Modern Australian Underground’s Christina Pap: “It’s nice to remember and appreciate nice little things because so much of our lives is spent clinging on to these bad things that have shaped us”

Photo courtesy of Christina Pap. Handmade collage art by B.

Christina Pap does A LOT! She’s currently the vocalist for Melbourne/Naarm punk band Swab (previously having fronted Vanilla Poppers), hosts the Modern Australian Underground podcast and co-hosts 3RRR’s Teenage Hate radio show, is an artist, creates punk zine Stitches In My Head, runs label Blow Blood Records (recently compiling and releasing 2 great volumes of quarantine recordings by a vast array of the AUS punk scene), and works at our favourite Melbourne record shop Lulu’s. Christina is an underground Australian music community treasure that works, and continues to work, hard to do all she does, it definitely hasn’t come without challenges and some very hard moments along the way. Gimmie sat down to chat with her frankly and candidly about her journey. 

 Hi Christina! How are you?

CHRISTINA PAP: I’m doing alright.

That doesn’t sound very convincing!

CP: [Laughs] Yeah. It’s been a bit of a stressful week but I’m trying to be ok, you know how it is.

I do. Aww, I hope your week gets better. You grew up in Melbourne, right?

CP: Yeah, I did. I was born in Brunswick and I grew up in Coburg. I feel like I’m one of the few people out of all of my friends who actually grew up in Melbourne, a lot of my friends moved here from other places.

And, you come from a big Greek family?

CP: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, I do. Greek-Italian.

How were things growing up for you? Often Greek and Italian families can be pretty conservative and you’re into more alternative things and ways of living.

CP: Yeah, totally. I feel like it’s something recently that I’ve only started to be ok with, because most of my life I’ve been really fighting the fact that coming out of a Greek-Italian family I was a woman and didn’t really matter. Going into the punk scene I thought I had a little reprieve from that but then it was just the same situation, ya know. I broke away from my family, all my cousins were getting married and had kids and that wasn’t something that I really wanted. I didn’t really know any other way though because I grew up in a big Greek-Italian family and that’s the expectation.

How did you discover music?

CP: I’d always listen to the radio shit but I didn’t really know about punk, this was when I was ten. When I was fourteen, I decided that I wanted to do something that raised money for charity but I didn’t really know how to do that. Someone pointed me in the direction of council in Victoria, they have these FReeZA events; groups for young people between fifteen and twenty-five and they organise shows. I went and talked to the council and they let me join their young person committee and I put on a show and raised money for charity. I stuck around afterwards and kids there were into emo and ska and shit, street punk. It snowballed. I’d find out about street punk shows that were all ages. In my teens it was mostly emo and street punk [laughs], when I turned eighteen, I found punk music that wasn’t that.

So, you started going to local shows; would you go by yourself or with friends?

CP: I kind of met people there. I was the only punk in my high school though. I would go to school with a mohawk and people would think I was so weird. I slowly made friends; I know it sounds stupid but I felt like I didn’t fit in because I was culturally different from everyone. A lot of that, from what I’ve started to understand about myself, is that it was probably just in my head [laughs]. It took me a long, long time to make friends and feel like I fit in, and I’ve only really felt that in the last couple of years, I guess.

I can relate, especially being a person of colour and going to punk shows and being the only POC in the room at shows. Like you, at school I was the only punk girl as well. I’d always get, “Oh, you’re that weird, dark, punk girl.”

CP: Yeah, totally!

And you’d start going to shows and no one else looks like you. When I started going to punk shows there wasn’t that many girls at shows either, being a woman of colour here in Australia at shows you’re a minority within the minority of the punk world.  

CP: That’s true. The thing I’ve also had to learn over the years – and it’s been a good thing for me to learn – is that being Italian-Greek isn’t necessarily being a person of colour. Because I was brought up so different there were these things that made it different for me, but just for me to be brought up culturally different, I can’t claim I’m a person of colour. I don’t want you to feel like I claim that in any way.

I didn’t think that at all. Can you remember when you first came across zines?

CP: I used to read Maximum Rock N Roll when I was young, that was the first big punk zine. There were other ones like Distort around. I never really thought about doing one until my first boyfriend, who ended up being the singer for The Zingers – we started dating when I was nineteen – decided that he wanted to do a punk zine. I remember thinking if he was going to do one, he’s in the same boat as me – he didn’t play an instrument and wasn’t involved in the scene at all – but he was a guy and all of our friends were guys and I felt like he had an extra leg up because he was a guy. He did one or two issues and then I ended up doing it for six or seven years after I started it. When I started it, it was called When We’re Young We’re Invincible. It was pretty terrible [laughs], but I think I got better as time went on.

My first zines were terrible too! You have to start somewhere though. No one really shows you how to make a zine and it’s all learning, experimenting, trial and error. You just get that overwhelming feeling of wanting to contribute beyond just going to shows. When you know better you do better. I’ve read a lot of your interviews on your blog and in your zines and you can really see the progression of them, leading up to the great chats you do on your new podcast, Modern Australian Underground.

CP: Thank you.

I rarely find interviews that I think are exceptional but the one you did with Yeap & Heikal on immigrant punx and racism in Australia was really amazing.

CP: I really appreciate that because I definitely am trying and I want to make them interesting, there’s always this part of me though, with whatever I do, is this nerve-wracking thing to put something into the public eye because I always just think it’s shit and not good enough. I put something out and I can’t appreciate the effort that I put into it because I’m too busy worrying about someone telling me how terrible it is! The one with Yeap and Heikal was a really nice conversation, I’m really happy it happened.

I thought it was important to tell you I found it rad because I think often people don’t tell people enough when they make or do something that rules! People are quick to point out when you fuck up or they like to tear others down or be apathetic and I think sometimes in the punk community it’s seen as cool not to give a shit or to try—I think that’s bullshit. Trying and doing your best is the coolest to me, like the Minor Threat song: Well at least I’m fucking trying / What the fuck have you done?

CP: Yeah, for sure. I really appreciate the positive feedback I’ve gotten for the podcast but I’ve also lived in a time when… like punk six years ago in Australia was a lot different, people were a lot more critical and ready to cut you down over absolutely nothing. It’s nice to have a lot of people in the community to be down and support each other, they’ll be really positive and give each other advice. Whereas not that long ago I felt like it was really different.

What do you think has changed?

CP: I don’t know because I gave up on Melbourne and left the country for two and a half years. I grew up in Melbourne so it’s not like I grew up in Adelaide and moved to Melbourne and it wasn’t my home city, I’ve always been in punk in Melbourne. I left for a lot of reasons, part of it was I went through some really shitty emotional and physical abuse shit with a guy that I was dating that was in the scene. I remember being at a show and he was coming after me, yelling at me and saying he wanted to punch me and shit. I remember going up to one of his friends and just begging for help at a show and everyone turned their back on me. I was literally at a show, I never ask for anything, I never ask for help and I always contribute and here I was asking for help and I feel like everyone turned their back on me. Talking to Yeap, I could see that around the same time he had his own similar experience of the scene. I had been overseas and I had friends that were really supportive and I thought; why would I contribute to a scene here when I’m literally at my worst point and really need help and they don’t want to help me and deal with it? Why do I want to contribute to a scene when a white guy is being racist to someone of colour? Or there’s a guy threatening to punch his girlfriend at a show? I was like, bye everyone, have a good time! It’s funny because everyone thinks Cleveland [Ohio] is a fucked-up place, but Cleveland was the place I went because I felt like I had more family there then what I was feeling in Melbourne at the time.

I’m sorry that happened to you. I’ve had similar things happen to me in the scene. I’ve dated guys and when the relationship ended – because I experienced emotional, mental and in some cases physical abuse – I felt everyone turned their back on me too. Rumours start and you get made out to be the bad one even though it was the other person abusing you and all your “friends” desert you in favour of scene dude and you’re left feeling isolated, alone, confused, disillusioned and really let down.

CP: Totally!

You think these people are your friends and family and that you’re a community.

CP: Yeah, and especially it always happens to the chick when they’re breaking up with a guy and looking after themselves cos this guy is dragging you down and being really shit to you. When you do something for yourself everyone’s like, “Oh, she is shit, she gave up!” I was literally fighting so hard and I felt like I finally decided to look out for myself for one second and everybody hates me for it.

It’s a really lonely place to be in, especially after you give so much to the community with all that you do and you find there’s no support and you feel ostracized. You feel like your community failed you. I stopped going to shows for a while and making zines, two things I love doing so much. I fell into a deep depression and had crippling anxiety. Eventually I found a way that I felt comfortable coming back, but mostly it’s just doing the work I love – zines, interviewing and going to shows – but being more guarded in my social world. I found a way to contribute and not have to deal with the rest of the shit.

CP: Yeah. It sucks that you went through that as well. It’s hard when you hit the point of; why am I still here doing this stuff? It’s supposed to be a place where everyone supports each other but you just have the worst experiences. It’s cool you found a way to come back, I really love your art and interviews, they’re really cool. You’re doing great!

Thank you! I’m thankful we’re both still here, both still contributing and doing even cooler things than we ever have before. I was talking to one of my friends recently and he was saying how you come to the punk scene because you want a refuge within the world at large and you think you’ve found a place to belong that’s different, that it’s a little utopia in a way, but the reality I experienced was that it’s not really, it’s just a microcosm of the macrocosm. I’ve met a lot of great, great people in punk but there’s also a lot of shit terrible people.

CP: Yeah, definitely. That’s why nothing is black and white. There’s a lot of good things in PC culture, but there’s also a lot of dangerous things in PC culture, things are complicated. You have this definition of punk being family, being everything is ok but, if you look at the normal family, there’s always crazy shit going on anyway [laughs]. The best thing is growing up and you get better perspective on life and break out of these ideals that we’re conditioned with and you realise the world doesn’t work that way and you wonder what went wrong.

I notice that your zine is really music-centric and you don’t write personal stuff in there much; was it a conscious decision? Why did you decide to do that?

CP: I feel selfish talking about myself really. For me, I feel like it’s selfish putting myself on a platform and thinking people want to hear about me and what I have going on. If I talk about music, I can talk about a thing that doesn’t have to involve me but I can write about it and create something from me.

I can understand and respect that, it’s funny though, because my two favourite things that you’ve written are very personal pieces that I found on your blog.

CP: Which ones?

One was where you writing about the end of your band Vanilla Poppers’ tour in 2016. I really liked the piece because I felt it gave a real insight into you. I mean, I see and listen to your bands, enjoy the label and zines that you do and know you in a way as much as you can from that, but to see behind that I thought was really cool. There was a passage you wrote about being between cities in the middle of nowhere and you pulled the van over and all piled out of it and were standing on the side of the road and looked up at the stars, and how it reminded you of being in your grandparents’ backyard as a kid. I got teary reading that, it was really beautiful.

CP: Awww. Yeah.

I haven’t gotten to see you play live yet but I’ve seen videos of you perform and your sets seem so intense and then to read about that moment on tour, you see a totally different side.

CP: Yeah, for sure. That tour was really special to me, I wrote about it because I never wanted to forget it. I feel like I’ll never do something like that again, even if I did, it wouldn’t be that same experience. It really meant a lot to me, all the little things. It’s nice to remember and appreciate nice little things because so much of our lives is spent clinging on to these bad things that have shaped us, these bad experiences and trauma. When I was looking at those stars, I remembered being home when I hadn’t been home in two years, that moment meant so much. I’m glad you liked it.

You could feel it and it was genuine and honest, I think that’s why I connected with it so strongly. The other thing I read that really struck me was you taking about getting the nickname “Stress Head”.

CP: [Laughs].

And there was a moment you were sitting in the back of the tour van while it was driving along the highway and you cracked and were rocking back and forth crying. When I read that I just wanted to give you a hug.

CP: Awww, thanks. That shit is real, it’s not something that I often talk about, my whole life dealing with mental shit. That’s like when you first called and asked how my day was and I said “alright” when I’ve really been having a shit day. It’s hard to write about that stuff because it is really emotional, emotions are hard to deal with and you spend so much time trying to push them aside to try and get by in every day life. It felt good to write that piece and be able to just get it out. There’s a lot of times, even writing vocals for Swab, I have such a hard time because I don’t know how to open up and it hurts too much to open up.

I think that’s why we make music and songs and art sometimes because we want to communicate and say things but sometimes it’s hard to talk about it and it’s easier to just put it into a song or what we’re making.

CP: Definitely. The thing about joining Vanilla Poppers, I went to North America for two and a half years, I had a great time, but the whole time I was going through really bad mental health. Vanilla Poppers was a way for me to have an alter ego where I could write and sing about these things… usually when I lose my mind, I feel powerless and I don’t know what to do and I feel weak, but doing Vanilla Poppers I could lose my mind and be strong about it and yell about it and tell people “fuck you!” It was nice to have an outlet where I felt I had some kind of power.

Doing a band is the most nerve-racking fucking thing in the whole world. Whenever I have a show coming up, I’m always like; why am I doing this again? It’s so stressful to stand in front of people and perform and know people are looking at you. All I can think about is that I don’t feel good enough to be on stage because I’m not a hot chick.

Firstly, you are hot! Secondly, hot is subjective and the way you look shouldn’t influence people to love what you create. I’ve known guys I’ve mentioned different women performers to and the first thing say they is, “She’s hot.” It’s like, why does what a female performer look like matter?

CP: I know. It’s all conditioning. I think for me it also comes from me being a wog chick and not a hot white chick or some shit! I’m white but not an Australian white chick. That’s all my own conditioning and it’s something that I try to work through.

There’s been times when I’ve felt the same way though too.

CP: Really? Are you in a band?

I’m working on a band with my husband now, Know Future. I’ve been in a few bands in the past but nothing too serious. I used to find it hard to find people to play with, I’ve had similar experiences to you where because I’m female people are reluctant to start a band with you, you’re not taken seriously.

CP: Totally!

Part of why I made a zine was it forced me to talk to people and be more social, I’ve always been more of a quiet, loner type person.

CP: Yeah, it’s an excuse to talk to people. If I’m at a show when I was younger, I felt like I didn’t really have a reason to go up and talk to anybody, no one is going to want to talk to me, but if I have the excuse of doing a zine and interviewing them, then I have an excuse to talk to people. How long have you been married for?

We’ve been together for twelve years this year, married since 2013.

CP: That’s cool. I’m married as well. He’s great but I haven’t actually seen him in over a year because he lives in Cleveland. It was going to be a situation where I worked on a visa and went over there and he would come here and visit, but because of Covid I don’t know when I’m going to be able to see him again! We speak everyday though.

That sounds so brutal! Having to be apart.

CP: Yeah, I was really upset about it for months at the start of Covid, it was hard to deal with. We have a good relationship. I’ve just come to accept that we’re both living our lives separately and, in the future, we’ll be able to come together. I’m glad that you’re married and happy.

It’s the best when you find the coolest person that you just want to be around all the time. When we met, I was ready to move to America, I was ready to go, I’d had enough of the scene here; I can relate to you in so many ways. I went to a show my bandmate was playing with his other band and my husband-to-be’s band was supporting. I had a really challenging day looking after my mother with advanced Alzheimer’s and seeing Jhonny’s band play brought me so much joy and a respite from some hard stuff that was happening in my life. After the show he talked to me and I told him all about my shitty day and he sat and listened. I had to go home early and a few days later he contacted me to see how I was going and we started trading mixtapes and art through the mail. I realised I simply couldn’t go to America anymore because I had found this amazing person to love and that loved me equally.

CP: Oh my god! Amazing. That’s a love story!

Moving back to music; is there any particular performers that inspire you?

CP: I’ll listen to a record and feel like it’s awesome, then if I see a band live and I feel like they’re going through the motions and there’s nothing actually behind it… when I do my band, I just try to do the best that I can. I hate watching a band where the singer will just stand there or lean on the side of the stage and sing, like; what is this?! I’m here to watch a shredding band and you’re being so blasé. Really play a show or don’t do it! A show that I really like is when you can tell that they’re really fighting for themselves or what they’re talking about. It doesn’t even have to be a punk show, you just have to feel that it’s genuine, I find that inspiring. I remember seeing this hardcore band in Toronto and they were crazy, so great and at the end of the set they hugged each other!

Amazing!

CP: It’s the little things: being genuine and fighting for something. It’s not like they’re out at a protest fighting for rights but it’s their own personal struggle and you sense that, that’s what inspires me at a show. I love watching a band and you feel like they have something to lose and they’re fighting for it.

You moved back to Australia in 2017?

CP: In October, 2017.

How have things changed for you? You mentioned that when you left you didn’t feel accepted or supported here.

CP: While I was gone, I could see that things had started to change. More chicks in bands. Different styles of music had come into punk. When I left, I felt like there was just this guy hardcore scene. From overseas I could see different bands popping up and different people have a voice. The fact that I went away and did a band and came back, people were more interested in what I was doing. At first, I felt it sucked because I’d been around all this time already doing stuff and people didn’t care and now because I left the country and started a band – which I couldn’t do here, I literally had to move to Cleveland – worked hard and did all these tours, now I’ve been acknowledged. There are chicks in the scene and even though they’re not in bands they still go to shows, buy merch and support bands, without them you don’t have a crowd; why are they less important?

I grew up a bit as well. It’s hard because I feel like a lot of my memory from my past is very… I don’t know what happened because it’s been scarred by depression. People will tell me stories about myself and I don’t remember. A lot of my past has been coloured by my own depression and anxiety and traumatic experiences that I didn’t know how to work through as a younger person. When I think back sometimes, I don’t know if I was feeling that bad or if I was feeling and that was the world that I was projecting. Everyone makes mistakes. I think with the punk community most people have addiction or mental problems or they’re battling something and people there can have a little more patience because there is understanding. There are a lot of good people in the scene now. There’re still problems but you deal with them as it comes and hopefully you grow and know better and can deal with them better than you could in the past.

As I’ve mentioned before I’ve had severe depression and had mental health challenges too; what are some things that you do that helps you with your mental health?

CP: I avoided going on meds for a long time but I hit a point about two years ago where I could not cope anymore. I went on anti-depressants and started seeing a therapist, I’ve been doing that for two years. It has changed my life and I do feel a lot better. My level of anxiety is nothing where it used to be. I can talk to people; even just taking a phone call is something I hate; I hate talking on the phone. Your number came up and I was like, just answer it, it’s fine! Before the meds it was definitely a terrible time and I thought I could get through it myself but there was a point where if I don’t deal with this now, I’m going to ruin my relationship and fucking kill myself in some way. My therapist is awesome though. I drink every day, which is a terrible thing. I try to eat as well as I can and go for walks. Through therapy, I try to see my triggers and if I see myself having a panic attack, I work through it. I still have my moments even now.

I have PMDD [Premenstrual dysphoric disorder], it’s basically a worse version of PMS [premenstrual syndrome]. I feel like I’m losing my mind for ten days and then I have my period and I’m ok. I take multi-vitamins. It feels like a full-time job dealing with my mental health on top of working and my hobbies, that can be stressful when I need time to work out my mental health. Even though things have gotten better in society around having space to deal with your mental health, I still find it hard to get that time. That’s my old school mentality creeping in though, my conditioning. I’m glad I’ve taken the steps I have, but I still feel I have a way to go.

Thank you for talking to me about this. I have a health condition – hyperthyroidism – that effects my moods and mental health especially before my period too. I just become so unreasonable and irrational, my brain gets foggy and it’s hard to cope.

CP: Yeah, you feel like you’re going crazy. Afterwards you’re like, “Oh shit!” because you didn’t mean to be a bitch but at the time what you’re experiencing feels so real and you feel people are fucking with you, all these different feelings. When you come out the other side you feel like, “Oh fuck! Now I have to go back and apologise to everybody” [laughs]. It’s so hectic.

Totally! I know you said this week has been stressful but what’s been some good things that have happened?

CP: I’ve been doing the podcast. It was actually Dan [Stewart; Total Control/Straightjacket Nation], that asked me if I wanted to do it. I said, yes, I may as well give it a shot; I don’t know fucking shit about podcasts though. I have been doing the radio show at 3RRR [Teenage Hate] for a few years so I know how to talk in front of a mic and write up a script. He asked me a few months before we did it if I’d been writing for it but I kept putting it off because I was fucking depressed. Finally, I went in and pulled it together! I like talking to people. It’s nice getting to know people’s stories because everyone has some shit in their life and has done something interesting. It’s nice to share my friends’ stories or some weird music that I like. There’s so many people out there doing cool stuff that I think other people should know about!

Please check out Christina’s podcast: Modern Australian Underground. Teenage Hate on 3RRR. Christina’s bands: Swab (on Blow Blood Records) and Vanilla Poppers. On Instagram @blow_blood. Stiches In My Head zine.