Activist Hardcore Punk Band Overcomes Pandemic Isolation and Interstate Distance to Reignite OKC Freak Scene
Anyone that thinks making punk rock is easy should really have a conversation with Inferna.
Formed from the crusty ashes of a handful of former hardcore punk ensembles, Inferna very quickly established itself as one of the torch-bearing groups among the raging and often-sidelined OKC punk scene, due in part to the eventual involvement of Ross Adams, one of the scene’s leading lights and best-known local organizers.
After a blistering seminal period throughout 2019, and right on the verge of their first national tour, the COVID pandemic effectively halted the band’s rapid progress. The resulting overlapping worldwide crises set the members on a path of protest and personal reflection that would see Adams making the difficult decision to move to Atlanta, kicking the band into a full restructuring of its working process as well as a wholehearted embrace of the technologies and digital spaces so often shunned or ignored by the punk world.
Now, with the days counting down until the band’s in-person comeback at 89th Street on July 23rd, the members of Inferna are ready to show OKC what kind of fiery, radical results a relentless work ethic like theirs can produce.
“We still carry a lot of fire”
Inferna sprang to life originally from the mind–and the restlessness–of guitarist and founder Zach Green. Having withstood the dissolution of the band Picket Line, which Green fronted, it was clear that there was still a strong need to create, as well as to disseminate some of the growing energy and anger that had been running rampant in the Trump Era.
“I was looking for a new kind of challenge,” Green explains. “I wanted to start working on a demo that was solely driven by the style of hardcore punk that I’m most fond of: Crusty D-Beat noise.”
Recruiting vocalist Hillary McLain, with whom Green has shared a relationship for more than a decade, was a no-brainer, as was enlisting the help of Jake Dahl on guitar and Corey Tucker on drums, both close friends of Green’s from the punk scene. When they parted ways with their original bassist, Adams was the obvious replacement, having already been living with Zach and Hillary on top of providing the band with artwork and support.
It was the convenience of that living situation that afforded them the opportunity to continue working toward the band’s future while locking down during the pandemic, something the members took seriously even as many other acts insisted on continuing to perform.
“We as a band believed that we should put our combined desires of performing live on the backburner because we honestly didn’t see a viable way to host shows safely during the pandemic,” Green says. “We knew that as soon as the world got back to spinning that the first thing we wanted to do was get Inferna back on people’s radars. We were scheduled to go on tour with [Tucker and Adams’ other hardcore outfit] Druj in March of 2020, and I think we still carry a lot of fire about this project because we had so many things lined up that we were looking forward to.”
“Protest is not entertainment”
Of course, forgoing shows and performing throughout that period didn’t mean that Inferna was going to stay quiet. 2020 brought seemingly unprecedented social unrest and upheaval nationwide, most importantly in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and with the band’s own history of protest and direct engagement, the decision to hit the street and get involved was an easy one.
“I believe in trying to amplify the voices that need to be heard,” says Adams.
As longstanding organizers and activists, there was no hesitance in their decision to show up in person to lend their voices to the growing crowds demanding justice, a choice that stood in clear contrast to their own strict quarantine and refusal to perform.
They are blunt that, while Inferna’s music is overtly political and provocative, they don’t ever conflate performance with true protest.
“Protest is not entertainment, nor would I consider it a recreational activity” Adams explains. “Live music is entertainment, or at least recreational. The two, even if connected, are not the same.”
“We did all we could as members of our communities to listen, learn, and grow from that long hard summer,” adds Green. “I think there’s a stark distinction between direct action and playing bar shows, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for wanting to take to the streets and make their voices heard any way they could.”
“We live in the future”
As the dust eventually began to settle on 2020, and as looming vaccine approvals finally started to show some light at the end of the tunnel, Inferna were faced with another potential roadblock when Adams made the tough decision to relocate to Atlanta for personal reasons. That decision unsurprisingly cast an immediate doubt on the band’s future, but those concerns were short-lived. Adams is adamant that, by embracing the same platforms and technologies that have kept us all in constant contact over the past year, and by committing to a serious commute, the band will continue pushing forward.
“While we can’t practice as a full band regularly, we can still stay in communication and work on the band. We live in the future, so anything is possible.”
Inferna wasn’t the only project in the OKC punk world to face uncertainty in the wake of Adams’ relocation, though, as Ross had also been one of the driving organizing forces behind the Everything Is Not OK and Freak City shows and festivals throughout OKC over the past number of years. Those shows, which attracted acts and fans from all over the country, had come to define the greater punk community of Oklahoma and helped to define OKC, for a time, as a major scene for punk rock.
But that was all before COVID.
Adams doesn’t definitively rule out helping to plan future festivals or events for OKC punk, but he doesn’t expect the scene to be ready for it any time soon.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve hung up my boots, but they are definitely on the table,” Adams admits. “It’s okay to keep waiting. I think a lot of people are feeling stressed or pressured to just go back to the way things were, but we should always be looking for a better way, a more inclusive way.”
“We’ll find a way”
In addition to indefinitely postponing any plans for a resurgence of EINOK, the pandemic also forced the unfortunate closures of many small venues and DIY spaces that had formed much of the lifeblood of the scene, including beloved punk-centric dive The Drunken Fry. With fewer available spaces and the assuredly daunting task of maintaining health and safety in a DIY setting, the focus has shifted, at least for the time being, to the digital space. Inferna performed its first post-quarantine show on April 30th to an entirely virtual audience to benefit Tulsa’s Mass Movement, a DIY community theater with a long track record catering to the hardcore punk crowd.
So is the future of the scene online? Is Inferna just ahead of the curve by embracing virtual shows and remote communication as a means of pressing punk forward in strange, uncertain times?
Green doesn’t count anything out just yet.
“OKC DIY will always continue to adapt and evolve to meet the circumstances before us, to ensure a safe space for disenfranchised folks to express themselves through art and music,” says Green. “Give us a generator, a couple of speakers, and we’ll find a way to figure out the rest, no matter what.”
Adams similarly believes that punk won’t ever be tied to a place, a time, or any specific scene, be it virtual or physical, instead maintaining that its only home base will always be the burning, passionate hearts and minds of the people that show up and get involved.
“There will be venues as long as someone wants to own a venue. There will be DIY shows as long as there is someone doing it themselves. There will be punk as long as someone is calling something punk or doing something punk. It’s about people. As long as there are people, there is a future.”
Inferna’s first live, in-person show since quarantine (with Ross in town and on stage) will be July 23rd at 89th Street with The Tooth, Primal Brain, W/OE, and Shaka. The event is called All Freaks Spending Loud Night and is open to all ages.
Brett Fieldcamp served as Music and Films Editor for Boyd Street Magazine before covering Arts, Entertainment, and Culture with the Oklahoma Gazette and NonDoc. He’s also a songwriter and musician himself with the band SATURN and various solo projects.