Hailing from the north of Scotland, Riot Grrrl duo Bratakus—siblings Breagha and Onnagh Cuinn—represent something of an anomaly in Scottish punk, in that they are vegan and straightedge. Calum Harvie meets the sisters and finds out how they cope with being the only vegans in their village and why they want Sasquatch to play drums. Photos by Gary Trueman and John McCandless.
Bratakus are relatively new on the scene—how and why did you venture down this path? I know you come from a punk family; what influence did this have?
Breagha: Bratakus started a little bit over a year ago. I had been gigging with just me and an acoustic guitar for a few years before we started playing together, but I was only doing that so I was playing music and not just sitting about, haha. I really wanted a band. After about three years of me playing acoustic, our parents suggested that maybe Onnagh could learn some of my songs on bass, just so I could get a demo or something recorded and send it out to people to try and form a band, but when we did our first practice we really enjoyed playing together just the two of us and the drum machine, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we just keep it like this?’
Onnagh: We hadn’t been practising together long when a friend sent us a poster for the Glasgow Rock ‘n’ Roll School for Girls fundraiser. They were looking for bands to play, so we sent over a video we’d made of us playing one of our songs in Breagha’s bedroom. By this time the line-up was already booked but they were nice enough to squeeze us in and we’ve been involved in the Rock School ever since.
It was a really cool first gig to do because there were little girls dancing at the front and so many supportive women there who’ve helped us out loads in the relatively short time we’ve been playing. I think having punk parents helped a lot because our Dad was in bands [Sedition, Scatha, T.R.I.B.E.] and our Mum was heavily involved in the scene so they both still know a lot of people that help get us gigs and so on. It’s funny ’cause we are now playing with a lot of bands that our Dad used to play with. I think being raised by punk parents with punk ethics helped a lot.
I’m guessing that Kathleen Hanna has been important to you both over the years. To what extent do you think that Riot Grrrl has helped shape your outlook on life. Or, do you think you were attracted to Riot Grrrl because of the way you already viewed the world?
Breagha: You guessed right! I discovered Riot Grrrl through Bikini Kill, like a lot of people do, when I got a mix CD for my 13th birthday called My Da Is Mare Punk Than Your Da from a good friend of ours, Brian Curran [Quarantine, Disaffect, Ruin, Debris, Scatha and now Brian Curran Acoustic], that had a couple of Bikini Kill songs on it. I really loved one of them that I later found out was called ‘Tony Randall’—the CD had no track list, so I had to Google the lyrics to find out what the song was. I started to listen to more and more Bikini Kill and read up on the Riot Grrrl scene and it just really appealed to me. Even though I already listened to bands like The Distillers, my favourite band since I was about seven, I didn’t actually get properly into punk until I discovered Riot Grrrl. I started listening to all these Riot Grrrl bands and my parents would say, ‘Okay, if you like them you will definitely like…’, and it grew from there. I also started considering myself a feminist because of Riot Grrrl. I obviously always believed women were equal, and so on, but I didn’t start reading up on it and finding out more about it until I found that movement. That’s when I started calling myself a feminist. It’s not that I wasn’t one before, I just hadn’t really thought that much about it until then. So, that probably shaped a lot of who I am.
Onnagh: Another funny thing—I used to hate Bikini Kill. I think it was mainly just a thing I played up to annoy Breagha, but I never liked them. Then I watched The Punk Singer, a film about Kathleen Hanna, and everything changed, haha. I just thought she was so amazing and inspirational and now Bikini Kill are my all time favourite band! It was kind of the same as with Breagha for me with feminism and punk music. I got into Bikini Kill, and then the Riot Grrrl scene through that, and then feminism through that, and it all led on from there with punk as well. Again, I already had feminist views but just didn’t really put a name to it until then. Now me and Breagha have almost the exact taste in music, so it’s a lot easier, haha!
So, a vegan straightedge Riot Grrrl duo from…Tomintoul in the north of Scotland. There can’t be many of you! You travel around a lot, so meet like-minded people elsewhere. But, back home, does it ever feel alienating or isolated being the ‘only vegans in the village’?
Breagha: I’m almost 100% sure we’re the only straightedge vegans in Tomintoul, maybe even in Morayshire! Though we don’t even live in the village, we live just outside—I’m pretty sure in the village we’re known as the freaks on the hill, haha! We don’t even really meet that many vegan straightedgers when we travel about gigging; we’ve probably met about two or three in the whole time we’ve been a band. We meet quite a few vegans and the occasional straightedger, but it’s very rare that we meet someone who’s both! We were raised vegetarian from birth, and then our whole family went vegan five years ago. We just thought that for the reasons we were veggie, it was a bit hypocritical not to be vegan. We’re all really glad that we did it; even my little brother who was only three at the time is really into it! I’m not really sure at what age you start being considered straightedge, since I’ve never drank. I started calling myself it a couple of years ago, though. When I was about 14 or 15 all of my friends started drinking and I didn’t ’cause I just wasn’t into it. I wasn’t doing it for any reason other than that and I actually assumed I would drink in the future. After a while I started ot realise that I still wasn’t into it and I was about 18, which it turns out is quite abnormal, haha! I then watched a documentary called Demise And Rise about Steve-o and his drug and drink addiction which was really pretty intense and horrific, and I just decided to keep going how I was and not drink. People are always a bit freaked out when you tell them you don’t drink or smoke or anything, but I don’t see why when you’re a child you can go out places, have fun and not drink and no one thinks that’s weird, then you reach a certain age and it becomes really odd to have fun without drinking alcohol. That just seems strange to me. [So] I had already been straightedge for years without putting a name to it when my parents recommended I listen to Minor Threat. It was really cool to find a band who sang about it like it was normal! Since then we’ve both been huge Minor Threat and Ian Mackaye fans.
Onnagh: Yeah, I definitely agree about straightedge. I’ve just never been interested in drinking, or felt like I needed to. I think it is something that most people just assume they’ll do when they’re older because that’s what everyone does really, but the more I think about it the more it just doesn’t make sense to me. I feel really strongly about veganism. Like Breagha said, after being veggie all our lives, when we started to look into it more and become aware of the reasons to be vegan it just seemed like the natural progression to move on to veganism, and we’ve never looked back! I really don’t find it hard. There’s so many good alternatives now—you can even get soya milk in the village shop in Tomintoul! I think it actually makes food more exciting, because it’s always great when you find a vegan alternative to something, or something that’s accidentally vegan! It’s also encouraged all of us to be more creative with cooking. We have a recipe to veganise practically everything now. The number of vegans is definitely growing, but there’s still a long way to go! Most of the time we’re lucky if we get one or two cheers when Breagha says, ‘This is an animal rights song!’ at our gigs, haha!
We still exist in a society and culture where everyday sexism serves as a constant reminder that feminism is as vital as it ever was. What role in this struggle to think Riot Grrrl plays?
Breagha: For me, Riot Grrrl is punk feminism. It’s about helping girls form bands, write zines, make art and be involved in the scene. I think it really works in punk because a lot of people are very cool and inclusive of everyone, but just like with everything in life there are still a lot of people with very negative / misogynistic / homophobic / racist / transphobic / speciesist—the list goes on—views. I think that’s really sad because, in my opinion, that’s totally the opposite of what punk is about. We mostly gig in Glasgow and there’s a really great Riot Grrrl scene there with girls who come from all different backgrounds, musical genres, and so on. Through volunteering with the Glasgow Rock ‘n’ Roll School for Girls we met so many inspirational women. There are so many cool bands who’ve been so supportive, but also artists, sound engineers, promoters and more. It’s just a nice thing to be a part of. On the other hand, not everyone has such a cool scene that welcomes them in and I think Riot Grrrl can help girls who face sexism and misogyny every time they perform or show their art or whatever it is they’re doing. I think it’s really important for young girls to know there are people out there who will support them. As Bratakus we haven’t really experienced much sexism, but as I say we we were very lucky to find the Glasgow Riot Grrrl scene and a few other super nice and cool punk scenes.
Onnagh: As we mentioned before, we’ve also been lucky enough to be involved in the Glasgow Rock ‘n’ Roll School for Girls, which has been really great. It’s a week long summer school for eight to sixteen year olds that’s run completely by female volunteers. The girls are taught in a series of workshops how to play a whole host of instruments, sing, write songs and more. It’s not all music, they have the opportunity to take part in workshops like Zine Making, Body Positivity, LGBT Awareness, they make their own outfits to wear on stage and they make backdrops to put up behind them. This year there was also an open mic set up during lunch for girls to go up and sing to build their confidence for the show at the end of the week. It’s amazing to see young girls come in with no previous musical knowledge and just pick up instruments and write these amazing songs in one week. Watching some of the girls that are as young as eight getting up on stage to play their song is just brilliant. So I think things like that really do great things to help keep the Riot Grrrl scene alive and inspire young girls to get involved. This years was its second year and we can’t wait for next year. If anyone reading this is interested in either participating or volunteering, or just wants to find out more information, definitely get in touch!
It goes without saying that the DIY ethic of punk, and Riot Grrrl in particular, is something you hold dear, right?
Breagha and Onnagh: It’s very important. We recorded our EP—Gigantopithecus—ourselves in our dining room, did the art for the sleeve, hand folded them all and released it on our own label, Screaming Babies Records. We’ve sold pretty much every EP ourselves mainly at gigs, but sometimes online. We also did our logo ourselves. Having a drum machine also means we have to program all the drum tracks ourselves too! We also have a had a huge amount of help every step of the way from our parents too, of course. [And] we hope to be the first punk band to prove the existence of Sasquatch so we can get it in on the drums. We get a lot of offers from people saying they’ll be our drummer, but we’re not comfortable being a power trio unless it’s with Sasquatch, haha!