The big review: Reading Festival 2023
Don Broco, Sleep Token, Hot Milk and more fly the flag for rock at Reading & Leeds 2023.
Nine-hundred-and-thirty-four seconds. That’s how long it takes Santa Cruz’s Scowl to confirm their credentials as the hottest new band in Californian hardcore. So lean and mean is scintillating debut LP How Flowers Grow, in fact, that were you to hit play as you start reading here, chances are you’ll have blasted through all 10 of its pipebomb tracks in as long as it takes to scroll to the bottom of this world-first cover feature.
Kat Moss grins with mischief, purpose and just a hint of vindication.
Live and on record, the vocalist is a tornado of piss and vinegar, switching vitriolically between surgical scorn and scattergun societal outrage. In person, she’s pointed, polite and overflowing with enthusiasm. Either way, she has the air of an artist making up for lost time. “I never thought I would have the opportunity to make music,” she explains, tired but bright-eyed after a long Monday shift at her day job as a production operative for coffee roasting specialists Verve. “With hardcore, it felt like, ‘I can do this, too!’”
Rocklin, California wasn’t the greatest place to grow up an outsider. A perpetually sunny suburban spot, surrounded by vineyards, horse ranches and hiking trails some 22 miles north-east of Sacramento, Money magazine recently named it as one of the United States’ best places to live. For a youngster with burgeoning alternative interest, it was a pastoral vacuum that needed to be punctured by spiky looks and serrated sounds.
“I was drawn to punk by how real and raw it felt,” Kat continues. “Hardcore was the most organic version of that. I was attracted to the stuff that made me feel like I had a real opportunity to be a part of it, and the DIY aspect of this scene really drew me in. There isn’t a barricade in the way. There aren’t music techs onstage. There isn’t that disconnect of the person performing feeling like some kind of a celebrity. Hardcore bands are your friends!”
Indeed, Kat and seasoned Scowl guitarist Malachi Greene have been dating for about four years now. They’ve been bandmates for two-and-a-half of those. Kat explains that their “workhorse” dynamic has been key to getting here today. “Malachi is a go-getter,” she grins. “When he says he’s going to do something, he does it. Sometimes that can be scary because he’s so driven.”
No shit. As soon as Kat first plucked up the courage to suggest getting onstage together, the six-stringer set to work with drummer Cole Gilbert writing songs that would become Scowl’s debut recording. The music was finished within a month. Kat penned her lyrics over the space of one day. Five tracks were cut in a matter of hours. The self-titled demo dropped in May 2019, and their first show followed less than a week later. Pressing on with performances before the line-up was finalised, Jarret Chen from Malachi’s other band Lead Dream and Drain’s Tim Flegal stood in on bass until Bailey Lupo joined up in summer of 2019. Five further bangers – The Reality After Reality… EP – followed at the end of November the same year.
From a “cursed” first four-date run supporting San Diego’s Absence Of Mine (they filled the slot as unannounced last-minute stand-ins, Kat had to call in sick to work, traffic collisions and gleeful chaos ensued) to a barrage of diverse all-dayers, backyard and basement shows, Scowl’s first year passed in a colourful blur. With each touring stop and song dropped, friends and fans jumped aboard. As crucial as creating bonds across the “tight-knit” west coast scene would prove to their rising reputation, so too would standing out – key to which has been a striking aesthetic.
Pressed for her punk-rock lightbulb moment, Kat paints a scene from her childhood, where she one day encountered a fellow customer at grocery store Trader Joe’s whose towering mohawk scraped the ceiling. “I was astounded,” she grins at the memory. “I just thought it looked so cool!” For Scowl, it was imperative to have that sort of visual hook, too.
Rather than relying on traditionally provocative imagery, Kat chooses to stand out from her gritty surrounds by clashing ‘soft’ motifs against the harder end of heavy music. Instead of shredded T-shirts and leopard print buzz-cuts, her look is built on archetypally ‘feminine’ make-up and fashion. Scowl’s artwork and merch designs revolve around floral imagery. Lush bouquets are fastened to the mic-stand at their chaotic shows. The concept’s even crept into her music, as on How Flowers Grow’s incongruously easy-going, sublimely sax-infused album centrepiece Seeds To Sow.
“I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian. When I first got into hardcore, I thought that the classic imagery was really cool, but I was still learning about my own identity: how I like to dress, who I am. I became comfortable with being a little more feminine. Everyone involved in hardcore – whether or not they present themselves as ‘hard’ – tends to be someone not to be messed with. The bands I really like nowadays are the ones who’re a little bit different and push the envelope. It’s about doing what you want. That’s the biggest metaphorical ‘Fuck you!’ This isn’t everybody’s thing. I respect that. But it’s my thing. And if I’m gonna be in a band, I’m gonna do my thing!”
Sometimes, the brightest blossoms spring from the darkest earth.
One-hundred-and-sixty miles south of Rocklin, Santa Cruz straddles the Golden State’s famous Highway One. Part of the bustling Bay Area, there is sun, sand and sweet sea breeze, yes, but there is poverty, homelessness and a housing crisis that sees almost one in four renters spend more than three-quarters of their wage just to keep a roof over their heads. Malachi’s sister spent years living on the streets and, away from music, the guitarist now manages three emergency COVID homeless shelters for the county. On top, the huge student population of UC Santa Cruz is a double-edged sword, placing even further stress on stretched infrastructure, while invigorating anarchic youth culture.
“It’s booming,” Kat says. “There are so many young people and so much creativity, activism and anger. That’s bred his incredible hardcore scene full of like-minded individuals trying to put their energy into something worthwhile.”
Although a few of the most powerful songs on How Flowers Grow, like Pay Privilege Due – a fiery rebuke of middle-class apathy that asks ‘Where the fuck is your raised fist?!’ – address broader societal ills, Kat admits that she’s still finding her way as an activist. “It’s never been comfortable for me to just put my head down and agree. I’ve always questioned things and been a ‘That’s not fair!’ kind of character. My parents couldn’t stand me sometimes. Having this platform is great, but being a political person is something I’m still figuring out. Of course, I have strong feelings about cops and white supremacists, but I’m young and I’m still educating myself and learning a lot of things about the world. I need to choose my words wisely. I recognise that.”
When she turns her gaze inward, however, there is no such holding-back.
A wracked soul and psyche provided fertile earth for a host of sounds that were more thorn than rose, charged by vengeance, wrath and predatory threat. ‘Learn to shut your fucking mouth!’ rages gnashing opener Bloodhound. ‘I’m gonna tear you apart, can’t you fucking see? / Dismember and disrespect you like you did to me.’ snaps Dead To Me. Trophy Hunter goes mercilessly all in: ‘I played the nice guy, you played me a fool / Now it’s time for me to come after you.’
Recording over the space of a week with producer Charles Toshio at The Panda Studio in Fremont, CA in late 2020, Kat remembers harnessing her band’s “creative momentum” and relishing the chance to hang together without worrying about work-work for a change. Up until then it felt like lockdown had been all about an empty schedule and blank canvas to create against. Little did she realise the furious 15 minutes being laid down would become emblematic of an overarching 15 months of stir-craziness and profound personal turmoil.
“[Writing and recording] was kind of the tip of the iceberg for this whole ego-crumble that I experienced,” she expands. Seeing her relationship with Malachi “just fall apart” was a reality check that forced the singer to confront deeper-seated issues that had been undermining her happiness and eroding interpersonal bonds for years.
“I had a lot of challenges as a child. I was in an environment that wasn’t always the safest and most comforting, and I found a lot of peace in fantasising. I’d carried that habit into adult life, but it wasn’t helping anymore. I was living within my fantasies, so much so that I would be disappointed with every day because it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. It wasn’t even that I had really high expectations. It was just that I was not living in the real world.”
The subsequent period of “complete deconstruction” and rebirth tested the ties that had bound Scowl to that point, laying bare to Kat’s bandmates a dark side that had previously been hidden beneath her radiant surface. With relationships renewed and the benefit of hindsight, though, she is happy to have had that year-and-a-half reappraise and reload before their current shot at wider success.
“It was weird that I’d written a record about everything that I was about to go through when I had no idea that I was about to go through it. I’m lucky that part of me was vulnerable enough to write those things where I could kinda have this conversation with myself and find a humble agreeance about what was going on, though. In the end, this record is about growth. Yes, now we have these ‘flowers’ that are so sweet and peaceful, but underneath there’s all the negativity and sadness that went in to achieve that.
“It’s not subtle: here’s the seeds, here’s the dirt…”
Saturday, June 19, 2021. The ‘Real Bay Shit’ show at 1999 Monterey Highway in central San Jose saw the shoots of that growth begin to bear fruit. A guerrilla showcase headlined by local scene heavyweights Gulch, Drain and Sunami, where the location was only announced that afternoon, it drew a staggering crowd of more than 2,000 unhinged fans. Spectacular YouTube footage from the evening’s end shows bands consumed in the convulsing heave of humanity as fireworks light the sky overhead, but Scowl’s slot was arguably even more incendiary.
“It was insane, crazy, nuts…” Kat struggles to boil the experience down to a soundbite. With bangers from DMX and Power Trip blaring out over the PA as gates opened, the mosh started well before the bands, leaving fans grinning from blood-slicked faces before they even stepped onstage. As their friends popped confetti and shit properly got going, it became quickly evident that business had picked up.
“Before, our shows were nothing like that,” recalls Kat. “The energy was unparalleled. The only comparison I could make would be with my experiences going to big heavy music festivals that everyone had paid hundreds of dollars to go to. But here everyone paid $5 to get in. Our friends were running it. We had built the stage. We didn’t even have a time schedule to go on. It was pandemonium. People had flown in from out of state with no idea what they were getting themselves into…”
Although modern American hardcore’s biggest names have sprung from the other side of the continent, that show felt like part of a resurgence in one of the genre’s historic heartlands. Familiar buzzwords – ‘community’, ‘co-operation’, ‘friendship’, ‘unity’ – punctuate our conversation today, but two elements have particularly shaped the current geographically-specific sound and scene. The Bay Area’s rich punk heritage and the history of legendary spots like 924 Gilman Street is one. “If I discover a new band and find out they were a Gilman house band, I love them even more,” Kat nods. The other is an untouchable sun-baked spontaneity, manifested in greater creative freedom and a warm glow beneath the concrete abrasion. “We try to do everything with a DIY ethic in mind. We’re not dealing with a ton of big venues or agencies. We’ve worked hard for this spotlight – and we don’t know how long that’s going to last – so we’re making the most of it.”
They might’ve dropped less than half-an-hour of music cumulatively to date, but Scowl already have the makings of local heroes ready to rep their scene on the world stage. With everyone from Turnstile and Code Orange to Gouge Away and War On Women redefining what hardcore acts can be and do, is it just a matter of time until Santa Cruz’s finest take their place in this surging new movement?
“That’s so loaded...” Kat grins, not quite coyly. “I’m bad at predicting the future because I’m afraid of getting my hopes up. I just hope to be part of it, somehow. We’ve got the album out. We’re putting in the legwork that’s always been part of hardcore, right back to Black Flag getting in a van and touring across America. I am young and I don’t have much going on in my life besides music. I have a lot of dreams. If I could have a conversation with the Kat of a few years ago, and told her what I’m doing now, she would faint or throw a fit. I want to keep surprising that younger version of myself! But the most important aspect to Scowl is being able to play shows as much as we can and hopefully give other young people who’re just getting into hardcore that lightbulb moment of ‘I can do this, too!’”
True to that, as we career towards 2022, the taboo of “taking hardcore to the mainstream” has never looked more breakable. Signing off, Kat reminds us that as much as we need to protect its rawness and DIY ethic, we shouldn’t be too quick to limit this incredible music’s reach at its time of greatest-ever momentum.
“I look back and wish that my 12-year-old self had listened to Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat or Bad Brains,” she says, “but I didn’t until I was 18. When it comes to subculture, we’re all contrarians. There’s always that aspect of saying ‘No, this is mine, I don’t want other people to find out about it!’ But we want to expose young people to this music who really need it. As much as hardcore is for everyone, not everyone is for hardcore. The right people will recognise it...”
How Flowers Grow is out now via Flatspot. Scowl tour the UK with Comeback Kid in January – get your tickets now.
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