The Cover Story

Speed: “The experience of hardcore – the scale of it, the enormity – is mind-boggling right now”

When Jem Siow and his bandmates formed Speed, the Sydney quintet saw it as a part-time project to ‘settle down’ on, giving back to the DIY scene that shaped them. Five years later, they’re the hottest band in hardcore. On the eve of ferocious first LP ONLY ONE MODE, the frontman talks staying true to that grassroots mindset while navigating a genre that’s bigger than its ever been…

Speed: “The experience of hardcore – the scale of it, the enormity – is mind-boggling right now”
Sam Law
Jack Rudder

Waking up in Orlando at the end of a mammoth tour that had spanned much of North America, June 10 was just another day in the life of Jem Siow. Wiping sleep from his eyes and getting psyched for one last show at the Floridian city’s 367-cap The Abbey, the Speed singer lifted his phone and saw a message from a friend in England. Something was starting.

Spearheaded by Leeds firebrands Pest Control, artists began dropping off that week’s Download Festival bill in protest against its sponsorship by Barclays and the bank’s alleged connection to the ongoing war in Gaza. For many of even the most righteous acts, the prospect of pulling out of the UK’s biggest heavy festival was cause for much hand-wringing. Not so the Sydney crew, who had straightforwardly joined the boycott in a matter of hours.

“There wasn't much to discuss,” Jem shrugs, a few weeks down the line. “We got the message to say, ‘This is what’s going on.’ And we, as five guys, just decided that we didn’t want to – that it wouldn’t be right to – contribute towards or make money from a space [linked to] firearms and missiles [in] a war-torn country, which are killing children and their families. So we just said no.

“We’re five normal hardcore kids from Sydney, Australia. None of us have any degrees in politics. None of us are very well-versed or educated on that subject, nor do we claim to be. The decision was made directly from our hearts. I see war. I see suffering. I see things that are acutely destructive and negative on my phone every day and I feel helpless to do anything about them. It’s depressing. It makes you feel so miniscule. So if I see a situation where I’m directly in line with contributing towards those things, I’m going to remove myself from it. Simple as that.”

It’s just one moment in an already-chaotic 2024. But making a decision 9,000 miles from home about a festival another 4,500 further around the globe is par for course at this point. Before those six weeks in America, Speed played prominent sets at Australia’s Knotfest in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Since then, they’ve been marinating in the madness of the European summer. Massive festivals like France’s Hellfest and Germany’s Full Force – where the band were confronted by the sight of an older gentleman fully naked in the pit – have found countless ways of blowing their minds. (“I’m, uh, just used to seeing people with some kind of clothing on the bottom half of their body…” Jem laughs, sheepishly.)

Outlandish support slots like playing with Turnstile at L’Olympia during Paris Fashion Week have seen them hobnobbing with a veritable who’s-who of celebrity guests backstage. Elsewhere, smashing sweaty-as-fuck bunkers like Birmingham’s Centrala, Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club or tonight’s 150-cap performing arts space Kunstverein in Nuremberg prove potent reminders of the cathartic carnage, sweat and savagery that set them on this path.

“The experience of hardcore – the scale of it, the enormity – is just mind-boggling right now,” Jem continues. "The spaces we get pushed into consistently catch us by surprise. If you’d told me when I was a kid, or even before COVID, that we’d be playing at these huge festivals or during Fashion Week in Paris, I’d probably just have told you to get fucked! Respectfully, though. Respectfully.”

Respectful as Jem is in every encounter – as well as intelligent, articulate and remarkably self-aware – he’s not beyond discussion of the potential double-edged downsides of hardcore’s exponential expansion. Even five years ago, for instance, the scrutiny and “misunderstanding” and resultant discourse around hardcore bands dropping off festivals would be nowhere near what they turned into.

Winning new fans and spreading the gospel of the genre that made them the men they are today was always imperative for the members of Speed – rounded out by Jem’s bassist brother Aaron, drummer Kane Vardo, guitarists Dennis ‘D-Cold’ Vichidvongsa and Josh Clayton – but that mustn’t come at the cost of subcultural defiance and cultural complexities. Inclusivity, bombast and fashionable clothes are easy to buy into. But an understanding of the ecosystem’s visceral extremity and lifelong dedication through thick and thin is far harder won.

“It's neither a good nor a bad thing,” Jem rolls the quandary over in his mind. “It’s not black or white. Being exposed to more people is never a disadvantage. The point at which it becomes a negative is when the culture begins to become diluted. If the people who get interested in this space and become involved in it begin to compromise the foundations on which it stands – the culture, the ethics – that would be a very bad thing.

“Perhaps the simplest way to explain it is that none of us in Speed found out about hardcore through Instagram Reels or TikToks, viral tweets or comments on Reddit. We all got into hardcore by going to shows, seeing flyers for more shows and attending those spaces, week in week out, for years. You observe the etiquette, the people running the shows, how people participate. We’ve learned everything we know about hardcore through that physical participation, that spiritual participation. Sitting down with people, looking them in the eye and having conversations. Discovering music in real time being played and experienced in front of you. Continuing to do that over the course of 17 or 18 years and still loving it more than ever. It’s a genre – and we’re a band – who’ll welcome anyone with open arms.

“But,” he adds, echoing our conversation with Scowl more than two years ago, “as much as hardcore can be for anybody, it’s not for everybody…”

“We’ve learned everything we know about hardcore through that physical participation”

Jem explains his experience of getting into hardcore through a more spiritual medium…

Already one of hardcore’s hottest prospects, when Speed were flown out to play Los Angeles’ Sound & Fury 2022, they covered roughly 1,000 miles for each of the eight songs in their catalogue at that point. Started in 2019 in the wake of what Jem and his bandmates thought would be the end of their touring careers with outfits like Endless Heights and Relentless, the band was intended as an untaxing distraction with which to keep the flame lit and inspire the local scene that shaped them as they settled down in Sydney.

But the concrete attack of early singles A Dumb Dog Gets Flogged and We See U struck a spark with worldwide audiences trapped in lockdown, before 2022 EP Gang Called Speed stoked the flames with the kind of pit-ready munch we craved as live music got, er, back up to speed. True to their title, the part-time mentality of “minimum input, maximum impact” was key. There was never a plan to record any more than a 7-inch, because, as Jem would frequently reason with himself, “‘Who the fuck wants to listen to a hardcore LP?!’”

A fuckload of folk, it turns out. Rather than just creating content for the machine, Speed’s album would need to scale-up and double-down on their values to meet a ravenous expanding fanbase head-on. Across 10 tracks of sheer sonic fury, they do just that on the imminent ONLY ONE MODE.

“ONLY ONE MODE is like a philosophy we follow,” Jem enthuses. “‘Go as hard as possible and never look back!’ We have trusted our heart, trusted our ethics, trusted our vision. It’s about following those things without fear. About six months after we released the EP, it became apparent that people wanted more. The hype around the band hit a crescendo but it never really died down.

“Around the time of Sound & Fury, it began to feel like the hype had exceeded the substance. We took that as a challenge to write the best hardcore record we possibly could while championing the vision we always had. That’s why we recorded in Australia. That’s why we worked with [producer] Elliott Gallart at The Chameleon Studios in Sydney. Elliot was the first guy I ever went to hardcore shows with. He was the kid who torrented Cubase and recorded our first shitty demos in his parents’ basement when we were 13. Now we’re in our 30s and he’s built this amazing studio of his own. He’s someone I’ve grown with throughout this journey and I’m so proud of him.”

“We’ve gone hard as f*ck, no matter what…”

Listen to Jem detail the philosophy of ONLY ONE MODE

REAL LIFE LOVE. SEND THEM 2 SYDNEY. NO LOVE BUT FOR OUR OWN. There’s as much subtlety to ONLY ONE MODE’s uncompromising tracklist as there is in the bone-breaking, kerb-stomping music contained within. The need for passion, authenticity and community is written in blood and bruises across a vicious 24-minute runtime. And although there are scattered alt.rock flourishes, the overwhelming brutalist NYHC influence feels true to its authors: the opposite of compromise.

“This is music that attracts the freaks – individuals discarded by mainstream society – then it puts them in a room to listen to primitive, aggressive noise while people beat the shit out of each other for half an hour,” Jem stresses that tracks like ONLY FOES... and CAUGHT IN A CRAZE are just fuel for more unhinged live experiences.

“Afterwards, everyone’s hugging and eating ice-cream on the side of the street. There’s nowhere else that really exists. It doesn’t make sense through a screen. It doesn’t make sense on paper. But if you’re within those four walls experiencing it in real time, there’s a good chance you’re going to get it. It’s hardcore. This subculture can only really be understood through physical participation.”

It’s also the sound of self-belief. Lead single and keystone track THE FIRST TEST is a direct chronicle of Jem, Aaron and Dennis’ experiences as first-generation Asian-Australians. There are many great things about Asian culture, the frontman explains, but the “passiveness, obedience, not being outspoken” never chimed. Despite an open-minded upbringing where Jem’s dad was happier to see his son writing sick riffs than landing straight-As on his maths homework, the prevalent stereotypes of nerdy, non-confrontational bookishness frustrated a kid who’d grow into the pit-smashing, bodybuilding, K-Pop-loving berserker we know today.

Indeed, tucked at the end of DON’T NEED and KILL CAP are two samples from Bruce Lee’s earliest interviews. And, as much as Speed are wary of tokenising an Asian icon, the parallels between the Hong Kong-American martial arts pioneer’s spread of Eastern culture to the Western world – as well as his ageless philosophies of self-empowerment – and their own mean that the clips add real (one-inch) punch to proceedings.

“It’s not about any political narrative,” Jem reasons. “It’s about building up our own. So much of the media has portrayed people that look like us in a certain light. It’s about getting past that. Who am I? What do I stand for? How do I see myself? And now we have an audience who see us for what we really are. I get a mad gee-up when people come see us and think, ‘Oh my god, these guys are so hard and scary!’ That’s not really me. But I welcome that perception because I've seen 99 other comments about Asian people saying the opposite. If observers can look at us and think, ‘Wow! Asian dudes can be strong!’ or, ‘Asian dudes can be stylish!’ – those are the kind of comments I see on YouTube and Reddit – that’s great. And if we can make an Asian youngster like the ones we were feel better about waking up and going to school the next day? Fuck yeah! We would love to be the kind of role models that we would’ve looked up to when we were kids!”

“We just act on the principles in our heart”

Listen to Jem explain how Speed stick to their own personal ethics and values

Jem reckons Speed experience a viral ‘moment’ every week or thereabouts. A clip of the front-of-stage chaos at Sound & Fury caught traction when former pro basketball player turned right-wing politician Royce White shared it with a hilarious, hysterical caption: ‘What in the false catharsis is this? Vegan coke heads getting right on the edge of physical confrontation to deal with their unresolved despair and angst – Only faith in God can do that…’ Kourtney Kardashian posted a photo of herself in one of husband Travis Barker’s Speed tees to her 200 million followers. Crossing paths with celebrity fans from Post Malone to Shaquille O'Neal always generates a pop.

At the time of writing, their most recent online eruption followed the video for THE FIRST TEST. Having trained in classical flute (an experience he’s likened to stress-spiking jazz movie Whiplash) and taught the instrument until recently, Jem laid a sweet trill over the song’s central jam. Already familiar with online discourse – and hoping not to be cast as some kind of hardcore Pied Piper – he ensured all previews focused on the earlier sections, but the full song caused a virtual meltdown.

“We posted the full video about 30 minutes before we went onstage in Silver Springs, Maryland,” he half-laughs. “By the time we came off I opened my phone and there were already six memes just of the flute part. One of those already had 200,000 views. People were commenting ‘Flute breakdown!’ and ‘Flutecore!’ I’d never even thought of that as a breakdown. It’s just a dance part!

“I've fucking played the flute since I was eight years old, and it sounds sick in this part. It’s funny. My whole life I’ve played flute and heavy music, and the go-to question for my friends and family has always been when I’d incorporate flute into one of my songs. It just so happened I was writing for the hardest band I’ve ever played in when I heard that trill in my mind and just hit record. Are flutes hardcore? Of course they’re not! What’s hardcore is staying true to yourself and not giving a fuck.”

Shiny distractions cannot be allowed to pull from Speed's main focus. The goal of this band at its outset, Jem stresses, and still its main objective is to promote Australian hardcore culture. While never critical of fellow artists (“Every band, like every human, has their own experience”) it’s noticeable how he refuses to measure himself against fellow trailblazers in the world of Australian heavy, or even contemporaries in modern hardcore. Where every other band feels out to take over the world, he’d honestly trade prospective superstardom for a booming hometown scene.

“We don’t look to Parkway Drive or Polaris,” he gestures. “We don’t even look to Knocked Loose or Turnstile. We have no reference point in terms of bands ahead of us doing what we want to do. I never wanted to be in a rock band on the radio. I don’t care about going viral on TikTok. Hell, I don’t even have TikTok. Sure, we want to spread our wings as far as they’ll go, but here’s a huge amount of uncertainty and risk that comes with that. We’re reckoning with an unprecedented time for the subculture as so many people are flooding the space. And it would be such a shame for the big bands who’re spearheading this wave to move on and leave the culture behind, like what we’ve seen in Australia over the last 15 years. We’ll consider ourselves a success if we can inspire a new generation to pick up the torch for Australian hardcore, start booking their own shows and carry on the culture in the right way.

“The purists and traditionalists are scared as fuck right now. And I don't blame them, because I don't want to go to a show with 1,000 people with a barrier, with all these blow-ins who don't know how to mosh. I want to go to that crazy 80-cap show that’s violent as fuck, full of just me and my friends. That's the hardcore that I got into.”

As much as they’ll never stop hammering the low ceiling hanging over their local scene, Jem makes no promises about how long Speed themselves will stick around. Artistically, they’re just getting started. But they’re also men in their 30s with families and partners back home. Maybe one day they’ll run out of riffs and have to call it a day, the frontman teases, or find themselves at an unsolvable impasse between their hardcore values and their livelihoods. Or maybe they’ll keep going to a level not even imagined. The only guarantee? That they’ll never compromise.

Even if someone rolled up to Speed HQ with a million dollaridoos?

“No way,” Jem shakes his head definitively. “No fucking way. We’ve been given big offers already. Maybe not a million dollars, but in that kind of growth-trajectory. And we've turned down 99.9 per cent of them. Some of the biggest labels in the world have tried to sign Speed for this album. And we said no to every single one. What have those big labels got to offer? We don’t need a second opinion on the mix, because we’ve got our best friend back home. We don’t need a label to make a video for us because our mate Ruddzy [Jack Rudder] is doing it. We don’t need a label to help with marketing because we’ve never spent a cent on marketing. We have accounts on Instagram and Twitter. That’s all we need. And if we want money? We just need to sell some more shirts. We see the Speed story as our greatest asset, and rather than jumping ship from Last Ride/Flatspot and following the ‘normal’ route that other bands have, it is a million times sicker and more fulfilling to funnel the money we make into our people to be able to bring them along with us on this ride.”

So Speed categorically won’t be churning out mainstream metal albums in 10 years’ time?

“There’s no fucking way,” Jem flashes a parting grin. “The slogan is ‘SPEED HARDCORE’, bro. It doesn’t get much simpler than that…”

ONLY ONE MODE is released on July 12 via Flatspot / Last Ride.

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