Hardcore For The Freaks: An Interview With Gel
There’s a track called “Calling Card” on New Jersey hardcore band Gel’s new debut record, Only Constant, which comprises voicemail messages from fans directed to a line set up by the band. The snippets seem mostly culled from rants about various quotidian indignities and aggravations. “All these fucking men saying some weird fucking shit, trying to tell me how to do my job.” “I’m at work right now and I fucking hate it. I fucking hate everybody I work with.” “If you live in West Philly and you just stole my catalytic converter, go fuck yourself!” The final quote is a kid saying: “Hardcore for the fucking freaks. That’s it.”
That latter line is a sort of tagline for Gel — the statement titled their first demo and colors the band’s whole identity. They deliberately stand a little bit apart from the regular hardcore scene in their aesthetics and attitude, placing themselves more in an outsider punk realm, while their music is heavy, grimy, ’80s-esque hardcore. Over the past couple years, they’ve become much-buzzed-about vanguards of a certain corner of the scene that’s putting an emphasis on rejecting the cishet-white-dude-HC paradigm. “Calling Card” is a nice encapsulation of what Gel are all about: feeling alienated and pissed off with the world outside, expelling all that ugly aggression, and forming a little corner of their own to do that together.
For all the biting fury in its sound, Only Constant actually has a fairly internal focus on self-improvement and growth. Vocalist/lyricist Sami Kaiser says they were dealing with their recovery from alcoholism and tendency to self-sabotage; across the album there are almost meditative mantras like “Slow down, abandon the notions/ Open senses, go along with the motion” (from “Honed Blade”) and “Never lose sight of the unchangeable fact/ The circumstance fixed but you can change how you react” (from “Attainable”). It rushes by in 16 minutes, and it’s a sure mosh pit-filler, but the band hope it will also create a welcoming space for hardcore newcomers.
Below, hear new single “Dicey” and read my conversation with guitarists Anthony Webster and Maddi Nave.
I’m interested in how the hardcore/punk scene in New Jersey has influenced you guys.
ANTHONY WEBSTER: The scene now… no comment. But the scene when I was growing up, and the people that got me involved with hardcore when I was in middle and high school, they were direct descendants of the New Brunswick basement world, when You And I and Thursday and Saves The Day were playing basement shows. It was totally DIY. I feel like there’s no musical influence that points back to Jersey for me personally, but the whole work ethic and attitude, I don’t think I would have if I wasn’t from here. The bands even in middle school that I grew up listening to were Thursday, Saves The Day, Senses Fail, My Chemical Romance, and every single one of those bands, despite not being a hardcore band — I mean, at that time, 2007, being almost all major label bands — they all started in basements in New Jersey. The whole spirit and ethos and ethic 100% came from there.
MADDI NAVE: I feel the same. When I first moved here, all of my friends were in local bands, and when there would be a show, literally everybody in the scene would come. Probably ’cause there’s not much to do. I had a friend who told me, “There’s gonna come a time where you’re going to want to say yes to playing every single show possible.” And looking back, that kinda happened. The work ethic of, like, do the work, play every show imaginable, be there for people, show up, and they’ll show up for you — I think that’s always been really cool.
How did Gel’s momentum start snowballing?
WEBSTER: Even a year ago, the idea of touring how much we’re touring wasn’t even a thing. We started this for fun and that was it. For context, our old band Sick Shit toured a little bit. We would do like 10 days in the Midwest and nobody would come, and we’d get handed like $10 at the end of the show, and maybe we’d sleep on the most disgusting floor we’ve ever seen. And we were always like, “This is awesome.” And in 2020, Gel did our first tour. And 10 people would show up, 20 people would show up, there were some shows with 30 or 40. We actually were able to pay for our gas, and we sold shirts. We flew to Denver to play the Convulse weekend in October of 2021, and that was my first time on a plane as an adult. And then we booked a tour in March of last year and we got home and could pay our rent with it.
NAVE: I feel like before we go out, we’re always unsure. And then we go and people do come to the shows and it’s a feeling like no other. Especially when I joined the band to have something fun to do on the weekends, maybe take a week or two off of work, and now this is my full-time job. It turned around pretty quickly and it just keeps going.
Would you say it’s a result of that work ethic?
WEBSTER: Definitely. How I look at it, I work for this band every day. Every day I have to do something, whether it’s design merch, email people back, book something, pack merch orders. People look at the amount of stuff that I do on my own and that we do as a band, and think, “How do you do so much?” And I’m just like, I feel like we’re not doing enough sometimes. It’s just ingrained in me.
You guys had a lot of fans already before putting out this debut album. What did you aim for with it?
WEBSTER: How I look at this record, it’s the most complete version of what I originally wanted the band to sound like. On the demo and the 7″s I was like, I know what I wanna sound like but I don’t know how to get there yet. This record is what I was going for from day one in probably its perfect form.
What exactly was that vision?
WEBSTER: I wanted it to be like, fast but not fastcore, stompy and tough but not like oi! I think a lot of the bands that we were listening to when we were doing it was stuff like Hoax, which has pretty specific guitar riffs, and I didn’t know how to write stuff like that. I’m not saying I finally landed on that, but what I wanted was everything to be simple but still really catchy. A catchy riff is something that I’ve always been striving to do, and I think that’s what we did on this record. It’s rooted in [the] ’80s hardcore [approach of] most songs are two riffs, maybe a third riff, and it’s kinda just that. Two good riffs could be a whole song if they hold up, and I think that they all hold up.
You guys have described yourself as being hardcore music “for the freaks.” You emphasize a welcoming and warm approach to hardcore. Why is that important to you?
WEBSTER: From the beginning of Gel, we never — for lack of a better term — gelled with the broader hardcore world. You know, if hardcore is this [holds out arms], we are here [narrows arms] — we’re like 25% in. But we’ll never fully be in, because it’s just not us.
One of our early shows was a show in Detroit, and it was I think my first time ever playing in Detroit in my life. There were 40 people there, they were circle-pitting, and they were just genuinely the weirdest people I’ve ever met. Genuinely, weirdos. Not in a bad or off-putting way — it was cool. It’s just like, oh yeah, you’re not gonna go to a — I don’t wanna just namedrop other bands — but you’re not gonna go to see X band because you’re too weird for that. But we embrace it.
Especially now, post-COVID, there’s a lot of young new kids, and a lot of pushback against those new kids from voices in the broader hardcore space. And I just don’t wanna be that person pushing them away. So I guess like, the whole hardcore for the freaks thing, we adopted in like 2019, and it really fully feels true now. The kids coming in are just a bunch of weird kids. They’re being themselves, they’re figuring out who they are. We just played Louisville, and kids were like 13 to 15 years old at this show.
NAVE: Literally, their mom was standing in the corner waiting for them.
WEBSTER: If I went to see a hardcore show in New Jersey at 13 or 15, I’d probably get beat up, or threatened to get beat up.
In that vein, hardcore can be a safe space in the right circumstances for people who are queer, trans, non-binary, people of color. But also it can be very gatekeepy and have a very cis male macho kind of attitude. Have you seen a shift between those two attitudes?
NAVE: I feel like it’s definitely changing a lot, especially within the last few years, after Covid and stuff. I think a lot [of it] is having bands that aren’t just cis straight men. I’m not saying that having people that differ from that gives a band a higher pedestal, but I think just having those bands being able to exist and work in the same scene, I think that allows for more acceptance and a better community built off of that. We just want to be able to exist, have the same opportunities as everyone, and I think that kinda trickles down into the crowd and the music enjoyers.
WEBSTER: Yeah, I was having this thought too. I guess like 10 years ago I was into screamo and powerviolence mostly, and I feel like that space and that scene was very much early on with accepting queer and trans people and non-men, in a way that hardcore really wasn’t yet. We’re a little late here. Ten years ago, the only band I could even think of that was in the top level of bands that wasn’t all just cis straight dudes was Punch — and even then, you can tell, there was an ostracization of them from the broader hardcore world at the time. Whereas now, let’s say 50% of the bands that are getting hyped or popular or whatever do consist of not just straight, white cis dudes. So it’s definitely better now, it seems.
Why do you think we’ve had that improvement?
WEBSTER: I think part of it is just the world culture at large. But also I think the young kids coming in has a lot to do with it too. Also, seeing a lot of faces that I remember from screamo and powerviolence shows showing up now to the broader hardcore scene. Like, people that I remember from touring in screamo bands 10 years ago are now in the hardcore bands or doing the labels. So I feel like just the new people coming in are kind of shifting it.
Do you have any specific anecdotes or observations that have shown you how you’ve been able to connect with people?
WEBSTER: Especially in the last year, we’ve had a lot of people coming up after we finish playing and saying, “Hey, that was my first hardcore show.” At least two people per show we play, someone goes, that was my first show, or that was my first stagedive — it’s somebody’s first something. And then we see them the next time and the next time, and I think that’s really cool.
Also, seeing people get influenced by not just us but other bands in our [circle]. You know, seeing a band drop a demo, and they’re like, “We were really influenced by Gel and Scowl and stuff like that.” You’re 17, 18 years old, four-fifths of your band is not male or not straight, and when there’s bands that are popping, you get the influence from that and you’re like, “Oh, I could do that too.” People see what hardcore looks like now and feel like they can do that too. I swear, at least once a week a demo will drop and will namecheck us or Scowl or other bands in our circle. It’s cool.
I feel like the track “Calling Card” really sums up the idea of having a community that’s formed around Gel. How would you describe the community of Gel, and what does it mean to you?
WEBSTER: It’s sick, I love it. The anti-horseshoe [crowd formation] is the main thing for me. Like playing, nothing is more upsetting than the empty room and the horseshoe. But I think because we cultivate a different type of person, and we have all of these new kids involved that haven’t grown up with the horseshoe yet, it’s kind of the coolest thing for me. These kids really are just crawling over each other and stagediving and push-pitting. People get so mad about a push-pit, I don’t care. You’re doing something, that’s all I care about. You’re here, you’re moving.
NAVE: The amount of times I’ve been sitting at merch and someone has come up to me before we play with stars in their eyes — like, we were playing in California and [someone] came up, the biggest eyes, most excitement I’ve seen in someone’s face, and he’s like, “I’m gonna break my neck to your set!” I was like, you don’t have to do that! But I think it sums up the excitement that people have, and they just wanna move and have fun. We encourage everybody to move forward, get close, you’re not always gonna get hurt or anything. You might. I’m glad that guy didn’t break his neck, but I think he had a good time anyways.
Only Constant is out 3/31 on Convulse. Pre-order it here.