In the summer of 2020, Sabrina Fuentes stopped writing music and started listening to newer bands she discovered in the queer, trans, and POC rock, indie, and electro scenes of London. The front woman of the New York City-based rock outfit Pretty Sick, which consists of bassist Orazio Argentero, guitarist Wade Oates, and drummer Austin Williamson, typically avoids delving into newly released music while she's working on the grunge-infused, ‘90s-inspired rock she makes with her band. “I have a bad habit of anything I listen to starting to sound mirrored in my own music,” Fuentes says via Zoom from the garden behind her home in Southeast London, where she’s soaking up the sun on one of the first warm days of the season. “It sounds derivative and I don’t like that.” Instead, she usually opts for “old stuff in different genres”: Japanese pop from the late ’90s, classic rock, stuff you’d find in a dusty crate full of records or the strangest corners of YouTube. But like most people, Fuentes was changed by last year—and as she tells it, a confluence of events including the Black Lives Matter protests and being isolated during lockdown, shifted the 21-year-old Manhattan native’s perspective on “everything.”
It’s an interesting time to be experiencing such a change, especially for Fuentes, who has been a member of Pretty Sick since she was 13 years old. For the past seven years, the band focused on writing the material that would ultimately become the twin EPs Deep Divine, which was released last fall, and Comedown, which comes out on June 17th. Initially, the two projects were meant to be one full album—but when Pretty Sick was signed to their label Dirty Hit last year, the band decided to release them separately. Deep Divine, Fuentes says, is the “lighter side of that bulk of work,” while Comedown is “the darker, seedier underbelly of the same beast.” Since Deep Divine’s release, Pretty Sick has been hailed as “honest-to-god rock for your inner romantic,” and “the NYC rock band here to save us all.” Things were looking good, and hype was steadily revving up for Fuentes and her bandmates. Then the pandemic hit.
Fuentes was in Japan when she first heard of the coronavirus. She returned to London, but began splitting her time between the UK and New York City. In New York, she attended Black Lives Matter rallies all over the city, working with activists to make kits filled with masks, tear gas solution made of antacid and water, and hand sanitizer. “Listening to the organizers at the protests was one of the nicest things,” she says. “And having conversations with people at protests, then after protests, a diverse group of people being in one big house or big backyard, talking about their experiences from the day. Talking straight to the source, to the activists and the witnesses, provided more insight than reading something online.”
Fuentes is, as she maintained multiple times during this interview, a musician, and does not “claim activism.” “I think of myself as someone who likes to be informed about how people I love and care for are doing, and the best way for me to help people in general,” she says. “I do see activism as a real and serious job. And I’m a musician who wants to be able to support causes that I believe in.”
Fuentes found she could spread the messages of empathy, and diversity through music—but not by making politically charged tunes about her experiences at the protests. (“When it comes to BLM, I don’t always feel like it’s my place to write that music,” she says.) But she could call out the queer artists of color who were.
“Whenever we do playlists or interviews, people ask, ‘What are you listening to?’” she says. “It definitely is something that I think about all the time: being able to uplift other people’s stories. There aren't enough people of color in rock in America and in the UK, and that bums me out when I think about the genre as a whole. But a lot of people in the industry are starting to realize the people who dominated rock and controlled the music industry were old white guys, who realized this genre will die if it doesn’t stop being this racist, exclusionary, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic.”
Fuentes has seen bands like Go Girl, Paddywak, and Great Dad reclaiming rock from the cis white musicians who dominated the genre for decades. They perform at DIY venues all over New York City, and London—like Windmill Brixton (where Pretty Sick played its first live show in 16 months a couple of weeks ago) and Sister Midnight. They pay homage to rock’s beginnings in Black, queer, women-centric music. “All of these communities have always been a part of it. They’ve just been covered up,” she says. “A lot of the stuff these guys claim to have invented was just stolen from oppressed people. People are becoming a little bit wiser to that, especially as they want to see themselves represented in this music.”
With the release of Comedown next week, Pretty Sick will be putting out music that reflects their journey since 2014. But what’s to come, Fuentes says, will be even more exciting—and will no doubt hold a mirror to the life-altering experiences of 2020.
“In the past, I always really wanted to uplift different people in rock, but I also didn’t feel like it was my place to say more people should play the genre,” she says. “But people don’t feel comfortable playing it because of the communities that already exist and have existed for the past 80 years and have been perpetuating this idea that rock is a white, male-dominated genre.”
“Everybody should have the opportunity to live that lifestyle,” she continues. “Because it is really empowering and uplifting to be able to get up and scream about the shit that you’re angry about with a fucking smile on your face and have it make you feel better.”