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Q&A: Amy Klein On The Blue Star Band, Talking Back On Tumblr, And Patti Smith's Message To The Kids

The last time we checked in with Amy Klein, the Titus Andronicus guitarist/violinist told us about the genesis of the Brooklyn-based activist group Permanent Wave, which has since put on protests, panel discussions, and concerts. Between organizing benefit concerts and playing with both Titus and her other side project Hilly Eye, Klein found the time to release a solo album, I Know What You Want, in March. Tonight, she plays at the Knitting Factory with Vivian Girls and Widowspeak; Klein filled us in on her recently assembled Blue Star Band, the protests her organization helped put on, and reading Patti Smith's Just Kids.

What has Permanent Wave been up to lately?

We did a lot of things over the summer. We organized three political events. We had a protest about the acquittal of the rape cops and that was working with a lot of different feminist groups that put together it together.

What other groups?

It was people from the website Feministing. People from Planned Parenthood. There were independent activists. That was a success for everyone who attended. I think it was really important that women in NYC got together and made a public statement that we were not OK with the acquittal of the officers. We did another event on the day that the officers were sentenced. We had another protest and finally we had a press conference that we helped organize with the office of NYC Councilwoman Letitia James where women spoke out about their support for the victim in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn trial.

Did you personally speak at that press conference?

I didn't make my own statement. I had contacted different leaders of different women's organizations around New York City and New York state to make statements. I emailed them to come read their statements, but I ended up reading the statements from the people who weren't able to attend in person. I was more behind the scenes on that one.

We have monthly benefit shows that we've been doing all summer where we donate the proceeds from the shows to different women's organizations. We choose one organization that we want to benefit every month. We had a really successful one over the summer to raise money for the Willie Mae Rock Camp For Girls, and at our shows we always have female focused bands and performers. This show was really awesome because we had two teenage bands, and we also had three adult bands. Women and girls of all ages were here having this awesome girls mosh pit.

That's a very effective approach to feminist activism—bringing women from all different backgrounds and ages together.

Yeah it was really cool; I hadn't been at a show like that ever. Before the show we had a panel discussion that was organized by a teenager who is involved in Permanent Wave, and she wanted to organize an intergenerational panel on women in music. So, we had a teenager, a twenty something and a thirty something woman who are all involved in different aspects of music to talk about their experience, and we had questions from the audience. It was such an awesome community feeling to have girls of all ages and women of all ages talking with the panelists and them having these different responses. I just felt really good about that particular event so it was an amazing show for me.

Did you perform?

Oh no, I didn't perform. Although I was on the panel. But the performers at that show were really cool. One of the bands was Care Bears on Fire, which is like a teenage girl punk band. We brought in a band from Massachusetts called Big Nils, which is the band of the daughter of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. They're a really noisy live band [made up] of teenagers. We had a band called Sadie Hawkins that is a Riot Grrl-inspired band, and we also had a band called Bad Credit, No Credit, which is more experimental and I'd say jazz influenced.

So there was definitely a big mix of different kinds of women making music?

Yeah. We always try to have our shows be really diverse and open. We don't just want people of one age or all white performers, and we don't even want one genre of music. When you reach out into different genres of music you bring in different people to the show, which makes for a much better audience.

 

Besides working with Permanent Wave you're starting to play shows with the Blue Star Band. I just finished Just Kids—is there a connection between the name of your band and Patti [Smith] and Robert [Mapplethorpe]'s own appropriation of the William Blake poem? What's the significance of the "Blue Star" symbol for you within your band?

You're right that it comes from Just Kids, and I fell in love with that book. They find this reference in a William Blake poem and at that time Patti's doing poetry and Robert's painting or drawing. The blue star in the poem that Blake wrote is a symbol of innocence and also of time moving on. The way it's written in the poem, it's about a man and woman looking up at the sky and looking at the star and thinking about which star they're going to end up in twenty or thirty years.

[Just Kids] is all about innocence versus experience growing up. One of William Blake's most famous books is Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He talks about how you can't have one without the other; even in childhood there is a lot of darkness, and when you grow up you can still somehow hold on to the innocence and beauty that you knew when you were a child. All of these things were all mixed up in our brains, and that's what I hope I would do in my music. I have a voice that can be very quiet and pretty, and I also have a voice that can be very loud and dominant. I'm figuring out how to make the two songs go together, and as a songwriter I'm trying to write songs that have that magical or innocent quality that you'd associate with Joanna Newsom, somebody like that. But, at the same time I want them to be really complex and expressive of my adult life as well.

I also think that the Blue Star Band has a bit of a country feeling, and some of my songs sound Americana. I met so many people who were inspired by [Just Kids]. As I've traveled the world, I've met a lot of girls and women who have been really inspired to pursue the arts because they read the book. It's like that book is a little kicker that tells you it's okay to believe in your own imagination. The blue star is something [Smith and Mapplethorpe would] include in their letters or postcards as a secret clue to each other; it was like a code word for who they are. I feel like that the book is a little note from Patti Smith to all of us—it's like our own blue star code.

So you're trying to carry on the tradition?

Yeah, that book is really about getting inspired to try to have great friendships and enjoy NYC and do something really creative despite all of the shit we have to deal with every day.

Who makes up the Blue Star Band?

The Blue Star Band is basically my friend who heard what I recorded and liked the songs, so she wanted to play them. One girl is the front woman of Delta Hotel. There's another girl who works at the recording studio in Brooklyn where I recorded the album; that's how I met her. There's the drummer I met at the rock camp. There's a cellist that's also involved in Permanent Wave. We have a regular band setup. We're this all-girl, epic folk orchestra.

What's it like playing with all girls, compared to playing with all guys in Titus?

Well, it's a really different kind of music. I noticed that instead of turning my guitar up as loud as possible, in this band my guitar has to sound really delicate. But I think it's a totally different experience in general to be the leader of the band as opposed to just playing guitar. In this band I wrote the songs, and I have to really communicate to everyone how I want them to sound and what I like and don't like. I haven't been in an all-girl band since college. Since doing it again, I realize that I really miss it a lot. It feels really good.

Besides the fact that the music is so dissimilar, what differences do you notice in the press or the crowd's reaction when you play with Titus versus Hilly Eye or The Blue Star band?

I think that the Blue Star Band has never received a review before, so I'm curious to see what people think about it. I don't know what other bands we sound like. I was trying to think of other bands to compare us to, but I'm not sure. One of those things that's interesting that came up with Titus is certain groups of journalists come up with who you will sound like. Like in Titus' case the really early comparisons were Bright Eyes and Bruce Springsteen.

Bright Eyes?! Do you agree with that?

There's definitely a Bruce Springsteen influence, but I think that the Bright Eyes influence may have been overplayed. People were like, "Patrick sings about his feelings." There are tons and tons of people who sing like that. It's funny."

 

Well, maybe it's better that people can approach the Blue Star Band's music with a more open-minded perspective.

Yeah, one thing you can learn from Titus and I've learned from my personal relationship with music and even from doing feminist activities like these protests is that a single event can be interpreted in so many different ways. We had such diverse coverage of our NYPD rape cop protests where some reports were saying there were a dozen people there when there were, like, hundreds. And some websites would be really in favor of the protest and another website would see it as we didn't quite succeed in our goals.

I think—particularly when you do activities especially within feminism, where people have really strong feelings—you see that journalism comes down to the impression or feeling of the reporter. That's a good lesson for writing music. Especially as a woman, because you know you're going to get bad press sometimes and sometimes people are going to criticize what you're doing. If you can sort of distance yourself, you can realize that a lot of it comes down to the reporters' stereotypes.

Particularly though doing politics, I've really realized it on an emotional level. I feel like if I get really bad reviews in the future for my songwriting I don't think I'd really take it personally, which is an awesome lesson to learn: just to keep doing your own thing.

Well, that's why you do interviews—so you can speak for yourself.

Yeah, and I also do blogging, which is really important to me. I love my blog and people didn't have that ten years or twenty years ago when Riot Grrl was getting started. People would eventually talk shit about them in the press. Referring to them in Seventeen magazine and other major publications as something they weren't. Their response was to have a media blackout because they couldn't talk to the press. People were totally distorting who they are and made them look like something they totally were not, like some stupid teen fashion trend. They didn't have blogs, and they didn't have internet. It's sad, right? A lot of people didn't find out about Riot Grrl because they stopped talking to the media, but they had no choice.

But these days if someone talks shit about you for being a feminist you just write back on your Tumblr, and you can really define yourself. You can self-publish and get the word out about who you are and the issues you want them to know. I feel really privileged that I can do that. I guess if you're any artist or band people want to define you or know you are, which is awesome, and sometimes people can limit women as artists by coming with some preconceived notions and not really seeing the artist for the art—only seeing the women behind it.

Something that Wild Flag said in an interview was "Don't limit us, just let us play music for you, and we'll surprise you." A lot of music in general is about using your imagination and closing your eyes when you listen to a song and letting it transport you somewhere. You might come up with an idea that you may associate with the song that the band wasn't even thinking about.

I think it's really awesome to see bands like Wild Flag that are coming into the spotlight now. Just seeing these really amazing women who are all talented at their instruments on stage. I don't think [the Blue Star Band] sound like Wild Flag, but just to have role models out there who are ten years older than you and who are still pursuing the arts. It's powerful.

Amy Klein and the Blue Star Band play the Knitting Factory tonight with Vivian Girls and Widowspeak.

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