Interview: Spider Death
If you’ve ever had cause to visit the Sydney underground, chances are you already know Spider Death. Having fronted some of the most respected bands to crawl out of local punk scene over the past two decades, his name has become almost synonymous with the genre. More recently, Spider has made a name for himself within the international tattoo community, forging a career that has taken him around the world. I caught up with him at his place in Kings Cross to chat about everything from the violence of Sydney’s speed-fuelled 90's punk scene, to Russian murderers with cocks for legs (you’ll have to read on).
Tell us a bit about your childhood?
I was born in Hornsby but we were always going back and forth between Atlanta and Sydney for my dad’s job. I didn’t like Atlanta - it was very ‘white’ at the time. Like, there were Klan members living in the division we were in. I was about 15 when we moved to San Francisco. By then I was already getting into punk on my own, but I’d say that’s when I started learning about it properly. San Francisco was great; there were so many bands there. I saw the Cramps live. No way!
Yeah, I saw Lux’s dick (laughs). I just remember seeing so much incredible shit. The teen years are pivotal – not in figuring out who you are, but definitely in figuring out who you want to be.
Were you into tattoos back then? I moved back to Sydney when I was 17 for a few weeks and got my first tattoo – a Crass logo on my arm. Then I went back to school in the states and was like ‘Yeah everybody, I got this tattoo’ (laughs). I wore tank tops all year round.
Were you doing your own artwork at that point? Yeah, I was drawing even before I was into punk. I was only into drawing monsters, though. My mum would be like “Why don’t you try to draw that bird?”, but there were too many rules when it came to drawing trees or birds or people. So when did you start playing in bands around Sydney? In about 1998 I moved into a share-house on Enmore road in Newtown. There were all these other punks living there and bands would come touring from out of town and stay at our place. We brewed our own cider there and made our own chilli sauce - it was a cool, sort of DIY place where there was always a lot going on. I started my first band ‘Sewercider’ while living there. Newtown was the first place where I’d seen outcasts getting together - it was pretty rough back then, especially at night. Now it’s all Thai restaurants. How did Sewercider play out? During that time I was drinking a lot and doing a lot of drugs. I had burnt all my bridges with the punk guys, so I decided to take some time away and do my own thing. I went over to London where my parents were living to dry out. When I came back to Sydney a while later I was really shocked to see that punk bands playing around the place had become very safe - people were getting in trouble for dancing too violently and it was just real pussy, you know? There was just no real urgency or anger to the punk scene anymore. The political awareness was great, but the fun and edginess of punk was sort of gone. Everyone was scared to step on toes.
So I made this band called ‘Snatch and Grab’ that revolved around violence to sort of counter that vibe. I used to do this thing where I’d get a ten dollar note and tape it to my head - whoever got on stage and punched me out could keep it (laughs). I’d hit them back, obviously, so they’d have to kind of blindside me if they wanted the money. Usually it would end in some kind of riot.
A lot of people thought it was some sort of macho bullshit, and it kind of was, but at the same time I was trying to say ‘Well you’re the PC punk, but you’re still willing to hit your fellow comrade over a measly ten dollars’. I think that’s why my nose is so crooked. So people would legit try to render you unconscious for ten dollars? Yeah! People were on so much speed back then, they were so gnarly! We played this Punks’ Picnic once and this guy called Mike (who was in a great band called Taipan) filled a shopping trolley with rubbish, set it on fire and pushed it into us while we were playing. I also remember some kid brought a wheelie bin full of glass bottles to the picnic – he just smashed ‘em where everyone was dancing. I took my shirt off and rolled around in the broken glass (laughs).
So that was Smash and Grab. What came after that? The day after Smash and Grab broke up. I got a call from a friend asking if I wanted to join Deathcage - which was like this Japanese inspired hardcore band. We had a bunch of released and toured Europe, which was cool. So many funny things happened on that tour. What’s the craziest thing that happened on tour?
Okay, so just to set the mood, when we arrived in Prague this guy was there to greet us and he had just been beaten almost half to death with a baseball bat. Holy shit! He was just like, “This is where you guys are staying”, but he had blood inexplicably pouring out of his face.
Another time we were supposed to play this little club in Berlin but the guitarist plugged his amp in, played one chord and blew the whole power system. We were like ‘Fuck, do we still get paid?’. Our drummer (who was a real ego guy) said “Yeah, I’ll make sure of it” - he got on stage and played this drum solo shit that went for like 20 minutes. I was like ‘Sick, I didn’t really want to play tonight anyway’ (laughs) Tell me how your current band Death Church came about? I was really inspired by the more contemporary deathrock bands that came from punk - all these guys who got out of punk bands and transitioned into goth-type bands. It started in Europe when I was seeing groups like Bellicose Minds and Belgrado. I knew I wanted to do something that sounded like a really aggressive Christian Death or Crisis.
At first I thought ‘Fuck, this is going to be really challenging to do, because it’s not like punk where you can hide behind a wall of aggression and just punch people’. But I put the word out anyway, and within a month I had a really good line up together.
I think this band has received more attention than anything I’ve ever done, which is surprising. I thought people would just think it was shit, but it has taken off. I’m pretty grateful for what’s happening.
So looking back, where did tattooing enter the mix? In 2000 I got off the gear and was completely into going to the gym and boxing and shit. Getting swole?
Getting hell swole! I started doing more artwork for bands and was earning a bit of money here and there, so I started getting tattooed a lot by this guy named Carl. He worked in this bikie shop on King Street (in Newtown). He was a good guy; I used to get tattooed by him once a week, so we got pretty close. One time I mentioned to him that I wanted to do an apprenticeship but no one really wanted to give me one. After years and years he said, “Look I’m going open a shop one day and give it to you”.
I was working for Carl for three years and began guesting at different shops here and there, and it just sort of took off. From then on I went to London and Berlin and made a bunch of connections through social media. I don’t even bother with a website anymore, I just use Instagram. Every time we get together you pull out some weird shit about Russia. Can you tell us some stories about tattooing in Russia?
It’s not really what people expect. It’s not this kind of gnarly place where people stab you and stuff. Well, parts of it probably are, but I think a lot of it is propaganda. I remember it as an incredibly beautiful country - but you sort of need a minder with you all the time because if you speak English they think you’re an ‘American pig’.
Tell us about the girl who wanted to marry you!
Okay (laughs). One time I was in this club after my art exhibition. I had just done a week of tattooing and I was kind of partying a bit. There was this girl there, I can’t remember her name, but she asked what I do. I told her I was a tattoo artist and just working there for a week, and I asked “What do you do?”. She said in a strong Russian accent, “I never work a day in my life - my parents are billionaires, they own Pharmaceutical company for Russian military”.
I asked “What kind of drugs do they make for them? I don’t understand, like band-aids and shit? Like penicillin?”
“No, no, no” she said, “Performance enhancers. Would you like to take some?”
I thought ‘Oh, maybe it’s like protein powder or something, I’ll give it a try’.
So she hands me this pill and it’s blue. I take it and it’s kinda like drinking a load of coffee or doing coke. I was into it, you know? And so I’m talking to this girl and she says “Look, I need to get out of this country but I can never leave because my parents are connected to the military, so I’ll never get a visa”. She was saying they’d never let her out because they’d think it was some kind of covert operation or something. Then she turns to me and says “However, if we get married, I can leave. I give you $20,000 USD, we stay together two years”.
I was like “Uh, maybe?“, and she was like “Oh come on, you want money? You get money and you get Siberian princess!”
How long had you been talking to her at this point? About half an hour. So we hung out and danced a little bit. I had kind of sobered up from the weird truth serum, whatever the fuck it was, and was noticing she had all these creepy muscle guys around her, so I said “I’m going to go back to my hotel, I’ll take you out for breakfast tomorrow”. She gave me another pill and said “Take this one to go to sleep” and I left. I took it on the way back to where I was staying and it worked right away - I felt tired, kind of drunk, but not really.
When I got back to the hotel I was outside having a smoke. I felt okay because I knew I was flying out for Berlin in the morning, so there was no way I was having breakfast with that girl. As I was thinking about the night, I looked up and I could see this really beautiful little church. Then I saw these two figures in silhouette and they’re holding up something that looks like it could easily be a body wrapped in a blanket. Wait, have I told you this story? No! (laughs) Ok, well it’s true. These two guys are picking up this thing - and I know I took some drugs but I swear I fucking saw this - they threw this body shaped object wrapped in a blanket over the bridge and into the water.
I was spinning out, like ‘Fuck! Fuck! What the fuck was that?’
I don’t know why I did it, but I started walking toward these men. I was pretty close when they turned around and saw me, and I suddenly realised what I was doing. There was a bin next to me, so I just pretended I was looking through the rubbish like a homeless guy.
They started walked toward me and I noticed one of the guys was moving kind of slower than the others. I kept looking as he came under the lamplight and noticed homeboy was on crutches – he didn’t have a leg. He just had this weird, like... there was no bone in his leg. Wait, what? Like a stump? No! There was no bone in his leg! It was like his leg stopped and he had this fleshy cock thing and then a foot! It was blowing in the wind!
All of a sudden I’m like ‘What the fuck am I doing? They threw a body over the bridge and this guy has a cock leg!’. So I ran up to the hotel and punched in the security code as fast as I could, opened the door, ran upstairs and packed my bag real fast like ‘fuckfuckfuck’. I was chain smoking the whole time. A couple of hours later I got a cab to the airport, got on the Wi-Fi and sent the girl from the club a message saying ‘I’m sorry but I have to fly out today, there was a problem with my flight’.
She wrote back ‘That’s ok, if you’re ever in Russia again let me know’ and I was like thank fuck, because I thought she was gonna send one of her henchmen after me.