"It was a very deliberate intention to embrace playfulness with this record. Allowing yourself to have fun and be silly is necessary and vital to sustaining a political life as either an individual or as part of a movement: punk's power is in irreverence. That's not to say I'm not still furious about things; I'm still furious about plenty of things."
Since forming in 2012, Petrol Girls have become known for their incendiary brand of math-rock inflected punk, with outspoken vocalist Ren Aldridge stoking the flames with her blasts of political rage. Yet after the release of 2019's 'Cut & Stitch', Ren began to find the position she had placed herself in as the band's mouthpiece to be unsustainable.
"Being a musician is incredibly challenging in its own right, but when you start adding to that the layers of being a woman in music, being a political band, then being a political woman who is outspoken about feminism, especially sexual violence... those layers add up," sighs Ren.
"I really don't like any sort of holier-than-thou bullshit. I feel like none of us are perfect, and we have so much to learn from each other, but I know that being the one on stage holding the mic, it's a delicate balance that can tip over into the sanctimonious and preachy. It's hard because obviously, I believe very strongly in my values, but I definitely don't believe I have more knowledge or that I'm more right about things."
Compounded by the pressure she had placed upon herself to do and say the right things within the political punk community ("I'd overworked to be as fucking perfect as I possibly could be"), Ren found herself struggling with one of the worst periods of depression that she had ever experienced. Recovering a sense of fun and playfulness was vital to her well-being.
"I'm a really silly person with a stupid sense of humour - fart jokes kind of humour - but I felt so much responsibility and pressure in the position I was in that I was crushing the silly and childlike part of myself, which is really core to my creativity, and it was making me really unhappy.
"Of course, there is huge power and strength in sincerity, and that's not something I'm going to drop - I can't help that I care a fucking lot about things - but I can be lots of different things. This record is about allowing all sides of me and all sides of us as a band as well."
With new album 'Baby', this attitude is represented musically with a more stripped-back, fun sound, which sees the crushing soundscapes of previous records replaced with spikey post-punk riffs and a focus on rhythm and groove. Ren's nuanced vocals also reflect this change, skipping between lines delivered with a knowing tongue-in-cheek lilt or a cheeky sneer, though there's still plenty of visceral ferocity throughout.
It's no coincidence that 'Baby' demonstrates a freer sound for Petrol Girls, given that Ren has tried to place less pressure and expectation on herself this time around. "When around you, people are being torn down for things that are honest mistakes or due to not knowing about something, it creates an atmosphere where I've felt very watched - it used to really mess with my head. Now I'm at a place where I'm like, 'fuck it'. I know what my values are, and I know that I'm true to those values and that politics.
"I don't want us to hold each other to perfection all the time. It makes us stagnant and stops us growing. When we demand a very detailed level of complete perfection from each other all the time, we stop seeing the bigger picture. We lose focus and start losing political power."
It's a complicated subject, but the idea that people who are involved in political activism and are fighting for the same cause need to be kinder to each other and try to acknowledge the complexity of situations is something which Ren explores lyrically throughout the record. 'One Or The Other' examines the way that binary ways of thinking, that someone is a 'good person' or a 'bad person', can actually be incredibly damaging: "Always one or the other, he's a villain, or he's your brother. Can't be a victim and an abuser, if you don't work then you're a loser," Ren spits over pummelling thrashy punk.
Similarly, in 'Preachers' Ren addresses those who call out others but don't practice what they preach. "There's a lot of preachers here, but I don't see no saints. Lot of fingers pointing, palms sweating under red paint," she deadpans.
"We're sometimes losing our grip on nuance and not thinking about what is actually going to help a situation of harm or conflict and ensure that it doesn't happen again," Ren muses. "In a scene that's very anti-police, it's crazy that we spend so much time acting like cops to each other. At the end of the day, we need to be nuanced and kind to each other and ourselves. Otherwise, what are we fighting for?"
While 'Baby' certainly is a more playful record than previous albums, Petrol Girls have by no means lost their ability to pack a punch right to the gut. 'Fight For Our Lives,' perhaps the most powerful track on the record, covers the difficult issue of gender-based violence and femicide. It's the topic that Ren is most active in, and something she regularly protests as part of a feminist group in Graz, Austria, where she relocated to from the UK a few years back.
"We started in June 2020, protesting every femicide that happened in Austria, but obviously got completely burnt out trying to protest them all. So now we do it every month, which is a statement in and of itself that we know that there will be femicides every month.
"When you're constantly protesting femicide, you numb yourself to it in order to be able to deal with it, so with 'Fight For Our Lives', I was writing to process for myself the protesting of the really extreme peak of patriarchal violence."
For the track, Ren knew she had to enlist activist Janey Starling, former vocalist of UK punk band Dream Nails and co-director of feminist organisation Level Up. One of their campaigns is to give dignity to dead women, which is directly referenced in 'Fight For Our Lives'. In a horrible twist of fate, the trial of police officer Wayne Couzens for murdering Sarah Everard took place during the first week Petrol Girls were in the studio, which fed the anger that was directed into the record.
"I was so stoked to have Janey perform the verses on 'Fight For Our Lives'. I just want to keep shouting about the work that she does and the media guidelines that she wrote. She just went to Italy to present them at a global journalism conference because the way femicide is reported has such a direct impact on how we as a society understand it.
If we didn't live in this victim-blaming culture that has ownership ideas about violence and romance, then this violence wouldn't happen. I really believe Janey's work in that field is outstanding and that she's changing the world with what she does. She delivers those verses so well: I asked her to deliver them like she was on a megaphone at a demo, and she smashed it."
Taken from the July issue of Upset. Petrol Girls' album 'Baby' is out 24th June.
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