If you’ve been to any of the area’s queer venues, or a local punk show with more than two women in it, or any Girls Rock NC event in the last three years, you’ve probably come across Kae Diaz. Kae is a singer, a drummer, a ukulele player, a bartender, a photographer, and in general a pillar of the local queer DIY scene. They play the electric ukulele and drums in an indie rock project called Fruit Snack, and as it happens, we are actually currently both in a punk country band called Severed Fingers. I recently went to visit Kae in their beautiful old house in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. We talked about finding collaborators, what the music scene is like in the Mojave desert where they grew up, and the challenges of creating a space for the art you want to see.
Just a warning, we do mention alcohol and some other, mostly fun, adult topics.
This profile is a collaboration with the Trans Music Podcast. Stream the interview below:
Riley: How’d you get started playing music?
Kae Diaz: Well, when I was really young, I always loved to sing. I’ve always been just singing, singing, singing, and my mom, when I was little, was like… so a little context is we grew up really poor, so the big American dream of becoming a famous singer and making a lot of money was a thing that my mom always put on me. But for me, I just loved to sing. So my mom was always like, “You need to go on American Idol! You gotta be famous and make us money, and blah blah blah,” and being younger, I was like, “Yeah, totally! I wanna do that! I wanna be on American Idol.” But later on, I’m like, no. So getting older, like in high school, I was like, “Okay, I’m ready. I wanna be in a band.”
You know, band things were happening around me; boys were being in bands; I wanted to be in a band. And nobody would let me in their band. They were basically like, “Oh, you probably listen to Britney Spears. You’re not gonna be in our cool dude band.” [Riley laughs] Yeah, that was the boys club that I couldn’t get into, so I started playing the ukulele, just so I could play for my own self then, and try to write my own songs.
That sucks! That’s so mean.
Yeah. Actually, this person that I grew up with, my mom went to high school with his mom, he started playing music around the same time I did, and I was really excited. I was like, “Oh, we’re friends. Maybe we can start a band together; we grew up together.” And my mom saw him at Walmart and tried to put that idea out to him, and he was like, “Well, what kind of bands does that person listen to?” And my mom said all these bands that I would not have said to him, you know? Just things that were, like, girl pop bands and stuff like that. And he was like, “Oh, well I don’t know. We’re trying to play some different stuff than that…” And I was just like, “Ugh.” So yeah, it was very…
Oh, I hate that!
Yeah, right? I know. “I hate that guy!” [Both laugh]
Yeah, when I was 14, the guy who shared my bus stop with me in the mornings had four-foot-long hair and was in a Scottish folk metal band, and they needed a singer. And I kept dropping hints that I wanted to be the singer for this metal band, and he just was not interested in little dorky 14-year-old me being in his band. Which… joke’s on him, that would’ve been great.
Yeah, joke’s on him! Now you’re in two bands and badass. That’s how I feel about it. I’m like, “Pfft.” I’ve posted about my shows, ’cause we’re friends on Facebook, me and that guy. And he’s a DJ in L.A. now, and he reached a douche level that I didn’t even know was possible, basically. So I got to do what I want, and that guy’s doing what he wants, whatever.
Yeah. When you first moved to Raleigh, how did you feel about the music scene? ‘Cause I felt like it was very hard to find friends and break into.
Well, when I first first moved here, I didn’t know a lot about it, but once I got into Girls Rock, I feel like my knowledge of the people in the scene, and the venues, and the bands, and who was doing what just exploded. ‘Cause you know, everybody who does Girls Rock in some way is connected to that. So for me, it was this moment of “Whoa.” All these people who are like me are doing these things. And helping each other, booking each other for shows, sharing practice spaces, sharing instruments. I found Girls Rock, and the foundation of it was teaching young people to do these things, but at the same time it was people cultivating community to have that in a broader aspect around the area. So I didn’t feel like it was hard, but that’s because I had found Girls Rock, definitely.
If you had time and could just start any new band, what would it be like?
I would love to be just a frontperson. Just a singer with a microphone, dancing around like Beth Ditto, crazy – sorry, not crazy – wild movement, and dancing, and jumping off of speakers, and screaming, and… Yeah, that’s a dream of mine, definitely.
So Fruit Snack just needs a ukulele-slash-drum player?
Yeah! Well I’m trying to start a solo project right now, which right now includes me playing the ukulele. Because still, I don’t know how to start a band without that. I feel like if I’m gonna write the songs that I wanna write, I need to start there. But I’m trying to be in as many bands as possible, to be honest. I just wanna play music all the time.
It seems like you kinda do play music all the time. And when you don’t play music, you’re working at venues.
Yeah, doing music stuff.
You work at what, four different venues? Three different venues?
Yeah, I work at three: Ruby Deluxe, Wicked Witch Raleigh, and then the Night Rider. And they all do shows now. And then I bartend and book, but mostly bartend right now. But then on Mondays, when I bartend, I also host an open mic, so.
And you used to work at the Ritz. For those who don’t live here, these are all very hip, vaguely queer music venues/bars, and Kae is always behind the bar, looking cute, serving up beers.
I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m serving beer.
What do you think about the fact that all these queer spaces are so alcohol-focused?
It’s hard to think about sometimes, especially being a person who grew up around… I mean, growing up, underage drinking was a main focus for me, so sometimes I have to reel it back and be like, “Okay, do I need to be drinking right now? Do any of these people need to be drinking right now?” And I do think a lot about “God, how can we make spaces that are not focused on drinking or centered around drinking, or have events in those spaces that don’t have to be centered around drinking, you know?” But it sucks to think about, well, that’s how the doors stay open, you know? People buying drinks is how I pay my rent. So it’s not my favorite thing, but also it is a thing. If that makes sense, you know? I don’t feel the best about it, but I also feel like I’m in it.
Yeah, it’s what enables all that stuff to happen. And it sucks because there have been queer bookstores, or there’s the anarchist bookstore in Chapel Hill that closed, and there have been other spaces, but they haven’t lasted. So maybe we need another one.
I know, right? There’s whispers all the time of, “Oh, we’re gonna find a warehouse, a space…” The reason that I got this house was to try and create a space like that, but getting the right people in this space to do that has been the issue, you know?
Yeah, keeping rented, shared house roommates constant is an impossibility.
Yeah, and also roommates who are down for people being here all the time, or down for people using the space to play music loudly when the walls are so thin, you know? It’s… It’s hard.
I didn’t know that that’s what this house was intended for.
Yeah, I found it on Craigslist and I was like, “Yo, this is the space of our dreams.” It’s huge and there’s room to have just a music room, and there’s room to have an art studio. We could have events, we could have open mics, we could have shows. The sky’s the limit. And I’ve been trying to build it up that way, getting materials; I’ve got tables and chairs, and I bought the lights for outside, and the campfire, and all these things. But it’s also like, I’m just one person. That’s the dream, still, for me. And sometimes I feel like maybe it was a selfish thing that I thought everybody was on board in the same way I was moving in, and that’s why it’s been such a rocky road to get there. Because where I was like, “Hey, I have all these big ideas, what do y’all think?” And everybody else just saw this space and was like, “Yeah, it’s great, yeah.”
“Yeah, I wanna live in this cool house!” I could see moving in with someone and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I love music and I was thinking maybe we could have events here sometime,” and you move in and then you’re like, “Oh, you mean literally.” Like, “Oh, you mean literally have random people at my house all the time.” And how you might sign up for it by accident.
Yeah. And I think it’s also a thing where since I said it, everyone expected me to lead in that. And setting up all the things, and creating this space in that way, and planning these… It’s too much for me, so I get in this cycle of, Okay, well let me set this up, and do this thing, and try to make this work for this kind of event. And then fall behind with, okay, it happened, now I’m cleaning or fixing a thing, or planning another event, or promoting it…
You can’t do stuff like that with one person.
Yeah, it’s hard.
I was actually Skyping an old acquaintance of mine who started a tenants’ union in Vancouver, ’cause I’m working on all this stuff, and I wanted some advice on “How do you organize people? How do you make people do things?” And he had some really great advice, but one of the things he said was “You need five people. Get your core group; you need a core group of people.” Because one person can’t do everything. And one person isn’t gonna be good at everything. And he said for whatever reason, in all the organizing he’s done, it always ended up being four or five people who all were equally invested in it. And until you have that, things are gonna keep faltering; you’re gonna burn yourself out. Take it from the tenant union guy. Shout out to Vince!
Yep. Thanks Vince, solid advice.
He also said you need a book club. Which, I don’t know how I feel about that. But he said it was huge, that him and his five buddies all read books about organizing together. About movements and stuff. And then they talk about it and they all get hyped and educated.
I love that.
When you talk about organizing a space, or running events, what’s your organizational philosophy? How do you balance running events and not… having so much clout that you like, squash people in the DIY scene?
What do you mean by that?
I dunno, I think that something that I come up against sometimes is I’ll organize… even just parties. I’ll just have parties where I’m the person everyone knows, or my house is the venue in which things happen. I’ll find myself wanting to make communal decisions, but everyone is kinda like, “Well, it’s kinda Riley’s thing.” But I want everyone to have a say, and have an input, and feel empowered. And I feel kinda challenged by that. I don’t really know how to do that. I was wondering if you had a strategy.
I don’t know, I feel like I just do that by the seat of my pants, you know? [Both laugh] I feel like one of my strong things is listening to people, so when people tell me things like, “Oh, I would love to do that,” I’m like, “Well, you absolutely can! Let me tell you all the ways you can.” Just trying to help people do the things they wanna do. If somebody mentions that they are looking for a place to play music because they haven’t in a long time, I’m like, enters Facebook comment immediately: “You can practice at my house. What do you need? Lemme help you figure out a way.” Or if somebody’s like, “God, I would love to see this kind of event in the world,” I’m like, “Well, this space, and this space, and this space will let you do that. Do you have someone who’d make a flyer for you? What do you need to get that done? I can help you figure that out.”
You’re like a fairy godparent, but for DIY music, or art.
You know, there are certain people in my life who did that for me, and I feel like if I had never seen the things I have seen, or learned or saw or heard the things that those people showed me, that I wouldn’t be so confident in doing what I’m doing now. So I feel like if I’m not paying that back to others, or paying it forward to my community, then I’m just being selfish, you know? That’s just not gonna benefit anybody in a way that is good.
That’s so positive. That’s so positive! I love that.
I’m just so thankful, like I said, not having the chance to squeeze into places where I saw myself fitting growing up, that other people were like, “No, you’re a weirdo,” you know? I felt isolated, and getting out of that, and now seeing so many spaces where I could fit in, and fitting into so many different spaces, I can see people who feel like they don’t have a space, and I’m just like, “No, let me show you how to get to it.” Because it’s so important! It’s so important to have that.
You’re who I was missing when I moved to Raleigh. When I was like, “I wanna play shows, but I can’t make any friends for no reason!” It took me three years to find music people, ’cause it’s hard to know where to look. It’s a big place.
When I first got here I posted an ad on Craigslist to see if anybody wanted to play music.
Yeah, it was not fruitful. I made one really good friend. Yeah, Girls Rock was the big catalyst for me. If I didn’t find that, it would’ve been very different, I think.
I had to make an OkCupid to make friends.
No, for real. I made an OkCupid and I was like, “Hey guys, umm, I have a girlfriend in Canada. I know that sounds fake, but I do. Umm, does anyone wanna do photography with me?” And that’s how I made my first friend in Raleigh, but I had been here six months and I didn’t have any friends. And you know me! I’m charming as fuck.
Yeah, you are. That’s hard for me to believe that it took you that long.
So, speaking of confidence… and tell me if you’re not comfortable talking about this, but some of your Fruit Snack songs… I would have a hard time singing in public. I love them! They’re in my head all the time. But you talk about some adult topics, like, you know, sex. And BDSM. And I don’t think polyamory’s an adult topic, but I think some of the ways you talk about it are on the adult side. And then you have a song called “Puppies 911” about how much you love puppies. Where do you get the confidence to do that, and is there part of you that worries, I don’t know if you have a grandma, but that your grandma’s gonna hear it?
Oh yeah, my grandma. Just the other day, I was like, “Yeah, my band’s recording some songs,” and she was like, “Are you gonna put them on a CD so we can listen to them, and share them with your uncles, and your mom, and your stepdad?” I was like, “Uhh, I mean, I want you to hear it, but…” [Both laugh] Yeah. She can’t even use her flip phone, so I don’t think she’d ever… She doesn’t have internet either.
Oh, gosh! And does she live where you grew up?
You grew up in a pretty rural area, right?
Yeah, in the Mojave Desert.
In the Mojave Desert. Do you miss it?
No. I mean, I do miss the desert, in some sense, but I don’t miss the culture that was there. It’s poverty, and drugs, and violence, and sad, you know?
And no one wants to be in a band with you.
And no one wants to be in a band with me. Nobody even does shows anymore, it’s a very quiet town now. Which is a bummer. I don’t know where the confidence comes from to sing those songs, it’s just kinda like, that’s what I wanna talk about. Lyrics are a big thing for me, always. The lyrics being powerful in some way, even if the power is just saying a thing that maybe someone else wouldn’t wanna say in front of an audience.
Yeah! I think the best part about your songs is that even if they’re about slapping people in bed, they’re so catchy. They’re the catchiest like, pop songs.
Well, thanks for talking with me.
Oh my god, yes. Thanks for having me, I had so much fun!