«Too square for the punks and too punk for the squares».

Rob Coons has lived in San Francisco and attended local punk concerts for almost 30 years. For the last 4 years, he has been documenting everything that happens at each show, relying on the traditions of 1980s punk photography, when energy transmission was paramount. If you look at his pictures, you will feel it.

In our interview, we talked to Rob about his approach to punk photography, the first gig he visited, and the changes in the San Francisco scene. Especially for GRADE, he selected 12 pictures and shared vivid memories of the performances of a dozen bands of the modern punk scene.
Can you remember the very first punk show you visited? How was it?
The very first punk show I ever went to was in 1986. I got to see DRI and Dr. Know at a place called Bogarts in Cincinnati, OH. It was an absolutely insane introduction to punk shows. I remember when DRI was playing there were so many stage dives and a huge circle pit. I was right up front, hanging onto the corner of the stage for dear life. Towards the end of DRI's set, a stage diver hit me and knocked me to the floor. As I stood up, another stage diver landed on top of my head. It caused my teeth to smack together so hard that it broke off a piece of my front tooth. I remember having to lie to my mom the next day when she asked me what happened. I mean, how do you explain to your mom that some guy jumped on your head and made you break your tooth off? Not only that, but I had to hide the t-shirt that I was wearing at the show because it had footprints all over it from people climbing on top of me to get on the stage. From that point on, I was hooked after that show and so began my lifelong love of going to punk shows.
How do you start to shoot bands and shows? What were your first steps in it?
A little over four years ago I decided to buy a really nice camera. I have always liked taking photos of nature and landscapes and had a small point and shoot camera up to that point. But I had never really thought about taking photos at shows. Once I got the nice DSLR though, I thought I would try to take some pictures at a show. I enjoyed it and got a few good ones, so I started taking my camera to most of the shows I went to. For about the first year of shooting I didn't use a flash for my photos. I tried so many different settings and lens, but realized it was pretty much impossible to get quality photos in a dimly lit punk club without a flash. Since then, I have used a flash almost exclusively when photographing shows except in clubs where it is not allowed. I feel like it is really important to mention how important early to mid-80s punk photography has been to me and the style of photos I like to take. When I first started reading the punk fanzine Maximum Rocknroll and the punk photo zine «If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pit?» by Murray Bowles, I knew there was something magical about how the photos drew me in. I loved how I would look at the photos and «feel» the passion and energy of the moment and wanted to be there next to the photographer who shot the photo. That is all very influential to me in how I take my photos and how I edit and present them to the viewer. Hopefully, the viewer has a similar feeling when they look at my photos.
Why do you keep doing photography? What things inspire you to don't stop?
Honestly, I love looking at the show photos I take and reliving the moments and bands that I am capturing. I will look at a photo that I took and think «Oh man, that singer was so wild to watch!» Plus, it is really rewarding to have people and bands be so receptive and supportive of my photographs. In just a few short years, my punk photography has been featured in a book, fanzines, art shows, on various websites and ten record releases. While that is never the goal of my photography, it feels really good when somebody is excited enough about one of my photos to use it for something like that. But more importantly, there is an idea that I tend to live by when I am taking photos at shows. If I go see a band, I never lose sight that I am always there to see the band first. If I am lucky and get a few good photos while they are playing, then that is great. But it is never the goal. As a photographer, sometimes you just have to put the camera down at your side and scream and dance along with the band and remember that is why you are there in the first place.
You're into the scene for more than 20 years. What changes happened to the local scene at this time? What things in it you like the most?
I have lived in San Francisco for the last 28 years and I have definitely seen a lot of changes in the scene here. Probably the most pronounced change is that the underground scene has spread out more to the other cities around San Francisco. When I first came to San Francisco, it was much more financially feasible to live on a low wage and still have a punk or artistic lifestyle. Over the last 28 years, the city has become pretty much impossible for low income people to survive in. So, the artists have had to move out of the city into the surrounding areas or a new state all together. I remember back in the 90s there were a lot of underground shows in San Francisco. There still is today, but most of the shows like that have moved to other parts of the Bay Area. And despite the internet existing now, a lot of these modern underground shows are hard to find out about. People are really careful about getting too much information out about a lot of these shows because they don't want problems from the police. Despite that, one of the main things I really love about the area I live in is the great diversity of people that are part of the punk scene here. People of all ages, genders and ethnicities mix together at most of the punks shows. And it has been that way since I have lived here. And I feel like that diversity creates a vibrant punk scene with lots of ideas and perspectives all layering on top of each other. And on top of that, so many of these punks are «doers». That means, they are playing in bands, making zines, doing radio shows, booking at clubs and all the other things that make the punk community strong. And that continues to make me passionate about supporting and contributing to the local scene.
Deathgrave are a local grindcore band who have been putting out records since 2015. They are one of my favorite local bands to watch because their singer Andre always acts so ridiculous and crazy when they play. This photo was taken on Halloween night in 2020. They got to do a live stream from a local club, and I was invited to take photos to document the event. They brought in the main guy who does the gore and special effects for bands like Gwar and Ghoul to liven up the stage show. As you can see, he did an incredible job! They even had a person come in design a bunch of stage props, including a small graveyard next to the stage. If you do a search on YouTube, you can easily find this the video of this set in its entirety.
Enzyme hail from Australia and played a local fest called Manic Relapse back in 2019. Their two sets that weekend were a highlight of the fest for me. Enzyme's frantic hardcore sound whipped the crowd into a rabid frenzy of sweating and screaming masses. And the vocalist was feeding off this wild ball of energy, running around, crawling on people and stage diving. This photo was taken at this crazy show at a skatepark. It was complete mayhem with everybody going insane! Wild pits, smoke bombs, bull whips and things being set on fire! It was like the Mad Max version of a punk show!
This photo is of EXIT ORDER who are from Boston, MA. And honestly this is one of my favorite photos that I have ever taken. I love capturing photos that show the energy and excitement of a punk band playing. And in this photo, I love the way the cord connected to the bass is pulling up the distortion pedal. I feel like it really shows how much intense energy the bass player has. I feel like it is the kind of photo that would make somebody want to see the band even if they don't have any idea what they sound like. I have been really lucky that EXIT ORDER has come out to the West Coast of the USA to play a few times. I would NEVER miss a chance to see them.
Simply put, Tokyo's own GAUZE are the most crushing and intense hardcore punk band I have ever seen in my life. The first time I saw them was in 1996 in the USA. They only played a few shows in the USA on that tour, so I considered myself incredibly lucky. From that point on, I knew I had to see them in Tokyo someday. Fast forward to 2020 and I finally got to see them in their hometown. I had to make special arrangements to get a ticket for the show from overseas. Once I had that, booked my flight and headed on over to see them! Seeing them is like a ferocious blast of punk intensity to all your senses. They don't take breaks, the don't waste time tuning or talking to the crowd. They just hit that first note and attack your eyes and ears with song after song of blasting hardcore. Their sets usually only last around 20-30 minutes, but they lay waste like no other band can. There is really nothing quite like it.
I have been lucky enough to see one of the kings of NY Hardcore a few times over the last few decades. This photo was taken during the last time I saw them at the legendary club 924 Gilman Street. Every time I have ever seen them, the audience has turned into real punk party. Non-stop stagedives and singalongs! Their songs are always so fun to dance around to. I will never forget the first few minutes of this Gorilla Biscuits set. I was up in the front row next to the stage when they started. I was immediately crushed by a powerful surge from the crowd pushing forward. I was totally pinned and couldn't move. Plus, I had people crawling and stepping all over me. All I kept thinking was «don't break my camera!». Fortunately, I was able to get out of that mess after a song or two and move aside to get some photos.
Gulch has been hitting the local scene hard over the last few years. And from the first time I saw them, they instantly became one of my favorite local bands. It is really hard to describe how intense their live shows are. The band just exudes a wild unbridled rage. Not only that, but they can drive their fans into a real manic frenzy. The last time I saw them, somebody slam dancing accidently punched me in the face and the throat at the same time. I was OK, but the hit was pretty shocking because I never saw it coming. If you look closely at this photo, I captured three of the four guys in front of the drummer in the air. I am always super excited when I photograph more than one person at a time catching air while they are performing.
Hank Wood And The Hammerheads are a great garage punk band from New York City. They have been around for about a decade, but I have only seen them twice back in 2019. This photo was from a wild show during the Manic Relapse Festival. It was a sold out after party warehouse show that I had to sneak in to! The photo was probably taken around 1-2am and everybody was drunk and having a great time. The singer of the band had just crawled out onto the crowd and got pushed back onto the stage and pretty much fell right next to me. I leaned back and ripped off a couple of photos. I am so glad I captured this moment.
There are very few bands that can electrify an audience like Limp Wrist can! I have seen them many times over the years and every time seems better than the last. This photo was taken during the last time I saw them down in Los Angeles, CA. It was at this crazy sold out show with over a 1000 people stuffed into this music venue having the time of their lives. I was right up front in the audience for the first few songs of their set which allowed me to get some close up photos. Eventually, there were so many stage divers that I had to move further over to the side of the stage because I was getting so battered and I didn't want my camera to get broken. One of my favorite parts of the night is somebody kept jumping on stage and vogue dancing on the stage while they were playing. I have got to say, I have never seen that at a punk show before!
You know that feeling when you see a band for the first time not knowing anything about them, and you are absolutely floored. That definitely happened to me the first time I saw SHIT COFFINS. It is really hard to convey how much energetic fury they put off when performing. Every time I have seen them, they go absolutely wild, jumping around on stage and basically losing their minds. Not only that, but they put out my favorite punk record of 2019. Since they are a local band, I have been really lucky and seen them multiple times in their short life. In fact, they were the last band I saw before the world shut down with the pandemic. I have high hopes that they will be first band that I get to see once we can start going to shows again.
In just a few short years, the savage live shows of SMUT have already become something of legend. The first time I saw them, was in their hometown of Los Angeles. They hit the stage with full force. Bringing things to the edge of violence, but then backing off just at the right time. This stirred the audience into a rabid pack of wild slam dancers. When bands bring that kind of energy to the stage, it is almost impossible not to get caught up in it and finding yourself screaming and dancing along. I think this is what I miss most about going to shows during the pandemic. It is that emotional connection with the bands and feeding off of the mental and physical energy that they are putting out.
Twompsax is a somewhat new band who hit the local scene hard and fast and their reputation immediately blew up based on their killer songs and super energetic live shows. Their singer Cher must be one of the most photogenic singers I have shot. She is super energetic and has crazy jumping abilities. Honestly, I think it has a lot to do with her being a professional skateboarder and the fact that she is really comfortable in the air. This particular photo was taken at one of my favorite music clubs in San Francisco called the Knockout. I love going there because it is small, dark and loud! It is the perfect place to see a punk show. Plus, they book great bands and are incredibly supportive of the DIY/Independent music scene. I am so glad they have not had to close due to the pandemic.
As much as I love taking photos of live bands, I almost like taking photos of the audience while the bands are playing even more. Honestly, I feel like that is often where the real excitement is. If there is a super fun circle pit, you will often find the audience watching it more than the band playing. This particular photo was a totally lucky shot, taken during the band Youth Brigade from Southern California. I was right next to the pit and it was really dark in the swirling mass of people. I took a couple of random photos with my camera down by my hip hoping that I would be able to catch something. I cannot tell you how excited I was when I came home and saw that I got this photo once I started editing. There are few things more satisfying to me than capturing a good photograph of a person stage diving, singing along to their favorite band or slam dancing. Those are the true actions shots!

Instagram: @robcoons

Grade Moscow
19 Feb, 2021