Kate Fagan and Jen B Larson Talk “I Don’t Wanna Be Too Cool,” 40 Years Later

The legendary musician and the author get into nonconformity, the limits of “punk,” and much more.

Kate Fagan is a legendary Chicago-based musician, who co-founded the ska band Heavy Manners, fronted the punk band BB Spin, and performed solo; Jen B Larson is a Chicago-based writer and musician, and the author of the new book Hit Girls: Women in Punk in the USA, 1975-1983, which features a chapter about Kate. Tomorrow, Captured Tracks is reissuing Kate’s self-released underground hit “I Don’t Wanna Be Too Cool” on a full-length album featuring four previously unreleased tracks, so to celebrate, she and Jen caught up about it all again. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music 

Kate Fagan: Hi, Jen. Congratulations on your book. It’s an incredible read. There’s so many interesting women in it, and it’s just exciting that there’s something about women in punk that’s out there, and we can all buy it and read it and enjoy it.

Jen B Larson: Thank you. I loved doing the research for it, and the whole process has just been really fun. I also want to say congratulations to you on your expanded remastered edition of Too Cool, with all the new unreleased tracks on it. I was really excited to get to hear something from that era that I hadn’t heard before.

Kate: Right? And I was really excited to get some of my songs out in the universe that have been sitting in a box under my bed.

Jen: [Laughs.] Amazing.

Kate: It’s remarkable, actually, that after 40 years “Too Cool” is still exciting people.

Jen: Yeah, it’s really, really cool. I also think it’s really cool because we’ve now shared space in the [Chicago] Reader twice now: In 2016, we were both in Gossip Wolf on the same day — August 9, the day before my birthday. And then just last week, we were in the Reader again because the Reader shared an excerpt from my book that I wrote about you.

Kate: I was thrilled. I got a lot of calls and people were sending me the Reader. And you know, I found Heavy Manners’ drummer and sax player in the Reader, and I found my roommate Mary, who’s been my best friend my whole life. So the Reader just keeps popping up in my life in important ways.

Jen: That’s amazing. So I wanted to tell you a story. I’m a high school teacher and a student of mine, who’s this kid who kind of doesn’t do much — he comes to class late, he doesn’t really want to participate. When he does, he’s brilliant, but it’s rare. And one day I was walking around the room, checking everyone while they’re doing a writing assignment, and he had his headphones on, as students do. I caught a glimpse of what he was listening to, and he was listening to “Too Cool.” I was like, “That’s a that’s an amazing song. Just finish your song and then put your AirPods away when it’s over.”

Kate: Right, and it’s only two minutes long. 

Jen: Yeah, I wasn’t pressed about it. But what’s so interesting to me about it is, I was thinking of the cross-generational appeal of the song. You know, he’s 16 years old, and a lot of people I know people who don’t necessarily listen to the same type of music that I do know that song. So I was wondering what you think the staying power of “Too Cool” is?

Kate: It’s catchy. And the themes, I feel, are enduring for people who are exploring their individuality and want to be unique and not have to bow down to societal norms. I think that is something that a lot of people identify with, that sort of I-just-wanna-be-me struggle, and proclaiming, “I just wanna be me,” whether it’s in their clothing or their hairstyle or their piercings or the friendships that they have, or their rock band or the music. But people are really trying to express their individuality, and I think that’s really the enduring theme of “Too Cool.”

Jen: Yeah, I definitely agree. I think off the bat, it’s just hooky, dancey rhythm that catches people.

Kate: It’s really everyone’s favorite rock beat. It’s sort of a garage-beat-meets-surfer-beat. It was one of the very first drum machines out there. And of course, I was using an Echoplex on everything all the time in that era, so it just ended up kind of a cool beat that had that echoey feel to it as well.

Jen: Yeah. And the themes in and of itself, I think, are important. I think a lot of people grow up not feeling cool when they’re in high school, and then after they graduate they find their scene and realize there’s other weirdos. But then… I feel like people think they have to conform to even scenes like an art scene, or something like that. And so I think that pushing back against the fact that you don’t need to conform when you are an outcast is something that people just really take to.

Kate: And from working in an arts high school myself, I felt like a lot of kids were struggling, because they tried to be, quote, “artists,” and then that was a conforming sort of name for them. You know, “I’ve gotta be an artist now.” And anyway, you know, there’s a lot of acting out of that, there’s a lot of trying to find yourself, that could sometimes make it even more difficult — finding your individuality when you’re going to school with people that are artists.

Jen: Yeah, yeah. And everyone’s trying so hard to be different that they end up sometimes being different in the same way.

Kate: Right. And they still have their cliques and their conformity. But “Too Cool” is really about nonconformity. That’s baseline, that’s the theme of it.

Jen: Yeah. When you talk about your clothes being “chemical,” your hair being “chemical,” I really like that line. I was wondering what you meant by that.

Kate: Well, not many people ask me about that part of it. They always ask me about what I was wearing at the time, and what Chicago was like during the early punk scene. But the “chemical” part of it is really people that rely on phoniness. Maybe it’s cosmetics, maybe drugs, maybe their material status symbols. I felt all that was being chemical, and it wasn’t being organic to who you really are as a person. And that’s just the way the lyric came out of me.

Jen: It’s a great line.

Kate: Thank you. I’m thinking about your book project, which I know it took you a few years to do it. It’s a wonderful read. But I’m wondering, did you have any revelations after talking to all those women and all those musicians during that era? Is there something that stuck out to you?

Jen: Yeah, I think something that really stuck out to me was how different artists reacted to being labeled as a woman, and the idea of feminism. There were a lot of artists who didn’t really necessarily want being a woman to be part of their biography as an artist. They just wanted to be considered an artist who was making music, making art, doing something that they believed in, and they didn’t necessarily want to be a “woman artist.” They didn’t want it to be a descriptor. But then there are other artists who really did — they thought it was really important to discuss feminist topics and to make it clear that they were a woman doing something that they were told they weren’t supposed to be doing as a woman.

Kate: Mhm. The “feminist” term always got kind of a bad rap from the very beginning. I think it was Phyllis Schlafly that was anti-feminist, and others followed in her wake that made that term something that bristled men. And women that were, say, homemakers felt like that term was invading their validity to be in more traditional roles. And for myself, I was always proclaiming that term because I felt it was, almost in a punk way, confrontational to say, “Yes, I am a feminist,” and to get a reaction from that. And to also make that as, “I’m establishing this ground, and I’m establishing that you have to deal with me as a person that wants equal rights.”

Jen: Yeah. I think it’s an interesting time. I mean, I wasn’t I wasn’t born yet, but historically it was between two waves of feminism. It was right after the second wave, before the third wave. And the third wave of feminism started with riot grrrl — a lot of accounts really tether the music scene in and of itself to the feminist movement.

Kate: You were talking about it before, this sort of terminology that we get stuck with — feminism is one term, and then of course punk rock was another term that kind of put women into a certain idea for men and for the public.

Jen: Yeah, punk was the first time that women were really allowed to work equally with men, creatively with men, and be taken seriously.

Kate: Right. And the umbrella term of it, punk meaning being subversive, I think was really a great jumping off place for a lot of women to get in your face, to get loud, to plug in a guitar, to stand in front of a microphone and really stand and deliver on their feelings, their sexuality, their emotions, their relationship to music itself. I believe that the women of punk really opened the door for women in music to step out in a way that they had not been able to.

Jen: Yeah, absolutely. Do you feel like when you were playing music in Chicago at the time, or wherever you were playing at the time, that men were taking you seriously? And was that something that changed throughout your career?

Kate: I thought men were taking me seriously. And interestingly enough, the men in my band had a lot of groupies and women that would come backstage. Very rarely did I have a man come backstage that was interested in maybe dating me or getting together with me. That was very, very rare. So my feeling was that they were taking me seriously then as a musician and as somebody that had something to say and not just a sexual object. I was always very happy that when I walked out into an audience afterwards that people really wanted to talk to me about, “What’s the meaning of that song, or the lyric of this song?” That made me feel really successful as an equal in music and in performance.

Jen: Yeah. Were there any women growing up that you saw doing this, or having this certain type of autonomy that you looked up to? Or do you think that was something you just kind of discovered within yourself?

Kate: Honestly, the first time I saw women that were really powerful, I think, was in the civil rights movement. Protest music was something that really affected me. My father was the director of the EEOC, and I was brought up with a lot of, you know, folk music and spiritual music that was a little bit controversial at the time, but was really talking about, “change is gonna come.” Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez — those were the kinds of people that my parents took me to see or they played in the house. So it might be Mahalia Jackson or Joan Baez that were the first women that I really saw as powerful in the music business.

Jen: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Speaking of punk, it’s—

Kate: Why did you use that term for your book? 

Jen: That’s exactly what I was going to say! I was gonna say: Something that’s been on my mind is that “women of punk” is this term that is used in the byline of my book, and I don’t necessarily know that it’s the best descriptor of all the artists in the book. It just so happens to be what I see now. It might not have been even 20 years ago, 30 years ago, an umbrella term, but now I see punk as an umbrella term that means “subversive” or is something that’s outside of the mainstream. It’s something that’s kicking against what’s normal or what’s popular. But I think at the time, the word punk meant something really specific, and I’m really interested on your take on that. Because the artists in the book are all sorts of, what I see as subgenres of punk — even new wave fits into punk.

Kate: I’m also interested in why you chose punk in your book title. It’s very interesting to me.

Jen: I definitely expect some criticism or pushback on that. I’ve gotten a lot of really nice reviews and praise for the book, but I have seen little comments about using the term punk. And I don’t know that there was another option to describe the artists in the book other than “rock,” and I don’t think “rock” does it. I just think that punk is a little more precise. But it’s impossible to be precise when you’re talking about 100 different artists, right?

Kate: But I think it is apropos when I’ve gone through and read the profiles that you’ve done. I think each woman had their own struggle that they were trying to express through a very unleashed kind of musical experience. And so I think that punk, in terms of all the women in your book, is maybe a shared experience there, in terms of being subversive, being in your face, being loud and really demanding attention in a way that men had gotten in the rock & roll world, but women were sort of relegated to the background vocals and standing in the back shaking their hands and feet to male music, and being the answer to their call. So if you think about music in terms of call-and-answer in rock & roll, and a lot of it started that way, these were women that were flipping that and they were doing the call. They weren’t doing the answer.

Jen: Yeah. So “women” is a limiting term, we just talked about that; “punk” is a limiting term — all words are limiting in some way. But saying, “women of subversive rock music,” you know, that’s just too many words, too many syllables to use in a byline. So the word “punk” is just… In a lot of ways, it’s just a defiant word. It means defiance. It’s like an attitude. And yeah, it wasn’t just a decision that I made. It was a decision that I made with the publisher.

Kate: Mhm.

Jen: I think it was the best decision. But I’m open to arguments against against the term. I know in Chicago, not every musician was considering them self punk. Did you consider yourself punk? Did you consider yourself new wave? I know you were in a ska band. You know, there’s all these different genre descriptors of the work you were doing at the time.

Kate: Right. I did consider myself punk, and when I joined the band BB Spin — the Reader, again — the Reader did an expose on us and called us in the headline, “the first punk band in Chicago.” So right from the beginning, I guess, I was getting that label. And it felt right for me actually, because it was a new genre, it was new energy, it had meaning to it that was more political. And it was more about equality than I thought other kinds of labels — I mean, another label that I’ve been called [is] “pop singer-songwriter,” but that never felt right to me. Punk always felt right to me.

Jen: I think the “pop” label with you is just because the songs are catchy.

Kate: With Heavy Manners too, my songwriting always had a strong chorus, and a strong hook. That’s just the way I write.

Jen: And people want to just use the word pop for that, you know? It means your songs are earworms. 

Kate: I think when I start writing, I start with the chorus, and that has a hook and a catchy lyric to it. That sort of becomes an aha moment to me, that I hear the hook and it goes with the lyric, and then I’m off to the races and writing something.

Jen: Yeah, that makes sense. I think another difference in the Chicago scene was that hair metal, big hair rock thing that dudes were doing that was a little different than the punk, the new wave.

Kate: It was. There was that Lincoln Avenue scene that was still sort of folky, and then there was a suburban scene that was very much a heavy metal guitar hair band scene. And we were a little urban scene of people that were dying their jeans black and hanging out in the clubs. And of course in Chicago, as you know, you can stay up ‘til 5 in the morning, or even later. So it was a very sort of late night enclave of people dancing to loud punk music, and we grew out of that. 

(Photo Credit: left, John von Dorn)

Kate Fagan — co-founder of the ska band Heavy Manners, and the frontwoman of the punk group BB Spin — took the Chicago punk rock scene by storm in the early ‘80s with her self-released single “I Don’t Wanna Be Too Cool. ” The song became the best-selling single ever by a local artist at the legendary Wax Trax! Records, and today, Captured Tracks is thrilled to present an expanded, re-mastered edition of I Don’t Wanna Be Too Cool as a full-length vinyl album, featuring four unreleased, ahead-of-their-time tracks.

(Photo Credit: John von Dorn)