Scowl: “I wanted to mosh, I wanted to grab the mic and sing”

Santa Cruz, CA newcomers SCOWL are one of the hottest up-and-coming bands around.

To say the last few years have been a whirlwind for California’s Scowl would be something of an understatement. From playing their first-ever show in May 2019 to standing on stage at Madison Square Garden in support of Limp Bizkit in May 2022, with two EPs and a debut album in between, the rise of the Santa Cruz hardcore band has been unstoppable. 

At the centre of the storm is formidable frontwoman Kat Moss, delivering short, sharp bursts of rage with a fearsome growl in a flurry of neon hair and gogo boots; a feminine force of nature in what has traditionally been an environment associated with hyper-masculine conventions. It’s hard to believe that Kat had never even dabbled in music before forming Scowl.

“I know it sounds a little corny, but growing up, I always had an interest in being a little bit different,” explains Kat. “I felt really attracted to subcultures but also really intimidated. I remember being 11 and walking past Hot Topic at the mall and wanting so badly to have the guts to go in but being too scared,” she laughs. 

“It took me a while to start to discover that there was a DIY scene and that it was even a reality for me to participate. I was attracted to the energy: I wanted to mosh, I wanted to grab the mic and sing. So, I started out going to shows alone, driving myself a couple of hours to San Francisco or the Bay Area to see a band, drive home the same night and open up at my grocery store job the next day, being exhausted but so pumped to start making these connections.”

After moving to Santa Cruz and meeting her fellow band members, guitarist Malachi Greene, bassist Bailey Lupo and drummer Cole Gilbert, Kat began to feel a sense of community she’d never felt before. “I’d talked briefly about starting a band with Malachi, and I brought it up a couple of times, but I was terrified and not sure I could actually do it – I wasn’t necessarily a super musical kid growing up, I was very shy. But Malachi is very driven, and he called me on my bluff!”

After releasing their second EP, ‘Reality After Reality’ at the end of 2019 and heading out on a bunch of tours, unfortunately, the pandemic hit. Rather than let it stop their momentum, Scowl wrote their ferocious debut album ‘How Flowers Grow’ and signed to rising hardcore label Flatspot Records.

“We submitted to a lot of hardcore labels but couldn’t seem to get many bites,” Kat recalls. “Flatspot took a chance on us, and that truly changed the trajectory of our band. Once ‘How Flowers Grow’ came out in November 2021, that was my first real experience of growing an audience as a band at that level. That record started to reach a lot of people I never expected and people I looked up to, and we got offered a lot more show opportunities. We even got offered Sound and Fury, which is my favourite hardcore festival ever – that was one of my goals for the band from the jump, so to check that off the list so quickly is surreal.”

With ten tracks clocking in at just over 15 minutes, ‘How Flowers Grow’ is a sucker punch of pissed-off, snotty hardcore punk, pioneered by the likes of Negative Approach and Circle Jerks in the 80s and followed by a resurgence of popularity in the noughties due to the impressive roster of hardcore labels such as Bridge 9 and Deathwish Records. 

Scowl are now one of the bands leading the charge when it comes to the new wave of hardcore, alongside bands such as Zulu, Drain, Gel and Jesus Piece, to name a few, and to officially kick off what will be an insanely busy 2023, the band are about to release their third EP, ‘Psychic Dance Routine’.

“It was a deliberate decision to release another EP for now, rather than go straight into a second album. We wanted to allow ourselves to transition into a window of what will be next for Scowl creatively and artistically. We’re also so busy and on the road a lot – we only had one week to record with Will Yip [the production wizard behind some of the biggest alt-records in recent years], so we didn’t want to over-commit and burn ourselves out. I admit I was a bit headstrong about the decision at first and didn’t want to release just an EP, but in hindsight, I think taking on more would have been a huge challenge, and I’m proud of what we pulled off with this EP in very little time.”

The creative transition Kat is referring to was first hinted at on the track ‘Seeds to Sow’ from their debut album, a softer, more melodic sound that’s more garage-pop than hardcore. ‘Psychic Dance Routine’ continues to explore this direction, with Kat’s bloodthirsty roar sitting comfortably next to hooky, clean-sung vocals on opening track ‘Shot Down.’ Title-track ‘Psychic Dance Routine’ is straight-up grungy pop with zero growls, but it moves seamlessly into the mosh-pit-ready aggression of ‘Wired.’

“We’re committed to this band, but we’re not committed to any specific idea of what this band is yet: we want to experiment,” says Kat of the crossover sonics of ‘Psychic Dance Routine’. “The people who love Scowl will be there for it, and the right people are going to find it. It’s exciting to think that someone like my sister, who isn’t someone who would naturally listen to hardcore, can now blast Scowl songs in her car. I want to grow as an artist and push myself further to write music that’s different than what we did on our last record.”

Despite the softer sound, Scowl’s new EP is still very much a vehicle for Kat to thrash out a lot of anger lyrically. “This band opened me up to being a much more creative person than I thought I had the ability to be, and now I can’t stop writing,” laughs Kat. “It feels good to get it out: here’s something that’s really vulnerable and vital to who I am, and I get to cement it into this little timestamp.”

One of the main themes explored in ‘Psychic Dance Routine’, is the dichotomy of performance versus daily life and the pressure of trying to balance who you truly are with what people perceive you as. It’s something Kat is familiar with, being a woman in a very male-dominated scene. “You have no choice to be consumed and objectified at times, especially as a feminine person. It can feel awfully dehumanising.” 

Though things have come a long way in recent years, it can still sometimes feel that the hardcore scene is somewhat behind other musical genres when it comes to acceptance and progression. “I’m grateful and thankful for the women who stuck around in such dark times in hardcore where even just being a woman at a show you would be prosecuted for being there and people would question what your intentions were. There’s so much more acceptance and more allowance for a platform for people who aren’t just white dudes on the scene now. I’m so grateful that I could find a platform and work hard for it and not put up with some of the shit that women or trans people in bands, or people of colour in bands had to put up with just five or ten years before me.”

There is absolutely still a lot of work to be done to make hardcore a more progressive scene, and Kat admits that there is still a presence of people who tend to be disrespectful and prejudiced, but she makes a conscious decision not to pay too much mind to it. 

“There are still people who hate on Scowl because I’m super feminine on stage or whatever stupid reasons they hate on us, but I don’t let that hold power. If I quit because people are mean to me sometimes, I’d be letting the people who need to see Scowl down. I don’t mean to be a martyr about it at all, that’s not my goal by any means, but I try to keep a thick skin and continue doing what I love. This is my community, and I belong here.” ■

Taken from the May 2023 edition of Upset. Scowl’s EP ‘Psychic Dance Routine’ is out now.