Seventies punk legend Alice Bag talks about daily revolutions, being a powerful woman, and why she’ll never run for president in our conversation ahead of her third solo album, ‘Sister Dynamite.’
Stream: “Spark” – Alice Bag
I love being solo because I love being the head bitch in charge.
Alice Bag is the essence of punk. She was there at its birth in the 70s LA scene, fronting the Bags who pioneered the aggressive hardcore sound popularized by contemporary heavyweights such as Black Flag and the Germs. And she’s been in many influential punk bands since; Castration Squad, Cholita, and Las Tres. Her punk manifestos Violence Girl and Pipe Bomb For the Soul are great reading for any rebel searching for a cause.
Now Bag has entered the second phase of her career by going solo in 2016. Her latest offering, Sister Dynamite (May 8, 2020 via In The Red Records), returns to the stripped back simple sound that made the Bags so damn good. An activist and ardent supporter of the oppressed, all of these messages are on full display across the record’s 12 songs. From the inspiring album opener about being yourself, “Spark”, to the title track about kicking fragile masculinity in the ass, Sister Dynamite is a life affirming, head banging experience. Outside of the old school punk feel and the urgency of Bag’s delivery, it contains lyrical nuggets that’ll ring around your head long after the last distorted note has dissipated. It’s an album we need to hear, delivered from an original punk still living that life.
If you care about women’s rights, Latinex culture, the environment, rights and equality for all and any of the other issues that plague our world today then you need Alice Bag’s Sister Dynamite in your life. Now.
I hope that the work that I do touches somebody and that it inspires people to work towards change.
A CONVERSATION WITH ALICE BAG
Atwood Magazine: You have a new solo album, Sister Dynamite, coming out in a couple of weeks, how do you feel about it?
Alice Bag: I am happy with it. What I’m really excited about is that it’s a record I could actually play live from start to finish because it doesn’t have a lot of the stuff I did on other records. On those I would invite friends to play other instruments that I don’t usually have when I’m on tour like keyboards or cellos or horns or special backup singers. On tour I just use my band so my band did everything on this record and I played keyboards on my own stuff instead of some real keyboard player who knows what they’re doing. It was so fun doing it all myself though.
It does sound like a throwback to the Bags and that era of punk.
Alice Bag: Well thank you, that’s quite a compliment. It feels more punk to me, the sound is more reminiscent of that. I feel like my whole identity is punk so whatever I do is going to have that attitude and whatever I say is informed by my punk lifestyle but this record has more of that sound. It’s like you’re out at a club and you want to dance and sing and shout and get crazy; that’s how the album sounds to me.
You said previously that the records you’ve put out in the recent years is the stuff you’re most proud of across your career — does that include this record too?
Alice Bag: Yes definitely. I feel like I’ve grown as a musician and a songwriter — I take a lot more time now to craft every bit of the song from lyrics to the little sparkle at the end to being my own producer. I worked with a producer along the way — I’m not going to say I played every note and touched every dial to make it happen — I had some really talented people that I worked with. But I did have a say all along the way so it’s very gratifying when you’re involved from the inception to the finished product. I feel like this is a reflection of me and I’m really proud of that.
Is this the benefit of being solo rather than a band and which do you prefer?
Alice Bag: I love being solo because I love being the head bitch in charge. But I also love the feeling of being in a band because there is a give and take dynamic and there’s collaboration and people bringing in ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of, so I really enjoy both settings. I had strictly done bands up until 2016. I started off being in a band when I was 17, so to go through my whole life only doing bands and then at the halfway point be like ‘I’m going to do my own thing and call all the shots’, I felt like it was time for that. I feel like a woman that is in the second half of her life is a very powerful place to be. I feel like I’m in the driver’s seat and I want to keep driving. I want to make decisions, I want to take chances and also bring in all the alliances and friends I’ve made over the years and years of being in bands.
It’s interesting hearing you say it’s powerful being a woman in the second half of her life, because that is the opposite of what mainstream society tells us.
Alice Bag: Oh no, I feel so much more self-confident and stronger and grounded than I ever have before. Part of it is my punk training: From the very beginning of punk it was all about doing something different, not being packaged as a beauty product who can do a few tricks. You’re not the talent who’s dressed up in a pretty package; you have something to say. So that just got stronger over the years. When you’re young people still look for that in you; they still look for you to look cool or be an attractive package but as you get older people don’t expect it and that’s fine with me because that’s not what I’m here to give them. I’m here to give them content, something more, something beyond. I feel like I’m really happy and secure in who I am. I earned all my wrinkles and my flabby skin and I love my body because it gets me to where I want to go. It serves me well and I love it. It’s not going to be on a magazine as the ideal for someone else to follow but for me it’s perfect.
Your music and your personality seem very hopeful which in punk music is very refreshing; what keeps you so optimistic?
Alice Bag: Well I have to actively fight to stay optimistic because there’s a lot of stuff going on around me that could easily bring me down. There’s things that I disagree with in our government, there’s things happening around me that make me want to push up my sleeves and get to work on changing. Sometimes you don’t want to focus on the peril, you want to focus on how you’re going to overcome it. Don’t focus on ’this could go wrong, I could fall into a pit of despair’, instead you want to figure out ‘how am I going to overcome this problem.’ So I try to keep that as my focus so I can make it through these dark times.
Sometimes you don’t want to focus on the peril; you want to focus on how you’re going to overcome it.
It felt very fitting talking to you on the same day Elizabeth Warren, the only remaining woman candidate, dropped out.
Alice Bag: Yeah. I just hope somebody puts a woman on their ticket.
You should have ran.
Alice Bag: Oh my god no, I’d be too terrible. I have too much checkered history that would come up. I’ve done so many questionable things that I’m sure everything would be out there, exploited for my very public humiliation [Laughs]. But that’s the thing about people focusing on a person instead of focusing on what their message is, what the person’s ideology is, instead of looking for a hero or somebody to follow. People are people, they’re going to make mistakes. But it’s okay if you stop focusing so much on the person and focus more on their work and why it’s so good. I like being judged by my music, by my writing, by my ideas because I am deeply flawed. I make a lot of mistakes — but so does everyone else.
Owning the mistakes is the important part.
Alice Bag: Absolutely — own your mistakes because they’re what makes you who you are. That’s what makes you grow — to take chances and get mud on your knees.
With the world the way that it is right, do you think right now is a great time to be putting your work out into the world?
Alice Bag: I feel like now is a really important time for me to put it out. I don’t know how important it’s going to be to everybody else. As an artist I always feel like I am saying what I want to say and if people can connect with that, then wonderful. If we can get a whole group of people to connect with it then art goes beyond being expression into being something that people can coalesce around and create real change. I hope that the work that I do touches somebody and that it inspires people to work towards change.
Own your mistakes because they’re what makes you who you are. That’s what makes you grow — to take chances and get mud on your knees
I love watching women listen to your work — witnessing them see themselves in your songs and be validated by them is a beautiful thing to watch.
Alice Bag: That makes me really happy. There is nothing better than feeling that you’ve connected with somebody through your work. Sometimes people will come up to me and be like ‘aren’t you sad you don’t make as much money as this person, or you don’t win Grammys,’ but that isn’t as important to me as somebody in the audience coming up to me and saying ‘in that song, you were talking about me, I felt it.’ You feel it in your soul, it’s so rewarding.
That must push you to keep making art and keep connecting with people.
Alice Bag: Yeah, it does. I feel like that’s what a lot of us crave — we crave human connection. So when we’re able to do it and people are responding it’s so rewarding and you don’t want to stop.
Is that what you hope people take away from this record?
Alice Bag: I hope people enjoy the record and they want to listen to it and sing along and they get the messages and maybe connect with other people who feel the same way. I’d love it if it was a spark that got people motivated to work together towards some of the issues the record brings up. Sister Dynamite is inspired by the woman that I’m working with in a group called Turn It Up. We’re trying to help amplify the voices of women in music and as I was sitting around discussing issues we’re having, how we could deal with them and how we can improve things for woman, I felt like all these women are so committed, so smart, so powerful, that I really thought we were on the verge of a revolution. Around the same time I was writing this song this group of women got into the House of Representatives, and to see them wearing their Suffragette’s Whites and standing there in a whole cluster of white they seemed so powerful and I felt that change is here. I just want to propel that forward, keep it moving and keep fanning that flame that we started because it’s already started. We just have to keep reminding each other there’s a bunch of us and we all want to achieve a better society that is more equal and more balanced. Where people who are queer, who are brown, who are women, non-gender, transgender, all feel like we are all validated by each other. We all feel like we’re in the same boat and we’re pulling together to save the planet and stay alive.
It’s so easy to fall into a doom and gloom mentality that we fail to see that there is progress and there are revolutions happening that we should be pushing forwards.
Alice Bag: There’s that old saying where you don’t want to be part of a revolution where people don’t dance and sing and make music and pogo—I kind of added some to it [laughs]—but you’ve got to find the joy and keep your goal in mind. There’s no point in fighting just to combat evil because that’s fighting from a defensive position. You want to fight to get to your goal and that’s fighting with the true inspiration to achieve that goal. I always think that the positive in us is so much stronger and that that emotion is what propels our actions. We can sit here and think ‘ah, you know I’m just going to hold this back from getting to me, just keep Darth Vader away’, but instead if you’re thinking of our true goals of achieving a better society, it is a stronger position.
If we can get a whole group of people to connect with it, then art goes beyond being expression into being something that people can coalesce around and create real change
Who and what do you look to in the world to keep you motivated and believing we’re on the right track?
Alice Bag: Going to shows and seeing the way that young punks are changing the punk scene: They’re forcing it to be inclusive. You get to a show and see that someone has got a piece of paper and made non-gender bathrooms to make sure that people feel included. Or somebody has made sure there’s space at the front for somebody who might not be able to stand in front and pogo so they’re given space. A better society makes space for everyone and accommodates people and seeks to provide what is needed for everyone. That is something that kids are doing and it’s inspiring to me because as a young punk a lot of times I didn’t think of that. We were all there being crazy and having fun but we weren’t taking on all the stuff that the younger generation are taking on.
I recently rewatched Decline of Western Civilization — the documentary about the 70s LA punk scene that you were in — and I’m reminded of a quote from it: “Punk is the only form of revolution that’s left.”
Alice Bag: I don’t think that though. I think there’s lots of revolutions every day in people’s lives. There’s a lot of ways that people can have personal revolutions: Standing up to somebody who says something racist in your office space or standing next to a woman who is being made to feel uncomfortable and being in solidarity with that person. You don’t have to be out in the street marching or collecting signatures, you can be a positive force in the world and create real revolutionary change in the world just by speaking up wherever you are. I feel like we all think ‘what can I do, I just work in a little office,’ but no matter what you do we all have power we just have to use it — and the more we use it the better we get at being powerful.
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📸 © Denée Segall
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