Who Are…Broken Water

Tobi Vail

By Tobi Vail

on 09.04.13 in Who Is...?s

File under: Ethereal and understated punk shoegaze; transformative, cathartic feminist art rock; a hallucinogenic soundtrack to radical punk adulthood

For fans of: Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Unwound, Ride, Helium, Kristin Hersh, and Thalia Zedek

From: Olympia, Washington

Personae: Kanako Pooknyw (drums, vocals), Jon Hanna (guitar, vocals), Abigail Ingram (bass, vocals)

A few years ago, Olympia had a vibrant punk scene full of talented young bands and, while I was excited by the energy of a new era (Gun Outfit, Milk Music, HPP) and liked some of the music quite a bit (White Boss, Sex Vid, Son Skull), I wasn’t into how male-dominated and retro it all felt. Not only did it evoke the sound of ’80s hardcore and art-rock it also brought back the trend of guys-in-bands taking up too much space at shows. Suddenly, being a woman in a band started to feel tokenistic again. Jon Hanna and Kanako Pooknyw formed Broken Water with their friend Abigail Ingram and things changed. Pretty soon feminist punk bands (Hell Woman, Weird TV, Hysterics) took over Olympia and obliterated the dude-centric vibe.

I didn’t consider Broken Water a punk group until I saw them at a local hardcore festival. Before playing their set in a room of clean-cut kids dressed in identical skinny black jeans and brand-new ’80s-hardcore-band T-shirts, Pooknyw took off her clothes, protesting the idea that punk is a uniform that can be bought and sold. This performance was probably pretty freaky for the crowd of mostly teenage boys to witness — who had likely never had sex or even seen an adult woman with body hair naked before — and established Broken Water as a radical feminist punk band with a political agenda. Listening to their noisy, experimental take on guitar-driven shoegaze in this context, the music itself further interrogated the idea of punk as style. The music is loud, but it’s often slow, with pounding bass and drums that build and crash like cresting waves. The vocal melodies are pretty and memorable, but are almost subdued next to the roar of electric guitar. It’s hard to decipher lyrics, an aesthetic choice that emphasizes sound over meaning and creates an atmosphere where pure emotional chemistry is laid bare.

It was fun to sit down and talk with Pooknyw and Hanna about the ideas behind political strategy and reflect on what it means to be a feminist DIY band in 2013.

On DIY ethics and sustainability:

Pooknyw: We’ve self-released our records or collaborated with other independent labels so that we get half of our records. We’ve negotiated alternative terms with smaller labels where we pay for half of production and get half of the record — so if there is a pressing of 1000 records, we get 500 and when that’s done we get the plates and can press the next 4000. That is what has made us sustainable.

Hanna: We book all our tours. We try to make an effort to play all-ages shows in towns that can actually support that. A lot of cities don’t seem to have a DIY all-ages scene.

Pooknyw: We prefer to connect with people who put on shows that have similar politics to us but that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes we just play with bands we are into and realize we have a different ideology and I’m actually open to that.

Hanna: There is a line we’d draw about commercialization and what kind of shows we play — I don’t think we would play a festival sponsored by Scion.

Pooknyw: No.

On their favorite places to play on tour:

Pooknyw: I wanna talk about playing in Minot, North Dakota. They had all these really political books and punk-rock posters and it was just like, you walk into a space and you could tell it was a punk space and you could tell it was a feminist space and you just were safe — and they lived in a working-class neighborhood in a town that has been completely overrun by the fracking industry. That show reminded me of what it was like to live in El Paso and live in a scene where there weren’t that many punks and you stuck together and there was a reason you were on the outside and didn’t fit in because you had criticism of the status quo.

These kids really have each other’s backs. The girls we played with had never played music a year prior, they really wanted to play with other women. They all had kids and were really young and all worked really shitty jobs but they lived to be in their scene and bring bands in from out of town and host — in a really supportive way — and were totally political and totally against fracking and all this fucked-up shit that is going on in their town.

Hanna: I’m gonna talk about the show in New Orleans that Osa set up for us. It was a really good show and we were really stressed out at first because we got a call as we were driving into town that the show had been moved from where it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be in an abandoned strip mall, a generator show — but because someone announced it on the radio there were already like five cop cars when someone went there to start setting stuff up. But it got moved to a punk warehouse and it was great. It was a huge show: There were at least 100 or 200 kids that showed up and the power kept going out during everyone’s set but it felt like a real scene.

Pooknyw: There was a pony in the yard! It was bonkers!

Hanna: There was a pony in the yard. I was pretty blown away by how a show could get so fucked up and then come together as one of the best shows on tour.

On feminist performative strategies for subverting “male freedom”:

Pooknyw: You already have a target on your head, if you are female-bodied in certain audiences. My response to any kind of fucked-up behavior from male audience members — it was always male — was just to yell “male freedom” really loudly at the top of my lungs until they stopped.

Hanna: It happened a lot.

Pooknyw: It would happen a lot. I would yell it in this like kind of monster-truck-rally monster way where you couldn’t talk over my voice because it was just so loud and I would just repeat “male freedom” over and over and over again and there would be giggles from the girls in the front and you know, total embarrassment on so many men’s faces — embarrassed because they know what I’m talking about — and embarrassed that the sound person who is telling me to get naked or something is completely oblivious to the fact that I’m calling him out and making fun of him. I’m just stating, frankly, what I’m experiencing — his ability to not care about anyone else. When I see people laughing I know they are laughing at him they are not laughing at me. A few people were completely stunned. I wasn’t calling them out in a way where they could shut it down or deflect it. It was in a more manipulative or subversive way where they are gonna question what “male freedom” means — that is my hope. There was one drunk dude that just looked so dumbfounded and I was like, I think made a little fissure in the way he’s behaving. I don’t know, am I being too hopeful?

Hanna: No, but it is really frustrating to try to communicate with drunk people, it doesn’t really come across, you can’t really get through.

Pooknyw: Maybe I was just being more obnoxious than them!