Idylls singer / sax player Billie Stimple confronting toxic masculinity and challenging mathcore bros

By Triana Hernandez
Unbelievably Bad Contributor 

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Earlier this year Furious Luke interviewed Chris from Idylls about the band forming again. A few weeks ago, the Brisbane quartet released a new single and announced their soon-to-be-released album The Barn, the follow-up to their highly appraised 2014 debut Prayer for Terrene.

A few months ago I was approached by Idylls’ booking agent and asked to write the band’s new bio. I can’t give an official review of the album, but what I can say is that Idylls are the best at creating music that demands your complete and utter emotional attention, each track simultaneously sucking the fucking life out of you whilst giving you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

I had a chat to singer and saxophonist Billie Stimple about the fallout following Prayer for Terrene, the masculine bullshit attached to the heavy music scene, and how mixed line-ups is the way to go.

 

 

Idylls was ‘huge’ three years ago and then it kinda fizzled. What happened?
We finished Prayer [for Terrene] and had played a few shows based off that, though perhaps not as much as was expected – both internally and externally – from the attention it got. At the end of that bit of momentum I found myself in a really difficult situation. I had been doing a lot of ongoing crisis-driven support work and had reached a point where I needed to step away knowing that someone’s situation hadn’t improved a great deal. I’d also been putting a lot of time and energy into a few different musical projects, none of which were providing the sense of self that music had until then, as well as a relationship that was really important to me but which recently had ended and needed a lot of processing. Essentially, I was going through burnout, and in that instance the things that were most important to me were the things that I lost, and the things I would happily have given up on were what remained.

Is this when you decided to leave the band?
I’d developed a bit of a complex with my – still fairly new – role and relationship to Idylls. I was struggling to relate to the material and experiencing a lot of discomfort performing, and not feeling like what I was trying to convey was really being interpreted that well. There were also some serious ongoing and challenging internal dynamics that I think everyone was earnestly trying to navigate and overcome but which continued to belay what we were doing, and it was painful for everyone. So as I said, we’d reached this point where the momentum for Prayer seemed to have ended and it was time to decide what to do next, but at that point the idea of any kind of next was just completely overwhelming for me. I was in the early stages of a prolonged mental health crisis and music had completely lost its appeal and its ability to allow me to express, explore or identify myself. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t really want anything to do with music or music communities anymore, and fortunately I was able to separate from everything I was working on at the time without difficulty.

How come you decided to join Idylls again?
I had spent a lot of time trying to understand where the ruptures in my life had come from and why it was all so painful and confusing; that took a long time to settle to a manageable level. As it turned out, I had done a lot of unpacking and was trying to articulate a whole slew of really chewy, complex and elusive experiences to myself. Chris [Brownbill, guitar] got in touch to invite me to the opening of his new studio, and he and Lloyd [Daniels, drums] showed me some demos of what they had been working on together. It was frustratingly good, and despite my earlier resolutions I knew it could be a platform to navigate a lot of what was coming up for me that needed to be externalised. So really, deciding to re-engage was pretty simple and self-serving because it was a safe context where I could give myself permission to ask, do and be certain things; trans, neurodiverse, a survivor, unsure, upset, repressed, subversive, etc. before extending them to the rest of my life. Not everyone gets that opportunity, I’m really lucky to have something like that, and I’m very grateful for it.

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Pic: ZK Photo

How do you feel about the now completed tracks for your upcoming album The Barn?
[It’s] an album that is personally and socially engaged – deeply and critically. I think I’ve asked it to do a lot of work for me, and hopefully some other people too. Inevitably it’s not going to be able to do all of that work, it’s going to fall short and crumble because nothing could adequately carry all of that intention and expectation on its own. I think the record is still quite good though, I’m really proud of it and really proud of what everyone else has put into it too. Musically I think it’s easily the best Idylls has ever been, and I’m excited to disappoint all of the people who thought Idylls had a sound and a perspective that belonged to and affirmed solely them. There could be a lot of those people, but it needs to happen.

I find your vocal delivery extremely powerful and simultaneously vulnerable – where do you go when you write or sing live?
Good question, and thanks so much for saying. The truth is I don’t really know yet. When I first joined Idylls, I was so anxious and uncertain of my intent, what experience I was drawing upon and how I was externalising that to people. I was also hyperconscious of all the people in the punk/hardcore community that were watching me and almost certainly had an idea of what doing vocals for Idylls ought to be, ought to look and sound like, ought to mean. I knew I wasn’t doing any of that successfully, wasn’t really able to and didn’t really want to be able to, but I didn’t really even know how to access anything that made sense to me. So basically, when I started doing vocals I was just dissociating. I would shut my eyes and go to this place where I was just distantly watching myself move my body and make certain kinds of sounds that I felt were expected and necessary, and I really disliked myself the whole time I did it. I didn’t really have any positive connection to those things, and I didn’t really want to connect to anyone else when I was doing them, but I knew there was something that I identified with within Idylls so I kept doing it.

What do you reckon people were watching when seeing you live?
Essentially, people were witnessing me externalise failure – failing to access and express my experience, failing to be present with it and understand how to convey it, failing to connect with myself and in doing so to connect to other people. I guess there was this strange tendency to just pretend like I’m not standing with a room full of other people who all have any number of potentially awful or thoughts about who I was and what I was doing. In doing that, I could actually be quite tender and intimate with myself, I would mostly stand in the one spot and kind of sway and touch myself in what I felt were gently sensual ways, the way people do when they’re by themselves and imagining how they’d like to be touched sometimes. It’s an act of protection and forgiveness, and I suppose it’s part of the trade-off I silently make when I’m doing a performance. It’s not for anyone else, it can only ever be for me. People can watch, but they’re watching something very intimate and personal – they have no ownership or understanding of who I am or what I’m doing and I have no obligation to them.

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Pic: ZK Photo

How about your performance now?
I’m still very much like that, but I’ve been going to a vocal coach who has helped me an incredible amount. I’m slowly trying to be more present when I perform. I try to move a little bit more too, even though to be honest I kind of like it the other way, even if it’s weird and meaningless to the people who watch it. I’m trying to find a safe space where I can access the emotion without being overwhelmed by it in a way that’s engaging to people. I don’t think my role is to be particularly exuberant, but I recognise that there’s a strange kind of contrast with the music and how withdrawn I am. I’m still working on it. Maybe it’s fine though?

When I was writing the new bio for Idylls we had some interesting yarns. You were telling me how problematic it is that people ascribe overtly masculine and “reductive terms” to the band (“aggressive”, “savage”, “crushing”) just because it’s loud and intense.
It just comes down to the cultural norms and logics that underpin the [‘heavy’] music community. To me it seems to be really disconnected to any particular lived experience; instead it’s a system of indirectly accessing or referencing some kind of intensity of experience through sound. That’s totally fine and awesome, I don’t have a problem with that, but when the descriptors and qualifiers of sound get reduced to things like aggression and violence, then all of a sudden those sounds are colonized by dudes who are desperately trying to recover some displaced sense of idealistic masculinity or something. All of a sudden, it begins to justify a whole set of visual tropes and performative behaviors at shows, a whole set of cues that lock a lot of people out of those scenes even though they really like and relate to the music. Of course that’s not wholly representative, and I don’t want to homogenize people who love music that to them is crushing, savage, violent, aggressive, whatever, particularly non-men. To me, though, none of those words describe what I’m accessing; none of those words describe what this kind of music means to me.

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Pic: ZK Photo

What are you trying to access instead?
I’m accessing a lot of vulnerability and frailty, I’m trying to heal and be kind to myself by externalising a lot of internalised and repressed feelings – some of which is related to violent experience but some of which is related to my desperate desire to connect to and care for other people. I don’t want to crush anyone, I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to get on board with all the masc shit that goes on at shows because ‘that’s just how it is’, and they just mustn’t get it. I’d like to be confronting for sure, but actually a lot of what I’d like to confront is precisely that kind of toxic masculinity that can’t fathom intense music coming from a place that isn’t related to coded violence.

We also talked about how Idylls was ‘easily misinterpreted’. In which ways do you think the band is misunderstood?
I suppose the greatest misinterpretation lies in the making sense of it purely within that validity framework and ascribing it value because it references the right kind of bands, and has demonstrable technical skill, and presents with the right tonal quality and lyrical content to suggest the right kind of cynical misanthropy, and it’s all just very cool and intense and authentic. The aesthetic underpinning that logic system really frustrates me too, there’s this pervasive but completely vague sense of aloof nihilism, that everything is totally idiotic and pointless and people are shit and worthy of scorn, and the more you hate everything and yourself and the more ferociously you project that, the better. It’s ridiculous, because the trendy young white dudes that make most of this music, they’ve got to be last on the list of social groups who’ve been fundamentally betrayed by humanity, right? I don’t mean to say that the music is all illegitimate, and of course I understand channeling rage for creative expression, but at this point so much of it just becomes tokenistic and ritualised that it’s no longer directed at anything, it’s just stylised resentment – and why should anyone care about that?

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Pic: ZK Photo

Most of the reviews /blogs I’ve read about Idylls talk precisely about that perceived element of the band.
I understand that Idylls has gotten a lot of acknowledgement within that framework to date. I think what irks me is that it risks becoming the exclusive domain of heavy music blogs and annoying mathcore bros with superiority complexes who don’t have other ways of evaluating worth beyond technical complexity and savvy references. If that’s all Idylls is for some people then fine, but that’s pretty empty and synthetic. That’s not what any of us are trying to create together; it’s definitely not how I feel when I do Idylls. I’m just very conscious that I want people who don’t read those blogs or associate with those bros to hear it and see it and maybe think: ‘Oh, this is something that I can access too. This is for me, it makes sense to me’, without having to be familiar with all of the taste-making dross attached to it.

Is this why Idylls has been curating mixed bills for their shows? Is it about de-masquing the scene, or is it about changing the perception of IDYLLS as exclusively belonging to the ‘heavy music’ community?
It’s definitely both of those things. As I said, I don’t feel particularly connected to or enmeshed in the ‘heavy music’ community. Most of what I do is not necessarily geared towards them, for their exclusive consumption. For all the reasons listed above, it seems a shame to be confined to a world that is hardly able to make sense of what Idylls is or might be. The fact that the way we sound places us so easily amongst a whole set of other bands is a bit of a barrier, but to me it makes absolute sense that we’d be playing alongside bands that sound nothing like us and don’t have any real desire to prove themselves according to that value system. Playing with Tralala Blip and Ah Mer Ah Su was amazing, I was really appreciative that the show came together like it did. It just felt exactly like how shows ought to be? I think it’s reaching a point where the nepotism of the Brisbane punk/hardcore scene has reached its limits, and everyone is a bit tired of putting on shows with almost exactly the same lineups. I think it might also be a recognition that, actually, if people are genuinely interested in being more inclusive and accessible, then of course you can’t just wait until the all-female version of Teargas or whatever pops up and decides to play every show ever. I would say probably most people in the world don’t want to play in that kind of band, so doesn’t it make sense to connect with and value and support the music and culture that they are actually making, rather than waiting until their lives become legible in a format that makes sense and is pleasurable to you? Mixed bills forever, is what I suppose I’m saying.

 

 

Listen to Idylls’ new single, “Maslow Dogs”, at Black Wire’s Bandcamp:

Idylls play Melbourne at The Tote on Saturday, May 13 with Suss Cunts + Synthetics.

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