“I’ve got lots of problems/Female troubles…”
Swaying gently in front of a mic, casting sidelong glances at her fingers plodding out a lumbering bassline, Josie Wreck holds the attention of the LGBT Center’s dimly lit audience with “Female Trouble.” The Center, located in Downtown Santa Ana, celebrated a punk and hardcore music event on Saturday in which every single band was trans-fronted.
Wreck is here playing dark, brooding music with her band Popsical. Standing six feet tall in dainty kitten-face flats, and with a roaring open-mouthed laugh, Wreck is the epitome of a big personality. In fact, most of her actions, whether she was insisting on both painted fingernails and video games as a child or focusing on dismantling the patriarchy in her adult life, has been done with an unapologetic attitude.
A few hours later the band will be pronounced officially “dead” on their Facebook page, making this their last show. Fronting a rock band has not always been that easy, as Wreck has learned from her personal experience, especially when you’ve got a few more obstacles to sidestep than your “basic” person.
“Maybe I’m twisted/Female trouble…”
It was high-school age Wreck that picked up her first guitar, bought off a friend. She taught herself to play, inspired by the likes of Gwen Stefani, Courtney Love, Babes of Toyland, Daisy Chainsaw and Lydia Lunch.
She remembers struggling to form a band in the mid-2000s, both because her music was “dark and moody and screamy” and because people often had a hard time accepting her identity. When she would respond to music collaboration ads on MySpace, she would often be rejected because she ‘didn’t look the part’. Some would “reply with like ‘lol’ or laugh and say it wouldn’t work,” she says.
She was practicing genderfuck (challenging gender norms through abrasive dressing) at the time and when in public, people would stare, unsure how to react. She cites genderfuck as a mostly political but also aesthetic tool. “When I was doing genderfuck stuff I was like fuck beauty industry standards…Fuck Cosmo telling us how we need to look every single day. But then I saw drag queens and I was like fuck that’s cool!I went from like ‘Burn makeup!’ to ‘I need every ounce of makeup I can find!’”
“Smeared lipstick, fishnets, bridal veils, shaved eyebrows with stars and things drawn in them…that’s what it was. Now, it’s this,” she says gesturing to her more modestly femme attire. “I’m not as overt.”
Before, it was. Moonstar, an early experimental duo involving Wreck and a drummer, broke up after the latter insisted he didn’t want to play live shows as a two-piece. Shortly afterward, he began booking shows beneath the same name with a sax player. Wreck is convinced he was uncomfortable performing live with her, afraid of the audience’s response.
Even outright rejection from a heteronormative, gender-binary based music scene didn’t-and doesn’t-stop her from pursuing music; Wreck still collaborates with musicians in Orange County and Los Angeles and pursues her own unique solo work with themes of disgust, fearmongering and patriarchy, among some concepts which “affront” her.
“Spare me your morals, spare me your lies/What’s kept me going is a paradise…”
At one of her first all-ages show at Anaheim’s Chain Reaction, high-school Wreck and a friend went to see ex-Black Flag songwriter Greg Ginn.
“During a song this punk rock chick with huge spiked hair, plaid skirt, and chains hops on stage and starts screaming into the microphone. I was like, that’s fucking cool, I’ve seen this in movies so that’s awesome that this is something that happens. She’s screaming into the microphone with him, and he socks her across the face.”
According to Wreck, Ginn proceeded to finish his song before the girl was dragged off the stage and kicked out of the club while the audience booed her.
Wreck and her friend were the only ones who left the club in dismay. “We couldn’t support this,” says Wreck. “It was disgusting. We went outside, ran into the chick…talked with them for like thirty minutes…and asked her name. That was Candace [Hansen]. She was socked by one of her heroes.”
Ever since then, until they more formally met in 2008, the two kept running into each other everywhere: at gas stations, karaokes,, parties-even Orange Coast College, where they both arrived late to day one of Women’s Studies.
“Internet had just barely started to become accessible to most of us so we didn’t have Facebook or Myspace to connect with people,” explains Wreck. “So we were both making music but we didn’t know how to connect with each other other than ‘Hey you’re cool, bye’…We both did music and we both had similar terrible experiences.” Finally phone numbers were exchanged, leading to one particular fateful call-an invitation from Hansen for Wreck to join the Orange County chapter of Rock Camp for Girls.
Despite her love of music, it was really with the camp, a week-long feminist, musical event in which young girls create their own rock band and learn about social justice issues- that Wreck found her true calling. While at first she didn’t feel right for the position-”I don’t know if I’m a woman, I’m femme”-Candace encouraged her to accept. When the 2015 camp showcase was held at Chain Reaction, it felt like the two had finally come full circle.
Wreck served as a volunteer, guitar instructor, and then coach for two years before she was added to the executive team. She loves “seeing growth in the girls, not only in skill but in terms of being able to communicate with people, getting out of their shell.”
During a skit meant to illustrate and address racism, classism, and cultural discrimination, one of the girls cried out, “That’s not right! You can’t do that! That’s wrong!”
“That was one of the more meaningful things,” she says, while brushing a tear from beneath her round black sunglasses. “Because [addressing social issues] was one of the things that, you know, stresses so many people out…it’s not only teaching by lecture, but teaching by example.”
“[Josie is] wonderful!” said Jordan Wainwright, a regular volunteer at the camp. “She’s really intuitive, encouraging and approachable. A few rock camps ago, I think it was during the little kids’ break, there was this one girl who was sitting on Josie’s lap talking about her time at camp and…Josie was all ears and genuinely interested in what she had to say.”
“I’ve watched Josie take on a leadership role, from hosting open mics to really becoming an integral part of rock camp,” says Icarus Ruin, who has played with Wreck in the past and worked with her at Girls Rock Camp. “Her set on Saturday [at Transgress Fest] was indicative of who she is. She’s loud and brash but more than willing to step aside and give someone else the floor to speak.”
Maria Morris, a drummer and percussionist with a specialty in instrumental progressive rock, also recalls working with Wreck at the camp. “Josie has supported me in many ways at rock camp,” she says. “The first year I did rock camp in 2013 we really connected. I was having a difficult year and Josie was a friend that helped me get out of my head and start trusting people emotionally again. The last rock camp, this year, Josie really helped me with [the] band [that I was coaching]…The girls wanted to write some more lyrics…I have my A.A. in music from Fullerton College so I’ve studied music. But I’m really not good at writing lyrics. I knew Josie was though. I asked her to come by and do a mini ‘songwriting’ clinic with my band. What Josie did was incredible. It was like magic to me.”
The LGBT Center also holds Grrls To The Front, Girls Rock Camp OC monthly shows that encourage past campers and friends to play music in an inclusive environment.
“They say I’m a skank, but I don’t care/Go ahead and strap me in your electric chair…”
Inclusivity, intersectionality and LGBTQIA awareness are topics Wreck is deeply passionate about.
Every since she was a kid she openly defied traditional gender norms. “I didn’t have the words for it back then but I was trans. I didn’t have the words to say i’m genderqueer, I’m a femme. Those words weren’t used that way so back then I was like I’m a dude that just likes to wear women’s clothes but I do it all the time and I want to do it all the time and I hate everything there is to being a man.”
Her parents encouraged her to be a football player because of her build; her dad made her work on cars with him. “When I was just a toddler my dad’s side of the family would often refer to me as a joto, jotito, quiere ser vieja, anda jugando con muñecas, por que lo dejas…My mom told me I always wanted her to paint my fingernails when I was a kid and my dad would get mad if she ever did it but she would do it and say ‘Don’t tell your dad, don’t show your dad; and I would wear my dad’s oversized t-shirts because they were like dresses on me, prancing around. I loved playing video games as female characters … literally my parents had my older brother monitor me when I would play video games and they would have him keep me from playing the girl character as a kid.”
She never truly identified with the word transexual. “I don’t feel like I need to drastically alter my body. I don’t feel trapped. What makes me feel trapped is that people don’t let me wear dresses. I started crossdressing in high school and…in college that was when I started doing genderfuck to challenge people’s perceptions and expectations of me.”
To prevent herself from being mistaken for a transexual woman, Wreck used to grow out a beard although she hated it. “I’d get people like ‘Huh, you have a beard, how’d you manage that?’ I’d be like, ‘I’m Mexican. We have hairy women!’”
About four or five years ago, she was finally exposed to the term genderqueer as a noun instead of an adjective. “I was like, that’s me! Yay me!”
“What inspired me to continue playing is the community that has formed here in Southern California,” says Wreck. “Seeing so many other trans people that are making music and are angry-it makes me wish that I still had that like outrage. I’m not as connected to my outrage and fury as I used to be. I used to scream so much more and I miss it but I am just so much more broodier and moodier now. And cynical.”
Disillusioned and burnt out after dealing with the “sleazy pigs” of the apolitical, nihilistic community she used to belong to, she saw Orange County’s growing queer community as a “saving grace.”
“Those people inspire me to keep wanting to be creative and have my voice be heard. It’s good not to be alone.”
“There’s hope?” I ask.