Alice Bag speaks with a loving bluntness. She’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind, though she always seems to find the silver lining. From her days fronting first-wave L.A. punks, The Bags, appearing in Penelope Spheeris’ documentary The Decline Of Western Civilization, to the March release of her second solo album, Blueprint, Bag has maintained a creative spirit. In the nearly four decades since the demise of The Bags, she has performed in numerous bands, tackled motherhood, learned to paint, and authored two books. She is the rare example of a person with a seemingly endless supply of creativity.
On the eve of her U.S. tour, Alice Bag regaled Milwaukee Record with stories of ceaseless motivation. She plays Cactus Club on Thursday, July 12.
Milwaukee Record: It seems like The Bags were a band that was talked about more than they were heard. Is that a fair assessment?
Alice Bag: I think if I hadn’t started writing and blogging, my band would have been written out of history. There was a little bit of information out about us. The Decline was out and we were on the Dangerhouse [Records] compilations. A little bit of our work was documented, but not nearly as much as we had done, which is regrettable. If you were in on the first wave, you might have escaped notice. If you came in a little later, there was enough popularity and mainstream attention that you might be better remembered than somebody who was actually a pioneer.
By the time the ’80s came around, [Bags guitarist] Patricia [Morrison] had left the band. We played a few more shows after she left and then we broke up. The band that recorded on The Decline, that was one of our last shows. It’s heartbreaking for me to watch that and listen to it because I’m sad that the band wasn’t captured at its peak. There was definitely a different energy.
MR: What was The Decline experience like? I’ve heard so many different accounts about the accuracy and different gripes over the years.
AB: My experience is that the filmmaker had a definite vision of what she wanted to document, and it wasn’t the best of the L.A. scene or the history of the L.A. punk scene. It was the decline of western civilization. It was really focused on certain negative aspects that were happening at that time. It was a transitional time when the early L.A. punk scene—which was kind of weird and quirky and diverse—was starting to expand out into the suburbs. It was meeting this different suburban energy. In some places, that energy was expressed in a very male testosterone-driven way. Some of the punk scenes that were coming up in the suburbs were very white and had racist attitudes. I think you can feel that tension at times in the film. It’s not the scene that I experienced at its peak. It’s a valid documentary. It’s not my personal experience, but it shows the dark side of the L.A. punk scene.
I wish that there was a whole other documentary that was focused on the bands that had a lot of women in them or people of color or there’s queers in this band, they’re making quirky music with synthesizers or they’re banging on a water jug. All the crazy creative elements of the early punk scene have sort of not been adequately documented.
MR: Did you fully leave music to become a mother?
AB: I never left music. I was always creating. I took a break from performing. I was playing with Cholita —playing guitar and singing in that band until I was five months pregnant. My doctor put me on total bed rest, so I had to be at home with my legs up until the baby was born. I took two or three years where I was playing acoustic music at home for myself and writing songs. I wasn’t playing out because I was working part-time and I had a baby at home. It was a really busy time for me. During that time, when I wasn’t playing with people and didn’t have that band support, I was still writing, but not enough.
I started to feel like I was dying. I could feel my body shutting down and I didn’t know what it was. I must be old or something must be wrong with me. Then I had some friends reach out to me. They came to visit and they brought their guitars and we started playing music. I realized that was what was missing. The whole component of self care and of doing what feeds your soul is so important for everybody—for a parent especially. You’re putting out so much energy taking care of other people that if you do not take time to nourish yourself, you can find yourself feeling like you’re going to die.
After a few sessions where my friends would come over and bring their guitars, we formed a band called Stay At Home Bomb, which was a play on ’50s housewife mom cliches, the tropes of women in aprons baking cookies, having a cookie and milk for your kid when they get home from school, having the perfectly clean house. It was the stuff that we grew up with that rotted our brains—ridiculous expectations. Modern women with careers and all this other stuff that we wanted to do as well while fighting off this influence of mythical characters—these housewives, moms of the past, June Cleaver types.
MR: What spurred your solo album? How much space was between Stay At Home Bomb and the solo album?
AB: Stay At Home Bomb was the mid-’90s. It’s quite a while ago. At a certain point, my husband, his company went under. He got an offer in Arizona, so he went out to Arizona to save money and bring the family out. When I first got there, I didn’t know a single person in Arizona and we were on the outskirts of Phoenix in an area called Cave Creek, which is very remote. I remember getting up in the morning and going to the market and seeing people on horseback. They would tie up their horses as they went to get their groceries.
I felt very isolated during that time because my husband would go to work and my daughter would go to school. I was still writing music on my guitar, but not as much because I didn’t have any accomplices. Actually, I’m glad I had that time because if I hadn’t, I may not have written a book. When I wrote my second book, I had moved back to L.A.. I told my husband that I couldn’t focus in L.A. because there was too much activity. There was always a friend of mine who was playing or driving me to do something. I went to Arizona and spent some time writing because it’s slow out there [laughs].
MR: How did you end up going with Don Giovanni Records?
AB: Sharif Dumani, who plays guitar with me and was also playing with Allison Wolfe, said his band was going to be putting out a record on Don Giovanni and I should write to Joe [Steinhardt, founder of Don Giovanni Records]. A few days later, Allison Wolfe said I should shop my music to Don Giovanni. Hearing that in stereo really motivated me and I went ahead and wrote to Don Giovanni. He wrote back and he sent me a picture of his wife, who was having a baby, and she had a copy of Violence Girl in her hand in the hospital bed. Oh my god, it was meant to be.
MR: Everything I’ve read about your new album, Blueprint, has been pretty positive. Is that encouraging?
AB: I try not to read reviews because I’ve been making music a long time, and when I think something is done, it’s done in the way I want it. Say you’ve been raised making pasta your whole life and you make a pot of pasta and you’re happy with it. It’s to your taste, right? These records are exactly what I want them to be and I like them. It’s nice if other people like them, but if people don’t like them, it doesn’t change a thing. I’m still proud of what I’ve done.