VultureHound caught up with Steph Phillips, singer and guitarist of London-based punk trio Big Joanie, to chat about making space for people of colour within the punk scene, opening for Bikini Kill, and the importance of capturing history as it really happened.
Big Joanie’s unshakeable punk sound – self-described as “the Ronettes filtered through 80s DIY and riot grrrl with a sprinkling of dashikis” – has been galvanising audiences through Brixton and beyond since 2013.
Their story reads like a how-to of creating change through independent music. At their first gig at DIY Space for London’s First Timers festival, Steph Phillips had never previously sung in a band, Chardine Taylor-Stone had never played drums, and original bassist Kiera Coward-Deyell had never played bass. And they’ve stayed true to that do-it-yourself aesthetic ever since: except, nowadays, they’re gaining a spotlight well beyond the DIY community.
The band have spoken extensively in previous interviews about their reason for getting together: first and foremost, they weren’t seeing a space for women of colour in punk music. In the six years since, they’ve helped start Decolonise Fest, an annual festival for punks of colour.
So is punk becoming a more intersectional genre? “I think the avenues are definitely opening up towards recognising more people of colour, for sure,” says Phillips. “Hopefully, Decolonise Fest is creating a stage to bring more bands to people’s attention. But also, I think people are going out of their way to look for new music, and because there’s more availability to see punks of colour in the press or on stage it does encourage people to get involved – to think, oh, I could play in a band, could write about the band.
Previously, a lot of people of colour might like listening to that kind of music, but would always feel rejected at the first instance because it’s so different to the world you know. Things are changing, obviously at a glacial pace, but I feel positive that we can continue to hear more from people of colour. That’s exciting: it’ll only lead more to great music.”
The band’s opening set for Bikini Kill back in June was euphoric to watch, not least because they were playing on home turf, at Brixton Academy. They’ve previously spoken about the feeling that came from emailing various promoters, before finding out they’d been booked to play. It’s an encouraging story for other DIY acts. Performance, in the experience of many musicians, can feel like a process of ‘self-permissioning’, whereby performers decide to say to themselves that yes, they deserve to be listened to – to take up space and be heard.
I’m curious about how the band grew from picking up instruments at First Timers to heading onto the stage to open for such an iconic act.
“We all started together,” says Phillips. “We were all just figuring out how to engage with what’s going on in a crowd. And because we started in the DIY punk community, that community aspect and goal-sharing helped: people are generally very warm and welcoming. They’re not super standoffish, so you can just be yourself. So we learnt, that way, how to figure our way around the stage. Since then, we’ve toured a lot, and that just adds another level to the performance as we’re playing different stages and getting more used to our songs, learning that you don’t just have to replicate the album. But that said, we’ve always believed in the songs, the band, and the message – and we’ve always been emailing promoters.”
Big Joanie are one of the youngest, newest bands featured in Vivian Goldman’s recent book, ‘Revenge of the She-Punks‘. Goldman writes, “Big Joanie’s funk is drenched through with industrial noise, in a direct line of descent from ESG.”
It’s a connection I hadn’t previously made – though, having watched ESG at the Jazz Cafe earlier this year, I am interested to hear what Phillips thinks about this comparison – especially because of ESG’s history. It’s difficult to think of another band who have been as influential but simultaneously unacknowledged: their song UFO is one of the most sampled tracks in history but has frequently been used without clearance. Is there any substance to the comparison?
“I love ESG and think they’re a great band – but to be honest, I only found out about them halfway through Big Joanie starting. The connection definitely seems to be something that people place onto us, rather than something we’ve ever thought about as a band. I love their story and what they’ve done and how they melded together all these different worlds. I probably have referenced them indirectly, purely in the sense that if you make an indie song, you will indirectly be referencing Sonic Youth – it’s just the way music works. But I question the direct link. I assume the link people are making is the obvious one of three black women: it’s okay to question more.”
The bands referenced directly in Big Joanie’s sound are many and varied. Sixties girl groups like the Ronettes and the Crystals were key, not least, says Phillips, because “that whole music scene wouldn’t exist without the work and talent of young women of colour. It’s really heartening to listen to their songs.”
Then there’s a layer of alternative rock: bands like The Breeders, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and the Velvet Underground, whose technique of limiting drums to tong, snare, and cymbal influenced the band’s early sound. Later tracks – such as 2018’s Fall Asleep – have reflected the synth sounds of Joy Division and New Order, amongst others.
In Phillips’ own journalism, she explores and documents the musical work of other women and people of colour. “I’ve always been interested in the written history of music versus the real, lived history,” she says. “How they differ, and where the change occurred that made written history so different from what may have actually happened. There are so many ways that we feel we know the past, but in reality, we don’t. There may have been so many people like me who were doing things in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, but it just wasn’t documented: there were no pictures, there was no one to write it, no one saw it. So it just doesn’t exist anymore now.
I’m very aware of the reality of what archiving does. That feeds into my journalism and my work, and I think journalism right now is having a great period. Sometimes in the past, it’s felt a bit snobby, but it’s getting over that phase. Now there’s so much good cultural critique, with journalists really trying to consider what a piece of work is, what the artist means to the wider landscape of our cultural history.”
Big Joanie are only just getting started: they’re currently writing new material, with the aim of bringing out a new album within the next year. For now, you can catch them touring the UK and Ireland in November.