After a Relapse Into Addiction Quietly Broke Up Street Sects, the Duo Has Exorcised Their Demons
The Gentrification V 7-inch hit last week, but Austin experimentalists are focusing on a balanced existence instead of rushing anticipated third LP
Languishing in the corner, monopolizing the dust that might have otherwise spread to the grime-ridden walls, were boxes upon boxes of pills that Leo Ashline didn't need to take. Gabapentin, America's 10th most-commonly prescribed medication, is a supposedly non-habit-forming anticonvulsant drug frequently given out to sufferers of anxiety. Even stockpiled as the central ornament in the bedroom of a reformed drug addict, the collection seemed like harmless furniture.
In late 2019, after a lifetime of independent coping, Ashline finally sought pharmaceutical care for depression. Gabapentin – though an integral garnish in his broader psychiatric cocktail – seemed right away to lag behind its chemical co-conspirators in setting Ashline's mood. Without halting the prescription, he removed the pills from his diet.
What happened next happened quickly. The calendar turned, and Ashline found himself out of a bartending job, trapped in a shared house that nauseated him, and in a band whose canceled tour dates meant no distraction from an increasingly intense album-writing process. The only reliable constants besides the steadily mounting stress were the steadily mounting pillboxes that promised to relieve it.
It took just one bad shift at his miserable Amazon delivery gig to deliver four gabapentin into his esophagus. Ashline soon found himself leaning on the pills after work each day, always consuming enough to "black out" in an approximation of alcoholic inebriation. When the realization that he was abusing the medication blearily occurred to him, it was already too late. Driving late one night, high on gabapentin, he impulsively pulled over to "pick up something harder" and lost nine years of sobriety in an instant.
"Every awful thing that I had stopped using, it resumed like I never stopped," Ashline recalls. "Like Street Sects never happened."
"I was ready to give up/ But instead I just drank up."
There exists another "Leo Ashline" who never got clean and likely never will. In the minds of experimental music fans who know him only through the songs he releases as one half of Street Sects, the vocalist is forever an avatar for the sink trap of addiction. Sometimes warbling in an unsettled Peter Murphy croon, more often screeching in savage abandon, Ashline, 42, inhabits howlingly despondent characters whose outward aggression is matched only by their inward loathing. With multi-instrumentalist Shaun Ringsmuth, 38, designing the electro-abrasive architecture, the duo conjures an urban landscape of monochromatic bleakness – unmistakably the product of artists who've traversed it for real.
I was first introduced to Street Sects as an indie-rock-obsessed high school senior. Insufficiently framed by a fellow pimply nerd as being "sorta Death Grips-ish," their clattering, sample-based onslaught and obvious authenticity (call it the "Jesus, how fucked are these dudes??" quotient) immediately scared the shit out of me. With time, their detailed songwriting, curious melodicism, and tragic catharsis brought me out from under my blankets and into awed fascination. Six years later, prepping for this profile, panicking over which extreme metal tee to wear, I'm no less intimidated. We're gathering to talk about their new 7-inch single, Gentrification V: Whitewashed – the final installment of a series begun in 2014 and the duo's first release in four years. Problem is, the single's two songs were completed eons ago, and Street Sects has spent countless interviews since 2018 hazily alluding to the same unannounced third album. Even if the band didn't sneer at my goofy fandom, was there really a new story for us to discuss?
The day brings two surprises. First, these are some lovely and not-at-all-fucked dudes. We meet early in the morning at the band's practice space at Mosaic Sound Collective – Ashline coming directly off a night shift as a security guard and still wearing his white-collared uniform. A compliment from Ringsmuth immediately validates my choice of a Converge shirt. In no time, the duo is spreading banter on everything from Roxy Music albums to 20-year-old memories of Trail of Dead shows ... but not, crucially, themselves. When an unexpected disclosure breaks the lull all at once, the band seems as shocked as me.
"Going into this," Ringsmuth says, "I wondered if we were gonna somehow Band-Aid over what happened, sorta awkwardly get around it."
"I would rather we just be honest here," adds Ashline. "Let's not have this come out in a fucking press release a month from now."
Surprise number two? Street Sects spent the last year and a half broken up.
"You want a story?" Ashline asks. "You got one."
In some ways, it's a miracle Street Sects ever developed to the point of a meaningful dissolution. Ashline and Ringsmuth first met in turn-of-the-millennium Florida while sharing shifts in a Barnes & Noble Starbucks. Bonding through alcoholism first, shared musical ambitions second, the duo spent the next decade traveling across the nation, logging time in various go-nowhere bands as Ashline's addictions steadily worsened. Their relationship almost derailed permanently upon arriving in Austin in 2011. With vivid terror, Ringsmuth recalls being forced to exile his "out of control" roommate lest he get dragged down with him.
Thankfully, a stint in rehab pulled Ashline back from the suicidal brink, and Ringsmuth accepted his friend's proposal that they give their partnership its fateful second go. As the younger man familiarized himself with electronics (self-critical to the end, this accomplished producer insists he remains a flailing novice) the duo developed a songwriting process rooted in equal exchange. Ringsmuth develops music with Ashline's "character" in mind. Ashline provides crucial notes on each of Ringsmuth's fragments and works on lyrics to match their unique moods. When each musician functions as the other's irreplaceable muse, falling off the wagon isn't an option.
No longer just a reason for Ashline to "get out of bed each morning," Streets Sects began its unexpected path to cult crossover when 2014's self-released Gentrification entries captured the attention of beloved experimental imprint the Flenser. With the label demanding an album, the duo shelved their single series and quickly scraped together their 2016 kickoff, End Position. To this day, they continue to hear from listeners who find comfort for their troubles in the LP's raw, unblinking torment.
Unfortunately, Street Sects themselves could locate no similar solace – and not just because Ringsmuth continues to dismiss their modern classic debut as "amateurish." 2018 follow-up The Kicking Mule tumbled out to neither partner's satisfaction. According to the duo, the record hovers timidly between "noise" and "melody" – an outcome they pin to the clash of two incompatible anxieties: to maintain a steamrolling release schedule but also to immediately buck expectations and dodge careerlong stasis in heavy music. No matter how bad the music started to sound, making it felt worse.
"All these deadlines and pressure," says Ringsmuth. "It stopped being fun."
"And if it's not satisfying, why the fuck are you even doing it? You're certainly losing the money you put into it," Ashline says. "And we began really sacrificing quality of life for it."
It'd be a stretch to say Street Sects has ever really lived comfortably. Prioritizing their passion has meant a decade suffering cold showers and a revolving door of disreputable roommates. But even with that history, the 12th and Pennsylvania "shithole" that a sudden housing flip forced the duo to domesticate in May 2019 took a crucial toll on their mental health. Though haunted both by the troubling histories of past residents and the current presence of literal toilet-dwelling rats, there was no conjuring the building's cursed energies toward the creation of vital new music. Instead, with the hallways too filthy and hot to even speak in, LP No. 3 progress stalled. By the time Ashline relapsed in October 2020, Ringsmuth had already fled to South Austin. For the producer – three years sober himself – distance only made the immediate cessation of contact easier.
"There was terror, uncertainty," recalls Ringsmuth of his feelings toward his friend's descent. "Mostly? Just anger."
Ashline cleaned up the following January; he credits Patsy Bouressa and SIMS Foundation with saving his life, getting him into Recovery Unplugged despite having no insurance. Even still, texts and emails to his musical partner remained unanswered. Though wary of how new Streets Sects material might be received without Ringsmuth, it was crucial to Ashline's recovery that he press forward writing and recording music. There was liberation in treading far outside the dismal confines of Street Sects – writing "goofy fruit-pop" songs and working with professional producers (including a few tantalizing tracks with Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart).
"The sillier the music, the more fun I had singing it," Ashline recalls. "I started to enjoy creating again, so I started to enjoy life again."
Ringsmuth remained productive as well, all the while wondering if he would get dragged into another band before Street Sects inevitably resurfaced without him.
"I had made peace with that," he recalls. "That's how incredibly angry I was."
But as 17 months passed with neither eventuality manifesting, the unrealized "hopes and dreams" of Street Sects proved difficult to shake off. After much thought, Ringsmuth sent a text of reconciliation to Ashline on February 18, 2022, mirroring Ashline's own message to him nearly a decade earlier. By incredible coincidence, the singer had earlier that day updated the band's socials for the first time since 2018 to announce "The Joy of Sect" – a long brewing collaboration with LA industrialists HEALTH that the duo had incorrectly assumed to be their final song together.
With Gentrification V arriving at last – the oppressive energy of unreleased work finally exorcized – there's nothing to distract from LP No. 3. But this time, the duo insists they aren't setting a bunch of deadlines and diving into recording. The "proper sequel to End Position" will arrive when it's ready, with no regrets. If that means another four years of waiting, so be it. You can't rush balanced living.
"What we have so far is absolutely the best sounding stuff we've done yet," raves Ashline.
Anticipating Ringsmuth's hangdog response, I look over to see him shaking his head.
"I'm not ready to say that yet."
After our interview, Leo Ashline will return to his sparkling apartment for some after-work rest. If there's any sort of threat piled in a corner awaiting him, at worst it's an unhappy gift from his new dog. Should he need to throw off his worries after a rough night, there's one artificial remedy I know he'll take. He'll remove his uniform, step into the bathroom – confident in it being rodent free – and take a long, hot, shower.
"To most people, quality of life, balance, sustainability – those are just normal things, but I'm not taking it for granted," Ashline says. "You can't hang everything on a band and let the rest of your life go to seed."
SIMS Foundation connects Central Texas musicians with counseling, substance abuse support, and psychiatric services with payment based on a sliding scale. It’s available to anyone who’s made some degree of income from the music industry in the past 12 months. If you need help, don’t hesitate. Info at simsfoundation.org.