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Ekko Astral are redefining the political voice in punk

04 June 2024, 14:45
Words by Jay Mitra

Lead photograph by Ashley Park

While the latest album from DC post-punks Ekko Astral epitomises the glitz and hollowness of late stage capitalism, the band’s ethos is rooted in hope and community, vocalist Jael Holzman tells Jay Mitra.

It’s April 2024 and at Ekko Astral’s headline gig in Washington DC’s Black Cat, a mismatch of fans are packed together on the dancefloor.

At the back of the venue are those who oil the cogs of American politics, people who work for lobbyists, people with power who quietly enjoy the post-punk under the veil of darkness. At the front, in the sweat and stick of the ‘mascara moshpit’, are folk who are unemployed, who work minimum wage jobs, who struggle paycheck to paycheck. Halfway through Ekko Astral’s set, the instruments die down and in what feels like a fourth wall break, vocalist Jael Holzman suddenly holds her mic to an unassuming, wide-eyed person near the stage: ‘Say one thing you’re upset about today.’

A voice hesitantly reverberates through the mic: “I want my unemployment check.”

The mic moves to another person. The same demand is made. A voice responds–stronger this time: “I wanna get healthcare!”

Holzman hands the mic to another. Lips brush the metal. A voice thunders into the stillness: “I want to stop being afraid of getting fired for being who I am!”

An echoing of suffering. A chorus of dissatisfaction. Discomfort distilled into a matter of seconds. There is a shift in the room. The glaring disconnect between the different demographics of the gig attendees is suddenly illuminated. Feet shuffle, weight shifts. The weight of what exactly? The knowledge of others’ suffering, cutting through the silence, slapping you in the face. And then, the music resumes.


It was the idea of the band’s tour manager, Jo Morgan, to provoke conversation during their gigs. “It’s not just what they’re saying but where they’re saying it,” Holzman explains as she recounts the night. “It felt really sick to be able to hand the microphone down there and know that a lot of these people wouldn't hear these perspectives if not for coming to our show. I think that's what that moment is about. It's not just that release for the people at the front but it's also for that discomfort, that disruption. You thought you were at a concert but now you’re just hearing the way the world actually is.”

Ekko Astral’s debut album pink balloons – released in April – epitomises this rejection of escapism; it drags the listener into the discomfort and holds us there, under the barrage of post-modernist bleakness until something pops. With the record, Ekko Astral are striving towards a paradox of sorts: they want to unify and unsettle. The connotations of the former: comfort and strength, at first seem at odds with the implications of being unsettled. But through this album, Ekko Astral argue that it is only through experiencing the latter that the former can be achieved.

The DC post-punk outfit’s ambitions have come a long way since their debut EP Quartz. The band was born out of Holzman’s own transition. Wrestling with her own second puberty on HRT and the angst and emotions that came with it, Holzman turned to her best friend Liam Hughes and proposed that they start a band and write some music about it. With pink balloons, the band set out to achieve what they believe they didn’t accomplish with Quartz: “to make music for everyone from our perspective.”

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Photo by Ashley Park

Pink balloons, according to Holzman, “is almost nothing to do with being trans” but a commentary on people’s collective disillusionment with the world, the brainrot of being terminally online, the grief and fear and threat that follows marginalised people like a spectre. Ekko Astral are tired of the typecasting–they are not a trans-band or a trans-punk-band and to pigeonhole them as such would be a discredit to the themes they are talking about, a line marked in the sand of the common ground they seek.

Historically, punk has often been associated with politics. Some have argued that it was during Reagan’s presidency that the American punk scene had its coming of age moment. However, Holzman takes issue with the term ‘political’ and eloquently puts forth an argument that unpicks the dangers of politicising what isn’t inherently political–including themselves as a band.

“If someone explicitly says down with such and such political party and down with such and such political figure or I want to pass a piece of legislation, then I consider that to be political. But if I say ‘hey I don’t want my friends to die’–that’s not political. People call that activism in this city to diminish the power of people’s suffering, the emotional power, the emotional weight of that.”


“In western media markets, there is kind of a tendency to take lived experience, and I say this as a trans person, and politicise it, and say it is one side of an argument. But if you take one’s existence, and the suffering and the pain and even the happiness that an individual has, and you lump it into a box of being political, then you let that person’s existence become a question. These aren’t political things but they are being politicised. We are being signified upon constantly, to the point where even words themselves don’t have any meaning, which ties back to the record. A lot of what the record is about, is the endless signification until the suffering that we have is this empty borg of twitter-brained nothingness.”

Though responding to this borg of nothingness with a sense of defeatism would be understandable, Holzman grounds herself in the power of community and collective struggle. “What gives me hope is people,” she tells me, “because that’s the system that we have that still works. I have always been surprised by the capacity for empathy in people who become self-aware of their own surroundings and how they can make a difference.”

Pink balloons bludgeons us with intentional brainrot to force us to confront the reality of the times in which we are living. Whether it be on “head empty blues” or “baethovan”, Holzman paints extravagant images and detailed scenes using internal rhyme and cacophony with the goal of signifying nothing. Holzman credits Alex Turner as her biggest lyrical inspiration, specifically Arctic Monkeys’ record Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino: "I love it because he paints these pictures of words that don't mean a thing,” she tells me. “Some of what he’s saying is ridiculous and he knows it is, and if you’re not in on the joke then you are the subject of the song. But if you’re in on the joke, you get that he’s making fun of people, and is doing it in a way that's winking, nodding, and captivating.” Holzman also cites Charli XCX and SOPHIE as major influences, describing the former’s Vroom Vroom EP as “the most important piece of sonic literature that I have in my brainbox.”

“Musically what I'm trying to do is far more analogous to what Charli does,” she admits, “which is to combine that very hyper internet-infected girly pop with the most dissonant shit you’ve ever had through your earholes. I love how her music makes you feel uncomfortable on the dance floor.”

Ekko Astral’s lyrics are often underscored by dark humour. They force entry into our heads and leave behind gift-wrapped nonsense, an auditory painting of modern vanity that pokes fun at the emptiness of the world. Their debut album is an invitation to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. “When we were making that record we saw Barbie coming down the pipeline and pink was fucking everywhere,” Holzman tells me, laughing. “You couldn’t go to a single bar in the United States without it being Barbie-themed; it was excessive to the nines–but what does that film even represent but this commodified version of feminism and empowerment that is hollow?”

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Photo by Kohei Kane

Holzman recalls being at the studio with her bandmates: Sam Elmore, Guinevere Tully, Miri Tyler and Liam Hughes. She remembers them ruminating on what the year after Barbie was going to be like. They came to the conclusion that it was going to be the year that the pink would feel gauche: “if you’re wearing pink you’re last season, because things are getting more serious than an empty girl boss hot pink pair of heels.” And so, the album cover and name was born. The image of pink balloons popping epitomises piercing through that empty, commodified version of femininity and empowerment. The album cover, created by Holzman and fellow journalist and painter Pablo Manriquez, depicts hand painted pink balloons full of texture and roughness. It reflects the band’s scepticism of the AI-ification of art; Holzman tells me: “the goal of the album cover was to bring it back to the real.”

There’s something theatrical about pink balloons, with each song like a scene in a Shakespearen tragedy. When they first started the record, the band believed that the climax was going to be “devorah", but in reality, Holzman tells me, the climax is “on brand”—a track that laces zoomer language with thumping drums and riot grrl-esque vocals. While the track proved popular, Holzman confesses a lot of people haven’t quite gotten what they were trying to convey.

“I think people have misread the lyrics as poking fun at valley girl types and stereotypes that I personally find quite misogynistic,” she says. “That's not the point of the song: it’s actually about working professionals who make money off other people dying. ‘on brand’ is about the people that divorce themselves from the immorality of capitalism and comfortably savour it and go to their Taylor Swift concerts.”

If the climax is “on brand", then the denouement is “i90”; the record flows in such a way to have wild action punctuated by horror, followed by a reckoning with what this horror meant. We, as listeners, are left wondering: did it mean anything? How do we leave the rot behind and learn how to bloom?

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Photo by Collin Heroux

We touch on the eruption of student encampments across the U.S. and Holzman's voice is full of frustrated excitement as she describes how the band narrowly missed the setting up of student encampment in Vermont: “they set it up the day after we left!” As a Jewish American and a journalist, Holzman explains that she has had first-hand experience of the media bias against anti-Zionist Jews and Palestinians.

“The truth is there is more than one kind of Jew, but the city I live in, Washington DC, definitely doesn’t talk about it that way very often. I’ve been struck by the hypocrisy of some news outlets talking about detained reporters in China and North Korea, but where is the bleeding heart for all the journalists being carried out on stretchers dead in Gaza? Where was the intellectual curiosity in the Al-Jazeera reporter who was shot dead by the IDF multiple years ago? I don’t see that.

"We as a band only have as much of a stake in this fight as where we feel entitled to go. I’m not gonna sit here and say we know what it’s like to be an Indigenous American, to be a Palestinian. That is not my life but I strive to tell everyone in my life everyday they should empathise with the people who are most in danger. We should be saying: people dying = bad. Generally speaking. And that's a philosophy and a moral clarity that as a DC punk band, with the rich history of DC—you know, music that has a point of view—that we like to focus on.”

pink balloons is out now via Topshelf Records

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