Punk attitude, riot grrrl aesthetic, queer feminist rage… meet Not Right

In October 2014 activists, academics and left wing, feminist punk band Not Right released ‘Your Turn’ an album dealing with political, social, cultural and gender issues. The album was described by punx.co.uk as ‘uncompromising’ and a ‘reality check’ with echoes of Crass and Action Pact (1) so I was excited when they kindly agreed to an interview.

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Photo: Liz Ewbank

 

You are all academics -what made you decide to form a punk band? 

Snowy:
Kirsty told me to. At Rock It March 2011, I bumped into Kirsty and at some point she asked ‘Do you play in a ska band?’
‘Yes’
‘So you’ve got a decent sense of rhythm?’
‘Yeah’
‘Great you can play drums in my new band’.
That’s my band genesis story. I borrowed a pair of sticks from a colleague who didn’t play anymore – booked a couple of practice sessions and tried to ignore the embarrassment of ‘Oh no everyone will hear me fuck up’. After that I was(n’t) ready for our first band practice!

Kirsty:
For me the final push to form a band (after a decade of wanting to but not acting on it) actually came from my academic work. I was halfway through my research, for a PhD focused on the Dutch punk scene, and was back home for a few months. My research was the first thing that really demystified the ‘being in a band’ thing and made me feel I could maybe give it a go. Years of being into punk hadn’t really done that for me. The lack of a local scene meant that most bands I saw live were big commercial bands; those punks were no different from any other distant rock star. And I didn’t see many other women on stage, certainly not shy women like me. But I suddenly realised that it really didn’t matter that I couldn’t play and never wanted to do so on stage – I could still get in a practice room and just have fun. So I sought out two other friends who also couldn’t play their instruments so there was a level playing field and we could just work things out as we went.

Ruth:

I’ve always wanted to be in a band! As I got older a lot of my friends started playing guitar and forming bands, but I felt they were all more talented than me. Instead I started to run gigs, and later started to DJ. In the end, I finally joined a band because Kirsty encouraged me to. The idea of us all basically starting from the same place and learning together was really appealing. We happened to all know one another as postgraduates because we’d all been students at the same university for a long time. The band has basically continued alongside our studies.  I don’t see the two as in any way contradictory – after all, most musicians have day jobs.  And punk is a powerful outlet for self-expression outside of the mundane world of work.

Your lyrics deal with a range of political and social issues from social media to male dominance of children’s culture to education cuts -where would you place yourself politically?

Snowy:
Somewhere left of centre. I think I’m to the right of the other two though. I don’t really think about where I fall on a political axis too often. Maybe I should.
Kirsty:
The band’s lyrics are mostly written by Ruth but always okay’d by the rest of the band – but this doesn’t mean we all agree on everything politically, and we often end up having long rambling political debates! It’s really difficult for me to position my own personal politics in a straight-forward way. I don’t tend to label myself and I certainly don’t align myself with any of the political parties that ‘represent’ us. I tend to draw differentially on anarchist, socialist, and intersectional feminist ideas when constructing my own approach.
Ruth:
I think all three of us have somewhat different political views and approaches. The way we organise the band basically enables us to remain autonomous as individuals, but act  collectively as a band.  We’re all left-of-centre and broadly believe in stuff like the public provision of services  (e.g. healthcare), individual freedom from state surveillance and interference, an intersectional approach to liberation politics (taking into account feminism, anti-racism,  class politics, LGBT rights, disabled rights and so on) – I suppose we’re most likely to differ on ideas around implementation, the role of political parties and suchlike. But that’s not a  particularly exciting theme for a song. Ultimately most our songs – being punk songs! – are oppositional. We oppose the things we  think are bad in the world, rather than necessarily advocating a solution (with occasional  exceptions, such as ‘Intersectionality Song’). But we’re all activists outside of the band too to one extent or another, so that’s where you’re more likely to find us fighting for something.

How have government cuts affected the areas you are involved in-education and the arts?

Kirsty:
The DIY punk scene tends to try and operate outside the realm of government supported arts, but there’s a definite issue with the loss of/lack of support for vital things like venues and practice rooms. With more of these closing/being forced to charge for the use of them, the higher the costs are for those in bands/promoters. This then prices people out at a time when not many people have cash to spare.
Snowy:
There’ve been a fair number of smaller promoter hiatuses in my hometown caused by venues closing down or cutting back on live music to stave off closing down. Then a short delay before somewhere new can be found to put bands on. The larger nights tend to be run in-house by one of the larger places, who play it safer with what they put on (plenty of tribute acts!).
Ruth:
At the same time, there has been an upsurge in DIY venues recently, which is really positive. In one (horrible) sense it’s a bit like Cameron’s “Big Society” in action, except these venues also act as a launchpad for performers and campaigns that pretty much oppose everything the Tories stand for. So, that’s quite cool.
Kirsty:
In higher education the cuts are causing all manner of problems. Large swathes of research and teaching roles have become casualised as the universities attempt to cut costs. Those that have achieved permanent jobs find themselves in unsafe positions, forced to ‘prove their worth’ constantly and with ever increasing demands on their time. Morale is low and universities have shifted from institutions for learning and blue-skies research to ‘result orientated research’.
Ruth:
Kirsty and I have found ourselves earning less than the minimum wage whilst teaching undergraduate students who are paying £9000 a year for the privilege. This, of course, hasn’t stopped the men at the top pocketing hundreds of thousands of pounds. There’s a big funding problem with universities thanks to the cuts, but that hasn’t stopped a small number of people making a huge amount of money from exploiting academics and students alike.
Snowy:
Studying in the sciences I may have a different perspective to the others as funding for science has been slightly more protected. There are no undergraduates in my department, so I’m not really in touch with the way government cuts have affected them. I also don’t apply for research grants myself so I don’t directly see the effects of the lower amount of funding for research proposals and the increased competition to secure them.

As a female fronted overtly feminist punk band what sort of response have you had  from audiences? The lyrics to ‘Never Back Down’ (2) seem to suggest that you have had to deal with some difficult situations!

Ruth:
We actually tend to have a pretty good response from audiences! I think this is partly luck,  and partly the audiences we’re more likely to play to, since we get asked to perform at a lot of feminist and queer events. Regardless of whether we’re playing one of these events or a more “mainstream” punk night, the people who remain in the room (we usually  manage to offend someone!) tend to be pretty engaged and interested in what we have to say. We know other bands like ours who have had a pretty bad time at some gigs though.
Snowy:
Most of our audiences have been amazing and I think it’s easy for the effect of the negative gigs to be overstated when we write songs about them. Not that the songs shouldn’t be written. I agree with Ruth that there’s some selection bias in the responses we have had because just due to the types of people who tend to book us will be sort of predisposed to our music. Not to the point where we’ve just playing into an echo chamber though, and even the more neutral gigs we’ve played have tended to be more ‘accepting/friendly’ – places like the Adam and Eve in Birmingham. Sure, half the room might’ve left…
Ruth:
That was amazing
Snowy:
But that’s fine, they just take themselves away.

Ruth:
They weren’t being dicks about it.
Kirsty:
‘Never Back Down’ is specifically about a gig we played for Love Music Hate Homophobia at Coventry Students’ Union. One of the other bands felt it appropriate to made rape jokes during our set. We told them where to go – as did security. But not without also giving us a telling off for standing our ground.
Ruth:
In a sense, that wasn’t so bad to deal with – we were at the front and had amplified instruments and microphones, so were in a pretty good position to shout them down. The biggest problem was probably the attitude of the venue, who cut our set short (we hear they also weren’t keen on our song “Tory Scum” – what a pity) and then tried to tell us off for causing trouble. We had none of it! On another occasion we had guys heckling us, we didn’t even get a chance to respond  because a woman immediately leapt onto the stage, grabbed the a microphone and had a go at them. That was pretty awesome.
Kirsty:
However, mostly we get an overwhelmingly positive response from our audiences and we’ve met so many lovely people at gigs. We’ve never been subject to the ‘Is your boyfriend in the band?’ syndrome which afflicts so many other female musicians.

If we construct ourselves from the cultural resources available to us, what resources and role models have you drawn on to resist a patriarchal, sexist society?

Snowy:
I don’t know. A lot of friends are my role models and I’m lucky enough to have that kind of circle of friends. On a facetious level – general grumpiness. If the patriarchal society does something I can generally assume that I don’t like it. Work out why not afterwards.
Ruth:
A good way to deal with this is probably to carry on enjoying and being inspired by things,  whilst acknowledging and criticising/calling out their flaws where relevant. There’s a  really good blog post about that here: http://www.socialjusticeleague.net/2011/09/how-to-be-a-fan-of-problematic-things/
With that in mind, I’ve found the following things/people/bands to be massively helpful in  shaping my personal politics and approach to playing in a punk band: – the riot grrrl movement – intersectional feminism – Bikini Kill – Crass – Manic Street Preachers – Karren Ablaze! (zine creator, singer and writer) – Sandy Stone (trans academic and activist) – Leslie Feinberg (RIP – revolutionary communist and trans activist) – Art Brut

You organise ‘Revolt-a DIY Riot Grrrl Ruckus’ in Coventry-what’s that all about!

Kirsty:
This was actually another thing that has its origins in PhD research – between my research on punk, and fellow organiser Michelle’s research on feminist zines, and Ruth’s many years of putting on DIY gigs, it seemed like a good idea to try and put something on that would represent all of this. Revolt is very much about the creative community in the UK at the moment; providing a platform for amazing performers of all levels of experience, and a safe space for people to come and enjoy and contribute to the feminist DIY punk community. We’ve released a couple of compilations of bands who have performed and at the last few events we’ve even started producing the ‘Revolt zine’ – we put out pens and paper and invite attendees to contribute a drawing/piece of writing which we then put all together, photocopy and hand out at the next event. Everyone has the ability to get involved!
Ruth:
One of the main things we think about when booking performers for Revolt is offering a  platform for women, basically because women are massively underrepresented in  underground music scenes. There are small riot grrrl and queer punk scenes in places like  London, Brighton and Leeds with loads of amazing women performing all the time, but we  basically had nothing like this in our area. We spend quite a lot of time in Coventry and it’s the nearest large city to the three of us who run it, so it was the obvious place to host an event. We use Revolt to offer gigs to loads of awesome out-of-town bands with a broadly similar  politics and approach to Not Right, but it goes beyond that – we’ve managed to build an awesome little community of people who support the event, and we aim to encourage  everyone (but particularly other women!) to go away and form their own amazing  projects.
Snowy:
It is amazing how successful it’s been right from the first one.

In a presentation ‘Trans Music Isn’t: Deconstructing DIY Identity’ (3) you conclude (I think)  that while there are plenty of Trans musicians there isn’t a Trans music scene-is that due to positive reasons, for instance diversity of musical styles/ integration of both musicians and listeners into wider musical scenes or is it more problematic?

Ruth:
This stemmed from a small research project that myself and Kirsty did. I think there is a trans music scene, it’s just so open and diverse and inclusive that it doesn’t bother defining itself as such. I suppose this means that someone who doesn’t realise what they’re walking into might turn up to one of these events and suddenly realise that the bill is full of trans performers and the person running around organising it is trans and think “…hang on a minute”. It kind of reflects how the term “trans” is intentionally open and incorporates all kinds of different experiences of gender, whereas older labels like “transsexual” and “transvestite” were a lot more restrictive.

You also produce a ‘zine ‘Not Right’ -can you tell us about that, are ‘zines a significant feature of the Riot Grrrl movement?

Kirsty:
Definitely! The voice of anyone who isn’t a straight white cis man is so often left out of the mainstream and zines are another medium through which more people can communicate with each other. We’re able to talk about more and different things from the topics that make it into our lyrics and our zines often feature contributions from friends. I love the immediacy and physicality that comes with zines and the amount of care that people have often put into creating them. And you don’t need anything other than a pen, paper and a library photocopier to make your own.
Snowy:
I think most of my involvement with the zine is the three of us thinking we should put out another zine. It gets to the deadline and I think ‘Oh shit I have nothing’ – I’ve done little bits here and there – a QR code, a cover page. Embarrassingly I think Bean Counters was my first inside contribution. I feel quite guilty that I don’t contribute more.
Kirsty:
I’ve not done much either.
Ruth:
I just write lots and lots of shit and that doesn’t mean that the other two don’t do much. Kirsty has written a collection of pieces and Snowy contributed a lot to the artwork and stuff!
Snowy:
I’ve sat down and tried to write a piece on Debate Club Wanker a few times but I can’t even write an intro that I like. It’s such a wanker of a song.

What current bands and writers interest and excite you?

Ruth:
Against Me!, Sleater-Kinney, Cat Bear Tree, My Therapist Says Hot Damn!, Big Joanie, Bad Vibes, We Are A Communist, Deathsex Bloodbath, anarchistwood, The Ethical Debating Society, Husbands N Knives, Jesus & His Judgemental Father, Beauty Pageant, Slum of Legs, CN Lester. Loads more!
I don’t normally follow particular writers but I suppose I really like stuff by Roz Kaveney, Julia Serano, Stephanie Phillips, Tori Truslow and Laurie Penny.
Snowy:
I don’t think I have any punk answers!
Musically I’m listening a hell of a lot to the Sonic Boom Six self-titled album, it’s great to listen to when you’re focusing on it rather than as background music. The People’s String Foundation also gets a lot of playtime at the moment. After the gig we played in Nottingham in August I really got into Onsind’s album Anaesthesiology.
Ruth:
The Tuts sang Pokémon City Limits from that album at Boris Johnson recently, it was amazing. “Never trust a Tory, they’ll betray you when it matters…”
Snowy:
It’s been a while since I’ve found something that I’ve heard and thought immediately “I’ve got to listen to everything that these people have done”.

Massive thanks to Not Right for their time and thoughtfulness, you can find out more about them at notrightpunk.com or on their Facebook page.

Tim Forster


Bibliography.

*  http://notrightpunk.com/about/

(1) http://www.punx.co.uk/not-right-your-turn

(2) http://notrightpunk.com/lyrics/never-back-down/

(3) Ruth Pearce and Kirsty Lohman- Trans Music Isn’t  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdoeNNJesnY