Before hardcore took over Los Angeles in the late ’70s, the city’s punk scene was one of the most diverse, eclectic realms around — and Chicana artist-activist Alice Bag was one of its pioneering players. Though the Bags, the raw and raucous band she fronted, were short-lived, they left an indelible, if underrepresented, mark on the city’s musical history. Bag played in a number of other bands over the years, but didn’t release her first solo album until 2016. That renewed visibility, along with the opening slot of Bikini Kill’s first reunion show last year, introduced the punk icon to a whole new generation.
At 61, Bag is releasing her third solo record, Sister Dynamite (In the Red Records). The frenetic, catchy AF album pays homage to her early punk roots and is packed with queer anthems (“Spark,” “Switch Hitter”), feminist bangers (“Sister Dynamite,” “Breadcrumbs”) and even a reimagined Spanish version of her 2018 track “Turn it Up” (“Subele”). From self-isolation in her L.A. home, where she’s been filming her must-watch Fit for the Apocalypse Instagram workouts, Bag spoke with Billboard about the power of aging, the political moment that inspired her album’s title track and the role of music in times like these.
When you were making this album, you couldn’t have known it would come out during a pandemic. Do you think people will receive it differently?
You know, I still don’t know. Of course I want people to listen to the music and have fresh ears, but I’m sensitive to the fact that maybe everybody is just thinking, “How do I keep myself from being sick?” I also had a whole tour planned and the dates just keep falling off. But I’m over 60 and I have asthma so I’m really bummed but I’m also really grateful that I don’t have to possibly risk my life. I want to stick around to rock until I’m, you know, 100.
Sister Dynamite is your third solo album in just four years. What’s propelling this prolific solo stint?
I started blogging right before I turned 50 and I found that people were reading what I had to say. And I thought, “I still have a voice.” I suddenly felt like it was the second chapter of my life and I had a lot more options. I felt much more self-confident, smarter, more willing to take risks. I felt like I still had another chance to do all the things that I wanted to.
Did you write this record with themes in mind?
I didn’t really plan it. It’s more like something will happen that will trigger a response and then I will jot it down. A lot of times it’s a conversation I have, or something on the news. Like “Sister Dynamite” is influenced [in part] by the women who took over the House of Representatives walking into the State of the Union address wearing white in honor of the suffragettes. That was a powerful moment to see them standing together. But there are so many things! I could go into a story about each of these songs.
Let’s go into “Breadcrumbs,” because it has an incredible refrain: “Sometimes in fairy tales, the witch prevails.” It feels especially apt right now, when so many women are turning to literal witchcraft—herbalism, magic rituals, spells—as a way to reclaim some power.
I also think of witches as women who may have been knowledgeable in ways that other people weren’t. How many were just the weird women who didn’t fit in? That would be me today, right? I can relate to the weird woman who was outspoken or dressed in a different way or whose opinion was different from the people around her. Those are the people that made up punk rock, the weirdoes. Sometimes the witch is the villain and sometimes when a woman stands up for herself she’s told that she’s being a bitch or a witch or some derogatory name and I wanna own that. I wanna own that we don’t always have to be seen as nice.
The presidential election has taken a back seat in the news but what’s your political mindset right now?
I keep wishing that someone would step up and save us, but I also feel like it’s not going to happen. At this point I think the important thing is how do we get the vote out? If this COVID-19 is still around in November, how do we get people to have their voices heard?
What role do you think music plays in times that feel so fraught?
A lot of times I write stuff about things that I am not happy with, that I want to change. On my second album I wrote a song called “Turn it Up” about focusing on things that you want to see more of, and not spending so much time on the things that you’re trying to overcome. So I’ve tried to consciously do that on this album: “I’m gonna get even, I’m going to catch up, I’m going to get equality.” There are songs that are angry still, but not as much as in my earlier writing. I feel like people, especially right now, need to feel like there’s hope, that change is possible, that change is imminent, that it’s already started, and that we just need to continue to create. That’s why I find inspiration in the representatives in the House who protested in white. That image of them taking up space feels to me like I can picture that little pie wedge getting bigger and I can picture them working towards change. I have to think that music makes you question if your world is like you want it to be and offers some hope and some inspiration to create the changes that haven’t happened yet.
In your early music days did you ever think about what your life would be like now and does it match up?
You know, I really thought that I was gonna be dead by the time I was 30.
Really? Because you were so punk?
I was so young and so, “Oh my god, what am I gonna do when I’m old?” I remember going to see Debbie Harry and Blondie when I was still in my teens and thinking, ‘Oh, she’s so old.’ She was like 24! [laughs] Things change. Getting old is so much fun. It’s such a powerful time. Anything I do is gonna be an improvement over what’s expected of me. It’s the same way I felt when I was very young. Like, here I am, a poor brown girl growing up in East L.A. who doesn’t speak any English and I felt like people didn’t expect me to be smart or outspoken or to have any talent. The expectations were so low all I could do was exceed them. As an older woman, society expects us to vanish. The president would happily have us get back to work, “Oh, who cares if older people are at risk, we don’t need them.” It’s like, “You’ve already had your time.” Hell no! I still have lots to give, I still have lots to do, I still have great ideas.
You have been an activist making music for so long, how do you stay optimistic?
Being a punk, I learned early on the strength of community. That if you say something in a creative way and you say it in front of an audience that connects with you, that connection is really powerful and that connection is just the tip of the iceberg. If your ideas are good ideas there’s a whole bunch of ice under the water. There’s a whole bunch of other people you can connect with that feel the way you feel, that also want to create that change.