A rebel yell is a defiant cry: it’s a means of vocalising something that perhaps the majority wants to say – or needs to hear – but is fearful of expressing due to social repercussions. The industrial techno of Brisbane’s Rebel Yell has been described as “as stylish as it is terrifying” by 4ZZZ and “confronting” by Indie Shuffle. The bio I’m sent by her label, Rice Is Nice, puts it even more simply. “Rebel Yell is a demon-like force,” it begins.
So when the woman behind these seemingly demonic tunes picks up the phone, I’m somewhat surprised: Grace Stevenson is one of the most charming, giggly and friendly artists I’ve spoken to. She apologises for the postponed call, explaining that a delayed plane, a broken conveyer belt and keyboard, and a particularly sleepless night are the cause. She details these experiences with frequent bursts of contagious laughter.
Watch the video for the Rebel Yell song ‘Pressure Drop’ here:
“Rebel Yell is a different person to me, Grace, as a person. It’s been really good to separate those two from each other,” she explains. “I get to lash out a different side to what I’m usually like.”
Stevenson got her start in electronic sound production when her brother (who performs as noise act Yaws) gave her his synthesiser. Soon after, she joined an electro-pop three-piece called 100%. “We were very inspired by Kylie, Madonna and stuff like that, and these ’80s synths pop songs,” she explains.
When she began writing music for herself, a darker musicality poured from her fingertips with ease. “I don’t know where the darkness side of it came from; it’s quite bizarre to me,” she laughs.
Her solo project extracts elements of rave culture and acid house from the ’90s and early 2000s. “When you think about it, it was very fist-pumpy and a very high BPM, and I think maybe that has stuck really well with me,” she explains.
Her new eight-track album, Hired Muscle, features a nod to British dystopian romantic drama Never Let Me Go; the toxic behaviour that dwells within music communities; as well as the importance of letting go of the shit that holds you down.
In the aforementioned 2010 film, children are cloned for the sole purpose of becoming organ donors – they exist purely to ensure that life continues for those who created them. “It’s confusing because they want to be chosen [for donations], but they also want to be free … it’s that whole idea and that confusion about what you want: whether you want to be successful in something or if you want to just be free,” she says.
It’s okay to be vulnerable, but it’s also okay to be really tough and not let anyone mess with you.
This idea informed her track ‘Human Transactions’, which explores “being chosen based an on exterior look. The song turns around and says, ‘if you haven’t been chosen that’s probably a better thing?’” she explains. Stevenson returns to ideas of realising your worth in ‘Toxic’. Her voice is droll, yet commanding, repeating phrases, “back off, don’t touch me, get off my stage.”
“It’s about the music community and the vulnerability that you go through [while making music],” she says. “It’s okay to be vulnerable, but it’s also okay to be really tough and not let anyone mess with you.” This, to Stevenson, meant figuring out who she should be sticking up for and who has her back.
The Brisbane scene is small, meaning it’s difficult to call people out on bad behaviour without having a personal connection to them. “It’s literally so small,” Stevenson says. “Brisbane is so, so small. Everyone knows each other, everyone knows each other’s business and everyone gossips and it can be a bit toxic,” she laughs.
Watch the video for the Rebel Yell song ‘Next Exit’ here:
A high school art and graphics teacher by day, she often finds herself flying in and out Melbourne and Sydney where warehouse parties are more prevalent and have an aesthetic suited to her experimental, industrial sound.
When Stevenson first made the jump to playing solo live sets, she was feeling positive about inclusivity within music scenes. “When I first started playing with 100% I was like, ‘I don’t know why people are always complaining, I don’t see any problems’, and it was because I had two other women there that I felt so confident that we’d just back each other up,” she says.
Asked her best and worst experiences playing as Rebel Yell, she starts laughing: “There’s so many bad ones.” Her experiences range from people setting up their gear while she’s in the middle of a live set – “that’s happened so many times it’s not funny,” – to men going out of their way to dance behind her while she’s performing – “if it were a friend it would be okay, but not just some random dude,” she says.
One guy even reached over her gear to flick her hat off while performing. “I play everything live and all of the timing is very specific. I have to know exactly when to press certain things, so that’s just a whole other intrusive element there,” she explains.
I play everything live and all of the timing is very specific.
When it comes to these experiences, she says, “It’s basically in general men touching my stuff … maybe that’s why I need my hired muscle.”
She’s noticed that bystanders don’t often see what’s going on and don’t know whether to step in. “I have a Facebook group for women in electronic music and I was thinking about making little zines and a guidebook of what you can do in certain situations – almost having scripts for people set out so you can feel in control of those situations,” she says.
As for her will to keep writing heavy, propulsive techno, she says she loves the freedom synthesisers give her to build a sound from scratch. “I’m sometimes surprised that I know how to do this, and I’m proud of myself… It’s a release.”