As part of Equalise My Vocals, a new Spinoff project focusing on equality in the music community, Coco Solid speaks with musician and multi-disciplinary punk Sarsha-Leigh Douglas.
Sarsha-Leigh Douglas (Ngāti Maru, Te Arawa, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Kahungunu) is a local punk icon with an array of bands, underground projects and achievements under her heavy belt. Based in Newtown, Wellington, Douglas is a cult multi-instrumentalist (Freak Magnet, Rogernomix, Bonecruncher, Fantails, TVX) having worked in every punk facet ranging from zine distribution, to screen-printing and event organising.
In 2014, Douglas flexed this skillset even further with her masters thesis Outcasts and Orchestrators: Finding Indigeneity in Aotearoa Punk Culture. Through her research, Douglas unpacked experiences of proud indigenous and diaspora punks across the New Zealand medium.
A low-key legend in her cut, I caught up with Sarsha in Newtown to discuss how Māori identity and wahine power have impacted her life in local music.
Coco Solid: So you’re originally from Gisborne. You lived all over the country before putting down roots in Newtown, Wellington. What makes this the hub for you?
Sarsha-Leigh Douglas: I think Wellington is where I found my political and musical base. That was always building over the years but… the people and environment in Wellington sits well in terms of how I interact with music – the political, social and holistic way I look at it. I’ve been here for over a decade now and it’s the best situation for me.
So some of the punk projects that you’ve gotten off the ground during that decade have been pretty solid. Freak Magnet, Rogernomix… you’ve been in dozens of cool projects. And there’s your former band Fantails that was a big influence for homegirls like me…. an all wahine punk band with kaupapa Māori ideas underpinning it.
Fantails was my little baby, I guess. It’s where I solidified my Māori kaupapa and my punk side of things… and it all sort of meshed together in Fantails. I was the driver so those personal ideas came to the forefront. It still surprises me that our band was a rarity in the sense that it was one of the only punk bands locally that had Te Reo in it.
Fantails artwork was something I will always remember too.
A lot of the artists we know were women and we have a lot activist type peeps around us. The imagery for our last album was done by artist Sera Helen. It’s a representation of Hine-nui-te-pō and when Maui looked to cheat death by going through her vagina. I asked Sera to do the cover and I said it would be cool to merge the feminine thing of the group with the Māori kaupapa. It’s a pretty brutal image but strong and I’m a definite fan of Hine-nui-te-pō.
Hine-nui-te-pō hard. Do you think in the punk music cuts you move in, they’re quite male dominated…. do you think these traditionally feminine ideas, aesthetics are an issue… or is it all good?
I think there’s some tension with the feminine elements I guess. Femininity is a loaded word too, culturally what does that mean? It’s culturally constructed… the way dominant society views what is feminine is different to what I see as feminine in my whanau groups… the strong women that I was raised by.
Was it a matriarchal family?
Absolutely. I’ve been surrounded by strong women throughout my life. It’s kind of a given for me. I’ve always gravitated to themes and assumptions that women are valued and women are present. I think that’s a part of the reason I found my feet in punk, particularly in Wellington. There are always women present, and quite dominantly so. Bands, organising, it’s not an anomaly to see us.
That’s not indicative of punk in general because I’ve travelled to other places where that would be unusual. I think growing up with mana wahine is a stalwart of how I look at things, I go where people are down with the kaupapa. Down with the kau-papz.
(Both crack up)
How did you get into the kau-papz and into the music?
I grew up with lots of music in my upbringing. When my Mum was doing house-cleaning she would plug in the headphones, put her records on and sit us down to listen. Kate Bush, Deep Purple… me and my sister would rock out while she cleaned. I only really started playing instruments in high school. I learned from friends and family, my Grandpop played the fiddle, guitar, piano… all sorts.
It’s not just the musical part of punk you’re invested in. You started an official zine library, you do a lot of local screen-printing projects, tell me about how it leads and bleeds into other interests.
That’s another reason punk attracted me, there are so many layers and elements that permeate. The whole political thing… it’s not just about the music. The DIY thing is so empowering, the acknowledgment that you can publish your own media and find friends who record stuff and release work that way – you don’t have to get signed. It doesn’t put limits on you.
Creating your own world is so important, waiting for the approval of others isn’t the one but it’s so common for a lot of wahine to think they need to be co-signed.
That’s not the case in the circles I move in. It’s great. I do the zine distro sporadically and with the screen printing we make our own merch and tshirts. We collaborate with artists and other bands, we adapt each other into our music, fashion, style.
When you moved on and did your masters ‘Finding Indigeneity in Aotearoa Punk Culture’ was that natural for you to combine your cultural, creative and academic lives? That must have been awesome.
It was pretty exciting. It actually took my supervisors to suggest it. They said I didn’t have to go down the steady road of academia if I didn’t want to. Saying I should do something relevant and passionate for me…. something that hadn’t been done before it needed to be pertinent to now. Punk and Maoridom are important to my lifestyle and how I view the world so it was exciting to actually do that.
What were some of the outcomes that came from researching indigenous people in local punk that stick in your mind? Not results per say, but maybe ideas, key tensions or positives.
Looking back on it, it’s a pretty intense thing to talk about and get people involved in. People I talked to for the project were really enthusiastic. Getting their views about how they interact with punk and finding out there were so many similarities to what we were all experiencing was really nice. Making those connections. I think it got a little bit of exposure and even going overseas, I’ve had people bring it up with me. So it’s seeped into the conscience in terms of how we look at punk and how we see our indigenous people participating in it.
Being that you gravitate towards worlds where women have a certain sovereignty and for you that’s punk as a realm… what are some of the things that frustrate you locally?
There’s heaps of frustrating stuff, it’s not perfect at all. I still get idiots being racist in the punk scene. Although you can say ‘they’re just trying to get a reaction, provoking and pushing buttons’ it’s so tiring. Having been in these scenes for ages and having it happen all the time, then a new generation comes through and they still have those old school ideas of how ‘real punks’ provoke people – namely the chaotic nihilist vibe. It’s not how I see punk at all.
One thing I love about you as an artist is that you don’t seem to have something to prove. You have a pretty secure energy onstage and in your work… is that something you feel or something you just thankfully project?
To a degree, I genuinely feel that way. I have ability in that I play music alright, I love playing music so it can override a lot of the tensions and negativity that might get thrown my way. It usually doesn’t hit me because I’m secure in the fact I have sweet peeps around me, loving the music I play.
Activism underpins a lot of the creative work, so what are some of the struggles specifically that you’re always looking to shine a light on and challenge as an artist?
My over-riding theme is equality and respect. For people and whenua. That shows in a personal way in my work. I think about indigenous rights, Māori rights a lot because there’s still a shit-tonne of work there. And we are by no means equal as seen by the law. Colonisation is still dominating our culture and voice.
Do you see an imbalance of gender in the worlds you move in?
Yeah definitely. I’ve placed myself in a semi-safe place, where I feel it doesn’t really touch me but I see it is there. I still get what a lot of wahine get, “you play alright for a girl” and all that sort of stuff. That still crops up.
It’s pretty laughable for you… considering you’re a deadly musician and so are all your wahine friends.
It’s gotten to the point that I just laugh it off and probably… never talk to that person again?
(Both crack up)
What are some of the ideal outcomes that you want to see? I mean… we’re in a political age where a lot of these punk ideologies are becoming visible, accessible and normalised. Especially for young people, people of all cultures, genders, orientations…. these ideas aren’t restricted to the supposed ‘P.C gone mad’ brigade anymore either.
Well these ideas keep popping up throughout history so there must be something in it. I think the act of ‘doing’ is what I love. A Māori woman, playing punk, having a good time…. it isn’t blatantly putting a message out there vocally, but the more people see that in action the more I can help those conversations come to the forefront. I want to inspire people to have a good time, because it’s important now too.
I meant to ask you…I was a show of yours once and a fight broke out in the pit.
Which show was that?
Fantails last show.
Oh yeah. That one!
(Both crack up)
It just ruptured in front of us. I was at ground level and I thought I was gonna get smashed. And you were up there saying “alright calm the hell down.” And I’m thinking this volatile shit in punk isn’t super common… but it’s common enough for you to say ‘which show was that’ right.
Totally. It’s not unheard of.
How do you navigate that aspect of the culture, where confrontation and being volatile physically, these aren’t necessarily taboos.
I usually try and keep away from that side of it, not in a way that denies it… but just for my own safety. If I’m onstage and there’s a fight right in front of me I can’t just stand there and let it happen. So that comes back to the whole equality, respect thing… that drives the way I want to be. To have integrity with your beliefs and your follow through. I don’t always execute this but I aspire to be better at this every time.
I’d like to somehow, through my music and me being in the scene, help get rid of those elements that I don’t think are helpful. I can see where it’s coming from but punk traditionally did – and still does – attract those frustrated outsider behaviours because punk tends to attract the disenfranchised that don’t belong elsewhere. There’s bound to be that aggravation and tension.
How do you work around assumptions that you might attract as a multi-instrumentalist, a woman, a Māori, a punk? You’re going to attract a few I’d suspect.
I don’t get it that often but there is a part of my brain that knows that kind of ‘logic’ is out there. Again, someone will say ‘you can actually play bass ok for a woman’ or ‘I haven’t seen a female playing lead guitar before’. And I’m thinking….really? You haven’t?
Now you have.
I think the flipside to that is young women coming up who have never been to a punk show before and they see women up there doing it. They’ll come up to me after and say “I’m so inspired, that was so amazing, thank you so much!”.
So that novel appreciation goes both ways, but it’s two different approaches.
I guess with punk philosophies, you avoid music industry conventions. What is about traditional music industry systems that repel you?
I think it’s the lack of control. Also how mainstream standards permeate those institutions. They manipulate image and manipulate sound away from where you might want to go. To be honest, I haven’t much to do with the industry, this is just what I’ve seen through other music peers. That puts me off from the get-go. When you have the whole DIY thing and talented people to help you out, then it’s all good. It’s still exciting for me to produce things in that way.
So is your music another way for you to maintain your sovereignty?
Absolutely. With colonisation, we’ve had to give up so much that… I don’t plan to let go of any more control.
Equalise My Vocals is a panel event and music showcase on gender equality in music happening in May 2017. As part of the project, Coco Solid will be conducting a series of interviews for The Spinoff, talking to a wide range of women, transgender and non-binary people, within all sectors of New Zealand music. Overall this project is about sharing stories and pooling knowledge and experience, while building a rolodex of resources for music-lovers (of all genders) who might need them in the future.
Read more here:
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.