The advent of its 20th anniversary sparked renewed interest in riot grrrl. America has seen Bikini Kill back in action with reissues and new projects, the fleeting supergroup Wild Flag, and the anthologisation/reformation of proto-grrrl bands like Neo Boys and Frightwig. But in the UK the music remains out of print and semi-forgotten, an underground ellipse between the major label post-punk period and this digital DIY age: the contributions of musicians, lyricists and cultural protagonists such as Niki Eliot (Huggy Bear), Karren Ablaze (Coping Saw), Lianne Hall (Witchknot), and Rachel Holborow (Red Monkey) risk being sidelined.
Red Monkey were a post-punk, post-hardcore, post-riotgrrrl band active for a decade from 1996, and ‘How We Learned To Live Like A Bomb’ is a ”nostalgia-free release” compiled on a Berlin label ”for fags, feminists and other ferocious types”. Apart from a self-released Linus compilation, and the Troubleman Unlimited Pussycat Trash reissue (Rachel’s previous band, with fellow Monkey Pete Dale) it’s a sadly-unique attempt to revisit the herstory of the period. the girls are caught up with Rachel, Pete and drummer Marc Walker – no less engaged or engaging in 2014 – to spotlight their supercharged, rhythmic agitpop.
This record has been compiled from non-album tracks, rather than as a ‘Best of’, but it feels representative and sounds great. Are you happy with it?
Rachel: It has most of my favourite songs on it. It is revealing to re-listen to this material with so many years hindsight, revealing of who I transparently was then, and who I feel I am now. I’m quite impressed with how on-fire and articulate we were (musically and wordily)!
Pete: I think it sounds really good! We didn’t generally write stuff with a view to it being ‘single material’ or ‘album tracks’: we just wrote all the time, then compiled what we had at particular moments. This could have been the 4th Red Monkey album – except that the compilation spans several years whereas each album was pretty much written and recorded within 6 to 12 months.
Marc: I’m very proud of most of it, though it is a bit like looking at old photos of yourself. We decided to sequence it like a proper album rather than chronologically as we thought it would make for better listening and show the songs in the best light. It was also re-mastered, so particularly some of the singles sound much better.
Did the band have specific influences, musically, lyrically, politically?
Rachel: We loved much of what informed post-punk. We were intrigued by rhetoric – from Sarah Records, to Sniffin’ Glue, James Brown, Nation of Ulysses, Huggy Bear, The Coup, Chuck D, Crass, Bikini Kill – any move to try to directly express and question. As regards social critiquing, Chomsky was our style.
Pete: Mostly, I think we were inspired by what was going on at the time: Reclaim the Streets, animal rights (we were pretty much all vegan! Always fun on tour in France..!), squatting, poly-sexuality, the abolition of work. I think we probably had some awareness of people like Raoul Vaneigem and we were definitely into revolution in everyday life.
Marc: Post-punk, riot grrrl and post-hardcore were large parts of our shared musical diet. I also listened to old skool hip hop and late 60s funk a lot and that was another influence – though it came out as angular and jerky. Some brave people even managed to dance to us!
Were you consciously presenting multiple (gender) viewpoints – with the lyrics, and the shared/swapped vocals?
Pete: Rachel wrote most of the words, but I did some songs e.g. ’50 Hour Week’. Sometimes I sang lyrics written by Rachel (e.g. ‘Teenagers are Boring’), and some were kind of collaborative e.g. ‘Subculture’. I was interested in showing that masculinity and femininity are largely constructed categories – or at least, I believed they were at the time (and more or less I still do).
Rachel: Whilst we did naturally like to have a bit of a lark about with gender assignations, our main thing was that we were a co-operative band. We wrote a lot of it together – no one came in with “a song”. We built it up altogether, maybe from a bass-line or whatever. Whilst I wrote a lot of the words and edited others, what we wrote about was largely what WE were discussing at the time.
Your lyrics focus on rejecting materialism, breaking down barriers, and seizing the moment. Then there are more capital-P political songs about commodification of leisure, and alienation. Is the common theme the connection between the two?
Marc: Yes – that’s it. The lyrics are a product of our shared views or dialogues we were having. We were totally about communication/dialogue and at the best gigs we played it was apparent that it was something shared between the band and the people watching – a celebration.
Pete: We didn’t have a manifesto, though. But we did talk at length about everything. We lived in a communal house, and spent weeks on end together on tour, e.g. 13 weeks in 1999 alone, so we had plenty of chances to discuss stuff!
Rachel: At the time there was an underground zeitgeist of reclaiming the streets, which we did sometimes. Taking back life from commodification and that tyranny of the motor car and just do something else – a kind of pop-up revolution.
Your record label had the specific aim of encouraging women – and other under-represented communities – into music. Did you achieve what you wanted as a band, and as individuals attempting to live out alternative values?
Pete: We did have that aim; and a lot of success in that way, e.g. women and men now in their 30s who email me and say that Slampt massively helped them come to terms with their sexuality and/or political feelings in their teenage years. Anyone can do it today, too; don’t buy Nike, but do just do it!
Rachel: I did more than I ever wanted us to achieve as a band, in ways I felt comfortable doing it. I’m also content with how my life carried on post-band – working in worker’s co-ops, and now working in a Steiner school (in my small way helping the real kids to empower themselves).
Marc: As a band and personally – absolutely we achieved more than I could have hoped. For us the band was about the process as much as the outcome. My experiences in the band, the people I met and the ideas I was exposed to influenced me and I’ve continued to try to apply them to my life since.
Pete: Slampt raised hundreds and hundreds of pounds which we gave away to groups we believed in (and often which we were involved in): youth groups, animal rights, ‘Tyneside Action for People and Planet’ and such. We wanted a lot of change; I couldn’t say we achieved everything we wanted, but I think we did some good in a number of ways beyond money (loose change, I call that), too.
Was the ethos of the riot grrrl/underground scene a reaction to the distortion/loss of control involved in any attempt to ‘cross over’? Should a politically-charged band attempt to reach a wider audience?
Rachel: There were many points to Riot Grrrl – depending on the Girl who was rioting. I wouldn’t like to talk for anyone else but, for me, some of it was about creating off the male agenda; creating what I, as a young woman, wanted to, without worrying if it stood up to how the guys might judge it. It became, for several coalescing reasons, important to have a punk girl safe space. With us, there was never any question of “marketing”! We were part of an international, independent (and by nature underground) DIY network. We had friends in low places and that was where we went. We didn’t tend to play big gigs supporting big corporate bands, because it wasn’t part of our world, and why would you want to? We could travel where we wanted, played with many of the bands we admired – aesthetically or politically – and wrote the music we needed to. The press largely didn’t notice, and the big corporates didn’t either. It happened without the conventional channels approving it.
Marc: As a band it’s often assumed that you want as many people as possible to hear/like you and, in the past, this required the blessing of the media. If you’re not interested in that then you’re labelled as obscurist/elitist and therefore not valid. But that argument was irrelevant to us; we didn’t think about it, we just did it and hoped/assumed that there would be people out there that felt the same – and thankfully there were. You have to be realistic when the music you play would be considered far too confrontational/questioning for many (even within the punk scene). If most of the bands you admire still have their day jobs, you get used to the idea that you’re into it for its own sake. Quite liberating really.
Pete: I still think there is something suspect about ‘spreading the message’, but I want to add that it doesn’t HAVE to involve ‘thinning the message’. But I think RM was about something else: not really ‘message’ at all, we hoped; rather, I think we were interested in THIS ROOM, right now, every time. So it wasn’t supposed to be about ‘audience’ at all, really; we were much too punk for such a word! Our best gigs were a celebration of the room – sheer release, sheer energy, not ‘from me to you’ but, rather, all of us here, right now. We were into instantaneity. As to ‘getting big’, no-one really offered us anything but, if they had, we would have told them to f*ck off.
Rachel: Any dialogue with anyone is really a bonus, as Mike Simonetti [Troubleman Unlimited] put it: “Wanna communicate?”
Listening to your back catalogue, you were all incredibly prolific musically and lyrically. Did you get the recognition you warranted?
Rachel: Cheers! I think we were probably a bit overly complex or under-ly simple for much recognition, but more than enough people recognised us as “kindred spirits”.
Marc: Red Monkey definitely got recognition – at least from our peers and the people we respected. I couldn’t ask for more than that.
Pete: I recognise you, and you recognise me – that’s enough in my book! I am still hoping that NME will go out of business, and EMI – I don’t need induction into any hall of fame. But I do still follow the punk/indie/left traditions, and I respect all who roll in sh*t and mud with two fingers in the air and love in their hearts x
How We Learned to Live Like a Bomb is out now on Our Voltage records.