Lucy Xavier's pronoun is "they" — "'she' if you know me," quips the singer of San Francisco crossover-thrash act Primal Rite. At 27, Xavier has long been a friendly face to many in the local scene: duly swinging their lush curtain of hair at the front of any given pit, and tweeting glittering selfies and punk jokes after dark. "I feel pretty gender-fluid," they say. "The definitions of man and woman are so loaded and outdated. I know I don't feel like a man and I can say I am happily exploring and challenging myself and others in that department."
Xavier had been fronting a band called Profile when, in late 2015, members of dissolved Bay Area hardcore groups Scalped, Yadokai and Permanent Ruin summoned them to front Primal Rite. "Scalped had disbanded, and those guys were starting a new band," Xavier explains. "But they'd all been working together in the scene for a long time and needed some new blood. So they were like, 'Lucy's at every fucking show anyway. They don't seem like an annoying jerk so you might as well just put a microphone in their hand.'"
A murderer's row of Bay Area talent, Primal Rite rains down thunderous thrash-metal strikes while invoking the political rigor of Eighties hardcore. Following three acclaimed 7-inch releases, as well as tours with Power Trip and Destruction Unit, the band picks up the momentum with its full-length debut. Released on Revelation Records, Dirge of Escapism, is a maelstrom of crafty, staggering rhythms (Max Wickham on bass, Jeremy Meier on drums) and spiraling double-guitar attacks (Jake Dudley and Jason Brownstein), circling stern verses by Xavier.
The vocalist took to fronting the band quite naturally — adopting a power saunter across the stage and startling the occasional mosher with a close-range high kick. Xavier's sonorous vocals and sartorial choices — such as a dash of oxblood lipstick, sweatpants and an 'END TRANSPHOBIA' tee — lend them an extra Spartan level of authority. But their wry sense of humor cuts through even the most tight-lipped and tense of crowds. "I can't believe the singer of Wild Side wore a Madball jersey to his sister's wedding," Xavier riffed at their recent Not Dead Yet appearance last October, "That's sick. Much respect." Even the band couldn't help but break their stony veneer to laugh. "I make fun of it sometimes," Xavier professes, "[but] I think I stuck with hardcore because I always saw it as a way to connect, both build and release tension, make an impact. What hardcore kids share in those rooms at shows is unlike any other feeling or expression."
Long before becoming a hardcore heroine, Xavier grew up in a small town called Chester, 30 minutes outside of Richmond, Virginia. They were born to an American father and a Korean mother, who was brought to the States as a transnational adoptee. "We have lots of family in Korea — we just don't know them," Xavier says. "Being half-Korean is a pretty strong part of who I am, though I have almost no connection ... besides the fact that I really love K-pop and K-dramas." Most of Xavier's adolescence was spent in relative seclusion, building an encyclopedic knowledge of almost any Nintendo or PlayStation game you can think of. "I wasn't, like, an alternative or rebellious kid," they say. "I was really just a nerd. If you're young and you feel like you lack control over your surroundings and your life, playing a video game makes you feel like you're in charge.
"But then I leveled up," Xavier laughs. "Literally. I met some other outcasts, like, junior year of high school, and they started taking me to hardcore shows. Some of the first bands I saw were Terror, Naysayer and Hatebreed."
Almost immediately after graduation, Xavier packed up their video games and moved to Oakland in the summer of 2009. "I needed somewhere to establish my adulthood and explore my identity," says Xavier. "I think when you grow up on the East Coast, California has a certain mystique." A longtime haven for LGBTQ artists and activists, the Bay piqued Xavier's interest as a place to live a gender-fluid life in relative safety. But historically protective of its localness — and increasingly so with the rapid expansion of Silicon Valley — the Bay Area's DIY scene was a tough one to crack for a transplant. "I didn't go to shows for the first year," Xavier says. "Not knowing anybody, it was really intimidating. But when I couldn't ask a punk, I found shows on Facebook. The first hardcore show I went to was Ceremony playing with Cold World at Gilman Street. Then I was just ... at every gig."
Although not explicitly, Xavier's mission to destabilize hardcore's strict gender paradigms is part of an existing legacy of queer hardcore performers, who began pushing the bounds of the genre's macho, aggressively heterosexual posture in the Eighties and Nineties. Noteworthy vocalists like the Dicks' Gary Floyd, Limp Wrist's Martin Sorrondeguy and "terrorist drag" performer Vaginal Davis embarked on their own missions to dial down the hypermasculinity; if not, to sexually fetishize it, or clown it into submission. But rather than looking to the past, Xavier happily draws inspiration from performers in their own peer group. They cite the self-assured, bigot-mocking swagger of previous tourmate, Power Trip frontman Riley Gale; and they revere the unfettered levity and spitfire of Sadie Switchblade and Julaya Antolin from Olympia hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. (Girls Living Outside Society's Shit).
"Seeing G.L.O.S.S. definitely helped make me feel comfortable and confident [in] representing myself," says Xavier. "I've always been different, but wearing nail polish or makeup is [a way of] expressing that, 'I'm queer, I'm trans and it causes me much struggle and I need to talk about it and be seen.'"
The universal power of hardcore, Xavier conveys, is in its immediate catharsis. "Hardcore has a way of bringing voices that are just hard and real," Xavier says. "And that [in itself] is relatable and empowering. Even what some consider 'bro' hardcore has a striking honesty and emotionality that is a glimpse of another world. Crown of Thornz's 'Mentally Vexed' is a great example; the imagery and storytelling in Madball's 'Down by Law' is some of the best I've ever heard in a song."
In spite of — or perhaps in service of — the defiant ambiguity of Xavier's social position in the world, their songs speak to matters that could impact and incense anybody with a heart. Of one of their favorite songs from the new LP, the noise-laden death spiral of "Interference," Xavier explains: "Young people are processing the world, and ourselves, through the static of social media. Social media can make you feel connected to a community, and be the only safe space you have, but it can deeply, mentally and emotionally harm you.
"I think for trans people and for people of color," Xavier continues, "especially black people right now in America — you can be scrolling casually through Facebook or Twitter, only to just constantly see stories and videos of people like you getting murdered for who they are. Who you are. We're all constantly having to process death."
So how does a marginalized youth, barraged with terrible news all day, survive the survivor's guilt? Xavier's endurance, it seems, hinges on being rooted in community, writing songs to thrash to, and having their Nintendo Switch on deck when real life gets too dire. "I'm a lot healthier and more stable as I've gotten older," reflects Xavier. "I've been good at seeking treatment, but treatment is not a cure. Depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation — that stuff doesn't just go away, it's something that you live with and have to actively stay on top of your whole life. You know how someone with diabetes has to keep track of their blood sugar? You just need to figure out what works for you so that you feel safe and supported."
Primal Rite are revving up for a mini West Coast tour following the release of Dirge of Escapism — plus an appearance at D.C.'s Damaged City Fest in Spring 2018. Xavier looks forward to raging with some new faces, and while away from their PlayStation, potentially geeking out with fans about games like Overwatch and Nier:Automata. "If there's any kid who likes my band and wants to talk to me about some- thing," says Xavier, "I would hope it's video games."
And what about the haters? Later that evening Xavier texts me a winky face, a rainbow flag and a middle finger.