Merilou Salazar and Jessie Meehan are the women behind WASI, a group that has been redefining activism and attempting to give a voice to those who’ve been denied the right since they formed 11 years ago. People often say that history has a habit of repeating itself, and one could easily make the case that WASI resembles a new riot grrrl movement: addressing similar themes and working to smash the same patriarchy — but with catchier songs. WASI’s music is deeply personal, yet danceable to the point of getting even the most determined, shy wallflower bouncing around at a show. Even if you may not like their music, you can’t help but fall in love with Merilou and Jessie, and their deeply rooted political message.
We decided to sit down with Merilou and Jessie to learn what WASI is all about.
So what’s it like to go to one of your shows?
M: We really try to break the barrier between audience and performer – at our shows, we try to completely eliminate it and make your experience more like being in a room with friends at a party.
J: Are you familiar with Matt & Kim at all?
J: Okay — we’re very much like that live. Just completely all over the stage, crazy, running around, energetic, bouncy. Other people that attend our shows have said stuff like, “I’m not typically the type of person to dance, but when I come to your show I have the urge to dance and move around, I need to bounce!” I think that perfectly describes what our vibe is live — balloons, cowbells, and megaphones included!
We’ve seen the idea of a safe space becoming more prevalent in regard to shows, in terms of an emotional space where everyone feels welcome and included, and also a physical one. What does the idea of a safe space mean to WASI and how does it play out in your shows?
M: I was literally going to say “a safe space” in the last question! Emotionally, we really strive for that; I’ve been to shows where I’m too small to mosh and just not able to be a part of that community, and we really try to create a whole new kind of community where people can just feel safe by one, being themselves, and two, showing themselves out to the world – letting it all out. We both came from upbringings where we couldn’t be ourselves 100%, being gay and living in the super conservative Orange County. For me, I’m a first generation immigrant, so I think being gay and doing music, and then having a cultural difference with my family, always prevented me from being myself. We really strive to create that emotional safe space at our shows, and physically. It’s so tragic, the things that have been going on.
J: That’s the thing. With Ariana Grande and Ghost Ship, those people were powerless to some situation… at the very least, with us, there could be someone that runs in with a gun and you just don’t know, but at least while you’re here for this moment, you’re going to forget about all those fears and anxieties externally, and in this moment we’re going to share this experience together, and just let go and have a good time and forget about the rest of the world.
M: Creating spaces that are safe on all terms is important in keeping positive activity going, especially in this time. We were on tour in Portland the day after the election and we played to a queer homeless youth center – there were about 30 queer homeless kids in a small basement bunker, and right above us was a Neo-Nazi rally. It was the most emotional 30 minutes, being in this community and connecting through these songs, and then knowing that they have to go back and sleep outside, where it’s a completely unsafe space and they have no choice. I think that moment helped define what we do as a band.
After the election, I remember thinking “maybe we’ll at least get some good music out of this.” Do you think the recent political election affected your music or your message?
J: Definitely. All of the issues that are going on right now have always been there, but now certain people have a platform with a piece of shit leading the country that makes them feel justified in the way they feel, and they feel empowered to be vocal about it. Our lyrics have always been about being an underdog, being a woman in the music business, being bullied – all of our lyrics are about that kind of stuff. I think even more now, instead of just musically being involved, we try to also be physically involved. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to high school kids, which was awesome – I loved it! In a couple of weeks we’re going back to Girls Rock Camp to volunteer. We get to coach these young girls on how to play instruments, how to be in bands – there’s also a lot of social justice and feminist workshops. By teaching them at a really young age, they learn like, “All that bullshit that you’re hearing out there right now? Not cool.”
M: Like Jessie said, we always talked about it, and now we’re still talking about it, but I think now, other people are also looking for something to connect to in terms of activism. A year ago, these bros at frats would be like, “You’re a party band, right?” Okay yes, we like to have fun on stage, but we’re more than just a party band. Now, it’s like “Woah, you’re a party band, but you have something to say!” I think people are starting to see that.
J: It’s cool, because you feel less crazy when you hang out with people that are likeminded. Music, to us at least, feels so much more community based now, than just playing out of town to people we don’t know. Now, it feels like we’re establishing communities in different areas.
To me, your music exemplifies the intersections between music and politics, especially in terms of resistance and empowerment.
W.A.S.I. stands for We Are / She Is – what I took away from that is that womanhood and being a woman is important to your message. Many people are starting to understand that “being a woman” is different from how people have been thinking about it; you don’t have to menstruate to be a woman, you certainly don’t need a man or have to wear a dress. Can you speak on what being a woman means to you?
M: What’s crazy is that during Pride weekend, Jessie needed to use the restroom and was brought to the men’s restroom. She asked to use the women’s restroom –
J: And they refused, they wouldn’t do it — and this was in Hollywood! They said I was dressed like a man so I had to use the men’s room, so I used the men’s room and I went to go talk to the manager and she argued with me, saying “That’s the policy and the law,” and I was like, “Since when? Since when is the law that based on your appearance you have to use a certain restroom – I’ve never heard that law.” Now I’m in touch with the ACLU about it, and I’m also talking with the restaurant’s management. I’m trying to push for them to have a store policy on this. I have a hormonal disorder, so when I went through puberty, I went through a male and female puberty – which was terrible. Really shitty; one of them is bad enough. It took me a lot of years to accept myself the way that I am, and it’s been really hard, because I’ve been mistaken as a male my whole life. I have a very deep voice, broad shoulders, no tits, the whole thing. I’ve had to really fight for my right to be who I am, and be comfortable with it; I don’t identify as male, I never have. I think it’s totally awesome for people that are comfortable enough now to come out about that. That’s amazing, and people should be comfortable with who they are, whatever that is. I’m comfortable being a woman, looking like this. I don’t have to wear a fucking dress to use the women’s room – so fuck you! If you promote yourself as an LGBT friendly company and you’re at all the Pride events, yet you refuse to let me use the restroom that I identify as – there’s a systemic issue there… and I’m going to fight it. This is how we are – we don’t take shit from people anymore.
That’s so messed up. You had the courage to go back and do something, but a lot of people wouldn’t.
J: That’s the thing! That scenario – I remember thinking, “No. I am taking my power back, today, for my whole fucking life.” I’ve been kicked out of restaurants for using the women’s room before; no more – I’m going to do something about it. If that could happen in Hollywood, who knows what it’s like in other states? This was me taking back my power for everybody that’s had to be silent about it.
I feel that musicians like you two deserve, and need to be put on, a pedestal. Young girls, especially young queer girls and folks, need role models. They need to know that they’re welcome and they’re not outliers to be alienated.
PWR BTTM got the chance to be on that pedestal, and speak for a big group of marginalized people, and did do some great things and seemed to have a great message, but now we’ve seen this whole tumultuous situation. Could you speak on that?
M: I hate them so much. I’ve seen them live, and I remember just feeling awesome at the time –
J: Like “Yes! They’re out there!”
M: And now, I just feel so betrayed. What’s terrible is this probably happens to so many, this is just what got out. It’s so saddening for the queer community, to finally feel like there’s a voice out there, and then to just – ugh. Just another reason for people to hate on the queer community. We’re in the West Coast, everyone’s so liberal and progressive – but outside of California, it’s crazy. We really are an island. You can drive through the country and see Confederate flags everywhere, still, today. A good friend of ours used to be in Pansy Division, the first out gay band, from San Francisco. Our friend was telling us about how they would play on tour and they’d get beat up on stage, and all these terrible things that seem to come with being a queer band. They had to fight that fight in order to create the opportunities that we have now, so when the pedestal is given to a band like PWR BTTM and they just fucking do what they did — it’s terrible.
J: And it’s one thing that people are human and they make mistakes, but something like that is just so extreme and so… that’s the complete opposite of how they were supposed to be. The way that we counter that is by talking to different people and truly having a safe space.
M: Yes, a safe space. And really connecting with the community you’re trying to create a safe space with, not just trying to capitalize on it, but really just creating together.
For those who don’t know, you made your own festival, Women Fuck Shit Up Fest. Can you talk about what that was like?
J: That’s all Merilou!
M: The first year it was at this cool art gallery, and we basically just booked all our band friends. It was packed for the little promotion we did. It became a space – that year, we knew we had to keep doing it. It wasn’t even about us; it was about the space being needed. We did it the next year at The Smell, and one of the days sold out! The festival is all DIY, so it was constantly chaos in a great way. All the sound people were women identified. We do invite headliners to play, but we keep applications open for bands to submit. I’ve found that a lot of times, in a lot of DIY spaces, things can get cliquey – the same bands and the same friends, again and again. We really try to create a sense of inclusivity and make the stage and space accessible to all.
J: Another thing they’re trying to do is open it up more to women of color, because they have the least opportunity for shows than anybody. This year was hard because a lot of our friends had played both years – so of the few white friends we have, they submitted again for a third year, and they had to turn them down.
M: It definitely brings a different meaning to the music, because we can all play music and everyone could sound great, but that’s like every other festival created. This festival is supposed to be different! Yes, we literally sit down and listen to the hundreds of song submissions; we give every application attention. We don’t want to make this just another festival with great music – there are already a million of those. This is about giving people a chance to share their story.
J: On top of that, every year they pick an organization that is female oriented to raise money for – this year they worked very closely with Alexandria House, a transitional living place for women.
I love your DIY spirit – you even recorded some of COUP in your living room, and that rocks! Can you talk about your more grassroots approach?
M: Three years ago we wanted to start recording ourselves for two reasons: to save money, and, to really make sure the music gets our voice heard. We took a step back, learned Garageband, learned Logic, and spent 40 hours a week really learning how to utilize those programs. We’ve both been recording on Garageband for years, but really sitting down and learning the ins and outs was important. I think I can count the number of female producers on one hand. Even if Garageband was there this whole time, I never felt empowered to understand it until Girls Rock Camp. We started recording in our living room and we realized we could do this, we didn’t need all the extra shit. We always ended up passing our stuff around to other producers to help shape it, but it’s the feeling of doing something in your bedroom and your apartment, and then putting it out in the world – it’s really scary, it’s so personal. I think a lot of women are afraid – as women, we were afraid to expose that.
J: We’re at the point where we give our songs to somebody to help us work on, and men, especially white men, seem to overdo it – they put too much of their own influence into it. They try to take too much of our space in our songs. Two of our songs on this EP, we were just going to trash, because they’d gotten so rock n roll, and we were like, what happened? It took so long to piece the EP together because of that. Pretty much everything we do starts in our living room, and we record everything except for the vocals.
M: Emotionally, starting in your living room and putting it out there really has a different connection. It’s scary – but you have to push through the shame and the fear and just put it out there and see what happens. We’re doing a music video – we’re inviting our friends and fans to take a video where they look into their camera as if it’s a mirror, and they put on makeup and do what they’d normally do as they get ready for the morning. The video is going to be a montage of how women across the gender spectrum get ready in their private spaces in the morning.
J: One of the women who submitted for the music video was talking about how she had body image problems, and how this was a really great exercise for her to feel comfortable with herself, and I was like, “Man! That’s why we do this!” All the bullshit we had to deal with, all the hardships we’ve been through trying to be heard with our music — these great experiences completely validate everything.
Do you have any advice for young queer women or anyone out there who is feeling pretty alone or bogged down in terms of America’s desolate political climate right now?
J: Honestly – picking some songs you like, and picking up a guitar.
M: Creating art, in any way. And have fun – do it unforgivingly!
Are you planning on playing any shows out here sometime soon?
M: We’re talking to Qulture Collective in Oakland, a queer and feminist venue and art space. We’re trying to get something working for August, we’ll keep you in the loop!
What’s next for WASI?
M: We’re playing a couple of festivals, on top of that, trying to put more stuff out there across media outlets. We just did this thing at LA Pride where we asked people what Pride means to them – we made them write it down and we filmed them. We’re putting all of their responses together and writing a song right now, and making a video; it’s coming together really well. It’s a fun song, and it’s not just our voice – it’s the voices of the people we talked to.
J: We’ve been around for a long time. We used to be one of those bands that would go and hustle our CDs at all the Prides, we’ve been to like a hundred Prides, and people have been very supportive, so this was trying to give back — we’re including the patrons of Pride into our music now, as a thank you for their support. We got a woman who wrote down that she was 70 years old, and finally speaking out; we had a family that was two beautiful gay men and their two beautiful daughters, and they were all just perfect.
M: We also just did a song for an indie LGBT directed film. We’re writing a lot, and now, even more than ever, we’re writing with a purpose.
Written by Rosie Davidowitz