Frontwoman of Grave School & Sheer is a Badass Angel and Here’s Why
Simi Valley has something in its water–perhaps literally. It was mere miles away from a massive nuclear meltdown in the late 50’s. There are allegedly still places that are not safe for humans, it’s got caves tucked away in the dried up hills in which Charles Manson followers used to congregate, and the 2001 film Joe Dirt reached its harrowing climax in the dusty city.
But, and there’s a big but in all this: there is a resilient, hopeful uprising of individuals who aim to carve out some culture on the vastly bleak landscape dotted with fast food restaurants and Trump hats. Gina Almaguer is one of these vigilante angels, giving a definitive voice to women in Simi’s local music scene. Gina is the front woman of the haunting shoegaze band Sheer, as well as for the pop garage rock sensation known as Grave School. Not only is Gina talented in more ways than I have fingers, she is also a fiercely strong feminist shedding light on a scene where women are largely patronized, glorified, or ignored.
LSPMAG: When did you get into music?
Gina Almaguer: Five or six. My mom always had music playing in the house. My [older] brother was always in bands when I was little. He left a keyboard at the house, and my mom printed out sheet music so I could learn how to play, and I started messing around with it. That was my first instrument encounter. I’d also come home from school and watch MTV, MTV2, and MTV Tres. There were these music videos with Ashanti and an amazing Aaliyah documentary. When I was in middle school, there was this one girl in my elementary school class, and we would write down our favorite videos from that week, why we liked it, and what we thought the next #1 video of the week would be. That was the first time I was excited to talk about music with someone.
LSPMAG: Looking back, do you think those conversations taught you about the music industry or about the ways women were represented in music at that time?
GA: In a way yes, because all I really remember talking about were male artists. Women weren’t as prevalent back then, unless they were backup dancers in bikinis. Obviously now there are a lot more resources to discover new music—especially women in music. Had I been speaking about more women back then, I know that would have reshaped how I feel about music now.
Had I been speaking about more women back then, I know that would have reshaped how I feel about music now.–Gina Almaguer
LSPMAG: When did you pick up a guitar and start singing?
GA: In 9th grade, my dad bought me a bass starter pack that came with a small amp and a Squier bass. I would go on YouTube to learn songs and guitar tabs, but the bass was too big for my hands. So, my uncle gave my dad this old semi-hollow bodied electric guitar that was easier for me to play. My mom got me guitar lessons, and I remember getting pissed off because I was all like, “Punks don’t take lessons! I want to do it myself!” I thought I was so sick, I was teaching myself and I knew almost every Metallica guitar riff, and when she got me lessons I realized I actually did suck.
I was learning guitar, but I had never sang. Although I hate to admit it, I loved Taylor Swift back then, and I remember thinking, “If she can write songs, so can I.” I started writing my thoughts down as poems, and I knew a few simple chords I could put together, so I started writing songs. But I never took singing seriously until I signed up for choir in 11th grade. Once I got comfortable playing my own songs, I started playing a ton of solo shows at Guitar Merchant in the valley and would have to sell all the presale tickets by myself. I’d sell more than the required amount of presale tickets. After a few months, I realized people stopped caring about my performances as much because they didn’t want to hear the same songs all the time. I ended up owing Guitar Merchant like $150 for unsold tickets and I never went back.
I was sixteen when my mom died, and that’s when I realized that I wasn’t necessarily playing because I liked it, I was playing music because it helped me. It was how I expressed myself. I always knew it, but that’s when it really connected. Whenever I write lyrics, it’s because I feel something and I need to make sense of it. I don’t like writing songs that don’t mean anything. Every song means something. When I sing them sometimes it makes me feel really good, and other times it’s harder.
LSPMAG: I know you get a little nervous before playing sometimes. Does the emotional aspect heighten that at all?
GA: I remember writing a song about my mom after she died. And I was scared to play it because I felt vulnerable. I’d never sang such personal things before. I’d forget the lyrics sometimes. Now I’m just used to playing it so I can kind of tune it out. When it’s over though, I’m like, “Oh, thank god.”
LSPMAG: How did Grave School come to be?
GA: Aldo, our drummer, saw some of my songs online so he messaged me asking to jam. He liked my songs, so he blew up my DM’s. I would just play chords I had written and he was just learning how to play drums, so he would play along with me. We realized we needed something else. So then we got Daniel, who plays guitar. And then came Marissa and Guzie. We didn’t start really taking it seriously until maybe a year and a half ago. Grave School is everyone’s side project. Now we’re working on an EP, and an LP that’ll probably come out in 2017. I love Grave School because we were just friends that wanted to jam and have fun. Music kind of brought us together, and we all bring our own twist to it. It’s organic—we just do whatever we want.
LSPMAG: So tell me about your band, Sheer.
GA: I had been good friends with my [now-guitarist] Sean for a while. I think he knew I played and wrote songs, and that I loved all these doom metal bands. Sean is all about that shit—really influenced by our friends in Taarkus (LA). So we were trying to do doom stuff. A few months into it he wanted to change direction. More like shoegaze. More like Slowdive. He brought in Anthony to play bass. Jules came in to play drums. We all started jamming, and because Jules was also an audio engineer, he recorded us. I think that’s why we gained so much momentum right away; when we put out our first single, we got a great response. And after our singles came out, we got an email from the music label The Native Sound wanting to put out our next release, which was “Uneasy.” We made our first music video for that song, which was premiered by the outlet Noisey.
LSPMAG: What’s next for your bands?
GA: Sheer has new music coming out real soon, we had a new single, ‘Room,’ come out in July. We’re also about to record an EP which should be out Spring of 2017. Grave School just released a cover and now we’re finishing up writing our LP before we go into recording. That should be out a little after the Sheer release. I’m pretty excited about both, obvi!
LSPMAG: What are your experiences with being a feminist in the music scene?
GA: A lot of the time, Sheer and Grave School are considered to be ‘female fronted bands.’ We’re just Sheer. We’re just Grave School. Just because I’m a girl “fronting” it, doesn’t make it any different. People treat my musicianship differently because I’m a girl, or I’m just ‘glorified’ because I play guitar and not based on how well or not well I can play it.
There was one time when we played a show, and a guy came up to me after the show and said, “You don’t see a lot of girls playing music. You’re pretty good.” I was really taken back by that, especially considering all of the women I look up to that play. I’m sure he meant it with positive intentions, but I couldn’t help but feel like he wasn’t really taking me seriously. There’s a lot of gender bias when it comes to music. Men are always shown to have this incredible knowledge and talent with their instrument and I feel like that idea is what often make women musicians feel very belittled.
Out here, I feel like women who are in bands are either glorified or underestimated because it’ a very male dominated scene. Like, people think I’m Shreddy Murphy or something. Or Shreddy Wap. I’m not! I just feel like people wouldn’t treat me that way if I was a guy. There are people out here like Karina Lopez (Grapevine) and Michelle Guerrero (Private Island) totally killing it. And there are a lot of female voices speaking on that right now, like the women of She Shreds Magazine. There’s tons of women out here doing the same thing, and people can’t believe it, and I’m over here like “Get over it, because we’re taking over.”
LSPMAG: Do you have any advice for women who want to be musicians?
GA: You can! You can do it right now. There’s no rule, just do it. I was scared as fuck, and I put myself on YouTube, and I probably wasn’t even playing on time, and I recorded it on some shitty webcam, but I just did it. It felt good. If you feel like you can’t, read She Shreds or look up musicians that you really like. Or check out LipstickParty Mag. Don’t let anyone else’s opinions change your mind.
Realize that you’re fuckin’ sick already because you’re you, and you’re here, and you’re alive. truly want to do and what you’re just expected to do. There’s no one else like you ever. Think about who you look up to, and really think about why they’re there, and what they stand for, and why you can’t be that too. Who is telling you you can’t? What’s stopping you? Just question things, and you’ll realize how many things you do just because you thought that’s the way things are supposed to be.
LSPMAG: Closing thoughts?
GA: There’s this huge stigma that feminism means that you don’t shave your armpits and that you don’t wear make up, and you’re a lesbian that hates men. It’s like, no, I put on my eyebrows and wear red lipstick and I shave my legs out of personal preference. There’s a new wave of feminism that’s breaking the preconceived notion of what it means to be a feminist. There’s so many levels of feminism, and so many ways to learn about them all. Once you start going, you want to keep learning. Because you realize these things affect you all the time. The whole thing is about acknowledging your own privileges, and acknowledging those who have less.
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