Meet Dream Nails, the feminist punk witches who couldn't give a sh*t what you think

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(Image: © Laura Palmer)

There’s nothing subtle about self-proclaimed, London-based ‘punk witches’ Dream Nails. They come armed with a fierce feminist manifesto, soulful punk jams and a completely unapologetic ‘no fucks given’ attitude. They're coming to challenge your privilege and they don’t want your approval – in fact, they want you to change. Unified through feminist activism, since 2015, their ‘witch punk’ has been harnessing “the tenacious and divine power of a global sisterhood of women and non-binary people who are taking matters into their own hands.”

With a batch of infectious punk singles (or ‘hexes’, as they define them) and riotous live shows pushing the classic riot grrrl ‘girls to the front’ agenda and safe space politics, Dream Nails have be noted as major players in the exploding DIY scene of bands looking to give the patriarchy a kicking.

After we at Louder witnessed their show-stealing set at this year’s Indietracks festival, we went on a mission to find out more about the band. Managing to find time in their jam-packed touring schedule, Janey Starling (vocals), Anya Pearson (guitar), Lucy Katz (drums) and Mimi Jasson (bass) enlightened us on the world of Dream Nails.

The world Dream Nails emerged into as a band was one where violent misogyny had been legitimised online; a world of Weinstein and Trump, where Men’s Rights activists are an actual thing and where toxic masculinity manifests in men committing violence against women or themselves. Using a punk rock template combined with the power of their voice, the band say they hope to break the spell of the status quo. Dream Nails “is what happens when you put four witches in a room with instruments,” says singer Starling.

With the snarl of riot grrrl infused with a soulful pop sensibility, the band often take a humorous swipe at the issues they tackle. Sure, some songs are pretty serious – take Vagina Police's chanted message: 'Your body is not your own, you have no autonomy,’ or Joke Choke's opener and refrain: 'This is a song about people who think its funny to make jokes about rape... You think this is a joke? Well I hope you choke.' But some are also hilarious. There's the swipe at Donald Trump, Deep Heat, with its line 'Nobody cares if your dick is on fire,' or Cookies 4 U, which pokes fun at forced, fake solidarity.

“Being angry all the time is exhausting, and if you don’t give yourself space to play and have fun you can end up really burning yourself out," explains Starling. "But I would say that it’s not enough just to poke fun at bad things – you can laugh, but you’ve got to take action too.”

However you read it, Dream Nails a band that are fighting from their own lived experience. For them, this is serious because it's their lives.

“Everything [is written from experience]," says Starling. "And as a result, we’ve got a collection of songs that a lot of people can relate to – from hating your job to surviving sexual violence, to accepting yourself as a queer woman. After our set at Shambala this year, a woman told me that our set 'was the soundtrack of her life right now.'"

Where punk rock has traditions of toxic masculinity and an almost formulaic aesthetic, it is new feminist bands that channel the genre’s vital tenets – politicised, self-determining messages and DIY as a lifestyle. This is punk for change, not just for sound.

Single DIY brings this ideal to life, exclaiming 'You are good enough, you are strong enough' to a shopping-list style run-through of what you can do for yourself.

On the track, Jasson says: “The realisation that you can do many things yourself is very empowering – like growing your own food. It’s really important to educate yourself and put faith in yourself that you can do things on your own, especially in the music industry.”

Pearson adds: “Yes, we make so much stuff ourselves, including a homemade fanzine to accompany every record we release that’s full of lyrics, and articles about feminism, crystal healing and how to start your own punk band.”

The Dream Nails cottage industry of feminist production includes homemade pedal-boards and self-releasing their own records. In much the same way as the riot grrrl movement took back control through producing their own scene and art on their own terms, Dream Nails are doing the same thing in their own way today.

What they produce is making an impact. Within in a year they were asked to play Glastonbury’s first women-only venue, the Sisterhood stage, and they have also joined Cherry Glazerr on a European tour. Like any touring band, they returned with some unique tales – like soundchecking to a room full of people practicing human suspension in Oslo.

“That same tour we also slept on the floor of a prison," says Katz. "Scandinavia is dark. Weird things happen to us, but also we make weird things happen because we are just a quartet of jokers getting ourselves in scraps.”

Starling offers one such tale: “One time when we were on tour with Cherry Glazerr. We went to get vegan hot dogs in Hamburg and this old homeless man was selling posters of old pop stars. I bought one of Janet Jackson – turned out it was her birthday that day and none of us had any idea. This was very lucky as we were sleeping in a haunted fishing trawler called Stubnitz that night in the docks of Hamburg. We were shitting ourselves as the cabin door didn’t lock and we could feel the ghosts flickering in the corners of the room. So we stuck up good old Janet on the wall and she became our guardian angel."

The band's ethos has been met with both positive and negative reactions. “We spend our lives navigating misogyny and that doesn’t change when we’re onstage," says Jasson. "Men still want to take loads of zoomed in photos of me, and we also get talked to like we’re children by the sound guys. What really sucks is that the power we have to be in control of the situation completely evaporates once we step off the stage; recently we were on the way back from a gig where some men were harassing us on an empty train and started making really graphic rape threats."

“That’s it," adds Starling. "I’m tired of men fetishising women’s anger. I’m up here singing about sexual violence and there are men who are so enthralled by that concept that they want to take pictures the whole time. It’s disrespectful and I’ve often thought a lot about the camera as a symbol of power. Men holding onto their cameras still puts them in a position of power, even at a feminist punk show. And I want men to recognise and reflect on that.

“A Dream Nails show is an exercise in how willing men are to accept female power and leadership. If men come to our shows and they don’t like us telling them to stand at the back, or don’t like it when we tell them to put their cameras away or that we don’t want a photo with them at the merch table, then they really need to consider how “supportive” they really are. They need to reflect on their entitlement and process the sting of discomfort for the greater good.”

So far, the bulk of their discourse has been directed at men. As a man, I find myself asking questions about my gender's role in making things better. Ultimately – what can I do? Each member has a succinct, direct answer.

“Give as much emotional support to your female friends as you receive from them,” says Pearson. “Call out your other man friends if you see them engaging in harassment or assault of another woman, notice and hold yourself accountable for any thoughts you might have that women are less than you,” adds Jasson.

Katz suggests a deep dive into the soul: “Give space to your sisters and step back without question. Renegotiate your masculinity and reflect on your own complicity in patriarchal systems.”

“Proactively have difficult conversations with men about consent and control. Talk about consent. Do the dishes,” Starling adds.

Dream Nails sit in a brilliant, growing movement of like-minded feminist bands – including The Baby Seals, Screaming Toenail, Petrol Girls and Dream Wife – pushing for change. I wonder how they feel about male punk bands like IDLES currently challenging toxic masculinity – a key issue in our society.

“I think it’s something everyone should be doing," says Jasson. "It will most likely be a positive influence on other men who need to see toxic masculinity as their problem as well, and if they’re decent people they should be challenging it too.”

“I agree, I think it’s positive," adds Pearson. "Toxic masculinity is shit for men as well. If we crush it, everybody wins.”

Even within this, Dream Nails are keen for audiences to stay focussed on the bigger issues. “My question is what are men doing to address the violent culture of the punk scene?" asks Starling. "Are they stopping shows when things get rough? Are they kicking assholes out? You can have positive messaging on a broader platform but a lot of the work we do as a feminist band is unseen: it’s ensuring venues have safer spaces training, that there are gender neutral toilets, and that people in the audience feel supported to confront and kick out an abusive person.”

From our conversation with Dream Nails, it’s clear they will never stop asking questions, and never cease raging against the patriarchy machine. They don’t care what you think, what I think, and why should they? Dream Nails are a band fighting for their own lives and there’s no time to waste.

When asked about the band's aim goal, Katz keeps it simple: “World domination and eradication of the patriarchy by Halloween ‘18.” Count us in.

Dream Nails play Loud Women Fest in London on September 15. Tickets are available now.