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Alison Wolfe

February 5th, 2004 · post by natalie · Make a comment

Alison Wolfe to many people is a legend in her own right. she was involved in the riot grrrl movement of the early 90s with her zines, music and other activities, even being attributed the claim of coining the name; and with her band Bratmobile which combines feminism, politics neat little hand claps and having fun and is now involved in Hawney Troof. She always seems to have a project on the go. She has helped on rape crisis units and was involved in the first Ladyfest back in 2000 which has now come up in a variety of locations all over America and Europe. She’s just one very cool lady. Interview done over the phone on February 07th 2004.

RN: You’re on tour at the moment, yeah?
A: Yeah, we’re on tour right now.
RN: And that’s with your other band Hawney Troof?
A: Yeah.
RN: What does the name mean?.
A: Well it means like Hawney Truth but it’s Chris Vice Cooler’s, who’s in the band, it’s really his band and I joined up later. He’d been doing it already for at least a year before I joined, so it’s his band and he’s from Alabama, so it’s like a Southern way of saying things, like an Alabama accent or something. I think his idea for naming the band was he thinks up the most ridiculous names possible and he emailed it around to his friends and asked them what they thought and no one picked that name so he decided to go with the one that was the least favourite.

RN: How’s the tour going?
A: It’s been really good. We’re touring right now with this band Mates of State. I think they are from Connecticut, but they actually lived in the Bay Area for a long time. they are a pretty big band over here. It’s probably a little bit of a different scene than we’re in so sometimes a lot of my friends don’t actually know who they are or haven’t heard them before, but they are actually pretty big in this way. And they are on this label called Polyvinyl. They’re good.
RN: So is it quite a big tour?
A: Well its not big but I’d say the crowds are more the level of Bratmobile would do, so with Hawney Troof we’re a lot smaller band and we usually play smaller venues and smaller crowds and things like that and so for us this is bigger .

RN: How are you finding that, combining the bands and it all?
A: Well I guess I’m not really doing too many other things right now. I mean Bratmobile is not really happening any more.
RN: Really, how come?
A: Yeah, well, I don’t know. Molly, the drummer, she was really just diving more headfirst into the music business. She’s the manager of the Donnas, and as you probably know they have signed to a major label so it’s pretty much a full time job what’s she’s doing but she also is co-owner of Lookout Records so she has a lot of stuff that she has to do with that. She also manages The Locust. It’s a totally different kind of thing but she’s real busy with all that so I think she just really didn’t have the time to do the band anymore and I guess her priorities are with the music biz rather than Bratmobile.
RN: Are you sad about that?
A: Yeah. I was kind of sad. It wasn’t really my choice basically but I realised that there were issues and we were sort of not really all getting along that well again. I mean we get along as friends but I think as far as in the touring realm or whatever, we were having a lot of differences, all three of us. Not just with Molly, but with all three of us. I don’t know, we just had differences in how we wanted to do things and all of that.
RN: Where are you focusing on your music at the moment then? What are you wanting to do because you said Hawney Troof isn’t really your band, its someone else’s band so have you got any stuff that you really want to do?
A: Right. Well originally I joined HT just because Bratmobile was breaking up at the time. One of our last tours in the US that Bratmobile did, we did with Gravy Train and with Hawney Troof opening so I guess I really liked what he was doing and I liked the energy and I thought ‘I wanna be part of that’ and I really felt he really needed a back up singer, (laughs.) I thought that it would make it sound really cool. So I basically told him once Bratmobile broke up, I was like ‘You should let me be in your band, you should let me sing back up,’ so I did that and I think at the time I just really didn’t want to stop playing music and I felt with Bratmobile ending there would be nothing going on and I just wanted to keep performing so that’s why I joined that. I think it’s really been fun. After a little while I was starting to feel like ‘Oh id like to be doing something also where I actually write the music, the lyrics or whatever,’ so one thing that we did, both Vice and I, we are doing a thing called Baby Troof. We switched around. It’s more of a project though. We have hardly played. It’s where I write the words, I write the lyrics and I help arrange the music as well. We just programmed all that on the computer. He knows how to do all that but I help decide what all the arrangements are going to be. That was really fun and we actually are releasing a single on the same label that Hawney Troof is on. And we performed that once at Ladyfest Bristol.

RN: Yeah. I guess with the Ladyfest thing were you surprised, did you ever envisage it growing that much.
A: Yeah it was really fun and I had a really great time and I think some really great things have come out of that Ladyfest. It was just really awesome. I was just really impressed because now some of the kids they have this booking agency thing where they book bands from the US who want to tour in England and they have opened a shop that sells clothing and other things that they have made and they are also going to start a café. I guess I’m just really impressed with that. They are going to start a sort of band management agency as well, all DIY. So anyway there was that although Baby Troof hasn’t really done that much it’s kind of hard. Chris or Vice or whatever he wants to call himself lives in Oakland California. I live in Washington DC so its really hard for us to actually write songs together. I remember last time I came out here to California to try to write songs with him it was hard because all of a sudden you have to have this creative energy and it’s like ‘Ok I’m here for a few weeks, so we have to write these songs’ but you don’t always feel it right then. We would like to write some more, maybe actually play a bit more, but also I decided when I was back in Washington DC that I would like to be spending a little bit more time in DC. Hawney Troof has been touring more than Bratmobile, which is crazy because I never expected that. When I joined it I thought this will be a nice side project thing to do but its really taking up a lot of my life right now. Which is cool, but I think I feel a bit more inspired to be doing a bit more stuff where I actually write and I felt I had more of a voice. So I started a band with these two girls in DC are we’re called Party Line. It’s really fun. It’s kinda moving slowly. One is because I’m never around but the other two girls are really busy as well. They work full time jobs and go to school and stuff like that. But when I’m around and when they’re in town too, we will practice like once a week and on the weekends. We played a house party and we finally played our first real show at a club and it actually went really well, a lot of people were coming up to us and were like ‘That was great’ and we were like ‘Oh cool, ok. Maybe we can do this.’ It’s sort of like my standard line up. It’s me singing, this girl Angela playing guitar and this girl Crystal playing drums, so no bass again. (laughs)

RN: When you first started out with Bratmobile did you ever envisage your life turning out this way with so much music and all the different things that you are involved in?
A: I didn’t really. I never really considered myself to be much of a musician. I don’t really know how to play other instruments or instruments. I mean I played clarinet and bass clarinet in middle school and high school and I know how to tune a guitar and play a few chords and I know a few things on piano. It is kinda weird and I also don’t have any kind of trained voice
RN: That’s kinda like the point of punk though?.
A: Right. But it’s so funny when you start realising how many years of your life have been in music and you are not trained or ‘skilled’ in music. But it’s fun and I think it’s really great. I just think that the most important thing is to have a creative outlook because otherwise you’d go crazy and life is so boring without that. I’ve just been fortunate to be able to pull it off for as long as I have. I have jobs, part time jobs, that let me go away and go on tour so much. Sometimes my bosses will get annoyed or whatever but I’ll just try to remind myself that when I look back on my life I’m not going to wish that ‘Oh hey I wish I would have put in more hours at my stupid job’. It’s like I’ll be ‘I’m so glad that I got to go to Europe with a band or got to even just tour the US with a band’ or whatever. I got to see all these things or meet all these people or just play and jump around on stage.

RN: With the riot grrrl thing and kind of like the post riot grrrl thing. What’s your take on it? The way it happened and the way it’s referred to now?
A: Well I think it was a really cool thing because I think in a lot of ways, at least in the Northwest it was sort of a response to the grunge boom that was going on in the Pacific NW of the US at the time. Although we were all part of that whole scene. That’s one thing that’s kinda funny when you see or hear the history, or history makers, and they talk about ‘ahh the NW scene’ and they are always like making it ‘Oh there was the boys doing grunge and they were the voice and then maybe on a minor scale there was the girls doing riot grrrl’ but really in a lot of ways our scenes were all one and the same. We were all kind of combined. But I think it was just we felt in some ways to a lot of guys, and not necessarily to the bands but to the fans, that grunge was just yet another excuse for guys to get macho and take their shirts off and be violent and it was disheartening because it was a lot of bands that we liked and shows that we would go to like The Melvins and Nirvana and whatever, so it was too bad sometimes when the situation of the audience would just be unbearable for women and I think that a lot of us felt like there needed to be female voices and female… I don’t know just some kind of style of music that wasn’t just totally macho. I think a lot of us started talking and organising and everything. It was a really positive thing in a lot of ways. In some ways it ended up eating itself as so many movements do with people fighting and I think the media kind of helped pit girls against each other and also it had it flaws. It wasn’t even that cohesive of a movement. It wasn’t like we had specific goals and all this kind of stuff. A lot of it was just vaguely empowerment of girls and women and maybe more specifically within the punk rock arena so it was probably a bit narrow in scope. But I think it’s important for people to start with their own back yard, their own communities. Try to revolutionise within their own communities anyway.

RN: Do you think now though without it there’s maybe a gap or do you think the scenes, like the punk and HC scenes, and the music scenes that are there, have changed as it is or do they still have that macho element to them?
A: It’s hard to tell. I don’t go to as many shows and things as I used to. I don’t hang out as much and whatever but I don’t wanna say it was all for not. I think there have definitely been improvements and there’s a lot more guys and girls who are aware of riot grrrl and the advances that were made within punk rock because of that. I tend to think it’s a friendlier place just to go to shows these days, but I guess I don’t go to a lot of hardcore shows or whatever but I don’t really have the problems as I used to. It used to be that I’d go to shows in Seattle or wherever, or grunge shows, and I would feel injured afterwards. I’d have all sorts of aches and pains from where people rammed into me or punched me or whatever and that doesn’t happen to me anymore. Yeah I think that there have been changes and I think in a lot of ways it may be due to the media onslaught of riot grrrl. There are just a lot of people who are aware of riot grrrl and what things might have been important to girls in punk rock.

RN: How do you think zines and bands and stuff like that, how they work as vehicles to disseminate ideas. Which do you think is kinda better or how do you think they work in different ways, zines and bands for getting the different ideas out?
A: Well I don’t want to say one is better than the other. I think that it’s whatever people are into or what they respond to. I mean some people are just more into writing and reading and so they will gobble that stuff up as far as zines and books and visual art are concerned but some people respond a lot more to music and having a more audio influence. Some people can really relate to certain songs that say certain things that speak to them so I think basically any form of resistance to dominant culture, and also just progressive ideas on how to create culture or positive communities and things like that is really important. Whatever you’re into whether it be visual art, or writing or making noises, making music or just straight up political activism within some organisation or starting your own is really important. I think it all can work together and be part of a similar, though maybe not the same community.
RN: It’s an overlap.
A: Yeah, and I think that’s what I thought was cool about Ladyfest and having those things happen because in a Ladyfest you could have all these different elements within the same festival and then people can choose the things that they are more interested in. Would they rather go to a workshop, or see this band, or go see some art, or performance art or whatever. So I don’t think any one thing is more important or more effective. One thing I do remember from the ‘Don’t Need You’ documentary film that this girl Kerry Cotch made, originally for her thesis project at Columbia University, that’s been showing some places and at some Ladyfests. She interviewed Corin Tucker from Sleater-Kinney and one thing that Corin said in response to a question that someone had asked her was that she didn’t really see herself as a political activist because she didn’t go to meetings, or join organisations or maybe go marching and flyering and stuff like that but she said that she saw herself more as a cultural activist, by making art or music or whatever that spoke to, whatever more progressive ideas. I thought that was really cool and interesting that she put it that way and I think that’s kind of more what a lot of us in bands and riot grrrl or whatever are because I feel to call myself a political activist, I’d feel I’d failed miserably within that field. I don’t feel like I’ve been that effective because I haven’t been able to join a lot of groups or be able to do this constant work and struggle of letter writing or marching or spray painting or whatever. But you just do what you can within your interests, and within your lifestyle, and your life.

RN: How do you see the political climate in America and the rest of the world right now?
A: Oh god, it’s awful. It’s absolutely horrifying I have to say. I can’t even believe it’s gotten to the point that it has. I couldn’t even believe it when I heard that George Bush was running for President, much less that he’d win. Well I don’t know if win is the right word, but that he’d steal the election and that he would do all the horrible things that he has done since he’s been in office. It’s truly unbelievable to me and I have to say that I can’t believe that the media in this country is just completely parading him, they are supporting him. I am amazed because I just figured that if they can get Clinton on some kind of affair or whatever they could easily get Bush on all sorts of lies and indiscretions. I mean he is a really easy target for the media to go after and they just refuse to. They refuse to investigate his scandals, and his scandals pile up so I think it’s just really horrifying. It’s kind of hard to be here. I live in Washington DC so its really hard to be there and I work in a newspaper, I work at the Washington Post but I’m not a writer, so I’m not able to shape the opinion there or whatever and it’s still kind of shock and awe for a lot of us here. Like ‘Oh my god, what’s happening?’ but we’re trying to organise and speak out. I speak out against this administration every chance I get. We tried to start some groups like Bands Against Bush but a lot of them are really kind of loose affiliations. Even just trying to get the idea out there that ‘Hey this is not ok, this is not cool and we cant put up with this,’ because I feel the climate here is that most people, or at least everyone I know is against Bush. They think he’s stupid, they think he’s lame, but no ones really doing much about it. I think people feel really defeatist about it, like ‘well what can we do?’ and I don’t blame people for feeling that way because the powers that be are just so strong, there’s so much money behind him, there’s just so much corruption and there’s not a lot we can do or at least you feel that way. It doesn’t matter because Cheney and all these people who have a lot of access to money are going to silence any dissent anyways. Or you have Jeb Bush in Florida who’s going to steal the election anyway so it’s pretty bad and I try to speak out as much as I can.

RN: It’s just scary. I know with just one specific issue, there’s so many that worry me but one of them is the anti-abortion thing, and being in England I don’t even know what I can do because it’s all the way over in America.
A: Well yeah I think it’s pretty scary. It’s interesting because I grew up in a family where my mother started the first women’s health clinic in Olympia, Washington where I grew up and also for the whole county and she was one of the earliest or only abortion providers I think in the area at the time. She was this total feminist, you know outspoken and all this stuff so I grew up in that environment where it was always progressive, politicised or whatever and all these people always protesting at the clinic and whatnot and threatening her and her family and stuff like that. Usually nothing that serious but you kind of thought about it, so its hard for me to envisage a world without choice for women because I just grew up right in the middle of it. But I have to say that my father is the opposite. I didn’t really grow up with him, he lives in Tennessee buts he’s a very right wing Republican, he’s totally pro-Bush and whatnot but he’s pro-choice and he’s a doctor and he knows better. I know that before abortion was legal in the US he used to help women go get secret abortions from other doctor friends of his and so I feel like, I mean it sucks, its horrible, but I just feel like if it were to become illegal, I still feel there’s just enough people even within the medical profession or whatever who just know better, they know that abortion can’t be illegal in this country, it would never work. It would be similar probably to prohibition of alcohol. So I’m just hoping that enough people know better, even if they have screwed up politics in other ways. But I don’t know because my mother, who actually passed away four years ago, it was actually right before Bush got elected and all this happened. I remember a friend of hers did an interview with her before she died and she was saying that you have to be ever vigilant about this issue, with keeping choice available and against the anti-abortionists and right wing pro-lifers. I know that a lot of people take it for granted now but you just cant let up because these people will sneak in any way they can and change everything and I was thinking it seemed like an archaic issue to me, a more second wave issue for women from the 70s or whatever, which my mom was more of a second wave feminist. Sure enough right after she died and Bush starts running for the elections, he wins, and then 9/11 and then the whole country just went so right wing that even I couldn’t believe it and you just sit there and go ‘man she was right,’ here we are, ‘woowh, how did this happen,’ but it happened and it made me realise that I’ve lived in a progressive bubble my whole life and sometimes I just don’t even understand how right wing the rest of the country is.

RN: Yeah. You mentioned the feminism thing, would you say you kind of identify more with the third wave of it or where do you identify?
A: How do I identify with it? Well just because of a time line or something I guess I feel I belong to a third wave just because of my age and time of activities. I believe in something’s that’s more consistent than that. I don’t really even believe that’s there’s just waves. I believe that struggle for people who are marginalized or oppressed is constant and that it has always been and that it will never end. It’s just that sometimes the media or the public catches onto certain things and takes notice to certain activities and labels them as something but I think that this struggle is constant, it’s all related and that we all build on top of past progress. But I think as long as sexism exists so must feminism. It’s just about self survival, at least for women.

RN: Yeah, totally, but the way the word feminism though, I don’t know maybe it’s different over here, but there are so many girls that I know that say ‘Oh I’m not a feminist but…’ or it’s like a shocking word. People don’t want to identify with it and it’s kind of like the media has given it this dirty persona. What do you think about that?
A: Well it’s such a weird thing to me because I don’t really know people who say that they are not a feminist, so I’m always shocked when I hear about that because I’m always like ‘what?’ I just don’t understand why something like that would become a bad word. Why would feminist be a bad thing because its all about being proud of yourself and who you are, or fighting for rights and equality for all people or for all sexes. I don’t understand why people or women would shy away from that. To me, its maybe a self esteem thing, or maybe they feel they don’t want to be out of favour with their guy friends or something like that, but I think in the end hopefully women will realise those guys aren’t really doing a whole lot for them and they shouldn’t tip toe around them or their feelings. It’s really weird when I hear that. I just think it’s stupid to shy away from the word feminist or to be anti-feminist because it’s like being anti-woman and if you are a girl or woman it’s against yourself and why would you be against yourself? Or why would you go through this world that way?

RN: When you were talking about trying to have a resistance to the mainstream culture, but you’ve obviously got the bigger culture that’s going to try and resist any kind of alternative, how do you find the energy to keep up with all that, with the activism, with the music and everything that you are doing, how do you think other people can because it can get really gruelling and really disheartening.
A: Yeah, I think you just have to do activities in spurts. Sometimes I feel I need down time or time to just veg out, lay around or take care of myself. I think everyone, they just do what they can and you don’t always have time to be constantly struggling or fighting. I mean you’ve got to take care of yourself, your family, your community, your friends or whatever. And sometimes you have to work a lot at a stupid job just to pay you rent and bills. You don’t always have time to be struggling. I think that sometimes it gets mentally exhausting or disheartening, like what you said, because especially with this administration in place it just looks that anything that anyone fought for is being rolled back very quickly by some very conservative powerful men. Sometimes you just feel ‘What’s the point?’ but I just feel like the only thing you can do is to speak out against it and struggle against it because are you really gonna accept that crap? Can you really accept this right wing administration and what’s happening to everyone because its real people, its real lives and its real deaths. Real people are dying, they may not be in our country or whatever, in fact its probably a lot more in Iraq and other countries that we’re sabotaging right now but they are all real people and if you believe in humanity, and if you believe in rights, and a right to happiness and a right to life you have to struggle against this. I know there are people who are way more active than me and who do a lot more and if anything I feel more like a poser or something but I applaud the people who can be activist 24/7 because I just cant. I’d go crazy. I’d just get way too negative with all that negative information and just knowing how futile so many things are.

RN: I kinda see with Bratmobile, with the songs and stuff, there’s quite a lot of humour coming though. Trying to make fun of things of things and having a sense of humour with it as well. Do you think it’s important to have that?
A: Yeah. It is really important to have a sense of humour, actually in everything you do, because that’s what makes life bearable and enjoyable and I think it’s also important to show it’s not this self righteous thing. Its not like I’m pointing a finger and being like you, or this institution, or whatever, ‘You suck, or are terrible and I’m right and you are wrong,’ that kind of thing, because I like to have a sense of humour also to poke fun at myself, to show my faults and flaws as well and I’m sort of implicated in this whole situation.. I prefer things that are more fun and whatnot, ways of speaking out but having fun with it because if you realise the state of the world and the state of the nation and everything, that if you’re struggling you’re in this for life. It’s not really going to go away.
RN: Yeah, that’s the thing, once you realise something you can’t unrealise it.
A: Exactly, and so therefore you might as well make it a fun place to be. If you’re going to be struggling in something you might as well make it fun as well because you’re there. It’s like the Emma Goldman quote, of however she set it, but something like ‘If there’s no dancing at the revolution then I’m not coming,’ and I believe in that strongly. You’ve got to be able to laugh, dance, have fun as well. You’ve got to know that if you’re struggling for rights and life and happiness for all people, then part of that is going to be embracing things like dancing and enjoying each others company and eating good food and whatever.

RN: Going back to the Ladyfest thing, with Ladyfest did you ever envisage this, because it’s just exploded around the country and that’s amazing but at the same time, I see a slight problem with the fact that it’s just regarded as a space that women can have for one week out of the year. Do you think that’s true?
A: Well I feel each one has been pretty different from the next. I think it’s just a really good experience for people to go through. First of all it’s really hard work, organising events that are that big. People spend the better part of the year working on it and organising for it.
RN: And it’s all in their spare time as well. It’s not for profit and everything.
A: Yeah, and you realise you’re doing this work and it has to be a labour of love of some sorts because you’re not going to get paid for it at all and you’re going to be putting all this time and energy into something. It will have to be that either you want to be involved in the process or you want to see the end result and you want something really cool and progressive and enlightened somehow to happen in you’re town or city or whatever. I think it’s a really important experience. I think a lot of us, or a lot of women, haven’t necessarily been involved; we haven’t been the ones to call the shots. A lot of us may go to shows or we go to art shows and stuff like that but we weren’t the ones to organise them and so I think its really important for women to be involved at every level of that event, as sound engineers, as organisers, performers or whatever because so often we are relegated to this audience member position and you’re just this passive participant. I just was hoping to have this thing that encouraged women to be active participants in every aspect of an event, so I think that it’s really cool. I know that it’s really gruelling, that it’s really hard, and a lot of times there’s a lot of fighting. A lot of people don’t get along or whatever but I think that it’s really important to go through that and to realise what hard work it is to put on events. It helps you appreciate things a lot more, events and festival, you realise how hard it is to make happen so its cool because even though there may be a lot of disagreement or differences you realise that we do have some common goals and that’s to put on a feminist and progressive event and that’s why I think people might argue within the organising because its so important to everyone to have a really good positive event. A lot of time, for a lot of women it’s the first time any of us have been in positions of calling the shots or power so you get all these opinionated, stubborn women in the same room and they all want to have their way because maybe they never got their way before. I think it’s really interesting and you have to figure out ways to work together and that’s important, especially for Americans who have been taught by our mainstream society to be so extremely individualistic and so selfish. I think we really need to try to figure out how we can work collectively and work together and share, get along, things like that and in the end even though you may have worked really hard for the festival and didn’t actually get to attend anything people can just see what a great event it was for the community and usually the community gets behind it and is really positive of the work afterwards and really appreciate it and a lot of people will say things like ‘I never thought this could happen here’ or ‘I never realised there were all these artists doing all these different things’ and ‘this felt really different and this was a really positive event to go to unlike the shows I go to every week normally and I felt like I belonged here, I felt like I could participate here, I felt supported here, I felt inspired here,’ which is not, at least not how I feel most of the time when I go out and see a show or go out to some form of entertainment. I think it’s really cool and I think in the end even if there was a lot of fighting and people are like ‘I’m not doing this ever again,’ there’s always people who are totally inspired by their activities and Ladyfests. Like the people in Bristol who because of Ladyfest decided to form their own groups or whatever, and not they want to book bands and do it in a DIY way which is really cool and really supportive of a DIY scene so I think it’s really great that that came out of Ladyfest.

RN: I think it is really cool, and definitely it is really empowering to go to them and be involved in them but it does seem a shame that there is a need for Ladyfest and we have no need for a Malefest, because that’s everyday.
A: Right. Well I know it’s sad but that’s sort of the way it is. Unfortunately we live in societies that are not equal; of course not just between men and women. It’s not equal racially or economically. It is a fucked up society but I think it is a really important even if it is just once a year for women to create this space to feel supported and encouraged and listened to and whatever. I also think it’s cool because with some of these activities that have come from it they are more permanent, they are more activities that will go on all year. I know from the Washington DC Ladyfest there was this female DJ collective and they put on events once a mouth called Girl Friday and also this visual arts group of women that emerged from the Washington DC Ladyfest. Also in DC there’s a lot of women who put on events, pretty often actually, probably also once a month and they are called the District of Ladies and I think that’s really great and that’s something that will continue to go on.

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