The rebellious underdog spirit of punk rock has long made the genre a safer space than most for people who feel marginalized. When the rest of the world sees you as a disposable other, a punk community can sometimes be the only place that will welcome you with open arms and gleefully toss you into the mosh pit with your outsider kinfolk.
So it's not surprising that a lot of the most prominent transgender musicians operate in the punk sphere. Whether it's Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace coming out publicly as trans in Rolling Stone back in 2012, the trans thrashers of Olympia's G.L.O.S.S. making a ton of noise and burning out like a bright star, or We Are the Union melding trans identity with ska music, it's one of the few creative outlets that really allow trans folks to thrive while being unabashedly themselves.
Philadelphia D.I.Y. hardcore punk outfit the HIRS Collective also fits into that mold-breaking paradigm. The two-person core of the group is vocalist Jenna, a trans woman, and guitarist Scott, who identifies as queer (both prefer not to use last names). But the "Collective" part of the Philadelphia-based group's name is no misnomer. In March the band released its latest LP, We're Still Here, which features 35 guest musicians. And that lot includes plenty of recognizable names including Shirley Manson of Garbage, Frank Iero of My Chemical Romance, Damian Abraham of F—ed Up, Soul Glo, and Geoff Rickly of Thursday.
Perhaps it's apropos that HIRS looped in Rickly, as We're Still Here — to quote a Thursday title — kind of sounds like understanding in a car crash. With 17 tracks that barely clock in at 30 minutes combined, it's a frenetic barrage of grindcore noise blasts. Jenna's throat-scraping screams brawl with Scott's heavy riffs for a combative, clobbering concoction. It's pure snarling energy that never relents. But under that abrasive exterior are lyrical messages of community and acceptance. While oppressed rage has certainly been a driving force on past the HIRS Collective releases, We're Still Here finds Jenna leaning hard into finding joy and celebrating survival in these tough times.
"The first track ("We're Still Here") is a song Scott wrote, and I just knew that I wanted that to be the first track on the record," Jenna says. "I love how it started, and I just loved everything about it. And when I listened to it, this is cheesy, but the 'We're still here' part at the end just came to me."
"We've been doing this band for 12 years now," she continues. "And it started off with so much angst and aggression and anger, which we still have, but when I had the 'We're still here' part in my head... I just don't want to forget about compassion for humanity and speaking more about supporting folks rather than demonizing or canceling or like violence against folks that come after us or whatever. Instead of talking about those people that are so negative, more trying to talk about the positive things and just celebrate that."
Making albums into huge collaboration projects wasn't always the HIRS Collective's modus operandi. The group formed in 2011, and its first notable unique musical approach was to release 100-song albums (they've put out three such albums, though the majority of those tracks clock in at under a minute). But after Jenna was recovering from surgery while the band was working on a 2015 split with Peeple Watchin', the duo decided to invite friends to make the process more comfortable. And from there on, HIRS Collective was open for collaborative business.
While Jenna and Scott still split core songwriting duties, once the base of the tunes are completed, the process begins of figuring out which friends or musical heroes (Jenna particularly freaked out about having Japanese noise rock act Melt-Banana on the new LP) might be willing to add layers of sonic color to the mix.
"It's almost like there's a framework — the body and the muscles — and then there's like the clothing. And then to make the whole outfit work, so-and-so might put like a cute little hat on. And, like, that looks really great. And sounds really great. And goes with everything else that we're wearing," Scott says.
While the HIRS Collective finds it to be a wonderfully creative, ego-free process, it's also a ton of work. With so many moving parts, trying to figure out an album's flow, mixing everything together, and trying to make it all not sound like a jumbled mess isn't an easy process. And that's not even getting into digitally coordinating with 35 other remote musicians.
"The threads in the emails are f—-ing insane," Jenna says with a laugh.
There's also the hurdle of having thematic cohesion. When a track doesn't scream a certain lyrical approach, Jenna often defers to the guest vocalists and bounces off whatever they're offering up.
"[It] makes it easier as a collective that has done over 300 songs — you start to run out of shit that you want to say," Jenna says with a chuckle. "It's so sick to be able to get inspiration from someone else to add to like your own. And I have to stress less about figuring out what I want to talk about when I've already screamed about so many things. Time for me to shut up a little."
With the American political climate being so openly hostile toward trans folks at present, Jenna and Scott have found even more meaning in being able to go on tour and meet fans who've gotten through hard times thanks to the HIRS Collective's music. The HIRS Collective live setup is just Jenna singing and Scott shredding on guitar over backing tracks (having a Polyphonic Spree-esque, 37-person tour isn't exactly feasible), but it's still an invigorating live experience. And in true punk-rock spirit, the pair thrives on going to the places where trans folks are unwelcome and creating a scene for their fellow outsiders.
"Personally, as a trans woman, I don't feel [representational] pressure at all. I actually feel supported. This band has literally saved my life a couple of times," Jenna says. "The EP we put out, You Can't Kill Us, I was in... whoof. Sorry, I just got emotional. I was in a really rough place when that happened. And if you go back, there's literally a song where the lyrics are, 'No one's gonna kill me, not even myself. I'm gonna live forever.' And that was me writing it almost as like... I can't be another trans woman that takes her life. And I want to be very clear, I'm not shitting on anyone that dies by suicide. We live in, like, an intense, terrible place that makes it hard for everyone to live, regardless. Obviously, specifically speaking of oppressed folks."
"When we were in Texas folks came up and were like, 'Hey, thanks for, like, coming through here and playing these places that are specifically shitty to trans people.' And like, I would rather play these places than spots that have way more support. Like, I want to play them all, but it's cool to come to those places and be like, 'F—- all of your anti-trans bills! We're going to fill up this place with like all the trans folks, all the allies, all the people that need an outlet and a nice dance party. 'Cause we love to play dance music. It's nice to offer a place that hopefully is safer than others, or, at least, more celebratory. Just like, come and have fun with your freaks." n
The HIRS Collective, Simp, Backtracks, Spooky • Tue, April 25 at 7:30 pm • $13 • All ages • The Big Dipper • 171 S. Washington St. • bigdipperevents.com