Alice Bag (who goes by Alicia Velasquez these days) was one of the main figures in the first wave of punk. As a member of ground-breaking bands like The Bags and Castration Squad in Los Angeles, she paved the way for an entire generation of female musicians inspired by her ferocious performance style, her confrontational, provocative attitude and of course, her great and powerful music. She remains committed to her punk roots, and her website is an invaluable treasure trove of flyers, photos and interviews with many important figures from the early days of punk. As if that wasn’t enough, she is also a talented author, and her new book Violence Girl will be released this autumn on Feral House. She was kind enough to speak with us via email recently, and I am very pleased to share our conversation with you below.
NAmag: How did you get started in music?
Alicia Velasquez: Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My father's Mexican rancheras and my sister's soul music were the soundtrack of my childhood. In school, the music teacher Miss Yonkers noticed that I could sing and singled me out when she needed help. She assigned a portion of the class to follow me when teaching two-part harmony or when we sang in rounds. I was still in elementary school when I got my first job singing for bilingual cartoons, so I thought of myself as a singer from a very early age.
NAmag: Like probably a lot of people, I was introduced to your music when I saw The Decline of Western Civilization in the early 80s. Your music really stood out against the other bands in the film, being very iconoclastic and hard to pin down, at least for me, being a teenager growing up in Billings, Montana. What were your musical goals at the time? Do you have any specific memories regarding the film? I understand there are full-set recordings from the shoot-- is anyone trying to find/release them?
AV: The Bags' performance in The Decline of Western Civilization documents a time when the band itself was in decline. We were pulling in different directions and had just had a major falling out with founding member Patricia Morrison. It's no wonder that you have a hard time figuring out what we were going after, I think we were having the same issue. By the time the film was released, the band itself had broken up. I couldn't watch the Decline for many years because I didn't think it had captured the band at its best, but I'm over that now. I think despite the band's struggle, you can still see some of its good qualities and the film had a tremendously positive effect on many people. I ran into Penelope Spheeris a few years ago and she mentioned releasing a Decline DVD, possibly with additional footage but I haven't seen it.
NAmag: We are running a Bags performance from 1978 that is pretty fiery and aggressive-- do you remember this show specifically or why it was video taped? What was the general reaction to the band live? Were you supported in LA?
AV: This particular show is at The Troubadour in West Hollywood. It was the first time that the Troubadour, a club accustomed to hosting “soft rock” opened its doors to punk. Aside from that, the thing that sets this show apart is that it’s part of a bigger story which has come to be known as the “Trashing of the Troubadour.” It was during this show that my boyfriend (and our drummer at the time) got into a fight with the singer Tom Waits, who was in the audience. It’s a long story. The mayhem resulted in punk being banned from the Troubadour for a couple of years. It was a rough show but certainly not the rowdiest crowd or performance for the Bags. We had a reputation for wild shows and between us and the Germs, we probably had the most out of control audiences of the early punk scene. This particular show was videotaped for a student documentary about the LA punk scene. Clips from it surface from time to time but as far as I know, it has never been officially released.
I don't know if this answers your question. The Bags were very popular in L.A. We could play a club twice in one night and sell it out both times but aside from that we were all part of a growing yet intimate punk community. We all went to each other's shows and supported each other.
NAmag: I also really like Castration Squad, at least, the very little I can find on the internet about the band. Did you release any records?
AV: The Castration Squad did not release any records. There was talk a few years back when the band reunited for a one- time show, of doing some recording but we never got around to it.
NAmag: I read in an interview on your blog that, as of 2005, Castration Squad is working together again-- what is the status today?
AV: Well, I'm living in Arizona right now and the other girls are in California so that's one obstacle. I love working with the women of CS and if I had the chance I would play with them again in a heartbeat. I don't know if we'd have an audience anymore and we might not even need to play out. Just hanging out with my old friends and playing music would be enough for me.
NAmag: Seeing as this is part of our "Women in Punk" week, what do you think the legacy of female artists from the first wave of punk is in 2011?
AV: You're having Women in Punk week? I think you need 52 of those!
The legacy of punk is not determined by gender. Any legacy that punk has left behind is as much due to women's contributions as it is to men's. The DIY ethic, the challenge to the status quo, the confidence to pick up an instrument, a paintbrush, a camera or any other tool that you have not been trained to use and to discover your power for yourself without feeling intimidated are all part of having a punk attitude. I see punk attitude in the women of Saudi Arabia who recently got in the driver’s seat of their cars to challenge that country’s restriction on women driving. I see the legacy of punk in hacker groups like Anonymous who target corrupt governments and corporations. The legacy of punk is not in its musical style, it’s having the audacity to actively participate in shaping our world.
NAmag: Indeed. The music industry has changed significantly in recent years, especially in terms of distribution-- do you see any emerging opportunities women should take advantage of? Do you think it is easier for young women to get started in music today?
AV: Yes, I do think it's easier in some ways but more difficult in others. It seems that anyone can produce a recording and sell it on the Internet but I think it's difficult to build an audience without first creating a community. A community is a powerful support system. Without it, an individual artist can get lost in a sea of talented individuals.
NAmag: To turn one of your standard interview questions back on you, what are you listening to now?
AV: I love Amanda Palmer, Girl in a Coma, the Gossip. I also sometimes listen to Lady Gaga. She is different from the other women I mentioned in that she does straight-forward dance music but I find her creativity undeniable and I admire her strong commitment to gay rights and her contributions to homeless youth.