GEL’s “hardcore for the freaks” is as inclusive as it is aggressive
There’s a palpable crackle of momentum surrounding GEL right now. The New Jersey-based five-piece have deservedly become one of the most talked about acts on the post-pandemic hardcore scene. Their electrifying and compassionate take on the genre has built the band a grassroots following, a cult fanbase that’s been fostered by an extensive and determined touring schedule.
The footage from one such live date, featuring GEL playing in the parking lot of a Sonic drive-through, went viral at the end of last year. The 16-minute set (filmed by hard-working videographer Hate5six) captures a frenzy of joyous punk-rock carnage. It features a ferocious pit, people on rooftops, fire-breathing and firework explosions that light the crowd in hues of red and orange.
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GEL — Sami Kaiser (vocals), Anthony Webster (guitars), Maddi Nave (guitars), Bobko (bass) and Zach Miller (drums) — are following up this attention with their debut album, Only Constant. Released via Convulse Records (home to Militarie Gun and MSPAINT), Only Constant sees GEL throw down a gauntlet. The band’s unofficial slogan is “hardcore for the freaks,” and the lyrics of Kaiser (who, along with guitarist Nave, is nonbinary) are designed to strike a chord with the outcasts — those in search of community within a world that can feel out of control.
We caught up with guitarist Webster to discuss GEL’s inclusive philosophy, radical optimism in hardcore music and that already-legendary Sonic show.
I’m sure you’ve had to retell the story many times, but can you give AP the background to GEL’s parking lot show last September?
So we have a friend who books shows in Philly, and he always tries to find obscure spots. The year before, he booked us and our friends Chemical Fix on a pier. It was right after COVID, and unconventional spots like that were really popular. So the following year, he was like, “Let’s do something a little crazier.”
There’s a manager at Sonic who’s a hardcore guy, and he thought it would be really cool. We took the reins, booked the lineup, got a mobile recording unit for the audio and got Sunny from Hate5Six to come down and film. Kids came from like five, six hours away for it. It was really cool.
Did you expect it to be as well-received as it was?
Not really. Originally we wanted to play inside the building, which could fit around 50 to 60 people. But when we got there, we were told that they were expecting 200 to 300 people. Perhaps we expected some kind of virality from the optics and gimmick of playing at a fast-food restaurant, but definitely not to the extent that it eventually did.
Can you tell us GEL’s origin story? Where are you all from, and how did you form?
So three of us — our singer, bass player and drummer — all grew up in the same town and went to high school together. The three of them were in a band called Sick Shit, then their bass player left and I joined. We started GEL as a side project. We were a fast powerviolence band but wanted to do something more hardcore punk. Maddi came along a little later, around two years ago, but the rest of us have been playing together for seven, eight years.
Before we talk more about your new album, what does the title Only Constant refer to?
It all comes from Sami’s writing, but from what I know, it’s about trying to find a constant thing in your life to hold onto. The whole record is about coming to terms with change — changing yourself, stuff changing around you, life being very wild and chaotic but having something to hold on to.
When you were making the album, what did you want it to be, and is the finished product what you expected it to be?
When we were writing, it kept switching between whether it should be a full album or another EP. From my end, as the main songwriter, I wanted the record to sound cohesive and complete, instead of just a mish-mash of songs that we liked. I think there’s a flow, a cohesion. There’s similarities between songs and their riffs that complement one another.
I’m also really intrigued by “Calling Card.” Can you give us the background to that track?
That song was the last addition to the record. At first, the idea was to have an interlude that held the record together. All of the samples were from a voicemail line that we tweeted out and said “just leave whatever you want.” We sifted through hundreds and landed on these ones. We wanted them to be funny, angry, people who are frustrated. I can’t imagine the record without that track now.
I feel like the album’s tone is not strictly one of positivity, but it’s always looking up, even when things are bad. There’s an air of resilience.
I think resilience is definitely the intention. The lyrics are very personal to Sami. A lot of them are dealing with their personal struggles. There’s both anger and hope, which I think balances the record. Every song is the opposite of the adjacent one. One will be hopeful, the next angry and negative.
Given the state of the world right now, do you think that “radical optimism” will become a more prominent tone in hardcore music?
Possibly. Hardcore’s such an inherently angry thing. Perhaps it’s because every negative emotion has already been explored. It’s all out there. If you write an angry song, those lines will have already been written. There’s a lot of things out of control in people’s lives right now, so maybe radical optimism is the only way to cope and survive.
The importance of fostering an inclusive environment and fostering a sense of community is something you guys have been very vocal about.
A lot [of] that is to do with our personal experiences. People are mean, and some people don’t want you around. We’ve all felt it both in the hardcore scene and in other aspects of life. When you’re a kid is when you feel it the most. So being a youth-based genre, the last thing some kid needs is to find hardcore and feel like, “Shit, I’m not even wanted there.” We have people as young as 12, 13 at our shows. When I was young, I didn’t always want to go to shows because of how people would act. So we just want to embrace the weird kids.
Last year, two of your bandmates announced publicly that they use they/them pronouns. From your perspective, do you think that the hardcore scene is a refuge from the current culture war surrounding gender identity?
We’re definitely further than most circles. But there’s a way to go still. Every day I see some comment from some guy who someone is friends with saying something that isn’t really there yet. There’s definitely some transphobia from the outside world that has seeped into hardcore. But broadly, it’s probably the best place to be, in terms of musical subcultures. Any subculture is definitely safer than the rest of the world right now.