Written by Andy Nystrom; Photos, Cat Rose. This post originally appeared on the blog, There’s Something Hard in There.
Alice Bag and her band busted down the proverbial door from the get-go.
First song, the Bags classic punk rager, “Babylonian Gorgon,” lit the fuse of their set at The Queens of Noise Festival on March 7 at the Highline in Seattle.
From there, you know it’s gonna be a raucous next hour or so to get your blood boiling and brain on target with crucial messages that propel Alice’s solo tunes, along with the stirring “Gluttony” from “The Decline of Western Civilization” film. I joined my brother and some friends at a Hollywood theater in 1981 to witness the premiere of the movie and we were floored by the Alice Bag Band and others on the screen.
I spoke with Alice by phone a week before The Queens of Noise gig and fired off some questions that the Seattle-based promoters — which set up this interview — supplied, plus some of my own. (The Queens of Noise’s mission statement: “Supporting women by fostering an inclusive community. Providing a venue for female musicians to unite and raise awareness for women’s causes.”)
On to the interview:
You’ve got a new album coming out (in April), tell me a little bit about the album and what you’re addressing lyrics-wise and what it sounds like.
It’s gonna sound more like a live show than other albums that I’ve made. I think in the past, I really gave myself the luxury of just calling in whoever I wanted. I’ve been a musician for a long time here in LA, so a lot of my friends play different instruments, so I’m like, “I think I wanna have a sax on this or I wanna have a cello or a flute,” so I would just invite someone over to come play on the song. This time, I really challenged myself and thought, “How can I create all these layers, all this depth that I have in my past albums?,” but keep it to a four piece, something that’s more what I do live. I cheated a little bit because I did play keyboards on it, and I don’t usually play keyboards live. It sounds a lot more like a band and it sounds a lot more punk rock.
I’m excited about it. It’s kind of a return to my punk roots, even though I feel like I’m always punk, no matter what the song sounds like.
What do some of the songs deal with?
The album is called “Sister Dynamite.” “Sister Dynamite” was inspired by a group of women that I’m working with called Turn It Up, it’s an organization of women who are all somehow involved in music, but it’s to support each other, to help amplify the voices of women in music. Just getting together and talking about issues that they faced in the past and talking about brainstorming solutions, really made me feel like it was a time of change and that we were gonna create that change. And then I was also inspired by the women who took over the House of Representatives, and I was inspired by the vision of them walking in in their suffragette white suits. It was inspiring for me and I wanna see more of it and I feel like change is on the horizon. So “Sister Dynamite” is this character, this super hero that exists in my imagination, just comes and like is just not gonna put up with being put down anymore.
That’s a great message right there. Why don’t you go for one more that really speaks to you.
On my first album, I had a song about my experiences when I first realized that I was bisexual, just feeling guilt and feeling like there was a stigma to it, that people saw my sexuality as being dirty or inferior or sinful. The song was called “The Touch I Crave,” and it was just kind of trying to fight against that negative message, but I was in fact chronicling that negative message. I wrote a song called “Switch Hitter” for this album and it really sounds so much more joyful. It’s about celebrating who I am, my sexuality and hopefully other people can connect to it and it’s just about, “Hey, I’m versatile, gotta accept it.”
And you’ll be playing some of those songs at the upcoming show. I’d imagine going throughout the whole career like you always do. You always play your solo stuff and then you do a couple Bags songs as well.
Yeah, I gotta keep my roots in there. There was a time in my life where I really wanted to get away from referencing the Bags, “Oh, that’s a band from my past, I don’t need to do any more stuff, I’m doing new stuff now.” And now I realize that I’m not ashamed of my past, and my past is actually a foundation on which I’ve built, so I do want to acknowledge where I come from, but not spend all my time in the past. Acknowledge it and move forward. There is some Bags stuff in my set, but a lot of it is newer material.
Yeah, and that’s something that I’m really big on as well is you can’t forget where you went, but you’ve gotta keep moving on, keep evolving and be in the present. That’s what my wife and myself, as far as music goes, we like our old bands, but we embrace our new bands just as much. It’s very important to do that.
Yeah, you stay fresh and you re-inspire.
What keeps you going (in music) over the years and still thriving today?
I think I just can’t help it. I feel like I always have the desire to write. I know that I have to carve out time to write or I don’t feel right. Some people have to work out or they don’t feel good, they have to do something. For me, it’s writing. If I don’t write, I feel like I’m not getting everything out of life that I need. Writing and making music, being in a room and playing with other people, it’s an essential part of who I am. If I don’t get it in my life, I feel deprived, I feel like I’m dying. Literally, I feel like I’m dying.
What’s the first band or song that you remember striking a chord with you?
There’s a song that I actually started performing it when I was doing readings for “Violence Girl,” my book. I did a cover version of a song called, “Monedita de Oro,” which means “Little Gold Coin.” The content of the song is I’m not a little gold coin, you don’t have to like me, I’m not for everybody, I’m not around to make you happy, I’m who I am, take me or leave me. It’s a ranchera, so it’s like half sung and it’s half just belted, something that comes from your soul. I feel like ranchera music is something that’s very emotive. So I used to sing this song as a little kid, and my father would encourage me, he loved hearing me sing that and he really encouraged me to have that attitude, to be proud of being an individual. And if that meant being different, if that meant that people made fun of me, it was OK, I still had to honor who I was. The message of that song really resonated with me because I was a weirdo and I did think differently a lot of the time, and I found myself shunned by my peers. I was the misfit. And I think a lot of people who got into the early punk scene were those misfits, those people that didn’t quite always say the right thing or say it in the right way or think like the crowd. So I felt like that song, “Monedita de Oro,” had a really punk message, but it was from my childhood.
What really stokes you now? A band or two you wanna mention that brings us into the now?
I’ve been working with different bands. I produced a couple of bands in the past few years. I produced Fatty Cakes and the Puff Pastries. They’re a band from Fresno, California, small town that isn’t particularly known for their music scene, but they have a great music scene and they have a great punk community. And this band, I just remember playing with them one day when I was doing book readings and they were just so original. The lead singer plays xylophone and then she played a box organ and an electric ukulele. I mean, just their instrumentation was outside of the box, and they came out with two backup singers that were holding giant cardboard pizzas and danced around singing a song about having a pizza girlfriend. Their rhythm section was tight as fuck, and I just thought, “This band is really cool, really different, singing their own reality in their own way.” That’s the most punk thing I ever wanna see.
The other band that I have been working with lately was Fea from San Antonio. They’re just amazing, they really inspired my new record, too. Working with them, everything was such high energy, and they have a really fun attitude, they really enjoy living the rock life. It’s like hanging out with them is just a non-stop party. And I think that comes through in their music. So when I came home after working with them, I had already recorded some of the songs on the record, but I hadn’t finished, and I just thought, “I’m not gonna write any slow songs now after working with Fea, I just wanna make ’em all fast.”
How has being a Latina woman impacted you in music, and how have you seen it change?
When punk rock first got started in LA, I really felt like it was very inclusive, and so I didn’t encounter some of the misogyny or racism that people who came long afterwards report. I feel like I was really fortunate that I came into punk thinking that I belong here. Being in a band and playing on stage, I always felt like I had a right to be there, and if anybody tried to tell me otherwise, they would have to deal with me. My book is called “Violence Girl” because I experienced a lot of violence in my household when I was growing up. I grew up in a house where there was domestic violence, so I had a lot of rage in me. So I think when I was on stage, some of that rage might have shown, so people would not typically come up and confront me. Nobody ever made me feel unwelcome. I don’t know if it was because they were just really cool people that wanted to be inclusive or because I looked like I would kick somebody’s butt if they tried.
What advice would you give girls who are coming up who wanna be musicians?
I would tell them to find people who are supportive and who are going to be accepting of wherever they are in their playing ability. Whether they’re trained, have years of experience, or are just new to picking up an instrument. Don’t feel like you have to live up to anybody’s expectations but your own. I really feel like it’s more important that you say what you have to say than that you master an instrument and follow a certain technique or try and be like somebody else. It’s really about the message, it’s really about finding your own original voice. There are a lot of people out there that have musical skills, but there are not a lot of people that have your point of view. So if you can remain original and speak your truth, that’s gonna be the best thing that you can bring.
Are your daughters into music as well, are you sharing a lot of your music with them?
My daughters are all into music. One is into opera, which I am not a fan of. I can listen to the music, but I have to admit I don’t have the patience for it. I’ve been to a couple of operas and I found myself getting sleepy. (Laughter) I know, don’t judge me, I’m strictly low-brow.
They’re into their own thing. None of them are into punk rock or anything, that would be too much like their mom. They all support me and they’ll come to shows and sell merch for me and do that kind of stuff. My middle daughter, actually my stepdaughter, she has a beautiful voice and she likes to write in more a singer-songwritery way. She’ll go out and do the occasional open mike and she’ll sing backup for me whenever I need a backup singer. We sometimes hang out and I have helped her work on her songwriting skills ’cause she wants to be a songwriter.
That’s great how it all kind of comes home there with the family and helping each other out music-wise and message-wise, too. I’m sure they all got their great path that they’re taking and they’ll certainly learn from you.
Aww, thank you.
If you could go to dinner with one person, who would that be?
My husband. There is nobody else I would rather be with. That’s why I married him.