By Kristy Diaz
“We have never been the cool band” Carly Comando laughs. She’s referring to an essay I wrote, ‘Why I’m no longer a punk rock ‘cool girl’’, which explores gendered notions of what it is to be ‘cool’ in punk, internalised misogyny, and how women are often not taken seriously as fans or as active contributors in music. It was shared widely by a number of women involved in punk.
A follow-up piece was never intended. But when Carly reached out with words of encouragement on Twitter after reading the essay, it felt important to discuss it with someone that has had such an influence on the scene by speaking out on similar issues; someone with a shared understanding.
“[the essay] was something I identify with as a female participant in my music community, but it’s also very much an experience that my band shares.”
Carly Comando is one half of Bethlehem, PA’s Slingshot Dakota, a two-piece indie-pop-rock band in which she leads piano and vocals alongside drummer (and husband) Tom Patterson. Coming from a punk rock background – with the DIY ethos to match – they tour with punk bands but don’t play punk music. Carly plays the piano rather than a guitar, which she claims “is not a cool instrument.”
Signed to Topshelf Records, the band released their third record Break in 2016. It’s a deeply personal, intimate record rather than an overtly political one. Yet, recently, Comando seems to have taken on the unofficial role of spokesperson for, and champion of, inclusivity in punk rock. Undoubtedly one of the most prominent issues in this scene we call home; the tide is moving forward, but not without a wave of resistance. It isn’t an easy ride.
She acknowledges the constant fight she’s up against: “I’m trying to have these productive conversations without people getting mad and worked up. People that have never been in your shoes get really defensive right away when you’re trying to call something out and make a change.”
In January, Slingshot Dakota was instrumental in raising the profile of an online project called ‘FCK YOUR BOYS CLUB’, a repository of bands that include marginalised people; in particular, women, people of colour, and LGBTQI members.
The project was a response, a stuffed envelope of receipts, to an oft-repeated argument that these bands don’t have visibility because they simply do not exist. Clearly, that isn’t the case.
“Here’s a thousand-plus bands that came together in a day, by everyone putting it together, not by one dude sitting and doing it. This is completely community-based. People pitched in and helped out.”
It was DIY punk at its best: a brilliant display of collaborative, positive action for communal gain. But even the most positive of acts are never free from criticism or the echoes of ‘well, actually’ that reverberate across social media platforms everywhere. It’s a dance Comando is familiar with.
“Well some of the bands on that list don’t tour, and some of the bands on that list aren’t good,” she said, impersonating one such commenter convincingly. “And it’s like, oh my gosh, I can give you a list of white dude bands that aren’t good but somehow have more popularity than any of these bands.”
In a scene where objective ‘quality’ doesn’t always equal demand, it’s hard to argue otherwise. There are unearned privileges – from who gets to make music, to whose music is given attention – at every turn. Punk rock is not a meritocracy.
Taking on this additional role, on top of being a full-time musician undoubtedly takes a toll. When I ask about the emotional labour involved in speaking out, an anxious frustration briefly cuts through her enthusiasm. “It’s exhausting. Positive, but exhausting.”
“The reason that I really started talking about it this year is the US election of President 45.” She can’t bring herself to use his name. “Everyone was really shocked and the general vibe, both in mainstream culture and in our community, was like ‘how did this happen?’ and I’m thinking, look at our own scene – is it inclusive?”
“I wanted people to realise everything starts at a small, local community level. If we can’t have inclusivity of all kinds in our small bubble, this magical arts community where people feel relatively safe, then how would we have those things in mainstream culture?”
“All these tours announced in 2017, I think there was a Jeff Rosenstock/Menzingers one, there’s the You Blew It! one, Modern Baseball, and a festival in California (When We Were Young). They’re all very male dominated, with very few bands with women and people of colour. I say this knowing these bands are my friends. I love a lot of these bands that are touring. I’ve grown up with them, I’m really close with them, and calling out your friends is not fun. At all.”
Slingshot Dakota have been a band for a long time. Formed in 2003, Comando was originally joined by Pat Schramm and Jeff Cunningham of Latterman, before Tom Patterson joined in 2006 to form their current two-piece set up. They’ve seen the cyclical nature of changing scenes and shifting priorities.
“When I first started this band I was just so absorbed with being in love with it that I never viewed it as ‘I’m a girl in this band and I’m going against the norm and making a statement’. I was just in a band with my friends.”
I ask how things have changed since she started out as a musician and how festivals such as When We Were Young, of which the appeal is rooted in the past, might look different in the future. If the same festival ran again in 10 years’ time, would there be a more representative lineup?
It stirs Comando, and she firmly emphasises, “Things could be incredibly good right now, but the sad thing is that a lot of those bands don’t get the push that they need.”
Both underpinning and intersecting with social issues are structural problems at an industry level, contributing to relative invisibility for smaller bands. It’s an age-old issue being tackled by a scene with, arguably, a renewed collective consciousness. She draws a comparison with bands at the more DIY end of the spectrum.
“On a small level, when you’re booking your own tours you have the ability to curate whatever tour that you want, and you do the best that you can with the people that are down to be risk takers. You maybe have guarantees [a pre-agreed fee that a band receives for playing a show, regardless of ticket sales], you maybe don’t, it’s not a production as opposed to a tour that involves a booking agent and managers. When you have a bigger tour and you have a company of people working for you, getting you guarantees [i.e. reducing the financial risk] you have the ability to bring up really cool people with you who are going to get more exposure.”
“I think that’s the reason things have been kind of weird lately. Bands are getting put in really big rooms, and so the focus becomes less on the curation of the event and more how the heck can we sell this thing out?”
Being a touring band, or a promoter, is not without challenges. The associated financial risks are real and well-documented. However, cost-covering is being used as yet another ‘devil’s advocate’ argument against inclusivity.
Comando isn’t buying it. She discusses being invited on tour by Title Fight. “I could be completely wrong, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t bringing us on tour because we were going to sell a ton of tickets. People are going to see that tour because they were going to see Title Fight. Their fans trust them, so whoever they bring, they’re going to give them a chance. I feel like I’m seeing a lot less stuff like that and a lot more of four headlining bands going on tour together so they can sell tickets, and I think that’s problematic and it only feeds this problem. But I do think in 10 years it will get better because we are all calling this stuff out.”
Visibility is a core theme throughout our discussion; of seeing and being seen. From feeling “as if our bands don’t exist” to those critical of her approach and that of her peers, to recognising the importance of seeing yourself represented on stage in the community to which you belong.
“I grew up listening to Dashboard, to Sunny Day Real Estate. I really liked The Offspring. My first concert was Blink-182 followed by Weezer” she states confidently, knowing with hindsight that her influences would change.
“Years later, a friend of mine played Rainer Maria in the car and I stopped. I was like ‘what is this?’ I was completely shocked and amazed. It was the first time I realised ‘oh, I can do this. I can be in a band in this genre and be cool.”
“Sometimes it takes people to see and hear that identity in music. With these tours, there’s this cyclical oppression that happens because people are only inspired by what they see. So they’re going to shows and only seeing four white men, then the audience is going to be predominantly white men.”
Recently, the band has been designing and selling t-shirts, alongside Zoë Allaire Reynolds of Kississippi, to raise money for Lehigh Valley Girls Rock as a practical and proactive way to influence change in the scene.
“Since the election, I’ve been losing my mind on many levels and the main discussion I’ve been having is comparing the institutionalised and socialised misogyny and racism on a larger political mainstream scale, to the low-level music community that I am a part of. So I’ve been having a lot of conversations about how we can do better in the place I spend 90% of my time. And in calling out these tours and having these conversations, I feel even though they’re proactive and coming from a positive place, I end up getting myself in a very negative place because I’m exhausted.
“I wanted to do something where I’m just going to straight up raise money for an organisation and donate to them. The Lehigh Valley chapter of Girls Rock started two years ago, we got to play and sit in the class, and it was incredible. I just wanted to give money somewhere that was going to empower our future generation of youth rockers.”
At the end of the conversation, I ask her what plans are ahead for the band. It feels a little ungracious, to speak in so much detail about the ‘issues’ rather than the music, as though it’s the endnote to what she does. We laugh together, the irony not lost.
When there are no discussions to be had on the internet, between awkward conversations with their friends and fundraising for the next generation of musicians, Slingshot Dakota is a band. And so, they’re continuing to create.
After touring Break, which includes a string of UK dates with Petal in May, they’re hitting the studio later this year to demo new songs. Working the most important shift; you know, making music.
The optimism returns to her voice.
“We’re just going to keep on going because this is what we love to do. Sometimes I’m like, I don’t wanna do this anymore, I’m so tired and everything hurts.”
“It definitely gets painful sometimes when you’re trying to make a difference and you’re a small band, but at the end of the day, I play a show and I experience a show with people. I watch other bands, I meet people and then I realise, heck no, I’m not giving this up. This is everything to me.”