Petrol Girls Interview: “Anyone Who Defies Their Gender Is Vilified Or Pacified”

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petrol girls interview
Photograph by Keira-Anee.

Debut Album Talk of Violence  Out November Via Bomber Music.

Petrol Girls is wonderfully apt name for this feminist post hardcore quartet from East London. Their music is incendiary, raging with an earnest disgust that is both rousing and inspiring. Advocating complete social and political change, the group have released a succession of singles and EPs over the course of the last three years that are as powerful and cacophonous as they are intelligent and questioning.

Vocalist and guitarist with the group, Ren Aldridge, was gracious enough to have a rather in depth chat with us recently. Showing the passion that imbues Petrol Girls’ music, Ren touches on topics of gender, liberalism, conservatism, and the hilarity of dick prints.

O: Your name is inspired by Pétroleuses, mythical women of the Paris commune who allegedly set fire to private property with Molotov cocktails made from milk bottles, and rejected traditional gender roles. What drew you to their story?

Ren Aldridge: I heard about them in a talk Laurie Penny was giving on Women and Protest and just immediately thought the loose translation she gave of ‘Petrol Girls’ sounded like a great band name! The more I read into them, the more I felt they symbolised a lot of the politics I wanted to express through the band, and I like the idea of deliberately aligning ourselves with the history of militant direct action from the left.

I also like the fact they are mythical. There were militant women active around the Paris Commune, but the press at the time created this exaggerated idea of them, in order to vilify them. Women, and anyone else who defies the constraints of their gender, have been and will probably continue to be vilified or pacified by conservative dominant powers at whatever point in time. But this vilification just comes from those powers feeling threatened, and a fear of change.

Ultimately those trying to vilify les Pétroleuses gave them more power by naming and mythologising them – they became a symbol and part of culture. You can see this pattern throughout feminist history, and I think its most powerful when its adopted deliberately, like the protest group W.I.T.C.H. in the US for example.

O: Your new song, ‘Phallocentric’, deals with the penis as a symbol of male dominance in culture. What do you think needs to be done on a larger scale to balance gender representation in culture?

RA: And how this is both a result of, and backdrop to, a focus on the penis and male pleasure/ dominance in heterosexual sex, which is very … limiting. So much art, music and culture is about sex really, and can be an incredibly powerful way of either maintaining dominant attitudes or breaking them down. I think promoters and curators need to do their job properly and find artists who aren’t just straight white men for their gigs, exhibitions, films etc. I needed to see other women on stage to imagine myself up there.

Festival line ups are still especially shocking. We need to keep shouting about it, and keep the pressure up for things to change. I think its really cool when guys make a statement about it as well. Dennis from Refused says something every time they play about the lack of women on festival bills, and they make a concerted effort to include women on gig line ups that they have a say in. I also recently took part in a brilliant art exhibition run by a Girl Power Liverpool called, ‘Women, where do you find yourselves in the arts?’ which brought together loads of creative women and demanded a conversation about the representation of women in art. We’ve just got to keep on pushing!

O: ‘Phallocentric’ aims to ‘ridicule conservative attitudes’. Do you think there is a balance to be found between conservative and liberal ideals that would be beneficial for all or is that not possible?

RA: I don’t think the idea of a balance between those two ideals even makes sense! Conservative means “averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values” whereas liberal, in its most basic sense, means “willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.” The reason that people tend to be conservative, and resistant to change, is because they hold power and personally benefit from the way things are. Their ideals are concerned with maintaining their dominance: their wealth or power.

What would a balance between these two ideals look like? Respecting different ideas to some extent but not “too much”? Allowing a bit of change but nothing that rocks the boat “too much”? I’d actually argue that liberal ideas don’t go far enough and would consider my ideals, and those of Petrol Girls to be radical: advocating complete political or social change. I think holding radical ideals comes from understanding the privilege and power structures that are at play and that oppress certain people because of their gender, race and a whole load of other factors. The world isn’t dominated by straight rich white men because they’re inherently better or more deserving – its structural.

I saw some great graffiti in the toilets in a venue somewhere: “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem, because its not a problem to you personally… you fucking bigot.” We have to think about privilege and power to change society positively.

O: The video for ‘Phallocentric’ looks like it was a lot of fun to make. What is the concept behind the video?

RA: It was so much fun! I think my ear wax is still blue and green..

There’s this really famous piece of performance art where the artist Yves Klein painted naked women ‘International Klein Blue’ (whilst fully clothed himself – suited up in fact!) then ‘conducted’ them printing their bodies and using themselves like paintbrushes. This happened in the early 1960’s which is a really interesting point in time for performance art. If you think about how the female body has been treated throughout art history then you can see the logic in Klein painting naked women blue. Klein’s art was pretty ground breaking conceptually, but totally maintained patriarchal values. Instead of just painting pictures of naked women, he got actual naked women to act as paintbrushes themselves. It kind of makes the sexism even more obvious in this newer context.

Anyway, I’d messed around with painting myself multi-coloured and making body prints when I was at art school, and felt like playing with this idea fitted really well with ‘Phallocentric’. The intro shows a straight forward subversion of Klein’s piece, with me, fully clothed, painting a naked man blue and making him print his body. I added a cheeky butt slap to emphasise the sexual nature of this power dynamic, which has proved controversial with YouTube’s righteous MRAs, as you might expect. After this straight forward subversion, Klein’s idea is then exploded as various pairs of different genders, sexual orientations and levels of intimacy paint each other different colours. Their body prints are also layered on the film. (Dick prints are hilarious.) The chorus lyric is “Unleash disorder, fuck what they taught us” which rejects conservative attitudes to sex and celebrates the whole rainbow of possibilities. Andrew Northrop who filmed and edited the video decided to shoot it as two screens so that one could be more like an art film and the other more like a standard music video, which is genius because its a song about art and sex.

O: Recently, you expressed solidarity with the Tuts in relation to the abhorrent sexist reaction they received at Undercover fest. What do you think can be done to tackle this type of sexism towards women at gigs and festivals?

RA: Listen to the women affected and to what they want to do about it.

Don’t try and tell women that they’re wrong about their own experiences.

Let them take it into their own hands if they want to.

Good Night Out campaign is an excellent starting point for training venue or festival staff in how to deal with incidents of sexual violence, and displaying Good Night Out posters can help give people receiving harassment the confidence to report it, and do something towards stopping assholes doing this shit. There should be zero tolerance for sexual assault and harassment in gig and festival spaces. Love Sex Hate Sexism also produce excellent posters and flyers explaining ideas about consent, which does loads to prevent this shit happening in the first place, and can help victims feel more confident about fighting back.

O: Will ‘Phallocentric’ be a stand alone single, or do you have any upcoming plans to record an album?

RA: It’s on our debut full length Talk of Violence which is coming out in November on Bomber Music. We’ll have physical copies of it on our October/ November tour leading up to the release, so come out to a show if you want to get your hands on a copy before then.

O: Another recent single of yours is ‘Treading Water’. What inspired that song?

RA: ‘Treading Water’ mixes up loads of different influences and thoughts about borders, austerity, violence and climate change. Some of the lyrics are an attempt to co-opt the scaremongering language of the media e.g. ‘waves’ of immigration. Other lyrics place the imagined voices of groups that are often pitted against each other, side by side, blending them in places. I wanted to put an imagined migrant voice next to an imagined skint European voice and allow the different voices to make new sentences together, like “Those who take// my hands.” Its so important that as antifascists we don’t totally ignore the voices of economically deprived Europeans because those are the communities where fascism has traditionally been able to take hold as migrants get scapegoated for problems that are really caused by bosses, austerity and capitalism. We need to talk about how our struggles connect and stand in solidarity with each other. Treading Water most obviously refers to the current genocide in the mediterranean see, as people aren’t allowed to cross safely because they don’t have the “right” fucking passport. But its also about treading water – trying to keep your head above water – financially.

Influence’s include Kate Tempest’s song ‘Europe is Lost’, ideas from ‘This Changes Everything’ by Naomi Klein, stories people have told, and a flyer about different forms of violence that was circulated at anti-austerity demonstrations in London about five years ago. The song is an expression of, and hopefully a call for more active, solidarity with people without papers, which forms part of a longer struggle against borders, capitalism, the nation state and the violence these structures produce.

O: What is success for Petrol Girls?

RA: Survival! Finding a way to get by whilst doing this band and not compromising on our politics. And being part of a counter culture that can shift people’s attitudes in Europe away from all the scary fascist bullshit we’re seeing at the moment. I think music and art can be useful ways of trying to get our heads around what’s happening, and build up communities that we can root our resistance in. It’s mainstream culture that’s maintaining ideas like national pride and the gender binary, so I really believe counter culture has an important role to play in smashing this.

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