March 2, 2023

Between rock and a safe space

The Weekend Australian Article, dated September 8, 2018.


From The Weekend Australian Magazine

Not so long ago, Sticky Fingers was the most popular rock’n’roll band in the ­country. In 2015, the Sydney five-piece sold out a tour of Australia without even bothering to announce it; the following year their third album, Westway (The Glitter & The Slums), debuted at No.1 on iTunes and their ­seven-month world tour traversed three continents. But that was before the transgender rapper Miss Blanks accused them of white supremacy, misogyny, sexism and transphobia; before indigenous activists began inciting people to disrupt their concerts and harass them on social media; before the columnist Clementine Ford declared that they engaged in “sexual degradation and humiliation” of women.

Today the radio station that helped launch Sticky Fingers, the ABC’s Triple J, barely plays their music, and the call to boycott them has been joined by a swelling chorus of activists and music industry figures. Sally Rugg, executive director of, accuses the band of “routinely” abusing indigenous and gay women. Punk drummer Sarah Thompson has labelled them “pathetic, abusive, racist, misogynistic, transphobic pieces of shit”. Music festivals that hire them face protests, petitions and cancellation threats from other artists.

It has been a whiplash change of fortunes, made more acute by the fact that Sticky Fingers sprang from Sydney’s most politically Left locale, Newtown-Camperdown, a hub of alt-lifestyle activism that the band celebrated in song. Today it’s a base of operations that can feel like hostile territory. “This was an area where we always felt comfortable,” says their moustachioed keyboard player Crabz — known to his mum as Daniel ­Neurath — as he sits in a cafe near their manager’s office. “To walk around feeling that you’re being looked at or talked about, that you’re viewed as these reprehensible characters… it’s weird.”

Like his band-mates, Crabz expresses bewilderment at the allegations levelled against them. In the band’s account, a swirl of half-truths and outright fabrications on social media became an online mobbing by amateur journalists and misguided activists who’ve paid little heed to the harm their vilification has wrought, in particular to the band’s troubled lead singer, Dylan Frost. How a band that has worked closely with the indigenous community came to be labelled racist is indeed a puzzle, one that some of their most vehement critics are surprisingly reluctant to ­discuss when asked to produce the evidence. What’s clear is that Sticky Fingers have found themselves at the pointy end of a sudden cultural shift in the music business, an industry whose long history of outrage and excess is now undergoing a moral stocktake at the hands of a younger “woke” generation.

In January the indie rock performer Kirin J. Callinan was banned from the Laneway Festival in Melbourne after flashing his penis from under a kilt at the ARIA Awards. In June a tour by the US rapper Riff Raff was cancelled after a Melbourne woman alleged on Facebook that he’d raped her five years earlier in his hotel room, an accusation he denied. More recently there have been calls to boycott the popular Brisbane punk trio Dune Rats over unsubstantiated claims about their treatment of female fans. One music website, Pilerats, is compiling a blacklist of performers whose behaviour it considers unacceptable. Music festival promoters face mounting attacks over the gender balance of their shows and the inclusion of performers deemed to be offensive — a phenomenon not confined to the music industry, as Brisbane Writers’ Festival showed when it disinvited the feminist Germaine Greer because of her controversial views on sexual assault.

Some music business veterans sound disoriented by this insurrection from a younger demographic who talk of rock concerts as “safe spaces”. “Yeah, I dunno… what would happen if Jimmy and the Boys were still playing?” remarks veteran concert promoter Michael Chugg, referring to the infamous 1970s band who simulated sadomasochism and rape onstage. Sydney promoter Matt Rule, whose business was attacked on ­Facebook in March after Sticky Fingers headlined its Bad ­Friday concert, is among those who see a darker side to this talk of boycotts and blacklists. “There’s no one I know who isn’t supportive of change in the industry,” says Rule. “But what I’m seeing is people who think they’re doing the right thing threatening to ruin or discredit your good name by labelling you as an apologist and threatening to campaign against you. It’s completely misguided.”

Sticky Fingers’ lead singer Dylan Frost performs during Splendour in the Grass in 2016.

For Sticky Fingers, who played a sold-out world tour in June and have a new album awaiting release, the long-term career damage is unclear but the personal fallout has been serious. In early July, as the campaign against the band reached a crescendo, singer Dylan Frost was admitted to hospital after an episode of self-harm he declines to discuss in detail. He attributes the incident to “a war in my own head” he has been fighting for years — since 2015 he has been diagnosed with multiple psychiatric disorders, leaving him ­struggling to find the right treatment. Frost says he’s now recovering and looking forward to working again, but some in the industry wonder where this new form of activism as public humiliation is heading. “It stinks, to be honest,” says one promoter. “People who crow from the rooftops about being interested in welfare are abusing people with mental health issues without seeming to think about the potential consequences. It’s dangerous.”

Reminiscing on the days when we used to have a blaze,

Everybody came around and we laxed out on the laze,

And I remember when we’d drink and we’d smoke and we’d spar and we’d laugh,

And the night would just go on and on…

Australia Street by Sticky Fingers

Sticky Fingers never put much effort into ­making friends in the music business or honing their hipster credentials. Teenagers when they got together in Sydney’s inner west 10 years ago, the band took their name from a decades-old Rolling Stones album and built an audience the old-fashioned way, by touring relentlessly. Their sound was a light-footed mix of reggae and Britpop singalong, and their visual aesthetic mixed mullet haircuts, porn-star moustaches, tracky-dacks and footy shorts into a semi-ironic bogan chic. Record companies ignored them and the ARIA Awards has forever snubbed them, but their energy lit up venues and in Dylan Frost they were fronted by a natural star, a shaggy-haired waif with a tattooed torso and an irresistible melodic lilt in his voice.

Born in New Zealand in 1991, Frost could tear up a stage yet remained an enigma away from it, paralysed with self-consciousness in the rare interviews he granted. His raffish grin concealed a volatility that became more visible as the band’s workload and offstage habits took their toll. In 2013 he was arrested after a stoush with security at a concert in WA and thrown in a paddy wagon while tripping on hallucinogens in Queensland; the following year he was given a suspended jail sentence for driving drunk and without a licence, and the whole group was banned from a NSW country pub over allegations they abused staff and urinated on a balcony. In the music press it was largely celebrated as bad-boy hijinks, and the band obliged by sharing videos of their hotel-trashing exploits and tour diaries detailing their drug and alcohol-fuelled escapades. But those closer to the band saw where it might lead.

“Dylan has demons,” says one person who worked with Sticky Fingers for years. “He has mental health issues that make him not socially able, and he has massive aggression issues with alcohol. But he’s spent his whole adult life in an industry that celebrates drug and alcohol excess.”

The unravelling began in 2015 when bass player Paddy Cornwall checked himself into a ­psychiatric clinic in Thailand, while Frost entered treatment for substance abuse and was assessed as suffering bipolar disorder with possible schizophrenia, a diagnosis he never really accepted. “At the time I was sure I didn’t believe that was what I had,” he says, responding to questions by email. The diagnosis wasn’t mentioned when the band re-emerged in 2016, ostensibly recharged, for a seven-month world tour. Their third album was a hit and global success was beckoning when, during a mid-year respite from touring, Frost was involved in a minor commotion that kickstarted the snowballing campaign that now engulfs them.

The event was a gig at the Red Rattler Theatre in Marrickville, Sydney by the indigenous band ­Dispossessed, an outfit so militant they regard white audiences as oppressors “even when you stand in front of us clapping”. Frost was in the audience at the invitation of the band’s then leader, Birrugan Dunn-­Velasco, but the crowd reacted with such hostility to their ­hectoring speeches that the performance ended after two songs. The following day, Dunn-Velasco took to Facebook and accused the crowd of “microaggressions of colonial violence”, singling out Frost for “grossly shirt-fronting us”.

Dispossessed. Picture: Facebook

The “shirt-fronting” charge was rhetorical: no violence occurred on the night and the band’s own video of the event shows Frost doing nothing more than telling Dispossessed he has “the greatest respect” for them. One eyewitness, Taylor Cawsey, confirmed to this magazine that Frost said nothing offensive, and Frost himself — a Maori who has marched alongside indigenous activists at political rallies — avows that he abhors racism. But in July 2016, when the brouhaha erupted, he stayed ­characteristically silent and let his bandmates issue denials. Then, five months later, the 21-year-old indigenous pop performer Thelma Plum made a far more explosive accusation.

The drama again played out on social media, where Plum has built a 40,000-plus following for her outspoken commentary on everything from intersectional feminism to the semi-comic travails of being a “drama queen”. In December 2016 she posted an angry tirade on Facebook accusing Frost of drunkenly abusing her and her boyfriend outside a Sydney hotel, describing it as a terrifying late-night fracas in which Frost spat at her and swung punches that nearly hit her. Plum added that his mistreatment of women was well known and claimed there was video evidence of him racially abusing Dispossessed five months earlier.

Thelma Plum. Picture: supplied

Those allegations later disappeared from Facebook after Plum suffered merciless online abuse from Sticky Fingers fans, and her description of the pub altercation was quickly contradicted by an eyewitness, Paige Moore, a friend of Frost’s who insisted he never swung a punch, spat at or came physically close to Plum. But by the time Moore’s account appeared — also on Facebook — the allegations of racial abuse and violence had gone viral on multiple music media sites and social media feeds. Disastrously, Sticky Fingers chose this moment to announce an indefinite hiatus due to unspecified “internal problems”, without actually denying any of Plum’s allegations.

“It brought us no pleasure seeing the attacks on her and our feeling was that responding would just worsen the bullying,” says Crabz, who insists the hiatus was mainly prompted by the band’s exhaustion after years of touring. But the ­perception that they weren’t actually denying Plum’s claims was reinforced when Frost released a statement saying he was “incredibly sorry” for hurting people around him, revealing his alcohol addiction and mental health problems but failing to deny the specific allegations.

Thousands of the band’s fans logged supportive posts on their Facebook page, but music websites that had once cheerfully promoted Sticky Fingers now turned on them. Joe Earp, editor of The Brag, tweeted: “Sticky Fingers, the famous racist band, have announced they’re too racist to continue.” Pilerats editor Troy Mutton announced he was blacklisting the band. Others — Tone Deaf, ­Pedestrian TV, MusicFeeds — would pile on later.

One person who was appalled by the racism accusations was Hetti Perkins, daughter of indigenous activist Charles Perkins, whose son Tyson had filmed many of Sticky Fingers’ videos and who had known the band almost from the beginning. “I reached out privately to some of the ­people directly involved who were attacking the band on social media following the Dispossessed gig,” Perkins recalls. “Knowing the band, I felt that there must have been a misunderstanding — they work with my son and other blackfellas, they’d participated in marches, they’ve done workshops with Koori kids, they’ve got Koori mates like our family. But I got publicly labelled a white apologist and ‘Aunt Jemima’ and it became clear that people weren’t interested in having a dialogue.”

In February 2017, Sticky Fingers finished their touring commitments with a gig at the Party In The Paddock festival in Tasmania, then headed back to Sydney. The plan was to recuperate and put the dramas of the previous year behind them. What they hadn’t counted on was a scandal already brewing across the other side of the Pacific involving the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

When Kirin J. Callinan turned up at last year’s ARIA Awards wearing a tartan skirt, sans underwear, he wasn’t necessarily aiming to cause a national commotion. For much of his career as a pop provocateur, Callinan has toyed with the ­masculine conventions of rock’n’roll: last year he conducted an entire on-camera interview with SBS television wearing only a beret, and his most recent album, Bravado, features a full-frontal nude shot of him on a sofa, painted bronze. So when Callinan stopped to pose in the ARIAs’ media area outside Star City Casino, several photographers naturally asked what was concealed under his kilt. At which point, he obligingly showed them.

Kirin J. Callinan. Picture: supplied

“I’d done lots of nude photo shoots before and I guess I was in that mood,” Callinan recalls of his split-second tackle-flashing, which he now admits was a stupid lapse. “My spirit about these things has always been pretty punk.” But this was November 2017, a month after the Harvey ­Weinstein rape scandal had ignited the #MeToo movement, and the social climate on such ­matters was very far from punk. Women took to social media to denounce him; Pedestrian TV wrongly reported that he had flashed his penis “for a solid couple of seconds”; a Sydney music producer falsely claimed Callinan had exposed himself to children; journalists from SBS and Mamamia called his actions deplorable, toxic and close to sexual assault.

Soon the online music journalist Shaad D’Souza added racism to the charges, describing Callinan’s bronzed nude spread as “blackface”. That ­accusation was taken up by transgender Samoan-Australian rapper Miss Blanks, who accused Callinan of ­“normalis[ing] racism, ableism and sexual assault”. Miss Blanks — whose Twitter feed features graphic descriptions of her sex life alongside insulting remarks about “disgusting” white feminists and “old white women” — was the “safe space” ambassador for the Laneway music festival in Melbourne, where she and Callinan were both scheduled to appear. She lobbied Laneway to drop him, and within weeks they complied; in February police charged him with obscene exposure.

Today Callinan says his guilty plea and good behaviour bond were less troubling than the “outright lies” about him that spread from social media to the queer and indigenous communities he has always embraced. “I read one online comment about myself that said: ‘This guy has his own ­history of shitty behaviour’,” he recalls. “What does that mean? Half my family on my mother’s side are indigenous; so many of my nearest and dearest identify as gay or lesbian or trans. To be accused publicly of things you have stood against your whole life is hard to take.”

Callinan is now preparing to release a new album, uncertain whether he faces future boycott calls. But the storm over his kilt-flash was merely a prelude to the fury that erupted after Sticky ­Fingers emerged from hibernation in March this year to announce a surprise concert in Sydney.

Over the previous year, Dylan Frost had undergone three months of drug rehab and received a new diagnosis — borderline personality disorder — and a new medication that still did not resolve his issues. Bass player Paddy Cornwall had spent two and a half weeks in a Sydney psychiatric clinic, emerging with a diagnosis of bipolar. Maintaining a low profile, the band had occupied themselves with holidays, songwriting, recording, and side projects such as a trip to Moree in NSW, where they helped build a recording studio for indigenous youths. “We’d recorded an album fully sober, and we were feeling really good,” Crabz recalls. “This was an example of a new, reformed band, in our view, and we were excited to say, ‘We’re back!’” What ensued was “a bit of a shock”.

Three hours before their comeback concert in Sydney, the indigenous rapper and activist Felon Mason issued a Facebook message describing the band as “dogs” and inviting his followers to go to the gig and “shout em off stage. Or even better, someone deal out some proper punishment…” On chat sites and music industry Facebook feeds, meanwhile, unsubstantiated claims circulated that Frost had been involved in domestic violence, an allegation that had already appeared on the band’s own website from people who claimed to know of court proceedings. That accusation is false, says Frost. “There has never been an AVO taken out against me by anyone,” he says. “I’ve been fed up with people making false allegations against me. If anyone has legitimate claims against me, or the rest of the band for that matter, then go to the appropriate authorities and we’ll be held accountable.”

Hoping to reset the publicity, and with a world tour pending, the band cajoled Frost into joining them on Triple J’s Hack program in mid-May for an interview that would become their second PR debacle. Questioned about Thelma Plum and ­Dispossessed, Frost struggled to express himself and fell back on the opaque language of his prepared statements. His bandmates, meanwhile, spoke frankly about the way their drinking had fuelled internal fighting and debauchery, but when Frost was asked why he remained silent, he replied haltingly: “I guess I’m not that good at interviews. And in the past — my violence in my past under the influence… I guess, f..kin’ boys will be boys, y’know? And that’s not what I’m here to promote.”

No phrase could have outraged #MeToo activists more than “boys will be boys”. Although Frost released a hasty statement clarifying that he had been referring to violence within the band, websites such as Junkee, Noisey and The Brag excoriated the band. “It’s hard for people to believe that the lead singer of a band who can command a crowd of 25,000 might struggle with a one-on-one interview,” says Crabz. “Dylan was kind of cornered into saying ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘shit happens’, which were clumsy lines. But in no shape or form did they mean to reference his ­attitude about violence towards women.”

The backlash sent Frost into such a tailspin that he relapsed into drinking, and in the early hours of May 17 he was ejected from a Sydney pub after a shouting match with Alexandra Tanygina, an aspiring transgender model. Tanygina claimed that Frost shouted a transphobic remark; that is disputed by both Frost and an eyewitness who doesn’t know the singer and told this magazine Tanygina provoked the argument. Whatever the truth, transphobia was now added to the ­accusations levelled at Sticky Fingers, and the campaign against them tipped over into outright harassment. On one private Facebook page the indigenous activist Tamika Collins offered the mobile number of the band’s bipolar bass player to anyone who wanted to “f..k his night (and his life) up completely”.

“It started getting out of our control,” recalls Crabz. “It was as if people thought they can get away with saying anything they want, and whatever we say is used against us. We had tried to point out that while we may have been obnoxious drunks who’ve trashed hotel rooms, we’re not physical abusers and racists, but that doesn’t really matter for a lot of these people. Just hearing ­‘racism’ and ‘violence against women’ is enough for them to believe we have to be stopped.”

Miss Blanks. Picture: supplied

In the midst of it all, the band had sold out a world tour that took them to eight countries in June. It was their first time touring stone-cold sober and they returned feeling buoyed, only to find that the campaign against them had swelled: Miss Blanks was now linking them to “white supremacy” and the all-women punk band Camp Cope were calling them predators. On Twitter LGBTQI activist Sally Rugg accused them of “routinely” abusing transgender, indigenous and queer women, drawing a parallel between their alleged misogyny and the recent murder of Melbourne woman Eurydice Dixon.

Dylan Frost’s mother, Stevie, was so appalled she contacted Rugg on Facebook and requested a private conversation “as a woman, as a lesbian, as a feminist”. When Rugg failed to respond, Stevie Frost posted a public comment on Rugg’s Facebook feed informing her that the singer had grown up in a gay household of two mothers in New Zealand, suffering significant homophobic bullying as a result. “What I don’t expect to see,” Frost’s mother wrote, “is the very community he was raised in and had to defend through his life start to turn on him, especially when he has his own internal battles that he is dealing with.” She says Rugg again failed to respond.

In early July, Sticky Fingers announced they were withdrawing from the This That festival in Newcastle to avoid dragging the festival into the controversy. Around the same time Frost was readmitted to hospital after an incident of self-harm. “I snapped,” he says. “Even at the height of success there were stresses that I held inside that had nothing to do with the media but more the exhaustion of fighting a war in my own head.

“Seeing your name on articles labelled as something you’re strongly against would get to anyone,” he says, “and at first it did affect me but I’ve now grown numb to it. In meetings I’ve attended some say it gets easier, and some say it doesn’t. I’m just finding a way to get better at ­coping with this shit… I can say this: even in the darkest of headspace there’s always light at the end of the tunnel and I think my response to ­anyone battling with this is to not make any rash decisions. In dark places there’s always support there, even if you think there isn’t.”

Sticky Fingers from left: Paddy Cornwall, Seamus Coyle, Eric d Silva Gruener, Dylan Frost and Crabz. Picture: Steve Baccon

Sometime later this year the band will begin releasing the new music they have been recording and embark on yet another tour to ­confirm whether a sober Sticky Fingers can still pull in the punters. “Without sounding too hippie about it, we’re all feeling empowered that we’ve been able to take control of something that we thought we couldn’t,” says Crabz. “This is an ongoing recovery. Dylan will play shows with mental health issues, as will Paddy, as will a lot of other people in the industry. I don’t think we should be put in a situation where the opportunity to work and perform is questioned.”

But the boycott movement against them carries on, most recently targeting a New Zealand festival they’re due to appear at in October. Privately, promoters and managers confess to being shocked at the treatment of Sticky Fingers, whatever their past sins may have been. “I worry about where activists are going with all this,” says one manager, “especially when I hear talk of blacklists and see music festivals becoming a battleground over gender. Throwing Sticky Fingers under a bus is just a distraction from the real issues of gender inequality in the business. There are record companies who in my memory have never had a woman return to work from maternity leave.”

Hetti Perkins expresses a similar dismay at the tactics of Instagram warriors. “It’s no activism I have ever heard of,” she says. “My father and other elders with him and before him fought very hard for the right to say to someone, ‘You’re a ­racist.’ It’s not something you squander by misusing it for your own advantage or aggrandisement. I tell people: there’s a real enemy out there, don’t fight your supporters.”

Neither Thelma Plum, Clementine Ford, Tamika Collins nor Sally Rugg responded when asked to substantiate their allegations against the band. And Birrugan Dunn-Velasco, the firebrand indigenous guitarist from Dispossessed who started the campaign against the band, has been difficult to locate since late last year, when ­Dispossessed announced he had been ejected from the band. Among his crimes, according to the band, were victim-blaming, transphobia, queer-phobia and “anti-black comments”.