In a dark bar illuminated by neon lights, bodies clad in an array of colored leather and latex make their way from the wood-top bar to the front of the stage. A purple light casts down as NEON takes their positions on stage. Drummer Chelsey Del Castillo smacks her drumsticks together to click the band into their first song. Marissa Magic’s sharp and short guitar chords echo Rosie Cochinx’s heavy bass riffs as high-pitched muffled screams spew out of Grace Ambrose’s mouth.
An intimate room of banging heads and jumping bodies rile up, but a mosh pit has yet to form. Mindful of the bodies around them, “excuse me” is repeated as people migrate through the crowd. Featuring Drama, La Sucias, and Special Interest, the bill for the Ivy Room on April 16th consisted mostly of female or non-binary folks—something that NEON and similar bands try to curate into their own intersectional punk scene.
Female bands and musicians in the San Francisco Bay Area are trying to make an inclusive space—a community that is independently created and aims to dismantle the capitalistic, racist, sexist, and patriarchal punk scene.
Being excluded from line-ups, turning shadowing opportunities into sexual innuendos, preying off young fans, and expecting that these women can’t play simply because of their gender are some of the constant struggles women face in the punk scene.
Growing weary of being taken advantage of, being told how to play their music, or assuming that their gender has any correlation with how well they play, these bands started to curate their own punk scene that is far from the typically male dominated one.
In the early 1990s, Riot Grrrl, a feminist driven movement, was formed—which aimed to revolutionized the male dominated punk scene. A band that operated in the Riot Grrrl movement, Bikini Kill, did not make their music for anyone to like it, they just wanted to make music for women who were angry with the cis-male dominated sexist scene. In 1991, Riot Grrrl and singer of Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna, wrote a manifesto for the band’s fanzine with a few demands that are parallel to what these women are still trying to curate today.
According to Chelsey, facing sexism from male sound engineers is the most classic experience she and other females face when working the show: “They talk to you as if you don’t know what your instrument should sound like or how it works, and even if you don’t know what they are talking about they get upset at you,” says Rosie. According to Rosie, it comes down to microaggressions—when men think that they are being nice, but what they are saying is really off-putting.
Oakland-based punk duo Kayla Billos and Xaina, have faced sexism not only in their current band, Stranger Than Fact, but throughout their punk career, which dates back decades to when they were children.
“If I knew you were going to be so good I would have mixed you better,” or “wow, that was so good, I’m sorry I told you what to do at soundcheck,” Xaina recalls on working with male sound engineers.
“You’ll never be a musician first,” says Roary Rackett, a former drummer of Stranger Than Fact.
Some male engineers at venues have tuned Kayla’s drum kit without her permission. “We’re not taken seriously,” she says.
The idea that these women could possibly be good musicians is so far removed from their brains, Xaina echoes.
The discrimination varies from sub-genre to sub-genre, but in hardcore punk Xaina sees more overt sexism at shows. Brute violence with each other and stupidity and ignorance when it comes to understanding women–from being talked over to completely unlistened when she spoke up. The only way Xaina has seen women get attention in the hardcore scene is for them to be louder, drunker, and more aggressive than their male counterparts.
Sexism in the punk scene isn’t just geared toward the women performing, but also extends to female sound engineers like Sami Perez, who recently recorded Stranger Than Fact’s new album. For the past nine years, Perez worked her way from intern to engineer staff at the Women’s Audio Mission (WAM) in the SoMa district of San Francisco. Through her connections at WAM, Perez worked her way into a job as a sound engineer at recording studio Tiny Telephone where she recorded Stranger Than Fact’s album.
Sami says that she experiences sexism more from being a sound engineer than playing bass in her band The She’s. “I’ve definitely gotten taken advantage of,” Sami recalls of when some male sound engineers let her shadow them at venues. Meanwhile, they are feeding her drinks and some even expecting her to go home with them.
As a native to San Francisco, Perez says she has seen a progression of women getting involved in the music scene, which she attributes to the many girls and women WAM trains. “Every venue I go to and every studio I go to, there is a girl working there and we can talk about what it’s like to be a girl in this industry,” she recalls.
“A lot of these women bands deserve to be in the mainstream,” says Maggie Grabmeier, former singer and rhythm guitarist of the pop-punk band, The Total Bettys. But until they are given the opportunities by people with power in the mainstream, whether it be festival bookers, larger band’s management, venues, or people who are choosing which music goes on the radio, they will remain in the dark, she explains, “It’s hard to break into that world because it’s harder to find success—the odds are stacked against you.”
“The problem isn’t that there aren’t women doing these things, it’s that there is sexism in hiring. It’s certainly not womens’ fault,” Maggie adds.
When she had a say in what bands she could play with, Maggie would chose bands that had women, people of color, non-binary, and queer people. In the punk scene, this intersectional community has a do-it-yourself attitude, according to Rosie. They curate their own shows, promote themselves, and can stay true to their “silly messy” attitudes without worrying about not being taken seriously.
But a lot of the sexism in a scene is not something she can witness. It’s when her band doesn’t get booked, doesn’t get paid, or the conversations behind their back is where sexism–living under the surface of the scene–according to Xaina.
Turning herself into a social experiment, Xaina found that as a sound engineer when she put a male name on a her resume she would get calls from the same companies she sent an identical resume but with her name, which received no call back.
Whether it be men in bands that prey on young fans or that one asshole who is drunk and moshing is not reciprocated, sexism bleeds from the stage to the crowd. According to NEON, they try really hard to play with bands and at spaces that they trust, but they don’t always have control, especially when they are on tour.
“It’s easy to surround yourself with a community of people that is diverse and inclusive,” Maggie explains. “On a larger scale I feel like until other bands and promoters start taking it seriously, it is going to stay male dominated.”
According to Stranger Than Fact, men need to be open to communication and listen to what these women are demanding: to be treated with respect and be seen as a musician first, not a woman. Tired of being excluded and not taken seriously, these women take matters into their own hands and create their own community that is nothing but inclusive. Bands and bookers need to think about who they are booking.
“It’s not because we’re not out there. Include us!” Xaina exclaims.
“The more you get to know your scene, especially in San Francisco, you’ll get to know that there a tons of bands and tons of people who are really interested in it,” reveals Maggie. “It might take a little digging if you are not familiar with it, but there is so much to offer here. No matter what your niche is, you will be able to find it.”
It’s not that it’s not out there, but when all male bands don’t have female bands included on the lineup, it forces these women to create their own inclusive scene.
“What it means to be a woman means so much more than just not being a man”, Rosie explains. “It means taking into account that women consist of Latino women, indigenous women black women, trans women, fat women, women with disabilities and much more. All these things matter, so why just stop at women?”
To Chelsey, the cis-male dominated punk scene is not what defines punk, “Real punk, or the punk that I think is the realest, comes from those communities.”