15 min read

Trapped In A Scene

On punishers, time bandits, and the disease of me
Trapped In A Scene

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The songwriter Phoebe Bridgers has a new album coming out called Punisher. I’m not overly familiar with Bridgers’ previous music (though I am very fond of her collaboration with Conor Oberst) and I haven’t heard the full album, so I can’t even claim it’s a land of contrasts etc. But I can tell you that I am massively jealous that someone came up with that album title before me. With only two songs off the album available, I can only guess what the title’s specific meaning is within the context of the entire work. What I do know is that the concept of the “punisher” is near and dear to my heart. To my mind, the punisher is as important to music culture as Abelton or the outsized mourning of DIY venues that gentrify urban areas and are subsequently closed by the forces they helped unleash. Meaning, VERY important. In terms of integral archetypes within the music industry ecosystem, the punisher is up there with rent paying parents and coke dealers.

Assuming that not every reader has tried to load out their drum hardware unmolested after a scarcely attended basement show in Tulsa on a Tuesday night, some definition of term is called for. Of course there’s the Marvel Comics anti-hero beloved by adolescents and fascists of all ages, and there’s the urban dictionary definition that strikes me as needlessly anti-nerd. But what, in the context of this newsletter’s primary concerns, is a punisher? In the world of music, “punisher” is the blanket term for anyone who talks a musician's ear off at a show. A punisher can be, at a micro level, as Kristen Kontrol succinctly describes them; “a man who comes up to the merch table and thinks he deserves your undivided attention.” Now dolly back, remove the specificity of both merch table and gender (though, anecdotally, it’s usually a man), and behold the punisher as both population and ethos. The punisher is the person at the music show, and there is always at least one, to whom, through sheer force of vampiric will, all the punishee’s attention is owed. Not in the prima donna sense. Rather in the sense of a beer-breathed chatty dentist performing unnecessary surgery. The word “bore” already exists but such a meager word is insufficient for our subculture’s needs.

Punishers technically fit under the umbrella of fandom but fans should not feel attacked. Fans are great. Fans are the best. They are, besides AHHHHHT, the reasons people make music and tour. Most musicians, barring neurosis or cynicism, like talking to fans for a bit. Musicians are largely insecure and broke. The fans address both needs with one currency or another. Before the term “power dynamics” (correctly) entered the popular lexicon, fans could also occasionally be people that musicians could have consensual sex with without disappointment being baked in. Fans can also become friends if the fan is charming and/or sly. I was a fan of a sizable percentage of my friends before I insinuated myself into their lives. Hell, I was a fan of my girlfriend’s band well before I convinced her to love me. Usually though, a fan just wants to say “nice set,” grab a selfie, and go back to hanging with the people they real-world care about.

(As a tangential-but-relevant note on the topic of musician/fan conjugal relations: yes many musicians are, to varying degrees, predators. This reality should not be diminished or elided. Power dynamics, age difference, and levels of sobriety should all be considered when we discuss what we mean by “consent.” But, also, many fans, of any and all genders, are adults with agency who, if they feel like, for either kicks or glory, killing a few hours dragging their nethers across some, god forbid, bass player, should be able to do so with judgement or pity. God I fucking hate Pinegrove. Not just for being tedious scumbags but also for what they did to the discourse with that goddamn apology...)

Punishers should also be differentiated from stalkers or harasser. The line may seem thin but such types are dangerous and the discomfort they cause can’t and shouldn’t be accepted as inherent to the gig. Same goes for anyone who physically touches the musician without permission. But none of these types are punishers because punishers, by definition, don’t do any real harm. The only harm they do is to the punishee’s mortal and finite time on this earth. Punishers want to talk to you. At length. They want to talk about your first album, the first time they saw your band, the last time they saw your band, your guitar tuning, your singer’s haircut, their haircut, your song that was playing in their head the last time they went to the DMV, etc etc They want to buy you drinks. Which is nice. Then they want to talk to you while you drink those drinks, which transforms a gift into a transaction. Like a friend who reminds you of every favor they’ve ever done you, but with that friendship entirely one-sided and the lifetime of burdensome reminiscence condensed to a single half-hour that feels like weeks.

Assuming some of you read this newsletter to learn things, I was hoping to trace the etymology of “punisher.” But so far I haven’t found anything close to definitive. My guy Fred Pessaro thinks maybe Napalm Death came up with it. Punk scholar, Kirk Podell (from Subversive Rite) first heard the term at record fairs as a child. Jensen from Iron Lung first heard it in Melbourne in 2005, where it was apparently in common usage. David Witte, who has drummed in some of the biggest punisher magnet bands on earth, wasn’t sure of the term’s origin but he did some solid research for the cause. He’d first heard the term in the 2000s from Evan and Ryan Patterson, presumably when the brothers were still in National Acrobat. Witte wrote them and they claimed to have heard it first from Nate Newton of ISIS. So that would place it solidly in the late 1990s. Unless it was Napalm Death! Or a random Australian! (Though I shudder to think of what an Australian would consider “talking too much.”) (JK, Australia! Thanks for all the post-punk!) Anyway, as Drakulas/Riverboat Gamblers’ Mike Wiebe puts it, “there could be a whole Radiolab podcast where you go around the country trying to track it down. With all the twee ukulele music drops, but you are interviewing Vinnie Stigma and having to explain who he is in full NPR voice.”

(To be clear, easily cowed by anything that feels too much like school, I didn’t try too hard to get to the bottom of the word’s origin. Did some google searches and sent out some texts. If you have the answer, or even non-boring theories, punish me, baby!)

While everyone agrees that the term originated in the metal and/or hardcore music scenes, “punisher” specifically is not universal even if the concept is. I reached out to rapper billy woods to see if he used the term. He said he didn’t use it himself but found it appropriate and put me in touch with the duo of PremRock and Curly Castro, who, as Shrapknel, have put out one of my favorite albums of the year. Prem says he favored the Simpsons derived “time burglar” and Castro uses the, frankly amazing, “Disease of Me” to describe those “folks in your Ear, rapping at Rap shows.” Even within the world of punk/metal, variations thrive. Wiebe says the Street dogs taught him “stoke extinguishers.” Podell says on the west coast punishers are also known as “kooks” which is, assuming Kirk is not harsh realming me, adorable. Also adorable is the rumor that Jay Mascis supposedly calls punishers “Time Bandits.”

Why is the stoke extinguisher, the time burglar, the kook, the punisher, important? Well, the glib answer is that art thrives in adversity. That’s the same bullshit trope that leads to “punk will be great under Trump” and skimping on the Wellbutrin so fuck that. But it’s for sure true that art, as a collective endeavor, thrives on hassle. The drive from Tulsa to Austin is no joke and a band can only talk about its feelings for so long if it wants to make it past week one of tour. Enemies cause grief and envy but the punisher gives the singular one-two gift of commiseration fuel and attention; the musician’s bread slathered in delicious scornful butter. The punisher excrutiates. The punisher validates. The punisher gives band members on the cusp of open warfare something to bond over.

Is it ungrateful to have a negative term for someone who values your attention? Yes. Absolutely. And when I asked various musicians about the term, they largely, maybe in the forgiving state of revelation that comes with sobriety and isolation, waxed sweetly about the type. Even in the tour van, where all shit gets talked, most discussion of punishers is prefaced with “he’s a nice guy but a bit of a…” The punisher is to be avoided, to be rescued from, to ruefully be made fun of, but it’s in the rueful tone of the mockery that the truth lies. Musicians want encounters free of pain (or to be the one inflicting it). Musicians also recognize that, loving music enough themselves  to waste an entire life in its practice, there by the grace of god go the entire band. They know on some level that they too have punished. There may be another van at that very moment, on another interstate, full of the same pee bottles and bad hats, alive with laughing chatter at their expense.

I have been both punished and punisher. If the times I was punished stand out in my memory it’s only because I was the more sober party. (I do have some vague memories of members of both The Strokes and Valiant Thor inching their way down the bar to escape me…) Not every attempt at connection will be reciprocated. But I’ve had conversations, perfectly pleasant conversations with friendly acquaintances, where the other person will apologize for punishing me. But they weren’t! We were just talking! If I telegraphed disinterest in what they were trying to tell me, that’s an unkind failure on my part. But it’s also limiting to let unwritten subculture rules-of-cool etiquette turn us into guarded balls of self-doubt. Like the term “hipster,” if we avoid enthusiasm out of fear that our enthusiasms will cause us to be some terrible word, then our resultant dullness is self-inflicted.

Conversely, I won’t end this on a pollyanna-ish call for more open communication. Some interactions are doomed to tedium and sometimes leaving people alone is the look. But if the covid-19 isolation has driven anything home, it’s that a bit of punishment is a small price to pay for human contact. When the bars and clubs re-open, I hope you all will stand too close to me, interrupting whatever conversation I was having and take no hints, ignoring my feverish texting and observations of how late it is and how tired I am. If the barstool is between us, move it. Take a long sip from my drink “by mistake.” Ask for a drag and wet lip it. Fix me in your thousand yard stare, modulate your voice to be heard only inches away and, my dear sweet newest and best friend, tell me the longest, most pointless story you have ever told.

That’s this week’s newsletter! Thanks for letting me punish you! Since I don’t have any editors to help me determine between right and wrong, and since all these wonderful artists were kind enough to respond with care and diversity of opinion, this is a section for their full quotes on what the term “Punisher” means to them. Please check out the links to all the artists and also please feel free to share this newsletter! Thank you!

Mike Wiebe (Drakulas/Riverboat Gamblers): That could be a whole  Radiolab podcast where you go around the country trying to track it down. With all the twee ukulele music drops but you are interviewing Vinnie Stigma and having to explain who he is in full NPR voice.

It’s definitely a term that’s being used for long enough that there’s no joke in using it. Like -it’s not a funny nickname anymore - It’s not “Stoke extinguisher” (a term I learned from the Street Dogs). Punisher is so in the lexicon that it’s just the scientific clinical term for someone who is going to ruin your night. And you can’t do anything about it because God bless them for liking your band.

David Witte (Municipal Waste/Publicist UK/every other band ever): The worst kind is the drunken one. The one who was no idea what they’re actually doing or aren’t getting any cues to lighten up at all. Thus transforming into the unbearable and turning a situation sour.

These are the people who usually have good intent but have had way too much to drink and it all goes out the window.

I was trying to think of more, but i think this is the line for me and remaining positive. I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes it is a day by day or case scenario ya know?

Curly Castro (ShrapKnel/Wrecking Crew): First off, I’m a huge comic (Marvel) fan, so the Punisher holds some significance to me, both through Rebellion & Ignorance.

On the one hand, Punisher is a lethal muthaphucka, always equipped for a Chaos-situation. On the other hand, a lot of corrupt Pigs, people call them Police, sport the Punisher logo as a Symbol of oppressive ‘Blue Power’. So the term is not the most quixotic to Me, personally.

That being said, folks in your Ear, rapping at Rap shows are what we call the “Disease of Me”. At the most inappropriate, and might I add, INAUDIBLE arenas, you want me to “Hear” you Spit? The whole premise shows a lack of self-awareness, plus it is at its very core...WACK. Get at me thru proper channels or in a proper setting. Unless your goal is to “appear” as a “Rapper”, then the ignorant display of EGO, shows you are one/third there, on the selfish-brick road to WACKness.

Megan Osztrosits (Couch Slut): I first heard the term here on twitter and it was very comforting to finally have a word to call these morons who pester me at shows. I don’t normally use it because  I prefer more flowery language and also it reminds me of The Punisher, which was a TV show about a superhero or something and the guys from the show used to come into my job and they were all very nice actually. And then the show reminds me of the logo which in turn reminds me of those asshole bootlickers who photoshop it with that dumbass Blue Lives Matter shit for lackluster memes and stickers for their shitty enormous trucks.

Also tbh a lot of punishers don’t approach me locally anymore because I am both old now and chances are I have already humiliated them before.

PremRock (ShrapKnel): I am not a huge comic fan but the term “Punisher” generally conjures the image of the bumper of a racist off duty cop.

Folks in your ear at rap shows are a constant and an element of the genre it seems. They don’t always rap but that’s certainly what their ulterior motive tends to be. To somehow end up rapping for you. Sometimes they desperately want to share who they’ve met or offer insight, drunkenly and in an impossible setting. If you aren’t firm with them you can miss out on a merch sale. They will not stop on account of your livelihood. I would borrow and suggest a name from the Simpsons, “time burglar.” That is what they are. They pilfer your time when you need it most and they aren’t returning it.

Punisher is a good one. It’s like punishment for following your dreams and reaching even a moderate level of success. How dare you here is your punishment listen to this freestyle.

And, finally, both Sam Ray and Zohra Atash came in hot with full throated defenses of The Punisher, tearing all my misgivings to shreds. As I hoped/knew they would.

Zohra Atash (Azar Swan/Religious To Damn): I don’t care for small talk. I oscillate between economic exchanges to diving the fuck in. I’m a glutton for dialectics with a select few who don’t draw lines in the sand with hyper-emotional responses to non-confrontational innocuous shit. I’m sorry for your delicate sensibilities should you feel “punished” in a conversation. And if you really don’t have the patience (or are just having a bad day) at least have the integrity to find the emergency exit in that “punishment” - you know, something like, oh sorry gotta dip, I have a thing!- instead of the “act of kindness” that is your feigning interest to humor the audacious chatterbox who made the mistake of thinking you worthy of their emotional and hopefully, intellectual, efforts. Folks don’t hang at Stooges-playing dive bars to hang with sewing circle bitches. Your punishment is my reward.

Of course there have been nights when I’m doing recreational chemistry and cross the threshold into overly verbose rabbit-holery - and I’m thankful to my dear friends and community of like-minded rad folks who have been so kind as to never show any signs of the wear and tear that comes with “punishments”.

I don’t know it never occurred to me to find it annoying. Sorry not sorry to the crotchety metal dude who coined the stupid phrase. Like get a fucking grip you can’t be hauling your ass from town to town with your aural impressionist paintings of dystopian hellscapes and call the dude who made the mistake of liking your band and talking to you and buying merch “punishment”. I wanna extend and open-ended invite to hang  with me and my uncles who spent a couple of years of their young adult life in Soviet-era Pul-e-Charkhi. Bring a guitar and give us a tune too - I see no reason for you to limit the whining to spoken word.
Sam Ray (Ricky Eat Acid/American Pleasure Club/Teen Suicide): Punisher was always one of those terms I’d hear other musicians use while making polite conversation around the customary bargain-bin platter of hummus & celery sticks (babycarrots if our last album had done really well) backstage at some perpetually under-sold show on my cheerfully absent booking agent’s latest bad decision of a tour. I had never mustered any idea of what it might mean, not even from context clues, until Zack (the author, and my good friend & occasional bully) explained it to me when asking for this piece, presumably hoping I’d run my mouth & embarrass myself again. (This is the ‘Faustian Handjob’  of musician & music press.They’ve all come to look for America, Fatboy Slim Is Fucking In Heaven, etc, and so on.)

Am I the punisher? Am I punished? Am I to be punished? For years the term lived in my head solely as a vision of big, muscle-men bashing and bulldozering each other with the kind of rage only prematurely-straight-edge-gym-rats have. I guess my sub-conscious took “Punisher” as “That Giant Steroid Guy With The Iron Cross Tattoo In The Warped Tour Pit”, or “Henry Rollins as Q Truther”, or maybe “The Bald Guy From Code Orange, But He’s Eight Feet Tall” (Love Them - Code Orange - Btw).

Have I been Punished? Absolutely, and I thought about responding simply with one or two slightly amusing anecdotes about the clueless (yet charming) folks who’ve made the biggest impressions over the years. The young man who blocked the merch booth for multiple minutes just to [redacted] or the mountain of a lad who achieved a sort of in-band-immortality by [redacted], & so on, but somewhere between chuckling to myself at the thought of writing that, and actually sitting down at my broken, blood-covered Macbook to do so, the milk, I’m sorry to say, curdled. (That is to say, the idea is “just no good” anymore, kind of like the plot of the Matrix after the first film, or Record Store Day).

I just felt so… gross(pathetic, disingenuous) when it struck me that I was considering using these handful of people who’ve come to my shows – that is, they’ve paid money to come and see my dumb ass play my dumb-ass dumb-as-hell music, hell – sometimes they were probably, like, one out of only ten or eleven people who did so. 2000 or more miles from my home & these people not only cared enough come & see my dumb show but took time afterwards to talk to me, open up to me, show me [redacted] & I’m trying to use it as, like, cannon-fodder for some culture-devouring culture-rag? Fuck me, I’m mad at myself for considering it. I mean, I hate myself, sure, but I don’t want to hate myself like that. No, I appreciate even the most McLovin-esque of all my fans at this point. (Well, there are a few I don’t appreciate, like the one who has routinely emailed me nearly everyday for five years threatening to murder me and everyone I love, or the one who keeps getting my address & mailing me threatening “I see you!” letters like an egregiously lazy Michael Haneke villian)

Will I use the word now, now that I know what it means? Hell no; I don’t like to use any word I associate – even incidentally or subconsciously – with the whole “music world” or whatever. Music is icky. Icky, icky, icky. Musicians too. The most incoherent, rambling, second-hand-embarrassment-oozing fans are better than the absolute best of us. Absolutely. (Cue Dancing Chicken Gif, From The Ending Of Stroszek)

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