photo: Carl Pocket
War on Women is a band from Baltimore, Maryland. Shawn Potter (vocals) Brooks Harlan (guitar) Nancy Hornburg (guitar) Evan Tanner (drums) and Sue Werner (bass) make up the fierce hardcore group who pointedly took the name War on Women; a phrase often used to describe the right wing political attacks on women centered issues.
War on Women toured the West Coast with Propagandhi and The Flatliners last month. I spoke with Shawna after the tour to talk about music, politics, and beautiful Baltimore!
Mr. Fakie: How’s your Sunday going?
Shawna Porter: Good.
MF: Did you go to church?
(Laughter from all)
MF: War on Women is a hardcore band. What was your introduction to hardcore and who were some of your influences?
SP: I will admit that I’m the person in the band with the least hardcore and punk street cred. I grew up listening to all kinds of music but it was a lot of R&B. I came up on more punk rock in the way that Sonic Youth is punk rock. It was less about the straight ahead, three chord yelling about the government kind of stuff. But still, being really young, I listened to the Sex Pistols because I had heard of them and I should listen to them because they’re a staple. Through that, it got me really into the first Clash record, which I love. As well as Bikini Kill, and the Slits, Refused, and even if it doesn’t count, I love Danzig. I’ve always liked heavy music that’s a little creepy in some ways. So as long as it has a good melody and it’s a bit creepy, I’m down with it. I also really like Isis and Tides. But after all of it, my favorite artists are Prince, Beyonce, Slant 6 and Helium. I was so into Helium growing up.
MF: So you got into the hardcore scene as more of an active participant than just a fan?
SP: Yeah. Mainly because it has such a bad rap for women. I lived in Nashville so all of my friends were in bands. I know it’s not like that in every town but everyone loved music, everyone’s parents were studio musicians. I’d see my friends play all ranges of music but it was common knowledge that if you went to a random punk or hardcore show, you’d be holding your boyfriend’s coat. The punk that I was into, that felt safe for me, was Riot Grrrl. No one was going to judge you for your playing ability and it was mixed gender. So the traditionally male oriented stuff took me a while to get into because I didn’t want to.
MF: When you started to get into music was it instantly political?
SP: No. I didn’t really start thinking about politics and my place in it until George W. Bush was elected. One day I heard he wanted to restrict abortion access and I thought, “That’s not right. He doesn’t have a uterus. Why does he get to say who has access?” That started the spiral. I consciously ignored it and stayed apathetic for a long time because of my young age (being under 18). I didn’t think I could do anything. I felt that I had no power so most of the lyrics I wrote were about people. That’s fascinating. People are fascinating. So when I started to think more about what’s going on in the US, it wasn’t really until we started War on Women that politics came to the forefront. Brooks and I made a conscious decision to do this. Before in our band Avec, we’d write about anything we wanted to. This is a project with a direction and there’s no limit to what I can write about because women’s equality can be tied to any topic.
It was never really “you should elect this person or pass bill number whatever,” it was that people are fucking telling me what to do with my life and my body and they have no right to do that. So in that sense, yeah, if that’s political, I was conscious of that.
MF: You’re writing and singing in this band, previously you played guitar in a band with Brooks?
SP: Yeah, I’ve played guitar since I was 12 in a few different bands. I was in a mostly female 90s pop, kind of alternative, band with three part harmonies when I was in high school in Nashville. I also did some solo acoustic kind of stuff and then joined the band with Brooks that became Avec. Which was jazzy, mathy kind of rock. And this band, the original inspiration came from a Bikini Kill cover band I was in with Katy Otto, who runs Exotic Fever Records and plays drums in Trophy Wife. She has a long history of music in the DC scene.
We played a few shows and I decided to sing, I was going to be Kathleen Hanna because it was fun. Then Brooks came to see us and said, “This is really good. We should do this for real.” And I thought, “Cool.” We are different people and weren’t going to be Bikini Kill 2, we wanted to write different songs. I think when people compare us it’s because there’s a limited scope and they instantly tie us to bands with women even though we may sound more like a band with men.
photo: Carl Pocket
MF: Speaking of that, bands like L7 and Babes in Toyland were hard rock bands but got lumped into to this catch-all ‘girl band’ category. Do you feel that its a bad term to be lumped in with this ‘girl band’ category?
SP: I think it sells my gender short. It’s easily dismissible. I think of ‘girl group’ and I think of the Ronnettes. I think of fluffy stuff. And not that Motown wasn’t awesome, it’s just not that challenging today. It’s just good pop music. And we’re not doing good pop music. I just want to do good music. I think the term is misleading. It sells us short and it sells the audience short. I want to give more credit to digest something. It’s not that odd to see more than one gender in a band. I think if people see us live, I’d like to think that they wouldn’t forget that I’m a woman, but more importantly they’d remember that we bring it and put on a good show. If you think that at the same time, then you can stop thinking of it as a ‘girl band’. I’m also 31. I’m sick of being called a girl.
MF: There’s certainly this trap or novelty but can it feel safer for women, especially young women to have an alternative getting into music?
SP: I’ve always felt, having been on stage for a long time, that every time you see a woman on stage, it’s an opportunity to inspire a young woman in the audience. I’m not so bigheaded to think that, “Oh, I’m an inspiration” but I didn’t know that I could be on stage and play a guitar until I saw another woman do it.
I’d see music videos of a bunch of dudes playing and I’d think, “That’s cool, I like music.” but it wasn’t until I saw a video of a woman playing guitar and realized that I can do that. I think that’s a really important idea for people to think about. Having a bi-racial family in a cereal commercial, or on a Cheerios box is way more important than you think because it normalizes someone’s existence and will normalize an experience that more and more families are having. I think that having a mixed [gender] band is way more important than being all women playing the same stuff. It shows that we’re able to work together to promote equality for everyone. That’s where feminism or any good cause should be. We need partnerships and have to realize that we can’t do it alone. It ensures that men know that they can be a part of it.
MF: Let’s start with a quote then a question. I think this is interesting because you definitely hear, at times, people rejecting the word feminist. The author, Caitlin Moran, wrote a book called How to be a Woman and in it she challenges women who reject the association with feminism with this question: “Put your hands in your pants,” (laughing) you don’t have to do that.
SP: (Also laughing) How do you know I’m not already?
MF: “A) Do you have a vagina? B) Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said yes to both, then congratulations, you’re a feminist.” Do you ever encounter women, especially in the hardcore scene or life in general who push back on the term and try to rationalize feminism as a term to distance themselves from the idea?
SP: My personal experience is that there’s younger women, especially high school age who are still being tricked to think that’s a bad word. They haven’t talked enough with other people about it to change their minds. You know they’re going to get over that, there’s still just a few ideas of patriarchal society to get over. In the hardcore and punk scene there’s no woman I’ve come across who hasn’t identified or been proud to see a woman on stage. So that aspect has been good so far.
I’ve experienced people not identifying with feminism if they more strongly identify with womanism or they feel that feminism is for white women, which is a valid concern. They’re still in the good fight for equality and civil rights but they don’t need feminism to do that. I’m cool with that, I want to be an ally to that way of thinking. So in that case, no, I don’t think the lack of self-identifying as a feminist is a bad thing. I see it more with people that have more entitlement and privilege and they think life is great for them so why isn’t it for every other woman? They only think that because their life is very charmed. Most people in punk, or the scenes I’m in, don’t feel that way.
MF: Let’s talk about a group called Hollaback that you’re involved with in Baltimore that focuses on street harassment. Could you tell us a little about that?
SP: The Baltimore chapter that I run is a part of a larger international movement to raise awareness for street harassment. To call it by name, let people know they’re not alone and to educate folks on how to avoid accidental harassment. And also to deal with it in the moment and even after the fact in a proactive way that can help other people deal with it.
MF: I wanted to talk about a few songs on the record. “Broken Record” and “Effemimania” are parallel, I think. In “Broken Record” you talk about street harassment which is an aggressive and ugly side of sexism but “Effemimania” explores misogyny, in the way that men have a standard for women that doesn’t allow them to express themselves sexually. Effectively that men can control a situation and act a certain way around women. Maybe you can explain that side of the song a bit.
SP: It’s more about the gender spectrum. That there’s not a certain way to be male or a certain way to be female and that there’s a bunch of genders in between. We’re all a lot more similar than society would have us believe. They want to pit us against each other, men versus women, and it shouldn’t be like that. My inspiration for that song was definitely “Whipping Girl” by Julia Serano. Reading her account of her unique experience, that not everyone shares, her experience of transitioning and how she views the world viewed her and what parts of her changed was really fascinating and reassuring. I really feel like humans are so similar and we have much more in common than we don’t. So there’s no reason to fight against each other.
MF: Let’s talk about the politically aware hardcore scene. You mentioned before that you’re not receiving as much push back for feminism and also going back to the scene in Nashville where women hold their boyfriends’ coats.
SP: I think that was a common experience for people of that time, not necessarily unique to Nashville.
MF: I’m 33 and grew up in the Pittsburgh hardcore scene where the girls are in the back…
SP: Because the dudes are gonna go crazy and “We don’t wanna hurt you ladies!”
(Laughter from all)
MF: There’s the politically aware hardcore scene where we know that sexism, racism and homophobia are wrong but you hear people using words that have real impact. Words like bitch, slut, homo, retard even that really can hurt people. I’d be interested to see how you hear people talk in these scenes. And how do you talk to people about their privilege.
SP: It’s really difficult. It’s one of those things where you balance everything, like is it your band’s show? My band’s show? Am I a guest? Am I outnumbered? And you have to decide how well you know this person, and do I feel safe? Am I exhausted from being street harassed all day or have I been reading about rape culture all day and am I fucking over it? There’s no perfect situation or response to behavior like that. Especially if someone is part of that marginalized group. I try to tell my male friends that they should be better bystanders. It’s better and going to be heard more if a man tells another man, “Hey dude, that’s not cool.”
I draw a pretty hard line for myself and my close friends to try to be better with our own language. Even if it’s with my best girlfriend, I’m not going to be like, “Hey, bitch.” Even if it’s fun to say, I try to curb that especially if other people are around because I don’t want to normalize any word like that. The kind of person that would say, “I can say that because that lady said it,” is the worst kind of person to pick up on that language. I let a lot of things go because I can’t fight every battle but I’m very quick to challenge if someone is using slang for genitalia to mean weak or less than. If someone is being a “cunt”, then they’re being “bitchy” but that’s so negative. I never use slang language for genitalia because I think it’s making behavior gendered.
photo: Carl Pocket
MF: Speaking of P.C. fascists, War on Women just finished a tour with Propagandhi. What were your favorite moments, road stories or cities?
SP: Let’s see.. I think Oakland was surprisingly awesome and fun. There were a ton of people there early, knew the songs and we felt like we played well. We felt really positive. I also like the L.A. show because I get too comfortable. I’m in DIY punk spaces, I’m with Propagandhi and I don’t hear from many assholes when we play.
MF: L.A. had a dark vibe going on.
SP: Yeah, a really dark vibe. L.A. had a couple of dudes that were ruining it for everyone. They even brought us down for a second. We were like, “Fuck!” It was so offensive that it was worth calling out. We just happened to be playing “Broken Record” next. The song is meditative and about street harassment so we felt good after that and were fine. It’s more rare than you’d think to experience that kind of street harassment and sexism at a live show. People like that are cowards and trolls who usually do that online from the safety of their bedroom where they don’t have to look a human in the face and challenge them. To experience that live is rare but it keeps me on my toes. I felt like it was about time to make sure I still had it.
MF: I remember thinking, “is this a plant?”
(Laughter form all)
SP: We’re not that famous… We’re playing loud ass music and can’t always hear everything but that dude let himself be heard. He wanted to make sure we knew he existed which is entitlement bullshit wrapped in street harassment. The thing I thought about afterwards talking to Jord (Propagandhi) and Jord’s partner, was what would have happened if that guy said the same thing in the street? It was so aggressive, he making sure I heard him and was not getting that I wasn’t interested in hearing him. This is one of those things where you have to give yourself permission to feel the way you feel. I had to give myself permission to have fear of going into the audience in case I was to see him. If I did that, I didn’t know if he’d try to corner or grab me. That’s a really dark flip side, especially because I was on stage with a microphone and lights and in control of the situation and that would be gone. It’s scary and hopefully it was a good show but as soon as I walk off stage, I wasn’t sure if he’d find me. And that’s something we all live with every day. That’s why we’re still a band and have something to sing about.
MF: Brooks is vegan and before the interview you told me that you’re veg and sometimes vegan so while I won’t ask you for Brooks as he’s not here, but for you, how did you become veg or vegan?
SP: Well for me, while I was in Avec, everyone in the band was vegetarian at least. It was really a matter of time and when you understand why they’re doing it and understand it, how can you not change your eating habits? I just had to be exposed to someone who was doing it and willing to tell me why in a nonjudgmental way. For me it’s been 10 years and the options for what you can eat are blowing up. I have the privilege to go to the grocery store and see Tempeh and Tofurkey so why would I not buy that if I can?
MF: How was touring with Propagandhi, the vegan supergroup?
SP: In the US, there’s not really catering, most of the places we play are a house. But when you play in Europe, they feed you, they know what’s up. We had amazing vegan food every night and when you get there, they even have snacks. Which of course, we turned into our lunch. It’s the healthiest I’ve ever been. Why would you buy lunch? There’s no reason to buy anything if you’re covered. Healthy food is so important on the road so you don’t get sick. I was chock full of vitamins.
MF: Let’s see, which member of War on Women has the best kickflip?
SP: Kickflip? Me? I don’t know. I bet it’s Brooks. I think half the band skated in junior high and high school but hasn’t since, I’m sorry to say.
MF: Oh, bummer.
SP: Everyone stopped when their parents health insurance ran out.
Cannot afford a broken arm. But Brooks has the best chance of being in the parking lot and landing one well.
MF: So if I come down to Baltimore with a skateboard, Brooks can get the kickflip?
SP: My money’s on Brooks.
MF: What’s your favorite John Waters’ movie?
SP: Oh, Crybaby. I watched that for the first time in junior high way before I knew about John Waters or Baltimore. I’d sing along and make my mom rent it every weekend from Blockbuster. Only recently, I got a copy of it. I still know every word. I just fucking love it.
MF: Are you amazed by how absolutely politically subversive he is? Crybaby and Hairspray were big movies for him. Crybaby is all about class war and Hairspray is about integration and even has a race riot.
SP: I can tell you for sure everyone in Baltimore is cool with John Waters. We’re all stoked on John Waters. I was just asking my friends how to celebrate my dirty 30s and someone suggested a John Waters day. Dress up like your favorite character…
MF: …Eat dog shit!
SP: laughing Eat dog shit. So I don’t know what I’ll do but he’s on our minds and in our hearts.
MF: What’s next for War on Women after the Propagandhi tour and selling out of your 10”?
SP: We’re finishing a record. We’re in the middle or recording it and in talks of getting help to finish the last five or six songs and tour on it. We’re not rushing and we think it’ll be worth it.
MF: Any last words?
SP: Thank you for being an ally to women and promoting gender equality.
——————————————————————————————————– Thanks to Shawna Potter and War on Women. Check out their BandCamp page, or get their album on iTunes. Their 10″ record is SOLD OUT! Photos by Carl Pocket at Echoplex in Los Angeles California. A special thanks go out to Joey Zittnan and Jenifer Weber. The resident VSB transcription and spell check team.