Alicia "Alice" Armendariz, a.k.a. Alice Bag, is more than a riotous vocalist with a sharp tongue and explosive delivery. Yes, she is known for igniting a fierce femme fire within the late '70s L.A. punk scene with her pioneering band the Bags, but that is just where her musical story really took root. For more than four decades, the East L.A.-born artist has created powerful, defiant music that pushes the boundaries of the status quo (her band credits are long and varied: Cholita!, Castration Squad, Stay at Home Bomb...the list goes on).
Today, she remains a force of nature: a vocal feminist, educator, mother, self-proclaimed troublemaker, and proud Chicana activist. She is an author, musician, songwriter, and “blue hair” who has only grown more vibrant with age. Her outspoken latest release, Blueprint (March 2018), is her second solo album to date, and marks some forty years since the Bags released their first, infamous single. I caught up with Alice ahead of her summer 2018 tour, which runs July 6 through August 30 with stops in Seattle, Portland, Vancouver B.C., Milwaukee, Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Washington D.C., Costa Mesa, and Los Angeles.
In your music, activism, and your writing, you have an inner mission of fiery truth-telling. You just CAN'T sit down or turn away from what you see as injustice. This compulsion seems even more front and center on the new album. How do you think this energy manifested differently with Blueprint?
I think I’ve continued to mature as a songwriter, so I hope my truth-telling is getting sharper on this album. When I was a kid, I felt pretty powerless, like I didn’t have a voice. You know the old saying about little girls being seen and not heard? Well, as a little brown girl I definitely felt like my voice wasn’t heard, especially in my own home where my cries for my father to stop beating my mother fell on deaf ears. Now as I approach my sixties, I find that I have plenty to say, and I’m going to keep saying it until I’m heard.
When you play these songs live, do you get a real sense of release? Which song, in particular, gives you the most sense of agency?
I don’t perform for release, I perform for connection, so when I’m onstage, the songs that are most satisfying for me are the ones where I can feel that the audience is adding their energy to mine. That song can be different depending on the audience and on what is happening in the world around us. "No Means No," a song about date rape often gets a very strong response, as does "White Justice," a song about how the justice system doesn’t work for people of color, or "Reign of Fear," which is a song about the current administration.
Tell me about an experience you've had that's made you feel like punk rock is a worthwhile endeavor, some 40 years in.
Chicas Rockeras, the girls rock camp that I volunteer at, is a very rewarding punk rock experience that I get to enjoy once a year. It’s a mentorship program that teaches girls how to shape the world around them using the power of music and community. It’s very exciting to watch these young girls find their voices and learn how to harness their personal and communal strength. It is very punk rock because the focus is not on teaching musical skill (although some of that is taught).Tthe focus is on using what you have to impact your world.
What's your favorite place in L.A.? It can be a place that no longer exists.
I like old places that feel like they have history and maybe even ghosts. I’m going to keep the names of those places to myself because L.A. is experiencing a lot of gentrification which can mean indiscriminate development. I want to preserve the places that make L.A. unique.
Your video "77" featuring Kathleen Hanna and Alison Wolfe puts the ongoing gender pay gap front and center. However, it's also playful, funny, and totally joyful. You can't not smile when you watch it. Can you share some behind-the-scenes memories in the making of the music video, or in the interaction between you, as women, getting together to do this important, yet obviously fun, project? Did it feel like a secret feminist rock star clubhouse?
Ha ha ha! "77" felt like I was hanging out and playing dress up with friends, but it also felt like we were allies in common cause. It was loads of fun and there was plenty of goofing around. Seth Bogart could not wait to get down to his undies; they must’ve been new! Kathleen Hanna was in character as soon as she put on the wig; she became "Joanne, the arts and crafts lady." Shirley Manson’s character was a cross between a dominatrix and a hot school teacher, and Allison Wolfe had a hell of a time managing to do anything with the fake nails she was wearing; it was hilarious to see her trying to type without breaking her press-on nails. On a serious note, we all believe in wage parity and we wanted to make some noise to shed light on a subject that is often overlooked or glossed over. When the video came out, it was surprising to see the number of trolls that came at me online, denying that a wage gap exists. One troll called me an ugly old feminist, which I thought was a cute nickname for me.
You and the Bags are not always mentioned in retrospectives about the early L.A. punk scene. However, there are tons of bands left out. I wonder, Which specific bands or people, big or small, do you wish would get a little credit? If you could turn a flashlight on, where would you point it? Who are your unsung heroes of the LA or Hollywood scene?
The most glaring omissions are the Weirdos and the Screamers, who were the two most popular bands in the early years of punk in L.A. Their early performances were not widely documented and both groups were so exciting and so original, unlike any other contemporaneous band in any other city. Backstage Pass was a very important group who helped establish the Masque, and they are definitely unsung heroines.
What's the one thing you see in women's magazines that makes you want to scream in the check-out line the most? If you could change one thing about how the media represents women, what would it be?
"Who Wore it Best" type of articles, which pit women against each other as though we are all in constant competition. Why can’t a group of women wearing the same outfit all wear it well? Can you imagine magazines pitting men against each other in this way? It would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. I also detest tabloids that will put women caught without their makeup or on a bad hair day on the cover to make money off of what is essentially malicious gossip. Anyone can take a bad photo, but the practice that these periodicals engage in is hurtful, not only to the women who are being criticized for their appearance but to us as human beings because we become tolerant or complicit in this attitude of judging women harshly and thinking it’s okay. It makes us ugly inside.
"Now as I approach my sixties, I find that I have plenty to say, and I’m going to keep saying it until I’m heard."
If you could have a dinner party with three artists, living or dead, who would you invite? And what would you eat?
Oh, this is tough. I’ll choose some artists that have always fascinated me: Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, and Chavela Vargas because I think that would be a hell of a dinner party. There would be lots of drinking, humor and absurdity. I imagine Pedro Almodóvar would crash it!
Your book Violence Girl is autobiographical and really raw at points. You share a lot about your upbringing and getting into the early LA punk scene, and becoming a performer. You found a power you didn't even know you had. Do you think we all have some power inside we have yet to unlock?
Yes, I think we are all more powerful that we realize. Especially if we start thinking of ourselves as cells of a larger body, as parts of a community whose well being is intertwined with its surroundings. We’re all made of the same stuff and we’re all connected; and that knowledge, once you really internalize it, can free you from the limits that you imagine exist for you.
You also speak a lot about your family. What were the hardest or most tender moments for you when writing the book?
The hardest parts of writing the book were when I had to relive the abuse that I’d witnessed as a child. I thought I’d pushed it deep inside but it surfaced very quickly and it felt like the pain was as fresh as if the events were happening in real time. There were times when I felt physically sick from all the poison I had in my system but I’m glad I wrote it because it needed to get it out. After I wrote some of those passages, I found myself feeling depressed for days at a time. Now I’m glad I can think of that stuff without trying to suppress it. I don’t like to talk about it but I can if I need to. Writing the book was difficult at times but it was a healing experience.
I know how difficult booking your own tour can be, and I'm not even a punk legend like you. What are some things you learned about booking tours in the modern age? What has changed and what is the same? If you have any DIY tips, I would love to hear them!
I coordinated my own book tours as well as band tours. I remembered to be grateful that I had the opportunity to be writing books and records that people wanted to hear. Sometimes I had huge audiences and sometimes I had tiny ones, sometimes I was paid a lot of money and other times I worked for free. I’ve stayed in luxury hotels and I’ve slept on the floors. I’m just glad that I have the opportunity to be doing what I want to do. That gratitude is what I keep as my main focus and keeping that in mind helps me overcome small inconveniences and stay motivated when I have setbacks. Sometimes touring is just about having faith: faith that people will come, faith that you’ll be able to cover your travel expenses, faith that your band will play well together and get along. I just put a bunch of flights on my credit card totaling thousands of dollars and it’s scary knowing I have to pay those off at the end of tour. I just have to trust that things are going to work out for me and you know what? They always do.
What bands or artists are you loving right now? What writers, painters, or poets etc. are keeping you sane throughout this difficult time?
I love Fatty Cakes and the Puff Pastries. I just produced their first LP, which will be out on Emotional Response Records on November 9th. I’m obsessed with their music. Trap Girl is another local band that features a very charismatic lead singer named Drew Arriola. Visual artist Shizu Saldamando, whose artwork is featured on the front cover of my new album, is enormously talented. And Michelle Gonzales, who recently released her memoirThe Spitboy Rule, is working on a new dystopian novel and I can’t wait to read it.
How do you know when a song is finished (when you’re writing it)?
It’s never finished. I’m constantly writing harmonies and new parts; I also like to do alternate versions of songs. When I’m recording, I have to remind myself to let it go. I don’t want things to feel overworked, so if a song isn’t heading where I want it to go and it’s taking too much time or effort, I am very willing to drop it, knowing that I can rewrite it in a different style or with different instruments. I also really enjoy hearing how other people interpret my songs. It’s exciting when someone covers your music and adds new flavors to it!
What's the BEST, most juicy, amazing part of being a woman over 50? Also, your blue hair looks fucking fabulous.
Thank you! I think as we grow older we realize the futility of trying to achieve somebody else’s standards of beauty and conduct. The sooner you learn that lesson, the sooner you’ll be free and not give a fuck about other people’s expectations. I know that my harshest critic and my best friend are right there in the mirror. The more you practice being your own best friend and easing up on the criticism, the better you get at it. These days, I stick up for myself not only to other people, but to my own inner critic.
"One troll called me an ugly old feminist, which I thought was a cute nickname for me."
You worked as an educator for 20 years. You've also never really stopped making music or art, you just did it in your own way and at your own pace. What have your students taught you?
Patience. Most importantly, my students taught me patience because I didn’t have any in my youth. As a teacher, I always felt that I was responsible for finding a way to reach every student. Every child is unique and the challenge is to find a way to engage each child so that they enjoy learning, questioning, and becoming explorers of their surroundings. Sometimes figuring out how to reach a particular child can be like working out a difficult puzzle; you have to be tenacious and PATIENT. The kids taught me well and made me a much better adult.
Immigration reform, LGBTQ rights, women's rights, Trump, and all of these ongoing battles you fight through song and activism: It must be very overwhelming. What can artists do now, with their art, to make a small difference? What do you think an artist's role is? I think sometimes artists feel like they need to stop making art to make a difference.
The amount of negativity coming from Washington can be overwhelming, but writing and fighting back feels great. Art is my coping mechanism. Artists make the world better by sharing their truths. We all face different challenges and finding a song or a piece of art that speaks to you creates a human connection between the artist and the audience. It’s a reminder of our shared humanity, so whether you connect through a raging punk song, a danceable rap or a sweet love sonnet, the connection tells you that you are not alone, that someone else shares your experience and during our bleakest times, that message is extremely important.
What are three simple things in your life that give you daily joy?
Having introspective time while walking my dog, conversations with the people I love, and making music.
top photo via alicebag.com
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Hayley Cain is a freelance writer and guitarist who believes in the power of lipstick and distortion. Find out more at www.isyourboyfriendintheband.com and @hayleyandthecrushers, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.