Earlier this month, KEXP shined a spotlight on the women of the late-'70s London punk scene, in correlation with our annual International Clash Day celebration. One of the bands we featured was The Raincoats, one of the first all-female bands to proudly declare themselves feminists. Their music has since gone on to influence generations of musicians like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and even Nirvana. And now, co-founding member Gina Birch continues to inspire, releasing her first-ever solo album today via Third Man Records. It is boldly titled: I Play My Bass Loud.
Gina spoke with us over Zoom from her North London home. Now 67 years old, she still retains a youthful energy, wearing blue sparkly eyeshadow and a bright smile. She radiates warmth and humility, and is quick to laugh and marvel over her decades-long career so far. I asked Gina, what initially drew her to the bass four decades ago?
“I think it was a process of deduction, to be perfectly frank. I went to a place I felt I could cope with: four strings,” she laughed. “And I thought, Oh, that will be interesting. But I had heard a lot of ska records, and I've got a lot of reggae records, and so that's where I drew my inspiration because I could play along to records and learn those bass lines. And that was great fun. And I realized then, in reggae and in jazz, this kind of can be the spine of the song. And reggae is just like the skank off and on the guitar, so there's space for this sinuous bass, you know, and then you've thought, the bass is great! And you suddenly realize, perhaps that's what drew me to the bass all along. Who knew?”
As the bassist and vocalist for The Raincoats, Gina and co-founder Ana da Silva took a uniquely avant-garde approach to post-punk. Like many London-based bands of the time, they incorporated elements of reggae into their work, but they also explored influences of jazz and even classical music (their violinist Vicky Aspinall had graduated from the Royal College of Music, London).
Vicky was also the band’s gateway to feminism, a movement that was gaining traction in the late ‘70s London but was still considered a bit of a “dirty word” in the testosterone-fueled UK punk scene dominated by bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols.
“The way feminism was represented in the media was as something very ugly,” Gina remembered. “You know, women were man-hating and had hairy legs and did terrible things. As a young woman, it was difficult straddling that.”
“For me, really, it wasn’t even something I had thought about. I don’t know where my head was at,” she reflected. “But it was when Vicky had joined the band. Vicky had come from York University and had been involved in a more political environment. And she said, ‘Look, you write your own songs, you work out all your stuff, you do your own artwork, you're doing all this stuff around this project. You're not being told what to do. You're making this yourself.’ And she said, ‘That is a feminist act. That action of doing is actually taking control, and it’s what would be called feminism.’ And we were kind of like, ‘Oh maybe, I suppose so, I suppose so.’”
“And then I started to read about feminism, and a lot of it was incredibly depressing,” she continued. “As my friend, Helen, said, ‘Once you started to look around you at the world, you realized, you know, that was a difficult place for a feminist.’ The whole world was set up against you, against women, in that way.”
As a newly-autonomous college student, one of Gina’s earliest songs exploring independence was the 1982 single “No One’s Little Girl.”
“Coming to London, I'd suddenly realized I'd always had a boyfriend up till then. You know, you have a boyfriend, you hang out with your boyfriends' friends, you listen to your boyfriends' music,” she mused. “And suddenly there I was. I was kind of liberated and I liked this idea of being no one's little girl. Because girls were kind of infantilized at that time. You're not necessarily encouraged to be noisy and outrageous and outspoken. So I liked this idea that I could be my own thing and turn people down and do what I wanted to do. So I wrote that… And I also wrote ‘In Love’ shortly after. [Laughing] I think I had a crush on someone at that point in time. Damn, my theory is gone already!”
Feminism is still an important topic for Gina. Her first foray into a solo career was the powerful single “Feminist Song,” released last year by Third Man Records. The song expresses a sentiment that stands just as true in the ‘70s as it does today. Gina told us, she actually wrote it 15 years ago, and the song became a staple of The Raincoats’ sets when they reunited for some live shows in the early 2000s.
“Ana didn't really want to do any new songs, so we were just kind of playing through our old catalog, which, you know, was interesting, but I'd been writing some stuff,” she told us. “When Dave Buick [Operations Manager] from Third Man asked me if I — well, he asked if The Raincoats wanted to do something and Ana didn't want to. And I said, well, I do because I had these few songs. And so we released ‘Feminist Song.’ Ana is actually on it because she had some monotron she was playing live and it was really nice. I asked if she'd do that, and she did.”
“I like that song because it goes through these three different stages or places,” she continued. “That kind of statement about what's happening with feminism, and then about anger. And then the last verse, which is always very pleasurable to sing about things that make me happy. I couldn't have just written a song about being happy. So, it kind of is quite nice that it can appear at the end of the song.”
Twenty years after The Raincoats broke ground with their music, a new scene called “riot grrrl” was emerging out of Olympia, WA that also infused politics and punk. One band from that scene, in particular, was Bikini Kill. I was touched to hear that Gina took as much inspiration from them as they did from The Raincoats.
“We held mirrors up to each other. It was so great,” Gina enthused. “That riot grrrl thing was so inspiring to us. You know, Kathleen Hanna doing the splits and talking about wages and sexual assault and so on and so forth. I mean, what a powerhouse. And Tobi Vail — I mean, just brilliant women. And the courage. I mean, we had a modicum of courage. We had courage in our own way, and they took that courage further. And then the Pussy Riot girls were like, whoa, you know? So, I might have risked having something thrown at me. Bikini Kill, probably risked getting beaten up and, Pussy Riot going to the gulag or whatever.”
(In fact, Gina was so inspired by the work of Pussy Riot, the feminist punk group out of Russia, that she wrote an ode to them on her brand-new album.)
Kurt Cobain was another Northwest artist who found inspiration in The Raincoats. In the liner notes for Nirvana’s 1992 compilation album Insecticide, he tells the story of a trip to London, where he and his wife Courtney Love tried to track down a copy of The Raincoats' debut album and instead found Ana of The Raincoats herself. At the time, Gina and Ana hadn’t even heard of Nirvana.
“He and Courtney went into the Rough Trade shop in West London,” she remembered. “You know, it was all out of print. No one had a copy of it. And Judy, who was part of the shop, she said, “Oh, I know. Ana’s working in the shop just around the corner. Why don't you go and see if she's got a copy?” So, they went up the road to where Ana was working and walked in, and she didn't know who they were. And they weren't there very long, because Ana actually, strangely, had the one customer in. She’d only get one – maybe no customers – every day. But, they were there for a short while.”
“But after that, Judy rang. “Did they come? Did they come yet?” And then we all listened to Nirvana. We were like, Blimey, they're great, they’re brilliant!”
Kurt was instrumental in introducing The Raincoats to a new audience. He helped them get their albums reissued and released in America for the very first time. He even invited them to open for Nirvana, but sadly, the tour never happened as Kurt died by suicide in 1994.
Gina recalled, “I'd gone off and was doing film at the Royal College of Arts, and I remember, I was in the edit suite when I got a phone call from Russell Warby, who was Nirvana's agent in the UK and would the Raincoats like to go on tour with Nirvana? It's like, Oh my God, of course! It's crazy to do it, but mad not to. And so I didn't follow through with my film career, but I followed through on my music career.”
Which brings us back to her first-ever solo release. For I Play My Bass Loud, Gina teamed up with Martin Glover (aka Youth), a fellow bassist from the late ’70s London band Killing Joke.
“He's very creative and inventive and calm, basically, and very encouraging of me, you know?” she smiled. “Sometimes I'd say, ‘Oh, I'm not going to play guitar on this,’ and he'd say, ‘No, come on, you've got to play guitar.’ And I would think, ‘I'm not really a good guitarist,’ and he said, ‘Well, that's what I like about it!’ He wanted me to be me.”
“He’s not one of those perfectionist producers who would say, ‘Oh, well, we'll get someone else to play that’ Which, of course, happens a lot of the time to women — and bands in general, men as well, you know. ‘We'll get someone who could play that better.’ And so, my guitar is all over the album. Mistakes are part of my whole oeuvre when it comes to life.”
The Raincoats continue to perform; in fact, they just played earlier this month at the White Cube Gallery in London. And now with her debut album, Gina is looking forward to hitting the road herself. No U.S. tour dates have been announced yet, but Gina is playing live over in the UK.
“I've got a little band,” she told us. “I've got two young women who I'm working with. We've kind of deconstructed the album and put it back together in a slightly different way, and it's really fun. You know, we're really enjoying playing the songs. I feel so lucky. It's unbelievable.”
I asked Gina if she felt the same about releasing The Raincoats' self-titled debut album in 1979 as she does about releasing her debut solo album in 2023.
“…No,” she laughed. “I think when you do something for the first time, there's a kind of rosy mist around you. Now I just feel… stronger. Smarter. I feel more in possession of myself. I think as a young woman, I was very shy. I didn't really know how it was going to proceed. I didn't talk to a lot of people. I feel like I've grown into myself. It feels like now is the time for me.”
“Back then, I felt like I was part of the movement,” she contemplates. “Doing this solo project, it’s kind of symptomatic of that time. I’m claiming myself, if you like. [laughs]”
On this International Clash Day, KEXP shines a very over-due spotlight on just a few of the female-fronted groups of the London punk scene, who were truly making a revolution at the time.
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