Punk, Pierogi, and the F-Word: An Evening with the Raincoats

by Bridgette Miller

In 1977, two young friends from art school, Ana da Silva (left) and Gina Birch (below), toyed with the idea of starting a band over pints in north London. After watching their friend Palmolive perform with the Slits, they were inspired to experiment as musicians themselves. Neither had much experience playing an instrument, but that was part of punk’s appeal: expression trumped expertise. A year later, they graced the stage at the International Performance Art festival in Warsaw, Poland, as the founders of an all-female punk quartet called the Raincoats. Now, more than 30 years later, they returned to Warsaw–only this time, it was the Polish compound/music venue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

The Warsaw show on Friday night (9/16) kicked off a North American tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary reissue of their sophomore album, Odyshape (We ThRee Records). Although the venue security was reminiscent of a Communist jail, once inside, the vibe was warm and the crowd was eclectic—like a family reunion with your aunts as rock stars. The setting was far more high school prom than punk revival: brown, polyester curtains framed the stage; a disco ball glittered the walls and hardwood floors with polka dots; people sat at plastic fold-out tables selling merch and pierogi.

By the time the Raincoats were set to play, the Old World ballroom was packed, and people were fighting for the best stage real estate. The foursome—Gina and Ana, along with longtime collaborator Anne Wood on violin and Vice Cooler on drums—burst on stage, opening with the staccato harmonies of “No Side to Fall In” from their self-titled debut. The crowd was already singing along, chanting its part of the call-and-response verses. The tracks from Odyshape highlighted the band’s avant-garde art punk days and gave Ana a chance to use her goodie bag of noisemakers and toys—such as a little silver box with a red light that revved up until it sounded like it was going to explode.

Violinist Anne Wood

The set also included a good mix of the more punk-driven songs from their debut album and tracks from their reunion album in the mid-’90s, Looking in the Shadows. There was even a new song of Gina’s, performed for the first time at their MoMA show last October, which could easily be the new anthem for the next wave of riot grrrls. They saved the rowdiest for last, playing “In Love” and “Fairytale in the Supermarket” as the encore and giving the crowd its requisite we’ve-been-waiting-all-night-to-start-this-mosh-pit moment. 

There were a few rusty points throughout the set (missed notes or mixed-up chords), but that’s what made the Raincoats who they are: valuing imperfection and using those moments of dissonance to create something unique. At one point, Ana’s guitar strap broke mid-song, and a fan from the crowd jumped on stage to fix it. The venue jailers nabbed him and carted him off, but during the next song break, the band thanked him for trying to help. These ladies are certainly “no one’s little girl,” but even feminists can appreciate an act of chivalry.

Prior to their show, I caught up with Ana da Silva and Gina Birch for a more personal chat about music, women, and the dreaded F-word.

Tell me a little about what you’ve both been up to creatively.

Ana: I released a solo album five years ago and I’ve been working on the next one; but I had to learn LogicPro, so it’s been taking me some time. That’s been the bulk of what I’ve been doing creatively, but I’ve also been doing a lot more visual art—some drawings and things.

Gina: We’ve both been creative all these years in different ways, and I think what’s happened now is that we’ve both come around to doing more visual art. I’ve been doing a lot of film, music videos, performance art—with Hayley Newman and Kaffe Matthews, we’ve got a project called the Gluts, and working on a dance film with Sarah Sarhandi, as well as a documentary about the Raincoats

We also have an upcoming multimedia art exhibition at POP Montreal, and after putting that together, I got to thinking that it would be an interesting exercise to bring together all the different projects we’ve been working on over the years and make sense of them in an exhibition context.

It sounds like you’ve both been writing music individually, but is there any chance of new tracks from the Raincoats?

G: The potential to do something is there. We just need the impetus to do it. Maybe if we set it as a goal for ourselves, or if someone approaches us and says they really want us to do this or that.

Odyshape cover via Weirdo Records

The occasion for this tour is the 30th anniversary reissue of your second album, Odyshape. In the past 30 years, what have been the greatest accomplishments for women—in general and in the music industry?

A:  Well, there’s a lot more of you interviewing us! There’s definitely a lot more women involved in the creative world: film—not so much as directors but in production, PR, art—not as many women as men, but that world is definitely more open to women. In general, I think things are more open, but I’d still like to see a lot more.

G: I think in the art world, things have changed with people like [Young British Artists] Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Gillian Wearing. There’s been an upsurge of important women artists, and that’s been very inspiring. But I think in the world of pop music, things seem pretty regressive for women.

What have been the biggest regressions for women in the last 30 years?

G: Women have certainly got to be body beautiful. Although a lot of men in pop have to be body beautiful as well. But there’s a huge pressure to conform to a certain stereotype, and that’s still more of a problem for women in the pop world, much more than it is for their male counterparts.

A: There’s still quite a lot of pressure on women to look glamorous and pristine, and some men can just put on a wooly hat and that’s enough. Even if they don’t look attractive, it’s the music that counts for men; but for women, it’s much more difficult.

The title track on Odyshape deals with the anxieties of being pressured to conform to a certain beauty ideal. Do you think these pressures are better or worse for women today?

A: I think a lot of those pressures are still the same as compared to 30 years ago.

G: It’s just that now you’ve got Botox and laser hair removal; if you’ve got cash, there are more options now than there were back then. But I think those pressures also have to do with the way that you see yourself. There’s definitely part of me that feels pressure to conform to some degree—not completely, because I wouldn’t look the way I do if I conformed completely to the beauty stereotype [laughs]—but there is an idea that one should make an effort. You know, put on a bit of lipstick now and then, not put on too much weight…and when we were younger, if we had messy hair and crazy clothes, it was fine; but as you get older, it’s different. So I guess I’m talking about aging.

And that’s a whole different set of pressures.

A: Yeah, that’s another issue. A lot of people are very ageist. I remember back in the ’90s, somebody was talking about us—they didn’t like our music and maybe disliked our presence as well—and they said something about the smell of wee and Zimmer frames, and I just thought that was such a terrible, ageist thing to say. The other day I went with a friend of mine to see Electrelane, and as we walked in, someone at the venue said, “Uh, you ladies have a good time tonight.”

G: What did they mean?

A: Like maybe this is too much for you.

G: Like it might finish you off?! [laughs]

A: Whether you’re 60 or 80 or 20, you’re still the same person, but people see you differently. Of course, it’s nice when you’re younger—you have more energy, you’re supposedly further away from your death—but getting older doesn’t change who you are.  It doesn’t change the core of you.

The Raincoats were the pioneers of the term “post-punk.” What are your thoughts about the term “post-feminism”?

A: There’s no way that feminism has done enough. So there is definitely no “post.”

You were part of a book by Helen Reddington, The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era, about women in the British post-punk scene who were largely underappreciated for their role in forging a future for other female musicians. Who would be on your list of the most underrated female musicians?

A: Sometimes as a woman, you don’t even realize how underrated something is or how underrated a woman is because you’re so used to being underrated. I think Patti Smith is a good example, because even though she’s one of the most highly “rated” female musicians, she deserves to be appreciated much more than she is.

What about female musicians from recent years?

G: Definitely Electrelane.

A: And PJ Harvey. She recently got a Mercury Prize, and it was good to see her being recognized.

G: When I was in Paris, I saw Melanie Valera [Tender Forever], and I thought she was just fantastic. I’m sure there are a lot of other musicians—women and men—who are underrated; one doesn’t always catch the eye of the media or find their way to being “rated.” Somebody like Ari Up [of the Slits], for example, if she was coming up now, it would be a whole different story. She had the guts and personality to kick through a brick wall, but doors were closed in her face all the time back then.

In 1971 there was an article by Jane O’Reilly in the preview issue of Ms. magazine that discussed the concept of a “click!”—which she described as the shock of recognition women feel when they suddenly become aware of the sexism that pervades their everyday lives. Tell me about your “click!” moments.

G: Well, it’s funny because we interviewed Helen Reddington [for the Raincoats documentary] and she said something like that. She’d always denied that she was a feminist, and then one day when things clicked for her, she suddenly realized that the way the whole world was set up—the whole structure—was not in favor of women. From our point of view, when we first started out, we were both either blissfully unaware or unshackled, I’m not sure which it was—probably a little bit of both. We had led fairly supported, exciting lives, and we were able to make the choices that we wanted…or maybe we were just making the limited choices that were open to us. [laughs]

But the click didn’t really happen until Vicky [Aspinall] came and articulated the words and the ideas and introduced us to feminist literature. And there was a bit of resistance on our part, because some of what was written seemed to be a bit heavy going and turgid. But I do think that once we moved on with that awareness—like on our first tour seeing the way the road crew treated us—we encountered quite a bit of sexism.

 Vicky and I had a band called Dorothy, and when we were signed to Chrysalis, we realized that the boys hung out with the male A&R guy and they all drank in the pub like mates; and unless you were the kind of gorgeous girl they wanted to drape their arm around, you weren’t a part of any of that. There was a kind of exclusion zone.

A: It’s funny that in a situation like that, you can’t be seen as a friend. Because people are seen as men and women; and if they just saw you as a person, you could be a friend and go to the pub and be a part of the conversation.

G: There was a program on the telly where they talked about this experiment where half the people were prisoners and half the people were jailers…

That was a psychology experiment at Stanford University in California.

G: And the jailers became really nasty and vindictive and the prisoners became submissive. When you give people a bit of power and you say, “You’re better than this group,” and you tell the others, “These people are in charge,” it’s amazing how quickly people conform to those ideas. And I think there’s a certain amount of that going on between men and women.

There are a lot of young women—even women my age—who aren’t educated about feminism or its history, and they’re so turned off by the word “feminist” that they disassociate themselves from the movement entirely, even though they support all of its basic tenets. What’s your response to people who are turned off by the “F-word?”

A: When people ask me, “Are you a feminist?” I say, “Well, what does it mean to you?” Because if you just say yes, maybe they have one idea about what they mean and it’s different than your idea, and then you’re not communicating.

G: We were asked all the time about whether we were feminists back in the ’70s and ’80s. And I wrote this song that we performed at MoMA last year and it goes: When you ask me if I’m a feminist I say/Why the hell would I not be? And that’s my latest answer: Why the hell would I not be?!

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lg3UN7nYpJM 425×344]


The Raincoats play Chicago tonight (9/19) and Detroit on Wednesday (9/21) before heading to Canada to finish off the tour next weekend.


[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fk_QEG5k8AE 425×344]



Photos by Carly Sioux



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