When was a time you felt that you belonged in the punk music scene? And when was a time you felt you didn’t?
I have a very vivid memory of feeling completely out of place at a show I went to a couple of years back. I was accompanying my partner, who is a huge nerd about this band, whom I won’t mention by name, and they were playing at a dive bar in town. I didn’t know the band too well, but I was happy to go along and check out a potentially awesome artist. The band is made of these older men who have been playing in that area for ages. The same fans would go to their shows over and over again, so to everyone at this show, they were the coolest people to walk the Earth. To an outsider who didn’t necessarily buy into it though, it was a pretty uncomfortable atmosphere to walk into – a cool kids club you clearly weren’t a part of. When we met one of the band members at the bar, I felt so awkward and didn’t understand any of his jokes or references. He acted like I was barely there while being – from my analysis of the situation – really creepy towards my partner. So even before seeing any of the bands play, I just wanted to go home and I couldn’t appreciate whatever musical skill was going on after that.
I’ve had experiences of not fitting into a music scene or clique many times. To be fair, it’s not always that people are purposely trying to other me. It’s a combination of me being introverted and often overlooked because I’m not of the demographic typically associated with their scene. I love watching this unfold when it happens at shows I’m playing though, because after I play a strong set, there is a palpable difference in the way people interact with me.
A really positive experience I had was when my band (Dog In A Man Suit) played Greenbrier House, which is a DIY venue in South Jersey. We drove an hour and a half to get there only to realize our drummer forgot to bring a snare stand, so we weren’t in the best mood. But as soon as we met Tom, the owner, it was instantly better; it was clear that he was the sweetest person ever. He created a very chill, welcoming environment, centered around the music, and the other bands on the bill were super down to earth too. It’s so awesome to play places like that because it really does feel like a community. It might be a transient connection, but for the time that we’re all together for the show, everyone’s clearly vibrating on a similar wavelength. I think I tend to perform better when I feel like the people in the room are fully there with me, so to speak.
What was your introduction to punk? Who snuck you into your first venue? What was your first show?
I started playing guitar when I was 11, influenced by bands like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance. It was the height of the 2000s emo/pop-punk era and I was so into it, as a kid who hadn’t really found a sense of connection to mainstream culture at the time. When I found a new band I liked, I would research them and find out every possible detail about their history, including all the members’ biographies and influences. I’d join these various online fan communities where I’d pretend to be older to join the chat room discussions or write fan fiction. But through this near-obsessive habit of digging into bands, I discovered and started listening to older bands too – Smashing Pumpkins, The Misfits, Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Sleater Kinney, etc.
I started playing in my own bands in high school around the same time I joined School of Rock, which is a performance-based after school program with a curriculum of classic rock, punk, and metal. In my early bands, my friends and I had no idea what we were doing! We’d take silly band photos and make shoddy GarageBand recordings directly through the computer microphone – which makes me cringe now. We were just a bunch of teenagers in suburban New Jersey, trying to find outlets for our utter boredom. A lot of venues were inaccessible to us because we were underage, but we basically played every grungy stage in every dive bar that would take us – Brighton Bar in Long Branch, Champs in Trenton, The Troc in Philly (RIP), were some of the places we’d play most often and see our friends’ bands in.
I can’t remember my very first show, but one of the best shows I went to around that time was Foxy Shazam at The North Star Bar in Philly (also sadly closed now). It was an absolute sweaty mess and I loved every minute. Of course, if I wanted more of that, there was a whole amazing basement scene going on in New Brunswick, NJ, but my friends and I were totally oblivious to that at the time.
So I was somewhat of a late bloomer when it came to going to house shows – that world was introduced to me in college, so I didn’t have the experience of being snuck into shows really. I went to Tufts in Boston and there was a booking collective there that would put on questionably legal (let’s say frowned-upon) DIY shows around campus or in people’s houses. Just a couple of mic stands, a PA, and a warm case of PBR. A lot of the noise/indie/punk bands from Massachusetts would come through, as well as national touring bands. One of the earliest I remember was with California X and Perfect Pussy on the bill. I loved those shows – the energy, the rawness, how close you were to the band, and how my ears would be ringing the next day (just kidding, tinnitus is not a joke). Since then, whether I’m seeing a show or playing one, I’ve preferred the DIY vibe to more established, above-ground venues.
How do you feel that punk and the punk community serve you?
I’ve come to think of punk as an ethos or a politics, more than a specific genre or aesthetic. I think in an ideal world, a punk ethos proposes an alternative to the status quo, which includes disinvestment from capitalist, patriarchal, heteronormative, racist ways of being in the world and vocal rejection of fascist politics. DIY has always been a big part of punk, too. Contrary to popular belief, DIY is not about espousing individualism, but actually the idea that we don’t need these dominant, powerful institutions (like major labels or publishers, for example) in order to be able to create art and share our perspectives with one another; we can do it ourselves by learning home recording techniques, putting on shows in our basements, and building genuine connections.
This is something that really resonates with me, especially as these systems are very visibly rearing their ugly heads around us and people are fighting back. I want to be a part of a collective or community that is dedicated to building the infrastructures and visions needed to break our dependence on systems that harm folks. But it should also provide outlets for individual growth and self expression. From a musical perspective, I love that punk gives me an avenue to channel rage, angst, and sadness – raw or troubling emotions that we’re taught to suppress in most social situations. Vulnerability is pretty punk, in my opinion.
But it’s no secret that punk has a very white cultural presence – I mean, even looking back at my own influences, I can’t name a single POC-led rock or punk band I was aware of growing up. The first image that pops into my head when I hear the word punk, instinctively, is a white dude with bad teeth screaming into a microphone – I don’t imagine myself or someone who looks like me. That’s the product of years and years of social conditioning. I’m glad that the meaning of punk is changing now in the public sphere, becoming more queer and more colorful. This identity was always present and significant of course, but once punk was sort of co-opted, it became watered down. The erased stories of Black and Brown punks of the past are finally being amplified – that history is being reclaimed. I just ordered this zine by Emilly Prado on the history of women and non-binary BIPOC in punk in the 70s-90s, which I’m super excited to read. I’m getting a re-education in the music I’ve been listening to for over a decade and in the process, feeling more empowered to claim my own space.
Who and what were your influences when you wrote the song, “Happy Again”?
I initially wrote “Happy Again” about a year ago, when I took a couple of months off work to contemplate my life and hopefully write new music. I’d wake up late in the mornings and wander around Brooklyn aimlessly, not knowing what to do and questioning all my decisions thus far. I felt like I had lost sight of my dreams for the future and it was too late to change course. Looking back, I was putting way too much pressure on myself to create and judging my past attempts to do so harshly. The anxiety around creating something “worthy” had built up to the point that I was becoming paralyzed. This song poured out of me in a rare lucid moment during that period – I wrote the whole thing in one sitting, which is pretty rare for me. I was reminding myself that emotions are always ephemeral – even negative ones – and that happiness comes and goes like part of a cycle. Rather than rush towards an outcome or obsess over achieving happiness, it’s healthier to trust the process (of life and of creativity.)
Lyrically, I was inspired by the candid and narrative style of PUP, whose latest album I was listening to feverishly at the time, as well as the jazzy guitar playing of Palehound. Another constant influence of mine is Fiona Apple – my muse, my lady – so I’d say she’s always a subtle presence in the melodies I write.
Anyway, I let the song sit for a year and only revisited it a few months ago in quarantine when I finally decided to record some of my solo material. I had been listening to some more indie, shoegaze, and new wave influenced bands, so I felt inspired to introduce synths to create a more textured, layered sound, soaked in reverb; I tried out some atmospheric guitar effects too to fill it out. I’m pretty excited about the direction it took and the way the song builds over its course. In particular, I’m ecstatic that Meghan from the band Joyce and my partner, Billie are both performers on the track. It’s a blessing to have friends who want to collaborate and will lend me their talents!
Listen to “Happy Again” Here:
About the Artist:
Navel Grazr is the latest musical pseudonym of singer and guitarist Anjali Nair, who has been part of a slew of diy indie/alternative bands, including Dog In A Man Suit, Joyce, The Womb Bats, and The Fax Machine Situation. Anjali first started learning music at age six as a South Indian classical vocalist. She later picked up the guitar as a sulky teen, who quickly made a habit of writing cathartic rock songs in her bedroom with her emo-kid friends – a tradition still observed to this day. Now armed with over two decades of emotions to unpack, Navel Grazr is a sonically vibrant project, meandering through alt-rock subgenres and experimenting with diy production elements. The singer waxes poetic on issues of mental health, politics, and existential philosophy through elastic vocal melodies and fuzzy guitar lines. Navel Grazr is currently based in Brooklyn, NY and is set to release her first official singles in 2020.
Connect with the Artist: https://www.instagram.com/navelgrazr/