High Tension are far from an easy listening band. Their heavy, loud and aurally aggressive sound resonates with audiences and has earned them coveted and high profile support slots such as playing alongside King Parrot and The Bronx. The intense, bombastic nature of their art cannot be understated. Which is what makes it so surprising to find that their front-woman Karina Utomo is mild-mannered, gentle and softly spoken. We sat down with Karina at Face The Music 2016 at The State Library of Victoria a few weeks ago to talk about the panel she was involved in and her band. But the conversation we had rapidly evolved to one of a different nature, and Karina’s ability to articulate reflections on complex issues absolutely floored me.
You’d think in a building such as The State Library, we wouldn’t struggle to find a nice place to chat. Yet with the hustle and bustle of Face The Music causing nearly every inch of the grand, historic library to be full of people, we found ourselves talking in the only secluded spot we could find – a drab storage room on the second floor. Even though we managed to find possibly the ugliest space in one of the most gorgeous buildings in our fair city, Karina still noted “I think The State Library is a beautiful venue for Face The Music. It’s great to use public spaces for events like this.” After cracking a beer to calm her down after a long drive in from country Victoria where she recently relocated, Karina told me about the panel she would be appearing on later that day. “It’s about creating safe and inclusive spaces within the music scene, and the panellists are some very incredible voices with lots of different experiences.” An issue that is quite apparently close to her heart, Karina elaborates that “the panel is very solutions oriented. I’m really interested to hear from Katie of Listen Records who has been working hard on putting together a task force and setting up a protocol for live venues in Victoria so that staff and artists know what to do in the event of having an incident at their show.” Unwanted advances or invasive actions are all too common at music events and, women in particular, tend to be on the receiving end of this sort of abhorrent behaviour. Karina tells us that “a adlot of people have these kinds of experiences, which is really unfortunate. Bands, venues and punters need to be aware of what’s going on, and we need to develop systems to transform this behaviour and ensure people don’t do this kind of stuff.”
One of the reasons that the issue is so close to Karina’s heart is that an instance of abuse actually occurred at a High Tension show back in June, which visibly shook her. “I couldn’t believe that it happened at our show. It felt like such a betrayal. The scene that we have is one that I have a lot of trust in, and it was something that really shook all of us up. So, we called out that behaviour and tried to work out what we could do to prevent these things from happening.” As she relays the events of the evening in question, Karina’s drive for resolution are very apparent. “A member of the audience groped someone in an unwanted way. I noticed that something was not right and I asked if everything was okay, and the person that it happened to came up to the front of the stage and told me exactly what occurred, and I was so shocked about it that I ejected the perpetrator from the venue. There were six or seven hundred people in the Corner Hotel cheering about this guy being ejected. After that incident, it made me think that this is something that continually happens. There are so many questions, and there was a lot of anger and frustration as a result of what happened, which is what led me to be on this panel today.” One of the biggest problems is that people become complacent about events like this. The fact that these unwanted advances are common at gigs does not excuse them, and the solutions can only exist in changing the culture.
What happened at the High Tension show ended up being covered by The Guardian, and Karina quickly understood that what happened was just one instance of this kind of behaviour. “After we released a statement, we had an overwhelming response from people who wrote to us personally and told us about the times that similar things have happened to them – in some cases, the countless times it’s happened to them.” She glanced out the window with a pang of sadness at the nature of the reality. “And you have to ask questions, not just about how it occurs, but all of the things that allowed it to happened. It’s very complex and nuanced, and you have to look at the different spaces. There’s a lot to discuss, and a lot of work to do” In Melbourne and all over Australia, we have a vibrant music scene with endless variety and opportunities on offer. But this isn’t the case in other parts of the world. Karina was born in Java, Indonesia and has spent parts of her life living there. We asked her about the music scene in Indonesia, and how it differs from what we have here. “It’s not like Melbourne. Melbourne is really lucky. Within like a two kilometre radius in Collingwood and Fitzroy, there are so many venues, you can play seven nights a week. It’s not like that in other places around the world.” With a reminiscent and reflective air, she explains “I think it is really interesting to observe scenes in other countries, where a particular genre might not have stemmed from the same environment but is embraced because it has a lot of the same ideas. Especially with punk and other heavy genres, where it’s about that sense of refusal.” Her passion and affinity for the music scene in her home country shine as she speaks with animated enthusiasm. “I’m Javanese, and I was born and grew up in Jakarta. My culture is quite passive in some ways because of the history and the oppression that exists. So when you see really heavy punk or metal bands, it’s so potent and refined, but raw at the same time. I guess it differs geographically, in terms of politics and socio-economic factors. Being in a band, you have to have some kind of privilege to even be able to buy your musical instruments in the first place. In a place like Indonesia, there is a big chunk of people that want to start playing music but they can’t buy a guitar or whatever. I think a little bit more passion comes through, it’s very raw, and that rage and anger is very real.” It’s quite easy to forget the level of liberty and freedom we have in Australia, and in a place like Indonesia, a true sense of displacement which fuels heavy music is somewhat more genuine. Karina continues to explain, “I love going to shows there. It’s very creative, and nothing is really by the book. When I got out of my bubble in South Jakarta, I started venturing out and discovering that there were all of these shows that existed, and this really great underground scene of people putting on gigs in basement car parks and stuff like that.”
As we sat inside The State Library, which was both the hub for Melbourne Music Week as well as the host of Face The Music, two events which ran simultaneously, there was an air of immersion in an ever growing industry. Face The Music and Melbourne Music Week both serve to bring together a community of artists and industry figures, allowing for an open and inclusive forum, the magnitude of which was not lost on Karina, who said “we’re very lucky to be in an industry where people are really generous and willing to share their experiences and what they’ve learned. I think it’s really great to listen to these conversations, listen to other experiences and observe. And if there’s an opportunity to talk to someone and gain insight, I think that is so valuable. It can be a bit lonely to try and figure things out on your own, so I think it is important to not deny support and to seek support in this industry.” With over two hundred artists and industry personnel taking part in the proceedings of both Face The Music and Melbourne Music Week, learning more and embracing opportunities was not difficult for anyone who attended.
One of the best things about Face The Music is the opportunities it provides to young people who are thinking about getting into the industry or starting out in it. It also provides a great way for artists to learn more about their craft, and the many facets which contribute to it. As an established, successful artist, I asked Karina if she had any advice for young people starting out. “I think it’s good to not be afraid, and try to conquer any fear or hesitation you may have to want to pursue a career in heavy music or start a band or whatever. All those concerns are very valid, but you have to remember that there are ways to conquer that fear, and you can get the support of others. You’ve got to not be hard on yourself. It’s normal to make mistakes, and you’re not always going to be as incredible as you imagined, to begin with, but you can’t let that get you down. Building your confidence, building your skills, learning from others and preparation are all really important.” She laughs as she notes that all of that advice might be a bit convoluted, and to summarise she says, “my best advice is to acknowledge that fear is valid, but also to just do it.”