The She*Riffs are singing in unison: "In the name of the law, you're going down / 'Cause we're the new sheriffs in town." It's May 18, at Lawn Gnome Bookstore. The four women dance to the music, instruments in hand, as the wooden stage they stand on starts shaking. Each member wears a genuine smile and builds, spontaneously, off the others' parts.
And between sets, singer Alice Bag reads from her 2011 memoir, Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story, in which she describes her involvement with the late-'70s Los Angeles punk scene that birthed such legendary bands as the Germs, X, the Weirdos, and her band, the Bags.
Bag moved to Arizona from L.A. with her family in 2006. In L.A., she constantly was diving into different projects. In coming to Arizona, where she didn't really know anyone, she was able to focus on something else. "I just wanted to challenge myself to do something different," she says. Isolated in the desert, without a community of musicians to play with, she spent an introspective and quiet period writing Violence Girl.
Bag emerged periodically to promote the publication of the book and eventually began making music with guitarist Dana Stern of veteran local art-punk band JJCnV, who accompanied the first-wave punker to local readings.
A local promoter contacted Alice Bag one day to invite her to perform at FoxVag Fest, an annual series of shows featuring female-fronted rock acts, but Bag informed the promoter that she wasn't in a band. The promoter suggested she and Stern put something together. They started to write songs and play together, but they felt something was missing, which led to the formation of The She*Riffs.
Stern said, "I know the perfect people," and brought in Amy Young (drums) and Chela Mischke (bass) of garage-pop band French Girls. Given the little amount of time they'd have to figure out a set's worth of songs before their late-April appearance at FoxVag Fest, Stern knew Mischke and Young (who also contributes to New Times) would be the right people. It didn't hurt that she liked them both as friends and musicians.
Stern and Bag had never played with Mischke or Young before, nor had she ever been in a band comprising only women. This is what Bag says is powerful about punk rock: "It's liberating not to feel like you had to be super-skilled to play punk music. It's just open and accepting. That's why punk is so important for women."
The name She*Riffs suggests a nod to the state's most notorious politician, but the truth behind it was much simpler. One day, Stern and her husband, Pete Hinz (also in JJCnV), were driving on a freeway when they saw several sheriff's cars on the road. "I'm surprised there's not an all-women garage band called the She*Riffs," he said.
And Stern remembers thinking, "I'm surprised Chela isn't in a band called the She*Riffs; she's always been in so many garage-y bands."
Her husband's observation proved prophetic.
"[The name works] because of where we live. There is that connection," she says. "I can't say that was the original idea behind it, but . . . we're all interested in that situation and seeing change, so it's a good [fit]."
The initial response to news of the band's existence had everyone going "cuckoo bananas," Stern says. Soon, seemingly everyone was asking her when they could see the She*Riffs play. When the group included just Stern and Bag, they knew only five or six songs, but as a full band, their set grew rapidly. Then they started booking shows and put together a 40-minute set, and their profile in the punk scene began to rise quickly.
Bag admired everyone in the band for being daring enough to practice a song only twice before playing it live, but it didn't come easily for all of them. Stern acknowledged that it used to freak her out until she realized that mistakes were inevitable, regardless of how much she practiced. As long as she didn't make a face acknowledging a flubbed note and just moved on, everything would be fine.
Bag's and Stern's approaches to songwriting varied, but the themes overlapped into topics of censorship, femininity, love, consent, politics, and sexism. Bag recalls that when she began writing songs, she came from a background in philosophy, and she thought the process was like writing an article, "to be very precise with your language and build a little fortress around your argument so that people can't get in and break holes in it.
"I would write a song and think, 'There's no way you can misinterpret this!' I later realized it's actually very good to have that ambiguity, so that people can make that personal connection."
Stern says she doesn't believe her songs are about anything at all at the moment she's writing them. It's not until later, when she pays close attention, that she realizes it's about a specific moment. She knows that it's "coming from somewhere — I just don't know [where] and I'm not thinking about it." These two writing approaches blended together to create the She*Riffs sound.
Then, there's that aforementioned theme song, performed at the beginning and the end of each of the handful of gigs they played. Written by Mischke, it's a concise distillation of the She*Riffs' style, but it's also flexible: During a show in support of the Joe Arpaio Recall effort at Bragg's Pie Factory, they made a minor alteration to the lyrics, singing, "Arpaio, you're going down / 'Cause we're the new sheriffs in town!"
A recent tour of California sent the She*Riffs to play well-attended shows in Los Angeles and San Diego, but the gigs wound up signaling the end of their term as Phoenix's new sheriffs in town, because the "Violence Girl" has told her bandmates she will be moving back to her home state of California. Stern will continue to play guitar and sing in JJCnV, and Mischke and Young have the oft-gigging French Girls to keep them busy.
The She*Riffs did manage to document their output for an EP that they sold at their handful of performances. For her part, memoirist Alice Bag thinks it's as important as ever before to leave a record of what is, especially given the fragile nature of rock bands. She says she always was aware of the importance of writing and recording music when you can, rather than waiting for what she calls "perfect circumstances to record in a professional studio," because those opportunities may never come.
Their time as a band was brief, but the spring of 2013 will be remembered in the garage-punk scene as a time when there were four new She*Riffs in town.