I talked to guitarist G.B. Jones and bassist Beverly Breckenridge for about an hour if memory serves correct. At least, that's how much tape I had to transcribe. It was a hot Friday afternoon in summer and I was glad to have central air conditioning.
Is Fifth Column a punk band, indie band, or just a band?
B: We call ourselves a punk band sometimes. Whatever.
I was introduced to the band through the International Hip Swing comp. but I know you have more albums out.
GB: Just two. And a bunch of singles. One's on Outpunk, we have one on a label out of New York. "Don't" is on the Outpunk thing, it's also on the CD but it's a different version.
B: That's a split 7" with God Is My Co-Pilot.
GB: And then Ann Margret was a character on the Flintstones named Ann Margrock. She did a song on the Flintstones so we covered it. Before the movie came out I must add.
B: You know, I never thought about that! And they didn't put it on the soundtrack!
GB: I know, they didn't. Can you believe it? Ann Margret. She was so cool.
B: Well, you should get the single. That's a split 7" with ...
GB: Trailer Queens. They're an amazing girl group from Portland, Oregon that we played with when we were on tour.
B: I think the only thing they've recorded is a split 7" with us. They do a cool cover of "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'."
So how did Fifth Column get started as a band?
GB: Well, you know. Fall in with a bad crowd and you can't get away. Once you join the gang, you make that pledge of allegiance and then you can't quit. You die with them or die escaping. We stick it out together because we're all the same kind of people. We have a lot in common.
B: I guess it started with a bunch of friends, right? I actually joined the band a bit later, I wasn't in the first incarnation, but G.B. and Caroline Azar were.
What kind of obstacles did starting the band present? Were there any sort of barriers you had to cross?
GB: Yeah. A lot.
B: A whole band of girls was kind of a weird thing. It's only recently that more women are doing things like producing, working in clubs, managing labels, putting out fanzines and doing stuff like that so there's more women in the musical milieu. That's a big change. When that wasn't happening, it was a really male-oriented or masculinish atmosphere. When people hear about a group of all girls, they ask why. Automatically, they must be doing that because they hate boys. So there's these assumptions and fear that it brings out in people.
Someone I know wrote a column about how guys usually seem to think other guys are in charge and basically disregard her when they aren't staring at her chest.
B: That kind of thing obviously exists, just like all the other evils of the world haven't gone away yet. I guess we draw a lot of strength from each other and don't really participate in normal ways - the people we choose to work with and the types of shows we like to do. We try and do stuff that's already a little bit outside. It's just a natural thing we choose to do. We don't really move in the mainstream, those environments don't really attract us.
So you select venues and such so you can support what you like and get away from what you don't.
GB: Yeah. I've gotten to the point where I don't really listen to all boy rock bands anymore. What do they have to say to me, what do they even have to say to the world? I found a few years ago that almost any band I liked had at least one girl in it and I thought it was weird. Then I thought, "That's not weird, it's good."
B: It makes sense.
GB: The world hasn't heard girls express themselves much in music or any form, except maybe literature, in the last 100 years or so. So it's new and kind of exciting. I could even go so far as to say it's more original because you haven't heard it before. I'm thinking more of everything combined - the lyrics and music and the image of the band.
I don't think about it much. I just like the music.
B: That's how you are?
Yeah. If I like it, I don't think about it much.
B: Well yeah, but it's interesting when you look at what makes up what you do.
Yeah. A few days ago I was thinking about last issue's review section and there were only a few bands composed entirely of women or that had women in them.
B: Well there you go.
It seems like labels are still primarily releasing music by all boy bands.
GB: Right. There's something weird about that because it doesn't reflect how many girls are involved in doing stuff. There are lots of girl bands and labels just don't sign them. They would rather have heavy metal dudes with long hair who are going to sell better because they're stupid, their songs are all about Satan and everyone loves that. I guess by basically listening to bands with girls in them, I don't think I'd go up to boys like that. I've never gone up to a boy that's been like that. It seems like a weird thing to have happen, it seems like something you'd expect to happen on a golf course or at a baseball game or something, not at a club, but I'm sure it does.
I recently read an interview with some band talking about how they wrote songs to get "chicks." It's like Beavis and Butthead took over rock and roll.
B: Oh, absolutely. I met them on a plane to Vancouver.
I went to high school with them. I'm amazed at how they manage to get around.
B: I'm actually lying. I didn't meet them, I met two people who reminded me a lot of them.
That's what I meant as well. It's amazing how many people know people like that.
B: It's scary.
Moving on to the lyrics, the structure seems poetic. There's alliteration, offhand references. I noticed a reference to "Philadelphia Freedom" thrown in one of the songs. How does that come about? What kind of lyrical process do you go through?
GB: Well, either I write a song or Caroline writes a song or we write them together. I love alliteration so maybe that was me. Caroline loves Elton John, or she did, so that was her. She does a lot of scriptwriting and I make movies so we kind of look at it like it's a movie or a play or something. We'll go, "Okay, here are the main characters. Now, where are they? Okay, they're at home. What's the house like? What are they saying now?" We write scenarios of what these people are doing. Sometimes it'll be more personal about things that have happened to us, things we wish would happen to us, things we wish could happen, stuff like that.
It sounds like the songwriting is influenced by your other endeavors.
GB: Oh yeah, definitely. We've done soundtracks, songs for movies, things like that and we really like movies and stuff.
Wasn't one of the photographs on the liner notes from a film?
GB: "The Yo-Yo Gang"? Right. That's a movie I made.
So how did the Fifth Column sound develop?
GB: I don't know. We never made a conscious decision. We all like different things and have different types of records in our record collections and we even all still have record collections, believe it or not. We have CDs and tapes, but we have lots of records. We like some similar things so it's definitely an amalgamation of different people's tastes. It's not like we all liked a band and got a band together because we liked the band. It's definitely a thing where we liked a bunch of different bands. I think it's more that we like each other as people. So it just came out of sticking all this weird stuff together that probably didn't belong together in the first place.
Stuff always belongs together.
B: Yeah, there's definitely a glue there.
GB: And if it doesn't, we make it.
If something gets boring, the only way to make it interesting again is to toss something new into the blend.
GB: To fuck it up.
"36C" sounded equal parts rockabilly and punk. It was interesting to me that I heard two traditionally male-dominated musical styles in the music.
GB: I guess we've always liked punk music, and actually most of us think punk is one of the few areas where lots of women have been involved. There have been so many amazing girl punk bands - the Slits, the Raincoats, X-Ray Spex. I know we all like a band called Liliput from Sweden. There's just been tons of girl bands and a lot of us have collected singles and stuff by obscure girl punk bands over the years. We don't look at punk as being a male thing at all. More like it's the most female thing.
B: And one of the first useful genres of music where women were actually involved from the beginning. They might not be so much remembered and associated with it now, but that doesn't mean they weren't there. It's interesting that you said rockabilly too because there were a lot of female rockabilly artists at the beginning of that movement.
But the media perception after the fact focuses on the achievements of men. With punk it's the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones.
GB: Oh, I know.
That's basically what punk was taken to mean. While the media is beginning to acknowledge women in rock, it still emphasizes men in it. With rockabilly, it's Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. We only seem to hear about men.
B: Yeah and then you've got Wanda Jackson. There's a ton of women rockabilly bands and then there's June Carter.
I remember hearing the Carter Family through a professor who was talking about them in class one day.
GB: We did a Carter Family cover.
B: We love the Carter Family.
GB: We did it for a CD they put out of all Carter Family covers, it was like a tribute.
Oh yeah! There was something about sunshine in the title.
B: Keep On The Sunny Side.
Fifth Column is on that?
GB: Yeah. We did "Chewing Gum" which is a really obscure Carter Family song I think they probably were embarrassed by later because the lyrics were just so extreme. There was no way you could ...
B: Misinterpret them.
GB: You couldn't do that song at a church revival meeting which is the weird thing about the Carter Family. They were so religious but then they had these songs that were so radical in a way. They were just so amazing.
B: You should get that compilation. It's really good if you like the Carter Family.
The problem with the Carter Family is that it's hard to find their stuff.
B: Really hard.
Even with labels reissuing roots music, they don't seem to be releasing it in a comprehensive fashion. They're releasing well-known tracks, original studio takes and the like, but they aren't doing the original albums or releasing it in chronological order.
B: It's weird. I wonder if there's some kind of legal or copyright issues.
It should be in the public domain by now because the Carter Family was around in the '20s and '30s.
B: Yeah. It's strange. I wonder if a lot of the stuff is lost or something.
It could be, or the masters could be in poor condition. So anyway, what's going on with touring?
GB: We're supposed to be doing a West Coast tour in September with the Spinanes, so we're going to come down to California, do shows and hang around.
B: They're incredible. I love them, they're really cool people.
Since the issue this interview will be in is about high school, where did you go to high school?
GB: Oh God. Well, you guys wouldn't know what it was. Nobody there would know what our high schools here were.
B: I went to high school in Toronto at a school called Leaside.
Did you like high school?
B: No, I hated high school.
GB: I hated it so much.
B: Everybody there was really mean and stupid.
GB: Uh-huh. Ditto. Possibly retarded.
That takes care of the next question, which was about the people in your high school. Did you fit in, were you popular, anything like that?
GB: The people at high school hated me and they were terrified of me. I had a very bad reputation in high school. I went to actually five different high schools. I was the person that always came in the middle of the year. It's kind of weird and somehow I would have a bad reputation anyway. I picked a lot of fights. You know sometimes in high school there are certain types of guys that like to bug girls? I would never actually hit them but I would threaten to and scare them. I would literally terrify them. It was fun in a perverse kind of way. I don't know how I did it because now I don't know if I could but I used to have the filthiest mouth in the world and I would go up and say all these really disgusting things to them and they would just be horrified because they couldn't believe anyone would talk that way. I guess they'd never heard any of it before. It was funny.
Did you ever flunk a class?
GB: Yeah. I flunked math for four years in a row. This is so weird because at the very end I went to a progressive school where you could do all your courses in staggered levels. When I graduated, I was in grade 13 with grade 10 math. How about you Beverly?
B: No, I didn't flunk a class.
Did you enjoy P.E.?
GB: I never went.
B: You never went?
B: That was the only thing I liked, because I liked sports. You could hit people in the shins and stuff if you wanted.
What did you do to keep yourself amused in class?
GB: In class? Draw. I'd just keep drawing pictures to amuse myself.
B: I wrote letters to friends and chewed tons of gum.
GB: You weren't allowed to chew gum.
B: I chewed so much gum. I don't know why I did it, but I did. I got in trouble for it and then I would just swallow it. Plus I ate sunflower seeds.
You'll never take me alive copper! So were you suspended or expelled?
B: Yeah. I just didn't go to classes. It was like "Why don't you go to class or we'll kick you out," and I said "Well, okay," and then I went, "Nah." So I quit.
GB: I didn't, but I had a good routine worked out at one school. I've always been an insomniac so I can't wake up in the mornings and I can't get to sleep until at least four in the morning. So I'd get up every day around nine and get to school around eleven. You'd have to sign in so I'd just sign the book and go to detention. I didn't even care. I didn't even think twice about doing it. They thought that was weird. They kept begging me. After a certain point when you're so bad in school it gets to the point where they embarrass themselves by their rules because they see it's just not going to work. No amount of threatening or anything is going to work so they kind of beg you at a certain point because if you don't care then none of the other kids will care and they'll wind up with the whole school crowded into one room for detention.
Either that or just revolt and walk out.
Has your permanent record followed you? Putting something on the permanent record was a standard threat.
GB: I think that was that.
B: No one's caught up with us yet.
I know that was the litany of vice-principals.
B: It was just so fucked. The stupidest thing for me about high school was everything they tried to teach you was so stupid and you could sense it wasn't true.
GB: I fell asleep in a lot of classes. That's why I can't remember much.
B: I can't believe I got the grades I did and didn't go to class. I was blessed with a great short term memory so I could cram and do well on tests. It's funny.
Did high school influence what you're doing now?
B: I think everyone's experience with high school influences them. Wouldn't you say G.B.?
GB: No. I never got to know many people in high school and it didn't have much influence on me because I'd constantly be leaving or else I'd just skip class and go to the mall. I'd say the mall influenced me more than high school did.
B: I guess I feel high school influences people because if you haven't figured it out by public school, you'll know by high school that a lot of things that are supposed to be oh-so-good and oh-so-true are just all lies. That sounds so negative.
Well, people keep saying high school is the best years of your life. The people I've talked to say it's only getting worse in terms of feeling disconnected and feeling like you don't fit in.
GB: Oh yeah.
B: It's this hugely alienating experience.
It's horrible that people still say these are the best years of your life.
B: Yeah, really.
GB: Well, when I was in high school, I remember people saying that and all you had to do was look around in the suburbs and you'd realize why they were saying that. Let's face it, they were all stupid, ugly people and that was the only time in their life when they could convince people to pay any sort of attention to them at all. They were talentless, ugly and stupid and that was their chance to get people to pay attention to them. There were the stupid girls who'd become cheerleaders and get a few moments of attention in their life and then get married. They'd start having kids and mortgages, the bills, the mother-in-law, the father-in-law and everyone yelling at them and perhaps a job and then their life was over. I was always happy those were the worst years of my life because that meant the best years were ahead. Obviously for them it was the best years of their life. It's the most pathetic thing. If you're having a good time in high school you have to stop and wonder. It's like turning over the Death card in the tarot deck.
So do you have a message for the kids in high school?
GB: Oh, we have lots of messages.
B: To sum up. That's a tough one.
GB: We have so many messages it's hard to encapsulate them in one flashy little slogan.
B: I think it's important for people to try not to listen to the people around them and try and be true to themselves, and above all, to keep doing things.
Fifth Column doesn't seem like much of a "message" band. Most of the lyrics seem more personal than anything else.
GB: We're not like a political hardcore type band where it's all politics.
B: And preaching or whatever.
GB: There's some room for that too, but it's just not what we've chosen to do.
B: On the other hand, I think we try and call things as we see them as a group and as individuals too.
GB: We wouldn't write a song like "oh, the police are stupid" because we kind of assume that everyone knows that.
You don't want to be obvious about it.
GB: Well yeah, and I think we just assume that everybody realizes that, or that religion is corrupt. Well, yeah.
Tell me something I didn't know.
GB: Yeah, exactly. You can see all these things on TV every night.
Yeah. It seems like some bands get their songs from the 6 o'clock news. They and watch a half hour of network news and the new album is done.
GB: So yeah, I guess we assume that most people already know. I guess maybe for a lot of kids and younger people it's kind of exciting to hear that for the first time. But I guess we have different types of things to say that I think people probably haven't heard coming from a band before. That's good too.
And there's always that thrill when a band lets you know it's okay to be who you are and do what you want to do, despite what ayone else says.
B: It's okay to be a freak. Yeah that is exciting.
In a lot of ways, it's also liberating.
B: Absolutely, yeah.
Even though this practically begs for a pretentious answer, do you think your music is liberating?
GB: We get a lot of letters and calls from especially girls saying it's exciting for them to find out about Fifth Column and hear us do and say things they haven't heard people say before. And so I think that's exciting because we get to connect with each other and you don't feel so ...
GB: Isolated, yeah. So in that sense, if you want to say it's liberating because it lets you know you're not alone, then that's great. I don't know about liberating people's consciousness, blah blah blah, all that stuff. That is kind of pretentious, but it's so nice that there are other people out there who are awake.
B: Yeah. Often it's other girls saying it's cool, and I feel it makes them feel good about playing music too. It's like they're doing it and I can too. That's cool.
So it's inspiring in a way.
B: Yeah. I think it's like GB said, you know you aren't alone and can do it too, and there's people like you who have similar interests. It's supportive.
GB: It's inspiring for us to meet these girls, and lots of boys have come up to us and said they think it's great and they've got a band and blah blah blah. There's lots of boys who are really stupid whose girlfriends are in bands doing stuff and they don't want to hang around with really stupid boys who are going to go "Wow man, why is your girlfriend doing that?" They want to hang around with people who have brains. So that's good too.
The Fifth Column has traditionally been a resistance movement against the majority. Given that, how does the band name relate to the traditional meaning of the Fifth Column?
GB: Well, you turn on MTV and see all these shitty metal and rock bands filling their videos with girls. These guys put all these girls in the videos and it's weird because you know that they hate those girls but they want to fuck them. What does that say about them? They're stupid and the lyrics to their songs are stupid and it's perpetuating these ridiculous ideas about what people are supposed to be and how they act and that's what I think a large part of rock music is about. I think we're definitely a resistance to that because that's the norm, that's the status quo and that's what is called normal. Rock music used to be rebellious many years ago, but now it really is the status quo.
It's become what it opposed.
B: It's an industry.
GB: Yeah. To be an all girl band, you're not normal because you want to be in a band and don't want to be a girl in a video. That kind of thing. So we're against that type of normality.
That reminds me of the introductory passage in Joanna Russ' The Female Man, which outlines ways men demean women's experiences, whether through invalidation or whatever. It seems that relates as well, where people dismiss current girl bands as a trend, like the Runaways.
GB: Oh, right.
GB: Well, that's what they're doing with the riot grrrl thing. They say "We covered that last year. That was last year's thing. Why are you still in a band? Riot grrrl is over. You're not in fashion anymore. Stop doing that." We've gotten a lot of reviews, especially with the single, that were really upset by it. A lot of guys who wrote for fanzines were like, "I don't understand what they're doing but this is not going to help the situation at all," like we're supposed to be the nurse and come help the situation.
Quick, get out the bandages.
GB: Yeah. Another guy said, "Well, I like it but I can't believe there's eight albums worth of this," like it's our obligation to make eight albums or else we can't do one single. There are these weird ideas of what you have to do in order to be a band. They make these little rules up that certainly don't apply to boy bands.
They don't tell Aerosmith how many albums have to have the same topics.
GB: Every album sounds the same. How many bands can you think of like Phil Collins who put out tons of boring albums? He's probably got eight albums out and they all sound exactly the same. You'd never be able to tell them apart.
Did you know Sears is sponsoring his latest tour?
GB: Oh my God.
GB: Well, those are the only people who are going to pay any attention to him.
B: Is he modeling their clothes or something?
GB: He's probably modeling hairpieces for Sears.
B: Or hats or something.
I know what you mean. The Grateful Dead put out albums filled with the same twaddle and nobody asks them when they're going to stop.
GB: Yeah. I just keep wondering when people are going to get tired of the '60s. It's the '90s now and we've been living in the '60s since the '60s. They won't go away and they won't stop. We're trapped forever in the '60s. It's scary.
I can't believe people are saying riot grrrl is over and you should catch up. They never tell a band like Blue Oyster Cult that and they played a bowling alley here about two years ago. Molly Hatchet played the same place.
B: That is so weird! But I'd love to play a bar attached to a bowling alley.
GB: That is so white trash.
B: That is so trashy. It's kind of cool.
GB: It must be kind of scary though. Everyone must be just drinking that beer.
I was in a bowling league there.
GB: I had kind of a connection with bowling alleys too. I hung out with this girl who was like me, she was a bad girl. She came over to my house and I helped her dye her hair when my parents were on vacation. They came home, found out she dyed her hair and said "Oh, you can't hang around with a girl who dyes her hair." They were so disgusted. Then one night we were watching the news and one of her friends got knifed outside a bowling alley. And I said "That's the bowling alley I always go to!" I stupidly said that in front of my parents and they never let me go to a bowling alley again. I always thought bowling alleys were exciting and mysterious, and cool places to hang out.
It's definitely a fascinating example of white trash culture. I've never seen so much polyester in my life.
B: Some friends here in Toronto had a bowling thing happening. They went once a week and they called themselves the Gutter Girls. They would go to this mall and have a rock and bowl night. They brought their own music and bowled to it. I was never able to make it, but it sounded like fun.
That sounds like a perfect thing to do to alleviate boredom. My tape's running out though. Any final comments?
GB: Don't hesitate to edit.