This Sister is Dynamite: Alice Bag Talks Songwriting, Performance, And Calling the Shots

Alice Bag's newest album, Sister Dynamite, arrived with a jolt of energy appropriate to its name, and carried with it the flavor of live performance that many of us may be missing right now.

A mover and shaker on the early Punk scene in LA, Bag's storied history leads up to and includes a volley of solo albums in recent years, from the self-titled Alice Bag, to the more exploratory Blueprint, and finally her explosive recent release. In our previously released interview with Bag, we discussed the origin of her autobiographical writing and how she's been handling isolation in LA. In this segment, we dig down into Sister Dynamite, her preferences in songwriting and recording, and why performance is "interaction" for Alice Bag.

Oh, and she also tells us the most outrageous Tower Records story we've had on site so far! Should we blame Alice Cooper or platform shoes? You decide.

Hannah Means-Shannon: In the initial early period of quarantine, there seemed to be a lot of push online that we should all find ways to be super productive and develop our skills to make use of our time. It got to be a little oppressive, as some friends of mine agreed, because everyone handles things differently. Did you notice that kind of thing?

Alice Bag: I didn’t, probably because I wasn’t online very much. I was glued to the TV, and I could have the news on, but I’d be doing other things. I think I was waiting for someone to say, “Okay, we’ve got these companies that are making PPE and everybody is going to be trained.” You know, I just expected mobilization of health services on a military level. I expected resources that would be available for combatting the virus, and to treat it like a military operation. But it never got to that point, and I was disappointed every day that I didn’t hear that message.

Like, for every community to have a designated elementary school where you could go and get tested. I thought it was going to be super-organized, but nope. Instead, we’re opening up and we’ll see where the chips fall. So I’m staying in. I want to be alive. I’m going to do my best to stay safe. I want to play so badly, I want to be on stage. I want to be in a concert, I want to be in an audience. I want live music, but I can’t do it for a little while.

HMS: I’m glad you’re staying in. But I was going to ask you about that, because it seems like being in person at live events, whether playing or being part of an audience, has always been a big part of your life.

Alice Bag: Yes, and even though I’m described as a performer, I don’t really of what I do as performance. I think of it as “interaction”! So I don’t want to get up and do a Zoom performance where I’m singing for people without some kind of human interaction. That just doesn’t feel right to me. When I’m at a concert, I’m not thinking about whether I’m going to sing in the right key or whether I’m going to dance in a certain way. All of that is just not who I am. I live for the connection, and if I can’t do that, I don’t want to do anything.

I’ve had so many people ask me if I want to do an acoustic version of my set, and at least not for this record. This record really reflects “band energy”, so I think it would be a big disservice to perform the new album in a way that doesn’t reflect what this album is about, if that makes sense. It’s a departure from the other albums that I’ve made in that it is really focused on capturing the energy that my band has when they play live.

HMS: When you recorded this album, did you record it “live” in the studio, or were the parts recorded separately and then mixed?

Alice Bag: Usually we record drums, bass, and guitar together. I’ll do what we call a “scratch vocal” which is just me singing in the control room so that the band can find where the changes are. So that’s how we did it. And then I overdub my vocals, and the band overdubs their backing vocals.

HMS: Okay, thanks for explaining. Well, there is a live feeling there, then, with the instruments.

Alice Bag: Yes, there’s definitely some live feeling there. There are two different configurations, with two different drummers who I’ve played with over the years. One is Candace Hansen, who is pretty much my regular tour drummer, and the other is Rikki Watson. I’ve played with her a lot when I was doing my book readings, and I’ve played with her on all my albums. So both of them play on this album.

HMS: I know that your first solo album was a collection of your music that had a long lifespan, that you’d been working on over time. Sister Dynamite seems more like its own entity. What makes this one different?

Alice Bag: Well, everything on this one was written after my second album, Blueprint. It was all written in a short time span, maybe 6 to 8 months. The thing that’s different is that I actually started recording some of the songs with Rickie Watson because she was on Spring Break and asked if I wanted to get together and make some music. I jumped at the chance. I said, “Let’s get into the studio.” I called my regular bassist, David Jones, and my regular guitarist, Sharif Dumani, and my regular Producer, Lysa Flores. We booked some time and went into the studio and recorded 4 songs.

While we were working on that, I got a call from the band Fea, in San Antonio on the Blackheart label. They called me and asked if I would produce their album, and of course I said yes, that I’d love to. I put my album on hold because I wanted to spend some time with Fea, listening to their rehearsals and songs. Then we were going to go out to El Paso together to a sleep away camp and recording studio. In the process of working with Fea, I was really inspired by the way the band locked in together. The way that everyone was bringing their own vision, and it wasn’t just one person’s vision. It was a true band dynamic, both in the decision making and the playing. Everyone was very invested.

Working with them inspired me to come home and finish the album with my regular touring band. On other occasions, I would call people in. My middle daughter is a really good singer, so she’s done backing vocals for me, and my friend Genevieve too. These are women with beautiful voices. But I decided here, I was just going to have my band do the vocals, because that’s how they do them live. I could’ve just kept adding on, but I didn’t want to. I stripped everything down, and wrote rock songs that were specifically designed for my band that we could play live in concert. I limited the keyboard playing that I would do, which is very simple. And I was really happy with it. The band seemed really happy to take on more of the singing. I think they were more invested in it this time.

HMS: That makes sense that they would be. It’s a very energetic album. When you approach it that way, not only do you get a lot of energy on the album itself, but you’ve also kind of pre-constructed what would be great to go perform live once we can do that again.

Alice Bag: That’s what I’m hoping!

HMS: Now that you’ve figured out that method of creating an album as an alternative, do you think you’ll do it again in future, or is it just an option among many?

Alice Bag: I think it’s just an option. I still have other songs that I’ve written, that I really, really like, but they are not going to be anything that I can do live. There are certain songs that I have on the albums that require violins or just really good sound. I don’t want to sing a ballad where I’m playing a club where I can’t hear myself.

HMS: [Laughs] Sure. Yes.

Alice Bag: I also can’t tour with that many musicians. I’m just not at the point financially where I can afford to bring keyboard players and backup singers. Everybody that I add onto the tour is money that I have to figure out. I still want to play clubs where I can interact with the audience.

HMS: Do you prefer the smaller venues, generally speaking?

Alice Bag: I won’t say that I don’t enjoy big venues. I enjoy them as well and I like the fact that the sound is usually better, but there’s also usually a pit, and guards keeping you away from being able to actually touch the audience if you wanted to. Or from someone from being able to jump up and dance with you. There are trade-offs. I won’t say that I’m not excited about playing something like opening for Bikini Kill, because that’s something that I’ve really been looking forward to, and I hope it happens. Those are all big shows. I wouldn’t trade them for anything, except for my health.

HMS: Of course.

On Sister Dynamite, I feel like there’s a lot of storytelling, with threads of narratives. Each song definitely has a story in it. Some songwriters like to write songs that are more about telling short stories, whereas some write songs that are more about certain feelings or certain emotions. Do you write to tell stories? Or is each song a bit different in that way?

Alice Bag: I think I do tell stories. I think I have a very organized way that I write, and it’s not always a story, sometimes it is feelings, but it’s always planned out. I actually try to outline things. I ask, “How am I going to say this? Where am I going to say this? Is it going to be part of a verse or part of a chorus?” I’m not naturally poetic. I think some people can create images with their writing that I have to work at. I will write something down, and it will look like an essay. It will look like something you would write for a class.

And then I’ll look at it and ask, “How do I say it in a creative way?” And I’ll have to rethink how to say that. I don’t think like a poet, I think like someone who has to write a term paper. Writing lyrics is very challenging for me. It’s never been my strong suit. Writing music, on the other hand, is really easy for me. It’s something that I would do every day, any day. I never run out of ideas. But the lyrics are tough.

I think when I was younger, I really had issues with my lack of English skills. I am a Spanish speaker, and Spanish is my primary language. In my family, we expressed ourselves through Spanish, so the things that were really important to me would come to me in Spanish. Then, as I got older, the Spanish got truncated, and I didn’t develop the same level of mastery in Spanish that I have in English.

My analytical ideas come out in English. [Laughs] And sometimes when I’m trying to access things that are very emotional, I go back to my primary language, which is Spanish. I think sometimes I face language challenges, but I have learned to outline, and there are strategies that I can use to improve my writing skills. I definitely think that I’m better at it now than when I was in The Bags. But I envy people who are natural poets and write every day. That must be so cool.

HMS: To talk about some specific songs from the album, the song “Spark” is really an amazing song. The title song, “Sister Dynamite” is really an anthem, too. I wanted to ask about “Breadcrumbs” since I feel like there’s a story embedded in there that’s kind of mysterious. Could you tell me more about the idea behind that song.

Alice Bag: I was inspired by a song that I used to listen to when I was younger called “Crumbs Off the Table”. I really loved the idea of someone giving you their leftovers, their crumbs off the table. I thought of Hansel and Gretel, and the idea of somebody scattering breadcrumbs to find their way home. It made sense to use that for a relationship. And these are relationships I’ve been in, and I’ve seen my friends in, where the person, let’s say a guy, is giving the least amount that he can give to keep you hanging on.

Then they go out, and they want to be players, and look for their breadcrumbs, and their way to get back into your heart, or your bed. I thought about how important it is, if that’s not what you want, if you don’t want to be a booty call, to sweep those breadcrumbs away. And to feel like maybe somebody will call you out and say, “You’re a bitch for acting this way.” And so often when women stand up for themselves, that’s exactly how they are treated. We are treated like, “You’re a bitch. You’re a witch. Why don’t you want to play the game I want to play?” The moral of the story is, in the end, when you stand up for yourself, the witch is the one who wins. The witch prevails.

HMS: That’s amazing.

Alice Bag: It’s about calling your own shots. Over the years, whenever they were seen as having any power, they were vilified. When you think of what happened in Salem. Those were probably women who were knowledgeable and wouldn’t take shit. Who were not willing to play along. Or maybe they weren’t willing to smile and be friendly, and they were called witches and killed for it. But I think in our society, we can praise witches for being strong, calling the shots, and standing up for themselves.

HMS: Yes. I think people in different eras of history have been terrified of women who acted in way they didn’t expect them to. There have been many examples of that.

I love that narrative for “Breadcrumbs”, this idea that it could be any relationship where someone is keeping someone else at starvation level, emotionally speaking. That’s really universal.

Alice Bag: That’s right.

HMS: Speaking about gender, I came across a quote from you, from a conference you spoke at in Seattle, where you talked about wanting to be “defined by strength rather than by gender” as a person, I think, but I’m sure as a musician or performer as well.

But you were also saying that we’re not in a post-feminist world, we’re not in a post-racist world yet, so we can’t back down on those things.

Alice Bag: Exactly.

HMS: Do you think that, in your life, you’ve seen progress in those areas, or particularly within music?

Alice Bag: I feel like I see progress, but then I see “lose-gress”. Because progress always has to be guarded. You have to keep fighting for it, because if somebody has a chance to take it away, you will. You have to stay alert. You can’t ever be complacent. We know what it’s like not to have privilege. If we are able to get a little more equality, we need to guard it like hawks so we can continue to build on that. For a while there, I remember people talking about how women already had women’s right, and people were ashamed of the word “feminism”. I would think, “We’re living in a post-feminist world? What does that mean?” We’re not. The thing is, it’s just not true. We need feminism.

I heard people saying on the news today that we were at the beginning of a Civil Rights movement that was reminiscent of what we did in the 60’s. It’s exciting that we get to push it forward, but it’s sad that it’s taken so long and we actually have to go back and try to guard the advances we made then. I don’t know that it’ll ever be at a point where people can take that sort of stuff for granted. I don’t think so. I think we’ll always have to keep working towards improvement or maintaining the advances that we’ve made.

HMS: Thank you. I think it’s been really obvious in the past few years how cyclical everything is. These opportunities and dangers seem to assert themselves over and over, and you’re given a new opportunity to respond and try to help progress move forward. But we should not take that for granted. It’s just not smart, because that’s when you get caught out.

Alice Bag: We always have to stay on top of it. We can’t afford to be self-satisfied. It’s an ongoing struggle just to keep it.

HMS: By the way, I totally forgot to ask you if you had any Tower Records stories, of visiting the locations in LA or in other places.

Alice Bag: Oh my god! Actually I do! I have a funny experience. There was a contest at Tower Records called the “Zorg Women Contest”. It might have had something to do with Alice Cooper. I remember Tower Records on Sunset was located so that I had to park in Hollywood Hills. I had these enormous platforms on.

I had heard something about the Zorg Women Contest on the radio, and I thought, “I’m going to get dressed up and be in this contest.” My girlfriends were with me, and we were all dressed up, and I fell walking down the hill. I busted my stockings, had a little bit of blood on my knee, but we made it to the contest, which was just at the entrance.

There was an awning, and a little stairway went up the entrance. People were being called up for the contest. People would go up and do a little performance, and then they’d call the next person. I was completely unprepared. I had no idea what a Zorg Woman looked like, or who she was, or what she would do. I was dressed up in my campiest groupie outfit, and I went up with my busted stocking, and I started miming. I pretended I was a mime.

HMS: Whoah!

Alice Bag: And I won!

HMS: WHOAH!

Alice Bag: I know. I was dressed up in this ridiculous outfit and doing stupid stuff, and I won the contest. I remember that the grand prize was that I got ten free albums from Chrysalis. I remember looking through their catalog afterwards. I thought I was just going to get to go into Tower Records and pick what I wanted, but they had to mail it to you. So that’s my story! It was really fun, actually.

HMS: That is a freaking wonderful story.

I heard from another musician that people who played gigs in the parking lot would get something like two records to take home, so I think you did pretty well if you got that many!

Alice Bag: I got ten albums. I’m looking this up, and it was actually “Flash Fearless versus the Zorg Women”, so I think that’s what it was. That was a very proud moment for me, winning the Zorg Women contest!

HMS: That’s something that’s hard to forget!

Alice Bag: Well, for one thing I fell wearing my really cool shoes. I thought I was looking really hot. This was pre-Punk. These were Glam days. So I was actually trying to look cool. I was probably 16 or 17 years old, dressing like a groupie, who were my role models at that time.

HMS: That is so adorable. I love that story so much.

Do you recall hearing the Tower Motto, which was, “No Music, No Life” or “Know Music, Know Life”? Which of those do you prefer, and what does it make you think of in the context of your life?

Alice Bag: The way that I imagined it when you said it was, “No Music, No Life”, and I thought about how sometimes people ask each other, if you had to give up one sense, which sense would you give up? And I always say, I would rather give up my sight rather than my hearing because I can’t imagine life without music. I think it’s a big part of who I am.

Having said that, I know that people who don’t have hearing also experience music in a different way, and they can also enjoy it. But for me, it’s been such a defining part of who I am to be able to create music and share it with people and be able to form friendship on the basis of it. The music is a huge part of me. I think “No Music, No Life” speaks to me most.

HMS: Thank you for sharing so much of your time with us! It’s been wonderful to hear your perspective on so many things.

Alice Bag: Thank you so much for sharing your time, too!

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