"To not be feminist in some way seems like self hatred to me. If sexism still exists, then so must feminism"
~ Allison Wolfe

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CoG Interviewed Allison Wolfe via email

When I think of Riot Grrrl there is one name and one band that stands out in my mind: Allison Wolfe and Bratmobile. Bratmobile hit the Riot Grrrl scene running, bridging together a bi-coastal community of underground music. Wolfe is also responsible for Girl Germs, the collaborative zine focused on feminist thought. With people like Kathleen Hannah and Molly Neuman as contributors, Girl Germs was a key vehicle for the Riot Grrrl movement.

The outspoken front woman of Bratmobile has had an amazing career and continues to inspire, lending her voice to the next generation as a writer for the Washington Post, former columnist for Punk Planet, and, currently playing/performing with her new band Partyline. This is one woman who continues to bring forth new and exciting things to the musical community - and she'll never go down without a fight!

Fresh off of Partyline's European tour, we caught up with Allison via emai to find out what she's been up too. She even answered a few questions about the past we have always wanted answers to.

CoG: What kinds of music were you exposed to as a child and what did you listen to while growing up? 

Allison: I grew up mostly with my sisters and my mom, and often one of her long-time live-in girlfriends.  My mom was a big lesbian “second wave” feminist and listened to a lot of women’s and lesbian folk music in the ‘70s.  I guess the main music we were raised on was Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Hazel (Dickens) & Alice (Gerard), Hank Williams, Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt, Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, Free to Be You and Me.  My mom had an acoustic guitar and liked to play and sing around the house. Also, my father’s from Tennessee and I was born there and we spent alotta summers there growing up, exposing us to a lot of country music too, which I grew to love by adulthood (but only the REAL stuff, classic).

CoG: What was your first significant musical experience? 

Allison: My twin sister and I would sing into the tape recorder when we were little and my aunt would play “Name That Tune” with us.  I remember the first time I heard my voice played back to me and hating it, being embarrassed at how “bad” and low my voice sounded.  Later on we joined an after-school music group called “the MusiKids” that would sing Neil Diamond and Jimmy Buffet songs while doing mildly choreographed jazz-hands moves while wearing matching primary color T-shirts.  It was hilarious. We’d go perform to retirement communities and stuff.  But that career ended once we hit puberty.  Not long after that I played clarinet, then bass clarinet, in school band. While on bass clarinet, I was actually part of a quartet that won state (Washington State) 3 years in a row! I once stabbed myself accidentally in the tongue with the bass clarinet reed—I still have a weird dent or hole or something there!

CoG: What keeps you going personally and as an artist? 

Allison: Good will?  Ha ha…  Not sure, actually. I think it’s important to be engaged with and participate in DIY stuff that’s challenging and interesting in one way or other.  I don’t want my entertainment/culture/scene just co-opted and sold back to me by Clear Channel or MTV.  I stay in the mix too cuz I still don’t think there’s enough girl performers out there or feminist points of view.  I also think it’s important to maintain a creative outlet through life, because so many things (like jobs, injustice, etc.) are soul-crushing and threaten to turn us into miserable machines. Being in a band with scheduled practices and/or shows helps keep me doing that. I also like to network with people and have adventures (like touring). I guess just having even small goals/pleasures to work toward and look forward to.  I don’t know, I suppose life is shit, but I’m gonna die trying to have fun and make the most of it.

CoG: What bands are you currently listening to? 

Allison: Mika Miko, Roky Erickson, Spider & the Webs from Olympia, The Delmonas, The Coachwhips, Spider Vomit from Australia, alotta country music like Dolly Parton, George Jones, Jean Shepard, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash of course.  But it’s kinda random what I listen to, it’s just like whatever comes my way, it just depends on what someone had given me recently or what someone really recommended to me, or how lazy I am to even get up and change the record CD, tape, or 8-track. (Though the 8-track by design will get ya off yr ass in not too long!)

CoG: What are some of the unusual or unknown factors that contributed to making Bratmobile such a fantastic band? 

Allison: I don’t know whether it made us fantastic or not, but we were just really part of and caught up in the kind of “right place at the right time”, the Northwest scene in the early ‘90s. Everything around us was so inspiring at the time. It really felt like we were all in this together. Bratmobile was very fly by the seat of yr pants, it’s amazing to me that we pulled it together at all.  We were always long-distance, broke, whatever. But I guess where there’s a will there’s a way. We practiced so rarely. It’d be like, get together, practice for a day or two, then record, or then go on tour. It was crazy. But I think the ramshackle operation and breakneck speed made it manic and interesting. Every bit of it, for better or for worse, was extremely intense.

CoG: How else do you spend yr time – professionally, creatively, and leisurely? 

Allison: I work part-time at The Washington Post.  I’m not a writer there, but it can be interesting. It’s just a day job that’s very flexible so I can go off on long tours and stuff but still come home and have a job and health insurance.  I also am a re-writer for a Japanese manga title “Nana” that’s being translated and marketed to American audiences.  I do the English adaptation, which means (not translating—I don’t know Japanese) I just re-write the literal English translation to make it smooth, hip, cool.  It’s a great manga, very girl power story line revolving around a girl singer of a punk band.  I was writing a column for Punk Planet until they folded recently, RIP. I occasionally do a love advice column for Brontez from Gravy Train’s fanzine “Fag School.”  I ride my bike around everywhere. I help set up shows here and there.

CoG: Are you passionate about any publications? What about recently read books? 

Allison: I’m a very slow reader, so I try to choose my books carefully.  I pretty much only read female/feminist authors.  My faves are Amy Tan (Joy Luck Club, Kitchen God’s Wife, Bonesetter’s Daughter), Louise Erdrich (Love Medicine, Tracks, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse), Alice Walker, Dorothy Allison, Isabelle Allende (Eva Luna, The House of the Spirits).  Some other faves are “Woman at the Edge of Time” by Marge Piercy, “The Women of Brewster Place” by Gloria Naylor, “The Women’s Room” by Marilyn French, “Woman at Point Zero” by Nawal El Saadawi, “Dirty Weekend” by Helen Zahavi, “Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy (a man!), Billie Holiday’s autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues”, Anais Nin’s diaries, and I’m sure there’s much more I’m not thinking of right now.

CoG: What advice can you offer to other young musicians who are beginning to experience success in the music industry?

Allison: Well, I don’t know if I could help them any! I’m not quite sure how to be “successful” myself!  I think the music industry has changed so much, I don’t understand it, I can’t keep up.  The main thing is that they have to experience it full-on, on their own. But I would say try to network and bond with other women in music, it helps keep you sane. Most of all just be genuine, go for it, dare to get ugly, let it all hang out.
CoG: How did you get exposed to feminist thought? 

Allison: Defintely through my mother, Pat Shively.  As I mentioned above, she was a lesbian feminist who didn’t take no shit.  She started the first women’s health clinic in the county where I grew up, Olympia, Washington.  She believed in feminist women’s health care, for women, by women, about women. She dealt with alotta shit over the years, but powered through. She was loud, funny, strong, and could do anything she put her mind to, and do it better than just about everyone else, even if it was just a passing whim or fad.  She very sadly died too young at 55 of ovarian cancer.

CoG: Were you involved with the Eastside Women's Health Clinic? 

Allison: Yes, as mentioned above, my mom started it.  She used to do rape kits on women in the middle of the night, before they were done routinely at hospitals, and would receive death threats from convicted rapists in jail.  She would get assaulted by anti-choice protesters and people would throw rocks at our windows to scare us and once poisoned the pets of every employee at the Clinic. At one point my mom was going in to work with a bullet-proof vest and a glock in her fanny pack! That’s how we grew up, with fear in a way, but she was so bold, it was more like we grew up with the “don’t fuck with me” attitude my mom fought back with. I did some secretarial work there in high school and college, and my twin sister Cindy did more lab-type work there ‘cause she was pre-med.  The Clinic was destroyed by arson a few years back, and the insurance companies in effect shut them down on performing abortions.  So this, in effect, gave a green light to terrorist shitheads to just throw a shitty little molotov cocktail on a roof to “stop abortion”.  But luckily a Washington State congress person pushed through some legislation that equated this to insurance companies encouraging terrorism. But the law is not retroactive, so the Clinic can simply not afford to do abortions anymore, which is insane.  Now people have to go to Planned Parenthood, who wisely insure themselves to avoid such things. They’re big enough to do that kind of thing.

CoG: Does prior media backlash play a role when starting new projects?

Allison: Oh, no, I don’t think so.  I do what I know how to do, what I like to do, expressing myself how know best.  I can’t really change that easily or pretend to be someone or something I’m not.  I just wanna punk.  They can say “same ol’ riot grrrl shit” as much as they want, as if girl bands or feminists are a genre or fad or something.

Partyline - photo by Daisy Lacy
Photo by Daisy Lacy

CoG: Does Partyline get compared to Bratmobile? How do you think Partyline differs from your earlier creative work? 

Allison: I’m sure the comparisons exist. People usually focus most on the lead singer to brand the band, so as long as that’s what I do in a band, that’s the way it’s gonna be I suppose, which is fine by me.  But I think Angela’s guitar playing is more rock while Erin was more surf.  And the drumming’s different too.  But also, I think my lyrics and tunes and voice has changed over time, naturally.

CoG: Do you think there is still a bicoastal underground community? 

Allison: Yes, in ways, if even just from previous connections made and continued. But yeah, it’s easier now too with internet and cheaper plane tickets. But somehow the networking, the bonds, seemed stronger pre-internet, when scenes were more regional and the market place wasn’t flooded with music biz bands and shit.

CoG: Have things gotten better, worse, stayed the same over the years for women in rock? 

Allison: It’s hard to tell.  In a way, I look around and think, where are all the girl bands, who write and play their own music?? There should be so many more now, right?  But society and the music industry are still sexist, so it’s still hard on women. Even women in music who gain some amount of success are often tokenized and pitted against other women by the media, as if there’s not enough room for all women in music.  As if there aren’t a million boring boy bands out there that we all have to suffer through all day long!

CoG: Who were some of the male role models in your life?

Allison: Huh? Hardly any. Maybe my mom’s girlfriend’s gay brother, or my gay uncle.  I don’t have much understanding of men, I guess, aside from the fact that the oppressed have been forced to know the culture of their oppressors.

CoG: How does it feel to be responsible for a movement or viewed as the figure head of riot grrrl?

Allison: It can be weird, hard to live up to people’s ideals or expectations.  I think it sometimes makes me want to shy away from stuff or not try to do something, feel of failure.  I think it can be used against me, to put me in a box and put it on the shelf.  But that’s sexist, not my fault really. Basically, it means I’ve been involved with a feminist music and cultural activism scene, and that’s cool, something to be proud of.  To not be feminist in some way seems like self hatred to me. If sexism still exists, then so must feminism. Psychic survival.


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By Chelsea McIntire + Church of Girl
18 October 2007