A glance at the news, a scan of the president’s tweets, and just living in 2018 must be incredibly frustrating for Alice Bag, who, from the inception of her L.A. punk band The Bags in 1977, has been speaking out against injustice.
That’s four decades of music with a message, and one would hope we would have seen more progress by now. Attitudes should have shifted further, and women’s marches shouldn’t be necessary. That they absolutely are could pummel Bag into depression, yet she’s still bursting with optimism, still overwhelmingly cheerful, and of course still determined.
“It’s frustrating, but I also feel that it’s mounted to the point where that frustration is going to yield some action,” Bag says. “I feel like, for years now, people have been saying that we already have equality. It’s now evident that we do need people to step forward and call themselves feminists. We won’t tolerate things like pussy grabbing, and the sexual harassment that is so common [that] women and men don’t even really feel like it’s an exception. It feels like it happens to everyone and nobody is doing anything about it, until now.”
That’s a fascinating viewpoint. While she isn’t the first to suggest that there’s a silver lining to the cloud of intolerance that revealed itself with the current administration, Bag certainly has a gift for articulating that idea, colored by a lifetime of experience in art and activism.
“I think sometimes things have to become uncomfortable enough that it forces you to act,” she says. “Some people are more willing to bend. They have a higher threshold for bullshit, and they’ll keep taking it on. I’m very quick to say that I’m not going to take this. I feel like I’ve been a very out, verbal feminist for a long time, but I feel like now I’m joined by a lot more people. Regardless of political affiliation, I feel like it’s bringing people together who care about human beings having equality.”
As a Latina, gay woman Bag feels she’s been catching shit from all sides, as if her very existence threatens a percentage of the country, including the president. But Bag is able to convert the anger generated by those feelings into positive energy that helps drives her work in 2018.
In 2016, 35 years after The Bags broke up, Alice Bag released her debut, self-titled solo album. The following year she put out a limited full-length release from her project Alice Bag and the Sissybears; March 23, the sophomore solo album, Blueprint, drops. She’s clearly hitting a rich vein at a time when the country needs her most.
“I think, once I figured out that I could call on friends to record an album, that really changed things for me,” Bag says. “Up until then, I had always worked in bands. This is the first time I decided that I was going to make it on my own. I was living in Arizona for a while and, when I came back, it was amazing how many people I had missed. When I said I wanted to record an album, I felt like there was a bunch of hands that went up and said, ‘Whatever you want to do.’ I felt very supported and, once I did the first record, I just wanted to go back in the studio and do some more.”
The perception is that there was a huge gap between The Bags and Alice Bag’s solo career. In terms of recorded releases and promoted projects, there was, although Bag never stopped working, never stopped making music with bands.
“I played in bands in the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s,” she says. “I’ve always been in bands, and some have received more attention than others, but for me playing music and writing music are really an essential part of who I am, so even when I moved to Arizona and I didn’t have people to be in a band with, I was still writing songs and I would play all the instruments and record it on my little iPad GarageBand app. I was just doing my own thing.”
It was while living in Phoenix in the early part of this decade that Bag says she started working harder on her craft, writing harmonies herself when before she would have been collaborating with bandmates, reading books about songwriting, and generally figuring everything out for herself. She also wrote a couple of books, 2011’s Violence Girl, From East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage — A Chicana Punk Story and 2015’s Pipe Bomb for the Soul, and she says that process also aided her songwriting.
“I feel like I learned how to write by writing my books,” she says. “I started writing in a more disciplined way. I actually started mapping out ideas that I wanted to explore, thinking of couplets and structures. So I became more formal in my writing. For me, I feel much prouder of the stuff that I’ve written lately than I am of the older things. I like what I’m doing now better.”
She’s certainly, suddenly prolific. As soon as her first album came out, she says that she started work on her second. The first look at the fruits of that labor came last week in the shape of the video for “77,” an appropriately forthright battle cry against the gender wage gap that still exists. Anyone questioning the necessity of a song like this in 2018, by the way, need only look at the comments section under the video on YouTube. Frankly, we need Alice Bag in a Los Angeles punk scene that has seen plenty of changes over the years.
“Punk has gone through some weird periods,” Bag says. “Truthfully, I feel like for a while certain parts of the media would just play the white boy bands, and people started to believe that punk rock is for, like, white suburban males. People started stepping forward and saying, ‘No, that’s not what it is.’ Look at your punk history. There were people of color, women of color, there were queers, and it was much more diverse. Now, when I go and see a punk show, I find that there’s a lot of diversity. They don’t have a homogeneous look or sound. It’s more about doing something original and having something different to say. I think that’s what keeps punk relevant.”
This weekend, Alice Bag performs at Alex’s Bar in Long Beach, a venue that she enjoys due to the cool vibe created by the owner and staff, and an audience that’s really into the music. She’ll be performing a mixture of Bags tunes and recent solo material, with a Sissybears song or two thrown in for good measure.
After that, Bag will stay busy in 2018. She has a number of side projects, and she’ll keep writing solo material. Which we should all be delighted about, because Alice Bag has a voice that needs to be heard.
Alice Bag plays with Bad Cop Bad Cop and Rats in the Louvre at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 9, at Alex’s Bar.