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By: Tim Foster
It must be about ten years since I regularly went to see punk gigs, that was in the days of Adequate 7, The Filaments and Five Knuckle, they split up and the next wave of UK punk didn’t really seem as interesting (to me), and, after a while, I stopped paying attention to the punk scene which no doubt meant I missed a lot of good stuff! There were some bands I noticed over the last few years; The Restarts, Rise Against, Not Right, In Evil Hour but I had kind of forgotten just how exhilarating, exciting and encouraging a full on punk gig can be. I’ve just been reminded! Last weekend (12/6) Petrol Girls played The Owl Sanctuary in Norwich and were absolutely stunning-a set of full on melodic post-hardcore with intelligent, angry lyrics challenging sexism, structures of violence and injustice. This is a band fuelled by feminist convictions, left politics and righteous anger who have an integrity backing up their words. Before the gig lead singer Ren Aldridge took time out between soundchecks and other pre gig stuff for an interview.
(((o))): Could you give us an overview of Petrol Girls, how you started, had any of you collaborated before, been in other bands?
Ren: Initially the band was me, Liepa and our friend May and we started for an International Women’s Day house show that I was putting on at my house. I was in an acoustic band and wanted to have a go at doing something heavier, we had two practices played two songs, SUCKED, and it was awesome! That’s how we started!
(((o))): So you started for a particular event?
Ren: Yeah for that house show and I think it’s important to come back to that because up to this point I’ve always had to create the space to be creative in, so it’s like this extra work that anyone who isn’t a white dude has to put in. That house was mainly all male house shows to start with and I had to fight really hard and now in that place there would never be an all male house show. We needed that explicitly feminist context to exist and to nurture us.
(((o))): So you needed to create a permissive safe social space to learn to express yourself in a public way?
Ren: Yeah, because you need the opportunity to suck for a while, it’s quite important that you can go somewhere and be shit for a while, I was playing acoustic guitar when Petrol Girls began we had no idea what direction we would go in, but Joe saw the potential and asked to join on guitar and eventually we ended up with Zock on Drums, which is awesome because he’s an incredible musician!
(((o))): I think I read somewhere that you’re named after a group of women from the Paris Commune (1)? Anything to do with Louise Michel-she’s one of my heroes!
Ren: I think they may be connected, to be honest the way i found out about them was at a Laurie Penny talk on women and protest- she really speaks to me, she’s a similar age to me, and really angry and doing the same shit as me and expresses herself in a similar way, a lot of our songs are based on things that she’s written-she did this talk where she took women and protest right back to Les Petroleuses, or this idea of Les Petroleuses.
(((o))): So even if they weren’t real it’s the myth of them…?
Ren: Exactly, its the idea of them, these badass women who were challenging gender stereotypes, that’s why our logo is a Molotov cocktail made out of a milk bottle, which brings up all sorts of ideas about women and reproductivity.So much rich imagery and history and I know fuck all about it but even just as a starting point, Yeah that!
(((o))): So how would you describe your music Ren, your latest track ‘Treading Water’ reminds a bit of Five Knuckle-melodic hardcore type thing..?
Ren: Yeah, I’m pretty easy about genres…melodic post-hardcore or something. What we’re definitely not is Riot Grrrl, people always describe us as Riot Grrrl, I think Riot Grrrl is fucking awesome, but it’s an easy label, people go ‘There are girls in the band they must be Riot Grrrl’- we are massively inspired by Riot Grrrl and there was that attitude that inspired us to do it, but if you listen to Riot Grrrl bands there is quite a particular sound and we’re not that at all, and it annoys me when we are described as Riot Grrrl, you are insulting Riot Grrrl, it’s a thing in its own right.
(((o))): There is a really good book Girls to the Front Sarah Marcus (2), she makes the point that it was also a very zine driven movement, it wasn’t just about music…
Ren: No it was a social movement…
(((o))): How did your politics take shape, what were the influences, did you read a lot? How would you describe yourself?
Ren: Me, personally probably anarcha-feminist, but I’m not that fussed about labelling it, over the last year I’ve definitely got a lot more militant in my politics, about 2010 I was involved in the student movement and our first EP is a lot to do with those experiences. At the time there was a flyer with a picture of a person kicking in a window and it said “they talk of violence” and then it listed all these insidious forms of violence, and that came out in ‘Treading Water’, I think we might call our album ‘Talk of Violence’ or something like that, it’s this idea that resurfaced again and again and it’s probably the core of my politics, I believe in militant direct action because the way society is run now is so fucking violent.
(((o))): Yeah, Tolstoy makes the point in The Kingdom of God is Within You (3) that the state is inherently violent. its power rests on its ability to coerce and force and punish. Sometimes that coercion is bureaucratic, sometimes its explicit. It’s a dimension we don’t see clearly most of the time.
Ren: Exactly, and I think that art and culture and music for me are about making these structures of oppression visible and clear.
(((o))): Which is what the Situationists talked about, the importance of the disruptive because it exposes the depth and breadth of the means of control…
Ren: Exactly, that’s the heart of my own art stuff, I’m doing a project at the moment where I’m acquiring national flags and cutting them up and rearranging them according to colour, I want to do this with groups of people in public spaces, there are people who will get really fucking offended that you’re cutting up a flag, it’s a bit of fucking fabric! But it’s such a loaded object to cut it up and to rearrange it according to colour, well what can that mean? Nationalism and national identity they’re perpetuated through culture…
(((o))): Picasso said ‘Art is not made to decorate apartments, it’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy’ (4), is that what you would hope for with you music that it would be a weapon to disrupt the dominant narrative, to wake people up?
Ren: Yeah, for sure! I think for me all art and music is political in some way, and if its not actively politically against the way things are then its supporting it. There are plenty of bands that call themselves punk rock that aren’t doing anything to try and change the way things are, and as far as I’m concerned that’s not punk rock. People are like “I’m not political” but you are, you are keeping things the way they are. You’ve got this platform, this opportunity, this immense freedom of movement, with this amazing network .. I read an interview with a band recently and all it was was ‘Yeah man we went on tour and it was cool and we drank beer’ and I’m like ‘ What the fuck are you doing!’ They’re from a city where there loads of stuff going on in terms of border actions, we need to utilise this network now!
(((o))): Riot Grrrl was a reaction to the US punk scene being dominated by straight white men with all the problems that brings-how have you experienced the UK punk scene in the 2000s? Is it an easy place to be a woman?
Ren: I think it’s important thing to say it’s got a lot better, but there is still more to do! My situation is quite different so I can’t speak for other women, and wouldn’t want to, I’ve gone from being a younger woman who did backing vocals, for Mike Scott which was awesome, to touring with bands and doing merch or going to shows and not being a very visible person to now being a very visible person. So I’m in a totally different position, before I got sexually assaulted a lot, I even got kind of groomed by older men in bands, a lot of difficult experiences like that. Whereas now people won’t even fucking flirt with me because I rant about consent on stage and it’s absolutely hilarious! But I think for women in general there is a massive issue of sexual assault and rape and I think it’s important to acknowledge that the musical community is a hierarchical community, I don’t like this hierarchy, but I fully acknowledge that I’ve risen up it because of the band, because of the stage, because I have a microphone. I’m sure there are still women who come to shows who have to deal with sexual assault and rape and groping and sexual harassment by men at shows, by men in bands, by men who have put on gigs. It’s an ongoing constant fucking problem.There are some collectives doing some really good stuff about it like ’Love Sex, hate Sexism’, but it needs to be an ongoing conversation, and it’s men’s responsibility to be creating that conversation because it is men overwhelmingly doing it to women. Men need to talk to one another and sort this shit out, and learn to be accountable for their behaviour. And this leads to a wider conversation, we are all socialised into this sexist bullshit patriarchal world, men often end up being abusive in some way or another, I had experience of sexual assault a few years ago that I called the guy out on, and we weren’t friends for ages and it sucked and recently I took him through an accountability process because all I needed was for him to understand that what he’d done was wrong, that it was sexual assault, to clearly define it as that, because he refused to for many years-and that he wouldn’t do it again, and now its fine. You know what? People fuck up. Own up to your shit! I’m a raging feminist but I can still be sexist, any time I’m slagging off some woman because of who she’s slept with or something like that, that’s me perpetuating sexist values. No one’s got clean hands in any of this. As someone who has experienced assault I find the idea of a spectrum really useful because some of my experiences are much worse than others, if I get touched up by a friend who was drunk that’s not OK and he is probably going to get smacked, but it’s very different from someone deliberately raping me. There are different ways that men behave, the ones that have been predators for years need to not be given a platform within our community, they need to be held accountable for their shit and the women that have been affected need to be listened to- and if you’re silent when you have the opportunity to speak out against it then you are just contributing to it.
There is a reason why when you look at our community the older you get the less women there are, they will have experienced assault or rape in the community and then they won’t be able to come back into it.
(((o))): That’s pretty much messed up my next question! But here goes…In Art and Politics Claudia Mesch (5) says that mainstream culture is market and media driven, do you think the punk community with its ethos of DIY grassroots art and participation can be a place of resistance to that culture of passive consumption?
Ren: I think it can be, this is the thing, I think it has massive potential to be that, but I don’t think it is a lot of the time, but we can be something beyond this. I’m really interested to have an ongoing conversation about what punk rock can be. I totally agree with that quote, mainstream culture is totally brainwashing us into these really damaging ideas like nationalism and the gender binary and hetrosexuality as a given. I think punk’s DIY ethos is how we can push things forward politically, if you are empowered to create and participate in your own culture then it follows that you can be like that about your politics as well.
(((o))): As well as a site of resistance do you think it can be a community where people find refuge from the alienation and anxiety caused by hyper-capitalism? Can it be a place people come ‘home’ to?
Ren: Yeah completely 100%-but it needs to be a home for everybody who wants it to be regardless of race or gender or sexuality, so we’ve got a lot of work to do to make it meaningful a home for everybody.
(((o))): Last question! What books and writers and musicians have you been inspired by lately and more long term?
Ren: Well I already spoke about Laurie Penny, I feel like she might be my fairy godmother! She puts articles up and they’re always at the same time as I’m looking into things. I went to a refugee and migrant conference in Hamburg at the end of February, that really inspired me a lot and I learnt loads but also about how I exist in that struggle as a white British woman with papers. Learnt loads about decolonisation and how patriarchy affects the ways that women especially get involved in these kind of struggles, and burnout, things like that. And about solidarity rather than charity and about liberations being tied up together, I’ve been trying to write about it loads since. Angela Davis in an interview said that the refugee movement is the movement of this century, this is what we need to putting our energy into. It circles back to the idea of making things visible because the state is trying to make these people invisible. So in terms of inspiring people, yeah, Angela Davis, this guy called Patras Bwansi who does Refugee Radio Network out in Berlin who did this amazing workshop on decolonisation, the dude’s a raging feminist and tied all of these things together in a way I really understood. There were people from fucking everywhere, all together in this workshop learning about how colonialism and capitalism and patriarchy and all of this shit is just one big web of shit and that we’ve got to work together to dismantle all of it, and not just separate off into these separate struggles. People with papers need to be political about their involvement in this current crisis of borders or they end up with this ‘helping the needy’ vibe – people without papers, refugees, aren’t needy, they’re more than fucking capable of doing things for themselves, but they’re not being allowed the resources or the political rights. Just because they don’t have the right bit of paper.
Thanks to Ren and Petrol Girls for time and music.
(1) Cullen, C. Introducing: Petrol Girls http://www.punktastic.com/interviews/introducing-petrol-girls/
(2) Marcus, S. (2010) Girls To The Front, Harper Perennial, New York.
(3) Tolstoy, L. The Kingdom of God is Within You, (trans. Garnett. C.) Dover Pub. New York.
(5) Mesch, C. (2014) Art and Politics, I. B. Tauris, London and New York.