Photos by Nastya Valentine (Valentine Enterprises)
It’s a Monday night at LA’s All Star Lanes, a bowling alley and sometime-venue in the northeast enclave of Eagle Rock, and Hit Bargain frontwoman Nora Singh is standing on a man’s face.
Specifically, the face of a trampling fetishist named Matt, who’s been invited to lie on the floor and get stepped on by Singh and her friends, myself included. At our pre-show rehearsal, Matt explained the right and wrong ways to step on him, and we practiced balancing, gripping each other so we didn’t fall off. The whole thing was surprisingly tranquil. It felt comforting to be held by women I’d just met. “It’s gonna be scary and confrontational, but also friendly and nice,” Singh predicted.
At the gig itself, part of a bill booked by Singh, she uses Matt like a human stage, jumping on his stomach like a trampoline and dropping to her knees in a way that makes a number of people in the audience wince. Clad in a T-shirt, form fitting athletic shorts, tall socks, and sneakers, Singh is both sexier and scarier than Henry Rollins in his prime, gyrating, screaming, singing, and ranting as she interacts with the crowd. It’s a workout just to watch.
For the final song, “The Circuits That Cannot Be Cut,” the rest of us cast off our shoes and join in. We’re all riled up by the music and it’s way more chaotic than the rehearsal, with girls jumping on Matt from every angle and giggling when we fall off. A good time is had by all.
It’s hard to see a group of women stomping on a man at a punk show—a space historically dominated by masculine aggression—and not imagine they’re symbolically trampling the patriarchy. But the fact that it was a turn-on for the guy in question complicated it in ways that were fun to ponder even as I enjoyed the more immediate fun of jumping up and down on a large, squishy man. This seems as good a metaphor as any for the multi-level pleasures of LA “queencore” outfit Hit Bargain.
I first met Singh, née Anna Barie, in 2008 at a place called Rad Rad Rad House in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was a show that crammed a lot of goodness into a not particularly large living room, and I was immediately struck by her imposing stage presence and the way everyone vibed off each other’s weirdness to create something I’d never heard before.
Back in New York, I stalked her until (full disclosure) she became my friend, then watched as she left her spiritual hometown of New York and spent several years in France making work that spanned visual art, cooking, writing, film, and durational life performance. Barie imbues everything she does with a seamless combination of humor and seriousness, using her intense personal magnetism to draw people in before asking tough questions.
In 2014 Barie moved from Paris to Los Angeles, adopted the nom d’art Nora Singh, and began Hit Bargain with Mike Barron (guitar and vocals), Anton Hochheim (drums), and Mike Stoltz (bass). Hit Bargain’s musical chops are on point: Their collective resume includes The Depreciation Guild, North Highlands, Teenage Waistband, and These Are Powers, as well as concurrent gigs with the likes of Ablebody and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.
On its face, Hit Bargain is simpler than anything these musicians have done in some time: Well-executed hardcore complete with pit-ready breakdowns and riffs that cut like a million tiny knives. But it’s also more than that. By casting herself in the role of hardcore frontperson-cum-Hollywood action hero, and singing about gender, power, and the movies—sometimes while standing on an actual man’s face—Singh takes us beyond the visceral thrills of punk while still indulging in them. If that’s not having your cake and eating it too, I don’t know what is.
I caught up with Singh via email to get the scoop on Hit Bargain, LA’s DIY scene, and just what queencore is all about. Read on and check out the premiere of their single "The Circuits That Cannot Be Cut" below.
Noisey: What does Hit Bargain carry over from your previous projects and how is it a departure from them?
Nora Singh: Hit Bargain is simultaneously exploratory and nostalgic. It uses an accessible and recognizable hardcore rock style format as the interface for renewed situational performance.
We've all previously played in touring bands, the departure is that this project is now.
You say Hit Bargain is both a product of and a response to LA's DIY scene. What do you mean by that?
What is most interesting to me in LA's current DIY scene are the intersections between queers, club kids, punks of color, and art school kids. Spaces such as Human Resources, Pehrspace, Gal Palace, and Pieter are inclusive and offer a necessary laboratory type venue for artistic expression outside of more formalized venues like art galleries, museums, and music venues that overcharge for drinks and aren't all ages.
Cool World is a free format queer dance party that also features experimental music and performance. Marcel Alcalá hosts an infrequent renegade poetry series called McPoems. Sunday Service and Rumours are close-knit monthly queer parties that are music focused. Jeepneys is a collaborator, friend, and visionary. Gurt is a collective and magazine and a lifestyle. Joan Lee makes agender art clothes as Barf Queen, and I could go on with listing all my friends and people who inspire me in LA
Although Hit Bargain makes rock music, I see us as occupying similar spaces as these people because this is my community. Three bands playing a rock show in a room full of bored people standing still with arms crossed, while the sound guy DJs songs off his phone in between bands is not inspiring to me. This is not the kind of experience I want to recreate for an audience in 2016.
Also, historically, hardcore music sprang up in San Francisco and SoCal, so I felt like doing something similar is an amusing homage to my current home. Besides that, some of us legitimately like hardcore. We all legitimately like a lot of things—but this is the thing we're doing now, and fuck anyone who says it's not authentic enough. That's exactly the point I think, to make something authentically your own.
You moved to LA fairly recently. Why'd you choose LA and what's it been like for you so far?
I think sometimes that LA chose me. Mike Barron and I basically moved here around the same time a year or so ago and met through a friend, and then started playing music together almost immediately after. Anton and Mike Stoltz have been in LA longer, but have lived for stretches elsewhere.
Of the four of us in Hit Bargain, LA probably sucks the most consistently for me on a daily basis because I don't have a car or a significant other here. But then again, it probably also rules for those reasons too. But that's not specific to here. I could easily stress about parking and getting laid anywhere else.
LA doesn't reveal all of itself to you easily. You have to drive into it, or poke around in strip malls and neighborhoods until you find the thing you need. It's not a city where you can open your door and then be on the sidewalk right in the middle of its pulse. You have to dig, you have to coax your friends out of hiding in their houses, everyone is too stoned or drunk to get there on time, or to make it across town, or to even show up at all. Or maybe the bus is breaking down, or you're crossing the street at 9 PM and it's totally deserted except for a coyote. There's no water. There are black plastic balls peppering the LA reservoir. There are encampments of permanently homeless people for blocks and blocks and it's normal. You can eat tacos at any hour. It gets so hot it boils your brain and people think they should still go hiking in the desert, while wearing a beanie. Also, people kill me with their sweat pants and shitty shoes in LA
Sometimes I get Starbucks because it's just this thing that is part of the landscape, I feel like I've already gone this far with the LA experience, that one coconut milk mocha with no whipped cream just kind of takes it over the edge further into surreality. But I refuse to buy twenty dollar juice, it's not sustainable for me.
I've always admired how unafraid you are to pick up and start over someplace new. While most people would feel daunted by the task of finding new friends, work, and creative collaborators, you seem to thrive on it. Where do you get that ability?
I'm really into dying. I'm lucky enough to have lived a few times already. I always want the happily ever after, but I don't think I'm meant to stay anywhere permanently forever. Home is other people, as they say.
You invented a new genre called "queencore." Wanna explain that for all the grrrls and bois following along at home?
Queencore is the intersection of queer, queening, and hardcore. Sometimes.
So the flyer for the All Star Lanes show has Bruce Willis on it and “Circuits” is based on the plot of Die Hard. What's the deal with the Bruce Willis imagery?
Bruce Willis is our spirit animal. He represents a definitive sensitive everyman action hero that was a departure from a very masculine and muscular prototype. Barron wrote a guitar riff that sounded like action hero music and I started thinking about an action film set in LA, so that started a fascination with Die Hard and Bruce Willis. LA is unextractable from its film industry, so then being a real person living in LA can be comparable to living in your own action film.
I'm very interested in archetypes and gender identities. I think that we are living in a time in which people feel they can further express their human experience outside of a gender binary. Or maybe that it's a time that people can more easily and quickly connect with each other on this idea. As someone that has occupied a female-assigned at birth body in my lifetime, I'm not going to say that this has had zero impact on my life.
What I mean is that as a FAAB, I have survived sexual abuse and violence, I've walked past abortion protestors outside of a clinic on the way to get my own termination, people still want to make laws in this country telling me what to do with my body. Maybe someone wants to shoot the nice doctor that is treating lower income people like me at what I hope is a safe and affordable clinic. I still generally make less money hourly than my male counterparts but spend more on goods and services, like tampons, haircuts and clothing. I encounter street harassment or commentary about my looks almost daily, and you're going to tell me that we're beyond the need for any kind of discussion about these issues?
I also feel as I get older that I am more comfortable and flexible in my fluid expressions of gender and sexuality. By recasting myself as a sensitive male action hero, or gaybro fetish wrestler, or pit dwelling hardcore dude, it's more interesting to me. I like this presentation of strength, because the expectation is for it to be presented in a traditional way. My expression is not in opposition to anything or anyone. It helps me to further define and reshape my own parameters to my liking.
What I resent, though, is the media distortion of what it means to be queer or non-binary. Generally I feel like the biggest American fascination is with this idea of a redesigned, perfectly sanitized, previously MAAB trans woman. The media spotlights this hyper feminized, hyper sexualized, post consumer type of person, and everyone applauds.
I know it doesn't detract from or diminish my experience. I KNOW this. But then why do I feel like it does?
Why do I feel like all the messiness of defining my own identity is eclipsed by this perfect package of "an ideal new woman"? Because I think it's misogynist.
I am a person that fumbles through relationships with other people. Sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes people in between categories. I tweeze my nipple hair. I enjoy sucking cock and looking at tits and eating ass. Sometimes I have a cock, sometimes someone eats my ass. Ultimately we break it down beyond this and it's just power dynamics. It's always this, and historically the dynamic has not been in my favor because of this binary.
What we want to do ultimately is transcend this dynamic, these scripts, sublimate this pain, and then we want to play. I am playing. I look serious, I sound serious, I mean what I'm saying, but I'm playing.
Bruce Willis is just a good of a mask as any for our playtime. People "play" in BDSM because it's a realm outside of what's recognized as "real" by most hetero vanilla people. Play is exploration and freedom.
Why did you decide to have a bunch of women trample a man as part of your performance? Was it a feminist thing?
I am a feminist. I'm also a queer with a BDSM streak. More importantly, I'm an artist, it's my job to ask questions, not really to have answers. It came together organically. Matt enjoys being trampled, and I found some women that wanted to trample him with me. Seems like a win win. Visually I think it was really nice. It's important for me to collaborate with female oriented people in the context of this musical project because it can otherwise occupy a very masculine kind of space. I don't know what kind of thing it was yet except that it was a Hit Bargain thing. I asked the guys in the band first, it was consensual and fun all around.
If anything, I think we are making feminist anthems for white cis men. Maybe even feminist anthems for white cis men that are mass shooters, because you know, they need to be enlightened the most. Preach to the choir sure, but what about taking the message directly to your opposition?
I noticed you channeling a bit of the classic hardcore frontman in your performance, but doing it in your own sexy powerful womyn way. Is there anyone in particular whose stage persona has influenced you in this project?
I've been called "Tranny Danzig" and compared to Wendy O. Williams. Both those are satisfactory analogies, but maybe not 100 percent accurate because obviously I am myself.
What's Hit Bargain planning for the near and/or distant future?
A record, a tour, that kind of band thing. But hopefully different, interesting.
Who are some of your favorite feminist thinkers?
Fannie Sosa and Poussy Drama, G.L.O.S.S., Genevieve Belleveau, Audrey Wollen, this by Audre Lorde, Annie Sprinkle, Tristan Taormino, Judy Chicago, Jessica Hopper, and you.
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