Amy Klein plays guitar and violin for rock band Titus Andronicus, which, for those who are unfamiliar, plays songs that make you want to dance and chant “USA!” really loudly — which people do. While on the road, she’s been keeping a fantastic online tour diary about life, music, feminism and media and what a complicated mess they can make when mixed together. But way before she was performing covers of “Rebel Girl” to jam-packed audiences, she was a college radio nerd with me. This week, we caught up over the phone to get super earnest about ladies in rock who rock.
So, you’ve talked a lot about the challenges women face as professional musicians. Not to get all VH1 on you, but given the obstacles, how did you become a Woman In Music?
Since I was a kid, my parents always encouraged me to play music — piano lessons, violin. But I never really got into the whole kind of classical thing. In high school, I got really interested in indie and punk music, and I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. After college, I went to Japan on a research fellowship to interview Japanese female rock musicians, and I was just really inspired by female artists who are living in a pretty repressive society or at least one that doesn’t have the same kind of feminist movement we have and yet these women are creating really awesome art. All of these factors sort of combined to bring me where I am today.
Yeah, I remember getting e-mails from you saying you were hanging out with Melt-Banana and Shonen Knife, two super loud, innovative bands that in one case is woman-fronted and in the other is all women. What is the music scene like for women there and how does it compare to the United States?
One of the things that’s interesting about Japan is that while they don’t have a real feminist movement, they do have, you know, feminist ladies. The movement that took shape in the ‘70s in America didn’t really catch on there. So, they don’t have that sort of political affiliation, and there wasn’t a riot grrrl scene there. But what they do have is a really long history — much longer than American history — and they have thousands of years behind them of women making music and being significant in artistic communities. In general, I think their music scene is a lot more open to women just because women have been participating in music and the arts for such a long time.
It’s also more of a pacifist country, at least on the surface. Things like violence and overt antagonism toward other members of the community were pretty condemned. So, in America, a lot of the early riot grrrl shows were met with people stomping their feet and being really angry — and in Japan you wouldn’t see such overt demonstrations of dissent to a woman getting up on stage, just because that kind of thing isn’t done in public.
And Japan is a community-based culture. The group takes precedence over the individual, as opposed to America, which is an individualistic society. I think Japanese culture stresses the importance of forming and maintaining close-knit groups for both girls and boys when they’re growing up. You see a lot of girls bands, even at the junior high level. In America, I feel like girls and women in particular are often encouraged to compete with each other rather than to support each other. If we could foster a greater culture of cooperation among girls and women in America, we’d probably see more all-female bands here.
I found it really inspirational to think of women without overt political affiliations just doing what their heart tells them to do, and a lot of the time that ends up being something we Americans would call feminist.
And what are the coolest things you see coming out of there?
In addition to the stuff coming out of the noise scene, I like a lot of the girl groups. Kind of retro pop along the lines of Shonen Knife. They were one of the first real Japanese girl bands to make it big, and they’re still going at it after, like, thirty years! They’re still pursuing the same kind of lifestyle, which is still pretty radical when you talk to a middle-aged woman and — although she has a family — her real priority in life is rocking out. Family life, but also rocking out.
Man, family life. I feel like it would be kind of scary to embark on this kind of perilous career if there were social pressures for you to be the one responsible for that, and I just wonder if some of the major issues facing women in the workforce period might be more pronounced for women in music.
Yeah, I agree. It is a very unstable life, and I think most people do it day-to-day. No indie band that I know of expects this to last long term. I mean it would be great if it did, and I’m actually hoping that I will continue to create music throughout my life. But the music industry is really in flux, and it’s hard to know. I think you just have to go after the lifestyle thinking that you’re not going to have any stability, and you have to be pretty comfortable with taking risks in general.
I feel a lot more pressure in terms of time, like ‘well, by the time I’m thirty, what if I end up being married or having kids.’ So, there’s a window of opportunity that’s a lot shorter for women I think. Rock and roll is pretty much the domain of the young.
But Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls recently started a ladies camp which gives older women the chance to form bands for a few days, and now I know several middle-aged women in New York who have just picked up instruments late in life and are starting bands, and I really respect that. And while I do feel some pressure like I have less time to do what I want than guys, I also see myself as one of those middle-aged rocker ladies who is always going to have a band no matter what the other circumstances are in my life.
Do you see any major sociological factors that account for the lack of full-time female musicians out there?
Definitely the way in which we bring up girls to support others in the spotlight as opposed to taking the spotlight themselves. It takes a lot of guts to get up and perform in front of people. I think a lot of people, particularly girls, say ‘well, I’m not talented.’ But it’s not really talent, it’s guts. I think the more we encourage girls to put themselves out there and the less our society criticizes women who put themselves in the spotlight — that would be a good thing.
There’s also just a history of the way that media promotes men in the spotlight, so a lot of girls grow up without immediately knowing there’s that possibility for them.
OK. Let’s say some benevolent deity suddenly makes you editor of Rolling Stone. What does your next issue look like?
My next issue definitely has a female guitarist on the cover. There are so many women who are doing that quintessential rock star shredding kind of stuff that just seems to drive the crowds wild, and at the same time people will comment on my blog ‘I haven’t really heard of any good female rock bands since Sleater-Kinney, who’s out there?’ Which is sad, because there are tons of people out there. They’re just not getting that much coverage.
Screaming Females has this shredder guitar player who has this voice that’s kind of a mix of Guns N’ Roses and X-Ray Spex vocals, so maybe I’d include an article on female shredders and put her in there. Also, Marnie Stern, who people like to criticize a lot because she’s another very technically skilled guitar player. I would have lots of pictures of women with their clothes on, and maybe not wearing dresses. And maybe looking kind of dirty and sweaty, but really rocking out and smiling and having a good time. Maybe I would include a Top 200 songs of the ‘90s as a response to Pitchfork’s list — there weren’t too many women represented in the top ten: just Aaliyah and the girl from My Bloody Valentine.
What outlets are doing coverage like that?
There’s Bust, Venus Zine, and this new magazine Tom Tom that’s for female drummers. I also like to read personal zines, which can be about music but also about more taboo subjects — I found one recently about living with chronic pain, about panic attacks, about abusive relationships. Those things are pretty awesome for the punk community and making it a supportive place for women.
There’s also obviously the Internet. There are tons of blogs run by female music writers. As everyone knows, that’s really the future, and it’s a good thing for women who often don’t have the access to be published in a major magazine.
You’re sort of a prime example of that with your tour diary.
I just started it on a whim, because I kept a tour diary in a notebook and then decided to put in online because I liked a lot of bloggers I was reading. I wasn’t really prepared for the outpouring of support I got.
There was a post at Tiger Beatdown by Silvana Naguib that got into how it can be difficult to be the only woman in a band and to even join a band at all — generally, and from her bandmates specifically. Has this been your experience at all in any of the bands you’ve been in?
So the guys in Titus Andronicus have been very supportive musically. There’s a lot of respect all around.
I have been discouraged by other men from making music, and I remember thinking when I first joined a band that was me and a bunch of guys that I wasn’t good enough and that I was never going to do it again, you know? But somehow it ended up happening!
I mean the gender of the people I play with is not the most important thing to me, although it is really nice to play with other women, which I do in my spare time when I’m not on the road.
And what’s it like being the lone woman in an otherwise all-dude touring band?
I think it’s actually good for everyone in Titus Andronicus, because it leads to a lot of conversations in our tour van about gender that probably wouldn’t go on if I wasn’t there. But yeah, it is hard, too, because mostly it’s lonely. It’s sometimes like being an outsider no matter how hard you try to fit in.
Their survey was awesome! Like I said, one of the things that’s just so hard is the loneliness of often being outnumbered 20-to-1 when you show up before a concert — there’s the team of sound guys, and promoter and the booking agent, and the rest of the bands. So, it can seem like you’re the only one in this world, but the truth is you’re not. It’s just that female musicians often don’t have the same types of networks that they guys have developed over a long time. It was just great to hear that there are other women going through the same thing.
I also really appreciated the advice from older women. Like they had advice from Exene Cervenka of X, and it’s nice to see role models in that survey who have done this for a long time and survived. It’s like OK, you can do this, too.
You’ve written about this previously, but you have encountered sexist criticism on this past tour. Apart from blogging, how do you deal with that?
Well, I’m not really sure. I’ve had moments where I’m totally dumbfounded, and I don’t know what to do. Blogging has been good because sometimes other people will tell me how they deal with it. This woman recently wrote to me to say that when the sound guy calls her ‘honey’ or ‘sweetie,’ she’ll actually call him ‘sweetie’ right back. Like, into the microphone, ‘Oh, sweetie, can you up the levels on my mic?’
But I don’t really know. Confronting sexism is something that every girl struggles with. Like, do you ignore it, or do you try to change the person’s mind? I’m still learning how to deal with it.
You mentioned that you learned how to play piano and violin when you were young. When I was a kid, I was put straight on the piano track, even though by second grade I had expressed an interest in learning how to play drums or bass or something that would let me join a band where we could produce stuff. And a lot of girls I hung out with growing up were sort of on the same recitals-only path. Meanwhile, as time went on, more and more boys at my school were picking up guitars and louder instruments that they’d fool around with. Do you think there’s sort of a split between emphasis on performance for girls and emphasis on creation for boys in music education, or was that just sort of my singular experience growing up?
Yeah, definitely. Girls are encouraged to be perfect and to perform and receive validation from others, and guys don’t have that same pressure a lot of the time. You know, when I was taking piano lessons, I remember thinking it was funny that the teacher taught the guys music theory but he didn’t teach the girls music theory. And it wasn’t that I particularly had an interest in music theory, but music theory actually led to a lot of guys writing stuff, and I remember a lot of guys composing piano pieces for competitions and stuff like that.
And I think it never even occurred to me that I had the potential or power to write a song. I don’t think it occurred to me until really late. Maybe at like 17 or so, I had a friend whose name was also named Amy, and she took guitar lessons and she told me she wrote a song, and I listened to it was like, ‘This is really good!’ And it suddenly occurred to me that I could write my own songs. I don’t think I ever had anyone else telling me I could do that or encouraging me to do that. All it takes is one model in this case.
So who are some other role models you have?
My favorite band of all time is Afrirampo, which is the two-girl noise band from Japan. They’re known having really raucous and crazy and also kind of sexy live shows, which is really awesome because they use their sexuality in a way that is very powerful and subversive and not objectifying. Their music is very free-wheeling and improvised — and very loud.
I already mentioned her, but another good role model is Marnie Stern. She actually didn’t release her first album until she was 30, and she worked really hard in obscurity in her 20s. It’s like it doesn’t have to happen for you at the same time it’s happening for everyone else.
To play the devil’s advocate for a hot second, it’s been said that this is actually a great time for women in music. Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Taylor Swift — they’re some of the biggest names and top-grossing artists out there. Is pop music doing something right that maybe other genres aren’t?
Lady Gaga is really interesting, because she’s such a self-conscious pop performers who make us think about what pop is and how much artificiality goes into the creation of a pop star. A lot of songs are written by focus groups, and a lot of planning goes into what a woman will wear and how she’ll present herself in her stage show. It’s sort of like a team or an organization, although someone like Lady Gaga has a lot of control over her image.
I’m just imaging Katy Perry, Inc. right now.
Yeah, there’s tons of people behind this. Pop stars are selling sexuality — the songs are mostly about love and straight romance. But if you’re a woman who doesn’t want to be sexualized, it‘s hard to market yourself. There’s a lot of pressure for woman to inhabit a sexual role, and that’s fine if women want to take advantage of that — that’s awesome, go for it. But I don’t think that should have to be the chief point of reference for a female performer.
I guess it is a great time for women in music on one level, though, because girls are growing up seeing people like Beyonce, who are pretty tough. There have always been women in pop music; I just think it’s strange that while women dominate the pop chart right now, they’re so underrepresented in rock and jazz.
And Amy, how are you doing in general!
I’m doing fine! I have a day off, and we never have days off, so I’m just like Oh My God what do I do?
Titus Andronicus will be touring the Pacific Northwest this week and will probably be looking for things to do. If you have suggestions for Amy, reach out to her here. You can also catch them in D.C. on September 24 at the Rock & Roll Hotel.