by Kristy Diaz
photo: Martyna Wisniewska
Anger is the defining emotion of an entire generation. We are surrounded by a 24-hour news cycle of violence, oppression and fascism. Human rights reversed and a planet irreversibly destroyed in front of our eyes. We exist while carrying around this weight; a bag of rage and fear trying not to burst, to stay contained. We search for places where we can go just to scream unheard.
In its opening moments, Cut & Stitch – Petrol Girls’ second full-length and follow up to 2016’s Talk of Violence – offers a series of thoughts about sound. Lead vocalist Ren Aldridge speaks poetically over its meaning atop a brooding hum, ending: “I think about who is heard and what that means, about the power of sound and how we might use it.” It introduces sound as a political tool to be used and fought with, a commodity to which some have access and some do not.
That the record is profoundly political from its start will be of no surprise. Petrol Girls are inseparable from their politics – it underpins every element of their music and ethos. Aldridge, in particular, is known for her political activism against deportations, borders and sexual violence, establishing herself as an essential voice in modern punk.
I speak with her straight after the band leaves the stage at Handmade Festival, the screams of “Touch me again and I will fucking kill you” still reverberating off the gallery walls of Attenborough Arts Centre. Like all hardcore at its most vital and incendiary, it made me want to start a fight with the entire world.
However, Cut & Stitch channels its politics less violently – but no less passionately – than their previous releases, using a more exploratory approach that experiments with form and genre. Its concept was influenced by a visual art group project that Aldridge undertook to explore nationalism by “stealing or ‘otherwise acquiring’ national flags, cutting them up into their separate shapes and then stitching them into new forms,” she explains. “As we were making the record, it seemed more and more relevant because we made it in quite a ‘cut and stitchy’ way.”
As a result, the record contains a patchwork of influences from the satirical to the reverential: the scathing rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’ that closes ‘No Love for a Nation’ alongside “some people think little girls should be seen and not heard” in ‘Big Mouth’, a homage to the X-Ray Spex’s 1977 classic ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’ “The power of it,” says Aldridge, describing the cut and stitch writing process, “is that you can keep going.”
The ability – and inability – to keep going has been crucial in the album’s development in numerous ways. Aldridge had to revise, alter and adapt in the same way, to stitch herself back together after the emotional toll of years of fighting injustice. And while anger is an entirely logical and valid response to, well, everything, Cut & Stitch is a “conscious effort to do something a bit quieter, a bit less aggressive.”
“Initially, I started this band with a lot of aggression to release, but we’ve been doing it for over six years now and being angry all the time, I’m discovering, is not sustainable vocally or emotionally. I was getting sick of people treating me like this rage whirlwind. It was a challenge to myself to show a bit of vulnerability… I know I’m really not very good at showing weakness or grief, but I think something that I’ve learned from being involved in feminism is that this kind of ‘angry’ strength is traditionally seen as a masculine form and I think that femininity, or things we would associate with femininity, is incredibly powerful.”
During our conversation, Aldridge frequently talks about learning and improving, and alongside her fervour occasionally sits a slight apprehension – almost as if she is preempting criticism. Does she feel, as a feminist and activist in a highly visible position, that there is more pressure to be perfect, or do things perfectly? “I think that people’s expectations of me are sometimes really unfair,” she admits. “I’ve talked to Shawna [Potter] of War on Women and she said to me, ‘you have to set some boundaries’ and I was like ‘fuck, that’s what I haven’t been doing!’ I got to the point of near-complete burnout, and while we were doing the record I was definitely in that place.”
These admissions of vulnerability and of making mistakes repeatedly manifest in the songs. In closer ‘Naive’, the line “I’d rather be naive/and learn to fall with grace/not tense brittle with fear/open eyes face my mistakes” offers a space for forgiveness while acknowledging that perfectionism can lead to inaction in a time where that can’t be afforded.
Moving forward inevitably means fucking up: “It comes back to this idea of cutting and stitching because you should be able to rectify your mistakes,” she says. “There are some mistakes that are unforgivable, but I think our scene has become very unforgiving, and there’s a lot of rightful reasons why that is the case… but I’m a human being, I make mistakes. I can’t be one hundred percent on it all the time.”
“Like, my partner plays in a punk band and he just goes and has a mad time, gets wasted, has a big party and no one challenges him. That’s something I find frustrating because it’s the people at the forefront of trying to push these radical politics that get held to the highest standard and I’m like, ‘what about all these fucking men that are doing shit all? Can someone ask them to put some effort in at some point? Because I’m tired.’”
Despite feeling the inequality of expectations, the record approaches the damage that patriarchy as a structural system also has on men. In ‘Talk In Tongues’, Aldridge and Zock Astpai (drums) play out a dialogue exposing the feelings of a man who wants to talk but cannot, interspersed with Aldridge yelling “I can’t catch you all,” the cry of a struggling partner.
“I strongly believe that patriarchy is terrible for cis men, as much as they benefit from it,” she asserts. “The flipside of men not being able to talk about their feelings is a fuckload of emotional labour, mostly for the women in their lives. I’m scared of talking about it,” revealing again an underlying fear, “because I don’t want the men in my life to stop talking to me. I’d rather have the conversation and do the work than not because the consequences are not worth thinking about. Anything we can do to encourage them to open up about their feelings and emotions, and ideally be able to talk to each other about it, is moving in a positive direction.” In spite of everything, she keeps stitching.
As we close the conversation, I go back to the questions posed in the opening track. What is the power of sound, and how do we use it to travel across borders, to show solidarity and to affect change? “That’s such a big question!” Aldridge exclaims, but almost immediately gives three answers: the act of retracing musical history and lineage across borders, and an international feminist electronic music network. Lastly, she describes a demonstration at the Home Office in Glasgow that inspired ‘The Sound’.
“I’ve seen this tactic at demos before, but it really struck me then,” she begins. “It’s when people that are inside detention centres speak via a phone connection that’s held up to a megaphone so they can lead the chant. People who can’t leave that place with their bodies but they are audible. I find it incredibly emotional and powerful. I’m interested in how we position ourselves around voice, and how we platform voices that are incarcerated or marginalised. How do you speak beside or behind or amplify them, rather than speaking for someone or over them?”
The power of sound, then, is a collective responsibility. Rather than carrying it around with our anger, searching for solitary ways in which to release it, we have to wield it. Hold it up to raise the voices of those who can’t be heard. Stitch together our own communities, knowing that our work – no work – is truly complete. We have to keep going.
Following this interview, Ren Aldridge was named as one of the five women being sued by Jonny Fox (aka ‘Itch’) of The King Blues for allegations of sexual and emotional abuse. The ongoing legal costs for the women fighting this case are high, and they are currently fundraising to cover them. Please consider supporting the Solidarity Not Silence campaign with a cash donation.