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An interview with Mary Regalado of Neonates / by Katie Alice Greer

Mary Jane Regalado is a modern-era hero of punk femme freaks and you'd never know from talking to her about it because she's frustratingly humble and quiet about the whole thing. I was a big fan of the personality injected into Mary's internet radio show Television Dinner, where she mostly played charmingly oddball 7" delights spanning many decades and countries. These were sick playlists, for sure, but mostly I liked them so much because they were a window into a stranger's personal taste and identity. Musical selections with feeling and most desirably, with predilection.

Originally from Los Angeles, Mary now lives in Washington DC. She is also a founder of Making Waves, an international publication dedicated to discovering and preserving the history of women artists involved in DIY art and underground. The third issue will be published this fall.

I don't exactly remember how I found the Neonates Bandcamp page (perhaps through Television Dinner) but I listened to it a bunch and tried very hard to not get my hopes up. Weird, sparse and yelping little ditties about being stuck in traffic ("Gridlock") and not being pregnant ("Nada") accompanied by a collaged lady/goldfish/newsprint design. It all seemed so perfect. I didn't know any other bands currently playing music who sounded anything like Neonates. Was this even a real band? I didn't want to fall in love only to have my heart broken. 

Anyway, I'll spare you the personal details but now it's three years later, and Mary and I host a radio show together in DC every few weeks. This week, we talked about her radio show, her guitar, her formidable knowledge as a punk archivist, musical friendships on the internet, and Neonates -- who, as it turns out, are real.

We conducted our interview at El Chucho in Washington, DC with local DC punk art muse Tariq Haqq present for occasional commentary.      

Katie: How many places have you lived?

M: Define 'lived'? I lived in LA, I moved around the whole LA area too many times to count. I went to 4 or 5 different elementary schools. I lived in San Francisco, Phoenix, then upstate New York for a summer, and now DC. 

When did you start playing guitar and how did it happen, did you take lessons? Were you musical already?

I was twelve. I wanted a guitar and got one for my birthday and just started to teach myself.  No one ever tried teaching me, I just looked up tabs and had a chord book. My dad put me in piano lessons when I was 4 and I stayed with them until guitar. No one in my family played music but my dad thought it was an important thing. I played clarinet for awhile until I switched to guitar.

Cool that your dad was into that. So he didn't play music?

No he was just a music fan and thought it would be a cool thing. He thought it was important. I hated to practice. I was good at clarinet though, I was in 'Advanced Band' at school and made first chair every year, I did local parades and played in Disneyland.

You played in Disneyland? Kind of a big deal first show, no?

Yeah in 5th grade. We took a bus down there, played in a gazebo. My grandma braided yarn my hair. When I was in piano I'd do recitals every year in churches, I guess those were my first shows. The songs I learned on piano as a kid, it's interesting to look back on that and see how it informed the way I play music. Like I learned the Titanic theme song. I was really into Christmas music too, I had binders full of Christmas music... like "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and stuff.

Did stuff like that influence Neonates at all?

It did. Learning clarinet influenced the way I played guitar. I took breaks from guitar for years at a time. When Neonates was starting and I met Max, he was going to teach me how to play drums and I was just going to play drums in that band. I hated guitar. 

When did you guys start Neonates?

I met Max when I was 18 and we started Neonates when I was 21. 

And it started based around songs you'd written on guitar? Tell me about your guitar 

Yeah. It's called the Fridacaster. It's covered in images of Frida Kahlo. Max's dad makes guitars and he had that one and knew that I really liked it, he gave it to me. I know it was made in Mexico. 

I'm kind of surprised you got to the name "Neonates" first, it's a great name. You'd think someone would've jumped on it. Did you guys have a lot of friends at school who were into punk or weird underground stuff? I always wonder what the social climate around you must've been like. Neonates is such a peculiar-sounding band, no one else really sounds like you and what you're doing. 

It's probably because we were pretty isolated. We just lived in the suburbs, I didn't really have a lot of friends who were into the stuff I was into, musically. Anna [Nasty, of Olivia Neutron-John and current Neonates bassist] moved away right after they graduated, they moved to Arizona. We had a band together when I was 15 called "Molars". I played keyboard and Anna sang and this kid Jacob played drums. We had like one practice. 

I want to ask you about some Neonates songs, like "Finger Foods." What are the lyrics about?

I just woke up one day and wrote that song, it was one of the few times where I felt like I just put together a completed song pretty immediately. It's about food but it's also supposed to be kind of sexy. I feel like R. Kelly, I was just trying to combine two of the best things. One of the lines I'm singing in Spanish is "Come algo con las manos" which means "Eat something with your hands".

What about "Tres"?

Max wrote the main riffy guitar part for that one, I wrote another line that was originally meant for bass but I ended up playing it on guitar. Gwendolyn, who used to be in Neonates, wrote the lyrics. It's based off an Antonioni interview. The interviewer asked him, "In a world without film what would you make?" And he said film. 

And then I also want to know about "Transaction".

It's my fun light-hearted critique of neo-liberal capitalism. The lyrics are "transaction/no reaction" and "do you understand/who gets the upper hand?"  

I wasn't totally aware of it, but I think that last line inspired part of "And Breeding" for me. Back a few years ago, I found your radio show on the internet and that was the first reason I wrote to you. I was just thinking like, "Damn, this person must have an incredible record collection," everything you played was right up my alley. How did you get into the music you're into? Did you get into physical records or were you researching music on the internet?

I've always been into music, it's always been part of my life even as a child. My dad had a good collection so I would steal his Elastica records or The Cure. 

Ok, so your dad. 

Yeah. And jazz stuff too. 

I ask because I didn't have too many friends who were just intensely into music in almost like a "research" kind of way. Like as a kid I spent a lot of time on the internet looking up idiotic things like "best music ever" or "top records" or whatever, because I didn't really know what I was looking for or how to look for it. Do you remember hearing a band or a record that kinda blew your mind the first time you heard it, like you'd never heard anything like that before?

Yeah. Probably when I first heard Kleenex when I was like 15, I just remember thinking "what the fuck is this." I think a friend sent it to me online. 

Did you have music friends online?

M: Do you know Catherine who does Puzzle Pieces records? I knew her on the internet in high school. We were part of a LiveJournal community called "Twee Girl Share". We traded records. I had some Team Dresch records I'd gotten. I traded her for an early Vivian Girls 7", I hadn't even heard of them yet. We met right around the end of high school, I'd see her at shows occasionally. It was cool to have that aspect of our friendship, like she would come to my shows.

Youtube wasn't even around till 2005 or something. So this stuff is interesting to me, people were obviously sharing music online before that. Were you into any zines?

Not that I can think of off the top of my head. I remember I saw Spider and the Webs when they toured, I got Tobi Vail's zine she was doing then. Of course I've since gotten more into zines new and old, I've gotten into Jigsaw and Girl Germs, lots of other stuff. But, that stuff wasn't really around when I was a teenager. Now, Kathleen Hanna's archive is at NYU.

It seems like there is a resurgence of interest in that right now. I'm not sure if as many people were heavily communicating in that way, with printed zines, in the early 2000s, or at least not in broad circulation. 

Right. I remember later on I found that website "Qzap" that has a lot of feminist and queer zines. A lot of the Riot Grrrl zines I would post on BoysTown [ed note: that's Mary's Tumblr] would come from there.

Does TV Dinner predate tumblr?

Yeah. I got a Macbook and signed up for a free trial of a program that helps you build websites. I forgot to unsubscribe and got charged for this program so I was like, "fuck it, I gotta use this thing and make a website" and I compulsively make mixes anyway. I think this predates Neonates, it was 2008 or 2009. When my subscription ran out from the website program I just switched to Tumblr, it was cheaper.

I wanna talk about Making Waves.

Okay let's talk about Making Waves.

That project was totally built on internet friendships with people from around the world. Just music geeks who are into things that have been lost to history, and we just all found each somehow other on the internet. It was weird how a lot of them had already been in contact with each other sharing files and things related to these bands we all loved. Lost videos and stuff.

When did you start Making Waves and how did you start it?

I'd have to go back and look at the first issue's date [ed note: 2011] but I started it by being in contact with the women from France-- Camille and Constance. Camille lives in Paris and Constance lives in Rennes. 

How did you get in contact with them?

Camille contacted me on Last.FM because she'd heard Neonates and was really impressed. She does Gunilla Mixtapes. Constance also does some cool blogs and mixtures. She does Very Special Story. So Camille contacted me and was like, "I love your band," and we just started sharing things back and forth.

Emailing videos and stuff.

Yeah. Like I would say, "I can't find anything about this band," and she would send me a video or a song if she had it. So I had a friendship with 5 or 6 people around the world and our friendship was built around that, helping each other discover things that got lost. 

So at some point did you send an email saying let's turn this into a publication?

No, I think it was more just that we're just nosy people. I'm a nosy person. So at some point I said we need to start contacting these women in these bands and see what they're up to. I think we all had similar ideas that we should get together and do it, and so then we just did a call out to all our friends to get people to contribute, people would pick a specific band or article idea they wanted to work on. It took a lot of time to put everything together, especially when considering language barriers.

Did you email in English?

Yeah. Everyone is great at English. But when it comes down to editing, there are some phrases that don't always translate well.

You've been working on the third Making Waves, right?

The third Making Waves should be coming out this fall, but I haven't contributed anything to this one. Mostly because I've been moving around, on tour, working, I just haven't been in a place to work on stuff like this. I haven't been spending much time on the internet.

Life gets in the way.

Life gets in the way of being a dork, nerding out on the internet.

Not even "being a dork", this is something you and I were talking about earlier. A lot of people are involved in projects that don't have any capacity for "selling stuff". If you're making music that isn't going to sell shoes, or if you're making music that doesn't have a lucrative component to it... if you're making music that potentially poses really awkward questions, or doesn't seem "sexy" … these things don't have a money-making component to it. This begs the question "should this music exist?" And a lot of people are so socialized into a mindset where we all need to be thinking of the bottom line or dollar all the time. So they would say, no. Don't pursue projects like this. A lot of people think you shouldn't really be pursuing creative projects like this. Like, "Oh, you're making something that Coca-Cola would have no potential interest in? Then maybe you should not do that anymore." You know what I'm saying?

But that makes me think back to DIY. That's why we're doing this. We have to be doing things like Making Waves and our bands and creating our own culture. Because the culture that we live in is against women, it is against people of color, it is against queers. We're constantly being attacked. So, making things like this is an outlet that works for me, combatting that attack. 

Tell me more about being involved with DIY.

It's not a fucking utopia, I mean, there is still a lot of class privilege and male privilege and straight privilege that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, that makes a lot of people not want to deal with it at all. It makes a lot of people want to start from scratch and just not be involved in what already exists. It's a constant work in progress. A lot of people forget the history: that women and people of color have been here from the beginning. 

Tell me about these kinds of privileges playing into DIY for you.

If you have class or male privilege, you have the resources to be more active. If you have money, you can start a record label. If your parents are paying for your school, for your cell phone, your utilities, you have more access to knowledge about recording, costs of these activities.

Having privilege means having less stuff to worry about. 

I've lived in cities where people who benefit from that privilege run the whole scene and take over, and that is exactly what the scene is. Just people of privilege making room for only themselves and their bands.

And maybe they make a very specific kind of music and look a certain way and if you do not make that very specific kind of music or look that certain way.

Yeah. Or if you call them out on it. Then you just won't get booked anymore.

I always think of this commencement speech Audre Lorde delivered where she basically says, "Look. You and I are here at this University celebrating your graduation from this institution, we are all persons of privilege. We sleep in beds every night and don't worry about where we're going to find our next meal. We live in the USA. We have privileges and this is nothing to be ashamed of. Learn to acknowledge your privilege, be aware of it and figure out what you can do in the world."

That relates to DIY because these privileged people can learn to be more aware of how to use their resources and space to make things more inclusive, learn how their resources will change scene dynamics and encourage people to flock to their cities 

Having privilege doesn't make you a "bad guy."

Right. I was the first person in my family to go to college, my mom is an undocumented immigrant. My dad dropped out of high school, he got chicken pox when he was sixteen, missed a bunch of school and couldn't finish. None of my family had a college education, my grandma dropped out of school in fourth grade to start working. So of course I struggle with pressure from my parents to go and climb the fucking ladder, you know. Get to the top. Like to go to school and graduate, and I did that. I did that for them but that's as far as it's going to go, and it's a struggle. They want me to be better off than they were. 

They want you to have more opportunities that were never available to them.

Right, and their answer is for me to be an accountant, go into business or whatever. To stop fucking around and moving around, to stop playing in these bands

They want you to have a bigger house.

They want me to just own a house. Own a car. 

Have a family, have food for your family, provide for your family. 

And that's not necessarily what I want

Maybe your ideas of, and values of family are more tied into these projects you're involved in.

A lot of the time I feel like, without these projects I wouldn't be able to survive. A lot of artists with mental health issues to these things to be able to survive. 

How else are you going to be able to handle your shit job…

Horrible shit job, horrible shit society

Which, you also can't survive without the horrible shit job because you probably pay rent.

I mean, I've done one thing right by my parents standards which is not having a baby. My dad thinks I'm on meth because I have a smoker's cough. I talk to him on the phone and he's always like 'are you on meth?' And I'm like, "no dad I'm just smoking a joint."

Isn't that why he named you Mary Jane?

Yeah, my mom wanted to name me Melody or Melissa, but she was totally passed out after thirteen hours of labor so he went with Mary Jane.  

You've been interested in and seeking out female bands for a long time. Has this always been an interest or was it precipitated by a time when maybe you felt like it was just dudes all around? Dude bands everywhere?

Yeah, and just me identifying with the music created by women more, on a lyrical and emotional level. And often instrumentally, the music women create just seems a lot more innovative and non-traditional.

That's one thing I've always loved about Neonates. Sometimes people purposefully try to create music that seems "naive" for lack of a better word, but Neonates doesn't sound like that. It sounds like you have an unusual way of playing guitar but you write what are essentially pop songs, they are melodic and catchy. But it isn't really informed by typical traditions of playing pop, rock, or punk guitar. Are you referencing something in particular, what are your influences?

Not necessarily one thing in particular but of course I'm influenced by a lot of stuff, I listen to a lot of music. I obviously have favorite guitar players. I love Christina Billotte. I love Mary Timony, a lot of her solo albums have really cool guitar stuff. Also non-guitarists, I love Mark E. Smith too, Captain Beefheart..  

There's always this narrative with punk stuff, this very mainstream idea that it is mostly a "dude" thing and also a "white" thing, which just seems so untrue to me if you are aware of the broader scope of what people have been doing for decades. So much initial "punk" was invented by people of color.

Right. I do find it insulting when a lot of the dialogue about punk is just talking about "what's missing" besides the history that's already there

It seems like a lazy way to think about those things.

There's a lot of shit going on still, yeah, there is a legacy still being made in that sense 

A lot of times you're hearing about white music the most because white people have the resources to make themselves heard. You could say the same thing about male music, western music, music made by rich people.   

Right. This correlates to why we hear about certain music and do not hear about certain music. It comes down to who has the resources to be loudest. 

Do you find yourself seeking out music made by people of color? For example know more about Mexican underground stuff than anyone else I know, I think.

Totally, I was obsessed with looking up Mexican punk bands. But I like more traditional stuff, too, like I love Cumbia. For a while I was thinking, "Why am I looking up music that is Latin people imitating white people?" But there are actually a lot of punk bands from Spain, from Latin America. Lots of stuff that is sort of obscure and hard to find but definitely exists.   

What's that song you were playing on the radio one time where the lyrics were just like, "I'm a whore I'm so slutty," or something like that. 

Oh that's a Spanish band. Las Vulpes. "Me Gusta Ser Una Zorra", yeah it means "I like to be a slut."

Word. Cool.

There's Maria T-Ta from Peru. She was imprisoned for playing her music. 

What's the song Downtown Boys cover?

"Maldito", that's Jessy Bulbo. She was in a Mexican all-girl garage band.

What other music stuff are you doing right now?

I'm in a new band called People's Drug. It's me, Alex from Mary Christ, and Laurie from Dudes and Foul Swoops. We played our first show with Palberta.

What's your angle with People's Drug?

We're just kinda like, pissed and high. 

I'd like to get some more controversial opinions on stuff. Do you have any controversial opinions?

[Tariq speaks up] I'm really against the legalization of pot, and I smoke weed like four times a day. Fuck that. I don't want to pay more money. 

Mary what do you think about pot being legalized?


Do you feel like the way people relate to one another is different on the East Coast versus the West Coast, since you've lived on both sides? You seem so chill to me. Way more chill than anyone else over here. 

I don't really know. I just smoke a lot of weed, I don't know. And I'm a Libra.

People on the East Coast, to make a sweeping generalization, we're always leaned forward, talking fast, kind of mad about something.

I like it though. I relate to it. The passiveness of the West Coast irks me, especially politically. It can be superficial in some ways. People out here are more confrontational in ways I see as being positive. There's a bigger sense of community, maybe people have each other's backs more, so they feel safe to confront things. 

In music you mean?

Not necessarily just in music. Bands on the West Coast are more business-oriented, maybe, at least where I was. Bands definitely move to LA to "make it."

Right. I mean that sounds gross and is gross a lot of times, but I guess I understand more now how being in a band for an extended time can take energy and and resources, I understand more now why people make decisions with respect to their band making money. It costs money to "do" a band, to be in a band.

I guess one thing that pisses me off is this: Before starting Neonates I was just perpetually shy, I felt alienated everywhere. Maybe less so at punk shows but definitely to some degree at all shows. Part of it was just being always surrounded by white people, by privileged people. You know, for example, seeing a band like Pocahaunted. Two white girls wearing face paint, everybody seeing this and just eating it up and not really asking questions about it. And then later on seeing Best Coast play music that I just thought was trivial. It is a kind of music that is fine totally, and it just ends up in Converse ads. It just makes money because it is accessible. It doesn't challenge any sort of status quo. This is what LA was like for awhile: Mika Miko had just broken up, New Bloods had just broken up, FInally Punk broke up. These bands were really important to me and suddenly gone. 

I felt conflicted when I first heard Best Coast. On one hand, it's pop music about weed and boyfriends, fine. That music can exist. But, when it feels like there is no room for people to make music about other things, or weirder stuff.

Or more challenging stuff. 

If the only music that makes money is the pop songs about boyfriends and weed... That those songs make money should not, in and of itself, be a bad thing. But when there are no resources for anything else to exist.

And I don't want to be a hater. But there are plenty of other bands who do the same. And they aren't really saying anything. They are women who look nice, maybe they look like sixties supermodels.

There shouldn't be any sort of mandate that "ALL MUSIC" must follow some kind of folk music topical and political commentary model. There should be room for all kinds of music to exist. But, it seems like the only stuff that can exist is the stuff you're naming. The stuff that is pretty. It's too bad there isn't some kind of way for the stuff that is already "in" to bolster and make room for these other kinds of things. 

Like Downtown Boys. 

Right, it is so cool that this band exists. There should be more room for bands like Downtown Boys to exist. Some people want to pursue music as a hobby, but it is an expensive hobby. A band like Downtown Boys should be able to make enough money to continue what they are doing, I would like to see that. I know this isn't really a question. 

It's okay. 

It's funny, living in DC, it relates to this question that I am having a hard time even articulating. There is so much money here, it is interesting to think about where it's all going.

[Tariq] Two of the top richest counties in the nation are Montgomery County and Fairfax.

M: There are definitely resources here but people who are already educated and already have resources are the ones who have the easiest access to more resources. 

[Tariq] Do you know, since the 90s, who the group of people is who benefit the most from affirmative action? 

Please don't say white people.

[Tariq] White women.

How is that "allowed"?

If you're white and you went to my school, if you went to Howard, you'd probably get paid to do that. I used to tell all my friends that, a lot of my friends in school were white so I'd tell them, "you need to get on that." But yeah, affirmative action. White women. 

I was reading a German Playboy interview with Rainer Fassbinder last night, the interviewer was asking if Fassbinder felt like he was doing anything worthwhile in being a filmmaker. And Fassbinder said he'd like to think so. He said he hoped that his films were encouraging people to think, and that in an increasingly conservative society where entertainment was only existing to distract people, he hoped that his films would give people space to think about things and have worthwhile conversations with their friends. I guess that is how I'd like to think music could be for people, especially music with some kind of independent aim. But it seems like even within the underground scene, the infrastructure is more and more set up in the same way that major label Miley Cyrus-level stuff is. So, there is only room for Best Coast usually, or something like that. The least threatening things. 

I was talking to a friend recently who knows a lot about the USSR. We were talking about how state control over creativity is so tied to fascism. It is interesting to think about different ways that some kind of authoritarian oversight already exists over creativity in many different ways.     

I like pop music. This isn't a diatribe against pop at all.

There's not room for anything other than... I don't want to say "shallow"…

Things that are pleasing on the surface.

Right. Stuff that is pleasing on the surface. Like, remember last week when we were listening to Wavves? Whatever it was. Well yeah, it was fine. I just didn't have any feeling for it. It didn't make me feel happy, sad, or angry. It didn't make me feel anything. It sounded like background music to me, like something that could be in a commercial. 

There's room for stuff like that, I don't think either of us are arguing that pleasant music shouldn't exist

Sometimes it feels like there's only room for that kind of music. 

I think of all of my friends involved in creative projects that are weirder, things that would be difficult to explain in a "one sheet", perhaps. There are people making very interesting stuff. And in every case, there is a reason why they don't have the resources to pursue that project further.   

Fuck you pay me. Wait I'm getting paid for this interview right?

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