The punk musician
Jill Lloyd Flanagan is a punk provocateur. For more than 20 years, she’s been a staple of the Chicago DIY punk and noise scenes, not only performing in bands (Coughs, CB Radio Gorgeous) but also organizing events such as queercore festival Fed Up Fest. Her best-known project is Forced Into Femininity, which for nearly ten years used uncompromising noise and performance art to explore the nature of femininity and personhood and the real or perceived threats to them. Flanagan is a punk oral historian and an embodiment to radical ideas and aesthetics.
Interview by Micco Caporale
Photos by Carolina Sanchez
I grew up in Chicago. As a kid, I was very in my own fantasy world, and music was a way to live out my fantasies. I was into 90s thrash metal, grunge, punk—stuff with exciting characters. In high school I started to learn bass. My friend played guitar, and I wanted to be in a band with him, so it was a very utilitarian choice at first. But once I started learning, I loved it. I like how big the strings are. Once I learned bass, guitar strings started seeming tiny and painful. And I like the sound. It’s a beautiful instrument. It’s rarely used in a way where it’s allowed to be beautiful, but it really is. There’s this cool song by Pungent Stench with this really unexpected bass solo.
I started in punk bands, but I wasn’t part of a scene. We just jammed in my parents’ basement. I was identifying as a punk by the time I started high school, but I didn’t play my first show until I was 16 or 17. My friend who was a raver started being like, “Oh, I’m punk too,” and told me about this bowling alley that had shows. My first punk show was at Fireside Bowl—a sludge-metal thing with a flute.
So then I started going to shows. I got into pop punk, and there was a big pop-punk scene in Chicago at that time. Metro had just started having punk shows again, which was controversial. There was some MRR [Maximum Rocknroll] article about it. Like, back in the day, Big Black had played a show at Metro where they set off a bunch of fireworks onstage, so Metro was like, “No more punk at Metro!” They didn’t have punk bands again until the 90s, when Green Day became popular, and then people at MRR were like, “Fuck them, they’re only doing it now because it’s profitable, they want to make money off of us, blah blah blah!” Anyway, I went to some punk shows at Metro.
I started getting into noise rock at 17. Tower Records magazine had reviewed a bunch of Japanese noise records, so I listened to them and was like, “What is this gift?” I’d never heard, like, little toys and static in songs before.
After I graduated high school, I went to college in England, but after a year I dropped out and came back. I started playing music with a friend who’d just gotten out of the army and was having this intense political awakening. I was depressed, so our music helped us feel hopeful. Eventually, that ended, and I took acid for the first time. I was watching an Einstürzende Neubauten movie, 1/2 Mensch. It’s all live footage shot in warehouses in Berlin, and I noticed how hot and androgynous they were. I was like, “Wait . . . I can be hot and androgynous too.”
When I was in my 20s, I got increasingly interested in leftist politics. I had friends who were in the ISO [International Socialist Organization] and did demonstrations. I went to Food Not Bombs and was meeting a lot of radicals and stuff. This was around the time of September 11 and the Iraq War. It was very scary to see how quickly things changed then. Like everyone put up a U.S. flag and was eager to go to war, all “We’re gonna get revenge for this!” That whole thing was an awakening for me. I started identifying with anarchists and wanting to express those ideas through songs.
At the time, I was also taking classes at SAIC and Columbia College. Eventually I went full-time-ish at Northeastern Illinois University. I studied philosophy, which I’m finishing up my degree in now. I had this teacher that was very inspirational to me. She was a radical lesbian separatist from the 70s. Very, very cool. Also very, very problematic.
It’s funny because, at the time, I didn’t have any context for what trans was, but I was still unknowingly experimenting with it. I went to this class, and it was one of my first times wearing women’s clothing, and that teacher was there as a guest speaker. She was like, “I just don’t get this whole ‘trans’ thing! All these young lesbians are being convinced they’re men!” That devastated me. I wanted to know why she would think that, so I started learning about transness, transphobia, and the women’s movement.
But she was still very inspirational to me because she was approaching philosophy in a politically radical way. Until then, I thought philosophy was just, like, “What is existence?” Because of her, I realized, “Oh, it can be about society.” That was a cool experience . . . even though she was very problematic.
Around 24, I did Coughs. That was my first really serious band, which lasted about five years. We had two drummers who played steel drums that we found at the park. Maybe they were Park District garbage cans? And we had a bunch of pots and pans and random drums and a bass and guitar. I played saxophone and keyboards. We met Anya Davidson through an audition, and she was really scary, so we got her to sing for us.
Coughs was intense. We were so focused on being a band and rehearsing and then socializing to tell people about our band. We were very young and angry, and all of us were individually dealing with heavy stuff. It was at the beginning of me realizing I was trans. I began identifying as a woman while being part of all these alternative male-centered spaces. It was . . . a lot. But I learned and grew so much.
After Coughs broke up, I moved around a bit. I went to Oakland and was in this band Learned Helplessness around 2008. It’s when I started doing performance-art stuff. Learned Helplessness was all about being anti-rock. We would make unpleasant music and do different costumes or themes—like, once we dressed up as pioneers and spread hay everywhere.
And I continued those interests with Forced Into Femininity. I started that project right before I moved back to Chicago in 2010. I wanted to try a solo project and make music about being trans, which I’d never done. I got very theatrical and did grotesque makeup, and I was very interested in performing in spaces where that’s not supposed to happen.
I’d never done electronic music either, but I love the sound of early electronic music, where people are just having fun figuring out how to use the technology. Someone had given me an old keyboard that sounded very eight-bit. You could record melodies on it and then speed them up to make them garbled. I like doing stuff with electronics because it erases my authorial voice. The sound can get so warped you can’t tell who or what made it.
I did that for a really long time but decided to stop during the pandemic. Just before then I did a show that really didn’t go well, and I was tired of that performance style. It was very confrontational and aggressive, and people were starting to conflate the person I was onstage with the person I was offstage. And I was like, “Wait, that’s a character, that’s not me!”
There was also a cultural shift. When I started the project, I was performing for straight audiences, so I felt like I had to be confrontational. When the audiences began changing, I had to adapt, and eventually I felt like I didn’t need or want to be that confrontational person onstage anymore. Now I’m just playing bass in CB Radio Gorgeous, and I have a project where I play a bunch of synthesizers and my friend plays drums.
At the moment, I’m more interested in supporting others’ music than my own. I’m still angry, but I feel more mellow. I really don’t want to be the focus of the show anymore.