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The no-genre Oakland trio on identity, politics,
and rejecting easy definitions / by Jason Brownstein

Photo courtesy of the Scream Queens tumblr.

I find myself from time to time falling into bouts of fiercely pessimistic views about punk/DIY/playing in bands. On more than one occasion SBSM has been the means for shaking me out of that head space. Maybe it is the juxtaposition between their jovial on-stage persona and their ferocious sound that re-frames my brain. Or maybe it's the things they say on stage and the thoughtfulness of their actions. Or maybe it's because they are just a really good band that doesn't fall in to conventions of modern hardcore or noise. Whatever it is, SBSM (Rosie, Sep, and Rola) is a band that I truly appreciate and I feel lucky to be in proximity to what they are doing. The world continues to be shit but at least we have SBSM.

How did the band start?

Rosie: Sep and I lived in this house together called Menage Twat, and we had talked about making music together because we are both into noise. We cleaned up the basement which we call “The Gay Hell.” It was full of rusty nails and it was really dangerous down there, which is partially why it’s a Gay Hell, but we also call it that because of our music and just us being turbulent people. We started playing music with another person that didn’t really work out so then we just played on our own. Then Rola moved into the house.

Sep: She descended from heaven to GAY HELL. [all laugh]

Rosie: We kind of just played with whatever we had. I had a drum set and Sep had some stuff.

Sep: It was a lot of experimentation.

Rola: I feel like only recently have we started to feel solid about our sounds.

Sep: Rola and I used to play on the floor and eventually we were like, “Okay, we are hurting our backs.” It’s a lot of danger zones down there because there is mold and spiders will come down from the ceilings. It’s not a nice space to practice but maybe it influences the music.

Rosie: It definitely influences the music. It also is a space that keeps us really close together so our emotions are really close. We feed off of each other. Also the fact that it’s a small space for our sound helps because we are loud and noisy. The way that we are positioned makes it so that we can’t face each other but we prefer to when we are performing.

Rola: It’s me and Rosie’s first band.

Sep: I played in a band with Jenna. We had a “sad girl band” called Mother Ducker and The Eggs back in the day in Santa Cruz with Ducky. After that I played in an electroclash band called Harlequin Baby that was half party, half angry baby feminist anthems. And that is where I learned electronic music. It was all geared towards pop and in with SBSM I had to deconstruct all that because Rosie wasn’t having it. I wanted to sound like Sharkpact and write pop punk songs. The first show we played the three of us were SBSM and we would do that pop punk shit, then Rola would leave for the last two songs and it was called “Missing No.1.” That was our noise shit and it was always a disaster.

Rosie: It took a long time to get things moving. I had to learn to play drums and Rola had to learn the machines. All of us had to take time to get a grip of our vocals. At some point we did feel like we were enjoying what we are making.

Rola: We were so embarrassed for like a full year.

Rosie: But people kept asking us to play shows!

Sep: The foundation for the band is shame. [all laugh]

You said that you felt like you didn’t have it together but people kept asking you to play shows. Why do you think people kept asking you to play?

Sep: We first thought we were being tokenized, because people were stoked that a brown girl queer band was happening and we were making music that was very much not like the other noise bands. Despite how shitty we were, that aspect of our band was refreshing or something. Even if we did suck, it’s kind of cool to see people who don’t know how to play their instruments. That is actually kind of inspiring for people. That’s kind of how all my bands have been.

Rosie: I felt, and even still sometimes feel, like there is an amount of tokenization. Even when I book shows now I am like, “Where are the queer bands? Where are the brown bands?” It was funny early on, there were individuals out there, queer people especially, that would come up to us and tell us that they loved our band. And we would think, “But we suck?” I think that people and our friends also just liked our music and wanted to support us. I think that’s why we are still a band now, because people like David Montoya supported us. He let us borrow his gear for two years!

Do you prefer identifying with a certain genre? Does it make a difference with how people perceive SBSM?

Rola: I don’t feel very well versed in genres of music. I’ve always been more like, “Sep and Rosie are the ones with radio show so I’ll let them explain that.” But I have gained more of an understanding the longer we’ve been a band.

Rosie: I mostly just call it noise and queercore. Those are the most simple. Genres are umbrella terms. If you think about punk, it all sounds so different. People can come to our show and say, “This is not noise.” And another person can say, “This is not core enough to be queercore.” As far as punk goes, there are certain aspects of punk that I identify with, but there are times when I’ll go to a punk show and feel really alienated. And that can be fine because fuck that. Fuck being an algorithm to people’s needs. A lot of punk music or hardcore fits too easily in these boxes and I am extremely down to not fit in those boxes.

I think that the 3 of us have really complicated feelings about punk. I think that if you’re a punk and you think about punk and punk can be defined so easily then where do you sell out? Where are you not punk anymore? I just think that some things can end up being so basic. We are making what we can in our shitty basement. What isn’t punk about that?

Sep: For me, I know what my influences are. I love digital hardcore and harsh electroclash. Women making really fucked up music that happened in the 90’s and 2000’s in the underground. I appreciate being genre-less because I like using adjectives. I will tell people to label us on flyers as “sentimental destruction jams” and stuff like that. Being without a genre allows you to enter different spaces. At first it was really uncomfortable because we didn’t know where we fit in. At the same time, it could open the possibility to have mixed genre shows. Having four hardcore bands in a row or four harsh noise bands in a row is like low-key torture sometimes.

Rola: It would be easier if we could have set identities and experiences that feel clear and concise, but everything is much more complicated than that. It feels less alienating to embody that in a creative process. How we make songs is a process of figuring out what each of us feels good about and seeing if it fits together and not compromising, trying out new things until it works.

Sep: I remember one time after a show, this guy told me that we were his new favorite hardcore band. I was offended a little bit because we are definitely not hardcore in the traditional sense, and I feel like I see hardcore bands a lot of times and I have this resentment about hardcore bands. Not to talk shit because I like a lot of hardcore, but in regards to SBSM I think there is a struggle in this formation. It was never intended to be a hardcore band. I just want to put that out there that we are not a hardcore band but we’ll play your fucking hardcore shows.

You have done some touring but seem to be a strong part of a certain segment of the Oakland punk scene. How would you describe Oakland to someone that hasn’t spent a lot of time here?

Sep: I wouldn’t describe Oakland. I would avoid doing that. I don’t want to glorify Oakland in general because there is already a push to make it this cool new place, but that is kind of just supporting the gentrification machine and I need to be conscious of that. As much as the punk scene has been good to us, and we want to be good to it, and have it feel like a good space here, Oakland shouldn’t be characterized by it’s punk scene. People have to understand that if you are going to live here and make it your home, you can’t really call it yours. You can’t say things like “Oakland has potential” or call the cops on shit when your suburban mindset makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s important to pay attention to what’s going on now and has been going on in Oakland, and not what is in the future for Oakland. The future of Oakland just isn’t for any transplant punk scene to decide. If punk itself is a culture of resistance then people that abide by punk standards/mindsets should take into consideration that there is already cultural resistance here, and step back and to see what that is. We should consider not making punk so insular to itself, or not trying to make punk values permeate itself and overtake what is already going on here. Other than that I wouldn’t really describe it any sort of way to anyone. I could say what I do, or what my life is personally, but I can’t speak to anything greater than that.

Rosie: In the same sense I’m like, don’t move to Oakland. I recently saw a Facebook post from someone who is in a band being like, “Oh my god! Living in Oakland has been so great, everyone move to Oakland!” and I got so upset about it. In terms of the question, for me it really depends on the person. I know what it’s like to be a fucking chicanx in a fucking band, a fucking queer, making weird music, you know? When we went on tour we were fucking scared. And [Oakland] isn’t Texas, it isn’t a random town in the middle of Kansas or something. If there’s a person who wants to know if they can get a show here and they come from where I come from or somewhere similar, I’m gonna tell them a good person to book a show with, or tell them that in Oakland they might feel a little bit safer or more supported (in the music scene) but also to take into consideration what’s happening in Oakland and the fact that it’s not just this cool place. You’re going to come play your show and take money from people who are actually gentrifying this place. It’s not just kittens and confetti. A lot of people are being pushed out by the raises in cost of living due to cool hip kids. So I would be like, yo, think about who books your show, think about the neighborhood that you play in and who lives in that neighborhood. I think about some bands who want to be critical and want to be radical and want to write about struggle but do it in ways that are actually really mindless and they just do the same thing that other hipsters and yuppies do. I thought it was cool when Downtown Boys played at Qilombo and there were a lot of different people there. [Downtown Boys] talked about shit that was happening here. They were talking about how they felt about it and maybe some ideas of sticking together, fighting the fucking police, and all this shit. And I was like, that’s tight, they put thought into it. Victoria had a piece of paper where she put her notes. That’s the kind of thing that I would want to tell somebody. Think about where you’re playing, who you’re playing with. Oakland is cool but it’s a place of struggle. It’s not already turned-over Portland.

Rola: I feel we have a responsibility around making our intentions clear about where we are and what we’re doing. And engaging with the things going on around us that can’t be ignored, the anti-police and anti-gentrification resistance happening.

Sep: It’s hard, for example, with people buying our merch. In Austin this band said something really gross to us. Rola had been talking about our band confronting patriarchy and racism and this guy was just like, “If that racism and patriarchy didn’t exist you wouldn’t have anything to bitch about.” And then he went and bought all our fucking merch.

Rosie: We were just like... “NOOOO…”

Sep: You want to clarify what the music is so that people who have shitty intentions don’t try to consume what SBSM is.

SBSM has always had a somewhat understated banter, from my perspective, but it’s always seemed really tasteful and open-minded. It’s understated even though you’re talking about things that are very person or politically radical. What’s your guys’ take, either together or individually, about talking on stage?

Sep: We had a lot of anxiety at first playing shows, feeling shame and embarrassment. But when we first realized we were feeling kind of confident about ourselves we were like, OK, time to talk about these songs. We were really pushing each other. A lot of times between band practice was almost like therapy between ourselves… talking about what the songs meant, how it helped you, how it made you feel. We were doing all that amongst ourselves. And we were like, OK, we can say this onstage too. We called it our hardcore speeches and we would practice and stuff. And eventually it started happening. And then we got written about on remote outposts and the focus was on the fact that we do talk about these things, and it was really scary.

Sep: It was really scary and now it’s validated. And it’s gonna be validated - or not.

Rosie: I generally feel nervous about speaking. Sometimes it depends on the size of the venue. If people are closer to me or if it feels more intimate. But usually I hope that Rola will speak so I don’t have to.

Rola: We talk to each other too, which helps.

Rosie: Sometimes because we are really nervous we don’t say anything. And going back to the last question, we are aware of certain things that are happening, and bringing that to a space where people don’t really talk about that shit all the time, sometimes we’re like, oh this thing is really intense, and we’re really feeling it. Sometimes at band practice we’re like, fuck, this is really intense, we should tell people about this. Sometimes it means encouraging people to look out for the news or to go somewhere and help with the struggle or with protests or whatever. It’s kind of just letting people know a little bit about what we’re about, and what our music is influenced by. We’re goofballs, but there’s shit that matters that is not just our music or us or whatever. Maybe right now it’s fucking party time at this show but also, we’re serious. It’s nice to talk about it even though it’s scary. Sometimes it’s scary too to think that there could backlash. Backlash is fucking scary. But I feel like we’ve finally reached a time where we’re like, alright, we’re gonna confront backlash.

Rola: I remember feeling scared to talk about politics while performing. Mostly because I wouldn’t really see that many other bands do it. I do it more now, and I also remembered that I like it when other bands talk about where they’re coming from. Also as much as I think things that empower us are also used against us and are heavily commodified both in punk and art and music scenes and within non-profits and stuff, it’s still important to have that feeling of like, you’re not alone. We also often process shit that we’re going through with the songs. Because of this vulnerable place we’re coming from it’s scary to talk, but with practice I’ve become able to start to explain more.

Sep: If you are queer or have different aspects of your identity that have been regularly met with violence throughout your life, being outspoken is hard because there’s a history of violence that surfaces. When I was younger I wouldn’t speak up in class or raise my hand to say anything because I felt like my voice was too gay or too femme. The more I could invisiblize myself the better. And now as a trans-feminine person, if I’m doing the femme thing I won’t really speak in public. That context of terror hasn’t really changed in the show space. There’s more support behind it but in the 15 seconds I have I can’t undo all that shit at once. But at the same time I feel like in general the banter in SBSM is never really dogmatic, which feels good to me. We don’t really have any slogans to champion. We’re just sharing our feelings. Not everything we say is necessarily relatable and sometimes it’s a downer for people. But it’s not really for us to change anyone’s minds about anything. It’s sort of an offering. The gesture in itself is just maybe to empower or inspire someone else to be vocal themselves.

I always like how on your bandcamp under the bio it just says “Mexico. Iran. Japan.” Besides being places that your families from, what is the significance of that? How does your heritage factor into playing in SBSM? Sep: The Mexico Iran Japan thing was actually originally just a joke that we thought was super funny.

Rosie: It’s like, this whole thing where we’re making music and it’s hard to explain it. It’s this complex thing, and people are always trying to figure it out. We’re recording our music and people are having a hard time recording it. We’re three individual people who have a lot of emotions, a lot of process, and now we’re doing a Bandcamp. That bio space just doesn’t have enough capacity for us to individually express ourselves. What are we going to say about our music? We don’t even fucking know. What do we choose to say about ourselves? Maybe we’re just not clever enough but I think that in a way just saying Mexico Iran and Japan really speaks to where we’re coming from. There is this way that genres and certain identifiers like POC and queer are umbrella terms. They homogenize these identities and in reality I could be like, yeah I’m Latinx but what does that mean? Where am I from? Yeah Rola’s Asian but what does that say about Rola? And like, Sep’s a Persian mermaid but like…

Rosie: You can say, oh these people are people of color, but I think that just being simple and straightforward is just being honest. That also speaks to the fact that our identities are important and we’re not going to go too deep into it, we’re just going to put this thing out. And it was funny - we laughed a lot about it. It’s complicated.

Sep: When you’re identified as a POC band, all nuance is lost. A lot of things get dichotomized, like, you’re white or you’re a POC. A lot of shit is embedded in those terms. Like a lot of people think queerness is synonymous for safety, or like if you’re a POC band then you epitomize certain things. A lot of nuance is lost in there. I’m fucking from Iran. I look super white or whatever but I was born there and when I moved here I experienced a lot of racism. But nowadays because of my Westernization I fit in more. So my material oppression isn’t in regards to race really so much as it is what’s lies within me, which is this rage against Western imperialism and this consuming diaspora that I have … The heritage thing of course influences me because my parents are persian musicians.

Rola: We amongst ourselves have talked a lot about our individual experiences growing up and the ways that we maneuver ourselves through where we live now; the ways that the categorization of people of color fails all of us. My mom is Japanese and my dad is white. A lot of my rage that informs the way I make music comes from how I understand my multiracial body in relation to transnational capitalism and white supremacy. Until recently, I felt bad about the ways we would flippantly explain ourselves with something like “MEXICO IRAN JAPAN,” but I think there is some power in that when it’s used well. Where we are like, “you want us to have a clear answer for the white man? There isn’t one, so fuck you.” Every day we are asked to accommodate patriarchy and capitalism.

Rosie: Even just in terms of our Bandcamp, none of us have figured out a Paypal so we lose all the money that we are given. It asks us to describe our a band so we give it what is really simple and true. I talk about my mother a lot and my relationship to my women in my life, and those are Mexican women. I am first generation chicanx so my mother and grandmother came from Mexico and there have been no men present in my life and that is important to me. I should go to Mexico and be there. That heritage has literally paved a lot of my identity and my feelings and the work that I do and the ways that I focus my energy. Not just where I focus my energy but the ways that I focus my energy. In a way we can all talk about race, gender and sexuality, but we come from different cultures. Our families raised us and we draw influence from these places.

For people who are not familiar, can you introduce Scream Queens? Sep: Scream Queens is a project that started three years ago. Our anniversary is this month. Back in Santa Cruz I had a radio show called “Queertureclash” and Rosie had a show called “Female Fronted Post Punk.” And then through our friendship we figured out that we had a lot of similar tastes. And then we came to Oakland.

Rosie: We joined Berkeley Liberation Radio and pretty much started making playlists that were exclusively queer/female; everything but cis straight males. We wanted to be politically driven too and we wanted it to be a place where we could talk about our feelings. Whether it’s break-ups or any other personal thing. We also started a Tumblr to post our playlists and get people involved. The music that we play is generally dark wave, electroclash, no wave, queercore,punk, post-punk, noise, some synth pop, bedroom pop.

Sep: We like to bump our friends’ shit. We also do interviews with local bands and we transcribe the material into zines. Those are actually a lot of work, but when we get around to it we try to distro them. Rola and Maria from Ragana are helping us start a distro.

I think radio shows / the history of punk and radio is really interesting, but there isn’t a tremendous amount of talk about the relevance of radio today. What is it about radio that is particularly relevant/fun/effective for you?

Rosie: I think what’s really important about the radio show here and the radio show in Santa Cruz is that it’s pirate radio. So it doesn’t follow the guidelines of FCC and therefore it actually allows for free speech. The unfortunate aspect of it being pirate radio is that it doesn't have the amount of funding to make it more accessible. So it kind of gets relegated to this underground thing for us. Mostly we make it a space for us and our friends to come and hang out and listen to the music that we like and friends can have an outlet to bring their music and have space to talk about it.

Sep: The way that emotions shift throughout the show is so drastic because it is so fun, but a lot of times we know we have some really heavy shit to talk about. We have segments like “Sounds From the Clam” where we have our lesbian friends make clam noises but then we will go into an in depth segment about some tragic state violence story. In the past when we really thought no one was listening to us we would stay there till 4 in the morning and get drunk and kind of just cry. Now that space is reserved for a lot of people who became regulars, it’s special cause the consistency is rare. Everyone’s schedule usually relies on what their work is, and not what is an actually release or an outlet for feelings. Having a set time for that outlet doesn’t exist for most people.

Rosie: People can stream the show from wherever. We have met people that have listened to our show from across the country and even from other countries. I think that it’s extra special that we are not faces and we are just voices and content. Sometimes people will meet us and not know that it’s something that we do and it gets to be a funny secret for us that we can choose to reveal or not.

Visibility is kind of a good segue into the other question. I remember a while ago seeing that you would post an audio post of a song by band and then follow it with a separate post that was a picture of that band. And the thing that Jenna had pointed out to me was that you were noticing that people were seemingly ignoring the audio post and then paying a lot of attention to the pictures. It’s funny that the dynamic came like that because you are a radio show and visibility as such isn’t a part of that because people can’t see you, but then here is the Tumblr page and everyone is reinforcing to the one visible aspect that you give them. I guess that isn’t a question (sorry) but what are your thoughts/feelings on that?

Sep: We are going to finally post a selfie on our Tumblr. We have a 1000 followers now so we are like, “Oh my god we’re here”, and a lot of people on tumblr - the way they get a lot of followers - is to humanize themselves on the internet. It’s kind of cool to remove ourselves as images from Scream Queens. We are figments or just voices. Because of that you don’t get objectified in any way.

Rosie: I think that some Tumblrs are purely aesthetic. Some people just post photos. Some people just want to get the image of the person yelling into the mic, but their art and their music is totally secondary. To us the music is really important, we just put the picture up there to show people what these people look like which is also important because we are trying to subvert the dominant image of cis-straight dude making music.

Sep: Visual representation is really important but mediating between the image of the band and here is the content of their music. It goes back to DIY capitalism or something like that - some people use whatever pushes their thing forward. A lot of bands are simply their visual element.

Rosie: This kind of thing just happens. Because we just love the music so much that is where the frustration comes from. I think the song that we posted was so good - how can you not love that song?!? But that is just what the internet does. You can’t really fault it at some level. That’s why I think being in radio and being faceless is a really special experience, especially when we are getting attention without having to appeal to the people’s aesthetic interests.

Sep: One of the reasons that Scream Queens has a following is that we kind of treat our Tumblr like a local show bulletin board too. We can do whatever we want with Scream Queens which is really great.

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