The hydraesque monstrosity known as “punk rock” wears many faces. From the demented but ultra-catchy sonic excursions of early pioneers like the Ramones and The Clash to the avant-weird plodding doom of Flipper and My War-era Black Flag, what makes a band “punk rock” is traditionally hard to define. It’s more than music, it’s more than clothes, it’s more than hairstyles. It’s a million seemingly disparate, intangible and often contradictory influences all at once. The Abbie Hoffman Society represents all of them.
The Abbie Hoffman Society is an all-female quintet hailing from the basements of Powell River, British Columbia. Their instrumentation and arrangements are off the wall; their music is catchy, bizarre and unforgivingly heavy; and their style encompasses all the trappings of doom, riot grrrl and early-70s proto-punk glam.
“It’s Riot Woman,” they told me during our interview.
The band is composed of five Hoffmans: Laura Hoffman on vocals, tambourine, and cabasa; Meg Hoffman on melodica, gang vocals and “some drums”; Lisa Hoffman on bass and drums; Suzy Hoffman on lead guitar and gang vocals; Jenny Hoffman on drums and bass; and “Bad” Karen Hoffman, the Hoffman’s official videographer and number one fan.
On Feb. 27th at Club 9one9, the arrangement of said instruments consisted of two alternating bass player/drummers, Jenny and Lisa, sharing one drum kit, sometimes joined by Meg, with the Richards/Jagger-like dichotomy of Suzy and Laura consistent throughout.
“I played bass for the first half of the show,” Lisa points out, her child in her arms, “and drums for the second.”
The Hoffmans have been on the music scene just over three years, but in that time they’ve been very busy. Since the band’s inception, they’ve recorded a guerilla-style video for Powell River’s 24-Hour Film Festival; done two British Columbia tours (the P.R. Invasion tour with Slim Milkie and Del Riviera, and as openers for the mighty Nomeansno); and recorded a five-song demo. The band was also promoted by MLA Nicholas Simons at the legislature during an open discussion opportunity, forever logging them as part of Canadian history.
Laura: “Nicholas Simons was in Victoria the same night we played…”
Meg: “Every MLA is allotted two minutes to talk about whatever they want, so he spoke in the legislature, introduced all the Hoffmans and invited everyone in the legislature down to see us at [Club] 9one9.”
Laura: “So it’s gone down in history records; it’s in the Hansard.”
All of this from a band containing members who are literally learning their instruments as they write music and tour.
Meg: “I didn’t play anything till I got invited into the band… I kind of learned drumming from Jenny, then learned melodica, and now I’m a multi-instrumentalist!”
Suzy: “I was scarred by piano lessons as a child. Even though I enjoyed music, especially Punk Rock, I never took up an instrument until I invited myself into the Hoffmans. I started off on keyboards, but we had a different guitarist who quit the band, so I took over playing guitar. I loved it ‘cause I didn’t have any background whatsoever, so no preconceived ideas. It worked really well. Steve [Suzy’s husband/GodzBallz guitar player) showed me how to play those power chords, so I feel that I learned the guitar in a week… Now I’m working on the other chords.”
Jenny: “I played in a band before, but it was a long time ago. I played in the Show Business Giants, keyboards for a while, then took a long break and had a bunch of babies. I played in a noise band too, called Frog Hat and Sofa Queen.”
Lisa: “I played woodwind instruments as a youth, I was in a marching band. I played the piccolo! I sort of self-taught myself a little bit of acoustic guitar, but I was totally duped into this band; I was tricked. The bass was thrown upon me. I learned whatever chords I need to get through a song.”
Fast forward three years and here they are, on their second tour, opening for Nomeansno. This show was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Five middle-aged women took the stage with costumes and giant smiles and burnt down the house. Women of the crowd rocked an all-ages, all-female mosh pit of strutting, spinning and bizarre punk-rock dancing. The audience looked joyous and the venue overflowed with happiness and positivity. The band talked to the crowd and the crowd chatted back. Everyone was wooing, swooning and gyrating about, and several Hoffmans were later spotted in Nomeansno’s fairly intimidating mosh pit, proving Nomeansno’s adage that old is in fact the new young.
Sonically, the Hoffmans blend the doomy heaviness of early-Flipper with the wordy bizzaro-pop of the Talking Heads and the free-expressive, say-what-you-want, have-a-good-time, and to-hell-with-the-man attitude characteristic of the genre itself. However, this is just one take on their sound. There are a range of ages and thus influences that come together to create the oddly familiar but resoundingly unique sound that is the Abbie Hoffman Society. It’s almost inadvertent punk, except for the fact that they are a bunch of punks.
“Reverse engineering of punk rock,” is how they explained it.
As for the Hoffmans’ long-term goals — whether this band will allow them to quit their day jobs and if they have a record on the way — their goal is to pursue this project for as long as it remains fun. They are willing to go wherever that may lead them. Their first milestone was the Nomeansno tour, next is, indeed, an album. The Abbie Hoffman Society, already sitting on over an LP’s worth of material, were set to record their first full-length studio album in May. Audiophiles and collectors may rejoice, as this record will indeed be available on vinyl. Oh, and apparently they already have no day jobs.