Blast From the Past: Kleenex
This interview originally ran in MRR #324/May 2010, now sold out
There’s no sense in hiding the fact that Kleenex/LiLiPut (K/L) are my favorite girl punk band. There’s hardly even a reason to qualify them with “girl” and “punk”, as they made more amazing, wild songs than most bands ever will. In just a few short years during the late 1970s-early 80s, they shredded apart the rules for how punk was supposed to sound, and how feminists were supposed to look. And it was danceable. At that, K/L always seemed so free to me, existing in some alternate universe where all girls had instruments and record collections, and were determined to start bands. Their music is long out of print, save for Kill Rock Stars’ double-disc anthology from 2001. As their popularity and influence still grip new generations, KRS has once again unleashed Swiss vibrations across the globe. March brings a new CD, live footage, plus a DVD of their tour document, Roadmovie, and clips from Swiss television performances. Additionally, the original anthology will be available on wax for the first time as a 4-LP box set later in May. I hope summer will bloom new bands as a result! Founding member and bassist, Marlene Marder answered some questions for MRR from her home in Zürich.
Intro & Interview by Jess Scott
MRR: A while back I bought that Kleenex diary from you. It’s incredible! A little gift straight from the bins… as if your responsible aunt was saving each magazine clipping along the wild ride. A couple of things strike me about it: There’s a great mix of handwritten zine-type stuff, but also a fair amount of traditional, mainstream, and critic stuff. Did those two forms of documentation seem like different worlds at the time?
Marlene: No, there was this zine-scene and compared to the commercial music magazines, which followed the new music, maybe made it was more serious?
MRR: Can you clarify a bit? Were the commercial magazines serious, or..? Which did you like being featured in more?
Marlene: Difficult to say. It was great to see the magazines in stores; it made it kind of official. The zines were great too, and it felt more familiar, fan-made.
MRR: Recently I was speaking with a friend about how the UK had relatively better music education and accessible instruments compared to the US. Is that a fair assessment of growing up in Zürich also? Was it difficult to start a band?
Marlene: It was not difficult to start a band at all. Also we have music education in primary school. All kids learn to play the recorder and learn to read simple music. So I played with my two younger sisters under the Christmas tree on this recorder thing. Imagine what a mess!
MRR: Were you all good in school? Were your parents supportive of your playing music?
Marlene: I guess I was average. Klaudia told me she had got a “very good” in singing! My parents were supportive. I was allowed to choose an instrument when I was a bit older, after the recorder. I chose the guitar as I was a big fan of all these blues and gospel records my mother owned like Odetta, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, and Josh White, and because of the Beatles, of course!
MRR: Why did early blues musicians speak to you?
Marlene: I heard them all day long from my mother’s record player and I liked the sound very much. The songs seemed very authentic; I could feel the spirit and the soul. I just loved the music.
MRR: What first struck you about punk? The message? The fashion? The music? Or did something or someone wrap up all of those aspects for you?
Marlene: Punk seemed so simple and fresh. Suddenly it was possible to play in a band, too, which I didn’t think before, as there were only these supergroups. I had no idea that it could be possible to have my own band.
MRR: Who or what specifically introduced you to this?
Marlene: It was my surroundings. Friends of mine already played in bands, and I was invited to join the Nasal Boys. I played saxophone with them for a short time. The guitarist of Nasal Boys was also involved with Kleenex. I then took over his place on guitar. I never said: “Now, I’m going to play in a punk band”. It just happened at the right time, right place, with the right people.
MRR: What was life like for you before punk? What music did you listen to you? Were you comfortable in that world?
Marlene: Life was cool before punk, too. I always had a broad musical spectrum and a lot of records, which was a bit unusual for girls at that time! As I said, I was first influenced by my mother’s record collection. Then I listened to the 60s stuff: Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin I liked very much, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, John Mayall, Paul Butterfield, Iron Butterfly, but not Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd or T.Rex. Then, in the 70s: Bowie, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, of course, my hero. I didn’t like the supergroups, too bombastic and uncool; not my world at all. I was a DJ in a students’ club, which the boys first couldn’t handle, but success gave me the right. Today I guess it’s not questionable to have women at turntables. Later, I was a DJ in a female-only disco. The girls were enthusiastic there.
MRR: Kleenex was started by you, Lislot, and Klaudia. There were a lot of other people through the years in K/L—briefly including two men, Beat and Christoph, later on. Is it safe to say that you and Klaudia came to be the core, though? Tell me a bit about your connection with her. Why was she was your perfect match throughout so many versions of the group?
Marlene: I guess we both realized that this band was a real possibility to go on. It was not only a hobby or weekend thing anymore. We both had many ideas which we wanted to realize. And we had/have a lot of fun and are good friends.
MRR: What was it like to be Swiss in a scene dominated by American and British kids? I know there were legal/traveling restrictions at times, but were there other cultural disconnects? Switzerland is sort of a strange hodge-podge of European cultures in and of itself, right?
Marlene: Made no difference I guess. Or did it? Someone said, “By the way, they are Swiss”. So what? You tell me.
MRR: So, was K/L a distinctly Swiss interpretation of punk? Or was it universal? Or was it both? Were you into other continental punk girls like Hans-A-Plast or Chin Chin?
Marlene: Personally, I thought it was international, but maybe I’m wrong. Think global, act local… I know Hans- A-Plast and Chin Chin of course, they are Swiss, too!
MRR: In general, K/L are labeled as post-punk, but did it feel like a post- anything when you were starting? As punk was initially a UK/New York phenomenon, did it take time to get to Zürich? I know Stef from the Petticoats had to leave Germany for London to really get into what was happening early on, and discover the larger exports like Patti Smith and others. Was your experience something similar?
Marlene: I was a post-punk, as I worked at the post at that time as a post-woman and delivered letters. We had some punks who brought all the new singles right away from London to Zürich. Every week they went to London to get the new stuff. It happened at the same time in both London and Zürich.
MRR: This is amazing! How did they manage to afford to do that? Was traveling cheap or were they touring in bands?
Marlene: Traveling was indeed cheap. Well, maybe it was not every week that they went to London. They sold the records back home and had some other strange business going on, as gossip goes.
MRR: The most powerful part of the Kleenex diary is that it really succeeded in surveying the context of the post-punk explosion—particularly through your clippings of the NME charts. There you are in the summer of ’80 just under Joy Division, a month later at number one—and then sandwiched between the Dead Kennedys and Sector 27. This says a lot about the time—did it feel like it was all happening at once, as the clippings suggest? Or was everything more fractured in reality?
Marlene: I felt it was happening all at once. I liked all these bands, too, and was looking forward to every new single release of yet unknown bands. I think the clippings are a good indicator of the time.
MRR: Did you feel a sense of camaraderie with other girls in punk bands? Could you relate to the Slits, for instance, or did the boys on Rough Trade seem closer to your ideals? Or, are you like me, and it’s a complex mix of gender, politics, and cool sounds?
Marlene: I felt very comfortable with all the women in music. I also agree with your sight.
MRR: In his forward to your diaries, Greil Marcus uses the phrase “feminist glee”, which had me laughing out loud for a minute—it seemed so cuddly and fun! And, then, I thought about how perfectly it described what K/L delivered—a much needed connection between feminism and joy, and lifted the discussion to a higher level…being a woman wasn’t all a reaction to male oppression, it was also damn fun. K/L never felt like a Punk-ette commodity, instead it was like an ecstatic portrait of what the world could be like for everyone if we were free.
Marlene: Before I started with Kleenex I rehearsed with a feminist band, which soon became too boring for me. They were influenced by Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, all the Olivia Records artists. I liked them, too, but I preferred to play loud and without an explicit feminist/lesbian message. I always wanted to be independent, regardless of gender, opinions, politics, whatever. Then I had to decide if I wanted to join Kleenex or stay with this woman band. I went for Kleenex. It was new, fun, and not influenced by anybody. This was just us. Some people said then, “Oh dear! Now Lislot and Klaudia will turn into lesbians”, or “Marlene will become so plastic”. It’s amazing to see how the picture of Kleenex turned in the feminist context. In the beginning, it was the punk scene which accepted us without any discussion about women in music. The feminists had problems and didn’t like us very much. I guess they didn’t know what they should think of us and the punk/youth movement anyway. It took a while til it was realized. Doing is better than talking, and young women were influenced by Kleenex/LiLiPUT. Do whatever you like in music, and generally.
MRR: I know Klaudia had been a painter throughout K/L. What other sorts of non-musical art or literature shaped your approach to forming a band?
Marlene: We thought it was better to form a band than to knit socks. Or, it is better to have a band, play the music you like and have space, so you won’t be squeezed in front of the stage.
MRR: I won’t make you go through the whole story, but the gist is that Kleenex Tissue (Kimberly-Clark Corporation) threatened you under copyright laws to change your name and that’s why you reformed as LiLiPUT, right? Did you feel something change within the band immediately, or did you all just take it in stride? Why did you pick Kleenex anyway?
Marlene: Regula left the band at the same time, so it was not a big deal for us to find a new name. It was a big deal to find a name, but not to change the name. Kleenex meant: not to stick with, don’t collect, throw away, make room, and don’t take things to serious.
MRR: Looking back, which singer did you love playing with the best? Astrid? Chrigle? Regula? In terms of personality and dynamic within the band, how were they different?
Marlene: Hard to say. Each at her time was the perfectly right singer for the band and the sound. Or the other way round. Each singer with her unique voice made the perfectly right sound or song.
MRR: Thirty-two years on, what has changed the most about how you look at the early days of Kleenex?
Marlene: That I still can look at the early days and have a lot of response worldwide nowadays. And I can see Kleenex/LiLiPUT was a real cool band, with great music. I’m happy I was a part of it.
MRR: Are you still in touch with the old members? What does life look like now for each of you?
Marlene: With Klaudia, she is working hard on her next exhibition: http://www.klaudiaschifferle.ch, Astrid is a spiritual consultant: http://www.echnatiel.ch, Lislot—we exchange tips in gardening, and me, I’m cultivating idleness.
MRR: Are you into new music? Do you still go to shows? Which new band would you wait in the rain to see?
Marlene: I’m more into old music I’m afraid, but open with pleasure to any good music. I do go to shows, if they really bring me out of my hammock. Raincoats.
To buy copies of the aforementioned Kleenex diary please email: mar_mar (at) bluewin.ch or for US readers try m’ladys