Nora Singh, the Hit Bargain frontwoman and self-described “Gallagher of noise rock”, is ready to move on from “queening,” or trampling men’s faces, during the band’s live shows.
Her reasons for this decision are partly practical: It’s more difficult to find face-standing fetishists now that Craigslist’s Casual Encounters has been shut down. But they’re also political. Over the phone with AdHoc last month, she questioned the subversive potential of stepping on male fetishists’ faces. “Can you really say you’re smashing the patriarchy by playing into a man’s fantasy?”
If you’re the kind of person who actively tries to incite collisions between the expected and the unexpected in your art, you also tend to be the kind of person who resists being put in a box, which is exactly the kind of person Nora Singh is.
“In terms of the creative direction of (Hit Bargain), we’re entering into another phase,” Singh explained over the phone. This new phase is inspired by a series of changes that occurred in Singh’s life and in the world since Hit Bargain released its self-titled EP in 2016. For one, the American people elected a man to the highest office in the nation who, at best, has a notorious reputation when it comes to his treatment of women.
“We have a known sexual assaulter, a misogynist, someone who’s disrespectful of not only women, but trans people, people of color.”
Also, Singh gave birth to a child last fall, which Singhs says is “the most punk rock thing” she could do, simply because it’s such a curveball to what people expect from her.
But becoming a parent hasn’t blunted the kinetic political energy of Hit Bargain, whose new album Potential Maximizer, which was released May 11 on Buzz Records, features strident takedowns of xenophobia, sexism, and capitalism over taut electric guitar riffs. Singh spoke with AdHoc about the #MeToo moment, identifying as a New Yorker while living in LA, and what the media tends to get wrong about queer and non-binary people ahead of Hit Bargain’s show with PILL and Yvette at Alphaville on June 21.
AdHoc: What were you doing before you formed Hit Bargain?
Nora Singh: I used to be in a band called These Are Powers when I was in New York. We disbanded around 2010, 2011 or so. I moved to France in 2011. I had lived in New York from 2001 until 2011. I moved to France to marry our European tour manager, as you do. So I was in France until about 2014. Basically, I went for love and I stayed for the food.
We split, and I didn’t want to repeat myself, so I moved to LA in 2014 on April Fool’s Day. I lived in a house full of ex-New Yorkers and incidentally met [guitarist and vocalist] Mike [Barron], who had also just moved from New York. The whole band has, at one point or another, lived in New York. With the exception of Sean [Monaghan], our bass player, none of us knew one another before starting the band.
You recorded Potential Maximizer while you were six months pregnant. How do you think you’ve changed as an artist since becoming a mother?
NS: This tour that we’re going to do in June is going to be the first time that I’m away from my child. My child is almost eight months and will be about nine months when we go on tour. It’s going to be hard. Physically, I’m still breastfeeding. We put on really physical performances where I throw myself around and bounce on my knees. The last show I played when I was pregnant, I jumped off this drum, much to the delight of these high school girls that were in front of the stage. I was thinking, “Either this is super inspiring or this is like a PSA for birth control.” It was a little bit of both.
Having a kid, at this point, is the most punk thing I can do. I’ve been fortunate to have been playing music and traveling for 20 years now. And I’ve slept on my fair share of floors and couches, and weird situations where there are like bunk beds and a rabbit running around shitting everywhere.
The long and short of it is it’s not easy. There are days where I feel incredibly overwhelmed or tired or guilty because I’m not home. I’m running between work and school and band practice. But people have been doing this since forever.
I don’t identify so much as a mother as more of a unisex parent. Yes, I’m female-bodied and I do identify that way. At the same time, I feel apart from other mothers. I wish that I knew more people that were like me, and not just punk singers that have had children.
As someone whose work deals with sexual politics and gender, what’s your impression of the current cultural moment we’re living through right now?
NS: I want to back up to the election. We had planned this mini-tour right around the time of the election. My partner and I drove into Brooklyn on Election Day, and the band had its first rehearsal the night of the election. Then we did a mini East Coast tour that week that was really difficult. It ended with me going to the hospital.
The outcome of the election was obviously not the result we were expecting. And being in Brooklyn at that time, all the streets were empty and you saw all these people in bars standing motionless with their faces upturned watching televisions. It was a blanket of sadness that permeated the whole city. And then we went through all the stages of grief.
The next night, we were in Philly. There were basically protests in every city we were in following the election. So it was Philly and then Baltimore, and I don’t really remember everywhere we went. But by the time we made the loop back to Brooklyn, people had come out of hiding. They were angry and ready to do something about it. We had this incredibly cathartic show. I got a tattoo while we were onstage; it was like a ritualistic bloodletting. There was a femme mosh pit. It was great. But the next night, I went to the hospital. And I think (the election) was part of it.
I think — and we’ve had conversations in the band about this, which has been great for processing — that we have a known misogynist [in office], someone who’s disrespectful of not only women, but trans people, people of color. And I think the #MeToo movement is part of this collective bargaining our country is having. We’re hoping it’s going to have this trickle-up effect. Ultimately, [Trump] is the prize that we want to bag. And if we can get these other guys, it will illuminate the way to get the guy that we really want.
When it comes to the #MeToo movement, I don’t think it’s over. Cosby’s been prosecuted, so what about all these other guys in entertainment and publishing and the art world and politics? Why aren’t these guys being prosecuted as well? So I think the conversation is just starting.
How do you think your local DIY community is doing when it comes to addressing sexual assault?
NS: There’s an effort right now in LA in the DIY community to focus on not just safe spaces, but having these conversations. It’s still pretty loose, but people are putting effort into this and organizing and having these conversations. Personally, I’m interested in what happens after [people name their accusers]. And I’m hoping this new effort by some people to form a coalition will have productive things come out of it. Maybe that means workshops or zines or information that can be passed around. I think it’s important for people to learn from their peers.
I don’t think that the conversation can stop at “all straight, white, cis men are bad.” So what comes after that? What is the solution? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s my job as an artist to solve all these problems. But I think ultimately, it’s about context and having some sort of dialogue. That’s what I’m doing.
Let’s talk about “queening.” You can’t read a profile of your band without a mention of it.
It’s good marketing, right? [Laughs.]
What’s the significance behind that artistic choice?
Visually, it’s easy. It’s a funny bit; it’s an easy gag. It’s the immediacy of this very visceral thing that’s happening in front of you, which is a very private fetish performance or fetish scene between two people that’s been made public.
Generally, fetishists are very private people or they have dedicated fetish spaces to explore, whether it’s online or a dungeon or a play party. It’s consensual, and sometimes it’s heavily scripted. There’s a lot of negotiation that takes place beforehand. I’m taking that element out of that context and then throwing it into a live situation where anything can happen, and then taking those elements and putting them into a DIY space or a proper venue, and having all these different worlds collide.
But it’s problematic. How subversive is it? Can you really say you’re smashing the patriarchy by playing into a man’s fantasy? It’s multilayered and it’s funny and it’s fun. I like to joke that I’m the Gallagher of noise rock because I really love props, which also can include people. I always have some sort of prop element with me onstage. It’s how I engage.
But do I want to do that now? Probably not. It’s this thing that people expect at performances. I’ll talk to people beforehand and they’ll be like, “I can’t wait to see you trample a guy.” Sometimes I know what I’m going to do ahead of time, and sometimes I don’t.
Going back to your earlier questions, it’s something that I feel less inclined to engage with now that I’m a parent. I feel simultaneously more vulnerable and stronger now, as well as more private and less willing to engage with the idea of this dangerous element or the unknown.
I didn’t know exactly how to find these people. I was going on these online forums and also Craigslist, and that’s not even a reality now. I can’t get on Casual Encounters and find somebody that wants to do this anymore. This is something that’s affecting friends of mine who are sex workers or engaged in some sort of erotic thing for work.
In terms of the creative direction of this project, we’re entering into another phase.
What do you view as the fundamental responsibility of an artist?
The fundamental responsibility of an artist is to recontextualize. It’s to ask questions. It’s to pull elements from different sources and re-stitch them together. It’s to try to shake things up in any way that they can.