Punk Pioneer Alice Bag Explains Waiting 4 Decades to Drop Her Solo Debut & Why Diversity Disappeared From L.A. Punk

Alice Bag
Courtesy Photo

Alice Bag

In 1977, Alicia Armendariz became Alice Bag, lead singer of pioneering Los Angeles punk band the Bags. Though their output on wax was minimal, their ferocious live performances had an undeniable influence on the hardcore scene that would come to characterize L.A. punk by the early '80s. As a woman and a Latina fronting a rock band, Alice Bag was a trailblazer -- but as with so many women and minorities, her place in the narrative of punk's birth has been unrepresented in historical retellings (of course, the scarcity of the Bags' material doesn't help, though they are prominently featured in Penelope Spheeris' essential 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization).

Hopefully, that will change when Alice Bag releases her debut solo album today (June 24). The self-titled LP tackles hard topics -- rape on "No Means No," body issues on "Modern Day Virgin Sacrifice" -- with unrelenting punk energy, as well as shades of girl group and a Spanish-language ballad at the end.

Ahead of its release, Bag spoke with Billboard about why her solo debut is dropping nearly 40 years after she first started playing, where her "sangry" songs come from and why she thinks the diversity of the early L.A. punk scene eventually disappeared. And, naturally, we talk a little Trump, too.

So you started out in the late '70s but you're just releasing your solo debut album in 2016. Why the gap?

I don’t feel there was a gap because I've been doing music the whole time -- I've been in bands you've never heard of [laughs]. I really got into the habit of being in bands and I relied on that. In 2006, I moved to Arizona and all of a sudden I didn't have that support group. So that's when I wrote my book [Violence Girl] and started painting. And I still wrote music, I would just record on an iPad by myself. I think [for a long time] I couldn't even imagine I could be a solo artist. That lack of imagination kept me from progressing. Once I started doing my book tour I realized I could do my own thing. I booked everything myself, I would get into towns and have to pull bands together in different cities. So when I moved back to L.A. a couple years ago, I got in touch with friends and realized I could do something. But even then it took this band called FEA from San Antonio, who asked me to produce some of their songs on their new record. So I thought, "They have faith in me to produce their material, why am I not producing my own material?" Then I went into the whole exploration of crowd funding.

Do you think part of it was nervousness?

I don't think it was nervousness because even when I'm in bands I'm really bossy [laughs]. I just didn’t see myself in that light. I got used to a certain thing and I didn’t realize I could go out and do my own thing and people could support it. But this album is exactly what I wanted it to be. I'm proud of it.

A lot of these songs are, if not political, imbued with messages. Is that just the way you write or was that a conscious decision to do that?

That's just who I am. I tend to write about things -- my husband calls it my "sangry" songs, because they're either sad or angry. Writing is a way to explore a subject or figure out where I went wrong or work out frustrations. I don’t write a whole lot of happy songs. Maybe I should try.

Is your songwriting now similar to what it was back in the day with the Bags?

No. With the Bags I would start singing and think, "oh these two words kind of rhyme and I'll make them fit because I like this melody." Melody is easy for me -- I'll make up words and then go back and replace the lyrics. Now I try to start with ideas so they don’t get lost. I feel like words sometimes are not my strength, but ideas are, and so is music.

I wanted to ask you a bit about the early L.A. punk scene. In a lot of accounts of that time period I've heard people talk about how open and accepting the scene was. But then when I watch something like the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), there are people in the L.A. punk scene using homophobic and racist words.

First of all, I don’t think The Decline of Western Civilization shows the scene I was part of. I don’t think that was the mission of that film to depict the early L.A. punk scene, because by the time Penelope Spheeris was filming it, punk was already spilling out into the suburbs and taking on different flavors. One thing she captured in the film was the growing hardcore scene. And I think that hardcore scene brought with it a lot of white male energy that wasn’t present in the Hollywood scene. And she showed that shift. And if you look carefully at the film I think you can tell which were the bands that were part of the early scene because they were quirkier. They were not quite what is considered punk nowadays. The images and sounds and behavior [of punk now] were not associated with the early punk scene. It was open-ended and inclusive -- as long as it was different from mainstream, it would fit into that scene. So that's why what you see in documentaries doesn’t gel with what you hear people talking about from the early scene. And I'm talking about '77, '78, even the summer of '76. People were coming in from glam then -- it was a transitional year.  

So the hardcore scene made things a little more aggressive?

It got a little more aggressive and narrower in terms of "what is the definition of punk?" When you see the early scene there were people there exploring all kinds of things. The Screamers were coming from a background of… well, [singer] Tomata du Plenty was from the Tupperwares, and the Tupperwares were from the [gender-bending San Francisco troupe] Cockettes. There was a gay energy as well that was present in the early scene and it was accepting of things that were non-gendered. One of the things that is significant about that early scene is that there were so many women empowered to participate. And I think that was because we weren't looking at traditional gender roles. Punk could be anything, but it had to be different from the norm. And a way to be different is not to subscribe to traditional gender roles and not have a band that's homogenous. You didn't have to look like Bay City Rollers. You could look like the Plugz or the Zeros or the Bags or Go-Go's. Which all looked very different from each other. In terms of ethnic makeup, gender, economic background, that scene was super diverse. And it changed. But I feel like punk is really coming back to its roots. It's being claimed by people who are seen as "other" in the mainstream.

Any bands in particular?

There's Fatty Cakes and the Puff Pastries in Fresno. Just the name -- a woman who is claiming who she is and is proud of it. It's not punk in the narrow sense -- they don’t play all electric guitars. Fatty Cakes plays a toy piano and there's dancers. But that to me is exciting and refreshing.

Would you categorize your new album, Alice Bag, as punk?

The sound of the album is very eclectic. There's a lot of influences in my music. I grew up listening to Mexican pop and ranchera and soul, and in later years punk became the driving force and my choice for expression. I feel like the message of being creative and challenging the status quo, which is essential to punk, is in all the songs. I think if you take the big message of punk, which is to shape and challenge your world in creative ways, then the whole album is punk. But if you have a narrow definition of punk, certain songs will have that sound, but not all of them.

After this, do you think you'll continue with solo music or return to a band?

I think I will always write songs -- I have continually for many years. Let's say… I will definitely make another album. Now that I've gone through this process and I know I can do it, I know I'll want to make another record.

You also wrote a memoir, Violence Girl, and have been sharing interviews with other women in punk. Are you working on any of that right now?

I think of my life as a stovetop. And I like to move things to the front burner. So when I'm working on something I put it on the front burner and everything goes to the back. Or I rotate. Right now I'm focused on the album. I haven't played in a band or toured or had a lead singer role in 20 years or so -- at least not where I've have to be the frontperson. I need to exercise and get in shape so I can be a lead signer. So that's what I'm focusing on right now, practicing with my band, playing a few shows. But I have paintings in the garage I need to finish, I have interviews with "Women in L.A. Punk" that need to go up. So I'm trying to move things around, and the pots that don’t need to be stirred as often I let simmer.

Speaking of your work interviewing women in the Los Angeles punk scene, you've been a feminist activist for a long time. I feel that feminism is more talked about in mainstream music today than 10 years ago -- do you see that?

I think it's better but as things go, you make progress and you lose ground. You have to stay on top of it. A few years ago feminism was a dirty word. And now that we have celebrities claiming to be feminists, I think it's wonderful. I think people misunderstand what a feminist is -- it's someone looking for equality. And really, equality for everyone. Feminism liberates everyone -- you don’t have to follow antiquated gender roles or expectations. It's good for humanity. I'm glad people are claiming it and understanding it.

What are you thinking about the 2016 election?

I'm thinking I will fight against Trump tooth and nail. I will do whatever it takes for him to not be elected. I really think he is the wrong way. He would take this nation in the wrong direction.

I don't think he'll win.

I hope you're right. It's frightening to me. I've thought that before. "There's no way anybody would take Ronald Reagan seriously" and then the fool was elected and reelected. I don’t make those assumptions anymore.