Interview: Heather Perkins - Slowcoaches

Written by Daniel Rourke

Whether you're a fan of Slowcoaches or not, there's a good chance that you're aware of frontwoman Heather Perkins. Perkins is widely renowned within the punk scene for taking no prisoners and using platforms such as the stage and social media to talk about important issues.

One of the issues that comes up time and again for Perkins is toxic masculinity and the negative effect it's having on both the punk scene and young people within society. Given the recent outings of several bands, and Architects frontman Sam Carter being paraded as a hero for calling out a male member of a recent crowd, we sat down with Perkins to discuss her take on toxic masculinity and how the punk scene can change for the better.

Burn After Writing: The reason behind this interview is due to private conversations we’ve had about the punk scene and the problems within it. So, what are your thoughts on the punk scene?

Heather Perkins: I think it’s the same as with any scene really; as soon as you put a label on something there becomes a bunch of people associated with that thing – whether it’s by choice or not.

So I think the issues we’re discussing are broader than just the punk scene, I suppose, but my specific thing is the conversations that have been happening lately about assault and sexual abuse in the punk scene and specifically the way that people are responding to it.

People are starting to talk about these things a lot more, whether it’s outing toxic people who are part of that scene, or things that are happening within that scene. So the next step is that there now needs to be more done with people who are calling out these things.

So it’s started to happen more, people are starting to call this stuff out, but there needs to be a little bit of responsibility. I think it’s to do with education; I don’t think people tend to understand the implications, I think we need to keep talking about it. We need to keep talking about toxic masculinity within the punk scene in general.

BAW: You mention toxic masculinity there, our conversations have run through many bands who have been accused of just that...

HN: Also, the Sam Carter situation…

BAW: Exactly. It’s strange – or possibly not – that all the allegations happen within the same little scene, a scene that isn’t particularly big or mainstream, so to speak. What are your thoughts on that?

HN: There’s a problem with people – mostly men, but not always men – within that particular scene. There’s a huge amount of people who continue to support each other for their own gain. The classic example is Sam Carter playing on the new Neck Deep record, but simultaneously behaving as a protector of women. I’m sure that when he called someone out at that show it was with good intentions, but you can’t pick and choose when it suits you. It’s the same way you can’t be a fan of a band who have had accusations of assault, then claim to be a feminist or to be against the abuse of women. I just don’t see how the two things can be mutually exclusive.

It’s essentially about being an ally. There’s a lot of guys who seem to be using this idea of creating safe spaces for their own personal gain, when in practice – Sam Carter being the prime example - they don’t really give a shit. If you were that bothered, and you had the choice to associate yourself with a band who – for the sake of argument – maybe did or maybe didn’t do something untoward, then the educated decision would be to not touch them with a bargepole, wouldn’t it? It’s interesting that certain people will overlook things like this to further their own career – it’s one of the reasons I responded to the Sam Carter incident the way I did, the other being the way that he was massively celebrated for his behaviour.

We need to look at how we’re responding to men when they’re calling this stuff out, it isn’t something men should be applauded for. If someone is going to be applauded in the mainstream media every time they call out an assault, or sexual assault, then that would be all the newspapers would be full of because it happens every day. In my opinion, it happens every time a band that isn’t made up of cis, white men get up on a stage and perform. That’s our form of protest, it’s a form of calling out unacceptable behaviour, so why should Sam Carter be applauded more than anyone else is? That’s where it starts to look like a PR exercise.

BAW: You mention how people will use situations such as this to further their career; several people I’ve interviewed before around topics such as this have told me that when they’ve called people out for their abusive nature, that they’ve then had people within bands, the media, and various other parts of the music industry message them privately sharing similar experiences that they’ve witnessed, yet those people were not willing to call the accused out themselves because it may have a negative effect on their career. Do you think people within the industry put too much weight on furthering their career, rather than talking about issues such as this?

HN: Yeah, I don’t want to keep labouring the point, but because it was so widely publicised; the action that Sam Carter decided to take was an incredibly easy one, there was no danger to him. He was in the opposite of a vulnerable position, he was on a raised stage with security. In that situation, he could say what he wanted without fear of getting attacked, but still, he never names the person who did it and he doesn’t get the person ejected from the show. In my opinion that still doesn’t create a safe space for someone, you’re not naming and shaming the perpetrator, so the person is getting away with it – they aren’t even being embarrassed because no one knows who they are. You could even question if it happened, if you wanted to be like that, I never would be, but you could.

It’s all well and good pointing out something has happened, but if you saw the same thing happen on a train or a bus and you stood up and said: 'I’ve just seen somebody assault someone, I’m not going to say who it is, but it’s not very nice,' then how on earth would that be a good way to deal with it? I always think you should respond to situations like that as you would in public, I don’t see how it’s any different. You’re not making anything safer or anyone less vulnerable doing it the other way.

Getting back to the question, there’s still an element of people protecting themselves because they’re not putting themselves in a vulnerable position, they’re calling stuff out only when it’s safe for them to do so. I wonder if he’d respond in the same way if he was out with his friends and saw something like this? I don’t see how it’s any different at a gig where you have total control, all he had to do was point the person out and get rid of them.

We’ve played gigs where we’ve played three songs while simultaneously trying to get someone to leave the gig - there’s been no security, and that can be quite scary. I’ve played songs with guys who I’ve called out coming up in my face and screaming at me, on a flat stage with no barrier between us. That’s where it becomes difficult, but in a situation where all you have to do is get security to escort someone out of the gig, you’re not really risking your safety at all, are you? You have a moral obligation to turn that person away from your show.

BAW: There seem to be different rules on how people act in public and how they do at gigs, do you feel like gigs need to be looked at in terms of better policing and security?

HN: I think there’s a massive confusion over safe spaces at gigs, and I think case in point is a show we played in Sheffield a few weeks ago. There were two women at the show who came to see us play, and they started moshing way too hard at the front of the pit. There were a lot of younger and smaller people around them, and they just had no awareness that they were causing harm to other people. When I called them out on it, they responded by calling the crowd boring, and by telling us that we’re not ‘punk.’  I think that’s a massive problem, I think people are confused that the idea of a safe space is not being able to have fun, not being able to have freedom of speech, and so on.

I think it gets even more confused when people look at a genre like punk, a genre where people think there should be no boundaries, no barriers, no policing. So people saying: ‘You should try going to a GG Allin concert’ or ‘Iggy Pop used to get naked and do blah blah blah.’ I’d say if you were going to see an artist like that, then you would generally know what you were letting yourself in for, you were consenting to an extent. I don’t know if I fully agree with this, but if you’re going to see an artist live who is well renowned for a certain type of performance – like GG Allin – then you are in a way consenting to being a part of that. Whereas, if you’re just going to watch a punk band, then that doesn’t go hand-in-hand with being elbowed in the head by a stranger.

Another example of my point is the stuff that came out about Cabbage; an under eighteen-year-old going to watch Kasabian – who are a mainstream pop band – in a huge venue with her father, her guardian, should not in any way, shape or form be subject to being touched by a member of the band or a member of the audience. If a member of the audience had done the same thing to her as the artist had, then I would have thought there would have been a huge uproar and it would be reported to the police, so I don’t see why it’s any different for a band member.

People tend to say: ‘Oh it’s just rock ‘n’ roll’ and ‘they’re just getting lost in the moment,’ but I get lost in the moment at shows, and I’ve never inappropriately touched a member of the audience, unless it’s someone I know, which is a completely different thing. 

It’s very simple, if you’re going to an event like this then you should be treated like you are in normal day-to-day life – that’s what a safe space is. We’re not being party poopers or spoilsports, it’s just so people aren’t always on guard.

BAW: So where does punk need to go from here?

HN: I think it’s still all about calling these things out, but it’s also about everyone sharing the same idea of what happens next. If something does get called out, then that’s not the end of it. People need to know there’s zero tolerance for this sort of stuff, if you behave like that at shows then you will be ejected.

Often people are calling incidents out and it’s not being taken seriously enough by security, or just going under the radar. People tend to go: ‘Oh, it’s really great you said that thing,’ but then no action is taken. It’s all well and good talking about these things, but it’s got to be followed up - everyone has to support each other or it’s completely redundant.

People just need to understand the difference between their romantic idea of punk and rock ‘n’ roll, and what it should be in 2017. I think people get really lost in the idea that punk is complete freedom for everyone, I think that encourages people to feel like they can do whatever the hell they want without any consequence. You can have a good time and you can jump around in the pit without hurting anyone.

BAW: When talking about these issues with people within the more D.I.Y sections of the punk scene I’ve noticed an ignorance – people are unable to accept that forms of abuse happen at punk shows because they’ve never witnessed it in their little bubble. Have you come across anything such as this, and how would you respond?

HN: Yeah definitely. I don’t think it’s intentional, but I think it’s really easy to do that. You can only do so much at a certain time, can’t you? The best thing you can do is ‘start at home’ and educate people.

The D.I.Y scene is much more accessible these days, you can look online and find a show a lot easier than you used to be able to. I think the ethics of the DIY scene will eventually carry through as more of those bands break into the mainstream – saying that I’ve seen instances of the opposite.

There’s so much people can do, whether it’s contacting festival promoters via Twitter and moaning about the lack of women on their line-up, or contacting organisations such as Girls Against and getting involved in panels and stuff. I think there’s a long way to go, but I think it’s just time. There’s a large amount of the music industry controlled by straight white men, and until they retire I think it will always be difficult to change these things.

BAW: Finally, you mentioned Girls Against there, are there any other organisations or events you’d like to give a mention to?

HN: There’s loads of them. Hopefully, we’re going to collaborate with Girls Against on our tour, to make sure people know where to go if they ever feel uncomfortable… The other thing I would say is there are so many bands who are really spearheading the idea of gender equality at shows, gender equality on bills, and getting girls to the front. I think it’s all well and good looking to male artists, and celebrating male artists for calling this stuff out, but as long as men exist as the perpetrators and the protectors in this situation, then women always exist as the helpless other. The best thing to do is to turn to any queer, trans, or female artist and look at what they’re saying about these things, they’re the best people to look to because they have the first-hand experience.

More information on Girls Against can be found here