High Tension's Karina Utomo On Why It's Heavy Being A Girl In Metal
Karina Utomo has been doing her thing as the singer for metal/punk/hardcore band High Tension for a minute now. The heavy music enthusiast has a scream that will make your ears bleed (in the best possible way), but her talents don't end there: she's also part of the No Order Market/Slow Waves crew, has guest-hosted Triple J's The Racket and is about to step up as the host of Broadly's new video series Broadly Meets, just casually. One thing's for sure — she's worked damn hard to get where she is.
While being a woman in the metal scene shouldn't be a thing, unfortunately there's still work to be done in making the community a safer place for people who aren't men. Back in June, an incident occurred at a High Tension gig where a male audience member groped a female attendee. As well as calling it out at the time, Karina wrote a Facebook post addressing the misogyny of the metal scene that attracted a lot of attention and made her the target of trolls.
We caught up with Karina to get the 411 on what went down, what needs to change and why working with women is the best thing ever.
Nadia Bailey: You've come up against some pretty shitty behaviour recently, where a male audience member groped one of the female attendees at a High Tension show. Can you tell me a bit about that situation?
Karina Utomo: It was an incident that really shook me up, because that was the first time that anything like that had happened at one of our shows. One of the things I do when we play is I always look at every person's face in the crowd. It's half performance, but it's half risk-assessment as well. If I can see everyone and make eye contact with them, I can usually tell if there are creeps in the crowd. On that particular night, I saw this guy and he was being unnecessarily close to a few of the girls at the front, so I already kept my eye on him. And when I saw that there was something not right, I asked this girl what was going on and she told me. And all I had to say to [the perpetrator] was, "I think you should leave." But then after the fact I was like, now that guy just gets to go home. He got kicked out but he can just come back into the venue again another time and do the same thing to a different girl. That's why I felt so shaken up, because that girl could have been me. It could have been any of the other girls. And there are so many women who've had a similar experience to that.
I think that because our approach has always been about embracing the positive, we never had any concerns or hesitations about really simple things like the safety of our audience or even my own personal safety. I've been going to hardcore shows since I was 18 or maybe younger, and what really shook me up about the incident was that you feel like you've been betrayed. You've built up this trust with the community that you love so much and you put so much trust into the audience and for someone to do that to someone else, is just… What it trigged, over the course of four days, was all of the bad memories and all of the constant fighting I've had to do in the past to fight for my place. There was a lot of reflection, a lot of sadness and a lot of feelings of guilt. I think it was the first time that I'd cried on tour.
So after it happened, we were like what could have the venue done differently? What could we have done differently? What made it really difficult to digest is when you're constantly focusing on the positive and riding this positive wave, you forget that these things happen all the time and there needs to be action taken. After this incident, I realised I have to be a little bit more transparent about talking about the bad experiences as well as talking about the good ones. I don't want to create a façade for the sake of being positive. I felt really guilty about any of the times that I have been like that. I haven't lied about my experiences but the culture [of misogyny] hasn't changed — that's the issue. Women are always going to have it harder. Even now, with women having more visibility and fighting for it, it's the same people that will not let us have our place.
I remember when I used to go to hardcore gigs when I was young, dudes would say things like, "No clits in the pit."
Yeah! That's something that Marty from Carpathian used to say, and this is a frontperson of a band. It's awful. That's the kind of attitude that's stopping women from wanting to come to shows and wanting to participate. They can't prove that more men love metal and therefore there are more men [in the scene] — I think that's total bullshit. I meet so many women who are completely into heavy music. The women who have decided not to come to shows anymore [have done that] because of that very attitude. These really backwards attitudes like, "If you can't handle the pit, don't go in the pit." And it's like, well actually, it's not that I can't handle it, but I have the right not to be sexually assaulted.
What I've realised is that some dudes just won't listen to my voice [because I'm a woman]. And when I came to that realisation, I felt a bit defeated. But then I thought, if we can get people like Winston from Parkway Drive, who has like a million followers on Facebook, and they have a younger, predominantly male audience, if he can be part of this shift [towards inclusivity], then that's probably going to be more effective than me getting exhausted and being called a femi-nutter.
It goes back to the issue of being open with your feminist views. Because our fans are 60 to 70 per cent male, we need to be talking to them in a different way that doesn't make them feel isolated. Our approach is to just get on with it and play the best possible live show every time and have that as our focus. That's our way of getting to them, rather than being highly politicised and trying to push feminist views on them. It's stuff that they'll understand later. It might be things that they'll digest slowly if we do it in our own way.
It's interesting that it's a lot to do with the way things are said as much as what's being said. I think for a lot of people who haven't necessarily engaged in feminist discourse, they don't know the language. It's very easy for us talk about intersectionality, but for your average person, that can be very alienating.
Completely. In this particular instance, I'm feeling the weight of how women feel isolated, but then I might be completely isolating someone else because they might not have had been brought up that way, they might not have had access to the same type of education or had any mates to talk to about this kind of thing. It just kind of puts you back in your place. But there's been some awful, awful stuff going on in that world — not just around heavy music, but across all industries. But especially in music, where a lot of women are really underrepresented.
It also reminds me of something that Meredith [Graves] from Perfect Pussy said, which is that you have to constantly prove that you're worthy of participating or liking something, and constantly being questioned about your authenticity. That's something that happens to girls all the time in the music scene. And it creates so much anxiety. When I got asked to host The Racket a few times, I've never been so nervous in my life — not even when we play shows — because I can feel these disapproving men out there thinking that they probably deserve the job more than me and questioning if I'm even a fan of metal, or how much metal do I know, or am I going to play the right type of metal. I think that's something that happens to a lot of women when they try to participate in these industries where the visibility of women is not very high.
That's why I think it's important to get the guys more involved [in the conversation] — people like Winston, for example, because so many kids look up to him. He's a really positive person and he writes about important stuff and he works hard. Promoters have a really big responsibility too. I mean, everyone has a responsibility, but at this time, I feel like it's really, really valuable when guys can say something for the other guys.
You have some new band members in High Tension, is that right?
Yeah, our old guitarist, Ash Pegram has left. He was in High Tension from the start, and I've been his friend and been in three bands with him since we were in high school in Canberra. One of the things that I saw throughout our friendship was he really struggled with finding a partner. So anyway, he came to us and said, "I've got this opportunity with my work to go to London and I really want to move," and everyone was like, "Yeah, of course!" So we were all really stoked for him. And it was so funny, because he moved to London and met this guy, and they got married. Like, within a couple of months! I'm so happy for him because I know that [finding a partner] was a big thing for him, and I know that for a lot of my gay friends, it can be even harder to find someone if that's what you want to do.
Mike Deslandes, our new guitarist, is someone we worked really closely together on our last album and I've known him for a long time. He plays in a couple of really amazing bands and he's an awesome person, so we already had so much respect for Mike. It's been quite different — the way he plays and his sound is quite different [from Ash]. But it's a good change, and you can't really compare the two, but it does give us different nuances in the way that we sound. Now we're starting to write together, it's a totally different approach which I'm excited about too.
We've also got a new drummer — her name's Lauren Hammel. Our previous drummer, Damian Coward, had an opportunity to move to Perth, also for love [laughs]. It's really funny that both of them left the band to pursue love interests. We met Hammel — we just call her Hammel —when we were shooting the video clip for 'Bully', which was all an all-female cast, aside from the members of the band. I remember just being like, "Who is this girl? She's so rad!" She definitely brought a lot of really positive energy and was so much fun to be around. She was a bit reluctant [to audition] actually. She was really modest and didn't think she'd be right because she plays in a punk band. We're still punk, I guess, but we're more on the heavier or more metal side. She was a bit hesitant, she didn't think that her abilities were up to it, but she outshone everyone.
Has having another woman in the band changed how it's felt for you?
Definitely, in the most incredible way possible. It's been really valuable to have another woman [in the band], especially someone like Hammel. There's the feminine aspect of how we do things — like, we both have a similar routine before we perform, which is tons of practicing and going to the bathroom heaps [laughs]. So it's good to have someone who understands the process that you have to go through and the anxieties that you get. We collaborate on a lot of solutions together as well. As supportive and incredible as Matt and Mike are — and I can totally talk to them about anything — I guess it's just a different connection altogether when you have another woman who you're collaborating with.
It's strange, my work outside of the band has always been working with women but for some reason with music, it's harder to find other girls to collaborate with. I mean, there are incredible women from all corners of the world creating all kinds of incredible stuff but they don't really get the time of day. But I can't recommend working with other women enough.
Photography: James J Robinson