It’s unusual for a band to provide its live audiences with a complimentary Filipino buffet during a show, but on a Sunday in late February at O’Leaver’s Bar, Omaha natives See Through Dresses enlisted the aid of friends and family to do just that for the band’s “Sunday Social,” just before heading to Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest Music Festival.
The four-piece ensemble, comprised of (vocalist and guitarist) Matt Carroll, (guitarist, keyboardist, and vocalist) Sara Bertuldo, (drummer) Nate Van Fleet, and (bassist) Alex Kirts, evolved from Carroll and Bertuldo’s previous band Honey and Darling in 2012. Carroll and Bertuldo share principal songwriting duties, but the dynamic between all four members fits the true definition of a band. “Alex and I kind of act like arrangers,” Van Fleet says. “Sara might come to us with a song that’s 70 percent complete, and we’re there to hash it out and turn it into something our band could play.”
Van Fleet, who is also the drummer for Omaha locals Little Brazil, elaborated further on what makes playing with See Through Dresses fruitful for him: “I played with a lot of bands before. In fact, Matt and Sara found me in a bar the night my last band was breaking up, and it was like finding these people who were just as obsessed with doing the same things I wanted to. There are lots of bands out there where somebody’s character flaws or poor priorities keep them from reaching their potential. There’s never been that ‘intervention’ moment with this band.” They pride themselves on their work ethic, Van Fleet says. Since forming, they’ve played more than 200 shows.
Despite this commitment to craft, they are hardly pretentious. “I applied for band sponsorship from Taco Bell,” Bertuldo says, laughing. The revelation devolves into jokes: “What if somebody wrote See Through Dresses/Taco Bell fan-fiction?” Bertuldo asks. “I’m not saying I want to see it,” Van Fleet chimes in, “but I’m also not saying I don’t want to see it!”
In fact, catching Bertuldo’s banter with the audience when she’s on stage is a major reason to see the band live. At their “Sunday Social,” for example, she sported a new short hairdo, along with some vocal regrets. “That last song was called ‘Haircut,’ but it’s not about my hair. It’s actually about Macaulay Culkin,” she cryptically explains to the audience. Bertuldo is the chief conduit for the band’s energy during shows—shredding and kicking her way through the heaviest songs, and even jumping off equipment and nearby furniture.
This spring, See Through Dresses finally releases their second full-length album, after a self-titled debut in 2013 and 2015’s End of Days EP. The band describes the new release, The Horse of the Other World (written mostly while touring their previous EP), as their “synth” album, a love letter to the ’80s. “There’s always been a little ’80s influence in our music—that new wave, post-punk stuff we all love,” Carroll says, repeatedly citing The Cure, New Order, and Depeche Mode as primary influences. “Our EP was a little more rock-flavored, but this album sounds like a natural progression from our self-titled record.”
“It’s a very indulgent record,” Van Fleet quips. “It satisfies a lot of the urges we had while we were touring the EP. The sound is a little harsher and more dissonant here, too.” The band describes this evolution as something akin to “dream punk,” combining the energy of classic punk rock with a polychromatic sound recalling sunny afternoon daydreams.
Yet lurking deeper on The Horse of the Other World are more thoughtful ruminations on mental health and keeping control of one’s mind. Carroll, who is also a manager at Ted and Wally’s Ice Cream, explains the title comes from a surreal experience with an unknown vagrant last year. “It was this strange and beautiful moment of connecting with someone on their own terms,” Carroll says. He sat with the man in the store and listened to his story, and his allegations that the “Great Mother and Father” would soon visit us riding on “the horse of the other world.” The man grabbed a box of markers from his bag, and wrote down the phrase on a napkin for him in bright red.
The event had a big influence on Carroll during the songwriting process, which was already circling around themes of addiction and hitting bottom. “A lot of these things converged that hit me hard. Both my own experiences and those of friends,” he explains. “The lyrics on our opening track speak to this and mean a lot to me: Sometimes you’re trying to reach out at people, but they can’t open up. I wanted to address that barrier and feeling of helplessness.”
Carroll adds he doesn’t like to “dance around the subject and speak in hushed tones when we talk about mental health.” Together the band shared anecdotes about loved ones and friends losing their grip on reality, either through drugs, depression, or diseases like Alzheimer’s. Bertuldo’s contributions to the album face these issues, as well, using touch points like loneliness and bad relationships to explore them. “I think this is a big deal about what’s inspiring us: The great fear of your mind or your body turning on you,” Carroll says. “We’re not OK with people walking the streets dying of cancer. But when we encounter someone in public with serious mental health needs, it’s our impulse to flee. That’s upsetting.”
As for the namesake’s creator, Carroll laments: “I wish I could track him down again.”
Visit seethroughdresses.bandcamp.com for more information about The Horse of the Other World and the band’s previous releases.
This article is in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.