Tribe and Tribulations
Very little unnerves Leslie Mah, guitarist for San Francisco's Tribe 8. But she admits to being a bit nervous about playing her first show in Colorado since moving away from her home state seven years ago.
"It's going to be a little weird, because I haven't been to a show in Colorado for a long time," she says. "When I go back, it's just for Christmas to see my dad. And I don't really know what happened to all those people I used to see at clubs. There are some of them it'd be really cool to see. But on the other hand, I figure some of them have turned into skinheads, and I probably wouldn't like them, because I went in a completely different direction."
That's no exaggeration. A racially mixed, socially liberal, defiantly raucous all-lesbian punk band, Tribe 8--featuring Mah, vocalist Lynn Breedlove, guitarist Lynn Flipper, bassist Tantrum and drummer Slade Bellum--is as far from the white-is-right crowd as Candace Gingrich is from brother Newt. The combo has been lumped into the burgeoning queercore movement associated with acts such as Pansy Division, but whereas many "boy bands" (Mah's term) like the Pansies aren't all that radical musically or in stage presence, Tribe 8 is an enormous middle finger directed straight at the heart of mainstream intolerance. The songs on Snarkism, the new Tribe 8 disc on the Alternative Tentacles imprint, include a bouncy political screed called "Republican Lullaby" ("Eat shit/10 billion flies can't be wrong"), the anti-gay-bashing "People Hate Me" ("Is it the metal in my face?/Is it the ring in my tit?") and "Checking Out Your Babe," in which Breedlove warns men that their women may soon start wandering on the other side of the sexual tracks ("Don't be surprised if/She stops waiting for a rise/Outta you and sends you walking"). Live, the Tribe takes an equally in-your-face approach; its best-known shtick finds Breedlove strapping on a dildo so that another bandmate can chainsaw it in half. Lorena Bobbitt, eat your heart out. "At first we started doing stuff like that because none of us could play really well," Mah concedes. "For some of us, it was our first band, and music was secondary to just having a stage show." She adds, "But now it's all nicely integrated."
"Integrated" isn't a word Mah uses in describing Boulder, where she spent the first eighteen years of her life. "Boulder's kind of surreal," she notes. "It's just this really strange culture--and it's really, really white. And since my family is interracial, I always felt like an outsider there.
"I think one of the main reasons I didn't go to college is because I grew up in a college town. And I was never really all that involved in the lesbian scene, because it was always attached to the university. I was the local who didn't really hang out with the students. Sometimes when I was in high school, I'd go to parties with some of them, but back then, the only gay bar in town was in a mini-mall in the middle of nowhere. So there was no real queer scene that I was a part of."
Rather, Mah was drawn to Denver's burgeoning punk underground. But she didn't find the atmosphere in this arena much more inviting than the one in Boulder. "I used to go to Denver all the time to see punk-rock shows--like at the Mercury Cafe, I saw Black Flag and X. And there were other venues that opened up, like Kennedy's, and eventually some shows in Boulder. But I just found the whole scene to be really divided. You were either a drug addict or a skinhead. And literally, the last several times I went to shows, me and the other women that I went with would be the only women there. And the guys were all so homophobic. It was like, Show me how straight you are."
Even starting an-all female group, the Anti-Scrunti Faction, didn't persuade the testosterone crowd to accept Mah. "When we played, people would just stand there and stare--and we weren't even out about our sexuality," she claims. "The idea of an all-girl band was not that crazy; half the population is women, so it shouldn't have been that unusual an occurrence. But for some reason, it seemed like it was. Denver seems like it's a big town, but sometimes the people there didn't act like it. I mean, some of the punk-rock boys still wanted their girls to be cheerleaders or to be in thrall to them."
In 1989 a frustrated Mah relocated to San Francisco, which she thought would be a lesbian nirvana. She soon was forced to readjust her expectations. "I thought, 'Wow, there are all these punk dykes here. Whoopee!' But once I started hanging out with them, I realized they were just a bunch of disco queers who were into the fashion--the leather jackets and the spiky haircuts.
"So for a couple of years, I didn't play any music and I was kind of depressed," she allows. "But then Tribe 8 got together, just kind of by an accident. It wasn't like all of us said at the same time, 'What a great idea, let's become a queer-punk band.' It was more like all of us were quitting drugs and we needed something to do with all the crazy shit that was coming out of us. We were all dykes and we all wanted to play this music. And when we started playing, it was really great. Instantly, people were really supportive, because there wasn't really anything like it."
Tribe 8 began recording in 1991 and since then has recorded tracks for compilations (1991's There's a Dyke in the Pit and 1992's Speed Fortress) and three of its own EPs (1991's Pig Bitch, 1993's presciently titled By the Time We Get to Colorado and 1994's Mother). The act's first full-length, Fist City, appeared on Alternative Tentacles last year, and its gleeful obnoxiousness raised Tribe 8's profile outside the gay press. Mah feels that since the release of Snarkism, her band has turned even more heads and has demonstrated the tepidness of much of the so-called punk rock being issued by major labels.
"I think riot grrrl and queercore is where the spirit of punk has been in the past few years," she says. "And it's always evolving. Like, right now, a lot of bands don't think it's that in to be political. Bands like the Offspring and NOFX have been around for a long time, and some of them are like, 'I've paid my dues, and I need to buy some groceries now.'
"At the same time, we have songs that don't seem that political, either--ones that are just about lusting after somebody. But maybe because we're not straight boys, it's political anyway, just because of who we are. Coming out of somebody else's mouth, they would be completely apolitical love songs. But if you're out, you're political just by existing."
Still, Mah confesses that life as a lesbian punk has gotten easier over the past few years. In contrast to the days when she was uneasy about announcing her personal predilections, many male musicians now tell the Tribe their deepest secrets. "I can't tell you how many times I've had somebody in the punk scene come up to me and say, 'Yeah, I got really drunk last night and did this or that,'" Mah relates. "Or have some guy whisper to me, 'You know, I've actually got a boyfriend. He doesn't come to shows or anything, though.' And it's the same thing when we go on tour. We'll play with these other boy bands, and after the show, everybody will be nice and friendly and start bragging about how much cock they've had. And I'm thinking, I'll bet they don't tell this to just anybody."
In Mah's view, the success of Tribe 8 and groups like it means there's no going back into the closet: "As far as I'm concerned, the whole lid is blown off the top. There isn't any more hiding." But she feels there's more work to be done. "That was phase one," she declares. "We've moved into phase two, depending on what town we're in. It'd be great if Denver's become one of the good ones."
How many phases are there? Mah laughs as she answers, "There are four. And phase four is, the revolution has already happened and everybody's partying, and the whole place is sold out with topless girls dancing."
Tribe 8, with Pen 15. 8:30 p.m. Monday, May 27, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $7, all ages, 294-9281 or 830-
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