Allison Wolfe is best known as one of the founders of the riot grrrl movement back in early ‘90s Olympia, Washington, and frontwoman of feminist punk band Bratmobile. Times have changed, but some things stay the same – Allison is still kicking out the counter-patriarchal jams. Cassie Fox caught up with her ahead of her upcoming UK tour with ‘Dubais and the Wolfs’.
Let’s start with your band CV! Have you been performing continuously since the 90s, without a break?
Yeah, not much of a break! I started with Bratmobile in the early 90s and not long after we broke up I started a band with Erin of Bratmobile, Cold Cold Hearts.
After that, in the late ‘90s, I had my boy band, Deep Lust. Actually the drummer from Deep Lust – Steve Dore – now lives in Crystal Palace, and he’s going to be the drummer on this UK tour coming up! So after Deep Lust I was back in Bratmobile – we got back together for a few years. Then I was in Partyline in the middle 2000s and we toured in England and Europe. Then I moved to LA and I was in a band called Cool Moms with some girls for a few years … then I was in Sex Stains a couple of years ago, and now I’m in Ex Stains! So yeah, I never really quit I just keep it going. I think it’s important to maintain a creative outlet, as long as you still have something to say you might as well keep doing it.
What’s the biggest difference you’ve found in between being in bands over that time?
I guess I don’t feel as much of a sense of urgency as I did when I was in my 20s! Ha! Also, it’s funny … I always used to do vocal warm-ups to old country songs – like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Jean Shepard – but I’ve realised lately that I can’t hit those notes any more. Of course, that was 20 years ago that I first started doing warm-ups to those songs! So I’ve actually started doing my warm-ups now to George Jones cos it’s a lower register.
What role does music have in your life now?
I live alone and I have done for a long time, but I’m an identical twin and my sister and I have not lived near each other for many years, so I think there’s something about that being alone – that’s why I feel like I need to have voices around me all the time. I actually listen to talk radio constantly – public radio – when I’m at home. I put on a record the other day I was like, this is so awesome , I remembered how happy it makes me!
Tell us about the tour with Nadia Buyse.
I’m really excited! Nadia is an old friend of mine and also just a prolific artist and musician. Everything she does is gold, and it’s always really engaging, politicised, fun and funny too – I just love everything she does! She used to live in Portland, near my sister so I’d see her a lot when I was visiting, and sometimes whatever band she was in at the time would be playing, and she’d ask me to sing back-ups. She’s always in another band, I can’t keep up! And they’re all great. Nadia contacted me a few months ago and said, ‘Hey, will you come over to the UK for Jon Slade’s 50th birthday party?’ [Jon Slade of Huggy Bear, who lives in Brighton]. And I was like, ‘Yeah cool!’, and I thought there was a big to-do happening, but then once I got on board I realised that he just wants to go some bar that night that he DJs at … and I was like, wait what? I can’t just go there for his birthday can I? And then Nadia said, ‘Let’s play some shows!’ She’s like, ‘I’ve been wanting to set up a mini tour in the UK – will you play with me and sing with me?’ So I was like, ‘Sure!’
It’s inspiring to hear that you’re still making politicised music. How important do you feel music can be in modern politics?
Obviously I don’t really think that music ever ‘does the job’ – we’re up against too much. But I do think it’s important for everyone to struggle and resist in whatever way makes sense to them – little ways or big ways. I mean, I don’t see music necessarily as straight-up activism, but I do believe in it as cultural activism. It’s important for all of us to express our feelings against the administration through our art. I’m not very good at writing songs with political slogans, but I tend to write songs that focus on how the personal is political or how these things might seep into your daily life. And feelings of self-esteem etc in girls. But yeah, we’re fucked! So I’m not sure a song is going to cut it!
I was in DC during the whole Bush administration and the big difference between then and now is that the media didn’t say one thing – in fact the Washington Post and the New York Times were totally on board with all those lies, and people who spoke out were really frowned upon or fired. And there weren’t many bands even speaking out or singing political songs or whatever, even after 9/11, and that really pissed me off to no end. I couldn’t believe it – everyone drank the KoolAid, or they just shut up or something, and I’m still mad about that. So it’s funny now during the Trump administration all these media outlets speaking out all the time. OK I’m glad so that we don’t go crazy, but a lot of those people didn’t speak out before and I’m like, no, I remember you, you weren’t there when it mattered, and now you’re speaking out when everyone else is – fuck you.
Looking back now at the riot grrrl movement … do you feel it was successful overall?
I think right after it all imploded, a lot of us who had started it didn’t think so. A lot of us felt ashamed and scampered off into a corner and ignored it. But I also think there was a lot of backlash against riot grrrl in the late 90s, but I think by the time we hit the 2000s we started acknowledging …like, okay, what were the good things about it? And considering maybe it does have a place, in history or whatever, but we never thought that until 2000-something.
To me, it’s a strain of 3rd wave feminism that belonged to the early 90s so I don’t really feel like it carries into now. I guess I don’t really mind if feminists use the term to describe themselves or their groups, but I think it’s important for people to come up with new terms, new groupings, new ideas. And obviously there were flaws and faults with riot grrrl, and a lot of complaints against it. And I understand a lot of it, but some of it isn’t exactly accurate. But, you know – whatever it doesn’t really matter. I think it was important because it was a gathering of women in punk together. Like, hey – strength in numbers! It was like, let’s network, let’s share our stories, let’s communicate, let’s not be jealous of one another, let’s not compete with one another. ‘Cos that’s what society does to women – and to all marginalised people. Mainstream society pits marginalised groups against each other, and people against each other within their own groups, using this idea of scarcity against you like, hey, there’s only room for one of you, or one or two tokens … and that’s what we were really trying to speak out against and really name. And so I think that if that part of the legacy carries on, and if that’s what people appreciate about it, then that’s great. But also a big point of it was to build self-esteem in young girls and women and to look at ‘girly’ culture and uplift things that are typically are relegated to women or girls. I think a lot of feminism didn’t really address the world of young women and girls at that time. Second wave feminism didn’t really make a space for you know, girly girls, and lipstick lesbians and so on! That was important for us. Not only to make our punk rock lives more feminist, but to make our feminist lives more punk. To speak more to the real lives of all kinds of people – all kind of punks, girls, whatever.
It’s interesting to consider the #metoo and #timesup movement now as a mirror of the riot grrrl ethos – the idea of women banding together, strength in numbers against abuse.
Yeah, in riot grrrl that was exactly what we were doing – speaking out about and bringing up sexual violence. These things happening to women is not new at all, but what’s changed is that rich and famous women spoke out, and the rich famous women were believed, you know, which is great, so now maybe they’ll believe everyone else. But I don’t think it was taken seriously for a long time. I’ve always believed in this: you have to put the fear of god into men who harass you. Guys do it cos they think they can get away with it. But if they think you’re going to go ballistic on them or get them into trouble they’ll think twice. When I lived in Washington DC – it’s very much a man’s town, it’s super-aggressive, and I used to get into confrontations a lot. Jocks coming out of a bar at the end of a night and they’d be bugging me … I’d just smack them upside the head, you know, with my purse or my umbrella or whatever. But dammit I just kept breaking too many vintage purses and umbrellas! But I felt it was important to do that – so that they’d feel the fear that the next woman they bothered might punch them in the face too.
What message would you like to give to the girls of the 20-teens?
I don’t want to talk down to the millennials … I’m really inspired by a lot of stuff that’s going on now. There’s a lot more people of colour in bands and outside of bands who are speaking out and really just ‘timesup’ing as well. I think that’s really important and those voices are the most exciting to me – things like Black Lives Matters and also just a lot of cool stuff that’s going on in LA. There’s a lot of the scene that revolves around people of colour speaking out and being really vocal about really cool stuff going on within their own scenes and culture, and promoting that. But also talking about issues of racism and classism, sexism, homophobia, everything. So I feel like in a lot of ways things are more intersectional now, and bands that really inspire me are Downtown Boys, Shopping … Alice Bag! She inspired me before I even started music and she still inspires me now – she’s still doing stuff, and I think that’s really great. I see more women in bands now, and I almost feel like they don’t think twice about it anymore – I feel like that has a lot to do with the Girls Rock Camps that are all over. That’s a really tangible way you can influence culture. So, my only thoughts are … I just feel it’s really important to let it all hang out on stage! It bothers me when you see bands all just trying to look cool or pretty or whatever, and I don’t really go for that. I prefer seeing a little bit of crazy onstage – or at least seeing something that’s honest, interior, and aggressive.
Catch Allison Wolfe on tour with Dubais and the Wolfs, supported by Knight of the Comet (feat. Jon Slade of Huggy Bear)
Interview conducted with Allison Wolfe via Skype, by Cassie Fox (with help from Ernie the cat, and hindrance from Dylan and Griff Fox)