2Q16: Then And Now With Simona Castricum


Photo Credit: Laura Du Ve

2Q16 is a regular column by Rei Barker exploring the severely unexposed world of LBQTI music. 

I started wondering about the things that have been documented so little, at least from a local perspective. The disparity between cishet and queer artists in terms of visibility and opportunities is large, but it’s 2016, and even though where we live in a world where queer humans are not treated well at all (Safe Schools, anyone?), it used to be worse. I spoke to Simona Castricum about her experiences in music.

RB: When did you start playing music/playing gigs/recording?
SC: I started playing live in 2002. I was going to this electro club called Meccanoid and there was a pretty good electro scene coming out of Melbourne at the time - so I started putting some tracks that I’d been writing since the late 90s into something I could play, I played shows with my band Fluorescent and began djing a bit more. Our first show was at the Rob Roy with Midnight Juggernauts, put our first record in 2003 and did this big show with Cut Copy, but things didn't really jump off the way I hoped they might.
In what way?
For whatever reason - we’d played shows with those people - but I couldn't make any friendships.
Wed just started playing so we were pretty crude live. I think perhaps I was trying a little too hard to fit in.
I guess we had a chance to impress but it fell short to go much further. Didn’t stop me though, Naomi left the band and I continued on my own.

Looking at things through a queer lens, what was it like being involved then?
I started djing in 2000 at Q&A as a guest - a queer night on Thursdays at the Builders Arms - for a lot of queers in the late 90s/early 2000’s it was like the centre of gravity that place. Pete Kung was one of the djs and was this legendary DJ who I learnt so much from - how to dj pop and dance music mostly. I was just coming out as genderqueer at the time - but back then that word didn't exist - so I didn't really know what I was doing. Most of the alternative/queer scene was centered around Collingwood/Fitzroy - it was pretty cheap to live there then - Brunswick felt like the badlands. South Yarra and St Kilda had kinda gentrified by then.

I was jumping between queer parties and cis-hetero clubs - i didn't fit in anywhere. Then weekends would be raves and/or clubs; the rave scene had jumped the shark around that point. There’d be a few queers at Hardware parties at Shed 14 down at Docklands or clubs like Teriyaki Anarki Saki, Centrifugal, Earthcore - but I didn't have any friends who were gender non-conforming or trans. I’d go to raves dressed up, I was dressing femme - but because it wasn't evidently ‘drag’ as most people would understand back then - people just gave me a lot of shit and abuse - like queer people; even partners and best friends. - but i just felt so alienated by what I looked like - it was pretty lonely. But I made one solid musical relationship that lasted through to now. Melissa D’or and I went on to start Ana Nicole together 15 years after we met in Geelong.

The Electroclash thing was just taking off by 2001 - and those clubs seemed to be less broey and were really femme DJ focussed - Toupee and Kiti were awesome. I got my first dj sets and live shows with Fluorescent at Meccanoid, this pretty crazy monthly club night that just went sideways every time - it was really good music and sexy people - awesome queer/straight mix. Then a new batch of queer clubs started to pop up - Witness Protection Program at Public Office then Trough Faggot Party started up at Geddes Lane - ‘straight friendly’ became a new thing. Trough became John and I started a residency there for a short while. Geddes stunk like shit - it was perfect.

I’d kinda retreated back into the closet by this time though, I still didn't think I could make music and be out as trans - there was just no peer group, I was so scared. I started playing at a rubber fetish party called Sinthetic at Abode in St Kilda and doing the artwork, it was fun - but it was mostly cis-hetero kink - I met a few queers through that and started to dress femme again - more latex and uniform fetish, but I didn't feel safe or confident presenting femme outside the club or at home. I played monthly for about three years and just learnt to play vinyl properly. But I remember meeting somebody at that club who had transitioned and it opened me up to what the possibilities were for me - I just didn't really understand what my choices were back then - I was just dysphoric and miserable. I didn't identity with drag, I didn't want my music to be mistaken for a drag show. It affected my music because I just couldn't deliver my music as myself, yet i was singing these songs about my dysphoria and wish to do something about it. There wasn't the space to find myself back then - not till the late 2000’s. There was no peer group I could find - and without that you can’t find your feet and get the confidence to become who you are.

What year are we talking here?
1996 - 2001 Raves/Q&A
2001 - 2005 Meccanoid/Witness Protection Program
2004 - 2008 Trough/John/Sinthetic

So yeah saying that would have sucked seems like an understatement. Not having that peer group.
I guess some people close to me were not as cool about being trans as I thought. I sensed it- so I kept it hidden. Coming out was really a challenge for a few of my close relationships. I’d also just become a father in 2008 - so I had to bunker down and leave the club for a while. It meant I gained a beautiful little boy, but it was tough.

That does sound difficult, to say the least.
It’s for the best

Leaving the club? Or having a son?
Both, but my family disintegrating seemed inevitable - it was sad.

I'm sorry to hear.
Music and the community around me have been such a great part of my life though. At times it was all I had. I think that’s the thing about queer communities - we have each other. When our families disappear for whatever reason we look after each other, that has happened in queer communities for ever.

What changes have you noticed in these 20 years?
I felt the queer scene in Melbourne changed significantly around late 2000s - there was a visible AFAB genderqueer and trans masculine peer group and it was great to feel a local culture of gender diversity emerging. Clubs like Danceteria started at what is now Luwow and Grouse just started up. Also queer women were running and djing these big clubs - the late 2000’s were kinda a lesbian club heyday building upon what had consolidated through spaces like The Glasshouse, Girl Bar, Alia and Yelza had before. This new generation of women came through and took over.

At the same time - djing really changed - mixing was on the way out and djing became more accessible to more people through laptops and iPads and mp3s. In some ways it became more entertainment and request focussed. But it freed everything up.

I didn't fare too well - I emptied a lot of dancefloors at Flawless and didn't get booked again for a while there playing shit nobody knew - people wanted familiarity, pop and r’n’b and I was playing witch house and 80s synthpop. But there’d be a couple of people who got what I was playing - from there we started some good friendships that turned into some of our first all queer band line ups. I started The Shock Of The New as a listening party playing German new wave and Belgian new beat with Kiti but it evolved into a space for trans and gender diverse queers. It swelled into a critical mass including many trans femmes that turned into a viable club night at the Liberty Social - finally - but nobody bought beer - so it always closed early. But people from that initial group are now great djs - like Brooke Powers and Narcissique - or are now in bands; like Geryon, Callan and Wet Kiss. But, like - there were some Mercat Basement queer parties - Hotel Mum and Property and KT Spit were gigging heaps - so this queer music scene emerged. Out of that this autonomous trans musical community flourishes nowUp until the last few years; queers in bands just weren't that visible - let alone trans or gender queers in bands. Now there’s a solid line-up of queer/trans/genderqueer bands every week - its fucking amazing.

That's great. Are you talking Melbourne-specific?
Oh yeah

I assume that was a very gradual change.
When I started with Ana Nicole in 2010 we did shows with people we knew cos it was too hard to get shows with established band scenes so we just booked our own shows with other queers doing their first shows like Geryon and Aphex Twink.

Aphex Twink is an excellent name.
Yes it was, wasn’t it?

Definitely. So you just did it yourselves? Were there any venues or bookers behind the queer scene?
I started Girls Who Smoke Poke which existed firstly to self release Fluorescent - then it suited to give this illusion some kind of ‘label’ presence initially with Ana Nicole - but it was never more than a logo and website linking people’s music, bios and a photo. But after a while that community grew. But GWSP wasn't this resourced entity a much wider group people felt invested in collectively - like LISTEN or Alterity Collective, for instance - and they have lasted to do amazing things. We can run parties outside the venue system and they’re great safe spaces - so if the bar aint selling beer at 2am - who cares?.
The Gasometer was really good to us in the early days tho - and I took my club night The Shock of the New there because Kody Abrams was really supportive. But also Sarah Blaby & Zec were playing in Plaster of Paris - we.d do shows togethernd Sarah was booking here and there. Katie Pearson ran Flawless and Lia ran Grouse

That's great, so we're talking 2010-11 here?
Yes. 2012 I decided to focus on being a solo musician and it was also when I came out.
Romy Hoffman gave me my first go - my first show after I came out and it just felt so natural and right, I just never looked back.

As a trans woman?

Great. I can't imagine what that must feel like.
It was a really good moment. All of the work I’d done kinda galvanised in one show. Things just made sense up there. I lost a lot of fear, and I knew that it was time to make a serious go at music.
Wonderful. So what you're doing now is more of a direct continuation of that?
Yes. I had lost everything and music was all I had.

Sounds a bit grim. Or hard maybe is a better word.
Well it was sad - but it was also exciting to be doing something I'd always dreamed of, something i thought I’d never be able to do. Just one show was a miracle to me. To see it come this far now is a dream.

That's beautiful. Where to from here?
Well I keep getting asked to play shows, and this #triggerwarning40 record has resonated really well, so I’m just keen to work hard to get it out there as far as I can. I want to tour Australia and OS - so I’m just trying to get a tour happening right now.

Great. I hope that comes together. It must seem like a lifetime ago.

What are some problems that have been in music then and now?
Back then there were certainly few events run by trans people - most visible trans people were late 30s/40s so we didn't occupy the better clubs or band venues in the way we can now. DJ and club culture was still inherently broey and involvement of women in the scene was controlled by men and often sexualised. These things are in process of change and it's really exciting - but visibility beyond our own audience is still a real challenge, there are still a few glass ceilings and closed doors to break through. While it's so much better that we have a strong and thriving underground musical community that is intersectional, that needs to permeate into the larger structures of the music industry - and it a slow process. Part of the reason for change is some genuine people are now part of the machine who can awareness of the problem the industry faces and foster more participation of people who have been otherwise excluded. Space did 6 shows of queer music on Triple R FM over summer - that has a massive effect on confidence and audience.

Online communities are increasingly becoming really unsafe - the only solution for me seems to just withdraw. But music is so reliant on social media apps - it’s hard to filter and protect yourself - or even being complicit in some way. Ive tried to be my authentic self - its why I perform under my own name - but you give too much away and people just feel entitled to take. Communicating via chat is a nightmare - im really bad at it. I just keep it to business now - self imposed ban. It’s just too easy to get sucked into its quicksand..
There is still some event marketing strategies that appear ironic, a play on words or subversive or seek to reclaim some meaning to one group of people, but can perpetuate some really shitty privilege, stereotypes and oppression to women, people of colour, trans/intersex/GNC people who rely on these events to either make music or just be with their friends. The only agency some people feel they have is to ‘call out’ and people get stuck online in some really shitty Facebook wars. Its really sad. Safe spaces are really important, and it means everything from the toilets to the party flyer to a lot of people.

I think promoters are starting to take notice and think more about inclusion and safety. There is some really genuine support from smaller festival organisers - not only in booking queer, trans & QTPOC artists - but making sure their punters feel safe and included. Sadly there are still fuckos who give us shit, abuse and assault still happens - but at least now we know we can do something about it. Feminism in music is now more inclusive, and LISTEN is a big part of that. It shut down TERFs, transphobia and those who deny the existence of cisgender. This is where Riot Grrl fell short of its mission for equality. We still have to understand that this sentiment is still out there and it’s part of a wider conservative rejection of trans and queer visibility.

The conservative and the ignorant? Does it feel like it's getting better/safer?
Yes, but there is still danger. I take nothing for granted but we feel supported that’s important. However, there are still the odd crew of probbo cis-lesbains demanding we walk them into The Peel because they need a man or a drag queen to get them in the door - or lecture us in dark corners of nightclubs that is our duty to disclose if we’re ‘pre-op’ or ‘post-op’ in case they might want to fuck us - those terms and that line of thinking is just absurdly offensive and objectifying - or they feel it’s just for trans women to be beaten up if they reach down and find a dick where they might have expected a vagina. Like - this shit actually happens! Others claim trans women make up bullshit and complain too loud to drown out the voices and opportunity of (a-hem) “real women” - because of course cisgender doesn't exist for these types - and to label oneself cis would be to sacrifice their womanhood and to recognise ours - it’s unthinkable net loss to them. But, there’s plenty of womanhood to go around - they just can’t think of it in those terms - I dunno why my gender identity would diminish from theirs. But fear and hate make people do shitty things. Some people think we exploit the victim narrative for exposure. Truth is - musicians have been singing about pain and trauma for eons - and we’re no different. But these are our stories to tell - we suffered, we were there and we’re gonna tell them. I’m not sitting around feeling grateful that I can make up the numbers and keep my mouth shut. Heaven forbid an aspirational transwoman - FFS! Perhaps if the Safe Schools program happens on this generation of kids they’ll be singing happier songs than mine in their 20s - now there's a thought!.

What music/artists do you love?
Melbourne bands? - Spike Fuck, Two Steps on The Water, Wet Kiss, Wet Lips, HTRK, Geryon, Love Of Diagrams, Totally Mild, Gold Class, Kt Spit, Sui Zhen, Habits, Lucy Cliche.
Definitely some strong names there.

Chiara Kickdrum. It’s hard to stop. Melbs is amazingly lucky to have such strong depth in music. Sampa the Great in Sydney too. I really loved Tame Impala’s last few records - Let it Happen is one of the best songs ever.

You can catch Simona Castricum at the Transgenre mini music festival at Howler on April 3. Details here