Riot Grrrl’s Next Wave?
White Lung Might Be Its New Vessel
One of the loudest bands in contemporary punk, White Lung is also one of its most outspokenly feminist. And it’s probably the only one boasting that powerful combination that’s getting as much admiration from the underground rock ‘n’ roll as it is high-profile media.
The formerly Vancouver-based (and now spread around the northwest sector of the continent) group is currently touring their third effort, Deep Fantasy. It’s as brutally punk as the preceding albums and singles; the ravenous riffs of Kenneth William, who also recorded the bass parts this go ’round, ensure its assaulting ferocity. And while the players are obviously essential parts of White Lung’s triumph, it’s inarguable that the voice of their commanding leader, Mish Way, propels the project into singularity. There’s really nobody else doing what White Lung is doing right now.
“Growing up, the writers and the lyricists that I admired and that I listened to were really straightforward and confident people, but also were vulnerable, and admitted a lot of things about themselves and gave a lot of themselves to the story,” Way says, “which really made me feel closer to the story and made you feel more connected to the story. And that’s just how I learned how to write; those are the people that I admired. So it made sense that I would kind of take on that tactic. I didn’t really know how to do it any other way, you know?”
Some of those writers – Courtney Love, for one – are due credit for shaping Way’s songwriting. Bands like L7 and Babes in Toyland, too. She clearly culls influence from the riot grrrl era, but it’s more than that. By bringing those ideals back into the mainstream, she’s basically spearheading its second wave. Sure, Beyonce and Taylor Swift are now publicly pledging allegiance to feminism. That’s great, honestly.
But there’s a steadfast feminism unabashedly running throughout the material, and it’s not just about understanding that the term is about more than female empowerment but, rather, equality for everyone. Though it all exists under that greater umbrella, some of this new rebranding of feminism unfortunately overlooks the importance of discussing things like rape, power inequality and body shame – all of which are covered on Deep Fantasy, and were very much part of the dialog of many riot grrrl bands.
There’s one snag in this claim, though. It’s actually hard to decipher even the more drawn-out phrases between Way’s quick-hitting screeches, though. So where are we even getting this idea about White Lung’s politics?
Part of our presumptions lie in Way’s assertiveness, and that’s somewhat problematic. Why must a female-fronted punk band necessarily be associated with feminism? Can’t a girl shout and scream for the sake of it? Well, someone else could, but not Way. Her ideals are pretty much ingrained, and were solidified indefinitely during college.
“I actually started in the creative writing program, then I took a feminist philosophy course at the end of my first year and I was like, ‘Oh, never mind, this is it,’” she says. “You know, I’d always been a feminist, I think, but I’d never had the literature to back it up. I’d never been in the academic side of it. And once I was, I realized that’s exactly where I wanted to get my education.”
Maybe the last thing you’d think a punk musician would say is “I miss school,” but Way admits it openly with zero prompting. Around 2006, as she was completing her Gender Studies and Communication programs, is when White Lung began to take legitimate form – and her newfound freelance writing career, too.
“They kind of came up at the same time,” Way says. “I started playing in bands at the end of high school – not any serious bands until I started White Lung. And writing had always been a part of my life but again I didn’t get published until I was maybe in university or had just finished university. They kind of started to really become real things around the same time, and I think they benefited each other.”
It was out of necessity, really, that Way began writing professionally.
“The reason I tried to pursue writing as a career was because I knew I always wanted to tour and be in a band but I never expected to make money or make a real career out of it, which is something I knew I had to do because I love doing it so much. Freelance writing seemed like a great way to work while I was on the road busting my ass instead of coming home and having to waitress or do some job that I hated. That’s kind of why I decided to do that,” she says.
And tour incessantly is exactly what she and her White Lung comrades have been doing since then. Her plan is working pretty flawlessly; despite the relentless upkeep required of an on-the-rise band, Way finds time to spill her guts and beliefs in outlets like Vice, Rookie and Salon. In particular, she writes about sex – from a feminist angle, of course.
Just last month she reviewed a newfangled lube dosed with THC, a product which I’d read a similar story about in a different publication a few weeks before. Upon discovering I liked the blog, I clicked “like” so I could get updates from their Facebook page. But it was late, and I was tired, and I inadvertently clicked “like” on the story, not the blog – and so began a frantic effort to delete its appearance on my activity log for fear that my parents might see what I’d been reading. I had to ask, then: How does she write so candidly about themes most find to be private and shame-inducing?
“When I was in my early 20s and started writing, this writer that I really admire gave me the best advice ever: If you want to be successful before the age of 25, you have to live like you don’t have parents. And, so, that’s what I did,” Way says. “My parents know not to read an article that starts off with a blow job. They’re not going to read past that. They won’t. They read some things and not others, you know? I’ve always been really open and I come from an open family, and it’s not a big deal. But, yeah, they don’t read that kind of stuff. “
Essentially, Way’s personal life is her onstage persona is what she bares in journalism. There’s no telling apart one from the other in terms of core sentiment. Even a personal-experience essay about her time with a cuckold fetishist (had to look that one up) is intrinsically linked to any White Lung number – not by content, necessarily, but by self-assuredness and shamelessness.
Way’s MO considered, it’s almost insane how much sense it makes that Bay Area musician Hether Fortune of Wax Idols joined her crew last year. Like Way, Fortune is weary of and generally rejects the culturally created norms for women. (I found that out firsthand a few years ago when writing a story on her band for this very publication.) It’s not just that, of course. They’re both music-making powerhouses, obviously.
“I met her probably three or four years ago at a park in Oakland through our friend Seth who does that band Hunx and His Punx. And he was like, ‘Alright, you guys are going to be best friends or you’re going to hate each other,’ and luckily it was not the second one,” Way recalls. “And then we always kept in touch and then our bands went on tour together – Wax Idols came on tour with White Lung, it was really fun.”
The two maintained a friendship after that, and when Way decided to oust their bassist and a tour was imminent, Hether Fortune promptly stepped in as a replacement. Now, as of late last year, Way, a Vancouver native, is living with Fortune in Los Angeles.
“I’m on the top floor and she’s on the bottom, so we have a lot of space still,” she says. “We get on each other a lot but we are also both pretty good at…we’ve gotten to know each other so closely and so intimately from touring and then living together and we moved down here around the same time, so we have a kind of sister relationship.”
Unsurprisingly, Way doesn’t hesitate to explain, at least generally, what happened with former bassist Grady Mackintosh.
“I think she was very unhappy, and we were not so happy. It’s just like a personality thing, and at a certain point, if everyone’s not getting along then there’s no way you’re able to write music. If you don’t enjoy being around someone, you can’t be creative with them,” Way notes. “It just wasn’t working anymore, and it sucks that it happened, but it should have happened long before then. We were just touring too much to have that happen. Just not getting along…it comes to a breaking point. You’re like, ‘Well, I can’t even be in the same room as each other really.’ You know, we’re not being paid billions of dollars here – there’s no point in being miserable. It doesn’t make sense. It’s supposed to be fun, not torture hell.”
Way apparently puts emphasis on White Lung being enjoyable for herself and the rest of the group, but her writing for the group is decidedly serious. It’s a bit perplexing trying to pinpoint why, seemingly just in the last year or two, mainstream media like Rolling Stone are championing a band touting such potentially contentious politics. Maybe it’s because of the new crop of pop stars now acting as spokeswomen for feminism. It could be a result of the garage and punk resurgence and its increasingly widespread popularity.
Any number of factors could be part of the reason White Lung is seeing success that’s not only qualified by media coverage, but also by packed shows in bigger-and-bigger venues and a social media following nearing the 20K mark. I’d like to think, however, that it’s because of the values Way stands for and the skills she and her band have honed – and that society and music consumers are finally remembering how to respond appropriately to both, the way they briefly did in the ’90s.
Photo by Piper Ferguson.