Interview: Fiona Friel (Dragster and Conflict) ” It feels right to be involved with a band that shares my passion for animal rights.”

A familiar face on the punk circuit Fiona Friel is something of an icon, inspiring the next generation and breaking down barriers and misconceptions through her music.  The Dragster and Conflict vocalist is admired for her fierce performance style which are at odds with a glowingly cheery personality off stage.  Gary Trueman chatted to Fiona about joining Conflict, being based in Coventry and her love of horror and sci-fi.

Let’s talk about Dragster firstly and where you are with the band. Are you writing new material?

“Yes, we’re starting to. Obviously with Covid it’s all been a bit difficult getting together. We’re starting to do things now though. We’ve had a couple of gigs and we’re getting into it again. Into the next year the guys will be writing music and hopefully I’ll come in at some point and help with lyrics. I do have other commitments now with Conflict. I think the idea is that we’ll be doing the odd gig and I’ll be recording where I can and they’ll be writing when I’m bust with other things.”

So they write the music first and then you put the lyrics to it?

“Sometimes it works like that. Diesel’s quite prolific with lyrics so when he’s writing music he often has a vocal melody as well.  He has the whole song ready to go sometimes. Other times we’ll bounce ideas off each other as far as lyrics are concerned.”

You mentioned you’ve played a couple of gigs already. Have you got anything else booked for this year or 2022?

“We’ve got one more gig this year on November 27th supporting Millie Manders And The Shut Up at the Star And Garter in Manchester. That’s all for Dragster this year. We’ve got Mamapalooza next year. We’ll be booking more shows around Conflict.”

Both bands are booked to play Rebellion Festival as well. You must be looking forward to that.

“I cannot wait. It’s been so long since we were at Rebellion. It’s one of the best festivals ever, it’s one big family. To play that festival twice in one weekend, it’s going to be fantastic.”

Do you think it’s important for the punk spectrum of music to have that festival where everyone can meet up from all around the world?

“Yes, definitely. We are scattered around in small groups so it’s really nice to have the community come together in one place. Punk is a wide genre and there are many types within it. It’s great to have it all happening in one weekend.”

Do you think that people that don’t know the festival would be quite surprised by the breadth of the music there?

“I think they would. People tend to think of punk as the 76 to 78 era but there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s the 82 bands, you’ve got ska and pop punk, and anarcho punk, hardcore. Then there’s all the new bands coming through with their own take on it. That’s how it should go. It shouldn’t stick to one thing. It should keep evolving and progressing.”

Dragster are from Coventry. There must be pros and cons being based there? Are there many venues left? You are nicely placed in the UK geographically though.

“Yes, being centrally based it’s not too difficult to get to places far and wide. Down to London and up to Scotland, over to Wales and Norwich. About ten years ago there were quite a few venues in Coventry putting on punk bands. We had the Jailhouse which was on the circuit so lots of touring bands would come through. Bands had someone to support then. There was a scene, a small scene at the time, but the Jailhouse was knocked down. Lots of other places have closed too. And now with the pandemic it’s been really difficult. We do still have a few venues. We have The Arches. There’s The Tin at The Vaults which is more indie music. And we have The Empire now which has a lot of big travelling bands.”

Dragster itself has a kind of horror vibe running through it. How did that happen? Who is responsible for that influence on the band?

“That’s all my fault haha! It has drifted away from that but in the beginning we had a bit of a rockabilly influence as well. My lyrics would focus on slasher movies. Creature From The Black Lagoon, they’re all in the titles. That’s definitely my influence on the band. I absolutely love horror movies. My dad used to let me stay up on a Saturday night to watch all the Universal horror movies as he was into them too and that rubbed off on me. Then I got into the Hammer House Of Horrors.  Doing a sci-fi photoshoot is a dream come true. I love sci-fi, I’ve been a fan of Star Trek since I can remember. I love superhero movies too. Barbarella is definitely a favourite, especially for the outfits. Alien is obviously the ultimate in horror meets sci-fi, Event Horizon is another really good mix of the two. What’s not to love?”

You’ve just joined Conflict. How do you fit into that band? They have used two singers in the past hasn’t there?

“It’s been a while since there was two singers but yes there’s often a second male or female vocalist. My role is doing the songs that already exist for the female lead and also the duel vocals. Conflict definitely suits my vocal style and I’m looking forward to writing, recording and performing new material in the future. We are about to start recording new stuff and I’ll be more involved in that. We’re recording next month at Rockfield studios. Fran Fearon the new bass player joined around the same time I did. Another reason this is a good fit is that Conflict have been actively involved in promoting the liberation of animals from farming, experiments, entertainment etc. and as a vegan of nearly 30 years all of this is very close to my heart and it feels right to be involved with a band that shares my passion for animal rights and liberation.”

Conflict for those that don’t know have quite an illustrious history with quite a number of well known musicians being a part of the line up at various times. There’s one founder member left who is Colin Jerwood. How did you get invited to join and how did the pandemic affect things?

“Yes, Colin started the band. It was at Punks Against Cancer in 2017 when I first spoke to Colin. He complimented our band on the show. I saw him again a while later at Rebellion and from there he contacted me on Facebook and that’s how I ended up joining the band. That was in 2019 and we’ve done one gig a month ago. We spoke twice and I’m in the band then we don’t see each other for two years.”

Where do the two bands differ in style?

“Dragster are a bit more rock, a bit more melodic. With Conflict after 40 years you’re going to have a lot of songs so there’s a lot of diversity in the music. There are the superfast vocals hitting you like a sledgehammer. I do think it suits my vocal style. I am quite loud I suppose, quite an aggressive vocalist.”

How are you going to fit the two bands around each other without, pun not intended, there being a conflict of interest?

“With Dragster I think we were ready for a little hiatus anyway before it was forced upon us with Covid. The idea was that I would focus on Conflict while they wrote music. I think that’ll still be the case but we’ll look to fit a few gigs in between to remind people that we’re still here. They understand that at this point in time Conflict will have to take precedence because we’re doing a new album and will tour that. That’s once this pandemic settles down. It’s getting there quicker than I thought it would. So fingers crossed.”

You would think that punk would fit into the greater alternative scene well with rock and metal. It came from rock and has given to certain parts of metal. But it always seems to be marginalised, particularly in the music press. Why do you think that is?

“I think the media views it as a thing that happened a long time ago. That it was just the Sex Pistols and those bands back then. It seems to have been stuck in an era and everything else has been underground since then. Only people who are into punk know of it and understand it. There are so many varieties of what we consider punk and how it’s evolved. Bands like Discharge do play some metal festivals because the cross over is there. In Europe you get a lot more of that. I know Conflict have played some festivals like that in the past as well. Dragster are quite ‘rock’ as well and we could cross over but no one is interested. If you’re not well known it’s difficult to make that transition.”

We need to acknowledge the advances women have made generally in music and the calling out of misogyny in all of its various different forms. There needs to be safety in music for women artists and fans alike. What’s your take on where we are at the moment and where we need to go next?

“It is an awful lot better than when I started. The old joke of who are you with (the assumption that you’re a band member’s girlfriend) is no joke. It does still happen but not as frequently as it used to happen to me. I used to turn up at shows and people would think I was doing anything other than be in a band. Especially with the genre we’re in, people tend to think it’s all men shouting. The lack of understanding about the variations within punk often leads certain people to think that a woman wouldn’t be in a band like that. It’s ridiculous because women have different vocal styles as well and different ways of singing, as do men. Why should it be viewed any differently for a woman to be fronting a punk band? It has come a long way because I often used to find myself the only female on a line up. Now there are more women playing instruments and fronting bands. It’s brilliant. There are more promoters wanting that as well, wanting more diversity on the bill. Dragster have been lucky enough to work with promoters that put on quite diverse acts, such as STP, An Alternative Gathering and POW Promotions to name a few, but there are still occasions when we find ourselves with just me being the only woman and very little in the way of any other kind of diversity on the bill. I realise that promoters need to get people through the door but, some could do better with giving more new and diverse bands a chance rather than sticking to their tried and tested line-ups.”

When you aren’t doing music, if that’s even a thing, do you have any other interests?

“I’m quite boring I think. I’ve got four dogs so they keep me occupied and active. There’s a lot of walking. I’ve started my running again. I had a knee injury so that stopped me for a while. I go cycling and I recently took up roller skating. I like being outdoors and I like outdoor activities. The gym is not for me. Oh and I do like to go out drinking and going to gigs as well”

You’re playing with Millie Manders who also has a knee injury and roller skates.  You’ll have to compare notes.

“Really haha. I’ll have to talk to her about that at the gig. Touch wood my knee is OK at the moment. The hope was that with the cycling I’d build up the muscles around it to help support it.”

If you could choose any person to share a stage with and duet with at a Dragster show who would you choose and why?

“I think it would be Leslie Rankine of Silverfish and Ruby because when I was first starting out the first time I heard Silverfish was the first time I thought that it was someone who sounds similar to me, that kind of raw in your face full of anger and grrrrr vocal. I would love to do a Silverfish song and I would love her to do one of mine. The one thing that did happen in 2003, I did a tour with a band called Pigface and I got to do her songs on the tour. That was a really great thing for me to do. That was an honour.”

Dragster – Facebook

Conflict – Facebook

Review and photos by Gary Trueman