I’m in the Band Ep. 11: Julia Cafritz (Pussy Galore)

I’m in the Band Ep. 11: Julia Cafritz (Pussy Galore)

Julia Cafritz joined forces with fellow Brown University dropout Jon Spencer in 1985 to form lo-fi, garage noise band Pussy Galore. Starting out in an ostensibly uptight Washington, D.C., and relocating to New York City, Pussy Galore challenged the notion of what rock & roll— and music — could be. Enlisting a revolving cast of who’s who in the NYC punk/indie scene, Pussy Galore achieved cult status and spawned bands like Royal Trux and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

With no prior musical experience, Julia wielded her guitar and part-time screams as expressions of angst and weapons of provocation. After Julia quit Pussy Galore in 1989, she brought her attitude and intensity to bands such as the Action Swingers, STP and Free Kitten. In this episode, Julia talks growing up as a goody-goody, impressing the Scarsdale Diet Doctor murderer, and creating “anti-music” out of anger.

On family dynamics, being a goody-goody, and suppressed rage … I grew up in D.C. on the mean streets of Georgetown in a large, complicated family. My parents were busy with their own social, business and creative lives. They had children and then just sort of ignored their children for the most part, I guess, like all ‘70s parents.

I had three older brothers; they were sort of impossibly cool. They served as awe-inspiring and glamorous examples, but also as cautionary tales. They came of age at the end of the ‘60s, beginning of the ‘70s. So they were full, freak flag-waving hippies doing tons of fucking drugs, having gorgeous girlfriends and an incredibly disreputable crew of friends. I mention that because I was a teenager in the ‘80s, and I rebelled against their rebellion. I was completely straight edge. I was just a total fucking goody-goody.

One of the things being a goody-goody means is having a strong voice, and that voice may be voicing something very unpopular. I wanted to be a goody-goody, but I didn’t want to be a nerd. I wanted to be cool and outrageous, but I also wanted to be a good girl. All of that existed before I started the band Pussy Galore. But then Pussy Galore helped me tap into a huge, unending well of anger that I didn’t even realize was there until I was screaming on stage.

On starting up Pussy Galore … Jon Spencer calls me and he’s like, ‘Hey, I heard you bought a guitar.’ Jon was a very difficult person to talk to, so I was just like, ‘What the fuck is Spencer doing calling me?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And he goes, ‘So you were serious?’

I actually had no idea what he was talking about, but I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, of course I am.’ He goes, ‘So we’ll start the band. I’ll move to D.C. Can you find us a practice space? Maybe find me an apartment?’ I hung up and I was just like, ‘What the fuck did I just sign on to? A practice space? What is that?’

I remember mentioning to my mother, ‘This kid from Brown, he’s dropped out, too. He’s coming to D.C. and we’re going to try starting a band.’ She was just like, ‘But Julie, you don’t play anything.’ And I was like, ‘No, I don’t.’ And she goes, ‘Well, how does that work?’ I was like, ‘I have absolutely no idea.’ And she goes ‘Well, that doesn’t very sound good.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t think it’s going to be very good. I don’t even know if I can pull it off being very bad.’

On playing in a band despite musical limitations … I don’t think I could have started a band with anybody else. Jon had such an incredible work ethic and was so creative and problem-solving. I mean, he was a problem creator too, but he was also problem-solving.

And I presented this problem. I just held up my hands and was like, ‘I don’t play.’ And he’s like, ‘Let’s just try this.’ I kept presenting him with more limitations. He’s like, ‘Well, just hit the low E string and then face your amp.’

He would just simplify and simplify and simplify until we were within the realms of my limitations, which was basically getting my pick to strike the string of a guitar. I started at the most basic level of just turning on an amp, facing it and having feedback come out of it.

On her role in Pussy Galore… My big thing was that I’m the girl in the band. Everybody was going to treat me like the weak link. I am the weak link. I’m the person who can’t play. I’m going to make it clear that I am not fucking Jon, and I’ve never fucked Jon. I’m the bad fucking girl in this band who is not here because I’m fucking somebody in the band. That was of paramount importance to my 19- and 20-year-old self — and apparently to my 52-year-old self, too.

I can bring all this passion, intention and rigor to an endeavor, even if I can’t play the fucking guitar. You’re not going to be able to put your finger on exactly what I bring to something, but take me away and I will leave a hole.

On double standards for women in music … When Kim [Gordon] and I started Free Kitten, we had this double thing of people treating us like elder stateswomen. That may sound good on paper, but it was not good. I remember arriving in England to play. We opened up Melody Maker and there’s essentially a full-page cartoon. It’s Kim with a walker, me with a cane — they’ve even put wrinkles on Yoshimi — and Mark Ibold, who has a very babyish face but was two years older than me, with a pacifier in his mouth. I was 25-turning-26 at the time.

And I was just like, ‘Oh my fucking god. It’s just like these old hags who’ve been around forever.’ I was like, ‘I started a fucking band when I was 19. I’m 25. I’m not an old hag. You’re not allowed to call me an old hag!’ If Pavement had been playing the next week, they wouldn’t have done a cartoon of those guys with wrinkles and Mark Ibold with a pacifier in his mouth.

(Photo credit:  Linda Wolfe)

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