‘There was blood on the walls’: The wild history of SF’s female punk pioneers

Back when the pioneering punk band Frightwig released their first album in 1984, the minimum wage in San Francisco was $3.35. That’s how much bass player Deanna Mitchell and guitarist Mia d’Bruzzi, who have been friends since the age of 16, earned working at arthouse movie theaters along Market Street. At the time, that was enough money to afford the archetypical lifestyle of a musician.

“It was tight, but we didn’t care. … I lived in a number of s—tty warehouses. You paid your rent, we didn’t eat much, but it was doable,” said d’Bruzzi, speaking alongside her bandmates outside Duboce Park Cafe on Sanchez Street.

Thirty-nine years later, Mitchell and d’Bruzzi are still making music under the same band name and are releasing a new album, which they’re set to debut Friday, Sept. 29, at Bottom of the Hill alongside veteran drummer Tina Fagnani. Titled “We Need to Talk,” the LP is full of the type of vitriol that made them an influence on a generation of bands like L7, Hole and Bikini Kill, whose drummer Tobi Vail cited the band as an early introduction to feminism after original drummer Cecilia Kuhn’s death in 2017.

Although often considered to have laid the groundwork for the “riot grrrl” feminist musical movement of the early ’90s, Frightwig’s members dodge that label, as well as most other musical pigeonholes. They identify with the punk rock ethos rather than adhering to its musical associations and describe themselves as “cavewoman rock.” Their most popular song, “My Crotch Does Not Say Go,” shares more DNA with no-wave bands from early ’70s New York than the loud-and-fast power chords of fellow San Francisco punks and former labelmates Dead Kennedys. But in the early ’80s, there was something inherently punk about a loud, all-female rock band.

“We really wanted to play with what the status quo of womanhood was supposed to be visually and also sonically. That’s part of our mission, to really challenge what people think about what a woman is supposed to look like and to do,” d’Bruzzi said.

The band formed in the winter of 1982 when both d’Bruzzi and Mitchell were laid off from their jobs. They settled on the name Frightwig, inspired by a popular slang term at the time.

“It’s slang for a woman who has been out drinking cocktails, and she started out looking pretty good. Then it’s just the end of the night …” said d’Bruzzi.

“Her tights are ripped, her lipstick’s smeared,” Mitchell added.

“Mascara’s down the face, and she’s still tipsy,” d’Bruzzi said.

Like many punk rockers, Frightwig’s members started their band while they were still musical novices, creating what they referred to as “bad noise.” Soon enough they were playing gigs at now-legendary San Francisco venues like The Farm and Mabuhay Gardens. The bandmates said their identity as an all-female band did open some doors, but also brought out “the wrath of the sexist assholes.”

“We got a lot of sexism. People would tell us we sucked. Which we kind of did. But they would keep doing it. ‘You sucked last week. I saw you tonight and that sucked. Next week you’re going to play again, right? I bet you’re going to suck.’ They’d keep coming back and keep coming back,” said Mitchell.

“They wanted us to suck was the thing,” d’Bruzzi added.

“But you keep practicing and get better at what you do. That’s what happened,” Mitchell said.

As a response to sexist criticism, the band wrote the song “A Man’s Gotta Do What a Man’s Gotta Do.” When performing it live, they called men from the audience onstage to strip, essentially turning the tables on stereotypes of objectification.

Just as their first album, “Cat Farm Faboo,” was released on San Francisco-based punk rock label Subterranean Records (which had released Dead Kennedys’ seminal “Nazi Punks F—k Off!” single a few years prior), Frightwig was invited to tour with legendary Texas oddballs Butthole Surfers. They traveled to New York to meet the band, which resulted in an extended stay on the Lower East Side and gigs at fabled venues like Danceteria and Pyramid Club. On tour with Butthole Surfers, they found themselves playing in venues reminiscent of the one portrayed in the 2015 punk rock horror film “Green Room.”

Share : facebooktwitter

KQED: Frightwig, Legendary SF Punk Band, Is Still Smashing the Patriarchy at 40

In 1993, at the height of grunge’s powers, Nirvana hit the stage at New York City’s Sony Studios and recorded one of the most beloved MTV Unplugged sets of all time. Videos of the performance continue to garner tens of millions of views on YouTube. What few people might notice, however, is the white T-shirt Kurt Cobain wears under his iconic green cardigan. It’s a Frightwig shirt, worn to honor the all-female San Francisco punk band that smashed barriers in the ’80s underground scene.

Frightwig was an undeniable influence on bands like L7, Faith No More, the Melvins and, in particular, Hole. Courtney Love once said: “Me, Kat [Bjelland from Babes in Toyland], and Jennifer Finch [from L7] all watched Frightwig on the same night and all decided to start bands the next day. Frightwig are the true grandmothers of riot grrrl.”

Well, riot grrl is back — and so are its godmothers. In its original incarnation, Frightwig released two albums — Cat Farm Faboo (Subterranean Records) and Faster, Frightwig, Kill! Kill! (Caroline) — plus a couple of EPs. Now, 40 years after the outspoken band first formed, they’re releasing a new album, We Need to Talk. The record sees original bassist/vocalist Deanna Mitchell and guitarist/vocalist Mia d’Bruzzi joined by guitarist Rebecca Sevrin (in Frightwig since 1986), drummer Tina Fagnani and keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman. They’ll celebrate the album release with a show at Bottom of the Hill on Friday, Sept. 29.

We Need to Talk includes Frightwig’s 2014 single, the fiercely feminist “War on Women,” and swings frenetically between overtly political content (like “Redistribution of Wealth” and “Hot Air Rising”) and the deeply personal. “What Is Love?” for example, is a rip-roaring ode to single life that starts with a proverbial “toilet full of boyfriends” and ends in a furious crescendo that includes lines repurposed (and drenched in sarcasm) from the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and The Beatles’ “She Loves You.”

Elsewhere on the 11-tracker, there’s “Aging Sux,” a frenzied 43-second anthem of empowerment for anyone wishing to age ungracefully, and “Ride Your Bike,” a catchy, humor-imbued ass-shaker. In contrast, “Shine Your Light” is a five-minute ballad written and sung by original Frightwig drummer Cecilia Kuhn, who passed away from cancer in 2017. “Shine Your Light” will be released as a 7″ single adorned with Kuhn’s face and middle finger, still proudly held aloft.

Frightwig were one of those bands that slammed open a lot of doors for others, but never quite got the props they deserved themselves. We Need to Talk is an opportunity to right that wrong.

Frightwig’s ‘We Need to Talk’ is out via Label 51 Recordings on Friday, Sept. 29. To celebrate the release, the band plays Bottom of the Hill that night, with openers False Flag and Chaki.

Share : facebooktwitter

Girl at the Rock Shows – Premiere of Frightwig “Redistribution of Wealth”

I like my songs short and punchy. Blame it on my self-diagnosed ADD or just the way that life is insanely busy and I feel like I can only really focus on something for a couple of seconds, I like songs that get to the point and hit me in the gut even if only for a short amount of time. That’s not what you get from “Redistribution of Wealth” from Frightwig but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Listening to this six and a half minute long song helped me find a sense of calm in what has already been a nutty morning. It gave me a second to chill out but also made my brain think about the poignant and important message of this track. Frightwig is not a new band and formed way back in 1982. You can feel that in this song because there’s something so well trained and deliberate about every note but there’s also this slight sense of angst and modern flare that keeps this song from feeling dated. Typically I will sit here and furiously write notes down upon the first listen of a song but this one left me just sitting there in awe of the composition and sheer talent that bleeds throughout this song.

Frightwig has a new album coming out on September 29th entitled ‘We Need To Talk…’. This is the first single from that album so, if you like what you hear today, go ahead and make a note on your calendar about September 29th!

Share : facebooktwitter

Counter Punch: Frightwig: 1980s SF Punk Band Still Feminist & Sassy


“California Über Alles,” Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys sang during the Golden Age of Punk. Across the Atlantic, The Sex Pistols screamed, “I am an anarchist.” At its best, Punk in the U.S. and in England expressed anti-racist and anti-authoritarian sentiments. Bands like the Ramones—who sang songs like “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “The KKK Took My Baby Away”—revived rock ‘n’ roll when rock needed reviving in the age of Thatcher/Reagan. Macho guys enjoyed successful careers, but the music industry often turned a deaf ear to the women singers and musicians. Sometimes male audiences weren’t much better.

Deanna Mitchell and Mia Simmans. Photo: Jeanne Hansen.

Frightwig, a San Francisco based all-women’s band, had to fight for time and space in a male dominated culture. With grit and determination, it carved out its own territory and made a name for itself. Then the group disbanded so the two mainstays could have kids and raise families. Now, just in time for the terrors of the Donald Trump/Theresa May era, the band is back and raring to take on the powers-that-be once again. I caught up with them recently and listened to them talk about their lives on the road, music and politics and the comeback plans.

In the 1980s—when punk began to flower in San Francisco—Deanna Mitchell and Mia Simmans—Frightwig’s founders— never wore fishnet stockings, stilettos or had panda-like eyes and spiky hair, though the name of the band suggests unkempt hair that stands straight up. Frightwig never fit the stereotype of the female punk band. Maybe there never was such a thing.

Still, Frightwig lived punk as thoroughly as any of the guy bands that grabbed headlines in Rolling Stone magazine. Deanna was 24 when she and Mia first shook up the clubs where guys leered and geared. Mia was 18 and learning how to defender herself when she was hassled. Deanna’s last name was Ashley. Mia’s was Levin. That was in San Francisco before the HIV/AIDs pandemic wasted whole communities.

“It was a wild time and a horrible time,” Deanna said. “We lost a whole community of beautiful young men, mostly, and we had to learn very quickly how to deal with death.”

Over the years, Frightwig has played with several women drummers who came and went. Cecilia Kuhn, who recently died of cancer, was the heart and soul of drums and vocals. “Yeah, we lost Cecilia physically,” Deanna said. “But we’re still here.” Mia added, “We go very deep. We used to joke that we should marry one another, but we found good men, married them and raised families. And here we are, together again.”

Band members have included Susan Miller, Lynn Perko, Bambi Nonymous, Rebecca Sevrin and Eric Drew Feldman, the only male, who plays Synthesizer.

In the largely male dominated world of 1980s Punk—that stared Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone and his brothers—Frightwig was often viewed as “a female freak show.”

Mia and Deanna toured the country and cut a few records, opening for Butthole Surfers, Redd Kross, DOA and many other bands. They performed in New York, L.A., Chicago, New Orleans and all across America, as well as in Canada and Europe. In the 1980s Mia and Deanna had jobs at movie theaters like the Strand and the Egyptian that paid $3.25 an hour.

“We did what we wanted to do,” Mia said. “We paid the rent, lived on burritos, went to Rainbow, picked up vegetables that were too ripe to sell and at home made soup.”

Deanna added, “A lot of the San Francisco punk bands didn’t want to go on the road. But we’d always said, ‘Get us outta here.’ We’d pile into a car, drive to New York and do our gigs. There were places where we had the support of male bands.”

On stage at The Fillmore, Tool & Die and Mabuhay Gardens, they played mean guitars, belted out their lyrics and couldn’t help but look sexy and sound like they belonged to the world of street protest.

“I can’t write a happy-go-lucky song,” Deanna said. “They

have to be political.” Mia explained, “Writing lyrics is my favorite thing in the world to do. I’m compelled to write. All the words belong to me.”

Deanna is now 60. Mia is on the cusp of 55. “We’re crones,”

Deanna says. They’re youthful crones who are outraged by the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots and shocked by the mushrooming detention centers along the U.S./Mexico border. They can’t not stay at home and not perform songs such as “Redistribution of Wealth.”

In fact, Frightwig is back by popular demand, as sassy as ever, and ready to take on the culture of misogyny all over again. “Smash the patriarchy is my hashtag,” Deanna said. “We need a woman in the White House to clean up the mess that men have made all over the planet.” She added, “I tell Trump to ‘Fuck off’ on his Twitter account and he can’t do anything to stop me.”

Deanna and Mia both remember that guys in the audience would look up at them on stage and shout, “Show us your tits.” They’d shout back, “Get up here and strip for us.”

Mia explained, “We weren’t into being offended. We didn’t want to play the victim.”

In some ways, Deanna and Mia were unlikely band mates. Deanna was born in Bakersfield and grew up in Fremont, California, where her mother raised her on country music, which she still loves. Mia grew up in New Jersey, Washington, D.C. and Palo Alto, California. Her hippie mom gave her a musical education in Joan Baez and the Beatles. At 16, Mia moved to San Francisco on her own steam. Despite the cultural differences between them, both women have a keen sense of humor. They also both like to dress up and give the audience something to look at. 37-years after they first came together they still dress up and give audiences something to look at.

On Mother’s Day, May 12, the newly recreated Frightwig performs at Oasis, the legendary gay nightclub that features cabaret and drag shows. It’s a benefit for RAICES, a Texas non-profit that helps asylum seekers. “The audience will be very appreciative and also very demanding,” Deanna said.

The venue, the cause, and the Mother’s Day occasion promises to bring out the best Frightwig has to offer.

Share : facebooktwitter


cropped-tn11What is happening in San Francisco right now might be a snapshot of what is happening in America. The tech money that has come in here, and the way that San Francisco is handling it, is screwing a lot of poor people really hard and in a really bad way. It is ruining people’s lives. We are losing a really important part of San Francisco culture. I feel outnumbered as someone who came up here when I was 16, and as a working class person. I can’t afford to shop at these shops, or eat at these restaurants. If I didn’t have rent control, God forbid I should lose it, I couldn’t afford to stay here. None of my life would be possible… All I can do is write a song about it.


Click here to read the full interview.

Share : facebooktwitter

Tom Tom Magazine: Q & A with Frightwig’s Cecilia Kuhn

Q & A with Frightwig’s Cecilia Kuhn

Posted  by 

By Jeanne Fury

Frightwig are the reigning mothers of feminist punk in America, whose wildly unrestrained performances heavily influenced everyone from Courtney Love to Kathleen Hanna. Formed by bassist/singer Deanna Mitchell (née Ashley) and guitarist/singer Mia d’Bruzzi (née Levin) in San Francisco in the early ’80s, Frightwig delivered two undisputed punk classics early in their career: 1984’s Cat Farm Faboo and 1986’s Faster, Frightwig, Kill! Kill!. Their music pounced on gender politics with gusto; songs like “My Crotch Does Not Say ‘Go’” and “A Man’s Gotta Do What A Man’s Gotta Do” were both deadly sinister and outrageously hilarious—two adjectives that, not coincidentally, describe Frightwig’s drummer/singer/instigator Cecilia Kuhn.

After a much too long break from stirring up shit, Mitchell, d’Bruzzi, Kuhn, and new addition Eric Drew Feldman (keyboardist/producer) recently reformed and delivered an EP, Hit Return, in December 2013, and are releasing a 45 this summer through Megaforce Records.

Here’s Kuhn on drumming, feminism, and the true definition of punk.


Full Name: Cecilia Benedicta Kuhn

Age: 58

Hometown: Sacramento, CA

Lives in: Downieville, CA

Past Bands: various garage bands

Current Band: Frightwig

Day Job: court clerk

Kit Setup: borrowed Rogers kit, snare, kick, 2 toms, 1 floor tom; 2 crash and 1 ride cymbal, plus hi-hat.

Tom Tom Magazine: What was it about the drums that you gravitated toward, and how did you first start drumming?

Cecilia Kuhn: It was something I never admitted, but I liked the sexual energy of a good beat. All of my favorite songs when I was growing up had a strong rhythm. I’m thinking of songs like “Wild Thing” by the Troggs, “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf, and “Amos Moses” by Jerry Reed. Those songs could just GET me. However, I came to drumming by sheer whim.

I was working at a crap job and feeling very disillusioned with my life. Thank Gods for discontent, because it can be a great motivator. I was sitting there, contemplating my boring life and flying into L.A. I looked out the window as we were landing, and I said, “Fuck this, I’m learning drums.” I started drum lessons soon after that. Playing drums just seemed like a good antidote to the stupid life I was leading. Little did I know what a major decision that was.

I feel like you’re one of those musicians that undergoes a transformation onstage. You tap into an otherworldly power source. Can you describe what that’s like?

Back in the old days, I was always angry. We have a song (“Punk Rock Jail Bait”/“I’ll Talk To You & Smile”) where I come out from behind the drums and sing out front. I basically melt down. Back in the day, when I blew up onstage, I was actually experiencing the anger. Frankly, I think I was trying too hard back then. Today, I am in a contented place, and I’m not angry like I used to be. When I blow up onstage now, I don’t have to try too hard. In fact, I’m not trying at all. I’m remembering what that energy feels like, and I draw it up and experience it.

As a drummer in a pioneering feminist band, how were you received by your (presumably mostly male) peers?

Back then, I definitely used to get guys “complimenting” me, saying that I played real well for a girl. Meaning, I didn’t play better than any of the guys. There seems to be an automatic comparison or competition going on, and some people feel like it’s real important that I understand my place in the hierarchy.

Going to music stores was very intimidating, as the sales clerks would ignore me or almost challenge me when I tried to buy equipment. It was a strange thing. I’m in there to spend money, but capitalism seemed to fade in importance. Making their point that I was just a girl became more important than making their sale. It made no sense. Apparently patriarchy overrules capitalism.

I remember one time, I went into a big chain (the name rhymes with Sitar Renter) and I needed to buy sticks for the gig that night. The sales clerk was talking to his friend, another drummer. They were doing some competitive dick-waving and talking about recordings they’d done. They talked like this for a LONG TIME while I stood there, waiting. I was completely ignored.

Finally, I said, “You know, whenever I want to FEEL LIKE SHIT, I know I can come here. I wanna buy some sticks ’cause I’M PLAYING TONIGHT.” They stared at me like dogs looking at a snake.

Were you ever discouraged, or was the punk scene supportive of you and your band?

Generally speaking, Frightwig was not always well-received by audiences, but other bands were supportive. When people loved us, oh man, they just loved us! When we toured with the Butthole Surfers, it was a dream come true. They and their audiences totally understood us. But when we opened for hardcore bands, it seems the kids just did not have a sense of humor. “PLAY FASTER!” That’s all we heard. I remember opening for TSOL in Santa Cruz. Everyone was standing around, sullen, with their arms crossed. In between songs, Deanna yelled, “Is everybody having FUN?!!??” Someone answered, “We will when you get off.”

Today, some people think that punk equals hardcore only, and their focus is narrow. There’s a lot of ghettoization of the music and not much cross-pollination like a long time ago. In the old days, punk was so many things. A night at the Mab [Mabuhay Gardens] would be a free-for-all. There was a lot of humor and fun. We had the philosophy of “IT’S PUNK BECAUSE WE SAY SO.” People could benefit from that philosophy today. My music is punk because I say so.

I saw you on a panel about female drummers at the Musicians for Equal Opportunities for Women conference, and you said, “I am not Omar Hakim. I am not the best drummer, but I’m the best drummer for Frightwig.” How did you cultivate that confidence and assuredness as a drummer?

It came out of experience. I don’t say it out of ego, I say it from knowledge of these complicated personalities in Frightwig. When I’m not there, it’s just different. When I wasn’t playing with Frightwig and they got other drummers, they missed me and felt the absence of my energy. Their recordings were great, really good, but there was a difference. When I play with Frightwig, it feels right, and I know there are certain things I contribute that no one else does. So yeah, I’m the best drummer for Frightwig. In addition, they’re the best for me. They know me. They have a certain humor and energy that I really like. I like playing with them, and I love to anticipate what they’ll do to make me laugh.

For me, the way to cultivate my confidence is through practice, studying theory, and writing music. I just hang in there. Don’t say no. Say yes.

Share : facebooktwitter

1 2