INTERVIEW: L.A. Punk Legend Alice Bag Returns with Sister Dynamite

Photo: Denée Segall

On “Spark,” which opens Sister Dynamite, Alice Bag crafts an earworm. “Hell no! I’m not dimming my/I’m not dimming my spark,” she sings. That line can stick with you throughout the day. In can infiltrate your dreams. It’s can be a constant reminder to be yourself no matter what, words of comfort and encouragement from an acclaimed singer and songwriter who admits on our recent phone call, “I felt like a weirdo my whole life.”

I’ve had the chance to interview Alice Bag a few times over the years and am still awestruck whenever we have the chance to catch up. She’s an icon of L.A. punk, one the founders of my hometown’s scene due her work in The Bags at the end of the 1970s. In 2011, she released her must-read memoir, Violence Girl, which spawned a creative resurgence as a writer, artist and musician. On April 24, she released Sister Dynamite, her third solo album in four years.

But, what’s truly admirable about Bag is the way that she uplifts seemingly everyone around her through her work. The first time I interviewed Bag was in 2014, when she showed her visual art at a gallery in L.A.’s Chinatown. Bag had painted portraits of herself and her bandmates from the early ’80s band Castration Squad, calling attention to the women of post-punk Los Angeles. More recently, she collaborated with the poet Nikki Darling on the song “Dolores Huerta Street,” which directly led to an intersection in Boyle Heights named for the civil rights activist. Some people talk a lot about feminism and community, but with Alice Bag, it’s present in every aspect of her work.

Take the video for “Spark” as an example. It’s directed by Rudy Bleu Garcia, who is also the co-promoter of the beloved LGBTQ party Club sCUM, and is partially filmed at Chico, the Montebello venue that’s the party’s home base. It stars Vander Von Odd, winner of the first season of the reality competition series The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula. Bag first met Von Odd while DJing at Club sCUM.

“The back room at sCUM at Chico’s is really a tiny room. It’s where the DJ sits and usually there’s just one person back there,” she says. It’s also, Bag recalls, where drag performers change their outfits. “This particular night, Vander was there getting dressed and I was playing records. We bumped into each other,” she says. “We both turned around and were apologizing profusely, making sure the other person was okay, and then we just became friends. I found an instant kinship.”

The vibe of the party was important to the message that Bag wanted to convey in the video. “Whatever you want to do, however you want to express yourself, it’s okay when you go to sCUM events. You feel like you can be yourself, you feel like you’re with friends and family,” she says. “I really wanted that to be the feeling of the video, that it was a video meant to extend support to people who feel like they’re out there.” She adds, “When you find a community where you’re supported, where you’re accepted for yourself, it’s really a good feeling.”

On Sister Dynamite, Bag worked with her usual band members, including David Jones on bass, Sharif Dumani on guitar and Candace PK Hansen on drums. The album, which was produced by Bag and Lysa Flores (who also produced Bag’s previous records), includes contributions from regular collaborators and friends like drummer Rikki Watson and singer Allison Wolfe.

In the past, Bag says, she would select players who might work well with the instrumentation of certain songs. This time, she opted for a different method. “For this album, I really wanted to bring the energy and the rhythm that you fall into when you play together a lot,” she says. “I feel like we have a family,” says Bag. “I wanted to bring that feeling.”

Part of that is inspired by Bag’s experience as a producer for Fea’s 2019 album No Novelties. “They anticipated each other’s moves, everything. It was beautiful,” she says of the band. “I thought that we could have that.”

Photo Credit: Denée Segall

Bag says that bringing her bandmates to the forefront with her has been a process, unfolding over various tours. She asked her bandmates to sing more this time around too. “I feel like a lot of the backing vocals are actually co-leads,” Bag says. “It’s really rewarding for me to see my band step up and own it. They’re all in my band because I admire their musical skills and also because, as people, they’re fun to tour with. We get along great.”

For now, though, touring is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bag says she’s waiting to see how her gigs for late summer and fall of this year will be impacted. She explains that, after being hospitalized for pneumonia about a eighteen months ago, she’s more flexible about performances. “In the past, if I had been sick, I would still play. I never, ever wanted to cancel a show because I didn’t feel well,” she says. “Now, I feel like I’m going to be around to rock another day. I want to be able to do what I like to do for a long time.”

Follow Alice Bag on Facebook for ongoing updates.

The Decade’s Best Books by Women in Music

If I hadn’t read Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, I wouldn’t be a rock writer. It was 2013. I had recently graduated art school and was dividing my time between three retail jobs: a liquor store, a grocery store, and a clothing store. One of my friends had recommended it to me, and even though I didn’t think of music as a big part of my identity anymore — something I’d felt pushed out of because I didn’t have the right taste or the correct opinions or the appropriate body of knowledge — I suddenly found myself reading about music a lot.

Maybe it’s because I was hanging out with female DJs. Or I wanted to ably push back when men told me everything that was wrong with what I listened to in break rooms. After four years of honing how my eyes took in information, it’s possible I was trying to improve my ears, too. But when I read Marcus’ 2010 release on long bus rides between cash registers, something in me changed.

Girls to the Front blends passion with criticism, betraying Marcus’ clear love for and intimate experience with riot grrrl while carefully laying out its many skeletons. Male critics love to trot out the feminist punk phenomenon as evidence they remember women play music, too: “I’m not sexist; I’ve heard of Bikini Kill!” But Marcus declares the movement as an important part of music history worthy of critical scrutiny — and hardly a beginning or end point for women in rock. Reading her book turned on a light in me I didn’t realize existed, and made me want to build on her work.

I don’t think I was the only one to react that way, either. In many respects, Girls to the Front anticipated the next 10 years of music books. 2010 to 2019 was a banner time for publishing women writing about rock. And I’m not just saying this as someone who was so inspired by a book about ladies’ sweat-stained expressions of rebellion that I made a slow professional shift; I have the receipts. Not only did this decade give us more women’s stories, but we also witnessed small but meaningful strides in the kinds of stories prioritized (memoirs from the likes of Kim Gordon, Liz Phair, Carrie Brownstein, et al became so ubiquitous they didn’t even fit into this list). What follows is a roving, incomplete list of books — one from each year — that marked small but powerful shifts in the rock ’n’ roll landscape.

2010: Patti Smith’s Just Kids

The 2010 debut from ’70s punk-poet icon set a new standard for memoirs well beyond the rock pantheon. In lyrical prose, Patti Smith describes her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe — its evolution from friendship to romance to creative wellspring. Even more than a eulogy for one of her most formative friendships, though, it’s a love letter to her influences: Jean Genet, Arthur Rimbaud, William Burroughs, and so on. She gives longform life to Rainer Maira Rilke’s romantic ideas of art as a calling. And because of this title’s wild success — it was a bestseller that garnered numerous awards including the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction — Just Kids opened the memoir floodgates for everyone from Kim Gordon to Ani DiFranco.

2011: Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music

Ellen Willis is probably best remembered as a feminist cultural critic who touched on everything from decriminalizing drugs to antisemitism on the Left. Somewhat lesser known is that she began her career as a music writer. In 1968, Ellen Willis became the first pop music critic at The New Yorker — the first ever music critic to write for a national audience. Despite influencing writers such as Griel Marcus and Ann Powers, Willis died in 2006 never seeing her music criticism get its due. In this tome, her daughter, Nona Willis Arnowitz, brings together writing that, while very of its time, was a hugely important landmark for music coverage.

2012: Alice Bag’s Violence Girl

Before she was releasing Christmas tracks about punching nazis or clacking away on typewriters alongside Allison Wolfe and Kathleen Hanna, Alice Bag was screaming with The Bags. She first cemented her punk legacy with a cameo in Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization, but Bag has long proven her stay power. In her book, she describes growing up Latinx in L.A.; unlearning the violence she grew up surrounded by; going hip-to-hip and lip-to-lip with both men and women; and how these experiences shaped her life’s work as an activist, educator, and musician. Early L.A. punk was queer and brown, and it had so many women — and Alice Bag will not let you forget.

2013: Evelyn McDonnell’s Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways

I do a women’s rock history podcast, and my first season is on the Runaways; there may be some heavy bias in this choice. But I’m letting it stand because Evelyn McDonnell has long written about the varied and important ways women have contributed to popular culture, and to me, this is her magnum opus. Queens of Noise provides cultural context while separating fact from fiction for one of rock history’s most storied, undervalued bands. In 2015, the Runaways’ bassist Jackie Fox revealed she was raped by the band’s manager and producer, Kim Fowley. While McDonnell’s book hints at this, she resists outing Fox or even letting Fowley’s predatory, abusive behavior define the band’s legacy. The book is not about what was done to these women; it’s about what these women did for themselves.

2014: Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

While Viv Albertine’s memoir tells the story of being an influential musician at the center of 1970s British punk, it’s also an account of everything that comes after that: marriage, motherhood, cancer, divorce — even relearning how to play the guitar. Among other things, Albertine reveals shrinking her musical past to emotionally accommodate her husband and fighting with her publisher to forego a ghostwriter. Thank the stars she won that fight, because her voice is strong, insightful, and intimate. One of the simple elegances of Albertine’s autobiography is how she marks time in a way familiar to so many women and femme music lovers: what she was wearing in that moment, what she was listening to, and who she was dating.

2015: Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic

When I initially saw this in a bookstore, I actually scoffed. At the time, I was regularly reading so much excellent music criticism from women that my brain couldn’t yet wrap itself around the bold and unfortunate fact of the title. Highlights include Jessica Hopper’s essay on emo (“Where the Girls Aren’t”); Hole fact-checking Wikipedia during an oral history of Live Through This; and an interview with journalist Jim DeRogatis where Hopper unpacks her initial instinct to separate R. Kelly’s art from his abuses and admits that was a mistake.


2016: Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny

Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace uses diaries entries dating back to the third grade to open up about transitioning, which makes it a landmark trans memoir. But beyond what the book means for transgender visibility, Grace also talks about what led her to punk and anarchism; being part of one of the most celebrated punk bands of the aughts; and reconciling her DIY punk past with finding commercial success — and what it meant when early audiences rejected Against Me! for “selling out.”


2017: Jenn Pelly’s The Raincoats – The Raincoats (33 1/3)

Stories of ’70s heroines really came of age this decade, but so did the critics raised on them. If contributing Pitchfork editor Jenn Pelly’s articles are like singles, here was her first LP. Drawing on glimpses into the Raincoats’ personal archives and using interviews from bands such as Sleater-Kinney and Gang of Four, Pelly provides a tender, collage-like account of the Raincoats’ self-titled debut and how its influence lives on. But perhaps as important as the book was its New York launch party, which bridged multiple generations of music. In attendance was a veritable who’s-who of women in rock, and it led to Bikini Kill’s reunion tour.

2018: Michelle Tea’s Against Memoir

Against Memoir is exactly what the title suggests: it’s not a memoir, but it’s not NOT a memoir, either. Which also to say, it’s not a music book, but it’s not NOT a music book. Some writers observe things like how music is made or who it’s made with; Tea chronicles what happens after it’s heard, sandwiching it between myriad other cultural observations and self reflections. The result is a piecemeal queer history of music that resists historicization. Highlights include her “Transmissions from Camp Trans” — Camp Trans being the trans-inclusive music festival that sprung up across the road from trans-exclusionary Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival — and her history of HAGS, a ’90s San Francisco dyke gang orbited by Tribe 8 who kept bands like L7, Lunachicks, and 7 Year Bitch on heavy rotation.

2019: Shawna Potter’s Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot

Drawing on over 20 years of experience fronting the hardcore band War on Women, Shawna Potter has been an active voice for improving physical and psychological safety for marginalized people in music spaces. She’s led trainings at large clubs and tiny DIY venues alike, and now she has a book of actionable advice for minimizing and responding to harassment. Potter takes the conversation beyond acknowledging the aggression targeted at so many people in music, especially women and gender-nonconforming people, and declares, “Here’s some things we can do about it.” This, like so many other titles on the list, gives us a glimpse into what the next decade (hopefully) holds: a more inclusive future for women in rock – musicians, fans, and writers alike.