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
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.