LOUD AND PROUD
How a Chinatown-based record label is uniting the island’s punk bands beneath a single banner
Text by Harrison Patino || Images by Jhune Liwanag
Punk rock is informal by nature. It’s the hectic, brazen music of the young and the dissident, an unapologetic lyrical eschewal of all structure, rules, or tradition. So it’s only natural that Failed Orbit Records co-founders Jhune Liwanag and Rawb Cunningham fuss over how best to describe their punk rock label and the history behind it. Officially, Liwanag serves as the label’s CEO, but prefers the title “Mama Bear,” while Cunningham can only recall his official title as “something else.” For them, however, Failed Orbit Records is less about the business side of music and more about organizing Hawai‘i’s young punk rock musicians (the label spans genres like indie, lo-fi, alternative and psychedelic, but for the sake of continuity, we’ll use “punk rock”) and giving them a much-deserved spotlight.
Failed Orbit started off as a semi-serious proposition by Ray Farias, a bandmate in Beaman (one of the groups on the label). After playing gigs with Poncho, of which Cunningham is a member, Farias half-jokingly suggested the idea of a punk-rock label representing Hawai‘i’s lesser known underground bands called “Failed Orbit Records” to Liwanag, who sketched a mock logo on a napkin for the hell of it.
By 2014, what began as a joke had become a full-fledged effort to promote local punk music, organize shows, and launch underground musicians into the spotlight—complete with the same hastily-drawn logo as their banner, and a fully running Bandcamp site offering albums by the label’s numerous bands.
Failed Orbit Presents: Space Jam
At The Arts at Marks Garage on a December weeknight, Christmas lights—hung haphazardly from the rafters and beams of a dark concert room in the art gallery—provide scant illumination. A projector casts grainy images of Michael Jordan dunking on CGI aliens over an unoccupied drum set, a scene from the animated 1990s animated film, Space Jam, that is also the namesake of the monthly event. Inside the bass drum, there’s a stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear placed backside-up, accompanied by a ripped piece of binder paper with something that probably shouldn’t be put in print scrawled across it.
Outside the room is a makeshift bar serving $1 PBRs alongside a fold-out table topped with dozens of sheets of blank printer paper and enough art supplies to keep a classroom of kindergartners occupied for a week. On the table is a sign encouraging attendees to draw whatever they want. The impromptu artwork will be collected at the end of the night and compiled into a zine to be published by Failed Orbit in collaboration with The Arts.
Then the music starts, its scratchy, low-fi riffs dripping with reverb crackling out of a few center stage speakers. The entertainment of the night—Fracture, Three of Me, Two of You, Silence, the Giant, T.V. Microwave, and The Bougies—bang out energetic, 15-minute sets to a crowd of listeners whose initial stiff, head-nodding reactions quickly transform as the night goes on into a whirlwind of limbs, bodies, and heads of a mosh pit not unlike the rampaging Tasmanian Devil on the canvas screen before it.
At its core, Failed Orbit Records’ Space Jam is nothing if not a reflection of Hawai‘i’s punk scene at its best—a frenetic, DIY gathering of underground island youth and the bands whose loud, eclectic and alternative sounds speak volumes for them.
With its dreamy, pop-punk sound and lyrics that stick to first kisses or break-ups, The Bougies evokes equal parts Best Coast and the Strokes. The founders, brother and sister duo Kelly and Jordan Bongolan, recalled the band’s obscure history before linking up with Failed Orbit, starting with the time their mom bought them a Casio keyboard when they were in their early 20s, inspiring them to start a band for the hell of it.
What followed were a few years of “trying to find their place,” as Jordan puts it, playing shows at venues like Tiki’s and Hawaiian Brian’s and even opening for Adam Ant. Josh remembers a particularly fond reception from some older members of the audience after their set: “Aunties kept coming up to me and making out with my cheek.” This went on for a few years, until the pair started playing gigs with Failed Orbit’s Rawb Cunningham and fell in love with the Chinatown scene. “We made it to Chinatown and we realized that this is our niche,” Josh recalls, referring to the younger, more devoted demographic the band now had the chance to play for. “It was the crowd we wanted to be around.”
“It’s more about doing what you want to fucking do, and not caring if someone labels you as some Halloween costume greaser-boy.” That’s how Detroit Johnny drummer and co-founder Evan Suhayda describes his band and their image and style, which is complete with leather jackets, tight black pants, and piled-high pompadours.
“It’s not like we’re trying to do a shtick,” says Suhayda, of the fast-playing three-piece band. “We like wearing leather jackets and working on motorcycles. We wanted to be that kind of rock band that showed up with the boots and leathers and ready to kick ass.”
Suhayda was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan—hence his band’s name—and grew up around dive bars and house parties, watching his uncle play gigs, soaking up a beer stained, smoke-tinged kind of Americana. This exposure inspired much of the band’s sound and image, a thrashy mix of juke joint rock and riff-heavy rockabilly.
Strangers With Kandy
If the Dookie-era sound of Greenday and the ostentatious image of NOFX or Blink 182 had an adolescent love child, it would probably look and sound a lot like Mililani’s homegrown punk rocker band, Strangers with Kandy.
The four unabashed youngsters (who prefaced an interview with Chinatown Now by saying that they were all full of shit) have been playing together for the better part of three years, and have only recently begun to roll with Failed Orbit. They revel in their own brand of pop-punk vulgarity, with the brunt of their songs covering topics like defecation or masturbation.
In the members’ own words, Strangers with Kandy is a “klingon-wookie love ballad band” with lyrics about love, porn, and angst, made up of a few friends who started a band to get rich and pick up chicks, but who are all still broke and single. Whether they’re full of shit or not, frontman Rhys Ragasa has no problem defending the toilet-humor brand of absurdity the band pushes. “We’re not really ashamed to be young,” Ragasa says. “The message is about love.”
Beaman, a three-man group born from Honolulu’s pop up punk scene, looks more or less like how an average person would describe a punk rock band: tatted youngsters brandishing lo-fi riffs with songs about cheap beer or bad sex. The band’s uncompromising, loud and proud sound is a product of its DIY attitude towards punk rock in the 808, an outlook best described by the words of guitarist Kevin Tit: “If you wanna see something cool, you ought to try to make it happen yourself.”
Like many punk bands, Beaman doesn’t really have a message to its music, per se. “We're just a group of dudes who grew up going to punk shows,” Tit says. “So, I guess we're just what that looks like over time.”
With regards to the state of punk rock in Hawai’i and the role of punk rockers in maintaining the scene surrounding it, Tit was a bit more blunt. “Question everything,” he says. “Try to understand different shit, and remember that having fun is better when everybody gets to party.”
To hear the many sounds of Failed Orbit Records, check them out at failedorbitrecords.bandcamp.com.