‘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.”

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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.

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Join us for a very special matinee at TV Eye in Ridgewood celebrating the release of the brand new Frightwig album on Label 51 as well as the debut of Edley ODowd’s (Psychic TV, Toilet Boys) new project Scorpion Tea on Give/Take. Special guests Loveletter will open the show. TICKETS HERE

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SONG PREMIERE: Long Time Cult-Favorite Frightwig Reignite Punk Fury Via “What Is Love?”

Marking 40 years of existence isn’t for the musical weak and Frightwig has certainly made out like its own version of Lavender Country- highly influential- yet only one in thousands know of. But this band still sounds impactful and furious even in 2023.

Since forming in San Francisco in 1982, Frightwig has been wielding joy and smashing the patriarchy. With life-changing live shows that spread revelry and revolution, Frightwig became a formative influence on the Riot Grrrl movement and paved the way for the likes of Hole, L7, and Lunachicks, among others.

The band’s cult-favorite albums Cat Farm Faboo (Subterranean Records 1984) and Faster, Frightwig, Kill! Kill! (Caroline Records 1986), plus the EPs Phone Sexy (Boner Records 1988) captured the hearts of fellow freaks and outcasts. Tours with Flipper, Butthole Surfers, and Redd Kross saw Frightwig screaming and shredding their way through glass ceilings and unapologetically leaving behind a pile of shards.

After co-founder Cicillia Kuhn passed away in 2017, her bandmates made the decision to honor their sister’s wishes that Frightwig forge ahead. Co-founders Deanna Mitchell (bass, vocals) and Mia d’Bruzzi (guitar, vocals) Eric Drew Feldman, and veteran Frightwig guitarist Rebecca Sevrin returned with We Need to Talk… in 2023, a collection of 11 songs (four of which were previously released) recorded with Kuhn on drums, vocals, and accordion. The band added new drummer Tina Fagnani to complete the lineup and continue a legacy 40 years in the making. Over the years, the lineup featured different casts of characters — including the most recent permanent addition, Eric Drew Feldman (Captain Beefheart, Snakefinger, Frank Black, Pere Ubu, PJ Harvey), in 2012 — but the core tenets of the band never wavered. More than just a punk rock coven, Frightwig is a vehicle for art as activism and have certainly contributed to the American counterculture rooted in their hometown.

Glide is premiering the vivacious “What Is Love?” that sounds like the modern indie punk angst of Wet Leg with the bravado of X-Ray Spex and punks’s pioneers. While it is safe to say Frightwig helped start a movement, it’s still never too late for them to reignite a musical flame again and “What Is Love?” sounds authentically primal and vital.

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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!

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40th Anniversary Show & Record Release Party at Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco, CA

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