Messed!Up

War On Women talk about conservative American politics and educating their audience: Interview

Alexander Schmitz December 6, 2019

Since its inception punk rock has been a forum for political expression, and political punk bands have always been around. Many punk bands used and use their music as a vehicle for spreading ideas and to motivate their audiences toward political change.

However, if you’ve opened a newspaper, turned on the TV or taken a look at any media the last five years, you realize that today’s political landscape and the rise of right-wing conservatives in which emancipation, gender equality and women’s fundamental rights are under attack, fuels a whole new generation of punk bands across the world.

Hardcore act War On Women, formed in Baltimore 2011, scream and shred about topics that seldom grace the genre’s back catalog – abortion rights, access to contraception, surviving rape, and online misogyny – and have revitalized the Riot Grrrl movement with their feminist message. They’re the necessary injection in a hypermasculine genre that has long been dominated by all-male bands and in times when Trump politics and conservative powers start to limit women’s freedom, especially on home turf in America, their message is vital.

When the band made a stopover in Hamburg to play at Booze Cruise Festival we hauled them in for an interview and chat about conservative American politics on the rise and educating their audience to create safer spaces at clubs and venues.

Reclaiming the flag

I read that you met the first time in Nashville but then relocated to Baltimore. That’s more than 700 miles away. Why did you do that?
Brooks already lived in Baltimore. He was on tour with his band and I was living in Nashville at the time and played acoustic shows by myself, because my band just had split up (laughs). I opened the show for the band and that’s how we met.

I liked his band quite much and just asked “Where do you guys live? Baltimore? That’s cool, I never lived there. Maybe I should move there and join your band.“  A few months later I did. I was young and I did it on a whim.

Your latest record is called “Capture The Flag“. A flag, especially in the US, has a huge symbolic meaning. What is the meaning behind the title?
The name of the album has a few different meanings. One is the idea that the Trump administration is playing a game with everyone’s lives in America and with our future. They’re taking things for themselves selfishly and keeping the rich rich and the poor poor. They’re taken over the government, that’s how it feels. And the rest of us are left defend for ourselves. There’s that aspect.

They’re thinking of our lives as meaningless, and to them it’s just a game. It really affects people. People live and die because of their policies against transgender people, against healthcare, against immigration. And on the other side is the idea that we can capture it back.

Who gets to define what an American is? What is patriotism? Why can’t a feminist activist be a true American? Who gets to decide what a true American is? That’s kind of posing the question and hopefully giving people a little hope that we can get the country back from racist, xenophobic biggots.

On the front cover and also on the back of the album we can see different scenes. People are holding a flag or capture one.  How did you choose the pictures?
We got a friend of ours, Ryan Patterson, to do the art direction. He’s in a band called Coliseum. We’ve been a fan of his work for a long time and we gave him the record title and said “See what you wanna do with this“, but we didn’t give him any direction.

He basically came back to us with the cover almost ready. We did make sure after looking at his first draft, that there were more women of colour represented, so that there weren’t not only white, or assumed white, women. But that was the only note that we have given.

We actually hadn’t much to deal with the specific bits chosen for the collage. He really nailed it. We’re not visual artists and usually go “That looks nice“ but we don’t know why. We really love it when an artist understand what you’re doing and express it. Let him do his job, we do our job (laughs)

You are very often portrayed as a feminist hardcore band with strong opinions about gender politics, especially in America. One of the strongest tools in the patriarchic society is to have power over women’s bodies and their reproductive rights. In May “The Human Life Protection Act“, also known as Alabama Abortion Ban, enacted.
It was in a few states at a time in a few different bills that past or were proposed, yes. It was coordinated to challenge and reverse the Supreme Court decision. It’s not legal as a state to outlaw an abortion. You can make it really a pain in the ass, but the laws that passed in these three states are basically designed to have someone bring a case against this bill. It all happened right before we left for the tour.

We were honored to tour with Bad Cop Bad Cop when this was happening so we really had this rad spaces with other rad allies and women, and were hearing what’s coming down the tube and I remember feeling thankful that we were on that tour so we could sort of process our feelings with each other and on stage instead of being home and feeling helpless just watching the news and not knowing what to do. At least we could get mad about it during the show (laughs). That felt pretty powerful.

Do you think this is some kind of last resistance of the patriarchic system before it is going to fall? You sing “I don’t care who is in office, there are more of us and you already lost“.
He did. Trump lost. But because of outside influence of Russia he is in power. And also because of the way things are structured as far as voting in the US, it’s a bad system that favors big, rural states with not many people in them which tend to be much more conservative. Everybody gets the same vote. Every senate, every states get the vote whether you live in New York or if you live in Montana. Some are very populated, some are very rural. Just google “Electoral college“. It’s not a good system. Even disregarding Russia, Trump lost the popular vote.

The idea that there is more of us, that more people are progressive and want equality and equity, is that there is more of us than the people in power. But they are so powerful and they have money and that makes it really hard to fight.

We assumed Trump would lose and not be president and don’t feel comfortable making assumptions anymore about “Oh, this is the breaking point“ or “Oh, he’s gonna be out of office“ or “He’s definitely gonna stay“. We have to keep on spreading progressive messages and encourage people to vote.

But we’re also a bit of optimists. It seems there is some concerted effort of the suppression even in other countries all at the same time, there might be some connection. It’s kind of bad, but that terror and that bottom point may motivate everyone and make us stronger and fight harder together out of desperation.

The right wing is also gaining more and more power in Europe. You can see it, for example,  when you look at Brexit.
It’s sort of encouraging because we‘re touring around and stay in hostels and meet different people who are also touring around and travelling. When we have conversations together at 2 AM in the common room, it seems that everyone we meet understand that we are on the same page as human beings. That is encouraging and we think there are more people who would rather fight for humanity to be OK than to have this bad things happening for just a few to benefit.

Maybe the question is how to get everyone together and mobilize and stay connected. We’re touring around, spreading the message and encourage each other.

You also have an educational approach. Alongside the new album you released a sixteen-page long “Capture The Flag Workbook“. I couldn’t find it really on the internet.
It’s only in one place, on the BRIDGE NINE Bandcamp page. We should probably share it more on social media just that people know where it is (laughs).

What was the idea behind it? My guess is that you wanted to reach more people and spread the message, but not everyone is into hardcore punk music.
What we noticed is that some college professors using our songs in their classrooms. I [Shawna] really feel for professors and teachers in America. They are not supported, they don’t make a lot of money and they’re not valued in the way that they should be, and I thought “What can I do to make their job easier?“. Should I just let them know what the songs are about or give them a quote or am I providing them with prompting questions they can ask in their classrooms? I wanted to do the lesson plan for them so they can just take the book and start educating their kids.

We always love when bands have a zine or a lyrics sheet that comes along, because you can’t say so much in a song, it has to be concise and maybe catchy and relatable just that you can break it down even further in the companion workbook.

What we try to do as a band is to bring people in. We’re not yelling at you, the crowd, necessarily, you know what I mean? We want you to be on our side. Nobody is born knowing everything, being a 100% woke. Sometimes it’s hard to admit that you don’t know stuff. The educating part is very important to us as a band and it’s definitely a priority.

That’s true. In the last maybe two or three years, reading feminist literature and listening to feminist punk bands, I learned a lot of things and also started questioning things.
It’s very scary (laughs). It’s kind of you’re out to see and you’re all by yourself and it’s good to have something to grab onto. There are certain bands and certain songs that every time we feel discouraged we can listen to. We hope we can be that some day for younger persons.

Safer spaces at clubs: “Flirt without being a jerk“

Last year YouGov released a report that points out that nearly half of female festival goers under forty say they have faced unwanted sexual behaviour at music festivals and club gigs, but only two percent of such incidents were reported to the police because “it’s difficult to prove anything“. Even worse, OurMusicMyBody found that ninety-two percent of female concertgoers have been harassed.

Shawna Potter, who also founded the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback!, a global movement to end street harassment, realized something had to be done to help venues to work for safer spaces for everyone. In 2018 she released her pocket guide “Making Spaces Safer“ in which se offers information about how both venues and bystanders can help prevent harassment.

Another thing that is very important to you is creating safe spaces at concerts. Yesterday you played a show at the AZ [Autonomes Zentrum = Autonomous Center] in Cologne and you shared a picture on instagram of an awareness poster you found at the venue. A location similar to this in Hamburg is Gängeviertel. They have awareness teams at parties.
Shawna, you wrote the book “Make Spaces Safer“. Can you tell us a little about it?
Shawna: It was the policy of the AZ. I just wanted to show appreciation for what they‘re already doing. They are doing the work we hope every venue do where we play, but on the same note that not everyone is born knowing everything and not knowing what to do we try to make it easy for clubs.

We often tell them in advance before we show up on tour that we want to make sure that no-one is harassed, that people know where they can go if they were harassed, that people have trans-inclusive bathrooms and just that everyone feel free to have fun and a good time.

On Warped Tour you had a workshop, is that right?
Shawna: Yes, everyday. I had a bystander intervention workshop on Warped Tour and after that started thinking that I should put it all in a book and make it easier for everybody. The full length version came out in May on AK Press and it’s now here in Europe for distribution on akuk.com.

What feedback did you get?
It was good. It was mostly audience members, people who are not in bands or not even work at venues who just like to go to shows. Most questions they had were really basic bystander intervention questions, and the not only thing I talked about was how to flirt with someone that doesn’t offend them. I told them to flirt without being a jerk.

People actually signed up to take the workshops. Bystander Intervention is such a powerful part of that workshop, because at every show there’ll be a certain amount of staff members, bands, but there are so many more people that are part of the crowd. If everyone in the crowd, if all the bystanders would know what to do and have some tools, that would be really powerful enough to have some changes.

When we were on our last tour we made sure that everyone in the band knows basic bystander intervention, knows how to use Narcan, which is a drug that helps opioid overdoses and it helps stop death from opioid overdose. We also made sure that we know grounding techniques if someone is upset or in anxiety and needs to calm down. We talked about safety in the band and even if we’re not the right person to do the job we know who in the group can do those things, bringing a safe place with us wherever we go.

What do you expect from tonight here in Hamburg then?
We expect a beer when we’re done (laughs). It’s gonna be a great time. We have some friends here in town and we know other bands that are playing. It’s a festival. We’ll live it up as much as we can.


Photographer: ©Julia Schwendner
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About The Author

Music nerd from Cologne (yeah, we are sorry) because of the Highlander movie thus buying Queen’s “Kind of Magic”. Equally interested in eurodisco – although it’s crappy – 60s stuff and ska punk but under much influence of Nirvana. In an ongoing beef with the editor – that bastard – about who’s gonna interview Blood Red Shoes. Loves squirrels and horses. Get over it!

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