Four taps of the drumsticks and you have to decide: "Just shut up yeah just shut up is that what I should do/And pretend it's all okay try not to yell the truth." Are you with Bangs or against them? The music on the title track of the Pacific Northwest trio's new Call and Response EP gives no quarter. Fast, loud, angry, the song exemplifies urgency, reminding listeners of a time when that word was synonymous with punk. It's easy to forget, especially now, when for pop punk bands like Blink-182 and Sum 41, the punk genre means "fun." There's nothing wrong with fun, of course, unless it comes at someone else's expense. And that's where Bangs come in. They make you want to turn up the volume without turning off your mind.
Lauding Ladyfest, the women's arts festival that started in Olympia, Washington, Bangs' lead songwriter and guitarist Sarah Utter remarks bitterly that the music industry is still dominated by the same "hair metal dudes" as before, "except now they're dressed in clothes from Hot Topic and have added a DJ to their band. It's still the same mentality: Make a band, get signed, get laid, make lots of money and buy stuff." Utter, bassist Maggie Vail and new drummer Peter David Connelly have other goals. Like their Pacific Northwest forebears and Kill Rock Stars labelmates Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, Bangs make you want to throw yourself on the gears of the mainstream pleasure machine. It's hard to imagine a more direct critique of consumer society than Call and Response's "I Want More": "Got some bad credit but I want more/Do you need it?/We don't know/Just force feed it and watch it grow/Grab my hand start to look around/Cuz we just gotta burn it to the ground/Right now."
The way that last line is shouted, it's hard not to be moved. But in what direction? Bangs are acutely aware of the contradictions that come with making music that aspires to be something more than fun. Sure, they want people who download the MP3 for "I Want More" from the Kill Rock Stars Web site to buy Call and Response. But they also want more.
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Although she writes powerful "message" songs, Utter goes out of her way to distance herself from the explicit activism of bands like Rage Against the Machine. "I can honestly say that Bangs have never had an agenda." Vail concurs. "We've never sat down and made any conscious decisions at all as a band!" Utter continues. "I just write songs as I live my life every day. So if my day is shitty, you get a pissed-off song. If my day is nice, you get a pretty song. I definitely don't sit down with my guitar and go, Okay, this song is going to be the political anthemy type of song, and this is going to focus on being a woman, and this other one is going to examine growing up in a culture dominated by buying, but also let's make sure to throw in a song about a boy, because people like that.' It just happens." Utter is clearly describing Call and Response here: The title track is a political anthem; "I Want More" a song about consumer culture; and "Kinda Good" ("Even on all the rainy days/We can feel the sunshine") a lovely half-ballad about a lover. But if she varies her subject matter, it's not for the sake of aesthetic balance. "What's rolling around inside my head gets blurted out for anyone to look at."
Utter's reluctance to put politics in the foreground seems to contrast sharply with the attitude of Kathleen Hanna, who has used both Bikini Kill and her present electro-pop outfit Le Tigre to promote an explicit agenda. Yet Bangs' music is no less pissed off about the state of the world. The difference is at least partially generational. Utter and Vail, both in their late 20s, experienced the first wave of Riot Grrrl culture as fans.
"Olympia is a very strange place," notes Utter. "When I was a kid growing up here, all I could think about was how I was going to ditch this town someday for the big city, probably like any kid growing up in a small town. Then, as a teenager, I started discovering the great things going on here. There were so many punk shows, for the most part all-ages. And then there were the record labels and the music festivals, not to mention the crazy liberal arts college Evergreen, the public access TV station, the Riot Grrrl movement, the 'zines being made. It was a pretty unique time that I feel lucky to have experienced as a teenager."
There's an element of nostalgia in this description. When Utter and Vail look back to the heyday of Bikini Kill, they are reflecting on their own youth. And, while they are obviously proud of their town's cultural heritage, it can feel like a burden.
For one thing, nostalgia for the good old days of Riot Grrrl culture can blind people to the present. Like Sleater-Kinney before them, Bangs want to be appreciated on their own terms. As the drummer for Bikini Kill and a fellow employee of Kill Rock Stars, Tobi Vail, Maggie's fiery big sister, has a great vantage point. "We wanted girls to start bands because we believed that would be an act of seizing cultural power," she says. "Riot Grrrl ran with this idea, and Ladyfest continues to affirm it. This is the climate that bands like Bangs and Sleater-Kinney come from, but these bands have other influences as well. To only focus on that aspect of their identity is not only insulting, in light of the richness of the music these groups produce, but also sexist.
"Men are never viewed or discussed in terms of their masculinity and ideas about gender (which are often conservative). But women are constantly analyzed along these lines and pigeonholed in accordance with their views on politics regardless of their music. I see Bangs as a great rock band."
As that trenchant commentary suggests, artists like Bangs face danger on two sides. If they write about masculine domination, they run the risk of being dismissed as too "political." But if they play by the industry's rules, they might contribute to the impression that women have made more progress than they actually have.
"It's actually the older I get that I understand and appreciate Riot Grrrl more," Utter says. "Maybe that's because I have left the bubble and discovered that things are definitely not okay for girls outside of my town, or inside my town, for that matter. I have been subject to a lot more shitty treatment and disrespect and have grown more angry about it." But even though her songs express that anger, she wants them to express other feelings, too. That's the freedom for which previous generations of feminists fought.
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"I think it's always two steps forward, one step back," adds Maggie Vail. "Things are definitely better since I started playing in a band. And definitely much better since my sister started. Maybe we're due for another Women in Rock' bubble. But still, when there are five dudes and they all wear black, they just get so much farther. It's frustrating."
Recognizing this depressing state of affairs hasn't turned Vail and Utter into musical separatists, however. They are quick to point out the key role Peter David Connelly played in Call and Response. More dramatically, Bangs reference bands not known for their sympathy to feminism. "Dirty Knives," the last song on the record, starts out with a dead-on quote of the riff from Black Sabbath's "Paranoid." Paying their respects is a way of placing their music in the tradition of both the original longhair rockers and their revivalist counterparts in Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and other Pacific Northwest bands. And, for all the anger that their songs express, the effect is gleeful.
"That's the stuff I grew up on," Maggie Vail says. "My parents got into punk when it was first happening. I was listening to the Ramones when I was 4. That's great music for a kid!"
You can't help but wonder whether the vibrancy of the Olympia music scene isn't a reflection of the fact that it's a family-size place. Discussing local artists' propensity for playing in several different bands at once, Vail comments wryly on the "incestuous nature of daily life" in the Olympia music community. Its members support each other, just like family. It's wonderfully appropriate, then, that Vail works alongside her sister Tobi at Kill Rock Stars. This is one case where it's a good thing for the lines between work and home to be blurred. Work should be a pleasure. And the richest pleasures take work to achieve, whether they come from family or music.