I recall the first time I met Matt Carroll and Sara Bertuldo of See Through Dresses: six years ago, at a crossroads in my life, I had gone to a show of theirs to see about renting their spare bedroom.
Back then, they were playing as a three-part rock ensemble called Honey and Darling – an esoteric yet completely apt Legend of Zelda reference – which blended elements of ‘80s post-punk and dreamy shoegaze that hit all of the right notes for my own tastes and sensibilities. Their sound was wrapped in an image defined by Sara’s cute and nostalgic cartoons adorning their merchandise and CD covers; the sort you’d expect to find on a Shonen Knife flier.
I became an instant fan.
I anticipated ditching town only months later, but instead spent the next four years completing graduate school and grading student papers while their jam sessions, recording takes, and nascent songwriting reverberated through the floorboards. The duo lives and breathes their love of music, and have been longtime fixtures of the Omaha indie music scene.
(A personal favorite anecdote of mine: Sara, at points, played with Cursive leader Tim Kasher, accompanying him on his solo album tours. One day I came home surprised to find he had cooked dinner for our house; afterward, he cleaned the entire kitchen.)
They’ve grown much as performers through the intervening years, indebted to their drive and passion for playing music. It’s taken them through Europe and multiple regional and nationwide tours as See Through Dresses, adding current members Nate Van Fleet and Alex Kirts.
I caught up with them on a rainy afternoon during their most recent jaunt, touring with label mates Haybaby for Tiny Engine Records, and en route to Rochester, NY. Tours are always fraught with vagaries, but this one has been pleasantly without issue.
“We went to Toronto after two shows in Manhattan,” Matt remarked, “and we were surprised at how nice everyone is in Toronto … traffic especially. New York was so cutthroat. We’d be driving around Toronto with no problems, thinking ‘are they just fucking with us? It’s the ‘Everyone’s Nice’ version of America,” Sara said.
For a time, Honey and Darling took a backseat to a variety of side projects (including Sara’s too-cute-for-this-world pop punk trio Millions of Boys, with friends Alexander Van Beaumont and Ryan Haas), but after a lineup shuffle the band was reborn, keeping much of the same dreamy aesthetic with a harder rock edge. See Through Dresses’ first self-titled LP hit in 2013 and became a local favorite (including for yours truly, despite hearing the songs countless times, at virtually any hour of the day, for years.) Their success only multiplied from there, signing with the German-based label This Charming Man Records in 2014 and putting out their first EP, End of Days with Tiny Engine in late 2015.
The tour for End of Days was rocky
“We were out on the road before the vinyl dropped, which was kind of a mess,” Sara explained, suggesting they had no strong way to capitalize on their shows and bring in new fans. The nadir of that tour involved a disastrous day in Philadelphia: after a flat tire and no spare to replace it, they band arrived at the 11th hour to a house show broken up by the police only two songs into their set. “There’s this Instagram photo out there from the show, and the caption just says ‘cops are here,’ she said. “And I’m there smiling into the camera, internally screaming.”
Luckily, their Summer 2016 tour has gone off without a hitch. “We’re coming down to the end of it now, and there hasn’t been any band breakdowns yet,” Matt said last month. The worst of it so far, they shared, involved sharing a bedroom with an asthmatic Boston terrier in Columbus, OH. “His eyes went two different ways and his breathing kept us up all night. It was adorable but maddening.”
But that kind of story is indicative of the band’s personality and the buoyant atmosphere they inhabit. The group, they tell me, has kept occupied by chronicling all of the strange and memorable characters they encounter on the road into a byzantine family tree they’ve dubbed “The Barnabases.” Each is given complex, multi-layered histories and interpersonal relationships, and ostentatious names reminiscent of the Southern gentry’s blood feuds: Tristan, Madge, Virginiana, and so forth. “We’ve come up with about 30 to 50 characters. We’re gonna have to write these all down when we get home,” Matt laughed.
After the summer tour, which included a slot on the Maha stage in August, the band is setting their sights on their next album release, due out in Spring 2017. With it comes another evolution in their sound. “Our first album,” Matt explained, “was us wrestling with our ‘80s and ‘90s influences. And when we went on our first tour it taught us a lot about playing as a live band in house shows, so End of Days reflects that progression: the songs are simpler, four piece rock ensemble affairs.”
“So for our next album we’re going to go back to our ‘80s influences, but also transitioning to doing that live more effectively,” he said.
Coming far from those days six years ago, the band feels a more professional sea change is looming .They have a manager now, and further assistance in booking shows and selecting their venues. “I’m kinda over house shows now,” Sara said. “I get anxiety about not knowing the people putting us up, and they can be unpredictable.”
In addition to this, plenty more lies over the horizon for See Through Dresses and its members. “There’s always this feeling something else can happen,” Matt said. He’s laying the foundations to begin a new side project with a close friend from Lawrence, KS, and Sara is preparing to tour with acoustic artist (and fellow Omaha native) Anna McClellan. “We’ve got a lot of stuff that hasn’t found a place yet, but it will,” he added.
For now though, See Through Dresses is holding steady. When asked for a quote, Nate replied simply, “We’re ready to open this pit up.”