September 1, 2016

Interview: Alice Bag

An interview with the legendary Alice Bag.

Alice Bag isn’t just a seasoned musician debuting her first solo release a remarkable 40 years after she first stepped foot into the spotlight. She is a vital link in American culture representing second-wave feminism and the creation of two music genres: punk and death rock. As Gloria Steinem was changing perspectives on gender for the mainstream, Alice Bag was redefining possibilities for women in music at full volume to the disenfranchised. Born in 1958, Bag is the daughter of Mexican immigrant parents and also embodies the next generation of strong Chicana voices. Alice Bag is not a flash in the pan, as she has embodied female leadership and groundbreaking art for four decades. If we pull back the microscope focus a bit farther for context, flower power was wilting across the world by the late seventies. A young generation of Americans were badly bruised by the disastrous Vietnam War and economic hardship that included an energy crisis as well as high unemployment. By 1977, this disillusioned group watched Jimmy Carter enter the White House, the kings of rock and glam die (Elvis Presley and Marc Bolan respectively), and the Sex Pistols have just released Never Mind the Bollocks. The landscape around them was changing and they stormed music venues of all shapes and sizes with an electric battle cry.

Enter punk. Women didn't just play a part in this DIY community; they were equal partners to their male counterparts in the birth of this historic music subculture. Alicia Armendariz, later to be christened Alice Bag, was at the forefront of this movement for the next two decades. She goes down in history as the first woman to front a band that performed at the legendary punk club The Masque in Hollywood, CA. However, Bag's creative timeline began in 1966 when she sang professionally on cartoon theme songs recorded in both English and in Spanish. Her first band, The Bags, took shape 11 years later and reached worldwide attention after their inclusion in Penelope Spheeris' 1981 famed cult SoCal punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. Following the demise of The Bags in the early ‘80s, Alice continued to play in a series of bands: Castration Squad, The Boneheads, Alarma, Cambridge Apostles, Swing Set, and more. It's important to note here that Bag doesn’t just sing, but also writes her own music and plays multiple instruments.

Music, however, is only a portion of her legacy. In the mid-'90s after the birth of her daughter, she founded At Home Bomb, an all-female community safe space that addressed social constraints put on women both domestically and in the arts. She went on to compile her many personal stories into a riveting memoir entitled Violence Girl in 2008 and then released a second book, Pipe Bomb for the Soul in 2015. A former inner city bilingual school teacher, she is also an activist, a painter, a mother/wife, and continues to document the scene she helped found via multiple social media outlets. Bag continues to inspire new generations of musicians and feminists alike. This brings us to the present day. 2016 is the year Alice Bag delivered fans her first solo album, a self-titled collection of material on Don Giovanni Records that was years in the making. The result is a musical memoir that mirrors her life in many ways. While much of the material found here is inspired by the ‘60s girl groups she grew up listening to, she also bridges this classic female pop style to a more raw attack that fans have grown to expect from her as a punk icon. I was thrilled to recently have the opportunity to ask Bag a series of questions via email about her newest creative venture and how it connects to her fascinating past.

The Le Sigh: Congratulations on your first solo record! You have been making music for four decades but I can imagine creating a record that is 100% all yours for the first time can be incredibly daunting. What was that creative journey like and how many years did it take to all come together? 

Alice Bag: Thank you! Making the record was a lot of work but it was hugely rewarding and even though I wrote all the songs myself, I don't think the record is 100% all mine. I'm fortunate to have had many talented friends who played on it. They took my song ideas and made them come to life. I didn't set out to write a solo album. I've been writing songs for a long time, usually for specific bands that I happened to be playing with. A few years back, I was living in Arizona and when I first moved there, I didn't know anyone. There were times when I felt pretty isolated and I had to find solitary ways to be creative. The solitude actually proved to be very productive: I wrote my first book during that time, took up oil painting, and I also stepped up my songwriting. Many of the songs on the album are from the time period when I was living in Arizona. Once I selected the songs I wanted on the record, I tried to match them up with the right musicians. I based those decisions on style and what I thought would serve the song best. Deciding to team up with a record label happened near the very end of the process. I was planning to press the record myself but Sharif Dumani, who plays lead guitar on my record and who is also part of the band Sex Stains, recommended that I contact Don Giovanni. As soon I started talking to Joe Steinhardt at Don Giovanni, I knew it would be a good match.

TLS: Self-identity evolves over a lifetime. It's an obvious foundation to any artist and the work they produce. A young musician is still finding their way in life on and off the stage but as an adult you don’t have those same distractions from the creative process. In theory you no longer have those pesky insecurities to get in the way of writing or performing. When you know who you are, you no longer worry about what people think of you and the sky's the limit in a sense. I am wondering if you feel those freedoms now, a deeper sense of self to pull from, and if there are any new hurdles that took you by surprise while making this record? 

AB: There are no happily ever afters. There are some advantages to age and experience: they can certainly make you stronger, more resilient, and hopefully, wiser, but there are always going to be challenges that will test you. I am more confident than ever at 56 but not as physically fit as I was at 18. I feel very secure about my music and who I am but I'm also aware that change is inevitable and unpredictable. It can happen through conscious choice or it can happen when you're not paying attention, so I pay attention. I'd like to be in the driver's seat.

I didn't come across any major hurdles making the record. Of course, it was all new territory for me. Sometimes that meant delays or a little extra research had to be done but I kept my eye on the finish line and as much as possible, I tried to eliminate any distractions. Once I have a clear goal, I'm pretty single-minded about it until I accomplish it. Exercising patience has been a big advantage, and definitely something that I've learned SLOWLY with age. These days, I'm more likely to play the long game. I'm still not the most patient person but I've learned to delay gratification because getting something done right sometimes entails waiting.

TLS: Vocalists often get pigeonholed as being just a singer. Do you play multiple instruments and is there one instrument you depend on most when songwriting? Did you start playing an instrument first and evolve into singing or was it the other way around? 

AB: Musical instruments have been demystified for me. By that I mean that I am never intimidated to pick up any instrument and make sounds with it. Playing is the easy part. I can play any instrument, it's practicing that's difficult! I took piano lessons as a child and I understand how chords work, how melody and harmony work, and that knowledge has helped me a lot over the years, especially when it comes to songwriting. I write most of my songs on guitar or piano. I think a lot of what I do is intuitive. For me, creativity is taking a departure from what is known, it's exploring the unknown. When I first started learning to play guitar I would pluck each string until I combined them to create a sound I liked. At that point, I would make up a name for the chord; "Betsy" was one of my favorites. I had another chord which I named "Bucktooth," because my middle and ring fingers jutted out in front of the others and reminded me of two front teeth sticking out. I also had one named "Twinsy," because two fingers were on one fret and the other two were on another fret, like two pairs of twins. When I would play my songs for seasoned musicians, I'd often get compliments because the chords I was using were unusual, jazzy, possibly weird, but definitely creative.

TLS: I am very familiar with a lot of the artists you pulled inspiration from as a kid like Bowie, Elton John, Queen, and '60s girl groups, but Ranchera music is a genre I know very little about. Could you tell me about the style of music and some of the artists that still inspire you? 

AB: Ranchera music is often played by a mariachi, usually reflecting the lifestyle of the Mexican working class. Some songs date back to revolutionary times, others are more modern. I think the reason I connected to Ranchera style is because they are delivered with a lot of passion! It's the type of singing that comes from your gut, it's visceral, and while some songs require the vocalist to have to control and range most people who like Rancheras will forgive lack of technique in favor of a genuinely emotive delivery. In that sense, it is very much like punk rock. Some of my favorites include: Monedita de Oro, Cuando el Destino, Por un Amor, Reloj, No Volvere.

TLS: You are also a pioneer of the American death rock movement (Castration Squad / Cambridge Apostles) but that seems to get much less attention than your punk rock roots. It was a subgenre to LA punk but I am curious to know what else culturally was feeding into this gothic scene and what drew you to it in the first place? 

AB: Yes, Castration Squad was the mommy dearest of death rock. I was pulled into Castration Squad because my former roommate, Shannon Wilhelm and my former bandmate Patricia Morrison created it. I remember Patricia and I reading Dracula, Interview with a Vampire, and numerous other bloodsucker stories during our senior year in high school. I remember it vividly because we made so many detailed plans to visit New Orleans. We were both fascinated with the genre. I think Patricia might've actually believed in vampires at one point as she confessed to sleeping with a knee-high sock tied around her neck so vampires would not bite her at night. A couple of years later when I lived with Shannon, she introduced me to the work of Stephen King, The Shining was the first book of his that I read but I was hooked after that. I think horror stories had a big influence on the death rock aesthetic. I'm sure classic vampire films also shaped how we imagined death rock. Patricia, with her long black hair and pale skin always looked like a beautiful, seductive vampire. Of course, Mary Sims, who went by the name Bat Thing in our band, later changed her name to Dinah Cancer and fronted 45 Grave. She also had an enormous influence on Castration Squad's aesthetic and death rock in general.

TLS: You have been a part of so many groundbreaking American music scenes and you have a passion for documenting it all. As a record collector myself I have to ask you, have you been collecting records for all these years? 

AB: I used to be an avid collector of books and records. Then one day, the rain went through the roof, ruining many of my books and LP covers. I was really upset about it but I eventually I figured out that I had to detach from collecting things. I understand the instinct to collect but I fight it, the only area where I'm losing that fight is with shoes. But I don't think of them as collectible, they're more consumable. That being said, I have managed to hold onto a few of my favorite LP's and 45's from the 1970's, but I wouldn't describe my collection as anything special.

TLS: You have thoughtfully shared much of your life with fans through your blog and books. You are incredibly unique because your play dual roles as both an artist and a scene archivist. Your historical first hand knowledge and personal collections rival that of a curated museum exhibition reflecting an American music subculture. Do you have a single favorite music related photo or treasured possession and if so which one is it and why is it so important to you? 

AB: I have a button from John Doe's jeans that I think is pretty special. I remember being at a party when X first started playing in Hollywood and they had handmade many pin-backed buttons to give to their friends and fans. I got to the party late and John Doe came up to greet me. "Where's your X button?" he asked me. I responded that I didn't have one so he ran around the room looking for a button to give me. He came back and told me they had given them all away. I must have looked disappointed because he proceeded to rip a loose button from the fly of his jeans, grabbed a safety pin and pinned the button to my lapel. I was impressed!

TLS: You started in music, moved into writing, and have also begun to make visual art. Is there one medium that you feel best expressed through or do they all play a unique and important role in your life? 

AB: Music has always been my first love. It was my refuge as a child. My childhood was pretty bleak, I grew up with domestic violence. The neighborhood kids saw the police come to our house to arrest my dad on numerous occasions, they heard or saw my mom being beaten, they saw me crying. I couldn't stand the looks, the judgement, the gossip, so I think I built a barrier between myself and them. I felt different, freakish, and very isolated as a kid but I remember having a music teacher who encouraged me and made me feel good about myself. Music was a source of self-esteem. The first job I ever had came to me through music. I sang for bilingual cartoons made by a company called Sutherland Productions when I was still in elementary school. I was paid a hundred dollars and I thought I was rich - it was the 1960's and I was in elementary school, so I was rich!

TLS: You have embraced technology to its fullest by blogging, posting on various social media sites, and crowd sourcing funds so you could make your new record. Is there anything on the technology horizon that you are excited to explore? What comes next for you? 

AB: I'm fortunate that my husband and daughters are all pretty tech savvy. I'm actually the least knowledgeable one in my family but it helps to have tutors in the family. I've been told that I should try Snapchatting so I will probably try my hand at that.

TLS: Has it been surreal to watch punk morph from an obscure niche youth movement snowball into a genre of music accepted and appropriated by the mainstream? You also have had the unique opportunity to be a women in music when it was far less common than it is now. Do you feel like women in music are more accepted now or are we still as fetishized in a way that diminishes and objectifies our gender? 

AB: I feel very fortunate to have been involved in a scene that was co-created by unapologetic, assertive women. It was disheartening to see women lose ground in the 1980's and watch a bunch of dudes take it over. It was a one-two punch: an overdose of testosterone and then the big record companies moving in for the kill. I think if you had asked me during those years, I would have said punk was dead. It was hard finding the pulse for a while, but it hung on and is as vital as ever!

Listen to Alice Bag on soundcloud.

TKW is a member of member of the band Positive No, Atta-GIRL! blogger, sometimes a DJ, and can be found in the record shops of Richmond, VA or here @lightningsgirl.