Shanghai Punk Band Ugly Girls on Women in Music and The Ladyfest Show

By Erica Martin, June 7, 2018

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As a follow-up to their March festival, Ladyfest returns this Saturday with a summer showcase of female-led bands whose music spans riot grrrl punk, hip-hop and lots more. One of the highlight acts is Ugly Girls, a Shanghai-based band whose debut album, Welcome to the Suck, is brimming with razor-sharp, hilarious social commentary paired with righteous punk.

We caught up with the band's vocalist Casey Li Brander and drummer Ceridwen Brown to learn more about what to expect at the show, and the two touch on everything from the fluid definition of 'riot grrrl' to Margaret Cho to feminism in China vs the US. Read on for the interview.


How would you sum up Ugly Girls’ particular brand of punk and what you’re trying to achieve?
CLB: Ugly Girls makes funny angry honest punk music you can shout along and dance to. We’re awkward art weirdos showing the world how cool it is to be extremely uncool. 

How and when did you first become interested in riot grrrl? What does it mean to you?
CLB: Labels are tricky because language is constantly shifting. Saying 'riot grrrl' is like saying feminism; no one really agrees on what that is exactly. Of course feminism is gender fairness, but the means of achieving this are always up for debate, and even the definitions and categorizations of gender are always in flux. It’s an important conversation, though.

Personally, I feel like I shouldn’t have to change my words or definitions even if the world around me might be doing its own thing and co-opting terms for its own reasons. In the traditional sense of the term riot grrrl, I got into Hole in high school, though Courtney Love always rejected the riot grrrl label. I got really into Bikini Kill and Le Tigre in college. I think Janelle Monae’s ‘Django Jane’ is like the most riot grrrl fucking song ever, but I also worry about applying that label to her as being a kind of culturally imperialist move on my part since riot grrrl is also often seen as a middle class white girl thing, which is kind of true of the original 90s scene.

“Saying 'riot grrrl' is like saying feminism; no one really agrees on what that is exactly.”

It’s valid to criticize that as problematic, especially since riot grrrl is a form of punk and punk came from rock and roll which came from 'race music' aka black music, and then riot grrrl came along and didn’t make enough of an effort to reach out to and include women of color. But I think that it’s also kind of dumb to get so caught up on terminology, because we make our own definitions, and riot grrrl to me is just a mindset, it’s just about being a cool girl.

CB: We don’t mind the riot grrrl tag on our music. Of course we acknowledge the importance of that movement and love the bands it produced, but our music is current and original and its own thing.

In no particular order, what other musicians, genres/movements in music, writers or feminists of any kind have inspired you and your music?
CLB: The lyrics are often inspired by comedy bits I’ve written and clothes with Chinglish slogans on them, which I find both hilarious and poetic.

As far as people, artists, bands, shows, movies, books, etc: Margaret Cho, Tiffany Haddish, Bikini Kill, Gloria Steinem, Judith Butler, Sleater-Kinney, M.I.A., Janelle Monaé, Slutever, Wondershowzen, Meng Jinghui, Beyoncé, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Endgame, 30 Rock, Party Down, Tina Fey, Donald Glover, Chelsea Peretti, Terry Crews, Frank Ocean, TLC, Ali Wong, Adrian Piper, Yoko Ono, Natali Cohen Vaxberg, Audra Wist, Morgan Parker, Pierre Huyghe, Chris Ofili, Hannah Hoch, Gia Love, Paris is Burning, Hole, Joy Division, New Order, Xiao Wang, Xi’er, Valie Export, Sadie Benning, Miranda July, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, LOL I could go on forever. I consume way too much content…

CB: Ugly Girls has tons of different musical influences that I guess contributes to our sound. We’d all say something different. For me; Fugazi, The B52’s, GBV, Shelia E, The Breeders, Boredoms…the soundtrack to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I think musically we pay attention to the other alternative music live and recorded coming out of China though and that’s a strength.

Photo by Lui Chen

Tell us about your ongoing China Grrrl project – especially the fact that it was inspired by the idea that the Chinese music scene is more inclusive of women?
CB: I started the China Grrrl project last summer after pitching the idea to U.S magazine TomTom, which is all about female drummers. Casey and I were both struck by the amount of Chinese female musicians playing in the scene here compared to back in our home countries and the diversity and originality of the music they were making was super cool.

We’ve been interviewing bands and filming live shows ever since. I write them up into articles that are being released gradually as an online series. I also put on two China Grrrl live shows in Beijing last April with the help of our promoter friend up there, and one in Shanghai at the start of May. It’s been cool to have the chance to explore our perception of the scene here as inclusive and see if it was in line with the musicians’ actual experiences. Overall it has been, which rules.

“Casey and I were both struck by the amount of Chinese female musicians playing in the scene here compared to back in our home countries.”

CLB: I’m in graduate school at Shanghai Theatre Academy and planning on writing my thesis on girls in the Chinese underground music scene. I’m super surprised and interested by my experiences as a foreign, “mixed blood” woman in China, both inside and outside the punk scene. Certain aspects of Chinese society seem so much more feminist than America. For instance, way lower rates of sexual harassment while walking on the street at night, and women being way less ghettoized within the underground music scene. But at the same time it's definitely not a feminist utopia.

There’s so many more men than women due to boy preference during the one child policy, and so many Chinese girls I know seem to be preoccupied with thinness for purely aesthetic reasons of what's appealing to male-imposed beauty standards.

I guess I’m trying to figure out what about Chinese history, and what about my own country’s history, has made gender relations the way that they are, focusing on the subcultures that are the underground music scenes in each country as a sort-of comparative case-study.

I’ve also been making creative projects for my classes using this research, the next of which is a three-channel video installation called Rebel Girl that will be shown at the Power Station of Art at an event called Documentary in Motion on Sunday, June 10.


Casey, since you’re also a comedian, what do you think of comedy as vehicle for feminism, or a way of pointing out hypocrisy/breaking stereotypes? 
CLB: Margaret Cho was so important to my development. I listened to her album Revolution in middle school I think, and I remember feeling so understood and not alone and it was extremely healing. Even really banal things can have such an impact on you; there was one bit she has where she talks about how it is hard to be the daughter of immigrants because you “get fucked up shit in your lunchbox… all the other kids got twinkies and ho-hos, I got dried fish. You can’t trade that.”

That joke slayed me so badly because even though my mom is a very assimilated ABC, I still remember living in a very white town when I was a kid being super self-conscious when my mom put Chinese food in my lunchbox and other kids were like “ewww that’s weird.”

“I love a good fart joke as much as the next person, but there has to be a balance. Healing laughs are way more valuable than just pure entertainment laughs.”

It’s a small thing but acutely painful to remember being so young and being ashamed just for being alive and being an outsider. Feeling like my presence was at worst a burden and at best a punch line. I think being able to take control of your narrative like that -- to go from being someone else’s punch line to writing your own punch lines -- is extremely powerful.

That’s what I’m going for in my comedy. It’s not really meant to be for everyone, it’s more meant to heal myself and anyone else who can relate to what I’m saying. I mean, I love a good fart joke as much as the next person, but I feel like there has to be a balance. Healing laughs are way more valuable than just pure entertainment laughs.


You recently participated in a 'gender is not a genre' concert – what are your thoughts on shows that specifically focus on female-led bands versus pushing for more women in bands in all types of shows?
CB: That show was organized by our friend Anlin, who used to be the singer for Beijing band Xiao Wang before she moved to Canada. She’s back for the summer, so they’re on a small tour with the Gender is Not A Genre theme. They are sick of always being called riot grrrl and don’t see it as a musical genre, but as a movement from another place and cultural context. We totally understand their frustration with that and agree that it’s an overused lazy term slapped on any band with a female voice. Female-led was not actually the focus of that tour, all the bands that played were a mix.

For me personally, putting the China Grrrl shows together was not about creating an exclusive or “safe” space for the bands to perform… it really bothers me that that is how some people interpreted it, since my starting point was exactly the opposite. All of those bands are doing just fine representing themselves regularly in un-marginalized local scenes across the country. I just brought a bunch of them that I wanted to feature for the project together to play some cool shows. We play with all kinds of bands, all kinds of shows. I don’t think it boils down to versus… the more opportunity the better.


The lyrics on your debut album, Welcome to the Suck, are so smart, hilarious and on point throughout. – Could you pick one of your songs that might be especially suited to a Ladyfest-themed show like this and explain the meaning behind it? 
CLB:Great Guy’ is based on a stand-up bit I have mixed with another story from my life. The joke is about how this guy was hitting on me and put his arm around my shoulder and was like “is this okay?” and I was like “yeah dude, whatever,” and he said, “good, because you know, I’m all about consent.”

So the joke is me telling this story and then saying my internal monologue out loud like “Oh, cool. Thanks for not raping me, I guess? You’re like a really great guy. I wasn’t going to fuck you, but now that I know you’re not gonna rape me, I’m finding your woke charms kinda irresistible.”

What’s next for you? Is the band working on any new music?
CB: Yes. The newest song is called ‘Pegasus’ and if you know Casey you can guess what it’s about.

CLB: Yeah, LOL. We never stop working. We’re on our grind because that’s the dark nature of capitalism.

Ladyfest Summer Concert, Jun 9, 7pm, RMB100 presale, RMB150 door. Yuyintang, see event listing, buy tickets.

Photos by Frank Gale unless otherwise specified.

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