Sharon Cheslow interviewed by Dina Hornreich for Venus, Spring 2002
"Sharon Cheslow is one of those people who works tirelessly to make positive things happen and rarely gets serious credit or thanks in return. She totally shaped my thinking on how feminism could function within underground musical communities and supported me at a time when very few people wanted to be associated with me. She is extremely diplomatic, whereas I tend to be a hothead, so she really taught me a lot strategically." -- Kathleen Hanna
"She's an ardent supporter of women doing more ‘out’ music in the San Francisco scene, meaning weirdo/noisy/experimental whatever, which is really rad because it is still somewhat of a rarity to be a girl playing fucked up-style guitar, and it feels great when that is acknowledged and encouraged." – Sara Jaffe (Erase Errata)
"Sharon Cheslow is a woman who I have always admired particularly in her strength to completely support herself by using all her artistic talents. This is something I feel as though I have not reached, and so I look up to her in that way." – Cynthia Connolly, artist and photographer.
Twenty years after first making history in Chalk Circle, D.C.’s first all-female punk band, Sharon Cheslow continues to make her mark. Throughout the 1990s, Sharon was in a handful of indie rock projects, all recorded on the charming 7-inch vinyl format. Among them were Suture, with Kathleen Hanna and Dug E. Bird (possible the same person as Dug Birdzell of D.C. punk rock fame); Red Eye, with Tim Green from Nation of Ulysses; The Electrolettes with Julianna Bright (who is now in The Quails); as well as some one-off projects with Tim Green and Fugazi’s Joe Lally.
Sharon recently graduated from Mills College where she studied intermedia arts. Her most recent sound explorations are documented on her new CD, Lullabye from the Sky, for which she collaborated with many unique and interesting people — from indie rockers to electronic composers. The project is the audio component from sound installations she has been performing in front of audiences on the west coast. (You can see the visual component to the track "dream/construct" on a recent videozine collection put out by Kill Rock Stars).
Her current project follows the natural progressions of an accomplished artist, as it reflects her intellectual pursuits -- from Fluxus composers (like Yoko Ono, Allison Knowles, and Chieko Shiomi) and improvised musicians (Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, AMM, Ikue Mori) to ’70s No Wave favorites (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA, the Contortions) — and personal growth. This is also documented in the recent issue of her fanzine, Interrobang?!, in which she and many noteworthy musicians (Pauline Oliveros, Randy Nordschow, Nicole Panter, Maggi Payne), reflect on music and transcendence. (Interestingly enough, the fanzine is only available in the downloadable format of an Adobe Acrobat file — making it free for the computer savvy!)
Below are her responses to a few questions that I e-mailed to her. They touch upon a few of her contributions to punk and women’s histories — as she continues to make history today.
What was your involvement in the Riot Grrl D.C. scene circa 1991?
I'd always loved ideas, which is one of the reasons I'd gotten involved in punk. Obviously, I loved the music, but the ideas were just as important to me. After I'd moved to San Francisco in 1990, I received a letter from Ian MacKaye telling me I should read these new angry girl zines -- like [Tobi Vail’s zine] Jigsaw. I met Kathleen Hanna soon after -- when Bikini Kill toured with Nation of Ulysses -- and we began talking. It turned out Tobi Vail had read Interrobang?!. We all realized we had a lot in common. I'd participated in discussion groups in San Francisco for friends to debate topics that affected us personally and politically, similar to what Cynthia [Connolly] and I had previously organized. So when I went back to D.C. that summer, I wanted to continue this kind of activist work. It just so happened that both Bikini Kill and Bratmobile were in D.C. that summer, so we got together and talked about different personal and philosophical issues. I'd read this book Writing a Woman's Life by Carolyn Heilbrun and wanted to spread her ideas, about how women needed to live their own adventures and write their own stories. ... I facilitated discussions on everything from sexuality and relationships to civil disobedience to feminist theory and capitalism to groups such as the Diggers, Situationists, and Black Panthers. We also talked a lot about women in music. It was a very heady time! So much that was happening revolved around a group house called The Embassy. I encouraged girls to get their ideas across and to be creative. One thing that came out of this was more zines. Another was that we had girl jams at The Embassy, where I played music with Kathleen, Molly Neuman, Allison Wolfe, and Christina Billotte, and we all switched around on instruments. Kathleen suggested we get a band together for Girl Night at IPU in Olympia, and this led to Suture.
What was it like playing guitar in D.C.’s first all-female punk band, Chalk Circle, from 1981-1983?
Fun, exhilarating, exciting, scary. We didn't know what the hell we were doing! I knew how to play guitar because I'd gotten my first electric guitar when I was 13, but I had no idea how to be in a band. We had the motivation to just get up on stage and do it, so I look back at that time very fondly. We listened to other all- or mostly female bands like the Slits, Modettes, Bush Tetras, and Kleenex/Liliput, so they became our inspiration. I'd wanted to avoid the typical role for girl guitarists at that time, which was to sing and play acoustic guitar, and that band allowed me to do that. Even though we ran up against a lot of ignorance, like guys saying to us, "You're good for girls," or not liking us purely because we were all female, we persevered and learned a lot. It was completely liberating.
How old were you when you first got into the D.C. hardcore/punk scene?
Seventeen. I'd gotten Patti Smith's "Gloria" 45 when I was in high school and started listening to punk after that, but didn't know anything about local punk. In my senior year I saw an ad in a local music mag for a volunteer to help with a new local record label, Limp Records. I recognized the owner, Skip Groff, from his record store Yesterday and Today, which was one of the few places in the D.C. area to buy punk records. So I contacted him, started helping him out on his label, and then he hired me to work at the store once I graduated high school. That's how I met a lot of people and found out about bands like the Bad Brains and Teen Idles [(Ian Mackaye’s band before Minor Threat)].
What are your sound performances like?
I do different types of performances. Some are in the context of sound installations, others are collaborations with other musicians and artists or even the audience. They all revolve around using sound as a material and incorporating specific actions to trigger or manipulate the sounds. I've also done a lot of recorded music recently that I think of as a different aspect of my other sound work. I still play guitar, but nowadays I'm just as likely to create on the computer. ... I try to explore the viewer/viewed dynamic in different ways. For example, I have an installation, "I'm Here I'm Gone," where the audience creates the piece, both visually and aurally. My only part is to enter the space at specific intervals and document the event by taking Polaroids, which are then exhibited on the walls. I compose the situation and let others perform.
How did you and Banned in D.C. co-author Cynthia Connolly (Dischord Records, Venus No. 7) decide to confront sexism in punk/hardcore in an issue of Maximum Rock’n Roll (in 1988)?
We were frustrated with the idea of MRR’s "Women's Issue" because we thought every issue should include women! And we thought that if we were going to talk about women's issues, we had to include men. So we decided to document a discussion group among a lot of the males and females involved in the D.C. punk scene at that time. We thought it would be interesting to come up with some questions about our music community and how females were perceived, and to ask these questions in two separate moderated groups: first with the females, then with the males. Then some of the females and males got together for a third group to discuss the different answers. It was a real eye-opener! I think it made a lot of the guys realize for the first time how things in our tight-knit music scene weren't that much different from mainstream society.
** As promised in the Spring 2002 issue of Venus Zine, here's the rest of this interview ... **
Why did you name your zine, "Interrobang?!" when it was created in 1989? What does it mean?
I got the name from Lydia Ely, who co-edited Banned In D.C. It's the name of the punctuation mark ?! -- I liked it because it symbolized an expression of enthusiastic questioning.
The comprehensive list of Women in Punk 1975-80 that you have been compiling in your fanzine is quite lengthy. How did you put it together?
In 1994 I published a short version of the list in Interrobang?! #2 and decided to do research for an update in #3. I sent out e-mails to a bunch of people I knew all over the U.S. and in the U.K. asking for information, read old zines, and also scoured record collections. There was so much information to collect and synthesize, but it was a lot of fun. My inspiration was Lenny Kaye's Nuggets LP, because that's how I first found out about '60s punk. I wanted to document a lost history to show how many women had been doing music back then, and to hopefully expose others to these bands. I decided to continuously update the list and thought the Internet would be a perfect vehicle for that, so it now exists online at http://www.mindspring.com/~acheslow/AuntMary/bang/wip.html. People from all over the world have submitted names, for which I'm very grateful.
How is your current work different from your punk rock beginnings?
When people think of punk they usually think of a band playing a certain style of song or someone looking a certain way, so in this sense what I'm doing now is very different. But my punk background influences my current work because I try to harness the same energy or explore some of the same ideas, such as how to create something that engages the viewer/listener or how to do as much as you can within the format of the three minute song. I still write very short songs or sound pieces, and I get that from punk. I loved Wire's first LP, "Pink Flag," where their songs were like bursts of staccato sound and surrealist poetry, mostly under two minutes. The sound installations I've done are more improvisatory. The recorded music is a mix of improvisation and structure. So much time has passed since punk began, and I've been exposed to a lot of different types of music and art since then that I didn't know much about before, such as experimental electronic music, so my current work is bound to be different. Punk, to me, was always about change. When punk began, I had no idea how to use a computer. Now I like working with digital audio because it enables me to do a lot I might not otherwise do.
Recently, Tinuviel from Villa Villakula (formerly of Kill Rock Stars) did a seven-hour Yoko Ono radio tribute on Boston College’s station WZBC. In addition, Ms. Magazine listed her as one of the most important people of the year. Was Yoko Ono an inspiration to you?
Yes, she was definitely a huge inspiration. She was my first example of a strong, independent, creative woman. I found out about her when she was doing experimental music and film, talking about feminism, and doing bed-ins for peace. I think Yoko Ono is one of the most important artists/composers of the 20th century. Her work is extremely varied, moving, and thought-provoking. She was a visionary, so ahead of her time, and hasn't been fully appreciated until very recently, which is a shame. I saw her perform on the Rising tour [in 1995] and it blew my mind. After all these years, she still sent chills down my spine. I'm aware of Tinuviel's radio tribute because I contributed [a musical piece] to it. It's great that Tinuviel did that. Yoko deserves it.
How did you create the "Intermedia Arts" program you studied at Mills College? What was it like studying underneath the pioneering electronic composer, Pauline Oliveros?
Intermedia was a term I stole from Dick Higgins, who was one of the original Fluxus artists, although Mills already had an emphasis on intermedia. I proposed my program to the music department and they liked it, so it wasn't all that difficult. Intermedia is different from multimedia in that it's more conceptual and is concerned with crossing disciplines to create something new rather than relying on old means of communication. Studying with Pauline was a great experience. I had private composition lessons with her, and she would play her music for me or show me her graphic scores, and let me ask her questions. We pretty much talked about whatever I wanted, and then she'd help focus me. I definitely appreciated her tremendous encouragement.
This interview was originally published online at http://www.venuszine.com/articles/music/features/1156/shout_out