Sharon Cheslow interviewed by Jola Johnson for KALX "Women Hold Up Half The Sky," November 1997
Jola: The song is Pretty Is by Suture, of course Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill on that as well as Sharon Cheslow, who is my guest on the air today, she of course playing the bass portion of that tune. Sharon runs a record label called Decomposition, and that Suture 7” with Kathleen Hanna came out on that record label. The record label of course is Decomposition, you’re doing that right now. You have some other stuff going on right now. I know your hat is full, as they say, with a zine and another band. Let’s start with the record label. When did that start, and how are things going with that local endeavor?
Sharon: I pretty much started the label not out of an attempt to do a label, but more just that I had done Suture in summer of ‘91 with Kathleen. I had been in bands previously in Washington, DC and Bikini Kill had been staying in DC that summer and Kathleen and I got together and did this, and then we decided to play at the International Underground Festival in Olympia that summer. While we were there we had the idea, let’s do a compilation tape, so we got some other friends to contribute some songs: Bratmobile, Billy and Tobi from Bikini Kill contributed a song under the name Spraypainted Love, and Kathleen Hanna and Tim Green contributed songs under the name Wonder Twins. So basically we were all there in Olympia, and the whole atmosphere there was that people were really inspired and really wanting to create things, whether they be fanzines or records or tapes. So we thought, let’s just do this tape. So we did it there in a couple of days. We used the dubbing decks at K Records and got this tape together and then sold it at the festival. So then when I got back to DC I thought...actually I was living in San Francisco. I had just moved here the fall before. I thought I want to distribute this. And Kathleen said we should also release these songs as a 7”. So that’s how the label started. More let me do just this one thing. And then let me just do this other thing.
Jola: So you didn’t think it was going to be a permanent record label that you were going to work on for years.
Sharon: Yeah, not really. And it’s kind of still that way. I don’t do things like a normal record label. I only put things out when I feel like them, and it’s sort of the same way that I do zines.
Jola: Quality over quantity.
Sharon: Yes, very much so.
Jola: The zine. What’s happening with that? Give a little bit of a history of that. I know it’s got some stories about women in punk and women musicians, so when did you first start to write that or get the idea for that?
Sharon: For the women in punk project?
Jola: Yeah, or just the zine itself also.
Sharon: I’ve actually been doing zines probably for as long as I’ve been playing in bands, which has been since 1981, and I used to put out this fanzine called If This Goes On when I lived in Washington, DC. And then when I moved out here...well I actually had done the first of issue of Interrobang?!, which was the fanzine after that in DC, and then did it more seriously once I moved to San Francisco. So for the second issue of Interrobang?! that’s when I decided to write about the women in punk project, something I’ve always been interested in. When I very first got into punk, probably the bands I was most inspired by were the bands that had women playing music, such as The Slits or The Raincoats or The Au Pairs or Liliput and Kleenex, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. To me, that was what was so amazing about the punk explosion was that women were writing their own songs, playing their own instruments, playing non-traditional music. So it’s something I’ve always been interested in, and I guess when I saw what the media did with riot grrrl in the early 90’s I got really upset, and I thought, you know it seems that every decade the media says ah women in rock, how cute.
Jola: How cute.
Sharon: As if it’s a novelty and as if it’s never happened before. And I’m old enough that I saw it happen in the seventies. And then I saw it happen in the early eighties. And now it’s happening again in the nineties. And so I wanted to show, no, women have been doing this for a long time. And since the specific area of my interest was late seventies punk music, that’s the area I chose to research. So this latest issue of Interrobang?!, number three, that just came out, has the updated list, and it’s got a list of 230 bands that contained women from all over the world.
Jola: Get out of here. 230?
Sharon: Yes. From just a five year period. 1975-1980.
Jola: Wow. That’s fantastic.
Sharon: So it just dispels the myth.
Jola: Yeah, it sure enough does. And the zine itself Interrobang?! is available in the city?
Sharon: Yes, you can get it at pretty much any local independent music record store, or you can order it through me.
Jola: Fantastic. We’re speaking with Sharon Cheslow, musician, writer, personality, record label Decomposition, her zine Interrobang?! #3 has a considerable piece on women in punk, a list of, as she says, about 230 bands that have played punk music. Let’s play some more of Sharon Cheslow. This is Red Eye with a song called "Reservoir" here on Women Hold Up Half The Sky, KALX Berkeley.
Jola: You’ve discussed your zine Interobang?!
Sharon: Yes, it’s that symbol with the question mark and the exclamation point.
Jola: Gotcha. If you think that punk is just The Sex Pistols, wake up boys and girls, we’re not in Kansas or Nebraska or wherever she was from. So back to the point being, besides the zine you researched this, you became very interested in this period, and you did some research which I understand culminated in the book Banned in DC. So tell me about that written tome. What’s up with that?
Sharon: That was a book that I did with Cynthia Connolly, who is a photographer, and Leslie Clague, who also is a photographer, and we all grew up together in Washington, DC. I also had done some photography as well as playing music when I lived there, and in 1986 I guess Cynthia had this idea to do a photographic history of the Washington, DC punk scene. We had all been involved in it since ‘79/’80, and we thought we should document what’s going on. And since we had been photographers ourselves, and there were a lot of other local photographers that we thought had taken some great photographs of the local bands, like Bad Brains and Minor Threat and Faith, bands like that, we wanted to do a book. So I became involved in it the next year, I guess in ‘87, and then the book came out the end of ‘88. It’s about 170 pages. It’s got a tremendous amount of photographs. And then we also have anecdotes to supplement the photographs. So it’s sort of an oral history of the DC punk scene in the early eighties.
Jola: Living in that scene, for yourself, are the memories there or are they blurry, do you still remember that time like it was yesterday? It must have been a very important time for you in terms of being a musician, as a woman.
Sharon: There are certain aspects that do feel like they just happened yesterday. I can remember going to see the Bad Brains or Minor Threat as if it were yesterday. But then there are other parts of it that I don’t remember very well, so it’s interesting to see what you remember and what you don’t.
Jola: What filters through.
Sharon: Yeah, exactly. But it was hard being a woman, a girl, and playing music. I mean I was young. When I first started playing I was just a teenager. And I was one of I think the only girl guitarists. I was actually in a band called Chalk Circle, and it was the first punk band in DC that had all girls in it. And you know at the time it didn’t even seem like a big deal to me. I saw all my male friends in bands, and I thought well, I want to do it too. I’ve always wanted to play in a band. Why not? The whole ethic of punk was just get out there and do it yourself, you know. And so I didn’t see any problem with it. But then when we started playing out, we would get responses like, “Oh yeah, you’re good for a girl” or people would find out I played in a band and they’d say, “Well, do you sing?” What’s really frustrating is that not much has changed.
Jola: Well, sure plenty has. You’ve got these bands that are getting lots of money...L7.
Sharon: Okay, but I want to tell you a story that happened to me just last weekend that shows you that even though we’ve made great strides in the last fifteen years, that not a whole lot has changed. Okay, I had gone to a soiree that my friend Jen Smith had organized and I was playing guitar, with my friend Melissa Klein who’s a writer. So we were standing out on the sidewalk, and I had my guitar case there. I play a Gibson SG. So I’m standing there with my guitar case - it says Gibson on it - and this guy comes up to me and he says, “Oh, is that a Gibson Les Paul?” And I said, “No, it’s an SG.” And he says, “Oh, what year is it?” And I said, “Oh, it’s ‘73.” And he says, “Oh, well is it a sunburst?” “No, it’s cherry red.” Whatever. He’s asking me all these super technical questions that I don’t care about personally, but I knew the answers. So he’s asking me all these questions. I obviously knew the answers. I’m standing there with my guitar. And then he says, “Oh, is that your boyfriend’s guitar?”
Jola: You kicked him in the groin, and he fell down screaming, right?
Jola: You wanted to.
Sharon: I wanted to.
Jola: Preconceptions. They don’t go away. Now the reception of punk, punk has become very commercialized in my mind, but there’s still this local scene I think that keeps away from the commercialization. Do you see that punk is still fresh? Are there young teenagers still just getting out there and raising heck? What do you think?
Sharon: I think punk has mutated so much I’m not sure I can even comment.
Jola: I guess what I mean is the mainstream media...they took up the riot grrrl thing. They make punk like this multimillion dollar thing, but they’re not really approaching what it is, it seems.
Sharon: Yeah, well unfortunately what happens with any underground movement is that the media latches onto it, and they commodify it and they dilute it.
Jola: That’s true.
Sharon: And so the key is just to stay true to yourself. That’s my whole thing. Just keep on doing what you’re doing and just be persistent, and don’t give up.
Jola: Now a band you’ve discovered are two women from Washington that Decomposition, your record label, is helping out. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about them, and then we’ll play some of their music.
Sharon: Okay, this is a band called The Bonnot Gang, and this is the most recent release on Decomposition. They’re originally from Olympia, Washington. They’re three women and a guy, and two of the women, Sadie Shaw and Sarah Reed, now live here in San Francisco, and they’re in a new band called The Lies, and hopefully they’ll be playing out shortly.
Jola: A couple of things happening that I want to remind people about. You’ve been recording with Red Eye.
Jola: And you’re playing live, though, with a band called The Electrolettes.
Sharon: Yes, that’s a band with myself on guitar. I sing and Julianna Bright plays drums. And then a friend of mine from Washington, DC, Seth Lorinczi, who just moved here, plays bass.
Jola: Fantastic. And I know that you’re hitting the Purple Onion. And people should look for you soon playing in other venues. I know you hit the Bottom of the Hill.
Sharon: Right. We played there last week with Dub Narcotic. And we don’t have anything confirmed yet, but look out for us. Hopefully we’re going to be playing with The PeeChees in a few months.
Jola: Well, the PeeChees rock, as they say.
Sharon: Yes, they’re a great band.
Jola: Now the status of women in music these days....you think that eventually guys will stop coming up to women musicians saying, “Is that your boyfriend’s guitar”, or should women just ignore it and move on? It’s hard not to get angry at stuff like that.
Sharon: I think it’s an individual process and I do feel that change happens slowly, but surely, and I feel that we’ve made a lot of strides like I said previously. The change is not going to happen overnight. I see that the changes we’ve made in the last hundred years are tremendous, although we still have a long way to go. So I think that it’s up to each individual to decide how in her own life she’s going to contribute to these changes, and I believe one way is to be creative and to be true to yourself and express yourself in whichever way it has the most resonance for you.