“I was bullied my whole life, so I wanted to present as a strong woman who spits venom,” Drew Arriola-Sands says in a phone interview about her metamorphosis from mild-mannered folkie into fiery punk-rock diva. The 29-year-old transgender vocalist of the local band Trap Girl also is describing how she overcame gender dysphoria to transition into her true identity as female.
“At age 10 or 11, I wanted to be a woman in a rock band, but I was on a baseball team,” Arriola-Sands says about growing up in South Gate, where she still lives. “My first two favorite bands as a kid were The Mamas & Papas and En Vogue. But my first favorite rock band was Hole. I liked them at age 11.”
Arriola-Sands used that embryonic inspiration to start her first group, The Glitter Path, but it wasn’t until she formed Trap Girl that she really found herself — as both a woman and a singer. Arriola-Sands has come so far since Trap Girl began playing live in 2014 that she’s become an inspiration to other transgender kids and has even initiated her own Transgress Fest, a SoCal hardcore and punk gathering that spotlights “the music and voices of trans/gender nonconforming bands.”
“Transgress Fest is still very much a living being,” she says. This weekend, as part of the Smell’s annual Women Fuck Shit Up festival, Arriola-Sands personally selected the musicians appearing on the Transgress Stage: ModPods, Anatommy, Edith Crash and Pussy Tuesday, as well as Trap Girl. “I only book bands I really like. I’m always a fan before a friend,” she says, adding that some of the bands have transgender musicians while others do not.
“ModPods are fun, kind of hippie, dance-y and rock-y,” Arriola-Sands says. “I love Myriad Slits’ voice. She’s a big girl like me, and they always tear down.”
She describes the local duo Anatommy as a “post–riot grrl” act with “a female-fronted rock sound” that’s inspired by ’90s bands. “[Guitarist-vocalist] Charlene [Medina] is kind of crazy, but I like crazy people. Like, something’s wrong with her, but it’s OK; it’s fun.”
Arriola-Sands notes that one-woman band Edith Crash has often volunteered to help at Transgress Fest. Pussy Tuesday, on the other hand, are a new, virtually unknown local group. “They’re super punk rock in the sense where they don’t know how to play their instruments," she says. "They’re great, really drag-queen glitter. They all come from a drag background … and bring a fun element of drag into rock music.”
She contrasts Pussy Tuesday’s merry attitude when describing Trap Girl’s own music. “It’s all blood and hating people,” Arriola-Sands says succinctly.
Trap Girl formed in September 2014 and a month later performed their first show “in somebody’s backyard. We were terrible; it wasn’t crystallized yet,” she admits. She also hadn’t fully arrived yet as a woman.
“I had been playing with gender in The Glitter Path with long hair, glitter and eyeliner, but I was still wearing pants,” Arriola-Sands says. “When I started Glitter Path, I was into Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette but it was coming out like Daniel Johnston. I wanted to be glamorous.
“I wasn’t really out with Trap Girl at first,” she continues. “I was afraid, actually. Like when we played the early shitty shows, I wanted people to think we were just a girl band, but that was a hard problem to avoid. … After the first few shows, I realized how much power I had. It didn’t matter what gender I am. I didn’t give a shit anymore — ‘I’m trans, and you’re going to respect that.’”
In December 2015, Trap Girl released their debut album, From Diamonds to Dust, which featured such baleful punk anthems as “I’m a Trap Girl” and “Dead Men Don’t Rape.” By the time the quartet issued their follow-up record, The Black Market, in July last year, the roles of guitarist Steve Moreno and drummer Jorge Reveles had increased. “Once Jorge became more hands-on and once Steve entered the picture, they wrote more of the music,” says Arriola-Sands. Trap Girl also currently includes bassist Chloe Lesnick, who’s filling in while Ibette Ortiz is on sabbatical.
The band’s upcoming full-length album, The Savage Goddess, includes “Death Dress,” a new song about trans female Leelah Alcorn, an Ohio teenager who killed herself after her parents forced her to undergo conversion therapy.
“When we started, there were few queerpunk bands,” Arriola-Sands says. “There was Sister Mantos and Xina Xurner, but they weren’t really punk rock. … I became the punk Cleopatra. People wanted to know me not only because I was trans but also because I was brown and fat. … I get letters and messages from people telling me, ‘I love you. You inspire me.’”
“It’s a positive response because the music is so good. The singer is great,” she adds modestly. “We work really hard to produce the sound when you watch the band.”
Arriola-Sands found further inspiration when she saw the 2005 documentary The Gits, which traced the career of that Seattle grunge-punk band, which broke up when its charismatic vocalist, Mia Zapata, was murdered by a stranger in 1993. “Mia came from being a blues singer and was able to incorporate that into a punk rock band, and it gave me hope. I was doing open mics, feeling suicidal, and she inspired me, and so did Betty Blowtorch,” Arriola-Sands says about another band with a lead singer, Bianca Halstead, who died tragically before her time. “I still play Betty Blowtorch when I get ready for shows.
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“I was going to name the band Beauty Supply before I thought of Trap Girl,” she says. “After I first started presenting as a woman when going online, guys would ask me, ‘Are you a Trap Girl?’” Arriola-Sands didn’t initially understand the phrase — among other things, it’s often used to refer to a transgender woman who is so passable that she fools men into thinking she’s a cis female — but she liked the sound of it, as well as its multiple meanings.
Arriola-Sands admits, “It’s hard to be trans. It’s scary sometimes, but what has saved me is the ability to get lost in the music. All that other stuff goes over my head. As long as I have this outlet, as long as I have this music, this band, I’ll be OK. It’s only scary when we’re alone.”