Karina Utomo has one of the most brutal voices in Australian hardcore, her stage presence with band High Tension is explosive, style fierce and smile lights up a room! In celebration of all this awesomeness, I recently interviewed her.
You’re originally from Jakarta. Tell us a little bit about growing up there.
KARINA UTOMO: It is hard to know where to begin. Jakarta is a complicated place. Whenever I go back I always discover more layers. It is quite an incredible place and such a contrast to Canberra where I also grew up, perhaps even the ultimate contrast! Growing up and going to school in Jakarta pushed me to work hard; the schools had so many more children and I grew up with competitiveness instilled in my blood.
There are many things that you take for granted that are amplified in a place like Jakarta; like walking the streets for example, not so easy in a place with no footpaths and traffic everywhere, pollution in your face – if you are a girl walking the ‘streets’ you will absolutely get heckled.
I went back in mid 2000s and this was such a good time as social media made such a great influence (Friendster and Myspace) on independent music. I made new friends through Friendster and discovered lots of new Indonesian punk/hardcore bands and an underground scene as a result; everyone who goes to these shows are so bloody passionate, it is so refreshing! Everyone is so open and welcoming and I wondered if it is as a result of kids in Jakarta being denied of so much for so long. (i.e. punk music was pretty much not available and before the internet all you had access to were extremely mainstream/huge bands like Korn or Limp Bizkit)
What’s one of your favourite parts of Indonesian culture?
KU: Definitely superstition in Javanese culture; when I was a child I was terrified of Javanese mythical beings and Satan, most Indonesian adults still believe in ghosts and follow superstition. I really value the traditions in Javanese culture as well. Gamelan and traditional dances are pretty magic too. Of course Indonesian food is a highlight and I need to eat rice everyday or I don’t feel right.
How did you first become interested in music?
KU: Growing up in Jakarta in the late 80s/90s we only got the slightest taste of music that was available, it was very filtered. Only mainstream rock/metal bands made it to the cassette stores. I remember becoming obsessed with Guns N’ Roses and listening to the tape the whole way through, with my ear next to the speaker.
It is hard to pinpoint what catalysed my interest in music; but like everyone, you listen to songs to alter/amplify your mood/situation. There is a really good quote from one of the best cartoons called Regular Show: “You can’t touch music, but music can touch you”. This sums it up for me.
I noticed that your sister, Ariane, plays music too; did you grow up in a musical household? Were you encouraged to pursue creative, arts-related things growing up?
KU: Like most typical Asian families, my siblings and I were encouraged to take piano lessons. Ariane shredded on piano but I wasn’t into it as much.
When I was a teenager I decided it would be a good idea to learn to play guitar. I was ranked number 1 in my class I asked my parents to buy me a guitar (they were OK with rewards because I did study really hard). My guitar playing was really going nowhere. One day my mum grabbed the guitar and started playing American folk songs and she told me she used to play in an all-girl band. I was so impressed!
Nugie, my younger brother, joined the school marching band (snare) and he really got into drums, this was really bloody annoying at first; but he got really good and that was handy because he joined my old band. I cannot stress enough all the pros of having a sibling in the same band.
I guess my parents were not like ‘music parents’ I know that played in bands and have a vast record collection. My dad always said: “you can play music, but remember music is a hobby”. My dad always studied and worked hard so he could provide a better future for our family, he had a pretty difficult upbringing and working hard got him out of hard times so I respect that.
So I never took music that seriously, ever.
What attracted/attracts you to heavy music?
KU: As I grew up between Jakarta and Canberra, there were some of the best hardcore shows happening in Canberra. I always affiliate hardcore shows with a good time and there is always an element of danger, a good combination. I always felt really awakened after these shows and some of my best memories is being a part of the audience, standing next to other people that are just as fucking excited as you are and trying not to get hurt by some guy slam dancing.
When did you first discover you could scream/sing?
KU: Ha! If only you could wake up one day and discover you could do something you didn’t know you could do. I was experimenting at band practice in my old band and was almost taking the piss; but then I got completely consumed with getting the execution right and kept trying until it didn’t sound embarrassing. I still have so many goals on the kind of things I want to be able to do with my voice.
What was the catalyst/s that inspired you to start your own band?
KU: Seeing 4 Dead in Canberra for the first time and witnessing a room full of people move like a wave as soon as the band started the first riff. The singer Jon Christoper had such an influence over the audience and that made a real impact on how I viewed live shows.
I guess some of the best front people I have seen have been men and I really questioned my perspective as to why this was.
Growing up in an Islamic society and studying the Qur’an, I will never forget my religion teacher opposing of the idea of women as leaders, when I asked her to elaborate, she responded with a really bad example of women having the burden of getting their monthlies or getting pregnant and how this would impact on such huge responsibilities a leader would have; such bullshit.
I think about singers like Jon from 4 Dead, Alexis Marshall from Daughters, David Yow from Jesus Lizard and they all have one quality that I admire; NO FEAR!
As a fellow female and person of colour in the heavy music community, I wanted to ask, have ever encountered or had to deal with sexism or racism?
KU: I quickly learnt when I first moved to Australia (in primary school), the only way to avoid racism is to talk, dress and tell jokes like an Australian; this is why I sound like a bogan. So thankfully, I have never had to deal with racism at shows. Sexism too, I must say that the audience never cross that line. Except one time in Fortitude Valley… but that place is like the shame spiral of Australia on a Friday/Saturday night anyway so, I am always ready whenever we have to play a show there.
What’s something that you’re really passionate about and why are you so fired up about it?
KU: The 1965-1966 killings in Indonesia, when communism was on the rise; this whole era made such an impact to so many Indonesian families and I cannot express enough my hatred for Suharto and all the injustice during his reign. Suharto and his family pretty much own fucking everything in Indonesia and even in his grave he is still fucking up so much.
I found out recently that a documentary called the ‘Art of Killing’ came out about this era. I couldn’t really sit through it but I will give it another go.
You have an interest in fashion and work in the industry for an Australian designer, Therese Rawsthorne; what’s fashion mean to you?
KU: I guess fashion is like any other creative expression; there are a lot of designers that I truly respect, and their work is really important. I worked in the industry for a few Australian brands and I value the amount of blood, sweat and effort that goes into producing collections and not letting the crazy deadlines give you a nervous breakdown. It is a constant cycle and it is incredibly satisfying when you can be a part of a successful season.
How would you describe your style?
KU: I’m not sure! I develop an emotion to things and my wardrobe is a collection of pieces that I think are funny, remind me of a memory or a moment. I have a silk satin organza skirt with a pink splatter print and it reminds me of the scene from Carrie, a designer in NZ called Jimmy D made a pentagram bra and this was like the bra of my dreams; so hilarious!
What do you wear on stage? How important is your stage outfit to you?
KU: It needs to be lunge proof; I wore a pair of silk satin organza shorts once (yes, same print as the Carrie skirt) once and they ripped at the seams, I was sad about this, but I deserved that. It’s important to wear something comfortable and practical and I try my best to not look like a goose.
Describe for us, High Tension’s very first show. What did it feel like to be back onstage?
KU: I had the runs all day. I was riding around Collingwood on my bike getting myself pumped and just wanted to get it over and done with. I also only had a handful of lyrics so I was listening to a lot of rap music in the hope that it would be easier to make shit up on the spot that night. I didn’t want to let the guys down, so I just listened to demos all day and was practising I guess. It felt strange to be back on stage, but I truly missed playing shows!
What do you personally get from performing?
KU: I am trying to look at every person in the audience. I guess it is a strange way of engaging with people and this is what I like about it. You can tell a lot from someone with how they react and how they deal with any confrontation, a lot of people can’t look you in the eye or they try not to show a reaction.
Previously in interviews you’ve described HT’s music as “sleazy”; can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
KU: If you listen closely to our recorded stuff, you can hear spit going into the microphone. It’s like a creep breathing down your neck, I am dreaming of confrontation with the listener. A sleaze will make you feel unsettled and I want to work that emotion with the music.
You sometimes DJ; what’s your favourite jams to get a crowd moving?
KU: My good friends at Grouse put on the best parties and I have never DJ’ed anywhere where the crowd just want to dance all night. I like to play a mix of nostalgic hits… mostly RnB and hip hop and sometimes good punk songs. Hip Hop by Dead Prez, is one of my favourites because we played this at every house party. I also like playing nineties dance tracks like Another Night (The Real McCoy), it’s incredibly catchy and this song is pretty much back-to-back hooks… It’s a really good 90s diva song and man I love watching girls dance and sing along to every word.
You’ve currently been finishing High Tension’s debut album, what can you tell us about it at this point?
KU: We recorded the album over 2 weeks or less (?) and it was an exciting time to lock in and refine our songs. I am really happy with it, I am happy that we didn’t labour over everything too much and I love working with Tom Larkin because he tends to bring out the best in everyone’s performance. We are working with Cooking Vinyl (Stu Harvey and Leigh Grupetta) and I could not be more thankful and pleased; they are the best people we can work with in Australia.
I have a lot of attachment to the songs and there are bits of the album where I just want to laugh out loud because there are hilarious vocal moments. I am chuffed I can play in band like this!
Are there any other creative projects you’re working on?
KU: I have 3 songs I am working on at the moment with a guy in Brazil that has invited different vocalists to be a part of his album (its punk). The hardest part of working on side projects like this where the person is on the other side of the world is that I am highly reliant on directly collaborating with people and I can be really slow at recording demos.
!!! Tomorrow High Tension’s debut album Death Beat is out via Cooking Vinyl !!!
For more High Tension.
Upcoming High Tension Tour Dates:
Fri, Nov 8 – Spectrum, Sydney, NSW
Sat, Nov 9 – Crowbar, Brisbane, QLD
Fri, Nov 15 – The Tote, Melbourne, VIC