Growing Up Punk-Rock and Queer in the Suburbs Inspired WASI to Invent "Riot Pop"
WASI: Jessie Meehan, left, and Merilou Salazar
“We were touring in Portland and we played to homeless queer youth in the basement of a homeless shelter the day after the election,” says Merilou Salazar, half of “riot pop” duo WASI (We Are She Is). “We played our 30-minute set and there was this connection, and they were dancing, and they were into it … and right above us was a neo-Nazi rally.” It was one of the most emotional and ultimately inspiring experiences she’s had, as well as the moment that sparked the track “Pussy Grabs Back.” “Moments of finding your power is what we try to base our songs off of.”
For Salazar and Jessie Meehan, Salazar’s longtime girlfriend and the other half of WASI, music is what helped both of them find their power after adolescent years riddled by severe anxiety and endless bullying. “I was very much like, don’t touch me, don’t make eye contact with me, I don’t want to talk about anything,” says Salazar, describing her extremely shy high school self. Meehan recalls her own troubled upbringing: “I’ve always had very masculine characteristics because I have a hormonal disorder,” she says. “I was bullied for my weight, for looking like a guy, for being gay. … I would use restrooms and people would scream and I’d get kicked out of restaurants. People would ask me about my gender and then ask, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you’re a girl?’”
“Neither of us got into music because we were really good at our instruments and wanted to shred,” Salazar says. “We got into it because we needed a way to express ourselves in a system that didn't let us do so.”
In fact, when she first approached Meehan in a high school physics class about forming a band, Salazar didn't even know how to play an instrument — she just needed a bassist for the nonexistent group she volunteered to play with at a school function. Despite having no musical training, not knowing any female musicians in her hometown of Buena Park, and facing major opposition from her parents (“My parents immigrated here from the Philippines to start a new life, and so I think for me to choose this was really upsetting”), Salazar was enormously driven to pursue this new path.
“I was 15 and I worked a shitty waitress job for like 60 hours a week to buy a shitty guitar,” she says. “Music changed everything. My confidence kicked in, the OK-ness with rebelling kicked in, the coming out kicked in” — seemingly as soon as she and Meehan embraced being gay, she notes, most of their friends did, as well — “everything started making sense, and I think for me, the way it made sense emotionally first was through anger, so I was suddenly mad at this system for holding me back and me feeling like I had to hide myself for so long.”
Thus Salazar and Meehan's first band, The Midol Poppers, was born. In about three weeks, they had written an hour of material. “They were, like, high school punk songs about cafeteria food and your grandma’s underwear. Shit like that. It was so dumb,” Meehan says, laughing. At the time, though, making music was less about putting poetry in motion and more about that “‘fuck it’ mentality,” Salazar says. Back then, as an incredibly sheltered teen, she remembers motivating herself: “‘Pick up a guitar, play some punk music, and do everything you were told not to do.’
“When we started playing, I didn't give myself a ‘plan B,’” Salazar continues. “It was always just like all in musically, and that also included activism. There was no strategy or, you know, ‘I’ll do this to a certain extent or for a certain number of years.’ It was, ‘I’ll do this because it needs to be done.’” When asked if she had the same motives for activism when they began playing together, Meehan bursts into laughter. “No, God no,” she says. “I can’t even emphasize how shy I was.”
As the years of playing together have rolled into more than a decade — and they’ve shifted from writing “high school punk songs” as The Midol Poppers to forging their own genre, “riot pop,” a mix of punk and electronic music, as WASI — Salazar and Meehan have become two of the most politically and socially active artists in Los Angeles today. For years, WASI have performed for and volunteered at Girls Rock Camp Alliance, helping young girls find the same outlet through music that was so vital to them growing up. Their latest EP, Coup, is a group of tracks dedicated to the topic of taking up space as minorities. They’ve also performed at several LGBTQ Pride festivals throughout California, and most recently wrote a song, "Pride," inspired by crowd responses to their question, “What does 'pride' mean to you?”
Currently, they’re in the process of figuring out how to take their annual Women Fuck Shit Up Fest on the road to the Bay Area after three successful years of taking over both the Smell and Five Star Bar in DTLA. This past March, the festival — open to all female, female-identifying or non-binary performers — included two days of readings from zine creators, spoken-word poetry and performances from acts including Kimya Dawson, Madame Gandhi, Trap Girl and violinist Gingger Shankar. Proceeds from the event were donated to Alexandria House, a women’s transitional shelter in Mid-City.
“The festival is there to create that fire for both the performers and the attendees to just be like, ‘Fuck yeah, I’m gonna be loud,’” Salazar says. “It’s the feeling you get when you’re all in a room together, and then afterward everyone spreads their wings and flies.”
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