Illustrations by David Lester for Mecca Normal’s weekly collaboration of Normal History on the Magnet Magazine site
An entry in an appendix of Canadian women in music, in the book “We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music” by Andrea Warner (Eternal Cavalier Press, 2015)
Mecca Normal, 1984 – present
Key 90s songs:
“Vacant Night Sky ” from Sitting on Snaps (Matador Records, 1995)
“Waiting for Rudy” from Flood Plain (K Records, 1993)
“Underground art-punk rock duo Jean Smith (vocalist) and David Lester (guitarist) have been crafting weird, tightly coiled but loosely structured songs about gender, feminism, politics, and social justice isues since 1984. Anybody who knows Beat Happening, Bikini Kill, and Sleater-Kinney should know Mecca Normal, almost nobody does. I’m ashamed to admit that up until last year, I barely knew them either. They’re a hometown band and I’m a feminist who writes about music and still I never came across Mecca Normal until someone alerted me to their existence after I wrote an essay about how much I missed the political fire of music from the ’90s. Mecca Normal were riot grrrl and DIY before those movements existed, and they were tireless in their commitment to their art, releasing seven records in the ’90s alone. In fact, Mecca Normal were basically doing the 90s in the 80s. Consider the still-relevant subject matter of their mid-’80s tunes like “Smile Baby,” which calls out street harassment (yes, three decades ago), “More, More, More” which addresses the privilege of white men and the American Dream, and the simple, chilling, and inspiring “I Walk Alone” which affirms a woman’s right to safety in a public space. It’s important music that still matters today.” – Andrea Warner
It might just be that the guitar is too loud because of the proximity of the amp to the camera, but, over the years, I think more than a few soundguys have made a point of turning down my vocals because they don’t like how I sound and what I’m saying.
Dave and I recently spoke about the idea of bolstering live vocal recordings after the fact. Just as an idea. Might be something I will try with this video.
Mecca Normal (Jean Smith and David Lester) opening for The Julie Ruin at the Wonder Ballroom in Portland on October 9, 2016. Video by Pat Maley.
“Invisible Girl” is a new one. We’ve only played it live a few times. Basically, the idea was to move away from long songs and lyrics on the page, to free form a bit. I wanted a few songs that allow me to be more in the moment.
Invisible girl refers to how women and girls are socialized and conditioned to want to look attractive and sexy. Being bombarded with concepts about beauty and desirability can lead to feeling that we aren’t seen or valued for who we really are. The nature of street harassment and unwanted attention from strangers can result in women wishing they were invisible
“I Am Here” is another new one that moves away from lyrics on the page, allowing me to perform it more in the moment.
The song features two key lines.
“As long as I’m still here I will be opposed to injustice.”
“Feminism was not a phase or a failed experiment.”
A still relevant song from our first album (1986), “I Walk Alone”
Just as we were about to start the show in Portland, David said he didn’t see Pat Maley in the audience. I spotted him front and center and handed him Dave’s Sony (consumer) video camera as one does when in such situations. No advance warning or anything civilized like asking with a “please” attached to it. Doh. I haven’t seen Pat for a couple of years. He smiled and took the camera. What a guy! Next time I looked at him he was shooting with the Sony on one eye and an iPhone on the other, like some kind of weird binoculars. I had to look away. It was kind of comical, but mostly just slightly disturbing.
It’s a bit clunky for the transition from Sony to iPhone at 4:09 , but it looks and sounds great after that!
VIDEO: four individual songs
Kenny Mellman and Kathleen Hanna talking about Mecca Normal between songs in Portland at the Wonder Ballroom, October 9, 2016. Thanks to Pat Maley for capturing this! After Kenny says Mecca Normal is his favorite band, Kathleen tells the audience to but my paintings! She also does a brief imitation of me working at Home Depot! I was standing at the back of the venue feeling like this was part of a dream!
The Jean Smith painting Kenny Mellman bought. “No Hat #46 (11 x 14” acrylic on canvas). $100 paintings currently available.
Mecca Normal (Jean Smith and David Lester) opening for The Julie Ruin at the Showbox in Seattle , October, 2016. Video by Connie Ostrowski
Mecca Normal and Kathleen Hanna at soundcheck in Vancouver
Vancouver. Photo by Erik Iversen Photography
David Lester of Mecca Normal pre-show in Seattle at the Showbox. Photo by Jean Smith
Portland. Photo by Mary Sharp
Portland. Photo by Mary Sharp
Portland. Photo by Mary Sharp
The crowd (approx. 700 – 800?) from the balcony in Portland, waiting for The Julie Ruin to take the stage at the Wonder Ballroom.
I was spontaneously gifted with a necklace by the mother of one of the two girls on the right after I signed their copy of Mecca Normal’s 7″ 1990-something EP Paris in April (K Records). Later, when I thought about the lyrics, I was happy they ended up with that one. The song is about a young woman who doesn’t want to be conventional; she wants to see travel, to see Europe in springtime.
Photos with fans!! Always a thrill! It was fun to get Pat Maley to sign the back of Calico Kills the Cat (K Records, 1989) since he recorded it! I think it’s the one we recorded in a (renovated) chicken coop in Olympia.
Portland Motel 6
Sex Stains’ Allison Wolfe (formerly of Riot Grrrl band Bratmobile) describes moving from Olympia to DC in the 90s in a new Pitchfork feature on music that has mattered to her.
“I brought all my records over, including this one 7″ by Mecca Normal, this band from Vancouver that was very influential in the Olympia music scene. “Strong White Male” was an anthem of mine. I would play it all the time because all of a sudden I was surrounded by a lot of strong white males who were too entitled, who had grown up with a lot more money than a lot of the Olympia girls. It talks about that privilege that’s invisible to the people who possess it but painfully obvious to the people who don’t.” – Allison Wolfe
Video by David Lester
“Mecca Normal break rules like they never noticed them in the first place. The Vancouver-based duo of singer Jean Smith and guitarist David Lester are anarchist-feminist activists and constant experimentalists, implying a rhythm section with negative space alone. Always an intense presence onstage, they’ve become the most tenacious of D.I.…Y. road warriors, touring and recording for 32 years now. In the early ’90s, they popped up on most of the biggest American indie-rock labels (Sub Pop, K, Matador); by their 25th anniversary, they were on the road with a performance-and-lecture project called “How Art & Music Can Change the World.”
Smith’s lyrics often foreground her political perspective; their anthem “Man Thinks ‘Woman,’” released in 1987, started out as a barbed dissection of gender normativity: “Man thinks ‘woman’ when he talks to me/Something not quite right.” The song kept expanding its radius from there, encompassing both bitter poetics and a disarmingly funny account of a drunken makeout gone weird. Kathleen Hanna has cited Smith as an early inspiration: “When I saw her,” she told The Fader, “I was just like, that’s it. I’m done. I’m sold.” –Douglas Wolk
“Man Thinks Woman” video by David Lester
“Oh Yes You Can” 7″ on K Records (1987)
“Jarred Up” compilation of singles on K Records (1993)
A mess of Mecca Normal songs pulled together from singles and compilations dating to 1992, rounding out the first eight years of their existence. Dunt fear, Mecca Normal are still going strong! Jarred Up reveals the awesome might of their thing; it is the essential Mecca Normal Document.
Strong White Male
Man Thinks Woman
He Didn’t Say
How Many Now?
Horse Heaven Hills
This Is Different
You Heard It All
Fan of Sparks
Upside Down Flames
From The Surface
More More More
One More Safe