Scowl: “People assume that if you’re getting onstage, you’re a really confident, cocky person. That’s not always the case”

For Santa Cruz hardcore quintet Scowl, the only way is up. But for vocalist Kat Moss, it’s meant adjusting to the vulnerability of expressing herself to their ever-growing audience. Fresh from Coachella, she tells K! how this has fed into killer new EP Psychic Dance Routine, and how she’s getting used to becoming a star…

Scowl: “People assume that if you’re getting onstage, you’re a really confident, cocky person. That’s not always the case”
Emma Wilkes

Kat Moss lives by the mantra “full ass or no ass – no half-ass”. It underpins everything she does, from the minute to the monumental. Whether “doing the dishes, putting together an outfit, doing make-up, or whatever the fuck, or writing an EP”, if she’s not giving everything, she’s simply not doing it.

“If I don’t jump off the cliff, I don’t feel okay. I have to dive in head-first.”

Sounds bold, doesn’t it? It takes plenty of gumption to throw oneself fully into something. The question Kat argues with herself over is: can she throw, in her own words, her “whole ass” into this? Should she? Is she safe to? It’s something addressed on Scowl’s new EP, Psychic Dance Routine.

To give everything to something is to be vulnerable. It’s a human truth that vulnerability rarely comes without fear in its shadow. Last summer, Kat realised that it was an area of her life that needed some work.

“I think that I’m learning to open up more,” she reflects. “As a person, for a long time I thought that I was an open book, especially after putting out [2021 debut album] How Flowers Grow. That was a pretty vulnerable record, but also I was really baring my teeth. I had a lot of shit to talk. [Then] I was like, ‘Okay, I guess I’m not as vulnerable as I thought, and I’m kind of scared to do that.’”

This train of thought began to arise in response to Scowl’s ever-accelerating rise to prominence after their debut came out. If there is a conversation to be had about which of the up-and-comers might be the heir to Turnstile’s throne amid the current mainstream-baiting hardcore explosion, Scowl’s name would undoubtedly be one of, if not the first to come up. Kat is speaking to Kerrang! two days after the band performed an incendiary set at Coachella, which led to the portmanteau ‘Scowlchella’ doing the rounds on the internet. It means there’s thousands of pairs of eyes on the Californians at any given moment, and thousands of perceptions being made about them. Even though a constantly expanding audience might seem on paper like the stuff of dreams, there’s something intimidating, sometimes, about being so known and being so seen. Kat wants to give them everything. The growth of their fanbase, however, is pushing her to swallow the fears that come with the vulnerability that requires.

“I feel very intimidated by the audience,” she admits. “Obviously, I want to please. I think that’s human. But on another level, because of who I am, I’m intimidated, because I want to express myself fully. If I don’t do that, I feel like I’m not doing anything at all. I think that people might assume that just because you’re getting onstage and you’re performing in front of a bunch of people, you’re a really confident, cocky person. That’s obviously not always the case.”

It’s on the precipice between opening up or holding back, weighing up the risks, choosing bravery or comfort, that the psychic dance routine happens.

“It’s the mental gymnastic, the bending over backwards, the inner dance routine that you might be doing with someone, whether it’s a partner or a friendship or a community, or yourself,” Kat explains. A synonym that might come up in a therapy session is ‘the intimacy tango’ – one person stepping back as the other steps forward, unsure if they can surrender themselves fully or if doing so will cause them hurt. It’s relevant to Kat in that sense, too.

“I didn’t realise how afraid of emotional intimacy I was with the world and people around me,” she admits. “Do I step forward? Do I step back? The people that are closest to me, am I sharing with them truly, do they feel seen by me and what I choose to share? I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself with this stuff.”

It’s this image that gives Scowl’s new EP, and one of its songs, its title and becomes the central metaphor that embodies its concept. Kat is working through her dilemma loud enough for Scowl’s audience to hear, and it is, simultaneously, her way of challenging herself to bulldoze through her fears and let herself embrace the kind of honesty that makes for all the greatest art. In a way, it was emotionally-open by necessity, both for her to work through her thoughts on the matter, and for her to connect with whoever was listening on a new level.

“After I wrote everything and we recorded it, I had a nervous moment. I was like, ‘Oh fuck, do I really want everyone to hear this?’” she reveals. “I was really scared before we put the EP out. It didn’t really hit me until after we recorded it just how vulnerable I got with some of the lyrics. ‘Do I really want everyone to have access to that part of me?’ But I was also like, ‘I need to show humanity, I need to show that I’m a person.’”

In a way, it was as much of a means of expansion and growth as the EP’s new forays into previously unexplored sounds that Scowl melded with their hardcore template. The sort of bludgeoning, breakneck verses that characterised How Flowers Grow rub shoulders with choruses that pay homage to the music Kat loves outside of the hardcore world she calls home, specifically the sorts of alt.rock that blared from radios in the ’90s and ’00s. The visuals for the Psychic Dance Routine singles were also taken as an opportunity to experiment. In a way, they made the confrontation Kat has with herself in the lyrics literal.

When the band were filming the video for lead single Opening Night, Kat found herself constantly apologising when she was performing in front of the camera. Being watched through a lens made her self-conscious. The things she thought were coming off as weird everyone else perceived as good. So, while in theory she needn’t have worried, anyone with a pulse and a nervous system would know that intentionally not worrying is harder to do in practice.

“I had a couple of conversations with myself this past year where I was like, ‘I can’t let my fear of attention get in the way of my ability to perform and what deep down I know I have the ability to do,’” Kat says. “I was so scared of being judged, which is ridiculous. I think I’ve always been afraid of embarrassing myself. Having all of the attention on you as part of being in a band, I’ve kind of struggled with that a bit. But now I think I’m finally accepting it.”

In the spirit of defeating that self-consciousness, Kat decided she would learn a dance for the title-track’s video. There’s a feeling of being exposed, too – she’s alone in a studio, dressed in a black dress and knee-high white go-go boots. It’s clearly a lo-fi kind of video, nothing glossy or big-budget about it, but Kat cannot hide the fun she’s having, even if she’s not used to doing anything like this.

“I wanted to be ambitious, and I wanted to send this message that, ‘Hey, you can be in a DIY band and have a really small budget, and you can still do the stuff that you felt seen by on the TV when you were a kid.’ It’s silly because I’m in a hardcore band, but I don’t care, I’m going to have fun and I’m going to commit to that.”

The lyrics see Kat put her feelings in the third person – ‘She’ll never be your animal / She’s got her own personal hell’ – to emphasise her story as a specifically feminine experience.

“[I did that to] break out of a fear of turning off half our audience, because half of our audience is probably male,” Kat reasons. “I don’t go out of my way to only please that half of our audience, but I never wanted to alienate them. But at the same time, I was like, ‘Look, I want to write a song about this experience that only some of you guys will [identify with], and everyone can take what they want and relate to it no matter what.’ There’s no rules, but I needed to speak on my behalf in that situation.”

Indeed, when she’s asked where she thinks her fear of vulnerability might have come from, Kat immediately identifies a “patriarchal aspect” to her experience. She’s always conscious of it, how it shapes the ways she moves in the world, how she is seen, the ways it can make her unsafe. She fights it, deliberately presenting a more feminine image in Scowl than might be expected in the hardcore genre, but it’s still ever-present.

“Hardcore is an extremely accepting and open place, and I love it so much,” she says. “There’s such a wave of effort being made to not alienate people who aren’t white cisgender dudes. But I still remember going to shows and skate parks and feeling awkward, existing in those spaces and being like, ‘Wow, I wish I was a boy right now.’ I feel intimidated. I feel extra eyes on me. That plays into my fears of attention. It’s an intimidating world to step into, to being really vulnerable, when you’re already hyper-feminine.”

Although the voice of her inner critic might sometimes be louder than she wants, Kat knows she has the grit to shush it as well. It keeps her defiant.

“I have a spiteful part of me that’s pretty large,” she says. “I’m like, ‘I’m going to fucking do it. Just you watch.’”

Her other weapon for silencing her own doubts is a gentler one. As much as she feels intimidated by her platform, she appreciates it.

“At the end of the day, hardcore is about talking about the shit that pisses you off. I’m really grateful to have the space to do that.”

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