by Chris Toenes
Parents, teachers, young music listeners, listen up: Jessica Hopper, author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, is reading at Nightlight in Chapel Hill tonigh, August 25. The show also includes two rad young female artists Katie Stelmanis and Ghost Bees and Durham female band Pink Flag. It's all ages, costs $5 and starts at 7 p.m.
Jessica Hopper repped punk bands, played in a few and has written a lot—in her own zine, Hit It or Quit It, and all over the place. She notably became a voice for women in modern punk circles in an article for Punk Planet, "Emo: Where the Girls Aren't," later anthologized in Da Capo's Best Music Writing 2004. Her work has appeared in two subsequent editions.
The Indy talked with her recently as she embarked on a tour headed this way.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Given your background, you could have taken on several topics for a book. How did you decide on this? Was it something you always wanted to do?
JESSICA HOPPR: This is the book that I could've used—one that I desperately needed at 15 and 16 when I was trying to start bands with friends, keep them together, stay friends with my friends, book shows. I had no idea how to do any of it, and it was frustrating because I was so eager to do it all. Later on, once I started playing with people a little more seriously, I was always afraid to ask questions because I didn't want to look like the dumb girl who didn't know how her amp worked, so I learned a lot of things the hard way later than I should have. The main reason, though, is that the most fun I have had in my life is making music and playing in bands, touring with my friends. I just wanted to encourage girls and young women to do that for themselves.
There's a striking difference between the do-it-yourself punk ethic from which you emerged, and the idea of this book, which teaches young girls (and boys, for that matter) how to do it. Did this appear to be a conflict for you when working on the book? Is there something lost when young people are told how to make music like this?
I think the book is totally in line with DIY and the DIY ethos, though. Both Maximum Rock'n'Roll and Punk Planet used to publish a lot of how-tos. A friend of mine jokingly calls the Girls' Guide "Book Your Own Fucking Life for 15-year-old Girls." There is a mythos that rock ’n' roll is all swagger and intuition and that, if it's explained, then it ruins it or makes it stiff or stale. Granted intuition certainly counts for a lot, but I am not setting out rules in the book, but rather saying, "However you want to do this is the right way to do it. You do not have to be a pro to start a band. You don't have to play a show at the crappy bar. You can play a show anywhere"--with some sidewinds into how amps work, how to avoid buying warped drums, what's the best Funkadelic/ Fugazi/ Nina Simone album to start with, and how to deal with feeling discouraged. It's not prescriptive, it's permission and helpful tips--all the stuff no one ever tells you. The world is going to be a different place if a 15-year0old girl is going to be able to walk into a Guitar Center and not feel intimidated and know what to look for in the amp head she's about to drop her babysitting money on. That's what it's about.
The book rubs up against the Girls Rock camps model quite a bit, and you even point the reader to them for advice and potential band mates. We have our own solid example here in Durham, with Girls Rock NC. What's your relationship with the organizers of the camps, and how do you see the book pairing up with their work?
A lot of the events on the tour have been in conjunction with camps in different cities, and I just did some work helping out with Girls Rock Chicago. My publisher generously donated books to every camp—there are about two dozen now—and I have heard from friends and also campers that certain camps taught workshops from the book, which made me really really happy. I could ask for nothing more.
The women who volunteer their time to the camps are really my heroes. Last week, I sat in for a few hours on a final rehearsal of one of the camper bands—a quartet of four really strong-willed nine- and 10-year-old girls. They were having a lot of problems. At one point, there were some tears shed by the rhythm section. How the counselor volunteers helped the girls, and did so in ways that always fostered and honored their creativity, I was just awed. It is one thing to spend a few months writing a book. It is entirely another to spend a week with 80 teen girls armed with mics and drum sticks. Girls Rock NC has a reputation for being a really well-organized camp with a dedicated staff. The Triangle scene should be grateful for the future they are helping put in place.
What are you and the publishers doing to get the books into the hands of young people who might not have access to buying it?
I have a diligent library rep who is making sure it's in school and public libraries across the country. I have also done a few events at libraries where I do a reading and then an all-girl band plays. I just did Santa Monica Public and Mika Miko played on the steps of the library. I did a program here in Chicago last month where, after my book talk, someone taught a GarageBand workshop. In April 2010, I am going to be doing another long tour where I am just touring to libraries in small cities and towns and bringing along a band.
You've been in lots of non-traditional book-signing places for this tour: rock clubs, art galleries, womens' resource centers. Are you seeing lots of young ladies with their parents thus far?
My previous book tour was some venues, and the rest were libraries and bookstores. Some nights there would be maybe five girls with their parents, and the rest of the crowd would be adults. Sometimes it would be 25 girls and every single one already played an instrument. Sometimes, it's teen girls showing up on their own. This tour also involves two really incredible young all-female bands from Canada, and the shows are cheap or free and all-ages (except one) in the hopes that girls can come out and see a show with bands where the members are young women only a few years older than them. Me telling them about how cool and fun it is to be in a band is one thing. Katie Stelmanis & Ghost Bees showing them is another.
The book examines the technical side of playing in a band, from gear to recording. What was your own experience on learning that stuff?
I always had great amps (one particular Peavey Roadmaster head, long dead, that I often recall fondly) and terrible $90 guitars. Writing and researching and learning about equipment was one of the most gratifying parts of the book for me. I have a long a storied history with buying bad gear on the recommendation of someone who I trusted knew better than I did, and didn't. Recording might be my favorite part of being in a band, tied with touring: making a document of what you have done is really powerful. It's proof of your existence as an artist. I meet a lot of girls at the book events who are nine and totally proficient at—or at least using—GarageBand to record songs and demos just using the built in mic. That right there is going to sew the seeds for an entire future generation of engineers, producers and women who handle every single aspect of their career themselves.
At the New York reading, one of the first questions during the Q&A was a young girl who was maybe 10, who actually had a technical question about a problem she was having doing her vocals in GarageBand. This might actually have been the coolest moment of the tour. Some women in the audience—a producer and an engineer—troubleshot her problem. I grew up with this stupid idea presented to me--that women were untechnical and unwelcome in the studio, which is totally jive for a number of reasons, including that women hear better than men. When I was 23, I really wanted to start working towards being a producer. Someone had offered me a six month internship at a decent studio even, and a couple of dudes/ friends talked me out of it by saying that the world of engineering/ studio-work was so old-school sexist and male-dominated that I would never get anywhere or get work. I know I am not the only woman to ever encounter that kind of discouragement. The technical angle of the book was written with that in mind. Girls can grasp technical information. When you are first starting and you are so hungry to dive in to it all, you are totally motivated to figure it all out and master it.