Bringing “Shitpunk” to the Masses: An Interview with Joe Shit of the Faroe Islands’ Joe and the Shitboys
Located between Norway, Iceland, and Scotland in the North Atlantic Sea, the Faroe Islands is a tiny country with a population just over 52,000. Known for its dramatic landscapes and Norse heritage, the microstate is an isolated archipelago dotted with small villages and cut by deep fjords. Compared to the other Nordic states, the Faroe Islands have a much more religious, conservative population, perhaps as a result of the deep cultural and geographical isolation that the country has developed under. Access to abortion is highly restricted, and queer Faroe Islanders often report facing discrimination and rejection from friends, family, and the wider community. Whaling and hunting are both practiced on a fairly regular basis, partially for recreation, and meat is the foundation of almost the entirety of the local cuisine.
Naturally, every country has its outsiders. How might a group of queer, feminist vegans respond to living and growing up in such an environment? With songs like Drugs R'4 Kidz and If You Believe in Eating Meat, Start With Your Dog, it's not difficult to see how the local queer, vegan punk band Joe and the Shitboys have made such a dramatic impression at home. Despite their relatively recent formation, the band quickly became a fixture of the Faroese live music scene prior to COVID and was awarded 'Band of the Year' at the 2020 Faroese Music Awards.
Indeed, 2020 was shaping up to be the year that Joe and the Shitboys brought their unique brand of 'shitpunk' to a wider European market, with plans for both UK and EU tours and festival dates. Still, it seems like it's going to take more than a global pandemic to stop Joe and the Shitboys from calling out assholes and meat-eaters, Faroese or otherwise. In spite of extensive lockdowns and travel restrictions both at home and abroad, the band has still been able to release music, videos, and play at Left of the Dial and Eurosonic festivals in the Netherlands. Recently, vocalist Fríði (A.K.A. "Joe Shit") was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss homophobia, shitty people, and playing music with a message.
The founding story of the band is pretty unique. My understanding is that you were inspired by an artwork found in an abandoned school, which you've also since used as the album cover for The Reson for Hardcore Vibes. How did the drawing you found lead to the formation of the band?
Sigmund aka Ziggy Shit was demolishing said abandoned school (which has since been turned into student housing, and he lives there) and was drawn to the painting. It was something about the misspelling of "reason" and the poorly drawn pistol, bat, brass knuckles, and something that's either hedge scissors or a butterfly knife, and the overall genuine aura of a pissed off teen. He needed an album inspired by the painting to find out what The Reson for Hardcore Vibes is.
You've all been involved in a pretty wide variety of different projects locally – where did the idea to start a punk band come from?
The Shitboys were throwing around the idea of doing a one-off "shitpunk" 7", just punk that was purposefully bad, and it wasn't really meant to be a band at all. They had the name "Joe & The Shitboys" before they figured out who Joe was. Then they invited me over to be Joe, and we wrote, practiced, and recorded 2 songs in 2 hours, and they were actually good. Then we wanted to play a show for the release party, but we needed more songs, so we wrote, practiced, and recorded 10 songs in 10 hours and called it an album. It was a good place to vent about shitty people, and the local reception was very positive, so we basically just kept going like that and it blew up (in a strictly Faroese sense of the word), and it turned into a band and not a side gig somewhere along the way.
I think you mentioned somewhere that part of the intention behind forming the band was 'calling out shitty behaviour.' Do you think your music has had a positive cultural impact so far?
One person came to me after one of our shows and said that they had moved to Denmark because they had dealt with so much homophobia in the Faroes. They said that our show was the first time they felt welcome to be who they are as a queer Faroese person. That's my biggest motivation.
Part of this approach to drawing attention to unsavoury behaviour and attitudes seems to be addressing the Faroese music scene itself. For example, you have a song discussing hidden homophobia in the Faroese music scene. Would you describe this as a widespread issue?
I think there's some misunderstanding here, as we have no songs that deal with any music scene (yet). Maybe you're thinking about Closeted HomoFObe, which deals with hidden homophobia. It's basically about people who make jokes at the expense of queer people, using gay as a slur, and think it's okay to express how grossed out they are by them, while also claiming that they aren't homophobes because they know a lesbian woman, or they don't mind same-sex marriage. And yes, this is a widespread issue, as you can hear it at your workplace, family gatherings, the gym etc.
I think it's pretty fair to say Joe and the Shitboys has an overtly political message (or a number of them). My impression as an outsider is that there aren't many other local bands whose music centers around politics or cultural critique. Do you agree? Do you find that Joe and the Shitboys is treated differently than other projects you've been involved in as a result?
I do agree that there aren't many other political bands, however, there are some, but they mostly deal with local politics. Joe & The Shitboys is treated very different than the other projects. I've been harassed both verbally and physically, and even gotten crank calls haha. People here are very scared of conflict, so they bottle up their emotions, and then they get drunk and don't know how to express themselves in a healthy way.
My outsider impression thus far is that there isn't a punk 'scene' in the Faroes, per se. In fact, I'm not really aware of any other active Faroese punk bands. Would you say that's true? If so, what's it like being the only local band that really plays the kind of music that you do?
Well, no bands are really active at the moment, considering that COVID thing you've probably heard about, but there is one other punk band that play like once or twice a year, and they're the ones we grew up listening to. So most of the year it's just us, and I guess that's pretty cool. If people want a punk product, they have to come to one of our shows, and we're getting filthy rich because of it. Jokes aside, there aren't really scenes in the Faroes, everyone hangs out with each other and we all play together.
It's often interesting to contrast the Faroe Islands culturally with the other Nordic countries. I think global perception of Scandinavia or the Nordic countries is progressive, forward-thinking, and overwhelmingly secular. While hardly a backwater, it seems fair to describe the Faroe Islands as a tiny, highly homogenous country with a largely religious population. The culture to me feels fairly conservative, too – do you think this is an accurate representation?
[Laughs] Yes. I'm not even sure what I should answer, because you've got it all right there.
On that note, what's growing up in the Faroes like when you're LGBTQ+? I remember seeing a documentary recently that described how the norm for gay and transgender Faroe Islanders has been moving to Denmark or another country with a similar, more progressive culture. Is this still the norm?
Growing up as a straight-passing bi man, I didn't get bullied because of it, but it hurt every time people would use man to man attraction as a synonym for something negative. I did see a lot of bullying of feminine men, some who were out of the closet, some who weren't, and some who were actually straight feminine men that got lumped in with the homosexual men. As a result, I didn't come out till I was 22. I don't know if it's the norm anymore, sorry.
In a country where whaling is still widely practiced and most of the local cuisine is meat and fish-based, I can imagine veganism isn't widely understood. How have people reacted to songs like If You Believe in Eating Meat, Start with Your Dog?
I don't know. I've heard people come up to me and say "this person said that they're gonna call you a dumbass vegan" but they never do. I know it's pissing people off, but some people have also come out and said that it's what pushed them to go vegan, or at the very least, vegetarian.
2020 was a year of unprecedented disruption for all of us, and I know a lot of your travel and touring plans were ultimately abandoned. Can you share a bit about how 2020 would have looked for Joe and the Shitboys if everything went according to plan?
We've had a lot of shows planned for Europe, and some for the US, but they all went to shit of course (we still played both Left of the Dial and Eurosonic tho). A lot of those unannounced shows have actually been moved to this year, so you just have to wait and see.
Last year, the band was awarded with Band of the Year at the Faroese Music Awards. Have you been well-received by the public, too? Have you guys faced any backlash as a result of your lyrics or politics?
I'd say so, yeah. The shows are usually packed, and there are a lot of haters on anonymous message boards. The backlash is mostly just random harassment from drunk people, nothing too serious, and no one actually engages in a conversation.
It would be unfair to imply that you guys are completely serious in your approach to music and songwriting – humour is clearly important, too. Do you make a conscious effort to blend humour and sincerity?
We always start with a subject and a title. The title needs to carry enough information for the audience to have a bare minimum understanding of what the song is about, like Closeted HomoFObe, Drugs R'4 Kidz etc. Our philosophy is that a live audience isn't very receptive of super serious political lyrics, at least not if they don't agree with them. Also, it's a reflection of who we are, because we always blend humour in when we're talking about serious stuff.
Do you think it's important to deliberately offend people or challenge their views?
Definitely. Like I previously mentioned, people here shy away from conflict as much as possible, thinking the most important thing in this world is to make peace. That's how dangerous ideas spread and evolve. If your uncle says something overtly racist at your niece's birthday party, the asshole move is calling it out. Fuck that shit. That is why we're so much more conservative than the rest of the Nordic countries.
Your performance in Iceland Airwaves in 2019 seems like it was something of a breakthrough for the band. I think Jónsvein (A.K.A. drummer Johnny Shit) mentioned to me that there was a queue leading out the door. What was it like to receive that kind of reception?
Insane. We were hanging out at the venue, and half-an-hour before showtime, people were still eating at tables where the audience was supposed to be. When we went onstage, the place was at capacity and people were screaming. Our friends didn't get in because of the queue. None of them knew who we were, but NME said that we were the best thing they saw at Iceland Airwaves 2019.
The Reson for Hardcore Vibes released November 4th, 2020 and is available via the band's Bandcamp page.