Allison Wolfe has a voice synonymous with agitation. The disaffected drawl she perfected as the lead singer of Olympia, Washington, punk trio Bratmobile was one of the most prominent voices of the early-Nineties riot grrrl movement. Since that band’s 2003 breakup, she’s kept at it, lending both her vocals and her matter-of-factly feminist ideals to acts like the brash Cold Cold Hearts and the groovy Partyline while also helping to launch the female-forward festival franchise Ladyfest.
Now based in Los Angeles, where she’s pursuing a master’s degree in arts journalism from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Wolfe has returned to music with Sex Stains, a clamorous outfit whose recently released self-titled debut combines the up-yours attitude of her previous bands with a wider musical palette – the doomy “Oh No Say What” and the spaced-out “Spiders” lean into rock’s darker side, while speedy tracks like the runaway-train kiss-off “Don’t Hate Me Cuz I’m Beautiful” and the handclap-propelled “Who Song Love Song” channel nervous, nervy energy into spirited shout-alongs.
“I don’t really know when we started – I know just like a lot of activities I’ve created or been involved in, [the band] was kind of like ‘in theory’ before it became real in practice,” Wolfe tells Rolling Stone from her home in L.A.’s Echo Park. “Bratmobile is that way; Ladyfest is that way; this band is that way. We kind of talked about it and worked on gathering people together, for a long time. We had a lot of practices before we actually played a show, and then even when we had a show we still didn’t pick out a name – we really labored over that.”
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Sex Stains is a five-piece, with choreographer-singer Mecca Vazie Andrews assisting Wolfe on vocal duties; former Warpaint drummer David Orlando, Alice Bag guitarist Sharif Dumani and Prettiest Eyes bassist Pachy Garcia round out the group, which blends the feisty brashness of Wolfe’s earlier bands with a fuller sound that recalls the squawky splendor of first-generation post-punk.
“I’ve never been in a band with that many people before,” says Wolfe. “I’m usually in a band with three people. Five people is like, you have five different intense relationships, five different schedules to work around. We’re not a younger band where we’re all just hanging around and trying to make it – we all have our lives already and we’re a little bit older and just kind of like, ‘Yeah, we’ll do the band when we can.'”
Wolfe noticed her future bandmates while hitting up shows around Los Angeles (“in various tribute bands and things like that,” she says), and with Sex Stains she’s found a musical foil that hasn’t been present in any of her other bands – Andrews, whose sardonic vocals add a counterpoint to Wolfe’s hyperactive yelps.
“I knew I wanted to be in a band with another singer, and that’s different for me. I haven’t really done that before, but I always wished, in the other bands I’ve been in, that the other people in the band would sing back-ups more. Erin [Smith] in Bratmobile, refused to,” she laughs. “She actually has a really good voice.”
“I had seen [Andrews] in a Crass tribute band – all of these women came together to each sing lead on a different Crass song from the  album Penis Envy,” recalls Wolfe. “I was one of the singers on one of the songs, and so was Mecca and that’s how we got to know each other, and she was by far the best, and she’s a great performer.”
Wolfe got her start playing in Olympia and has bounced around to New York and Washington, D.C., but moving to Los Angeles has given her – and her various pursuits, from playing in bands to speaking about the legacy of riot grrrl – a creative jolt, even as she’s aware of the changes happening to urban landscapes around the world.
“I think L.A is far better for me creatively, and [there are] a lot more opportunities here than in New York or DC,” she says. “I’m happy with life, but I get it, things have changed a lot. A lot of people who lived here for a long time, who grew up here, are getting pushed out. The thing is Echo Park got [gentrified] a long time ago, but I kind of felt like a lot of that stuff was happening pretty slowly in L.A for a long time. But as of the past few years, [gentrification and higher costs of living] are happening very quickly.
“But in New York … I moved there for a few years and I paid 100 percent of my income to rent. So I don’t even think it’s necessarily ‘Where did all these rich people come from?’ It’s just that people are paying more and more of their income towards rent and things and just going for broke, or hoping they’ll get some big job or something. The haves are having more, and the have-nots are having less, and the gap is widening.”
Sex Stains is out on the fiercely DIY label Don Giovanni, a pairing of artist and label that makes sense given Wolfe’s punk-pioneer roots and the spitfire bands that imprint is currently putting out.
“That was the only label that I even thought of, really,” says Wolfe. “It was odd for me because you know I was in bands – I came up in the Nineties, and I was used to the way that things were done then. Most of the bands I was in were pretty fortunate, because we never really had to ask the label; they asked us. I really thought about bands like Downtown Boys, and Priests, and Screaming Females. And those are all bands that have strong, loud women in them, that are politicized, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I like, and that’s what I’d like to be aligned with.’ Seeing that they were all on the same label was cool.”
In her grad-school life, Wolfe is focusing on writing that’s different than the hyperactive music she’s known for. ” [My] program in particular is about slow journalism or long-form journalism – it’s really like creative writing in a lot of ways. The professors really encourage us to be creative, and to really sit on pieces and really try to make them beautiful.” In her thesis project, she’ll be reflecting on the legacy she and her fellow early-Nineties punk pioneers laid down – an important reclamation of the stories she helped write two-plus decades ago.
“Back when we were doing riot grrrl, and especially when riot grrrl exploded, we all kind of ran away and hid,” says Wolfe. “And there was a lot of backlash and we felt ashamed, or just didn’t talk about the stuff anymore. It felt like, ‘Oh, we did all this stuff wrong, and it’s our fault.’ Lots of guilt. I think that the kind of documentation that came later, or the renewed interest in the things that we did, was important in a lot of ways to make us feel like we didn’t just waste our twenties, or just to feel that it actually meant something to someone. And then it reminded us that it meant something to us, too.
“I think it’s important and I think we all should look back at our foremothers and all the things that came before us that influenced us. Let’s not erase the histories – marginalized groups are written out of history enough. … [At the same time], it’s weird when you have other people historicizing it or writing it into history. It’s never quite right. A lot of stuff doesn’t come out right, and I think that we need to be telling our own stories.
“Riot grrrl was so not academic, and it’s just funny to see it in an academic setting.”
“Riot grrrl was so not academic, and it’s just funny to see it in an academic setting,” she continues. “Part of it was almost a rebellion against academic feminism. I remember being in women’s studies classes and Molly [Neuman, formerly of Bratmobile] and I would use the term ‘girl’ to talk about ourself or other women, and we would get shushed or silenced. ‘Women! You have to use the term.’ I was like ‘Well, what about people who really are girls age-wise – why can’t we reclaim words and use them ourselves, how we want? And why are those stories and realities and experiences of young girls invalidated by so much of them as well as the rest of the world.’ A lot of what we were doing was kind of trying to bring in something that wasn’t academic and just be like, ‘Well, this is feminist too.'”
In 2000 Wolfe devised the initial Ladyfest, a DIY girls-to-the-front festival that took place in Olympia that August. Since then, the idea of Ladyfest has spread around the world, with events in Melbourne and Shanghai as well as smaller U.S. cities like Dayton and Providence.
“After I came up with the idea and then after we had our first one in Olympia, bands I was in performed at a lot of them,” Wolfe recalls. “It was really cool to be able to go to the ones that came after, and see what each community was using their own resources to create something important to their community. It all depends on who was organizing and who was involved, what was there, what were the strengths within that community or that city. We played one in Glasgow and it was very small, but there were all these women whose mothers were also organizers, so that was really cool – I remember one person’s mother was the stage manager, who was yelling at this artist, who was yelling at these other artists. Basically keeping everyone on track, which was awesome. Moms collecting at the door, really great.”
Wolfe’s journey has taken many twists as she’s moved from riot grrrl upstart to rock-lifer-slash-academic, and her discography is full of feminist-punk landmarks. Sex Stains’ brash attitude and omnivorous take on pop is yet another valuable addition to her highly influential body of work.
“I never quit my day job,” says Wolfe. “I never could afford to. I’ve never stopped being in bands. Every now and then after one band breaks up, you kind of take a break and go, ‘Uggghhhhhhh, get me out of here!’ But then after a while you’re like, ‘[Look at] all the crappy corporate shit that’s being put out there, all the stuff that’s been stolen, repackaged and sent after them at some exorbitant price’ – and it makes you realize you have to keep your voice in there. We all have to continue being creative, politically creative, whatever and keeping our voices in there we have to be vigilant.
“We have to be the creators and participants in our own league, in our own culture, in our own entertainment. We can’t just accept what’s being fed to us.”