Border limbo and ACAB cookies: a conversation with Punitive Damage’s Steph Jerkova

Photo by Jonathan Velazquez (IG)

Punitive Damage’s We Don’t Forget is the most inspired and positively, well, punishing hardcore EP to come out of the Pacific Northwest in quite some time. Three songs of raw fury in just over four minutes, it’s been on constant repeat through my headphones since dropping digitally last March. Those songs, as well as the three tracks from Punitive Damage’s 2019 demo tape, were more recently pressed onto a 7-inch by Convulse Records, though those have already sold out. [Edit: Sold out on Bandcamp, but there are still 7-inches in the Convulse store]

Were it not for Pandemic times, Steph Jerkova would probably be up on stage right now delivering pointed political critiques, or subversive takes on traditional youth crew lyricism, as the frontperson of Punitive Damage. Or maybe she’d be sliding through melodic bass lines with Vancouver shoegazers Applewhite, or barreling out prison reform-geared grind as the bassist for West Coast powerhouses Regional Justice Center. Instead, she’s been stuck at home like the rest of us—though she’s found relief through growing a vegetable garden. She’s also slinging vegan donuts as a side-hustle.

As it stands, the current border closure has delayed Punitive Damage’s plans indefinitely. With members stationed in both Vancouver and Seattle, even band practice is off the table. Steph spoke with Gut Feeling, however, to dig into the band’s eventual return, her part in the new Militarie Gun EP, and the genuine highlight of seeing vegetables sprout out of 2020’s “never-ending sea of chaos.”

This interview has been edited and condensed, and picks up as Steph’s prepping a plate of sugar cookies

Steph Jerkova: I’m actually abysmal at cookie decorating and cake decorating, that’s one of those things that I’ve wanted to get better at. It serves no purpose other than the satisfaction of getting better at this. I’m making little frosting designs that say “All Cops are Bastards” on them, to keep a focus on things.

Sometimes you’ve got to use a little sugar to serve up the hard truths. Moving onto Punitive Damage, you’ve been tweeting lately about how you’re unable to practice right now, since the band are sitting on both sides of the still-closed U.S./Canada border. How have Punitive Damage been coping through the last 6-7 months?

S: The other half of the band—our drummer and bass player— live in Seattle. The rest of us live up here. For the other bands that I’m in like RJC, I’m the only one who is up here, while everyone else is in Seattle or L.A. It’s been a pretty big bummer, honestly. For Punitive Damage, we have an LP that we’d been planning to record. Our dates were set for April, but then they shut down the border [in March]. It’s turned into the never-ending game of “We’ll wait for 30 more days, and then the border will open”. With how things are unfolding now in America, the idea of the border opening anytime soon is just out the window. We’ve given up on that, but we’re trying to keep together. Our group chat is always blowing up with different songs we’re writing. It’s requiring a lot of problem solving—we’re not in the same room to distinguish tone, or if the tempo’s fast enough for something. We’re continuously trying to find ways to solve this problem. The same with RJC. We have a lot of stuff planned, but right now it’s on hold until I can get across.

With the Punitive Damage material that you were looking to record back in April, is there a concern on whether those songs will feel stale by the time you get around to recording them?

S: Thankfully no, because we had written those not too long before we had left for our tour. I would say it’s the strongest stuff we’ve come up with yet. Anybody who wasn’t at our shows has no idea what these songs sound like, and what I write about, I feel it becomes more and more relevant with every passing day. I don’t have a fear of them becoming stale or stagnant because they don’t exist on the internet yet. They exist in people’s memories...or on my iPhone as scratch tracks.

Does this newer material fall in line with how hyper vocal the band has been online about the present state of politics and police violence—or even through t-shirt artwork from the band?

S: I would say so. We touch on police brutality, and the injustices that we see on the news day-to-day. Rightfully so, there’s a focus on what’s happening in the U.S. and the current state of politics, but people don’t think about the ways that it bleeds up to here in Canada, how it affects things in our backyard. People don’t even think about our backyard, in general. One of the things with Punitive Damage is that we never wanted to be an American-focused band.

Police brutality is a problem up here. I would say that one of Canada’s greatest propagandas is the illusion of tolerance, and the illusion of peacefulness….the whole existence of the RCMP is to oppress and destroy indigenous peoples. Let’s talk about that!

We have this illusion of multiculturalism, this unified mosaic of different cultures. I want to talk about how when I was a kid, every single non-white kid in my school got sent to E.S.L. because we got caught speaking our native languages— someone in the school decided that was a fucking problem. How many times did somebody try to force me to assimilate to Canadian culture and forego being Mexican and Czech?

So, I like writing things with substance. Hardcore and punk....there’s a lot of it that doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t mean to sound smug or arrogant, because I don’t know where other people are writing from, but sometimes people are just writing about their reputation, or ‘my brotherhood’, or about someone that’s talking shit. I get it, but it just doesn’t stick with me. I like things that are written where you can chew on it a bit more. It’s not just slogans you’re throwing up half-assedly, like ‘Fuck the cops!’ Yeah, of course ‘fuck the cops,’ but everybody says that. Tell me about you, your perspective on that. That’s how I try to write our stuff. Maybe it’s preachy, but maybe people like it? I’ve always been in bands where I’ve been on the side, but never had the chance to inject what I think would be important to talk about. This is so sick, but I get overwhelmed. Am I just being a judgy asshole? It’s a hard line to walk.

How has your voice developed from the Punitive Damage demo to now, in terms of lyric writing and getting your point across?

S: I would say that I’m always looking back at the things that I have written, to study them. Do I still feel good about this today? If not, what would I do differently? There will be times where I feel like I’m catching myself saying things that other people have said. I’ll use “All Cops are Bastards” as an example. Every punk and every hardcore band has a song about how the cops are all trash, right? We all hate the cops, it’s an inherent part of punk and hardcore. There are times where I feel like I will hear some bands say it in a way where you can see that this is something that matters to this person deep in their core. There are other times where it just feels like a slogan. It feels like copying-and-pasting it into your bio, and that’s the full extent of what you’ve done. There are times where I’ll catch myself writing that way, and thankfully I’ll reel myself back in and think, no, I want to be genuine about how to write this. I also tend to overthink things, so I recognize this could be a ‘me’ problem. But once it’s out there, you can’t redact it. I want to give the best representation of what I’m feeling, especially in these times.

Can you tell me about working on the Militarie Gun EP? I know you did vocals on “Kept Talkin’”, but are you playing on the record in general?

S: Militarie Gun is a thing that Ian started the day after [Regional Justice Center’s] shows at SXSW got cancelled, this was peak pandemic. We went into the jam space, and it was me learning a bunch of new RJC songs. After a little bit, he was like ‘you want to write some new shit?’ “Kept Talkin’” was the first thing we wrote. It was fun, we pulled that song up in about an hour or so. In terms of the current recordings, that is all Ian and his crew in L.A. I didn’t contribute much past that, but I know in the future, given when we can be in the same room, there will be the chance for me to be more involved.

Another thing you’ve tweeted about getting into this spring was gardening, as something to keep yourself sane through the pandemic. Had growing a garden ever been on your radar before this?

S: For the first time in my life, I live in a house. I’d always lived in apartments and basement suites—never had access to a yard, or anything larger than an apartment patio. So I live in a house with a big yard, and in the back of our yard we had this garbage pile [left over] from the previous tenants. My roommate and I are both musicians, so pre-the planet blowing up, I was never home enough to do anything. The idea of being able to grow something more than a potted flower was always nice, I’d just never had the chance to commit to it. I lost my job in March as I was coming home from tour, when the border shut down. With nothing but an abundance of time on my hands, I was like ‘now’s as good as time as any!’ The first thing I did was talk to my roommate, and he was really great. He built a bunch of planters for me; he built a grain house.

When I get into something, I tend to overdo it. I kid you not, I spent a solid day mapping out what was going to be planted where, because certain vegetables and plants are better grown together than separately. I’d write out my maps, throw them away, and write them up again. Given that I had nothing to do, all I did was spend time on this garden. It was cool to have something good happen out of a fucking never-ending sea of chaos. [After hearing about] some horrible event on the news, I’d go into my garden and be like, ‘Look at this! My corn sprouted!’ Seeing a tomato grow is legitimately exciting. Seeing something sprout is cool. Having that sense of peace and accomplishment that came with it was awesome.

My friends say that I have a small farm. There’s so much shit here. I’m constantly giving food away because I grow too much stuff. I can’t possibly eat this much food!

Are you selling your baking?

S: Right now it’s just the donuts— I figure vegan donuts are a precious commodity in this city. I have a lot of fun making them. I have a friend who is offering me a spot in their shop to do a little pop-up, and I’m really excited. I think having a centralized location to be able to sell stuff instead of having people pick them up from my front porch could be nice.