By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
In the world of pro wrestling, the Heart Punch is a finishing move. Popularized in the ’60s and ’70s by guys like Ox Baker and Stan Stasiak, the relatively restrained maneuver is exactly what you imagine: a swift, obliterating hit to the chest.
Heart Punch was the title Jesse Flati came up with for the Lopez’s new record, which he and his wife/bandmate Steph Flati had been working on for the past couple years. Jesse was a big wrestling fan, Steph says via email, so “I definitely think he liked the connection, how it sounded, and just the basic sentiment of a heart punch.”
When, on October 26, 2018, Jesse died suddenly of cardiac arrest at just 40 years old, the title took on a brutally poignant dimension, both literally and metaphorically. “That was how I felt losing Jesse,” Steph says. “It was like a heart punch.”
Few people Steph’s age can relate to this kind of loss. In their 17 years as a couple (at 38, almost half of Steph’s life) and eight years as a band, Steph and Jesse were a rare model of partnership, with a connection and easy love for each other which was visible from the stage, or the DJ booth (they happily lugged their sizable record collection to all kinds of events and had a regular DJ night at New Amsterdam in Lawrenceville).
“When you have such a close relationship with someone for so long, it’s just a huge void and to try to figure out what your life is going to look like now, it’s been very confusing and really lonely sometimes,” she says. “And one of the hardest things is when you have so many inside jokes and things [that] absolutely no one else in the entire world would understand … Every single day something happens where I want to pick up my phone to text him.”
The two met at La Roche College, during an activities fair. They were both studying graphic design, and were both crazy about music. In 2001 they started dating, two years later they moved to Philly so Steph could go to grad school.
That’s where the Lopez was born, mostly as a joke, because a friend needed an opener for a basement show. “We had been kind of fucking around, being silly,” Steph recalls during a recent sitdown at the Abbey in Lawrenceville. The band was, at first, a three piece, and then a four-piece. In 2008, Steph and Jesse got married and in 2011 moved back to Pittsburgh, where the Lopez, as a duo, began performing in earnest and regularly touring cross-country.
On May 11 – Jesse’s birthday – Heart Punch will be released with a show featuring some of Jesse’s closest friends and favorite local and non-local musicians. Among other special guests, Pittsburgh’s semi-iconic hip-hop duo Grand Buffet will perform, along with brainy badass rapper Sammus from Philly, and Joe Jack Talcum of the Dead Milkmen (Jesse’s favorite band). Swampwalk, who toured with the Lopez, appears, as well as Rue, and OC Feef. Steph says that Jesse would be especially pumped about a reunion set from their close friends, the long-dormant Maxi-Pads, a goofy punk trio who Lopez played with often in the 2000s.
The second full-length (the duo also released a number of EPs and singles over the years), Heart Punch, finds the Lopez in full-fevered effect. Always squarely in the realm of riot grrrl, the Lopez was always on the dancier side of punk, more Julie Ruin than Bikini Kill. Much of Heart Punch is layered with a nice weighty fuzz. At times Steph sounds like she’s singing from behind a heavy curtain, or from the other side of a shark tank. It’s an immersive listening experience, in the way that, say, End of the Century is, but most importantly, it’s a perfect reflection of the Lopez as a live experience, and as a band in general.
“There’s so many layers to all the songs, and that just speaks to Jesse’s flexibility. And just how he was always thinking,” Steph recalls. Occasionally the two would disagree on some small lyrical point but, she says, “we had such a similar aesthetic both sonically and visually. Usually he would write the music and I would write the lyrics and we would give our ideas back and forth about both of those things. It would usually start with a guitar riff…and then something would piss us off and we’d write a fucking song.”
Grand Buffet’s Lord Grunge (a.k.a Jarrod Weeks) has a special connection to the Lopez – he has two children with Steph’s sister. But, “they have always been one of my favorite Pittsburgh bands, relationships with the members of the band being of no factor,” he says via email. “I never saw them as a four-piece, and that’s fine by me, because as a power duo, they had it all. Good tunes, good gestalt. They remain one of the few bands who, from their earliest shows, did everything right, aesthetically. Not an easy feat.”
The Lopez performed often, and always with the same level of commitment, regardless of how many people were in the audience. Over drinks at the Abbey on Butler, Steph tells me about the time the Lopez was hired to play an event there. When she and Jesse took the stage – following a reggae band – it didn’t take long for them to nearly clear the room of confused patrons. They were politely asked to cut their set short, but they still got paid. Steph jokes that it’s one of the most punk-rock things they ever did.
Not long after Jesse’s death, members of the music community put together a fundraisng event to help with the release of Heart Punch, which has given Steph a chance to put out a record she knows Jesse would have loved. The cover art features their five cats in the style of KISS’s Rock and Roll Over; the back is covered in illustrations of pro wrestlers. The record is being pressed on gold vinyl. “There’s going to be a lot of surprises that fall out of the record, and that’s also because Jesse loves that shit. He would love getting a record from Jerrys, it could have been some band that he didn’t even care about but if Jerry wrote “Cool poster inside!” he’d buy it and say, “Look at this really cool poster!”
Of course, the May 11 show is as much a celebration of Jesse himself as of the record. When he passed, it seemed that everyone in town had a story about his kindness, his devotion to DIY, his obsession with music, his readiness to make people comfortable, his willingness to defend his beliefs, but knowing when to step back and listen. Emily Crossen of the band Blod Maud told the Current back in October that she always felt ok about asking Jesse for help. “I didn’t feel like I had to save face,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I had to pretend to know things I didn’t know, as a woman musician.” And recording engineer Madeleine Campbell, who worked with the duo for two years on Heart Punch, often recalls the time the Lopez played a set for campers at Girls Rock! Pittsburgh. “I remember Jesse playing his noisy guitar leads, leaning his whole body into Steph with a wide-legged stance as she screamed into the microphone, then stepping back in silence as soon as they were finished so she could field questions. Their powerful chemistry and partnership were instantly recognizable to everyone who met them.”
Lord Grunge remembers Jesse as “a highly opinionated dude with refined tastes.” Both pop culture junkies with similar tastes, “when we disagreed about something? Watch out. Tempers would rise. Shit would fly,” he says. “When we agreed on something, though, it just got me psyched. There’s no better way to put it. It got me psyched. Pumped. Juiced. Jazzed. Jesse liking something was, in itself, a sort of recondite seal of quality.” The fact that Jesse was a fan of Grand Buffet meant a lot to Grunge. “That was a big deal to me and still is.
“I’m not implying that we were his favorite band or some shit. Hell no! We’d be lucky if we were top 50. (We weren’t.) But the fact that he dug us is huge to me.”
For Steph, it’s impossible to summarize all that she learned from Jesse over the years. Trust and loyalty. Being yourself and not giving a fuck about what other people think. Not getting caught up in drama. Being a good friend. The importance of communicating and saying what you mean.
“He was the kind of person who definitely said what he thought, even if it might piss you off a little bit … but he was very much about speaking your mind, standing up for other people, seeking justice, all that stuff. He really helped me with my confidence a lot, in every way. He believed in me more than I’ll ever believe in myself,” she says.
Even in her grief she continues to honor Jesse’s belief in her. She still DJs at New Amsterdam. She’s still putting together Ladyfest, the annual music festival that Jesse tirelessly helped her with behind the scenes. She probably won’t play music for a little while, but she’s continuing to live with the same kind of power stance she always took onstage. “I’ve just been trying to keep [Jesse’s] spirit alive as much as I possibly can … and just to try to talk to him and talk about him, that’s probably been the most comforting thing for me,” she says.
“I just think he would be really happy with this record and with how everything is turning out and I think he’ll definitely be at the show. I invited him.” She smiles. “I sent him a Facebook invite. I always do.”