In 2010, during "the years of expansion" of my label Afeite Al Perro, I spent hours contacting freaks from other corners of the planet.
At that time, I exchanged interesting material and established contacts with people from Brazil, Portugal, Japan, USA, Peru, France, Mexico, United Kingdom ... I felt that perhaps I had more things in common with misfits from the antipodes than with my own neighbours. Tons of fanzines, magazines, records and cassettes. People like Prego Magazine, Chili Com Carne, the mysterious and incredible Japanese magazine Uzo, Chocolate Monk, Arto Artian, Buh Records, Fuck The Bastards, the beautiful cassettes of Stunned Records, and an endless etcetera of labels and underground platforms.
I do not remember how I got in touch with the American label EEEE EEEE Records, I imagine that in one of my internet searching sessions I would arrive at some obscure blog in which they cited their references.
EEEE EEEE published six albums at once and then disappeared forever. Six very limited reissues (50 copies) of very obscure cassettes (it is still difficult to find information about some of them on the internet). Home electronics, expansive punk, rock in opposition ... Six CD-rs with a raw aesthetic, austere and attractive (black cardboard with pasted up covers of the original cassettes and a short interesting informative text inside). Harry Zantey, Face In The Crowd, Abstract Skulls, Exploding Head Trick, Sons Of Bitches, and Girls On Fire.
"Girls Who Grew Up To Be Arts Administrators: The GoF Story" was the name of the "box" of 5 Girls on Fire CD-rs, without a doubt, the most intriguing, mysterious and strange artifact of the whole lot.
"Girls Who Hate Their Mothers", "The Chicken Fucks", "Confessions Of A Shit Addict", "Diary Of A Shiteater", "Cat Vomit Punk House" (!!!) ... I remember spending weeks confused and fascinated with those discs; I listened and tried to understand what was happening, but I could not achieve it at all.
The informative text spoke of Leslie Singer and a group called Psychodrama that terrorized her audience. It also compared these cassettes with the unhinged first album (triple LP) of Half Japanese; although next to the music of GoF, the first Half Japanese album [1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts] sounds like The Archies.
Lashes of electronic noise of the worst fidelity possible, radio and television interferences, rhythm boxes with spent batteries, discs playing in the background (in a hilarious moment a Tom Tom Club song sounds under all the chaos), melted guitars that make Jandek sound like Eddie Van Halen, glossolalic loop tapes, squeals of madness and terrifying laughs, automaton recitations, psychotic spoken-word, and weird and strangled "folk" songs that seem to be created at the same moment of their recording under the influence of expired antidepressants. Asphyxiating sounds out of control free of restrictions and self-censorship. Power Electronics Folk Art. A wonder, music for my ears.
In those times it was impossible to find information about Leslie Singer on the internet except for a small review on Blastitude. Sometimes I would see someone asking about her whereabouts in a forum of noise music maniacs, but nobody seemed to know anything.
Until last summer, when Hal McGee announced at Electronic Cottage that he had contacted Leslie and was going to publish the Girls on Fire story. After reading his fascinating memoirs and listening to his cassettes again, I asked Hal for help and thanks to him, I was able to contact Leslie Singer, who has been really nice, and whom I thank very much for answering my questions in such detail.
You were born in Washington D.C. As a person interested in punk, did you have relation with the famous straight edge hardcore Dischord crew? From historical distance, it looks like a really macho almost homophobic scene. In case you had contact with them, how did you relate to that culture?
While I listened to the music and attended hardcore punk shows with bands from the Dischord label, I was on the fringe of that scene. By the time I was going to hardcore shows I was already involved with and playing in prog-rock inspired, art noise bands like From Far Away, Beauty? and Psychodrama. Psychodrama was what we would consider now LGBTQI friendly. So while I appreciated certain elements of hardcore straight edge music such as the speed and noise factor, I was aesthetically and socially a bit distant from it in other ways. I appreciated that Ian Mackaye was advocating “Flex Your Head” but was also aware at the
time of the problems that scene had around misogyny and homophobia as some of the women who were part of the Dischord inner circle such as Sharon Cheslow would discuss it openly and call out the guys whenever she went on the college radio station WMUC. This would’ve been circa 1981/1982.
Did you ever feel part of some kind of “scene”? Reading your memories in the Girls On Fire archive site at HalTapes it looks like you didn’t walk anyone else’s path.
I think that I felt affinities with other bands but never really an entire scene. I’m kind of a loner so having to be part of a big group or institution isn’t my bag.
The first time I listened to your music was when EEEE EEEE Records released the five Girls On Fire cassettes as a 5 CD-r set. I was really shocked by the artwork, the titles and raw music. Was this release approved by you?
While this release was approved by me, I wasn’t actively engaged in its production. An old acquaintance, Hugh Beyers, who I knew from the DC scene, contacted me in 2008 and asked me if he could release my Girls on Fire cassettes on CD as part of a label he was putting together. I agreed and he mastered the CD’s from copies of the cassettes that he had from his personal collection. He put the artwork together himself by photocopying and gluing the covers from the cassettes. I think that he went with the raw, unfinished look for budgetary reasons and I was okay with that. I thought that the raw sound and look went well all together. Upon seeing and hearing it, a dear friend of mine kept praying that someone like David Bowie would see and hear the collection and re-record and re-issue it more professionally. The funny part was that my friend would see David Bowie from time to time as she lived near him in NYC but he was always racing onto another meeting or back home to Iman so that connection wasn’t made and those particular prayers went unanswered. However, now I will have to quote the line from St. Teresa of Ávila that inspired the title of the book that Truman Capote was paid a lot of money for, claimed to have written but no one has ever found the manuscript for, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”
You were part of Psychodrama for nine months in 1981, right? “300 Days of Sodom” is a really wild and strange record, full of crude electronics and out-of-control vocals. Were there in D.C. any other bands doing anything similar?
Rupert Chappelle, who we once performed with on the same bill with, made interesting electronic music but there wasn’t any other band in DC as strange and out of control as Psychodrama. We really prided ourselves on that and worked to maintain that image.
The five Girls On Fire cassettes are really intriguing and powerful works of art. From the covers to the music, there’s a strong sense of intimacy in them. When I listen to them, I feel like I’m having access to some very private place and form of expression. I’d like to know how did you record those tapes. Did you record the music directly to cassette? What kind of
equipment did you use?
I recorded them at home in my apartment directly onto cassette. I had several consumer level tape decks and one cassette recorder that I had been given as a birthday present when I turned 11. I also had a Yamaha 8 tracker mixer that had fantastic reverb which I love to drown my vocals and sometimes my guitar in. To power the mixer, I had an Orange guitar amp head left over from when I was in a new wave band in high school called the Neutered Kitty Bitches. I had several cheap electric guitars. One was a Silvertone that is probably worth a lot of money now thanks to various ‘90’s musicians popularizing the use of those buzzy, low end guitars. When I moved on from making music cassettes and into video I gave all my gear away to a friend of mine named Killer aka Debbie. Killer had played in an early version of the goth punk band, Christian Death and also had been the sound person for Chicks on Speed. The last I heard she was working for Fender in some sort of technical role.
I’ve read you hand painted each cover. How many copies of each tape did you make? How did you distribute the cassettes? Were you involved in the cassette culture network at that time?
I hand made every cover for Diary of a Shiteater and hand painted each cassette label. I would guess that I made any where from 25 to 50 copies of each cassette album release. I would mostly distribute them myself as I was very involved in the cassette network at that time. Also some of my cassettes were distributed by Hal McGee and his outlet, Cause and Effect.
“Diary of a shiteater”, “Confessions of a shit addict”, “Life is too funny – I think I’ll shoot myself”...These are pretty nihilistic titles. Was it some kind of dark sense of humour involved?
Yes, definitely dark humour –sardonic and cynical too. When I was 15 I was reprimanded by a teacher for being too cynical. She didn’t think that it was appropriate for someone so young to be so cynical. But to quote Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex and their amazing first single “Oh Bondage, Up Yours.”
“Some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard,
But I say
OH Bondage, UP Yours!”
“In My Blood”, the last Girls On Fire cassette, has a beautiful picture of you in the cover. It’s a very unusual image that completes the music it contains. I think this is the only GoF record that was released by another label (the French Vita Nova), right? Are there any plans to reissue
Yes, Vita Nova released In My Blood in Europe. I also released In My Blood myself in late 1985 here in the US. It was the last Girls on Fire release. In late May 2018, Hal McGee and I re-connected, and now all the Girls on Fire cassette albums are available for download on his
I love the sound of your guitar in those cassettes, so deranged and original. I guess you didn’t use conventional tuning, right? Can you explain a little your approach to the instrument?
I stopped using the standard EADGBE tuning after I left the Neutered Kitty Bitches. I was about 16 at the time and had just heard Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica. I had also just bought a copy of the legendary No Wave compilation, No New York. I think now that my two biggest musical influences are The Beatles and No New York. Even into the mid to late ‘70’s, the Beatles were still inspiring teenagers like me to pick up electric guitars. Trout Mask Replica and No New York inspired me to approach the guitar completely differently. I de-tuned/un-tuned my electric guitar and never looked back.
Did you usually play live? I’m curious about what kind of people went to your shows and what kind of reaction your music did get.
I played one live show as Mary Davis Kills Mary Davis Kills back in 1983 and we got a good reaction. The audience were people who knew that they were going to hear some noise and weirdness so they were up for it.
Then in 1984, I did a performance as Girls on Fire. I went on stage, ate a TV dinner with an audio tape loop of a car crash playing behind me.
I used to make tape loops from answering machine outgoing message tapes. After that I began to make and screen Super 8 films and then videos that were for more of an art audience. I got good reactions for those too. My mother once showed my videos to her psychiatrist. He said that while he wasn’t “au courant” with the video art scene, he thought that they were interesting.
Some of your songs include references to artists (Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Hannah Höch, Rauschenberg...). Can you talk a little about your favourite artists/inspirations?
Since I was a teenager, I have been inspired by Andy Warhol. Everything he did whether it was painting, photography, films, his diaries, managing The Velvet Underground, etc. just seemed so cool to me. These days, I’m also inspired by the infinity mirrors, pumpkins, dot paintings and philosophy of Yayoi Kusama as well as the music and writings of John Cage. His last apartment, on West 18th Street and Sixth Avenue, here in NYC, is very close to where I currently live. I like to walk by now and then and pay my respects.
I don’t have a clue about your music since 1986, I haven’t found much more information in internet...I know that you are a film maker, but I have only had the chance to watch “Joe-Joe”. How did you get involved in film making? What are the primary themes of your films? Have you made more music since then?
After In My Blood, I made one more cassette album, with Frank Kogan, entitled England’s Newest Hit Makers. Our duo was called Your Mom Too. This was in 1986. But by then I was getting very interested in Super 8 films and then video. My ‘80’s videos were very performance oriented involving food, humour and music. Hal McGee has posted a number of them on his wonderful HalTapes website as part of the Girls on Fire archival project that he and I have been working on since the summer of 2018:
In 1990, I began to do video work with other makers. The last video that I made was with art critic/painter, Laura Cottingham, entitled “The Anita Pallenberg Story” back in 2000. This feature length investigation of the contemporary art scene through the lens of a re-enactment of back stage with the Rolling Stones was exhibited in galleries and art spaces in the US and Europe. Here is the link to the essay that Laura wrote explaining more about this video: http://www.haussite.net/haus.0/cottingham/INDEX.HTML
In the spring of 2017, the video had a month long exhibition here in NYC at Artist’s Space. For more info on that show: https://hyperallergic.com/380880/a-satire-of-the-moneyed-90s-art-scene-that-resonates-today/
Back in 2006, based on a variety of life factors, I decided to take an early retirement from video art and focus on my arts administration career. However, earlier this year, 2018, I had started to feel restless and ready for something new. When Hal McGee got in touch with me and we began to work on the Girls on Fire history project and hearing all the wonderful
music and sounds that he and other Electronic Cottage members are making, it ignited something in me and I’ve started to work again on new music/sound pieces/songs. In the past several months, I’ve contributed pieces to several upcoming Electronic Cottage projects. Also Hal has invited me/Girls on Fire to perform live at the next two Apartment Music shows that he is hosting in January 2019 in Gainesville, Florida so I’m
really looking forward to that.
Thanks a lot for your time, Leslie. So kind of you to answer this little interview. If there is anything you want to add, this is the place to do it.
I would like to add: Thank you for all your kind words and your support of Girls on Fire over the years. Also thank you for this interview opportunity! I really enjoyed reading and answering your questions and look forward to the next issue of Manchas y Ruido.
Afeite Al Perro