While the rest of the world jumps to the beats of tympani played by strange ghoulish men shouting at each other, Unsanitary Napkin play their own psalmodies deep in the otherwise insincere and irony-drenched trenches of Wellington, New Zealand. While it might be hard to comprehend of audiences unconcerned with trivialities like ‘masks’ or ‘red-alert’ or ‘post-democratic Lukashenko landslide victories’ or even ‘ongoing colour revolutions’ they do exist nonetheless. I called Rupert (bass and vocals) to talk to them about it, while Hannah (guitar and vocals) was too busy doing permalanced graphic design for suspect NGOs based in various Balkan states and Ben (drums) was also preoccupied for undisclosed reasons which rhyme with ‘illegally touring nearby underground clubs as part of a new synth project and befriending dubious Serbian criminal elements for his own personal gain’ (respect). This is what they had to say about it all.
Jesse: Where do you see Unsanitary Napkin participating in punk as a form of oppositional culture?
Rupert: I don’t really know if I could say in a global sense. I risk getting a bit rosy-eyed in Wellington, because the punk scene is full of great people who are politically engaged and real supportive. But I have been thinking about the “oppositional culture” of Punk in general. I know that you would have seen this image going around saying “You can’t be punk and be homophobic, transphobic, racist etc” and I think you even shared the image, taking the piss out of it for being goofy. Like ideally that would be true, but punk also has a conservative reactionary history. If you look at a lot of 70s British punk, with the Sex Pistols and Malcom McLaren and a lot of the US stuff too, it’s more reactionary and broadly anti-establishment than necessarily political in a progressive sense. There’s a lot of super homophobic, super transphobic, super racist things going on. And there’s like Sid Vicious and his swastikas and stuff like that. A lot is just this reactionary bullshit which is why you’ve got Johnny Rotten giving props to Trump and saying “Oh this elicits a response from people therefore its good.”
Unsanitary Napkin are more indebted to the anarcho-punk bands and that’s where our own ideals sit. The more obvious example is with The Clash, or with the Dead Kennedy’s ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’. I mean punk subcultures were totally a place where Nazis and fascists were recruiting youth from, so saying ‘Nazi Punks fuck off’ wasn’t directed at one or two random Nazis, it was about a huge issue within punk subculture.
Jesse: It was the same people sharing that image that were sharing photos of Johnny Lydon with the MAGA shirt on! It was like the Lesser Free Trade Hall of goofball posters. Anyone that gives a shit about Johnny Lydon in 2020 is extremely cringe. Anyway, I made fun of that image you’re talking about because I think that that whole mentality is unhelpful and corny on top of obvious revisionism. It’s also blatantly ignoring the whole Oi! subgenre.
Rupert: Yeah, totally. it completely erases that. I kind of get the sense of what that narrative does is put a lot of people in this position where they feel as if simply because they’re in the Punks scene and they like Punk music they’re automatically fine. They’re all good, they’re not bigots, and they can’t be bigots. And then they just don’t fucking do anything to support the more vulnerable people in the scene because they’re think ‘Punk is inherently progressive and therefore I am too’.
Jesse: They think that they’re just inherently rebellious.
Rupert: Yeah. There’s not much thought to what shape that rebellion takes, or for whom that’s going to be beneficial.
Jesse: Unsanitary Napkin released the EP ‘Orgasmic Capitalism’ featuring the song ‘Peter Thiel (Literal Fucking Vampire)’. Where do you think Peter Thiel sources his youthful blood donors from?
Rupert: Hahahaha parabiosis? I’ve never seen clear evidence that Peter Thiel is actually doing it but I’ve seen evidence that he is interested in organizations and companies that promote the sourcing of blood from the youth or are explicitly out to achieve that goal.
Jesse: Do you think he has a subterranean bunker in Queenstown? There are rumors pertaining to these subterranean bunkers. Do you think Peter Thiel has one?
Rupert: Peter Thiel is a New Zealand citizen who had his immigration fast tracked after 12 days in the country, and he definitely owns property there. There are billionaires from the States and Silicon Valley who definitely own bunkers, but I’m a little reticent to suggest that Peter Thiel is harvesting the blood of young people in a bunker in Queenstown. I don’t want to give any credence to the kind of burgeoning Qanon influence in New Zealand.
Jesse: What was Unsanitary Napkin doing during lockdown?
Rupert: Well Ben and Hannah have moved to Whanganui where as far as I understand they had quite a pretty lovely place to be, and they settled down with Murdoch Stephens who they’ve lived with for a long time, and friend Tariq as well. Everyone responds to the lockdown in their own ways, emotionally and all of that so I think they handled it as well as you could. Alison and I, we just kind of shut ourselves into our house. Our flatmate bought a VR machine, which was delivered the day before lockdown. We spent a lot of time just either doing that, or drinking, or dancing, just to try and keep things at bay and it worked, but after a couple of weeks the anxiety started to settle in a bit more. It wasn’t a productive time for us.
That being said, we’ve been super lucky in New Zealand. After that initial 5 or 6 weeks that we were in lockdown, we were able to go out play gigs again and there’s currently no community transmission, but it pays to be careful still. We’ve played a few shows, and even played in Wanganui and Palmerston North. And we were able to help put on a show that was fundraising in response to the Black Lives Matter protests. We split the funds between a US homeless Black trans women fund, and PAPA (People Against Prisons Aotearoa) here in New Zealand. A whole bunch of amazing artists involved, jewelers, bands, and all sorts of people who were donating amazing shit to this crazy raffle. We ended up raising around $10,000 to split between those two organizations, which was kind of unthinkable post-lockdown that we could do something like that from New Zealand. It seemed like a good thing to do just because we’re lucky to be able to put on shows and have an event like that. So yeah, the ability to have shows and see live music has been a real positive thing for a lot of people, and I just know that it’s just not a reality for so many others.
That’s just how it’s been since lockdown I guess. There was a brief throwback into level 2 here and Auckland had to lockdown a bit more, and I think that was pretty hard for people in there just having to go back to that situation but yeah, it’s been pretty easy going in Wellington overall.
Jesse: What’s it like being like the only Western country with a functional Punk scene at the moment?
Rupert: It’s pretty amazing, in a weird and kinda sad way. I mean to be honest there’s a real community spirit here, and the whole time that we weren’t able to have shows they were really good at looking after each other because you have to be, but people are pretty stoked to actually be able to play music and dance with each other again. I saw a show where this band Unruly played, which is Sarsha and Vanya from Rogernomix, TVX and Bone Cruncher, and Tony from Meth Drinker. They played one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and it was just so loud, and the bass was super heavy, and there was just something that was so incredible about seeing that after not having gone to any shows for a few months. That’s the short answer about having a functioning punk scene. It’s great, of course, but it’s hard not to think about the state of the world right now and the privileged part we occupy.
Jesse: How do you think shows have changed since quarantine? What’s different about them now?
Rupert: Since Level 1, the shows I’ve gone past have seemed pretty packed out, and I guess it’s because people feel pretty safe at the moment (at least in Wellington) because of the measures that have been taken and the comparative lack of community cases.There was a brief period where shows at Valhalla had to be seated and have table service. Which (just for the purposes of the interview) Valhalla is a metal dive bar in Wellington, and it’s where all the Metal and Punk and rave shows happen. It’s got this design that just seems to constantly be leading you towards the toilets, and sometimes just smells of vomit. But yeah, Punk shows have more or less resumed being as they always were, except I’d say that people have been more inclined to bring their own microphones and there’s definitely more attention in the organizing to making sure that people feel safe, and that certain distancing measures will be respected. People scan their QR codes, wash their hands and hopefully don’t get too close in the mosh pit. But for other big shows outside of the Punk scene, maybe it’s a little harder to get people to come along.
Jesse: Where do you see Unsanitary Napkin fitting into the culture of punk and hardcore in Wellington?
Rupert: We are part of a relatively tight corner of the punk scene, and there’s a bigger hardcore scene than the part we occupy. Like there’s a whole other hardcore and screamo scene I barely know, and maybe should. Then there’s the tough-guy hardcore scene, which we stay well away from.
There’s always been an established group of bands and people who were engaged in activism and left wing organizing in Wellington. The sort of people who were associated with the Radical Social Center (which burned down real recently) and who have been organizing in the scene for ages, and Ben and Hannah have both been part of that for ages, so it wasn’t super hard for us to find a place.
I would say that we might be more unashamedly blunt in putting forward things that we want to write songs about, and we’re very clear and upfront about what it is we want to stand for. I’d like to hope that Unsanitary Napkin has potentially made the Punk scene a little bit more visually welcoming to femmes, and queer folks, because I think that that visual element actually matters a lot. There’s a lot of people in the Punk scene who are super supportive of queer, non-binary and trans folks, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that if you weren’t already part of the scene. When you go to a Punk show and it’s a whole bunch of tough punks shoving each other, it doesn’t necessarily seem like a place that’s actually actively encouraging you to be there, so I think people have been more and more trying to make that become something that people talk about, and actually address, and actually confront.
There’re a lot more people of diverse sexualities and gender identities in the Punk scene than necessarily feel free to be open about it, and that sucks. So there’s still work that we can do in contributing to that scene and making it a more beneficial and supportive place. We’re working with mutual aid networks, and grassroots organizations and activists that have foundations that have predated us by more than a decade.
Jesse: I definitely think it’s a welcome change. The first show I ever went to was a Brick Vs Face and Antagonist AD show when I was 14. We were up front and some guy got mad at my friend for having this long scene haircut so he grabs the back of his head and smashes it over the monitor and splits his eyebrow open. Just because he didn’t like the fact that my friend is a guy with long hair and looked like a poofta or whatever. I mean he’s also a ginger, so maybe that warranted it, but the looking like a girl thing did not.
We had to get his eyebrow stitched up so we left and went through the hall, and I remember seeing all these stalls selling vegan muffins to raise money for the Free Papua Movement and things like that, and it was just so bizarre and hilarious seeing this juxtaposition of “Fuck colonialism and also gays!”.
Rupert: It is such a mess. Jesus.
Jesse: It was incredibly unwelcoming, and really fucking sucked. Fortunately I don’t think that stuff happens so much anymore. Mostly because the punk scene is like 1/10th of the size as it was just 11 years ago, but also because of people in the scene actively trying to change it.
Rupert: In Hamilton people like Sara have totally transformed the culture of Hamtown Smakdown and stuff like that. She’s done such amazing shit with that.
Jesse: Yeah, that rules. But you know, she’s just one person, and Hamtown Smakdown is just one gig.
Rupert: That’s true.
Jesse: I actually have an anecdote related to your band and Sara actually. So she helped me pack and drove me to the airport on my birthday when I left New Zealand, and you know that Unsanitary Napkin t shirt where there’a a vulva shooting a laser that explodes Donald Trump’s head? She wouldn’t let me take it. She’s said “I’m not going to let you go to America with this shirt.” Because she didn’t want me to get my ass kicked. I told her that I was heading to California so I would be fine but she insisted and because she was doing me this massive favor by helping me out I listened to her. She still has it, and I really like it and wanted to take it. It was just so funny that she wouldn’t let me. She’s still got it.
Rupert: That is so funny! We’ve had friends that have gone to America and they’ve taken that shirt with them. To date I haven’t heard of anyone getting their ass kicked, but I’m glad that you haven’t gotten your ass kicked as a direct result of that. I don’t know if you’ve received any ass kickings since you’ve landed, but I’m glad the t-shirt wasn’t part of it.
I’m glad your ass wasn’t kicked. As far as I know?
Jesse: I appreciate it. No, my ass remains un-kicked.
Rupert: I saw some story about you also getting into trouble or getting kicked out of a show because you threw someone’s MAGA hat off a balcony.
Jesse: That was still in Wellington. Remember the band me and you both played with called Wolf Cult? They changed their name to Voids. We were at a show of theirs in this yuppie flat in Wellington and some guy comes in and he’s got a MAGA hat on. We were standing on the balcony and I asked him if I could take a look at it so he put it in my hand and I turned and threw it off the balcony into the rain.Then I went back inside and he followed me and said “Hey man, get out of my flat”. I didn’t know it was his flat, and I thought he was just some random guy. So my friends and I had to leave. It was extremely embarrassing.
Rupert: I’m glad to say we haven’t had to contend with anything like that at any of our shows. I mean it’s pretty whack to be a MAGA person in New Zealand, although there is that group of people that like to wear hats that say ‘Make Ardern Go Away’ but yeah, it’s the same villains at shows for us as it’s always been. Neo-Nazis tend to stay away from Punk shows more or less.
Jesse: That’s really good. Although I saw a National Front guy at Valhalla one time, and obviously have had very transphobic people follow me to the bathroom cussing me out. But they’re not Neo-Nazis, they’re just cunts.
Rupert: That’s exactly right. But they need to fuck off out of our shows as well. Every bit as much as a National Front guy.
New Zealand white supremacists are trying to do a whole bunch of PR at the moment. Kerry Bolton is now loosely involved with those fringy conspiracy theory parties in New Zealand and he’s helping organize events.
Jesse: That makes sense because he’s written all those books about American Nazis adjacent to Helena Blavatsky and Rudolph Steiner. Not just Theosophy, or Hollow Earth or Thule Society shit, but also the esotericism surrounding Aleister Crowly and all that shit. It makes sense that he’s into that shit. Maybe he’s even into organic farming and channeling astral energy with herbs and looking at the positions of stars and moons before planting or harvesting crops according to the Biodynamic calendar.
Rupert: Yeah. there’s such a mythic core to all of their beliefs that it’s no surprise when they’re into this sort of shit. They’re already dealing with a great deal of conspiracy theories so it’s no surprise when they latch on to other ones as well for another avenue to stay in the public imagination or whatever.
Jesse: Yeah, that fucking sucks. Fuck that guy.
Jesse: Unsanitary Napkin has put out a lot of songs about bourgeois sexual perversion. Commodore Keating filming people shit at the New Zealand embassy in DC, and songs about the ruling class jerking off everywhere, as well as a lot of lyrics about bloodsucking and bloodletting. Why are you so obsessed with bourgeoisie sexual perversion?
Rupert: Is bloodsucking and bloodletting a bourgeois sexual perversion?
Jesse: It absolutely is.
Rupert: Hahaha that’s a great question. I like it. I mean on the one hand there’s just a certain satisfaction to be had from presenting well-known very public wealthy figures in scenarios or situations that they would never want to be presented in. There’s some satisfaction in that. In terms of the art and the visual imagery that has been used, I feel like that’s more Hannah’s to talk about given that Unsanitary Napkin was at some point conceived of as being an extension of the art that Hannah was doing. At least for me. I don’t want to speak for Hannah or Ben. But I think there’s just something about it that captures our imaginations and the crudeness of the imagery, or of the subject matter that we might sing about.
This is great you’re asking me questions that I haven’t really thought about. Usually you get a bunch of ‘When did you form?’
Jesse: I try. It’s at least better than the fucking ‘What’s your favorite fruit’ questions the soon-to-be yuppie dickheads from Salient ask.
Rupert: You don’t have any questions about fruit to ask me?
We’re not really interested in communicating anything about their sexual desires. We all have sexual “perversions” if you want to call them that. I suppose what we want to do is make images that capture powerful people in ways that crudely illustrate how they see themselves, how we imagine theft see themselves, of their sort of self-eroticising of the powers that they hold and the ways in which they wield their power.
So a song like ‘The Balls (To Say What We’re All Thinking)’ is about media demagogues like Paul Henry and Mike Hosking, and is trying to imagine some sort of intense muscular circle jerk contest between them, and the lyric in the end is ‘Whose semen says it best’. With a song like Commodore Keating, more than being about being a sexual sort of desire or fantasy on his part, what interested us was the abuse of power that’s just inherent in the act of installing cameras in the bathrooms of the New Zealand Embassy. That kind of level of invasiveness and entitlement. We were sent the story about Commodore Keating by Tonamu from Spiteful Urinator who said “If there’s any band who should write a song about this it should be youse”.
By the way, did you ever see that Australian politician Bob Katter? He’s this guy from Queensland who wears a cowboy hat all the time and is this grizzled, sun shrunken Australian man. Have you ever seen that guy? He’s just so leathery.
Jesse: He looks like the Australian Shitposter meme.
Rupert: Yeah, he looks just like that. Anyway he’s always been really opposed to gay marriage and he did this interview when the “Yes” vote went through in Australia, and he’s laughing in hysteria and saying “People are entitled to their sexual proclivities” and he’s just giggling and laughing so much, he’s like “They can do what they want” and then his face like completely crumples in a split second, and he just looks so angry, and he’s just like “But I ain’t spending any time thinking about it because every 5 minutes a person is torn to death by a crocodile in North Queensland” You should look it up. Bob Katter crocodiles. It’s amazing.
Maybe there is some satisfaction to be had in thinking about what his sexual proclivities are, but I think it’s just a dangerous area when you start talking about it in those terms because there’s a lot of history of homophobia and transphobia and body shaming surrounding that kind of rhetoric. ‘Such and such has a small penis’. I completely hate that. Or ‘Such and such is clearly projecting their own homosexuality and it’s being exhibited as homophobia’.
Jesse: Yeah, I agree that line is is inherently homophobic, but historically it doesn’t come out of a desire to project homosexuality as a weakness on a villain rather than reflect on the hypocrisy of people in power fucking over queers. Specifically during the Lavendar Scare with McCarthy and Roy Cohn who were likely gay themselves while passing these awful legislations in the US. A lot of gay liberation people were saying ‘Those men are gay and they’re doing all this homophobic shit to their own’. I think that’s where a lot of this ‘That homophobic guy’s probably gay’ line partially comes from. It’s still bad.
Rupert: I completely hear you on that. It reminds me of high school. I remember being friends with someone who was three or four years older than I was, kind of a mentor, and he completely turned on me at some point and would always call me ‘homo’ and ‘faggot’ and threaten me and follow me to the train station. And one time he and two others locked me in the sick bay and were threatening to break my legs with a cricket bat which they were carrying. I was terrified of this guy. And reflecting on that now, I wonder if perhaps there was some level of projection from him along those lines. I wonder if he had some sort of feelings towards me and had a lot of internal bullshit that turned into something more violent.
But yeah, I totally hear you and completely agree. I think that sometimes you see it come out among the more liberal Twitter crowds who will be like “This persons just got a small penis” or “They’re actually gay” and it’s not really referring to anything, it’s just kind of a way of putting someone down by going for the socially unacceptable act of being feminine. But I think it is complicated like you said.
Jesse: That’s very fucking awful. And in those situations the only empathetic response is “That fucking sucks”. I think the reaction of going “I got the last laugh because that guy is gay” is vastly wrong and frankly malicious. It’s just sad. That’s what it is.
Rupert: It’s devastating and depressing and it’s totally this horror that people have to carry around and gets inflicted on them. I went to a so-called ‘all boys’ school for 2 years and there were only 2 students who were out, and for them to get by in that culture just took so much strength. But we had a headmaster who explicitly said “There are no gay people in our school”.
Jesse: The title ‘Headmaster’ alone alludes to sexuality.
Rupert: Right? And how could you possibly stand in front of a school of hundreds of students and be like “We’re all straight here”. By decree!
Jesse: I want to harken back to you briefly mentioning Johnny lydon wearing the MAGA shirt. I’ve been recently seeing people share this really insufferable image of Freddie Mercury saying “I called Sid Vicious Simon Ferocious and he didn’t seem to quite like that”. The gall of this dude trying to one up an emaciated poverty-stricken drug addicted teenager 10 years younger than him who at that point had been dead for almost a decade, and making fun of his name for being corny when his name was fucking Freddie Murcury! And people are like ‘Look at this hilarious guy’. It’s totally fucked.
Rupert: All the members of Queen are assholes to be honest. But also did you see that horrible biopic of Freddie Mercury?
Jesse: I want to because Rami Malek is rockin’ but I have not seen it. Is it bad?
Rupert: I love Rami Malek and he’s pretty amazing in it, but it’s appalling. It’s just like every music biopic or documentary or whatever. It’s just a propaganda film. It’s really horrible to Freddie Mercury in this bizarre way where, apart from them implying that Queen ended poverty with Live Aid, there’s just a lot of homophobic tropes, like Freddie Mercury is given this evil gay boyfriend, and his undoing is all because of these evil drug pushing clubbing queers. It’s just this horrible movie and it almost feels like they’re trying to attack his memory in this really brutal way while also being like ‘Aren’t Queen great?’
Jesse: Also that doesn’t make sense because everyone knows the coolest part about biopics is when they’re fucking drug addicts, like that shit rocks. It’s like the coolest part!
Rupert: It’s the best part
Jesse: Exactly. When they’re doing all these bad ass drugs. And no one (rightfully) fucking cares about them when they get sober. That shits fucking lame. You just want to see them fucked up on coke. It’s way cooler.
Rupert: Honestly the worst bit of that whole movie is the scene at the AIDS testing clinic where Freddie comes out of his appointment and there’s this young boy whose just absolutely suffering and covered in sores, and he sees freddie walk out, who is surrounded in a glowing angelic light, and then Freddie sings a bit of a Queen song at him and it gives him hope. Like this is so condescending and exploitative. Anyway. The movie totally blames his death on him being gay. There I said it.
Hannah’s art can be found on Instagram at @dailysecretion