Punk Rock’s Gonna Be Fine

Dream Nails and The Homeless Gospel Choir on how the DIY spirit can survive anything, even global pandemic.

Dream Nails is a London-based punk band comprising Janey Starling (vocals), Anya Pearson (guitar), Mimi Jasson (bass), and Lucy Katz (drums); The Homeless Gospel Choir is Derek Zanetti, a Pittsburgh-based folk-punk artist. Here, the friends roundtable on how the pandemic has affected their own work, and DIY at large.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Janey Starling: We’re dropping a new album in two weeks and we can’t even tour it — what did you release during quarantine? 

Derek Zanetti: Homeless Gospel Choir put out our third album on A-F Records called This Land Is Your Landfill, and it’s a record about the end of the world. We didn’t think it was gonna happen literally at the end of the world — not that it was all tongue-in-cheek, but some of it was. It’s difficult to have all of the excitement and good feelings you keep inside your heart whenever you make music, and all the gas is in your tank and all the gears are moving the way that you want them to, and then all of a sudden they just jam on the brakes and say: Not only are we not sure if the mail can even deliver these albums during this super hectic and tragic time in the world’s history, we’re not sure if you’re gonna be able to show anybody this art this year, and maybe not next year too. 

For me, as an emotional creature, I was saddened by it. Not to say that the rest of the world wasn’t sad, but we’re the center of our own universes, and if we weren’t we wouldn’t be here. Even though there are protests all over the country and people are perishing due to COVID-19, in my mind the biggest thing in the whole world was, I made this goddamn record and no one’s gonna be able to see it

Lucy Katz: You made an apocalyptic record just as the apocalypse was breaking — in your mind, even though you haven’t been able to show it to people in the way that you wanted, what kind of life have the songs taken on? Because I’m sure that our songs are now gonna serve a different function than what we envisioned.

Derek: Well, y’all have seen me play before, and the vibe is community and togetherness — like, yes, it’s shitty, but we’re in it together so if it’s gonna be shitty, maybe we can rise above it. But when you’re alone with no one else around telling you it’s gonna be OK, those songs are extraordinarily daunting to me. To me, the joy of going through the struggle, of getting out there and going after it and scraping your knees through the rough parts of it is the joy we get to experience together. Any time there’s a world tragedy, whether it’s war, famine, or a natural disaster, communities rally around each other, even in the poorest parts of the world, to have a meal, build back a building, or offer help or hope to someone who might not have it. But going through something like this that’s very isolating was just a different experience that I wasn’t prepared for. It was definitely difficult.

I’ll be honest with you — I was really sad for about a week. But then I was like, I think there’s other ways that I could go ahead and use my energy other than just feeling sad for myself and my situation. There’s a million other things that can use that energy. So I was sad and lonesome and ate ice cream every day for about a week, and then I turned that to: What does life look like now and how can I participate in it? 

Lucy: At the beginning of lockdown, so many bands were like, “Oh, we’re using this opportunity to write and create,” but for us at the beginning, we were just using it as self-maintenance and self-preservation. Also, tapping into the DIY spirit in a way that we didn’t even realize possible. That is our background as DIY musicians — like, how do we respond to this situation? It might not necessarily be through art or creativity, but it’s through being resourceful and looking around you. We had this YouTube series of what we taught ourselves to do in quarantine.

Janey: We had a really similar thing, Derek, because our album was meant to launch in April and we were like, “Fuck, we’re gonna have to cancel the whole tour, we’re gonna have to switch the album launch date”— or, it was more of a decision, like, “Should we just drop it now or wait until we can tour it? What if we can’t tour it?” We just had to make a decision, and we were like, “This is really fucked but the world is even more fucked.” But actually weirdly, as a band in the last three months, extending the album campaign has been a massive blessing in some ways, because we’ve figured out loads of really cool stuff in that period.

Derek: Y’all got a really big grant from the government, did you not? 

Anya Pearson: Yeah, we did.

Derek: Hell yeah!

Anya: This organization called the PRS Foundation and PPL give out [these grants] — they’re really hard to get, and we’ve tried a few times in the past. We applied for a livestreaming budget and more money to promote our album given the longer tail for the release, and we managed to get a significant amount of money to do these amazing livestream “house parties.” It’s something we never would’ve thought to do. I remember people saying to us in the past, like “Guys, you should really consider livestreaming shows,” and us all being a bit like, “Nah, we’re a live band, you’ve gotta be in the room to experience Dream Nails.” But actually, it’s a whole new avenue that we think we might even keep up post-COVID — if there ever is a post-. It’s a really cool way to connect with fans around the world and have fun. It’s super accessible — you can be any age, you don’t need to be in the same city, you can be anywhere. I think it’s awesome. 

It’s really ignited our imaginations, getting really creative with it and coming up with this “gig-in-a-box” that we send to everyone, where they get a cute little window sticker and some sticky flooring, like venue flooring so it’s like we’re recreating their local venue. It’s been a really nice challenge, in a way. As you’ve rightly framed it, we’re making the most of a really fucked up situation. Outside our windows, it’s all kinds of hell breaking loose. It’s difficult to keep positive sometimes, but we’re doing our best, I suppose. 

Janey: It’s eerie, as well, the timing of it. Like how you were saying you wrote an album about the end of the world and it’s literally the end of the world, we wrote this song “This Is The Summer” about climate breakdown two years ago, and we were filming the video on the fourth day of a massive heat wave in the UK. We were drenched in sweat literally singing a song about how global warming is gonna kill off our planet within 12 years.

Derek: You looked really cool doing it, though. [Laughs.] One thing that I feel really feel [strongly] about is, punk rock should be multifaceted. I think it’s very boring whenever you talk to someone who’s in a punk band and you’re like, “What do you do?” And they’re like, “Oh, I’m in a punk band.” That’s it? You play punk rock music and that’s it? I hope punk rock is bigger than that. Hopefully you start a zine or a YouTube channel — something else so that you’re creative in some other way.

Lucy: I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week: That’s the difference between rock & roll and punk rock. Rock & roll is like, “Look how sick I am with my guitar fuckin’ shredding!” And punk rock is also, “Look how sick I am with my guitar shredding” — a la Anya — but it’s also about us, me and you. I think that’s something you really nail in your shows, Derek. I’m the one on stage singing these songs I’ve written and giving you my art, but how are we gonna use that together? That’s fucking punk rock to me. 

Derek: Y’all do something special that you don’t always see: There’s an education that comes along with seeing your band that used to be much more prevalent in DIY culture than it has been in recent years, in my opinion. To be able to see y’all talk about queer issues and femme issues and why this isn’t just our problem, but a humanity problem — to see a lot of the white boys in the crowd hear that for the first time was very nice to see. It was very nice to see someone’s mind change, like “I’d never thought of that before.” To have the platform, and now that you have funding in your back pocket to push it, I’m really excited to see where y’all are heading with it. I’m really proud of y’all. 

Anya: Aw, thanks, Derek. I think the first time we saw your show, we were in Lisbon, and obviously I was enjoying the music — I was backstage hearing this awesome punk, this super raw acoustic guitar, then I came out and saw there was no one on the stage. Like, where’s all this music coming from? Then I realized you were right in the middle of the crowd with a circle of people around you, totally unplugged and singing your heart out. It was like a penny-drop, it was so quiet, everyone was so into it. I was like, fucking hell, this is awesome. So I really hope you get to do that kind of thing again, because I know those kind of moments are exactly why you probably write your songs, for that connection. 

Derek: Hopefully punk rock is that type of an expression. Hopefully there is one space left in this whole world where people can feel like they can be themselves, and also feel empowered to do that too. I may never be first ballerina in the Pittsburgh Ballet, but I can play Anti-Flag songs on my acoustic guitar — I can learn that new Dream Nails part and translate it just as big. It makes something that is far out of reach for some people really tangible. Normalizing expression and normalizing progressive atmospheres hopefully is the nuts and the bolts of what punk rock is. 

Janey: I so agree with you — though I’ve never met someone who only does punk, everyone is so broke! What is really precious about it — and I think this is hard to translate online — is how much care punks put into the spaces they create. We work with venues to make sure they have safe spaces policies, we bring all the women in the environment to the front. It’s kind of hard trying to confront those elements of punk moving to more online platforms.

Anya: Yeah, definitely. That’s a really interesting point, actually, how if you see a platform as a space versus a DIY venue as a space, guess which is more accountable? The real venue with real people running it. You can train the staff or put up posters or eject the people who are being assholes, but when you’re streaming stuff or even using social media to tweet stuff, there’s no accountability, it’s really hard to make sure people are respecting each other. It’s a whole different ballgame and that makes me miss DIY venues even more sometimes, just thinking about how much care they put into those spaces. 

Derek: I think the human interaction you have when you’re in the room with somebody and you hear something or feel something for the first time can’t, in my opinion, [be] replicated over a computer screen. So I wanna make sure that for me, and y’all too, that we’re not robbing what we do live from making it exceptional and good — that this time is also a way to create an atmosphere of something that might be different. When we rock live, we wanna blow your hair back and knock your socks off. It’s hard to create that same type of intensity. It doesn’t matter what you’re watching — you could be watching Slayer on your computer screen and be like, oh, these are just some old guys playing speed metal on YouTube. But it’s with the things that are extra-musical, the experiences and stories that we get to have that’ll make your online shows special when you get to do it. I can’t wait — I’ll be front row.

Anya: Everyone gets to be front row, that’s the beauty!

Janey: I don’t have to worry about women and non-binary people to the front! [Laughs.]

Lucy: We can ask for women and non-binary people to come closer to their computer screens.

Derek: My nose is gonna be right on top of the computer so I can’t get any closer. 

Mimi Jasson: The States are so massive, and Canada is so massive as well; the UK is quite small, but there’s so many grassroots venues at risk of closing. A lot of my favorite venues had to do GoFundMes just to keep operating — even Summerhall in Edinburgh, which is a huge venue. Are you guys having the same issue? 

Derek: Unfortunately we are. Most of the facilities pay their bills month-to-month like everyone else. When there’s shows and people coming through the door, they can pay their rent and their light bills pretty easily. I don’t know any business that can afford to bring in no income for five months and stay open. A lot of the funding and aid that come into these rent subsidies come at the federal level, and the current administration is not interested in the arts and humanities. We’ve lost quite a few. Some of my favorite venues in North America have closed — Great Scott in Boston closed. A lot of venues are in danger of losing their leases and not being able to open again. 

As far as that goes, I’m sad, but I’m not as worried about us as I am about bigger bands having a place to go. Just as an encouragement and a word of good faith — I’m not worried about punk rock one bit. We’re gonna be fine. There’s always gonna be a fire hall or a VFW or a youth center or a church basement that is willing to rent you out a PA for $150 bucks. But for the people who’ve given their life to running a bar or a DIY space and make a fair living off of promoting punk rock shows, those people are suffering and that’s terrible. 

Lucy: There has been a rescue package in the UK to arts and cultural venues — which was a longtime coming, it was petitioned for a lot. Obviously it didn’t go far enough, and the focus was on really big festivals and stadium venues, basically. It’s just ironic that, especially somewhere like London where their cultural currency is DIY, independent venues and small bands — that’s the lifeblood, and it’s also rinsed by the tourism industry to make London look cool and appealing, but then when push comes to shove, the money that is given doesn’t filter down, it just goes to the arts organizations that are run by, like, corporate entities and probably would have been fine. So it’s true, punk rock will never fucking die, but at the same time, I think definitely in the UK we’re nervous and feeling a bit cheated as well. I mean, it’s not surprising, but…

Derek: The reason that is happening is because they understand that there’s a benefit in keeping things around for people like Green Day and the Foo Fighters and Lady Gaga. And that’s fine and dandy, because that’s where they make their money — that’s where they can sell you a $13 cheeseburger or an $8 beer. They’re making a ton of money off of these big, huge corporate entities like LiveNation or ClearChannel Media. They realize that Joe’s DIY venue that holds 350 kids can barely keep the lights on, and there’s no benefit back from them. Unfortunately the money gets allocated like that. And certainly Billie Joe Armstrong is saying, “Save independent venues,” but they’re saving the big ones. 

Janey: I don’t know if this happens in the States as well, but some big venues here, like ones that are owned by O2, would demand 15% of artist merch sales, and as any musician knows that your only fucking income is your merch!

Lucy: It’s like, you’re already selling six-quid pints, can you leave us our fucking tenner off the t-shirts?

Derek: Fuck you! You didn’t come up with the design, you didn’t print the shirt, you didn’t ship the shirt, and you didn’t sell the shirt, and at the end of the night, you want 15%? They changed it in the US to 30% for LiveNation shows. 

Mimi: LiveNation are actually criminals. 

Derek: Punk rock’s gonna be fine. I’m gonna figure out a way that we’re gonna be able to book a 200-cap room and play in a VFW or a church basement forever, but I’m not gonna participate in that. I refuse to do it. There has to be a certain thing inside your heart that tells you “no,” that that’s a bad thing to do, and as empathetic, progressive punks, I’m not gonna allow my friends to be treated like that. If you, as a person who wants to support that band knowing that a majority of that money is gonna go to some giant corporate monster who doesn’t even care how our band is doing, I’m good! I’m not interested in participating in that. 

Janey: That’s so true. I think it’s really difficult, though, because obviously these huge corporate organizations and so much of the mainstream infrastructure are just parasitic, but I think because musicians aren’t unionized, if any upcoming band has the opportunity to play a big 600-cap venue, it’s a very difficult decision to say, “no, we’re not gonna play this.” Because really and truly, there will be 50 other bands who are ready to take that slot because no one gives a fuck. We don’t have any kind of collective power, and maybe that’s something musicians need to just bite the bullet on. 

Derek: There’s always going to be someone willing to guzzle somebody else’s bullshit to go ahead and get famous. There’s always going to be somebody willing to throw themselves down on the train tracks for their big punk rock dreams. But I’m just not gonna do it, no chance. The music that I make and the ethics that I believe in are way bigger than playing with NOFX. I don’t give a fuck. 

Anya: [Laughs.] We’ve got our pull-quote.

Janey: It’s fucking true, and I think it just loses that sense of community and integrity and authenticity that punk has. You’ve lost your crowd if you do that. 

Derek: Once you compromise, there’s a long list of other things you’re willing to compromise on — “Oh, they’ll give us 15% for a t-shirt? I bet you if we ask for 20%, 30%, they’ll give it. They’re willing to play without a guarantee? I bet you we can get ‘em to play for this low amount of money.” It’s a scheme to see how much shit you’re willing to guzzle. And my shit meter — I’m willing to guzzle about this [pinches fingers] much shit. And that’s from people I already know and love. 

Janey: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think our shit meter is pretty small as well, Derek. 

Anya: Yeah, we’re definitely known for being high maintenance, low bullshit. 

Derek: That’s the difference when you’re making protest music. You’re to serve the protest, the people, the movement, and you’re to serve yourselves last. That’s the role that we’ve chosen to play. 

Lucy: This is something I always say but: Not only do I want to serve the people, but I wanna be the band that launches a thousand bands. Because music is a tool of social change, it can be an amazing force — it’s absolutely not going to solve many things beyond creating an amazing space where people feel empowered an included, but if we can be the band on stage that especially young women and girls and non-binary people see and it makes them think just a little bit that they could do that as well, that’s what I want. If we do that for one person, we’ll have been a success. 

Janey: If we wanted to make money, we wouldn’t be in a punk band. Realistically, when it comes down to it, I just want women to stop getting sexually assaulted at gigs. That’s really it. I don’t care how much we get paid for whatever, but that’s kind of the basic motivator. 

Dream Nails’ self-titled album and The Homeless Gospel Choir’s This Land Is Your Landfill are both out now. 

Dream Nails are a punk force to be reckoned with. The hotly-tipped band was founded by feminist activists in 2015, mixing unapologetically political content with pop punk joy. The female fourpiece have built a reputation across the UK, Europe and Scandinavia for their riotously feel good live shows.