I first got in touch with Cazz Blase over 10 years ago as we were both involved in doing fanzines at the time. Over the years Cazz has produced various fanzines such as Real Girls, Harlot's Progress and Touch Sensitive. She often wrote about female bands/singers and wrote an extended essay on the history of riot grrrl which went on to appear on The F Word website. In 2007 she contributed a chapter on the music of riot grrrl to the book "Riot Grrrl Revolution Girl Style Now" published by Black Dog Publishing.
How did you first discover riot grrrl and what was it that appealed to you so much?
I first discovered riot grrrl in January 1993 whilst listening to the John Peel show on Radio One. The Voodoo Queens had their debut session aired that night, and on that show, and the following night's show, he played the first Mambo Taxi single ('Prom Queen') and was also playing tracks from the Bikini Kill/Huggy Bear split LP, in between lots of stuff like Diblo Dibala and some cool ambient stuff and other stuff. I hadn't heard his show before, and had only tuned in to hear Sonic Youth in concert which, believe it or not, had been trailed on the Radio One Breakfast Show that morning - how times change ... Mark Goodier was filling in for Simon Mayo on the Breakfast Show that day I think ... I had read a bit about riot grrrl in NME a few weeks before that I think, but it hadn't made much sense to me as it had been referenced but not really explained in any way.
In terms of what appealed, initially, it was the music and what was being sung about, but also the experimentation ... a lot of the riot grrrl bands Peel was playing at that point were very punk, and I'd got into seventies punk about a year beforehand, so it linked up very well because I already liked bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Slits, X-Ray Spex, as well as the Sex Pistols, Damned and Clash. Later, I discovered Pussycat Trash, again via Peel, that was about six months later, post Huggy Bear on the Word, when the backlash was well and truly kicking in within the music press, and it was via Pussycat Trash that I found out about, firstly, Piao! which was then Squab Distribution, a north London distro selling zines and records etc. including that first Pussycat Trash 7" and a lot of riot grrrl, twee and queercore stuff. Through them I found out about Slampt and through reading magazines like Zine and Sun Zoom Spark I got into fanzines, and writing fanzines.
Essentially, as well as the music, it was the inclusive friendly aspect I liked. I found the indie scene rather artificial, very preoccupied with being cool and namedropping and the like, and the riot grrrl scene, or that loose 'underground' scene there was then, beyond indie, seemed much more open, accessible and friendly. There seemed to be a good variety of people from a variety of differing, small, much maligned 'scenes' who had got together and liked some of the same bands, and so things like what clothes you wore, sexuality, age, and so on didn't seem to matter. That was very freeing for me because it gave me a space to experiment with what I suppose people would now call 'Identity Politics' or self expression, and I needed somewhere like riot grrrl to do that, because I needed a lot of space to think and sort myself out.
Do you think there are certain things that make a band riot grrrl? What are the defining qualities of riot grrrl in terms of sound/aesthetics?
I think this is a very contentious issue and has caused a lot of arguments and disputes over the years, which is a bit sad ... I think it really comes down to attitude. There has to be that outspoken, highly independent attitude, which is about 50% punk and 50% feminism. When I say punk though I mean attitude, not that the bands must sound punk. Beyond that, I wouldn't like to say, because I think that there are so many different musical genres where there are acts that could be described as riot grrrl or perhaps post-riot grrrl, as coming out of some kind of diaspora following riot grrrl.
What are your favourite riot grrrl bands --- those from the original scene and those around now --- and why?
At the time, I really loved Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, Mambo Taxi, The Voodoo Queens, Skinned Teen, The Frumpies, Bratmobile, Pussycat Trash --- I still like a lot of those bands but I think it's Pussycat Trash who I still really, really like. I don't listen to them as much but I still like them a lot especially 'Blessing Mix Up', from the 'Amore' 7" they did for Kill Rock Stars. Pussycat Trash were very noisy, bratty and chaotic, so they had a real love/hate factor to them, but there was that sense that you get with a band like Crass, or The Raincoats where you get these moments of sheer brilliance that almost seem to have happened by mistake, and that's part of the charm with them, you get into it, and the then the more you listen to them, the more you start to develop your own interpretation of what they're doing musically and why, because it's messy and there's a certain amount of self interpretation with it.
A band like Mambo Taxi were a lot more structured, and very much in that garagey girl group vein, and their album was very good, very structured, hung together very well as an album, the songwriting was quite sophisticated, and they were a very angry band, despite writing catchy songs, so you had that clash of styles, the tunes versus the lyrics almost.
I think a band like the Voodoo Queens had less antagonism between the music and the lyrics, but that they were quite experimental in other ways, for example on a track like 'Indian Film Star' where you get the sitar at the beginning, and its about Bollywood, but has this very hectic punk feel to it as well. Not very radical lyrically, perhaps, but I think the Voodoo Queens appealed to a lot of the very young riot grrrls, and boys actually as well. I remember when 'Kenuwee Head' came out as a single and some young boy wrote into Peel and requested it for him and 'all the other gay boys who love Keanu', so there was this side to them that was quite good as an alternative pop outfit for very young kids, who maybe wanted something more challenging that what else was available at the time ... which may sound like I'm leading to a Spice Girls analogy, but I'm not, because I don't think the Spice Girls could have written anything like 'Supermodel Superficial' and certainly not the later stuff, which was darker and more complex, stuff like 'Caffeine' and 'Eat the Germs'.
I probably had and still have, a preference for the UK bands, and this is partly to do with availability of records and suchlike at the time, and partly just musicial preference. I would say that, of the bands around now, I probably like less of the current bands because my tastes have moved on to an extent, so I tend to like people like Laura Veirs, who may or may not have held any truck with riot grrrl, and people like Lianne Hall, who was in Witchknot, but now makes electro-folk music. I like Laura Veirs because she has this very unassuming quality, very anti-rockstar, but in a really subtle unconscious way, she concentrates on the songs, and she doesn't have an image or concept to put across, she just does it, and in her own, subtle way she is very outspoken. If you look at songs like 'Cannon Fodder' or 'Jailhouse Fire', and there's this really evocative, melancholic quality to a lot of her stuff that I like as well.
I think I like a band like The Aisler's Set for similar reasons, even though the music is quite different, there's the subtle quality, and Amy Linton is similarly unassuming I think. I quite like The Pipettes, but I'm not sure that as a concept it can last beyond one album, and I really, really, really love The Gossip, although I was slow to see how good they really were I think, in that I liked the first album but didn't love it, and it's only been with 'Standing In the Way Of Control', hearing the whole album, that I realised how staggeringly good they were.
Because I'm a writer, not a musician, I think I notice lyrics and voices more than I notice musicianship, so things like whether a guitar is in tune, how many chords someone can play, tend to not factor in much, but a good voice, good production, and good lyrics tend to stand out to me, and she does have that kind of voice that makes you go weak at the knees and sends a shiver down your spine, cliches though both those expressions are, so I'm hoping they'll go from strength to strength, and that Beth Ditto will be prove to be curiously indestructible. I live in hope anyway.
I recently had a copy of the Robots in Disguise album burned for me, which I quite like. I don't think Robots In Disguise neccessarily have any interest in riot grrrl, though they clearly have learnt to play in public, and are quite punk-y electro-y ish but that may be coincidence. The link between the Pipettes and riot grrrl is fairly tenuous, but to some extent they also seem to share some common ground in that their lyrics are quite subversive that way, and I think Robots In Disguise are quite subversive in some ways as well, but ina different way.
What if any do you think were the differences between the US and UK scenes and key bands like Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear?
I think the US college radio scene perhaps makes a big difference. They don't seem to have that whole 'build 'em up, knock 'em down' approach with the music press, and in fact, I believe they don't have a 'music press' in the same way that we do in the UK, so would expect that that would make a big difference. I think the London riot grrrl scene in the nineties was hampered partly by it being in London and therefore easy for London journalists to access and write about. Had it started in the UK in the Scottish Hebrides, South Armagh, or Abargavenny, I can't help but think that they might have been given a lot more breathing space to develop, because the press wouldn't have become aware of it so quickly.
In terms of differences between Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill, I was never personally acquainted with either band, but from what I know of both of them, I would say the musicial influences were very different. I think Bikini KIll drew a lot from seventies punk and particularly bands like X-Ray Spex, whereas I think Huggy Bear were drawing more from bands like Pussy Galore and Sonic Youth, that whole eighties, US noise scene that pre-dated grunge.
Part Two of Interview here
Part Three of Interview here
THIS E-MAIL INTERVIEW TOOK PLACE IN APRIL 2008.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MAY 2008.
COVERS OF RIOT GRRRL FANZINES FROM MY OWN COLLECTION.