Monika Fikerle

by Lei Gryffydd

When Evelyn suggested I write an article for Listen about a band or show that had influenced me, a name immediately entered my head, Monika Fikerle. Since listening to Love of Diagrams as a teenager in Brisbane and eventually becoming Monika’s bandmate (we play in Stationary Suns together), she has inspired me on many levels. Her infectious enthusiasm makes week night band practices enjoyable and she keeps me going when I think about how much easier my life would be if I quit playing music. She’s a role model for many, a genuinely lovely person and one of my dearest friends.

Monika is a Melbourne based drummer who has been playing in underground bands since the mid-90s. Since starting out as a young drummer in Hobart, she has played in eight bands and an astounding number of shows (over one thousand!). Drums are her primary instrument, but she plays bass and sings as well. Her most well-known bands are Sea Scouts and Love of Diagrams. Over the years, she has firmly cemented herself as one of Melbourne’s most influential musicians. She was kind enough to answer some of my questions:

What was it like being a young female playing in bands in Hobart?

My personal experiences playing music in Hobart were great. It was a very creatively fertile place in the mid 90s when I first started playing. There were some chauvinist, small-minded people around, but the group of people that became my musical peers and friends were all supportive, intelligent and extremely passionate. Gender wasn’t an issue for me, and did not inhibit my ability to enter the scene. I felt welcomed and encouraged to get involved, and was never made to feel conscious of my gender as in any way connected to my ability to play an instrument on a stage. For a small city in Tasmania, I think this is pretty impressive and I know I was fortunate.

The three bands I played in while living in Hobart were Sea Scouts (1994-1995, then 1997-2000), Surgery (1996-7) and 1001101 (1997-8). When I started playing drums and joined Sea Scouts, there were not that many other women in the scene. Linda Johnson from the Little Ugly Girls was my hero. This did not deter me, and around the time I joined Sea Scouts, there seemed to be an influx of more girls getting involved. By the time Surgery (an all girl band) started playing there were several all girl bands playing in Hobart, and they were quite tough (for eg Honey Pet, No I never, Blag Salute…). It wasn’t equal numbers to boys, but it was pretty pleasing. There were also several mixed gender bands playing original, interesting music without any feeling of inhibition, fear or rules. It was a pretty special time in Hobart to be starting out.

Do you think anything has changed since then in terms of number of females playing music?

From what I can tell, things are pretty much the same. When I moved to Melbourne in 1999, there were some active women in the local music scene, but at a smaller percentage than men, and that is how it seems to be today as well. Having a dialogue around women being an equal presence in the music scene is something I feel very strongly about. I want every girl in every town to feel as encouraged and uninhibited about joining a band as I did. When I started playing in the 90s the philosophies around the Riot Grrrl movement enabled discussions about the exclusion of women in some music scenes and the importance of banding together to take that participation back. Recently the discussion has returned again here in Melbourne (and Australia) thanks to the Listen collective. We need to keep our eyes open to improve the situation not just in the broader community, but within our music scene too.

I have had control issues with the males I have played music with, from deciding what shows we should play to what I should wear. Have you had any similar issues?

I am fortunate enough to play in a music scene that for the most part supports women, and includes gender-aware men. All of the men I have played with have been very supportive of women and most bands I’ve played in have been either equal male/female ratio or female dominated. Yes I have played with males that have control issues, but I have also played with women that have control issues. Some of the biggest problems with control and aggression I’ve encountered in bands in the past has come from women, which is indicative of the very strong personalities, male and female, that exist in the music scene. This may not be typical, but it is my experience. I know that outside of our creative community that we have here in Melbourne it is a different situation, often with less opportunities for women to be involved and more closed doors.

Who are your biggest female influences?

When I was in my late teens/early 20s I was influenced by female driven bands like Bikini Kill, they were a huge influence on me and a lot of girls in Hobart. The Riot Grrrl movement was happening as I was starting to play music, and the philosophy of women like Kathleen Hanna and Alison Wolfe was very inspiring and motivational, it helped us express rage about being treated a certain way by boys, and by conservative society in general. A lot of the female artists I was inspired by then are still my favourites today, among them are Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth and Free Kitten), The Raincoats, The Slits, Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, Brat Mobile, Kim Deal, Bjork, Kate Bush, Patti Smith and lots more.

What is your favourite parts of playing music?

My favourite part of playing music is playing live. It is great fun and such a kick. Recording can be satisfying but it is stressful. Touring is excellent fun and I have had some amazing times and seen a lot of the world that way, I feel very lucky. Being part of a music community has always been important to me too – it’s a way for people who feel odd and outside of the mainstream to find like-minded people who share similar music tastes and opinions, especially coming from a small town where there aren’t that many of you.

Favourite shows you’ve played over the years?

There are so many that it is really hard to pick favourites but these highlights spring to mind (plus too many others to mention):

-Sea Scouts and Ninetynine playing in Prague in 1999.

-Final Sea Scouts show at the Corner Hotel in 2000 with Vivyan Girls, 2 Litre Dolby and Slow Loris.

-LOD album launch for The Target is You at the Rob Roy with Bird Blobs and Ninetynine.

-LOD supporting Sonic Youth in Sydney, 2006 with The Thaw.

-LOD 10th anniversary show at the NSC in 2011 with The Ancients and Hissey Miyake.

I have been able to share a stage with some of my favourite bands, and many that I admire, such as Sonic Youth, Electrelane, Sleater Kinney, Sebadoh, Bikini Kill, The Bats, Party Line, Enon and more.

Shows you’ve gone to that have really inspired you?

Dirty Three, Dog house, Hobart, 1996. Electric, intimate and an insight into how a live performance can be in terms of infecting and transporting an audience – and seeing Jim White play was mind-blowing to me, I hadn’t seen anything like it.

Fugazi in Hobart, 1996 and Bikini Kill, in Hobart, 1996. Also, watching bands like Mouth and LUGS play in Hobart in the early to mid 90s.

Advice for other female musicians?

Be ambitious, make the most of your opportunities, and have a good time. Don’t be afraid to become proficient at your instrument. Being a confident musician is one way to shut sexism up. There are a lot of people out there who still believe that girls can’t possibly play as well as boys (believe me). Having said that, it’s important to feel free to play however and whatever you like. Give yourself the time to improve your playing, writing, and performing (in whatever form that expression takes) and don’t be intimidated. Have fun and most importantly, do whatever you want.

Biggest obstacles you’ve encountered as a female musician?

The sexism I’ve encountered as a female musician has come primarily from sound engineers (overseas on tour, not in Australia) and from random people in audiences.

Sound engineers will often assume that as a girl you have no idea about equipment, microphones, tuning your instrument, or even playing your instrument. Many snide and offensive comments have been overheard. This is a generalisation and not an attack on sound engineers! I have never had this experience in the local scene in Australia and personally know some incredibly cool and reasonable soundies here.

People in small towns (Australia and the USA) will often come up and say they’ve never seen a girl play drums before and had no idea it was possible. “I… I.. I didn’t know that was …. possible!!!” When I meet new people and they find out I am in bands they assume am a vocalist or keyboardist (particularly outside of the musical community). When I say I play drums there is always that look of utter shock and amazement, it is disappointing that in 2015 it is still unusual in the mainstream to be a female drummer.

Many female musicians feel pressured to look presentable when performing is that true for you as well?

It’s true that I like to put effort into my appearance these days, but not as much as I could, and it wasn’t something I thought about at all when I was younger. I think everyone feels a certain pressure, men and women, but it tends to be more poignant for women and I think the music scene is particularly image conscious, so getting up on stage where there are lots of people watching you and taking photos/filming etc is going to amplify any neurosis we feel about ourselves. After a point, it is important to try to let go of that and just enjoy yourself. The flip side of this comment is that dressing up is fun and it should be enjoyed! As long you are enjoying it and not feeling pressured then there’s nothing wrong with attending to your aesthetics on stage.

How do you maintain your enthusiasm and optimism after playing music for so many years?

I love playing music more than anything in the world. Everyone has to find the thing that makes them happy, gives them a purpose, makes them who they are and for me it is playing music. I do not have to try to maintain enthusiasm for it because it is the thing that makes me feel good and it helps define me. When I first started playing in bands, I remember it being very intimidating (learning how to play in front of people I respected so much) and it took me a little while to find my feet, but I jumped in and persisted and it is hard now to imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t!

Music has been such a huge part of my life, I’ve toured internationally and played with some of my heroes. It’s helped me through some hard times in my life too. It is something that I will always do, in some form or another. I have been dreaming of creating a solo project for some time, which I never seem to have enough time for, but I will at some point. There are many things that make up my identity, but music is the central one. When something is part of you, you can’t just give it up.

In terms of optimism, I am very realistic about what playing independent music means. I may never see any financial success of any kind (from music), but playing music that I love in a city like Melbourne with a community of great musical peers and so many quality bands to see keeps me optimistic.

Monika has two new releases for 2015, Love of Diagrams LP ‘Blast’ (out on Bedroom Suck Records) and Moon Dice LP ‘My Motel Room’ (out on Night People). A Stationary Suns EP should also be out in the near future.