Petrol Girls – Fuck it. Let’s do it

Feminist hardcore is a fundamentally wonderful thing. If you don’t agree, then you probably think Julien Blanc is a harmless and maybe found Dapper Laughs just a little bit funny. And you can fuck off.

South East London’s very own Petrol Girls are just such a phenomena. They have a growing following and are a living breathing example of why DIY amongst the younger generation is really fucking exciting right now. We caught up with them (Lepa Kuraitė – bass, Ren Aldridge – guitar and vox and Joe York – guitar and vox) back in September. And this is what they had to say for themselves.

Good evening. How’s it going? I hear you’ve been out and about with our friends Guerrilla Monsoon over the summer…

Ren: Yeah all good, cheers. Yes we played a couple of shows with those guys and Traders in Swansea and Bristol – they’re ace! Riffalicious.

Liepa: Regardless of our tour tiredness we managed to squeeze out many dance moves.

What have been the high points of the tour?

Liepa: Being grown-ups, waking up early and going to see places.

Ren: Nature and dogs – so many dogs. And we went to the beach, twice!! So much swimming.

Liepa: We had a picnic with a cheese platter and wine, with a beautiful view over three cliffs beach. I think that constitutes for a good high point! (Literally)

Ren: And Hippy scout fest.

Liepa: This was the only gig that wasn’t booked beforehand and we were supposed to have a day off but our good friend Micky Dey who we were staying with invited us to play at DF camp. It’s a self-organised camp of 16 – 21 year olds from woodcraft folk. Literally everybody was dancing and Ren got to talk about “issues” to younger people than usual.

Ren: It was pretty revealing actually of how ageing our scene is – I’m used to feeling like one of the youngest!

As a unit you’re relatively new on the scene, but some of you appear to have been active a little longer than others (Ren Aldridge we’re thinking of you here). Tell us more about yourselves…

Ren: So the band is Liepa, Joe and I, then various mates, including Zock, on drums. The three of us live together (well I’ve just had six months out in Germany but back soon) with a load of other people in a house in Peckham where we run gigs and base all kinds of projects. It’s a really supportive and creative place to be, I’m excited to come back!

I’ve been playing acoustic as ‘renspitsatmagpies’ for a long time, I also play in Feralus with Perkie and Katie Raine, and used to tour all the time doing backing vocals/beer swigging/unhelpful comments for Mike Scott. But my first band when I was about 14 was a metal band and I’m loving playing more aggressive music again! And yeah, been running gigs here and there for years as well.

Joe: Yeah, Ren and I know each other from school and we met Liepa at university, she was on the same course as me.

Ren: Joe was always in really great bands at school, a prog band and a ska band – both brilliant!

Liepa: I was going to the house shows that Ren, Ester and the other housemates were organising for quite some time but I hadn’t actually been involved much until I moved in with them bunch. I’d say in the past half a year my life became so much more hectic and fun that I can’t even decently remember what I was doing before.

Specifically, how did you pick up the singer from those prolific Central European rock-punkers Astpai to play drums? That lad is busy enough as it is…

Ren: I had a couple of jams with Zock for another project and was just mad impressed by his drumming. He knew we were having difficulty finding a drummer and offered to help us out so obviously we said hell yes. We’d steal him permanently if we could! Wonderful human bean.

Joe: Such a talented guy and I love his drumming, it really works with our style.

Liepa: I reckon we should just get on that stealing Zock thing asap because I always have so much fun playing with him.

You have a seven inch out so far that has been getting some fairly blazing reviews from the circuit. What’s next for you in the releases pipeline?

Joe: I think another 3 or maybe 4-track EP should come next. Our newer music is a lot more in the direction we’d like to go. At the moment we have to play some older material that we’ve outgrown just so we can fill a 30 minute live set, so it would be nice to get out some new tunes asap. Then maybe an album after that?

Liepa: There’s a lot of ideas floating around every time we’re practicing or when we’re on tour but Ren being away most of the time doesn’t really help in developing them into actual songs. We’re a relatively new band so we are still working on our style and sound, trying out unconventional rhythms and melodies. I would definitely say that our newer songs are way more energetic and more fun to play so we’re keen on recording them as soon as they’re finished.

Now. It was thought that the kids in general had long since stopped caring about anything other than beards or apathy dressed up as some postmodernist shit or other. You however appear to be on to something of a different tack. What’s happening, people?

Ren: Oh no I can thoroughly assure you the whole political thing with us is dead ironic and cool. I’m cultivating my moustache to emphasise this point further…

Liepa: We’re all involved or interested in politics and the way society works in one way or another. I think after constantly being fucked over by police in protests and demos, and after putting effort into some change that happens so slowly, sometimes you’re wondering if anything is even changing for the better. If we’re feeling small, insignificant, and start finding it hard to keep on working on these hard topics, music becomes a very rewarding and refreshing activity in addition to the rest that we do. It’s a very cathartic way for us to say what we are thinking (or in Ren’s case to shout it out very, very loudly) and if people are listening and having fun you hope you might purge some of their similar frustrations as well as energize people to keep on trying.

Ren: Got to love a good musical tantrum really haven’t you. I’d add that I’m particularly bored of apathetic blokes in their late twenties and above trying to tell me what is and isn’t worth kicking off about or possible. Our generation in particular is being utterly shat on; it’d be laughable if it wasn’t all so fucking damaging to the less privileged in our society. It tends to be those least affected by austerity or this alarming rise in nationalism across Europe that like to spark off about how naive we all are for trying to do anything about it. But I don’t think you have to claim to have answers to express anger at a political situation – it’s all about starting a conversation.

Joe and I moved to London just as the student movement kicked off about the increase in tuition fees and jump started the anti-austerity movement, and we got pretty heavily involved. For me the experience of being actively part of a political movement, facing lines of riot police, feeling part of a mass of people desperate for change was an important experience. They thought our generation was just going to sit back and take it. Or march politely from A to B then accept being ignored. My politics are evolving all the time but I maintain that all those occupations, breaking police lines and charging around central London was important. Disgrace and System were both written as a direct result of those experiences.

The Riot Grrrl/radical female-fronted scene of the early nineties kind of died about the same time that whole… Spice Girls… thing happened. And then in sequence we got: new laddism, Paris Hilton, the Pretty Reckless – and now we have Robin fffucking Thicke. For nearly 20 years the likes of Die Cheerleader, Bikini Kill, Sleater Kinney etc. dropped off the cultural radar. Tell me, what motivated you to pick up guitars and start saying the things that you do, right now?

Ren: I’ve been playing guitar and making music for years and years but coming across feminist punk bands/movements of the past through their successful documentation as well as seeing other women on stage is what gave me the confidence to imagine I could ever be taken remotely seriously doing it as well. Reading about riot grrrl, and the Slits biography – Typical Girls – inspired me hugely because I could relate to those women, to their experiences. Watching the Punk Singer recently blew my fucking brains out. Liepa and I went to see it together.

Liepa: I didn’t even consider playing music for the whole of my teenage years even though I remember really wanting to. I started playing guitar more and more when I moved to London four years ago. This happened because there was this beautiful vibe of not being embarrassed to do things you like even if you’re not super proficient in them. I think my former thinking that if you’re not a musician by the age of 14 you’re not going to be a musician was to do with my cultural upbringing that has majorly changed since I moved to England, started hanging out with my current friends and got involved in the whole DIY community.

When Ren and May started Petrol Girls and were looking for a bassist my older self was like “well I can’t play bass at all, why would I even put myself in such a stressful situation and what if I instantly get fired from the band because I can’t play well?” but I was so sick of thinking these kind of things and not really getting anywhere with the things I like that I just went, picked up the bass and dealt with it. I obviously still feel awkward playing bass and get very panicky on stage but I am in Petrol Girls for real now and just take those emotions as a normal part of the learning experience and not a failure of character.

Beyond just playing bass, Petrol Girls are a very nurturing environment to be in with regards to political ideas and feminism. What keeps me going is the ability to share through our songs what we are learning from each other and all of the amazing people that surround us and obviously to show that women can play instruments, be in heavy bands and rock the stage pretty hard if they feel like it. Or just get involved with whatever activity they want regardless of the societal background of discouragement (or the lack of encouragement).

Joe: I’ve been writing and playing music since I was in my early teens and it’s really just a love for music that makes pick up a guitar. I came across the punk scene when I was around 17, I guess it was Ren who introduced me to it as she’s been a punk nut since she was probably two or something. Me and Ren have played together in various projects before and me and Liepa are also in a band called We Were The Sun.

But yeah I think it’s great being in a feminist band because I think it’s an extremely relevant and important issue. In the punk scene we just assume that we’re all awesome perfect radicals and we listen to bands that sing about things we can all agree on, like anti-war songs or how cool we are for smoking cigarettes. But the punk scene is, as a majority, blind to its sexism and people don’t realise we’re all complicit. So yeah I guess our politics are often critical of ourselves and the scene. We also do get pretty peeved off at those damn governments every now and again…

And what inspires you to keep doing it?

Ren: I find the more I question gender roles, or men who dominate, or speak up about issues like sexual assault, the more aggressively the people who perpetuate this shit react. And that aggression or violence is massively revealing. We’re not going to shut up. Violent reactions to questions reveal power structures and you have to be able to see them to take them apart. And I’d say after about 70% of our gigs I end up chatting to women about their experiences of sexual violence, often within our community. I’m angry, I’m genuinely really angry.

Liepa: Also the support of our friends and people that like our band. Seeing people dance like crazy to our songs is a big one too.

Ren: Yeah I swear we have the most supportive mates in the world!

I’ve actually heard you referred to as Riot Grrrl. I won’t deny that I hear a lot of the soundtrack of my formative teenage years in your sound (yeah. I’m too old to be doing this really, but someone has to). How do you see yourselves, genre-wise?

Ren: I’m fairly ambivalent on defining as riot grrrl. Don’t get me wrong, I think the riot grrrl movement is one of the most important things to ever happen to punk rock, but I sometimes think people see it as the only way you can exist as a woman in punk rock – which shouldn’t be the case. People always seem to want to tar all women with the same brush but we’re all so different and those differences should be celebrated and respected. To me it refers to quite a specific attitude and comes from a very specific point in time. I certainly wouldn’t say we were exclusively riot grrrl, but I have found that music/ movement hugely inspiring and that “fuck it, let’s do it”, attitude is present in our approach for sure.

Liepa: Yeah, I’m very on top of that “fuck it, let’s do it” attitude nowadays, as I’ve mentioned before.

And do you think genres are still important?

Ren: Not if they crush your creativity or spawn stupid bickering over “Who’s punk enough.” But if they point people in the direction of what might tickle their taste-buds then fair play.

Who would you say your main influences are? Bands naturally – but also writers or other media. (You tell us!)

Ren: I’m massively influenced by Laurie Penny, a feminist political writer and blogger. Some of her articles have marked major shifts for me in terms of my political thinking. Her article “Nice Guys Rape” from a few years ago, for example, completely shifted the way that I understood rape and sexual assault. Liepa just bought her new book “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution” for me for my birthday. I was reading it on tour and already have two new song ideas from it. Her writing is immensely passionate, and to me reflects the way that politics can operate within music – it comes from your gut, looking at and feeling our daily emotions and rage to then be able to understand it in a wider context.

In fact, I got our name Petrol Girls during a talk she was giving at LSE on Women and social movements. She spoke about les Petroleurs – the mythical women of the Paris Commune – which she loosely translated as Petrol Girls. My notes from that talk have Petrol Girls written in massive letters with a big arrow and BAND NAME next to it. And as I banged on about above, particularly in relation to this first EP, being involved in the student movement of 2010 onwards. And yeah, cheesy as it sounds, just speaking to our friends, especially to the women I’m close to, about our experiences.

Joe: I don’t actually listen to a huge amount of punk music nowadays to be honest, although yeah At the Drive-In, Refused, Propagandhi – if anyone says we sound like those guys I take that as a big compliment. I love loads and loads of different genres but in the last couple years I’ve been getting into a lot of electronic music and math rock. I’ve definitely taken a certain amount of influence from bands such as TTNG and Colour – they really opened my eyes up to what you can do with time signatures and tempo. For example in our EP opener “Restless”, the main riff is just two notes but the time signature gives it this kind of jarring/driving sound because each phrase finishes a beat earlier than what people are used to in traditional punk rock. I’m very interested in trying to get as many unorthodox rhythms and harmonies into our music as possible without sacrificing accessibility and booty shake-ability!

Liepa: Joe and I listen to almost the same music nowadays so the bands that he mentioned are the main influences for me too. In regards to influences of math rock we try to make Petrol Girls heavier not necessarily by playing our instruments harder or faster but by trying to incorporate tempo changes, weird rhythms and dissonant harmonies. I’m listening to tons of different music nowadays so it’s hard to just pick a short list of names but besides the ones that Joe and Ren mentioned I could add Kiev, Syd Arthur, Machines, White Lung and Jesca Hoop.

In regards to other types of influences, I have to say that Ren is quite a huge influence for me herself because of the sheer amount of reading/thinking about stuff that she’s done and is still doing. I’m also somewhat involved in the DIY tech community (like London Hackspace) and those people show a very good example of getting things done with little money by cooperating and resource sharing.

Ren: In terms of music, I think my main ones are RVIVR, The Slits, Bikini Kill, Paint it Black, Refused, At the Drive-In, Propaghandi and System of a Down.

How many more like you are out there? There’s many observers that have bemoaned how limited the reaction to the souring current social and political climate has been, with maybe a few exceptions: Nu Pogodi, Fighting Fiction, The Skints. But maybe not the King Blues. It’d be nice to think that there was some kind of… movement. Maybe.

Ren: Personally I’ve seen a lot more overtly political (anarchist/raging leftie) bands since I’ve been out in Germany. I feel like the mainland scene, from what I’ve encountered, especially in Hamburg, is more closely tied with political movements. In the first week I was out there I went to a hardcore gig with bands from Croatia and the bass player from Dispro gave a talk about how immigration in Croatia has changed since it joined the EU. There’s a lot of great No Borders stuff going on, particularly in support of Lampedusa, a self-organised group of refugees fighting for their right to remain in Hamburg. Two of my current favourite bands that I’ve come across whilst out here are Jungbluth (DE) and Landverraad (NL) – both very political hardcore bands.

I think the queer/LGBTQ*/feminist scene is absolutely thriving at the moment, and I guess this brings up the question of what you mean by political? RVIVR, for example, I would consider an immensely political band, and most of their songs are to do with mental health and sexuality. The personal is hugely political. And Onsind, of course! Onsind are just fucking so necessary. I watch blokes that tell me to shut up about feminism all the time, with their fists in the air screaming along to their lyrics at the front of their shows – and I think that consciousness raising is seeping through. I’m getting told to shut up less anyway. Onsind, and Crywank as well, are great because they acknowledge their male privilege and do WONDERFUL things with it. I guess men tend to just feel much less threatened hearing about feminism from other men. I love how Onsind combine storytelling with mental health, sexuality, no borders, feminism, queer politics – so much stuff all mushed together, because that’s these things work – ism’s, phobias and structures of dominance are interlinked.

Joe: I also agree that Crywank rules.

Ren: Then there’s The Autonomads who our mate Perkie joined recently, and who tour often with our friends Braindead from Hamburg. Both those bands are more on the dubby ska punk end of things and are more directly anti-capitalist in their lyrics. And there’s Perk’s solo stuff as well, she released her stunning debut album recently where she addresses all sorts of things from anxiety to animal rights. I could bang on for longer, but yeah I think there’s loads of stuff out there, and things don’t have to be overtly about burning down parliament to be political.

Liepa: There’s also United Vibrations who are amazing musicians from South London that are heavily involved as a band in projects that deal with community building and sustainability.

I was reading somewhere about a putative collaboration between Kathleen Hanna (ex-Bikini Kill) and Miley Cyrus (I’m 100% serious – see http://goo.gl/4kP4k5 ). At first I thought the idea was just… fucked. But then the thought began to grow that if someone with a direct route into the minds of tens of millions of young kids (like Smiley Cyrus) could be weaponised for “the cause” then that could, just could, be a generation-defining and fucking good thing for humanity at large. What do you reckon?

Liepa: I think why not? Kathleen Hanna can collaborate with whoever she wants and I doubt that anything disastrous would come of it. Even before she’s done anything with Miley people are already talking about it – that’s kind of cool in a way. Pop music as music (not industry) is not inherently bad and a lot of people listen to it so as you said, this collaboration could potentially be a good vessel into mainstream for Kathleen’s ideas. And it’s always interesting to see people from such different backgrounds and genres working together.

Ren: Yeah I think people get a bit protective over the whole punk rock thing. And in a lot of ways Miley Cyrus is pretty punk rock – she doesn’t give a fuck. I have some issues with her cultural appropriation around the whole twerking thing but I think people should stop being so moralistic over how women utilise their sexuality. As a woman you will be sexualised whatever you do, however you manage it. Kathleen Hanna was/is totally sexy on stage. So are loads of men playing punk rock, they’re just not sexualised by society in the same way.

Joe: It’s funny because I see some similarities between Miley Cyrus and male singers from cock rock bands like Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones, who no one seemed to have a problem with. And pretty much every pop video now sells women as sex objects and most people don’t seem to mind. But I think what didn’t sit too well with people about Miley Cyrus was that her brand of sexuality was more aggressive and even “masculine” in a way, and this is something society strictly forbids.

Personally I think we are in a quiet golden age of DIY – be it heavy, punk or whatever. More and better bands than ever before. The community is starting to build again in a way that’s not been seen for many a year. What’s your take on the state of the hardcore/punk/DIY scene in the UK and beyond right now?

Liepa: In our circle of friends I see that there is a lot of support and skill sharing going on – that definitely helps the DIY scene to become more accessible and helps make good quality music (and other things too). Nowadays people need just a laptop, a half decent sound card and a mic to whack out something good enough for a release. Some people manage to release songs successfully with even less than that. Sharing music has also become much easier. Ah, the wonders of the internet and technology 🙂

Ren: No one can get a decent job so fuck it – start bands!

And thinking locally, how’s the punk/DIY scene down your end of that London? Any local (Peckham or nearby) bands that you want to give a shout to?

Liepa: The music scene around South London is thriving and it’s amazing to be a part of it. There’s a lot of variety in it too – if you want to sweat your face off in a crammed kitchen full of people dancing like crazy to some punk you can come to one of our house shows; NXRecords has a lot of very good indie rock and electronic music that they’re putting on constantly, I’m always blown away by bands like Machines, Buffalo Ink, Matagot and others even though I’ve been going to their gigs for quite some time because they just keep getting better and better. There’s also jam nights where everything and anything goes – I’ve lost count of the number of incarnations of “Wonderwall” that I’ve heard there but again, it’s nice that people aren’t afraid to go on stage and just play.

Joe: The whole Goldsmiths music scene and NX Records is pretty phenomenal. I guess there’s not really much punk music although Buffalo Ink are like a better heavier/techier version of early Artic Monkeys. There’s bands like Matagot and ME REX or Machines – who have to be one of the best bands I’ve heard in a while.

Ren: Our buddies The Exhausts who we just came off tour with! Absolute wonderstuds the lot of them. Joe and Liepa’s project We Were The Sun – keep your ears open for that, their harmonies will melt faces. Werecats, Cat Bear Tree, My Therapist Says Hot Damn, The Dykeness, Big Joanie… Also Sicknote Promotions has just been set up by our mates Ester and Tommy. Liepa and Joe do sound for them and I want to help out as soon as I’m back from Hamburg. They’re running really great shows both in the house and at a local venue, the Montague Arms and are committed to never running an all-male line up and making a special effort to help bands from outside the UK.

What does the future hold for you as a musical unit – any bands that you want to tour or collaborate with? Europe? You appear born to rip it up across that there Euro commune circuit, for the record.

Ren: Haha, cheers! And we hope to!! We’re actually already plotting a little mainland trip! We’re playing the F-Word Fest Amsterdam mid-September so we’re just in the process of booking up a tour around that, which hopefully can also involve moving all my stuff from Hamburg back to London…

Liepa: No ulterior motives Ren!

Ren: And I just madly want to play a show with RVIVR, that band means the bloody world to me.

Joe: I just want to tour as much as possible – it’s a great way to see the world.

You also appear to be more than just a band. The collaboration with the clothing brand House of Astbury we know about (but do tell us more). What else is happening – or up next – for you?

Ren: Liepa and I co-run House of Astbury with our housemates Ester and Monika – it’s a reflective feminist cyclewear brand aimed at making clothes that will empower more women to want to ride and feel safe doing so. It made sense for us to do a Petrol Girls band t-shirt as a collaboration with that project and the reflective ink works perfectly with our molotov cocktail logo. HoA’s on all of the social media if you search it, and the shop is http://www.houseofastbury.co.uk/shop

Aside from that I’m just coming to the end of an artist’s residency in Hamburg, and am looking out for further residencies as well as potentially running a fairly big public art project tackling street harassment with this whopping sculpture I built that reads “Give Us A Smile Love”. Always got loads of stuff happening! I have a website with all my creative shit on it if that interests anyone – http://renaldridge.co.uk

And finally is there anything that we ought to know about you, or about anything else that’s important to you before we go?

Ren: There is a silent epidemic of sexual assaults happening within our community as well as in society at large. Let me keep it simple – you need a person’s explicit consent before you touch them in a sexual manner. Being asleep is not consent. No means No. “Errrr” means no. “Maybe later” – NO until you get explicit consent. Your past sexual history with that person is also irrelevant. I received an incredibly disturbing message from someone that I confronted about assaulting me recently that included “you think you can hook up with me once then not want to do it again and call that assault?? hahahaha” – errr yeah, actually. I’m planning to make a zine collecting people’s (largely women’s) experiences. It’s something we need to figure out how to talk about and address as a community because the culture of silencing and slut shaming that surrounds it is pushing women (to whom it happens most) out.

And to end on a positive here are some pictures of our kittens Iggy and Dog:

– Ed Ling

Find out more from the band at the following links:

http://www.facebook.com/petrolgirls

http://petrolgirls.bandcamp.com/

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