Gina Birch has been creating punk art her entire life—but she’s just getting started. What could be more hardcore than dropping your first solo album at 67? She became a legend with the Raincoats, the London punk band she started in 1977, four renegade women inventing their own kind of racket. But she’s got that same rebel spirit on her new solo debut I Play My Bass Loud, on Jack White’s Third Man Records. It’s a statement of purpose, and one of the year’s freshest, funniest rock albums so far. “Sometimes I wake up and I wonder, what is my job?” she sings in the title jam, answering with a shout: “I play my bass loud! I turn it louder!”
“Rage is a kind of motivator,” Birch says. “But it’s also important to keep the combination of rage and compassion.” She’s Zooming from her kitchen table in North London, where she lives with her husband, two daughters (off at college), a dog, and a cat. She’s full of contagious laughter and DGAF energy—the cool, eccentric punk-rock auntie you always wished you had.
Birch formed the Raincoats with guitarist Ana Da Silva in 1977, when they met as art-school students in London. Birch was just a small-town teenager from Nottingham, but the first song she ever wrote became a feminist punk classic: “No One’s Little Girl.” She’s always been prolific as a visual artist, in painting and film. (She’s directed videos for the likes of New Order and the Libertines.) Birch also had a solo exhibit of her paintings last fall, called In My Fucking Room.
But she wasn’t planning on making an album. “I had given myself over to painting,” Birch laughs. “So it was quite surprising when I started thinking, “I don’t wanna paint, I wanna switch my computer on and go back to that song. I’ve got this idea for a lyric.’ The whole thing is very energizing. I’ve been a mom and I’ve been quite domestic, then suddenly I’m like full-blast, full-tilt solo show.”
She produced I Play My Bass Loud with Youth of Killing Joke, who’s also worked with kindred spirits like X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene and the Slits’ Viv Albertine. The title song has five different female bassists, including old punk comrades like Helen McCookerybook as well as Emily Elhaj from Angel Olsen’s band. She plays around with synths and even AutoTune; she also gets guitar from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Best of all, there’s the electro anti-fashion vow “I Will Never Wear Stilettos.” “My feet are ecstatic in Doc Martens,” Birch chants. “They love blue suede shoes / They love white Polish waitressing shoes / Never wear Jimmy Choos!”
In the spirit of the Raincoats, the music mixes up wild humor with political anger, from rockers like “I Am Rage” to dub-wise experiments like “Pussy Riot,” her tribute to the outlaw Russian feminist band. Her album cover is a self-portrait Birch painted from a short Super 8 film she made as a student: three minutes of her screaming into the camera with rage. The film is part of the upcoming “Women In Revolt!” exhibit at London’s Tate Museum. Birch also teamed up with McCookerybook (a.k.a historian Helen Reddington) to make the documentary Stories From The She-Punks, about the movement’s women pioneers.
I Play My Bass Loud is a fitting title for Birch, who’s always had her own original style. “I’m that bass player that’s not always in the shadows,” she says. “So probably annoying sometimes.” She played high up on the neck because of her small hands. “I chose the bass because the drums were too big, I couldn’t play guitar, I couldn’t sing. So I thought maybe the bass would be a good place for me. I was just playing with it and seeing what would happen.”
The Raincoats defined the original do-it-yourself spirit of punk, dropping classic singles like “In Love.” In their 1979 debut seven-inch “Fairy Tale in the Supermarket,” they chant about breaking free from misogynistic cliches and creating your own identity, joining their voices to yell, “No one teaches you how to live!” They had their own urgent sound: Birch’s high-speed bass, Da Silva’s guitar, Vicky Aspinall’s violin, the wild-ass drums of Palmolive, a.k.a. Paloma McLardy. (She got her nickname from her friend Paul Simonon of The Clash, who couldn’t pronounce her real name.)
Their brilliant debut The Raincoats was radically innovative, yet full of brash humor, with a gender-twisting demolition of the Kinks’ “Lola.” But the music never sounds dated, inspiring young bands ever since. Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles argue over them in the teen classic Ten Things I Hate About You. (“How do you know who The Raincoats are?” “Don’t you?”) One of the funniest scenes in 20th Century Women is real-life fan Greta Gerwig playing them for Annette Bening, who asks, “Can’t things just be…pretty?” Director Mike Mills has said the whole film was inspired by reading Greil Marcus’ liner notes to The Kitchen Tapes.
The Raincoats never sounded like anyone else, partly because they were still figuring out how to play. “When we started, we wouldn’t try to imitate other bands,” Birch says. “I mean, we did cover ‘Lola,’ but we didn’t quite know what we were doing. There were no YouTube lessons then. So we never tried to follow the structures of other people’s songs. We’d just go, ‘Now we’re gonna chant this bit, or now we’re gonna play really loud.’ Which was sometimes a bit difficult to listen to—‘ugh, that’s out of tune!’ But we were never trying to be in the charts. We just wanted to make something interesting to us.”
They took inspiration from their friends in the London scene—the Sex Pistols, the Slits, the Clash. But the Raincoats were always themselves. Birch laughs as she recalls how other bands were stunned by the Raincoats’ idea of rock decadence. “Like knitting before a soundcheck!,” she says. “When we were on the punk tours, they’re expecting these punks to turn up and fight. They were shocked to find me there backstage just knitting. I guess I was a precursor to all those sweet punk girls today, knitting with their sweaters and hair-slides.”
The music was beautiful chaos—as Jenn Pelly writes in her essential bio The Raincoats, it “can feel like rough-and-tumble slapstick comedy.” Da Silva was an expert on Dylan and the Beatles; Birch was more into reggae and the Ronettes. They got even further out on the experimental 1981 Odyshape. When Johnny Rotten quit the Sex Pistols to start Public Image Ltd, he famously declared that all rock music was irrelevant rubbish—except The Raincoats.
But for many years, they were totally off the radar, with their records impossible to find. The adventure of being a Raincoats fan meant scrounging to track down the music—especially in the U.S., where The Raincoats never even got released. The first time I ever stumbled on a vinyl copy, after years of searching, I took it over to a friend’s house for her party. We couldn’t believe we were finally getting to hear this radical music. Every guest who came over wanted to tape a copy for themselves, so we just kept playing this album all night, filling cassette after cassette. The Raincoats were an underground word-of-mouth legend, yet their mystique just grew.
“Just so funny, isn’t it?” Birch says. “Because now the world’s so small. But in those dark ages, to hear the music, you’d have to be a detective or a hunter. Thurston told me one day he walked into somebody’s room and saw the Raincoats album and said, ‘That’s it!’” For many fans, the gateway drug was the ragged but excellent 1983 live cassette, The Kitchen Tapes, which turns 40 this year. “We only did The Kitchen Tapes because we didn’t have plane tickets home,” Birch laughs. “We got one-way tickets to New York, and we couldn’t afford to get back. So we got the money to buy the plane tickets from that. But it’s odd, because sometimes that’s been the only thing of The Raincoats in print, when all else has disappeared.”
But the Raincoats found a new young audience in the Nineties, after the grunge and riot grrrl explosion. Bands like Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Nirvana couldn’t shut up about how much they idolized them. Kurt Cobain famously got his label to reissue the albums, calling them “wonderfully sacred scripture,” making them widely available for the first time. When The Raincoats appeared in NYC in 2017, in a celebration of Pelly’s biography, not only did the members of Bikini Kill show up, they got inspired to get up and play together—for the first time in 20 years.
I Play My Bass Loud has the band’s same try-anything spirit. “I don’t censor myself,” Birch says. “If I have an idea, if it tickles me, I’ll follow it. I don’t think, ‘Well, that doesn’t fit with this, and this doesn’t fit with that.’ I think, ‘Hmm—that’s a nice misfit.” When she sent the album to Da Silva, her bandmate admitted it was “too pop” for her. So Birch invited her to remix “Pussy Riot.” (Da Silva also appears on “Feminist Song,” which The Raincoats have played live for years.) As Birch writes in the band’s recently published Manifesto, “Keep moving, keep open, keep aware.”
The connection between her music and her artwork goes deep, with her love of collage. “It’s a bit like using loops and samples,” she says. “I would repurpose a classical painting, because I’d work at copying a classical painting, and then I could go in and—what’s the word? Vandalize it.”
Her depictions of misogynistic violence are powerfully disturbing, whether visual or sonic. “Some of the first paintings I did were way pre-Me Too. They were looking at things that had happened to me and my friends as teenagers, that weird abuse of power from men.” Those experiences were formative for her. “It was funny listening to Fran Lebowitz [in the miniseries Pretend It’s a City] talk about why she became a taxi driver, because all her friends who worked in restaurants had to sleep with the maitre’d. That Bill Cosby kind of thing. It happened everywhere—in restaurants, in every job where there’s one or two men who believe their power is irresistible. Even when the woman says “No,” they say, “She doesn’t mean it—I must pursue this.” Some of them are getting their comeuppance as men, it seems. And some of them are rather shocked.”
“I Will Never Wear Stilettos” seems like a fun synth-pop ditty on the surface, but it also probes the most serious questions of female identity. “Although it’s specifically about shoes,” Birch says, “it’s also, ‘Did you brush your hair? Have you got a comb? Do you want a bit of lipstick?’ That ‘why don’t you make the best of yourself?’ kind of thing. You see it now in that selfie culture. Young women feel they need to look a certain way, enjoy life in a certain way.” But the song is also quite literally about running away from predatory men on the street—“sometimes you just gotta run!”—a constant fact of life for her and her friends. “We got chased by Teds, because were were wearing brothel creepers, and that was their uniform. They didn’t like how we were appropriating it, perverting it, making it ours. Vandalizing it, if you like.”
So much of I Play My Bass Loud is charged with feminist anger. “I don’t know if you ever get a blinding rage?” Birch asks. “Most people look at me blankly when I say that, but I just get this kind of like red-hot, blinding rage, you know? I’m almost transported in this madness. When I wrote ‘I Am Rage,’ I was just coming down from that and just trying to capture it.”
In a way, Birch’s whole career has been about turning that fury into art. “What’s that film, where the guy tells people to yell out the window, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore’? Network? I didn’t yell out of my bedroom window at strangers. I just walked along the street, quietly imploding inside my head. I was just a girl from the provinces who moved to the big city, but London formed me. I’m a city girl. I’m a warrior. The city made me this way. And in this city, I’ve grown into myself.”