Loud, angry and unapologetic, the riotous Petrol Girls took their name after Pétroleuses, the radical female supporters of Paris Commune in the second half of the 19th century, and describe themselves as a “raging feminist post hardcore act“, startin in 2012 to celebrate International Women’s Day.
Messed!Up met up with Liepa, Ren and Zock during the Reeperbahn Festival in the park just outside the venue of tonight’s show, Grüner Jäger, to talk gender balance on the music scene and how politics and the ongoing struggle for female rights are integrated in their song-writing process.
John Baine, otherwise known as the punk-poet Attila the Stockbroker, once claimed that there were ”two sorts of punks”: Sex Pistol punks ”who thought no future” and Clash punks who were ”highly politically motivated, anti-fascist, communist”.
This oversimplifies matters and doesn’t give sense to how young female punk musicians found emotional sustenance in the seventies/early eighties punk’s oppositionism and the collective experience provided by a politicized cultural environment (lest to say how musicians identifying themselves with the LGBT movement experienced it). But punk is and always was about much more than music.
The history of punk feminism often begins in the 1990s with riot grrrl, but that is a story that assumes that punk simply needed a temporary fix by feminism, as if it were only created by boys until Kathleen Hanna [e.g. in Bikini Kill and Le Tigre] picked up a mic. That story writes out the earlier struggles of Albertine, of Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, of Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees, and of Patti Smith across the Atlantic.
The old story of punk music leaves out the possibility, as Ellen Willis [writer, left-wing, pop music critic] once wrote, that the anger in the music could be just as inspiring to young women as it was to men. But the conditions around the birth of punk and the music of the Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees and X-Ray Spex hold questions for us still.
Nostalgia is not revolutionary, and we can’t reclaim punk’s spirit by turning backward. The modern punk movement has evolved into new genres as hardcore and a much wider scene than ever much because of the possibility to spread music across the world online. Building on its rebellious streak and coated in post hardcore guitar riffs, and lyrics that might help spark a creative assault on status-quo patriarchy, Petrol Girls renegotiate antiquated gender roles, address racism and everyday sexism, and never submit to censorship.
In 2014 they released their self-titled debut EP and two years later, 2016, saw the arrival of debut album “Talk of Violence”, an album consisting of ”complete ferocious anger at the experience of sexual harassment and assault that women had to endure”.
With their wide variety of subject matters with their creative musicality, it’s impossible to separate music and feminist political contents in the lyrics, but we tried to take our start in their song-writing process after a small chat about playing the Reeperbahn Festival for the first time.
Embracing feminism’s confrontational side
We’re at Reeperbahnfestival and you already played a show yesterday. What are your impressions of the festival so far?
Ren: The show yesterday was cool and kind of funny. We had to be really quiet because there was a limit on the sound I suppose. Our music doesn’t really work at not full volume (laughs). But lots of people said they were enjoying the show so I think it was fine.
Today I was checking some of the art stuff. There was this really cool project called ReeperbahnPortal. It’s by Shared Studios and they have this container and inside it, there was a live video link. They do it to all over the world, but this time it was Palestine – we could see them and they could see us.
First they were showing us Dabke, which is a traditional Palestinian dance, and they were trying us to do it and obviously it was really funny. And then we were just talking and finding out more about each other. One of the people in the project got us to speak about what function we think music has in society, what the political potential of music is. So it was really interesting to chat to these two young guys out in Palestine and what they think about that.
We all have hooked up on facebook messenger now and they send me some music and I send them ours – that was really cool.
Right next to it there was another container. I think it’s really amazing it’s happening in containers, by the way, because obviously for me this is a big symbol for Hamburg with the port which is full of containers. It strikes me how much easier it is for goods and products to move across the borders and how much easier it is to move stuff than people. I felt having this in containers was really powerful.
The second one was for “SOS MEDITERRANEE“. They have a boat (“Aquarius“) that operates in the Mediterranean Sea to pull out people in stress, particularly migrants that are trying to get across. The woman I was talking to told me the boat has been operational since early 2016 and they pulled 27.000 people out of the sea in that time which is incredible. So I had a very educational and inspiring morning.
Your new single is called “The Future Is Dark“. My first impression when I read the title was that it is quite negative, but I learned it’s the opposite. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Ren: The full title which is in small writing at the bottom is “The future is dark which is the best thing the future can be I think“. When you open the poster up inside the artwork you have “The Future Is Dark“ which is the main title and then the rest of the writing is right at the bottom.
That full quote is a Virginia Woolf quote that this writer called Rebecca Solnit uses as a basis for a book called “Hope in the Dark“. The idea of it is “Yeah, the future is dark as in the future is not certain“; we can’t see what the future will be. Only in the nighttime you can see the stars which represent, to me, possibilities. This is what she is trying to say “Yes, it’s dark, we don’t know what is going to happen, so there is the possibility of change only if we make it, only if we act“. And she speaks about political change that happened to this point, and it has happened in so many bizarre ways.
It’s never just one man that creates change, which is the way we often talk about it in history, it’s a whole complicated chain of events. To understand yourself as part of political change you need to realise that the change you make might not be recognisable or even tangible until maybe even after you’re dead, or you’ll never know how your actions have affected another person. But it takes a whole movement of people to push things in a better direction. That’s the idea behind it.
I think this is reflected in the songs that are on the EP. “Survivor“ is hugely inspired by the MeToo movement. All the individual people that took part in this movement against sexual violence and the silence that enables sexual violence, stood up and said “No, I’m not going to keep my mouth shut“; that’s creating a huge cultural shift. I feel that things are changing and that sexual violence is less and less enabled and less tolerated within the music community and society at large.
The second song “Sister“ is exploring sisterhood and what that means politically. We don’t always do it right, sometimes we hurt each other and sometimes we fuck up. It’s like an ongoing process that we all need to be part of including our trans-sisters.
And then the last song “Strike“ is about political organisation and how taking care of each other, making space, reflecting on our actions and all these kind of things that are really important parts of the process. And that’s where the actual title comes into the lyrics, because the chorus lyrics are “The future is dark which is all it can be, the strangest of twists have built our history“. Which is exactly what Rebecca Solnit is saying in her book.
She says it’s these strange journeys that have created things, for example the reason me and Liepa can even get up on stage and play in a punk band, have happened through a huge history of women’s liberation which is impossible to comprehend. If you look at how things have happened historically and then imagine how it must happen to go forward you just have to keep acting in the best possible faith in order to make that political change happen.
When you consider the political messages in your songs, how do your work with the song-writing process in Petrol Girls? What comes first, lyrics or music?
Ren: Both. Directionally both happen. I think now more commonly music comes first. It was something I as a vocalist used to struggle with a lot. I would’ve always preferred it to start with me whereas now I really like this way of working, because this lot come up with a riff, sometimes a big part or most of the song structure, and then I kind of have to find my way through it, and then it feels like the words are being pulled out of me and it’s a really subconscious weird thing. Interesting words come out and you then try to find a meaning in it, and you keep finding new meanings in it. I find this really magical.
Whereas the other direction is also cool, but it’s very much like [speaking in a childish bossy voice] “I want to talk about this. Now let’s make a song about it!“. I think the other way is more interesting. Our new record will be written more with music first.
Zock: But we did write one song specifically where Ren originally had the whole lyrics pretty much down and the rhythm also. I remember writing my drums to your lyrics and then we added the other instruments, so this also happens. You [turning to Ren] knew exactly how stable the lyrics need to be and where they had to be punctured. So that was our metronome and worked with that.
Ren: Yeah, for “Deflate“.
Zock: Exactly. It’s never just jamming, because the rhythm is hardly ever in 4/4 rhythms. They’re quite off sometimes. When our bassist Liepa and guitarist Joe write the guitar part and come up with something, I personally have to internalise it first. I need to learn the rhythm, because I’m not counting it since I’m not reading music. It’s always very odd structured so I think we couldn’t jam to it, or at least I couldn’t do it.
“Power was never given, only taken“
The world we live in now is missing the safety net that allowed early punk scenes to flourish, making it harder for working-class kids to pick up instruments. However, with the Internet and its many possibilities for sharing contents, and considering the overall change in the music industry with less label dominance, a huge DIY scene grew, and for a scene already built on DIY work, the new DIY movement was a familiar road to take.
However, as in our previous interviews the DIY scene is fraught with its own problems. Nathan Stephens-Griffin of Martha for example, which we interviewed a few months ago, pointed out that patriarchy also keeps its grip of the DIY punk scene. Maybe it’s time for feminism to join the rebellion on the DIY scene?
A few weeks back I sat down with Martha and I read you were playing a gig together with Propagandhi and Martha. To me it’s an almost perfect line-up.
Zock: It was a cool line-up and it was such a good mix in every way. Also the crowd mixed up because of the different bands, it was really nice. Normally you would expect three bands that sound like Propagandhi because they all want to play with them.
Nathan of Martha told me that the DIY scene is very often a straight boys club and sometimes it can get really hard to get into it. What are your experiences? Finding your way into the music business must be even harder, especially when you’re a feminist punk rock band with an attitude and a feministic political agenda?
Ren: I would agree with Nathan in terms of that was my initial experience of how the DIY scene was like.
I began Petrol Girls in a very direct reaction to that, because I was living in a punk house in London where we were running house shows. A lot of my friends were guys that were older than me, like me in this community, and I toured there for a long time before Petrol Girls, doing acoustic stuff and backing vocals for people. So I’ve been around for a little while.
At the time I really enjoyed it and I had a fucking great time; I love and really care for this community. The criticism that I make of it comes from a place of love. But I also think I was patronised, treated like I was very naive, taken advantage of quite a lot, sexually assaulted a few times and there were a lot of difficult experiences within that as well.
I started Petrol Girls because I needed to shout about those things and also about the political stuff that I was involved in at the time. I’ve been playing acoustic music for quite a long time but, one, I’m really crappy at it, and two, it was never enough for me. I couldn’t convey the anger that I felt effectively with acoustic music. I’m not saying that this is not possible, it’s just that I couldn’t do that.
Me and Liepa started Petrol Girls with our friend Mae for an International Women’s Day house show that I was running at the house I lived in, which was also an effort like “No! There are women here and we make music! And we’re going to celebrate International Women’s Day within our own community like this“. We had to build the context that we would exist in before we could exist, if that makes sense – we had to create the space for ourselves. And then once the space was created there was a very supportive atmosphere within our immediate community. So it was okay for us to start our first gig after two practices.
We played two songs and it wasn’t the best we’ve done, but we had a supporting community around us and I think if we hadn’t created that it would’ve been like “Oh man, they suck!“ When you’re a girl and you play music and you suck, it’s always because you’re a girl; whereas when guys suck it has never anything to do with the gender. We needed to do that in order to exist.
Last year the PRS foundation started the “Keychange Project“. Today more than 100 festivals in Europe, including Reeperbahn Festival, pledged that they will have a 50/50 gender balance by 2022. What do you think about this initiative?
Ren: You can do it faster! The bands already exist. I think there are enough good bands with women in that could play now. It’s really positive that people have signed up to this initiative, but of course it can always be better. My job is to be a feminist killjoy and say “It’s not enough!“.
And obviously there are more than two genders. It’s also always good to see non-binary and trans-bands. People exist outside of that binary on the stage as well. But it’s a positive step in the right direction. It’s really, really important seeing other women on stage.
For me it was fundamental even thinking that I could possibly do it, so in terms of inspiring other women it’s really important. In order to make a change you have to do a conscious effort to do that, you have to be deliberate about it, it’s not going to change naturally.
Power was never given, it was only taken. It has to happen that way.
Zock: I was talking to other men in bands and they were in their opinion like “Why does it have to be that way, can’t I just watch the bands I like?“ kind of attitude. I went “Think about it like someone has been defined good as a man and how he would be brought up becoming a musician. Think of the bands you saw and why you think you felt encouraged to do this“.
I remember there was no barrier being a terrible musician. It was like “You can hold a guitar, you’re a guy in a band, you can play shows“. There was no boundary and there was never “I’m not good enough“. You could just watch other men in bands play and you thought “Yeah, I can do that“.
I like having this discussion “Now, try to imagine you are someone in the crowd and you cannot identify with the one who is performing“, which is super important. The main encouragement of doing anything is that you can identify with the person you look up to. I agree it could go faster, and it’s a very important thing to make sure a line-up is more diverse.
Ren: Yeah, and diverse in other ways as well like it’s good to see that it’s not just white people playing at this festival; particularly the rock and the punk scene can be very white. I think it’s good to try to be actively more inclusive so that everybody is not just straight white dudes which is what punk and rock traditionally have been, and dominated by when people of colour and women have existed within it from day one.
What would you suggest our readers who want to inform themselves about awareness, feminism and consent, to read or to listen to? Which bands or books do you recommend?
Ren: I think really good bands are Dream Nails and War On Women. The Tuts are a good starting point particularly for intersexual feminism.
Zock: There’s a great band from the Philadelphia area called The Hirs Collective.
Ren: (excited) Downtown Boys! They are amazing! G.L.O.S.S. also, unfortunately they’re not around anymore but they’re a fucking brilliant band.
In terms of books I think Bell Hooks‘ “Feminism is For Everybody“ is a really good starting point for learning about feminism. I lent that to a few male friends that have been kind of curious but very sceptical and they responded to it very well. She writes in a very direct and understandable way and it’s really positive.
Rebecca Solnit is good for understanding where feminism intersects with things like climate justice and other wider political issues in a cosmic totally wild way that will blow your mind. Laurie Penny is a good writer particularly for younger women; her writing inspired me when I was in my early twenties. Angela Davis and Audre Lorde are people that I always return to for guidance when reading and thinking about feminism.
Petrol Girls pages