Q & A: Potty Mouth Knows Their Shit About Sexism and Ageism in the Punk Scene

by Tess Duncan

In 2011, four ladies from Western Massachusetts formed the garage-rock band that is Potty Mouth. They released super lo-fi demo Bad Bad in September of that year, followed by the slightly louder, post-rock-influenced EP Sun Damage in 2012. Lead singer Abby’s monotone (but never dull) vocals perfectly complement the melodic chord progressions and ’70s punk riffs. Their pop-punk tendencies shine through but combine with ’90s grunge to make songs about just being young and having a good time. Plus they put on a kickass, high energy live show that’ll have you bobbing (or banging) your head all night long. This September, Potty Mouth will released their first full-length Hell Bent, a slightly sadder but solid, well-produced record. Shit got real when we talked to girls about all the ageism (with a heaping side of sexism) they’ve experienced as an all-female band of girls who either look young or simply are young. One thing’s for sure: Potty Mouth knows what they’re doing and they’re doing it really well.

BUST: I know Abby didn’t learn to play guitar until she agreed to join Potty Mouth and Phoebe didn’t play guitar before joining the band either. Was it as difficult as you guys had imagined to learn or did it come pretty easily?

PHOEBE: It honestly never felt difficult, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that there is an unspoken agreement between us that we are just here to make music in whatever way we want to (as individuals, but also as a band). I never set out to learn guitar in a traditional way–I took it upon myself to just pick up the instrument and play it in whatever way felt natural and sounded interesting to me, and my bandmates never tried to stifle that creative freedom–instead, it was encouraged.

ABBY: It wasn’t as difficult as it was awkward! Our first “band practice” was the first time I met Ally and Victoria and we basically all just sat down and thought about how this was going to work. I also think it wasn’t very difficult because our songs started out really simple, but as we get more experienced at our instruments our songs become more complex.

I think it’s inspiring that you were able to learn so quickly and now you’re in this amazing band. Do you hope that Potty Mouth encourages kids out there who want to start a band to just fucking do it?

PHOEBE: I hope so, but I also think it’s something that has to come from within. Pushing your self-doubt aside is very important–sometimes other musicians can help inspire confidence, but I think you also have to get to a place of just trusting yourself.

ALLY: Not to sound like we’re proclaiming to be icons of rock inspiration for girls and women everywhere (we’re not), but I do believe that if this band inspired just ONE young girl to learn an instrument and start a band, then I can’t think of a bigger reward. We’ve played shows where younger girls who don’t typically go to punk shows have stood up in front and danced. Once we played a show in D.C. and a girl e-mailed us saying that she was 16 years old and had always wanted to be in a band, but had a bunch of questions on how to get started. She asked us things like, “Did you all go to college? Did you put off school to be in a band? How do you handle being on the road for so long?” I think that on the outside — and from the perspective of someone who is so young and has never been in a band before — what we’re doing might actually look more impressive and complicated than it actually is; as if being in a band comes down to that classic gendered question of “work-life balance” and having to sacrifice one major component of a life (i.e. school, work, motherhood) for another. Of course we know at this point that nothing is that black-and-white (especially when you’re operating within a mostly DIY culture), but it was heartening to see a young girl really wonder “how you do it” and to be able to tell her, “it’s not as hard as you’re making it out to be — just do it!” You don’t need to know or learn how to read music. You don’t need to be a “right-brained” person. You don’t even need to know the names of notes. Just pick up an instrument, start messing around and trust what sounds good and “right” in your ears. That’s how we did it.

You’ve said that a lot of people think you guys are younger than you are so I assume you experience a lot of unjust ageism. How do you usually respond to it?

ALLY: This question reminds me of a line Grimes wrote in her recent tumblr manifesto: “I don’t want to be infantilized because I refuse to be sexualized.” I honestly don’t know too much about Grimes or her music, but I really loved and appreciated the way she so poignantly and pithily summed up a gendered double-standard that I’ve felt for a long time but could never quite articulate. I think people mostly understand that although our music is not explicitly political, we are a band with a strong feminist consciousness. Of course it’s great when people read us this way and “know better” than to try and sexualize us, but sometimes it feels as if this conscious resistance to sexualize us is reconciled by reverting to a kind of infantilization — as if infantilization is the binary opposite point of view to sexualization. Still, a gaze is a gaze — and whether people are talking about us in terms of our sexuality and gender or whether they are talking about us in terms of our perceived “youthfulness,” it all feels pretty patronizing and demeaning at the end of the day. Just like the “sexual gaze,” the “age gaze” feels like a patriarchy-produced fantasy that serves to distract and deter people from talking about us in the same language and with the same degree of respect any hard-working band or musician deserves (regardless of whether or not one actually likes the music). None of this is to say that I don’t think it’s incredibly impressive that Abby is 19 years old and has accomplished so much as a musician. I am constantly in awe by her songwriting abilities and general creativity, and I think the rest of the world should be impressed too! It’s just tricky for me because I’m 25 years old and oftentimes read as the youngest in the band because of how I look. All I ask is that the world please treat and respect me like smart, self-sufficient adult and keep whatever thoughts they have about “how I look” to themselves.

ABBY: It’s hard because people like to highlight how “young but experienced” I seem, but never separate it from the rest of the band. I think it might also be that people are surprised by how good an all-girl band is, and they try to justify it by painting us as this “young phenomenon.”

VICTORIA: Ageism as I have experienced it is usually intertwined with sexism. One of the most common questions people ask me is “How long have you been playing?!” This is often followed by “How old are you?!” Most of the time the person asking is a man, and most of the time he has this look of wonder and amazement on his face. Sometimes I feel like slapping that look right off, but I’m used to it at this point and I always just thank them and tell them that I’ve been playing on and off for about 12 years. In these situations I know that people aren’t approaching me from a bad place. They’re genuinely excited about my drumming, and that’s great, but at the same time their underlying assumptions are so transparent. Sure, maybe I look kind of young. But I’m not some virtuoso. I’m just a twenty-something woman who knows what she’s doing. There was an interview in Tom Tom Magazine a while ago, and the drummer being interviewed said something like “They don’t want you to suck, but they expect that you will.” That quote is so spot-on for me.

Has it been difficult facing that ageism combined with the way too common sexism that comes with forming an all-female band?

PHOEBE: It’s something we live with every day, so I’m not sure I would describe it as difficult, but rather aggravating and entirely obsolete. I refuse to let the ignorance and laziness of others inflict upon my happiness, but that’s not to say I don’t feel disgusted by being infantilized just because I don’t want to be sexualized and vice versa.

ALLY: Like any other hard-working band, we want positive press precisely because positive press helps lead to more people listening to you, which in turn leads to more exciting show and touring opportunities, and so on and so forth. But one thing we’ve discovered as an all-female band is that press — particularly digital press (which is mostly everything nowadays) comes with a price — and that price is misogyny, sexual harassment and whatever other bullshit arises when put under the cultural microscope of gender scrutiny. It’s a tough bind that personally, I haven’t quite figured out how to negotiate. We do not want to deny ourselves the opportunity to be seen in the world, but we also don’t want to accept having to put up with such a demoralizing degree of harassment and discrimination in exchange for such visibility. Still, like Phoebe said, unfortunately it’s not much different from the dominant culture in which all women — regardless of whether they’re in a band or not — are expected to exist. It’s just the public visibility on various unmoderated press outlets that makes the experience feel heightened.

Although you’re not riot grrrls and you don’t write 30-second songs, I consider Potty Mouth a punk band. Are there certain punk bands that you’d say had a big influence on you all as a band? Or do you feel like that’s not a very accurate assumption I’m making? Maybe some pop-punk bands?

PHOEBE: I think I say this in every interview, but in terms of becoming familiar with my instrument, Beat Happening was probably my biggest musical influence. I still think of them as masters of minimalism, and their music really made me think about what it means to play music or be in a band–I realized I didn’t necessarily need to follow the rules or reach technical mastery in order to write a great song.

ABBY: I listen to Green Day more than any other band and that has definitely affected my song writing, but as a band we don’t have any direct influences. What I mean is we never said we wanted to sound specifically like this or that, we just play what sounds good to us.

ALLY: I listen to a lot of ’70s punk and early ’90s indie rock, so I’d like to think that we sit at the intersection between those two genre influences. Regardless of our separate, personal influences, Potty Mouth was very much born out of a punk community and I’ve always considered us and still describe us as a punk band.

I really love Hell Bent. It generally feels a little more serious than Sun Damage. It’s more polished and the songs are longer, and it seems like you guys accomplished your goal of creating “bigger, fuller pop songs” as you’ve put it. What made you want to head in this direction?

ABBY: Hell Bent is just the product of us finally settling into a songwriting system. Before Potty Mouth I had never written songs for a band, and I think Sun Damage reflects our experimental process of learning and writing simultaneously. Now that we’ve been a band for a while we’ve each found our place in the writing process, and it gets easier every time to figure out how to make our parts work together.

Why “Hell Bent”? What’s the next thing you all are “hell bent” on doing?

ALLY: I think we’re “hell-bent” on seizing whatever fun and worthwhile opportunity comes our way! In terms of actual goals, we’d love to tour more of the country and the world. We haven’t been to the west coast or Europe yet, so those are both places we hope to go — especially now since we have a UK label, Marshall Teller, releasing our new album. Abby tends to be a powerhouse for writing songs, so I’d like to think we have a couple more full-length albums left in us. I don’t think any of us are ready to stop.

Lastly, I have to ask: Whose idea was it to print the Potty Mouth logo on pillow cases?

PHOEBE: After I drew the logo I was really trying to think hard about what kind of merchandise we could print on. I had just finished designing a skateboard, which was a really exciting project for me, and I realized my drawings didn’t just need to hang on a wall, and that functionality could really play into it. I thought about the kinds of things that people use every day, and that’s how I thought of a pillowcase.

Hell Bent is out September 17th on Old Flame Records which you can pre-order here! (Pre-order via Marshall Teller Records in the UK over here!) And keep an eye out for when Potty Mouth comes to your town on their tour!

July 12 – Boston, MA – The Plough and Stars – w/ Chemical Peel and Tomboy
July 25 – Brooklyn, NY – Shea Stadium
July 26 – Philadelphia, PA – Golden Tea House
July 27 – Washington, D.C. – La Casa
July 28 – Athens, OH – Venue TBA
July 29 – Cincinnati, OH – MOTR Pub – w/ Vacation (record release)
July 30 – Chicago, IL – Empty Bottle
July 31 – Madison, WI – The Vault – w/ Technicolor Teeth
August 1 – Minneapolis, MN – Venue TBA – w/ Frozen Teens
August 2 – Milwaukee, WI – Ground Zero – w/ Tenement
August 3 – Ann Arbor, MI – Coop House – w/ Chit Chat
August 4 – Buffalo, NY – The Glitterbox
August 5 – Toronto, ON – Parts & Labour
August 6 – Ottawa, ON – Luneta Cafe & Bistro
August 7 – Montreal, QC – Drones Club
August 17 – Easthampton, MA – Flywheel – w/ Technicolor Teeth
August 18 – Boston, MA – Great Scott – w/ Bent Shapes (LP release show)

Photos via Big Hassle

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