Talking Riot Grrrl with Sex Stains’ Allison Wolfe: BUST Interview

by Alex Weiss

When I think of Riot Grrrl, I think of Allison Wolfe. In fact, I owe a lot to her and her band, Bratmobile. With songs like “Girl Germs” and “Gimme Brains,” Wolfe soundtracked my youth, perfectly articulating the female experience while simultaneously throwing up a big fuck you to the patriarchy. Though I was a little too young to be a part of the Riot Grrrl movement, I spent my teenage years reading zines and listening to Bratmobile, feeling for the first time like I was at least a part of something—like somewhere outside of my shitty high school, there were more girls like me.

Eventually, I started my own band, which I’m not sure I would’ve done had I not had Wolfe to look up to. After hearing Bratmobile’s 1993 album Pottymouth for the ten-thousandth time, I no longer wanted to keep quiet. Their particular blend of sugar and spice gave me the courage to stand up and scream. 

When Riot Grrrl ended and Bratmobile disbanded, Allison Wolfe kept making music. After moving to LA, she met drummer David Orlando, and together with choreographer Mecca Vazie Andrews, Sharif Dumani and Pachy Garcia, they formed Sex Stains. A post-punk outfit with both Wolfe and Andrews on vocals, Sex Stains makes catchy punk featuring Wolfe’s signature brand of girly cool. The lead single off their upcoming LP, “Don’t Hate Me ‘Cuz I’m Beautiful,” is traditional no-wave, while “Who Song Love Song,” is a little more Josie and the Pussycats—‘60s surf punk mixed with handclaps and a classic pop hook. Wolfe and Andrews’ interwoven vocals are reminiscent of The Slits’ Cut, and tracks like “Land of La La,” “Cutie,” and “Confrontation” sound like later-era The Clash. Atop punchy guitars, Wolfe’s voice howls as she spits slicing lyrics about love in LA. 

Sex Stains’ self-titled debut is not so much a return to form for the frontwoman, but rather another band in which her style shines. Her biting wit and keen observations make for poetic expressions as poignant to me now as they were when I first heard “Cool Schmool.” 

I recently had the chance to talk with Allison about her new band, their upcoming album and the true origin of girl power.

On Sex Stains:

It’s just really exciting for me because I’m in this band that feels really different from any band I’ve ever been in. 

On the band’s influences:

We’re all pretty influenced by a lot of no-wave post-punk, late ‘70s/early ‘80s types of bands,  like Kleenex, LiLiPUT, Contortions. 

On mansplaining:

There’s a song, “Who Song Love Song,” on the record, that’s about mansplaining—when guys, especially guy musicians, are trying to tell you what’s going on with music and what’s this and what’s that, and just this phenomenon of guys wanting to tell some girl how the world is. Like, ‘Hey baby let me show you the world, let me show you life according to me,’ and it’s just so annoying. Don’t you think I have some thoughts of my own? Or don’t you think I might have something to teach you, especially if you would just shut up and listen? It’s especially weird when younger guys try to do that to me. Like, really? Do you know who you’re fucking talking to?  

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On the evolution of Riot Grrrl:

With Riot Grrrl days and Bratmobile, we were really operating within a network of other feminist musicians. Bikini Kill especially, was hugely important in our world and we were kinda like sister bands. It felt like they were the big sister, and we were the little sister. But that was a really awesome time of networking with people. We were really influenced by bands like Seven Year Bitch, Babes in Toyland, L7, who weren’t doing the exact same thing as us and wouldn’t call themselves Riot Grrrls, but they were part of this greater scene of awesome female musicians. By the late ‘90s, a lot of those bands were breaking up or seemed to be fading, and it was really disappointing as a girl in music being like,”‘Wait, what happened to my scene, my network?”

On feminism:

Because sexism still exists, so must feminism. Within the music scene too, so you just gotta come up with something new and keep going for it—keep trying to have a voice and say things and make art that speaks to something.

On the popularization of Riot Grrrl:

It’s cool to see women yearning for some form of feminism. But I also think that the words and the vocabulary, and the message, probably need to be updated and changed. Riot Grrrl has always been a pretty loose term that could mean all sorts of things. Take it and run with it, use it however it speaks to you and your community. I think it also shows that things are still sexist and there’s a ways to go, and women are still looking for feminist means. But I also sort of worry sometimes about it getting distorted.

On “Girl Power”:

Recently, I was listening to the radio and I don’t know why there was some kind of Spice Girls resurgence in the news —maybe it’s their 20 year anniversary — but they were talking about girl power. I’m just like, “They straight up stole that from Riot Grrrl!” I remember being pissed at the time. Like, “Girl Power” was something Kathleen Hanna coined. It did suck when we first started having the media onslaught, having the mainstream come in and just suck our phrases, but kind of defang and declaw them and leave them with no meaning. Then when you saw it slapped on the Spice Girls, you were just like, “Fuck that! You can’t just take our words from us and render them meaningless.” But in the end, if you think about it, a whole bunch of teeny bopper girls at least going to a Spice Girls concert and crying over them were, at least maybe, able to identify with themselves being on that stage at some point. Instead of me going to Duran Duran concerts when I was a teeny bopper , and crying over them, not ever thinking I could be them, but thinking I wanted to make out with them.

On her musical background:

Of course everyone grows up with music in the house from their parents, and my mom was a lesbian feminist who had lots of lesbian folk music in the house. She was also into a lot of bluegrass and stuff like that. There was this feminist bluegrass duo called Hazel and Alice and they were awesome. I still listen to their records and that was a huge influence on me. At some point though, you have to come into your own and get your own records, get into music in your own way. The main thing was going to my own local punk shows and seeing people who were just standing next to me in the audience a second ago, jump onstage and do it. That made me be like, “Oh, maybe I could jump onstage and scream, too.” 

On Kathleen Hanna:

Kathleen Hanna had moved to Olympia right after I graduated high school. She was going to Evergreen and doing some art stuff, had an art gallery there and started putting on shows at the gallery. But also, just seeing this tough girl around town was amazing. Then I saw her play in her first band — I believe it was Viva Knievel — and she was just screaming onstage. It was just kind of crazy, but awesome crazy. She was screamings things like “Boy Poison” and “Give me a spanking!” It just seemed like she was taunting men, and it was awesome.

On grunge:

The onslaught of grunge was just crushing us. Like ugh, it was just a new, long-haired package of sexism. It was just like, “Hey, I’ve got something to say and it’s GOTTA be better than this. I’m not saying music-wise I’m better, but lyric-wise it HAS to be.” 

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On being punk:

I’m a lifer. I’m never going to stop wanting a creative outlet and needing a creative outlet, and some form of punky music is the way that I know how to do that, how to be creative. 

On being a woman in the punk scene:

I never really stopped being in bands. I’ve just kind of done it all along, whether people were paying attention or not. In a way, you can’t say that any of the things people have done exist in a vacuum — we do all stand on the shoulders of giants and we all can move a little further because someone did a little work before us. I do notice a lot of women in the LA scene who are in bands. It seems like girls maybe don’t have to think it out as much — they just pick up an instrument and go. […] It’s a new generation of women who think they can, know they can and just do it from an earlier age. 

On music as feminist activism:

I feel like what I’m going to write about is going to naturally gravitate towards feminism. It’s just kind of the person I am, so it’s going to come out in my songs, regardless of whether I’m trying or not. But I think my themes in my songs have always been a little bit more about how the personal is political and vice versa, and maybe not as sloganistic as it could be, or maybe not as obvious. […] I don’t always know or think music is the most effective form of activism but I see it more as — I think Corin Tucker termed it — to me, cultural activism is what we are doing. Do I feel like I could be doing a better job? Always. I feel like we all could be doing more. 

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On being authentic:

Whatever artwork you create, be authentic about it. Don’t just wear a costume just because you’re told to, or don’t feel like you have to look pretty or be nice or present yourself in a certain way, so that it will be palatable or acceptable.

On challenging expectations:

I really appreciate things that are really raw and that are really authentic, and performers that just really go for it—performers that just let it all hang out. It’s hard to find people doing that these days. People are so concerned with their image onstage, or making sure they don’t fuck up on the music or whatever, and I think the pressure is even harder on women because of mainstream imagery. So a lot of girls are up there just trying to look cute. If you are cute, that’s cool, but I think it’s important to try to bring something more than that and even to try to challenge those expectations.

All photos by Hailey Parker

More from BUST

‘Grrrls On Film’ Brings Riot Grrrl Culture To Los Angeles

Kim Gordon Chats With Kathleen Hanna: Uncut Version

Kathleen Hanna Is ‘Living For All The Girls Who Didn’t Make It Out’: BUST Interview

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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