Alice Bag, who was at the forefront of the burgeoning, L.A. punk movement in the ’70s with The Bags, is back with her third solo album, Sister Dynamite (In the Red Records). The follow-up to 2018’s Blueprint is an upbeat and empowering blast. Here, the groundbreaking frontwoman discusses the record, her creative process, and other important topics.
You’ve put out two other solo records. I was just wondering how you write.
I write everything on my iPad. I use GarageBand. And I write all the lyrics and all the music. So, even though I don’t play all the instruments on my record, I feel most of the people who have solo records don’t play every instrument, so I’m pretty comfortable calling it a solo record because all the songs were written by me, from the lyrics to all the bells and whistles. Occasionally someone will come up with something they want to add, but by and large, the songs are completely written by the time I bring them to my band.
How long have you been working on these songs?
I work on songs every day. That’s something I really enjoy doing. I keep a notebook where I have ideas for lyrics, and I go back and write lyrics. Now, I just do it on my phone. We have so many tools that I didn’t have when I first started writing, so it makes it a lot easier to pull out your phone and record a melody or beat out a drumbeat on my lap or just hum a guitar part into the phone and then take it home.
I have a $5 GarageBand app that I bought in 2011, and it’s been one of the best investments I’ve made because originally, when I first got it, I think it only had eight tracks, and it was such an exciting thing for me to have eight tracks. I could do my vocals, drums, guitar, bass, backup vocals, keyboards. I had enough tracks for everything. Now, you have a lot more possibilities to edit. It’s really exciting. I have a lot better tools than when I first started writing music. But I write constantly. And right now, I already have a batch of songs that I want to bring into the studio to record for my next record [laughs]. I’m constantly writing.
Are you including the lyrics in the physical copy of this release?
Yes. I feel like the lyrics are important. And there was a time when I first started writing that I felt very insecure about my lyrics, and now I feel like I want people to read them. They might like them; they might not. I didn’t spend a lot of time writing for them to be ignored. And a lot of times, it’s actually I play in clubs where the sound’s not so good, where you might not be able to hear all the lyrics live, so people can take the time to read them and have an idea what the song is about.
Just how you bookend the record with “Spark” and “Risk It.” It seems almost autobiographical.
I think it is. It definitely is. It’s funny you say that because you’re one of the few people that picked that up. Writing about myself, but also my drummer was saying, “I feel this is community-conscious,” and I’m like, “Really? I feel this is about me” [laughs]. But that’s good that she felt she could connect to it that way. I think it is very personal.
“Spark” is definitely about feeling—I’ve been a weirdo, from the way I look to being outspoken and not always knowing how to say things in a way that is diplomatic. I tend to be very blunt. I’m just a weirdo [laughs]. I always have been, even when I try. I do, I want to be easier to get along with. But I don’t really know how to be that way. I don’t know.
I read your first book [Violence Girl], and it goes hand in hand with that … sometimes being an outcast.
I definitely felt like that even as a little kid. And I still do. It’s weird because now I’m in a band, and I’m getting some positive feedback for my music, but I still feel like a weirdo. I don’t know if that ever goes away, but you do learn how to just feel comfortable in it. You do feel like a weirdo, but you’re like OK, that’s who I am. I’m the weirdo in the room.
But about the whole record, it sounds so upbeat. You just get every song stuck in your head.
Oh, that’s wonderful. That’s what I want. Get stuck in your head.
Yes! Every song.
Oh, thank you, thank you. The first thing you have to do is write a song that someone wants to hear more than once; then hopefully whatever you’re trying to say will find its way into a person’s ear and into their brain, and then maybe they’ll internalize it and feel connected to whatever the message is.
And just the whole album being called Sister Dynamite, that is just such a powerful song.
Oh, thank you. I wish it was already out. I wanted it out for International Women’s Day. I don’t know if you saw everything that was going on in Mexico yesterday. There was a huge march in Mexico, and women were protesting femicide and just general, patriarchal bullshit we all deal with, and then also, there are a lot of women being killed.
I think the number was like ten women a day are killed in Mexico, and it was just a huge turnout. People didn’t go to work; the schools shut down, and they were talking about the financial impact, and there were dads in the march to say they were there to support their daughters. I was like, this is so powerful. I feel like it’s our time. I feel like women have been pushed to the edge, and we’re coming back. We’re taking no prisoners. We want our due.
And about [the song] “Lucky.” […] About privilege.
I think there are different people who have privilege and different situations we all have privilege, so I think it’s about not judging other people who may have to make different choices because something may affect them differently than someone who has privilege. We live in a rich country. We’re really comfortable, so a lot of times, we’re unaware of all the sacrifices people have to make just to stay alive. And it’s just not to judge others unless you’ve had the chance to check your own privilege. Because you don’t know what their own experience is like.
But about the record overall, I think it’s empowering and positive. What do you think?
I hope it is empowering and positive. I try to stay positive. “Lucky” probably is the most—that song has a little bit of bitterness to it, but I think, overall, it’s calling somebody out. But, I really am trying to be more affirming about things I really want to see more of. I have a song on my last album called “Turn It Up,” and I actually do it on my new record called “Súbele,” and the main message of that is to focus on the things that you want to see more of. To amplify those things, and to turn down your energy, turn down your frequency on the stuff you want to see less of.
So, when things are out of whack in my life, I think of, what is the positive thing that will fix that, and can I focus my attention on that instead? So, that’s what I try to do. I feel like my writing has kind of changed. On my first album, I had a song called “The Touch I Crave,” which is about feeling like I’m being judged negatively for being queer. And then on this record, I have a song called “Switch Hitter,” which is completely the opposite. It’s like a celebration of being bisexual. I like it so much better because it’s positive.
The other song made me feel dark, and I sound wounded in it. When I was writing it, that’s how I was feeling. But now, I started really focusing on things that make me feel better and make me want to sing and dance and join with my posse who feels like I do [laughs]. I feel like my music brings me a lot more joy. And I feel like it’s more conducive to really magnifying the good in my life.
Is it a hard thing for you to sequence the record?
Yeah, that actually was hard. In the past, the past two albums, I had a lot of variety in my instrumentation. I had keyboards and some horns; I had violins. This album, I just challenged myself to try and stick to the type of instrumentation I use live. I did change—because I have this new keyboard at home I wanted to use [laughs]. So, I did that. And I try not to play keyboards onstage because it’s an extra thing that keeps my attention away from looking at the audience, so I don’t do that.
But, I felt like where I usually have the ability to be like, “We’re gonna put a slow song and then a fast song and maybe this song with keyboards to mix it up,” this time it was most of the songs are really upbeat, pretty fast. There’s a couple grooving songs, but they’re still pretty upbeat, and the instrumentation is somewhat similar. So, I felt like I want to make sure they don’t all feel like they sound too much like each other.
Also, this particular album, aside from “Súbele,” which was basically a translation of “Turn It Up” that was on the last album, was written within the past year. I sometimes think songs I’m writing within the same time period, I’m worried that they might have a similar vibe and that I’m not noticing it because I’m too close to it. Or, like my first album, I had songs that I’d written 20 years before that I never recorded, so, I knew there was going to be a lot of difference in mood and style, but this is a lot more straightforward.
I just feel like it leaves you feeling good in the end.
Aw, thank you.
It must’ve been crazy trying to figure out which song to have as your first single. And “Breadcrumbs,” that video was awesome. Was it hard to choose which song to have out first?
Yeah! And I never know if I made the right choice, because I thought, “should I make ‘Sister Dynamite’ the first one, since I knew when it was going to be coming out?” and I knew I wanted “Sister Dynamite” out for March, but then I thought, well … There’s so much that goes into it. It’s funny you bring this up because I was just talking to [my publicist] Sarah [Avrin] over at Girlie Action, saying, “Can’t we release it a little bit earlier?” And she was like, “No, you have SXSW. You just have to wait a little bit.”
If it was up to me, I’d just want everything out right away. And I never know if it’s the right choice. “Breadcrumbs” was all about the marionettes. That was the whole Hansel and Gretel theme. I think it surprised some people, like what are you doing? Why are you getting this little kid theme? But it isn’t a little kid theme. I feel like fairy tales can be so dark, and they can really be grown-up subjects.
What do you say? “Sometimes the witch…”
“The witch prevails.” I’m really into the whole idea of women being made out to be bitches and witches whenever they stand up for themselves. I’m not gonna put up with your shit anymore, and then all of the sudden you’re being called a bitch or a witch because you’re trying to be respected, be treated with respect.
Sister Dynamite is out now; pick up a copy here.
Photo Credit: Dan Rawe