Stephenie Dickey is not your typical musician. A personal trainer, professional body builder and bassist from black metallers Drakonis, she takes the old-fashioned notion of what ‘being a woman’ is meant to be and turns it on its head – gleefully, vigorously, and daubed in corpse paint and fake blood. It was a privilege to sit down with this powerful 21st century woman and talk about what it’s like to be in not one, but two traditionally male-dominated fields.
►Did you always want to be a musician?
I did guitar classes in primary school, and then I started getting bored of classes! So I started listening to my dad’s CDs – Black Sabbath and Eighties rock, that sort of thing – and started playing along by ear, and I found I took to that a lot faster than sitting in classes because I have the attention span of a goldfish! I started playing guitar originally, then the guys from Drakonis needed a bass player so I took that on, and it went from there.
►Were there any female musicians at the time who inspired you?
Whenever I was younger it would have been the likes of Lita Ford; I just idolised her and thought she was fantastic. Then just your usual: the likes of Joan Jett, Jo Bench from Bolt Thrower – I would look up to her an awful lot as she’s a bass player, too – they would be the main ones.
►I suppose with it being the Eighties it (women in bands) was starting to become more of a ‘thing’?
Yeah. Because the scene is so male dominated, I would have taken to more strong females, rather than girls nowadays – the likes of the Butcher Babies…. They’re good at what they do, but it seems to sexualise it more. And then you’re wondering ‘is that what you have to do to be recognised as a female in the scene?’. With Drakonis, it’s good in a way, because I don’t have to be like that; I can dress up like one of the guys. Sometimes the fellas don’t know whether I’m a girl or a fella because of the muscles, too (laughs). But I prefer that, because it’s an even playing field. Whereas if I was in an all-female band, we’d probably have to dress a bit sluttier just to get attention. And I don’t feel that it should have to be like that – you can get through with your talent alone.
►Definitely. You briefly mentioned it, but how did you end up in Drakonis?
It took a bit to talk me into it! I was always a ‘bedroom musician’, and had never been in any previous bands. It was Saul (Drakonis guitarist) who got me into it: he told me ‘you may as well give it a go, try the songs out’, and I ended up really taking to it, and really enjoying playing that kind of music. I never thought I would get so big into playing bass as well, being a guitarist previously! So yeah, I had to be talked into it.
►As you touched on before, how do people respond to seeing a woman on the stage?
Well, we did the Pestilence gig last week, and because I have the corpse paint and fake blood, a lot of people don’t seem to know whether I’m a girl or not! So I think they almost…don’t notice, during the gig? And then, whenever I came off stage, got all of it off, put my makeup on and came out, (some people) noticed that there was still some fake blood on me and put two and two together…and then I was tortured! (laughs). But they were all really respectful; they shook my hand and all that. Because it is very rare that you would see a girl dressing like one of the lads, so it’s a nice surprise for them when they see it’s a girl (laughs).
►And not a simpering, girly-girl…
Yeah. Although a lot of fellas at that type of gig are scared to come near me as well, and would find me quite intimidating, because they’re not used to a girl holding her own. So you almost feel like you have to babysit them!
►Ha! Have you ever come across any misogyny? Have you ever been talked down to, or ignored, or thought of as just a girlfriend?
Before I was in a band I would have had an awful lot of that. But I learned very quickly how to deal with that, which was basically to slag them off and keep them going. I have a sort of weird sense of humour which helps me get through it, too. But you see an awful lot of girls dressing quite provocatively – which is fine, but you see them flirting with random fellas every weekend in order to fit into a wee ‘clique’, which doesn’t really settle well with me at all! Because the next day they’re on Facebook complaining that guys are treating them a certain way: being creepy, and so on. And you think ‘if you’re behaving in a certain way on a night out, that determines how you’re going to be treated in the scene, too’. You see it an awful lot, but it’s mostly the younger crowd feel that they need to do that to be ‘seen’. But to me, you’re there because you’re into the music and that’s it.
►I think a lot of the time that’s all they think they have. There’s so much pressure on the younger generation with their looks and all that…
Yeah but it’s frustrating to see! There’s nothing stopping them from picking up an instrument and playing in a band themselves…you don’t have to be a ‘groupie’ type to fit into the scene. You can do what the likes of Ruby Black from (Belfast blackened metal band) Valpurga does, or myself; we just keep ourselves respectful, and just…get on with it. Join in, go to gigs for the music, not for the attention of fellas. Because there’s more to it than that.
Saul (Drakonis): Just talking there about misogyny: there’s been a lot of times at gigs when guys will come up to Stephenie and tell her “you’re really good –“
Stephenie: for a girl! (both laugh).
Saul: Nobody ever compliments me on my playing! But with Stephenie it’s like they’ve seen a unicorn, seeing a female that can hold themselves.
►You do still get that, thought. It’s like, if you’re a guy, you get “you’re really good”. Whereas if you’re a woman, you get ‘you’re pretty good – for a girl’.
Yeah, I’ve had that a couple of times. But I just kind of look at them like they’ve got learning difficulties! (laughs). Like, is that a real statement that you’ve just made?! It just baffles me that people would even say that; that it would even enter their heads.
►It’s still the mindset of an awful lot of men…
Luckily, I surround myself with fellas that are really supportive, and treat me like one of them. I haven’t come across anybody that’s done it in a condescending way, luckily. But I think it’s all to do with who you surround yourself with. Even the lads in other bands that we would play with – By Any Means; the likes of Paul, the lads in Drakonis, Pete Clarke (Strangle Wire) – they’re all really lovely fellas and would always give you advice if you asked for it; they would never patronise you. So I think that plays a big part, too.
►Do you think that’s partly because it’s such a good scene here in Northern Ireland?
I find the Northern Irish scene is more like a family that sticks together. A lot of us have known each other for years, from the Rosetta Bar whenever it was going, right up until now. Everybody just knows each other. And even though we all play different genres, the respect is there; you can appreciate the work they’ve put in over the years, whether you’re male or female.
►Spreading it out a bit further, do you think the tide is starting to turn in the metal scene in general; that that it’s less of a ‘unicorn’ type of thing? It seems more like now, instead of the reaction being ‘Oh my GOD, there’s a woman onstage!’ to ‘A woman: oh hey, cool’. As in, it’s not as remarkable now?
Definitely. I even find that with the body building too. Before recently, it would have been ‘you don’t want to be doing THAT, you’ll look like a man!’, whereas now it’s becoming more accepted. So I find that with the metal scene, too: you’re getting more female reviewers; girls actually fronting bands – there’s so many female fronted bands in Ireland, now! Some not to my taste, but there are others like Ruby Black, who is an absolutely fantastic vocalist – and, she’s a strong female to look up to as well, and I think that really plays a big part in it for both genders, who see women like that. It seems to be moving in the right direction.
►Absolutely. And so, moving up to the present day: are there any women in music who inspire you now?
There’s not many in black metal…Lilitu, from Theatre Runs Red would be one. There’s Nervosa, who would be more thrash metal. But I like the way that, again, it’s all about the music; they dress like typical thrash-heads, and they don’t try and play up to the fact that they’re a girl, because it doesn’t matter and they’re good at what they do. They’re fantastic, and probably one of the bands that have stood out recently. And obviously Valpurga, they would be one locally. They’re probably the main ones that have jumped out.
►Even though it is becoming more common, do you still feel like a bit of a flag-flier for women in heavier music, because it is traditionally such a male-dominated genre? A role model, even?
Saul: Don’t be modest about it! She probably won’t want to talk about it, but there are a lot of younger girls who go to our shows who will approach her in the bathroom, wanting to talk to her…
Stephenie: I do find I get more female ‘groupies’ than the rest of the band (laughs). I’ve girls cleaning me in the bathroom (of corpse paint and fake blood); it’s insane! And they’re all raging (points to Saul) because they get nothing! They get fellas coming up to them saying ‘great set’, whereas I have all of these wee girls following me. It’s nice, but I would like to see more girls that are coming to our gigs doing more within the scene. Like picking up an instrument: there’s a couple of them starting to learn to play the drums, and it’s fantastic to see. So hopefully it kind of snowballs from there.
►Agree with you totally. Last question, which we talked a bit about there: what would you say to those young girls who are maybe a bit hesitant; they want to get into it in some way but they’re not sure how?
Just throw yourself in! Especially with the scene here, everybody’s really nice. I don’t think I’ve ever bumped into anybody that’s been ignorant. The men that go to the gigs, if they find that there’s a girl there who’s genuinely into the music, they’ll advise them and be there for them; they’ll look after them and give them tips on what other bands to listen to, and stuff like that. I just don’t think gender really comes into it, I think it’s just…be dead on! (laughs). And don’t be afraid of picking up an instrument and actually doing something instead of – as I see so many times – just being your typical wee groupie girl, because you’re younger and you think that’s what you should do. It doesn’t work like that; it really plays a massive part in how you’re treated in the scene. But the females I surround myself with are just like one of the lads, you know? They’re genuinely into the music, they’ll pick up an instrument, and they’re not treated any differently from anybody else. And that’s the way it should be.