Chelsea Bleach on BYO Vibes, the End of Riot Grrrl & Playing Really Great Tunes

By Laura Kebby

The fluidity and raw nature of garage punk is something that has always attracted me to the genre. The notion that it’s so much more about the passion for playing together than it is about presenting as a finely tuned virtuoso of classical craft. Finding passion through commonality and having the guts to be able to pick up a guitar play your flipping heart out and kill it like nobody’s business, in my eyes, is what punk music is all about. After meeting with Em and Jess from Chelsea Bleach, my personal views about the genre were not only reinforced but amplified. In a killer little vegan friendly café on Smith Street, we chatted about all things garage punk, the end of the riot grrrl and playing really really great tunes. 

I kind of have this fascination with band names, I love thinking and finding out about that initial ‘let’s start a band’ conversation, and of course picking a band name cements itself as a crowning moment, but in the case of Chelsea Bleach, the name sat on the bench apparently initially intended for another project. I used to play in another band”, says Jess, and we used to practice on the Chelsea bus line, and you know, always bleach and colour our hair, I thought it was cool like ‘Chelsea Beach’ but Chelsea Bleach but they didn’t really go for it”. Luckily for all fans past and present, the super cool collective which now, as well as Jess, includes Em, Prani, Bridget and Emma because, as Em mentioned, it’s a great band name it can’t go under the radar”. Agreed.

I mentioned earlier about the DIY ethos for various bands, particularly within the punk realm but that in no way shape or form reflects the level of talent and tenacity of these bands, and Chelsea Bleach is no exception. We started playing gigs maybe about a year ago, but we were probably rehearsing about a year before that… I mean we were beginners on all of our instruments, Jess just picked up drums, I started learning guitar, and I guess we put the call out to our friends and anyone really who had ever thought about being in a band and wanted to give it a go and just said let’s just do it”. Despite identifying as beginners in their newly chosen instruments, the band as both a collective and individually, most definitely value professionalism. We wanted to be confident enough on our instruments to both play and perform… We wanted to go on stage and feel like we were playing the best that we could. There’s such a great energy coming from bands, especially the bands that we’re lucky enough to play with here in Melbourne.’ After racking up my fair share of live gigs I completely agree” You can definitely tell if a band is just there to simply bang out a set list as quickly, painlessly and often robotically as possible or if they turn up, ready to give it everything they’ve got and engage almost effortlessly with their fans. 

You may have heard the current single Public Safety”, which Chelsea Bleach have released recently. From the first play I was so impressed by the raw energy behind this track which is just this sweet combination of messy garage rock with an absolutely killer punk soul. But this track in particular is so much more than this grouse combination of jangly guitars and a full band sound. There’s a true purpose and commentary, with phrases such as you ‘touch my thigh/you say it’s not a crime/my skin/public property to him’ which sends such a strong and purposeful message, but where did this narrative, and the title Public Safety” come from? The idea behind public safety came from the underlying feeling of not feeling safe late at night on the streets and just feeling so incredibly frustrated by that… this combined with the victim blaming narrative of the time and the whole ‘women just need to not go out at night’. A theme and narrative which is unfortunately oh so prevalent in todays society.

In terms of musical inspiration and influences Em commented on the importance of feeling more included and grasping a feeling of empowerment due to the type of music they began listening to. Engaging with the sort of feminist punk that came out of the 90s was a way that I finally felt represented through music. I didn’t see myself as just a participant… whereas before, I never really thought that I could actually do something like that. Those bands and their ethos, I just found it so empowering… I guess that’s where the main sort of influence for Chelsea Bleach really came from”. Although they list many Riot-Grrrl-esque pioneering bands such as Le Tigre, Hole and my personal favourite Sleater-Kinney, Chelsea Bleach is not a Riot Grrrl Band. We sometimes tend to get pinhoeld a lot by people you know, like because we are a band made up of women and gender non-conforming people, people assume that we are a Riot Grrrl band, and we always get all of these associations to the Riot Grrrl movement. Even though to an extent, our ideology has been influenced by that movement, our band is nothing like Riot Grrrl.” Jess also attests to this often frustrating process of being pin-holed by adding people also assume sometimes, that we are an all-female band but we aren’t, or we get told oh you use guitars so you’re just like any other girl band right?” Definitely not. I back this so wholeheartedly and can attest to the frustration faced by female and gender non-conforming bands, artists or musicians, and as a side bar it’s part of the reason why I volunteered to meet with as many artists on the Sad Grrrls Fest bill as possible. Because there are so many amazing artists who are continually being miss or underrepresented in the music industry, so many talented young people taking big leaps not just personally or politically but artistically as well. And besides. They all collectively make flipping amazing music.

After first hearing about Sad Grrrls club after the initial touring line up passed through Melbourne last year, it seemed that Chelsea Bleach’s involvement with Sad Grrrls fest 2016 definitely follows the DIY ethos of Sad Grrrls Club founder Rachel. RMC just sent us an email… We were definitely already interested because we have never played a festival or done anything like that before, but when they sent through the line-up we were all like ‘oh my God we definitely definitely want to be a part of this’” Em’s excitement is so completely infections that it just reminds me of how wonderful and passionate this little corner of the music community really can be. Bouncing off their bandmate, Jess attests to this statement about community. Some of our favourite Melbourne bands are playing and to be included on that line up is so great”. When discussing Sad Grrrls Fest, Em also adds; We really value being in spaces that are more focused on women and gender non-conforming people in bands, a place to play where it’s comfortable for both women and gender non-conforming people to make up the majority of the crowd. Being in Chelsea Bleach, we have really prioritised playing with other female and gender non-conforming people because we know what it’s like to be at those gigs as a fan or performer. To not be the primary audience or the primary representation on stage it’s not a good feeling sometimes. We make specific effort to mostly play with women and gender non-conforming people, it’s just a better vibe”. This safe space trend of inclusivity is something that I am oh so excited about and with words and vibes as above, it’s no wonder Chelsea Bleach were an obvious inclusion to the already stacked Sad Grrrls Fest line up.

So what can you expect from the Chelsea Bleach set at the Sad Grrrls Fest in October? A lot of guitars, so many guitars” Em comments with a wry smile. I mean our sets are super casual in that we are really approachable. With lots of stage banter. As well, we’re all friends in the band and I really hope, that this vibe comes through when we perform on stage. That we really are just there having a really nice time playing together. Everyone plays a really really important part in the band, and Chelsea Bleach wouldn’t be the same without each and every one of us”. Jess adds, We just feel so lucky to be playing the gig, so we are all about the BYO vibes!”

For those of you who are (understandably) keen for new Chelsea Bleach music you’re all in luck with both Jess and Em spilling the beans on their plans to record. We definitely have plans to record some more tracks in early September and hopefully bring out an Ep towards the end of the year.” And of course you can catch them at the Reverence Hotel on the 1st of October for what should be an incredible Melbourne leg of Sad Grrrls Fest.