Punk Rock Folklore: The Words of Women Part III, an Interview with Elizabeth Elmore of Sarge!

Sarge at Fitzgeralds in Houston, TX by David Ensminger

Interview with Elizabeth Elmore of the Reputation and Sarge

by David Ensminger, originally published in Left of the Dial

Do you think people would prefer that you be less blunt?

Probably depends on whom you ask! I don’t know if I’m that blunt in person in the sense of lacking tact or anything. But I do say what I think, and I’ll challenge someone on what they say or how they behave if I need to. I’m not aggressive, but I can be assertive if it seems necessary. In the law world, it’s seen as a good quality, and the gender thing doesn’t come into play but in the rock world. It probably rubs some men the wrong way because they’re not always used to it. I think it antagonizes them sometimes.

The mix and match, cut and paste, alter-ego musical sensibilities of Elvis Costello seem almost a perfect fit for your growing and expanding musical persona. What led you to covering the song?

It’s sort of strange. I actually discovered the song a long time ago through the movie Georgia where Jennifer Jason Leigh sings the song. I figured out that it was an Elvis Costello song and immediately got the original. I fell in love with it and mentioned once to Chad Romanski (Sarge’s drummer) that I wanted to cover it some day. He said that if I ever did it, I had to let him play drums. Around that same time, I was hanging out at Jay Bennett from Wilco’s loft and mentioned that I loved the song. He said that if I ever recorded it, I had to let him do it, and I made him agree to play piano at the same time. Anyway, four years later we were getting ready to record this CD and I decided I’d like to put it on there. I was trying to figure out how to sucker Chad into playing on the CD anyway, so I convinced him that since he’d have to come into the studio anyway, he might as well do the entire record. Then I called Jay and held him to his promise to record and play it and suckered him into co-producing a few other songs as well!

“There are people who are truly songwriters and then there are people who whatever the best work that they do is a product of where they are in their life and what their experiences in a short, condensed period of time have been. I get worried that what Sarge had going for it was a product of me being at that crazy age where everything is exciting and interesting and new…”`As you now settle in with the Reputation, have these anxieties about the songwriting process been assuaged, or do you worry that you, like Paul Westerberg, will be much less interesting as an “adult” than as a young frantic songwriter?

Well, I suppose the Westerberg thing is a matter of opinion. I’m not that familiar with his new stuff, so I don’t want to implicitly agree with your statement by ignoring it. But yes, I did worry about it with Sarge and I guess I continue to worry about it. Whether it’s true or not? I could say, “that remains to be seen,” or “that’s for other people to decide because I don’t have a clue.” I suppose it’s combination of both. Anyway, to answer your question, no, my anxieties about writing songs haven’t lessened, and I sorta doubt they ever will.

Punk rock seemed to be a two-sided coin or ying-yang experience for you. “It’s weird. I definitely saw the whole punk rock thing through rose-colored glasses. I was such a fan of the fact that there were all these kids out there…It was a strange feeling to realize that there were people across the country who I don’t even know that actually care enough to hate me.” Have those short-sighted folks finally fallen away from your rear-view mirror, or will there always be groups of like-minded people hovering around music scenes even as you grow older, just to remind you how pathetic their lives are?

This is definitely something I’ve come to terms with as I’ve gotten older. Before, I was only a little older than the kids who were, um, less than kind to me. Now it just seems sorta laughable and pathetic. It still gets to me occasionally – it’s never fun to find out people are saying really fucking mean things, and I know it still happens these days. But whatever. Clearly, even if I try, I can’t please those people, so there doesn’t seem to be much point in trying. I think it was law school that made me realize the difference between adults and all the silly overgrown kids running around the rock scene. More than anything, I’ve realized that I have to appreciate punk rock on my own terms and remember why I love it regardless of whether I love all of the people involved in it.

For many of us who played in bands with women, Sarge, like former bands Discount and Velocity Girl, and now bands like the Paybacks from Detroit and the Bellrays from L.A., offered/offer a viable alternative to inflexible feminism. Do you see the Reputation as a level and flexible playing field?

Well, first I should say that I’m a HUGE feminist and have a huge amount of respect, love, and worship for a number of the bands that came out of that scene. That being said, I liked the bands I liked because I thought they were good bands regardless of the gender of the people in the bands. Which seems to me like the most obvious, most reasonable, and most feminist way for anyone to determine what they like. In terms of whether this band is a level and flexible playing field, I’m not sure what you mean. I deal with all the business stuff (with help from the guys sometimes), book all the shows, negotiate contracts and deal with the finances. I write the lyrics and the songs (though everyone helps flesh out the music by writing their own parts). It’s not like I’m not empowered in this band. And they’re all great men who appreciate and choose to associate with strong women who are their equals (Matt’s wife and Joel’s girlfriend are both awesome and total bad asses).

You once said, “I think it’s really weird to put a bunch of people on a show together just because they’re girls. I can maybe understand ten years ago, people saying there is sexism in music. There’s sexism in music now, in the alt and punk rock scene, but it’s very subtle and very nuanced and it’s not that women can’t get shows anymore. Now it’s become this girl ghetto and has become the last bastion of marginalization…So, then we are telling girls or girls think that they need female role models, so then we have mostly sub-par female role models they are looking up to.” Has the Reputation dealt with the same subtle and nuanced sexism? Has the girl ghetto been liberated, or have the walls become just more invisible to the naked eye?

I don’t think the girl ghetto can be “liberated” in the sense of some heroes flying down to set all the poor girls free – mostly because the gender-focus is largely self-imposed and frequently created, validated, and celebrated by women as a form of empowerment. I don’t happen to view it that way (though I love the fact that Lilith Fair was conceived of as a way for women artists to show their collective economic strength. That’s rad.) What I don’t understand, as I mentioned in the Punk Planet article quoted above, is why gender needs to be an issue at all. I’m generally pretty offended when I realize we’ve been booked onto a bill with bands we sound nothing like and have nothing in common with simply b/c the bands contain women. I think it’s patronizing, marginalizing and most importantly, really reductionist of women as musicians. The music we play, what we sound like and what we believe in seems to hold no weight with certain booking agents – we’re all girls so group us together. It’s annoying and condescending.

Yes, women are sometimes treated differently, but I think there’s a pretty broad spectrum depending on the individual women at issue. We’re talking about musicians here, and if someone’s getting the job done, they’ll be respected. And there are women who complain that they’re being treated differently when honestly, they’re just not holding their own. More than anything, I notice women are perceived differently in the first place – there’s a presumption, due sometimes to the fact that many women in the music community seem to be content to be sort of silent girlfriends/participators or adulating groupies, that we’re there to be supporters of the community, not playas. I see it all the time and it sucks and it’s not fair. But I guess my main disagreement with the stereotypical feminist view in rock is how a level playing field can best be accomplished. I think women accomplish a lot more by walking the walk than by theorizing and philosophizing about how best to accomplish the walk or pointing fingers at people they believe are preventing them from making the walk. Women are frequently dismissed as musicians because audiences have seen a lot of women who have not made the effort to learn how to play their instrument well and seem to think they have no obligation to (well, that, and sometimes guys are just moronic assholes. But that’s sort of a given). Due to a sort of misguided PC effort, I think clubs or shows run by men tend to give women shows faster (i.e. before they’re ready) so that they can make some sort of declaration about how progressive and liberal they are – that they’re not part of the problem – without ever having to examine the ways in which they are part of the problem. And then the people with entrenched views about how women can’t hold their own are given one more piece of evidence supporting their beliefs.

Sarge at Fitzgeralds in Houston, TX by David Ensminger

You seem to be slightly torn between your background in music and social work — between your interests in Civil Rights, Child Welfare, Foster Care System Issues and musician-related issues, but, “Music lawyers can be very sleazy and even if you’re an advocate for the bands, you have to deal with music industry lawyers. The last thing I want to do is take something that I love and deal with the yucky side.” Yet, was there something more gratifying and vital about participating “in an NBC investigative report to investigate the Cook County State’s Attorneys office because they are blatantly refusing to enforce Illinois stalking laws,” after your ordeal with a older man who stalked you? It’s a terrible thing to experience, but can your help on the expose, like work on Child Welfare, have very concrete results, and not just generate record sales?

Well I think all three examples are totally different things. My interest in law is academic because I love it, and my interest in child welfare issues is simply where I want to devote my legal efforts – due in large part to my experience being a part of a foster and adoptive family and being the daughter of a parent who is the associate director of Department of Children and Family Services, both of which gave me strong beliefs as to what problems currently exist with the system and how kids’ interests are best protected. When I went to NBC to create public attention on the lack of enforcement of stalking laws, it was self-interest. I was acting as an advocate for myself and for the other women and men I knew had come before me and would come after me if the problem weren’t resolved.

You’ve said that Chicago has been a “toughens-you-up experience” and that the band is the low man on the totem pole. Everybody from Milemarker, Wilco, and Tortoise call it home, but why is it a rewarding city to live in, besides being the fictional home of television’s ER, the land of knee-deep pizza, and the epitome of visions by writers like Carl Sandburg and Nelson Algren?

I don’t know if we’re the low band on the totem pole. We’re a brand new band, and therefore we’re starting from scratch, which makes sense, of course. The above comment (which I think was slightly misquoted in the original article) about having a tough time in Chicago when I moved here was more about my personal experiences, not the band’s experiences b/c the band didn’t even exist then. As to whether it’s rewarding to live here, I guess I don’t think about it that way. There are a lot of people I love and a lot of people I don’t. But there are some cool things that happen in Chicago that don’t happen anywhere else just b/c of the particular music scene that exists here. And of course there are a million great bands and a ton of venues and we’re the main stopping point in the Midwest so we get to see a lot of great shows.

Sarge was able to find a place in the music scene almost by way of association, “I lived with the guys in Braid my last two years of college when sarge was starting and I suppose that was a big influence. We got our work ethic (tour till you want to kill each other) from them and we got a lot of phone numbers for shows from them, met a lot of bands through them, etc. And then everything just ran it’s natural course.” Is it impossible to imagine the Reputation, without, um, a reputation that precedes the band? You even did a split single with Bob Nanna from Braid and Hey Mercedes, which made the connection even clearer. Can the band start from tabula rasa, a clean slate, and does it matter?

Well, I think braid and Sarge were pretty closely associated in 96 and 97 when Sarge was first starting just b/c we lived in the same house, played a lot of shows together and hung out together all the time. They taught me a lot about just getting out there and touring your asses off instead of sitting around complaining b/c your band isn’t getting the attention you think it deserves. Similarly, I think most people who knew Sarge knew us b/c we almost forced them to. We toured 6+ months a year and just hit the same towns over and over again ‘til at least some people knew who we were. As far as how people conceive of the Reputation – well, not that many people knew who Sarge was in the first place and certainly not that many know who we are yet. What’s fun now is meeting kids at shows who really like the reputation and now want to buy Sarge Cd’s even though they’d never heard of Sarge before. As far as any continuing connections w/ Bob or the Braid/HM guys, I stay in touch with all of them, but there’s certainly no association between the bands. We all moved out of Champaign over 4 years ago. But I love those guys – they were a really big part of a very important time in my life. Bob and I don’t see each other very often, but we tend to hang out every few months when we have a chance to really talk. We actually both went to see Kind of Like Spitting last night and went out with all those guys which was really, really great.

You’ve said, “Playing a show in someone’s basement was about the height of my aspirations. I never thought about recording or touring. I just really, really wanted to be in a band. In that sense, Sarge was a really amazing experience for me – my expectations were so low that every single good thing that happened exceeded my expectations. Mostly, all I wanted to do is write songs that I liked. That’s what made me happy.” That seems to be the essence of a garage band, but can you ever go back to those simple joys, and has your experience in music forever raised the bar of expectations?

– I remind myself all the time, even when we’re playing shows to 40 people and especially if we’re playing shows to 500, that this is more than I ever hoped for. I’m not into people who are always looking at what they don’t have. It’s really important to me to appreciate how lucky I’ve been – even if it seems like nothing compared to bigger bands. And yeah, writing a song that I like still makes me happier than anything else.

Can you now look back and slyly laugh at the coverage by Rolling Stone, Spin, Interview, and the Village Voice, or do these things really matter because they helped put the band in perspective better and sell records?

It just seems (and seemed) sort of surreal (though this band has been really lucky with press again, esp. in Interview and the V.V.). I mean, how weird was the Rolling Stone/ Spin thing? We were this band that was so freakin’ small we weren’t even on people’s radars and then all that shit happened. It was bizarre. And this was before the days when every band we knew was in RS and Spin. I don’t know how many records it helped sell b/c our CD’s weren’t really in stores frequented by RS readers, but it did help us get our foot in the door with clubs. And if nothing else, we appreciate and love the writers who thought we were worth writing about.

The old music business adage goes, “Solo records don’t sell.” Just ask Mick Jagger or members of Kiss. Only Ryan Adams, Peter Gabriel, Joan Jett, and some lucky others tend to reach success. You’ve said, “Even though in a literal sense, I am, I don’t think of myself as a “singer-songwriter” at all. Not my thing. I want to be in a rock band.” Could you sell records and be happy as a solo artist, or does the fan base demand something else, just like you demand the musical input and interplay of others? I mean, you can play piano, drums, guitar, and now even violin, so why not lock yourself in the studio and dream?

Whoa. I can play piano and guitar. I played drums for many years a long time ago, but I’m certainly not anywhere near a competent drummer now and while I’m attempting to learn violin, I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as being able to play it.

Anyway, it has nothing to do with the desires of other people or fans, I just like being in a band. When I said that, I meant I didn’t want to truly be a “solo” singer-songwriter, as opposed to the people you mentioned who all play with backing bands. But yes, I wanted to be in a “real” band not solo or with a backing band. I think it’s too emotionally and mentally draining to do it by yourself – the camaraderie is what makes it fun and worthwhile. I’d sorta like to do a solo record sometime, just to do something a little more country-ish and lo-fi. But it’d just be for fun, not anything I’d want to invest a lot of time in.

You once had a dream that went a little like, “My secret little fantasy is to fund a DIY all-ages space for kids to run shows in — buy them a PA and pay the rent so they can give all the money to touring bands. So many little clubs go under just because kids can’t keep up with the financial end of it. I’d also love to do pro bono work for bands looking over contracts and everything.” At this point, what does this dream mean to you, and what is it really about?

It’s just something I’d like to do if I’m ever financially stable. It seems pretty simple to me – there may be an age at which I’m no longer participating in the independent community as a band member but I’d love to stay involved in some way. Given the financial difficulties that make it hard for DIY spaces to stay afloat and especially given the municipal regulation problems they frequently face (see Philly), it seems like that would be a great contribution to make when I’m older and have more money. Plus, there’s a dearth of older community members and parents actively supporting punk rock kids and venues and recognizing how invaluable punk rock can be to certain kids’ happiness. I’d just like to be able to do my part some day.

One of your favorite books is James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin himself was no stranger to controversy and a reputation. “I read it about a million times my senior year of college. I hadn’t read it in a few years and just read it again the other night. I bought Giovanni’s Room a while ago but haven’t had the chance to read it yet.” Do you read on the road, and do you consider yourself a reader?

– Actually, “Sonny’s Blues” is a short story – about 35 pages I think. And I actually lost Giovanni’s Room on a tour and never got to read it! I consider myself a reader but how much time I have to read fluctuates a lot. I love to read on the road but unfortunately, I do all the booking so a lot of my time in the van is spent doing band work or at least beating myself up for not doing band work that I should be doing. I still get through a few books on tour, but I so wish I could read more.

Your idea of a lovely marriage gift might take someone by surprise. “If I ever get engaged, I don’t want a ring; I’d rather the guy get me all the TV episodes of Fame on videocassette…” Why Fame? And what is the link between your favorite shows like The Practice, Judging Amy, and Law and Order and the performing arts drama?

The link isn’t really between the two, it’s from me to the two things I love. I love the law, hence my love of The Practice and Judging Amy. Law and Order is OK but unbelievably enough, it looks like the new Fox show Girls Club might actually be decent. I was involved in all sorts of cheesy theater and musical stuff when I was a kid so that’s where my love of fame comes from. When I was 5, I used to get dressed up in all my “dance” clothes an hour before Fame came on and then I’d spend the next hour stretching so that I’d be prepared to fling myself around the basement whenever they started dancing. Honestly, right now, my two favorite shows are Alias and Buffy. But Judging Amy and The Practice are pretty close.

Probably the song that has stuck with me more than any other is that theme song from “Pretty in Pink” — I can’t even think who it’s by now, probably OMD or something. It’s just one of those songs that has a thousand memories attached to it and they still play it on the radio all the damn time.” What is a song you’ve written that may evoke similar qualities?

This is a little out of context – I think the question was something about a song from my childhood that had stuck with me. That’s not the song overall in my life that has stuck with me the most. But anyway, good lord. I have no idea. It seems sort of insufferably presumptuous for me to even think that something I wrote could. Can I gracefully bow out of that question?

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