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.”

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