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Punk Custodians

A conversation with Grace Ambrose
The four women of the Swiss band Kleenex appear against a wall.

For the Zurich band Kleenex, punk was a rapturous melee. Though the all-woman group broke up in 1983—after having changed their name to LiLiPUT in 1979 in response to a threat from the tissue company—it took forty years for English-language fans to fully access the primary document of this crucial band: the diaries of guitarist Marlene Marder, who died in 2016. Originally published in German in 1986, the diary was also a scrapbook capturing “the detritus that comes with playing in a band,” in the words of Grace Ambrose, who brought out the English translation of the book through her Kansas City, Missouri-based punk label, Thrilling Living, late last year.

In the collage-like Kleenex/LiLiPUT, Marder’s diary entries are supplemented by photos, visual ephemera, translated zine clippings, and columns by English-language writers like the rock critics Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau and zinemaker Ray Aggs. Ambrose’s assemblage creates its own paradigm for punk storytelling by refusing to impose a “definitive” Kleenex narrative; instead, it replicates the ever-in-process nature of the band’s unruly music. Our conversation about the book began at a panel presented by The Baffler in November at Anthology Film Archives, preceded by a screening of Kleenex’s rare Road Movie, and we picked it back up over the phone in January. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

–Jenn Pelly


Jenn Pelly: Do you remember how Kleenex’s music made you feel the first time you heard it?

Grace Ambrose: Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear were my favorite bands as a teenager in the mid-2000s. Kill Rock Stars released their music, obviously, but also reissued the Kleenex discography. That’s how I came to them. It’s totally strange music, but the songs are earworms immediately. It’s so catchy, even though it doesn’t make any sense on a musical level to, you know, trained or “real” musicians. It’s visceral, embodied music that you have to walk around listening to over and over again on your headphones for days on end and immerse yourself into. It’s like ur-music, deep from within, but also totally unknowable.

I eventually started to see that the magnetism of their music was not unique to me, but it still felt like this secret between me and my friends. The design element is such a huge part of their band—their long-term collaboration with Peter Fischli—and the Kleenex singles in particular are these precious, totemic objects to me.

JP: The visual identity of those singles is minimal and loud at the same time, which is how their music sounds too. What about the design struck you?

GA: Part of it is honestly that the records are colorful. So many punk records are black and white. The Kleenex records have their own visual language. I can’t think of too many other bands who have a discography that is so varied in its aesthetics, but also so consistently high-level and magnetic and compelling.

JP: Who did you reach out to first when you were starting the book, and how did they respond to your vision for it?

GA: I’d had the German-language version of the book for years, and after Marlene passed away, it felt urgent to me that someone make an English-language version. I was thinking, This person who is so important to so many people I know, who probably doesn’t even know that about herself, is gone. We’ve lost this connection. But we have this document. How can we make it available in a way that she would be happy about? At the time I was working at Maximum Rocknroll, and I was getting ready to leave the magazine, and I was searching for my next big, all-consuming project. I reached out to my friend Iffi, who runs a record store in Berlin called Static Shock, because I knew he’s a huge Swiss Punk fan. I learned that people who were a part of the scene call it Swiss Punk with a capital S and a capital P, that’s how they conceive of this genre of music.

I had to convince all of these people to let me into their archives, to trust me with their stories.

Iffi put me in touch with Lurker Grand, who is an amazing Swiss Punk obsessive and O.G. as a teenager growing up outside of Zurich. He was involved in the very early days and is now a sort of custodian of the Swiss Punk legacy. Suddenly, a week later, I found myself in touch with Patrick Frey, who was the original publisher of the book, and Marlene’s sister, Karin, and I was signing a contract to make this thing. I was like, Oh my god, they’re calling my bluff! I’m just some random person from California, and they’ve never met me. All they knew is that I had been involved with Maximum Rocknroll, but I guess they felt it was all in the spirit of Marlene and the band. Patrick didn’t charge me anything to reprint the book.

I was nervous asking because I knew a lot of people had asked Marlene about translating the book when she was alive. And she always said no. But it turns out that right before Marlene died, she had told Klaudia [Schifferle], the bass player of the band, that her biggest regret was not making the book [available] in English.

Pretty soon after, I went to Switzerland, and the first night I was there, I had to host a dinner party for all of these people who would be involved with the book—photographers, collectors, people involved with Swiss Punk who knew Patrick Frey and Lurker—and I sat down to give the speech I’m giving you right now about why I’m the right person to make the book. “I’m a young feminist punk, I love weird, strange music, I’m interested in publishing and design,” all of that. And I had to convince all of these people to let me into their archives, to trust me with their stories. That trip was also the first time I met Klaudia.

JP: Did Klaudia offer feedback on the book?

GA: I went to Switzerland again and spent six weeks researching [during a residency] in the Alps and working on the initial layout. Then I went to Klaudia’s house, and we went through the book page by page, every single page together. The estate was incredibly permissive with me making editorial decisions. We had a shared understanding of Marlene’s original book as the grounding force—not just in terms of language, but in terms of form and structure and feeling and rhythm. As an artist or publisher understands, the book as object is as important as what’s inside. The really good books are the ones that find the correct balance.

Page spreads from the Raincoats/Kleenex tour diary. | Courtesy Ana da Silva and Shirley O’Loughlin.

JP: You’ve been referring to the “custodians” of the Swiss Punk legacy, and it’s interesting to hear you use the word custodian rather than expert or authority, which is maybe how some people who are really steeped in a history might conceive of themselves.

GA: These people are experts and authorities, but they’re also so radically inclusive in what they understand to make up the value of a punk scene. It’s not caught up in ego or the commodification of a scene or a feeling.

JP: It makes me think about how this is a book about punk, made through a punk process. And the form of the book itself feels in keeping with the sense of abandon that is at the heart of their music; it’s not trying to impose a definitive narrative on them. In the book Peter Fischli talks about how there’s this instability at the heart of Kleenex, how their music feels in-progress and unformed. What about the texture and form of the book feels in keeping with the spirit of Kleenex?

GA: When Marlene made this book in 1986, she was like, “I’m going to make this book for my friends in an edition of one thousand documenting my band. I know it’s important. But I’m not going to frame it that way.” There was no pomp and circumstance about it. That’s why we kept the design really simple. We were trying to have these images and fanzines sing on their own, trying to reproduce everything as close to its actual size as possible, to capture a little bit of what these objects felt like. I worked really closely with Conor Lumsden, an amazing designer from Dublin who I know through the punk scene. That’s another part of this punk process: Conor, the designer, and Jen Calleja, the translator, are both people I know from playing in DIY punk bands and going to shows.

There should be space in life for these kinds of serious and in some ways all-consuming creative pursuits.

We were trying to maintain this feeling that it’s not a scrapbook, but it’s also not an art book. It’s fizzy and there’s cacophony, but also there are moments of pause and you can understand things. So many punk books cram a million things on one page. We were trying to figure out how to make sure everything we’re including is contributing to the story in some way and also is able to stand on its own. I wanted to format the book in such a way that people are able to make their own connections between what’s happening on the page and what’s happening a couple pages later.

The color pink that we chose—the pink pages in the book and the pink text—is from the flyer for their first show. I chose pink, too, because at the beginning of Kleenex, Marlene got a lot of hate for choosing Klaudia and Lislot as bandmates, these “plastic punks” who wore makeup and fancy clothes, over playing music with the queer feminist scene. I thought it was a fun color.

JP: The book has these half-page inserts that present translations of reprinted fanzines. You don’t usually see books that have a half of a page inside, which off the bat kind of tells you, this book isn’t like most other books. How did you arrive at the concept?

GA: Conor proposed the idea in our first meeting. Most printers couldn’t wrap their heads around it, except Die Keure in Belgium, who I ended up working with. They got it immediately. With the inserts and translated fanzine pieces, I also want to call attention to what a sensitive and thoughtful translator Jen is. There are so many voices she had to translate for this book. Many are teenagers or people making jokes in a zine, or writing that sometimes is really messy, and we leaned into the messiness. With these fanzine interviews, sometimes a part doesn’t make sense or you wonder, why did someone publish this? But you have to represent that. Even more than the main diary, the inserts represent the unruliness of the book.

JP: There’s so much I learned from the stories in Marlene’s diary, particularly about the camaraderie she felt with the Rough Trade Records scene in London. She talks about abandoning the women’s liberation music scene in Zurich and compares her reality to that of Raincoats violinist Vicki Aspinall. I feel like Kleenex is a band where the music is described as playful and chaotic, but Marlene clearly took herself really seriously. There’s a part of the diary where she’s complaining about her bandmates, and she writes, “I’d like to be able to have good conversations too and not just about Mickey Mouse stuff.” She’s reading Emma Goldman. What did the book teach you about Marlene’s sense of self?

GA: I committed to doing this project not really knowing what it was. I hadn’t read the book beyond pecking some words into Google Translate and having a general sense of the time periods that are covered. I didn’t really know anything about the personality of this woman. People conceive of Kleenex as a feminist or queer band; those things are true. But it’s not the main way she was branding herself or the band, and in fact, it’s quite the opposite: they wanted to be understood on the terms of their art and their art alone. But later she does grow to understand the value of other people being able to see, these are women making these songs, these are queer people making the songs in the company of straight people, and that’s an okay modality too.

I felt so connected to how seriously she took this. I feel like I don’t do anything halfway, for better or worse, and that can be a really detrimental thing. It’s something that you watch her learn to manage in the book. The music industry’s connection with punk was huge at that time, but the members of Kleenex never lived solely off this band. It was so gratifying to see somebody who’s taking something that was a hobby, essentially, so seriously as an artistic pursuit, for the reasons that she describes: how it feels when you play on stage, or how it feels when you get in the practice space with the right people, making musical connections. That’s a really important conversation to have right now in general, when it feels like everybody’s hobby is monetized, everything everyone does is part of a personal brand, or there has to be some kind of career aspiration around any kind of serious work you’re doing. There should be space in life for these kinds of serious and in some ways all-consuming creative pursuits.

It’s amazing to see how secure and confident this person must have been in order to feel like she could share this unvarnished perspective with the world. And that unvarnished perspective is partially what’s so compelling about this book. I can’t necessarily relate to being played on John Peel’s show or being all over the NME, but we can all relate to the sort of mundanity of existence. With this band, it doesn’t diminish anything about their music or their art or their legacy to humanize them. I think it only exalts and makes that legacy more exciting and relatable.

When I was opening Jen’s translation for the first time, I thought, What am I going to find here? It would have been amazing to discover a very didactic, straightforward, queer feminist history. But that’s not what’s here. I worried a bit at first, I don’t think this is quite what everyone is expecting. But it actually is telling that queer feminist history, it’s just telling you in a way that is not obvious. Both the obvious and the subtle have their role in the world.

Process photos from Pietro Mattioli’s studio. | Courtesy the artist.

JP: Early in the diary, Marlene talks about how Regula got fired from her job at a store for being a punk. I know there were youth riots happening in Zurich around this time, and I guess punks could have been associated with general youth unrest. But reading that made me wonder what about being a punk would have seemed so threatening then that someone would lose their job.

GA: This is a time when there were a lot of expectations in a country like Switzerland about how you are supposed to move through the world. In this Switzerland scene specifically, most punk shows happened in the basement of a gay bar. So there’s this intersection of queer culture, punk culture, these things that were definitely existing on the fringes in a way that we don’t necessarily understand as people who grew up in a world where these things have been way, way normalized for us by earlier generations.

These women became micro-celebrities in Zurich, where suddenly they’re playing these big shows opening for big touring bands. “Who are these women?” “What right do they have to be doing this?” I could see that all being threatening. At the time, Regula was probably twenty years old. What they were doing was against the norms and expectations of Swiss society. Even if they didn’t have a mohawk and safety pins through their ears, leather pants maybe were just as threatening at that time. A funny counterpoint is that Lislot and Klaudia worked at a fashion store, and they ended up bringing over punk fashion, like from SEX and Vivienne Westwood in London, and shifting the direction of the store.

JP: I love that part in Greil Marcus’s piece, reproduced in the book, where he writes about how punks had good taste in ancestors. Is there anything else you’d say about Kleenex and what example they set as artists?

GA: My disdain for the music industry writ large is no secret to a lot of people. LiLiPUT were engaging with professionalism and the music industry, but they were advocating for themselves and doing it on their own terms and entering it with skepticism. It was validating to see these people who didn’t have too much of a leg to stand on pushing back against a national TV channel or a studio. I feel like LiLiPUT really trusted themselves. Even if what they were doing was not popular or normal or expected, they had trust in their vision, and they were able to filter out the noise around them.They also have fun, and you can see that in the pictures and in the friendships they had. Marlene and Klaudia stayed friends for their entire lives, and that’s inspiring too. Marlene stayed friends with Ana [da Silva] and Shirley [O’Loughlin] from The Raincoats. These artistic choices are also about living in community and being in relationship with each other.

JP: We’ve talked about the book as a punk project created through a punk process. In terms of what a punk story gains when the form matches the material, what did you learn from your time as coordinator of Maximum Rocknroll that you brought into this?

GA: I learned through Maximum Rocknroll that you can gain perspective, and learn about people and bands and scenes and music, through interviews or reports that are maybe messy or not up to what we think of as a journalistic “quality,” but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have value. I also learned that people can write things that are “good enough” for them to be published in any publication on earth, but they choose to publish them in this particular venue for political, ethical, and—sounds a little crazy—spiritual reasons. MRR felt like a huge responsibility every month, and so did the Kleenex book. With both, it’s so much bigger than yourself or the people you’re working on it with. It kind of has a life of its own. It’s tricky figuring out how to insert yourself while also letting it continue to grow in its own rhizomatic way.

You want to represent this person accurately, and in a way that helps them be understood for who they are and what they’re doing.

And it’s not just the form, but the processes of how the book moves in the world, too, right? This book’s not being sold on Amazon. It’s mostly being sold through connections I’ve had with other people who run record labels or record stores or bookstores, and not everyone can make a book and sell it that way. I’m lucky to have benefited from this thing that’s bigger than myself, Maximum, which connects me to so many people. But it’s proof that you can do it that way.

Maximum was also rough around the edges in the way that some of the things in this book are, but that doesn’t mean those edges weren’t considered or agonized over. It taught me a lot about letting things be what they are rather than trying to make them into something that they’re not. It also taught me a lot about how important is to let people tell their own story, to let people be participants in the way their interview takes shape in the magazine. When you let people be collaborators in telling their own story, you hear stories that are different than the ones that a journalist is going to publish in a rock magazine. In that sense, I thought of Marlene the same way I thought of the collaborators I was working with at Maximum, where you want to represent this person accurately, and in a way that helps them be understood for who they are and what they’re doing.

JP: I imagine the band would appreciate that the book is not being sold on Amazon.

GA: I think they would appreciate it. Talking about business and money is hard for a lot of people, but it’s something the band did a lot in their time. They weren’t anti-commercial, they wanted to make money off of their music, and they sold tons of records—like twenty-five thousand Kleenex singles. For a punk band to sell twenty-five thousand records now is unheard of. At the same time, they weren’t super commercial and didn’t want to make sacrifices; they wanted to do things on their own terms. They turned down a lot and were choosy about who they spoke to, and who they would offer themselves up to. They had a focus, and they made choices in the service of their vision.

JP: What kept you committed to your own vision as you were finishing the book? I know it took about six years to see it through.

GA: There were moments where I’d close my eyes, and be like, Why did I choose this totally complicated thing with these half pages and hundreds of images and translations and this big legacy?! Why am I the one  packing these books in my living room? I wish I had just called Bazillion Points or some publisher to deal with all this for me! It was so big and overwhelming. But at the same time, that’s what kept me going. In the end I feel like taking it all on myself, with the support of the people I was working with, was the right thing for the project and also the right thing for me as an artist, writer, editor, thinker, and custodian of feminist punk culture. I had a vision for how it was going to be done and what form I thought it should take. And it was going to take me a while to get there, but I wasn’t going to compromise.