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Kristina Esfandiari has been making music for more than a decade, but she’s still in the process of learning some things the hard way. The frontwoman for San Francisco-based doom-gaze outfit King Woman hasn’t stopped moving for much of the past few years, in large part because the band has been on tour in support of their 2017 debut album, Created in the Image of Suffering. It’s the band’s first release for heavy music super-label Relapse, which earned them critical praise as well as prominent appearances at festivals such as Hopscotch and Desert Daze. From the outside, it probably seemed like everything a band could ask for.
Yet Esfandiari found herself pushed to the limits by the end of 2017, realizing that she had perhaps been doing too much. Too much touring. Too many interviews. Too little time spent living a life away from the stage. With some time off before the band’s next tour, she’s had a change of attitude about what it means to be a professional musician. Just because an opportunity comes up, she says, doesn’t mean you have to take it.
“I’m a human, I can’t run on empty,” she says. “You have to learn these things along the way. I’m allowed to say no to things. I don’t have to do things the way people want me to. And I don’t have to feel like ‘oh my god this is such a good opportunity.’ Maybe I don’t feel that way, so no. Saying no was a huge lesson for me this past year. It felt really good to start doing that and take better care of yourself.”
King Woman never expected to reach this point so quickly. The band—comprising Esfandiari, guitarist Colin Gallagher, bassist Peter Arensdorf and drummer Joey Raygoza—rushed into the recording of their 2015 EP Doubt after being approached by label Sargent House. The result was four songs of diverse, tuneful and supremely heavy doom metal with elements of dream pop and psychedelia.
When it came time to record Created in the Image of Suffering, the band didn’t do much planning ahead, either, though the result is a much bigger and eclectic sounding set of music. Opening track “Utopia” crackles with feedback before exploding into a Sabbath-style dirge, while “Manna” has a spacious, shoegaze vibe steeped in delay effects. And the epic closing track, “Hem,” has an eight-minute build up into one of the band’s most cathartic songs. Theirs is a singular sound, which is all the more remarkable when Esfandiari admits the band had to figure it out along the way.
“We really didn’t know what we were doing,” she says. “A label approached us on our second show and was like ‘we want to sign you’. So that was kind of weird for us, honestly. People kept hitting us up, saying ‘when are you going to record again?’ and we just said ‘fuck it.’ We had three or four solid songs done, so we’re just like… let’s go in and see what happens. It just came together the way it did. I don’t think we thought ‘this record has to be super heavy’ or anything like that.”
Created in the Image of Suffering is heavy, but in more ways than one. It’s musically dense, loud and even crushing at times, but it’s also emotionally heavy. Esfandiari channeled her troubled experiences growing up in a cult-like Christian sect on many of the album’s songs. On “Worn,” she laments her lost youth (“I wish somebody would have told me/Because the past you can’t get back”), while expressing concern for her own family on “Deny” (“I pray my mother/ Won’t you ever find a cure?”). These are some intense feelings to channel, especially when they’re part of a nightly live set list. Still, Esfandiari says they fade over time. Now her concern is the physical toll of the band’s powerful live performances.
“When you’ve done it enough times, it just turns into something else,” she says. “I can be thinking about one thing that’s really heavy, but if I had a bad day or something, I can channel that into a song. Or maybe I’m really happy in life and I still have to channel some type of intensity. I’ve performed the songs so many times, I don’t want to say it loses its meaning, but it’s heavy on my body. I have a lot of aches after I perform. I’m putting all of my energy into it and throwing my body around and yelling. Especially on tour, it’s really intense and I need to take care of myself, because my body gets really jacked up after the first night. Like, time to stretch, otherwise I’ll feel like shit the next day.”
King Woman’s music doesn’t fade into the background. It’s a sound that’s meant to be engaged with, which means it can be a pretty exhausting experience for both the band and the audience. Yet at the end of the day, it’s meant to be something that can potentially appeal to anyone, whether they’re metalheads for life or entirely new to heavy music.
“I like our shows because there’s not just metalheads there, there’s older people and really young kids, and people who listen to rap and hip-hop,” she says. “I just want it to be really universal, and I think people can connect to that. That’s all that I care about. I don’t want to make people feel excluded from what we’re doing. I want it to be a great, expressive thing and a positive thing. I don’t want it to be something that causes division.”