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An interview with Alice Bag / by Victoria Ruiz

Video by Amanda Silberling

“I've heard people say, oh punk is dead, punk is not like it was when I was younger. That's up to us to make it feel like it felt when we were young. And you can do that right here, right now. And you can make it relevant. Because there's always shit that has to be addressed. I'm so honored and so proud to play with so many young people, people of color, women, people from all backgrounds.. and to see how punk as evolved, how punk has come full circle. Because that's where it started. Punk started with all of us. It started as an inclusive scene. And it went around, it went around, and it came back to us.”
- ALICE BAG, 8/19/16 at The Sidebar in Baltimore

“I took big, hungry bites out of life, and I'm still not full.”
-Alice Bag,
Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage : a Chicana Punk Story

Alice Bag has a new self titled album out on Don Giovanni Records. Her songs cover themes ranging from a political analysis of the suburbs to the power of saying “no.” After reading Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking, she decided to crowdsource her album as a way of asking for much needed economic resources but also as a way to connect to her audience by including them in the process of making her album possible. She also reached out to Joe Steinhardt of Don Giovanni who was excited to work with the prolific Alice Bag.

Perhaps the reason that we look towards punk isn’t to see an open door but to believe that there is an open door for all of the feelings of loss, anxiety, anger, and longing that we have. There is no one that helps us to see an open door, to ignite a desire, to figure out a path to it, the way Alice Bag does. Because the narrative of history is created by imperfect people and institutions, the path will be imperfect. Alice finds her agency in this imperfection: “I don’t lament what has come after me in punk. Things are cyclical. It does bother me that people have been led to believe that punk is music created for and by white males… Punk’s diverse roots are bound to come to the surface. I will shout it from the rooftops!”

Alice Bag has found various ways to yell from the rooftops. From fronting the Bags starting in 1977 to writing Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage : a Chicana Punk Story, published in 2011, Alice’s voice is integral in understanding the power dynamics of feminism and music. For many musicians, representation will be enough. It is totally enough when people of color are in bands that confront and disrupt the myth that punk belongs to White people or was founded by British White boys. At the same time, it is important to recognize when people and bands go beyond representation, into a new realm, which is creating the veins for the history flow through. Alice has used her music, writing, teaching, and community building to meticulously and fiercely create the foundation of punk.

Perhaps part of Alice Bag’s power is that she does not think of her work in terms of being part of some type of canon of Chicanx artists or musicians because she is constantly part of the relevant roster of working artists. She can’t be historicized because we are still occupied with her future. When asked about having peers that she is also the hero of — along with peers like Martin Sorrondeguy of Limp Wrist and Los Crudos that are part of the founders of punk and DIY — it was clear that Alice does not think in such a linear timeline. “I don’t even think of myself in those terms. When I hear someone doing something that excites me, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it or where you’re from, it’s about a connection to art and music. I love Martin but when I first met him I wasn’t even that familiar with his work. It took a relationship to connect. Now, I call him my comadre (comrade). We are good friends but we also really inspire each other. You need to surround yourself with people who bring things out of you.”

As close as Alice is with the punk and DIY community, she is like an ocean with many tides. She has also made waves as a teacher and even travelled with a group of students to Nicaragua. However, her platform as a classroom teacher is not out of left field because it related to her bigger project of abolishing limits for participating and creating history. “Working with young people and people my age, that creative exchange is so powerful and invigorating,” Alice says. “It is the fountain of youth. You can remain relevant and act on your environment and make change, you feel limitless.” The rule for Alice isn’t limited by music or by teaching or by identity politics, the rule for Alice is to remain relevant.

“If anyone hits me, they can expect to be hit back, and harder. I never turn the other cheek because in my experience that doesn’t work.” - Violence Girl, written during the hours that Bag’s daughter was in school. Alice’s constant confrontation with the status quo is inherent in her work and her life. For Alice, complicity would be a way of turning the other cheek. Alice makes the tide we swim in, she is not going to just swim along and maintain the waters.

Alice is from Los Angeles, a place that is pivotal to Chicanx and Black identity. L.A. riots can refer to police attacking Mexican communities during the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943 as much as it can refer to people resisting against the LAPD brutality Rodney King in 1991. Alice’s work not only challenges Whiteness as the baseline in punk but can also challenge the division between Black and Brown history. When asked about her work connecting Black and Brown solidarity, she affirmed, “It is all connected because Black and Brown people are the target of the police. I just wrote a song about the Chicano Moratorium, but as I was writing it, I was speaking with a woman who was an organizer during the moratorium. She said that we really need to talk about what is happening now and we need to be talking about how disproportionate the number of people of color who are incarcerated, killed by the police all of the country, but especially in L.A. We have a history of being singled out.”

Alice recalls being pulled over for no reason. “It’s better for me here than when I was in Arizona,” she says. “I was in Arizona during SB 1070 and saw the process and went through it. I remember walking down the street feeling like I had a target on my back. I remember thinking that I needed to be careful when I was even walking the dog. I was worried about what I needed to look like. It was a very uncomfortable situation to be in. Eventually, I cut out a yellow star from fabric and pinned it to my clothes everyday and wrote, ‘Profile this.’ I’d wear it around my neighborhood and people were made uncomfortable. It forced my neighborhood who were by and large very conservative to ask, ‘why do you profile this?’”

I remember the first time that I saw a copy of Violence Girl. It was during my first show in Oakland, CA in 2014. It was one of the first times I saw someone who “looked like me” on the cover of a book about punk. I immediately started to read it and could not get over how much I related to Alice’s experiences with her father, her school, herself. In a world where people of color are constantly made to feel like the “other,” I finally felt like I was the baseline. I wasn’t above it or below it depending on who was viewing me. Alice Bag is her own multiverse in that she can connect to people who are being pulled by different rates of gravity. Her desire and her ability to want to cut the world in half and expose the worms that are eating the rind make her infinite. “I never feel tired when I’m making music,” she says.“When I’m doing art, the clock stops, there’s no such thing as time. The only time I get tired is when I’m cleaning the house.” Alice Bag shows us that perhaps intimacy is the most powerful weapon we have in understanding the things bigger than our individual selves.

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