By Mya Byrne, Staff Writer
Polythene Pam have been breaking down barriers since their inception. The trio of Jenn Cuddigan, Anna Dickinson, and Coda Gardner were, as far as I can tell, the first group of trans women to perform at the San Francisco Dyke March. In the Bay Area music scene, they have consistently created spaces to perform where there weren’t, booked artists, and championed their friends, all the while putting out some of the coolest, quirkiest folk-pop with a country bent that the queer scene has to offer. I’m proud to call them my pals and was pleased to interview them for Country Queer.
Hello y’all! What can you tell me about the inception of Polythene Pam?
Coda: It’s a long, tumultuous story, starting in the middle of the ocean… we held onto the masts of the great rocking ship, as we were waved to and fro, to and fro… we were all seasick and vomiting simultaneously…
Anna: …In rainbow colors!
Coda: … When we finally reached shore, we vowed on that day to start a band called “Polythene Pam.”
Jenn: We were vomiting in harmony!
Oh dear sweet ghost of Patsy Cline, what have I gotten myself into…
Anna: Okay, the real story is we formed in the fall of 2017. We met at Dana Morrigan’s Queer Karaoke. We all loved singing — and singing together — and had a similar sense of humor. So, we decided to start a band to bring our musical talents and goofy-yet-sardonic world view to the trans/queer world! I think we all feel it’s a good addition to queer music. I mean, we get the whole super angry queer thing (we’re angry, too!), but satire can be a powerful weapon. And while there’s certainly a place for shouting, there’s also a place for laughter in our world. We feel our music does both at once. And it’s fun!
Obviously your name is referencing the Beatles song. Why did you choose it?
Anna: For a brief time, we toyed with being a trans/queer Beatles tribute/concept band–we’re all Beatles fans. As a way of empowering ourselves, we figured we’d “take back” a song with somewhat transphobic lyrics — that’s the way we hear “Polythene Pam”. A runner-up was “The Sweet Loretta Martins” [another transphobic reference, from “Get Back”]. We didn’t end up going in that direction musically, but the name stuck.
You’ve got this Carter Family meets Lennon Sisters by way of Weird Al thing going on. And a bit of Phranc too. I like that you seemingly don’t take yourselves too seriously, while actually being serious as heck about the content and musicianship you put out. What informed the musical direction of the band, and what are your backgrounds in music?
Jenn: Well, we all met at the karaoke bar, so that should tell you a lot about us!
Music has been in my life since before I can remember. I grew up taking piano and voice lessons and later moved to study music education in college. Fun fact: I’m a trained opera singer–and I hated every minute of it. Anna and Coda can tell you that I do still have the ability to turn almost any song into a beautiful aria upon request. I think the rehearsal archives have an operatic version of Like a Prayer in there somewhere.
Coda: My background lies in the pop and rock music of the ‘80s: Tears for Fears, new wave, modern rock; I bring pop sensibilities to the band.
Anna: …also, Coda has perfect pitch and is naturally talented at singing and drums, so…
Jenn: I take responsibility for the country influence! I told the girls, “You’re gonna play it, and you’re gonna like it!”
Anna: Sure did! It worked! It sure is fun to play classic country! And it quickly found its way into my songwriting. It’s a fun and expressive format — just feels like it fits for much of what we do.
Other than that, my biggest influences are They Might Be Giants, Ween, and obviously The Beatles. Also throw in some glam rock, ‘80s hair metal and pop, Prince… but TMBG is definitely my aspirational target in terms of lyrics. I’ve always admired how they make happy, upbeat songs which — under the surface — are incredibly dark. That’s kinda my thing.
How do you feel your queerness informs the music you write?
Jenn: We’re just a bunch of weirdos, writing about what we know. The only thing that I personally hope is that there’s someone out there who identifies with our special brand of weirdness and we help them feel a little less alone out there.
Coda: I’d like to figure out ways to be even stranger and more metaphorical!
Anna: Many of our songs are explicitly queer; even when they’re not, they’re coming from an implicitly queer perspective. Some of them are about topics the trans community doesn’t often discuss; for me, these songs are a way to explore my experience as a trans woman in a subtle, nuanced, and often humorous way. If you scratch beneath the surface, you can find many of them come from painful places; but as I said, I think it’s really powerful to laugh and appreciate the absurdity in life.
Take “Tall Girl Posse,” for example…
It’s one of my personal favorites…I mean, who doesn’t love a country song about a bunch of trans girls on scooters rolling into town as vigilantes?
Anna: That was inspired by this silly conversation we had about Coda and I accompanying Jenn to kick her dickhead ex-husband’s ass. Like, just the sight of us would freak him the fuck out on a number of levels. Okay, we were never actually going to do this, but… I mean… it’s a funny image! Every culture needs to laugh at itself. That’s how we survive.
How has the band evolved?
Jenn: It’s leaps and bounds different than when we started! We started out playing oldies covers on acoustic guitar, ukulele, and hand percussion… fast forward a few years, and we’ve birthed a veritable “sound orgy” from our musical loins!
Coda: Yes! And we each used our Magic Wands…I mean my drum sticks… what were you thinking??
Anna: Well, there has been talk of trying that. And we did use dilators as hand percussion for a while…
They do make good claves. But back to the subject at hand…
Anna: We started out doing oldies covers because they’re fun to sing, and often vocally challenging; and it’s fun to re-frame them in queer terms. And there are so many opportunities for genderfuckery when trans women with three octave vocal ranges sing ‘60s girl group songs. But once we learned to play well together, we realized we had much more to say. Now our repertoire is entirely original.
Jenn: … except for our closing song, which is usually a cover. As Anna says, that’s where I get to “show off” my voice.
Anna: Yeah! Jenn has an incredible voice! It has literally brought me to (happy) tears on a couple occasions. We hope to fully utilize it one of these days in our own songs!
Jenn, how does it feel to be the token cis member of a mostly trans band?
Jenn: Everyone needs that token cis bandmate and I guess that’s me? I love the girls and I don’t mind being the butt of the occasional joke…
Coda and Anna: Heh heh… she said “butt.”
Jenn: When it all comes down to it, we’re just three queers, making goofy queer music together. Ten years ago, if you told me I was going to be in a band with two trans ladies who write songs about their (former) junk, I would have looked at you like you were crazy. But here we are and I’m here for it!
Anna: Yeah, I thought briefly about starting an all-trans concept band. But when I discussed it with our friend Julia Serano [legendary trans author/scholar and musician], her opinion was that idea died in the early 2000s and I shouldn’t worry about it. Haha. So…
She was right, though. I love how our voices sound together. Why worry about finding all trans bandmates when you’ve got a perfectly good cis person to help you out?
How have you been dealing with quarantine?
Jenn: It’s been rough. I miss being able to make music with the girls. I’m not big on doing everything remotely because I miss all the bullshitting we do in rehearsals. Some of our best times together and songs we’ve written have been results of the absolutely bizarre stuff we improv and riff on.
Anna: Yeah, we’re really a live band. We work best when we’re in the flow and playing off each other. Working remotely just isn’t the same. And live streaming doesn’t really work for bands.
So, in lieu of performing or rehearsing, we’d been writing tons of songs! By the time this is all over, we’ll easily have a new album’s worth of material. As soon as it’s safe to do so, we’re gonna get together and do a marathon recording session and release it ASAP. And as our “sophomore” album, it will be very mature and insightful.
Jenn: Oh, fuck off! Mature??
Coda: … it’ll certainly be sophomoric.
Anna: … anyway, we wish we had some teaser clips to give you, but… we can give you some of the titles instead! We’re continuing our quest to bring deeply intellectual content to the masses with songs like “Too Much Tittie”, about my boobs; “Ennui”, a meta song about not writing songs about ennui…
Coda, Jenn: Enuui!!!! Weeeeeeee!
Anna: … “Shirtless Karaoke Guy”, who you sometimes see at karaoke bars; “Metaphors for Fools”—like us; “Time”, inspired by the lack of passage thereof in quarantine…
Coda: What about parsley, sage, and rosemary?
Anna: … “The Right Kind of Queer”—whom amongst us is?
Jenn: … and a song with thinly-veiled poker metaphors …
Anna: Jenn recently came out as ace. Yay for Jenn! Let the wordplay commence!
Also, “Dad Band,” which bemoans my lack of membership thereof. I mean, I didn’t end up being a dad; but transness is complicated. Why can’t I be in a dad band anyway??
Jenn: You kinda are a middle-age dad…
Anna: Oh, gee, thanks… great… now I’m gonna have a complex.
Coda: It’s not complex at all—it’s really simple.
Anna: … and “Total Psychosexual Inversion”—which was used in an uncomplimentary way to describe trans women a few decades ago—is an intriguing turn of phrase and requires a song.
Jenn: We got lots of stuff cookin’ up!
[… and then a lengthy conversation about Steakum ensued… ]
Anna: … so, yeah! Come check us out once everything opens up again! Our live shows are a blast, as I’m sure Mya can confirm! And we’ll have lots of new songs!
I can indeed confirm that! Speaking of live shows, one of the things I admire about PP is how you’ve built community and been so inclusive of so many artists. I mean, it seems like half of my shows in 2018 were with you! What are some highlights of the past few years?
Jenn: Getting to play the Pride Prom at 924 Gilman! I’m a big Green Day fan so playing on that stage made my inner fangirl scream with joy. The stage was kinda nasty, but I almost wanted to throw myself down and roll around on it!
Also, all the friends we’ve made in the queer music circle. You, Cindy Emch, the lovely folks of the Forgetmenauts, Frootie Flavors, to name a few. We had a blast playing with Frootie Flavors down in Santa Cruz. They really showed us a great time! Though, I did get shit on by a bird…
Coda: My favorite gigs were our July 4th and Christmas shows at the Ivy Room. It was fun singing “The Grump,” our version of the Grinch song about … that similarly named person in the White House.
Anna: I think my favorite shows were at Lost Church. Love that place! Also, El Rio and The Ivy Room have been great to us. I hope they all survive the quarantine!
Me too. I really want to restart my Lost Church residency with you as my special guests! On that note: How would you like to see our community grow?
Anna: As far as growth: I love being part of the Bay Area queer music scene, and I like to think it’ll birth a genre of music. We’re thrilled to be a part of it! I hope we get to see more and more queer artists singing their stories.
But we won’t have that without supporting our venues! I’m sure people are tired of us musicians constantly bugging them to go to shows, but music is important! Yeah, you have instant access to all the music ever recorded on the Internet, but the experience of a live show can’t be replicated online. As our good mutual friend Cindy Emch wrote, “Songs are all we live by; songs are all we have.”
Jenn: I’m hoping the queer music scene comes back bigger and better than ever after quarantine!
Coda: Yeah, maybe people will finally get out to shows after being cooped up for so long!
I miss playing shows with you!
Jenn, you recently switched to bass from ukulele. Tell us about that!
Jenn: It’s been a fun challenge. I came in playing a passable (read: terrible) ukulele and have grown those skills. Anna kind of voluntold me to be our bass player and I ended up really enjoying it. I haven’t taken any lessons, so it’s all been learning by ear and through what Anna has shown me. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Also, I might have been drunk when I agreed to play bass. That’s probably the real reason I’m doing it. Because when you’ve had a bottle-and-a-half of rosé, EVERYTHING seems like a great idea!
Want more Polythene Pam in your life? Here are a few links to get you going:
Note from Mya: Thanks to Anna Dickinson for facilitating this interview on Zoom and transcribing it.