also, you know, always just be you. And if you love the music, that's all that matters. If you got some cool memories that are attached to them, let's talk about it. Otherwise, just always be you. That's what you should get out of World Goth Day Extended.

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