There’s this tree growing behind my apartment that took me five years to really notice. It’s huge. Twenty feet taller than our three-story building, with dense leaves, a squirrel’s nest, and a rotating cast of birds. I don’t understand why I took it for granted for so long. Maybe I needed to live in New York City for a few years before I realized how special it was to have an epic, dynamic, vital being growing in your backyard. Anyway, Meghan O’Neil Pennie, the lead singer and bassist of Super Unison, and former lead singer of PUNCH, is like that for me too. Meghan was the big sister of the drummer in my high school punk band. She was always lurking when we practiced in his parent’s living room. In college she was my best friend’s roommate, so we would often cook dinner together and hang. She felt like a family member who had always been around and always would be. So when she started singing for PUNCH, I hardly noticed. I feel stupid about that now. Her vocals on the five(!) PUNCH records released by 625, Deathwish, Discos Huelgas, are so fucking ferocious and unrelenting it hurts my throat and heart to listen. Meghan also has this incredibly powerful stage presence. I’m watching old YOUTUBE videos and found one of her performing at a festival in the Czech Republic and she’s leaping about stage with one broken foot while people stagedive around her. Meghan derived the title of PUNCH’s last record, “They Don’t Have to Believe” from the Kathleen Hanna documentary, The Punk Singer, in which Hanna says “she doesn’t expect everyone to understand or believe in feminism or her personal battle with illness, but they should have to stay out of her way.” Meghan’s work in her new band, Super Unison, continues in this lineage. Her vocals are upfront and unapologetic, slightly more melodic than before, a little less thrash and a little more riot grrrl. Here, Meghan and I talk about her new band, her lyrics, and how she became the musician she is today.
Matt L Rohrer: Hi Meghan! I’m so excited to interview you. I’ve been listening to your new Super Unison EP and old PUNCH stuff all day and am feeling pumped! Do you want to start by describing your current project, Super Unison, how it came about, and where you see it going?
Meghan O’Neil Pennie: A few months after Punch ended, my friend Kevin DeFranco asked if I wanted to sing for a band he was doing and sent me some demos. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be in a band again but I liked what I heard so I agreed to go to a practice and meet the other dudes. I brought up wanting to play bass, not just sing, and he was open to it and at the practice it immediately just clicked. After a couple hours playing together it was just like, ok see you next week, this is the band. At first I did all the singing and bass playing separately, and they really trusted that I would be able to put it together for when we started playing shows.
MLR: People have said you are like a heavy riot grrrl band? Do you identify with that? What bands have influenced this band?
MOP: Riot grrrl has influenced me very much, specifically bands like Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill. Given that influence and my background with Punch, that description makes sense. Other bands we are influenced by are Unwound, Hot Snakes, and Fugazi. We definitely aren’t putting limits on what it is or can be, and I’m excited with what we are writing now for an LP.
MLR: What do you think of the post-punk label? Do you feel like your music has “grown up” with you? I remember reading in an interview with you about PUNCH a while back that your relationship to some of the lyrics has changed over the years. What’s it like having your lyrics catalogued and public over the course of many years, as a lyricist with very personal/political/sometimes-intimate content?
MOP: I hope the music has grown up with me, although I don’t necessarily think that punk/hardcore is more juvenile than post-punk/post-hardcore. It’s just what I want to be playing now. Having a nine-year history of lyrics cataloged through Punch records is a unique and humbling thing. I have songs that I wasn’t as proud of at the time, which were more fleeting message-wise, but mostly I stand by all of it. It’s a history of what I’ve felt, gone through, and observed. Even if I don’t feel the exact same way now that doesn’t discredit that experience. I am especially proud of the ones where I managed to find the positive in the negative. Some are just negative, which is still important and cathartic. Being able to look back and be like, I knew things were going to get better, and they did, is a good feeling. It’s also very interesting and rewarding to have that all be public. As an introvert, to know that people have connected with and given their own meaning to my words is amazing and I never take that for granted.
MLR: What are some things that people have said to you over the years about their connection to your songs that have stuck with you?
MOP: Over the years, people would come up to me at shows and tell them that my lyrics helped them get through a hard time in their life, which always resulted in me giving them a big hug. To be able to connect with someone that way is amazing. Also when women would come up to me and say they were in a band now because of me or thanked me for making them feel more comfortable in hardcore is honestly the best thing I got out of the band. I’m almost tearing up thinking about that. To me that’s what it’s all about. I’m not the first woman in music and I don’t want to be the last.
MLR: Who are some of your favorite feminist musicians/writers/thinkers/bands?
MOP: I just last night finished reading Kim Gordon’s memoir and I found it to be very inspirational. Any woman who is proudly themself and makes space for and supports ALL women is a hero to me.
MLR: Who are some current bands you’re really into?
MOP: Chelsea Wolfe, Good Throb, Everybody Row, Makthaverskan, Creepoid, The Exquisites, Royal Headache, and Sheer Mag.
MLR: I was so excited and proud when PUNCH was on Girls. How did that happen? What do you think of that show?
MOP: That was so crazy! We just randomly got an email. I still don’t really understand how they found us. I had never seen the show before that, but I was excited that it was a show that was made by so many women. I ended up watching a lot of episodes so that I had the context for our scene. I threw a little viewing party at a friend’s house and I have to say seeing it air and hearing our song was one of the most surreal things to ever happen to me. The song was like three years old at that point so I had heard and played it countless times so it was like…can you all hear it too?! Haha.
MLR: Can you talk about what it’s like growing up in such a musical family? Having a brother that’s such a rad drummer and a dad that plays music? (Do your mom and sis play music too?) How did you find your way to becoming the incredible punk singer that you are?
MOP: My mom plays the piano, my sister played the trumpet for a bit when she was younger, but my dad and brother are definitely the most musical of us. I think it hindered me a bit when I was younger because I tried to play guitar in high school and it didn’t click so it felt like, they were the natural musicians and that just wasn’t in the cards for me. But then seeing what my brother did in punk music, and going to shows with him had a big influence. We were super close growing up and always listened to music together and went to places like 924 Gilman St. together. Being shy didn’t help but finally when I was 23 I did feel comfortable ‘trying out’ for what would become Punch. Fronting a band really helped me grow as a person, and years later, after picking up the bass and gaining confidence in that, I finally feel like a musician.
MLR: It’s so strange to hear you say that you’ve just started to feel like a musician, because you’re clearly so good at what you do and you’ve had such a positive response to your singing and lyrics. But I’m glad you do now! I feel like the hardcore scene we were involved in was very male-dominated. There were obviously some great female-fronted bands, but they were very few in number comparatively. Do you feel like that was a factor in you feeling this way?
MOP: I don’t think it had to do with me being a woman, more that I still didn’t know how to play an instrument. I think because I compared myself to my dad and brother I felt like screaming into a microphone didn’t qualify as a musician, but I disagree with that now.
MLR: I really love the lyrics to “Do It Yourself.” It gets me excited to make things and send emails. Can you talk about that song? How you came to it….
Lyrics from “Do It Yourself”:
The world doesn’t owe you shit.
The universe doesn’t know you exist.
Stop waiting for things to happen.
Only you can make a change.
MOP: Yeah, that song came about thinking about entitlement and people sitting back and waiting for their lives to just happen to them, and feeling disappointed when it didn’t. A year or two before writing this I had dinner with a friend who’s very positive and he was telling me his life mantras, one being “the universe doesn’t know you exist,” which really stuck with me, and I later wrote the song expanding on that idea. He wasn’t in punk and we kind of lost touch. I ran into him a while back and told him about the song and he thought it was really cool. If I see him again I’ll tell him it was on Girls, haha.
MLR: Do you have any words of wisdom for the young feminist musicians/punx of the future?
MOP: Be yourself. Don’t get wrapped up in negative things people may say about you; that reflects more on them than it does on you. Find your own happiness and your own confidence.
Check out Super Unison’s Bandcamp page here. 7″ due out in November!