Cazz Blase speaks to DIY icon Karren Ablaze! about her illustrious career as riot grrrl extraordinaire and fanzine pioneer
Woman of action, fanzine writer, grrrl about Leeds, musician and singer: Karren Ablaze! has worn a number of creative hats over the past thirty years. Between 1984 and 2001 she was always guaranteed to be creatively busy, whether with her fanzine Ablaze!, with her two bands, Coping Saw and Wack Cat, or by directly participating in two waves of riot grrrl in Leeds. But after 2001? Silence.
Despite the Ladyfest movement satisfying the feminist needs of many girls too young for riot grrrl, it seemed that many prominent riot grrrls had simply disappeared from the UK DIY underground music and fanzine scene by the turn of the century. Huggy Bear split up in late 1994, followed by Mambo Taxi, and the Voodoo Queens in 1995. Linus lost their record label and, while they managed to hang on for a couple more years, having to swim against the prevailing, all conquering tide of Britpop became increasingly impossible to bear. Similarly, the Leeds and Bradford Riot Grrrls went their separate ways. While there were riot grrrl meetings in Leeds in 1998, which featured a mix of original and newly interested grrrls, this soon petered out. In 2000, Slampt Underground Organisation, which had done so much to foster a sense of community in Newcastle and the North East, also called it a day.
There are a number of possible explanations as to why this happened. Britpop, Loaded magazine and the birth of the Lad Mag, helped drive a nail into the riot grrrl coffin, because they represented a return to business as usual for the music press and popular culture and, arguably, a conscious reversal in the progress made on gender issues and women. There are many reasons why women disengaged with riot grrrl or disappeared, and many of the reasons are personal, private, and largely unexplored. It could be something as mundane as a grrrl gang breaking up as they transitioned from A-Levels to university, finding themselves geographically scattered. This happened with the writers of Manchester’s only riot grrrl fanzine, Grrrl’s World. It could be sheer exhaustion and burnout, as it was with some of the bands, or it could be more complicated.
In Karren’s case, there were moments after 2001 when a return to the subcultural fore seemed possible, such as when the post-Ladyfest collective Manifesta launched in Leeds and Karren was spotted at meetings. There was also 2012’s compendium of Ablaze! The City Is Ablaze!, but these moments seemed to occur in isolation.
Then, in November 2015, Karren appeared, alongside Julia Downes, as a speaker at Manchester’s music genre literary festival, Louder Than Words. It was official: Karren Ablaze! was back.
Our interview took place in early December, by phone. It was a mere few weeks since Karren had launched issue 11 of Ablaze! at Louder Than Words. What, I ask, had taken her so long?
She laughs. “When I actually decided I was gonna do it, it only took me three months or something to get it together. But, yeah the 22 and a half years… I’d meant to do it.” It seems life got in the way.
“Ablaze! 10 came out in 1993, and I thought I was gonna do it [Ablaze! 11] in ’94, but I went to work for Southern Records for a bit and after that I was doing riot grrrl stuff.”
She moved back to Leeds, becoming one of the Leeds and Bradford riot grrrls, and formed her first band, Coping Saw. Wack Cat, her second band, followed in 1998. Other factors then came into play: “My health was totally going downhill, so in the end, I had to give up the bands. And…then my life totally changed, and I ended up living in a Buddhist centre.”
Later, Karren, “remembered I was a writer, but started doing things like copywriting and trying to have a career and stuff. That didn’t work. And then I had the idea to do the book The City Is Ablaze! And suddenly everybody went ‘Yeah! Yeah! Do that!’ And I realised that that’s what people had been wanting me to do.”
Although it took another three years, Ablaze! 11 was becoming a possibility.
The first band Karren interviewed for issue 11 was Sleaford Mods, back in May 2015. “I think it was the ninth or tenth of May. I was completely taken by surprise and completely horrified by the General Election result in the UK. But I was in Spain and kind of isolated politically because I was devastated – I was really, really upset – and my Spanish friends were just like ‘Well, join the club, we’ve already got a Conservative government’ and it was like ‘No, you don’t know how bad this is for the UK’ and they’re like ‘We know how bad it is’.”
Sleaford Mods, who were performing at a Spanish literary festival just after the UK election, served as agents for the catharsis and discussion that Karren badly needed.
“If you’re angry, I cannot think of a better band to see!” She laughs. “I don’t always want to listen to them, but there’s times when you need them, you need a band like that.”
The festival proved to be the perfect opportunity: “I was friends with the person who was looking after them on that day. And so I kind of pestered him, and he said ‘Yeah, sure, you can interview them.’ So [I] managed to drag Jason away after the show and just talk and talk about what had happened and what it meant. And he was just the perfect person to talk to about it, because he cares so, so, so much. And that was the perfect start of the fanzine.”
The Sleaford Mods interview became the central feature of the issue, and Karren found herself returning to the theme of anti-austerity as she continued to create the fanzine. She found that she kept “coming back to the question of how do we get through this horrible situation. And, as you know, there’s an article about DIY vs Austerity vs Tories. So, like, practical, community based stuff like how to keep ourselves sane through creativity.”
Another big theme for Ablaze! 11 is, “female artists. There’s just so many female artists that I wanted to celebrate, and I think the main person for me, the main feature for me, was the one with Katie Harkin from Sky Larkin. She’s been playing with Sleater-Kinney, and I’d just discovered, much too late, Sky Larkin’s material, and completely fell in love with them, and basically just spent months”, she laughs, “writing about Sky Larkin”.
Other contributors, “brought other female artists in like Slum of Legs, Peaches”, and at the very last minute, “We got this Kate Nash interview”.
Karren explains: “I had actually started writing it [Ablaze! 11] seven years previously and it was totally rooted in stuff to do with Kate Nash, actually!” She laughs. “Yeah, at the time, she was really influencing me…so it was really strange that we went back to her and that Clara [Heathcock, writer and sub-editor on Ablaze! 11] had been listening to her more recently and I’d missed some of her stuff, and between us we just loved everything that she did. And, [we] ended up collaborating on this interview and writing two features that run parallel to each other. That happened just at the last minute, so it was all really magical.”
Karren was first drawn to Kate Nash by the single, ‘Caroline’s a Victim’.
“She’s always had this DIY theme running through. Well, sometimes she’s done really, really über commercial stuff, but she’s done a lot of home recorded stuff, and that first track was kind of like experimental, electro-y…stuff like that. It kind of blew my mind at the time, and it still does. I got Made of Bricks and I just fell in love with the pop songs. But I think what really affected me more was her ability to express vulnerability? And that meant loads to me. ‘Cos I was like really, really ill at the time. You know, I could hardly do anything but, you know, she was singing about having that vulnerability and that being OK.”
As for the Kate Nash and riot grrrl connection: “It was there. I don’t know if it was there explicitly, if it was there with the first album, but it was there with the second album, and definitely in the third album. People have imposed a sense of polarity on her, as if she just started out really commercial and then went DIY, and it’s not [the case] – it’s actually all mixed up and she had all those elements all along and was just pulling out different ones at different times.”
Karren talks more about Ablaze! 11 as a whole: “I feel that the fanzine is a kind of feminist trojan horse because it’s got Sleaford Mods on the cover, and that’s for various reasons, some of them being commercial. So, I think it’s a magazine that boys will feel comfortable picking up and buying – they’re not gonna feel frightened by it. If they were feeling a bit fragile in their masculinity or anything, then they won’t, with Jason being on the front cover. But, then once they get inside it”, she laughs, “you get overwhelmed by amazing female artists and, obviously, the feminist theme is made explicit as well ‘cos we’ve got a piece about riot grrrl and spirituality.”
There is, also, a third theme in Ablaze! 11. “But it’s kind of like a secret theme, you maybe get to it at the end. I made it explicit at the end but I won’t say what it is ‘cos it’s maybe like the kind of deepest and most important one.”
Ablaze! has gone through a number of technical production and layout changes over the years. I ask Karren if the production side of her work is as important to her as the actual writing.
“I think with Ablaze! it is, definitely.” For a long time, Ablaze! was a one-woman operation, “and it was the cutting and pasting of it, and the selection of things that I used to throw into the mix with the design.” She adds: “I don’t know if it was as important as the words, but it was really important.” Issue 10, published in 1993, was one of the first UK fanzines to make use of DTP (Desk Top Publishing) software. “We had a designer working with us, which was more difficult for me because I couldn’t be as hands on. For this one, [issue 11] I went and spent time with this designer Edu Mató in Barcelona and I spent time over there at his place in Barcelona working on it with him. And I think, in the future, I’m gonna learn InDesign so that I can collaborate more easily.”
Issue 10 was published by, “A lady called Andrea. I don’t even know where she is. I’d like to track her down and say thank you ‘cos that was amazing for us to have everything in straight lines – that had never happened before. I think people assumed the Ablaze! aesthetic was messy on purpose, but it wasn’t. I was actually trying really hard to be neat. You just can’t tell!” she laughs.
I ask Karren about the fanzine scene today: “I don’t really know how to survey what’s going on with fanzines now. I don’t really know what other people are doing.” She adds “[I] hear there’s a bit of a resurgence in paper fanzines in America and stuff, but I’ve not seen them.”
We talk about fanzine conventions and fanzine libraries. “The big thing that I noticed about that kind of fanzine scene is that it seems quite, kind of, like, closed. Like, it’s just in those particular spaces, and you have to go to those spaces to find fanzines. Whereas in the 1980s, fanzines were out at gigs, people would just approach you and sell you fanzines, and that’s something that I always loved so much and I still do it now. Whenever I make a fanzine, I get out there…and get in people’s faces and sell it to them. But the really strange thing is, with all the time that’s elapsed, there are people that weren’t born possibly”, she laughs, “when, you know, last time I was doing that. And they get really confused, like, I’ve been asked, ‘What is it?’, ‘Who are you?’, ‘Are you authorised to sell it?’ and ‘Where does the money go to?’ I had to learn to say to people: ‘This is a fanzine, I made it, I’m not authorised to sell it, and all the money goes to me’.”
I ask Karren if they accepted this. “Then they were happy”, she laughs, “then they paid for it.”
The presence of fanzines at gigs, “seemed to die out somewhere along the way in the ‘90s”, says Karren. Despite this, she is hopeful when it comes to selling Ablaze! 11 on a face-to-face basis.
“People now have the concept of pop-up shops, ‘cos that’s exactly what a fanzine person is, with a bag of fanzines. If there’s any kind of issue, you can hide them in a second, you can just shove them back in your bag and, you know, lose yourself in a crowd. I’ve never had any issues with that, and I kind of doubt that I would now, you know. I think it’s pretty innocuous.”
Fanzines being sold at gigs is, “Something I’d like to see come back. This is a little bit frustrating for me because I live in this tiny fishing village in southern Spain – I can’t get out there at the moment. If I could get to gigs and sell the fanzines…I just know you’d meet so many people that way and strike up these friendships. You know, a lot of the friendships I have, long term friendships, have come from that. Really influential people in my life are people that I’ve met randomly in venues because I’ve just wandered up to them and started talking to them.”
“It’s a really exciting thing to do, it’s worthwhile. I made this fanzine about ATP [All Tomorrow’s Parties], and I went to one of the ATP festivals with it.” She explains: “You show somebody the fanzine and you start a conversation, and you end up sitting down, having a drink with them, and then the next person, and the next person… these people that you might not – you wouldn’t be able to – go and talk to otherwise. So, it’s actually really radical and powerful.”
We talk about the impact of the internet and I pose a question to Karren that a couple of people have asked me: Would riot grrrl have manifested itself differently if the internet had really kicked off by then?
Karren’s response was much the same as mine had been: “I don’t know. It’s one of those impossible questions. I don’t see why not. But, I guess maybe what we don’t know…did the internet…somehow loosen the bonds of DIY and the power of DIY and make people more separate from each other? I don’t know.”
I ask Karren whether she thought people interact more often virtually today than on a face-to-face basis and whether this is a good or a bad thing. “That kind of depends on your circumstances, like, I know what it’s like being ill and not being able to go out, so, it [the internet] saved my life. And, living where I live now, there’s literally nobody – there’s me and my partner – and there’s nobody that’s into the same stuff as us. We are the only weirdos in the village. We don’t have friends, we just don’t. First of all, we thought there was something wrong with us, then we realised there’s just not enough people in the village – people who get where we’re coming from. So, you know, for me, everything’s pretty much online – my work, a lot of my social interaction…”
Karren continues: “I kind of have to wait a lot of the time ’til I come back to the UK and have these really life giving conversations with female friends. [It] seems to be at the moment that that really, really sustains me and really kind of changes things for me. Maybe it’s because it’s so rare that when I get the chance to talk to one of my female friends, it’s just like all this amazing stuff happens. But, yeah, dunno…[it’s] kind of unthinkable being here without being able to easily talk to people online.”
Ablaze! 11 is published by Mittens On Publishing, the publishing house Karren founded in 2012 in order to publish her first book, The City Is Ablaze! Karren explains: “The City Is Ablaze! is a compilation of zines I did over a 10 year period from the mid ‘80s, including the first 10 issues of Ablaze! I should have subtitled it ‘the art of upsetting pop stars’ ‘cos that’s what I inadvertently did – from the bizarre letter from Morrissey in 1984 to pissing off Ian Brown and Kathleen Hanna, and the Sonic Youth controversy that closes the book. There’s also a lot of articles and interviews with and by other zine writers and scene-makers from the time, pieces about riot grrrl and more contemporary stuff, like a piece by Gary Jarman of The Cribs on how a back issue of Ablaze! inspired him to form a band.”
“I spoke to one publisher”, explains Karren, when discussing The City Is Ablaze!, “and they were really enthusiastic and asked me to send more information. But, I suddenly realised that no way did I want to let go of it and I actually really wanted to do it myself – like really wanted to be involved with all of the production and the logistics and everything – and that I just dearly wanted to publish it myself like I used to do with my fanzine.”
Having established a publishing company, Mittens On, to achieve this, “I thought: ‘I’m gonna have to put out more books.’”
Mark Burgess’ autobiography View From A Hill followed, and other books are planned for 2016 and beyond.
“It’s all going to be on different imprints now”, Karren explains, “Mittens On for music, Serendipity Books for Mind, Body, Spirit and I’m thinking Make Believe Reality for the fiction books.”
“The Carrot Cure, which is about my 16 years of illness with rheumatoid arthritis and how I got better will be the first of the Mind, Body, Spirit books on the Serendipity Books imprint.” This will be published in summer 2016. Also planned for release at this time will be a fanzine/journal Witches!, which focuses on DIY health. “I want people to know that when you’re told you have something incurable, it’s worth considering that what they tell you could be completely wrong,” Karren says. “There are articles by people who have struggled with illness and overcome them, from masters in healing and people who are just starting to pick up the threads of natural healing and what it means to be powerful.”
Another Mind, Body, Spirit book for 2016 is Three Minus One by Sean Hanish and Brooke Warner, a collection of parents’ stories of love and loss. “A quarter of all women [who become pregnant] are affected by baby loss, whether this is miscarriage, still birth or death in the first month of life,” says Karren. But it is a subject rarely discussed. As such, the book aims to “break the taboo and assist people in healing”.
As to future Mittens On publications, Karren and Julia Downes have recently confirmed that they intend to write the history of UK Riot Grrrl. Karren concedes that this is in the most preliminary of stages, but “might come out in 2017”.
Karren is also planning a novel, the working title of which is Revolution on the Rock. Rooted in the fallout from the Franco government’s policies towards Gibraltar, the novel focuses on the theme of toxic pollution.
All the Mittens On, Serendipity Books, and Make Believe Reality publications can be purchased from the Mittens On website, as well as at a range of independent shops. For those buying from the website, Karen adds, “there is an option for unwaged/low waged people. I love having an ‘80s style concession!”
Karren tentatively notes that Ablaze! 12, “might happen at the end of 2016”, but, perhaps understandably, is reluctant to give a solid deadline for this. Karren does reveal that issue 12 will feature Joanna Newsom, writer Scarlet Thomas and Hysterical Injury/Annie Gardiner. Upon release, I, for one, will be first in line.
Image one is the front cover of Ablaze! 11. To the left of the page, is an picture of Jason Williamson from Sleaford Mods and, to the right, there is a list of the featured artists in the magazine, such as Viv Albertine and Kate Nash.
Image two is an excerpt from Ablaze! 11. It’s a pink page with the word ‘Peaches’ written across the top in black letters. There is an illustration of Peaches [the musician] below the heading, followed by text which fills the remainder of the page.
Image three is another excerpt from Ablaze! 11. The heading reads, “11 Reasons Why Kate Nash Is a Revolutionary”. The main body of the page is text, accompanied by an image of a blonde Kate Nash wearing sunglasses and fishnet tights.
Image four is another excerpt from Ablaze! 11. It’s a turquoise page with the heading, “Riot Grrrl, Spirituality and Creativity”. There’s an illustration of a woman wearing sunglasses putting two middle fingers up.
Image five is another excerpt from Ablaze! 11. It features a black and white illustration of a woman’s face, close-up, and lots of text.