Formed in the bustling Sydney underground, Optic Nerve’s sophomore tape ‘In A Fast Car Waving Goodbye’ was one of Stew Mag’s favourite releases of 2021. Frontwoman Jackie’s voice carries enough force and edge to carve stone, her spitting delivery being propelled by a devilishly tight and energetic band. There’s never an appeal to tone or contrived shredding in Optic Nerve’s sound, they’re fuelled with a primal sort-of aggression but the execution is surgical. The cowboy twang, pick drags, gatling-gun snares, and hard-transitions all come together in a violent and calculated way that feels at once fresh and timeless. ‘In A Fast Car Waving Goodbye’ appeals to the part of me that wants to stab a motherfucker. I’m sure Jackie’s songwriting is more layered and nuanced than that, but everytime I throw on ‘Crash’ it’s like a breathless call from the void, the dark realisation it can happen. There is quite a bit of punk music made in this country but lemme assure you there’s not too many bands like Optic Nerve. The palette they’re pulling from feels distinct from any of the Australiana, ‘internet punk’ or superficial political tropes present in lotsa trendy punk around. The technical aspects of Optic Nerve and above all, the overflowing authentic and raw emotion of the music has marked them as one of Stew’s favourite bands around. I was very excited to call Jackie and ask her about the band, especially given the lack of any information about them online (no social media making context scarce).
S: One of my biggest questions is just about the broad context of the band and how it came to be. I discovered you through Matt Kenedy’s Underground Australiana show and so don’t really know much about you except the music itself!
J: Everyone that started the band and played on that tape (‘In A Fast Car Waving Goodbye’) was from Canberra and had moved up to Sydney other than me. [mumbled part about backgrounds of other band members] Joel who is the drummer and John who was the guitarist, both played in bands together for ages in bands like Oxen and Machina Genova and I think were very instrumental in (lived at??) Lacklustre records. Joe played in this super underrated very egg band called cure pre moving to sydney as well. All of this feels a bit removed from Optic now, I guess it’s like very disparate influences or histories.We have a new guitarist but I still feel like it’s sort-of outside of a lot Sydney’s tropes and trends or something. I think a big early inspiration was Hank Wood and the Hammerheads and that sort-of country inflected punk stuff... I don’t know if you know this band but I’m really into them, Big Boys from Texas?
S: No, I don’t.
J: They’re an early 80s Texas hardcore band and they have that really jangly almost Minutemen-sounding tone for their guitars, but what was so sick to me was that the lyrics were just really freaky corny cheesy love songs but it was set to this fast hardcore music. The singer I think i’m right in saying was this gay guy and occassional cross-dresser, and to me that band feels like a weird queer channeling a lot of the revolutionary anger of punk music through his desires, probably because I imagine Texas in the 80s would have been a violent place for those desires to exist. There’s a really beautiful energy that comes across in those songs, they’re clearly being made for people he really cares about, or exist as love songs or whatever privately, but they’re also staunch and radical proclamations against a broader (less accepting) public. Those songs kinda let queer desire be framed with an intensity or immediacy like; I want this, I will make a world where I can have it. That means a lot to me. The band started around our interest in this jangly sounding punk music, which at its core indexes pop or country right, but it plays with that softness or palatability to remain staunch, or fast I guess?
S: In the same way the frontman of Big Boys was making music that was clearly transgressing and pushing up against something at the time, is there a similar conscious subversion that you’re making with Optic Nerve?
J: I think our lyrics are less explicit, I think a lot about the politics of refusal when I write. A lot of the more recent songs, we have a record that we haven’t released yet, but a lot of those lyrics are speaking specifically to anti-trans violence — and a pressure to be made legible or visible which comes with that violence - being clocked and then jumped. I think there’s power in non-disclosure, or keeping things encoded for others in the life. A lot of the lyrics, even before I transitioned, speak about trying to persevere or find joy in the wake of relentless medical, legal, social, physical, institutional (etc.) violence, and for me holding onto desire - as a motivating force for change and reminder that things can be good on my own terms, is a framework for that. That’s lyrically maybe where I’m coming from… I think musically it’s more country-sounding in the sense it’s slightly more technical punk music that none of us have really played before, which is fun, but it’s still this play between fast or heavy or abrasive sounds and more palatable, recognisably ‘poppy’ tones.
S: Yeah that’s a good way of putting it... I don’t think you guys rely on just gain or guitar tone per se to get the point across.
J: It’s funny, on a line-up where either the heaviest or the least heavy band. We don’t really use distortion or anything, so if you play with some hardcore-hardcore bands you’re just going to sound puny, but then with like indie bands, you’re like 5 times as fast as them. It’s this interesting feet-in-two-worlds band. I know Jai (of Urge Records) compares us a bit to ‘that sydney sound’ in this way. Like Orion, Oily Boys, Sex Tourists, that sort-of strain of punk that was quite emotionally jaded and just laid on the chorus pedals, that all has a pop sensibility as well. Lowlife is a good example in how post-punk is able to speak to pop music while being so aggressive and anti-social at the same time. Chorus punk or country punk or even egg-chain binary punk plays with sincerity and insincerity I think, like a pop band making punk music or something is always gonna come out slant.
S: I really think your voice carries that melodic element both on-stage and on the record as well.
J: I think that in the record and live... with playing live I’ve been making this dumb joke where I ask for heaps of my voice in the fold backs on-stage, so that I can hear myself lots and so that I shout less. “It’s not good to scream,” I say to everyone at the show before shouting the whole set. I’ve been trying to consciously not just shout and kind-of play with more spoken or loudly talked vocal stuff instead of just screaming, which I’ve found quite fun, and different modes of address of delivery help carry the double meanings & hard-to-talk-about bits of the music.
S: The production of ‘In A Fast Car Waving Goodbye’ was impressive to me, the slightly cleaner guitar tones matched with the clarity of the mix meant that all the ideas and parts felt really approachable while still carrying a lot of energy. How was it recorded and put together in that sense?
J: Jon recently finished his masters in sound design for like cinema stuff, but he’s a great mix person. the demo + the tape we recorded ourselves was mostly with Jon and Joel overseeing it. We just recorded everything live, both the tapes we have were done in a single night. Then John just quickly mixed the most recent one, the new record we did mostly ourselves as well (with some help from Goose and I think Chris of Negative Gears) was done over a couple of days instead and is wayyy more overdubby. But everything we’ve released so far has been done quite quickly, and all live. The tape sounds really good though for a live recording, I think. I was quite chuffed with how it all came out.
S: Was there any specific story or meaning behind the title of the tape?
J: Joe who plays in the band had misheard one of my lyrics as ‘In a Fast Car Waving Goodbye’, we just thought it was funny. But it was also a poetic title for the record, at least for me, I always go to Tracy Champan’s ‘Fast Car’ which is this song about queer escapism or this impulse to get away, find something new. I guess that’s the main context of the title for me, the joke of the misheard song lyric but also wanting to be in a better world. A lot of the songs on that tape come out of me being jumped pretty badly and thinking about the world as a violent place -- how do you make it better for you and people you care about? A lot of the band is sort-of like that, it’s something that you come up with on the spot but then feels like it has a lot of meaning that you gotta hold onto, but is also a joke...
S: I saw that your personal output is more electronic, sort-of ambient but also dance-y – I’m always curious how fringe-y scenes like the DIY hardcore, noise, or experimental electronic communities overlap and influence each other. Is there any bleed-in of those influences into Optic Nerve?
J: It’s sick because the context of a lot of Sydney underground music in the past five years has been... Obviously they’re lifted now but you know, the lock out laws and a lot of venues suffered and places where you’d play shows would get shut down. I felt like there was this real moment where DIY underground punk bands and underground electronic artists started merging and playing on similar line-ups, like Lucy Cliche (Loose-y Crunche) would play with heaps of punk bands, or Enderie would always close out Gaelic hardcore club shows. I feel like in 2017/18 everyone just bought a drum machine and there was impulse to cross-pollinate between punk and electronic stuff. The first band I was in was called Concrete Lawn, they’re still going, still active I think. Then me and my friend Heather started this other band called Dual Citizen which was drum machine, pop-y, dance-y stuff and then from there, I just kept getting more and more into electronic music and dance music. I think it’s also about community - like I just feel cared for and energised by the people at raves so I keep going. Making that sort-of music, it feels like it has the same impulse of band music it’s just way more fun to make it at home, and easy to do solo. I guess the moods of those newer projects even though they sound very different, are very similar and they’re being made for the same reasons. You’re interested in the music, and it’s fun to make something with friends but it also satisfies a deeper creative and personal urge.