What moves Eva Moolchan? Well, that’s just the thing. It’s the idea of movement itself. “I love [the sport] gymnastics because it’s constantly moving. I am low-key into movement,” Moolchan says. Then she pauses, reassessing. “Not low-key. High-key. I’m high-key into dancing.” Yet dance moves themselves don’t matter to her, so long as moves are being made at all. “I have my own way,” she says. “Even if it’s a weird rhythm, it’s still a rhythm. You’re still moving.”
At 21, Moolchan doesn’t care if she’s particularly “good” at dancing in the traditional sense. Put a microphone in her hand, though, and she becomes Sneaks—a musical force who slinks about onstage like a specter suddenly made sentient by the irresistible rhythms.
When performing live, she pumps up crowds with the same feverish energy of an MC, fluidly weaving through the clutter of equipment and enticing the crowd to come closer “if you dare,” as she suggested to revelers present at her performance at Charm City’s local DIY haunt Myspace last year. Yet the agitated movements Moolchan is most known for these days involve meaty, chugging basslines with the accompaniment of a drum machine she programs herself into a steady pitter-patter. It’s those kinds of singular rhythms that propelled her from the taste-making local label Sister Polygon to the long-standing indie titan Merge Records.
After several stints in D.C. bands, including Young Trynas, Moolchan put her solo musings into digital memory last year with the release of her first full-length, Gymnastics. The album, which whirs with skittering mantras about sinners, true killers, and thrillers, is a limber display of the young musician’s preternatural sense of rhythm. The 10-song effort clocks in at a taut 14 minutes, and the universes it manages to traverse doesn’t just show a masterful exercise in restraint: It effectively causes listeners to go through a kind of emotional spectrum, from curious to provoked to hungry. A punk album of this brevity hasn’t ruptured a crater in the status quo since Descendents’ Milo Goes to College (and that one was even on the longer side, standing at just over 22 minutes).
Gymnastics was first released on tape through Sister Polygon in 2015, then via France’s Danger Records later that year (on Bandcamp, the French label aptly filed it under “Messmerizing [sic] minimal, pounding bass, Post Punk spoken word! You need it!”). Katie Alice Greer, vocalist in D.C. quartet Priests, co-founder of Sister Polygon, and friend of Moolchan’s says she urged her to release the tape so that her songs could reach a wider audience. “We were like ‘Dude, let us put this out on Sister Polygon,’ because we were head over heels for the songs,” she says. “And other people were too. I think the whole tape front and back is perfect.” Gymnastics soon tumbled into the right ears: Moolchan says she received an email from Merge in her inbox last year, and now, Merge has reissued Gymnastics on vinyl and CD. She has plans to release new music on the label early next year.
Moolchan conceptualized Gymnastics while studying at Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art. She remembers the album “came together pretty fluidly,” though it was at a time when her life had slowed down from its usual speed. “Some people call it sadness, some people call it depression, whatever,” she says. “When things slow down, I tend to notice things more that you wouldn’t notice when life is much more fast-paced. So I think I was just … notating repetitive imagery, symbols, things kicking in, and then making something else out of it.”
The likes of Gymnastics’ throttling standout “X.T.Y.” can provide a glimpse of what was perhaps whirring through Moolchan’s mind at the time, and the kinds of emotions she was expunging. “Anxiety, you take the best of me,” she deadpans on the song, “You turn me inside out and then you ruin me.” Here, Moolchan hits the rare place of sounding confrontational toward anxiety and as though she’s also internalized the emotion, made peace with it (and herself) in the process.
Contrast that with “New Taste,” where Moolchan fully takes on the role of an observer and spins poetry out of the mundane around her. “Coffee cup, loose change, don’t hurt, Friday, card game, store sign, quinoa, trash can, yogurt, church bell, cold cut, eyedrops, new shirt, old shirt, Orson Welles,” she notes carefully, not unlike an inventory or the things comprising a Harper’s Index entry. Moolchan says she rarely plays “New Taste” live though, because “it does bring back those feelings and I don’t want to revisit,” she says, adding: “I don’t want to ruin it for other people by saying that, though.”
While Moolchan consciously draws from the post-punk pirouettes of bands like the Athens, Georgia, genre maestros Pylon and New York City’s Bush Tetras, Gymnastics sticks its landing because she made it a priority to harness the movement in her life within the songs, especially on the drum machine. Take, for instance, the track “No Problem,” which harnesses repetition and rhythm: Sneaks’ not-so-secret weapons. For 44 tense seconds, Moolchan draws out those two words, “no” and “problem,” until their meaning evolves from a reassuring motto into something stripped entirely of meaning.
“Gymnastics was definitely rhythm-based, syllable-based,” she says. “I was really drawn to the most simple beat on [the drum machine] because it was the pace I was at in life, and that was the rhythm that I was in.”
“You can tell that she’s imagined the whole thing,” says Mary Timony, the frontwoman of Ex Hex and Helium who recorded Moolchan’s Merge debut in her Glover Park studio along with the help of Jonah Takagi (who produced Ex Hex’s Rips). “She’s one of those people that’s like ‘wow, thank God you got into this because you’re so talented,’” Timony says of Moolchan. “I don’t know if talented is the right word. Gifted. She’s got art in her brain. Her brain is making beautiful stuff.”
She started making beautiful stuff early on. Moolchan was given her first guitar at age two by her father, also a musician. “I was really fortunate to have a dad who was … proactive and pushing me to be creative and like that at a young age,” she says. Her mother, who is Ethiopian, is an accountant and “as far from music as you can get,” according to Moolchan.
Growing up in Silver Spring, her house reverberated with the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Spanish guitar music, and world music compilations, especially those combined African drum rhythms with vocal samplings. Later on, Moolchan learned her main instrument, bass, by watching YouTube videos of “straight-up Chili Peppers songs” as well as classic rock numbers.
One gets the sense while talking to Moolchan—who is inquisitive and incisive in conversation—that it took her some time to find people who shared the same kind of connection that she did with music, particularly punk. “I went to this international school in D.C. and basically all the students were [kids of] diplomats, so you’d make friends there for two years then they’d leave,” she says, noting that the experience was a bit “transient and dystopian.”
A high school friend who stuck, though, was musician Francy Graham, who took guitar lessons with Timony and now performs in Chain and the Gang. Together, Moolchan and Graham started going to shows together. That’s how they met Greer, someone that Moolchan considers to be a mentor in D.C. The two friends also started a duo named Shitstains, a pummeling project that featured Graham on the drums and Moolchan on guitars and vocals. “When I met [Moolchan], she was like … very quiet but not necessarily shy,” Greer says. “Just like, gave off a very intensely thoughtful vibe. It always seemed like she was taking in all of what was going on around her.”
Four years ago, Graham and Moolchan joined Greer, Priests drummer and Gauche multi-instrumentalist Daniele Daniele and Laurie Spector (of Hothead and Gauche) in the short-lived “clusterfuck of noise” project Blood. “I mean, we’re all still in our twenties and this was even four years ago and we were a little bit younger,” Greer says. “But them being 18 or 19, it definitely felt like every sound we were making was like … the first sound, you know?” Around the same time, Sneaks was beginning to coalesce. And while a short stint with the punk band Young Trynas followed, “Eva made it clear that she thought Young Trynas was cool, but she wanted to do her own thing and focus on Sneaks,” Greer says.
While Moolchan says the vibe of performing with friends is electric, she prefers solo writing. “It doesn’t have to get distorted or distilled in a way; I can just write it,” she says. “There’s no confirmation, no changes, straight from the heart, boom, it’s out. For me it’s even scarier when I have to change my message or I have to change it to be appropriate to someone else’s values, you know?”
In her solo work, Sneaks rhapsodizes about a universal human concern: anxiety. Yet she doesn’t let the herky-jerky emotion, which has historically also been a tenant of post-punk as a genre, dominate the music. Instead, she uses its gravity to propel it forward, pushing it further than its boundaries allowed. “It’s getting the anxiety to fuel the vehicle for the songs, which I think gives it its energy,” Greer says.
Moolchan says the new songs she’s preparing for her Merge debut are a huge shift away from Gymnastics, though, mostly because she challenged herself to experiment with more instruments than just the bass and drum machine. “The approach was discovery,” she says. “Like, what happens when I try this instrument? Do I like it? Can I find myself in this instrument?”
The new songs are informed by listening to hip-hop her ears have picked up in local clubs as well as cars driving by in Baltimore, too. “I think she’s going to go in a really awesome direction, and I think her songs are so ripe for somebody remixing them, especially on the new record,” Timony says. Moolchan also says the new songs are more personal than on Gymnastics, which she said depicted her as “a little more eccentric” than she is in the everyday. “I think [the new songs are] coming from the same place but the way things are expressed are different, and there are different conclusions to things,” she says.
Even when she’s at her most personal, good luck getting Sneaks to reveal all of her cards. “She kind of has almost a spy personality,” Greer says. “It’s something I really appreciate about Eva’s style: She is guarding something, like any kind of artist is guarding something and trying to cultivate something. But she takes her work really seriously.”