Interview with: Allison Anders, conducted January 2006
Allison Anders' films are often marked by her great love of music and her interest in a woman's struggle to find and assert her identity, whether she's telling the story of small-town teenagers in 1992's Gas, Food, Lodging, East L.A. homegirls in 1993's Mi Vida Loca, or an aspiring singer-songwriter in 1996's Grace of My Heart. To learn more about Allison's career in filmmaking, check out the in-depth interview here.
Even though Allison admits that she did not really feel like she was part of the early L.A. punk scene, she belongs here because she was in fact there at the time and because her films often highlight the same gritty, DIY attitude and assertive female voice that you'll find in all of the other archived interviews. Allison's work carries the spirit of punk.
Allison doesn't mention it below, but she also founded the Don't Knock The Rock Film and Music Festival, an annual event which takes place in Hollywood. Look for more news on this event by summertime. It usually features some great, rarely seen rock footage and live performances.
Oh and just for the record: prior to this interview, I had no idea that I had the distinction of being the one to pop Allison's punk rock cherry. That makes me proud.
Punk rock was a sudden explosion of female empowered visibility -- and it was incredibly liberating and inspiring.
1. What was/is your contribution to the punk community?
Well, l I feel like I was never officially in it, although I started going to shows in 1978, most notably my first show which was The Bags and The Dickies at The Whisky! In 1983 I began making a film with Kurt Voss and Dean Lent called Border Radio which starred John Doe, Chris D, and
Dave Alvin as well as Tony Kinman of The Dils and Rank And File, Texacala Jones, Green On Red, The Lazy Cowgirls, and various other characters from the LA scene. I also sang with my daughter Tiffany on Monitor's first LP in 1981. Tiffany was only 6 at the time and is a musician today.
Prior to the era, I had worked as a barmaid in London in 1973 at The Hope & Anchor in Islington during the 'pub rock' period, they had an insanely great jukebox and pub rock bands down in the cellar on the weekends. It later became not only a legendary punk rock venue but also the home of Stiff Records. There was a guy Dave Robinson who lived on the second floor and managed Brinsley Swartz, who were a pub rock band -- Nick Lowe was with them. Dave would come down the stairs in his robe everyday at 2pm for a pint before we closed for the day and someone told me, "Dave is building a recording studio upstairs and he's going to have his own record label." I was a smart-ass 18 year old American girl and sneered, "Dave who never gets outta bed till 2?" Well -- what did I know? He went on to create Stiff and sign everyone from Elvis Costello to The Buzzcocks. It was a great education for me, pulling pints there!
2. Which artist, band concert and/or show had the most impact on your life?
Certainly seeing The Bags that first night had an enormous impact on my life...it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. I was a young hippie mom from Van Nuys - I had no idea what to expect. Alice was the most amazing performer I'd ever seen, and I seem to recall Patricia wearing a satin dress and she was just stunning. I think Alice had a nosebleed or blood somewhere on her face, just a drop and Patricia took her finger and wiped it gently off -- I thought it was all part of the show! The whole evening was life changing in every way.
X was also very formative for me and Gun Club had an all consuming impact on me and my work. But I hung out more with Monitor and Non and that gaggle of youngsters. I found the Hollywood punk rock scene very insular and impossible to penetrate -- so I always felt that while I was at the shows and buying the records and at the Capitol Records Swap Meet -- I was never really and truly THERE. Cause I think only a very small group of people truly were.
Craig Lee of The Bags incidentally ended up having a profound effect on my movie career by being the first to write about "Border Radio" for the LA Weekly...it was the first press we'd ever done in our lives and resulted in us securing some additional funding for the film.
3. What was the role of women in the early punk scene?
I was amazed that women had such equal roles in punk rock. It's something young people completely take for granted today but it was such a big deal to see girls on stage with guys, playing instruments, not just as the singer, but playing guitar, drums, bass. And yet -- the incredible thing was how normal and natural it felt. I remembered, of course, The Runaways and Suzi Quatro and even Fanny before punk broke, but they were almost novelties. And of course there had been Karen Carpenter on drums and not forgetting that really funny looking girl in The Honeycomb from the UK in the mid 60s who played drums on "Have I The Right?" I watched her often in a movie called "Go Go Mania" on 60s Brit pop which would air late at night on KTLA after my little ones were asleep.
Of course since then I've discovered more girl garage bands who were around in the '60s playing instruments like The Luv'd Ones and The Feminine Complex and for better or worse, The Shaggs, but in punk rock it was a sudden explosion of female empowered visibility -- and
it was incredibly liberating and inspiring.
There was also a much more assertive voice in the songs being written by women during the punk years. As women, we had a backdrop of the singer/songwriter taking us into deeper territory with Joni Mitchell's "Blue" and stuff like that -- but the songs women began writing in the late '70s punk rock era were less confessional and far more self-possessed. Charlotte Caffey of The Go-Gos is still one of the best pop songwriters I've ever known. I've worked with her and Anna Waronker twice on projects recently.
I still think women have a long way to go in rock though, especially in the recording industry. When I was working on a soundtrack album for one of my films, "Grace Of My Heart" there was a woman engineer working in the recording studios at the Capitol Building and it was a
really big deal. There are very few women working in sound recording -- that's weird to me that it remains to this day a boy's club, and I'm not sure why. We girls have ears too!
4. What is the legacy of punk in your life?
I love that I went through that period and was lucky enough to see it all happening before my eyes and ears. I have to admit it's not the music I listen to the most today, but it happened to be in my life in a big way at a time when I could go out to clubs and see bands the most. Although it was not easy -- I was a single mom, on welfare, a student with no car -- so I had to get a babysitter, get my ass to the club somehow, pay to get in usually and buy my own beer, it took serious commitment! HA! I also bought the 45s when I could at Bomp! in The Valley and yes I did buy "Survive" (which we saw recently at Amoeba Music in Hollywood for $100!)
I also feel like a lot of the music being made at the time wasn't built to last -- the impact was revolution and was immediate and that's absolutely okay. I always felt outside of punk rock in a strange way, probably because most of my influences were and remain very '60s based. But at the same time, 60s garage and the mod stuff I loved fit very well with punk. I admire the very needed revolution it brought to the world -- it changed the music business completely, and made the world safer for all of us in the record stores! I don't think anything as radical has
happened since. I often complain to my students that they should be out there creating a music I will initially hate -- that they should be offending me, that I should have to struggle to wrap my head around what they're doing. But instead, some band like The White Stripes comes along and I go "Oh I love this -- it reminds me of...well, it reminds me of "Gun Club"...hmmm I have THOSE records already -- so why don't I just listen to "Fire Of Love" or "Miami" instead???!" I ache to hear a new music I don't understand.
5. What are you listening to now?
I listen to a lot of '60s stuff, I listen to Syd Barrett, I listen to girl group stuff like The Shangri Las, Left Banke, Gene Clark, The Byrds, garage, Herb Alpert, folk, I listen to sunshine pop of the '60s, and rarer stuff and I listen to standards from the '40s and '50s too. But I also listen '80s LA bands, Gun Club a lot, they have never really left my ears. I tried to license a Gun Club song five years ago for my last movie and got caught in music rights snags -- too bad...it was a real regret for me.
Of new stuff -- I like Animal Collective a lot, they are doing something new and vibrant. I like Parchment Farm from S.F. and Dead Meadow from D.C. I also like a lot of local stuff -- My Barbarian, I liked All Night Radio (they broke up) and I loved a show I saw recently with Black
Dice and Growing playing with '60s icons Red Krayola -- insanely good. I also of course love my daughter's music, Tiffany Anders of Anders And Woods. I also have been a longtime fan of Redd Kross, Dinosaur Jr, and Sonic Youth. I like The Wipers. Brit pop of the '90s, My Bloody Valentine...The Smiths...there's a lot out there in the past 20 years to love, I suppose.
6. Do you have any funny or interesting stories to share?
My sister Luanna just reminded me that I took her to her first punk show which was ALSO The Bags, and she was completely stunned and petrified. We went into the ladies bathroom and Alice was in there, and Luanna was sure -- having just seen her on stage that she was going to kick our asses. She said that I told Alice how great the show was, and that she was incredibly sweet back at me, and gracious, leaving my poor sister in a puddle of sweaty relief.
7. Are there any punk women from the early scene that you feel have not been adequately recognized?
I think some of the women in the 'art punk' bands are maybe not recognized enough -- someone like Laurie O'Connell of "Monitor" -- she played bass and wrote songs with Michael Uhlenkott for the band. But they also had an art magazine called "World Imitation" that was really amazing. So it was not just a band, but a whole vision and approach. She also discovered The Meat Puppets, who really led the next wave of hardcore and alternative and it was Laurie who put them on the "Monitor" LP doing a cover of Monitor's song "Hair". She also produced the first "Meat Puppets" EP for SST, where she also worked for awhile in their early days. She was an amazing girl. And still is. She was feminist even in high school when few people even knew what that was.
8. What is something we should know about you that we probably don't know?
Our film Border Radio will at long last be released on DVD this spring on Criterion! Lots of fun extras, a little doc on the movie, commentary not just with us filmmakers but also with Chris D., Dave Alvin and John Doe and a beautiful score by Dave Alvin and Steve Berlin. And a really fun performance by Billy Wisdom and The He-Shees, featuring members of The Romans, Monitor, Human Hands and Craig Roose.