The Protest Interview series: Petrol Girls
Welcome to the inaugural interview of Rebel Noise’s new Protest Interview series, an in-depth view into the socio-political outlook of musicians in this post- (or should that be pre-?) Age of Reason era.
The Protest Interview series kicks off in kick-ass style, with this first missive from Ren Aldridge, lead singer of the passionate, inflammatory, and important Petrol Girls. A feminist to the core who deplores the dearth of and oppression of women’s rights and so much more, Alridge enlightens and galvanizes with the relevant and resonant details of her perspective.
Hello! Please introduce yourself and give a quick description of your sound and vision.
Hey! I’m Ren. I front feminist post-hardcore band Petrol Girls. We’re vocal on a lot of different issues, from sexual violence to climate change [and] antifascism to migrant solidarity.
What major issue(s) is/are troubling you these days in the U.S. and/or around the world? There’s so much to choose from, unfortunately!
I’m really frustrated that so much of my time and energy is taken up with dealing with the consequences of sexual violence. That’s definitely the issue that’s causing me the most trouble these days. I think it’s an issue that robs an enormous amount of energy from activists communities and survivors more generally. As well as recovering or finding a means of living with their experiences, it often also ends up being survivors themselves that try to ensure the safety of others by challenging perpetrators or warning other people. The #MeToo movement has demonstrated how widespread this issue is, and done a lot to challenge public perceptions of this issue.
Something that’s particularly concerning me at the moment is the backlash that some survivors and their allies are facing as a consequence of speaking up. There needs to be urgent changes made with regard to the way that defamation or libel law is used in cases involving allegations of domestic or sexual abuse. As it stands, according to my understanding of its use in the UK, those with enough money to bring about a libel claim are easily able to silence anyone with less money who speaks up against them.
One campaign that I’ve been heavily involved with for more than two and a half years now is the Solidarity Not Silence campaign, which is raising money to cover the legal costs of a group of women who are being sued for defamation because of comments they each made about the behavior of a man in the music industry. The only reason they’ve been able to fight it as far as they have is by crowdfunding for their legal costs, but they have a desperately long way to go. If you can help chip in, spread the word, or bring it to the attention of someone that might financially support them, all of the information is at Crowd Justice.
I’m angry that women and other marginalized groups so often have no choice but to expend all their energy defending themselves. There are so many issues that I’d rather be throwing myself into - pro-choice activism, anti-fascism, migrant solidarity work… But then I zoom out even further and feel frustrated that this kind of work is necessary as well!
The planet’s fucked - that’s where we need to be placing our energy: in collectively avoiding catastrophic climate change. But it seems like there are too many people (mostly white cis men) that are more concerned with policing and violently repressing marginalized bodies. Imagine the capacity humanity would have if marginalized people weren’t constantly forced to defend themselves?
These are urgent times, and I think it’s really easy to feel completely overwhelmed and powerless, especially in a society that teaches a highly individualized ‘great man’ view of history, bombards us with individualistic narratives, and that is dominated by individualistic neoliberal politics.
But political and social change happens collectively. I’ve found that accepting how small I am against these huge structural issues, and remembering that there are so many others fighting for the same goals, has given me so much hope and perspective. We have to work together to make the change that we can in the time that we have.
What song or video of yours best captures your current viewpoint on this/these important topic(s)?
We literally shout out to Solidarity Not Silence at the start of this video for our latest single, “Big Mouth”. And the song holds a wider message about the way marginalized voices are only tolerated if they’re quiet, and encourages people to raise their voices against this. It includes a sample from Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex shouting “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think … up yours! 1,2,3,4!”
The incredible artist Jacob V. Joyce contributed to the chorus lyrics including the line “our silence will not save us” which links to the famous Audre Lorde quote, “your silence will not protect you.” Something we try to do a lot in our music videos is pass the mic to other voices, which makes even more sense here, given the topic of the song! So the video also features contributions from some loud and proud women and non binary people.
Are you involved in any other form of protest against this/these issue(s), besides through your music and lyrics?
Nowhere near to the extent that I would like to be. Solidarity Not Silence has absorbed most of my time and energy over the last two and a half years. Supporting survivors, navigating the hugely complicated legal system, writing funding applications, crowdfunding, and working as a team with a group of incredibly different women has been a rollercoaster. It’s also probably what led me to write my master’s thesis on the politics of voice and the idea of passing the mic. I’d like to do more research on the ways that marginalized and dissenting voices are dampened and silenced.
I’m not sure if I consider it a form of protest, but writing and art are the other forms that I communicate political ideas through. At the heart of many forms of oppression are ideas or concepts, like the nation state or the gender binary. Culture is how these ideas are maintained in our collective imagination, so for me it makes sense that culture is one battleground in which to challenge them. I’m about to take part in an international arts festival called Transborders on the Austrian-Slovenian border, with a piece that will float on the river that serves as the border, and hopefully draws links between the violence and ultimate futility involved in trying to control both nature and people.
I wrote about gender-based (sexual) violence in the punk community for 404 Ink’s award-winning anthology Nasty Women, which was published in reaction to the election of Trump, and have just had my writing published as part of Rough Trade Books’ Editions series with a piece that expands on the political ideas in our new record Cut & Stitch. I’m also writing regularly for Ladyfuzz zine, . Examples include this article on why the trans struggle is vital to feminism, and another article on why homophobic, misogynistic, and far-right sympathizing punk bands are far from the ‘rebels’ that they claim to be, and in fact uphold authoritarian politics.
Depressingly, a lot of my protesting takes place within the punk community - trying to uphold the core of punk which I believe is rebelling against oppressive structures like racism, patriarchy, fascism and capitalism. It feels like punk so easily slips into a caricature of itself, challenging nothing, and even sometimes reinforcing the violences of wider society. I don’t manage it every show, because I don’t always have the capacity to hold the space, but as often as I can, I call women, non-binary, trans, and queer people to the front at our shows. This builds on the riot grrrl tradition of ‘Girls to the Front’ and is massively inspired by UK band Dream Nails who are consistently strong on this. It creates a power shift every time and enables people that often get shoved to the sides or back of the room at shows, to take the main space, and not worry about getting hurt or groped.
I’m not having a macho bro pit at our shows - we’re a feminist band - cis men are welcome at our shows, but they are not my priority. I get shouted at a lot because of this; because I will stop songs and I will physically remove people that are causing a problem. Male-entitlement never ceases to amaze me, and I’m all too aware of the violence that often lurks beneath it. When this space is held, it feels incredible. We played AZ in Köln last week and there was a beautiful queer pit during our set - it was rowdy as fuck and everyone took care of each other and had a great time.
Another campaign we’re part of that aims to make change within the punk community is Punk Ethics, and specifically NO SWEAT, which is working to encourage bands to use truly ethical t-shirts to print on as merchandise. What I love about this campaign is that it actively supports sweatshop workers’ unions, therefore meaning that it takes its lead from the people at the heart of the issue. NO SWEAT distributes blank t-shirts made in workers’ co-ops formed by ex-sweatshop workers, including Oporajeo which is run by survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster.
Workers co-ops mean that all workers have full democratic collective ownership of their work. Profits from NO SWEAT then go to supporting independent trade unions of existing sweatshop workers, so that they can challenge their bosses to improve their working conditions and pay. Given that 80% of sweatshop workers worldwide are women, and that sexual abuse is rife in this industry, I consider this to be a feminist issue and central to our politics as a band.
I’ve moved around, and been on tour too much recently to get meaningfully involved in anything at a community level. It’s something that plagues me to be honest, because I think that community activism is what really matters and creates change. I also need to learn German properly as I now live in Austria at the moment, but that’s another story! Once the Solidarity Not Silence case is over I’d like to get back into antifascist, migrant solidarity, and climate justice work wherever I end up living.
In your opinion, what is the best charity or cause to contribute to?
Ohhhh, this is hard!! I mean Solidarity Not Silence is what I’m most closely involved with at the moment, and I do believe that if this group can win their case then it will set a precedent for similar cases in the future, and push a wider conversation that needs to be had about the use of libel law in cases involving allegations of sexual or domestic violence. It also feeds into bigger conversations about freedom of speech and marginalized voices. Their crowd funder is HERE.
Solidarity Not Silence is a good example of somewhere that your money will make a tangible difference, and is being given in solidarity to enable these women to fight their case, as opposed to charity which I think has a different dynamic. I believe in solidarity or mutual aid rather than charity because I think charity has a problematic power dynamic at its core – it’s pitying somehow, treating people like they’re helpless victims when actually everyone has agency and capacity. I also feel like charity is more about alleviating the guilt that surrounds privilege than actively supporting or fighting with the people it claims to aid. I basically don’t feel like we’ve done our bit once we’ve flung money at something, though this is not to say that financial aid can’t be important!
But there’s so much more we can do in terms of campaigning on wider political issues, putting pressure on the corporations or governments that tend to be causing whatever the problem is in the first place, direct action, spreading information and community organizing.
We need to be active participants in our local communities and organize from the ground up to create the changes that we want to see. Yes, support people with money, food, shelter, medicine or whatever, but then ask the questions about why people or other living things are in a situation where they need that support in the first place. Let people speak for themselves and their needs. Support, seek answers, and push for accountability.
What a favorite song or video by another act or artist that represents your current viewpoint?
Dream Nails – “Do It Yourself”
DIY is the heart of punk’s political potential. It is already deeply political to be empowered to create our own culture, especially marginalized people, and then I think this empowerment spills over to creating political change. I also think this band is fucking brilliant and doing heaps of vital political work - you should interview them!!!
Let’s end this on a positive note: What gives you hope or inspires you these days?
Repeal the 8th!! Repeal the 8th was a vital result that the pro-choice movement should take courage and inspiration from as shit gets scary in the US, and so many countries including Northern Ireland remain appallingly anti-choice. Fridays For Future and School Strike for Climate! climate justice is something we have to organize more on. Paro Internacional de Mujeres. The recent women’s strike in Switzerland - we played in Zurich yesterday and people are absolutely buzzing from it! The visibility and growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community over the last decades.
Reading Rebecca Solnit massively changed my perspective and has inspired the politics behind our last album and EP. Her writing helped me understand that political or social change happens because of huge complicated webs of different people acting over time, and that the impact is hard to see as it is happening. She also made me see beyond the idea of straightforward victories and failures. She made me feel tiny, but part of something huge and deeply hopeful.
Where can we purchase/stream your music and find out more about you?
Interview date: Jul 1, 2019
A Body In The Gears