Potty Mouth is a band comprised of four independent young women struggling to define themselves on their own terms, outside the confines of the usual post-riot grrrl narratives about what it means to be a woman in a band. They are smart feminists who oppose sexism in music culture — which, ironically, is exactly why they don’t want to be limited by such gendered expectations. Sure, their band name is also the name of a “feminal” Bratmobile album, but musically their sonic influences range from the Buzzcocks to Beat Happening to Saves the Day. So why do critics and audiences seem to only hear them in relation to other female musicians?
Their debut, Hell Bent, is dominated by interlocking, discordant guitars that plow forward over a driving rhythm section. Abby Weems’s soft-but-firm vocals sound tough and vulnerable at the same time, like girls do when they talk to one another knowing they might be overheard. Their songs recall the raw, emotional energy of Boston college rock in the ’80s – bands like Big Dipper and the Lemonheads — but they also evoke a wide spectrum of ’90s bands from California. Catchy ’77-style punk is also in the mix, but it’s tempered by hints of British indie pop — like the Undertones crossed with the Flatmates, minus the hokey double-snare beats. In short, they sound fresh and vibrant — like they’re inventing a system of songwriting that is distinctively their own.
Tobi Vail talked with the band about Gin Blossoms cassettes, Rock Camp for Girls and the concept of “gender versus genre.”
On the group’s early days:
Ally Einbinder: I’d been in a couple of bands before Potty Mouth and I really enjoyed doing that, but I wanted an opportunity to branch out a little more and challenge myself and do some of my own writing. I wanted to be in a band with all women because I felt like — Smith College, where Phoebe, Victoria and I met, is a women’s college, and I believe in the power of having a supportive environment with all women. Phoebe and I were talking about that one night, and she had never played guitar before but really wanted to, so we just decided to try and start a band. We asked Victoria if she wanted to play drums, because we knew she was a really good drummer. Phoebe knew Abby from mutual friends in town and also knew Abby was interested in playing guitar in a band. Since Abby and Phoebe were both new at guitar, we thought it made sense to have two guitarists rather than just one, and we just started from there.
On what their slogan “gender does not equal genre” means:
Einbinder: That’s in response to every single comparison we’ve ever gotten to riot grrrl bands. People see us and see we’re all women and hear that we are playing a style of music that is reminiscent of maybe the ’90s, maybe punk — and then they slap on the riot grrrl label and call it a day. So we’re compared to Bratmobile or Bikini Kill, but if you actually take the time to listen to our music and listen to their music, it really doesn’t sound very much alike at all. We can’t help but feel that it’s a conflation of gender with genre, because the most obvious aspect between the bands we’re being compared is our common gender. And then people also have an expectation that our songs should be political, but we never set out to be a politically-charged band. What we’ve found is that a lot of music writers seem to struggle in finding a language to talk about bands with all women that doesn’t put them in that category of riot grrrl or compare them to bands that grew out of the riot grrl movement. It’s just been really interesting to see the way that constantly happens. People are lazy and they want an easy narrative. This is something that a lot of women in bands struggle with — people have trouble making cross gender comparisons.
Abby Weems: We’re named Potty Mouth. That’s the same name as a Bratmobile album, but what people don’t understand is that we aren’t named after the album. That was just a plus that came with that name, though we do like that album.
Einbinder: Sometimes it feels like a lose-lose situation. You can’t escape the identity narratives that are imposed on you. People have such a hard time experiencing the world and seeing the world in any kind of gender-neutral way — especially because our world isn’t gender neutral and [neither is] music culture. It’s so hard for people to even listen to our music and not hear it or speak about it through a gendered lens. And we know that, but what makes it frustrating is when these comments come out in such a hateful way.
On what they listen to in the van:
Einbender: Can’t Slow Down by Saves the Day. We played with Vacation in Cincinnati and listened to their new record Candy Waves a lot. Our van has a cassette deck in it, so Phoebe and I brought a lot of our old cassettes — we listened to a lot of cheesy ’80s and ’90s pop and radio rock, like Madonna. We made it a point to listen to all the bands we were playing with — we listened to the Tweens tape a lot.
Mandanas: At one point Abby said, “Can we not listen to any more ’80s music?” And one time we had the Gin Blossoms tape on and about three songs into it we were like, “I can’t believe we’re still listening to this.” I don’t like a lot of pop on the radio [currently], so we didn’t listen to a lot of that.
On the pros and cons of Ladyfest, the Philadelphia version of the festival that began in Olympia, Washington, in 2000:
Weems: [Ladyfest Philly] was a really good show. It was so well organized — really professional and well thought-out. You could just walk around that area of Philly — we ran into Blizzard Babies at the place we had breakfast — and the whole thing was just really fun. I think [Ladyfest is] a good thing. A weird thing that tends to happen is that people think it’s strictly for women. I don’t think it’s fair to generalize that. It’s just a way to include women more.
Einbender: Ladyfest is great. I’ve been to a bunch. I really appreciate, obviously, the ideology and philosophy behind them, but what needs to happen to change punk and DIY culture — which is where Ladyfest comes from — is that change needs to happen on an everyday basis. We need more women booking and promoting shows, we need more women having access to those spaces so their bands can play, because often these venues have gatekeepers who book them. I like Ladyfest, but I’d like to see these tactics employed on a wider, everyday basis. I’ve been to Ladyfest where it seems like 90 percent of the people there are women, and it’s confusing because it feels like men have this idea that Ladyfest is like “Ladies’ Night Out” at the punk show. It’s not supposed to be that way. Shows are usually “Male Fests.” It should be an all-inclusive, diverse showcase.
Weems: I think it’s probably one of the most awesome things to ever exist. Victoria volunteered at one.
Mandanas: I volunteered down in Charleston in summer 2011 and 2012 teaching drum lessons. It was an amazing, positive experience.
Einbender: What Girls Rock! Camp is doing is really good. It’s working with girls from the ground up. A lot of the disparity in gender that exists in rock music culture starts from the moment children are born. Boys are given their first electric guitar when they’re 11 and girls are given Barbies. All that early gender socialization goes towards creating a music culture that is unequal in terms of gender. Girls Rock! Camp provides a nurturing and supportive environment for young girls to learn how to play a rock instrument from an early age. They even have Ladies Rock Camp for older women who wanna learn an instrument. I think the entire effort and logic behind it is so necessary because it is really giving girls the opportunity to participate in something that has otherwise been deprived of them because of their gender.
On their favorite Potty Mouth songs:
Weems: My favorite song is either “Rusted Shut” or “Sleep Talk.” “Rusted Shut” is really fun to play — it’s fast and energetic. I like “Sleep Talk” because it’s a topic I have to deal with a lot: bad dreams.
Mandanas: I go back and forth between “Rusted Shut” and “The Spins,” but I will go with “Rusted Shut.” It’s really energetic and just really fun to play.
Einbender: My favorite song is “Black and Studs.” I love the whole concept and lyrics. The lyrics are simple – “What happened to you to make you wear black and studs/ What happened to me to wear them just because?” — but it’s a cool commentary on our stupid punk culture and everyone thinking they are different from normative, mainstream society when we actually have the same sets of rules and norms as mainstream culture.