Mainstream culture’s biggest mistake with Riot Grrrl was its assumption that after it had been given its moment in the sun, it would just have the good sense to roll over and die. Never was it proven more wrong than in the case of Bratmobile.
Eleven years after their first show, eight years after breaking up, and two years after re-forming (with all three of the original members—Allison Wolfe on vocals, Erin Smith on guitar, and Molly Neuman on drums), Bratmobile haven’t returned as a pale shadow of a band, content to ride their reputation and sell a smattering of albums under the name they had established for themselves in the ‘90s. On the contrary, they are more focused, vitriolic and energized than ever; unapologetic activists and straight-up rockers. Higher production values and back-up musicians expanded the range of sound on their 2000 come-back album, Ladies, Women and Girls and proved to spectators that not every band that returned from Limbo was obliged to offer as pathetic and generally worthless a contribution as the Sex Pistols. Their new album, Girls Get Busy adds back-up vocals to the mix, keeps the politics current and kicks the living shit out of those who said that their come-back was bought with a ticket that read “Good For One Album Only.”
Brattish children get accused of acting out and not playing by everyone else’s rules; Bratmobile have made a career out of it. A decade ago they told the media they “ain’t gonna be yr press darlings /I’d rather be fucked and throwin’ things”; this time out they’re letting everyone know, “We don’t listen to what you say … Girls make music, we’re here to stay. Alright?”
Discorder: Two of the songs on your new album—“Shop For America” and “United We Don’t”—address the change of attitude in America, post 9-11. Not only that, but they carry an attitude that runs completely contrary to the one in the popular media. How has it gone over?
Allison: You got it. I find that at our shows, people are really psyched about those songs. I mean, we’ve only been playing “Shop For America” live, but as time goes on I think people more and more are finally not being afraid to express that they know what Bush is up to is total bullshit. You can’t believe the hype. The media’s parroting the current administration, which is completely right-wing. They totally took advantage of this tragedy—of all these people dying—and have been using it to exploit their right-wing agenda and to push all sorts of “1984” policies right through. It’s really scary—I think we’re living in a really scary time—especially living in Washington, DC where it’s pretty conservative. People just ate that shit up. They bought it hook, line and sinker, and to me it was such an obvious lie. I couldn’t believe how flag-waving cowboys were running amok all over DC and the US. I couldn’t believe it. It was almost laughable except it was scary. And so, I just felt, as an artist of some sort and being in a band, the least we could do was write a song about it. I mean if you’re not just absolutely rioting in the streets about it the least you can do is write a song. And I’ve been going to protests, and I’ve been spray-painting, and I’ve been wheat-pasting, you know? But we have to do a whole lot more. There’s people like Michael Moore and Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, and a lot of people speaking out about it that I’m really grateful for, but I think we need a lot more musicians speaking out and so, a friend of mine and I in DC, we’ve started a group called Bands Against Bush. It’s pretty informal, but it’s like “Rock Against Reagan”—we’re trying to bring the whole “Rock Against Reagan” sentiments back.
As one of the bands that’s credited for kick-starting Riot Grrrl, how hard was it to keep playing the same style of music after the movement started declining?
I guess it’s been kind of hard because people try to treat everything like it’s a fad, like it’s a commodity. “Oh, it comes and goes; we buy it, we sell it; it’s out, it’s not; it has no value anymore.” In this extreme capitalist economy, people’s creative energy just turns into a commodity; it’s really sad. And especially with Riot Grrrl—it’s like, in a lot of ways it parallels or it means feminism. To me it meant young, punk rock feminism. So it’s like, how could feminism just be a fad? If sexism is a fad, then I don’t think that feminism can be the answer to it; it’s not easy. So, yeah, it’s been kind of hard, especially in the late-‘90s when everything became “singer/song-writer” and “sophistication” and “shoe-gazer” and whatever—it was a hard time to exist. At that time, Erin and I were doing Cold Cold Hearts and then we started Bratmobile again, and a lot of people are weird about the minimalism, but I think that’s cool and I just want to be a stripped-down punk rock band. I think that’s cool. And I think we have changed over the years—people try to say “Oh, they’re just the same,” and it’s like, “No, we’re not.” If you put the records right next to each other, it’s not the same.
Your last two albums have showed a consistent swing toward more professional production, and, with the inclusion of Audrey on keyboards, a fuller sound. Were those intentional choices?
Yeah. Molly and I had the idea to start playing with Audrey, as of the last record, and I’m really into all these bands that are using keyboards now—I was always really into ‘80s music anyway, so it’s kind of cool. I feel it gives it a more new-wavey aspect which I’ve always been heavily influenced by. You know, bands like Bow Wow Wow, the Go-Go’s—even though those didn’t necessarily have keyboards. The Human League, Duran Duran. So, it was really exciting to me, plus I’ve always wanted to have help with singing. I’ve always wanted someone to help me with backups, and Erin and Molly have great voices and they’ll do it on the record, but I don’t think they feel comfortable doing it live, so it’s great to have Audrey helping out in that way—filling out the sound a little and making it a little bit different because I don’t want to be resistant to change; I want to be a punk rock band, but I want us to be able to grow and change a little bit.
Feminism has already moved into a self-described “fourth wave” past the third wave that included Riot Grrrl. Bratmobile tends to get lumped in with third wave musically, whereas Sleater-Kinney are held at the forefront of the fourth wave. Does it bother you that you’re cubbyholed as a Riot Grrrl band while your friends and contemporaries are seen to have somehow moved past that?
Well, yeah, in a way it’s weird because I think that the first wave of Bratmobile was influential to a lot of the bands who are so popular now, but Corin, who’s in Sleater-Kinney, was also part of the whole Riot Grrrl thing; so was Kathleen, who’s in Le Tigre. So in a lot of ways, sometimes people will pretend like we’re old and those guys are new or young or something and it’s like, “No, we were all there together.” And, I mean, sure—we reformed and kept the same name, but I don’t think the music we’re doing is exactly the same. I also don’t feel the need to be totally trendy and just keep up with the tempo. “Oh! Now we have to be sophisticated!” or “Now we have to have samples!” I mean, we have keyboards, but it’s ‘cuz it’s fun but it’s still punk. I don’t feel like we have to be a drum-machine band because to me it just wouldn’t feel real; it wouldn’t feel right. I mean, I’m fine with those bands doing it, but I think the media just tends to grab tokens. Like any marginalized group, they treat it like there’s not enough room for all of us. “There’s only room for Sleater-Kinney! They are the only girl band that deserves any respect.” or “Le Tigre is the only girl band that exists right now.” And it’s not fair to anyone. Those bands didn’t ask for that characterization either.
In “I’m In The Band,” you use the line, “And I’ll be punk for the rest of my life.” Will you be?
I think I might be. If I don’t get my butt back in grad school, I might have to be. [Laughs] •