An Interview with Alice Bag: Chicana Punk Maverick

Legendary musician Alice Bag is releasing her first-ever solo album. Photo by Greg Velasquez.

Born Alicia Armendariz, Alice Bag was 19 years old when she became the frontperson for one of Los Angeles's most riotous punk acts, The Bags. Beside her BFF Patricia Morrison—who would later play in legendary bands The Damned and Sisters of Mercy—Bag played a crucial role during the early years of L.A. punk as both a loyal scenester and a harsh critic. Bag, a Chicana from East Los Angeles, used her music to traverse issues of gender, race, and class, which she would later dissect further in her 2011 memoir, Violence Girl: From East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story, and her 2015 book, Pipe Bomb For the Soul.

Bag's contributions to punk rock history would certainly not end with The Bags. After their dissolution in 1981, she went on to found Castration Squad and Cambridge Apostles. Then, along with black queercore icon Vaginal Davis, she sang in ¡Cholita! The Female Menudo, and she later continued to sing with many other bands. Now, nearly 40 years since her music career began, Bag is releasing her first solo record. Out this June, Bag's self-titled debut LP showcases the eclectic musical style she's cultivated over time as well as her progressive political platform. Her latest single, “Poisoned Seed,” is a snarling fight song aimed at Monsanto, whose genetically-modified seeds and dubious business practices have come under heavy scrutiny. Meanwhile, the cheeky anti-rape anthem “No Means No” and '60s pop–inflected “He’s So Sorry” possess a dark, feminist Schoolhouse Rock! vibe.

I recently chatted with Bag about L.A. punk, Latina feminism, and why she finally decided to release her very first solo album in 2016.

SUZY EXPOSITO:  Your writing, as well as your new music, are both heavily informed by your experience as a school teacher for over 20 years. Are you still teaching?

ALICE BAG: Actually, I stopped teaching in 2011 when [Violence Girl] was about to be released. I knew I wanted to support the book and that meant touring. I worked with elementary school kids. I didn't think it was fair to my students for me to take time off repeatedly to tour, so I decided not to renew my contract.

Another reason I stopped teaching was that I disagreed with the way I was being asked to teach. There was a lot of emphasis on rote learning, and increasingly large chunks of time were devoted to preparing children to take tests. Some of the things that I felt were important—like critical thinking skills—were being ignored. I think children benefit from developing their home language and need to have more opportunities for hands-on, active learning and exploration.

But when I go out on book tours and speak to students, it feels like I'm teaching again. It's wonderful to get into discussions with college students who've read my book. As artists, we sometimes have opportunities to spark discussions about the changes we'd like to see. I've been able to do that through my music and touring, so in a way, I guess I'm still teaching, I'm just not in a classroom anymore. Now two of my three daughters are teachers. But my middle daughter, Chelsea, sings.

She was singing for El Vez—a.k.a. the former lead singer of The Zeros.

Yes! I'm a former backup singer for El Vez, too. When Robert Lopez [El Vez] was looking for a backup singer, I had recommended my daughter Chelsea. I think she did one or two gigs and decided it wasn't for her. But she ended up singing backup on my album.

Working with El Vez is a learning experience. He is just a consummate performer, so organized. He thinks of every part of the show—not just the music, but all his moves. It's all part of a plan. It's not like me. I go on stage and say “I wanna see what happens!”

You've been in so many different bands in the last 40 years. What finally made you decide to record a solo album?

I was in a rut. I usually only make music when I'm in a band. Which is wonderful, but it's completely different. With a band you have to work towards consensus, you need a similar vision. I've been doing it for years and I love it and I really thrive in that situation…But after doing my own book tour, I figured out that I could do something on my own. I was boarding a plane to Chicago for a book reading, and I tweeted out, “Does anybody know a guitar player in Chicago? I'd love to play at this record store.” When I got to the record store, there was a guitar player waiting for me, who I'd never met, who learned the song in the back room.

Who contributed to your new album?

I have this big binder full of songs I've written over the years. Although most of the songs on my album are pretty new. I went song by song and thought, Who would be perfect to play on this? Luckily most people I asked were able to do it. I'm happy with the way it came out. My daughter Chelsea and another singer Genevieve Atkerson, they sing on the sweeter songs. Then I got my punk posse, including Allison Wolfe from Bratmobile, dancer Mecca Vazie Andrews, and Cristina Shallcross.

A vintage photo of Alice Bag performing at the Hong Kong Cafe. Photo courtesy Alice Bag.

It's not just punk, either—it sounds like a patchwork of all these different sounds you've been experimenting with since 1977. It's like the Best of Alice Bag.

Thank you! I tried to pick stuff that would be cohesive. I have stuff that I've written that sounds…country. I thought, It might not really fit here. But I've been pushing boundaries. I have a song that feels like samba to me, and next to it a punk song. Then on the other side I have a song that sounds like Mexican pop. It's very eclectic, but it's all stuff that's influenced me. Punk really shaped me during a particular time in my life. But when I was growing up, I was listening to Mexican pop, I was listening to soul music. I think of it as a quilt.

I don't think there's any one way to sound punk. But you've always found to a way to insert a punky element into whatever music you've made, whether it's one of your Mexican folk ballads. But there's something inherently defiant about it.

I think that's just my nature! I'm defiant by nature.

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You used crowdfunding to record this album yourself, then took the product to Don Giovanni Records. How was your experience in using this new method?

I had reservations going this route. I felt like it was panhandling. I could hear my parents just saying, “No! You don't beg for money.” I was having a conversation about this with my friend from the band Quetzal. He talked to me and said, “If you do a Kickstarter, you're giving someone a chance to support you as an artist, to build a community. You can have your product be a premium, so that people who would be buying your record anyway would help generate the process.” And it really worked! I liked that whenever I would post an update saying, “Hey, we're done recording, we're done mastering tracks,” I would receive positive feedback from people who had pledged. I felt like people were waiting for my record! And I wanted to give them something they would feel proud to have produced!

I decided to go with Don Giovanni to release my records, not just because I heard they were a great company. It's because I went two routes with my books: The last one I self-published, but the first one I went with a publisher. When I self-published, I had to do a lot of the legwork that my publisher had done, and it limited my reach. I didn't want to have that happen with this. It's not for everybody—some bands can get in a van, tour across the country, and sell records that way. I'm a solo artist, so it's harder. I wanted some support with distribution. I decided to channel some funds into other things, like a video. I've never done a music video!

Let's talk a bit about Violence Girl! You wrote about some really colorful and sometimes contentious interactions with people in the L.A. punk scene. Have you reconnected with any of them since publishing the book?

I've reconnected with lots of them! I haven't had anybody get angry and confront me about the book. Although there was one person I called out for racism in the book—Exene Cervenka's friend, the one that the song [X's “Los Angeles”] is written about, Farrah Fawcett Minor—she wrote something on Facebook saying I lied and exaggerated. I was like, “I'm right here, come and talk to me.” But she didn't talk to me or speak to me directly.

That's how it usually is!

I just figure: If you have a truth to tell, speak up. It's like these people right now who are trolling me for my new song, “Poisoned Seed.” They're like, “You're lying about Monsanto! GMOs are wonderful!” I just think that, if your product is so great, why don't you label your product honestly? Speak up!

You’ve been keeping an ongoing interview project called the Women in L.A. Punk Archives. How has that been going? Were there any epiphanies or surprises while talking to these women you shared a scene with?

I've been doing the Women in L.A. Punk interviews since 2004. I have dozens of interviews in my archives, but they're not all online right now. I completely updated my website in 2016 and the old interviews have been going up one at a time. The process of interviewing the women who shaped the early L.A. punk scene is ongoing. I constantly run into old friends who agree to do the interview and then get sidetracked. I consider it a work in progress.

I was surprised to learn that some of the women in the band Backstage Pass had been cosigners on the [legendary L.A. punk venue] Masque lease and helped to transform the space through their physical labor. Brendan Mullen ran the Masque as a rehearsal and performance venue, but it was much more than that…the Masque was a sort of clubhouse for punks where a lot of creative endeavors took shape. Alliances were formed and collaborations happened there. It was a community meeting space where one could go and find like-minded individuals. The Masque might not have happened if it wasn't for those ladies in Backstage Pass. Their contributions cannot be overlooked, and yet many of us who were there weren't aware of this fact.

You were recently on a panel at RuPaul's DragCon, correct? Can you give a synopsis about the things you discussed regarding the intersections between punk and drag?

Some of the participants expressed the view that early punk, like drag, was made up of people who felt like outsiders in their neighborhoods or even within their own families. Many of us felt rejected because we were quirky, artistic, or gay. You know that old saying, “the nail that sticks out get hammered”? We were the nails that stuck out but refused to be hammered down. Instead, we found our families, we found our strength in punk and drag.

I believe that with punk and drag, you challenge society by just being yourself. Your personal creative expression is seen by some as an affront because it threatens their sense of security, it threatens the beliefs and assumptions of people who embrace the status quo. It can even be frightening and elicit violent reactions. Some of the panelists spoke about being called names, being bullied, and the very real violence that can erupt when people act from a place of ignorance and fear.

I also stated that while the look of punk or drag can be commercialized and mass produced, the experience of living as a punk or a drag queen can be transformative. Punk and drag help us to understand that we have the power to shape our world and create our own reality. That knowledge is not something that can be bought or sold.

You've helped propel what I think is a resurgence of Latina pride, particularly in punk/alternative music. Can you talk about some Latinas doing important work right now?

I just went to see this band Fea last night, they're made up of two members from Girl In A Coma. They're really cool, very exciting to watch, and I helped produce their new EP. I also love the work of the Ovarian Psycos. They're this biker group that takes to the streets—they do bike rides to show Latina solidarity and make women feel safe on the streets, especially at night. They do events at their meeting place called La Concha; they talk about food issues and issues that affect women of color. I also adore Chicas Rockeras—it's a Girls Rock Camp in East L.A. I volunteered last summer, and I'm volunteering this summer, too. They really help local girls find their voice. Those are three groups I find approaching feminism in a novel way.

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by Suzy X
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Suzy Exposito is a writer, illustrator and musician in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently the online producer at Rolling Stone. She was previously the assistant editor at MTV Iggy and has contributed to Pitchfork, Rookie Mag, and Bitch. She volunteers regularly at Girls Rock! camp and once fronted NYC punk band Shady Hawkins. She graduated from the New School in 2011 with a BA in Writing and a minor in Gender Studies.

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