Drummer for the hardcore band RHIZOME, Nicole Dunn and I went to the same high school in Concord, CA, a sprawling suburb only about 45 minutes from San Francisco but light years away in terms of issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Since then Nicole has played drums for several notable metal and hardcore bands including PROVOS and CLOAK, and has become an outspoken voice around trans and feminist issues. Here Nicole talks about what it’s been like making music in a feminist hardcore band, transitioning within a traditionally close-minded and conservative scene, and shifting gender values in the hardcore-punk and metal communities.
Matt L. Roar: Hi Nicole! I’m super excited to interview you. Can you start off by talking about your current musical endeavors and other recent projects? What have you been working on? What are you excited about?
Nicole Dunn: Hey Matt! I’m excited to do this interview with you because we go way back. Time flies. I’ve been trying to get some more musical projects going here and there but as of now, I’m drumming for Rhizome. Rhizome has become the punk band I’ve always wanted to be in. Female fronted, lyrics about the patriarchy within hardcore and fast and pissed off! We should be touring in the summer so I’m excited for that. I also started recently jamming with two awesome girls and this dude on vocals. The project is like heavy ‘77 style punk so I’ll keep you posted on that. I also was in a black metal band called Cloak but had to call it quits because I’ve really been trying to focus on this significant shift in my life and they wanted a lot out of me I couldn’t give them. I wanted to pursue other musical endeavors but at a pace that lets me focus on my gender transition as well. Cloak has moved on without me but I’m excited to see what their next release will sound like. I’ve also been doing a radio show for the past couple of years called Cult of Riffs where I play all heavy music. The show is on a internet based radio station called BFF.fm. I don’t think I have any listeners sometimes but it’s fun and keeps me busy, haha.
MLR:Who are some bands you’re currently interested in? Describe your influences!
ND: Wow, don’t know where to start! There’s been so much good punk and hardcore as well as metal happening lately. I love how the politics have drastically shifted and gender non-conformity is praised. I, personally, have not experienced that until recently. Current bands I’ve been listening to a lot lately are this post-punk band from Boston called Dame. I’ve been jamming the demo tape a lot recently. Also, this death metal band from Quebec called Chthe’ilist just put out a new album. It’s pretty much Demilich worship with Seinfeld bass. Other than a few others, I’ve been listening to a lot of older stuff like Strawberry Switchblade, Book of Love, Autopsy and Anti-Cimex.
MLR: Who are some of your favorite feminist musicians, writers, activists and thinkers?
ND: I’ve always been inspired by strong females in bands with fans that are mostly cis-males. Jo Bench from Bolt Thrower has always been inspiring to me. She shreds! As far as drummers are concerned, Mars Sekhmet from the death metal band Antediluvian is incredibly powerful to me. I just saw them live recently and was blown away by her! Also, Marissa Martinez from the grind band Cretin is super inspiring. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her and getting to know her a little and it’s good to know another trans women in the metal scene because there aren’t many of us! As far as writers, lately I’ve been reading The Whipping Girl by Julia Serano. I’ve been told that this is “essential reading” for every trans or non-gender conforming person. I also follow this trans woman journalist, Paris Lees. She’s blunt and hilarious and I find myself agreeing with the way she views things. Reading the writings by these girls have changed the way I view myself and helped me find my purpose in society.
MLR: While the hardcore punk scene we were a part of in our younger days did have some radical queer artists in the mix, there was a lot of blatant sexism/racism/homophobia/etc. I remember touring with you around the Southwest and cis-men yelling out “faggot” during our shows… What has it been like transitioning in this scene?
ND: It’s been so weird but awesome. It’s just funny how things have changed. Deep down I’ve always know I was different but back then I don’t think we thought of the shit that came out of our mouths until we realized it affected someone we cared about. You remember, right? We had a mutual friend who recently came out as gay so we started noticing things like people yelling “faggot” and everyone calling each other gay as an insult. I remember that time being my tipping point. I started having strong politics and watching what I said. I noticed how people communicated within hardcore and decided I didn’t want to be a part of that. Around 2011 was a time when I really decided I was going to deal with my feelings. I started getting really involved with punk and hardcore again around 2013 when I started a band called Provos. During this time, I was seeing a therapist and talking about how I wanted to transition but didn’t start hormone therapy until 2014. Six months in, I stopped because I was scared of my future reality but after more therapy and the estrogen leaving my system, I realized it was a life or death situation for me. I started transitioning in January 2015 and I have no regrets. The past year has been amazing. My transition has really become a filter of who and who not to have in my life. I’ve lost contact with some people but, surprisingly, I haven’t lost many people in my life and have gained many new friendships. I feel like a lot of people view someone transitioning as someone being true to themselves. That’s as honest as it gets so the friendships I’ve acquired since starting HRT have been the most sincere and trusting.
MLR: I do remember. That was an important lesson for me as well. Do you feel like there’s been a shift regarding gender consciousness and feminist consciousness in the hardcore and metal scenes in the last several years?
ND: In January 2015, a trans woman fronted band called G.L.O.S.S. released a demo that changed the way people view gender in the hardcore punk scene. I’ve had the pleasure of playing with this band a couple of times but I feel like this band is truly changing the dynamic of the hardcore scene. Since then, I’ve been noticing more queers and gender non-conformers getting involved with hardcore than ever before. It’s bizarre because the same people who I felt alienated around are now up front singing along to a trans woman-fronted band. Most people get involved with punk/hardcore because they feel different than “normal” society, right? Looking back, I felt just as different in the punk/hardcore scene as I did in the real world. It’s just funny how sometimes the world shifts in a way where you don’t have to conform to it but it conforms to you.
MLR: I saw that Rhizome has a tape coming out from Transylvanian Tapes! Congrats! What has people’s reception to your band been like?
ND: It’s been pretty positive so far! I think the response will be better when we have the physical tapes out which will be any day now. The people at live shows have been super responsive though. People are telling me it’s the best they’ve ever heard me play. I started the band with my friend Kevin who was in Provos with me so we already had our place in the hardcore scene but I always felt like no one truly cared about Provos. James from Transylvanian Tapes put out the Cloak demo and even though they put out 99% metal, he was willing to take a chance on a hardcore band which I’m super thankful for. One of the most sincere and kind dudes I know that only wants to help out bands because he genuinely cares.
MLR: You mentioned that Rhizome’s lyrics address misogyny/sexism within the hardcore scene. Can you give us a lil sample of some lyrics and what they mean to you?
ND: The lyrics are coming from a feminist standpoint. Lilly, our vocalist, writes lyrics about men within the hardcore scene feeling obligated to stay current with the trends even if it involves faking your whole persona. There are men out there that I know personally who have said offensive shit about women and have a history of being abusive (physically and verbally) who are now preaching about gender/sexual equality and embracing femininity like it’s the current fashion trend. This is how we live our lives and to pose as an ally at your convenience is bullshit, and these people need to be called out. I’m glad punk is changing but there are still people who think it’s okay to dabble in every social circle when they really just need to step the fuck back and let the people who are truly ostracized by society take the lead. I also wrote a song about the contrast between people who are into punk because it’s a social outlet and the people who are into it because they have nowhere else to go. I feel like we are trying to touch on subjects that are taboo within our social circles.
MLR: Do you ever miss Concord? ( :
ND: I miss the old days a lot but I’m more excited for the future because of who I’ve become over the past couple of years. San Francisco has changed a lot so it’s nice to go back to Concord once in awhile to get away from my everyday reality, but then you realize how ignorant people can be over there then you’re like, “Fuck, I need to get back to SF.” Haha.
MLR: Do you still skate? Why were your trucks SOOO tight?
ND: Dude, I’ve always ridden with tight trucks. Helps with speed wobbles, yah know? I still skate around the neighborhood, like to the store and stuff. I was at the skatepark not too long ago and nailed a sick backside boardslide on a long rail. Feels good to know I still kinda got it.
MLR: Any words of wisdom for kids like you growing up in places like Concord? Words for the hardcore punk scenesters of the universe?
ND: Be true to yourself and know where you belong. You don’t have to be accepted by everyone in your community. It’s okay to say things that are going to piss off some of your friends. If people don’t accept you for speaking out then it’s not worth knowing them.