There’s an incredible performance involved every time Jenny McKechnie steps on stage. It’s one that goes far beyond the riffs she plays and notes she sings as guitarist and vocalist of Melbourne punk trio Cable Ties.
Watching her square off in a long instrumental duel with bassist Nick Brown or hear drummer Shauna Boyle join her in letting loose sonic battles cries, it’d be safe to assume McKechnie is just as fierce in person. But what audiences witness is a costume of confidence she pulls on in order to deliver the resplendent feminist punk belters with such conviction.
“I’m not actually the confident person who struts around on stage, shouting at the crowd, at all,” McKechnie tells NME Australia at a pub in the inner-northern suburb of Brunswick, ahead of the release of their new album ‘Far Enough’. “I am generally plagued with anxiety and self-doubt, and unable to speak up and articulate myself particularly well a lot of the time.”
The music she’s making has pushed her to expect and demand more off-stage. “My songwriting had to take a different tack, in that the songs have this big, joyous rush to them. They’re uplifting and they’re loud and they command attention and respect. And they ask that you find something to fight for and be hopeful about.”
Cable Ties have led by example. In the past five years, the trio have risen through the ranks of the prosperous Melbourne DIY scene, from a band playing to friends at a backyard show into a pillar of that same community. Wet Fest, a DIY festival organised by McKechnie’s previous band, was where Cable Ties played their first show. Brown had only recently been lured back to the bass after “giving up playing” and deciding his contribution to the local music scene would instead manifest through his long-running show on community radio station PBS.
Boyle, meanwhile, estimates she had played the drums roughly three times before that day in 2015. McKechnie’s origin story is writ large on ‘Tell Them Where to Go’, a fiery encouragement to people who think they’re “too shy or too femme” to “make their own heroes, make their own noise and say what they need to say“.
Their second gig was in the hallowed bandroom of The Tote, Collingwood’s sticky carpeted punk temple, and ended up bootlegged and shared around. That jump is representative of Melbourne’s distinct attitude towards hopeful new artists trying to carve out a space of their own.
“One of the really amazing things that Melbourne has is a critical mass of people who are interested in supporting and coming along to new things,” Brown says. The impetus for putting on shows is rarely dependent on the commercial pull of a headliner, but rather the intrinsic belief that something is worth doing makes it so. “As a result, Melbourne is rich with opportunity for people to put on cool shows and to play cool shows as a new band.”
Since, the band have attached themselves to projects, labels, tours or festivals – and even curating lineups themselves, as they do with the annual Cable Ties Ball – all based on a shared set of values. By doing so they’ve also created a blueprint for other acts to follow, leading Cable Ties to a position as an inclusive and encouraging force in their scene, and exemplars of what Australian music is capable of.
This is a description they might bristle at, considering how astutely they critique the structures that exist to do good, but eventually have arbitrary walls constructed by those within to ward off idealistic new arrivals. This is the central tension in ‘Sandcastles’, the first single from their new record ‘Far Enough’. It’s a familiar story of those trying their best being shut out by people who wield just enough power to tear them down.
“What kind of movement do you hope to make / by burning everyone who doesn’t speak the same?” McKechnie demands of a protagonist who “never stopped kicking down sandcastles”. She was inspired to write it after observing the exclusionary practice of language-policing in activist spaces and online discussions, where anything you say is cancelled out if you can’t articulate it in the collective’s agreed-upon ways.
“I just saw it as a really destructive trend and that there wasn’t enough consideration of other people’s humanity,” McKechnie explains. “There’s definitely been times when I’ve been guilty of doing the things that the antagonist in that song does, so it’s also written about mistakes that I’ve made.”
This kind of lyrical territory is dense and can be unforgiving, but after their 2017 self-titled debut, the band are well-equipped to tread it. That record opened with ‘The Producer’, a caustic warning to industry figures who manipulate their positions in toxic ways. Set to bright, crunchy guitars and Brown and Boyle’s reliable rhythm section, it was the perfect introduction to the band. Elsewhere on the record, they faced off against domestic abuse and rejected the pressures of a capitalist machine.
On their new record, McKechnie’s songwriting was motivated not just by the things she stands for, but also what holds her upright. The title of its first track serves as the record’s motivating force: ‘Hope’. “For me and on the album, hope is an active and useful feeling that I’ve had to drum up in myself when I don’t want to,” she explains.
“There’s a lot to be afraid of,” McKechnie sings on ‘Pillow’, a song that captures the specific anxieties of young Australians: living through a climate crisis on stolen land, trying to survive in an increasingly casualised workforce while being instructed to get a job and buy a house nonetheless. “That’s just not actually possible for us anymore. And the world doesn’t look the same as it did for our parents’ generation.”
After writing the song incrementally over several years, by the time it came time to record ‘Pillow’ for their second album, McKechnie attempted to resolve the conflict at its core. “I was thinking, ‘Well, what processes have I been through to get out of this headspace, and to get out of the feeling that everything’s just hopeless and fucked and I’m a terrible person and there’s nothing I can do about it?’ I realised a lot of the anxieties and depression I was experiencing were completely natural in the face of that sort of thing.”
Sometimes the empty promise of pretending to hold the solution is more dangerous than accepting that there is no easy answer. Tying a neat bow around a complicated idea is not the style of a band named after the chafing and utilitarian tool for keeping wires tidy and contained, when their instinct is instead to flare up, spark and spit.
Cable Ties’ album ‘Far Enough’ is out now.