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Ashnikko's 'Weedkiller' brings listeners into a queer dystopian world

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The alt rap punk musician Ashnikko has a big personality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORLD EATER")

ASHNIKKO: (Singing) World eater, big guns, big money, big cleavers.

DETROW: When Ashnikko performs, it's in shock blue hair and elaborate sci-fi and horror inspired costumes that immediately grab your visual attention. And their music? It's bratty, sex positive, haunting and in your face. We spoke with Ashnikko just before her new album went public, and their brain was swirling.

ASHNIKKO: I feel like my head has, like, car exhaust and bees and just all sorts of like goo in it.

DETROW: When it's not full of goo and bees, Ashnikko's brain is pretty imaginative. The new album is a sort of concept album. It tackles real-world issues but does so largely in the realm of a fantasy world Ashnikko's created.

ASHNIKKO: So this nym utopia that is this forest populated by nym and these mother trees, and they have this symbiotic relationship.

DETROW: That utopia becomes threatened by these machines that Ashnikko calls...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEEDKILLER")

ASHNIKKO: (Singing) Weedkiller, running with scissors.

They turn biomatter into fuel to power themselves. And how they do that is by sucking the entire life force out of a living thing. So they end up destroying the entire forest.

DETROW: That sets Ashnikko's main character in this album on a quest to avenge their family and the forest. It's clear that the fantasy genre has a huge influence on this album, so that's where I began our interview.

ASHNIKKO: I love fantasy like a family member. I, like, it's played such a huge role in my life because I'm always reading a fantasy novel. Right now, I'm rereading "Name Of The Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss. I have a book club on my Discord, and that's really fun. The main pop star of my life is Neil Gaiman and his novels. He's like the only person that I think, if I saw him on the street, I would start crying, like, really just lose my mind. I have a Neil Gaiman-themed tattoo on my arm. I'm rereading "The Graveyard Book." I loved "Sandman," the graphic novels. Those, like, massively shaped my songwriting process as well. His novels, just like the way he builds out his worlds are just - is just phenomenal.

DETROW: Can we get at some of the songs here specifically?

ASHNIKKO: Please. Yeah. I would love to.

DETROW: I want to start with "You Make Me Sick!" and...

ASHNIKKO: Yes.

DETROW: ...It hits a lot, you know, at some of the overarching themes of this album. It's a song full of rage toward toxic, abusive men. We can hear you even screaming as you emphasize that rage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MAKE ME SICK!")

ASHNIKKO: (Singing) I'm mad. You f*** up my life and then you say, my bad. You don't know your way around a - call you Chad. Throwing temper tantrums every time I got a bag.

DETROW: What does the song represent to you?

ASHNIKKO: This song is actually the first song that I put out after like a year and a half. And it is not within the fantasy concept of the album. It was kind of like the bridge between my old music to my new music. So sonically, we took some, like, apocalyptic, very, like, industrial sounds. And for me, it was this purging, this catharsis, kind of like this extraction of toxic sludge that was living in my body, these parasites and these thorns in my sides. Like, I haven't been super blatant about what I'm talking about. So I wanted to write a more in-your-face song, kind of purging myself of a certain man in my life (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MAKE ME SICK!")

ASHNIKKO: (Rapping) I'm abrasive? I'm a dragon, Animorph and shapeshift. Fire breathing, break shit, brain-eating amoeba. Coming for you. I'm contagious, ruined what was sacred. I was living good before your locusts and your plague. I always f***ing fake it. Now you're crying and you're shaking. I'll take your tears and bottle them and use them as a face mist. I'm beautiful.

DETROW: "Possession Of A Weapon" is another song I wanted to ask about. And I understand you wrote it right after the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

ASHNIKKO: Yeah, I did. I think, for me, this was - it was kind of in that week after when everyone just collectively was feeling so hopeless. And I was really overwhelmed by that. There's this line in the song where I say, don't rain on my paper-mache.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POSSESSION OF A WEAPON")

ASHNIKKO: (Singing) Don't rain on my paper-mache. Don't rain on it. Don't rain on it.

And it felt like we had been building this, quote, "progress" out of paper-mache. And then this, like, natural disaster came in and just destroyed it and kind of was laughing at us, like, oh, like, you thought you had control over your life? Well, you actually don't. Like, your life is made of paper. And I am, like, a hurricane. And I am going to destroy it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POSSESSION OF A WEAPON")

ASHNIKKO: (Singing) So you're scared of me now, huh? So you're scared of me now, huh?

It's definitely grieving that collective loss of autonomy.

DETROW: Yeah.

ASHNIKKO: And I feel so heartbroken for the people that this is going to affect the most.

DETROW: I was thinking about how to best kind of characterize the tone and the feel of that song, and the word I just kept coming back to was, like, disdain. It felt like there was just a lot of disdain in the way the lyrics come across and the music comes across and the way you're singing.

ASHNIKKO: There's an element of, like, oh, you want my body - like, that - you want it so bad? Like, here it is. Like, here is my bloody flesh on a plate for you. Like, eat it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POSSESSION OF A WEAPON")

ASHNIKKO: (Singing) Blood and guts. Teeth to imprison you. Little pills. I don't want to get high. I feel an ache where my mind was. I try to think, but it's no use. Tumbleweed, bloody knees. I would crawl through broken glass to get home.

DETROW: One other song I wanted to talk about is "Miss Nectarine," which gets at your upbringing in rural conservative North Carolina and discovering your queerness while also being made to hide it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISS NECTARINE")

ASHNIKKO: (Singing) I'm the one who took the fall. Your parents screamed and blamed it on me. Sent you off and pray my gay away that Sunday. Both our homes are not safe for us.

DETROW: You know, you're known for being wildly expressive and proud about your queer identity. How did you get to that point after what sounds like in your lyrics a repressive childhood when it comes to accepting that and making that an outward part of your personality?

ASHNIKKO: I think the reason why I am so expressive is because of my upbringing. It was like, as soon as I turned 18 and was able to go craft my own life for myself, it was like an explosion. It was like, whoa. Like, I can finally, like, choose the people that I get to be around. And I get to, like, kind of it and kind of felt like living in a tiny little box for ages. And then being able to go out and create this community for myself and see queer people having happy endings and content lives full of love, for me, it felt - it was like completely new and foreign to me. Like, I had no queer representation growing up.

DETROW: Yeah.

ASHNIKKO: And that would have been so helpful to me as a young queer person in the Bible Belt. And I get so excited when I see, like, queer characters in movies and TV shows that have happy endings and they have, like, well-thought-out plot lines because it's so important contextually for, like, even - if my parents had seen that, I think it would have been easier for them to understand and to see a future for me. And I think that, yeah, representation is important.

DETROW: There's a lot of love on this album too, and one of the songs that really gets to that is "Dying Star."

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHNIKKO'S "DYING STAR")

DETROW: How does it feel, especially with what you're talking about from earlier in life, how does it feel to be in this position where you can write songs and sing them that are so clearly and tenderly about queer love and hope?

ASHNIKKO: I've never thought about it like that. Like, I definitely couldn't be as expressive as I am now when I was growing up, when I was in high school. And now I think that young me would be super impressed and elated that I get to have that freedom now. Yeah. "Dying Star" is special to me because it's the closest thing I've ever gotten to a love song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DYING STAR")

ASHNIKKO: (Singing) I slept on her shoulder. I gave her my all. I bathed in her waterfalls.

And it's about coming home to someone soft, coming home to this home planet and just, like, sinking into the grass and just allowing yourself to just be and not make myself smaller or dimmer and just let myself have a little nap and just be somewhere soft.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DYING STAR")

ASHNIKKO: (Singing) Leave his orbit, took what's left of me. The forest reaches out to guide me. Blue fire paths of will-o'-wisps.

And I think it was super important for me to end the record on a hopeful note. The last line in the record is, I want something soft. As much as I've been, like, hardened - my lead character, as much as I've been hardened by this post-apocalyptic dystopian world, as much as the weedkillers have, like, embedded themselves in me, I, at the end of the day, I've softened. And I want to soften. And I want a happy ending. And I want peace and calm.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DYING STAR")

ASHNIKKO: (Singing) It felt like a god how she held me. I slept on her shoulder...

DETROW: That's Ashnikko. Her new album is "WEEDKILLER." It's out now. Thank you so much for talking to us.

ASHNIKKO: Yeah. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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