In 1871, during the last days of the Paris Commune, a group of women known as the Pétroleuses allegedly set fire to private property with homemade petrol bombs made out of milk bottles, to spit the government. Nearly 150 years later, Petrol Girls have taken on the anarchic spirit of their namesakes, and their post-hardcore feminism channels a similarly brutal blow.
Formed as a reaction to the male-dominant live scenes that vocalist Ren Aldridge encountered at punk parties in Peckham, London, Petrol Girls is a welcome war-cry against misogyny towards all minorities. Their discordant debut, 2016’s Talk of Violence, unflinchingly dealt with topics ranging from the co-opting of feminist movements to the hydra of oppressive neoliberal globalization.
But Petrol Girls isn’t all raucous rampage: there was poetic prose in Aldridge's delivery on last year’s The Future Is Dark EP, leaning on a wealth of feminist reference points. The title was a direct quote from Virginia Woolf that was later used as an epigram in Rebecca Solnit’s essay collection Men Explain Things to Me. That was their first new material in three years, the time in between dedicated to an incessant tour schedule as well as various members relocating across Europe.
Petrol Girls’ second album, Cut and Stitch (out May 24 via Hassle Records) represents a conflict of belonging — a feeling that Aldridge admits she misses from her early DIY days on the South London punk scene. The foursome bats around fresh ideas and formatting, Aldridge’s fiercely intelligent lyricism pushed to the fore as spoken word form: “A quiet word can be just as, if not more powerful, than something screamed in your face,” she explains.
Turning the mics down a few notches has made more room for a sense of collective empowerment within the band, as the record opens with Aldridge contemplating “the power of sound and how we might use it.” For Petrol Girls, it’s a thought that’s remained constant despite what new chaos the world throws our way. Their power is a rich tapestry cut from all those dark places they’ve been, stitched together with a common thread of hope.
“Naive” scoffs at blind male optimism, while the band used the release of their recent single “Big Mouth” to shout out Solidarity Not Silence, a group of women fighting a claim of defamation against a well-known musician. “‘Survivor” features a suitably sensitive introduction from Aldridge: “Just because something crap happens, doesn’t make you weak. You came out the other end and that makes you really fucking strong.” As the name might suggest, "Weather Warning," the video for which is premiering below, is a storm of relentless drum rolls that picks up force into a doom rock downpour. Despite Aldridge's precursory remark, "This works for me, it might not work for you," it totally works. That’s the beautiful harmony Petrol Girls represent:. sizable riffs, fist-pumping sing-alongs, and a firebomb of social commentary.
Drenched in the Brighton seafront’s sunshine, we spoke to Aldridge on taking the mic, coping mechanisms, and the importance of staying with the trouble.
Do you think the DIY scene has shifted considerably since your first introduction to it?
So much. We had to create space for ourselves to exist in. We couldn’t have existed without that explicitly feminist context that allowed us to play two songs that we’d had two practices for, be total shit, and everyone still cheered. No band starts off really good. You have to suck to begin with. With women and non-binary people, people always relate the fact that you suck to your gender, whereas men get to just suck freely. Initiatives like LOUD WOMEN and First Timers are brilliant, and that whole scene around DIY Space. We haven’t lived in London for a long time, but it’s a really pioneering place in the queer and feminist scene. I wish First Timers had been a thing when we first started. That’s what punk is meant to be, getting up and having a go. It’s keeping punk true to itself.
There was a gap between Talk of Violence and Cut and Stitch.
We named the record Cut and Stitch because it represented the fragmented nature of a lot of the ideas on the record, but also our own lives. The lives of a lot of people who tour and move around. “Rootless” deals with the time between Talk Of Violence and now. The biggest issue I’ve faced is that when we began in that punk house, it was such a community — a shit show in a lot of ways, and a total nightmare too, but I really miss and still don’t think I’ve found that sense of community again. I feel it to some extent in the DIY scene across Europe, but it’s not the same. I’d like to find it again.
Your live set is very explicit and highlights certain themes and issues.
I’d been around on the punk scene for a really long time — on tours where it was just me and a bunch of old men. I’ve been called naive and idealistic, and yet once I took the mic, people started listening to me. I find that really problematic and infuriating, because it’s harder for marginalized groups to do so. Punk, for all of its lefty politics, can be so hierarchical. All of these men who thought I was full of shit suddenly think what I have to say is important. I struggle with it.
I wrote my Masters thesis on the idea of passing the mic and what that can mean politically. I don’t really agree with the notion of the voiceless. Arundhati Roy says, “There’s no such thing as the voiceless, there’s only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard”. So often, we speak on behalf of people who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves — but sometimes it’s also not possible for those people to speak. You’ve got to use the opportunities to speak about the things you can.
Has there been a noticeable shift in your approach to songwriting?
My songwriting process reflects a natural way of processing stuff. When shit things happen, your first reaction is rage. I don’t want that rage to be seen as immature — it was necessary. If someone is kicking off — especially if they’re in a marginalized group — I feel very strongly about making space for that rage. The way their anger is policed is infuriating. I feel passionately about making the space for that and claiming my own, as I still need to kick off sometimes. But at the same time, it’s exhausting. I’m not as resilient as I used to be.
Because of the way I portray myself on stage, I’m treated as this strong, aggro person — but I’m quite anxious and shy. I overthink things a lot. I thought about this, and the fact I don’t like the way I’m being treated which I can’t change but I can change the way I am. So I decided to open up and show a bit more vulnerability.
Do you feel hopeful for the future?
I do, and that’s because of a writer named Rebecca Solnit. She’s the reason why the EP is called The Future Is Dark. She used it as an epigram for her book, Hope in the Dark, which she originally wrote when George W. Bush was elected and republished when Trump was elected. It’s informed so much of my outlook. Her whole point is to embrace this uncertainty, because if you are certain about the future, it’s either blind optimism or despair — but there’s also embracing the fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen.
Solnit points out that the way historical change has happened over time is so complicated. We’re often fed this bullshit neoliberalized-great-man-individualist theory of history — that’s not how these things happened. The civil rights era wasn’t just Martin Luther King. There were a lot of people involved who lost their lives and liberty. Feminist movements are the result of a lot of people doing a lot of different things, and a lot of that work is boring, thankless, and exhausting. Donna Haraway’s Staying In The Trouble has lots of crossovers with Solnit’s work — it’s about sticking with things. There's a danger in forward-thinking and feminist scenes for everything to be perfect, and it can be quite paralyzing.
Staying with the trouble is a useful way of thinking. Change and activism is hard and painful — you have to really look at yourself. Let’s be honest and open about this shit we have to deal with: a rising far-right, climate change, a backlash against feminism and the #MeToo movement. It’s going to be tough and painful, but we can’t just wash our hands and walk away because it’s difficult. We’ve got to stick with it and keep trucking.
Petrol Girls' Cut and Stitch is out tomorrow, May 24, via Hassle Records.