Meet Bratmobile, Riot Grrrl's Pottymouths

Three-piece taught young women to "get busy"

Bratmobile profile
The punk/riot-grrrl band Bratmobile at the Charlotte in Leicester, England in 1994. Greg Neate/Creative Commons

Members: Allison Wolfe, Erin Smith, Molly Neuman
Formed in: 1991 in Eugene, Ore.
Key Albums: Pottymouth (1993); Ladies, Women and Girls (2000), Girls Get Busy (2003)

Bratmobile was a three-piece feminist punk band that, alongside Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, led the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s. Known for the brash lyricism of singer Allison Wolfe, the steady beats and sneer of drummer Molly Neuman and the ferocious yet catchy guitar riffs of Erin Smith, Bratmobile combined the power of rock music and the political-literary influence of zines to spread its message of female empowerment from 1991 to 2003.

Origin

Allison Wolfe was born in 1969 and was raised by a lesbian mother, Pat Shively, in Olympia, Wash. Wolfe has said that Shively's activism in support of women (including establishing Olympia's first women's health clinic in 1981) at first was cause for rebellion. But when Wolfe met feminist and D.C. native Molly Neuman at the University of Oregon in 1989, her years of defying her mother's influence ended.

The inseparable pair became immersed in women's studies courses and the Pacific Northwest music scene, fraternizing with Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill- who recommended the duo start a zine. Girl Germs was born in winter 1990 and distributed around Olympia in 1991.

The zine gained popularity among the scene's luminaries, leading K Records' Calvin Johnson to suggest Neuman and Wolfe start a band of their own. The two had clowned around with the idea for ages but ultimately debuted, with help from local musician Robert Christie lending them instruments, at a Valentine's Day gig supporting Bikini Kill.

The songwriting continued into the summer of their sophomore year at university. Neuman and Wolfe traveled back to D.C. and upon Johnson's urging met with a guitarist, Erin Smith, author of the Teenage Gang Debs zine. The bond was instant, and soon Bratmobile's members found themselves on a DIY tour of New England alongside Nation of Ulysses and Beat Happening- two bands of which Smith was a hardcore fan.

Pottymouth

That summer, Washington, D.C., swelled with "girl germs." Bratmobile joined forces with Bikini Kill to work on the seminal feminist zine Riot Grrrl as women around the nation's capital voiced their support for Clarence Thomas' alleged sexual harassment victim, Anita Hill. The band's raucous, child-like sound and unpredictable shows became a mainstay of the music scene there.

"I think it's important to show people that these structures onstage can totally be broken down," Wolfe told Positive Force's Mark Andersen that year. (source)

The threesome took that perfectly unpolished, unapologetic mindset to the studio. Nation of Ulysses' Tim Green served as engineer to the Pottymouth sessions, recorded over a two-year period. Pottymouth, released on indie haven Kill Rock Stars, was an accurate description of Wolfe's fearless, expletive-heavy words. The album became a classic among riot grrrl enthusiasts for anthems such as "Stab," which confronted misogyny and rape with violent vocals. The album also paid homage to all-girl bands that came before Bratmobile, particularly on the cover of the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb."

Popularity and Breakup

Bratmobile's success blossomed in tandem with the growth of the riot grrrl movement.

No longer just a fringe offshoot of punk, these female-fronted groups were gaining attention in the mainstream media. Wolfe noted in 2003 in a phone interview with this writer that at the height of the movement's popularity, her band had been asked to appear on the talk show Sally Jessy Raphael to verbally battle Van Halen singer David Lee Roth in a convoluted grudge match. It was hokum such as this, as well as in-fighting within the riot grrrl scene (and behind the scenes in the Bratmobile camp) that led to their initial 1994 breakup.

Reformation and Final Breakup

In the interim between the 1994 dissolving of the band and the 1999 reunion, Neuman focused on a managerial position at Lookout! Records in San Francisco and performing with the PeeChees and the Frumpies. Wolfe and Smith returned to D.C., forming the group Cold Cold Hearts.

They got back together at first for a one-off gig in Oakland, Calif., but eventually opened a full tour with Sleater-Kinney. This second go-round led to the fuller-sounding albums Ladies, Women and Girls in 2000 and Girls Get Busy in 2003, both on Neuman's Lookout! Records. The trio enlisted keyboardist Audrey Marrs of Mocket and Gene Defcon for the latter recording, bringing Bratmobile's stark style into the 21st century. Songs such as "United We Don't" thumbed their noses at the conservative wave brought forth by George W. Bush's administration.

Despite playing packed clubs to a new generation of riot grrrls and bois, Bratmobile again parted ways in late 2003 to pursue individual ventures. Wolfe participated in a variety of bands (Partyline, Hawnay Troof, Cool Moms) and remains active in the zine and DJing scene in Los Angeles. She now performs regularly with the reggae-rock group Sex Stains. Neuman now works as a personal chef in New York City and serves as vice president of label relations for eMusic. Smith lives in Washington, D.C., working for the nonprofit SoundExchange and contributing to Girls Rock! DC, a summer camp for girls ages 8-18.