After nearly 10 years of relentless gigging, one might expect Melbourne post-punk veterans Plaster of Paris to have a slew of recorded releases to their name. But life – to say nothing of the seemingly endless struggle of being a non-male musician – has delayed the group’s debut full-length album ‘Lost Familiar’ until now.
“We waited for two years to record after our drummer Nicola Bell joined the band in 2015,” vocalist and songwriter Zec Zechner tells NME over Zoom. “Between then and 2017 Sarah [Blaby, the band’s guitarist] had a loss in the family and that slowed us down. It was actually the first time we’d both had a hiatus from music since the ’90s. This time gave us a chance to stop and have a breather and think ‘Is this still what we want to do?’.” The answer, clearly, was a resounding yes.
Reconnected to their purpose, in 2017 Plaster of Paris put out the blistering 7-inch split single ‘Newcomer’/‘Oh Wow’, two tracks that also appear on the album and powerfully showcase the band’s tight rhythm section, enveloping guitars and searing lyrics. This release made a fan of photographer and musician Kurt Eckardt, the driving force behind the band’s new home, indie label Psychic Hysteria.
Plaster of Paris close ‘Lost Familiar’ with ‘Newcomer’, which could be considered a tongue-in-cheek reference to how long it’s taken them to release a full-length. But Zechner describes the track as being more aligned with Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland and its themes of self-discovery. In her distinctive vocal that shatters octaval ceilings, Zechner bellows, “Becoming like a ghost / Inside my strongest bones / Searching the highs and lows / I am searching, I’m searching, I’m searching”.
It’s this journey, and the experiences of women, that is the core of ‘Lost Familiar’ and all that the band do. It’s an ethos that the trio have developed over their last 20 years playing in punk bands like Double Vanity, Remake Remodel and Bracode. “I’m originally from Sydney and Sarah is from Melbourne but I think it was always on the cards that we would form a band,” Zechner muses. “Sarah’s band Remake Remodel used to come to Sydney to play underground shows that we used to put on every month in the ’90s and early noughties, and we realised we shared so many of the same goals and interests.”
It was around this time that the riot grrl broke out overseas, with Bikini Kill carrying the torch in the Pacific Northwest while Huggy Bear led the movement in the UK. Zechner and Blaby, who were part of early incarnations of riot grrl in Australia, pay tribute to two of their punk heroes on ‘Lost Familiar’: Mary Timony (Helium, Wild Flag, Ex Hex) on ‘Mary’ and Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile, Sex Stains, Cold Cold Heart) on ‘Allison’.
“We wanted to pay homage to women of our generation who don’t necessarily get the kudos they deserve,” explains Zechner. “We’re singing about these iconic women that were fierce and have been so from the beginning of their career, challenging these massive obstacles at the same time. They’re still living and breathing their DIY dynamic to this day and for that they’re idols to us.”
“Younger bands weren’t supporting the generation above them when I was starting out”
The members of Plaster of Paris realised early on in life how important the fight for equality in male-dominated music spaces was to their survival. Riot grrrl and the community behind it were the catalyst for Zechner and Blaby meeting at a Scooter Rock Chix event. “Those events were run by a LGBTQIA+ collective that kicked against the misogynist and queer/transphobic music industry,” Zechner recounts. “My band Bracode helped run them and these events really helped pioneer the DIY feminist punk scene at the time.”
Plaster of Paris are now shining a light on an overlooked gendered issue: the disparity that still exists between men and women, as well as gender non-conforming people, when it comes to reaching a point where one is considered ‘mid-career’. “It’s not something we want to be the poster child for but it’s such a topical issue now and I think it really needs to be talked about,” stresses Zechner. “It feeds into that whole story that women should drop everything for their family, whereas men are allowed to continue to tour and play up until any age, so we need to question why there aren’t as many over 40 playing music.”
Zechner attributes the band’s longevity to advances in technology and their DIY ethos, but perhaps most to the support Plaster of Paris have received from younger bands. “We realised as long as young bands keep putting us on line-ups there’s a reason to exist, and for us that community is really empowering. Younger bands weren’t supporting the generation above them when I was starting out, so it’s been great to see this shift with the new generation.”
The band’s riot grrrl roots still continue to inform their songwriting and sound. For Zechner, ‘Lost Familiar’ is influenced by a formative love of Hole’s ‘Pretty On The Inside’ and Minnesota’s Babes In Toyland – but above all, the album is fuelled by fierce feminism. “I don’t know if it’s a choice for me,” she says. “I cannot stop my feminist fire because that rage is always there. A lot of songwriters write in third person, as though they’re telling a story about another person, but for me it’s very first person; it’s always diarised.”
These first-person narratives do, however, tie in political themes around queer identity and bodily autonomy – after all, Zechner says, the personal is always political for her. The album’s opening track ‘Danceflaw’ is particularly poignant, given the band were in America for Pride in 2016 when a gunman stormed gay bar Pulse in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others.
“That song was written quickly,” reveals Zechner. “A lot of people seek out those spaces because they feel safe to be themselves there. It’s hard to talk about a lot of these issues but I will not be silenced and that’s the beauty of songwriting, you effectively can’t be silenced. I feel liberated delivering that song and playing it live.”
“I cannot stop my feminist fire because that rage is always there”
It’s clear from talking to Zechner that she’s seen a lot in her time, but she is also able to acknowledge just how far the music industry has come. “There are now more women who have infiltrated music and are doing really big and great things,” she says. “We’re actually having discussions around representation and addressing these issues, which didn’t happen a lot when I was growing up.”
But the fight isn’t over and the passion and fury that fuels ‘Lost Familiar’ is still vital and necessary. Recent months have seen renewed efforts to increase accountability within the Australian music industry, from artists like Jaguar Jonze opening up their own experiences of assault on traditional and social media platforms to Instagram account Beneath the Glass Ceiling airing anonymised accounts of systemic mistreatment and abuse within the music industry. No longer will women and gender-diverse people be cast to the sidelines – they’re claiming space, and just like Plaster of Paris, they won’t be silenced.
“I think around the time they turn 30, women start to think, ‘Is music going to continue to be my lifelong game?’ And for Sarah and I, it really was,” Zechner emphasises. “For me, my feminist fire is building the older I get, and becoming more and more intense. I think that’s a good thing.”
Plaster of Paris’ album ‘Lost Familiar’ is out out via Psychic Hysteria on June 23