Content Warning: Racial slurs, homophobia
by Chris Jarvis
A few minutes’ walk from the dreaming spires for which the city is famed lies East Oxford’s Cowley Road – the hub where ‘kids of the multiculture’ grow up. An area undergoing rapid gentrification, it still retains its working class heritage, ethnic diversity, and unique character under the strains of the expansionist middle classes settling, with students and university professors increasingly filling the nearby terraces.
Cowley Road is home to the O2 Academy. Previously the Zodiac, the venue is emblematic of other changes in the area – a corporate takeover of a formerly independent music venue. Across the road sit branches of Subway and Costa, but a little further down is the Truck Store – the pivot of the local independent music scene. Here, at Oxford’s O2 Academy, Manchester-born Sonic Boom Six get set to tear up the stage on a Friday evening.
Entering a touring band’s dressing room is always a strange experience – a brief glimmer into a place they have made their home for a few hours before moving onto the next city. Backstage at the Oxford Academy, passing through confusing corridors, first aid rooms, and enclaves filled with admin documents, I sit down with Barney Boom and Laila K on the penultimate night of their tour to talk through their music and how it relates to their politics, which seeps through the majority of their outputs in a cutting social commentary. Guitarist Nick ‘the Blade’ Horne stands by the door rolling cigarettes. Friends from other bands – Imperial Leisure and Ghouls – pop in and out. Asleep on the sofa opposite us is fellow band member James Routh – “That’s how political he is! He slept through Brexit!” Laila quips as we begin our conversation.
Declaring that “everything’s political”, Barney puts in simple terms the rationale for Sonic Boom Six’s inclusion of politics within their music: “[W]hat we come from is punk predominantly, but we’re mixing it with other music. It’s based in punk, it’s based in bands like The Clash and that music was always political, so that precedent is there […] I think the politics in our music has always come from the fact it’s punk music so therefore it’s political”. This sense of existing within a wider musical lineage – a lineage with direct ties to left wing politics – rings through our entire conversation. When I ask them which musicians and artists have influenced the pair politically, Laila instantly responds with “The Specials and the Clash” with Barney quickly adding “King Prawn”. Similarly, talking about the contemporary scene, it is the likes of Petrol Girls and The Tuts with which they shower with praise.
[W]hat we come from is punk predominantly, but we’re mixing it with other music
It was the punk scene which Sonic Boom Six grew out of and which they remain very much within, in spite of their continuing tendency to innovate and remould what it means to be a punk band. That innovation undoubtedly comes in part from the extensive range of musical genres which Laila and Barney – the two members of the band that have survived multiple line up changes and departures – talk of with fondness, irrespective of any political undertone. “Growing up for me personally, I always knew what my politics were. It wasn’t necessarily reflected in the music I was listening to, I was listening to like American metal,” Laila reflects, later adding “Rage Against the Machine, we love them because of how they sound, what they are and then what they’re saying kind of comes after, not much after, […] but it’s the riffs, and it’s the melodies and then everything else comes” with Barney giving nods to the likes of Mobb Deep and Enter Shikari too.
With every band that fuses politics with music to a greater or lesser extent, the question of impact is inevitable. Can music have a role in shaping politics? Is there any space for musicians to be agitators of political change? With Sonic Boom Six, there are no illusions that a song will change the world, but rather that small scale shifts in attitudes on an everyday level are where the ripples are felt: “I’ve got people come up to me and say they listened to us when they were 13 or 14 or 15, you know, Rough Guide to Genre Terrorism, and they’ll be like “you totally changed my point of view,” Barney to continues to say “We played with this band from Norwich and they were quite… how do I put it? Just kind of straightforward guys and like the guitar player was like he listened to the first thing we put out [which] had a tune on it called Silent Majority. The lyrics were just about not being racist and it’s really straightforward and obvious. […] When you listen to it now, it’s fizzing and there’s a lot of ideas, but then it just says “don’t call it a paki shop”, “don’t call it chinky food” […] and this guy came up to me, sat in a pub, and he said “you know, I used to call ‘em pakis but now I don’t, and it was like… wow!” and later “In a song it’s always gonna be a polarised representation of how you see summat and what you represent, but in No Man, No Right, if we see loads of young girls excited jumping round together and a couple of lads as well shouting that out, to us that’s… you’ve done something.”
Predictably, as we discuss politics, racism, and the far right, the conversation quickly moves onto Brexit. Both Laila and Barney, unsurprisingly perhaps, are somewhat embittered Remainers, talking of their shock and surprise that, as Laila puts it, sharing ‘I love EU’ memes and seeing ‘everyone wearing their Remain t-shirts’ in London, didn’t stop the UK voting to leave the European Union. As has become the norm in these situations, both offer stories of encounters with relatives and older friends: “Before Christmas, I went to a house party at one of my mum and dad’s friends and it was just a load of middle aged people from a little suburb in Manchester and they were all going “we’re voting leave” and I was just like “why? Why?” […] I was looking for answers and going like, “go on then, why” and then this one guy was like: “You don’t like those immigrants do you?” and I was like… well yeah!” Barney recalls as Laila interjects with “You went, “I’m in a band with one!””, before going on to talk about her own relatives: “My dad is Pakistani and came to the UK in the 60s and voted out… And he said that’s ‘cause there’s too many Pakistanis and Polish and duh, duh, duh and I was like, oh my God!”
whenever we focus on discussing politics, their voices quicken, their words become coarser and anger bubbles up into their speech.
As downbeat and frustrated at the situation with regards to Brexit as Laila and Barney are, their frustration is also aimed at liberals and at the left – “The debate needs to get more robust, and it needs to get to the point where people, like, on Question Time, will say something, like, they’ll go ‘oh you know, gay people are more likely to be pedophiles,’ which is fucking ridiculous, but on Question Time that middle class, liberal audience will go”– Barney gasps in feigned shock – “like they’ve never heard anyone say something like that before. People say shit like that everyday, all of the time. It’s horrible, it’s bollocks, but your dad says that, and if my dad says that, somebody else’s dad says that and it’s just, like, get off your fucking high horse! These shitty opinions people have aren’t that shocking. Deal with them. Take the time to dismantle them.”
What’s apparent from spending nearly an hour sitting and talking with the two of them, is that whenever we focus on discussing politics, their voices quicken, their words become coarser and anger bubbles up into their speech. When we focus more on music, it is positivity and hope that oozes through. Perhaps that is something of a summation of Sonic Boom Six – a positive and hopeful vehicle for channelling the anger and frustration evoked by the world and our social and political landscape.
That hope and positivity is never more present than when Laila talks of the newly present wave of women punk bands: “More and more female bands are coming through. Bands like The Tuts, more than ever… still nowhere near as many as male counterparts, but there is that scene and it’s bubbling under and it’s great ‘cause young women have actually got summat to connect to […] You go to a Tuts gig, and it’s loads of fun, its just a really nice vibe and our gigs have gone a bit like that, but nowhere near as much as I would like them to be, you know where everyone, doesn’t matter the gender, is just smiling and having a good time and singing along.”
Before I leave them to get ready for the show, as Laila carefully applies her make-up and Barney begins to put on his stage suit, a now awake James reminds the two of them of all their upcoming work. The band are soon to release an EP which Laila describes as “a collection of the heavier side of Sonic Boom Six” and Barney as “back to our roots”, before heading out to the US as part of the Warped Tour. Busy as ever.
Over the fifteen years in which Sonic Boom Six have been writing, recording and touring, many bands have come and gone on the British ska punk scene. The likes of Anti-Vigilante, Random Hand and Mouthwash have long since gone. Early pioneers like Capdown and King Prawn have split up and reformed but are for the most part part time touring acts. One band that has been a constant feature of the scene has been the seemingly immortal Sonic Boom Six. As Barney Boom and Laila K bounce onto the stage at nearing 10 o’clock, spitting their politically charged lyrics, from ‘Sound of a Revolution’ to ‘Piggy in the Middle’, it’s remarkable that, after what has been a prolific and enduring musical career, their energy is still as fresh and infectious as it was the first time I saw them play a show in Birmingham over a decade ago.
As you enter Cowley Road from the city centre, turning off the roundabout which splits East Oxford towards its smaller areas – Iffley, St Clements and Cowley – a mural adorns the side of one of the buildings which is impossible to miss. It reads “Welcome to the Sunny Side of Oxford”. As I dance among the somewhat subdued crowd to catchy summer anthem “Sunny Side of the Street”, it seems incredibly fitting that it is here, on the East side of the city that for one night, the first in perhaps four years, Sonic Boom Six bring their incendiary music. Thoughtful, provocative and steadfast, Sonic Boom Six are one of a kind.
This article is part of the Music that Matters series.
Featured image via Sonicboomsix.co.uk