Perfect Pussy’s second album Say Yes to Love is an atom bomb of sound, a 24-minute blast of noise and power that is as arresting as it is invigorating. But buried beneath the chaos are true, deeply-felt lyrics about loss and strength and sadness. Meredith Graves is the consummate frontwoman, and her force-of-nature charisma is what gives Perfect Pussy so much of their incredible dynamism. We asked Tobi Vail, drummer for the legendary band Bikini Kill, to talk with Graves about the issues that have marked both her life and her music. What resulted was a rich, engrossing conversation about aesthetics, feminism, the wearying persistence of societal intolerance and the resistance and exuberance that comes with standing firm in your own beliefs. — Ed.
So, where am I finding you? Are you on tour right now?
We are in Austin, Texas — we’re going to play a show tonight. It’s raining and everyone is walking around in winter coats. I feel wonderful. This is like beach weather compared to where I come from.
You’re from upstate New York, right?
Do you live there now?
I do. Everyone in our band does, actually.
What’s it like?
Freezing. Beautiful, sometimes. It’s a wonderful place, in spite of the people. The punk scene there is a little oppressive.
In what way?
Well, I’ve gotten verbally beat up a few times in the past few months for talking about it. It’s all very young straight white dudes. There’s no diversity whatsoever, and it’s very unwelcoming. If you dare speak out about something you find unlivable or oppressive in any way, you should be prepared to meet extreme opposition, and that’s what basically happened to me. There’s a message board in Syracuse where men are threatening to come find me and beat me up, people making jokes about sexism, threats against my well-being just for speaking out about the inherent sexism and oppressive nature of the hardcore scene itself. They literally just proved our point. It turns out we were right.
Is this a new thing or did you experience it in your other groups?
I’ve never really had too much trouble with it. I’ve been really vocal about my politics and about feminism and my firmness in my political stance, so people kind of know what they’re getting into and they watch their mouths around me. But with this band, I was really upset and just lambasting the hardcore scene in the city where there are so phenomenally oppressive bands, bands with racist names — I’m not blowing it out of proportion. So, I got in trouble. But that’s OK, ’cause it’s worth it, you know?
Yeah, of course.
And I don’t wanna be a weirdo but, it’s really exciting to just talk to you.
Likewise! I’ve been listening to your new record today. It’s kind of funny, I was hanging out with a friend last night at my studio where Bikini Kill Records has our mail order, and all my old cassettes are there. We were looking through them, and I saw the Bikini Kill demo — and so while we were brainstorming questions to ask you, [my friend] pointed out that our stories are kind of similar. Both of our bands got really big without having a record out, just a tape. We didn’t have anything out besides the demo tape for the first two years of our band. We started to get all this press, and we even got flown to Hawaii — someone at Free Radio Hawaii got a copy of the tape that became our first record, and the radio station flew us over there to play International Women’s Day — which is today right? March 8?
Oh, wow, yeah it is! Wow!
When we got there, everyone knew who we were at the airport. It’s a small island, and we’d been getting a lot of airplay — at the time, they could play whatever they wanted on the air. People were asking for our autographs, and there was a guy there with a car to drive us around, he took us to a fancy hotel. It was just…crazy. So then we were like, “OK, I guess maybe we should release this [as a record], because people in Hawaii like it.”
Just hearing that story coming out of your mouth, somewhere…[it's like] I parked my DeLorean up the street — somewhere 14-year-old Meredith is pissing her pants that I just heard that story come out of your mouth. Thank you for actualizing a massive part of my youth. At age 13 and 14, my early access to Bikini Kill records and other associated records really changed my life, you know? They were the first non-male fronted punk bands I was ever introduced to — ’cause growing up in such a small town I didn’t have a lot of access. Your band’s records, and your friends’ bands’ records, they changed me in really profound ways. So, that’s a super tears-in-my-eyes honor, you know?
That’s great! So, would you say that that’s true as to what happened with your group? You just had a tape out, and everyone got really into it before you had a record?
We recorded the demo without ever having played a show. We didn’t know what we were doing. We just went in and recorded four songs. The nicest thing about this band is the four men that are in it and I are very good friends, so we just wanted to have a document of a particular moment. We felt the best way to [capture] our friendship was to start this band, so we wrote these four songs about how much we hate the oppressive nature of the hardcore scene, and banded together to make a record that made us all feel strong. Then we put it on the internet — we played maybe two shows, but we’re all busy — and then all of a sudden a couple months later we got phone calls out of the blue from major media outlets like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, and they wanted to talk to us about the record! We thought we were getting pranked by someone in our city. We thought some of the dudes that weren’t happy about our point of view were fucking with us. But that wasn’t the case, and four months later here we are. It’s wonderful but so weird.
I listened to Say Yes to Love this morning for the first time. It sounds different than the tape.
Thanks. Most people think it doesn’t, but I think it does. It’s a lot sadder. I was really sad when I wrote most of it.
In what way?
I was mad when I wrote the tape. I was mad at other people. But when I wrote the record, I was mad at myself. So it’s sad. It’s me being really upset with myself. It’s probably the most vulnerable thing I have ever done. It’s scary. I’m really shy. I’m not used to sharing my emotions that blatantly with people. Even when I used to do ‘zines — I did topical ‘zines.
Do you include a lyric sheet in the record?
Yeah, we do. Definitely. That’s hard, too. That’s personal.
I read that you don’t like your voice, so you like to make it quieter in the mix.
I do. I kind of want to be seen as just another instrument, but the first run of the tape we did didn’t have a lyric sheet, and people wanted to know what I was saying. If people ask for it, I’m not gonna deprive them of that. It’s just that I don’t think I’m any more important than any other member of the band, so why should I get special attention?
What is your favorite song on the new record?
I don’t have a favorite. I’m still not super happy with it. Every time I listen to it, I find something I don’t like. But the most personal song on the record is “Interference Fits.” I’ve been in bands for years, and that is, without a doubt, the most personal thing I’ve ever done. Pretty much the saddest song I’ve ever written. Every time we play it, I just get sick. It’s hard.
Where does the song come from?
I was in a relationship with the drummer in my old band, and we broke up because he was really abusive. I left that relationship and I was on my own for awhile, and then I met this person that I ended up living with for a year-and-a-half. It was the first relationship in my life that had ever been healthy, and it was the first person I had ever been with that was good to me. And, as relationships do, it kind of fell apart. And we broke up, and it was fine, but I had never really considered marriage a possibility for me, because ever since I was a kid I never wanted that. But he’s not a US citizen, so we had talked about getting married so he wouldn’t have to deal with a green card again, and I just…I adored him. And right after we broke up, I ended up going to three of my friends’ weddings and, for the first time in my life, I felt this incredible envy and anger. This ritual that I was viewing, something in it hurt me so severely, and I missed him more than I did when we broke up. It was death of the first healthy relationship I’d ever been in. And I was so disappointed with myself when I wrote that song. He was in the room when I recorded it, because we tried to be friends for awhile. So he was actually in the studio with me when I recorded all the lyrics and I just…That recording is a document of one of the most painful things I’ve ever done in my life, [having] him in the room.
What does it mean to “Say Yes to Love”?
That lyric is taken from that really sad song. The full line is actually “Since when do we say yes to love,” which is like asking, “Why are all my friends getting married? Don’t you guys know this is kind of stupid? We’re in our early-to-mid 20s. You guys are getting married because you want a wedding.” I’m a seamstress for a living. I made [a close friend's] wedding dress, and she got married because she was pregnant. On the one hand, I’m sitting here going, “It’s not 1960 anymore, we don’t have to get married,” and then on the other hand I’m like, “If this is what you want, it’s totally wrong for me to say anything to you about that.” And so it’s, “Since when do we say yes to love” — when did everybody, all at the same time, decide this was right for them? But it’s also about myself — like, “Oh, what was I thinking? I almost got married. Since when was I that person?” Like I said, it’s a very depressing record.
It’s very sad. I’m a really bummer person!
Do you enjoy doing interviews?
It’s OK. I always get really anxious, especially now. I prefer talking to non-male journalists. Whenever I do an interview with a guy, he tries to sexualize what I’m doing, or makes me out to be this feminist villain. I’m not gonna shut up, it’s not changing who I am, but I get vilified a lot. I just get pissed off at how stupid people are to me, and it’s never female journalists that want to fuck with me. It’s always the guys.
What do you mean “vilified”?
Well, I’ve run into trouble because people only print the really incendiary things I say, so it’s always when I start going off about the inherent misogyny of the hardcore scene or problems I’ve had personally with men, everyone wants to make me look like a bully or a victim and it’s really peculiar. But at the same time, I don’t exactly have a commanding presence. I am kind of a basket case. I’m shy and I tend to talk way too much and say a lot of really offensive things. I’m 26 years old. These are habits I’d like to break. But, at the same time, I feel like these are facets of my personality that have been exploited, and it’s strange to feel that way.
It’s always weird. It’s not something I ever really get used to, sort of putting yourself out there [as a feminist], and then watching it get filtered through the [male-dominated] media. It’s completely bizarre. And I think you’re right — it does have to do with society’s ideas about women’s roles — how you are reflected can become very mutated according to sexist bias [in the media].
It’s true, and I would like to think I can just go off and swear and curse misogyny and do all the things I want to do, but I’d also like to be a little better spoken. If you get a microphone for five minutes of your entire life, you should do something productive with it, and me sitting there going, “fuck all men, fuck this, fuck that, misandry tra-la-la,” because I get riled up when I get asked leading questions… I feel like I just need to be in a little better control of myself.
I can understand that. So what role does beauty, or sense of aesthetics, play in your group?
It resonates strongly with me personally, just because of what I do for a living. I always care about dressing up. It comes from my background in theater. In order to perform confidently, I kind of need to be in the correct costume. I believe in complete self-representation, and I think aesthetics are wonderful. I enjoy getting dressed up for shows. Our drummer is also really into wearing fun outfits. We really love each other a lot. We like to take pictures of each other and remind each other that we’re really beautiful. Our bands is three-fifths queer and we all come from vastly different backgrounds. We’re trying to represent ourselves and one another with a degree of kindness, because we recognize that we live in kind of a cruel world. We try to be good to one another, and one of the ways we do that is to remind one another that we’re beautiful people. Hopefully that makes sense. I also just like fashion. It’s fun.
Does your strong aesthetic presence conflict with being in a punk band coming from a hardcore scene?
I have a lot of friends in the punk and hardcore scene that are really into beauty and aesthetics, but they’re not from Syracuse. And this goes back to the larger societal trope of anything feminine being somehow less important. Aesthetics are deemed feminine, which is ridiculous. Because “women” are the biggest consumers of fashion, but the world’s biggest fashion designers are men. It’s like cooking — it’s seen as a feminine act unless it’s done for large sums of money, and then it belongs to men. Syracuse is the rust belt, it’s very poor. So for men in our town, not coming from money, aesthetics are not really championed there. The people in our band, we all kind of stand out anyway. We do it purposefully. For a long time, I was the only girl in the hardcore scene, so I automatically stood out. A couple of people in our band stand out for being queer, because there are no out people in our scene. To differentiate yourself through aesthetics is kind of like the ultimate fuck-you, because we live in a place where it’s all black fleece and buzz cuts. And it also helps us identify with one another and we enjoy it. It brings us closer together. Most of our clothes are from thrift stores, and I cut people’s clothes up and sew them back together. We try to take it as far as possible.
Is there a difference between fashion and style?
I was re-reading Roland Barthes yesterday, who is one of my favorite authors. I was revisiting his theories on dress. I’ve been lambasted recently because I wrote a piece for ELLE magazine. I did it because I thought it sounded fun. Apparently, that’s not very punk. To which I say, “Fuck it, Roland Barthes wrote for ELLE magazine.” He wrote an early semiotics study differentiating between langue and parole — which is the difference between language as an entity, or that exists independently of people, or “langue,” and “parole,” which is the way in which it is executed by the individual. The way Barthes applies this to fashion is that there is dress — which is all the clothes in the world and everything we can do with them — and dressing, which is for the individual. To me, fashion and style can be separated in the same way. Fashion is dress and style is dressing. There’s sort of a lexicographical difference there. According to Barthes, dress is what needs to be studied, and dressing is less important, because that comes down to the individual and it can’t really be studied unless it’s done on a case-by-case basis.
But honestly, I don’t know what he’s thinking, because that’s what I’m obsessed with. I take pictures of people’s outfits all the time. So, yes, I do think there’s a difference, and I am interested in dressing, or style. I think the difference is what needs to be studied, how we all execute the minutiae of our day-to-day appearance. There’s a documentary that came out a few years ago about a group of contemporary philosophers. Judith Butler was featured very heavily in it. She decided that, instead of lecturing on camera, she’d go around with a friend of hers who used a wheelchair and specifically talk about the body. And there’s a whole section where they talk about dressing, and they go and try on clothes. It’s incredible. That’s the difference between dress and dressing — or, in this case, fashion and style. That’s what needs to be examined because it’s more inclusive — the garments in their actual context, in relation to the people that use them. Barthes apparently disagreed.
I think there’s a difference. I’ve gone through angry anti-fashion phases in my life, feeling alienated by prescriptive ideas about femininity and fashion and feeling alienated from feminists who seem to embrace fashion uncritically without acknowledging the legitimacy of alienation. But how much of this is me being angry about what society imposes on women, and how much of it is how apart I feel from that? And how do we even begin to separate that out? So in struggling with this I personally, make a distinction between fashion, which I see as an industry based on trends and marketing, and style, which is more, as you say, individual. I thought you’d be an interesting person to talk to about this.
I completely understand what you are saying. That alienation is real. That’s a real thing. It’s super real.
I wanna be supportive of feminist fashion, and I try to be understanding, but I still feel intense alienation from fashion as a culture. Sometimes I don’t want anyone to look at me, and that’s when I wanna be anti-fashion. But that’s still a style, as you say — a personal relationship to clothes, a way to dress. There’s no outside of it. Which I guess is the point. You can’t escape it.
There’s a wonderful book that came out a few years ago called Why Clothes Matter: The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping by Linda Grant, and in the first chapter she covers that — how not caring about fashion is an aesthetic choice. But it’s one that’s important and one that needs to be recognized.
How do you feel about normcore?
I think it’s wonderful. I dress a lot like that too sometimes. I did a style blog called Plain Outfits a few years ago. Before I recognized my personal internal prejudices toward androgyny and the masculine end of the gender spectrum, I was into extremely simple dressing, which to me meant monochromatic outfits from head to toe, usually pants and dress shirts that buttoned up, and I would bind my chest because I wanted to be as neutral as humanly possible. And I realize now it was probably a psychological reaction to the abuse I endured in the relationship that I was in the years previous. I wanted to take up as little space as humanly possible. I actually experienced some backlash, because that’s how I dressed in my last band and then when I started playing in this band a few years later, I was wearing dresses and lots of very heavy make-up.
Isn’t it interesting how people act so differently to you when you do that?
People expect me not to change. I am so proud of the women I know who actively confront the image-obsession of women in music — how people would rather talk about what you look like more than what your band sounds like. For me, nobody ever wants to talk about what I look like, except for people directly working in fashion. And I don’t know why that is. My bass player, who’s my best friend, I told him, “Everyone is always talking about being objectified and how it’s the worst thing in the world and it doesn’t happen to me — no one ever says anything like that to me.” And he looks at me and says, “Well, it’s because you’re ugly.” [Laughs] And that put my act in check. How could I be like, even for a second, “Why isn’t anyone objectifying me?”
Do you think there’s a difference between underground and mainstream in music right now, or is that a false dichotomy in 2014?
It’s a little bit of a false dichotomy. Because in my experience, when people want to differentiate between underground and mainstream, what they’re really trying to say is “good versus bad,” and that’s a problem.
What do you mean?
They’re trying to differentiate between or “good” and “bad,” or “authentic” and “inauthentic.” I’ve been going to hardcore shows and playing in bands and participating in the scene since I was 13 years old — I’m 26. The hardcore scene is the place where, when I came forward with interpersonal relationship violence, they told me I was a liar and kicked me out of hardcore. The music industry is where people have actually given me a platform to speak about things like that. I’m in talks with the label we’re on now to re-release my last band’s record and donate the proceeds to benefit non-gender-conforming survivors of relationship abuse and shit like that. You can be as scared as you want of that “non-mainstream” thing, but really it kind of is all the same. They are starting to parrot each other.
What role do you think capitalism plays in whether or not there is a difference between underground and mainstream?
I can’t really speak to that so much, because I don’t make any money. I’m hemorrhaging money. I haven’t seen a fucking nickel. I can tell you that in the years I put out records, I helped my partner run a small label, I put out my own band’s records on all formats, and I’m familiar with a record costing a few grand to put out. What we are doing is costing 10 times as much, and I had no idea until I saw a budget sheet. It’s wild that we’re operating on this scope…it’s something I’m new at. Money and capitalism, the intersection of those things is weird. In terms of the labor force I think about — when you’re in a band that’s on a major label, you have people working for you, like business agents and press agents. I feel like by putting out a record on this label that we’re on [Captured Tracks], we’re working for them. I’m not sure where I fall. In our society, there aren’t really levels anymore — there are employees and bosses and that’s it. We’re like a two-party [economic] system. So I’m not sure where I am. I’m not sure who I work for and who works for me. I often feel like I’m working for other people. There’s not a part of me in my body that wants to be anybody’s boss or tell anybody what to do.
To me that’s what’s interesting about your band and maybe this era in general. If we were to use this dichotomy, it does seem to me that you are an underground/DIY band existing in mainstream culture. It is interesting because when you say, “Oh I’m not making any money,” well, in a way, you should be, you know?
Yeah, but I literally have not made a nickel off this band. We support ourselves when we tour, but that has nothing to do with the record label. I don’t get paid to write for ELLE magazine, I’m doing it for the experience. We had to quit our jobs because they want this band to tour three months at a time. I have money saved up for running my own business and having a full-time job. I had to give up my apartment, I’m sleeping on my bass player’s couch. I know I don’t have it as bad as 99.9 percent of people in the rest of the world, and I’m not playing the “woe is me” game, but I’ve made sacrifices to be in this band, financially, emotionally and socially. The experience is incredible, but I think there are people who think I’m living in a golden castle, who have no idea how I actually live my life.
When you get that kind of attention, it becomes weird and it’s hard to explain it. I’m sure you understand.
Oh, absolutely. I completely understand what you’re saying, and I’ve never done this before. I have no friends who’ve done this before, and my closest friends in the world are the four guys in my fucking band. Like, I have nowhere to turn. I’ve confused the shit out of my parents, I don’t know what I’m doing, I drive everyone at the record label and our booking agency crazy because all I do is ask questions. I’m trying to do the best I can to have the most fulfilling experience that I possibly can. I decided a few months ago I’m willing to make tremendous personal sacrifices to have this experience. That guy that I was with forever? We were going to get back together, and he could not deal with the fact that I was going on tour. I lost the person I was engaged to because of this band. I can’t not do it. I’ve been presented an opportunity have an experience that some people will never get to have. Pretty much anything short of skydiving I’ll do. I just wanna see it. You know? I wanna see all of it.
Before we wrap up, I want to talk a little bit about your relationship to feminism.
I would love to. Holy shit, I’m talking to Tobi Vail about my relationship to feminism. I go back in time and hug my 14-year-old self again.
What does feminism mean to you?
Feminism is the crux of all my politics. Politics is the cornerstone through which I enact everything I believe about the world. I have so many huge problems with men and patriarchy, and I’m in a band with four men that get it. I have not had to do what I think a lot of us call “the 101″ with the men in my band, and if they ever do something that’s not OK, all I have to do is say, “Hey, think about that,” and within seconds they’re like, “Oh my god, I actually said that — oops, deprogram,” and it’s amazing. It’s the first time in my life I can honestly say I feel safe with men. I don’t think I’ve ever felt safe in large groups of men, and now I roll all over the country with five of them — five cismen, they’re all cisgender, and that’s important to me. Because, you know, I’ve had a queer and trans community in my immediate life before, and this is not that, necessarily. But at the same time, being in a band with five men, it’s as good as it could be and we talk all the time about feminism. We talk about politics all the time. I have to make a point here: [Our] feminism is not an extension of academic feminism that has become so problematic in western culture. We try to see feminism through the lens of race and through the lens of class, ability and gender. So we try to have open-ended conversations about feminism that are really just about anti-oppression politics in general, which is how I align myself. But if someone asks me if I am a feminist, my answer is a resounding “yes,” and that is also the answer of every other person in our band. I feel lucky.
What other bands are you interested in right now?
A lot of really, really amazing bands right now that are female-fronted or all women: Tweens from Cincinnati, Joanna Gruesome from Wales — Alanna, the singer for Joanna Gruesome, is one of the most incredible young women currently active in the music scene. She is terrifying. She is incredible. Speedy Ortiz is wonderful, the singer/songwriter for that band [Sadie Dupuis], she is an incredible writer. Waxahatchee and Swearin’, the Crutchfield sisters who have been in bands together since they were kids and who are two of the kindest people on the planet and two of the best musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Hirs, a two-piece grindcore band fronted by a woman named Jenna — they’re from Philly and they are specifically trans-and queer-focused. Jenna is a powerhouse and she’s amazing. It’s so nice to finally be friends with other people in bands, women in bands, queer people in bands. It’s not something that happens in Syracuse. It hasn’t happened before, and I’m totally overwhelmed. My eyes and ears are starving all the time. I just wanna meet everyone and be friends with everyone and see every band, you know? My favorite band [from Olympia] is Hysterics. My old band played with them. I can’t not talk about Hysterics, they are so great! Shady Hawkins, who are fronted by a woman named Suzy X who is also a ‘zinester and a comic book artist. Shady Hawkins is incredible, they’re really good.
You’re also a drummer. Are you involved in any other musical projects?
I’m doing a project with our keyboard player. We’re doing a French-style disco record. I’m planning on doing a solo project later this year. The first music I ever did on my own, besides playing drums for a garage band, was a solo tape. I have a background in opera, too, so I would write these huge arrangements and record my own voice solo and overdub it like 10 times, and I would write these massive church-sounding arrangements — and I kind of miss it. So I wanna do a solo record this year, and I’ll probably make like 10 copies of it and give them to my friends. I’m always doing something, trying to play guitar, piano, make dance music. I just sang with the singer of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs — he and his fiancé have a new band, and I just went up to Montreal and sang on their record too. So that was nice. And I’m working on a ‘zine right now. I have to do a million things or I feel crazy and get bad anxiety. I’m actually keeping a scrapbook. I do a lot of collage, so I’m keeping a notebook on this tour, and then I’m just gonna scan it and publish it as a visual scrapbook.
In honor of today being International Women’s’ Day will you talk a little bit about women who’ve inspired you?
My mom and my aunt who raised me. [My dad is] a feminist, too. My mom and her older sister took great care of me and my aunt raised me with the word “feminism” from birth. There’s never been a time in my life when I haven’t known that there is a thing called “feminism,” and that’s amazing. The woman I’ve worked for the last four years is an incredible powerhouse. I learned so much about how to be authoritative from her, because I do believe that as a result of being assigned the status of female at birth I was taught to shrink. And I unlearned that through my boss, Lorraine. [She] taught me that fashion and feminism are intersectional —she’s the reason I feel OK expressing my interest in fashion as those two things are not mutually exclusive. Jenny Holzer, Tracey Emin, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker. Women of film and art [like] Maya Deren; Frida Kahlo. Kate Bernheimer, the author and editor of the Fairy Tale Review. It’s a scholarly journal that does nothing but study international fairytales. Kate Bernheimer is a huge inspiration of mine. I get flustered when I’m asked this question. Laverne Cox, who is an actress on that show Orange is the New Black. Laverne Cox and Janet Mock are two transwomen of color who have been killing it in the fucking media lately and laying out Piers Morgan for being transphobic on national television. I could go on and on and on and on and on. I don’t want to under-represent anybody.