LESBIANS: CAUGHT UP WITH MODERN ART
Lesbians features Erase Errata’s Jenny Hoyston, along with Tara Jespen and Michelle Lawler. Jenny speaks from Portland, where she has just relocated after living in warehouse spaces in Oakland and San Francisco for the past 11 years. This interview by Alex Roman.
So what pulled you out to Portland?
Jenny Hoyston (guitar): Well, I think this is where old rock lesbians go to retire or something.
Are you planning on retiring soon?
No, that’s just a joke. I have a ton of friends and lots of people here that I play music with, and it’s still pretty close to S.F., so I can still keep those projects going there too. Right now, I’m just doing the Lesbians, which is kind of a comedy-performance art-multi-genre tribute to women’s music through the ages. Of course, Erase Errata is still playing here and there, and I still play solo a lot.
So how’d you come up with the name?
We kind of came up with the name before the band. It’s a band I made with two really good friends of mine—Michelle Lawler, who’s a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco, and Tara Jespen, who’s a filmmaker, comedienne and writer. We spent a lot of time talking about our idea of having a band called Lesbians, and we’d write songs back and forth together and stuff. The band covers a lot of territory, with genres and stuff like that. It’s just very lighthearted. We do a little bit of performance where we play live and get into characters and have a lot of banter. We talk a lot. Everybody has a microphone in the band and has a sort of comedic bent.
The first time I saw Erase Errata play was in Brooklyn, and it was kind of the first time I’ve been to a show that felt like seeing Bikini Kill or one of the other riot grrl bands. How influenced were you by that scene?
I was oblivious to it. When all that was going on I was living in a small town in Michigan. We didn’t have any of that in our record store, so all of that happened without me knowing about it. I kind of heard after the fact. When we had started Erase Errata, a lot of people started giving me an education of the past. I really liked it, but it was funny to hear because it was a scene we would have been a part of if we had known about it, you know? I caught up really, really late with all of the really awesome old women’s punk music because we didn’t have access to it. The closest thing we had was Seven Year Bitch from Seattle. They’d come out to Michigan and play, but that was the only band of women I had ever seen play until like 1999 or something.
So what was going on in Michigan at the time?
There was a big noise scene. A lot of my friends went on to do a lot of really good stuff—I went to college with the guys from Wolf Eyes. It was a guy scene, and it was just me and maybe a couple of other women that were loosely peripherally participating. There was a lot of punk stuff going on too, but I was more involved in the noise end of things and got into listening to modifications of instruments—synthesizers, drum machines and stuff like that. That was my education. I also played trumpet and had a classical trumpet background, but I never really heard feminist women punk before. When we started Erase Errata it wasn’t with the intention, necessarily, of being a part of that community—it was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re another woman who loves this Albert Ayler record that I love!’
You were embraced pretty quickly by I guess what was the remainder of that scene. You toured with Le Tigre early on.
Yeah, definitely. I was really touched to have people reaching out to me and to us to come and tour with them. I was very surprised right around the time that I was learning about all this stuff to have somebody show me the Le Tigre record because it had the Erase Errata cassette on the cover. I was really honored. Since then, I feel I have a real connection to a lot of that music and have met a lot of the people who played it. Everybody’s kind of coming from the same place. I think that they also were people who participated in music scenes where women were always on the periphery or the support, or maybe somebody would be nice and let you play bass in their band or something. It’s just kind of a similar experience that everybody went through. It’s such a different situation now. I’m so happy with how things are now. I see a lot of young women coming and playing in bands and feeling really empowered and cool about it, that’s just a really awesome thing to contrast with.
During the time you were getting started you also met Kim Gordon. How did that happen?
She’s an inspiration. She is super tough—she definitely holds her own musically and is a very good mentor. Her musical integrity, to me, is always staying intact. She’s always thinking about the kinds of music that she’s making—picking her projects wisely and following her true passion without necessarily thinking about sales or anything like that. She’s in a very special and particular spot as a person. I met her and Thurston in the early ‘90s. A band that I was playing bass in from Michigan opened for the Breeders a few times, and when the Breeders were opening for Sonic Youth, Kim Deal and some of those guys put me on the guest list and introduced me. But I didn’t get to actually get to know them until Erase Errata started playing and they would come to our shows in North Hampton, Massachusetts.
Does it ever cross your mind to go mainstream in that fashion, or do you have to try to stay away from that?
No, not really. I don’t feel like I’m ever in that ballgame at all. I’ve always had a full-time job—or nearly full-time—since I’ve played music. I don’t have any desire or dreams to go mainstream. I kind of feel that it’s better left to other people because I don’t really like to wear makeup or get my picture taken, which is a really big part of that. You do that more than you actually get to play when you get to that different level of playing music. I think there was a period of time where Erase Errata came pretty close to that—we were definitely getting a lot of offers and stuff, but I’m just not cut out for it. I just want to jam, man!
How is it being a figure not only in women’s music, but also in the lesbian cultural scene as well?
That’s been an interesting social experiment for me to kind of feel my place out in women’s music or lesbian music because I haven’t played in any genres that are particularly embraced by the lesbian community. It’s always been a little too noisy or too weird. But yet I like to be around lesbians and stuff. I celebrate diversity. It was really kind of fun to start the band the Lesbians with these other two lesbian women who are kind of doing some stranger comedy and making experimental films and pushing the limits. I think there are a lot of lesbian women who don’t necessarily fit the mold of mainstream cultures image of a lesbian woman as far as the kinds of things they are doing with their art or the ways they are living. It’s fun to start this project and label ourselves with the name and kind of pay homage, but we’re also kind of weird, and some of the music is very strange noisy stuff.
I feel that there are a lot of lesbian artists that are a little difficult to approach for a lot of people.
Yeah, I think definitely there are those types of lesbian artists in indie and underground culture. I went to an event last weekend that was kind of a women’s music festival in California, and you know they still had the folk singer, and later on at night they had the rocky blues band, and there’s thousands of women being like ‘This is our music and this is our culture!’ There wasn’t very much within actual queer woman culture. I see in mainstream culture that the lesbians that are kind of breaking out aren’t necessarily the lesbians that queer culture embraces. It’s almost like one or the other. It’s strange—I don’t really have my finger on it, honestly. I haven’t really put that much into it other than always feeling that I’m treading between those worlds. I think within straight culture there’s so much acceptance of queer culture and stuff, but there’s also a perception of it having bad fashion or something. Like everyone is totally cool with it, but there’s always something—like people don’t believe lesbians have caught up with modern art. Honestly, in looking around and going to events I feel that way myself, but it’s the same way I feel when I go to mainstream straight culture things. Like if I went out to a concert at the county fair or something, it would be a similar experience.
Are you trying to put together a woman-centered fest at the Russian River?
I’m in the middle of it. It’s coming along nicely. It’s going to be craft arts during the day, like an old-school craft art fair. Then it’ll have a giant outdoor area with DJs playing hip-hop, reggaeton and all that kind of dance-y music; a stage that will have folk music and a different stage for weirdoooo ladies. It’s all happening in October. We just finally firmed up some venues and stuff recently, and I’m in the process of booking the bands now. I’m negotiating with some good people, but nothing has been reached yet. Lesbians will definitely play early one afternoon. It came from wanting to continue fundraising efforts that I started in San Francisco, but on a larger scale. I throw a lot of benefits for film and non-profits in SF, and I really like organizing parties, planning bands, getting volunteers together and all of the aspects of planning elaborate fundraisers. The person that owns the venue where I was doing that for a long time asked me if I wanted to do a large-scale fundraiser, and I said yeah. So she’s kind of backing me and letting me plan it and stuff, but she has the whole business and legal aspect covered. I’m excited to do something for public good, but I also enjoy planning the party and being able to provide a space for friends of mine to play music, show their films or sell their wares. On my end it’s more of an excitement of being able to do something for the arts community and the people that I know that will want to participate.
How difficult do you feel it is to remain socially aware and not become complacent?
That’s a very good question, and I think it’s something that any thinking individual will probably wrestle with on a daily basis. Not a lot has changed with me since all of the music that I was writing was about the Bush administration and against the Iraq war. Not a lot has changed with me, honestly, and I still feel that I read the paper and cry. It’s depressing, and the unrest is spreading throughout the world, so, it is a difficult thing to try and navigate. For me it is a daily thing: ‘How am I living and what am I doing to contribute or not contribute to the situation?’ And, as people in our country are trapped in a lot of ways because—
We are screwed and it’s because we’re so deeply involved in something that is endless probably. We’re so deeply involved in conflicts that are way older then us and older then generations that we have photos of, and we’re right in the middle of all of it. It’s complex. For me personally, I feel like I make a lot of decisions about trying to live in a way that impacts the planet a little bit less. You can only do little things. For example, I’m a biker and another reason I don’t like to tour anymore is because I was pumping so much of the man’s gasoline into our tour van, you know? Here and in Europe it feels bad after a while. Just guzzling it. Even if you’re going to play a show where you’re creating spaces for people to come and celebrate or network or protest or whatever beautiful thing that can happen out of it. Even if you’re traveling to do that after a while, you just start to see the numbers turning on the gas tank and it’s just gross.
When a person in a Hummer rolls up next to you on your bike, how do you feel?
I’m trying not to be so judgmental because I don’t know what other peoples’ situations are. But personally you won’t see me in one of those.
Who did you vote for in the primaries?
Hillary. I wasn’t swayed necessarily too far in either direction, but I had a feeling that I wanted to just sort of go on record as having supported a woman candidate. I think they are both very qualified to do things, but it started to bother me how people talk about Hillary Clinton. Whether or not you want her or Obama—I think they both would be fine presidents. Obama would make a fine president, but people don’t talk about him the way they talk about Hillary.
It has nothing to do with her qualifications—it has everything with her being perceived as a cold bitch.
Right. Like she’s acting the way a politician always does, and kind of getting called that, when normally people are just like, ‘Fucking politicians!’ Why do you have to take it there? Honestly, they’re all greedy and doing things that we don’t know about. They’re all like salesmen who are selling themselves and their lifestyle, and there’s a lot of corruption involved in it from the ground up. There is not a single one of them that is there speaking their true minds. They are all playing all kinds of people at once—that’s just what they do; it’s their job. I don’t trust any of them.
It kind of appears like she’s going to lose to Obama—how do you feel about her continuing?
I don’t feel like she’s damaging anything by keeping in it. I honestly at this point feel like I’m watching a woman set the mold for the future of women being involved in upper management politics. So, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t think she’s hurting anything, because they’re mudslinging is just pitter-patter anyways. Honestly, I think Obama’s a shoe-in so it doesn’t bother me that she’s still going. She’s just setting precedence, and I feel like she’s teaching young women how to speak in front of a camera and how to be a candidate. I almost feel like she’s running a workshop at this point.