Sound & Vision: Alice Bag

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Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those working behind the scenes in the music industry. Occasionally, I also have the chance to talk with distinguished musical pioneers who have made a lasting impact, and in that vein I’m very excited to share my conversation with Alice Bag (née Armendariz). Born to Mexican parents, and raised in East Los Angeles, Bag became one of LA punk’s first frontwomen in the mid-70s as the lead singer and co-founder of the Bags. She went on to perform in several other groundbreaking bands, including Castration Squad, Cholita, and Las Tres. Bag has been featured in Penelope Spheeris’s seminal punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, and her influence has also been highlighted in the Smithsonian exhibit, “American Sabor: Latinos in US Popular Music.” Still active musically, Bag has just released her self-titled solo debut album Alice Bag on Don Giovanni Records. For Bag, punk has always been more than a musical genre. It’s also a vibrant and essential form of activism.

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The Rumpus: In your 2011 memoir Violence Girl you describe growing up under tough circumstances. Your father was physically abusive toward your mother, and as an adolescent your peers taunted you for being overweight. But eventually you found that other kids liked your singing, encouraged you, and even gave you the nickname “Jukebox.”

Alice Bag: Yes, one of the cool kids gave me that nickname. It counted for a lot.

Rumpus: What kinds of music was “Jukebox” most drawn to as a kid?

Bag: In my junior high school days, I will still listening to a lot of soul music, which was coming from my sister’s influence. But when I came into my teen years I wanted to find my own stuff. A friend introduced me to David Bowie, which was really cool for somebody like me who didn’t quite fit into mainstream culture. One thing that struck me was that Bowie was really androgynous. He was also bi, and that was the first time I heard anyone talk about bisexuality. As someone who was discovering my own sexuality, and feeling like I had to define whether I was gay or straight, realizing there was another option was really exciting.

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Rumpus: I understand Elton John was also huge for you, so much so that you had his name written on your jeans in metallic silver letters, and you scraped together money to buy glasses like his from the same optical shop.

Bag: That’s right. After Bowie, I also started listening to a lot of glam. I became an Elton John fanatic/stalker/lover/fan where I would go and find out where he was playing, and try to get there early to see if I could get to him when he came in for sound check or an interview or something.

Rumpus: I think I might have seen a YouTube video of you running over to him, then freaking out. Is that legit?

Bag: [Laughs] Yes, it is legit! That was from the Tommy premiere. I go right up and I’m just about to grab him and then I turn around and I’m grabbing at my hair.

Rumpus: Had you encountered earlier musical influences that similarly pushed against convention? I’m thinking about where you spoke in your memoir about your father’s love of rancheras. Ranchera singers are known for their emotional intensity, for singing from the gut with a kind of bold “macho” style. And some were women. I’m thinking of someone like Chavela Vargas—who’s out there, what in the 1940s and 50s, wearing pants and a poncho, singing love songs to women without changing the pronouns, taking off after the shows with them on the back of her motorbike…

Bag: Well, I think it’s awesome about Chavela Vargas, but I didn’t know about that at the time. It was mostly male singers, and I remember singing along with the music, and my father encouraging and praising me. He didn’t have a son but he really connected with me, and with a power that he wanted me to have. I just thought of this as my father’s music.

Rumpus: So let’s come back then to artists like David Bowie and Elton John. Where I grew up those artists were also on the radio but there was no discussion of their “queerness” among my peers. I mean guys I grew up with would look at Freddie Mercury for example and just say, “British guy, the band is named for the Monarchy.” Were those codes there, but only for those who could read them?

Bag: I think sometimes people believe what they want to believe. I personally thought I was going to marry Elton John. [Laughs] I was so out of my mind that I really thought that someday I’d meet him and we’d fall in love and live happily ever after. And my best friend at the time, Patricia Morrison, who was in the Bags with me and then went on to play in the Damned, was in love with Freddie Mercury. I mean we could see the signs but still wanted to hold on the possibility that we could be their lovers…

Rumpus: Maybe that’s the nature of fandom… the fantasy of proximity.

Bag: Well, that was the thing with glam too. We were aspiring to be the partners of these people instead of actually being the musicians ourselves. We wanted to have the connection to the music but at that point women were mostly seen as muses, supporters, even groupies. At that point if I had picked up a rock magazine, I mostly read about male musicians, and occasionally there might be a quarter of a page dedicated to a female musician. But it was so rare, you started to think that the way to get connected to rock ‘n’ roll, to get close to it, was by being someone’s partner. It wasn’t until punk came around that I thought, “Oh wait, it’s my turn. I can pick up the instrument and get up there and express myself.”

Rumpus: What was it specifically about punk that made you feel you could do that, transition from being on the sidelines to believing you could be up front and center?

Bag3Bag: We came into it so early it felt like a nebula that was about explode. The first few local bands that I saw were doing something so different, and so different from each other. I remember, for example, going to a show with Patricia where the Germs opened up. They were my age but I thought of them as younger because they were goofing around outside, saying, “Hey, we don’t know what we’re doing,” but then they got up on stage and played anyway. And it was two guys, and two girls, and they made crazy sounds. The lead singer played with food and smeared it on himself, and the audience was going crazy! And then the Zeros got up, and they were these Latino punks, and then the Weirdos got up and they were splattered in paint and playing fast, melodic music that sounded unlike anything I’d ever heard. Patricia and I wanted to start a band, and this was so exciting to watch, so liberating to think that we could just get up and play and define what this music was going to sound like. That show was a kick in the butt for us.

Rumpus: How did you go about putting together a band?

Bag: We immediately put an ad in the paper and started looking for other people to play with. Our first idea was to put together an all-female band, and we even auditioned for Kim Fowley who rejected us, thankfully. Ultimately this guy named Geza X asked us to audition him. I think we’d specifically asked for female musicians in the ad, but he said, “Please, please! I love all the influences you’ve listed!” So we started playing with him and it just clicked.

Rumpus: You would go on to do a song called “We Don’t Need the English,” which disses on British punk, but as you were forming the Bags, did you have a strong awareness of what was happening in other places, say London or New York?

Bag: I was familiar with that was happening in New York because I had been reading Punk Magazine from the time I was in high school. I would walk to the corner store and pick up some junk food and a rock magazine—one day I saw Punk there and I thought it was cool. I think maybe the people in LA had slightly different influences, though. The cities are different, with different energies.

Rumpus: I understand your stage name “Alice Bag” came from a gimmick that the band used early on where you would perform with grocery bags over your heads. Other bands, for example, KISS, also appeared on stage in masks. Arguably their entire presentation was a mask. What were the grocery bags for you?

Bag: The bags really served two purposes. One was that you could express whatever you were feeling that day on a paper bag. It was an art project. The other thing was at a certain point we wanted to have a “secret” identity. We wanted people not to know who the Bags were, which tapped into all of my comic book hero fantasies of having an alter-ego who goes out and does these great things—it’s you but incognito. The problem was that when you’re up on stage you start perspiring, and water and paper don’t mix well unless you’re actively trying to create a papier-mâché project. The other issue was Bobby Pyn, who would later be known as Darby Crash [of the Germs]. He was a good friend and we would go to each other’s shows, and part of our “audience participation” was tugging on each other’s clothes. He told me from day one, “If you wear a bag on your head, I’m going to rip it off.” And that was his mission. He’d show up at my shows and chase me around trying to pull the bag off my head. So I often ended up with a ripped bag that was half stuck to my face. After maybe three or four shows we gave up on the bags.

Rumpus: That’s very interesting—the bags allowed you to perform as different people, wearing temporary identities that reflected whatever you were feeling and allowed the audience to project their own sense of who you were onto your performances. I’m wondering if you felt that the bags allowed you to define yourself as opposed to being defined by others. Earlier in our conversation you mentioned the Zeros, who’ve often been called the “Mexican Ramones.” When you were starting out as a musician, did you consciously think of yourself as being a “Latina in punk,” or a “woman in punk” or did you find those kinds of labels problematic?

Bag: I found those kinds of labels problematic, and actually I repeated that label—the “Mexican Ramones”—because it was in print early on, and you know, I didn’t really think about it. I was like, “Oh, yeah, they have that sound.” But I regretted it later because I realized it was really unfair to them. They are the Zeros. They are not some band that’s a Chicano doppelganger of another band. I didn’t really get too hung up on people referring to me as Latina or Mexican. I also had people call me “exotic.” I didn’t realize at the time there were certain coded descriptions for a person of color, and I also didn’t realize they could pigeonhole me in some ways. I just thought of myself as a “punk” when I was on stage. I wasn’t consciously trying to project “feminine” or “feminist” or “Chicana” or “bisexual” or any of the things that I am. It was just, “I’m Alice Bag, and this is what I have to say and how I’m going to say it.”

Rumpus: Your performances are deeply emotive, but they’re also very physical. Was the onstage Alice Bag similar to or altogether different from the offstage Alice?

Bag: Well, that’s complicated. I used to drink a lot in those days, and I frequently drank before I went onstage because I would get really nervous. I was full of energy, and I had a lot of bottled up rage that would come out in my stage performances. It was therapy sessions for someone who couldn’t afford to go to therapy, a way to release my frustration, my inhibition. When I was little, growing up in an abusive household, I felt like I didn’t have a voice. Suddenly I was on stage and people were watching me and listening to me, so even if I was singing about something that didn’t have to do with abuse, when I was on stage I could express all of the anger, the rage. But not every song was like that—some were more sexual—and that had to do with feeling sexy for the first time. I had grown up pudgy, and my two front teeth were broken, and I had braces because I had buckteeth. I had a lot going against me. I was not a popular girl, so being able to create this punk who didn’t have to be beautiful in the mainstream way helped me to get in touch with sexuality and become comfortable with the idea that I didn’t have to look like Farrah Fawcett to feel attractive, to feel sexual power.

Rumpus: By the late 70s the punk scene in LA was already changing, maybe becoming less quirky and eclectic than it had been. How did that affect you?

Bag: I think punk had started to spread out to the suburbs and it had started to take on a kind of jock attitude. Women were suddenly being pushed to the back. All of the emphasis was on the guys in bands, with fewer women on stage and in the audience. In the early days you might bump into someone accidentally when you were dancing but it wasn’t an aggressive gesture. I was about being wrapped up in the excitement of the music. But then it turned into a football game where people were jockeying for position, trying to figure out who would be the alpha gorilla in the bunch; who would rule the mosh pit. I wasn’t interested in that, and I didn’t want to be the soundtrack for it. I decided I was going to go back to school and do something completely different—I thought I was going to be an attorney!

Rumpus: Instead you became a bilingual teacher, which you wrote about in the book Pipe Bomb for the Soul, based on your experiences in post-revolutionary Nicaragua. After the Bags disbanded, did you also remain active musically?

Bag: At first I had given up on my love, but fortunately my love didn’t give up on me. People would always call me and invite me to play with them.

Rumpus: You also got married, became a mother, and even lived in the suburbs. I think that’s pretty punk!

Bag: [Laughs] To be a punk is just to feel that you can be opposed to something and to find creative ways to fight against it. Aside from identifying as a punk, I also identify as a Chicana feminist, which means I touch on issues of gender inequality and race inequality.

Rumpus: You have a new album now, your self-titled debut. Please tell me more about how that came about, and how you’ve approached the project.

Bag: I hadn’t planned on making a solo album. I had always played with a band, and there is a collaborative and social process that comes with that which I really enjoyed. But from 2006-2013, I was living in a remote area in Arizona and I found that I was writing a lot of songs on my own. I had this five-dollar GarageBand app on my iPad, and I put all the parts together so I could imagine what the songs would sound like if played by a full band I didn’t have at the time. When I moved back to Los Angeles, I connected with a group I really liked called Girl in a Coma. Two of the members had formed a side project called FEA and asked me if I’d like to produce some of the songs on their new album. I had never done production for anyone else, but they had faith in me. I said yes, and working on their album helped me to realize I could produce my own album.

Rumpus: Having written many of the songs already, were you able to jump right into recording?

Bag: Not immediately. I didn’t have a record company behind me, which meant I didn’t have money to go into a studio. Friends encouraged me to look into crowdfunding but I was raised to be hard working and to think of asking for money as being in poor taste. I was looking at it as a handout until I read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking and that helped to put me in the frame of mind to see that crowdfunding was community building, that you really are giving something back to the people who support you. I launched a successful Kickstarter campaign, which was the last obstacle. It was huge for me to realize there were people out there who wanted this music, and that I could give it to them.

Rumpus: The song “He’s So Sorry” is about the dynamics of an abusive relationship. “No, Means No!” takes a stand against rape culture. Did you have a certain listener in mind when you wrote these songs?

Bag: “He’s So Sorry” was initially written because I had been talking to a friend who had been in numerous relationships where she’d been physically or emotionally abused. I had also had experiences with domestic abuse and saw how it affected my mother and father. I wanted to reach out to those who were being abused to say, “Hey, this not a situation where you can work this out together with the abuser, or where you change him or her. The most important thing you can do is to get out to keep yourself safe.” In “No, Means No!” I’m speaking to the rapist, “Don’t fuck around. Don’t do this. It’s going to come back and bite you in the ass.”

Rumpus: Yes, but I imagine the song is also for the person who tried to convey that message him or herself. I imagine that hearing you address this experience is validating, knowing someone understands what they’ve gone through, even if they didn’t feel as powerful in the moment as you are in delivering this message through the song. Empowerment is the through-line in all of your music. Do you think musicians have a responsibility to advocate?

Bag: Musicians have to decide for themselves what they want to do with their art. I start out to write for myself, to express what’s on my mind. For example, another song on the new album, “Modern Day Virgin Sacrifice,” is about watching my daughters as the grew up going from really powerful to shrinking themselves down to what they thought was expected of them. I would have conversations with them knowing that as teens what their peers have to say to them is probably more powerful, but I still hoped that someday someone would hear the song, and think, “Oh, I get it. I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to feel that the insecurities in me are being used, for example, to sell products.”

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BONUS MATERIAL:

Hear Alice perform a gorgeous cover of Pedro Infante’s bolero “Angelitos Negros.” (iPad/iPhone users click here.)

Enjoy this playlist of music by Alice, her inspirations, and her contemporaries.

Bag’s all-ages album release show takes place in LA on 7/2 and tickets are available here.

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Feature photograph: © Greg Velasquez. Photo of Alice Bag at the Hong Kong Café © Louis Jacinto. Photo of the Bag © Melinda Santillan. All other images provided courtesy of Alice Bag.

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This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, The Brooklyn Rail and others. More from this author →