Forming in the 1980s in a Vancouver, British Columbia, punk scene that also included D.O.A. and the Subhumans, Mecca Normal, a self-proclaimed anarchist-feminist band, challenged the male-dominance of the hardcore era both in form and content. Their insistence that a punk group could be made up of just two people following their own rules — no bass player, quiet guitar/loud vocals, storytelling as a performance art — challenged the prevailing definitions of “punk,” re-enforcing an alternate, more radical definition rooted in the DIY ethic. Their confrontational performance style, uncompromising lyrics and radical politics alienated many, but they also inspired countless young women to form bands and confront sexism, eventually giving birth to the riot grrl movement. Coming of age during a time that was largely dismissive of women in punk, Mecca Normal fought to be taken seriously, emerging victorious to celebrate their 30th anniversary this year with the release of a new album, Empathy for the Evil. Tobi Vail talked with Jean Smith and David Lester about their life in music.
I have an aunt who is really into music, but she’s not really into punk. If you were going to describe your music to my aunt — who right now has put about 1000 recordings of herself up on a social networking karaoke site — how would you do that?
Jean Smith: For me, it would be all about the context in which we met. Because, quite frankly, I don’t care what type of music your aunt plays, or listens to, or likes, or if she likes anything I do.
But you want her to understand what you sound like.
Smith: That would be highly unlikely.
No, you do, because she’s curious. She’s really open-minded. This is a question about audience.
Smith: You know, it’s been 30 years since I’ve been doing this. For every individual I meet, we’re like nothing. We’re minuscule on the radar of mainstream people. I can’t be like, “Let me tell you what I like, you must be concerned.” It’s an issue that I’ve had to deal with. I worked at Curves gym for five years, and there’d be this endless stream of women [coming in], and I’d just try to keep quiet about the fact that I was a musician at all. When it came out, it would be like, “Oh, is it folk?” and I guess I would say “It’s rock, we’re a rock band,” and then I might say, “We’re a punk band,” and see how that went over. They’d say, “You can’t be in a punk band, you’re the Curves lady jumping around telling me to work my abs,” or whatever. So that’s context for me and my disengagement. What do I get from that [kind of] exchange except more aggro in the world — which is basically all I get from the world, because we’re so insular. We produce only what we wanna do, and in order to do that you have to kind of forget about whether random people are responsive to it. If these people have interest in me, that’s their business — I’m not there to help them with that. They’re on their own.
So you would just be like, “You have to listen to it.”
Smith: I don’t care if she listens to it. I hope she doesn’t.
— Jean Smith’
No, she really wants to know.
Smith: Too bad. You don’t get this. Like at Curves — I don’t work there anymore, now I work with an equally benign middle-of-the-road clientele in the food industry — but the essence of it is, I try not to even say the band name. And if I do, it’s like, “Tell me what it is.” I don’t want them to hear what I do. I want my facade to remain intact, so that I can manufacture what I need to get through my day or my hour with this mainstream person.
Well I wouldn’t say [my aunt] is mainstream, she just doesn’t know anyone [in the punk/underground scene].
Smith: OK, well, how about this: I’m going to take her under my wing, invite her over to my house and she’s gonna be shocked at how dirty the floors are and that I don’t have a couch and she’s not gonna get it. She’ll think I’m a fucking hoarder. That’s what’s she’s gonna think. She’ll feel sorry for me and then she’ll start giving me her clothes that no longer fit her or baking me banana bread and be like, “That poor woman who lives on the top of this building who thinks she’s in a band.”
Last night at the show you mentioned that you’ve been an anarchist-feminist band for 30 years. What does that mean to you and how has it changed over the years?
Smith: What it means is that it’s been a very long time that we’ve been on a single trajectory. Those are two things that you could say about us. Even what I thought was “feminist” or “anarchist” back then is different than how I feel about those two labels now. And I think just through getting older, you take in influences and things modify. On the way up to do this interview from Portland this morning, we wanted to go to Target. I’m thinking, “Socks, underwear, air conditioning and maybe being in this place where you get some reduced housewares.” And outside there was an information picket saying “shame on” whatever the name of the mall was, and I kind of looked the other way. And Dave looked at them and says, “Well, we can’t go in.” And I said “Oh, we can’t? Are you sure?” and he said, “No, we really can’t go in.” And I said, “You’re right.” There are principles that you want to believe you’re noble enough to react to and honor, and having this guy around [pointing at Dave] is good for me.
How have those ideals changed over the years as they relate to your band?
Smith: I guess sometimes we struggle with the concept of preaching to the choir. You go into these enclaves of likeminded people and yes, of course they’re going to like you. But we also played a lot of shows where we weren’t liked and we were open to being on a bill where we were gonna be up against people who actively wouldn’t like what we did. Opening for Fugazi, which we did maybe three or four times — I think that happened because they recognized that, as four guys on stage, they were giving the young guys in the audience this boost of testosterone and it was all very male. And so to look outside themselves and bring to that audience something other than what they were — to say, “Look, there’s also women. We don’t happen to have women in our band, but there’s also women doing very powerful work.”
And often times those guys would throw a shoe at us, or just really hate us, and yet that was a good position for us to be in. We voluntarily enjoyed that dynamic. It was volatile in a way, because you’re aggravating people right in front of you. The strange thing about the internet is that, many years later, some of those young fellows who are now all grown up will get back in touch with us and say, “You know, I saw you at this show and I hated you, but you definitely opened my eyes [and made me] take a chance on some other sorts of music.” It opened some kind of portal in their world, even though the initial reaction was negative. Knowing that that has happened to individuals is very hopeful.
David Lester: Yeah, although we’ve realized that in 30 years the issues and content of some of the songs are still as relevant today as ever — in fact, even more today in terms of misogyny and the state of sexism in the world. We’ve discovered that, far from our songs sounding dated, they seem relevant now. On the one hand, it’s frightening that very little has changed. I think more people are speaking out than ever, but also there’s pushback to drain any progress and put it in reverse. So this is why art can have this resurgence again and again, and be relevant.
I wanna talk a little bit about what you guys are doing now. Tell us about your upcoming novel, and how it is connected to the new record.
Smith: Mecca Normal was very active in the ’90s and then, for one reason or another, that activity slowed down, and I began writing a lot very seriously — teaching myself to write, writing tons and tons every day. I’d written two novels in the ’90s, and I wanted to build my skills as a writer. As it turns out, I would rather be writing novels than working in a store, and in many ways with the written word, you do rely heavily on the reader and I don’t want to irritate a reader with my poor grammar or unfinished thoughts. You really do have to create a fairly tight language that transcends and almost becomes invisible so you can tell your story, whatever it may be. Building something that could actually be successful in a mainstream way is quite intriguing to me.
I didn’t think I would take to it as much as I have. I started the novel that’s in the hands of the agent when I lost a job and I was a little bit freaked out. I thought, “I’m gonna just do this experimental writing, and I’m gonna write a novel in one month, and I’m gonna write a novel that will sell, that’s what I’m setting out to do.” I thought it would be an arduous task, the idea of selling out, to write something that would appeal to people. But I just go so into it. It got to that fascinating point where the characters were alive and interacting, [and] I was just sort of recording their [thoughts] and writing back stories. It was extremely imaginative and creative, and I thrived in that world. I would love to be back there again, but it’s difficult when you have to go to a goofy job. The idea that I could do that full time — or most of the time — would be great to me.
I hear you have a new graphic novel Dave, about Emma Goldman. Can you tell us about that?
Lester: Yeah, I did a graphic novel a couple of years ago called The Listener, about the rise of Hitler in the 1920s and ’30s in Germany, combined with a woman’s search for art in Europe to deal with her own political concerns. I integrated two stories. But my new book is a graphic novel biography of Emma Goldman, specifically concerned with the last year of her life in Toronto, where she lived before she died in 1940. Of course she’s an important feminist and anarchist, but also it’s the question of, how did somebody maintain being an activist for 50 years? Which is what she did.
A lot of times, I feel like people impose a narrative of progress on to social change. Like, “We’re evolving, things are getting better,” or “It used to be so much worse.” What do you feel about that?
Smith: For young women considering feminism as something they don’t wanna touch with a 10-foot pole, they’re maybe just taking for granted what [early] feminism accomplished, and now they don’t need to worry about feminism, because they now have the right to buy birth control or to work alongside a male in a job. There are some things that were accomplished that now are just the basis of society. So young women might not see what the need for feminism is. In that way, it’s kind of a sad portrait of how social change actually did create a better situation, but is kind of left high and dry by people who could consider furthering it. It seems like there’s this contempt for the word — it’s not even a simply, “Oh I don’t think that’s for me,” it’s “I don’t want that, it’s hatred of men and I’m not for this superiority of women.”
As far as progress…It’s hard to see in the moment. For instance, when Occupy Wall Street sprang up it was extremely exciting to know that beyond my own awareness something could happen and just take off.
I walked by the building that we tried to occupy — it used to be a sort of free health clinic — and [during Occupy] they were like, “Let’s take over this building.” We all went over there, and [my partner] was filming. When I walked by the other day, it was just boarded up, and I was like “What even happened?” I mean I know something happened and people were radicalized, but it’s hard.
Smith: And maybe that’s the role of art — to capture those moments and sort of reveal what is going on in the current time. That song that we wrote about the war protester in Chicago Malichi Richter, who documented a lot of the free jazz and noise scene — he self-immolated outside of Chicago and he videotaped himself and wanted that to be used to impact people, to reconsider the position they had on the war in Iraq. As a war protester, he basically killed himself as a protest. And because that document did not go out to the media as he had wanted it to, what his hope for his giving his life to went no further. And just in a small way writing that song and then going around and doing it in classrooms and talking to kids — fairly carefully — is a great example of how art and music can change the world.
Lester: In that case bearing witness to one person’s act creates a new piece of work that then has a life that you wouldn’t have predicted.
Smith: And then subsequent to all that, a fellow in Chicago — he’s kind of an archivist guy — he was brought into the Whitney Biennial 2014, this huge important exhibit of American art that’s very institutionalized. His project was to compile an exhibit of Malichi’s tapes — Dave did this great poster that ended up being framed and put on the wall of the Whitney, which is kind of a thrill that we got in there somehow with [the cover art for] one of our most overtly political songs to show the general public. To honor this guy and to pass along what he was unable to do, to let people know what he did — that’s a huge feeling. We didn’t make it happen, but somebody else’s work was able to include what we had done. I think we gave that exhibit its political edge because we defined his death in a very simple song.
I wanna get back to talking about the process of making the record. I understand you recorded in a different situation than you had in the past — you went to Florida. Do you wanna talk about that for a bit?
Smith: Yeah. Basically Kramer, the world-class producer of many oddities over the years, contacted me maybe six or eight years ago, and said, “Hey, I wanna produce your next record.” We were also at that time feeling a bit lost and anxious as to where we would work; situations had changed and we didn’t really know where we were gonna record.
Lester: It was a big deal to start with — to trust him, and to turn it over to him and say, “Here.” Because we’ve always been very involved in the mixing from all the early K releases through Matador to Kill Rock Stars. It’s always been what we’ve done — “The subtleties of voice goes up here, and pull the guitar back, and how does everything fit together?” It felt so free to be able to say, “You’re great at what you do Kramer. Just go and do your greatness” and to trust that.
Let’s talk a little bit about radical politics and political culture in relation to your origins. Coming from a very traditional punk scene in Vancouver in the ’80s, punk culture was very closely related to radical politics. Do you still see punk as a site of radicalism?
Smith: I think it has that potential. But it’s almost — you know it’s strange when you walk down the street and you see a purple Mohawk or green Mohawk with Doc Martens and stuff. That was starting to get old back then, right ?
Aesthetically, you mean?
Smith: Yeah. You know, what could it possibly mean to them? What does it feel like to be inside that head of the person that’s got a green Mohawk, you know? Is it just an aesthetic concern, or are they big Crass fans?
Lester: I don’t even know how much of a punk rock scene exists now in a place like Vancouver compared with what it is in the late ’70s, early ’80s. The other thing I’m noticing now is that there’s nostalgia among the people who were involved in that time period, and it’s interesting because they take a certain pride in what went on back then, and they’re proud of it, I think. But has it progressed in any way? Are there a new batch of hardcore punk bands coming up in Vancouver? I don’t really see it.
Smith: I think we all realize that punk carried into this world [and became] a bit of a departure from hardcore punk. When I first came to Olympia I realized that punk was this whole other thing — that didn’t look like what I thought punk was, yet people were calling their music “punk.” In Vancouver it seemed kind of conventional and it seemed to conform to a rigidity of structure and intonation, and it was sometimes imitative of what was going on in England. Those qualities can be fun and energetic in a youthful sort of way. But then coming to Olympia and realizing that a person taking a drumstick to the bottom of a Converse All Star running shoe and talking about how you’re gonna bake a pie later on — is also punk.
Do you have anything to say about the gentrification of Vancouver, the city where you live, and how that has impacted the material conditions of your lives as artists?
Smith: I live in a fantastic place. This is where things started to change for me, because I wanted to hang on to this place — I’ve now lived there for 20 years, and the rent has never gone up. It’s a penthouse apartment with a huge balcony, and I have no neighbors on either side, so I could just walk out my front door naked on to my huge balcony. I got rid of my car, so I live very cheaply for the most part.
But we’ve obviously witnessed gentrification at points. Expo 86 happened and there was this energy to expose what was happening as people were being kicked out of rooming houses on the downtown eastside to make way for this corporate extravaganza. It’s a super-expensive city to live in, and a very geographically intense area of land that doesn’t allow for expansion in any way. There’s gentrification, there’s expansion, there’s this influx of money from Asia where they’re buying properties — namely condos — and they’re sitting empty in lots of places. It’s hard to know what’s going to happen.
I knew about the Expo 86 thing; I remember that from going to see you. I was young and I remember being like, “What does that mean I’m not supposed to go to Expo 86 because of something [fucked up] happening in Vancouver?” I remember being kind of mad, like “I wanna go there.” It was like the World’s Fair or whatever. But then I was like, “Oh no, can’t do that.” I remember reading the pamphlet.
Smith: Our pamphlet?
Yeah, you guys had a pamphlet.
Lester: Yeah, D.O.A. did a group 7-inch that we were on — and it was all to protest the Expo 86 event.
Smith: There are some issues where I would naturally gravitate to not putting up big tall buildings, because that looks to be an excess of gentrification. But when you think of people spending an hour in automobiles coming all the way [into the city] and the carbon footprint [from that], you know, making density down closer to where the jobs are is actually environmentally sensible. It just goes against one’s inclination to want to preserve the integrity of neighborhoods and families. It’s not an easy issue. My neighborhood is being slated for changes, so I did write a lot of information on a form that went off to the city. And, weirdly, it seems like a lot of the issues I addressed sort of dealt with — just saying, “This traffic light here is actually too short here to be able to cross the street,” and shortly after that they lengthened the light. Things like that, where I was like, “Did I have an actual impact by addressing these things?”