Words by Billy Beale / Interview pics by Emily Doyle – gig pic by Clayre McKay
When I first saw a video clip of a shirtless individual marching up and down the stage of Digbeth’s Devil’s Dog venue, fronting new Birmingham hardcore punk group band Spiral Down, declaring solidarity with trans and queer persons, denouncing bigots of all kinds, they left a real impression in my mind.
After becoming Instagram mutuals, a few messages, and a serendipitous meeting at Muthers, I decided to pitch this interview to find out more about Spiral Down’s vocalist and his perspectives on music and performance.
I meet up with Alex Mann on a chilly autumn afternoon in Cherry Reds, on John Bright Street. The evening he had before been to watch Municipal Waste at the Castle & Falcon, and we started by talking about how they got him into the hardcore punk genre.
“I had this weird moment where I realised that I’m 33 now and I’ve been listening to them for 16 years,” tells Alex. “The only reason I started listening to them was that I quite like the Troma horror movies. I remember when Municipal Waste’s Art of Partying came out, the cover just looked like a Troma movie, so I had to check it out and it’s absolutely brilliant. You used to be able to get all your punk stuff in Tempest records (a much missed music shop in Birmingham).”
Alex continues: “I was into punk and hardcore at school, and then with Myspace and social media it was easier to connect. There’s good and bad with social media but, being autistic and anxious, I don’t think I would have made the connections I did without it. It’s easy to find people with shared interests. I had started going to local punk gigs in Birmingham.
“There was a place in Digbeth called The Market Tavern but it closed down ages ago. Then the Wagon and Horses, which is now Dead Wax. And Epic Skate Park in Moseley.”
Without even having to ask, Alex is already getting into the topics I am eager to hear more about – the perspective of the neurodivergent in the seemingly brutal worlds of punk and hardcore. Writ large atop Spriral Down’s Instagram profile is ‘NEURODIVERGENT HARDCORE,’ why is it important that they put that out there front-and-centre?
“When I started writing songs and lyrics, a lot of what I was writing about was mental health stuff. I have quite bad mental health issues on top of the issues that come with being autistic but Paul [Spiral Down’s drummer] and I had so much anxiety from worrying about people’s reactions. Certain things can throw you because you’re anxious and people aren’t always respectful of that. It’s like there’s shame around something you can’t help.
“When we started the band, we figured out that it’s not something to be ashamed of and we’d come to accept those parts of us. The idea was, rather than not going to gigs and not socialising because of how being autistic and neurodivergent has made us feel, to instead be proud of it. It’s who we are. We still have value, same as any other band, but we are different and we make a point of that.
“If there’s something you’re anxious about, when you acknowledge it, are forthright, take agency of it, someone can’t take it and use it to hurt you. You see those people as ridiculous rather than their jabs being hurtful.
“The neurodivergent thing has meant people have reached out to us. I’ve had good conversations and built up relationships with people in the scene about these issues. It’s quite common but not many people talk about it. We just want to be more open and to talk with more people like us.”
Alex goes on to talk about how the difficulties from autism and neurodivergence manifest in the band’s music, and informs me of some of the genre distinctions I am not totally clear on.
“It’s like a primal scream,” tells Alex. “It feels good to scream about how you feel. Putting the negative experiences we’ve had into the music, screaming about it. We’ve come through it and we’re not gonna let people’s negative opinions of something we’ve become proud of affect us anymore.
“I’d almost had a band 5-6 years ago but it never panned out. It was a similar sort of thing to Spiral Down, though I think we’re currently more of a crossover thing. The band before was more of the Discharge kind of punk. ‘Crossover’ means the literal crossing of metal and punk. You have a lot of heavy sounds like metal but the song structures are a bit more punk. It can be catchy!”
How does a crossover band like theirs navigate the potential boundaries between scenes and genres?
“Even though the hardcore scene is quite small there is a sense of brotherhood where everyone will support each other, bands supporting bands. What you get from that is a dedicated following. People know Birmingham Hardcore Shows are gonna be good, they want to support the local promoter, so there’s always an audience.
“The punk scene is a bit dated. You always need more diversity, in hardcore as well, though hardcore seems more open to it. The punk scene, a lot of gigs can often be just five bands of white guys in their 40s with subtly homophobic lyrics.
“We played a gig where there was a band that made me think 1I’ve seen this exact band about 100 times in my life in various forms.1 Normally, I’d feel bad about saying that but they had a song that was just quite homophobic so I feel okay shitting on them a bit.
“About 20 seconds into our set, I had jumped off a coffee table, through a wall, and was bleeding. They didn’t like that and I don’t think they liked me talking about trans rights either.”
One need not search for long through the band’s socials to find photographic evidence of Alex’s self-injurious performance style. The cover art for their demo release on Bandcamp and streaming platforms is one such image. What informs this violent, perhaps even slapstick, approach?
“I don’t know how to do it any other way. My generation grew up watching Jackass and I just have this urge to do stupid things. One of my biggest influences is Rik Mayall and Bottom. I’ve always tried to ‘be’ Rik Mayall one way or the other. When we play, some of my mannerisms are just mimicking Rik Mayall’s stank face.”
Is there a concern about losing fans from being politically outspoken?
“You need to support things you believe in and not hold back. I’ve got a trans brother and that really opened my eyes. If you’re in a band and you see something in the world that’s wrong, just say. I can’t go a day online without seeing somebody angry that trans people exist. Trans people just want to live their lives and be themselves and these people can’t handle it. It’s important to counter those arguments and for people who aren’t trans or queer to speak up. It needs to be more than just those communities standing up for themselves.
“Listening to the Clash, punk and hardcore should be standing up for people that need to be stood up for. We need to help the trans and queer communities”.
In fact, Alex sees the value of being inclusive, and how that positively impacts the scene.
He adds: “I’ve noticed that the queer people in the hardcore scene, especially in Birmingham, really support the scene, coming to almost every gig, making noise, making sure the bands have an audience response. The first person we had moshing to our music was Lexi from Transistrrr”.
I wanted to know about some of Alex’s local favourite bands.
“Fleshcreep are a really great band of really nice people. Looking up their lyrics are really rewarding and the first track off their upcoming album is really brilliant.
“When people talk about Birmingham’s musical legacy, I always throw GBH in there. So influential, always supported the scene and still come to gigs. Hollow Bones from Tamworth are one of the most intense live bands, saw them in Wolvo in the other week.
“Transistrrr are an amazing band. Their EP has a song ‘20 yrs on an NHS waiting list’ about the reality of being trans and it is one of the most heartbreaking songs. Again, great lyrics.”
Spiral Down are hosting a show at Centrala on 15 December as ‘Spiral Down Your Life’ promoters, a reference to Alex’s favourite Spice Girls track. The previously mentioned Transistrrr are also billed. Finally, he has heartfelt words on that upcoming show’s headliner, Clobber.
“I wouldn’t be able to do this if it weren’t for Clobber because, when I heard their first EP Tribal Rites of the New Friday Night, I had a reaction I hadn’t had since first hearing Black Flag’s Nervous Breakdown. They’re really supportive, really helpful. Whenever I’ve needed a pep talk, they’re there.”
Spiral Down will be playing at Dive Bar in Wolverhampton on 11 November, with Kicked in the Teeth and Informal Complaint – for more info and links to online tickets, visit: www.341records.bigcartel.com/product/live-dive-5-feat-kicked-in-the-teeth-more-ticket
For more on Spiral Down’s gig at Centrala in Birmingham on 15 December, performing alongside Transistrrr and Spitwash, click here.
For more on Spiral Down visit www.spiraldownukhc.bandcamp.com