Red Aunts Never Let Rock Tradition Get In the Way of Its Noisy Punk Fun

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Red Aunts, photo courtesy Red Aunts

Red Aunts are headlining Fem Fest at the MCA Denver on Saturday, May 12. While the punk band, formed in Long Beach, California in 1992, isn’t as well known as some of its contemporaries, it was certainly one of the most original and beloved by those that came under the band’s spell of chaos and playfulness before it split around 2001.

The last time Red Aunts performed in Denver was on July 17, 1998 at the Bluebird Theater. The band had already come through Denver and Boulder in early April of that year playing with King Rat and Necessary Evils at Lion’s Lair and Electric Summer at Club 156. At the Bluebird show, the roots punk King Rat and the garage rock Down N Outs warmed up the crowd with impressive sets of their own. But when Red Aunts took stage, the group had an excitingly unpredictable quality that perfectly suited its its unique sound, a kind of blend of noisy punk and garage rock. Then, at one point in the set, either Kerry Davis or Terri Wahl broke a guitar string and announced, “You’d think that in seven years of being in a band that I would have learned to change my strings but I didn’t. Is there anyone that can come up here to help me with that?” Someone did. Perhaps that moment, that likely happened periodically in the band’s career, struck some as unprofessional, but to others it showed that you didn’t need to have complete expertise or mastery of all areas of one’s art all at the same time in order to do it with credibility or at all. Clearly the members of the Red Aunts weren’t letting what some might perceive as shortcomings get in the way of being a band. “Oh yeah, nor did we care,” says Wahl. “I think that was more the thing. We just didn’t give a fuuuck.”

That creative spirit liberated from the confinements of conventional thinking was part of the band from the beginning. Wahl had moved to Long Beach from Anaheim, after a stint in Fullerton, with her vintage clothing business. But she’d always loved music and as a teenager had seen and been inspired by the likes of X, Social Distortion, The Mau Maus and Christian Death.

“I would sneak out my bedroom window and drive with my friends from Anaheim to Los Angeles to see bands,” recalls Wahl. “That’s what opened my eyes to punk rock. But I didn’t start a band until ten years after that.”

In Long Beach, Wahl came upon the idea of starting her own band with her friend Debi Martini, who was already doing a music ‘zine with her now ex-husband, Edwin Lecher, called Read Life In The Big City. The latter helped put the fledgling band in contact with several other musicians around the world over the years. Before starting Red Aunts, though, Wahl and Martini had already been around musicians but decided not to be bound by the same perceived barriers to entry in starting a band.

“We all had boyfiends that were in bands and we’d end up at these parties and all they could do was talk about their stupid bands,” says Wahl. She decided she would play guitar “because it’s the coolest” and Martini said she would play bass because she thought her boyfriend had one. A friend told Wahl that his friend Kerry was moving to Long Beach from New York and wanted to be in a band as well. With the addition of drummer Lesley Ishino, Red Aunts was born, a band formed by people who hadn’t really played music before. Developing chops and honing of craft in a traditional and creatively stultifying way before getting out and playing shows was not to be part of the history of Red Aunts. “We wrote songs and learned to play our instruments as our band was going,” says Wahl. “It was awesome.”

Red Aunts wasted no time in playing live, “Right off the bat, whether we should have or not,” quips Wahl, and one of its earliest shows was with respected 80s and 90s Illinois punk band The Didjits.

“They were coming through town and the venue that they were going to play at got shut down and we were like, ‘Oh, let’s have the show in Debi’s garage and the Red Aunts will open for you!’” recalls Wahl. “It was on the Fourth of July. The only reason I remember that is that I found a miniskirt made out of an American flag and I was like, ‘Oh! That’s what I’m wearin’ for the Fourth of July! That’s the perfect outfit!’ Because you always have to pick your outfits too. That’s half the fun!”

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Red Aunts live 2017, photo courtesy Red Aunts

Early on, though, Red Aunts, like most bands, played a lot of local shows and mostly with all male bands some of whom, especially then, even now, were skeptical of an all female band, especially one like Red Auints who made no bones about their emphasis on creativity and songwriting over technical prowess. Long term having its own sound and aesthetic worked out for Red Aunts but its early peers perhaps didn’t give it the respect it would eventually earn. “In my opinion I don’t think they received us well because we couldn’t play very well,” says Wahl. “And so they were just like, ‘Oh, stupid girl band.’ As soon as we started going and touring we became way more popular than them. That ended a lot of relationships—marriages and others.”

As in much of music, many musicians forget that some of the most interesting music is made by those who are not cognitively or culturally bound by the “rules,” especially the supposedly anarchic roots of punk rock and rock and roll itself. The willingness to play and write songs without having classic skill is often key.

“Punk rock made it okay to not have to play that well,” says Wahl. “We always used that as, like, ‘Well, who cares, man? Close enough for punk rock.’ Then, as we were touring for months out of the year we got really good at playing—we got really good at our songs at least. We also got more confident and it was fun.”

Fortunately, Red Aunts found support in the local community and the larger punk scene. Some of its early releases were put out by Long Gone John on his Sympathy For the Record Industry imprint, which was then based in Long Beach. “[John] gave us that first chance of actually putting something out and he was really supportive and just a really good guy.”

Within a few years Red Aunts had built up enough of an audience and reputation to draw the interest of Epitaph Records and signed with the imprint before the release of its third full-length, 1995’s irreverent #1 Chicken as well as its subsequent records, 1996’s Saltbox and the 1998 swan song Ghetto Blaster.

“[Signing with Epitaph was] when thing really happened because being on that label meant we could go on tour because we got tour support,” says Wahl. “We took full advantage of that and we went out quite often. How you became popular was touring a lot. Before then we didn’t tour nationally. We would go up the coast a little bit but when we got on Epitaph, that’s when were able to really get out there.”

In the second half of the 90s, Red Aunts were inspired by the noisy punk bands that were signed to labels like Amphetamine Reptile, Touch and Go, Thrilljockey, Estrus Records, Empty Records and In the Red Records. At that time, as now, indie labels were the home of music that probably wouldn’t be given the time of day by major labels, especially after the early 90s when the music industry snapped back to a more conservative mode of operations rather than take chances as it had when alternative music forced a sea change in the early 90s. Certainly a band with a gift for noisy punk, wild energy and an irreverently surrealistic sense of humor like Red Aunts wouldn’t have fit in with being groomed for mainstream stardom.

One of the main ingredients in the Red Aunts sound was its willingness to throw together seemingly disparate ideas in music and lyrics, written by various band members, and make them work even when the styles and ideas seem to clash. It’s a method that has more in common with the avant-garde than punk but in itself more punk than a band making music trying to fit into someone else’s formula. For example, from #1 Chicken, the song “Detroit Valentine” sounds completely insane in the best way and its lyrics shift between cartoonish violence and romantic obsession.

“That was about Mick Collins,” says Wahl. “We became really good friends with him. Kerry had a crush on him, on his voice, you know? It was called that because he was from Detroit. Debi’s part of the song ‘I’m bound for Black Mountain me and my razor gun I’m gonna shoot him if he stands still and cut him if he run.’ I don’t know what she was talking about. But the part Debi sings and the part Kerry sings are about different things. The part Debi sings she wrote and the part Kerry sings she wrote and we just kind of jammed them together. That’s how a lot of our songs are, actually. That’s why there’s so many time changes and weird progressions and changes.”

While this method of songwriting came naturally to Red Aunts, the band, Davis and Wahl in particular, were big fans of noise punk legends Pussy Galore. “Their songs were so weird with so many time changes and chord progressions,” says Wahl. “We wanted to be like that.”

When Red Aunts split up near the turn of the century it wasn’t a dramatic blowout. Davis and Martini moved to New York and Wahl decided to focus on her catering company, which prevented any kind of touring. Wahl pretty much stopped playing music but Davis and Martini continued to play music, Davis notably as Two Tears, and Ishino went on to perform in various bands including Alaska! from Los Angeles.

Then in 2016, In the Red Records head Larry Hardy issued a “greatest hits” compilation called COME UP FOR A CLOSER LOOK subsequent to which the band approached Hardy to play the label’s 25th Anniversary Festival on July 15, 2016. Wahl had to re-learn how to play the bands songs from the group’s friend and guitar tech Zack Malner but the show proved to be so much fun that Red Aunts decided to continue and play occasional dates, life demands permitting, including, as mentioned previously, at Fem Fest in Denver on May 12, June 1 at Boot & Saddle in Philadelphia and at Rough Trade in New York City on June 2.

It’s difficult to say if Red Aunts have been directly influential on other bands but one hears that spirit of faith in one’s inherent creativity to guide one’s art as well as a wild noisy punk in the likes of Atlanta, Georgia’s The Coathangers, but certainly the band has been a good example of how originality will always be more interesting than following the beaten path. For her part, Wahl is finding satisfaction in this new chapter of the band’s history.

“I kind of feel like we’re better now,” says Wahl. “It could just be me. We’re not as drunk and I’m just having a lot of fun.”