Alice Bag – WPTS Interviews
A WPTS Special Feature by Elyssa Pollio.
Alice Bag is a musician, author, artist, educator and feminist. Alice was the lead singer and co-founder of the Bags, one of the first bands to form during the initial wave of punk rock in Los Angeles. Later on, the Alice Bag Band was featured in the seminal documentary on punk rock, The Decline of Western Civilization. Alice went on to perform in other groundbreaking bands, including Castration Squad, Cholita, and Las Tres. She has published two books, including the critically acclaimed memoir Violence Girl in 2011 (Feral House) and the 2015 self-published Pipe Bomb For the Soul, based on her teaching experiences in post-revolutionary Nicaragua. Alice’s work has even been included in the Smithsonian exhibition: American Sabor. Alice’s self-titled 2016 solo debut album received critical acclaim and was named one of the best albums of the year by AllMusic. Her second album, Blueprint was released in March 2018 on Don Giovanni Records. We were lucky to interview Alice Bag before she is in town for Ladyfest.
Elyssa: Who/What are your influences?
Alice: I grew up listening to Mexican pop and rancheras, for people that don’t know what rancheas is it’s like mariachi music. My sister loves soul music, so I grew up listening to a lot soul music. Those are my major influences there, like the abridge. When I was in middle school I got into Glam, so I have a lot of glam influences. I’m a big Elton John fan and I like his keyboard playing a lot. David Bowie is also a huge influence on me. Patti Smith. I have so many influences. One of my long lasting influences I don’t talk about enough is Bessie Smith. I love Bessie Smith. I love the way she sings and the way she emotes and the way you get the gritty side of her and the passionate side of her, but also she can be very playful. And I love the way she lived her life as like a sexual and gender outlaw and lived life on her own terms. I love her.
Elyssa: How did you end up in punk considering your influences?
Alice: Those things inspired me, but when you go out to make music you have to kind of clear your head and start with a clean canvas. What happened is when I went out to make music is I started doing something that was more glam, but it seemed like a time when punk was trying to coalesce, so it was wide open. Punk was a very welcoming scene. It was just beginning. It felt like you could do anything. It wasn’t skill based, it didn’t seem like you had to play perfectly. In glam you had to know how to play, but in punk you could just kind of just play pots and pans or play the top of a trash can, you know. Make music with stuff in your house. It was very wide open to interpretation. It really gave voice to a lot of people or otherwise didn’t feel like they were accepted. For women in particular, I felt like we didn’t have a lot of role models. Even though there are women making music, they haven’t always been given the credit or attention that their male counterparts have. So that lack of role models made a lot us feel as though our roles were supporting members. I know when I was growing up I tried to be more of a groupie or a fan and then at certain point I have more to offer then that. And Punk really allowed those who didn’t have role models to just step in and make noise.
Elyssa: You’ve been in punk since the first wave, What has it been like watching the punk movement grow and evolve?
Alice: It’s been very hard at times. Sometimes I’ve seen it become really rigid. Almost becoming what we were fighting against. At a certain point there was a certain look and sound you were supposed to have and I already experienced punk as open and inclusive and collective. Some band might have a saxophone or might have synthesizers. Everyone wasn’t trying to sound very 1 2 3 4 like the Ramones. Although of course, I do love the Ramones. But you’d have a band that was kooky like the Deadbeats in LA who were influenced by something by Captain Beefheart, so I think it was concerning to me that punk got rigid for a little while. It was taken over by white male influences. I felt relieved that the queers, the women and the people of color kind of just stood their ground. I feel like it’s come back to its roots. I feel like once again it’s being defined by a more diverse group.
Elyssa: That’s amazing. Because of that. Why is it important to you to play things like Ladyfest?
Alice: I feel like I didn’t realize the importance of Ladyfest the first time I went, because the first time I went to a Ladyfest, I was doing a reading. I had never even heard of Ladyfest. At the same time I met Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile, Sex Stains). She’s one of the creators of Ladyfest. And I became good friends with some of the women from riot grrrl through Ladyfest and she described a completely different scene to me. While my punk scene had been open and inclusive, hers had been very focused on male energy and women had to stick together and create a riot grrrl movement that would make space for women and claim space for women. So while that wasn’t my personal experience, I really wanted to stand in solidarity with that, because I felt like that we have to stand our ground make space for ourselves and claim space for ourselves. Supporting Ladyfest was a nobrainer for me, like I always wanna support women. I wanna support women’s artwork, women’s music, women in their personal lives and whatever I can. I know I probably have old terminology that I use, but I grew up with the term sisterhood, feeling like we’re sisters and that we’re going to stand together and look out for each other. So I feel like Ladyfest is a celebration of women and an exercise in sisterhood. Like putting your politics, just showing that you live your life in line with your beliefs and that you will go out and support other women..
Elyssa: Who are some of your favorite current bands?
Alice: I’m a big fan of Shopping. I’m playing a show out here in couple of weeks and I’m very excited about that. I love Fea from Texas, primarily female. I think their energy is feminist and I love it. A lot of the band are Chicanos too, so that’s really cool. And a couple of them are queer too, so that’s also really cool. I like to see people who look like me reflected in the music I support.
Elyssa: Do you think you think that art should be political?
Alice: I think that art should be truthful and you should be honest about expressing your political beliefs, but I don’t think every artist is always in a political mood so I don’t wanna restrict it to that. I think a lot of times you go through periods where you are having problems at home or problems in personal relationships, so then your music might be more personal. The personal can be very political, because it could be a personal dynamic of gender inequality in your home, or abuse in your home or whatever. A lot of personal issues are also political. Your art has to be for the benefit of society. Your art needs to be personal and truthful. It will benefit society if your art is personal and truthful.
Elyssa: Do you think that punk needs to be political?
Alice: No, I don’t think punk needs to be political. I personally like to hear some portion of it be political, but I don’t think it has to be that. I think it can be totally goofy and fun-loving. Your songs don’t have to be political, but maybe your band makeup or the way you treat each other, or the way you make decisions. All of that is an example of how you live your politics, even though you may not wear them on your sleeve, you may not sing about politics, you can show your politics through your decisions within your band.
Elyssa: So on your new record you have a song where you sing in Spanish. Why is it important for you to sing in Spanish?
Alice: I usually sing in the language that an idea comes to me, so I don’t like translate back and forth. In this particular instance, the song that I wrote is called “Se Cree Joven.” My experience was that I was in a store and these two women were in a store speaking Spanish and they didn’t realize that I spoke Spanish. So when I started thinking of the song it came to me in Spanish.
I think it’s important that people hear things in their own language too, because it affirms your place in american culture. It affirms that america isn’t just about people who speak English it’s about people who speak all different languages and we’re creating culture all the time in different languages and it’s filtered through different ethnicities, through different values and different cultures, so I feel like you wanna see that. We want to experience it all, we don’t wanna narrow ourselves down to try to fit into the mainstream. There’s enough of that.
77 Music Video
Elyssa: How did the 77 music video come about? Did you know Kathleen Hanna?
Alice: I knew Alison Wolfe. I did a zine fest with her about 5 or 6 years ago. We were invited to speak together at zine fest la and we hit it off. We got along really well, even though at that time I was living in Arizona, we agreed to work on something together. We were always trying to something together. When I came back to LA, she invited me to do a song with her band and we started just hanging out casually. So, when I went into the studio she was dog sitting just up the street from the recording studio,so she would say like “Hey what are you doing? Are you taking a break? Can I come by?”. She would just come by and visit and she heard this song and she suggested “Why don’t we ask Kathleen?”. I had met Kathleen, but I didn’t know her very well, so I was hesitant to ask her. Alison asked her and invited her. I think Alison asked her. I might of written to her too, but Kathleen was really cool and said “I can do it I wanna do it” and she came down and it was just a really exciting thing. It was just a great basic song, I started singing it and I was literally just singing it, you know just singing a melody to it. And then Kathleen and Alison recorded their vocal part to my scratch vocal, like to match my scratch but they totally screamed it out with this punk energy. I was like oh yeah, that’s the right attitude. They inspired me to give it this more aggressive performance. So that’s how the recording happened.
After that I was really thinking that I’m good friends with Alison I’ll see her again, but I don’t if I’m going to see Kathleen again, so I didn’t count on making a video with her. But my husband was like wouldn’t it be great if you could make a video of 77 and kind of model it after Nine to Five (by Dolly Parton), us playing the roles of the movie Nine to Five. That’s like big time production and it was very unpunk of me to see the obstacles instead of the possibilities. I always kind of shy about asking people for favors. We went to our friend’s house for a party and the guy who was hosting does Pancake Mountain, which is a kid’s TV show and he also does video and he makes really exceptional work and my husband says “Do you wanna make a video for 77?” to Scott Stuckey and Scott said “yeah.” We really have no budget and he’s like “that’s okay, we’re gonna make it happen”, which is very punk rock. It’s constantly being reminded of how to be a punk by being discouraged about making a video. I can’t make this fancy video, I don’t have any money. I can’t ask these rock stars, but again Kathleen says yes. Seth Bogart says yes. Allison Wolf says yes. Then the night before we were gonna shoot I was talking to Scott Stuckey. I had met Shirley Manson at his party and was like why don’t you ask Shirley Mason if she wants to make a cameo. Of course we had no makeup no costume, no anything. It was to my complete amazement she said yes. So all of sudden I had this amazing cast, people doing wardrobe, people doing makeup and a great camera crew. Everything just fell into place. Everyone just volunteered and pitched in to make it happen. I think it’s because the believed in the message, so I’m just really happy and honoured it came together the way it did
Elyssa: What pushes you to pursue so many artistic forms outside of just music such as writing a book, or making a video?
Alice: For a long time I only did music, because it was easy for me. Once I was in a band it was really easy to meet a lot of musicians and once one of my bands broke up it was just a matter of time before I would call someone up to say let’s form another band, so all during the 80s and even during part of the 90s I was just like calling different people. I was in this band cycle. I’ve been in so many bands I can’t even count them. At a certain point I had to move out to Arizona, because my husband’s work. He was working at a hotel and it closed down and we had to scramble for him to find a job and at the time I had taken a time off and I found out I could get a reciprocal teaching credential in Arizona. So when he was offered a job in Arizona, we moved there and what happened with that move is all of my band connections, my friends I had been playing music with were suddenly gone and we were living in a very remote part of Arizona between Phoenix and Cake Creek. It was sort of a slow sleepy neighborhood and I didn’t know very many of my neighbors. I didn’t know any other musicians, so I started looking for other things I could do. I started painting or crafting or sewing or things where I could express my creativity online on my own. I was blogging already but I blogged a lot more and then.
For a short time we were living in San Diego and some friends of mine took me out drinking and they were asking for stories of mine growing up in east la and they were writing a play about it. They were like you should write a book about this, because they were funny stories. I don’t know if they were funny because we were drunk or they were truly funny stories. I went home with the idea of writing a book. I told my husband and he was like: “I always tell you to write a book and you never take me seriously.” And I woke the next morning with a hangover and I find the computer open and my husband had set up a blog for me, it was called The True Life Adventures of Violence Girl and he said start writing. It was an invitation. I sat down with a cup of coffee after my daughter had left for school and I started writing. I would make it a point every day to write to have an entry by lunch time and that sort of self discipline really worked for me. I ended up completing my book in about 6 months.
Elyssa: While researching I saw your blog. There was this post about your bionic leg that made laugh out loud. Do you have a bionic leg?
Alice: I do have a bionic leg. I have a metal knee. I thought I was gonna be super powered like the Bionic Woman or something and it’s really not. I was so disappointed. It doesn’t even rotate as well as the other one, which is like the one I was born with. Nature trumped me.
Elyssa: You took a long break from being in band and touring after releasing a book. What made you come back to music?
Alice: I started writing music again while I was in Arizona. One of the things that happened was that it was time to do readings for Violence Girl, I was really nervous about doing readings and public speaking and even though I used to be a teacher and read stories for kids. It felt a lot different to read stories to my kids. It felt so much different to read in front of an adult audience. I would start reading and my voice would tremble and my hand would tremble and I would get really nervous. Then a friend of mine suggested that I play a song on acoustic guitar before I do a reading, so I made that a part of my process. Every time I would do a reading I would mix in music and I would try to make some songs that fit with whatever the stories were that I was reading that day and I actually ended up meeting some musicians in Arizona when I did that. Then I was able to actually form a band in Arizona around 2012. It was short lived because I moved back to LA in 2013. Another thing that I did was, because I lived so far from Central Phoenix. I bought a garage band app that was 5 dollars, but had multitrack recording capabilities. I could play a guitar, I could play a keyboard, I could play bass and I had drum loops. I was able to write songs and orchestrate everything. This is fun, this is creative. I can work on songs. When I finally had a band that I could play with they knew what I wanted the songs to sound like which was really cool. So that’s how I got back into music and then I went back to LA and it was really easy.
Elyssa: Why did you choose Don Giovanni records when you did come back to music?
Alice: To be completely honest it was because my friend Alison Wolf was putting out a record on Don Giovanni records. She was like I researched them and they were very good. And her guitarist was playing in my band with me too. And he also recommended them to me too. So I wrote to Don Giovanni and I didn’t write to anyone else. I was like “I’m recording a record, would you be interested in releasing it. I think his wife was reading Violence Girl, which was really amazing. It was really positive.
The other funny thing was my life is so full of coincidences. I told you, I blogged violence girl. At the end of my blog I wrote to my followers and one of them was like “submit it to Feral House and publish it as a book,” so I submitted it to Feral House. And Adam Parfield who recently passed away recently, he was a true supporter of independent ideas. He wrote back and was like “ I met you in the 70s, you were really cool to me, I love your music. Yes I will publish your book. ” He was the only one I approached and he was very positive and supportive. He said yes and put out my book it was all coincidences. It’s so weird.
Elyssa: Do you have any book recommendations?
Alice: I am listening to this audiobook right now called Ripper by Isabel Allende. It’s about a serial killer in San Francisco. It’s about a group of kids who are playing this online game called Ripper and then they get interested in this real life case. They then start to solve this real life case, in real time. It’s exciting.
Elyssa: I saw in your Pitchfork interview that you once saw Mulan with your daughter. How has parenthood influenced your music?
Alice: I have so much respect for parents, it’s such a learning process. There need to be more guides for people who think differently. There’s a lot of what to feed your child and have playdates and all that stuff. I remember taking my kids to McDonald’s and watching Disney movies and all that. I feel like the reason they survived all of that is because we talk about everything. I think the most important thing you can do as a parent is to make your kids be critical thinkers. My kids now wouldn’t eat junk. They know better now. That was their decision, they’re the smart ones. They’re smarter than I am really. They’re more health minded then I am and they are critical thinkers, so they question things. They decide I agree with this or I don’t agree with this. I remember taking my daughters and my step daughters and we were driving through a McDonald’s, they were kids like 5 or 10. They asked them if they wanted a girl toy or a boy toy. My 5 year old said “There’s no such things as boy or girl toys”. I was so proud. I feel like even though we make a lot of mistakes. If you raise kids to question they’ll help you figure it out.
There was time when I stopped doing music, it was time where I was almost holding my breath. I felt like I wasn’t getting anything to nourish my soul, except for motherhood. I want to make sure that parents know that they have to take time to take care of themselves. I had a very altruistic mother who was very giving. She lived to buy groceries cook us 3 meals a day, wash our laundry, keep the house clean. Everything was about us and nothing was about her so when I became a parent I really wanted to do that. I cut down my hours and I started working part time, but I gave up my music for a while and it was really hard for me. It felt like I was dying. I was sick a lot. I was really depressed. I think I was a bad parent because of it. I feel like I could’ve been happier and more playful. I was just so tired. It wasn’t until my daughter was in Kindergarten I started a band called Stay at Home Bomb, because I felt like I was a ticking time bomb unless I had some kind of release. I was just gonna blow up at my family and be useless as a mother, so I started playing music and once I started playing music everything was back to normal. It’s like when you start eating healthy you have this zest for life, you feed yourself and you feed your soul. It wasn’t about food it was about feeding your creativity. That influenced me. It didn’t really influence my music, but it did influence a few songs about being a parent. In Stay at Home Bomb we had this whole 50s housewife trope going for us, where we would wear aprons on stage and we had baby clothes on a clothesline and my guitarist would do slides with an egg beater. I would also play the washboard sometimes. We’d feed the audience, we’d always have snacks to keep up their strength. The more I think about the more I think it has actually influenced my music, because I don’t just write about my experiences, I write about things I see. Like my song Modern Day Virgin Sacrifice was inspired by watching my daughters go from young kids being super self confident feeling fearless and being willing to take on anything to becoming self conscious having insecurities, feeling like they had to tone it down, so that like boys would like them or girls would like them or whatever. My daughters were just feeling like they had to behave differently and the different expectations of them.
You can see Alice Bag perform this weekend at Ladyfest on Saturday at Spirit! We hope to see you all there!
You can follow Elyssa on Twitter @elyssapollio . This interview was edited by John Wright of the WPTS Editorial Board.