Amy Klein is a busy woman. Her most high-profile gig is playing guitar for Thomas-Paine-for-the-Twitter-Generation art-punks Titus Andronicus, but she makes a diverse plethora of music on her own. Her two-piece noise machine hilly eye recently stole the show at the Knitting Factory’s star-studded Kathleen Hanna tribute; she also recently released a solo album of serene folk meditations called I Know What You Want. Moreover, she frequently blogs about life on the road and modern feminism, and recently began taking her activism offline: A riot grrl apostle since third grade who’s been known to sing a cover of “Rebel Girl” during Titus gigs, she helped organize the Brooklyn-based activist group Permanent Wave, which held its inaugural event on Super Bowl Sunday at Death by Audio and is currently working with the managers of the Market Hotel Project to provide concerts, workshops, and meeting spaces for feminists of all stripes.
Klein recently suffered a concussion when Titus’ van door smacked her in the head during a harsh wind, but she was kind enough to soldier through and meet up at a Brooklyn coffee shop to talk about her various projects, and why no one wants to be feminist anymore.
So, tell me how Permanent Wave got started.
Let’s see. It started in December, when we had a meeting at my house. It was an open meeting, and it was advertised on the Internet that anyone could come. At that point we had a discussion about a lot of the things that we were dissatisfied with in the world around us and in our own lives when it comes to being a woman, and then we talked about what we thought an ideal world would look like for women, and then we talked about what we may do in order to get there. After that we started an e-mail list where we can all communicate together, and started having other meetings at people’s houses.
Right now we have a feminist health collective that is working on issues related to women’s health care, and we also have an event series that we’re planning. We had our first event last month, for the Center For Domestic Violence, which operates different shelters and educational programs for relationship abuse, teen relationship abuse in the city schools — they put it in the curriculum and also help victims. We had a lot of different female performers come together at the event: There were spoken-word artists, there were rock bands, there were people distributing ‘zines and information, there were participatory activities for the audience to engage in, as far as what is a healthy relationship and what is a relationship with abuse.
So right now we’re just looking to get as many girls and women involved as possible, with the idea that women and girls are usually encouraged to compete with each other, rather than connect with and support each other . . . a lot of what’s missing is the community aspect among women that I think some women found protesting in the ’70s or I think riot grrls found in the ’90s. We didn’t grow up with any kind of pro-girl message or pro-girl community.
So, forgive a broad question here, but what do you think happened? Not just with riot grrl, but, I mean, there’s been a ton of great female musicians during the last 10 years, but it’s hard to think of many that really wave the feminist flag.
I think feminism as a whole has gotten a bad rap from right-wing conservatives, mostly. “Feminazis.” We all know that.
I’ve heard the term.
I saw a great picture of a sign that somebody had at the recent New York Planned Parenthood rally. “‘Feminazi,’ because equal rights are the same thing as invading Poland,” or something like that. So for whatever reason, this phrase that doesn’t mean very much is one that has been ingrained in us since my generation has grown up. I think we know that feminists are possibly lesbians, definitely unsexy . . .
Yeah, we all hate men! And we’re angry. That’s the worst thing, that a woman could be angry about something. Yeah, feminism is not just trashed by the right wing, it’s trashed by everybody, all the time. I grew up thinking, “Oh, we are post-feminist now. Whatever that means.” Feminism really hasn’t been in vogue, and I think for a lot of people, not just artists but also people, you’re tarnishing your reputation if you say you’re a feminist, you’re diminishing your market. Men may not want to listen to you or buy your records, and you also make yourself unsexy and uncool. Riot grrl was very successful because they managed to make feminism sexy and cool. I think empowerment is very sexy and cool, and there’s no reason you can’t believe that.
I think another stereotype is now that we have riot grrl, a lot of musical artists don’t want to say they’re feminists because your music might be labeled as riot grrl or explicitly political. And some artists . . . they’re women, but they might not want to talk about politics in their music, or their music sounds nothing like riot grrl. I still think it would be really awesome if more artists came out as feminists. Because I’ve done a lot of interviews with female artists myself. Although they might not want to label themselves as feminists, many strong, confident, artistic women have beliefs in female equality and that kind of thing. I don’t hold it against anyone if they’re like, “I don’t want to label myself.” Whatever, it’s cool. It’s enough to do something that inspired women, whether you want to label yourself as feminist or not.
Some times I wonder how much of it has to do with feminism, and how much of it is that people don’t like labels, period. I’ve never talked to a band that’s been, “Oh yeah, we’re definitely indie rock.” Everyone is always, “We just have these influences, but I don’t know if I’d call myself that . . . .”
Yeah, and there’s a lot of baggage with being a feminist. I think people of color might not identify with the word feminist because it’s been viewed as a historically white movement. So it’s a post-modern way of thinking about stuff, where a lot of us are just reluctant to label our identities. I think the reason that feminism is still important, though, as an ideology, is that circumstances have largely remained unchanged since the ’70s. We’re not post-feminist according to this survey that was recently done where they looked at major literary magazines and major newspapers and found that the number of articles published by women is really insignificant compared to articles by men. And the number of books that are reviewed by women in, say, the New York Times Book Review, is really small compared to men. And the government is still mostly men, and domestic-violence rates have remained pretty much unchanged since the ’70s. It’s not really a thing that we are past as a society. We need something in there telling girls that they’re powerful and strong and can grow up to be who they want to be, whether that’s feminism or that’s something else. If girls don’t have that, then they’re going to have a really shitty time of it.
So you have your noisy two-piece hilly eye, and now you have your folk-y solo project. How did those come about?
Well, I’ve always been involved in writing my own songs, and I’ve always been in a bunch of bands at the same time. I was in hilly eye and writing solo stuff long before I was in Titus Andronicus. I started hilly eye because I was really influenced by Japanese noise music, in particular this band Afrirampo. They’re a two-girl noise band — they make a shit-ton of noise. I think in Japanese the name loosely translates to “naked violent rock” or something like that, but it’s a made-up word. But they’re a great example of all that’s great and all that’s weird about Japanese underground music. I wanted to have a noise band like theirs when I came back. I remember seeing them play at a Todd P show in a parking lot, some place in Williamsburg many, many years ago, and just seeing them and being like, “This is what I want to do with my life,” because they were really, really inspirational. People talk about maybe having a bias when you see a girl band go onstage and you don’t know what they’re going to do. But when people see some teenage Japanese girls go onstage, people have even more of a bias. Especially in the U.S. “Oh, they’ll be cute!” But this band was totally turning expectations on their head, and had the most violent and loud and noisy show I’ve ever seen. So hilly eye comes out of wanting to make noise and sing really loudly, and make something a lot more experimental, because I like experimental music, and Titus is very rooted in the punk tradition. I love punk music, too.
The solo stuff I’ve been working on for a really long time. I wrote a lot of psychedelic-influenced songs when I was living in Japan. I played in Tokyo a fair amount when I lived there. Also, I studied poetry in college. I was an English and creative-writing major, so I put a lot of my interest in poetry into the songs that I sing by myself. It actually ended up sounding a lot like classic ’60s folk like Nick Drake or Sandy Denny from Fairport Convention. There’s maybe a little bit of Stevie Nicks, a little bit of Americana in there. As someone who really reveres Joanna Newsom, every time she goes farther into Americana, I follow. It’s very much soft, melodic, poetic . . . probably the farthest you could go from a loud rock band, though there are parts that rock. The drummer on the album is my friend Nick (Shuminksy), the drummer from Free Energy, who we toured with for a long time. But I did all the other instruments myself and wrote all the songs myself.
That’s quite a range you’ve got, from psychedelic folk to noise-rock to epic punk.
Yeah, I’ve never been one to specialize or focus. I admire people like Patti Smith, because they were Renaissance women, they didn’t limit themselves to a genre. She could do poetry and novels and songs, and she even does paintings. Maybe it’s more successful in the long run if you specialize, but I’ve never been concerned with success by any traditional standard.