There is a spectre haunting the outer suburbs of Sydney Australia—the spectre of hardcore punk. Could it be occupying the once lively warehouses spidered with age, or maybe the youth centres, or is it the dim alleyways where highly illegal shows used to be powered with the help of just one filthy portable generator? It would be very sexy and interesting to know which is the case. Once ubiquitous, the sound of hardcore itself was perfunctory, “the scene” a practical means to make oneself anew with vigour amongst the creeping alienation which defined my generation. This spark that once united losers, jocks, groupies, depressives, skinny kids, drop-outs and loudmouths had however dulled somewhat in recent years.
The band Speed, however, carries with them an unspoken promise (One that’s hard to deny if you’ve seen them even once)—to serve as a defibrillator to the flesh of the treasured genre. It helps to have a band name and a look that can catch the attention of those traditionally outside of the hardcore scene. It also helps for that name to be instantly iconic, containing just one powerful syllable, as easily interpretable in one way as it could be in say, two or three more.
Buried within each subculture lies a discreet potential to create an archipelago of lost people. Still, there is something distinctly unique about the way hardcore serves as interconnective tissue between those across the country who would otherwise have never met each other. Thanks to hardcore, I and many others have friends across the world where I can couch surf if ever I chanced a visit. Underground music is so pure that it can make the rest of the world seem more saturated by association. Speed has, in their brief time, managed to usher in a group of people to this world who may not have previously had any interest in hardcore whatsoever – rare for a community that previously remained so gatekept.
At the time of writing, they look set to take out the top spot on the ARIA charts. The multidisciplinary nature of the members and the resulting vision might have something to do with it. It’s also true that they are very good-looking, and dress well, overlapping cannily into the world of street style and politics, proving that “cross-over appeal” need not only be a marketing term and an oxymoron for everyone else. New listeners find themselves included in the largest extended (or extenuated) family they’ve ever seen. To describe bands using the word “family” however is over-used and even erroneous, though in Speed’s case (two members are brothers) it’s literally true. “Supergroup” sounds inaccurate, though it otherwise could apply, while a word like “collective” is obviously wrong – the paroxysms of creation typical of hardcore and the quickness of its culture encourage high turnover of both bands, band members and an aversion to meticulousness. The faces of “Speed” (rather than “faces of speed”) may be recognisable to you, however, if only because these are 5 people who, across many different years and many bands, have been persistent when it comes to showing up, each a significant personality in their own way, and who consider giving up to be quite literally a foreign concept. This is, as they say, Sydney Hardcore.
Fresh from releasing their new EP Gang Called Speed, we caught up with vocalist Jem for a conversation about Speed, and the state of hardcore in 2022.
As I currently drink water from my Speed-sponsored coffee mug, I was going to ask—if you could distill it into three definitive points, what do you think it was that kind of led to the disenchantment, if not a filtering away of attention from something like hardcore?
This is not in any order. A very calculative point would just be that a lot of bands just broke up. We had so many bands that were so big at one point growing up, and they just broke up. And when they broke up, they didn’t they didn’t really do anything to continue a flame or pass a torch. Not saying it was their fault or anything. A lot of those bands will go through their own things and that is also just the natural passage of life, you get older, and you move on. We didn’t see a lot of those people at shows again after that.
A massive thing as well was that there were a lot of different people becoming disenfranchised with hardcore, because of a lot of attitudes that existed at the time. Hardcore was an amazing and awesome place, and that’s the reason why so many of us were drawn to it, but there’s no denying that there were sexist or homophobic or racist attitudes, and aspects of the culture which were alienating for a lot of people. I think hardcore was very insular in the way it integrated people into the culture, and that drove people away.
What you’re outlining is relevant to my experience. I think there’s an element of “cruel optimism”, wherein you go into a counter-culture and you’re seeking refuge from attitudes that you feel alienated from in the wider culture, only to see that as prevalent or magnified in the sub-culture. But the part of you that believes in the potential of the subculture continues to bring you back to it, in the belief that your presence – because it is a smaller, more manageable social milieu – can affect change. Anyway, I did not want this interview to be about identity in any way…
It’ll be so hard to stay away from that. As embellished as my sentiments about Hardcore currently can be – I’m so positive about it, and I speak of it in the brightest light – I also cannot ever represent everyone’s experience, I just can’t. When you’re in the limelight, there’s a lot of people that expect you to be everything to them.
The power of hardcore and the space we’re operating in is that we’re all just human beings. As much as I can talk about, like, toxic masculinity, and being welcoming, and misogyny, and all those kinds of things that I just believe in discussing in my personal life as an individual, I can’t have the same impact that, you know, a band like G.L.O.S.S. might have. I’m so conscious of articulating this because it’s kind of like everybody’s talking about Speed now, everyone’s like “Speed is this, Speed is that….”
You kind of sound like a really frightened high school teacher who’s addressing a substance abuse problem.
I’m glad we’re in the context of hardcore here…I’ve been a good boy for a long time.
Were you ever straight edge?
Nah I was never edge, I was just a very good Asian momma’s boy. And I still am, just with a more broadened view.
It’s important me to say all this because a lot of people who are also coming into hardcore now don’t understand what it is. Your average music fan who in the whole world sees this sense of fandom and idolization and all these kinds of things, sees these concepts as normal. You watch your favourite TV shows and listen to the radio, you learn to idolize people. But this is the one place where there should be a common ground.
The whole premise of hardcore, as you said, is to be a counterculture where we can have this space that’s so aggressive, and so stripped from rules of conventional society. You can also have these ideas of veganism and straight edge and community and a lot of left-wing values and stuff which are inbuilt into the crux of what this is, you know what I mean? That’s the power of something so crazy and antithetical to mainstream society. Obviously, things get a bit haywire at times, and that’s what it is. But it comes down to an understanding and a code of conduct within the community.
Hardcore differentiates itself slightly from other subcultures – you’re not going to just go see a Triple J band groomed by a major label, for example. I’m thinking about those old flyers for shows you would get that don’t list the name or location of the venue, and instead inquire you to “ask a punk” as to the actual location, or they’ll set up an email where you have to ask, but no one actually answers the email, because it’s kind of a joke. Someone who does not understand what it means to respect others in that space is not going to show up, ideally. Do you feel that because Speed is blowing up so quickly, there is less opportunity for that etiquette to be understood, for that connection to be made? Or maybe this is the project to kind of stipulate that again?
Yes, that is the whole purpose of speed. Actually, the initial purpose of Speed firstly was just meant to be a band to fill out a flier, because we just didn’t have enough bands – that first point that I made. We didn’t anticipate it would get big so quickly, and now that it is, the whole tightrope that we’re trying to navigate at this point, is how do we make sure that the culture does not get diluted? Speed went from being the opening band to being a headlining band at an over 800 person cap venue—if you take out covid —in 8 months.
I think that the first thing that it represents is that it is a testament to the undying and unbridled passion the community has. I just want people to be able to go to a show every weekend and know that they can see their friends there, they can be safe, they can have fun, they can make the same lifelong connections that we had when we were kids. They can see bands of any genre and then sit on a sidewalk and eat ice cream and just talk shit for the next few hours and then go home. Bands should be able to release a demo, no booking agent, managers, or whatever, and know that they will be able to play a show on a Saturday night and there will be hundreds of cunts pitting and having a great time. I think that idea of community and that grassroots participation in music, with the constructs and the ideas and the values that are built into hardcore…I think that’s just been so lost.
It’s sort of like how people used to say Phil Spector was the 5th member of the Beatles, whereas in hardcore it’s the dancers, photographers, videographers etc that are the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th members..
It’s basic human connection, but it’s such a special thing in hardcore as well, an unrefined pure expression of passion, you know what I mean? And people want that, and it’s great. These kinds of rules that we normally talk about, about how you conduct yourself and how you behave at it shows…there’s not a fucking Bible or a list where you read it and go, Okay, now I’m gonna go to the show. You learn by experience. And that’s how it really should be. At the same time, because of lockdowns, we had to talk about it. We’re seeing that people are approaching hardcore now with both a heightened perspective of the current times, and as well, a remembrance of what those values are when you step into this room.
We talked a bit about the reasons for hardcore’s resurgence and one of them was a fatigue with the kind of predetermined nature of other parts of culture at the moment. It feels like everything is being fed to me, there’s no level of organic, free-range energy flowing back into it. We’re now conscious of the fact that phrases like “industry plant” are very common. There are very few entry points for anyone who is outside a sphere of influence to break in. Even if it just comes down to even how it sounds, hardcore is so fundamentally oppositional to that mainstream acceptance and way of doing things, I guess. I feel like I reminisce a lot about hardcore because we thought the internet could be a substitute for that, but people are beginning to realise it’s an extremely impoverished version of what it could be.
I know what you mean, and I think about this stuff all the time, like why the fuck is this happening? I think a big reason for all this is that it comes down to the story, what you’re talking about is a narrative that’s real. People want to see something that is real and authentic. Artists outside of this scene need to write a song for TikTok to have a moment that can fit someone like, going into slow motion when doing a fucking dance, or do some unexpected thing in the video so it fits that part of that song. We’re just five fully normal hardcore kids – that’s all we are. Purely just hardcore kids that live and breathe hardcore and want to make it something special in Australia. Doing a band was also just a chance for me to actually put those values and ideals on show and embody them in a medium that is combined with aggression. I’m not an angry person, but there’s 5% of things that do warrant a staunch approach.
I almost feel like masculinity as an entire gender expression went out of style for a few years, which had an enormous effect on hardcore because there was such an implied connection. I think we are now seeing some kind of recalibration where people are considering if masculinity can exist in a way that is not always looking down upon what femininity is. I can think of nothing more conservative than believing that masculinity is inherently violent and unsaveable, like, are you kidding? There’s no difference in seriousness between that kind of thinking or the contrarian view.
I appreciate that approach, and I appreciate that everyone has an experience that led them to have that perspective. Because if you feel that way, you have been marginalised in a sense to have that kind of staunch approach. At the same time, I was a chubby Asian kid who played the flute. I was never seen as masculine, and I never realised that until later. I was just like, okay, why am I chasing this kind of aesthetic? And why am I inheriting these behaviours which dictated the way that I live? And it’s because I was trying to fit in, in a certain way. Maybe people look at us and think “Speed is the hardest shit ever”, but I was brought up with parents who were so loving and respectful toward each other, and my dad is such a virtuous and loving and caring person. And I’ve always seen my Dad treat my Mother with respect, and hold her as a queen, and hold her in the best light possible.
I’m glad you said that, if only because I think that there’s a real danger in getting too glib with that way of understanding as the basis for politics, in that they don’t permit further thought. Maybe for some liberation is a move away from masculinity, whereas for others liberation might include a resettling of it on your own terms, if such a thing is even possible.
Honestly, I started going to the gym and training because I thought it must be a way for me to be validated in my masculinity, or quote-unquote my gender. Dennis had the same experience as me, same as Aaron. I know we put on this aesthetic on stage. It’s important for me to show other Asians who have been in the same position to be like, yo, we can do our thing and it’s fine. We can be perceived in this way, and I’ve been confident enough to project myself that way because I’m so lucky to be brought up like this.
Speed is a very visual band – was that a conscious decision? There’s a lot of emphasis on presentation, whether that may be videos or style, or even merchandise. To use one example, you’ve said that before that you don’t feel comfortable describing yourself as an Asian band, but you do feel comfortable describing yourself an Australian band. Videos like “We See U” stem from a long-standing hardcore history, like even if you remember the Radlock video showing off “iconic” Adelaide locations that would not be considered iconic by any other measure, I mean it’s funny. I don’t think it’s consciously a way to show off your city, but especially if that city is not glamorous, or if the places in the city are not necessarily recognised, it can still have enormous meaning to the people in the video.
I think that is a part of it. I spent so much of my career as an artist and as an individual trying to chase and appropriate culture that I saw overseas, like bands that I want to look like, people that I want to look like and people that I want it to be, which weren’t necessarily myself. And it took me so long to understand that this is who I am, and that I should be proud of that. And rather than chasing something, we should be trying to export our own culture. I never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever thought that it would hit. I never thought that it would be received that way. I thought it would get backlash – it was the cheesiest thing ever, you know what I mean? The whole fact that it was received so overwhelmingly positively, it was the biggest fucking G Up to me and to all of us because it’s like, all you have to do is just be proud of who you are, and unapologetically accept yourself and project that. That’s all you have to do, in an authentic organic way, and people just loved it, and that is just what speed is. Can you imagine how incredible that is?