Playing Drums For Alice Bag Changed My Life
Rikki Watson and Candace Hansen on stage after a sold out show at The Echo on July 2nd featuring bass drum art by Shizu, penned on by Melissa Riggs.
I spent the better half of my youth looking up to giants I thought I’d never see. Countless hours of watching and rewinding bootleg tapes from Black Hole and Bionic Records that I’d scrounge up change from recycling and save chore money for. When I would get home from buying a fresh find and pop a new, unmarked VHS tape in my TV I was transfixed, transported back to another time and another city, to some amazing show I wished I could’ve witnessed, some scene I so desperately dreamed of vacationing in.
I particularly connected with the early Southern California punk scene. Half enamored, half jealous, I hoped to one day embody little parts of Darby Crash’s drunken crawl, John and Exene’s swagger and poetry, Tomata Du Plenty’s sharp artistic style, and Alice Bag’s command of her audience, her aggression, her throw-a-leather-clad-asshole-off-the-stage-while-wearing-heels tenacity, and unmistakable scream. The well-articulated anger, disdain, and calamity of 1970’s LA punk spoke to me. Although The Alice Bag Band (AKA The Bags) only got one song on The Decline Of Western Civilization, Alice’s pure femme rage made more out of 3 minutes than some musicians do in a lifetime. Her scream captured in The Decline reverberated through decades, inspiring me and countless others who were shaped by 1970’s Los Angeles, but never stepped foot in The Masque or Madame Wong’s.
The Bags hardly left a recorded legacy, leaving only a few scattered singles that were nearly impossible to get a hold of unless you were there, a fact obvious to me as a young music fan chasing the traces of 1970’s Los Angeles at record stores, swap meets, and my friend Sara’s dad’s computer. This is why it is such a big deal that nearly 40 years after being in the game, Alice Bag finally released her debut full-length solo album Alice Bag on Don Giovanni Records. Little did I ever know that I would have the opportunity to not just become friends with some of the legends I looked up to, but actually have the honor of playing with them, and becoming part of something so special.
Flash forward to 2015. I met Alice Bag earlier that summer while volunteering at Chicas Rockeras de S.E.L.A. She was teaching vocals while I taught drums, and we became friends during that week, pogoing and dancing with the campers at breakfast, sometimes jamming together at lunch, and mourning the Charleston tragedy together during a midweek moment of silence. Later that summer I went on tour with my small, weird band YAAWN. One afternoon we were gassing up our borrowed 1999 Chevy Blazer on the outskirts of Olympia, Washington at a place we were pretty sure was intended for tractors. It was cloudy outside, just as I imagined it would be even in the middle of August. Through the side mirror I could see our guitarist Josh buried beneath luggage, gear, and a cooler in the back seat, shockingly not getting out to stretch his legs on the halfway point from our previous show to Seattle.
As Jessica poked at the strange unintentionally vintage gas pump, I took a minute to check my phone for any work related notes, or at the very least clear out another 10 junk emails from my inbox. Just like Josh buried under merch bags and essential clutter, under all the junk mail was a message from Alice, asking me if I would be interested in recording drum tracks on a few songs on her new record later that Fall. Honored and a little shocked, I accepted and spent a lot of the rest of the rocky ride home through the Oregon Trail, and down the dusty cow filled California stretch of the 5 still in awe of that message.
Later that summer, Alice sent over some more information about recording. I would be one of three drummers on the record in total, including Joe Berardi (Deadbeats/Lydia Lunch/MOCA), and the amazing Rikki Watson from the LA/IE based two-piece The Two Tens. Alice sent me some demo tracks that she wrote and recorded on an iPad, thankfully allotting me two solid punk songs with a lot of room to be creative: “Poisoned Seed” and “Modern Day Virgin Sacrifice.”
My drum kit set up for the recording sessions with Alice
The third song she sent was something she hoped to turn into a 60’s feeling Pink Elephant Dance meets The Bags number: “Touch I Crave.” I spent nearly a month working on these songs alone in my sweaty garage, blasting the lofi tracks through a borrowed pair of bright blue studio headphones, meticulously reading every note she sent, and attempting to craft each part to match what she hoped for. Blending Ramones, swing, and 70’s LA punk on my little sparkle Ludwig practice kit every day, I hoped to capture the energy she wanted while avoiding a noise complaint ticket from my suburban neighbors.
It felt good to get out of my garage and up to the LA rehearsal studio and try the songs out with actual musicians, great ones at that: Alice Bag, guitarist Sharif Dumani (Sex Stains), and bassist David Jones (Carnage Asada). We shared ideas, worked out parts, and quickly started feeling like a real band as the songs seamlessly came together. When Alice launched her Kickstarter campaign to raise money to self release the album she went over her goal within a few days, and decided to use the extra money to record another song for the album. She came into rehearsal that week and talked to Sharif and me about “Inesperado Adios,” (Unexpected Goodbye) a piano driven song she had written about her experience as a teacher watching a student’s family get ripped apart after her kindhearted father was thrown in an Arizona detention center due to his immigration status.
When she played it for us our jaws dropped, it was a timely, beautiful, and tragic song, and we both told her how amazing it was and hoped that she would put it on the album, regardless of who played what on the record. When she asked me to drum on that track, I felt an immense sense of responsibility to do it justice, infusing it with power and drama just like Alice had. I listened to Morrissey and Juan Gabriel for a week straight before rehearsal with Sharif, Alice, Lysa Flores, and the guitarrón/bass player Vaneza Calderon.
Mark Rains hard at work
Mark Rains recorded the whole album last October at Station House Studios in Echo Park, an awesome space tucked out of view by an elementary school. I was only there one day recording my four drum tracks, as well as a percussion track on “Incorporeal Life.” My shining moment came in a cabasa solo, proving that all those hours I spent staving off boredom by learning countless percussion instruments while working at Guitar Center during the recession finally paid off.
Mark recorded everything on actual tape, and had one of the most beautiful 60’s Ludwig drum kits I’ve ever played. The studio was a nerd musician’s dream come true: almost everything I played on my tracks was vintage, aside from my new Istanbul Agop hi-hats and ride. We barreled through the tracks only doing a few takes of each, with the exception of “Ineseperado Adios” which went well into the night. We even got a little freaked out by Mark’s dog Darkness howling at what felt like a ghost, but was probably just our rumbly stomachs reacting to a dark windy night and the stress of wanting to perfect a part while waiting for Thai food to be delivered. We had only one chance to rehearse “Ineseperado Adios” before recording it, but we made it count, and I think we all delivered our best on the track, embodying the eeriness we experienced on that dark fall night adding to the drama of the track, the tense feeling of separation and the unknown.
Something that I really admire about Alice but hasn’t been written about very much is that she never really ever went anywhere. Yes, she moved to Arizona, and yes she’s been an educator for a number of years, but she has always played music. She has always been a creative: after The Bags she went on to do Castration Squad and then Cholita, while teaching in Arizona she played in a band with local women called The She-Riffs, after releasing her first book she set up acoustic shows and tours with friends. She even did some DIY archivist work via blogs years before her critically acclaimed book Violence Girl was published. Her genre-spanning solo record is an amalgamation of all of this, of all of her inspiration as well as her output.
Punk drives the album, but it’s not solely a punk record. Some songs are definitely punk and punk inspired, but the punk ethos is present in the attitude, politics, and execution. Punk takes guts, and it takes a lot of guts to put out a record of things you have been imagining for so long, especially a collection as diverse as Alice’s solo record. To me, the record has that bedroom feel that a lot of riot grrrl stuff has. Like you’re opening up something personal and carefully rifling through it.
But unlike the often young punk scrawlings of riot grrrl diaries, Bag’s new record is like a shoebox full of memories, snapshots, to-do notes, love letters, and fantasies from 40 years of experiencing life as a Chicana punk educator and survivor simultaneously at the center and sidelines of so much. These aren’t things that were put in a box left to be untouched forever, they are things she navigated and collected over the years, waiting for just the right time to curate them and show them to the world. They are a continuation, not capstone, of the things that she has always done. Music fans love ritual and fanfare, and don’t get me wrong, Alice Bag is a momentous achievement worth cheering for, but don’t call it a comeback.
We celebrated the release of Alice Bag last weekend to a sold out crowd at The Echo, one of the most amazing shows I’ve had the chance to be a part of. Most of the people who played on the record performed, making for an exciting night of rotating musicians including a few surprise guests including OG riot grrrl alum Allison Wolfe and L7’s Donita Sparks. We played a lot of songs off the new album, as well as a few Bags songs from the vault, like “Gluttony,” one of the few Bags songs I could track down as a kid, the song that preserved Alice’s legacy in The Decline of Western Civilization all those years ago.
As I pounded the accented intro while watching a whole room of screaming punk enthusiasts circle around a giant slam pit, bucking up against sweaty photographers, I couldn’t help but be catapulted back to being 15 years old watching the VHS tape of The Bags performing the same song against a pink backdrop to an unruly crowd of acne-faced boys in the same city decades before and wishing I could be there. Music fans are suckers for nostalgia (myself included), but this show wasn’t reliving some distant glory days, it was vibrant, timely, and full of life, both a celebration and a proclamation of Alice’s music and the power and potential of her Chicana punk energy. Rage never felt so joyous.
Fans lined up for over an hour after the show to tell her how much she meant to them, and had I not been on stage I probably would have been waiting in line too to tell her how grateful I was to have found the small amount of her music I could as a kid, and how much I love the new record, how grateful that I am that after all these years she’s still there, still raging against the system, still unabashedly queer feminist and Chicana, still going to small shows, still unleashing that unmistakable scream.
Alice Bag is available in stores and online now. Alice Bag (with Candace Hansen on drums) performs July 16th at Viva Pomona! At the Glasshouse Concert Hall 200 W 2nd St. Pomona, CA, 91766. All ages, $20-$22. For tickets, click here.
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