Penelope Houston – WPTS Interview
The Avengers self-titled compilation, commonly referred to as the “Pink Album,” is essential listening for fans of Punk. Singer Penelope Houston sings righteously over high energy Punk songs more in the vein of the Clash than Black Flag. Songs like “The American in Me” and “I Believe in Me” have a Golden age Punk attitude but also an ear-wormy catchiness and this general feeling that encourages the listener to stand up for something.
The Avengers played a critical role in the development of the American Punk Rock scene, being one of the first bands to come out the Bay Area which went on to be a hub in the very active California Punk Scene. They played the Sex Pistols last show at the Winterland Ballroom. On a more personal note, they were one of the first Punk bands I discovered while in middle school, having been given a cassette of their music by my Dad when I started listening to the Clash. Ahead of their upcoming East Coast shows and Riot Fest performance, I talked to Penelope Houston about the Avengers reunion, Riot Fest, her experiences in the Punk scene, her solo work and more. Without further ado, I present the transcript to that interview
Calder: How long have you been performing with the Avengers since your reformation? Do you plan on doing any work in the studio with the Avengers in the future?
Penelope: The reformed Avengers have been playing I think since ’99. We reformed around the time the Lookout! record came out, Died For Your Sins. We had recorded a couple old Avengers songs with the new line up because there were no good recordings of them and we wanted them to be on that record. So then after that, probably 2000 or so, we started to play a little bit and then, maybe three years after that we started to play more regularly, doing tours in Europe and various places, so I guess it’s been 17-18 years. And we’re not writing new songs for the Avengers. When I write new songs, generally, it’s for my solo career. So, we are not planning on going in the studio.
Calder: When you were writing the songs for the Avengers originally, did ever imagine playing festivals like Riot Fest? How does it feel playing in front of these festival audiences now?
Penelope: Um, yeah, when I was 19, I had no idea or dream that we would be playing something as gigantic as Riot Fest. We had our little crowd at the Mabuhay and various local clubs, the Whiskey a Go Go in LA. That all seemed good, we didn’t really imagine things like huge Punk Rock festivals, things like Riot Fest or Punk Rock Bowling, happening because the scene was pretty small and insular back then. So it’s exciting, definitely, to be playing Riot Fest. I’m kind of happy about how eclectic the booking is for them, as far as different genres. That’s pretty great, and we’re certainly going to enjoy it. I know we have fans in Chicago because we played various Chicago clubs before, so that’ll be fun to see them again, if they get up that early because we’re playing at 12:30 in the afternoon on Sunday (UPDATE: they are now playing Sunday at 3:30 on the Rebel stage.).
Calder: Who are some acts you’re looking forward to seeing at Riot Fest?
Penelope: I’m looking forward to seeing Beck, Elvis Costello. I’m sad that I’m going to miss Pussy Riot because they’re playing on Friday and we’re flying in on Saturday from New York, where we have a show on Friday, and hopefully we’ll get to go and see what we can on Saturday. Blondie’s playing on Sunday, that’s going to be cool to see. I think the Adolescents are playing on Saturday. Also, Cat Power, Liz Phair I would have liked to see but I don’t think I’m going to be able to catch them. Pussy Riot I would have really wanted to see.
Calder: The Avengers were one of the earliest American punk bands. Who were some of your influences early on?
Penelope: For me, Patti Smith was a definite influence at that point. We liked the Clash, and the Damned, and of course the Ramones. That’s kind of it for the ones that came before us (laughing). We started in Spring ’77. There were a lot of bands that went on after us that are also influential, but after us.
Calder: A lot of the music that you wrote back then was pretty political or had political themes. Do you feel the political landscape has changed since the ‘70s and how do you feel the message or themes of songs like “American in Me” and “We Are the One” have changed?
Penelope: Well, it’s interesting because some of the themes of “The American in Me” is how we see ourselves as a nation and how the media feeds us information. And now that’s just been sped up so much, it’s just like, (laughing) I think it’s even harder to be an American now. The message of that song is we have to look at ourselves and decide what is it about that we’re not proud of and what is it about ourselves that we can hold forward and be proud of. You know, it’s just gotten worse in so many ways. But in general, it’s a bit frightening that some of these things have not gotten better. I feel like so many technological advancements that we’ve made in the last forty years have lifted up humanity and should have made us able to feed more people and house more people and educate more people around the whole globe, and now I feel like we’re coming into a situation where the haves and the have-nots are getting further and further apart, which is a bad situation, and something we need to keep working on. There’s been huge technological advancements since forty years ago, but we still have situations where people are not benefiting from those at all in parts of the world. As far as America goes, we’re in a really uncomfortable and unpleasant governmental position right now, but as far as the whole country goes and people’s general wellbeing, we still have water, we still have power, people are still able to go to school. It’s not like places in Africa or Syria and areas of the world where there are wars going on and famines going on. Those things should not be happening in this day and age. It’s not that I’m overlooking the problems that we have in America, but I feel like in general we are very lucky. We’re going to make it through the next three years, or however long it takes to make things make more sense. We’ll fight our way out of whatever ditch the current administration is digging for us, and we’ll get out of it, but there are places around the world where the vast technology we have now should be applied. People should be taken care of better. So, yes, to answer your question, (laughing) it is frustrating how a lot has changed in the last forty years since I wrote those songs as a 19-year-old but in some ways a lot has not changed and in some ways it is just as hard to understand as when I was 19.
Calder: What was your experience being a woman in the early California punk scene? I have read interviews with you where you’ve said it was a very welcoming environment, but punk gained a reputation later on as being not as welcoming of an environment to women.
Penelope: Well, the Avengers existed from ’77-’79, and that’s really before Hardcore started. When we started it was all kind of being invented, we were making up our own rules, and there were no, especially in San Francisco, there was nobody who couldn’t be in a band. It didn’t matter what your skin color was, it didn’t matter what your gender was, it didn’t matter what your sexual proclivities were, you could still get in a band and make Zines and be a photographer or be a booker or whatever. There was really no question about it. It was kind of more us against them, the Creatives and Punk Rockers against the status quo. So, when people saw me on the street with blue hair or whatever, they would say “Oh, that’s a punk.” They wouldn’t necessarily say “That’s a girl.” I was just a Punk to the outside world. And that made us feel closer together. And certainly things changed when Hardcore came around, and it became very codified, very few women in the bands and in the audience, just because of the feel of it. And I wasn’t really around for that. I kind of switched over to different kinds of music at that point. I wasn’t like a girl wanting to be a part of the Hardcore scene. And people are always like “Oh yeah, the Avengers were one of the first Hardcore bands,” but I don’t think of the Avengers as a Hardcore band, at all. I just think of us as a Punk band. So, I personally didn’t have that much trouble, and later when I had my solo career, and I was in a more acoustic, singer-songwriter kind of situation, there was definitely, I think people (laughing)… When I was a punk, nobody took us seriously, and when I became a singer-songwriter it was like “Oh, now I’m not being taken seriously because I’m a woman.” Now a days, now that the Avengers have reformed, and you see these big shows and festivals, there are very many more male fronted bands than female fronted bands or female bands. And I kind of think that’s a shame. I think it probably has to do somewhat with the audience being mostly male or more male. But I’m always happy to see when there are more women in the bands at these festivals, and I think Riot Fest has done a fairly good job. Someone called me up to do an interview about how Riot Fest is really failing, and they said, “Only 25% of the performers have women in them,” and I said “Actually, I’m not going to complain about that, that’s better than most Punk Rock festivals.”
Calder: On that note, did you pay attention to the Riot Grrrl movement as a response to that cultural shift? I know that was kind of after you had moved on in your career, but do you have thoughts on that movement?
Penelope: Oh, I was certainly aware of it and there are some bands from that period that I like, but I had kind of turned a corner in what I listened to personally. But I was happy that it was happening. I thought it was necessary and a good thing, and I was certainly thrilled it was happening.
Calder: Your solo music heavily draws on different genres and is not so much in the vein of the Avengers. What were some of your influences that lead you in that direction, artistically?
Penelope: I would say Tom Waits was a big influence. Bringing in dark elements, but not be super loud. Also Violent Femmes was kind of a bridge. But I did listen to a lot of Folk music growing up. I listened to the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention, and these were things that I was exposed to when I was younger, pre-teen age. I also told people when I was in the Avengers “We’re a Folk band” and people would be like “What?” and I said, “Well, we’re playing for each other, we’re playing on our own ‘porches,’ which are basements and garages. So we’re playing for other folks who are like us. The scene isn’t about playing an arena or getting huge, it’s about the people in it, and the people in it can jump on stage and sing with the band and start their own bands. Everybody is a musician.” I felt like Folk music also included that idea, where people can just sit around on their porch and make music and everybody’s invited. That non-exclusivity that Folk had, Punk also had. I feel like it was kind of a mindset, more than any particular person influencing me. But Leonard Cohen, the songwriters, Lucinda Williams is good.
Calder: It’s been a few years since your last solo album, On Market Street, came out. Do you have more stuff planned? Are you still writing for your solo career?
Penelope: I am still writing. I’m a super slow writer and various things in my personal life have kind of taken a certain amount of time, but I think eventually there will be another album out. But my last album that came out five years ago, On Market Street, I still see as my current album anyway, and I’m still trying to get that out there. I had a label in Europe, but I self-released it in the US, so I can really only blame myself if people haven’t heard it (Laughing). It is really one of my favorites of my albums, so I’m still trying to get people to hear it.
Calder: You painted that album cover correct?
Penelope: Yes! Yes, I’ve been doing a lot of painting!
Calder: How long have you been painting and how big of a role does that play in your artistic expression?
Penelope: Well, in ’77, when the Avengers formed, I was going to the San Francisco Art Institute and then we got busy, and I dropped out. Then, about six years ago, I decided to go back to school, and the obvious thing for me to get a Bachelor’s in was art, because I already had a lot of art courses, so I went back to that and then I started painting again. Then it started taking over my life. I had a show in LA last year, and Art has come more to the forefront. So, that’s kind of gotten bigger in my life, but I still have my day job (Laughing).
Calder: So final question, do you plan on coming to Pittsburgh anytime soon?
Penelope: I would love to come to Pittsburgh. My fathers from Pittsburgh, and I used to come there all the time when he was still alive and visit, but I don’t have any plans to right now. It’s kind of hard to get away from my home, because of my family situation. But we are going to play New York and Providence on this trip. Two of the members of the Avengers live in New York and Boston, so we’re making it easy for them, but Pittsburgh’s hard. Someday I’ll come back to Pittsburgh!
You can catch the Avengers at their show tonight in Providence, Rhode Island or tomorrow in New York City. You can also catch them this weekend at Riot Fest. They will be playing the Rebel Stage 3:30 on Sunday! Also for more information on the Avengers you can visit Penelope Houston’s personal website here, and her art website here!