Do you want to or just appear to? Do you wanna be or be seen? Petrol Girls ask exactly that as their debut album draws to a close, and it’s what they have to ask themselves at each step as they make music while advocating for a smashing of the status quo, for a complete overhaul and change. They challenge the listener to ask the same of themselves.
“That is something that I think about so much,” admits singer Ren Aldridge. “Especially trying to be politically active and play in a political punk band. How far am I doing, like actually doing, political action? And how far is it just performed?
“This is a question that all of us that are politically active in the social media age need to think about. It’s like looking both ways – this idea of looking inwards at yourself and what your motivations are as well as outwards at the bigger picture. The end lyrics of that song are, ‘What do you care about? Have you asked yourself?’ and I’m just really pleased with it as an ending note on the record.”
Their debut ‘Talk of Violence’ is on one hand performing feminism and politics – it, in fact, does so incredibly well. They’re aptly violent, raucous and taking no prisoners as they decry many issues of today’s society – but it goes far beyond a statement for statement’s sake. Take ‘Touch Me Again’ as an example. Tackling consent and sexual assault with a bloody fury, the song ends with Ren yelling – genuine throat-shreddingly yelling – “Touch me again and I’ll fucking kill you” repeatedly, with no backing. It’s not an aggressive soundbite for an album – it’s daring you to look away and try to ignore the implications.
“When we began Petrol Girls, it was a critical moment amongst our small section of friends and the music community,” she explains. “I was personally experiencing a lot where I was finally talking about assault, sexual assaults that I’d experienced and people were listening and not telling me to shut up about it.
“We started to speak more about consent on stage firstly to hope that we could put across this idea, ‘Look, don’t have sex with people when they’re unconscious’ and basic shit because, actually, no one teaches you that. That’s not explicitly taught in sex education. But it was also to reach out to people who had experience of that kind of stuff and say, ‘You’re not crazy, your experiences are true and we stand with you’.”
Petrol Girls add their voice to a movement, the likes of which the Twitter campaign Everyday Sexism has spearheaded, with tangents like Girls Against making a stand for the music scene in particular. “Everyday Sexism has been amazing because so much of this stuff like street harassment is just so every day that we don’t even bother talking about it. I always go back to the metaphor of a thousand tiny paper cuts makes a gaping wound. It was like a newsflash when I realised that getting touched up at shows wasn’t my fault and some of the instances that I’d experienced that made me feel uncomfortable were sexual assault. There’s so much hysteria around this language – ‘Oh no, that can’t have actually happened’ or ‘Oh no, he’s a nice guy, he can’t have done that’.
“‘Touch me again and I’ll fucking kill you’ just sort of fell out my mouth in practice,” she continues. “We receive quite a lot of criticism for it because people think ‘Well that’s pretty violent’, or whatever. The album’s called ‘Talk of Violence’ and the running theme is these different insidious forms of violence that no one calls violence. Particularly women, undergo sexual violence all the fucking time and I think it’s more than acceptable for that to be reacted to with violence. I find the Gulabi Gang in India, for example, so inspiring – they’re these women vigilantes in pink saris that will beat the crap out of men that are sexually violent abusers and stuff like that. That’s where I’m coming at with that.”
The album came to life surprisingly quickly. “It was pretty ambitious,” laughs Ren. “We just absolutely went for it, stuck the practices in really hard, wrote it in London and then we were still kind of finishing songs as we recorded it.” No time was wasted – many of the lyrics were improvised during recording and just worked. There was no pressure to be perfect. A lot of it came out on a subconscious level, and afterwards, they could step back and take in exactly what the album was about.
“I hold quite strong political beliefs that I wouldn’t be able to keep out of it even if I tried,” says Ren, on the influences and issues that seeped into their debut. “When we were writing, I’d just come back from spending quite a lot of time in Calais, and when we recorded it I’d just come back from a conference in Hamburg that was run by refugees. I think being involved in that and also looking at all the other crazy, crazy shit happening in the world at the moment… I’m not going to pretend to be super articulate or have any answers, but this was about expressing all of those thoughts, putting them together, being able to take a step back from it and look at it and realising, ‘Okay, these things do connect’.”
And they do. ‘Talk of Violence’ is a game changer, a furious, targeted game changer. It’s the embodiment of the power art and music can have against a hell of a messed up world.
“Historically, you can always see counterculture alongside or as part of political movements,” she explains. “Let’s take nationalism as an example: at the moment we’re seeing a horrible increase in nationalism, and in some places, that’s taking the form of fascism and it’s getting really, really scary. I think the idea of being proud of your country and where you’re from and all of this bollocks is embedded in culture, in TV, in a lot of sport, in the ceremonies that go on and a lot of stuff. That point that it begins, where you form your identity as English or whatever, it goes from there.
“I think counterculture can challenge it at that early beginning stage, asking, ‘Why are we proud of where we come from?’ That’s ridiculous. It doesn’t matter where. I’m really embarrassed to be English most of the time because of our shocking history!”
“My idea of what a revolution is and can be has really changed a lot over the years,” says Ren. “I hope that this idea of national identity starts to dissolve because at the moment it’s solidifying and it’s literally part of what’s creating walls both metaphorical and physical all across the world. I always think some really cool stuff is happening in terms of the gender binary. It’s not smashing – it would be great if it just smashed – but it is starting to blur and it is starting to dissolve, and the way that we’re thinking about masculinity and femininity is shifting. Ultimately, I want the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to burn, but I think it’s going to be more of a dissolving…”
In the course of revolution, the question of whether you do or appear to is never far off. Based on their debut, Petrol Girls aren’t a statement, they’re a fucking movement.
Taken from the November issue of Upset, out now – order your copy here. Petrol Girls’ album ‘Talk of Violence’ is out now.