Interview: Petrol Girls

I'm really proud of this. I think it's heads and shoulders above everything we've done before, so much more fun to perform.

Petrol Girls have just released their incendiary new album Baby and it is a triumphant and fiery call to arms that sees the band’s feminist punk rock as a soundtrack to rebellion over even darker days as chaotic decisions around the world are made in an even more frequent matter. The songs on the album are anthems that need to be heard and Gavin Brown caught up with Petrol Girls vocalist Ren Aldridge to discuss them in an extremely passionate and thought provoking interview that takes in exactly what the spirit of the band is as well.     

E&D: Your new album Baby is out now. How excited are you to have this new music out there?      

Ren: Yeah, we’re really excited, especially after the pandemic and all the time off and everything, it’s really good to be getting back into the touring cycle and getting it out there. I’m really proud of this. I think it’s heads and shoulders above everything we’ve done before, so much more fun to perform.

E&D: We’re the songs on this album easier to write with all the chaos and hypocrisy. that’s defined the world in recent times?

Ren: I think we struggled a bit with getting this one together because the pandemic really knocked the socks off of us, going from being an almost full time touring band to being being stuck at home. My mental health was really terrible and I was actually only really able to do anything useful once I got on the right medication. Our process was really different as well, in the past, we’ve just kind of recorded the last twelve songs we’ve got, whereas this time, we wrote twenty four bits of songs or incomplete songs. Towards the end of that process, we kept some of the earlier ones to be fair, but we really started to find the kind of sound that went on to define the record. It was more stripped back than what we usually do. From a lyrical perspective, whenever we’re writing, I’ve said everything I want to say but also there’s so much more too. I’ve wanted to do something about abortion for a long time, since 2018, when I had mine and I have been doing more and more activism on the topic of femicide since June 2020, that’s the main thing I’ve been active on here and where I live in Austria. I was really keen to do something directly from that experience. We demonstrate every month and it’s it’s really intense. I wanted to process it for myself and I feel like if the songs come out of the demonstration experience, then it’s something that you want to give back so it can be played at those demonstrations and stuff like that. I think the details of PC Wayne Cousins, who murdered Sarah Everard, came out the first week we were at the studio and that disgusted me and hit me quite hard because the abuse of power from the police isn’t surprising. We’ve seen so much disgusting police behaviour and police conduct over the years anyway, but I guess it was just a particularly harrowing story to read and the timing of it right when we were going into the studio. It was just really in my head and that fed a lot into the track ‘Violent By Design’ which I co wrote the lyrics to with Janey Starling, who also features on ‘Fight For Our Lives’. I guess it was this awkward thing since George Floyd’s murder and the latest wave of Black Lives Matter. I had been thinking about, as the white frontwoman of a feminist band, what can I do here that would be kicking back against a kind of carceral feminism and the idea that more police on the streets is somehow going to make things safer for women because it’s fucking not. Everything that happened with a police officer literally killing Sarah Everard and everything that happened with Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, what’s happened in the past with Sarah Reed and just how fucking useless they are and at times dangerous with regards to sexual violence. That song was really hard to write. I think about a week out of  four weeks we were in the studio, I was just sat at the table in the kitchen. I don’t know how to put all of this into words, it’s so big. I guess I really wanted to come from my position as a middle class white woman, to speak to other middle class white men and white women and be like, the police don’t fucking protect us. That kind of insight, we stop calling the police on marginalised communities and to say that we can start looking at other more transformative ways of dealing with gender based violence, because the criminal justice system just doesn’t work. It doesn’t even provide the kind of justice it claims to, because something like 1% of the cases that are actually reported get charged. It’s a joke and hardly anyone reports to anyway. We have to start looking beyond these violent and archaic systems.

E&D: Obviously, it’s taken an extreme thing for it to come come to the forefront. Do you think what you’ve just talked about is being spoken about more now?

Ren: It’s so hard to say because I think it is in the kind of radical left bubble that I’m part of but I don’t know if it’s just coming to my attention more now I’m more switched on topic of femicide. I am seeing more news reports. I saw one yesterday, I think from Maya Oppenheim, who I think is the woman’s editor of The Independent looking at a police officer kind of harassing and preying on a very vulnerable person. I guess I’m seeing more and more attention to it but whether or not anything’s ever going to change. I don’t really believe that the police force is something that can be reformed and I don’t really hold any hope for that, but what I do hold hope for is the kind of kill the bill movement in the UK that’s been kicking back against police crimes and sentencing bill. The idea of making this shit government becoming ungovernable because I just think a force that was fundamentally invented to protect property, that has such an issue with institutional racism particularly and institutional misogyny. I don’t have any faith in that being reformed.

E&D: You released the song ‘Baby Had An Abortion’ as the first single from the album, how’s that song have been received so far?

Ren: Well, honestly, I was hoping that a bunch of pro-lifers were gonna come across it and kick off on the internet, because that would really boost the algorithm and get it spread a lot more. I was like, come on, where are you? And it didn’t happen. I was kind of disappointed. but it was probably less stressful this way! I think we’ve had really good feedback from it. And we’ve put out the live session of it, which we recorded while we were down at the studio. We wrote it in response to everything that’s been going on in the US, because I mean, so much shit has happened, not just in the US, but all over the place on the topic of abortion, even since February when we released the single. We wanted to release the live session as an opportunity to also relaunch our Baby, I Support Abortion T shirts in the US and raised a bit of money for the Brigid Alliance. They’re a really, really cool organisation because their focus has always been on making abortion accessible. We wanted to just chuck some money that way and also, it’s just a really funny t shirt, which I want to see more people wearing. I wanted to launch a zine when we first released the single but I’m too disorganised and I didn’t get it done that time, so I was really happy that we did another push with this track. I wanted to do one, not just abortion but reproductive justice as a broader thing including child care, trans health, queer families, all the kinds of political issues around reproduction, basically. I’ve already had some responses, which is really exciting and we’ll put that together when there’s enough responses and then sell it for Abortion Without Borders and put it out for free online.  I’ve asked some friends to put me in touch with people in Argentina because they they got abortion legalised I think January 2019 or 2020 and that was a huge win. Everything that’s going on in Latin America, in terms of feminist stuff is so exciting and I’m desperate to make contacts. I just really want to hear about like, how they’re doing it and how they’re organising.

 

E&D: You mentioned Abortion Without Borders that you’ve been raising money with the track. Can you tell us about a bit about that?

Ren: Yeah, I think what they’re doing is amazing that that coalition formed when the abortion laws in Poland really clamped down, so abortion is pretty much impossible to get in Poland. One of the activists from that group Justina is currently going to trial because she gave abortion pills to a domestic abuse survivor and she could be facing up to three years in prison, which is completely fucked. The trial got postponed, but the first trial they weren’t even getting basic human rights. It’s sinister as fuck and it’s kind of a landmark case for the pro abortion movement to see like whether or not she will be prosecuted. There’s that group and then there’s Abortion Network Amsterdam, who have been connected with for a while with the Abortion Support Network in the UK. I believe there are some other organisations involved, but those are the three that I know off the top of my head. They’ve formed Abortion Without Borders, which is this collective that pool their resources and networks and knowledge in order to get people in particularly in Poland, but also other places access to abortion. You’re talking about thousands of people that they’ve helped, mostly through getting abortion pills delivered to them, but also getting people like out of the country to places like Amsterdam to have surgical abortions when people are too far gone to get all the pills that are just not an option. It’s amazing and life changing work. I think I saw an article the other day about what the US can learn from them and I think it’s  what they’re doing is really globally relevant to like other places they’re seeing that kind of situation with abortion getting a lot worse so yeah, they’re really fucking cool. Another thing that I want to say on the topic of abortion because I only found this out two weeks ago but abortion in the UK is not actually legal. I’ve literally had one and I didn’t know that. It’s a heavily punishable crime, unless you get the permission of a doctor and by law, the doctor has to think there’s a good reason for you or the foetus for the pregnancy to not go ahead. If I’d known that I’d have been so much more careful when I went to get it because I was just like, Yeah, I just don’t want it. I didn’t give him a big list of reasons why it was not possible. For me. I said I just really don’t want it. There’s a 24 year old in Oxford right now, who is going to end up going to Crown Court because she took abortion pills. It’s wild. I’m really used to hearing about this stuff in other countries. I don’t even live in the UK right now but I’m from there and it’s home. I just didn’t think that it was that archaic there. In most of Europe, abortion is completely decriminalised and if you want an abortion, you can get an abortion. The UK is actually quite bad in comparison to the rest of Europe on that point, and I really want to get involved with organising to push for it to be fully decriminalised. I think with what’s going on in the US at the moment has quite a big impact on British culture. If the mood in the US is Oh no, abortion is this awful thing that should only happen in cases of rape and incest, that feeling or vibe affects society in the UK, and you’re gonna start seeing doctors refusing to perform abortion because it’s not fully decriminalised by law. It leaves the gates wide open for things to take a sharp downturn and I think the reversal of the law in the US, I just think we shouldn’t be naive about it and think, Oh, that’ll never happen here. There’s so many things we thought will never happen, and they fucking happen. I really feel like we need to be proactive and start pushing for it to be decriminalised now before it starts slipping the other way. It’s just frightening isn’t it? How quickly these things you take for granted. I just don’t imagine these things. backpedalling like they do.

E&D: Have you ever had feelings of disbelief that you’ve had to write a song like that about abortion in this day and age?

Ren: I’ll tell you what,  the thing that’s shocked me most has actually been since releasing that song. I found out about people quite close to me, young people close to me having had abortions and it all been hushed up because they’ve been so ashamed felt so guilty for it. That’s what’s kind of shocked me, for people in their early 20s In the UK to be ashamed about it. I don’t think of it being like a shameful thing and I was really shocked to hear that from a young person that I’m close to. It really upset me actually because I’m like, who the fuck is is making people feel like that in our culture, who specifically, I want names and addresses, when it’s normal healthcare. The conversation since writing this song has been really interesting, and kind of validating as well. I thought, do I really have the right to be rightness on this topic because I’ve had the privilege of having such an easy experience. I think the song alone is politically useful, even without everything that we’re trying to do around it because the idea of the shame, shame, shame bit in that song is a Game of Thrones reference. I’ve really wanted to ridicule the idea that you should be shamed, or that you should be sorry, because, I just find it absurd, I find it ridiculous and I very deliberately made the lyrics to that song, really fucking stupid and on the nose, because it is fucking stupid that we would be shamed for this kind of stuff. One of my convictions about why I make political music is because I believe that a lot of political battles needs to be fought on the kind of cultural level, like the idea of the nation state, or the gender binary and stuff like that. They’re maintained through culture, so that it makes sense to attack those ideas in the realm of music and culture. I think the same about abortion, I don’t think it’s the only thing we need to do, there’s plenty of other shit we need to do. But one of the things I think you can do as a musician or as an artist, is to hold on to and promote the idea that abortion is normal, it’s healthcare, and it’s nothing to be ashamed about.

E&D: You mentioned pro-lifers before but have you had any backlash about your music and your message at all and does that spur you on when you do get reactions?

Ren: I’m quite confrontational, so I get quite a lot out of playing difficult gigs. I would love to go on tour with a lad band, where the whole audience is just like bros. I would love that because I just love playing with that stuff. I find it really fun, but I actually think that I get so much less shit from those kinds of people than most other women musicians, I think, because my whole persona on stage is kind of masculine and very aggressive. People don’t really fuck with me and I do not get harassed, but that’s what having a song called ‘Don’t Touch Me Again Or I’ll Fucking Kill You’ will do for you! What I do find difficult and what we are addressing on some of the tracks on the record, so I don’t even get much shit from my own community, but I have been affected mentally just from seeing the small mistakes that people will get completely destroyed for on the internet. I feel like there’s been a cult like on the radical left, there’s been such a culture of suspicion towards each other and demanding absolute perfectionism of each other, regardless of what someone’s background is, how much they know, how much they don’t know. People are getting completely taken down for tiny fuck ups. I guess that’s what we’re dealing with in tracks like ‘Preachers’. I just think we need to be kinder to each other and realise that each other are not our enemies. It’s the billionaires. It’s  these huge corporations, it’s the police, it’s the people that have real power. We need to figure out how to be in community with each other in order to fight back against those things, and stop the planet from dying and things like this. Whereas at the moment, we’re going at each other’s necks for nothing. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t tell each other when we’re wrong. I’m all for open and healthy debate, I just think we need to be a bit kinder and a bit more nuanced and discerning in most discussions. That’s something I’ve kept my mouth shut about for a while, and I just tried to be as well behaved and good as I can, but I’m not about that. I don’t want to be part of creating that pressure for any younger people, particularly women, that want to be in political bands, because it’s not healthy, and it’s fucked with my head. I don’t want it to happen to anybody else.

E&D: With live shows, are you looking forward to getting back out there and playing the new material?

Ren: Yeah, we’ve got a bunch of shows coming up over the summer and some festivals and then plans for the Autumn too. It’s just really cool to be getting back on it really. Our March tour didn’t go so well really because I had COVID at the start and for the first gig, I was still testing positive but then we managed three gigs and literally on the morning after the third gig, our drummer tested positive. The only thing I’m apprehensive about is the coronavirus with touring. You risk a lot of money, you buy the merch, hits a van, all this stuff and before if I was ill, I’d just get on with it. I’ve been so ill with flu onstage, I’ve been hallucinating but you had to push through with sickness. With corona though, it’s something else and I’m a bit frightened about how easily everything could collapse. Gigs are a prime infection zone so we want everyone to stay safe as we want to play the next gigs and not come back at a massive loss. The DIY scene has taken a massive blow over the last few years so please help us out and don’t infect us!

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