Scattering The Rats: An Interview with Donita Sparks of L7

L7
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Mina Perniskie (lead signer of Wellington’s own Secrets of the Sun) chats on the phone with the indomitable DONITA SPARKS of LA band L7. Mina is a longtime fan of L7, first hearing them as a teenager. Her 14 year old self was fan-girling hard during this interview.

Having formed in 1985 with raucous genre defying blend of metal, punk and pop, L7 are back with new album Scatter The Rats. L7 are in their element as a live band, and have a tour of Australia and New Zealand lined up for May. Make sure to get along to one of the shows to get your face ripped off.


Mina Perniskie: I was really excited to see that L7 were coming to NZ, and I believe this is your first time coming to NZ with L7 is that correct?? I know you have been to Australia in the past.

Donita Sparks: I think we were in NZ in either 1992 or 1993, we’ve been there once.

It’s been a while obviously, are you excited to be coming here?

We’re very excited to be coming to NZ.  We were really disappointed that last time we went to Australia, we did not come to NZ, and we thought you guys hated us! We were like, why aren’t we playing Auckland at least? So we’re happy to be playing there now.

And you have two shows, Wellington and Auckland! After a long hiatus you’ve been playing together again now for about 6 years?

I think we reformed in 2016, yeah those were our first reunion shows so this will be our fifth year back, which is crazy!

You are obviously a very influential band, so how does it feel over the last couple of years in particular to be able to write new music, get out a new album Scatter the Rats and tour again after kind of a long hiatus?  Do you feel that this is a great climate for a comeback if you will? With your legacy as well?

Well, it’s been amazing.  There’s a documentary on us that’s out called Pretend We’re Dead.  That was coming out, and then we were thinking about doing some reunion shows, and then that kind of happened. And then we were thinking about well let’s do some new music, because if we want to keep touring, none of us wanted to be like an ‘oldies band’ or something, you know what I mean?  You can’t just keep on doing a reunion tour forever, you know! So that’s why last year we put out Scatter the Rats and we’re super happy about the way it came out.  And it’s great, because we’re still touring that record, and there are spots in the world that we haven’t hit yet with it. It’s exciting again.

You can probably find new fans as well as reminding your older fans that you’re around as well with new music, so that’s great.  Your music has always been great and to me really aggressive but in a fun way. It’s soo heavy hitting and I think in the current political and general climate of the world it’s great to have L7 back out there and touring.

We’ve always been heavy hitting and we’ve always had melody in our heavy hitting as well so we’re not just a metal band, we’re not just a punk band and we’re not just a pop band, we’re like all three combined you know? (laughs).  We like a good catchy melody, and we also like aggression and we also like to slow it down every now and then too and play something a bit more introspective maybe.

Absolutely. It’s quite hard to pin down L7 down to one genre, it covers multitudes. Do you like talking about genre, or is it kind of annoying?  I personally hate talking genre, it’s like people have to pin you down to one box. Alternative rock kind of covers it but people want something more specific.

Well I suppose it’s important if your readership or your listening audience has never heard the band.  Most bands that I love are sort of genre defying. You might think “oh you may think they’re this, but then argh there’s this curveball and I never expected them to do this  kind of a song”! Those are the most interesting bands to me. So we’re cool if people wanna talk about it. Listen some people think we’re a heavy metal band you know? But we’re actually from the art punk scene in mid 80s Los Angeles. So we are not even from a metal scene  So we’re cool discussing genre and all that stuff. It’s a valid train of thought I suppose

With having multiple style and taste and influence as a band, you’re quite a collaborative band with all of you contributing to the music.  Is that kind of fun, do you all have different tastes and things that that you bring into the music?

What brings us together is the music, and I think that we all like the different corners and pockets of our band musically.  So any one of us can bring in a song that’s gonna sound like L7. As long as we’ve got Dee playing drums, and us with distortion.. just the way we play is very L7.  It’s almost like anything that comes in is gonna sound like an L7  song. So it works you know. And If we have to make some additions or changes to it we’ll do that too.   But we’re not afraid to play any genre of music. We’ve played songs that just have reverb guitar, no distortion at all.  I’m a sucker for hand claps, and for bongos! Some people think we’re just metal but it’s like what are bongos then? I like surf music. So..there’s that.

True. I was listening to one of your songs and noticed it has a surf element, I think it was “Mr Integrity”.

Yeah and that has bongos! And hand claps. And surf guitar. So it’s like you know (laughs).. and it rocks.

I think that’s what makes L7 fun.  Because you do all these things and it’s surprising and interesting, you know?

I think we feel pretty free to kind of just throw in whatever elements.  I think maybe some bands are afraid to do that, because they are in a very tight narrow genre.  And my God if they fucking break that genre well they’re fucked! Because their fans will not forgive them. But with us it’s like ‘OK whatever, you’re not gonna forgive us you don’t have to be our fan anymore’.  OK fine, you don’t dig it? Go listen to…whatever’.

 

There’s plenty of stuff out there and they don’t listen to you …but hopefully they do! My next question.. so this is around the whole gender issue and you guys probably get sick of talking about this to a point, but I’m gonna ask the question. And quoting from the documentary as well,  you said you ‘wished the whole gender thing would go away’ and ‘please recognise us for our rock’. Do you feel that you’ve achieved this on the whole or is this still an issue today? I feel as women in rock we have achieved some measure of respect now, it’s not as bad as it used to be. But I still think it’s a thing.  What’s your view on that?

Well, we had respect from the get go, from our peers and from rock audiences.  Pretty much. It was sort of the guys with the power, the money guys, the business suit guys who were really kind of for whatever reason afraid to let go of the power.  I think we’ve always transcended our gender. I don’t think anybody really fucking cares.

My objective with the band when we started out, I didn’t want a name that revealed our gender. I was like ‘L7’.  I didn’t want The ‘blah blah blah Girls’ or anything like that. I was just like No. I want people to hear our music and not be able to tell what gender we are. And we definitely achieved that. So yeah I feel great.  Listen, if you were a Doctor 100 years ago, you were a ‘Lady Doctor’..it didn’t matter if you were the best doctor on the fucking planet. So you know, it’s all growing pains and its all you know, somebody’s gotta be the fucking avant garde, in terms of you’re out there first, or second, or third..whatever.  I think in the rock circles we hold our own, and yeah.

I definitely think so.  I’m really looking forward to the show.  When I heard that you were coming and there were tickets  I was like, I’m in there! Done! It’ll be a great show. I’m sure you rock just as hard as ever.  Watching the documentary I was just like…the raw power, the fun..it’s soo rock. So I’m really looking forward to seeing that in person, with my own eyeballs and my own ears!

I feel and I think the whole band feels this way too, that we’re a better live band than on record. We’ve had producers and engineers spend like a month on one of our records and then they go see us live and they say ‘What the fuck have we been doing for the last month!?’.  Because there is this connectivity when we’re on stage together and you feel the power of the band that you just can’t capture sometimes in a recording studio.  So if you want to see us in our element, come see us live.

See you live.  Absolutely. Excellent. Well I think that’s about our time up isn’t it?

Hey, I do wanna tell you one thing though.  We did a collaboration with Joan Jett. We did a cover of her song ‘Fake Friends’ and she’s on our version, singing and playing guitar. We’re going to be releasing that just for the Australia & NZ tour.  So that’s gonna be available just in that market as a single. So you can throw that out there!

Oh wow! Awesome, I will definitely be throwing that out there.  That’s a little tidbit just for Kiwis, I guess. And Australians. That’s awesome news!

That’s exactly right.  Cool!

Was great to speak with you, thank you so much.  I’m really really looking forward to the show when you’re here!

Thanks! We will see you in NZ, finally!

 


Here’s a playlist of Mina’s favourite L7 songs:


Ticket link for L7’s upcoming Australia and New Zealand tour: https://sbmpresents.com/tour/l7/

L7 Poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

Real Fake News – An Interview With Hard Times Co-Founder Bill Conway

Hard Times by Senny Mau
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I still remember when I discovered The Hard Times. It was a satire site, like The Onion, or New Zealand’s own The Civilian, but aimed at punk/hardcore culture. It was both incredibly funny and familiar. (This article hits so close to home, after I stopped working so I could join my friends Ranges on tour). As with any satire site, the humour lays in the premise being rediculous, but almost plausible enough to be true. And when you have material like ska music and straight edge to work with, the stories virtually write themselves. The Hard Times really nailed their niche, and as testament to this, virtually every article they post gets shared by my musician friends accross social media, even musos who aren’t directly part of the punk scene.

The Hard Times has blown up considerably since they began four years ago, earning millions of hits online, expanding into gaming culture, and branching into booking shows, publishing a book, a TV show, and now podcasts. I jumped at the chance to interview Bill Conway, who had co-founded the site with Matt Saincome.


Will Not Fade: Hi, how are you? I love your work and find The Hard Times hilarious and relatable. My friends and I are always sharing your articles, even the musicians in non-punk-affiliated music scenes. I’ve just listened to the first few episodes of your podcast and quite enjoyed them too.

First of all, congrats on your success to date. 2.3 million views in the space of a month is a lot of traffic. And the podcasts are great. What have been some of your highlights of the past four years?

Bill Conway, The Hard Times: One highlight was getting to go to beautiful Columbus, Ohio for the AP Awards. We were asked to write a lot of the copy for the presenters of the awards so it was a real joy to see the rhythm guitarist of some band I never heard of butcher a joke we wrote.

And at what point did you start considering yourselves sell-outs?

Once we got verified on social media, total sell out move.

But in all seriousness, I think that it’s cool, not only that you’ve got this far, bu also that you pay your contributors. [I’m not even in the position that I can pay myself!] Matt, is there a tension between freelancing for other sites, and hiring freelancers for your own site?

I’ll take this one Matt. Basically through The Hard Times, Matt developed a platform called Outvoice to make paying freelancers easier. No longer will freelancers have to beg to be paid, instead the publisher pays them as soon as an article goes live. Matt forced me to be a cheerleader for him.

You’ve had podcasts and zines and a writing career as precursors to The Hard Times. Why did you decide to take a less serious route?

You can either keep working for other people or try to carve out your own space. We didn’t start The Hard Times and expect to be “a thing” but we have been pleasantly surprised by the response and are very grateful people still pay attention to what we do.

The climate for dedicated satire sites wasn’t as prevalent back when you started. The Onion is perhaps the most well-known, but is usually fairly lame. Wunderground tackles music, but focuses on EDM. You mentioned Above Average and College Humour in a recent podcast. Were you trying to emulate any other sites when you started The Hard Times?

My teenage years were spent obsessing over The Onion. This was still when they had hard copies in newsstands and if I had a friend visiting New York I would make them bring me back a copy. I had every book they ever released and couldn’t get enough of them. That dry satire sense of humor was sort of embedded in me because of that and I think it helped us shape our own voice. I can say with absolute confidence that no other satire or general comedy sites had any influence on us. We figured out what worked as we went along.

I once wrote an article inspired by The Hard Times which involved calling my friends sellouts for writing songs that lasted longer than 3 minutes. Do you think I have potential?

As long as you don’t mention anything about “vegan pit beef,” “Keith Morris getting Locks of Love shutdown after donating hair,” or how many members a ska band has then you will be fine.

Tell me about your punk background. Who were the bands of note for you in you local scene? Who ran the shows? What were the venues like? 

I grew up outside of Boston. Matt and I have talked about the different scenes that shaped us. Boston was basically built around fighting. Dumbass rival crews and a bunch of nonsense. Every VFW hall was a venue on the right day.

How was that scene unique, compared to DC, or New York, for example?

I will just go ahead and answer on behalf of Massachusetts. I started really going to shows around 2001 and it was a great time and a horrible time for Massachusetts hardcore. You had legendary bands like American Nightmare and Have Heart, and then garbage “mosh core” bands like On Broken Wings and Black My Heart. There was a lot going on. Filling this out reminded me to go back and listen to The Red Chord, who a lot of people consider like grindcore, but man they ripped. Great live show.

I’m really interested in this because the population and geography of New Zealand means we can’t sustain strong scenes the same in the way America can. I remember reading about places like CBGBs as a teen, and was super stoked that I managed to get to a show at Triple Rock in Minneapolis a few years ago. Americans are great at doing the DIY thing, and geographically, there are so many more cities you can visit if you want to tour. By comparison, here in New Zealand, a “nationwide” tour involves a shows on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with a drive home Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, we have great bands and venues, but it just feels so limited by comparison.

Yeah man, we take everything for granted here.

Do straight-edge kids get much flack where you grew up? Here in New Zealand we tend to give them a light-hearted ribbing and repeat the same lame jokes at their expense all the time.

I am straight edge, I will always be straight edge. Nobody ever really gave me too much shit. Boston is a drinking town, normally if you tell someone you don’t drink they assume you are a recovering alcoholic and leave you be.

On a side note – I went to America for a holiday when I was 20. I went to a gig – Mark Lanegan I think – and they X’d my hands because I was underage. I thought that was so cool that there was provision for underage kids to be able to access live music even at places where alcohol was served. Here in NZ you basically just miss out until you’re 18 (legal drinking age here) because most bands play bars and pubs and there aren’t many all age venues/shows.

When I was under 21 a venue X’d my hands and on the drive home we got pulled over and the cop saw the X’s on my hands and was like “Are you straight edge?” and I said “yeah but I didn’t draw these weak X’s.” I am not sure why he asked, but at that time straight edge was considered a gang by law enforcement.

What’s your best tour story?

I personally don’t have any. I was never in bands and I like being in bed early.

Full disclosure: I’m far more involved in the post-rock community than punk. The hard style pose for group photos has really taken off in that community in recent years (probably encouraged by The End Of The Ocean). Do you see this as cultural appropriation?

Yes, I will send you my Venmo to make up for this.

Punks love DIY. From zines, to making clothing, to home job tattoos and piercings, to booking tours and printing merch. Is there anything that you think we should leave to the pros, instead of trying out for ourselves?

Dentistry, and surgery are the only two things. Everything else is far game.

I presume that you’re familiar with Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization. The first and third documentaries by in that series were centred around punk music (the second focuses on heavy metal). What genre do you think Spheeris would look at if she were to make a fourth entry these days?

Probably Juggalo shit, and after being immersed in that group for more than a few weeks she would probably scrap the whole project and live out the rest of her years in solitude on a farm trying to forget the atrocities she witnessed.

I’m really intrigued by the images you use to accompany your articles. Some are clearly photoshopped. Are the rest bought stock photos? Do you photograph yourselves, or your friends? And do you ever use friends names in place of fictitious names?

A little of everything. We have a stock photo account and a photo editor that can edit things together. We also have lots of friends pose things, and recently we started a Patreon and one of the perks is at a $10 a month level you can be featured as the photo of a Hard Times article and we will tag you on Instagram and all that good stuff.

President Trump brought the concept of “fake news” to the masses, in a time when so few are critical of the content presented to them. Did you face any backlash when the concept of “fake news” came to light?

For the most part we haven’t had any backlash. The whole “fake news” thing has been weird on a social media algorithm level, because Facebook is always tweaking what people see, and satire is supposed to be “protected” content, but it doesn’t always end up working that way.

You must get a load of hilarious comments from people who think that your articles are legitimate. Can you provide some examples of your favourite responses from people who clearly didn’t understand?

For my own mental sanity I stopped reading comments. The most common thing we see is people being like “this is unbelievable” then someone pointing out the fact we are a satire site, which always prompts the original person to say “well satire is supposed to be funny.” Like we are going to get insulted by that. But I try to avoid comments sections like the plague because that is where the worst aspects of humanity goes to jerk itself off.

Are there specific bands you’ve managed to offend when running parody articles on them?

We do an article “Iron Chic Shouts Drive Thru Order in Unison” and the bass player apparently didn’t like it too much. We did a few Dropkick Murphys headlines this past week and the singer of the band tweeted at us saying he liked them, so for the most part we get positive feedback, but people are sensitive sometimes and I get that.

What have been your more controversial articles to date?

Warped Tour Stage Moved Back 100 Feet to Comply With Sex Offender Laws” created some rumblings and we had heard the Warped Tour people weren’t too happy with us. Any headline that has to do with guns or cops usually get people fired up. Americans love their guns man.

You’ve also had some overwhelming positive responses, as indicated by the mad traffic coming to your site. Brian Baker ordered a t-shirt. Do you know of many other celebrity endorsements?

At one point Chris Rock followed us on Instagram, but he unfollowed us and I really wonder what article is the one that made him do that.

Are there any topics that are untouchable? Bands too sacred to cover? A bad taste line that can’t be crossed?

I don’t think there are any truly untouchable topics, but we want to make sure we are always on the right side of history. There are definitely no band’s too sacred, everyone is fair game. But as far as bad taste, it really just comes back to not punching down.

Skinhead punks have been associated with Nazis at times, and you’ve posted plenty of articles ridiculing Nazis on your site. Do you consider this a social obligation, or just do it because it’s funny and topical?

I would say a little bit of both. Anyone that takes themselves too seriously needs to be taken down a peg. Matt and I are both straight edge and we make fun of straight edge all the time.

You branched from hardcore/punk to gaming. Can you see yourself spreading into new territory again? I don’t think the quirky stay-at-home-mum-posting-recipes blog had become too saturated yet.

We are always looking at ways to expand. Part of it is noticing gaps in the content market, and part of it is having the right team of people to fill those gaps. Thankfully with Hard Drive we had some home grown talent that was able to use our established system and make a great product.

Why the shift to podcasts?

Pretty simple answer, Matt and I wanted to talk with cool people we like. We figured now is a good time to kind of come out from behind the curtain and let the world know who we are.

Is it a hassle pressing all the podcasts to vinyl for the purist fans? 7 inch records can’t even fit that much on them!

It can be a pain in the ass, normally an episode is about an 75 minutes long so that equates to about 8 records per podcast, it can get expensive but it is worth it.

And now a book and a TV show? At what point does your empire cease to grow?

Matt and I won’t stop until every second of every day is filled with some sort of work, because we are stupid broken people.

So when are you going to form a new political party? Will Jello Biafra be an member?

We will need more grassroots funding so we can make a run for mayor in a small market. I do not think Jello will be on board, I have heard he is not that much of a fan.

How does the booking shows fit into The Hard Times brand? I was looking through some of the gig posters and you’ve had some seriously sweet lineups.

We actually have a live events coordinator named Nick Dill, he goes by Nick Bane. He is a Bay Area show promoter and has been doing it for years. He is an old pal of Matt’s and a huge fan of the site and he puts together some great shows.

Hard Times

Photo: Senny Mau


And for some silly fun at the end:

Please list your top 5 albums that you think my readers need to know about.

In no particular order:

Minor Threat – Complete Discography

The Gaslight Anthem – 59 Sound

Cave In – Beyond Hypothermia

At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul

Saves the Day – Through Being Cool

Do you think that any of those albums would survive if we added a brass section to each?

I think Cave In has the most potential and it would sound very evil.

Do you have go-to throwdown/mosh moves? Favourite stage dive techniques?

I will be turning 35 in a few months so I have been in mosh and stage dive retirement for years, which is a good thing.

What is the best thing to use to spike your hair up?

2 part epoxy with with a bond strength of at least 3,300 PSI.

How hard are you?

Without question as hard as that one unpopped kernel in a giant mouthful of popcorn.

Would you rather fight a Danzig sized toddler, or 5 toddler sized Danzigs?

I was under the impression Danzig is already toddler sized just a bit more spooky, so I will go with the Danzig sized toddler.


Hard Times

The Hard Times links:

Website: https://thehardtimes.net/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thehardtimesnews

Instagram: Thehardtimesnews

Twitter: RealPunkNews

Podcast: https://thehardtimespodcast.libsyn.com/

Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/thehardtimes

Joseph James

Live Review: Download Festival, Melbourne

Download Festival Australia
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Download Festival

Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne
Monday 11 March 2019

It’s not always easy settling on what you need for a festival. Is it going to rain? Should I pack a poncho? Sunglasses? Will they have sun block and water available? I know that at a recent festival in NZ attendees were not allowed to bring drinks, and the site ran out of water on a dangerously hot day. Will they accept a driver’s licence for ID, or do I need to take my passport?

Clearly most people didn’t put as much thought into it as I did. Melbourne had hit 38c just a week ago, but the black-clad crowds obviously didn’t seem fazed. But then again, this is Download, a descendent of legendary Donington – a Mecca for fans of heavy music from around the globe. It was a fairly stereotypical metal crowd: tattoos, studded belts, combat boots, leather and denim jackets adorned with patches. And of course: the obligatory black band t-shirt. Slayer was the most common name emblazoned on shirts that I noticed today, clearly influenced by the headlining act.

Download Dog

Upon arrival my friends and I took a quick photo inside the inflatable dog head (the festival mascot), and made our way to the mainstage for Luca Brasi. The Tasmanian punks had drawn a decent turn out for so early in the day, and judging from the amount of people singing along, many were long time fans.vin The attempt at a light show was entirely redundant in the middle of a sunny day, but the music was fun and set the tone well.

Like many festivals, the main stage was actually two stages stationed parallel [Red and Black], allowing for near continuous music. Stage techs on the left could set up and sound check while bands on the right performed, each side alternating throughout the day. The stages were flanked by two totem-like statues featuring the Download dog mascot, and a large screen was installed in the centre, allowing punters at the back a better view of what was happening.

We had a quick look around the rest of the site. It was fairly typical really: a selection of stages, plenty of food trucks selling future diarrhoea, a few stalls selling clothes and nerdy nic nacs, a merch stand, lines of port-a-loos, and plenty of bars. Great to see that the festival management were good hosts and made sure that water, sun block and ear plugs were freely available.

Next up we went to Slaves at the Avalanche stage. The Avalanche stage was a big tent, and easily the best stage at the festival, taking me back to the Boiler Room at Mt Smart, or Main Stage at dunk!festival last year. The reasons that tents like this work so well is because they provide shelter and shade from the elements, protecting us from sun/rain, and meaning there are less variables like wind that affect the audio mix. Light shows are also more effective during day time, seeing as they are darker. The downside is that the capacity can be more limited than an open air stage, and I’m guessing that it requires more set up, but I never thought this stage overcrowded when I was there throughout the day.

Slaves certainly had a unique approach. There were just two of them, both topless and heavily tattooed, giving their all with intensity. Isaac Holman played drums whilst standing – having converted a kick drum to a floor tom. Laurie Vincent played guitar.  The two shared vocal duties. It was high energy and reckless, the duo throwing themselves about the stage, bouncing off speakers and launching themselves into the crowd.

Fever 333 at Download

Next up were Fever 333, who followed on in a very similar vein to Slaves. Lead singer Jason Aaron Butler was led on stage wearing a jumpsuit and a bag over his head – imagery that wouldn’t look out-of-place in Guantanamo Bay. He was joined by guitarist Stephen Harrison and drummer Aric Improta. All three of them have played in other successful bands, and their experience showed. It was a hectic brand of impassioned hardcore fused with extra intensity and politics. Many of the messages were about fighting – fighting to make shows a safe space for women, fighting against the NSW government who are trying to restrict live music, fighting for the rights of black people.

All three of them jumped around like mad men – even Improta, who jumped up on his drum throne on the regular. They even had us jumping – asking everyone to crouch down, and spring into the air after a countdown. One great section involved a “drum off” between Butler beat-boxing, and Improa on drums. Then Butler dived out into the crowd, ran the length of the tent and climbed the rigging for the lighting tower. I have no idea how long his microphone lead was, but I’m guessing at least 100 feet. Not to be outdone, Harrison began to climb the rigging on the side of stage, until he became slightly stuck, so jettisoned his guitar down onto the stage below. I loved the ferociousness of it all, and I think it’s fair to say the rest of the crowd did too. Easily a highlight of the day.

Whilst offering decent value for money, and an opportunity to see a range of artists play, festivals sometime feel less satisfying when the band you really want to see can only play a stunted set. But I didn’t feel that today, with many bands having a decent enough time slot to put on a good show.

Back out into the sunlight, and Polish death metal act Behemoth were on the mainstage. Not my thing. Looking at the crowd, many people love the Satanic shtick, but to me, raspy ‘evil’ vocals just sound pathetic, especially when you compare them to punchier shouted hardcore/punk style vocals. I’ll hand it to them though, their imagery made them stand out (spooky face paint and costumes) and they had cool pyrotechnics. The gimmick of being ‘shocking’ and ‘extreme’ just feels dated.

Time for a recharge: get something to eat and drink, reapply sun block, and risk the port-a-loos.

Truth be told, punk covers band Me First & The Gimme Gimmes were my prefered act for this time of the day, but I’m seeing them play a full set in Wellington this Thursday, so I thought I’d try something new. Many of my friends are big fans of Converge. I’ve tried listening to them in the past, and didn’t like it, but some bands are better live. I stayed for a few songs, still couldn’t get into it, so went to Anthrax.

Anthrax are one of the Big 4 – the four most notable thrash metal bands. The other three are Slayer (the festival headliners), Metallica and Megadeth (fronted by original Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine). Now I don’t listen to a great deal of any of those bands, but when the opportunity presents itself, you’d be foolish not to see them.

They were great, clearly veterans of the stage. In true metal fashion, the drummer had double bass drums and an excessive rack, and guitarist Scott Ian played a Flying V – the most metal (and one of the least practical) guitar shapes. You could see that they loved their job, with the leathery singer Charlie Benette and Ian taking turns to hype the crowd up. Their style of thrash is still centred around fast, heavy riffing, but takes a note from epic NWOBHM bands like Iron Maiden as well. Ian insisted on crowd participation. You can go nuts in the pit, you can nod your head, you can pump your fist, but everyone must move! They didn’t play many songs, but they sure hit the spot.

Amity Affliction took the next slot on mainstage. They played a decent set, although an incident up the front interrupted the set and caused the band to cease for some time. I think someone had fainted in the pit, and security we trying to remove them, but I couldn’t say for sure what happened. Despite the hold up, they played a suitably dynamic set, with great sound, and a mix of heavier songs to get the crowd moving and clean sing-alongs that elicited just as much involvement.

I met up with my friend Jason who had been tour managing Slaves earlier in the day, and we caught some of Alien Weaponry and Rise Against. A few years ago I had earmarked Alien Weaponry as the next success story, but never anticipated the extent to their success. They’ve spent the past year touring Europe and America, playing festivals and joining the likes of Ministry on the road. It has been almost a year since I reviewed their début album , and judging from the amount of views I still get from that article, I can tell that they are sustaining steady growth.

They may have played the smallest stage at Download, but the crowd was spilling out of the confines of the allocated space. I am proud of them for bringing their unique style of Māori-infused thrash metal to the world, and it was a blast shouting along to their rallying war cries as they played.

I’ve seen Rise Against four times in the past, and although they are one of my favourite artists, I think they’re stronger as a studio band then as live performers. That said, the sound mix at Download was better than I’ve come to expect from them, and they still come across as seasoned players. Nothing is ever as good as listening to some of your favourite songs from your formative years, and they made sure to touch on a mix of songs new and old. Special mention to the section of Black Sabbath‘s “Paranoid” that they slotted into “Savior”, likely as a tribute to Ozzy Osbourne, the billed headliner who had to cancel due to health issues.

Grunge giants Alice In Chains were one of my big drawcards to this event. I’d read good reviews of their Auckland show the previous week, which only served to whet my appetite even more. And boy, did they deliver! Lead singer William DuVall will never be able to escape the shadow of original singer Layne Staley, whose substance abuse and subsequent death effectively ended the band in the 90’s. And although Duvall has recorded as many albums with AiC as Staley had, people still ask if he is fit to fill Stayley’s boots?

Short answer: yes. He nailed the older material. He didn’t try to emulate his predecessor, but made the songs his own while remaining true to the what the fans knew. As you can imagine, tracks like “Down In A Hole”, “Would?” and “Rooster” all went down a treat, but I can attest that new material stood up just as well alongside the classics.

It was just approaching dusk toward the end of Alice In Chains’ set, finally rendering the stagelights effective. An some of the original giants of metal: Judas Priest sure made the most of it.

When it comes to Judas Priest, everything is excessive. The stage set, the costumes, the drum kit, the sheer power of the music… it’s all epic. Rob Halford reappropriated the leather and studs from gay culture and pioneered the eternal metal wardrobe. And tonight he showed us how loyal he was to that look, with aviator sunglasses, leather gloves, and a range of leather jackets.

They’re a quintessential metal band, with the sound and look dialled just so. I was loving every minute. But I had a tough call to make. As great as they were, I’ve already seen Priest play at Westfest in Auckland a few years back. And my teenage nostalgia was craving some Sum 41, who I’ve never seen live. It’s the scheduling clash I struggled most with, but I think I made the best call I could have.

We timed it perfectly, arriving at the Avalanche tent just before Sum 41 played “Walking Disaster”, my favourite song of theirs. Sometimes you need to be strategic about which acts to see at a festival, and thankfully I could use Setlist.FM to look up sets from the Download Festival in Sydney on Saturday to inform my choices.

Singer Deryck Whibley commanded the stage like a pro, controlling both the band and the crowd at his whim. It was even more fun than I’d hoped – the great music combined with well rehearsed showmanship. Like Rise Against, they threw a few covers into the set (Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall”, Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”), the most notable being Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, which was so punked up that I didn’t recognise it until they hit the chorus.

They concluded with hits “In Too Deep”, “Fat Lip” and “Still Waiting”, which is what most of us were hoping to hear.

It was a hard decision missing most of Judas Priest’s set. I didn’t see Halford ride his Harley Davidson, but I did see them play “Breaking The Law” upon returning to the main stage, which was a great consolation.

Sadly for me, the night had peaked by that point. I got to shout silly things like “metal” and “Slaaayer” in falsetto when Slayer came on, but they didn’t have enough groove or dynamics to make we want to stick around.

I had been trying to figure out Ghost’s appeal leading up to the festival, and hadn’t worked out why people like them yet. Was it the same lame Satan shtick? Because at least Behemoth sounded plausible. Ghost’s sound didn’t match their image or reputation. I’d been watching Ghost videos on YouTube and it’s like they were trying to emulate Dynasty era KISS by playing disco tunes while dressing spooky.

Thankfully they fared better live. They had a decent stage set, which always helps (Rammstein are worth seeing for their stage set and pyro alone, even despite their music). The drums and bass sounded good, and riffs stood out a lot more than in the videos I’d heard. The singing was still a joke though. I said I’d give them three songs to prove themselves. Well, they were OK – better than I expected, but still not interesting enough to warrant sticking around any longer.

Halestorm proved to be the most worthwhile of the last three bands of the night. They played hard, shredding away and putting on a performance that focused on musicality over presentation. The drummer had some interesting tones from a slightly unconventional set-up, and the guitarists clearly knew their stuff. unfortunately singer Lzzy Hale was losing her voice. She put a heroic effort in, but wasn’t quite hitting her mark. This didn’t take away from the overall experience though.

All in all, it was a fantastic day. My friend and I discussed our day on the train trip home and we realised that we hadn’t encountered any dickheads. No aggro, no shoving, no spilling beer on us. People were respectful, gave space when they could, and all looked after each other. And that’s better than I’ve come to expect from most gigs, let alone one the size of Download. But it all came together: the weather was good, the line up of bands was excellent, the crowds respectful, and the overall experience was excellent.

It’s a real shame that Ozzy Osbourne couldn’t play. He had been one of the big drawcards for me. But you can’t hold it against anyone that he got sick, and it was still a fantastic event.

I may just have to fly back to Australia for Download next year as well!

 

Joseph James

Live Review: Frank Turner at San Fran, Wellington (2x shows)

Frank Turner NZ Be More Kind Poster
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Frank Turner (solo) – Show 2284

Matinee show

San Fran, Wellington

Thursday 29 November 2018

It was April 2015 when Frank Turner last played Wellington. He’s since released two albums, Positive Songs For Negative People (2015), and Be More Kind (2018). That show he played at Meow was #1666, and today was #2284 and #2285, which just goes to show how often he plays.

When first announced, this date was billed as a solo show. I was disappointed, but still planned on going. Then plans changed: The Sleeping Souls were also coming to play with Frank – yay! Tickets promptly sold out, so Turner opted to play a second set for those who missed out – a solo matinee set. Double yay – two Frank Turner gigs in one day.

I’d taken half the day off work to make sure that I could get here in time for the 5pm start. I obviously don’t go to matinee shows much, because I couldn’t get over how bright the venue was in the day. Aren’t bar venues supposed to be dark and dingy? Not that it mattered, because I was about to see one of my favourite artists play.

Frank Turner San Fran Wellington

This was my fourth time seeing Turner play, and it felt different. Dressed casually, and armed with an acoustic guitar, he rewarded his fans by playing a both hits and deep cuts, spanning his solo career. As you can imagine, he drew largely from his most recent album, but he covered the essentials, as well as some unexpected numbers.

I’ve been having a hard time recently, and this set was just the remedy I needed. Hearing Turner open with the gentle encouragement of “Don’t Worry” washed away all the turbulent crap filling my head and eased me into the moment.

And soon I was dancing and singing along to his rousing tunes. His recent albums bore themes of positivity and kindness, which did wonders to bring the mood up in the venue. Turner always encourages participation at his shows, coaching us to sing along with him.

That said, a solo acoustic show is the perfect setting in which to play slower tunes, such as “Song For Eva Mae” and “Journey Of The Magi”. But those moments didn’t last long, with Turner infectiously turning the intensity up throughout the set. I would have loved to her “There She Is” again, having fallen in love with the song when I saw him play it in Vancouver last year, but he did play 18 songs… as a warm up… so I shan’t complain.

Turner was as charming as always, dropping funny anecdotes about sitting next to a doomsday prepper on a flight, and screaming at the band Slayer in a petrol station at 3am one morning. Intimate shows like this are a great setting for artists to open up and share the stories behind the songs [another similar one that jumps to mind was when I saw Into It. Over It. in Melbourne].

Frank Turner San Fran Wellington

His voice was sounding fairly hoarse by the end of the set. I know he recently cancelled an instore show in Dusseldorf last week to give his voice a break, which leaves me wondering how he is going to hold up later tonight.

It was a fantastic show, and I’m glad that I chose to attend this set as well as the main one, but something was lacking. Certain songs just needed that extra oomph that only a band could offer. I’m looking forward to the real deal later on.

Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls – Show 2285

w/ The Hard Aches and Emily Barker

I walked home to my nearby apartment to grab something to eat, draft up my review and upload the data to setlist.fm, before promptly returning for the second show.

Emily Barker played country/folk with a tinge of danger – similar to Emma Ruth Rundle at times. I was surprised that Turner didn’t come out to reprise his part on Barker’s song “Fields of June” – like he’d done with Jon Snodgrass when playing Buddies material last time they were in town – but I guess that he needed to rest his voice as much as he could. It sounded weird hearing country/Americana styled music from someone with an Australian accent, but Barker pulled it off with no worries.

Emily Barker San Fran Wellington

Emily Barker

I preferred Barker’s countrymates The Hard Aches, a punk duo who boasted an impressive sound for just two people. Royal Blood make way, because The Hard Aches are going to give you a run for your money! Their sound was energetic and fun, with great vocal harmonies. They sounded familiar, without me being able to put my finger exactly on who they reminded me of. Some of their music was snotty punk with strong Aussie accents, but a lot of songs featured deceptively mature songwriting.

The Hard Aches San Fran Wellington

The Hard Aches

You know how I mentioned before that Turner’s first set was great, but lacked something? Well, this time that void was well and truly filled. The Sleeping Souls are a well oiled machine – as you can well imagine after having played literally thousands of shows together. Their collective experience shows because they’re hella tight, and great showmen.

Obviously they were always going to draw heavily from the last record on the Be More Kind Tour, but the entire first half of the set was from the last three albums. I guess they haven’t played in New Zealand since releasing the past two records, so they needed to cover some of that material.

But it’s the older material (first four records) that the crowd really lapped up, singing along to wholeheartedly. Turner openly admitted that he was struggling with his voice by this stage, so welcomed the help from the “Wellington Gospel Choir”.

Turner took on a secondary solo spell for the night, playing calmer numbers “The Lifeboat” (a deviation from the planned set because it was requested and easy to sing) and “Glorious You”. But from there on in it was all go, with crowd favourite sing-alongs and mosh pits. Each song seemed sequentially better than the last.

The first three songs during the encore had also featured earlier in the night during the solo set, but felt fully fleshed out and full of vigor this time. Everyone was whipped into a dance frenzy for “Four Simple Words”

Frank Turner preaches a lot about his idealised punk-rock world, where people care for each other and can tolerate differential viewpoints without resorting to them-and-us politics. Where we can link arms with strangers and sing and dance together despite our differences. And although I’m sure he says virtually the same thing at every show, I think that he genuinely believes in his message of community. During the final song “Polaroid Picture” he substituted a line about London venue The Astoria closing down for Wellington’s own Bodega. This showed his awareness for our local music scene, and that he truly places importance on live music and how it can bring people together. A subtle difference that I really appreciated when I picked up on it.

Tonight I got to see one of my favourite musicians play a whopping 43 songs. And it was awesome. I got to see the intimate, poetic side to him, as well as the road-weathered master showman. And I feel incredibly blessed for it. If you get the chance to see Frank and the Sleeping Souls play, seize the opportunity!

 

Frank Turner San Fran Wellington set list

Turner switched “Long Live The Queen” for “The Lifeboat”

Words and photos by Joseph James

Album Review: Frank Turner – Be More Kind

Frank Turner Be More Kind
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I consider myself lucky that I got a sneak preview of this new album when I saw Frank Turner play in Vancouver last year. He’s been a favourite artist of mine for many years now, to the point that the very idea of a new record is super exciting. I’ve held out for it for a long time.

Was it worth the wait?

First up, I must mention that this album feels different. The last album signaled an upturn in mood – the very name denotes a shift to a more positive mentality. And following on from that, Be More Kind certainly boasts a happy-go-lucky vibe.

Admittedly, I was unsure about this record at first. It signals a fairly drastic change for Turner. But then, thinking about it, he has always drawn influence from many places. A hardcore kid gone singer/songwriter, dipping his toes in folk, country and rock along the way. And although this record sounds more campfire than punk rock, it’s still a great listen.

For most of this record, Turner has dropped the punk sound, but raised the punk ethos. It is a political record, albeit gently. Turner copped flack in the past when he flirted with political messages, receiving attacks because of his privileged background that included an education at Eton, and because his message didn’t align with that of many of his fan base.

But recent world events have been catalysts that shifted Turner’s stance, drawing him back to political songwriting. He implores us to fight injustice and hatred, to reclaim identity and join in solidarity against the rising face of nationalism. “Sand In The Gears“, Turner’s last release prior to Be More Kind, was the sound of defeat. Trump had just been elected, and Turner’s response was wanting to hang out at the bar or a punk show and forget about the world.

Thematically, “1933” follows on from “Sand In The Gears” with this desire of wanting to escape realities by hanging out at the bar, but slowly emerging from such a passive stance with a call to action – this time drawing parallels between the rise of Nazi Germany and current world events.

On the whole, Be More Kind compels us not to escape reality, but confront it. This is never more obvious than the track “Make America Great Again”, which takes Trump’s slogan and uses it against him, examining the aspects of America that make it a great country, and highlighting that those elements should … er… trump (?) the negative things that we’ve been associating with the USA in recent years.

It’s a weird call to action, considering the man who wrote it is a Englishman with a history of clearly patriotic songs. What right does he have to comment on the state of America? But I get it. I’m a New Zealander, and I love America too. I don’t blame the country as a whole for the actions of their government – much like I don’t often stand by the actions of my own government, even though they are supposed to represent me.

I can see this being one of the more divisive songs on the album. I enjoy both the music and the message, but picture it rubbing some people up the wrong way.

I don’t love Be More Kind as much as some of Turner’s other albums. I have no issue with the pop songs, but too many tracks are slow and drag down an otherwise catchy and fun album. Title track “Be More Kind” is just too tame for my liking, as are “Going Nowhere”, “The Lifeboat” and “Get It Right”. “21st Century Survival Blues” gets a borderline pass from me – almost worth skipping but with a redeemable chorus. It’s the folky songs that bring the side down.

That said, I’ve absolutely adored “There She Is” ever since I heard Turner preview it in Vancouver last year. It’s a slow burner that still sustains energy throughout.

I feel harsh saying this, but I have my critic hat on. I like Be More Kind, but it really is a case of singles that stand out, with filler sandwiched between them. “Don’t Worry” is a fun, carefree number – Jack Johnson meets “The Bare Necessities” complete with hand claps. “Little Changes” is a catchy wee ditty, with an infectious beat and horns. “Blackout” and “Brave Face” are both upbeat and enjoyable, as is the calmer “Common Ground”.

The verdict? Not a strong cohesive album, but still good enough that I’ll keep listening to it. And I’m still super excited to see Turner and The Sleeping Souls play when they come to New Zealand in November.

A cheesy quote springs to mind. Recent Star Wars film The Last Jedi featured a new character Rose, who says something that left me reflecting long after the film had finished:

“That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.”

And I think that line sums up the message of Be More Kind. Fight injustice with kindness, make the racists ashamed, show compassion, celebrate life… Be more kind.

 

Joseph James