It’s plain to see: when a band emerges via a strong friendship, the output that follows is self-evident, cutting through with an urgency and sincerity that points to larger forces outside of musical prowess. Sure, a band can regardlessly be good, but you can’t fake what you’re feeling when you’re creating together. This dynamic often bleeds into performances, where even though band members can be flirting with personas, it seals that final je ne sais quoi that determines whether a set is arresting or simply entertaining enough. Moreover, varying musical influences bring out a sense of unorthodoxy where band members congeal together to form a kind of magnetic force that “sounds like” something, but involves an undercurrent of more. How much of a band’s oeuvre contains the passion, grief, affection, body politic and lasting musical interests that directly influence its own making? What is creation if not grotesque?
Bloodletter is a band that seems like an amalgamation of something like this. Affinity and a kindred outlook chiefly form the backbone of the group, their inception two years ago in the Sunshine State a result of old friendships, like-minded politics and a deep appreciation for music. Now a duo-state band (members are split between Victoria and Queensland), their second offering Protection continues on this path, crystallising in a dark, blistering mix that references early post-punk, new wave and 77′-era frenetic US punk akin to the Wipers. Scenes of mysticism and damnation (aural or otherwise) flit through the record: singer Lena Molnar’s voice is drenched with a sense of sorrow yet laced with hopefulness; guitar lines by Ryan Cooper and Jasmine Dunn play on and off each other, panicky and brooding; the rhythm section’s strong presence carries the sound throughout, with Cat Maddin on bass and Will Learmonth on drums.
I chatted to Bloodletter through an interactive Google Doc (with the exception of Jasmine who couldn’t be present) that lasted over the span of a few weeks. As an “aging” punk I find myself now only being particularly drawn to bands that embody the aforementioned character that on a visceral level feels otherworldly and hard to pin down. Like many people, decades of musical consumption have desensitised me to the glut: if not for nostalgia and very exceptional musicianship, how is extraordinariness defined in our attention economy?
I’m thinking of the name Bloodletter: it conjures this idea of vampirism, an achingly slow process where all this blood is trickling down a tiled surface. It’s a word filled with equal parts beauty and terror. And not to venture into goob territory, but I also remember it as a Magic: The Gathering card. How did the name come about?
Lena: Those are great interpretations of the name! I’m glad to hear that’s how it’s been taken. I think we’ll have to up our merchandising game to a serious level to outsell the notoriety of our namesake in Magic: The Gathering—but I hope some gronks may find and enjoy what we do! When considering names, I remember that we wanted to find something that provoked the magical powers of the body, without being exclusively bound to genre, history or a politic, though of course these aspects are inescapable. Some names we came up with were hilariously camp and explicit, and I think Bloodletter becomes us more naturally while still allowing for play and theatre.
What were you all listening to and thinking about that birthed this motivation?
Lena: The early chats shared references to McGeoch-era Siouxsie and the Banshees, early Killing Joke, the B52s, and The Chameleons. We had all finally been given time between our other commitments with bands where we could take on another project, and wanted to do something ‘new’ with friends whom we saw eye-to-eye with. A lot of troubling things were surmounting in the global and local conversations at that time—some that affected us and some that were impossible to ignore. So we got to know each other’s perspectives on these matters, while we were putting some of the first songs together. Stylistically, those matters began to eventually be reflected in the lyrics, from the demo into this record. Moreover, we all want to do our best for the band. We got together (at each others’ houses: Cat and Will live together, Lena and Ryan were housemates at the start) a lot in the early days of the band, making dinners and connecting dots for the band with Youtube parties and a lot of occult films, chatting about things we agreed on and what binds us together musically, politically, and as friends.
Will: We all come from fairly different backgrounds stylistically—our former bands range from hardcore-punk, psych-rock, darkwave/synth and heavy metal, so doing this band was certainly a change of direction from where we were all at previously. During conception I pictured this band being more on the “punk end of the spectrum” (i.e. bands like Crisis, Blitz, etc) but once we started writing I think it became apparent we were heading in the direction of more dynamic bands like the ones Lena already mentioned.
There’s always that thing about so-called “cultural capitals” that produce a type of homogeneity, especially scorned at by those on the periphery. What came first, then: the belief or the attitude? As someone from a hyper-urbanised city who later moved to a less glamourous big country town, and then back to the big smoke, the comparisons materialise quite starkly. Artistic production, while sometimes bearing a sense of primitiveness, seems more accidental and indiscriminate in places deemed more ordinary. Conversely, cities with more prestige in the social imaginary seem to try and align themselves to the art and music that’s more visible in similar spaces, probably as a result of an overinflated worldliness.
Bloodletter’s identity as a Queensland-born band appears to challenge this, even if it isn’t a conscious decision. This isn’t to say the group is haphazardly formed and not thought out; it just means that there’s less pandering to expectations. Songs like the title track (‘Protection‘) clearly demonstrate this, a Cascade-esque song with unrelenting riffs and an unexpected screeching bridge.
Of course, to imply that we aren’t at all influenced by the trends around us would be entirely self-absorbed. It’s what we do with them, and how easily we consider, adapt and reject them, that makes the sum of our parts come into view. This is especially seen in ‘Doom Town‘, a Wipers cover that Bloodletter has aggressively made their own. In the original version, a sense of placidness permeates the song throughout—tempos taken down, drums a distant thud; Bloodletter’s version is chaotic—janglier, angrier, more languid. Everywhere is doom town.
There’s something to be said about being from outside the “cultural capital” (i.e. Melbourne) that produces far more interesting and less “on-trend” sounds. Off the top of my head I can name other acts from Brisbane like Multiple Man, Clever, Rebel Yell, Idylls and Knifer who have created distinct sounds of their own. Can you speak to this? Do you think being from the Sunshine State changes the way you make or think about music? Will your current duo-state identity mutate this further?
Lena: Brisbane has a wealth of musicians who contribute toward making their mark in different ways. A few who you haven’t mentioned have continually made songs and sounds cut from similar cloths: in genre, eras, or their reference points. I wouldn’t say Brisbane is distinct from Melbourne in creating acts that don’t follow trends because of the place, because many bands there do. But I do think that when a population is not as dense as a city like Melbourne, the visibility and alienation of a band doing something in their own way within their community is intensified.
With regards to my own thoughts about making music, as I come from the Sunshine State, I’m sure it impacts how I make music, even if I live elsewhere. I still have the same mentality with this group, which is to write songs that suit my voice, and to write songs in a way that I haven’t done before.
Will: Although it feels like things are changing, Brisbane has historically lacked the pretension that some bigger cities globally may experience due to the attention being lavished on them by the international music community. After touring Australia a bunch, the USA twice and playing shows around Southeast Asia I have noticed that music communities from more nondescript towns birth some of the more interesting artists whose goals seem more geared towards fulfilling creative desires than of back-patting/circle-jerking.
You’ve been compared to bands like The Chameleons and Siouxsie and the Banshees. There’s the frenetic pace of Husker Dü and the Wipers too. Obviously, punk has changed a lot since the internet’s proliferation—easier accessibility, more ingenuity, higher exposure. But this has also given room to homogeneity, and the hunger for visibility, which can sometimes lead to a flattening of the general landscape. Can you speak to your influences (not just musically, but psychically, emotionally, politically) a bit more? And where do you think Bloodletter sits among all this?
Cat: Emotions that influence me are overcoming fears of being weak, small and un-good. I want to be able to be part of something that represents strength and wisdom in a way that gives space to anyone otherwise cast aside. Our audience influences me to represent a strong, confident and talented woman—something that I have witnessed in women like Kim Deal or Siouxsie. Lena has also become a great influencer. Talking with and developing a great friendship with her has really opened up my mind for the better!
Lena: It’s difficult to be objective about where we ‘sit’ within the homogenisation of the latest era of online music production—and I’m not sure it’s fair to attempt that while we exist. As you have said in other words, the internet has made music knowledge and archiving more democratic and global. On the other hand, there’s saturation online, and visibility is gained by typical means—friends, money, and style—often limited by resources for many. However, punk has suffered nepotism, classism and homogeneity before we ‘all’ logged on, and apathy tends to push new waves, experiments or throwbacks in the genre. When it comes to us, with what we have, we do as we like and support each other’s lives. I have very strong feminist ethics and I do my best to connect these in most aspects of my life as well as from where I draw creativity, and to enjoy this band. Largely these influences push me (us) to play music that we want to hear, and recognise the space we take up when we organise and play together.
I first got to know Lena maybe eight years ago through the DIY punk network which kept us in contact through similar feminist ethics and scholarly interests. Out of many projects, she recently spearheaded Radiation, a zine where women involved in the Australian underground music community interview one another. The zine seems to me like the documentation of an attempt to bridge punk “then” and punk “now”: pre- and post- algorithm and audience metrics, where, sure, people were watching, but you didn’t know exactly who. However, promotion via social media in these times means it’s reaching a wider group of people and thus less sequestered, carrying with it more of a possibility to provoke thought and inspire.
It’s hard to be a 30s punk and not be skeptical of the different ways the subculture has evolved. Its demise has been mourned in waves decade after decade—with every new chapter there’s almost always the guaranteed frustration and alienation that comes from a fear of misunderstanding and losing touch, of friends “dropping out”, one’s own reckoning with “selling out” or a cynicism that takes over as a result of routine. But even as the whole thing adapts to contemporary ways of living, a sense of community is undeniably ever-present.
‘Mother Tongue’, the third track off Protection, seems to be questioning all of this: Lena’s drawling tone bemoaning a cryptic loss. The song could be interpreted as a kind of cultural dispossession that takes away someone’s understanding of who they are and where they come from. It’s the saddest song on the EP, having a very spectre-like quality to it, evocative by its downtuned guitars and fading rhythm; discomfort and charm trying to reach a consensus. To me, it comes bearing an essence that spells out the beginning of Bloodletter, a spirit that, together with all the aspects I mentioned before, will keep guiding them regardless.
I want to hear your punk origin stories.
Cat: I wouldn’t say I’ve got a classic “felt angry at the world, listened to the sex pistols in my bedroom” story. I became involved in punk through booking a Brisbane venue called The Bearded Lady. Punks were the best people to deal with and I was drawn to their willingness to work with me to create a safe and inclusive space. In fact, they probably made me more mindful of such issues. I’ve also always been drawn to the DIY attitude and maybe feel punk in other ways. Like my partner and I choose to live outside of the city on a mountaintop and grow fruit and veggies.
Ryan: I think I was a latecomer compared to the others in the band. It took me a while to find my way into a music scene. It took many years of bedroom guitaring and obsessing over records before I happened upon the group of people who motivated me to go further.
Lena: I come from a family of audiophiles—so that kind of interest and attachment to music was nurtured and I remember being introduced to early punk stuff (The Clash, Blondie, The Stones) by friends of my mum’s. I became more interested in much heavier music than what was on the radio in my early teens and started going to all-ages metalcore shows and alternative music festivals from 14 onwards. I suppose I began to explore more with finding my feet in a ‘community’ around DIY and punk as a youth due to conflicts I saw with approaches in hardcore and heavier music, and my own life.
Will: I grew up in the cultural wasteland of suburban North Brisbane where my only exposure to music was riding my sick Mongoose BMX past the local tavern where someone was probably playing Incubus covers or something. Eventually I heard pop punk through my brother which led me to your more standard punk bands like Rancid, NOFX, etc. A childhood friend and I later on found our way to the city for DIY punk shows where I gradually met more older members of the scene who were a) terrifying and b) incredibly kind and instrumental in me getting interested in playing in bands and booking shows.
What keeps you interested in punk (or more largely, DIY)?
Ryan: DIY music is where the risks are taken and where the weirdos come out. The hunt for a certain sound that scratches a particular itch is constant and DIY music allows for the seemingly endless number of variations on a theme that is necessary to produce whatever niche sound your brain craves.
Lena: Punk and DIY challenges me to contribute to and collaborate as a musician, and socially, with a community in a creative way to offer responses to the world. Distorted, wild, dark and interesting music—self-made and ‘punk’, continues to engage my imagination as an adult. As do the people and conversations that happen in the same spaces that bring these challenges to life together.
Cat: The fact that the punks I’ve encountered have been so damn encouraging and welcoming keeps me interested. I probably would always do music in some way but punks brought me out of my shell and made me feel relevant as a female musician, safe and allowed me to feel comfy in myself. That’s a powerful thing. There’s a lot of good people who care about each other involved in punk.
Will: Freedom to choose your own fate as a musician, to participate in a real community that actually values its members and to comfortably express my morals with the knowledge that I am surrounded by people who will either support me or challenge me in a constructive and healthy way.
Bloodletter – Protection
Released by No Patience Records in June 2018
Cher Tan is a freelance writer based in Naarm/Melbourne, via Kaurna country/Adelaide and Singapore. She writes mostly on tech, identity, politics and culture. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, i-D, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and Swampland Magazine, amongst others. She is the author of cultural criticism food/book journal Cooking The Books and can also be found at @mxcreant.