Drummer Susie Leni and singer Aimee Belden of the punk band Quaaludes sat in a cramped practice space above the storied gay bar Aunt Charlie's in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. As the sounds of another band's rehearsal drifted in from down the hall, the bandmates cracked open beer cans and passed around a bag of cherry tomatoes, which Leni had brought from the farmers' market.
Belden offered me a button that she had made with a photo of a desecrated doll head on it, similar to the ones pinned to her and Leni's shirts. As I stuck it through the fabric of my jacket, Quaaludes' guitarist, Morgan Liggera, entered the room carrying a skateboard with the words "Too Many Dudes" scrawled on it in thick, black letters. Belden was wearing a tattered T-shirt that said "Spank Patriarchy." The bandmates exchanged remarks of approval. "[The band] Other Jesus from Vancouver played here and had this shirt," Belden said, turning to me. "I cut it in some weird ways. I was looking on YouTube, 'Interesting styles for punk,'" she added, laughing sarcastically.
Belden, Liggera, and Leni have been penning punchy, high-energy feminist anthems as Quaaludes for the past three years. They brought on bassist Courtney Dragge to join the band in 2013. The four-piece is a regular fixture of the underground house show circuit in San Francisco and the East Bay. Lately, it has performed in Oakland with increasing frequency as San Francisco's DIY venues and punk houses shutter amid skyrocketing rents and property values. The members of Quaaludes lamented that they're among the city's few young punk bands still hanging on.
Quaaludes' last EP, 2014's Nothing New, features short, intense spurts of relentless guitar riffs and confrontational lyrics that deal with street harassment, consent, and gender violence. While the band's upbeat rhythm section lends a pop sensibility to the music, Belden's histrionic singing style — with its guttural adlibs and bursts of high-pitched, maniacal laughter — conveys the vocalist's unbridled rage.
Describing Quaaludes' songwriting process, Belden said, "We'll get to practice and hang out for a few minutes and we'll be talking about random shit that's in our day — like, Morgan will be talking about X-Files or random misogyny — and I'll put that in a song."
The band members exchanged knowing glances and shared several anecdotes about men assaulting them at punk shows or aggressively staring them down on public transit. Liggera recalled a recent incident in which a man berated her at a concert after he pushed her repeatedly and she asserted her personal space. Belden replied with her own tale of another man hassling her when she went to a bar by herself — a scenario that has become fodder for a track Quaaludes is currently working on.
"Aimee has a really good side-eye," said Leni, directing her attention to Belden. "You should do that Muni face that you do sometimes." Belden immediately got into character and pretended to catch the eye of a leering stranger on the bus. She looked down and let out a deep huff filled with supreme disgust and disappointment. "Hopefully they see me doing that and feel embarrassed and never look at me again," she said.
Quaaludes has released several EPs on vinyl, but its current live set consists of mostly unpublished material. Last winter, the band laid down tracks for a seven-inch record that the Oregon punk label Jonny Cat Records was supposed to put out earlier this year. However, the label delayed its release date and hasn't confirmed a new one.
The fact that the project is still floating in limbo doesn't seem to bother the members of Quaaludes, who have been busy writing new tracks to incorporate into their performances. Later this month, they will embark on a West Coast tour. The bandmembers agreed that they prefer that fans experience their music through their live shows than through other formats. The four musicians frequently attend other bands' concerts themselves, and looking up people's music online — or uploading their own tracks to Bandcamp — seems to be an afterthought.
Though they often play at bars and clubs, such as Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco and the Night Light in Oakland's Jack London district, Leni, Liggera, and Belden agreed that they enjoy performing in DIY spaces more than traditional venues because it affords them more control over their environment. Some club-goers, they said, think being punk gives them license to disrespect the people around them, and they explained that they tend to encounter entitled behavior at venues more frequently than at house shows. "House shows feel more personal, like someone intentionally created the space," Liggera explained. "Instead of just like, 'We're at this bar and there's already a crowd of people here that might be weird.'"
Using its stage presence to set the tone for safe and inclusive environments at its shows is one of the ways Quaaludes pushes back against instances of day-to-day sexism. While the bandmates said that they encourage audience participation, they concurred that those who wish to mosh aggressively shouldn't take up so much space that they put people, especially women, in the way of harm.
Belden said that her new strategy has been to call out disrespectful behavior on the mic instead of waiting to discuss it after it happens. "It sucks that at punk shows women have to hang out in the back because they don't wanna be hurt," she said.
"I like people participating and showing that they're having a good time," added Leni. "But there's a line, and sometimes they're lacking self-awareness and blame that lack of self-awareness on that people around them are uptight or not punk."