Unquiet and Female-fronted: an interview with Erin Eyesore of Ribbon Around a Bomb

Posted by Kells, March 30, 2019 08:49pm | Post a Comment
(Name a more iconic duo? No need.)

Radio: who wants it, who needs it, what has it done for you lately? For me, any Wednesday I can tune in to catch Ribbon Around a Bomb from 8 to 10pm on Radio Valencia works like a restorative and empowering sonic tonic. Curated and contextualized by host Erin Eyesore, I've come to rely on the show as a source for discovering obscure and often new-to-me oddities, a celebratory exhibition of bygone voices, and ultimately a testament to womanpower expressed through music. As such, I couldn't think of a better way to punctuate Women's History Month than an interview with Erin discussing all things Ribbon Around a Bomb and then some...

What can people expect to hear when they listen to Ribbon Around a Bomb

Ribbon Around a Bomb is a radio program that showcases rare, freaky, (un)funky, post-punk, new wave, pogo-pop, DIY, deathrock, synthcrap, and experimental music of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Every single track I play is female-fronted. The vast majority of the songs were recorded between 1976-1986. It’s a very international show, and it is also a gender non-binary and trans-inclusive show. I play a lot of music just for the sake of surfacing odd and obscure long-lost gems, including those which are cheesy as hell. On a typical night a listener might hear: Model Citizens, The Belle Stars, Appliances, Hagar the Womb, Mercenárias, Phranc, Mizutama Shobodan, Die Hausfrauen, Los Microwaves, Ixna, Tokow Boys, and Essential Logic. Sometimes I like to say that the show’s tagline is: this.

What is Ribbon Around a Bomb’s origin story?

Ribbon Around a Bomb evolved out of a radio show I created in college from 2005-2008 called The Aleph. It broadcast on KCSB.FM and basically featured post-punk and no wave. I had steeped myself in that crap as a teenager (devouring every obscure Lydia Lunch film, John Peel archives, footage of Peter Ivers’ New Wave Theater and Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, not to mention the then-new books on Punk and No Wave... you get it.) 

One night in Santa Barbara, when I was 19 years old, I was playing a song by Lizzy Mercier Descloux ft. vocals by Patti Smith on The Aleph. I got a call at the station, and someone said “What are you doing playing this song?” I said, “I know, it’s strange. I’ll play something catchy next.” The voice then revealed this: “No... I love this song. I just only know a handful of people who have even heard of it. My name is Lenny, and I play guitar for Patti. Have since the ’70s. Anyway nice to meet you and thanks for bringing me back.”  Turned out it was Lenny Kaye, who became a dedicated fan of my program. That was a very sweet moment for young me.

So after a couple years of living on the Navajo Nation and not doing radio post-college, I moved to SF and in 2012, I started Ribbon Around a Bomb with my best friend and former co-host Ais (pronounced “Ash”), a.k.a. DJ Aistray. It was similar to The Aleph, but with a focus on female and genderqueer artists. The title of the show comes from a phrase that André Breton used to describe the work of Frida Kahlo.

Has the basis of the show always been showcasing rare, female-fronted post-punk, new wave, DIY, experimental, etc. from the late 70s and early 80s?

Pretty much, yeah! When it first started, the show in general was a bit more punk, and it has evolved to include more mega-rare noise/new wave/oddities from around the globe. I’ve also been doing more interviews, including this one with Cosey Fanni Tutti

When did the music/decades you focus on in your show first appeal to you personally? Were there any particular gateway bands or artists? Was it visual thing?

The first time I heard The Waitresses “I Know What Boys Like” on the radio as a child was transformative. In some ways, I’ve spent my entire adult life chasing that feeling. Even as a kid, I knew it was hilarious. Fun. Odd. So dumb it’s brilliant. So dry it’s hot.

Lydia Lunch totally blew my high-school mind. A lot of her material had gave me that same sense of, “this is so base that it’s evolved,” but just in a darker way than the kitschy new wave groups I loved. As a teenager, I spent a good couple of years eschewing all music outside of New York No Wave. Full disclosure: I was born in 1987, so I completely missed all of this stuff coming out.

For what it’s worth, the first concert I ever attended was Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music (thanks Mom!). That made young me feel SOME THINGS.

While you sometimes play stuff recorded before or after the 1970s/80s, the focus of Ribbon Around a Bomb stays pretty honed in on mostly obscure music made by women during those two decades—do you ever feel like you’ve heard all there is? Is it tough to find new stuff, or would you say it’s a deep dive that keeps on giving?

People have often asked me about Ribbon Around a Bomb, “Why don’t you play newer stuff?  Why do you even have a gender distinction?” In my mind, it’s pretty simple: there is so, so, so much incredible material from non-dude artists from that era, and I’m into celebrating it. So much of it remains underappreciated, if not entirely unearthed (undoubtedly due to the historic marginalization and erasure of women’s achievements in general) so my work constantly feels worthwhile.  

There is also a tendency for radio DJs to be like, “I play whatever *I* find interesting, I’m not limiting myself to any genre!” And then you tune in to their show, and it’s basically the same not-quite-underground-not-quite-mainstream white guy indie rock, with the occasional white guy classic rock or psychedelic rock track thrown in. This phenomenon is like the “I like everything except rap or country” of radio shows. I was never interested in that surface level shit. I’m interested in deep dives. And in many ways, setting parameters for yourself as a DJ facilitates the deepest of dives, as Ribbon Around a Bomb has for me, for 7 years now. I’m still doing it precisely because I haven’t reached the bottom yet.

One of the best reasons to listen to your show are the rare tracks that bubble up from far-flung parts of the globe—what are some of your wildest finds in terms of women making weird, post-punk, DIY, experimental, etc. music in seemingly unlikely places?

I always say that Ribbon Around a Bomb is a very global program. Here are 10 fantastic post-punk, new wave, or experimental songs from places other than the U.S. and U.K.: Grýlurnar- “Mao Gling” (Iceland, 1981), Neca Falk- “Banane” (Slovenia, 1981), Radio- “Djelomi?an Popis Lektire” (Yugoslavia, 1981), Damas Rock- “Sabotagem” (Portugal, 1981), E.S. Island- “Tech Tech Mommy” (Japan, 1982), Aerolíneas Federales- “Soy Una Punk” (Spain, 1986), Life in the Fridge Exists- “Have You the Children?” (New Zealand, 1981), Viuda E Hijas De Roque Enroll- "Estoy Tocando Fondo" (Argentina, 1984), Virna Lindt- “Attention Stockholm” (Sweden, 1981), Pink Plastic and Panties- “Bla-Bla” (Netherlands, 1980).

On a similar note, what have been some of your favorite unusual discoveries made while sourcing for your show? Any new-to-you, bargain bin oddities you took a chance on because it had cool cover art or whatever ever make it in the mix?

My favorite thing that I ever found in the $1 bin at a record store is a single by a little-known group called Digette-- their 1984 cover of this 1981 German track, “Fred Vom Jupiter” is a total delight.

Admittedly, the “discoveries” that truly excite me the most these days are videos. There is material I’ve heard and loved for so long, and when I finally see a live version or music video for it, it’s so special. Take for instance, this great French T.V. version of Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s “Fire,” a song that I blasted well before YouTube existed. Seeing those life-affirming dance moves just added a new dimension. The aesthetic choices that go into a visual representation of a song absolutely fascinate me. The choreography, the set design, the theatricality, the makeup, the stage presence, and of course… the style. Seeing Cholita!’s 1987 cover of Flans’ 1981 song "No Controles" was super interesting. This car-horn version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is great. Pure ‘80s cheese makes me happy. My interest extends into T.V., performance art and comedy, like the extraordinary visual treat that was Just Say Julie:

Could you share some revelations Ribbon Around a Bomb has brought you?

Well, right now I’m really into this phenomenon of new wave groups that functioned more like art collectives-- groups with loose (even joke-y), experimental, and multidisciplinary approaches to music-making, and a diverse roster of members. All-female groups like New York’s Pulsallama and LA’s Castration Squad. Dadaist collectives that blended jazz or spoken word traditions with punk rock sensibilities. Groups from Europe like Family Fodder, Rip Rig + Panic, Lucrate Milk, even, you know, Chumbawamba. I’m interested in the possibilities that these models can offer us as a society in general. Possibilities for play, for creation and for community outside of just music-making.

This should go without saying but since a lot people still don’t recognize: artists of color make the best punk, new wave and ‘80s rock music. ESG, hello. Then you’ve got Neneh Cherry, Poly Styrene, Grace Jones, OBVIOUSLY. Ska groups like The Bodysnatchers with Rhoda Dakar and The Selecter with Pauline Black. Good God, Betty Davis. VAGINAL DAVIS. There are tons of lesser known WOC who made these scenes all over the world rad and special, who I hope people get to know: Vanessa Richards of Bolero Lava, Gail Ann Dorsey who played with Bowie, Yvonne Ducksworth of Combat Not Conform, and Anne-Marie and Sharon of Amazulu, and Lorita Grahame of Colourbox. So many more.

I think it’s interesting how the music you play sometimes speaks to women’s issues of today with surprisingly pointed relevance despite the dated sound/quality of the music itself, do you think these songs remain overlooked in part because they’re made by women and/or steeped in womanhood?

The first time I heard Yoko Ono’s “Woman Power” (1973), it absolutely floored me. I think everyone should listen to it today. It’s radical as fuck, but also these lyrics still feel completely reasonable to me: “You’ve heard of natural selection? / That’s how we’re gonna do it, baby. / We allow men who wanna join us / The rest can just stay by themselves.” I remember playing it a lot after the Bad Election of 2016 and just angry-crying when Yoko sang, “I wanna make one thing clear, I’m the President, you hear?” Of course, Yoko is the classic example of a woman being dismissed as an artist and as a human as a result of mostly men defining her by her partner. Her sort of femininity is unconventional and I think it scares a lot of men. Yoko for President.

Have you always kicked off your show with Ginny Arnell’s self-deprecating 1963 hit “Dumb Head”? Is there a story behind why it’s the show opener?

Ah, “Dumb Head.” I actually had a different opener for the first couple years of the show. It was another docile anti-banger: Patience and Prudence - “A Smile and a Ribbon” from 1956. I later switched to the more iconic “Dumb Head.” I used to imagine these intro songs as sort of palate cleansers, something simple and childish and dumb to kick off the show. I genuinely love the songs, though. It’s not an ironic thing. I don’t know, maybe I have musical Stockholm Syndrome because I’ve spent so much time with them.

I really enjoy your theme shows (especially that recent-ish “Tribal/New Wave Exotica” show and the Heavy Metal show from a few years ago)—I imagine you put a lot of time, effort, and care into curating them. Do you have any upcoming “special edition” shows on the horizon that you’re particularly excited about?

One actual thing I have coming up is an interview with Kamala Parks of Kamala and the Karnivores and her new band Plot 66. In terms of themed shows, man, I am in constant scheming mode. Of course, whatever the theme is, all the tracks still has to fall within the framework of female-fronted groups of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Many of the ones I do, I never archive. But like, right now, I’m thinking about: songs with ugly saxophone-- think Error Genético- “Tumor en la Frente” (1983), songs about kitchens and household appliances in general (you’d be shocked by the extent to which microwaves, refrigerators, and televisions show up in new wave songs), and a spotlight on Eastern European post-punk and new wave.

Lastly, and totally off-topic, since I know you’re a bit of a Twin Peaks freak, what any one item—real or fantasy—would be your personal Twin Peaks holy shrine idol and whhhy?

Thank you for this question. Part of me wants to take this in Julee Cruise direction, but the truth is that  I have always loved Special Agent Albert Rosenfield (played by Miguel Ferrer), and I feel like if I could own his FBI badge and place it in my holy shrine idol, that would be right.

Well, color me amazed—thank you so much, Erin!

Don't be a dumb head, tune into Ribbon Around a Bomb Wednesdays from 8-10pm on Radio Valencia

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Radio (21), Women's History Month (41), Erin Eyesore (1), Women's History Month 2019 (1), Ribbon Around A Bomb (1)