It took some convincing from a friend for Chicana punk icon Alice Bag (née Alicia Armendariz) to feel comfortable crowdfunding an album. As frontwoman of the short-lived but massively influential first-generation band The Bags, she’s inarguably a progenitor of not only the Los Angeles scene, but the entire genre. On that alone, she’s clearly given so much to punk — and in the years since, she’s contributed indelibly to the Latino community and feminism, too. Despite all that, Bag was reluctant to ask for anyone’s help.
“My first response was no,” she recalls. “I felt like it was musical panhandling or something. I felt weird about it.”
If you’re a Bagophile, you know the group recorded loads of tracks, but none were put toward an actual LP. Theirs is a catalog of compilations, and the beginning of a pattern of one-off music-making that would continue through her countless post-Bags endeavors — until now, that is.
Alice Bag is inarguably a progenitor of not only the Los Angeles scene, but the entire genre.
“All the projects I’ve worked with, it’s been maybe a few songs in the studio, maybe a 45 or a cut on a compilation album. Just maybe a few songs that we put on a CD and can sell at shows — but it’s never been a proper, full record,” she says.
The breadth of her career as a musician is staggering. Soon after the dissolution of The Bags, she delivered early deathrock with a side of satire as a member of Castration Squad. In the mid-80s, there was the synth-rock of The Cambridge Apostles, and later, in the 90s, she performed as part of a queer political punk pop act called Cholita! The Female Menudo, as well as the feminist folk group Las Tres. That’s a mere sampling of a long and winding list; her career spans nearly 40 years, and she’s hardly been idle during most.
So why has it taken Alice Bag this long to deliver an LP? Why release one now? The former calls for a much more complicated answer, but the latter — that one’s thanks in part to Girl in a Coma players Phanie Diaz and Jenn Alva. With their new side project, FEA, the pair sought out Bag to produce three tracks on their album.
“I was going over their songs and listening to their music. I was looking for studios to record them, and I was doing all this legwork, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, these girls are really young; they’re just starting. I’m working on their stuff. I could be doing my record as well,’” she says. “I think it’s just kind of kicked my ass to realize that these young women were making a record, and they were so much younger than me. I thought, ‘Why haven’t I done this for myself?’”
Like their former group, FEA has the financial support of Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records. Bag, however, wouldn’t be working with a label.
“You know, at this point I do so many things on my own that it’s just second nature to do it myself. I have a few friends who I’ve talked to about going through a record company, and I’m just not sure that I want anybody telling me what to do,” she laughs.
Ultimately, though, Bag realized just how costly the endeavor would be. Her friend Quetzal Flores of the Chicano rock group Quetzal tried nudging along the idea of crowdfunding, but Bag remained hesitant. Then she read Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking.
“I think more than anything reading her book made me realize people actually get something out of [crowdfunding], like there is a feeling of empowerment when someone helps support something they believe in,” she says. “Now, I think it’s better that I did it this way than if a company had come in and just given me a bunch of money. My backers are people who are not rich, who can probably just afford a small donation to help something they believe in. For them, whenever you give your money away, it’s something that you really believe in. I felt like not only was I having my project financed, but I was getting all this moral support from people.”
“I’m just not sure that I want anybody telling me what to do.”
Within seven days of launching, Bag’s campaign surpassed its original goal of $8,500. In the end, 246 pledges helped her raise more than $15,000.
“When it went over, I started thinking, ‘Now I can bring in a violin player! Now I can use colored vinyls!’ So yeah, I’m thrilled,” she says.
At this point, Bag is in the final stages of the album’s creation. Her goal is to debut it by next summer; the mastering process is underway already. That means she knows exactly what it sounds like — and what it doesn’t.
“The thing is, I think that if you’re open-minded about what the album is, I think you’ll like it. If you don’t expect The Bags,” she stresses. “I think it would be a mistake to expect me to do a whole album of punk rock, ’cause I can just tell you know that’s not what it’s going to be.”
Sure, a complete return to the punk she began with would be incredibly satisfying for fans. But it wouldn’t exactly be fair to Bag, whose range of influences and resulting wheelhouse is vast. She grew up on rancheras, and reflected the estilo bravío style spearheaded by women like Lucha Reyes, Lola Beltrán, and Chavela Vargas in her early brazen, electrifying onstage persona. Before it ever developed, she was big into Elton John and Carole King.
“I’ve got three punk songs on the record, then some straightforward rock and then some ballads,” she explains.
The album is a kaleidescopic representation of Bag in more ways than one, though. While billed as a solo effort, the album is actually quite collaborative. A cast of longtime musician pals of past collaborations with other East L.A. musicians are featured, like Cesar Castro of Chicano-Jaroche outfit Camblache, storied punk and experimental musician Joe Berardi, best known as drummer for The Deadbeats, and Lysa Flores, a solo artist who also played with Bag in Stay at Home Bomb. Help and cameos come from other areas for her life too, like Candace Hansen, a young drummer she met at a Girls Rock Camp.
Another guest on the work is one of Bag’s three daughters.
“My middle daughter has always loved singing, and about a year or two ago I hooked her up with a gig singing backup for [Chicano rock icon] El Vez, and she really enjoyed it,” Bag says.
None of her daughters are into punk, Bag adds, but they’re always very supportive of her endeavors. Throughout the sporadic touring of her coming-of-age memoir, Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story, since its 2011 release, and they’ve attended readings with friends in tow.
“I think it would be a mistake to expect me to do a whole album of punk rock.”
Bag doesn’t seem to be the kind of parent who’d necessarily hope to usher her kids along her own footsteps anyway; instead, she champions the charting of their own paths. Her oldest and youngest, however, are interested in teaching, to which Bag devoted about 20 years.
At the East L.A. public school Bag herself attended, there wasn’t much aid for non-English speaking students. Her mother and father, both Mexican immigrants, had raised her in entirely in Spanish. Teaching as a bilingual instructor at inner-city schools later in life was a way to help offset similar difficulties for others. Her experiences during that time serve as another source of inspiration for album — on “Inesperado Adios,” a Spanish-language ballad, Bag reflects on the ruinous nature of immigration law through the story of a past student – a kindergartener whose family was torn apart when her father was deported.
For Bag, being an educator has been an opportunity for mutual learning, not solely instructing. In 1986, during that long stint teaching, she spent a month in Nicaragua studying education reform. Her recently published diary-style account of the experience, Pipe Bomb for the Soul, shows the knowledge gleaned from the trip is far-reaching.
“The reason that I went to Nicaragua is because I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, and one of the things he talks about is how we are trained at an early age to become passive learners,” she says. “We are taught in a way that kills our inquisitive spirit. You’re taught to just ingest information and then spit it back out. You’re not encouraged to really analyze, or to engage in critical discussion, or to have a dialogue where you have to listen to something someone else is saying and respond to it in a respectful way. If we were taught those skills, the world would be amazing. We could have conversations about what’s going on in governent; we would be better equipped to challenge authority.”
There’s a cut on the album about just that — it’s dubbed “Programmed,” she says, and it’s “pretty punk.” Something else Bag is passionately against is Monsanto, which she rails against on the punk-rock ripper “Poisoned Seed.”
“[Punk] is not the leather jackets; it’s not the cute boys with spiky hair.”
“It just deals with how when my generation was growing up, we were really kind of taught to look up to science, you know? This is the age of reason, we need to respect that scientists are going to create vaccines, create food that’s good for us, vitamins, you know, then all of the sudden they created the situation where we have seeds that are killing off our heirloom seeds,” she says. “So we’re killing off our own food supply by allowing this corporation to feed us these seeds that actually have poison in them, they actually have insecticides in them.”
That’s not the only display of Bag’s principles and general ethos on the album, of course. “He’s So Sorry” is about a friend’s abusive past relationship — in the signature Wall of Sound-style of convicted murderer, notorious mental abuser, and alleged hostage-holder Phil Spector.
“[It’s] kind of like a reply to [him] and the way that he treated women in his life. It’s like, as someone who grew up listening to that, I’m really deeply influenced by it — and then, you know, it’s so hard for me to accept that someone who created such wonderful music was such a dick,” she says. “So I wanted to respond like, ‘Look, I can take this music that shaped me and take the beautiful part and reply to someone in an abusive relationship, someone who might have been involved with someone like Spector, by using his own tools.’”
She absolutely nails the girl group aesthetic, by the way. (Her composer-musician friend, Lysa Flores, Bag points out, coached her throughout its creation). Another number, though also pointed in its content, defies genre classification. “Incorporeal Life” was inspired by one of her daughters who, for a while, she says, was really into online role-playing games. Carnaval (and the stateside version, Mardi Gras) serve as the backbone of its vibe.
“It’s an invitation to enjoy what life has to offer. I can think of few things that are more pleasurably corporeal than Carnaval,” she says.
There’s a verse in Spanish, but one in English makes an obvious call to step away from our screens: “Dare to live in your body/ It’s a thrilling sensation,” Bag croons.
She’s more than an iconic figure now. She’s a leader in the punk community.
Even when it strays from punk, the material compiled for Bag’s long-overdue full-length maintains a connection to her roots. That’s because she’s never abandoned them. Not only has she been working with Girls Rock for years, but also she’s performed at feminist and queercore events like the Boston edition of Ladyfest and Chicago’s Fed-Up Fest.
“I feel like those scenes really have these communities that really embrace a diverse and inclusive punk scene. That’s where I came from, you know. That’s the punk that I experienced,” she says. “When people talk about punk, a lot of times they have such a narrow view of it that I wish I could take them to Fed-Up Fest or Zine Fest.”
Bag’s indelible mark on the history of punk has made its way into academia as part of a digital oral history archive initiative at the University of Washington, as well as through her participation in lectures held at colleges and universities. On her website, she tirelessly chronicles the stories of women in LA punk prior to 1980. In doing all that, Bag has amplified the positive influence of all she’s accomplished, both as a young Chicana punk and as a forever feminist, queer ally, and educator.
“I did a Chicas Rockeras rock camp in Southeast L.A. this summer, and to see the effect that punk rock is having on these little, 7 , 8 — it goes from 7 to 18 — just these young women that are finally feeling confident, finally feeling that they can get up on a stage and that they can say whatever they want to say, and just make themselves big – take up space, you know? It’s so punk rock!” she laughs. “That, to me, is what punk rock is about. And that’s forgotten, you know. It’s not the leather jackets; it’s not the cute boys with spiky hair.”
Bag is very much the same woman who once shrieked and shook spastically about onstage, demanding audiences abandon the abritrary norms of a white patriarchal society. But it appears she’s improved her aim when channeling her anger, the Violence Girl within. She’s more than an iconic figure now. She’s a leader in the punk community.
“You know, I’m happy that people still listen to anything I say!” she laughs. “As someone who’s getting older, I think I’m more aware of how society views older people…how society diminishes your worth as you age. So a lot of times, people don’t seem to have as much interest in what an older person has to say. But that hasn’t been my experience with punk — it’s the opposite. I feel like people have respect, which is very nice. I’m grateful for it.”