Sunday, January 3, 2010

Q&A: The legendary singer Alice Bag

When I first saw Alice Bag, it was when I was a early teen watching the documentary "The Decline of western civilization", which featured several influential L.A. punk rock bands in 1979-1980. It was influential to me. Despite any shortcomings or skewed perspective, I thought it was great for me to be able to watch some performances and interviews of these talented and great bands. i loved the two songs Alice and her band did. Fast forward to 2005. I was on tour in L.A. performing to pretty much nobody at Zen Sushi. Just Aaron, Valeriebot, Donna, a few friends. I was stoked because Alain Whyte's band Red Lightning had performed there and I'd been rockin' to a bootleg copy of the show. Well, the opening band was pretty cool. Three girls and a boi drummer. I was watching them and there was something strangely familiar about one of the girls. The way her mouth moved when she sang...I'd seen her before. Halfway thru their set it hit me that I was watching the legendary Alice bag singing. Opening the show. I was floored. When they were done, I tentatively approached her... "Are you Alice Bag?" I hesitantly inquired. And she was. And I dorked out so badly, I must've looked so silly, but I didn't care. It was a cool moment, getting to meet this talented and influential singer, I thought she was the coolest! I gave her my CDs and a Tshirt and buttons. Well, when I started doing the Q&As for my blog, I had her in mind early on, and when I emailed her, I was very glad she remembered me, and she took time out of her busy schedule to do a Q&A, and I hope you will all read it and start getting to know the super rad friend I have named Alice.

Q: What made you want to sing and perform music to begin with and how long have you been performing now?

Alice: I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a singer. In elementary school, I was extremely unpopular and the only time I had a moment to shine was when the music teacher would come into our class and ask me to play the autoharp or help her lead a round of singing. I realized that I had a natural aptitude for music. I enjoyed singing and those rare occasions were the only times when I felt accepted by my peers. There was no doubt that I was better at singing than most of them so it helped me feel better about myself in general.

Q: How did the Bags start up? What role did you play in that? Were you an instigator?

Alice: My friend Patricia Rainone (now Patricia Vanian) and I had been wanting to form an all-girl band since we were in high school (we went to different schools but met and became fast friends). We tried putting ads in the Recyler, a newspaper that offered free want ads, but we kept getting calls from guys who wanted to be in our band. We did put together a couple of all-girl line-ups prior to The Bags: one was called Femme Fatale, the other was Masque Era. The Masque didn't exist yet, so the name was pure coincidence.
The idea for The Bags was that we'd be an anonymous group who played with paper bags over our heads. It was Patricia's brain child and I loved the idea. We put another ad in The Recyler and ended up getting a call from Geza X and Joe Nanini. Geza begged us to give them a chance, so we auditioned them even though they were the wrong gender for our original plan. After playing with Geza and Joe, things just fell into place and we decided it was time to jettison the all-girl band idea and try something else.

Q: you're arguably most famous for your segment in the documentary "Decline of western civilization". Can you tell us how that went down? Were you happy or sad or indifferent with the portrayal of the artists and people in the documentary and was it true to reality?

Alice: I was terribly sad after seeing myself in The Decline. By the time the film premiered my band had already broken up and what was captured on film was not our best performance. The Decline captured the emerging hardcore scene; unfortunately, it was filmed too late to catch the early Hollywood Scene at its peak. In late 1979 and early 1980 there was a palpable change in the energy of the growing L.A. scene. It was evolving, going through it's awkward stage like a pimply adolescent. The Decline is like a high school picture of that pimply teen.
After refusing to see the Decline again for some twenty plus years I finally gave in and went to a screening a few years ago. It was really fun to watch it and appreciate it for what it is rather than stewing over the fact that it wasn't what I'd expected.

Q: Could you tell us about the two songs you sing in "Decline"?

Alice: I can't really tell you much about the song selection for the movie (Prowlers In The Night and Gluttony). Our whole set was filmed and I imagine Penelope selected the songs that worked best in the context and mood of her film.

Q: I noticed in "Decline", that the guitarist in your band also played drums in Catholic Discipline. Can you tell us more about the sharing of band members, and how that worked in the "music scene" at the time?

Alice: Our band was in a state of flux, we'd only recently had a major falling out with Patricia, our original bassist and she had left the band. Craig Lee, our guitarist in The Decline had been our rhythm guitarist, Rob Ritter (AKA Rob Graves) had switched from lead guitar to bass to replace Patricia.
Aside from The Bags we all had part-time projects. I sang with Black Randy and The Metrosquad from time to time and did one off performances with friends whenever the mood struck. Our drummer, Terry Graham played drums for The Go-Go's at their first show.

Q: Was the L.A. music scene even a scene at the time? Was everyone buddies and working together as many try to make it appear now or was it fragmented and hindsight is rewriting history a bit?

Alice: I know it must sound too good to be true, but it was a close community. It was small, so yes - we all knew each other. By late '77 there was definitely a scene. Early in '78 a whole bunch of us moved into The Canterbury Apartments just a block and a half away from The Masque. We lived, breathed, ate and drank punk 24/7. Think about it: we were the only ones playing the new music and the only ones interested in hearing it, so we went to each other's shows and supported each other. I think the fact that the outside world saw us as freaks also made us band together. There were occasional fights between people and a healthy competition for the best spots on any given bill, but overall it was a pretty tight family.

Q: What would you say your position was back then? Did you, or anyone else you knew, have any idea that what you were doing and creating was going to influence so many people years later, or were you just living in the moment and being spontaneous?

A7. I had no clue that what we were doing would ever mean anything to anyone other than the people who were there. I was completely in the moment, so much so that it seemed like time stopped during those years because I wasn't aware of time passing at all. At the same time, I was aware that what we had was something special. I'd felt like a misfit in high school but here I felt like we were all misfits who accepted each other's quirks and valued each other's uniqueness. That's not to say that every creative endeavor was my cup of tea, we all had our favorite bands, our own style, and our own take on what it meant to be a punk.
It was only many years later that I fully recognized the lasting impact the early scene had made. When I began posting my personal collection of photos and artifacts of that time on my website, I started getting emails from people all over the world who were interested in what those early days were like.

Q: How do you think the music biz has changed since then, do you like the changes, and do you think you had a hand in changing things with your contributions back then?

Alice: I don't know that the music business has changed at all except to get even more pedestrian than it used to be. Many of the artists that I like aren't waiting around for a fat contract, which I think is smart.

Q: What have you been up to since the late 70s/early 80s? What has life been like for you, both musical and non-musical?

Alice: After dissolving the Alice Bag Band at the end of 1979 I moved back home with my parents and went back to school. After that I became a teacher, but I've always continued working on music. Some of the bands I was involved in after the Bags were The Castration Squad, Cholita!, The Afro Sisters, El Vez, and Las Tres.

Q: What are you currently working on musically?

Alice: I haven't played with a steady band since moving to Arizona about 4 years ago. I recently had throat surgery and lost some notes in my upper register. I'm struggling to recover my full range, but I'm confident I'll be howling again soon.

Q: What other artists or bands were your favourites back in the day, and who do you find yourself listening to alot now?

Alice: The greatest punk band ever was/is The Weirdos.
Some of my current faves include The Gossip, Girl in A Coma, The Sounds, and The Dresden Dolls. I like bands with strong women in them.

Q: When you write songs, what inspires you?

Alice: I like to write about the evolving role of women, social injustice, politics, love, and pretty much any topic in which I become emotionally invested.

Q: I heard you moved away from L.A... where are you at now, and do you like it better than L.A.? Are you originally from L.A. or were you a transplant?

Alice: I love L.A., I was born and raised in East L.A. and I'll always consider it my home. These days I'm living in Arizona because that is what works best for our family right now. I really enjoy the desert. The area I live in is sparsely populated and I'm treated to awe-inspiring sunsets, clean air and the sound of birds singing every day which I drink in gratefully.

Q: Do you like to read? What books have you read lately that you liked? Do you have any all-time favourites?

Alice: I am an avid reader. Right now I'm working on a book called Little Heathens about growing up during the Great Depression, some of the passages remind me of my mother who also grew up during those times.

I periodically make all-time favorite book lists and then find myself wanting to update them. Here's my quick list:

1. Middlesex- Eugenides
2. A Tale of Two Cities- Dickens
3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao- Diaz
4. The Grapes of Wrath (or Cannery Row)- Steinbeck
5. Frida- A brief biography of Frida Kahlo- Herrera
6. Buddha, Phoenix or Adolf (series)- Tezuka
7. Dracula- Stoker
8. Love in the Time of Cholera- Garcia Marquez
9. House of the Spirits- Allende
10. Flaming Iguanas- Lopez
11. Ham on Rye (or Post Office)- Bukowski
12. 120 Days of Sodom- De Sade
13. The Diary of a Young Girl- Frank
14. Fingersmith (or Tipping the Velvet)- Waters
15. Aztec- Jennings

Q: What does the future hold for you musically?

Alice: The future holds an upcoming memoir of my childhood and punk years, tentatively titled Violence Girl. I've signed a deal with Feral House, the same publisher who put out Lexicon Devil (about Darby Crash and The Germs) and I hope to have the book out sometime next year. The book is already written and we are in the editing phase and selecting photos from my collection. I sporadically write a blog (Diary of A Bad Housewife). I think I'm going to stick to writing until I get my singing voice back.

Find and keep up with Alice online at