Interview: Giant Kitty

Lauren interviews Giant Kitty's Miriam Hakim and Cassandra Quirk prior to their first show in Galveston. Photo: Handout / Indie Network of Sound.

Who are the members of Giant Kitty and what do you each bring to the band?

Cassandra Quirk: The band was originally founded by the drummer Trinity Quirk and me. Trinity needed a place to practice her drums without bothering neighbours, and the band kind of grew out of that. Trinity was mentored by several well-known Houston drummers including the legendary George Weimmer. I have a very strong history in the visual arts, and have only been playing guitar for about 6 years.

Miriam Hakim: Roger Medina and I both started out as Giant Kitty fans and joined the band after auditioning. I joined the band two years ago and have been involved in music for most of my life. My singing background ranges from jazz to Arabic music to hard rock. Roger recently joined the band, but he’s such a perfect fit it’s hard to believe he’s so new. His background as a punk and metal bassist for many years as well as his sound engineering experience brings an aggressive and precise perspective to our sound.

Cassandra Quirk, your guitarist, has mentioned that Giant Kitty is her first band. It’s really inspiring to find out that she started a band in her 40s! Were you in bands prior to Giant Kitty?

Miriam: Both Roger and I have been in bands before Giant Kitty. Roger played for a Houston metal band called Virulent and I was in my university jazz band as well as an alt-rock band back in Dallas, my hometown.

They say that music and math skills are linked somehow. This isn’t true for me, but I’ve heard it’s true for Giant Kitty!

Miriam: Yes! Our drummer is a programmer and I’m a mathematics graduate student though I prefer to not say which university and program I’m in so I can keep my music and professional life separate.

We’re super excited to have you play at Galveston Artist Residency on April 22nd! It will be such an amazing event featuring all-female painters and a talk by Anna Garza. You mentioned that

Anna is one of your “all-time favorite people.” Can you introduce her a little?

Miriam: Anna Garza does incredible work with HATCH Youth and Girls’ Rock Camp and, on top of that, is a fantastic musician. She has been so involved in many aspects of Houston life, including booking for Hands Up Houston back in the day, and founding DAMN GXRL collective recently. She is extremely inspiring and makes such a difference to so many people in Houston, [particularly] to gender- and sexually-diverse kids who often don’t have the kind of support and mentorship she provides.

For the show at GAR, you will be playing new songs from your upcoming album, Rampage, for the very first time. It’s not out until this summer, so it’s really exciting to hear it first! How does Rampage compare to your debut album, This Stupid Stuff?

Cassandra: Rampage will still feel like a Giant Kitty album, we do like to think we have evolved a great deal since the recording of This Stupid Stuff. Rampage has some very serious songs.

Miriam: I think the songs on Rampage are a lot harder and darker than those on This Stupid Stuff. Our band was in a very different place when we recorded our first album; I had joined the band just a few months before and many of the songs on the album were written with the previous singer / bassist. I think Rampage showcases how broad the influences of this lineup of Giant Kitty are and takes more musical risks.

What does your writing process look like? What inspired some of the songs on Rampage?

Cassandra: For the most part someone usually presents an idea or a rough concept for a song for the group. 75% of the time I come up with a guitar lick and Miriam tends to be more of the lyric writer. Of course, once the process of the whole band comes into playing the song, it will get moved around, rewritten, changed, and go through many variations sometimes before we find what we are looking for. Sometimes the process is very fast and things come almost too easily. Other songs can be a struggle, and there are a few we had planned for Rampage that we just couldn’t get to work.

The current political climate was a huge inspiration for a lot of the songs this time. The wave of intolerance, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and right-wing politics is maybe the biggest cornerstone of the writing. There were also some personal moments in our lives that inspired some songs, especially for Miriam. Cassandra tends to be more pop-culture-centric as you might see in her lyrics for the songs “Geo Metro” and “You Suck.”

Miriam: I like to think we write very personal songs. Because of our backgrounds and experiences, personal for us can be very silly, very serious, or even very political. I think most people’s lives are like that. In some sense, music is what keeps me functioning in the rest of my life. When I’m singing, I don’t have to pretend to be more okay than I am. I can reach out to people feeling similar things as me and let them know they’re not alone. There’s still a place for fun, joyful songs in our work and there are certainly some on this album, but the songs on Rampage come from a deep and complex place. My sister passed away last year and since then my work has been very different. Some songs I wrote before that happened are informed by my experiences with family violence and with navigating people’s expectations of women; these ended up somewhat more aggressive than many songs on This Stupid Stuff. Putting out art this personal is hard, but I hope it can provide catharsis to someone else going through a hard time.

Are you planning a release party in Houston for the new album?

Cassandra: Yes! We are planning something very different than most album releases this time. But we don’t want to spill the beans quite yet.

You’re going on tour this summer with the Kominas, the Pakistani-American punk band out of Boston. How long will you be on the road? How did you meet the Kominas and can you describe their sound?

Miriam: For now we have a couple of weeks of dates planned. We hope to announce more soon. I met the Kominas in a roundabout way. I’m always looking for other MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) and Desi musicians to listen to and play with and through extensive googling I got in touch with some bands currently living in the Middle East. They pointed me toward a genre / movement called Taqwacore, which by the time I found out about it had sort of lost steam. I just started messaging people in those bands (in particular the Kominas and Al-Thawra) and found great friends! It was amazing to find this whole community of people who accepted all of me, where I didn’t feel too Arab or too American or not respectable enough or too uptight and just, well, not good enough. After talking for a few months, the Kominas announced they were going on tour and we joined them for a few dates and have kept in touch. They’re best described as South Asian punk (and actually they’re not all of Pakistani origin, they get that a lot. They are all of South Asian descent, though) but like us, they mix a lot of different genres and topics. Their songs are pretty varied and they’ve been around long enough for their sound to have evolved to a lot of different things. I think we’re great on a bill together, I can’t wait to tour with them in June, and I’ll be screaming along to every one of their songs each night of it!

Your label, Roologic, is based in Houston and has definitely been making waves lately. Who are your labelmates?

Miriam: Genesis Blu, Sobe Lash, Space Villains*, Dirty and Nasty, RYMNA, and of course, DJ Baby Roo himself.

As musicians, you are representing your identities in the public spotlight. What is it like being looked to as a spokesperson for minority communities?

Miriam: All I can say is that I hope there’s enough of us in the public spotlight that we won’t be seen as spokespeople. There’s so many amazing musicians with similar backgrounds as us and I feel like every day I meet more. In particular, you might be surprised how many musicians and people who work with musicians in Houston are Desi or MENA! I’m not special! When you’re from a marginalized community, especially one who people seem to like to speak for, sometimes it feels like one of the most revolutionary things you can do is take up space.

Does being involved in the social / political dialogue feel like a choice or something that is pushed on you as individuals?

Miriam: It still feels like a choice though sometimes it seems like it can get out of control. We do tend to be very careful with what we tell press, though, and thankfully have avoided situations that felt exploitative to us. Our identities affect our band because they affect our lives. Our band is a microcosm of people seriously affected by current toxic policies and sentiments. We don’t set out to write a song from the perspective of a person from a certain background. We inhabit our bodies and when we write a song it’s all of our experiences coming out on paper, we can’t pretend to be anybody else.

On Inauguration Day, Giant Kitty headlined a fundraiser event at Walter’s Downtown called “We Belong: Houstonians of Muslim Descent Dissent!” How did it go?

 

Poster design by Pakistani artist Aziza Ahmad for the ACLU fundraiser concert that took place on January 20th at Walter's Downtown, Houston.

Miriam: It was amazing! It was definitely one of my favorite moments being in this band, especially since it was on a day that felt like such a betrayal because of the person my country elected. During these past few years, I’ve felt more unwelcome in this country as a Muslim and as an Arab-American woman than I ever have. Every band on the bill had at least one member from a Muslim background and our bands came together to stand up for ourselves and our families and affirm that we belong in this country and we’re not going anywhere. At that show hundreds of people came out to turn our pain and anger into something positive by supporting the ACLU, who is our first line of legal defense against oppressive laws. We ended up raising almost $2000!

After a transphobic Facebook post by Houston Whatever Fest co-founder Jason Price, Giant Kitty was (correct me if I’m wrong) the first band to leave the lineup. Were you surprised at how many bands and comics followed in solidarity?

Cassandra: We were the first. However, we had several bands who were ready to drop out almost instantly and were wanting us to be the first official band to drop out. The outpouring from the Houston music and comedy scene was simply overwhelming. Even some bands that didn’t (or couldn’t) drop out contacted us with support and love.

What else came out of that situation that was positive?

Cassandra: I think anytime you have a teachable moment like this you have to take advantage of it the best you can. Once the hate is thrown out there for everyone to see, you can’t add fuel to the fire. We made a big effort to try to educate and not berate people.

You’ve played with some of your favorite bands, such as Dressy Bessy and Shonen Knife. Is that a surreal experience?

Cassandra: Totally surreal. I think the big take away from playing shows with your idols is that they are just normal people. They just happen to have a very cool job. The first time we played with Shonen Knife, they were sound checking and we happened to be walking in front of the stage. Lead singer and guitarist Naoko stopped playing, looked up and smiled at us, and started playing “Giant Kitty.” It was maybe my favorite moment ever being in the band.

Miriam: The Kominas and Downtown Boys were like that for me. Even now that I chat with members of both bands on Facebook sometimes I still have to restrain myself from fangirling out. Luckily I’m a nervous weirdo anyway so maybe I don’t act that different when I’m starstruck.

Several songs from This Stupid Stuff were featured in a short film called Acid Test that was produced in Houston and set in the 90s, and Giant Kitty actually performs in the film! How did that collaboration come about? Any other film appearances?

Miriam: A producer, Jason Raschen, had heard about us and suggested us for the movie! Not only was the movie set in the 90s, but a large component of the story centered around a riot grrrl concert so it really was meant to be. The director, Jenny Waldo, is an incredible director and an amazing person! Since then, she directed our video for “This Stupid Stuff” and will be directing a video for our upcoming single.

What else are you up to these days?

Miriam: We’re mostly focused on finishing Rampage and our upcoming shows and tour!

Cassandra: Hugging my cat.

Listen: Bandcamp

Follow: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Experience:

Galveston: 4/22 at Galveston Artist Residency after a Q&A with Anna Garza

Houston: 5/17 at Walter's Downtown with Shonen Knife and Hearts of Animals