Allison Wolfe has been inspiring grrrls, girls and women since the early 1990s when she co-founded the Riot Grrrl movement. Most well-known as frontwoman of Bratmobile, she’s also played in many other bands, initiated the first Ladyfest, a global feminist music and arts festival, and produces the podcast I’m in the Band, for which she has interviewed such legendary punk musicians as Brontez Purnell, Donita Sparks and Alice Bag. PKM talks to Allison about the early days of Bratmobile, her ‘zine Girl Germs, her podcast, and more…
Allison Wolfe has been inspiring grrrls, girls and women since the early 1990s when she co-founded the Riot Grrrl movement. She fronted the band Bratmobile whose first record Pottymouth was so influential, there was recently a podcast miniseries celebrating the 25-year anniversary of the album’s release. In the years since then, she has also fronted such bands as Cold Cold Hearts, Deep Lust, Partyline, Cool Moms, Sex Stains and Ex Stains. In 1999, she initiated the first Ladyfest, a feminist music and arts festival that has since gone global. She has a master’s degree in specialized journalism in the arts from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and she produces the podcast I’m in the Band, for which she has interviewed such legendary punk musicians as Brontez Purnell, Donita Sparks and Alice Bag.
PKM: Do you remember the first show that Bratmobile played? And if so, what can you tell me about it?
Allison Wolfe: Yeah, I believe it was Valentine’s Day, 1991. The band started out with just me and Molly Neuman, and we were living in Eugene, Oregon at the time. She was from Washington D.C. and I was from Olympia and we were going up to Olympia a lot because the scene was really up in Washington State. When we were there, we were always telling everyone we were hanging out with, like the Bikini Kill girls, that we were in a band but it really wasn’t true! We’d been doing the fanzine Girl Germs already, and we liked to say we also had a band called Bratmobile, and I think we may have written some kind of singsong little poems in a notebook maybe, but then Calvin (Johnson of K Records) called our bluff. He called us up one day and said, “Hey, I want you to play this show. It will be opening for Bikini Kill and Some Velvet Sidewalk on Valentine’s Day. Can you do it?” And we were just like, “What? What are you talking about?” And he was like, “Well, you always come up here and say you’re in a band,” and he really wouldn’t let us say no, so we were like, “How do we do this?”
We went to this guy named Robert Christie, who was in a band called Oswald Five-O in Eugene, and we asked him what to do. He gave us the keys to his practice space and they let us use their equipment. He told us, “You got to write some songs,” and I asked, “How do I do that?” He said, “Well, listen to some Ramones records.” From that day forward, I vowed to never listen to the Ramones. I wanted us to sound different. But it’s just funny because at that time it’s not like we even had the ability to sound like the Ramones.
Molly was playing drums on half the songs and guitar on the other half, and I was mostly just singing, though I think I did play guitar on a song or two. I had a weird little guitar at the time but I couldn’t play and sing at the same time. I think I actually played guitar on the song “Girl Germs.”
We were pretty scrappy and loose, and we also didn’t know how we were going to get to the show. So Molly bought a car out of the newspaper. It was a red Galaxy 500 but it didn’t look like what you think of when you think of a Galaxy 500. It looked more like a muscle car, but I thought it was cool in its own way. It had bald tires and all sorts of shit didn’t work on it, but it was like $400 or something in the paper.
So we drove up to the show, and it was at North Shore Surf Club, which used to be this New Wave club in the 80’s – that’s where I used to go dancing practically every weekend in high school so that was funny that we were playing there. So as soon as we showed up for soundcheck, Corin Tucker (Heavens to Betsy, Sleater-Kinney) was standing there. I had met her before, so I knew her a little bit. I hadn’t seen her in a while though and she was just standing there with a Super 8 camera and was like, “Hey, can I film you guys?” And I think we just didn’t realize that this whole thing was a bigger deal than we thought. It was Bikini Kill’s third show, I think. They’d just started but they were moving along quite quickly, but I don’t think they’d played more than three shows by then.
So we got on stage, and I remember just standing up there – it was just us two – and just feeling kind of naked, just being up there, and all of a sudden going “Wait a second, are these songs? Do these even constitute songs?” Because before that, we’d been going to parties and just singing weird a cappella stuff together, mostly covers of stuff from The Go Team – I mean the Olympia Go Team (with Calvin Johnson and Tobi Vail), not the one that took the name later on, or we’d sing other weird K Records-type stuff, so now here we were on a real stage and I remember just feeling like “Oh my god, are these songs, are we a band, is this really real?”
But we were really fortunate to be surrounded by people like Bikini Kill and the K Records group and all these people who really believed in that super DIY self-expression of anyone can write a song and do this and express themselves in whatever means you have available to you, with whatever resources you have, so I think that was pretty cool.
We only had probably five songs, and then when we were finished, all these people were coming up to us like Pat Maley, from Yoyo Records and Yoyo A Go Go Music Festival, who invited us to come record with him that same weekend. We’re like “What? Record? Okay.”
Slim Moon also came up to us. I knew him a little bit from before, but he came up to us and asked if he could use our song “Girl Germs” for a compilation record he wanted to do, the Kill Rock Stars compilation. Kill Rock Stars wasn’t even a label yet; it was still something he was dreaming up and his whole concept started as just a compilation record, which did end up coming out that summer.
PKM: So did you guys actually go to Pat’s studio? And if so, did any of the songs recorded that day make it on to Pottymouth or a 7 inch?
Allison Wolfe: I’ve been wondering that lately; I’m not really sure what happened with that recording. I know that at some point we put out a demo tape and toured with that but that was at least a year later; I wonder if it was that recording that we ended up using for the tape. But oh yeah, this recording was without Erin (Smith, Bratmobile’s guitarist), and we didn’t really release anything Pre-Erin, so I don’t know! It has to exist somewhere. But we sounded really different on it – we were so not tight and I think that we just had a hard time keeping a beat and making it through a whole song without fucking up. So I think he recorded it, but I have no idea what the fuck happened with it. That’s really crazy, now that I think about it.
PKM: When did Erin join the band?
Allison Wolfe: Okay, so there was this kind of Olympia/Washington D.C. connection that was initially forged by Calvin Johnson, because he had one parent living in D.C. and another parent living in Olympia, so he went back and forth a lot, and that’s kind of how that whole connection started. Lois Maffeo from Courtney Love the Band was living out in D.C., and Molly is from D.C., and I would take trips with her back East sometimes on the school breaks. Calvin or Tobi (Vail) or someone like that connected us with people out there. We ended up meeting the Nation of Ulysses and Fugazi people.
I think Molly and Erin had already become pen pals, because I think Molly did go out there once without me and met Erin and they traded ‘zines or something. We had a lot of pen pals at the time, like you would meet someone and trade ‘zines and mix tapes and all that. So yeah, they were writing to each other and I think that someone said something like, “Hey, Erin plays guitar, maybe you guys should get together with her,” so Molly and Erin set it up. I guess it was actually ’91, that same year that Molly and I started.
For spring break Molly and I went back to D.C. and we had already arranged to go practice with Erin. As soon as we got there, we borrowed Molly’s dad’s car and drove straight to Bethesda, Maryland, and picked Erin up from her parents’ house and then we drove back into the city, to The Embassy, which is a punk house in Mount Pleasant where Nation of Ulysses and the girls from Autoclave lived. We went straight there because Erin had been jamming with Christina Billotte, who was in Autoclave at the time and later on in Slant 6. We walked right in and she led us down to the basement and we just started jamming – it was totally bizarre, I think everyone just had a few little riffs and stuff and we wrote some songs right there that day. Jen Smith, who was later in a band called The Quails, was living there at the time and she came down to the basement too and sang on some songs. And so it was kind of a mishmash of people, Bratmobile was really loosely defined at first, it was like there was Bratmobile DC and Bratmobile Olympia and whoever was available would play with us.
That spring break, Nation of Ulysses and Beat Happening were touring the Northeast and we ended up borrowing Molly’s dad’s car, lying to him by saying we were going to spend the weekend in Bethesda with Erin. But, instead, we all drove up and followed Ulysses and Beat Happening on tour and went to all these places, and yeah it was so fun. We ended up at Bard College and one of the opening bands was Chia Pet, who was all the girls from Sassy Magazine. So we met them and gave them our fanzine and then not too long after that, they featured our fanzine in their “‘‘Zine of the Month” blurb and somehow Molly’s dad saw that and was like, “I was wondering why the gas mileage was so high on the car!”
PKM: I first read about Riot Grrrl in Sassy and totally remember reading about your fanzine Girl Germs in there and being so excited to order it. I remember hearing that Girl Germs was put out weekly. Is that right?
Allison Wolfe: Well no, it wasn’t even monthly, it was just whenever we put it out. But the Riot Grrrl fanzines – the little folded ones we did that summer when we all were in D.C. with Bikini Kill and Bratmobile – those were weekly. They were just really quick, like “Let’s go to Molly’s dad’s office in the middle of the night and sit there and just paste shit together and make these ‘zines,” and then we’d pass them out at whatever shows were happening that week and some of the stuff was kind of cool. I feel like the stuff I wrote was really stupid. And I just hate that these things keep getting…well, I mean, there was an urgency to them at the time, and they really were meant to be consumed quickly and disposable and usually only had to do with whatever was going on that week.
It sort of drives me crazy that that stuff is being super-preserved and studied now because it feels like you’re not allowed to just be like a dumb teenager or something. It’s definitely not the worst problem to have! But sometimes people ask to reproduce this stuff and I hate to be a jerk, but I’m always like, “No, it wasn’t meant for that.” I don’t mind if the cover images appear here and there, but as far as the writings inside, No. And they never ask to reproduce the interviews! There was always one interview per issue and no one ever asks to reproduce those, and they were pretty cool – I’d say yes if someone wanted to put those out. Also, more and more as the ‘zine went on I just started to become mostly an editor or a curator, and I wrote less and less and I just really would collect people’s writing that I really liked, more like a magazine, so that’s the other thing when people ask to reprint things from the old ‘zines; we don’t necessarily have the rights to everything that appeared in them.
PKM: I’m curious to know if you had a stance on girls-only shows versus boy inclusiveness; I get shit to this day because I am so in favor of girls-only spaces even at the expense of boys’ feelings and I think that my own experience of Riot Grrrl was finally ruined by that constant argument. Do you have an opinion on girls-only spaces? Or did you have one that’s changed?
Allison Wolfe: Well, I understand the need, of course, for women’s-only spaces – any marginalized group definitely deserves to have its own self-defined safe space. I definitely get that and the need to not have a dominant culture person’s voice encroaching on that space. So yeah, I felt like Riot Grrrl should of course be women-only, and I don’t mean in the restricted definition of what a woman is. I don’t mean that to sound anti-trans at all, of course. I just mean no cisgender men, basically.
I think that sometimes guys felt really threatened by the idea of women-only spaces, as you well know, and I remember one time we put on a show that was a Riot Grrrl show and we put a price difference on the flyer and oh my god the whole town went crazy; it started all these conversations about issues of class, like, “Well, what about guys who are from working class families?” I mean, okay, I get that. But at the same time, it was like, “We’re Riot Grrrl. We’re allowed to make an event that is special for women. We’re not not making it exclusive, but we’re just saying okay, they pay $1 more.” And do you want to know what the prices were? Three dollars for guys and two dollars for girls! The show was less than five dollars and guys are still complaining that they have to pay $1 more and it’s like, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
On top of all that, we’d also given them an option. We said, “If you come in drag you can get in for the girl’s price,” and they still were complaining and it’s like, “Oh, fuck you.”
So yeah, I think it is important to be able to create safe spaces or just a special event especially for people who aren’t a part of whatever dominant culture you’re talking about. I could go to an all-women event, it’d be cool, but I don’t necessarily feel like it has to be that way. But I can see how the dynamics are different, even just with these Bikini Kill shows that are coming up. I was thinking it’d be so cool if women and LGBTQ people and people of color were given preference for buying tickets to the upcoming shows. It would be cool to not really have quote-unquote “The Man” there. It’d be awesome. But the shows are so hyped and they’re so big. I mean, it’s hard to contain it or to keep it the way [Bikini Kill] want it, I’m sure that they want things to be different too. But yeah, they’re too big to really do things how they might want to do them.
PKM: Switching gears, you recently spent a year doing a great podcast on the music streaming service TIDAL called “I’m in the Band,” in which you interview famous female musicians, and you yourself are a famous female musician, so the interviews become conversational. When you sit down with the interviewees are you speaking to them as a peer, an interviewer, a fan? How did you set out writing the questions?
Allison Wolfe: Well I’m kind of in an interesting position, and this was one thing that kept me from journalism for so long — the fact that you had to be quote-unquote “objective” and you had to have no conflicts of interest or anything. I was like “First of all, I only want to write about things I’m interested in, which is generally going to be music scene stuff, but there’s always a conflict of interest there.” I’m glad that in a lot of ways journalism has changed so much and you’re allowed to be subjective now as long as you own it, though it can be really annoying in some ways because sometimes you’re reading something and it’s like “How is this an article?” I think it’s gone too far in the subjective direction, but at the same time it leaves a place for someone like me, because I was in Riot Grrrl when we had this media blackout; we hated the media because they didn’t get it and they weren’t representing us and they were exploiting us. They were making us look really stupid and turning us into a fashion trend. So we decided, “We’re trying to represent ourselves here. So we don’t need you.” But now of course I see the value in media and how it can help you sell records and get people to your shows and stuff.
So I feel like I come from a special position where I’m trying to be one foot in/one foot out. I’m half musician and half journalist. Usually, the response I’ve gotten from the people that I’ve interviewed is that it was the best interview they ever did, or at least one of the best, and that “I feel more comfortable around you, I feel like you get it.” I’m certainly not out to get anyone or try to get them to say something crazy, of course; I’m just trying to show everyone’s best side, or their true side. I’m trying to facilitate someone having their own voice and telling their own stories; I feel like there hasn’t been enough of that. I’m trying to remind people of this canon of women musicians, and to create a space in which we can tell our own stories and archive ourselves. I know almost everyone I’ve interviewed, or if not, they’re kind of friend of a friend, I have an ‘in’ somehow, and I think that people trust me more that way, and they also trust that I get it. And I love it. I need to get it back off the ground.
PKM: Do you have a preference for the word girl versus women? Do you have different meanings that you attach to those words?
Allison Wolfe: Well, to me it doesn’t really matter which word you use. I think that “grrrl” became the main word for us because I was pretty young when I was doing Riot Grrrl. My mom was a second-wave feminist, and she was very adamant about using the word “woman” and I can see how the word “girl” can be infantilizing and derogatory and had a history of being used that way. But I think a big part of Riot Grrrl was reclaiming words that had been used derogatorily and turning it around and being like, “Actually, we’re trying to uplift girl culture.”
And what’s wrong with being young or being an actual girl? Why do only women have rights? Why can’t young girls have rights? What about the lives of young girls? Why is that considered trivial and not taken seriously?
I also felt like it was important to use the language that we used in our daily lives. I didn’t call myself or anyone I knew a “woman” at the time. Women were older people, you know? I still use the words “girl” and “boy” all the time. So, I don’t know – maybe I’ve never grown up!
PKM: Do you still encounter sexism today as a female musician?
Allison Wolfe: Yes, for sure. I think it’s not always as blatant and I also think I’ve been pretty good at surrounding myself with like-minded people. So I probably live in a bubble. But yeah, that’s why I really wanted to call the podcast “I’m in the Band,” because it’s like you have to remind people that you’re IN the band, not just WITH the band and that you deserve to be there at the venue or whatever. There are still situations in which our band’s playing and I’ve been interacting with the promoter through emails and over the phone, but then when we show up there and I’m trying to talk to him about where we should load our instruments, he’ll ask something like “Who are you? Why are you here?”
It’s just constant, and every girl I know in a band has had plenty of those experiences where security or whoever runs the venue is like “Hey, doors aren’t open yet, why are you in here?”
I get it, I guess, it’s fine, [management] has to check who’s coming in and out, but it’s like, you’re never assumed to be working or that you’re in the band or that you’re supposed to be there. I’ve heard this type of story from so many people; Shannon Shaw from Shannon and the Clams told me how they were playing at a festival and she’s about to go on stage and she’s getting so much shit from some security guy who keeps being like, “Where’s your wristband?”
Similarly, if I’m talking to someone and they ask what I do and I say I’m in a band with other girls, they say “Oh, that’s cute.”
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you’ve said or done, you’re still not really taken seriously. I think one major way you’re treated differently as a girl musician is that you’re not paid equally.
PKM: Wow, really?
Allison Wolfe: Oh, straight up. It’s like, you can’t ever prove this shit. Because how do you prove how much a band should get paid when they play, right? I’m saying if you don’t have a booking agent and all that. And this has happened in a lot of the interviews that I’ve done with people, too, for the podcast. I’ve heard other female musicians say this: “Hey, we might play a festival, you know, I can’t complain because I’ve had a good life. And I’ve done a lot of good tours and stuff and had cool opportunities. But we’re playing a festival, for example, and our faces are always used for the article for the diversity angle for the festival. But we’re not getting paid as much as the straight white guys who are playing.” And it’s true. I mean, not to knock a lot of these straight white guy musicians who might be great and are doing sold out shows all over the place, but for sure women are expected to do free work or very discounted work all the time. I know that I probably don’t get half of what I quote-unquote “deserve.” It affects you in so many ways. It’s like because you’ve been underpaid for so long you don’t even know what to ask for. And people might blame you: “Oh well you’re just not asking for enough,” but I don’t even know what that is, I don’t even know what these other guys are getting, I wouldn’t even think to ask. This type of sexism isn’t just straight up about the actual financial interaction. It’s also about your psyche – how has it affected what you think you’re worth – not just what others think you’re worth, but what you think you’re worth?
I know that plenty of times I’ve tried to up the amount of money when we’re talking with a venue owner about doing a show and usually the answer is no girly, no. They treat you like you’re lucky to be here, like you should feel lucky to even be playing.
There’s similar things, too, like where you’re only asked to DJ if there’s another girl DJ spinning that night, or play if there’s another girl band. I know that Riot Grrrl definitely uplifted and played into a lot of that, but we were consciously embracing it, like “Yeah, we’re girls or women, cool, fine, we don’t have to pretend we’re not, and we can join together and encourage each other and play together,” and yeah, there is a uniqueness to it. But at the same time, girl music isn’t a genre.
It’s true when I DJ I do pretty much only play girl music for the most part, but I call it music, because that’s just what I have and it’s what I like. I hear guys say all the time that guy music is just music. So my girl music is also just music, you know? It’s really sad being treated like there’s not room enough for all of us, like there’s only room for one girl DJ night or there’s only room for one or two girl bands on some festival, like it’s a quota or something. I would love to curate a festival someday. No boys on the bill! And guess what? I call that music.