January 20th, 2015 | Interviews

illustration by amy hagemeier

One of the glories of the famed Long Beach punk industrial complex of the 90s, Red Aunts made five startling albums that now boil down to an explosive 26 tracks on In The Red’s Come Up For a Closer Look compilation. My friend Romana Machado and I sat down to talk over old times with guitarist Terri Wahl and drummer Leslie Ishino in the back room of Terri’s restaurant (and Eagle Rock institution) Auntie Em’s Kitchen. This interview by Ron Garmon.

How did punk fandom start with you?
Terri Wahl (guitar/vocals): When I was about 16 or 17. I was in the second wave of punk rock. But when we started we were definitely in the second wave.
Leslie Ishino (drums): There were a lot of waves. I was 13 or 14 when I found X, the Replacements, TSOL.
Romana: How did you find them?
Leslie: Friends at school. High school.
Terri: I found out through a boyfriend!
Leslie: We had a small group of punkers at my high school and a coupla mods. The Specials, the Untouchables. I bought cassettes, but my first vinyl was Fishbone.
Were you in bands prior to the Aunts?
Leslie: I was in a brief band with my boyfriend and his friend but it didn’t have a name.
Terri: This was all of our first bands—me, Kerry [Davis] and Debi [Martini]. All our boyfriends were in bands so we started one. We didn’t know Leslie. We took an ad out in the Recycler.
Leslie: That’s true! I joined cuz I played briefly, one time, with this band Butt Trumpet. One of the guys said there was a girl band looking for a drummer. They were more hardcore than I wanted. He connected me with them.
Where was the first Red Aunts gig?
Terri: Debbie’s garage.
Leslie: Lincoln Heights!
Terri: It was for the Fourth of July. Remember the Didjits? They’re from… Champaign, Illinois! They were great! Super fast. Their show that night got shut down so it was us and the Didjits and about twenty of our friends. We’d been practicing probably four months. This was all hatched at a party. None of us had ever played an instrument ever.
Leslie: Except me!
Terri: Leslie came to us fully knowing how to play drums, thank God, because at least some rhythm. We were a hot mess and had no idea how to play. But we got better. A lot better.
Did you give yourselves the names as part of the initial concept?
Terri: Oh my God, yes! We had the names, the band name, we knew what we were gonna play, what we were gonna wear.
Thought so! Like Josie & the Pussycats …
Terri: Yeah, but meaner.
Josie and the Rabid Possums, then. What were punk venues like back then?
Terri: Dark. Dirty. Stinky. Way more boy-oriented than girl oriented. We had to have a rider that specified a backstage mirror, not because we wanted to snort cocaine but because we wanted to see ourselves before we go on!
Leslie: Covered with stickers or graffiti.
Terri: Dirty, stinky, they all smelled like tinkle.
Leslie: They’re probably still that way now. Al’s Bar was your typical experience.
Al’s Bar was a notorious hole.
Terri: Linda’s Doll Hut in Anaheim.
You guys would play Long Beach, the South Bay, Orange County and L.A. Were the fans different?
Leslie: When we’d play U.C. Irvine, we played in a place that had a bar and these guys asked to use our equipment. Would you ask a band full of dudes that? Hell no!
Terri: Or guys would ask to see our tits
Leslie: Or call us ‘dykes.’
Terri and Leslie (at once): We’d get a lot of that in Orange County!
Leslie: In Hollywood and L.A., it’s a bunch of freaks anyway. We got a lot of girl-band geeks.
Terri: A lot of our fans were either 14-year-old girls or 40-year-old guys. Back then that was old. Not anymore.
The new 35. Who else did you play with?
Leslie: Claw Hammer, of course. They were like our brother band. She was married to Jon for a long time and Kerry went out with Rob for a long time. They were our buddies.
Terri: They taught us to play our instruments!
Leslie: Very supportive and encouraging.
Terri: They didn’t like it much when we became more popular than they were!
When did you know you were popular?
Terri: When people started showing up at shows that we didn’t know and they knew all the words to our songs.
Leslie: We played the Bottom of the Hill and got $800—‘Holy shit!’ And it was packed! This was about the time of the first album on Epitaph. #1 Chicken sold over 36,000 records and we were really stoked.
That’s great, especially by today’s standards.
Terri: How much did the next record sell?
Leslie: I think the last one was 15 or 16,000.
Terri: That last one was so good. Sheesh.
The compilation shows you guys went in from the beginning with a minimum of the uncertainty and stylistic jerking around you hear out of most bands. You seemed to know from the very first records the sound you wanted and it evolved impressively from there. Your style was precise, tight, unusual and still evolving when you quit in 1998.
Leslie: It was basically Debbie. She wanted a big life change and went to New York. Terri was getting really busy with her catering business. We knew we weren’t gonna go on without Debbie, so that was it. I think that us four together, it was just what it was.
Terri: It was magic.
Leslie: Kerry would listen to something and say ‘I’ve got my Coltrane part’ because it reminded her of ‘A Love Supreme.’ Somebody else would say ‘This is my blues part!”’
Terri: Or Nirvana part!
Leslie: And we’d call our parts whatever they reminded us of.
You’re disappointing the hell out of rock critics who say there’s no discernible trace of jazz or other fancy stuff in punk.
Leslie: Oh my God, of course there is.
Terri: That’s funny. Besides jazz and blues, we were influenced by more current stuff. Pussy Galore, Blues Explosion, Boss Hogg, we were just obsessed with that stuff. Lots of time and tempo changes. We had the whole thing in our heads.
Leslie: We didn’t like to play any one thing too long.
How did the distortion fetish come about?
Terri: There was grunge rock happening just then. Distortion covered up all our mistakes!
Leslie: They were coming out with so many different pedals at that time so people were experimenting with them.
Terri: Jon Wahl, who is a musical genius, always had a thousand different pedals.
I remember seeing some condescending-ass remarks in Trouser Press about you guys being ‘squalling brats,’ ‘shrill,’ etc.
Leslie: We got some of that but we never felt persecution.
Terri: We were just different and weird.
Leslie: There were only maybe ten girl bands at that time. We mostly toured with boy bands.
Terri: But when we were on tour, if there was a girl band in town, they’d be on the bill.
Leslie: They used to say we were screamers.
But to compare you to infants? Maybe infants armed with broken beer bottles. Did the band feel connected with the Riot Grrl movement at all.
Leslie: Not really. We played on bills with Bikini Kill a couple of times and Bratmobile and of course we looked up to Babes in Toyland. I don’t think any of us were big Hole fans.
Terri: No, nobody liked Hole. They were all about hating guys…
Leslie: They had a message. We didn’t really.
Third wave feminism?
Leslie: Unconsciously I think. I think we lived it just by being. We lived the way we lived.
How fast did your wave of punk go by? Did it seem brief?
Leslie: No. After we broke up, it was still going. I felt like we could’ve gone with it if we would’ve stayed together.
Terri: Yes. We could’ve definitely gone on longer but I think it’s cool we quit when we were at our peak. We never sucked. People never said ‘Aw, man, I don’t wanna see them anymore! They suck now!’
A lot of bands aren’t that lucky. Did anything happen on the last tour as a result of the knowledge that This Is Gonna Be It?
Leslie: I think there were a couple of fights.
Terri: When were there not fights on tour? Someone always hated someone on tour. I know I always hated someone on tour! Oh, my God! We were together 24/7 and we’re all super strong personalities.
You could’ve all lived in the same house like the Monkees!
Terri: We never could have! We were too angsty, too stubborn…
Leslie: Too self-destructive…
Terri: We were super strong-willed women, so…
You described them as restaurant tours.
Leslie: Back then it was slim pickins for places to eat. We’d rely on our friends a lot but finding a good restaurant before a show in Oklahoma City? Now you can Yelp or text sombody.
Terri: We’d ask the soundman ‘Where’s the best crab?’ when you’re in Baltimore. We had our cooking magazines in the van. Gourmet, Bon Appetit. We were foodies from the start. After the band I knew I’d do something food related but I never thought it’d get this big.
How did you guys tie in with Epitaph?
Terri: Brett [Gurewitz] saw us at Raji’s and asked that night if we wanted to sign to Epitaph, which blew us away because the only other female band on the label was L7 and only for one record. We were definitely the black sheep of the label. It was pretty jock rock. They also had Rancid. And the Offspring, which weren’t jock rock at all, but the money they made put us on tour. Brett would take the money he made from the big bands and send the baby bands like us out on tour to try to get them popular. We’d have forty, fifty thousand dollar tour budgets. It was fun.
What next for the Red Aunts?
Leslie: We’re split on two coasts and waiting to see if anyone cares!
One last question, punk rock is back…
Leslie: Oh yes! I think it’s great! I still play music but I don’t have a band right now. I’m always looking to be inspired again and mature and modernize the sound.