Meg and Tom of Big Cheese Talk About Punishment Park
Updated: Jun 9, 2021
I have been following the growth of Big Cheese since their 2016 Sports Day demo, which appeared to be quite different at the time it came out. That kind of late 80s NYHC-influenced sound in the vein of Best Wishes/Alpha Omega-era Cro-Mags or The Icemen, with thrash metal guitar solos, was not what I considered the prevalent sound of the day and the sound of other NWOBHC bands. However, Illusion popped up shortly after, followed by Dominant Force and Ekulu later, and Big Cheese landed in the wave of bands with a similar sound that was about to stay and reign for me.
It made perfect sense when Big Cheese and Illusion went on a European tour together in 2018, a tour that I caught them on. Since then I've seen them play at least seven times and booked a show for them, and at some point, before the LP was out or before I even heard it in its entirety, it somehow became common subliminal anticipation that it was going to be an outstanding record.
So when I heard Punishment Park for the first time, Iinstantly knew that Big Cheese had now arrived, for everyone, everywhere. The sheer ferocity of the record and its unified demonstration of force immediately place it as a strong claim for the record of the year. Tom (vocals) and Meg (guitar) are nonchalant and casual about the success of Punishment Park. They don’t have to be, though. Mackie from Blitz listens to Big Cheese, so it seems like we don’t have to tell the world anymore as the world already knows.
Photo by Matt Gabell via NoEcho
How has the lockdown been for you? Any bedroom music projects?
Tom: Mostly fine. Lucky to have a roof over our head and blessed with a decent job situation where the government covers 80% of our wages. I’m always cutting my teeth on something new. Collaborating with a few friends and my cousin on some electronic stuff. Working on new Chubby & The Gang and cooking every day and night.
Meg: Honestly not too bad, been sitting tight and enjoying doing all the things I don’t get to do or have the energy to do whilst I’m working. Working on a comic at the minute as well as recording and experimenting on my 4-track, brushing up on my French and listening to a lot of folk music.
It took you a while to release the first LP. Was the process difficult or did you want to make sure it was a step up from the seven-inch?
T: I think the process itself was straightforward from a writing perspective, just difficult getting everybody together in one room. For me, I hadn’t consciously thought this must trump the 7”, but through playing together a lot since and sussing out our sound and where we felt comfortable, the tunes came naturally.
M: We’d been dragging our feet with it for a while just because it was difficult to find the time but that did mean we could all keep going over things and gradually modify them into their best versions rather than rushing an album out. We also had a lineup change along the way but once that happened it all seemed to click and we finished the record in one or two practices.
What were your hopes and expectations for the first LP?
T: Total world domination. Just kidding, but I think we all hoped collectively that it would be good. I hope it’ll shine through as one of the best UK exports in years to come.
M: No matter how much you put into something and how good you feel it might be I always feel some trepidation about how it’ll be received. Half of me was worried that we’d put it out and nobody would care too much but we‘ve put a lot of work in playing and touring the last couple of years so I guess it paid off and there was quite a buzz around the release.
Mackie from Blitz drawing for Urban Styles book via Instagram
What’s Punishment Park and where is it located?
T: The record/song Punishment Park shares the title with the 1971 b-movie. I like the narrative of that film and it influenced tropes and themes of the record as a whole too. I think the world is a bit of a playground, except nobody is really having any fun because we’re being prodded and taunted by sick fools with too much fucking brass.
M: London 2020.
'Some of what I wrote was a reflection of what’s happening in Britain'
The lyrics read to me like a social critique of current UK affairs, which reminds me more of uk82 bands than the classic NYHC bands. Apart from the obvious NYHC influences, are there any British bands that influenced Big Cheese?
T: I’m glad you picked up on that. Whilst I will say I didn’t want to come across overtly political, I think it’s important to stand for something at least. What’s the point of being trodden on? Some of what I wrote was a reflection of what’s happening in Britain more so than anywhere else. Loads! GBH, Motörhead, The Mob, Ultra-Violent. Not just musically but lyrically.
Big Cheese seems to have strong feelings about the modern-day obsession with social media. What does your ideal of hardcore without social media look like?
T: I find myself a bit of a victim of it too. It’s hard not to be. I couldn’t be totally off the grid because I would never be able to communicate with anybody. Everybody is in the same boat. You’d get left behind otherwise. I write about it in a tongue-in-cheek way. I couldn’t imagine hardcore without social media because it plays a really important role. For better or for worse.
'I don’t think hardcore finding a community online is a bad thing. It’s just a different platform, over the years there’s been zines, blogs, message boards, social media is just an extension of that'
M: For me, it’s more the impact of social media on society at large rather than specifically in hardcore: the amplification of celebrity culture, materialism, advertising, time-wasting, all this crap being pumped straight into our brains. I saw a ‘Tik Tok’ advert that showed somebody trying to paint a picture and it said like ‘you can’t paint a masterpiece in fifteen minutes...’ then it showed them superimposing their head onto a dancing character and...’ but you can make a Tik Tok!’ What the hell? That to me doesn’t bode well for kids and teens nurturing and discovering talents and hobbies and things that are important to them. Maybe I’m just a Luddite about it. That being said, I don’t think hardcore finding a community online is a bad thing. It’s just a different platform, over the years there have been zines, blogs, message boards, social media is just an extension of that and it allows for connections based on mutual interests to be made.
Photo by Angela Owens via Revoler Mag
Alex and Louis also play in Higher Power, which is a full-time big band. Would you want to take Big Cheese in the same direction? Considering the acclaim the LP is getting and the possibilities it’s opening up for you.
M: What Higher Power are doing as a band is really cool and I really enjoyed their most recent album, but I think it works for them because they’ve always had a sound that’s maybe a bit more accessible. Personally, I’m content with Big Cheese and what we do but I don’t think we’d be able to open up to a bigger audience unless we compromised our sound. I’ve had some of the craziest experiences of my life with this band. We’ve played in Russia, Europe, and America and we’ve done it all DIY with only the help of friends along the way who (for the most part) help organize things with no agenda about money. For me, hardcore and punk have always been the antithesis of mainstream music culture whereby your music is legitimized only by labels and contracts and how many records you sell. I feel like we have the opportunity to do all the things we want to do without any of that baggage. We might not be able to make a living off that but for me, hardcore is not something to try and make a living off.
You two have another band together, MM and the Peculiars. How is it different from Big Cheese?
M: Peculiars is the band I started to try and take my writing and composition skills into a different territory. I’ve always been a huge fan of more alt-rock leaning bands but I didn’t want to do something that other people already do really well i.e. a Hum-style band so I channeled it more in the direction of early 90s blues-inspired rock. I don’t think it has many crossovers in the HC world and I’m not sure who my target audience is but I enjoy writing the songs. There’s an album in the works if I can ever find the money to record it.
How is the writing process for these two bands different? Who bounces off who?
M: For the Big Cheese LP Tom was probably the most important part of the writing process for a lot of the songs, coming up with initial riffs then we’d all chip in with extra parts in practice and structure the songs together; I wrote a couple of songs too, Louis came up with a lot of riffs and then there were other things that just happened spontaneously in practice. Those are always my favorite parts when the group synergizes and you witness the creation of something unique that seems to just find its way through you. For Peculiars, I write everything from start to finish. The songs usually start as acoustic pieces that then get fleshed out in the practice room with drums and bass but I’ll have a clear idea of what I want them to sound like. The styles of writing are very different but equally rewarding.
Photo by Matt Gabell via NoEcho
Tom just released an experimental electronic project with Mike Ralston of Ekulu/Illusion. How did that come about?
T: I’ve been writing and creating music since I can remember and have always dabbled with electronic stuff alongside guitar and playing drums. I met Mike in 2018 when we toured with Illusion and since then we have talked and connected with each other endlessly through music. During the lockdown, we just shared tunes with each other and decided to do a split release type thing to showcase some of our stuff. It’s one of my favorite achievements and I really love how it came out. Mike is one of the most talented and down-to-earth people I know.
'Probably every major subculture over the years can be identified by its aesthetic language. That’s surely something that, in some small way, attracts someone to the subculture in the first place'
Meg, you graduated in fashion design, and you also draw really well. As someone who is pursuing fashion design professionally, do you find it possible to reconcile it with hardcore and express yourself fashion-wise within hardcore?
M: To me, subculture and fashion have always been inextricably intertwined, and probably every major subculture over the years can be identified by its aesthetic language. That’s surely something that, in some small way, attracts someone to the subculture in the first place. The one thing I find exasperating is mainstream fast-fashion brands taking the empty-shell aesthetic of a subculture and reproducing it for the masses with no meaning behind it. I’m constantly wrestling with myself about how lame the fashion industry is. Whilst a particular trend might once have been a way to identify another ‘outsider’, it’s now virtually impossible because all the e-boys and -girls are dressed the same way. I’m not sure where we’re at with subculture and fashion currently. I’m just trying to be more sustainable and make more garments myself.
'Don’t ever trust your government, they wouldn’t care less if you dropped dead from covid or otherwise. Know your rights and do what keeps you safe and happy *simples*.'
Punishment Park is out on Quality Control HQ and Triple B Records. You can listen to it here