Arts and Entertainment
Mouths that roar
Bratmobile continues to crank out surf punk tunes about dipshit guys and dimwit girls and maybe about you, too.
By Jimmy Draper
'I DON'T KNOW anyone with the guts to do that!" Allison Wolfe exclaims, clearly amused when I ask if people have personally accused her of writing Bratmobile's notoriously scathing revenge-rock songs about them. "But a lot of people have other people come up [to me] and try to figure out if it's about them. Usually I'm just like, 'If you're so sure that song is about you, then if the shoe fits, wear it!' On the other hand, 'Don't flatter yourself, because everything's not about you.' " The answer is typical Wolfe wit: sharp-tongued and smart, funny and defiantly to the point in short, exactly what makes her band's no-bullshit brand of surf punk so exhilaratingly unpredictable and fun.
It's the trio's first day of recording its third full-length album at San Francisco's Toast Studios, and Wolfe is finishing lunch while her bandmates, drummer Molly Neuman and guitarist Erin Smith, set up their gear. "Most people with the courage to just talk about things face-to-face in the first place probably wouldn't have a song written about 'em anyway," she continues, barely audible over Neuman's start 'n' stop rehearsing across the room. "Besides, I prefer to say my songs are about circumstances they're never just about one certain person or one idea."
Wolfe's conversational, curse-laden lyrics often unfairly dubbed childishly petty and antimale by detractors brilliantly transform the "answer song" into biting social commentary. Over Neuman and Smith's deliriously danceable, ready-steady-go-go garage rock, Wolfe turns everyday complaints about dipshit guys and dimwit girls into refreshingly direct critiques of gender roles, socially privileged ideologies, fucked-up politics, and punk's boy-clique culture. She's got the mouth of a sailor, sure, but for fans raised on riot grrrl's politico-rock revisionism, Wolfe's also got the mind of a savior.
Formed in 1991 amid grunge music mania and the onset of third-wave feminism, Bratmobile helped usher riot grrrl into our collective pop-culture psyche alongside Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, and Huggy Bear. The trio quickly became one of the movement's most popular bands, empowering countless young women worldwide through its DIY feminism, xeroxed zines, and the rough 'n' rudimentary rock of 1993's Pottymouth and countless singles. The response from both the underground and the mainstream was enormous so intense, in fact, that in May 1994, Bratmobile imploded onstage beneath the weight of personal conflicts, fan expectations, and mass-media exposure/exploitation.
Neuman turned to the Frumpies and the Bay Area's now-defunct PeeChees, while Wolfe and Smith formed Cold Cold Hearts. They stayed in touch, but it wasn't until '98 that they even considered reuniting. "We were all at the same show, and everyone was like, 'Bratmobile's here! Bratmobile's here!' And we were all like, 'Shut up!' " Neuman says, describing a Donnas concert that all three attended in Washington, D.C. "It was funny, though, because Erin and I had been talking about doing a single together, just as us two, and then it was like, 'Well, we're not front people, so who's the front person?' And it was like a lightbulb kind of thing [to reform Bratmobile with Wolfe]."
The three took inventory of their personal and professional concerns about a full-fledged reunion, and in February 1999 many fans saw their punk rock dream come true when Bratmobile v. 2.0 debuted at Oakland's Stork Club to overwhelming enthusiasm. "It was really touching when we got back together, with people freaking out and saying they listened to Pottymouth forever. We never really got that huge response, because we were taking the time to take college classes [during riot grrrl's height of popularity]," Smith says, recalling that their only proper tour, in the summer of 1992, was months before the movement exploded in the pages of Newsweek and Rolling Stone. "We're kinda getting now what we might've missed out on at the time."
Almost two years later, Bratmobile released its long-anticipated second album on Berkeley-based Lookout! Records, which Neuman co-owns. The seven-year hiatus between full-lengths had allowed the members ample time to fine-tune their skills, and Ladies, Women and Girls was shockingly great tight as a trap, smart as a whip, and with more bounce per punk rock ounce than ever. And for the first time, the band augmented its notoriously minimalist arrangements with keyboards, bass, and hand claps, something it repeats on its third full-length, due in May on Lookout!
"There are three really specific elements the three of us and everything else is another layer, but we're not trying to go crazy with time signatures or with anything really overwhelming," Neuman says of the still-untitled album. "We have some riffs that are really catchy, cool, and pretty simple, then we add the beats and the vocals, then we go out and do it. We want it to mostly just be what we're good at, but hopefully better."
Smith agrees that although the band members aren't eager to fix what ain't broken, they're willing to mix things up a bit. "I'm one of those people who always loves a band's first record most, and I hate change. But if you don't try to take a risk, then you're not gonna be happy. You can't live in the past."
"Part of it is the pressure to be the same and represent the same thing for people that you used to," Wolfe acknowledges. "But also the pressure is like how all of a sudden everyone's going semi-electronic [and changing]. So there's pressure on both ends, but it's important for us to be a punk rock band. We were and we still are, and that's important to us ... we don't wanna stray too far from who we are." Diehards can rest assured, then, that although it features Marty Violence on bass and keyboardist Audrey Marrs (ex-Mocket), the upcoming album packs the same Brat-pack punch, dishing out the same style of invigorating vendetta rock that B-Mob's (in)famous for.
The album has a broader range than past records, with a blues-rock riff driving "Don't Ask Don't Tell" and a Cadallaca-style keyboard siren dominating "Chicken or the Egg." Most surprising and impressive, however, are "Shop for America" and "United We Don't," in which Wolfe addresses the conservative political shift and the flag-waving mob mentality that occurred after Sept. 11.
"When I was writing the bulk of [the new album], it was post-September 11th, and I just kept worrying about how to write songs after that," she says. "I had a hard time coming up with lyrics [because of] what's been going on with our country and the world. I was like, 'Does anything else matter right now?' All I could think was, 'If people aren't speaking out against the war and the Bush administration right now, then nothing is important.' So I sorta felt that the least I could do was write some songs about what I was feeling.
"So it was kind of hard to write some of my usual 'fuck you, stupid boy' songs," Wolfe continues. "I'm not saying they're not in there, but there might not be quite as many." Not as Wolfe knows all too well that it'll stop a legion of attention-starved boys from thinking the songs are still about them.
Bratmobile play with the Pattern and Gravy Train, Thurs/24, 9:30 p.m., Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., S.F. $8. (415) 621-4455.