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SPEED: This is Sydney Hardcore

“This is Sydney fucking hardcore. Respect each other. Respect this venue. And mosh hard as fuck. It’s a gang called SPEED, baby.”

It seems entirely appropriate that SPEED’s 2020 Flex release show fell on the day Sydney’s newly-announced masked mandates would come into place. Sardined into the ground floor of Sydney’s Burdekin Hotel in late June, apocalypse was in the air. Days later, we’d find ourselves in our most exhaustive lockdown yet.

Amid the unspoken acceptance that this was our last chance to see our friends, let alone watch live music, something special and cosmic happened. The energy was high-octane, inhibitions were shed, bodies flew akimbo. What prevailed was not nihilism, but an overwhelming sense of community; a return to subculture. 

SPEED are a five-piece hardcore band hailing from all corners of Sydney, from the North Shore to Penrith. They are Jem Siow, Aaron Siow, Joshua Clayton, Denis Vichidsvongsa, and Kane Vardon.

I spoke with Jem, Aaron, and Josh at Aaron’s sharehouse in Newtown. The housemates are cultivating a vegetable garden in the backyard; tomatoes, passionfruit, an impressive climbing fig. There’s a painting by Shaun Daniel Allen (who fronts the Yugambeh/Bundjalung hardcore outfit Nerve Damage) hanging in the living room. It’s houseproud and welcoming.

Save Aaron, all members of SPEED are stalwarts of the Australian music scene, cutting their teeth in bands like Endless Heights, Legions, Relentless, Mood Swing, and Wreath.

These bands are lifelong projects. Through them, they’ve experienced the sought-after rites of being a musician: touring internationally, performing in front of thousands on festival main stages, releasing albums through major labels. SPEED as an entity is a different beast; a return to roots, a championing of culture. 

SPEED

Photo by Tahmid Nurullah

From the outset it is clear that SPEED does not exist for the sake of just being a band. Their purpose is startling in its lucidity: they want to keep the hardcore scene that shaped them alive, and ensure the baton gets passed to the next generation.

“The first mission was to be a band that were serious about hardcore, and to put it on people’s radar again,” says Jem. “We wanted people who have either fallen out of it, or who have been waiting for it, or who have no idea about it, to realise that this is something that’s sick.”

Ten years ago hardcore was a dominating force in Sydney. Festivals would pull crowds of thousands; local shows hundreds. There were scenes within scenes, throngs of bands representing their LGAs, congregating at local PCYCs. “You had Western Sydney, you had Eastern Suburbs, you had South Sydney, South West Sydney, the Northern Beaches scene, the Northern Scene, the Hills area,” Jem rapid-fires.

It was also a confluence of subcultures. “You would go to a hardcore show back then and it would just be like a bunch of fucking bleached blonde hair, surfer kids from the south coast or something, there’d be a bunch of skaters and shit. It was so much,” says Josh.

In recent years, hardcore in Australia has dwindled. The root of its decline is muddied. In America it’s prosperous, profitable, and capable of transcending the underground (one need only look at Turnstile’s December appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers). Theories are thrown around the ring as to what led to its demise: the death of guitar music, the closure of live music venues across Sydney, or, as Jem muses, “our perception of our peers is that it’s become uncool”. 

In the buoyant years of Australian hardcore, punk was ingrained in the Australian psyche, a force on triple j. It’s no longer the dominant cultural mode. “A lot of the bridges into hardcore at that time don’t really exist anymore,” says Josh. “There hasn’t been anything to really draw people to it, the way that it used to.”

The hardcore drought saw the decline of scenes that flew the flag for their area, and reduced it to a sole, waning scene for each city. “We’d be lucky if there were 50 people at a show,” says Jem of its bleakest years. “That was the standard, it was dismal.”

After years spent waiting for the return of hardcore, they realised they would have to act on intuition and do it for themselves. So they set out to reignite the spark, to put Australia back on the map again: “We want to give Australia a band to ride for.”

SPEED speak with humility. They are cautious about positioning themselves as flag-bearers of the culture. Everything they do comes from an urgent desire to boost hardcore. They have the foresight to recognise that in order for a music scene to flourish, there must be bands to root for.

“You have to have bands,” says Jem. “You cannot have a scene without it. Everyone can contribute, but you have to have bands. This was the most significant way we thought we could start to get things rolling and hopefully inspire people to start more bands. That’s been the mission since day one.”

Jem and Josh are orators of hardcore, eager to share their hard-earned wisdom. Over the first lockdown they started the podcast Forge Ahead. A show dedicated to the past, present, and future of hardcore in Australia. They sensed that Australian hardcore was experiencing an upswing, and wanted to harness that momentum whilst the world stopped.  

“I think SPEED is demonstrating what we think the ideal hardcore scene should look like. And Forge Ahead is us trying to articulate it,” says Josh. “It’s our opportunity to present what we think hardcore should be. To push it in the right direction.”

SPEED have wrestled with the history of hardcore, and acknowledge that the genre’s past incarnations lacked inclusivity and diversity. Hardcore, the Adam’s rib from punk, was, after all, a reactionary movement born out of predominately white, working-class, male frustrations. They are considering the past, its values, its convictions—and steering the future.

Three members of the SPEED fold are of South East Asian descent, and representation is at the forefront of their ethos. When releasing their first EP, DEMO 19, the band made the considered choice to use a portrait as cover art. “I wanted people to know this is what we look like.”

“There was a conscious decision for me to represent myself in the way that I wanted to be seen,” says Jem, who is first-generation Chinese-Australian. “There are no hardcore bands that fit the package of who I see myself as. This journey for representation that reflects who you are is something that a lot of people seem to have been empowered by in discovering SPEED.

“There is an intrinsic struggle for people of colour or first generation Australians to find representation for yourself. My whole life I have thought of myself as Australian and Asian and I’ve never seen myself represented the way I wanted to be represented,” he continues. 

Jem notes that he, Aaron, and Denis have been brought up differently to many first generation Asian Australians, a liberty that led them to hardcore. “We’re very westernised and we’ve been brought up with very open minds, in terms of our careers and what we want to do in life,” he says. “You don’t really see many Asians in hardcore.”

He recalls his experience being an Asian person in hardcore. That he and his friend, B-Chan, were “pretty much” the only two Asian people in the scene, and would often get mixed up. “There’s just not many Asian people and you know, I completely understand that coming from where I grew up. It’s such an intimidating environment. It’s predominantly white.”

Hardcore can be intimidating, and SPEED are extending their hand to those that may not feel welcome.

“It’s been very important that we put that identity into the band because I see the effect it has on a lot of people, a lot of Asians,” says Jem. “People seem to be excited about this, and I guess that’s because they can see something that’s relatable. They can see something that’s tangible. They can see something of themselves in it.”

“This band is a gift to us in the sense that it has a purpose. People are getting something from it, a sense of empowerment.”

In June 2021, the band dropped a trailer for their “WE SEE U” video on Twitter. The response was batshit. Hundreds of retweets, likes in the thousands. Comments that spoke to the audience’s genuine sense of representation: “The Laos shirt sold me”; “Hmong dudes getting down on some hardcore? I’m in brothers.” It struck a chord.

“It was the fucking most psycho thing that ever happened in my life,” says an exuberant Jem. “I literally couldn’t sleep for three days.”

“It was the fucking most psycho thing that ever happened in my life. I literally couldn’t sleep for three days.”

“Two weeks of wanting to throw your phone out the window, fucking ridiculous,” adds Josh.

The success of “WE SEE U” caught the eye of the industry at large. SPEED were approached by international labels, producers, industry professionals, clothing companies, and businesses, all looking to capitalise.

Though humbled, SPEED declined. To accept would go against the implicit and explicit values of the band and hardcore at large. They speak at lengths of the importance of being attuned to authenticity and hold themselves accountable for armouring the culture against contaminating influences. 

“As things break out, you’re going to get more industry heads attempting to dilute what we’re trying to do,” says Jem. “That’s why it’s so important that these values are so consciously pushed, so that it never gets fumbled with.” 

“Authenticity was very important to us, to hardcore especially. It doesn’t have labels that just build an act, and manufacture them like an industry prop. If you are fake in hardcore, you will be sniffed out straight away,” he continues. “It’s just the way it is.”

SPEED are signed with Last Ride Records, a label run by Tom Maddocks from his bedroom in Newcastle. At the vanguard of Australian hardcore, it’s released projects from the likes of Primitive Blast, Histamine, Ill Natured, The Others, and Nerve Damage. 

There was never a contract signed between the band and label. “That’s the way it should be,” they explain, “No contracts in hardcore.” It’s a pact built on good faith.

“All of the people that we work with have the exact same attitude as us, they have the same goal as us. We can trust them to do whatever they need to do because we know that they fully understand where we’re coming from, and so they’re never ever going to fumble it,” says Josh. 

The culture of hardcore is not limited to music, it spawns art in all forms. There are visual artists, photographers, producers, academics, all with roots in the scene. Aaron (who is Jem’s younger brother), had never played music before joining SPEED. His youth was entrenched in hip-hop and dance.

Aaron was introduced to hardcore by proximity to Jem. Through witnessing the culture, and the DIY ethos of the scene, he was inspired to undertake his own creative pursuits, which manifested in the launch of his clothing label, SAATO.

“Through hardcore I learnt to drive things myself. Coming more into myself and letting hardcore influence things. Do it yourself, get shit done. Find out what you want to do and push it,” says Aaron.

“I think SPEED revealed that so little of hardcore is actually about the music,” says Josh. “It doesn’t exist without an audience.”

“I think SPEED revealed that so little of hardcore is actually about the music.”

“It’s so based around the spectacle of actively attending shows, that’s participation as well. Whether you’re a photographer at a show, or a punter taking shots in the pit—it’s all part of participation within. It builds its own community.”

Though for those wanting to play in bands, the beauty of hardcore is in its accessibilty, its commitment to DIY. “It’s the simplest music to make. It’s the dumbest music to make.” says Jem. “If you don’t get it or you’re not an avid listener, you hear it and you’re like ‘this is fucking caveman music! This is the most primitive stupid shit ever!’. But that is essentially the accessibility of it, anyone can play it.”

At the crux of everything is community. “It’s friends, it’s my brother. I would never work with anybody in a band like this that wasn’t like family to me,” says Jem. 

“That is such an important thing, because the experience of SPEED is about creating that bond with people and deepening that through the music.”

“This is a culture that we love and we want to pay respect to it because it’s the reason why we know all of our friends,” adds Josh. “More than anything, it’s a way to connect with each other. Hardcore represents the people I love more than anything.”

“We want to make sure with every win we get, that our community comes with us,” says Jem. They namecheck Last Ride Records, photographers Rodzy and Candace Krieger, Elliott Gallart at Charmeleon Studios (where Forge Ahead is recorded.). “However big this pie gets, it’s not just a SPEED pie, we want everyone to get a piece.”

In an age where things feel so atomised, it is crucial to nurture culture and community; for the sake of those that grow up in the dour, lonely, and oppressive landscape of suburbia where culture is limited to Gloria Jeans chains and late-night shopping, and the future seems non-existent. 

“Hardcore is such an important thing, so many people could get so much out of it you know—young kids,” says Jem. “The values that we have, in terms of creating something significant and being able to hold onto something right now in a world where the individual seems so suppressed, and the significance of the individual seems so diminished. 

“Hardcore is a space where anything you do is meaningful and should be treasured. That is such an important thing, such a special thing.”

The mood is optimistic when reckoning with the future of Australian hardcore. It feels like a new dawn is upon us. There’s a hunger for live music and connection. A readiness to be drawn closer together in a communion of mosh.

“It’s literally a new era,” says Jem. “This is the best time to capitalise on bringing people into the room to learn about hardcore and get charged about it.” 

“My vision is that there’s a self-sufficient scene. That when SPEED pack up, there are shows you can go to every week. There’s going to be bodies in the room and people excited, and bands going on tour, and venues that want to put on hardcore shows. Just a space where people can go to shows and know that they have this avenue.”

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