Alicia Gaines and Al Greenwood Bond Over Mutual Isolation

The Ganser bassist and Sports Team Drummer talk writing op-eds and coming to their instruments “late.”

Alicia Gaines is the bassist and vocalist of the Chicago-based post-punk band Ganser; Al Greenwood is the drummer of the recently Mercury Prize-nominated alt rock band Sports Team. Here, the two talk writing op-eds (for Louder and The Times respectively), the isolation of learning an instrument as a girl, and the sustainability of this political moment. 
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Alicia Gaines: So we both recently wrote op-eds, which is really weird — at least I found the experience incredibly strange. I was wondering, is there something special about us being locked in our houses that put us in a space to start thinking about these things?

Al Greenwood: Yeah, definitely. I mean, what was interesting about mine was that it originated [as] a piece that I was asked to write in relation to specifically festival lineups. And that got me thinking. I wrote a very short piece, and then lockdown happened so, that piece didn’t run. It didn’t really bother me that it wasn’t running, but then throughout my time in lockdown — exactly as you say, [it was] the first time ever I had all of this time and space to think about stuff. The band had been so intense — we played over a hundred shows in 12 months, traveling across the world. It was that in-pause period of sitting down and thinking about the wider context that you start to realize that, actually, you’re a part of the system that you’re trying to change.

Alicia: That makes a lot of sense. I was asked to write my piece because we are in the middle of an album campaign, and just sitting around. I was reading an article about going on road trips — it’s the summer of the road trip everybody was saying. But it’s a little bit different if you’re Black in the United States, roaming around towns that you’re not from. So, I thought, Oh, that sounds familiar. I shot off a few tweets without really thinking about it, and then all of a sudden I got this email asking me to write something. And I had this weird thing where I had to go to my bandmates and be like, “Did that really happen? Am I remembering this correctly?” I feel like there’s so much that you experience that you just repress. It doesn’t have to be an end-of-the-world bad experience. Just like the little things that now I’m just sitting here going, Yeah, that really did happen.

Al: Something that I struggled with was that, I think my experience is really valid and it’s important to spend time acknowledging the impact of what that would have been. But the purpose of the article that I wrote wasn’t to say, “God, it’s so hard to be me.” You know what I mean? It was to try and capitalize both my own reflection and then hopefully encourage a wider conversation, such as we’re having now, about the systems that exist around this and why things happen the way they do. But a lot of people’s responses were, “Oh, my god, I feel so sorry for you.” Which I felt quite conflicted about, and uncomfortable about. I don’t know about you, but obviously it is a bad thing, and I’m not saying that it hasn’t affected me at all, but I didn’t write the article in order to try and get loads of sympathy, if that makes sense.

Alicia: Yeah, I know what you mean. We’ve gotten requests since then to basically write another one, and it’s like, I said what I wanted to say. Write about our album. This isn’t my beat. So I think that it’s a tricky place to get into, because you don’t want it to be your calling card. It’s a reality that exists, but it’s not the only thing I want to be known for.

Writing the article, were your bandmates surprised, or is this something that you guys have talked about for ages in terms of how you operate? Is it something that’s kind of built in to how you work? Similar to how I pointed out, we have a specific sound check procedure that prioritizes the women in our band saying all the instructions so that we’re actually listened to — that’s just something that we have to do. Have you had a history of that? Or when the article came out, was everybody surprised?

Al: It’s not something that we have systems in place and discuss frequently, but I think it was an acknowledged reality. And they’re amazing allies. What’s really nice in our group is that gender has always been completely irrelevant. We were a group of friends prior to ever being able to play an instrument. So it’s almost kind of like a retrospective having to assess when you’re coming into contact with other people, what the impacts are. I don’t think it was a massive surprise. But I equally think it’s not something that necessarily they’re aware of on a day-to-day basis.

Alicia: That makes a lot of sense. Sometimes I feel a little guilty too, because I know bands that are all women or non-binary or all Black, and they have it a hell of a lot harder than I do. So a lot of the times I feel a little guilty for even pointing out ways in which it does affect me.

Al: I completely agree. Especially being a band of five men and one girl, it’s really difficult to start sounding like you’re trying to be the proponent of female musicians or non-binary musicians, because ultimately our band is far from the ideal scenario in terms of inclusion. 

The other thing for me was, I’m a perfectly proficient drummer and I’ve improved loads over the years, but I know some female drummers who are fucking incredible and I would far rather see them be the figurehead for female drummers. So I got to a point where I was like, I don’t want to be putting myself forward as that person, because that’s not me. But ultimately, you have to just use the platform that you’ve got.

That’s what occurred to me during lockdown. It’s like, Well, I could wait until I know everything in the world there is to know about gender politics and this whole sphere, and I could wait until I feel like I’m the best drummer there’s ever going to be to stand up and represent female drummers, or [I] can just take the opportunities that are offered to [me] in the platforms that [I] do have and try and affect positive change and accept that [I’m] going to get stuff wrong and learn as [I] go.

Alicia: Yeah. I feel like there’s a double edged sword, in that when you enter an arena where you are not represented very widely, there’s an incredible pressure to be the absolute best. And at the same time, I think it does make your work, your efforts much more focused and keen than a lot of people around you. I don’t understand to just waiting around for someone to notice, but at the same time, it’s like — yes, on one hand you’re going to work harder than everybody else, but on the other side, you might beat yourself up twice as hard for not being the absolute best, if that makes sense.

Al: Yes, definitely.

Alicia: I just feel like playing an instrument too is so fraught because I feel like — and I don’t know if this is maybe a woman thing, but I feel like my relationship to my instrument is very different than the classical mode of being a gear head, and the way in which that is idolized. Like, I feel like my relationship to finding my instrument and what I get out of it is very different than the men around me. So sometimes it’s like the language is slightly different too, or the dialect in which we’re talking about our music.

Al: Yeah. I have that massively, but I think for me, that’s a result of coming to my instrument really late. I played a bit when I was younger, but I was really 18 when I started again proper. I always tried to pick it up alongside the boys, and didn’t have a kit available to me to practice with so I very much just would get by. And then you meet people for whom this has been their life, and they read the magazines, read the blogs, and want to ask you about your opinion on skinhead A versus B, and different modes of tuning, and it can just feel really intimidating.

Alicia: Yeah, for sure. I have a similar experience. I played in orchestra when I was a kid — different instrument, I didn’t pick up bass until I was 21. I think part of it is that you don’t get invited to go play in the garage with the boys and form a band when you’re 12 or 13. My male bandmates have been in bands since that age. Playing bass and playing drums — they’re wonderful instruments on their own, but they’re made for an ensemble. So I think, especially for women to jump into those, it has to be very intentional with a project in mind, because you’re not going to get invited to one.

Al: How did you come to play the bass?

Alicia: It’s just something that I’ve always connected to from the rhythm portion of it. I don’t know, guitar is a little bit too cocky, a little bit too caught up in that kind of male ego. I like the idea of being the backbone. I don’t really have to be in front. You know?

How about drums? How did you come to drums?

Al: Well, I always loved guitar music, and I was obsessed with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ By The Way. I loved all the drum beats on that album. I don’t know how I managed to persuade my parents to get me this shitty kit for Christmas, but they did and I used to just sit with big headphones on, and — in reality I was playing the exact same part, but I was speeding up and slowing down, so in my head I was just nailing every single part. 

I just found it so cathartic and therapeutic and it wasn’t until my final year of university that we formed the band. That was the first time I’d ever actually played in a room with other people, as opposed to just with my headphones. It’s such a different experience.

Alicia: I think that there’s definitely something too, especially when you pick up an instrument late. Mine was the Kims, Breeders and Sonic Youth.

Al: Wow.

Alicia: I mean, nobody was going to hear me until I thought that I was better than a lot of the people around me, because I just knew that I was going to get probably judged a little bit more harshly.

Al: Whereas I had the opposite thing. We started playing live before we even had songs, with the mentality like, “I guess we’ll work out the ending if we get that far.” We just kind of thought we’d do what felt right, which was more often than not absolutely terrible, but we really, really enjoyed ourselves.

Alicia: I think there is something to being in a band and having that gang of support around you. Especially when you’re coming into, again, an arena where you’re not represented a lot, it really helps to have the backup. I don’t know how solo artists do it.

Al: Yeah. A hundred percent. It’s like when people ask about getting nervous before gigs — I think I naturally would, but for some reason I guess, because you’re with your team, it’s so much easier to do.

Alicia: Yeah. That makes absolute sense. And I imagine throughout everything with them being aware of you being the only woman in the group, like the story that you had mentioned in your article about the festival booker, at least they know to look at you like, “We hear you, we see this too,” as opposed to being on your own.

Al: Massively. I can’t speak highly enough of the boys and you couldn’t ask for better allies. They’re all just such brother figures, and they’re equally outraged by any of this stuff and equally keen to make a stance and change it.

Alicia: Yeah, definitely. I think after writing mine there was an interesting thing that happened — I don’t know if it happened to you as well, but there were a couple institutions that quoted the article and I had to politely point out to them that they were the ones that I was talking about.

Al: [Laughs.] To be fair, I didn’t have that, but I did just have that thing of — obviously it was the first thing I’d ever written and I wasn’t clear what the process was going to be. And so they said, “Oh, yeah, I think we’re going to use it.” And I was just really chuffed to have my first ever published thing. But then when they publish it, they don’t let you choose the pull quotes, so it kind of misrepresented [the piece], at least for me. I was a little bit uncomfortable about the way the pull quotes were all about myself. The purpose of the article was reflecting upon myself in order to consider the way that everybody is and what needs to change on a broader scale. But then as I mentioned, I’ve got loads of people getting in touch like, “Oh, my god, this sounds so hard. I can’t believe like it must be so awful for you.” And that’s lovely and great, but it wasn’t why I chose to write the piece.

Alicia: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I mean, definitely in response to mine, there was some sympathy which felt a little strange, but it has connected me with some other women and Black artists, which has been really nice because I feel like it can all get lost in the cracks and it can be a little hard to find each other.

Al: Yeah, definitely. I don’t know about you, but I find that guitar music is quite a unique space in terms of, there’s this overriding sense that it’s super liberal, but actually in contrast to a lot of other kind of genres, I think that it’s quite behind. Nobody really does talk about it, because the scene is supposedly so DIY. There isn’t really the opportunity to question structures in the same way as, say, mainstream pop, where you’ve got figures like Lady Gaga who have obviously just completely shaken the foundations in terms of like being an icon in a non-binary or non-cis white male way. I think that’s really enabled people to analyze that space far more confidently and call things out. Whereas for me, at least, from what I see in the world around us, everything’s so much more tacit and it’s all under the pretense of being DIY and therefore you can’t really question things on a macro level.

Alicia: Yeah. I think that there is something invisibly insidious about the way in which guitar music operates and lives within the wider music world. I mean, if you go to any large music website and you go to [the review section], things may look somewhat diverse, but if you really start drilling into guitar music, that’s where I think you start to really find out that it’s really not as diverse. You’re seeing the diversity in other genres, and lumped in together, I think those institutions go, “Oh, we’re fine.”

Al: Yeah. A hundred percent.

Alicia: It’s definitely controlled, or made us react in terms of how we represent ourselves. We very much refuse to ever be photographed with one of us standing in the front with the other ones in the back — that kind of classic band-with-girls figurehead on the front of a ship model is the way I think about it. We try to be as egalitarian as we possibly can be in terms of how we show ourselves to people. It seems like you’re the same — you’re just huge group of people.

Al: Yeah, definitely. I think there’s other groups that we’re aware of where the label put together a group of individuals who looked the right way and ticked all the right boxes. But the reality of our group is that we were always just a group of friends, so it becomes quite easy to make things natural and normal. There’s nothing really premeditated about the fact that we happen to have a girl in the group. It’s just I was the only person they knew who owned a drum kit at the time.

Alicia: Oh, the classic, “Oh, they have a drum kit. Let’s get ‘em.”

Al: How do you feel about positive discrimination?

Alicia: I’m really torn about it. The record comes out on Friday [Ed: Ganser’s Just Look At That Sky came out July 31], so this has been my life since quarantine. I’ve found it’s very interesting because, as I mentioned, a couple of tweets that I threw out got the request for the article that I wrote, but then that just brings more of that same attention. You want to speak on this issue because it’s important., but at the same time, I don’t want them using myself or the band as a little award for themselves. They don’t get cookies for writing about it. So that’s the part that we really butt up against, and challenge if people try to compare us to other bands just because they have women in them. You know?

Al: Yes.

Alicia: That’s the part that I think people have a really hard time putting together, is maybe even how to talk to women about music because we’re just not there sometimes.

Al: Yeah. I find it really conflicting as well. And ultimately we’ve benefited massively. There’s loads of things that we’ve got or that have come through or that reflected well on us purely because I happen to be female. I guess it’s just the nature of the world, but when you stop and critique, it’s like, well, this is a symptom of the same problem, isn’t it? And recently we got nominated for an award in the UK.

Alicia: I saw that. Congrats.

Al: Yeah. Cheers. It was super exciting. What was brilliant is that it turned out that there was the most ever women represented in the short list. And there’s a picture of me there, which is true and great, but can we really put ourselves forward as, like, there’s one woman in a group of six? You feel like you are just ticking a box, maybe, in some circumstances. And then a lot of people raised in this particular instance: Every woman on the list happened to be white.

That was, again, something that I was trying to raise in my article that I think got a bit lost in the discourse. It’s great that we’re having this conversation about how many women are on festival lineups, and how many women are doing X, Y, Z, but actually, if you make it a statistical game, then all you do is encourage box-ticking and work to exclude other groups who probably are going to be even more excluded anyway.

Alicia: Yeah. It comes back to that guilt. But it also speaks to the fact that, I don’t know if we would get some of the opportunities that we’ve gotten in the same way — there’s some that we’ve gotten because I’m in the band. But also, I feel like if everybody in the band looked like me, we wouldn’t have made it nearly as far as we have, because I have the backup of a white woman and two white dudes. There’s something there as well. Having those people to surround yourself with as a marker of like, “Oh, she’s cool. She’s fine.” [Laughs.]

Al: “It’s OK. We’ll be able to communicate with her still.”

Alicia: Right. “It’s only a quarter of ‘em. It’ll be fine.”

Al: Yeah. It’s so difficult. I don’t really know how to navigate that in a positive way moving forward, because I think that it’s fine to say, “Well, you suffer so much, you’re at such a disadvantage, you should exploit the opportunities offered to you.” Which to some extent I totally agree with. But then it like, if everybody has that view, then how is change ever going to come? Because everyone’s just going to be embraced as the minority. “Oh, we’ve got a woman there.” But if everybody’s just using that to their own advantage without trying to question things more broadly, I’m not sure how change happens.

Alicia: Right. Because on one hand, you have people whose entire concern during this moment is just not getting canceled. You look at Burger Records — that is a very immediate thing, and there are houses that should burn down. Yet at the same time, [I] have been very trepidatious in that I’m concerned that, all this conversation is all well and good, but the minute that [touring] is back — whether that’s next year, or god forbid the year following — are people just going to come out of this saying, “Oh, I liked a couple of posts. Let’s go back to normal.”

Al: Yeah. I think that speaks to a far wider narrative at the minute, doesn’t it? With all of the Black Lives Matter stuff. It’s such a minefield, I think, to navigate. As a white woman, I found it really difficult to know what the best way of doing something meaningful was throughout that whole period, and I think everyone’s still trying to learn what is the appropriate response to some of these issues. But as you rightly say on a broader scale, the question is then: When life resumes, what are the concrete actions or changes or ideological shifts that are going to have a real impact on the way that people’s lives are lived and experienced? And frankly, I’m not sure what they are yet.

Alicia: Yeah. I really connected to — there was something in your article about awkwardly laughing along with men.

Al: Yeah.

Alicia: Right now I feel very bold and I can say what I want to say because we are in this current moment and it will be received well by a majority that I am not a part of, whether that be as a minority or as a woman. I feel like a little bit more free to speak my mind, and I’m worried that that door will close and I will suddenly find myself awkwardly laughing along again.

Al: Yeah. Massively. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? In the context of particularly the current moment, it’s so easy to talk about what you’re going to do and the changes that you’re going to make. For me, the real motivating factor genuinely is the young fans that I speak to really frequently, who are awe-inspiringly powerful, motivated, brilliant young people, and saying, What needs to change for them? Because, frankly, this isn’t good enough. This is excluding the people who need to access those roles and who would be so brilliant for the industry and have such fulfilled careers in it. 

It’s all well and good saying that, but even now, we’ve gone back to rehearsing and you have to check yourself on a daily basis. It’s so much easier to talk about than to enact. And that’s for someone who has publicly spoken about it now. So I’m in too deep to not, but then, if I’m struggling to do this, the average person who perhaps is just trying to be an ally — it’s a minefield.

Alicia: Yeah, it definitely is. I feel like the current moment has really made bands think about, too, [how] there are real choices to make the same way that ordering groceries is a real choice of considering other people’s safety. In terms of when shows return, and at what point any particular band is going to feel comfortable being booked — I think that those questions have technically, always been there. Are you playing a space that is safe for young women to come and enjoy music? Are you playing a space that feels inclusive for minorities? Those are questions that were always there in terms of a band’s responsibility to provide a somewhat safe environment for their fans. It’s just been made really tacit now.

Al: Yeah. I think the other interesting thing alongside that in any aspect of the music industry, and like any competitive industry, is the power dynamic that exists because you always feel privileged to be there. You know? You’ve been booked to play this venue, you feel like you’re lucky to be part of it and lucky to be involved. It makes it so much more difficult in terms of that power dynamic to then start to question things.

Alicia: Yeah, definitely. That’s been the case for us just operating online even. At a certain point, it’s like you could poke the bear, but the bear might bite back. That’s always something that you’re worried about.

Al: And if you pull out of that event in order to try and make a stance, is there an impact? Who knows and who cares? 

Alicia: Or did you just lose out on the opportunity? [Laughs.] It’s extremely fraught territory. I mean, I’m really happy that the door has opened, but I still… I don’t know if I’m just a pessimist, but I just, I don’t know. We’ve seen how it goes. But I think I agree with you that every single time that we get a message from a young woman, that makes it all worth it in the end. So I just hope that there’s more of us and eventually it’s going to just be impossible to ignore.

Al: Yeah. Is there much of a community that you are aware of out in the States?

Alicia: I think the hardest part, at least speaking for myself — I grew up in Portland, Oregon, which is a very white town and I, myself, am half-white. So I grew up in a place where I was the only one. But I think that also shaped my tastes. What you end up finding is that online, all of these characters, all these weirdos from their individual towns find each other and go, “Oh, I was the only one in my high school.”

So I think it’s a strange mutual isolation that everybody is bonding over, but that’s something that, unfortunately, I think we’re just spread out. Because honestly, we’re a little rare. You’re not going to find those projects where necessarily you’re going to have the right people all in the same room that just happened to form band together. It would have to be very intentional. I’d have to go seek those people out in a very focused way if I wanted to have a project that is, let’s say, all Black.

Al: Yeah. I think in terms of just women-in-guitar-music in the UK, since the article I’ve become aware of so many people doing brilliant work and individuals running blogs and doing bits and bobs, but it feels like there’s no real organized bigger picture, centralized thing. And so it becomes difficult when I’m speaking to our young fans and you’re trying to sign post them to places. It doesn’t seem like there’s any coordinated women-in-tech equivalent. And I think particularly in guitar music, because of that whole it’s all just the DIY, it becomes really difficult know how to help people, like people that want to go into sound engineering or something that I know nothing about, it feels like there should be a space that you can direct them to.

Alicia: Well, I think that there’s something there in terms of, at a certain point it’s not DIY. I mean, most musicians that you see all have teams. The invisible obstacle there is that it’s not DIY, and those resources just aren’t there for people that are coming in from the outside. It’s supposed to seem effortless. That’s what I mean. You shouldn’t have to try.

Al: It’s not cool if you have to identify the structure that exists that we’re in. But that’s what makes it so insidious.

Alicia: Right. And I think the more that you call it out, maybe things become a little bit less cool. But I think cool is overrated.

Ganser’s Just Look At That Sky is out now, as is Sports Team’s Deep Down Happy

(Photo Credit: left, Alicia Gaines; right, Lauren Maccabee)

Alicia Gaines is a songwriter, multiinstrumentalist, singer, and Graphis-awarded art director from Washington State. As part of Ganser, she has released two albums and multiple EPs serving as co-songwriter, co-producer, video co-director, and editor. After their critically acclaimed debut album, Odd Talk, Ganser’s Just Look at That Sky met 2020 with year end nods from The Quietus, Rolling Stone, Vice, Paste, Uproxx, Bandcamp, and more. “Favorite albums of 2020. They can rant and croon, elevating this thorny, driving music out of the muck and toward something resembling transcendence.” – Steven Hyden’s Favorite Albums Of 2020