photo from the Bratmobile site
As frontwoman for the three-girl attack known as Bratmobile, Allison Wolfe was one of the founders of the early '90's riot grrl movement. Combining feminist politics with punk energy and a pop sensibility, the riot grrls launched a do-it-yourself underground revolution with a kickass soundtrack. On their 1993 album Pottymouth and 1994 EP The Real Janelle (both on Kill Rock Stars), as well as various singles, Wolfe, along with guitarist Erin Smith and drummer Molly Neuman, lead a movement of feisty, feminist rock and rollers in an invasion of the punk rock boys' club. The band broke up in 1994, but reunited in 1999, and has since produced two albums on Lookout! records (which Neuman co-owns), 2000's Ladies, Women and Girls and 2002's Girls Get Busy.
Interview by Amy Phillips with Irin Carmon
Allison Wolfe is an inspiration. Watching her on stage at the Knitting Factory in New York City last September, dressed and dancing like the coolest cheerleader ever, I wanted to form my own band, get up there, and rock out. And talking to her before the show about art, activism, and being a woman, I wanted to change the world.
Q: Would you consider yourself a feminist?
Q: What's your definition of feminism?
Survival. Self-preservation. Women respecting themselves and respecting each other. Recognizing sexism as a societal problem and resisting it and fighting against it. [Women] standing up for themselves and other women.
Q: Are you punk, and what's your definition of punk?
(Laughs) I don't know, that's a harder one. I would like to think of myself as punk, although I'm sure there's all sorts of things I do that aren't necessarily punk, or are annoying, or wasteful, or corporate, or whatever. To me, it's all about an attitude and a lifestyle. It's about doing things yourself, not using corporate means and not bowing down to corporate expectations. Fighting the power, working against the system. You know. (Laughs) Something vague like that.
Q: What is the song "Shop For America" (on Girls Get Busy) about?
Well, I think the sickest thing [about the reaction to the September 11, 2001 attacks] is all the businesses and corporations who are using this to sell their products. They're waving that American flag and being like "Shop for America! Boost the economy! If you cared about all these people who were murdered, then you would buy a Subway sandwich!" When all is said and done, it's business as usual. It's the most disgusting thing I've ever seen. People shoving flags down your throat, and that's supposed to mourn the victims. To me, that looks more like a big football game, big jingoistic bullshit. I just can't conform to that. I'm sure, of the people who died on the planes, there were plenty of radicals or people who hated George W. Bush and hated Giuliani and who don't want a goddamn flag to be remembered by. I know that if I had died that way, I would be coming back to haunt a bunch of people, and I would be burning their flags. I would be so upset if someone that I knew or loved died in that, and someone was trying to wave a flag or pass right-wing policies in their name. It would make me crazy.
And even as horrible as [the attacks] were, it pales in comparison to what the U.S. and U.S.- sanctioned death squads and dictators do to people all over the world. Our foreign policy has consequences. Although I don't agree with terrorism, and I don't think what people did to the World Trade Center or the Pentagon was justified, I still think that it is a bit of the chickens coming home to roost. And it really makes me sick, when Bush and Giuliani and all these people refuse to acknowledge voices of resistance, voices like Howard Zinn and Michael Moore and Susan Sontag, people who speak out against U.S. policies.
Q: Do you consider yourself an activist first, or an artist first, or is there even a difference? How important is it to be one or the other?
To me, it's pretty important that they both are high on the list. But I guess probably activism is even more important, because I don't feel like that much of an artist most of the time. (Laughs) I think it's really important for people to be creative even just for creativity's sake, as an outlet, an expression. But it's also really important for people to be politicized and to be thinking of things politically when they're creating things, or when they're doing whatever in their life. There's plenty of things that you can do to protest or to change the world, or to change your world, or you and your friends' world. You start small, you start in your own backyard, you start in your own community and do what you can. It's everyday little acts of resistance that are important.
Q: How do you feel about your generation of feminists, and what has your relationship been to older waves of feminism?
I was raised by my mother and my sisters, [my mother] was a radical lesbian/feminist activist, you know, dragging us to No Nukes rallies and getting our faces painted. I saw and hung out with all these second wave '70's feminist types, and I think that had a profound influence on me. When I finally came into my own, I definitely went the middle-class "I am in a Women's Studies class in college" route. It was cool, but it didn't exactly speak to me on my terms. It was too academic, it was too, you know, '70's, or whatever. We were forced to use the word 'woman,' and if we ever used the word 'girl' or 'lady' or whatever, that was not okay, that was disrespectful. I was like, we have to be allowed to use our own language and we have to be allowed to use examples that speak to us and things that speak to our lives and our experiences. So that was how I saw it. But I'm not against the second wave or the first wave or whatever you want to call it. I don't really believe in the "waves," I think it's more consistent than that. I guess as I get older, I have more appreciation for older feminists, too.
Q: Looking back, what is your take on the riot grrl movement of the early '90's? Do you think anything like that still exists?
For me, the importance of riot grrrl was to make feminism more punk, and to make punk more feminist. But I feel like it sort of had to do with an era, with the early '90's. A lot of people have gone their separate ways and isolated themselves somewhat and are doing their own things individually, maybe for their own gain. I don't think that it's wrong necessarily to just want comfort in your life, and to finally have success, but sometimes you feel like a community that you once thought you had is all gone now, and maybe it was built on false premises. It's kind of sad. I'm friends with some of those people still, but it's not like we're close, it's not like we really talk about things politically very often. It's hard. That was sort of why I've tried to bring about this whole Ladyfest thing. To me, it's sort of like a riot grrl reunion, but with younger women and some of the older school punk women working together. It's a lot of hard work, there's a lot of infighting and what not, and it's not a perfect model, (nor was riot grrrl), but I think in a way there is some community-building there. It's cool because a lot of women bands come, and there's networking, and you get to hang out, and things get to happen, and you are working together. But for me personally, it's sometimes hard to regroup and to find my community again.
Q: What is the song "Punk Rock Dream Come True" (from Pottymouth) about?
I wrote it about how girls go out with a guy in a band and they think that's cool or they have it made but really the guy is just a jerk. I think it was something along those lines. Being disillusioned and also realizing you have to become your own punk rock dream come true. You need to respect yourself and be your own star, your own hero.
Q: Girls Get Busy sounds so much fuller and more polished than previous Bratmobile albums. How did you achieve that sound?
All I have to say is I have discovered doubled vocals! I think it makes everything sound a hundred percent better. But also, we had keyboards and bass and we were at a nicer studio, and we took more time to write the songs, we took more time to practice and we took more time to record. We've always done things in a rushed way, like, practice once and go on tour, practice three times and record an album. So this time we definitely said "let's do it right this time."
Q: What bands are you excited about right now?
We just did a Midwest tour with a couple bands. Gravy Train!!!-- they're awesome! They're from Oakland, California and we're friends with them and they are incredible. They are actually going to be doing their next album or their next recording on Kill Rock Stars. Check them out if you can. Also, Chris, the singer from XBXRX from Alabama, he's doing a solo thing now that's called the Hawny Truth which is like funny. It's really awesome. A lot of California bands. This band called Numbers also from the Bay Area. Erase Errata I love. They just get better and better each time I see them. The Quails also from San Francisco. The Gossip. The Locust. It's all these West Coast things. I like the bands we're playing with tonight: Measles Mumps Rubella, they're a new band from DC, it's kinda new wave-ish. And then the Rah Bras from Richmond, VA. So that's a lot of stuff that's really exciting to me right now. Oh! My sister's band, Tennessee Twin. Yeah, I have a twin sister. She's the singer, it's a country band. She lives in Vancouver, Canada. They have an album out on Mint records. She sings better than me!
Q: You have a tattoo on your arm that says "Mom," with a rose. Is there a story behind it?
Well it's a sad story. It's my one tattoo, first and last. A friend of mine named C.J., he lives in Olympia, and works at this place called Tiki Tattoo, he did it for free. My mother was sick a few years ago, or more than that now. She got ovarian cancer and so I got this when she was very sick, and she died after that. She's been dead about two years now. So it was for her. I got it before she died, and she liked it. She was really awesome. My mom started the first womens' health clinic in Olympia, WA. It was run by women nurse practitioners for, by and about women. They did some of the first rape exams, before the hospitals did them, and abortions. She was real dedicated to women's health care her whole life. She would do health care in women's prison, she'd go give lectures and speeches and she'd march in the gay pride parade. She was an activist and would speak out on a lot of things.
Q: What a great person to grow up with.
It's hard because I'm always so angry, like, why did my mom have to die so young? But I know I'm lucky to have had her even for the time I did because a lot of people have parents that they're not happy with or that were really hard to grow up with. So I'm lucky.
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